The Things That Break

Do you remember the Twilight Mom Yodel? I do. It was when the neighborhood moms realized they could see fireflies outside the windows, and their heads popped out the back doors all up and down the street, and in voices that echoed into the hills and back, they shouted in more or less unison, “Baaaaaarbara!” and “Liiiiiiiiiiissa!” and “Joooooohn!” and “Tiiiiimothy!”, followed by “Time to come hooooooooome!”

Do you remember the significance of the noon whistle? I do. It was when the local plant (in our case, Alcoa) shut down for an hour so the guys could go home and sit down to lunch with their wives and kids. Banks closed at the noon whistle, and so did some stores, and the kids who were playing in the back yards together went rocketing back to their own homes because it was time for chicken noodle soup and peanut butter sandwiches and an opportunity to listen to your parents talking about their lives.

You can take this as Charles Dickens’ “best of times, worst of times” — we were already deeply embedded in Vietnam; a majority of the population believed what the government was telling everyone; we had J. Edgar Hoover in the FBI and Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House and the Cold War in full swing and McCarthyism echoing in the voice of Barry Goldwater; the odds of a woman who didn’t want to be a homemaker getting a good job were only slightly better than the odds of the chicken she was roasting standing up and whistling “Dixie”; and many women still went to college to get their MRS degree and then vanished thereafter into the land of Mrs. John Doe-dom, never to write their own last names, or even first names, again.

Girls knelt in the school corridors while teachers measured the distance from their hemlines to the floor, boys were sent home if the hair on the back of their necks touched their collars, and racism (as deeply entrenched as sexism) was still so pervasive in some places that people not only hadn’t really thought of it, but they hadn’t really heard of it.

There was much about those years that was bad, corrupt, cruel, much that was truly wrong, much that needed fixing.

But kids weren’t walking into high schools and shooting teachers and classmates, either. They were not, for the most part, being raised by strangers. Community schools chose their own books and their own curriculums and graduated students who could read and write, add and subtract, and who knew at least the high points of their own nation’s history. Those same kids weren’t going home with a key around their necks to let themselves in, fix themselves a snack, lock the door tight behind them and not answer for anybody because they were the only ones there. There WERE neighborhoods, and neighbors, and if your mom had to go out for a minute the woman next door was home and you knew to go over there because you knew the woman next door, and her husband, and their kids.

Neighborhoods are gone, and the Twilight Mom Yodel is gone, and Lunch At Noon is gone. And those were good things. Real, solid things.

And I don’t think we can bring them back. Not even for those who want them, not even for most of the women and men who realize that raising children to be decent human beings is the most important thing any human being can do. The world changed, and it did so by sacrificing families and the needs of kids on the alter of personal freedom and self-actualization for adults. It sacrificed men and the jobs men did to take care of their families, and the honor men got for providing for their families, in favor of “we’re all the same.” It sacrificed women who cherished staying home with their children and raising families. Women’s liberation was supposed to be about the right to equal work for equal pay. The right to pursue careers. But not the obligation to, at the expense of the lives of our kids. Staying home to raise and teach their children is no longer an option for most women, and that’s wrong. The brave new world sacrificed jobs that pay enough to allow one person to provide for a family and replaced them with jobs that nearly all families in the middle and lower classes must have two of simply to survive.

And no matter what the government sociologists say about day-care being good enough, about more hours being spent in school and before-school programs and after-school programs not being harmful, kids aren’t as capable as they were, they know less, they are as a whole more prone to violence and drug use and sexual experimentation at earlier ages and suicide and self-destruction all along the line. Kids raised by institutions don’t have the experience of watching parents be good parents, either — and the institutions will always be there to raise their kids, raising the likelihood that children who were institutionalized from an early age will institutionalize their own children.

There are things about the world that are better today than they were in 1966, but what we as a nation and as a civilization do with our children is not one of those things.

The possibility that T.S. Eliot might have been right is never too far from my mind. He said:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

I heard that whimper when my tiny daughter turned when I left her in day care and raised her arms to me and begged me not to leave her — when I listened to experts who insisted that she would do just as well with strangers as with me. I lost her for years, and got her back at last when she homeschooled high school. But nothing, nothing, could replace the years we lost, and now she is grown, out on her own, and I resent every day the state stole from me, and every hour I stole from myself, and I resent the liars who say, “Go take care of yourself first; as long as you’re happy your kids will be fine.” I resent being stupid enough or gullible enough to believe that. I have another chance with my youngest. I don’t intend to waste it.

We’ve broken something that I don’t think we can fix. We’ve broken it so badly that most people can’t even look at the pieces lying on the ground and guess what those pieces used to be, or how they once fit together. I can’t see the consequences far down the road, and neither can anyone else. But I can see the results so far, and the results so far are bad.

Families and neighborhoods should not have been the things we let break and left lying on the ground. They were the best things we had.

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About the author: Novelist, writing teacher, on a mission to reprint my out-of-print books and self-publish my new ones.

15 comments… add one
  • Maggie Nov 7, 2003 @ 21:30

    Suburbs replacing the country? Housing developments springing up and gated communities fencing us in? Have less babies. More babies equals more land and ressources needed to support the new people. And the best people to not have those babies? The ones who can’t raise them, or don’t have time to, not because they’re trying to make ends meet, but because they have so many more important things to do. A child is not an accessory, and the fifties are over…no one is forcing you to have babies. If you do, damn well accept that your life is fundamentally changed, and is taken up by this new being that you’ve decided to raise and nurture and then spring upon the world.

  • chalica Jul 23, 2003 @ 20:22

    I think small towns retain their sense of community longer. I grew up in that kind of town during the 80s, and I frequently refer to my "perfect" childhood. The school held swimming lessons in my neighbour’s pool, and I once held up the bus because I was standing on my trike in the middle of the street. I can think of a half-dozen girls I went to school with who lived in my immediate neighbourhood. We had a huge garden, homemade bread, and clothes sewn by my mom. One house down the road was an undeveloped area known only as "The Field", which was owned by the school principal. All the neighbourhood kids played there, or built tree forts on the mountain, or otherwise ran around in the local wilderness. I was a complete innocent, and I liked it that way.

    When I go back to that town, I resent that houses have been built on half the Field. The saskatoon berries and buttercups are mostly gone. Most of the kids I went to school with did a lot of partying and drugs as teenagers, because they had nothing better to do. Small towns aren’t always the best place for teens, but given my solitary lifestyle, it probably would have suited me. I think that town is still pretty close–my parents still talk to their old friends and go to local funerals. Some of the kids I grew up with have settled down to live the same kind of life their parents did. I hope they succeed.

    I only wish I didn’t feel like I was contributing to the decline of community. I’m not exactly social with the neighbours anymore.

  • Sheila Jul 23, 2003 @ 16:43

    I miss my bike.

    I had a little blue Schwinn boy’s bike (inherited from an older brother) and I went everywhere on that bike. Between the age of eight and twelve I must have put a million miles on it.

    On Saturdays I was out of the house at 7 am and on the go. I came home for lunch, went back out and didn’t return until dark. Mom never knew where I was but back then a bike was a talisman; if I had my bike then I could get away from anything bad. And often did.

    Mostly I went alone on my bike rides, but there were three others girls with bikes in the neighborhood and sometimes we’d ride together to the park and the drugstore and playground at school. We’d ride out until the roads turned to dirt and the Everglades started creeping up around us. We’d hide our bikes and ourselves behind bushes and spy on boys playing streetball and giggle about who was the cutest.

    When I was on my bike I could pretend to be anything. I was a super hero, a spy, a wild horse tamer (this was before I actually got near a horse, an event which quickly cured me of that.) My favorite thing to be was the Blue Shadow, a girl with amazing super speed and stealth capabilities that no one could catch. Blue Shadow always rescued Important but Helpless Government Officials from Horrible but Retarded Villains.

    I would come home for dinner, my hair in snarls, my face sunburned and my shoelaces covered with stickerburrs. I’d tell mom about the car wrecks and new dogs and families moving in or out I’d seen. Most of the time I was so tired I passed out on the floor in front of the TV by 8 pm, and Mom would have to shake me to wake me up for my bath.

    My daughter is now the same age as I was when I started going out all day on my bike. She has a nice pink Barbie bike which she rides alone around the cul-de-sac by her Dad’s house but goes nowhere else unless she’s escorted by me or her Dad — because no parent in their right mind would let a sweet friendly 8 year old 50 lb. girl ride a bike around any city for twelve hours unsupervised.

    I don’t think she’ll miss her bike.

    Sheila

  • cherylp Jul 23, 2003 @ 1:00

    Just recently, a woman I work with who just barely turned 30 got pregnant and had a baby. I’m thrilled to say she chose her baby over her job (she’s a lawyer)and they are living quite happily on her husband’s income.

    I, too, see the dichotomy of our lives. Inside every attempt to better our lives is the kernel of potential abuse. Behind every push to "have a better life than our parents" is the loss of the stability and values contained in our parents’ lifestyle because we have to work our behinds off just to make enough money to make that phrase true. Behind every philosophy to improve the self is the selfishness that causes someone to snuff out the life of another with no qualms.

    We’re losing that sense that there are consequences to our actions, that we will pay for the things we do that make others suffer. We’ve reasoned God and conscience out of our lives, so we can do what we want, right? We’re not going to have to face anyone who metes out justice, and besides, it’s not our fault we’re this way, it’s everyone else’s fault, isn’t it?

  • Jo Witham Jul 22, 2003 @ 13:46

    Holly, you have evoked good memories of my childhood in rural Alberta, Canada. Our nearest neighbor was a half mile away, the best toys were our imagination. I remember sitting in an old poplar, dreaming of wandering the Rockies looking for gold or tramping in the badlands looking for bonese and stuff because that was the big news then, in our scattered little neighborhood.

    When I saw man’s first step on the moon on our old black and white TV, the dreams changed but the sense of "I can do anything" was still there. We wandered the backroads, never worrying about meeting a "bad man", just enjoying the adventures. My mom worried about me falling into water-filled ditches or out of the trees I climbed, not about me falling into the hands of a weirdo. Lock our doors? Why? Someone might need to use the phone in an emergency. There was trust.

    Speaking of trust, I remember a neighborhood kid terrorizing me because she’d convinced me there was a tiger in the bushes. I faced my fears finally, learning not to trust so much in the process,and then had an all-out mud-fight with that kid to get even. Couldn’t do that now, could we? We all know that tigers don’t live Canada and as to a mud-fight… dirt, wrestling? Bad, bad, bad. Innocence has been lost.

    Are things better nowadays? Maybe materially, but not spiritually. I sit in my clausterphobic little city townhome and write of being free, trying to recapture the dreams of youth and feeling trapped by the realities of the present. The doors are locked, the neighbours rarely take time to say hello. The sense of community has been lost and yes, it will take a monumental effort to change it but I think it is worth it. It just needs someone to care enought to act. Thanks for the memories… and the incentive to change.

  • Jim Woosley Jul 22, 2003 @ 12:30

    At least Mom is still rural (and I fully intend to keep my promise to Dad before he passed away to keep the farm in the family, though I live 200 miles away now in a mid-sized city. I hope to retire there, unless I need better access to medical care when that comes around. (And at 44 11/12ths, that’s starting to penetrate my thinking. That tyrant, entropy. Oh, not to mention the conspiracy of cake, cream puffs, croutons, crabcakes, and other delicacies beginning with c — plus a, b, and d – y. Can’t think of any Z foods that I routine eat that would be part of such a conspiracy…OK, my sister’s zucchini bread….)

    But when I’m visiting, it usually takes an act of congress for my son to enjoy the woods I played in almost daily when I was growing up.

  • Kellie Hazell Jul 22, 2003 @ 11:25

    If you ask me, the big issue is the abandonment of personal responsibilty. I’ve only been hanging around this earth for a quarter century, but I had the unique experiene of growing up in a very tight-knit military community in Germany. So much of what Holly describes as the past was the way things were for me in the late 80s, early 90s. Community became a survival instinct because we were in a foreign country, far away from home.

    When I came back to the US for college, I was quite surprised at a number of things (after the excitement of finally having access to Target and Taco Bell wore off). But it could all be summed up in the loss of personal responsibility. One of the biggest things holding us back from fixing those broken pieces scattered on the floor is society’s need to blame somebody else. For everything. I don’t think anything’s going to get glued back together until we put "responsibilty" back on the list of virtues we should extoll. "Respect" would be an excellent addition as well.

  • Jean Jul 22, 2003 @ 8:53

    Well, said, Holly. Important that you pointed out the less than desirable things going on during that time as well; however, we have lost a crucial experience that comprised the American Dream (at least for those fortunate enough to experience it).

    I don’t think I ever locked a door until I went to college. I’m not sure if my parents do or not yet when they’re gone during the day. They do lock the door after everyone’s in for the night–they say they only lock the house when the what’s important is there. When I think about it, that makes a lot of sense. Things are things. People are the important pieces that cannot be replaced.

  • tambo Jul 22, 2003 @ 8:27

    My Dad made my mother go to work when I was two – ten days after my brother was born – and she has worked ever since. While we never went to "day care", we did go next door to our Great Gramma’s house and she had a voice that would cut through the miles… I still remember being in the woods a mile or so from home and hearing "Taaaaaaahhhhh-maaaaayyyyy!!" and knowing it was time to get home. Pronto. Or else.

    But that was the 60’s and early 70’s and we had a freedom then to wander and roam and explore that’s gone now.

    When we married, my husband and I decided that if we were to have children, someone would stay home. No matter what. We’ve done that. He worked nights when our daughter was little and I was the full-time mommy. When she was potty-trained (and I was lost in the oatmeal-brained haze of utter boredom) I started back to school part time while she played with daddy. I graduated college when she was 5. She started kindergarten and I started working the same week. since I could make more money, my husband stayed home (he’s better at it anyway). He’s still a full time dad and home maker and I cannot imagine living any other way. I LOVE having him home, and our daughter is beautiful and brilliant and well mannered and secure in her nice, stable, happy life.

    But we hear all the time, from dang near everyone we know, that we’re doing it all wrong, going without vacations and nice cars, wearing WalMart clothing, eating home cooked meals and making do. That we should have stuff, by golly, have money in the bank and IRA’s and investments and new furniture and…

    But we look at our strong, happy marriage and out strong, well mannered daughter who at 13 is still more kid than teenager, and we know differently.

    It’s just stuff, and it’s not important. Not when compared to our marriage and our daughter. My only beef is that she doesn’t have the freedom I had, the freedom to explore and just be… we live in my Great Gramma’s old house now, and it’s no longer "country" but "suburbs". The woods I used to roam are a housing deveopment, as is the horse pasture and cornfield… it’s just not the same.

    and that worries me too.

  • Dave_Low Jul 22, 2003 @ 8:10

    I’m tempted to start up a rousing rendition of "Those were the Days", but I’m glad Holly took the time to remind us that even the good old days had their difficulties. Keeps me from getting too misty eyed.

    As I read through this post I couldn’t help but fear for future generations. Someday I may be blessed enough to have children of my own, and I worry about what there life will be like. Not to start a riot or anything, but you have to wonder how many of those "fundamentalist" groups have the right idea. At least they have the feeling of community.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocate religious extremism in the slightest. Personally I won’t touch the stuff.

    Reading through this article is like reading Gibbon’s "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"; It’s hard to tell what are symptoms and what are causes. The only sure thing is that the golden age is over and the barbarians are at the gates.

  • Lelia Katherine Thomas Jul 22, 2003 @ 12:10

    I am younger–sixteen to be exact–and I wasn’t so privileged to live in a time such as this. However, things have changed even since I was younger. I can remember a time when my family of three sat at the table to eat, not in different rooms, hooked up to something electronic or skimming a Better Homes and Gardens magazine. My friends have the same memories, but they’re just that–memories, nothing more. Everyone’s too busy now or too uncaring to actually sit with family. Or, as it is at my best friend’s house, it’s only to sit and see who can eat and leave the table the fastest.

    Then I look at most of my classmates. At least where I am, girls get pregnant without a second thought, probably because that’s the "in" thing for now. They keep the children, "because that’s good to do." They don’t even stop to think about all the couples who cannot have children and would be much better parents.

    Some of the girls even bring their children to school (since, because there are so many young mothers, there’s a daycare that GIVES THEM A CREDIT if they go in there once a day for a "class"). I was walking from my AP world history class one day, my clipboard in one hand and book in the other. A girl with her child was coming in for the next class to "show off" her child for ten or fifteen minutes. It was just us two in there, but I feel sick just thinking about it. As she was walking in the opposite direction and I was stopped, preoccupied with sticking something in my backpack, she carried her baby’s head right into the side of my clipboard–and none too lightly either, as it got pushed against my chest with the force. To top it all off, when I turned to make sure everything was all right (because I was floored that it happened in the first place), the girl hadn’t even noticed and was already sitting with the five-month-old elsewhere in the room.

    Obviously, if I at sixteen can remember a time of sitting at the table with my family, then come only ten years ahead and think of a time where a girl ran her child’s head into my hard, plastic clipboard…things have changed.

    I agree with you, too; they haven’t changed for the better. People have forgotten that life itself is the purest form of art, and because of it, others’ emotions and lives matter less than a speck of dirt. I have a feeling that one day many people will recall themselves in their old age, recall the way they treated others like dirt, and realize that they have hurt not only others and themselves, but also mankind as a whole.

  • Linda Jul 21, 2003 @ 23:03

    I remember the Twilight Mom Yodel, sans fireflies, which don’t exist in the SF Bay Area. But, even though I mostly stayed home with my kids, I didn’t do that yodel myself. The kids weren’t out playing in the summertime. Moms scheduled play dates, along with everything else. Today’s kids are sadly lacking in time just to hang around and think about things. Find the shapes in the clouds. Play make believe. Or a pickup baseball game. Now, everything is scheduled and run by adults.

  • Jim Woosley Jul 21, 2003 @ 22:59

    Holly, another excellent observation.

    I didn’t have quite the same memories you have — I grew up in rural Kentucky (on land that had been in the family since the first White – excuse me, European-American – settlers). For most people, school only went to high school (to the best of my knowledge, fewer than 10 of my graduating class went on to college, most of them to the local regional univeristy, when a year’s fees were about $1000; this year, my neice’s class, from the same high school, almost exactly the same size, is sending about 30 people to college with over $483K of scholarship offers; and my old chemistry teacher, who retired after last year, thanked me for challenging him to become a better chemistry teacher who has since sent several students into major premed programs).

    Mother worked, but she had both my sister and I in school first, and her mother lived with us for after-school care.

    We went to a small country church, every member of which was a second cousin or closer of my grandparents, or married to same, and most of our ancestors back to those first settlers were either buried there or in a family cemetary two miles down the road.

    One of my grandmothers refused to play cards because it was a frivilous passtime; the other only played canasta, and we would sit down across the card table together at least once a month with her worn-out deck. When Dad was home (he was in the Army and was generally either posted overseas, or at the local base and only came home on weekends), we would break out Monopoly or checkers. I was considered an odd duck for wanting to learn chess.

    TV was the Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan’s Island, Andy Griffith, Gomer Pyle, the late ’60s Superman and Archie’s comics cartoons, and the remnants of the early variety programs such as Glen Campbell and Jim Nabors. Every afternoon, after homework, we would watch a cheesey movie cut to 90 minutes plus commercials called the Big Show. The local TV station showed a lot of music videos — Gospel quartets, half an hour in the morning and another hour at lunch.

    We were located in the one market in the US which refused to show Star Trek during its original run; I first saw part of an episode while attending a retirement party for our church’s minister when I was growing up, and walked into the living room to see almost every man and teen from church watching it on his TV. Momma made me leave because she considered it impolite to watch TV while visiting.

    Don’t think of us as being 100% hicks. One of my early cousins married one of the first Protestant woman ministers in the US (c. 1879), and she was the minister at our church in the ’20’s and 30’s. So we did the women’s lib thing early. On the other hand, several of my older female cousins dropped out of college in their junior year rather than take the obligatory biology course and be required to complete the section on evolution.

    For what it’s worth, two of the novels I’m working on (glacially amid juggling the polyfurcated professional career and single-parent responsibilities)are either set during that time and place, or feature characters who grew up in that time and place. I hope I can do as well in portraying that as Heinlein did in "To Sail Beyond the Sunset." (Though I do plan to leave most of the sex out.)

  • Blue Dragon Jul 21, 2003 @ 22:58

    I was just talking to my sister about a time when friends and family used to get together. Not set up play dates, not network, and not just once in a while either, but when we used to make time for the people we grew up with and who we thought we were going to grow old with. I was thinking it was just me, and its a bit sad to think that its not.

  • Beard5 Jul 21, 2003 @ 20:36

    Holly, thank you. That is a good, thought provoking article. I, also, remember going home for lunch during elementary school, and Dad was always there. Mom was the school secretary so she was home soon after we were.

    I’d never stopped to realize that most neighborhoods aren’t like the one I grew up in, anymore.

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