Among the phrases I vowed I would never say to my children (along with "wait 'til your father gets home" and "there are starving children who would love to have that food you aren't eating!") at the top of the list was "when I was your age, I...". Having heard those words myself growing up, I tried my best to avoid comparing them to each other, friends of theirs and especially to me. What I did in my childhood, teenage years or young adulthood has absolutely nothing to do with how they choose to spend their lives. And yet, every so often, it sort of creeps up on me. My daughter turned 36 a couple of weeks ago and I cannot help but think about myself at that age.
The year I turned 36, I loaded up two kids, two dogs and one husband and moved 1300 miles to Missoula, Montana. I had spent most of my life in Southern California, but as my children grew older I wanted to raise them in a quieter, less crowded environment. My 10 year old daughter and my 7 year old son weren't as happy about the move as I was, but they quickly came to love Missoula. They enjoyed a freedom there they never would have in our old city. Missoula was the kind of town where if my kids didn't get off the bus after school, I didn't panic that they had been snatched by perverts, but waited for the phone call from my daughter telling me which friend she had gone home with, where she had last seen her brother and who he was with. When I drove to pick up my daughter, we would swing by the park where the baseball fields were to see if I could pick him out of the crowd of other kids playing there. No matter how unique your son is, dress him in a jacket, jeans and a cap then put him in a field with 3 dozen others dressed exactly the same way, and I defy you to pick him out on the first or fifth try. Fortunately I had long ago mastered what my daughter called my schoolyard whistle. Loud and piercing, when let loose it never failed to have everyone, child and adult alike, turn to see who on earth was making that noise. The one who raised his hand and waved belonged to me and could be collected and taken home.
At 36 I had yet to discover what I would do for the rest of my life. I had been a teacher, an office worker, PTA president, a softball coach, school Site Coordinator, Brownie troop leader and a perpetual volunteer. Moving to Missoula I would become the assistant manager of a bookstore, the owner of a crafting business, a volleyball player, high school speech coach, print shop salesperson, and eventually, a real estate professional.
Remembering what I was doing and what my life looked like at 36, makes me think about my mom's and my grandmothers' lives.
My mom turned 36 in 1965. My brother and I were barely teenagers. She had recently gone back to work, hoping we were old enough to keep out of mischief even if she wasn't there to rein us in. She was the secretary of the Baptist church we attended and during the school year was off early enough to be home when the school bus arrived. During holidays and summers, she paid us $5 a week to keep out of trouble and away from each other. On Fridays she would take us to work with her so that we could crank off copies of the upcoming Sunday's church bulletin on the mimeograph machine. I can still smell the pungent ink as I squeezed it from a tube onto the drum of the machine. After a few turns of the handle to spread the ink around, I would attach the stencil to the drum, load it with paper and begin to crank. It took both me and my brother to run the machine, one to turn the handle, one to slipsheet it, inserting blank papers between the printed ones so that the ink wouldn't smear. The goal was to crank it faster and faster, trying to make the other person fall behind with the slipsheets, and then fast enough that the bulletins would fly up in the air, showering us with inky paper. When my mom wasn't pulling her carefully coiffed and heavily lacquered hair out by the roots, she had time to be a league bowler, PTA president, school room mother, member of several women's groups at church and a Sunday School teacher. She sang in the church choir, had her hair done once a week and although I have pictures of her in slacks and even shorts when she was younger, by the time she had reached her 30's she only wore dresses. All of that would change during the late 60's and by the time the 70's came around she was the personnel manager of a major motorcycle company, wore pantsuits and jeans, and still had her hair done once a week.
My grandmothers' lives at 36 are harder to pin down with specifics. My maternal grandmother had 5 children and at 36 was smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression. To this day my mom won't talk about those days except in the most general of terms or to share a particularly funny story, like the one about the pig her dad got (liberated) from a local farmer. They had no place to keep him from being spotted as he fattened up enough to become dinner, so they closed him in the out house, only letting him out at night when he would feast on the scraps from my grandmother's kitchen, then run squealing around the yard as mom and her brothers and sister tried to chase him down and cram him back into the out house. Eventually things looked up for them and in the 40's they moved to Joliet, Illinois, to live on the grounds of the penitentiary where my grandfather was the Assistant Warden and where my grandmother would have two more children. My mom has plenty of stories about those years!
My dad's mom lived in rural Arkansas, and at 36 had an 18 year old daughter and a 13 year old son, my dad, who likewise never talked much about his childhood. They had been fairly wealthy before the Depression hit, even owning rental properties, which they lost along with just about everything else. In later years I would ask my grandmother about those times and her answer was always the same. "Child," she would say, hugging me close, "those days are long gone and best forgotten." Then she would stretch out on the bed, me on one side and my brother on the other, and tell us the most wonderful stories. Billy Goat's Gruff, The 3 Little Pigs or Little Red Riding Hood. Not the socially correct ones, but the old versions that involved things like cutting open the wolf's stomach to retrieve grandma, then filling it back up with stones before stitching him up again and tossing him into the river to drown. We would shiver in delighted horror while she squeezed us tight.
When my daughter is the age I am now, I'll be (hopefully) 87. I can't wait to tell her what I was doing when I was her age.