February 8, 2009

Growing Up in 50s, Early 60s

My mother was the legislative advocate of the Alzheimer's Association
On the Picket Line
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 stetch every dollar. A pound of chuck fed 8. 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. 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 had fun 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 frequent family picnics with terrific softball games for all ages.

There were gangs of kids in the neighborhood to play baseball, shoot baskets, play badmitten, volleyball. Someone's basement had ping pong or a pool table. There was no extra money for music or dance lessons or gymnastic lessons. Starting at 12, babysitting was my income, enabling me to go to NYC to see Broadway shows twice a month.

Summers we swam int he high school swimming pool or went to Jones Beach by bus. We had a huge backyard, so all of the neighbors' kids hung out there. There were no girls in the immediate neighborhood, so I was always one of the guys. I had memorized the baseball rule book. My brothers would challenge their friends to stump me with baseball questions. They couldn't.

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 for the day. My parents were too busy to play chauffeur. We were far less supervised and much more self-sufficent than kids are today. On the other hands there were always parents around to keep an eye on all the neighborhood kids. People felt free to admonish children not their own or report bratty behavior to their parents. When sister said in our Catholic school was upheld and reinforced by our parents.

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 kibitzing. 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, genuinely 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 built. 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 tirelessly to raise money for a church, a school for 800 kids, a convent for the nuns, and a rectory for the priests.That represented huge generosity by Catholics in a modest, working-class community.

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.

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, I volunteered two times a week to sort it out. I remember the chief volunteer struggling to explain 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. With no professional librarians, I had freedom to create entertaining children's programming.

My parents upheld their commitment to social justice for their entire lives. They taught me what real religious faith was.mom's obituary described her as a trailblazer. She wasn't able to go to college after high school. Her father died and Mary had to go to secretarial school, though all five brothers finished college. Mom stayed home with her six children from 1945 to 1963, always actively involved in the community as a volunteer and a leader. When my youngest brother started first grade, she went to college, graduating the same day I did in 1967. A student of the 60s, she became a fervent feminist. After getting her master's degree, she taught high school history. Her obituary described her as a teacher, activist, and trailblazer.

My mother bore no resemblance to the stereotyped 1950s housewife. Neither did my aunts or my friends' mothers. They had their big families when they were very young andd when back to college and career when in their early forties. The second wave of feminism belittled their intelligent commitment and generosity.

I am not romanticizing my childhood, just trying to describe how I experienced it.

No comments: