My son is suddenly interested in stories from my childhood. I’m not sure if I should be alarmed or elated, and as I share my stories I suddenly feel very old; cliche tales beginning with “When I was your age…”
I’m not sure why he has this sudden interest. I wonder were things so different in the 1980’s that my childhood sounds fictitious to his young ears. And I laugh as I think of how much this little boy has done in his short seven years. Planes, trains, holidays, adventures, yet he’s absolutely fascinated by stories of hot summer days wandering aimlessly with a friend through corn fields. And then it dawns on me, the appeal is the freedom we had as children. We may have been the last generation granted the blessing of a childhood of freedom and exploration; years before the Internet, before Google took hold, and before the world of child predators and fear caused us to close our doors and gate our communities.
His favourite chat is the story of the free vegetable stand. I lived in the country, a small town in New Hampshire. Before I had homework, sports, and hobbies, I had an early childhood of free play. Free as in, “See you at 5:00 Mom!” My best friend and I knew to stay on her land, which was plentiful. Acres and acres of corn fields and wooded trails. We could even cut through the woods to the general store, avoiding the busy town road we were banned from walking on. I can still hear the creek of their fly screen door, the bang as it closed automatically behind us. Equipped with coins from deep under couch cushions, we would fill small paper bags with dozens of penny candies and eat every one of them as we slowly made our way through the shaded forest trails back toward her house. This particular friend could tell time by looking at the sun. I stop to answer Tierman’s disbelief, “Yes really, she could, I could too, just not as well as her. She’d have it down to minutes!” We’d take our time coming home, savouring our candy. We’d lay in the corn fields, staring up to blue skies, tall green spears surrounding us and pointing to the sun, dust floating from their tassels. We’d ask the breeze to start or stop, and if by coincidence it worked, we’d run away nervously giggling, spooked by our ‘powers.’ We picked clovers and pulled the tiny purple spikes off the flowers, tasting the sweet nectar where the purple turns to white.
We ate three meals a day, and on rainy days or winter months we most likely snacked like my own children do today. But in the summer months we had no time for snacking. If we were hungry there was another adventure on the horizon. We’d walk down the quiet country road, dapples of sun shining through the trees and dancing on the hot black tar. After a summer shower the road was dotted with crossing newts or frogs, the occasional garter snake. We’d stop and watch them make their slow crossing. If a car was heard in the distance we’d scoop them up and transport them safely to the other side, afraid they’d meet the same fate as the small flattened animals, baked into the tar that we couldn’t save. The five minute walk often took an hour or two, dependent on our discussions or discoveries. And the reward was the small timber table with the handwritten sign: ‘Free Vegetables.’ Always piled high with various fresh garden vegetables; tomatoes, cucumber, zucchini, corn. The veg varied but it was always ripe and bursting with flavour. We’d fill our pockets and head back, this time uphill toward home, crunching the whole way.
My son is filled with questions. ‘How could you take food from a stranger? What if you got hit by a car? Did you wash it before you ate it? Why didn’t she sell the veg?’
I explain our neighbours were not strangers, even the ones who lived way down the road. Everyone knew everyone. We knew if we did something out of line, our parents would certainly hear about it. The roads were quiet, and drivers were not in such a rush. We knew the people who passed. The veg didn’t need to be washed, they didn’t use chemicals and the bit of dirt didn’t do anyone any harm. She didn’t sell the veg, not everything is for profit. Perhaps sharing such beautiful and tasty veg gave her enough satisfaction. The story has made for some beautiful conversation with this wide eyed little boy.
And those wide blue eyes point up toward the sky, and he’s quiet. That thinking pose I’ve learned to recognise. A small smirk on his face. And he asks me to tell him another, and I’m a little lost for words. I can’t think of any big adventure or wild stories. My first memories of freedom were filled with walking and talking with a couple of best friends, usually outdoors. We had freedom, and though it was the norm in the 80’s, I loved and appreciated it: disappearing for a few hours, an afternoon, or the day, as long as we promised to ‘check in’ or come home at a certain time. As long as we stuck to our usual paths or quiet roads. They trusted us and our abilities.
Today I let my three off into a neighbouring field. They explored a dried up pond, counted butterflies and searched for frogs. I could see them from afar and there was lots of discussion, plotting and planning. I didn’t ask. I let it be their time and freedom, and I’d like to see more of it.