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…

Through My Father’s Tears

 “History is a guide to navigate in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”
~David McCullough, American Author

dad alone by lake

Dad in his early teens by the lake

Just as ‘all who wander are not lost,’ all who ‘look back’ are not sad, depressed people living in the past. Through the popular notion that to ‘look back’ on one’s life is somehow an unhealthy indication that one is ‘living in the past,’ and that we should all just ‘let it go’ and move forward, we are being lead to believe that we gain nothing of value from the people and places we once loved or knew. As if to look back fondly, or with bittersweet regard and nostalgia, one must not be happy where they are. What does that say about our society’s interest and reverence for history, geography, and ‘home?’ Furthermore, what does that say about our respect for those that came before us, and, for that matter, how WE will be remembered, if at all?

Everywhere we are bombarded with daily reminders to ‘let go of the past,’ as if it’s a social disease to be curious, to tell stories, reflect, share pictures, delve into one’s family history, even attempt to unravel mysteries or heal old wounds that would, indeed, help people move forward. Yet, some of the healthiest people I know are well-versed in history with a calm acceptance of their personal past. In fact, they live more in the ‘present’ BECAUSE of their awareness of the past, than those who prefer to numb themselves in hopes of forgetting, or preach the ‘let it go’ theory because they don’t want to forgive or understand the motivations and circumstances of those that came before them. “It is what it is!” is the one- dimensional decree of the ‘don’t look back people .’ Maybe it’s a good intentioned defense mechanism, or fear, or ignorance, but promoting a overall attitude against ‘looking back’ is to me rather arrogant, as if all things begin and end with you or me.

Even as an elementary school teacher, I can see the sad decline of the social studies curriculum, limited acknowledgment of notable people, moments, and movements in our country’s history; limited space in the timeline.  And what of the poets and lyricists? Awwww….they make us think about the past, don’t they? There is no time for THAT! It’s all about the application of math and science to the detriment of a well-rounded education. In our need for the illusion of perfection, to rise above other countries, are we not losing vital learning experiences  that would only serve to make us a better country…better people? You know the old adage, “Learn from your mistakes?” Well, if we are not willing to talk about the past, how can we learn from any mistakes? What a terrible disservice to the present and future generations, who may not be that interested in hearing about old Uncle Bill and his dancing tattoos, or how their great-great grandfather was a ship captain on the Great Lakes, but at some point they may be. What will they have to draw on later in life when they have questions and we know nothing?

“An old friend, the late Daniel Boorstin, who was a very good historian and Librarian of Congress, said that trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers. We’re raising a lot of cut flowers and trying to plant them.” ~David McCullough, American author, from “Knowing History and Knowing Who We Are,” April 18, 2005

Dad with his brothers

Dad with his brothers

Dad and Archie

Dad with his brother Archie

My father was a humble man, as many from the ‘greatest generation’ were. Born in 1929 on the onset of the Great Depression, he saw his share of sadness, poverty, and hard knocks in life. His sixteen year old brother, Archie, was shot dead accidently by a stray bullet in a ‘cops and robbers’ incident on the streets of Detroit in 1943. Daddy was fourteen and lost his best friend; his closest companion. Dad’s mother had a brain tumor in her late 40s and after her brain surgery, he wrote, “We had our mother with us for many more years but she was never more than 75% of who she was before. My wife and I were deprived of a beautiful friend. My children were deprived of a youthful, fun-loving, talented grandmother. The only thing not affected by her operation, was her sense of humor which was as sharp as ever.” And THAT is what I remember about my grandmother, her sense of humor. But, I also learned so much more about her through my father’s recollection of her earlier days when she was healthy and there for him. He painted a different picture than the limited one I saw myself.

Dad with his mother swapping hats

Dad with his mother swapping hats

At family parties or after dinner with all of us sitting around the table like a classroom of students drinking coffee, he would share bits and pieces of his life, and for someone like me, who truly was fascinated with social history, even the sad and unpleasant parts, I was the perfect student.

Several years before he was diagnosed with Lou Gering’s Disease (ALS), he was sharing a story with me about his father. It was more of an intimate look into his life than my father had ever shared before. Dad and I were not ‘buddies.’ He was always revered as ‘someone above me’ as many children, even in old age, perceive their parents. So I respectfully asked him if he would consider writing down some of his memories. He hee-hawed a bit, as older folks do, but I persisted. As a news writer in rural Minnesota, I saw this all the time. Older people just didn’t want to talk about their lives. Usually ‘other’ people would say it’s because it was too painful, but I always managed to get them to open up. Their resistance had more to do with humility than pain. I had a ‘girl-next-door’ quality in interviewing; they felt I could be trusted and was as interested as a daughter. I always was, but in my dad’s case, I was the real thing, and very interested. So, he told me he’d write things down as he remembered them, which, for you aspiring memoirist, is the best way to do it.

In my father’s case, time wasn’t on his side. Once we all knew he wouldn’t be with us much longer, he decided to follow through with our ‘memoir plan’ the best that he could. In my mother’s view, it was painful, not only physically (at first he lost control of the muscles in his fingers, and then later in his tongue so he could not speak clearly), but also emotionally. But, my father was a wise man. He had a choice. He could have sat there watching one TV show after another until he passed away, or he could ‘recall’ his life, walk through it again, and relive both the sad and joyous moments of it in order to pass those memories along to us, namely to me, because he was a man of his word.

My dad had a romantic soul. Even in that terrible year of a slow, unforgiving death, I knew he wanted to be remembered for more than what appeared on the surface; “father, teacher and coach.” There was more to him, as there is to all of us. In that way, we were cut from the same cloth. He was passionate and emotional, and at times sobbed uncontrollably. Tears make other people nervous because they assign their own beliefs to them. They believe tears must be bad, uncontrolled emotions, a sign of weakness, heaven forbid! Have a drink! Crack a joke! Numb that shit up! Yes, my dad cried a lot through the process. But in my mind, he needed to after a long life of being ‘the strong son and brother’ in the family, standing tall and taking care of everyone, as he himself faced one challenge after another, and then got hit with this final blow. Crying is a release. ‘Letting go,’ if you must, and sobbing is as natural as laughing, indeed it’s healthy to let the tears flow to help wash away the grief of lost time and people.

After his funeral, I took home a briefcase full of chicken-scratched notes, badly-typed stories, some on torn pieces of paper, smeared ink passages as if someone carelessly scribbled them out on a wet napkin. The text was full of big Polish names I wasn’t sure about, and places along the avenues and streets of the old Detroit where my dad grew up…places now closed up and gone. It was a mess of a project and took me too many years to compile, but what a gift! In his wake, he left a wide path of understanding, a portal into what makes us who we are, and a colorful slice of life that will never be seen again. He created room for forgiveness, a sense of history and belonging, and a place for others to stroll back easily into the past and find a piece of themselves.

What I admired most about my dad’s memoirs was how they were written straight up. No frills, no analyzing, no blaming or interpretations of why people were the way they were, other than the obvious socio-economic scene; they were easy to read. He seemed to share everything he could remember, from the everyday life of city boys playing in the park, to his first sexual experience in the woods, to his endearing friendships with the men who were still his best friends to the end, to the sweet simple romance between him and my mother.

“Our courtship was a series of parties punctuated by quiet walks and talks. Our favorite date was going to the Rialto on Gratiot and Mt. Elliot, then interrupting the workers at a local bakery and taking home a loaf of fresh bread and sharing it at her house on Kirby Avenue. I walked the mile from Canton to Kirby at least a hundred times. I knew she was the girl for me.”

The courtship of mom and dad

Mom and Dad courting

As I wrote and re-wrote his words, crying and stuffing bread in my mouth, I found myself falling in love with the boy who would become my father. I could see my young parents stopping at the 1940s bakery, them walking hand-in-hand down the darken streets past the once manicured lawns of a different Detroit. It was easy to imagine them sitting in my grandma’s kitchen by low light, sharing the loaf of bread and maybe a cup of coffee…the difficult goodbyes…and daddy walking that city mile home in the dark alone with my mother’s perfume on his collar. My only regret was that he was no longer with us, for I knew there must have been more that he just didn’t have time to write.

Sad? Yes, on some levels, but sweet as well. But, in the telling and sharing, the listening and receiving, there is a kind of awakening and freedom that comes from the voices of the people before us, and an awareness of why we are on the paths that we walk, why we love or distain the things we do, and why we can hear our parent’s voices in our own words. The perception that it’s an avoidable dark journey to look back, is that of people who don’t want to ‘feel’ anything, people not able to face the fact that maybe other people had rougher lives than theirs, or better. People who want to glorify or dramatize than own existence, rather than learn that we are all more alike than different. In fact, I think that knowledge of one’s family history and dynamics, and the acceptance of it, is necessary to be ‘truly present’ now.

I know there are people who had very difficult, unthinkable childhoods. I also know that many therapies designed to help those bearing the scars of childhood, are based on recalling and moving through those heartbreaks to heal. I did this, in a way, with my mother. Our weekly phone calls included many laughs and ‘how are the kids’ chats, but often we circled round to the ‘what happened when and why’ of our lifetime together, and respectfully we opened up those old wounds, explained, shared, cried, and healed our relationship. But, we had to open the door to the past to move forward. We had to become vulnerable, let our armor down, and be willing to feel something! The emotional gift of delving into the past together, my listening and appreciating all her stories of her life growing up, her feelings about my father and the years when we were babies, brought clarity and life-confirming affirmations and gave us both a kind of peaceful satisfaction that, regardless, all was forgiven through understanding and knowledge. We had no loose ends, and we both knew that when my mother left this world I would remember her for only the love and goodness she brought to my life. In return, I received wisdom.

There are a lot of broken people out there. Some drink or eat or drug themselves to forget. Some just hide their memories away, proudly carrying the banner of ‘be present’ when, in fact, ‘they’ are still stuck somewhere else. I think it’s time we stopped this overly romantic view of the ‘here and now’ and the warnings, especially to our young people, that looking back is dangerous and unhealthy. It’s time we try again to remember, to show respect, and honor those paths we and the people before us have walked, with a story. There are other banners like, “Everyone has a story to tell,” that can be plastered all over Facebook walls and encouraged in classrooms. How about we give a listen, read their writing, and learn from the past, if not for pure enjoyment, then maybe for a lesson or two. One look at a day on a social network or in a ‘test focused’ classroom or at the crap they call TV these day, begs us to reassess what is really important. Certainly history has to rise from the dead and enlighten us again, especially if it’s our own.

My father at college

My father at college

My father was the first person in his family line to finish high school. He was referred to as ‘the professor,’ as was common of college-bond kids back then. He earned a Bachelors of Philosophy (Ph.B) at a tough Jesuit university and later, after bringing eight children into the world with my mother on his teacher’s salary, he earned a Masters of English. He understood history, the human condition, and the need to teach children how to think and make connections. He had every right to be arrogant, but he wasn’t. He often worked two or three jobs, made a big pot of oatmeal on weekend mornings and coffee cake and donuts, like his parents before him, and let us shake on the sugary toppings in brown paper bags like easily amused kids with new toys. He sang old vaudeville songs in the station wagon with us, and enjoyed a smoke and cup of coffee with my mother who…well, had her own story, was a fireball of emotions, got in trouble with the nuns, was socially gifted and a sexy little thing to my dad right to the end. And in the end, he was recalling the simple things of a lifetime that stayed in his memory, worthy memories that he was, gratefully, able to share. In the process, I think we all learn a whole lot about ourselves.

“My brother Archie and I were constant companions. We shared the same bed, shared the same food and treats, played together, built model airplanes together, and went to the movies together. We did everything together. …My parents often were called upon to sing duets at house parties or whenever there were gatherings. My mother had an uncanny ear for harmony and my dad had a pleasant lead voice. Archie and I picked up on all their songs and managed to add a few of our own. When we went for long walks, we sang. When we had to wait in the car for a period of time, we sang. Even when we went to the outhouse together in the summer, we sang. That first walk to school alone without my brother after his death was the longest walk of my life.”
~ “Miles, the Memoirs of Walter Miles Currie

Dad with us kids in Lake Michigan

Dad with us kids in Lake Michigan

Through my father’s tears and words I grew to understand the boy who lived inside my big, brave daddy. He grappled with fear, like we all do, yet seemed to be the strongest person in our whole extended family, and that just makes me what to be braver and maybe take another big step just for him.

If you want to embrace the ‘here and now,’ then you have to look back first, even if it hurts. It’s good to learn about the people who ‘shaped us,’ for better or worse. It provides us with roots to grow, so we (and our children) aren’t just a bunch of “fresh cut flowers trying to grow themselves.” When we grow, we experience emotions, and to ‘feel something’ is a healthy human response, at any age. It provides a connection, insight and understanding into the reasons why we do what we do. It awakens potential and sleeping dreams. It waters us, gives us courage, passion, or even a fire to change our situations, and it’s the very thing that will enable us to truly ‘be present’ and blossom into the whole human beings that the people before us had hope for when we came into the world. Look back, heal, write your own story. Believe me, someone down the line will want to know who you were…