This blog is mainly about 17th century history with the occasional article about creativity, but I’ve been inspired to tackle something that has cropped up lately with the pandemic: Gen Xers ability to cope during this period of self isolation/quarantine.
I’ve never thought of myself as coming with a generational label. All I knew was that I wasn’t a Baby Boomer. Since those Boomers suck the oxygen out of the room, the generation that followed had to get used to being in their shadow. But recently, I’ve been hearing more and more about Generation X, and I’m rather delighted to find that I’m part of such a resourceful and independent group.
This got me reminiscing about my own childhood. I wasn’t a latchkey kid, which many Gen Xers were (maybe later Gen Xers?). My parents were immigrants, and my mother mostly stayed at home. But she did start an antique jewellery business, selling her wares down at Toronto’s Harbour Front on Sundays. In the early days, the antique dealers were spread out along the waterfront during the summer. When my mother was down there selling her Art Deco costume jewelry, my father had to mind us for the day. You’d think that an immigrant man who had come from the old country would have objected to this, but to his credit, he didn’t. This was our first taste of unconventional role models, a mother who had a small but growing business, and a father who cooked us jazzed up Campbell’s Chicken and Rice soup.
Childhood in the summer was brilliant. I lived in a quiet cul de sac where we played baseball (occasionally tennis) in the court and hide and seek at night fall. We’d be out of the house as soon as we could scarf down our breakfast, only returning when hunger or our mother called us in.
Those days, kids entertained themselves and negotiated their own childhood battles instead of relying on an adult to referee. We set up our own play dates, which never included indoor play or hunkering down in front of a television. Instead, who we played with was arranged by showing up on a friend’s door step and crossing our fingers when asking their parents if they could come out and play. If the answer was no, you went off to play by yourself.
We had to pool our toy resources because no one had everything. I contributed a Barbie house, two barbies and a GI joe doll (he was always the villain). Someone else had a Barbie and Ken doll while another friend had a Barbie camper. We never played Barbie dress up (how boring!). These Barbies had a life, and thanks to Ken and GI Joe, who could run interference, we came up with fairly dramatic storylines.
Asking permission from our parents was always a tricky thing and something to be avoided whenever possible. We soon realized that if we never asked, they couldn’t say no. Take candy store foraging, for example. With very little parent supervision, picking up and heading for the candy store when the mood struck us was an easy thing to manage. We were never put off by a kilometre walk and a busy street. Remember: Look both ways before you cross the street.
If there had been a chance to get money from our parents to spend on candy, we might have risked getting permission, but that was never a possibility. Besides, there were other ways to get money for candy. Being ever resourceful, we hunted for dropped change in the parking lot and we were rarely disappointed. In those days you could buy some candy for a penny, and there was always a penny or two to be found. A nickel was respectable and a dime meant it was a really good day. You could buy a proper hoard of candy with a dime. But the quarter—find one of those and next thing you know, Ole Jed’s a millionaire! You kind of had to share when you scored a quarter or be called out by your friends as being mean.
Others have mentioned the few channels we had available on TV or the limited programming available to us. All true. Cartoons were only on from early morning until noon and only on Saturdays, so we had a limited time to get our fix. It always seemed unfair to us in Southern Ontario that we weren’t able to get Channel 29, which was a feed out of Buffalo New York, because they always seemed to be playing shows we wanted to watch.
It was only when we got the converter box (tethered to the TV set with a cord and usually second hand) that we were able to expand our TV viewing pleasure. No one in the family viewed the introduction of the converter box with more relief and joy than the youngest kid in the house, even if we needed to jerry-rig a toothpick to hold down some of the buttons. You see, it had always fallen to the youngest to be the designated channel changer. Rather than having to get up all the time when our father wanted the channel changed, my brother had to sit an arm’s length distance from the channel knob and respond to directions called out by our father. “Next channel . . . no, wait. Go back . . . Next channel . . .”
While I lived in the suburbs, my husband lived in the city. As long as they had a bike, they could travel anywhere. Getting extra curricular help at the age of 9 required him to hop on the transit by himself. He had to learn the stops and the landmarks so that he wouldn’t lose his way. I don’t know why an adult didn’t go with him–possibly to save on a second fare? Likewise, I remember walking to school on my own since the first grade. My mother had enlisted the help of a neighbourhood child to walk me in kindergarten, but after that, I was on my own. It never struck me as odd then. Today, it would be unthinkable.
Looking back at those days, I’m amazed at how much freedom we were given. It was a different time–a more innocent time. We were independent and resourceful, and quite capable of entertaining ourselves. Sure, there were times when we had to deal with boredom, but one of our superpowers was knowing how to conquer that. And like most superpowers, our gifts were lying in wait until they were needed by the world.
To wrap up, here’s a fun quiz on BuzzFeed to test how many bygone objects you can identify. Check it out here. It was a fun quiz and allowed me to continue down memory lane.
I’d love to hear from other Gen Xers. What childhood experience has stayed with you? What was your superpower?