Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Look Out on a Summer's Day

As I sit here watching the snow flurries fly by the window, I close my eyes for a brief moment to revisit summers long past.

When I was child, summers were those idyllic carefree days that many of us long for. Until I was 14, I spent them at my grandmother's house in Salem. My mother worked just a block from where Grandma lived, and it was easy enough for her to drop my brother and me off and then pick us back up. She'd even come over and have lunch with us.

I have always been a worrier and someone who leans toward the negative side of life, and that was true even then. Mostly I worried about doing something wrong or getting into trouble, perfectionist that I was (and still am). I was an exacting child, always wanting to please, yet eager for my own comfort. I think the fairy tale of the Princess and the Pea was written for people with my disposition. I feel everything, even the rock that is buried beneath 20 mattresses.

My brother would say I was the spoil-sport who wouldn't throw rocks through windows or play on the river bank. My grandmother lived on the Roanoke River (her house flooded three times, with '85 being the final blow). She was constantly admonishing us to stay away from the water and the river banks. The water was foul and polluted - I remember watching bubbles of gunk wash down stream - and snakes slithered amongst the brush that lined the banks. It doesn't look that way now, of course, as it is part of a greenway and cared for. But at the time it was a delightful jungle that us children found hard to resist.

There were four us for my grandmother to contend with during those sunny days. She had two sons - the last of her six children - who were still children themselves. One of my uncles was four years older than I. The other was a year younger than I, and born on my birthday, to boot.

My brother was three years younger. The older uncle did not always play with us, especially as he aged and found his own friends. But the other three of us, so close in age, played together. Of course, there were times when the youngest uncle and I tried to cut my brother out of our play, since he was the baby. Children do as children do.

I don't know if my grandmother liked having a house full of children all summer, but she was always very kind to me. She made us treats of chocolate pudding - the cooked kind that no one has time for these days - and she would hug us if we fell. Once I fell on her carport and knocked out a front tooth. Another time I fell in her basement and broke my wrist. Once I sliced my thumb on a saw when my grandfather was working the yard (I still have the scar from that). She was there to pick me up every time.

In my mind's eye, I have a picture of her holding tightly to my brother, rocking him furiously while he wiped away tears. I don't know what his hurt was, but she was singing it away.

But all was not falls and hard knocks. On cool June days, she would walk us to downtown Salem. Downtown Salem then was not what is today. Mostly, we went to Newberry's, which was a five and dime store. There we'd take our quarters, hoarded from chores and the tooth fairy, and purchase balsam airplanes, paddle balls, yo-yos, and monster models, things with which in weeks to come we'd fill our time. Then we'd march down a few blocks to Brooks-Byrd Pharmacy, which I think might still be there, and buy ourselves a snow cone. It was the perfect accompaniment to a warming day.

We also had bicycles, which I regularly wrecked. I must have kept a skinned knee, judging by the scars on them today. We'd ride them every Friday up to Front Street, where my grandmother would do my great-aunt's hair. Aunt Neva lived in the home my grandmother was raised in, and it always smelled of over-cooked green beans and hair permanent solution to me. It was a weekly change of scenery for us, though, so we didn't mind.

After I reached the age of nine or so, my grandfather began giving us 25 cents if we'd mow the yard. We'd take turns, each doing a round, until the grass was cut. Then we'd pool our quarters and head up the street to the Orange Market. I think that was what it was called. At any rate, there, for that minute amount of money, we'd each buy a comic book, a soda, and a candy bar. We made sure we all bought different comic books so we would have more than one to read.

We were Marvel comic lovers and I grew up on the likes of Dare Devil, The Fantastic Four, Spiderman, and X-Men. Occasionally we ventured into D.C. Comics, where I would read about Wonder Woman and Batman, but mostly we purchased Marvel comics. We also read Archie and Richie Rich.

On the way back, we'd pedal our bikes through the secret forest, which was really a small planting of pine tree behind the Forest Service's station, which was across the street from the Orange Market. The trees were small at first and would scratch us, but as the years passed they grew tall and straight, and our path became more of a zig-zag through the pine needles.

I have a feeling childhood today is quite different. We didn't have video games or any reason to stay indoors, so most of our time was spent outside. We could roam for blocks, all up and down East Riverside Drive, without worry. The only thing we weren't supposed to do was cross Apperson by ourselves or go into the river.

Today I sense a great deal of a fear amongst parents. I really shouldn't speak to this since I am not a parent, but from where I sit, parents seem scared to allow their kids to be kids, to make mistakes, and to grow at their own pace. I'm sure I was pampered on occasion, but the parenting I watch at Walmart frequently takes that to a new level.

We can never go back again to those carefree days. Fear is here to stay.

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