Saturday, May 2, 2015

What Kate Mulgrew and I Had in Common: Growing Up in the 60's

After hearing her read from her new memoir on the Diane Rehm show the other day, I ordered and began reading actress Kate Mulgrew's new book, Born With Teeth. I'm not very far into it, but I am enjoying her acerbic writing style.

I laughed out loud as she described growing up in a large Catholic family in the 60's, particularly as she described her mother's cooking, the paucity of food available to the children, and their mother's desire that the children spend as much time as possible playing outside. I laughed because it reminded me of my own childhood.

First was the mention of "fish sticks, tepid brown pellets served on a cookie sheet every Friday night." "[S]he'd sigh," wrote Mulgrew, "and say, 'I didn't make the rules.'"

Ah yes, fish sticks. The rules. Back in the day, before the Second Vatican Council changed things, good Catholics abstained from meat every single Friday. We were good Catholics, so my siblings and I had butter sandwiches for lunch and fish sticks for dinner, with little else. Perhaps some corn. My dad would pour himself a large glass of milk, then crunch up crackers therein and add some butter. I suppose I might of wondered what my little Protestant friends ate on Fridays, but I only had one; the rest were Catholic just like me, and we all went to the same Catholic school.

Mulgrew writes about how little food there was to go around in her family: "So much anticipation, and so little actual food. We never saw bread or fruit or sweets of any kind, and one small chicken divided among five starving children did not the trick do." She describes "the sound of five little mouths voraciously sucking on chicken wings the size of paper clips." 

Well, there she's got me there. We at least got drumsticks and thighs, but only one. I always wanted the drumstick. 

I never really realized how little food there was on our dinner table until someone from outside came into the family. My oldest brother got married, and my sister-in-law has told me that one of the things that shocked her was how little food there was for so many (five) kids. I never thought anything of it, however; it was my/our normal. 

Second Grade at St. Theresa's. I'm standing behind the kid with the chalk board.

I well remember, for example, coming home for lunch from St. Theresa's across the street and having, day in, day out, a bologna sandwich on white bread with ketchup. Potato chips or vegetables? Not on your life. Things improved when we moved and I started attending a public school: they had a cafeteria.

Mulgrew also made me laugh out loud when she described what must have been the dominant parenting method of the 50's and 60's: get the kids out of the house and keep them out for as long as possible. She writes:
"We were often gone for hours, and when we would finally return home, exhausted, thirsty and complaining of starvation, my mother would glance up from her book and say, 'You should be grateful. You were born in wedlock, you're an American citizen, and you live on dry land. Now go back outside and play."
I grew up in a similar environment. There were kids everywhere in the 60's (kind of like suburban Salt Lake City today), and my mother was very happy for us to play with them - but at their house, not ours. Our friends were never allowed to play at our house. But since most of the other mothers were just like my mom, the result is that there were packs of kids running around all over town, homeless every afternoon after school and on Saturdays.

Fortunately, I grew up in small towns, and my parents never had to worry about us running all over town, though I don't think it would have occurred to them to do so. I suspect the situation was similar in cities. Mark speaks of growing up in Tokyo, and his parents thought nothing of sending their kids across the city to go to school or doing who knows what on the way home. That's just the way it was.

What I remember most about playing as a child was that our world was very separate and different from that of our parents. They didn't know anything about what we did, unless we got caught doing something, like stealing empty Coke bottles from the local mom and pop market so that we could then bring them in for the deposit money. (It wasn't all bad, though; at least we used the money to buy candy from the store. Well, that's what we thought anyway.) Fortunately, we didn't get caught the time my brother found a way into an empty house down the street from us, but there was that other time ...

What did we do? Ride bikes. Play army. Go the pool in the summer. Explore creek beds. Go sledding. But not with parents! Who did that? That would have ruined all the fun. Besides, they were happily (or not so happily) preoccupied with their own lives and interests.

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