My mom and dad were children of the 1950s, so it wouldn’t really be fair to hold them to the standards we civilized people of the dystopian future know as “parenting.” In the mid-eighties, my friends and I were able to wander unwatched out the front door and amble around the neighborhood like hoboes for hours at a time. In fact, never mind wandering the neighborhood: Jamestown Mall was three miles away up US 67, and my friend Derek and I biked there (or, really, walked our bikes there while panting like dogs in a kiln) at the peak of summer just to look at other people buying things. My comic book shop was two miles away in the other direction on the same highway, and Mom was all too happy to let us take our lives in our own hands just for the sake of not having to drive us there again.
These interstate expeditions by 12 year olds happened in the eighties without the benefit of a single bike lane, sidewalk, or helmet. The shoulder was a muddy ditch. Abduction and banditos were the least of our worries; by all rights, we should have been killed by a nice lady in an Aerostar who never noticed we’d ended up under her tires.
We never had to file a flight plan. While that’s not the way I’d do it with my kids, I can see why it made sense then. Mom and Dad had basically only been parents for the previous ten minutes, and they had yet to develop the crippling paranoia that keeps us alive today. They grew up before local news stations discovered that breathlessly reporting every bad thing that ever happened to a child is ratings gold. Even now, I refuse to believe that there are, or were in 1985, any more “child predators” than there have been in previous eras. (The internet was frustratingly tight-lipped just now when given the chance to refute this and shut me down; where is this silence when I need it, Internet?) There is simply more of a willingness—a lust, really—to tell stories about the predators to uninvolved strangers across town.
Okay, maybe today’s three weirdos are a lot weirdo-ier than the three weirdos they had in 1950. I don’t have the data. Grabbing a kid off his bike, locking him in your apartment, and introducing him as your son for five years seems like it might be new.
Either way, parents my age are terrified to leave their kids alone with their own priests and teachers. When my parents were my age, they barely wondered where we were. When my parents were kids themselves, they literally hitchhiked to school every morning. Raising us, they had every reason to believe their parenting compass was pointing them in the right direction, even as they hiked right over a waterfall.
This is what I tell myself, anyway, to keep from remembering my childhood like I was chained up in the yard and left to fend for myself in the winters.
Another story I choose to tell myself about my parents is a crucial one about television. It goes like this: Mom and Dad grew up with Howdy Doody and The Lone Ranger. They started watching TV when married couples couldn’t be depicted sitting in the same bed together or broadcast the word “pregnant.” They didn’t get cable until they were 36 years old, and they were 40 before my mom’s mom bought us our first VCR (while Dad was out of town on business, so he couldn’t stop us). That is why they were in the last generation of parents who could honestly, plausibly think, “If it is suitable to be broadcast over the public airwaves, it cannot be objectionable for children to watch. The president would throw them in jail or something.”
That’s how my tender brain ended up marinating in garbage for so long. It’s the only explanation that makes sense.
When I was a preschooler, there was a sitcom called Three’s Company. On this show, two swinging, sexy chicks needed a third roommate to make rent, but their only choice was a man and the landlord would not stand for young unmarried people living in sin. There was only one thing for them to do: pretend their new roommate was a homosexual.
This was not the subplot of an episode; this was the premise of the series.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Roper!” the girls would regularly say. “We aren’t going to bone Jack! Jack only bones other men!”
“Ha ha!” Mr. Roper would say, prancing around Jack with a limp wrist. “Silly men boning other men in the seventies, when all of this is on TV somehow.”
When I was four years old, I never missed an episode of this show.
I try to reconstruct it now. Dad was always either at the office working late or at the bar “working late”; was Mom not in the room with us? She must have been. Our only fully functional television was a wood-paneled behemoth the size of a card table in the living room. Did we exhaust her so much that she could not lift her head and point it in the direction of the screen by the end of the day? Did she sit down to watch her shows and tell us to play, assuming we wouldn’t be paying attention to the shrieking laugh track and John Ritter’s wildly flailing limbs?
I wouldn’t let my son watch that show now if it taught him Mandarin.
Then I remember that Mom’s parents were boisterous drinkers who brought her along to the bar and set her up in front of the pinball machine every night. Mom is still great at pinball.
Compared to her parents, my mom was a governess, and compared to her I’m my kids’ commanding officer. And there is nothing I can do to stop them from being baffled at the memory of me one day. “What was with all the pizza for breakfast? We ate like raccoons at a camp site.”