We Had Nothing and Everything

It seems like we really had nothing, especially by today’s standards. Summers in an old drafty cabin, hand-me-down clothes, simple cereal breakfasts and PB&J lunches, bamboo poles & earth worms for fishing on an old dock, an uncle’s thick 78 LPs for dancing around the cabin kitchen, 49 cent coloring books and crayons and dime store novels for quiet time, yeah we didn’t have much, but we had each other. More importantly, we had parents who spent time with us, sang with us, held conversations with us, told us stories about their lives, taught us how to do things, including listening and watching with patience, and knew when to give us our freedom to roam and discover and ‘just be kids.’ Based on what I’ve seen and heard over the years, we actually had a gold mine!

Summers at the cabin, nothing more than a broken down old log and cinderblock shack on a river, with a natural outdoor classroom where we were free to dig, climb, get scrapped and bitten, lost and found, and have ‘parent free’ hours of discovery, were only a small, but treasured, part of our formative years in the 1960s.

I think what made our lives ‘rich and golden,’ compared to so many of today’s families who have much more material wealth but more lost and troublesome kids, is that we had an element of freedom that kids don’t have today, wrapped safely in family devotion, routines and responsibilities, high behavioral expectations, and in ‘time together,’ not staring into our phones or video games, or focused on ‘things.’

My parents were not perfect. They smoked, enjoyed a beer or two, argued and swore sometimes in front of us, yet they also included us in conversations about philosophy, religion, history, film and politics. There was a clear ‘this is adult and this is for children’ line, though, and society as a whole supported that standard. There was little room for vanity or personal pageantry, in our family, no money for private lessons; what one had the other’s had, for the most part. They taught us how to hook our own worms, thread our own needles, wash, iron, and fold clothes, write letters, read maps, make cakes, cookies, casseroles and soups. They gardened, planted trees, and watched birds; so did we. They gave us boxes of their ‘old’ clothes to play with, started challenging group puzzles on the card table, taught us how to play card games and count money, and encouraged us to ‘mindfully’ sing, in harmony of course, and dance so we understood what we were doing.

We had ‘SHARED’ everything: marbles, blocks, dolls, bikes, big farms sets (one Christmas gift for all of us) on the ping-pong table that everyone played with, shared clothes, books, paint sets, and even shared rooms, dressers and beds; later we had shared cars. We had a garage full of old field hockey equipment, balls and rackets of every kind, and dad taught us how to throw them, bounce them, shoot them, hit them, and how to form teams and understand the game, and then he left us alone to play.

And all of this was done in our own house and backyard. No organized sports, no private clubs, no special camps; just stuff we did without much of a plan.

Family dinner 1962

Family dinner 1962

There were routines, of course. There had to be, or a house of 10 would be pure chaos. We helped each other; the older ones helped the younger ones. Some helped mom take care of the babies, others helped dad with the lawn. We were taught self discipline through example, but without a harsh militant edge and certainly with an element of humor. We did major cleaning on Saturday mornings, and sometimes all week if a holiday or Holy day was coming up. When my mom would go grocery shopping, we all helped carry the groceries in and put them away. The babies were just passed around to free arms. We got up and dressed (on our own) in our best for church every Sunday, learned not to eat before Mass, and learned when we ate that we would only get so much so there was enough for everyone. What was on the table is what we ate. There was no question as to whether we would do our homework; it was a given. No one preached it, but we understood that education was everything. Authority was to be respected, mostly because if it wasn’t it would be an embarrassment to our family. Television, listening to records, and playing or pleasure reading was reserved for certain times when everything else was done. This was true even of the little ones.

We didn’t have any special anything and few material advantages, yet all eight of us kids worked our way through college earning at least one degree, in some cases more, and became accomplished professionals in a variety of fields. Would we have liked a childhood that was easier, richer in things, with prettier clothes (certainly better haircuts) and more exciting opportunities? Sure. But, looking back at how much we accomplished with so little, I’m starting to think there was more wisdom and learning in an environment with very few ‘things’ and a whole lot of family togetherness.

I know there were flaws in our world, in our family dynamics, some even quite painful leaving scars, but somehow we retained a sense of family loyalty and honor, regardless of our personal struggles. And when those struggles surfaced, there was always someone, a sister or brother, mom or dad, or all of us to support each other. There were boundaries and moral guidelines, and our parents were the role models through all of this even during radically changing times in our society. When THEY were lost and uncertain, our parents trusted their growing children, whom they had carefully raised, to lead the way in new ways of thinking or operating in the world.

I know that times are different today. The pressure to perform, to dazzle, and to compete is higher and more demanding than in the 1960s and 70s. But, frankly, I think parents can do more for their children with fewer things and ‘out there, expensive’ experiences. We rarely went to amusement parks. We learned to amuse ourselves. It’s a life skill that seems to be going ‘a drift’ these days. We had a broken down old upright piano, yet we all learned how to sing (well) and play instruments. All we had in the way of a library were my dad’s old Shakespeare volumes and encyclopedias, yet we all learned to love reading. We had one television with six channels, and one radio that sat on the top of the refrigerator where our parent’s stations ruled the day. We learned to listen to and appreciate a variety of music and opinions. In the car, we looked out the windows, talked and sang. At worst, we fought over the Rand McNally Road Atlas. I still love reading maps to this day. We were always interacting and learning from each other, something, again, that’s been lost to distractive technology which numbs children from responding to the world around them.

One family luxury was the pool. My parents always provided us with an above ground pool to play and

1969 day in the pool with family and friends. Nothing big, but it did the trick.

1969 day in the pool with family and friends. Nothing big, but it did the trick.

swim in. If we were going to dally our summer days away, it would be there….together.

Though much has been gained with technology, so much has been lost, mostly in the development of children’s ability to think and create. I know. I have watched the decline of comprehension and problem solving skills, vocabulary development, and creativity more and more every year in the elementary school classroom as more and smarter technology has come into our children’s hands. It is well-researched and documented that children learn through play, conversation, and natural exploration, not video games and another app. Yet, even the poor have their technology.

I think it’s time for parents to put away the gadgets and ‘get back to the garden,’ to use an old lyric. It’s not what they have or what flashy, extravagant places parents take their kids that teach them to connect and grow in this world. It’s the ‘meaningful’ experiences, conversations, and moments of personal discovery that mold the child into a viable, interesting adult, able to ‘work well with others.’ Most importantly, it’s ‘time,’ in a safe environment with parents who actively ‘engage’ with their children, which makes the difference.

cousins playing a board game around the table. No phones, of course. Just conversation.

Cousins playing a board game around the table. No phones, of course. Just conversation.

Even with very few ‘things’ and space, very little individual attention and special treatment, when we went to bed each night, usually two to a bed, we felt safe, exhausted from a day well-lived, and we felt loved by both parents. We knew we would have to walk to school in rain or shine the next day, and that we’d have a bologna sandwich on white bread, with carrot sticks, and a dime wrapped in wax-paper for our milk at lunch. We knew we’d have tea and crackers as an after school treat, and maybe get to watch a TV show when we finished our homework and were done practicing our ‘rented’ instruments. We knew dad would come home, that we would eat around the table together, and we knew we’d watch ‘family appropriate’ TV shows until bedtime, washed, brushed, ready for prayers, and together. We never went to bed or left the house without kisses and hugs. Even as adult children, that was the norm. Our family time was protected, celebrated, and cherished. ‘Relating,’ eye-to-eye, word-to-word, expression-to-expression was intentional. I whole-heartedly believe that is sorely missing in today’s families. Parents need to take steps necessary to keep sacred and intentional their ‘interactions’ with their children and the family as a whole.

My sister Clara and I doing homework with no laptops or phones. Imagine? It's even hard for me to imagine that, and we lived it.

My sister Clara and I doing homework with no laptops or phones. Imagine? It’s even hard for me to imagine that, and we lived it.

I don’t think this is a mystery or novel idea. History teaches us everything, and parents just need to settle down, take stock, re-evaluate their priorities, UNPLUG and pay attention to those short, but make-or-break childrearing years. It’s trite but true; less is more, particularly when it comes to raising children. Just make sure the ‘less’ is meaningful.

I’m not all about gloom and doom, preaching moral values, or ‘the good old days’ ideals. I appreciate technological advances, use technology as much as the next person, even teach it. In fact, I’ve seen some very healthy, conscientious parents out there trying to refocus more on family life and less on impressing others with big, expensive birthday parties and more video games.  Like them, I think it’s the little things that can turn the tide of thinking away from excessive social media sharing and one-upping, or distracting their kids (and themselves) with electronic entertainment, to nurturing the private, engaging family life experience.

Take them fishing….on a dock with bamboo poles….without your Iphone, or sit and color with your kids,

My little brother Tim, drawing with no distractions.

My little brother Tim in 1977, drawing with no distractions.

without Instagraming the final product. Just be together, and whether you have money or not, lots of electronic gadgets or just the air you breathe, the moments of ‘relating’ will make your child’s early years as ‘golden’ as their grandparent’s were….when everyone wasn’t so distracted by entertainment devices and people weren’t as ‘rich’ with things, but definitely life was more engaging and enriching.

We really didn’t have much, and we knew it. But we didn’t blame society, our parents, or each other, we just learned to make our lives better, and the fertile garden of a simpler life seemed to help us grow into well-rounded students and adults, to adapt and innovate in a changing world, to effectively communicate and engage in life, in order to prosper. Isn’t that what every parent wants for their child? The childrearing years fly-by; the window for opportunity brief. Engage them, talk to them, and don’t worry so much about updating your status and texting your friends. Your kids are only little for so long, then they leave. Make sure they are ready for the world.

Something to think about…

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3 thoughts on “We Had Nothing and Everything

  1. Then we had time but fewer things. Now we have lots of things but little time. Excellent post.

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