At Home With Vivian: After Labor Day

Does it seem quieter to you this week? The little city park next to our home has been emptied of joy. Not one child has laughed with glee from the top of the swing’s arc or screamed in fright as they careened down the slide. No balls have bounced on the pavement or swished through the hoops on the basketball court either. Sigh. School is back in session. I miss hearing those joyous sounds of youthful freedom.

Vivian's daughters on the first day of school in 1985.
Vivian’s daughters on the first day of school in 1985.

I was one of those kids who couldn’t wait for school to start again every Fall. Youthful freedom was not to be for me. My mother was a single working mom which meant that I spent summers at a babysitter’s house. I loved my elderly babysitter. Going to her home for two hours after the school day was just fine. A joy even. I’d walk in and she’d have a snack on the table waiting for me. After snack came homework which I finished just before my mom came to pick me up. The babysitter’s house was always warm and cozy. Even in the summers. Although cozy was not what I felt when the temperature went into three digits.

Summers were a different story. I was at the babysitter’s from early morning until early evening. I read a lot of books. My babysitter did not have a television. She did not have air conditioning. Her grizzled husband was a good man, but was missing his front teeth and he had a habit of spitting tobacco which was, quite frankly, gross. I was the only child she looked after. It was boring. Most of the time anyway.

Sometimes I was allowed to play with the neighborhood kids. We’d run through the sprinklers or slide down a nearby hill on cardboard boxes. One day we made a snowman out of tumbleweeds that had grown, dried, and rolled into my friend’s field. But most of the time, I read books. One summer I read forty-one of my older sister’s Nancy Drew series mystery books. My sister was sixteen years older than me and the books were old when she got them. I learned what a rumble seat was. Nancy Drew’s friends rode in Nancy’s rumble seat whenever they went driving somewhere to solve a mystery. Nancy’s boyfriend Ned wore a raccoon coat.

I stayed at my babysitter’s house every summer until I turned ten years old and was legally old enough to stay home alone. Then it was “out of the frying pan and into the fire.” Do you remember the first time your parents let you stay home all alone? I was very proud that Mama trusted me. I could hardly wait for her to leave with my kid sister that first morning. My kid sister went to a daycare center and played with other kids all day. I was left at home with a list of chores on the counter.

The list always started with “dust the furniture” and ended with “vacuum”. If you vacuumed first and then dusted, the dust you swept off the table would end up on the floor and you’d have to vacuum again. I may have resented having to do chores as a kid, but I’m glad I had to do them. I know how to cook, keep an ordered house and a neat yard. I am a capable person, even though I still don’t like doing chores.

Staying home alone was scary sometimes. I remember gleefully sitting on the couch that first day with a book. I had until 5pm to get my chores done. Why would I do those first? I opened my book. I hadn’t gotten into the first paragraph when I heard a noise outside on the porch. What was that? My mother had prepared me for staying alone by telling me not to answer the door. I was not to answer the phone either unless it rang three times, hung up and then rang again. It would be my mother checking up on me. These rules were to keep me alive because there are a lot of creepy people out there who would take advantage of a little girl.

So I heard the noise and couldn’t find where it was coming from. I started thinking about the creepy people my mother had warned me about. I was sure the noise was generated from one of them. I sat on the couch with my back to the wall. I could see every door and window from my vantage point. For that entire summer, when my chores were done, I went right back to that spot on the couch. If something was going to happen, I wanted to see it coming. When I’m home alone today, I still sit with my back against the wall. Those creepy people might still be out there.

I looked forward to going back to school in September, right after Labor Day. Mama always took the week off before school started to sew school clothes for my sisters and me. I started school with new dresses, shoes, socks, and underwear (girls wearing pants to school was not a “thing” yet). I also had a new binder, writing utensils, and lined paper. We didn’t carry backpacks back in the “olden” days. If we were lucky, we got a new metal lunch box. If we were careful, we could make the matching thermos bottle last a week before the glass inside the thermos broke. In high school, I carried a lunch bag because lunch boxes were no longer “cool”. Looking back at how many textbooks I had to carry back and forth to school in my arms makes me think I could have won prizes for my sculpted biceps.

Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, has been quoted as saying “change is the only constant in life.” Alas, change is happening. Women can wear white shoes and purses anytime of the year, not just before Labor Day. Schools start in August now and kids carry humongous backpacks to school.

When I was sitting at my graduation ceremony on the field in Antioch High School’s football stadium back in 1971, it never once occurred to me that I would never see most of my classmates ever again. If I had known that, I would have gotten phone numbers and addresses. I would have hugged a lot more people. It took our 40th class reunion and Facebook for me to catch up with some of my former classmates.

I grew up to be a teacher. I liked teaching during the school year but I loved summer vacation even more. The sounds of my biological children playing in the yard with the neighbors was magical. Now that I’m retired and my children have grown and gone, I keep my windows open in the summers just so I can hear the joyful noise from the playground (and because we do not have air conditioning).

Summer vacation is over for this year, but I know the sounds of joy will be back next year. That’s one thing that never changes.

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