Dispatches | May 06, 2004

It was the seventies and my mother was enlightened, or, more likely, it was the seventies and she had problems of her own. Whatever it was, while she doggedly dealt with a second, more complicated marriage, a not-so-blended family, a steep mortgage, and a crummy job at H & R Block, I reveled in what seemed like unlimited freedom.

Growing up in Libertyville, Illinois, a North Shore suburb a safe distance from Chicago, I was given the pleasure of fending for myself. Joyfully I rode my banana-seat Huffy all over town: to twice-weekly softball practices during summer, to after-school ballet class and choir practice during the school year, and to my many baby-sitting and dog-walking jobs all year round. Many nights I picked up my own dinner at Yankee Doodle Dandy and carried it home in my wicker bike basket. I was a latchkey kid (before there was a term for it) and loved eating my cheeseburgers and apple pie in front of reruns of The Monkees. Then before everyone else came home, I would go to my room, spread out in the middle of my canopy bed, and puzzle over the metric system—a national changeover was supposed to happen soon.

Not to go on about my self-sufficiency, but I washed my own clothes and shopped for and prepared my school lunches. And I was always loaded; the family called me “moneybags.” I made two dollars an hour baby-sitting and was usually the only one in my house with cash on hand. When I saved fifty or sixty dollars I would take the bus to Hawthorne Mall, eat dessert crepes at Magic Pan, and then buy my back-to-school clothes at Marshall Fields. (Even then, I preferred a few nice pieces rather than the Sears wardrobe my mother would’ve eventually bought me.)

All this intoxicating freedom had a down side. No one was around to comment on my many mistakes. I shaved off most of my eyebrows because I thought they were too bushy (I was going for a clean Charlie Girl look). I slathered my face with Coopertone Quick Tan and lived with pumpkin orange streaks until it finally faded a week or two later. Once, I gave my best friend Peggy Scheibler a Dorothy Hamill-like “wedge.” Her parents insisted that I pay for a nine-dollar haircut at Venus D’ Milo to correct my hackwork.

When my mom was around, she didn’t nag me about my foibles, perhaps believing that every kid should pay the price of looking and acting like an idiot. Sometimes this lesson went too far. My battles with my older brother were fierce. Once, in retribution for taking his ten-speed without permission and also leaving his catcher’s mitt out in the rain, he wrote with a permanent black Magic Marker “God” on one toe of my ballet slipper and “Damn” on the other. My mother said, “You had it coming,” and refused to let me rush to the mall to buy a new pair. During barre work, my slippers went unnoticed, but as we moved to the floor for tendues, Mrs. Daily caught sight of my blasphemous toes—”God-Damn-God-Damn”—brushing across the floor in three-quarter time. She scowled, pursed her crimson lips in distaste, and then moved down the line to Margy, Julia and Cynthia, girls in pristine slippers.

But overall my mother was right to let me have my freedom, even if it meant suffering painful repercussions when I made mistakes. The question remains whether I’ve carried over this lesson into adulthood. I am not a parent, but over the years I’ve been given glimpses of what kind of parent I might be. A couple of summers ago, when he was thirteen, my nephew Addison came to stay with me for a week. I made him wear his helmet when he rode his bike, though when I was a kid no one mentioned helmets, let alone seat belts, X-raying Halloween candy or ID fingerprinting. A couple of times, I drove him to the mall less than a mile from my house and hovered around the shop entrance while he looked at video games. Perhaps it is no surprise that he was happy when the week was up. A couple of times since, I have asked him when he’s coming back, and his reply is always, “I don’t know. Sometime, I guess.”