October 10, 2008

Growing Up in the 50s and 60

When I compare my life with that of my parents, they were far more rooted in the community and virtually immune to the seductions of consumerism. Raising six kids and sending them to Catholic schools on one middle-class income, they had to make their own entertainment.We didn't get a TV until I was 14; we got a mediocre audio system at about the same time. The radio was our main entertainment source. I recall the thrill of my own radio as a birthday present when I was 10; I could listen to Dodger games whenever I wanted. Movies were a luxury; we ate out about twice a year, usually when someone graduated.

We entertained ourselves by visiting family and friends. On Sundays we often visited my nearby aunt and uncle and watched Disneyland. All of my 45 first cousins were an easy drive away. There were countless Christening, First Communion, Confirmation, Graduation parties. We had family picnics with terrific softball games for all ages. There were gangs of kids in the neighborhood to play baseball, shoot baskets, play badminton, volleyball. Someone's basement had ping pong or a pool table. There was no extra money for music or dance lessons or gymnastic lessons. Riding bikes was the way we got around. Summers we hung out at the high school swimming pool or went to Jones Beach by bus.

We learned how to take the bus by the time we were 8. We used our bicycles for transportation. My parents only had one car. My mom used to drop off and pick up my father at the railroad station, so she could have the car. My parents were too busy to play chauffeur. Because there was no neighborhood Catholic school when the first three of us were young, we took the bus. In high school I took two buses to get there, taking an hour for a 15-minute drive.

Card playing was the way adults socialized. Almost every adult was competent at cards, and many were excellent bridge players. My parents played bridge with friends once a week. We used to creep down the stairs to hear the kibbutzing. Every home had a card table. People almost always had a deck in their bag or their pocket if you had to wile away time. Periodically my family discovers there is no cheaper or more varied form of free entertainment than card playing.

My parents were devout Catholics, genuine good people with a stalwart faith. When they moved to Long Island after my dad came home from the war, our home town was just potato fields. Schools, churches, community organizations had to be build. St. Martha's, the local Catholic parish, met in a nineteenth century building that became the volunteer library after the church was built. My parents and their friends worked tireless to raise money for a church, a school for 800 kids, a convent for the nuns, and a rectory for the priests.

My mom and dad were tremendously involved in social action outreach with the local Catholic Church. My dad was head of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which ministers to poor struggling families in the parish. He visited the local nursing home every Sunday without fail. They visited parish families in need once a week. Some evenings he was called out to visit a family experiencing a sudden emergency. When they moved to Long Island in 1947, our town lacked a church. They and their friends raised the money to build a church, a convent for the nuns, a rectory for the priest, a grade school for 800 kids. That represented tremendous dedication to fundraising for a working class community.

The local library was run by volunteers for the first ten years. I had been infected by my parents' community spirit. When the library was vandalized when I was 9, my best friend and I volunteered two times a week to sort it out. I remember the chief volunteer struggling to explain to us the difference between fiction and nonfiction. My best friend and I also established the first library in our grade school. I spent four summer working as the children's librarian in high school. There were not yet professional librarians, so I had a free rein to run the summer programs anyway I liked.

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