I asked Dad a lot of questions about his childhood while he was visiting last week. He grew up on a farm in Kansas in the 1950s, the first of 13 children. By the time his youngest brother was born he was graduating high school and moving out.
Why did he leave the farm? “I was ready to live an easier life,” he said. “Farming is hard work.”
He said he and his siblings woke up and went straight to their chores. Milking cows. You know, farm stuff. They would then grab some breakfast and head off to school with no time to spare. After school there were more chores.
“Was there ever any playtime?” I asked innocently enough.
There might’ve been. But he doesn’t remember much of it. He has stories of mischief, of being involved in an accidental hay-bale fire. The ultimate in freedom was when he was old enough to drive to school instead of having to wait for the bus.
I’ve asked Grandma what it was like to raise 13 children, and in her typical stoic fashion she denied any hardship. She is a strong lady, this one.
“It must’ve been hard,” I prodded.
But she shook her head, saying cooking and cleaning and tending to the farm were things that needed to be done, so she did them. Without complaint. Dad can vouch for the fact that his mom was always doing laundry or cooking a meal in the kitchen, often either pregnant or holding a baby. Food was grown or farmed, either way very local. He remembers how happy his mom was to upgrade to a washing machine. The clothes still needed to be wrung and hung on the line to dry, but the washing machine? Now that was a marvel of the times.
“But how did you do it with so many kids?” I asked.
“I put them in front of the TV a lot,” she said. And, when they were old enough, they were put to work as well. That’s the farm way.
My childhood couldn’t have been further from the farm. It was the suburbs.
There was always time for play — and for a vivid imagination. I remember getting my first bike (it was red) and riding it with training wheels in our kid-filled neighborhood. My three best friends lived down the street and we regularly spent time playing outside, walking to the playground together and changing our Barbies’ clothes at one another’s houses. The summers were a blur of swimming in our above-ground pool and eating 50-cent ice cream from the ice cream truck that meandered down our street. We shopped at a local IGA for most of my childhood.
When I was older I became a latch-key kid, entrusted with getting myself home from school and letting myself in to watch MTV before my parents got home from work. There were chores, but they were relatively easy: clean my room, vacuum the living room, wash the dishes.
We spent a lot of time together as a family, watching TV sitcoms together on weeknights. Always lounging around on Sunday mornings while Mom and Dad read the newspaper.
And now there’s Alexa. What will she remember from her childhood? So far she has been raised in an urban setting. With two parents working, she has been socialized at a young age and with someone who is not a family member or close friend — an actual babysitter. She is used to sidewalks. The only expanses of grass she sees are at the park.
She is never more than a short drive from the beach. She eats organic foods from an abundance of supermarkets that are open well past 6 p.m. She already knows how to behave at a restaurant. Seeing her parents work on their laptops is the norm. She knows her way around a smartphone.
It’s difficult to imagine Alexa ever walking home alone from school and letting herself in at a young age, especially here in Los Angeles. But I’m not sure whether this is a purely geographical thing. It might be a sign-of-the-times thing.
I wonder how all of this will play out in her mind’s eye. Will she ever understand how unplugged life was before cellphones and widespread Internet like in my childhood? Will she ever understand how hard it was to grow up on a farm like her Ba-Ba did?
These photos from the second day of Dad’s visit, the day we were talking about his childhood, are a far cry from the farm, don’t ya think?
What are your favorite childhood memories? Do you long for the good old days or do you think today’s kids will have it better than we did?