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Archive for August, 2011

Now And Then

Monday, August 1st, 2011

Magine Watches Dad Steve Ride Her Hovercraft

“I want to build a hovercraft,” my neighbor Ginger’s eleven-year-old daughter Magine announced to her mother recently. “For the science fair.”

Ginger, an artist/Girl Scout mother/soccer mom/mega-school-volunteer, thought of the myriad other tasks on her over-filled plate and deployed the most common deflect used by mothers today. “Go ask your father.”

Not a week later, Ginger called, very excited, and invited my husband and I to ride Magine’s new hovercraft. We raced up the block. I’ve never been more impressed. Magine’s father Steve reported that all he did was cut the wood, Magine and her classmate did all the rest of the work: planning, measuring and building the plastic air cushion along with securing it to the base. The damn thing actually held the weight of my 280-pound husband. And the contraption was hella fun to ride.

Not only was I impressed that an eleven-year-old had made a working hovercraft, I was struck by the parental support that enabled her to build it. Since I moved to San Mateo, I’ve spent a lot of time in the company of Magine and her parents. And I am continually amazed by the differences between how they raise their children and the way I was raised.

I can see my Mother’s weary face now if I had announced at eleven that I wanted to build a hovercraft. First, a withering stare. But no words. If her icy reception didn’t diminish my eagerness, then she would have said something to the effect, “Are you insane?” If that didn’t work, she’d use the ultimate, “No, and don’t bring it up again.” While we were properly cared for—read to, bathed, clothed, fed, given braces and piano lessons—parents in those days lived separate lives from their children.

When I grew up in the sixties, there was the Kid World and the Adult World and they didn’t mix. Most parties hosted by adults in the sixties did not include their children. When Mom and Dad had their cocktail parties, we were not seen nor heard. We were banished to the den to eat our TV dinners, which were manufactured back then using aluminum trays that made the meal taste like metal. Nowadays, parties mainly include both children and parents. The parents drink around the barbecue and the kids jump in the rented bouncy house.

Most of my friends today spend lots of time with their kids, doing activities. During my childhood, the relationship between parents and children was much more formal. When Dad came home, he and Mom had cocktails and we were not allowed to bother them. Dinner was a serious affair. You sat in your chair, you didn’t put your elbows on the table and you couldn’t talk out of turn. You didn’t reach across the table for the salt, you politely asked for it to be passed to you. And you had to ask to be excused from the table.

After school and during summer vacation, Mom would say, “Go play outside and don’t come back until dinner.” I spent most of my time as a child in the company of other children with little to no adult supervision. Our parents didn’t know what we did and didn’t want to know as long as it didn’t involve the police. Or blood.

While I would have liked a bit more attention, the benign neglect I experienced as a kid enabled me to explore the world of my imagination. We didn’t have video games or computers or cell phones. TV was limited to five channels. Besides, parents in those days didn’t let you laze around the house. Your life was spent outdoors with other children, creating your own entertainment.

My favorite game from childhood? Crawling Hands and Tarantulas. The lawn was infested with the horrid creatures. If you walked down the front stairs and stupidly hung around on the bottom step, the severed, bloody crawling hands would grab you and drag you screaming onto the lawn where the tarantulas would try to eat you. The cement walkway next to the lawn was unfortunately made of quicksand. So if you managed to escape the crawling hands, you could die in the quicksand if your friend didn’t save you. Kool-aid served as “super sauce” that enabled us to recover our strength and fight the evil monsters.

I credit my days of free play for giving me the ability to write novels. I was able to immerse myself entirely in another reality for hours on end, a vital skill for a successful writer. Most helpful was the make-believe world I created for my troll dolls. My trolls endured many tragedies. They lived through floods (the backyard hose) and savage tiger attacks (courtesy of Cabbage, our cat). Dad Troll fell off the roof (read: was thrown in the air as far as I could) and had to be rushed to the hospital for an operation (this is when I learned if you chop off parts of a troll, they don’t grow back.) When people ask me today how I write my stories, I tell them I’ve been doing it since I was a child. I just don’t use the trolls anymore.

When I think about the differences between now and then, I see positives with each. Magine’s parents are amazing, supportive, interactive and inspiring. Magine will grow up to be an incredible person with no limits on what she can accomplish. Yet without any guidance from my parents—living an almost feral life as a child—I have managed to perform in over fifty plays, achieved two college degrees and have written over thirty novels.

Was it the hours of free play that helped shape who I am? Are novelists born of benign neglect? Or did I need to retreat to a world of make-believe to soothe myself because I was left alone so much?

I don’t have the answers. All I know is that I’m fine. But deep in my heart, I can’t help wishing that Magine’s parents had been mine.

©2011, Janet Periat

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