Being forced to reckon with my ‘new’ family—after a decade in the sibling-free spotlight—made for some interesting times, and some much-needed growing up.
Some people in their forties or fifties might have, at one time or another, experienced a younger person ask them to describe their childhoods. While some middle-aged mentors might respond with eager enthusiasm, obliging the younger, inquisitive mind with a few bits and pieces from their memory banks, others might prefer to leave this timeframe stored and locked away.
For these folks, the idea of dredging up their younger years fills them with a sense of dread. They might simply reply:
“It was no different than yours—or anybody else’s—Same ol’ kids’ stuff.”
No matter how much the younger person beseeches them to ‘just tell me what it was really like,’ the middle-aged evader sticks to their bland canvas, offering neither colour nor candour.
I totally get why somebody might not want to ‘go back there.’
Who knows what other-than-pleasant things a person may have experienced as a kid in the 70’s when spanking and permed hair with carpet to match were considered perfectly reasonable. I’m pretty sure all those times my mom took me to the Jack Purcell swimming pool in Ottawa inadvertently scarred me for life. Don’t get me wrong—swimming is my complete jam and I’m grateful my parents got me into those lessons so early on—but let’s just say I feel really badly for the poor soul tasked with having to clean the ladies’ change-room shower drains every day. I truly hope he or she had better luck in the recurring public-bathroom anxiety dream department than I’ve had for 40 years—and that they went on to live their best life, remarkably happy with how it turned out (and that they also lived by example with a sharp Gillette and sturdy pair of scissors at the ready).
So, yeah, I get it. Not every childhood is all rosy, light-hearted shenanigans and fun.
Like me, there’s probably a ton of things you wish you could unsee. But, if I’m ever presented the childhood memory question by Gen Z or younger, I feel I know exactly what I want to say—partly out of polite obligation, but mostly because, overall, when it comes to my childhood, I think of it wistfully—as my golden time in the sun (at least a good hunk of it!)
And, so, I would tell them.
About a bygone era of carefree abandon and make-your-own fun.
Of walks to the river, and rides on big busses and bicycles. My bike had purple bars and a banana seat that my grandpa assembled for me, when I was six. It also had wing-dingy wisps of coloured strips on the handles—that would flap in the wind as I rode.
Of skipping rope with two girls on each end, singing: “The wind, the wind the wind blows high…” and feeling perpetually frustrated that I could never master Double-Dutch-style like the tall girls in those Sesame Street film vignettes. The ones wearing the short-shorts and striped tube socks and who had the best hair ever—all tied up in funky twisty pieces that went this way and that. Hair like that of my bestie, Cheba, whom I adored, and who lived with her parents in the Zambian embassy on the other side of the city.
Of sprinting to kindergarten and grade school to make it in time before the bell clanged way too loud for my not-yet-diagnosed ‘ears.’
And the best part of all? Each of these sojourns was helicopter-free:
aka by my lonesome;
aka sans parent.
But, more importantly: aka sans siblings.
These halcyon days before my (now beloved) sisters’ imminent boat rides through my mother’s birth canal involved eight-year-old me and a pack of Crayola crayons—with whimsical names like ‘Cornflower Blue,’ ‘Burnt Orange,’ and the now-totally inappropriate, ‘Indian Red’—accompanied by colouring books that were designed for kids–only.
Around holidays, my friends and I played with our punch-out Valentine’s books and Easter egg dye kits, while normal days were relegated to trading glittery stickers—some that were puffy, some that smelled like cinnamon, or dill pickle, or rubber boot—with all the savvy of little Wall Street dealers in-the-making.
‘Free Wifi’? No-sir-ee.
Back in those days, we were blissfully Wifi-free.
If I’m sounding all ‘We-walked-to-school-every-day-uphill-in-an-ice-storm—both ways,’ it’s because we did! And man, was it fun.
And so, so much better than the years that would come. Am I right?!
Indeed, growing up in the 1970s and eighties was a time of wanton play.
In schoolyards and parks replete with sandboxes and colorful plastic tube tunnels, vintage zip-lines that spanned 10 whole feet, and big fat tire swings hoisted by metallic chains that on extra cold days, if you hadn’t listened to your dad’s warnings, would sometimes catch your tongue.
Some of you might remember being wrapped head-to-toe in toques and squeaky snowsuits, or decked out in terry-towel shorts and matching shirts with stripes the colours of Kool-Aid.
My vintage, pre-varicose—pre-sibling—recollections are like all four seasons turned into one gigantic span of magic, fun, and flitting about marked by wide open eyes and missing-front-teeth smiles (that weren’t a cause for shame back then) as we switched between Tag and Mother May I, Duck Duck Goose and Dodgeball.
And ahh…how we laughed.
Gut-busting, pee-inducing, fabulously free-and-together big belly laughs— shared among all of us pink-cheeked, cheery, happy-go-lucky kids.
Childhood was our time.
For me, there was also my ‘after-fun’-fun of home and hearth—the midday play that only an only-child can do so well—and with such very un-lonely-like aplomb.
It was the part of the day marked by creamy Earl Grey and out-of-the-oven bran muffins—which I liked to eat top-first (the bottom I’d squish into round balls, like Play Doh) while fixating for two hours on Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie reruns, followed by Little House on the Prairie, in real-time, with my toy poodle, Trina, in tow—and my brown satin robe-wearing doll Sindy (Barbie’s ‘regular-sized-girl’ competition), and my gaggle of Smurfs and stick-thin Star Wars action figures.
My memory tells me I did this every single day until the supper hour—that this time was, essentially, my time. In fact, as I recall, this ‘chill time’ carried on even through and past the dinner hour sometimes (we didn’t use the word ‘chill’ though), when my mom would bring supper right to me in all my cross-legged glory, atop the fuzzy flooring of my living room lair.
Her ‘ready-made’ meals often came in the form of fish sticks and French fries, which she served on our white and blue Corelle plates—the trendy smash-it-on-the-floor-as-hard-as-you-can-and-it-won’t-break dishware du jour. I remember the little white wooden TV tray she’d conveniently place on my lap, perfectly tenting my lower half before nibbling my delicious fried fish, waiting in anticipation for the record-needle-scratch of Happy Days, to start up, to be followed, like clockwork, by the whiney theme to Three’s Company.
‘Come and Knock on our Door. We’ve been waiting for you.’
These were my favourite hours.
They were probably my mom’s favourite, too—for a time, at least.
They kept us both content. Microwaves and TV trays allowed me to stay satiated in that blissed-out and quiet, cross-legged comfort on my magic Berber carpet—while my mom could be free to study for her graduate degree in Nursing. Deep into her books she’d be at it, while I’d be all kickin’ and chillin’ and noshin’ on heavenly greasy fish sticks. At eight years old. Until it was time to go to bed.
“Ok. I’m just reminding you that I always gave you cucumbers with your fish sticks,” said my mom just now, calmly chiming in after proofreading this excerpt. (She’s so cute when she gets respectfully defensive.)
The six years that followed were so much different from my fish-stick freedom—far more akin to anI-feel-like-chicken-tonight dinner of rice and drumsticks.
A much different time, indeed, when one became three.
Dinner was now served at a butcher-block table and bench-set, around which I and my new-ish sibling sat, while our baby sister squawked happily in her high-chair at the head of the table, smearing mushy peas on her face with her fingers and splattering the rest of us as her little fat fists banged away at her tray—all while my mom and dad looked on, beaming.
With joy in their eyes and nodding of heads they smiled and looked on—at them.
And then back, at each other—smiling, nodding, knowing—like they were telepathically saying:
‘Finally, we did something right.’
“Our parents would be proud,” they’d add, in their shared and silent unison.
And, I’d give them that; my grandparents would definitely be proud. Proud of ‘she who would get her degree’—while making all the muffins and all the meals. Proud of ‘he, who boiled the tea.’
For many years, as an adult, I kept telling myself how much I missed those years between zero and nine, and how I needed to remind myself more often of that long-ago time in the sun—my time—before my beautiful sisters’ impending arrivals would mark the end of my decade of joy and riotous fun in the spotlight glow of my parent’s eyes.