“Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” Bob Seger, Against the Wind
You know you’re getting old when you start yearning for the good old days. Lately an entire industry has popped up to try to teach people how to simplify their lives—books and magazine articles, workshops and websites. Isn’t that what life was like in the 1950s?
Imagine this—no one could get in touch with you by telephone if you weren’t at home. And that’s if your mother or the people who shared your party line weren’t already using the line. Callers got a busy signal. I love busy signals so much that I recorded one and use it as my alternative message on my answering system. There were no cellphones, iPods, pagers, or GPS devices. People couldn’t track you down—such peace.
We had one car—the family car. I never had my own car until I was grown and married.
My family went out to eat about once a year at the Hot Shoppes where we ordered a hamburger or liver and onions with a milkshake. Otherwise we ate at home—every night my mother cooked pot roast or Hungarian goulash or tuna noodle casserole. We always ate our vegetables and we always had dessert. During dinner the whole family sat together around the table and we listened to my father’s stories about his day at work. We didn’t fret about the nutrition standards in the school cafeteria because there was no school cafeteria. We brought lunch in a paper bag from home and ate at our desks in the classroom and there was no talking during lunch.
There were no artificial hormones in the milk because we got it delivered in the milk box on the back step by a local dairy farmer my father knew from his school days. There was no fluoride in the water. We got a lot of cavities and no one had braces.
My clothes consisted of a school uniform and a few other things. The other things included one or two church-appropriate dresses and maybe two pairs of shoes and a coat. By the time I got to high school I also had a navy blue wool skirt and a white blouse and a pair of blue jeans. Then the blue jeans didn’t come worn in. They were stiff as a board and you had to wash them and wear them over and over and over again before they got that vintage, worn-in look. (I finally got that look just in time for the protest movements in the 1960s—perfect timing.) Now you can’t even buy stiff jeans like that unless you go to a western store that sells clothes for cowboys.
We played with our siblings and kids in the neighborhood. We built clubhouses and organized our own horribly dysfunctional carnivals. The boys tortured small animals that they captured and the girls ran and told their parents. The boys played sports and served as altar boys; the girls weren’t allowed to do such things. We went to the local high school on Saturday mornings for classes that included hula dancing and baton twirling—skills that I still find useful (ha!).
At Halloween we went to every house in the neighborhood without adult supervision because we knew all the neighbors and we never came home with razor blades or poisoned candy; though often we came home with crumpled cookies and loose popcorn in the bottom of our bags. On Valentine’s Day we gave a card to every single one of the 50+ kids in our class, even the unfortunate Thomas Wojick who had the giant tooth in the middle of his mouth and weighed 200 pounds in 4th grade. It was just the right thing to do. I hope Thomas Wojick didn’t save the valentine from me, thinking I was his sweetheart.
Surely our parents had financial woes, family spats, and work issues. But my father went to work at the telephone company immediately after World War II and worked there until the day he retired 40 years later. We moved once—just a mile away—because we needed a bigger house as the family grew.
There was stability, predictability, some might presume boredom. Certainly there were stories of abuse and unkindness in our community that people hid from one another. There were diseases, now easily treated, that killed people back then. Fathers dropped dead of heart attacks and mothers died in childbirth. There were scary priests and squirrelly neighbors but we just considered them part of life.
The one thing that I miss about that time is the simplicity. We didn’t know life could get so complicated. We didn’t know how dangerous it could be. We didn’t know that whole groups of people could hate other whole groups of people. Our elected leaders governed with civility. We weren’t bombarded every waking moment with images of war and the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man.
I suppose the former children of my generation have to let our children raise our grandchildren differently in order to protect them from a dangerous world and to prepare them for an increasingly complicated world. I just wish they didn’t have to work so hard to make it simple.