The other day I was having lunch at a restaurant and across the aisle was a mother and her young son. It was a Chinese buffet place, so very casual dining to say the least. The boy was about five years old, and I was reminded of when I was that young spending time during the day with my own mother. It was back in the late 60’s, and at that time most mothers stayed home all day with their children while the husband worked. As a result, mothers would just have to take their children with them if they had to run errands, go shopping or whatever had to be done.
I don’t want to get into the debate about working women or stay at home moms, and what is better or worse for children or adults. I do notice one difference with regards to the parent/child relationship when I was young and what it seems to be today. When I was a child, my parents did the things they had to do or wanted to do and I was expected to go along and deal with it. These days it seems many parents worry about entertaining their children constantly and letting them dictate what activities they will be participating in. Children pick the family vacation destinations, pick the TV shows, pick what’s for dinner, and so on.
When I was a child I ate what was put in front of me, watched what my parents watched and went wherever the family car took me in the summer. It wasn’t some horrible childhood, I usually ended up enjoying whatever I did or got to eat or watch, and it made me grow as a person and exposed me to more things than I would have encountered had I just got my way all the time.
Understand also that I did get my way sometimes. When I was in grade school my mother would take me to matinee movies in the summer, to my cousins to go swimming, to the park or a petting zoo. The thing was I understood that I got to do those things when my mother had time to do them, when her responsibilities and the things she had to do allowed her the time to cater to my wishes.
My mother worked on Thursday and Friday nights as a cocktail waitress at a bowling alley to bring some extra money into the house. My father bowled at the same alley in a league on Friday nights, so I was left with a babysitter when I was young and my brother to watch me as I got older. One of my favorite things during that time was that my parents would always bring me a capsule from the quarter gumball machine. They got home late, well after I was in bed, but they would put the capsule on my dresser so I would find it as soon as I woke up in the morning. It usually contained a small toy, although my two favorites were either refrigerator magnets or when it was a Looney Tunes sticker. I had quite a collection on my wall, Bugs, Daffy, Sylvester, almost every character from the cartoons.
I remember one time when I was about eight years old I opened the capsule to find a small poster of the band Bread. It was a picture of the band standing in a meadow and it had the title of one of their hits written across the bottom, “Baby I'm-a Want You”. It was very lame and a little creepy, but I was only eight. My older brother had rock posters on his walls, so I hung it on mine and thought I was cool like him. In retrospect, my tiny Bread poster with all it’s crease lines from being folded up to fit in a gumball machine capsule was really not cool at all, but it made me very happy when I was young. If I had my way, I’m sure I wouldn’t have chosen to get a cheap poster of some easy listening band, but that’s what I got and I was very happy to get it. I never felt forgotten or unloved because even when my parents were out working or bowling they still got me something for a quarter that let me know they were thinking about me.
I had a couple of birthday parties at the bowling alley. My mom had a book of birthday cakes and for my birthday I would look through the book and pick out what cake I wanted and she would make it. The bowling alley birthday party I remembered most was when I had her make a treasure chest cake, complete with chocolate coins spilling out of the top.
My parents told me stories years later about the bowling alley. Most of the stories revolved around The Isely Brothers, who lived nearby and would always come there to drink or with their families to bowl. If you want to set my mother off, just mention Ron Isley to her. She said he was a rotten little prick(Her words!) that would try to hide bowling sheets in his jacket to get out of paying for them and stiff the bar for drinks and tips. We also figured out that my parents most likely met Jimi Hendrix because he was playing with the Isleys during the years they frequented the place.
My mother used to take me shopping with her and my great-grandmother. I didn’t like the shopping so much, but it meant we could go to this certain restaurant and I would get a cream puff for dessert. I guess back then children didn’t need constant and extravagant rewards. In fact, when I had to spend the morning shopping with mom once in a while we would stop at a diner out on Route 4 and get lunch and I was so happy to be eating there with the little juke box at the table. I would flip happily through all the songs trying to decide which two songs I would play for my coin. In my youth, if you behaved while being dragged from store to store with mom your reward was you got to eat!
The worst thing was when we had to get the car inspected. In
Jersey at that time there were state
inspection stations and everyone had to go to them. If it was late in the month
everybody was there and sometimes it was an hour wait in line to get in and get
the car inspected. Being a child, it
seemed like forever. My mother would
bring some toys for me, or read to me, but nothing could make those waits
tolerable. It had to be done though, and
I was expected to deal with it. It
taught me patience and that sometimes life was doing things that you didn’t
particularly want to do, something today’s society seems to tell us is not the
case. Today everything is instant
gratification and I’m as bad as anyone else.
We’ve been conditioned to have everything on demand, and while it is
convenient it robs us of the feeling that small things can be special and
satisfying. Rewards are not supposed to
be constant and easy to come by, but nowadays they seem to be.
One of my last memories of doing something with my mom was when I was eleven. Jaws was a huge hit and my brother and his friends talked about it constantly. I really wanted to see it so my mother took me to a matinee. She wanted to be there in case I got frightened. Partway through the movie when sheriff Brody is spooning chum into the water the shark popped its head out of the water and my mother jumped and gasped loudly. I quickly leaned over and shushed her and told her not to embarrass me. That to me seems like the definitive end of my childhood time spent with mom. I don’t really have any other stand out memories of doing something that was just her and me. I’m sure we did, but it would never be as special as it was when I was younger. At a certain point in every child’s life it becomes a burden to do something publicly with your parents, and that was the first time I felt that way.
Watching the mother and her young son in the Chinese restaurant in the present day made me smile to think about the times out with my own mom. The child wasn’t playing any handheld video games, he was talking to his mother, asking questions, and she wasn’t on her smart phone or otherwise preoccupied, she was talking to him and they both managed to enjoy it. As I was getting up to leave I noticed his coat had slipped off his seat and onto the floor. I mentioned it to his mother and she rolled her eyes and chuckled.
“Honey, your coat is on the floor again.” She told him, pleasantly and not at all scolding him. He reached under and picked it up without complaint, and I’m sure this scene had played out a thousand times before just as I’m sure it had when I was young. The incident didn’t diminish the mood one bit, and she thanked me for pointing it out and I was on my way.
I was glad I got to see a mother and her child having a pleasant time together, and having mutual respect for each other. Mostly I only seem to notice parents and their child in public when the child is whining or demanding something in the middle of a store aisle or the parent is either yelling at them or ignoring them. I imagine I just don’t notice the children and parents that aren’t dysfunctional and that’s a shame. I’m sure there are a lot of women with their children out every time I go somewhere that are just enjoying their time together. It makes me happy that the same relationship I enjoyed with my mother as a child is still going on everyday all around me.
©David Ferraris 2013