Monday, August 30, 2010

Memory Monday: Unsupervised

I was a latchkey child. Only I didn’t know it. Because back in the Stone Age, when I was a child, most of us were “free-range” kids. That didn’t necessarily mean that our moms weren’t at home when we got out of school, but we certainly did spend a lot of time … unsupervised.

My parents certainly wouldn’t leave me alone for long periods of time, at least until I was 9 or 10. An evening out for them usually meant that my brother would be called upon for duty (see “Memory Monday: My Brother the Babysitter”).

But there were shorter periods of time I spent by myself while my mother went on a quick errand. And there was this matter of roaming the neighborhood on my own….

We all did it. If you had already joined up with a friend for play or you just wanted to spend some imagination-game time on your own, you might play in your back yard. If you wanted to advertise for playmates, however, you played in your front yard. And once you had paired off, if backyard entertainments didn't suffice, the neighborhood became your playground.

On Pico Street, there were no playmates on either side of our house. To the left, in the corner house, lived the Marquioli family. Margaret was older than I and her older brother was a bully. To the right was the Donaldson family. The three children were all junior high and high school age, but this house was a sort of Mecca for Children Who Love Toys, Gifts, Candy, and Lots of Attention. The mother, Kathleen Donaldson, was a generous soul who adored children and loved to give things away. Her daughter Arlene occasionally babysat for me; it was she who taught me how to make paper doll clothes. Another reason I loved this family was that they all had red hair and freckles, so I didn’t feel self-conscious about my own looks. I managed to find various excuses to invite myself over to visit the Donaldsons.

Janie lived across the street and down a house. Janie’s mother always had a disapproving look on her face and was forever worried that we would break something in the house. So we always ended up playing outside. But that didn’t seem to ward off disaster. Janie and I would do experiments. One day we got carried away harvesting marigold seeds and decimated Janie’s mother’s perfect circle of marigolds in her front yard. Then there was Janie’s disastrous encounter with the rock salt we used with our ice-cream maker. Six-year-old child, salt = food, that’s all I’m gonna say.

Debbie’s family lived kitty corner across from the Marquioli family, at the very “edge of civilization” before the desert started. Her family was large and loud. It seemed that everyone over the age of 12 smoked. There was a brother named Arky who looked and acted like a fusion of James Dean, the Fonz, and Elvis Presley. Debbie and I also had a gift for getting into trouble. Once when we were playing “jump across the ditch” I fell onto a cactus in the ditch. Not the kind with a few large needles, but the kind with thousands of very fine needles.

Kathy lived across the street and around the corner. Her parents were schoolteachers and were into health food before it was really fashionable. Kathy and I never did anything risky. We never roamed the neighborhood and usually never even played outside. I usually got bored and left early.

The Pattersons were the last to move in; they bought the house on the other side of the Donaldsons. Pam Patterson and I would often go on our own made-up treasure hunts around the neighborhood, but usually we could not go very far. This was because her younger sister, who was deaf and was not allowed to go more than a couple of houses away without an adult, often wanted to tag along with us. So instead we would plan camping trips. Trips without parents. And without siblings. Just us.

And what was there in our neighborhood that attracted us kids? Sometimes it was the desert, which was filled with road construction debris and an assortment of desert animals. Sometimes we would sneak across the lawn of Old Man Smith’s house. He was a recluse who was known to shout obscenities through the door at Halloween trick-or-treaters or other trespassers.

And our parents? They were around, sort of. If there was a real emergency, we could run home to them. But they didn’t stand around in the front yard watching us. Well, sometimes Janie’s mother did. But mostly we were left on our own to engage in not-quite-dangerous-but-not-totally-safe minor acts of dare-deviltry.


  1. What great memories, Greta! Reminded me of my own exploits as a kid. Might have to jot a few of them down myself! :o)

  2. "Free-range kid" - I love that!!That was definitely my childhood - be home by the time the street lights came on! I think that also, at least in my neighborhood, any parent who was within sight felt free to "parent" us - whether it was correcting us or giving us a hug.

    Thanks for bringing back those memories!

  3. As always your stories have a timed-timelessness about them. Intriguing.

  4. There were 4 of us kids living on a farm in Scotland with no playmates, so we went off on our bikes for "adventures". The littlest one usually got left a fair way behind, but as long as we were home "in time for tea" no one bothered much. Most of the time, we had no idea where we were going, or where we had been, but we entertained ourselves and came to no harm. The days of "free range kids" are sadly over...

  5. The other day I was watching a group of parents watching a group of children. Really. I brought my childhood to mind, and I later related to my husband how by age eleven I was riding my bike to a nearby lake to spend the day at a beach. It was about 20 miles round trip, on a state highway. No one was worried as far as I know. They did want me back at a certain time, but I always made it.

    When my children were small they played in our rural neighborhood, but were required to let me know where they were. Now, no child seems to be allowed to go anywhere without an adult keeping tabs. Times have changed..

  6. No cacti, but, we had swamps, ponds, muck, and critters that lived in same.

    Great post! Hung on every word, thanks.

  7. My own "free-range" childhood (you've coined a great phrase, Greta) came to mind this weekend while I was not writing about snakes - simply remembering the rattlers - GIANT, ENORMOUS rattlers that lived under the rocks in the woods we tore through. Looking back, they were probably garter snakes.

  8. Missy - I hope you do write some memories down! I never thought of doing it before starting to blog, but it has turned out to be a lot of fun, and I absolutely love to read other people's memories.

    Diana - When our kids were little, the parents would often bring lawn chairs out and sit together on the lawn while the kids played. We had fun, too!

    Joan - Thanks - I hadn't thought of it that way. It's strange what things stick with us!

    Jo - That sounds a lot like my mom's family - just take off for "wherever" and get back for dinner. I, too, regret that today's children don't have that freedom.

    Granny Pam - I think as kids we all had that "inner clock" that said "dinner time!" - or maybe it was a rumbling tummy or the smell of dinner cooking in the neighborhood...

    Carol - Thanks! Ah, yes, muck - that was more like what I would get into when we moved to a different neighborhood without sidewalks, etc.

    NR - Oh, the critters - I didn't go into detail about the ones in the desert, but some of them were not something that our moms would have let us get near if they could have helped it!

  9. I remember those days. Mama didn't look for us till the sun went down. I wish I could give those carefree days to my grands.

  10. Great memories, Greta! I'm of a later generation, but even we had a good deal of freedom as kids. We lived in a safe neighborhood with lots of kids our age and few cars, and we'd bike or walk all around the neighborhood. (The boys mostly just played street hockey and set up skating ramps.) I won't have kids for a few years yet, and I can only hope that they'll have the freedom I enjoyed as a kid, which was probably only a fraction of the freedom you enjoyed! I'm hoping the "free-range kid" movement has gained some more traction by then! (It's probably a little premature, but I love this blog:

  11. Times were certainly different. Up until I turned 11, we lived in a neighborhood full of "free-range" kids. At any given time 10 to 15 of us were on our bicycles riding around the back streets that had very little traffic. Our mothers were all at home and we were usually fairly close to someone in the crowds house but we went hours without checking in at home.

  12. Southwest Arkie - Yeah, it's a gift that would be lovely to pass down, isn't it?

    Katie - Thanks so much for the link to the blog! I'm hoping things do improve for helping kids to be independent.

    Linda - I mostly remember going out in twos or threes, but I do also remember a few "mass" expeditions. When my kids were younger, there always seemed to be a passle of kids that kind of migrated from yard to yard; usually some parent was out watching them, and sometimes we all sat together while the kids played.