My childhood was a different thing from what I see today. There were school, and friends, and family – that has not changed.
But there were so many moments that do not seem possible any more – moments of freedom, a sense of safety, a sense of wonder, and a feeling of being able to inhale the atmosphere around us. We lived with a sense of comfort and ease, even though our parents had their troubles. The Bronx, a place so wonderful in my childhood, changed terribly after years of decay. (I once said it became the anteroom to Hell)
Children seemed to be everywhere. We rode our bikes, skated on the streets, jumped double-Dutch, went to the school yard to play any number of games, some invented, some with actual rules. We played with bottle caps on the concrete squares in the school yard, played stickball in the streets with a broom stick and a pink Spalding ball (pronounced Spaldeen by anyone who knew anything). We were active, alive, blood pumping. We had fun, even as homework loomed, and spinach had to be eaten.
In summer, in the park, we played outside until dark, unaware of anything but the warm embrace of sunlight in the day, and the cloak of evening coming.
Each part of the day was a signal for a subtle shift. Noon meant riding or running home for lunch. I remember days when a holler to our second story apartment window would result in a sandwich and cookie being thrown down to me in a brown paper bag. Lunch al fresco with a couple of friends.
The smell of twilight told us to head home; the sparkle of fireflies told us there was magic in the air. The scent of trees, of sun seeping into leaves even as the night grew cooler – all of these were part of what one moment could bring.
In winter, on cold, snow-laden streets, we built snow forts, pelted snowballs across the street at the friends hiding behind their own icy barrier. We planned elaborate routes to come up behind them, bombard them with weapons made from packed slushy snow, only to be thwarted by lookouts, ready with their own salvos.
There were the usual problems. A brother or sister who bugged us; a person at school who teased, or worse. But just being outside with the neighborhood kids brought us an exemption from so many slight pressures. Breathing was easier. Laughing happened. And shouting.
And now the streets are silent. They have been for a long time, not just since this latest pandemic showed up. Electronics replaced activity, replaced life. It is saddening, and maddening, and I know that the children of today do not miss what I remember, because they never had it.
But maybe one of the gifts of all this pandemic separation and isolation is that when it is over, the children will come out again. Maybe they’ll play outside for the joy of it, for knowing they weren’t allowed to before, but now they can. And maybe the spiral of Life will turn on itself, and jars will be used to catch fireflies again.