Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Wonder Years

“ I grew up in the suburbs. I guess most people think of the suburbs as a place with all the disadvantages of the city, and none of the advantages of the country, and vice versa. But, in a way, those really were the wonder years for us there in the suburbs. It was kind of a golden age for kids”. –The Wonder Years ,first episode

            I’ve been a bit nostalgic lately. I don’t know if it is because summer is coming, and summer brings back so many memories, or if it’s because my son will soon be graduating from high school, or what. But I randomly burst into songs that were popular when I was young, I keep watching 80s movies on my Kindle Fire, and I have this overwhelming desire to see my old friends. (My husband was a bit disturbed when I suddenly started singing “Purple Rain” a few days ago. I explained to him that it was connected to a particular memory and that I wasn’t going to try to explain it, because you had to be there. REALLY.) My kids love it when I tell stories that start out, “This one time…”  Often these stories are about really strange and seemingly forgettable events, like when my friend Jill and I had a candy fight at the movies, and accidentally hit an old man in the head with a sourball. That was back in the days when everyone in a small town knew everyone else, and sure enough, a neighbor witnessed the event, and my mom knew about it before I got home.The Internet has nothing on The Mom Connection. It was wireless, it was insidious, and it never failed to deliver.

            One of my favorite television shows ever is “The Wonder Years”. Almost every episode makes me cry. Watching Kevin Arnold navigate the dangerous and confusing waters of adolescence is something that everyone can relate to, I think. The show gets right to the heart of how it really feels to be young-how magical, how joyous, and how terrible it is. The peer and family relationships are perfectly captured. In particular the relationship between Kevin and his dad touches my heart. My dad was like Kevin’s in many ways, although he was much more affectionate and spent more time with us than Jack Arnold does with his family in the show. Still, when Kevin gets to spend the day at his father’s office and learns that Dad once had dreams that were never realized, it makes me weep. My dad had those dreams, too. I wonder how many other dads in my neighborhood, toiling away daily at jobs they rather despised in order to support the families they loved, wistfully recalled a time when they wanted to be “the captain of a ship”.  Whenever I read the poem “Those Winter Sundays”, I am struck by the last line: “What did I know, what did I know, of love’s austere and lonely offices?”  Those suburban dads, the ones we saw at neighborhood barbecues and sitting in church on Sundays with their families-did anyone really know them, even their own children?

            Our moms were an interesting group of Southern ladies. My mother once dragged me down the street by my pigtails, denouncing me as a “hooligan” because I had gotten into a fight with two other girls right in someone’s front yard. I don’t mean a verbal altercation; I mean an actual fistfight. I don’t recall what it was about, and I think we were probably pulling hair and scratching each other more than using our fists, but Mom was mortified. I suppose it would be considered “abuse” nowadays, this dragging of a child by her pigtails, but I honestly didn’t think anything about it and neither did anyone else. My mother was a ninja with a spatula. So was everyone else’s mother. Our moms were just our moms, and they loved us, and they were just as likely to hug and kiss us as they were to come after us with household items. I was never afraid of my parents beyond that basic healthy respect that kids should have for their parents. Furthermore, our teachers at the little elementary school we attended didn’t think twice about employing corporal punishment, and our parents supported them wholeheartedly. We loved our teachers, too. Our school and our churches were extensions of our homes. We were all in this together. Things are different now.

            I know things are different now because on a beautiful spring day, I see so few kids out on their bicycles. In the gang of kids I played with, the two constants were bicycles and dogs. You knew everyone by his bicycle and his dog. The dogs roamed freely and nobody got upset about it. The kids roamed freely and no one worried about getting kidnapped. The rules were simple on a summer day: check in occasionally and be home before dark. There were also rules of deportment regarding other people’s homes. Obey their house rules, respect their property, don’t fight, and, above all, don’t complain about the food. My brother once told my mom that she had no idea how many tuna sandwiches he choked down at the houses of his friends, because you always just smile and say thank you. To this day I am polite about food, hearing my mother’s voice in my head.

            Kevin Arnold and his friends and his siblings are confused about many things, but Kevin does know that “no matter where you go in the world, your father will always leave the light on for you.” Such a lovely truth. My father always left a light on for me. More often, he was waiting up. Sometimes I walked in the door and silently handed him my car keys, having broken curfew. I wasn’t always honest about where I had been, and he knew it. But no matter where I had been, I could always go home. I hope that my kids understand this. I believe they do. We may get angry, we may be disappointed, but we will always forgive them and welcome them back. This is a picture of our Heavenly Father. He always welcomes His children home, no matter what they have done. Kevin Arnold is fearful of the future, sometimes even uncertain about the present, but he is confident of his parents’ love for him, for his siblings, and for one another. As a teacher I see so many kids who do not have what I had, and it breaks my heart. Growing up, I had a safe haven. Laughter and love abounded there, even in the bad times. I wish everyone could have such a family, so fine a life as I had growing up. Imperfect and at times chaotic, still it was strong and it gave me the foundation I needed. It helped shape who I am.

            Thinking about my own wonder years, I see how many people influenced my life. Family, friends, teachers, pastors, neighbors-they are all a part of me. I will never forget those people and places. I will never forget the smell of the station wagon, the fireplace in winter, the way it feels to coast downhill on an old bicycle, the sweet sound of a children’s choir on Palm Sunday morning. I will never forget the gentle smile of my Sunday school teacher, Kay Banker, welcoming me to class, or the devilish grin of my friend Kevin DeRemer as we proceeded to mutilate the worm we were supposed to dissect in biology lab. This beautiful mosaic of memory inspires me and keeps me going as I live this part of my story with my own husband and children.

            “In my life, I’ve loved them all.”

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