Year after year, the debate about whether we’re over-parenting our kids or under-parenting them rages on. So does the argument over whether Millennials and Gen X-ers were were raised differently than today’s youth — and whether that’s a good thing or a bad one.
Thanks to our collective obsession with all things nostalgia, my ’80s childhood never seems far from my mind; especially when it comes to how I was raised.
Was it free-range parenting or benign neglect? In my case, I was raised by a single mother who worked during the day. My younger brother and I were not supervised during those hours, but it wasn’t because of any staunch parenting ideology. This was just life. And you know what? I cherish every memory from that time.
Sometimes when I let my mind take me back to those days, it all comes rushing back into view more clearly than I’d expect …
Tuesday, July 12, 1983 — Bielanko house, the ‘burbs of Philly.
I’m 12 years old, and the first thing I hear upon waking is the sound of my mom’s car starting up below my bedroom window. Birds chirp and trash trucks moan three blocks away.
She drives away. I slam my feet against the particle board bottom of my younger brother’s top bunk to wake him up. We had stuff to do — there wasn’t a minute to waste.
At our little kitchen table, I help myself to breakfast by dumping a pile of Cap’n Crunch into a bowl and then sliding the box across to my brother. Nothing in our pantry says “organic” or “non-GMO” — we wouldn’t even know what that means if it did. Then I squeeze a fat ribbon of Hershey’s chocolate syrup all over that cereal before I pour the milk on. That way, I have chocolate milk on my Cap’n Crunch, dude. Chocolate milk. On Cap’n Crunch. AMAZING.
My brother Dave holds a fat crayfish between his thumb and his finger as he balances himself on two shaky rocks in this crick down in the cool part of the park. There’s a lot of trash down here — junk tires and broken beer bottles that the high school kids like to break at night, when they’re done drinking. There’s nobody here now, though. No older kids. No parents. There’s just me and Dave and our crappy, beat-up bikes parked over there by a tree.
Sometimes a “Bigfoot” will walk by us in the woods when we’re down here crayfish hunting. In reality it’s not Bigfoot, but typically an unemployed guy in his twenties trying to find a place to drink a beer or smoke weed without getting popped by the local cops. They never bother us. Sometimes they light up a cigarette and watch us look for crayfish for a minute or two. I get the feeling they used to do the same thing once upon a time.
“Wanna see if those guys are up yet?” I ask Dave.
He nods and drops his creature back into the crick. It’s baseball time, people. We ride off on our bikes to grab our gloves out of our house, and find our friends to get a game going.
We play some baseball in a nearby vacant lot. There’s more broken glass here. There is always broken glass in our lives, I guess. Nobody cares — you go down, you get sliced, and you keep playing, unless it’s a real gusher. And even then, you’ll be really ticked off if you have to head home to get a tourniquet wrapped around your knee or whatever.
Our gang, we’d rather bleed to death than walk away from a ball game. That’s the way things ought to be, too.
Some days we play ball out under the blazing sun for three hours straight, only stopping to hit up the candy store, maybe, for a soda and a chocolate bar or some Swedish fish. If you have extra cash or you might have stolen a buck from your mom’s wallet last night, well, then you might get a pack of baseball cards as well. But mostly we pour cold Cokes down our hatches and it feels like neon lighting up our veins.
I haven’t spoken with a single grown-up since I woke up this morning. Well, except for the candy store lady, but she’s always cranky and just stares us down to make sure we don’t steal any licorice or Mars bars.
My brother and I ride our bikes down to the 7-Eleven. We don’t wear helmets or pads — no one does — and we cross streets with a lot of cars on them, streets where people have been known to die if they forgot to look. But we always look. Hey, we don’t want to die.
We each head out with 64 ounces of Kamikaze (which is basically five fountain sodas mixed together) and a convenience store hotdog made from God-knows-what.
The phone on the table by the couch in our house rings seven times and then goes dead. It’s my mom, calling to see if my brother and me are around; to see if we’re doing alright. We’re not home, though. We never are when she calls.
She loves us so much, but we’re out in the world, down at the 7-Eleven. Basically, she has no idea where we are. And yet, she’s not really worried at all.
We’re listening to a KISS record in a buddy’s basement, while his dad chain-smokes cigs and gives us iced tea. It’s an afternoon well spent.
We’re back at home, sitting next to my mom on the couch. We smell like shampoo and ice cream. Dave and I are tired and so is my mom, but it’s a good tired.
We watch some sitcoms. My mom laughs. I get up and go into the kitchen and grab a can of soda. I crack it open and it hisses and fizzes as I raise it to my sun-chapped lips.
“Serge,” my mom says from the couch. “No more soda. Have some milk instead or you’re gonna turn into a soda!”
I smile even though she can’t see me.
“I am having milk, Mom!” I shout back at her.
The TV plays on and on; a long moment passes.
“No, you’re not,” she mumbles, before adding once more, “You’re gonna turn into a soda!”
Even now, all these years later, as I sit here on the other side of 40 with three kids of my own — a man far removed from the summers of my youth — you wanna know something?
I still haven’t turned into a soda yet.More On