When we were kids and moms often didn’t work outside of the home and there was no internet or cable TV (in the city where you could get channels with your antenna) or DVD’s, cartoons ended mid-morning and reruns didn’t start until the soap operas were over in the late afternoon, we were sent out to play. We knew how far we could go in the neighborhood without having to come home and ask permission. Basically we had to stay within the earshot of my mother’s whistle--about a neighborhood block. My mother had no instrument other than her mouth, but she could whistle. You couldn’t get away with anything because the “mom-network” was pretty tight. Even though they had rotary phones back then, and “speed-dial” was a matter of dexterity, they still could get one another on the line pretty quickly and word would get back to mom of our misdeeds. Lunch and snacks were provided by whichever mom was lucky enough to have the kids playing in their yard at the time. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that, even then, it took a village.
By the time that I was raising kids, I was working full time and so was my husband, Rod. We had to juggle when each of us could work late. We, of course, had help with paid child care and various afterschool options in the community. We occasionally needed the help of grandparents and aunties and uncles (related and adopted). Kids didn’t have as much time to play in the neighborhood. They got home when we did, after work. Their schedules were full of sports practices, games, music lessons and the occasional play date or birthday party. We got to know other parents, even those who lived on our block, at the park, sitting in the bleachers for a baseball game or in our camp chairs, watching a soccer game. It was not bad, just different.
Rod and I were amazingly organized back then. Somehow we were both able to manage late office hours (after dinner) and still not totally neglect our children. His office was across the street from the public school where our son attended, and just a few blocks away from our daughter’s school. Her Montessori school was over by 3:00 but she was able to stay for afterschool care until 6:00 pm. The public school was also over by 3:00 but the playground was open and supervised until 4:30. Our son would stay and play, then he could cross the busy boulevard through the (also supervised) tunnel that went under the street, and hang out in Rod’s office. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I worked late and Rod would close the office before 6:00 pm. He and the Boy would go pick up the Girl at the M. school and go home to make sushi together. On Mondays and Wednesdays, Rod stayed late so I would get to the M. school before 6:00 (you wouldn’t want to be late as the principal of the M. school would give you that stern look and with her German accent say, “You’re late!” in such a way as you felt like you needed to go to the corner for a time out) and pick up the Girl and then go to Rod’s office to get the Boy.
My office was 11 miles away from home. On a good day (Sunday morning before 10 am) I could get to my office in 15 minutes--most of the time it took longer. And it always took longer to get home. If I left at 5:00 I could be home at 5:30. If I left at 5:15 I could be home at 6:00. If I left at 5:30 I could be home at 6:30. I don’t know how it worked, but that is how it was. Of course, all of that could be thrown off by an accident on the freeway or a Dodger game beginning or ending or some special event or crisis happening in civic center. Sometimes there were options, various ways to work my way from USC (where I was a campus minister) to Eagle Rock, creeping along in what one hoped would be moving traffic.
One Wednesday night I opted for route B. I don’t remember the exact details. What is permanently engraved in my memory was being just a little more than halfway home and not moving on the freeway. I was getting myself ready for the stern rebuke of the principal as I figured at the rate I was NOT going, I just might come running in to pick up the Girl at straight up 6:00, or worse, later than that. All of a sudden, sitting there in my car on the NOT-moving freeway (and by the way, it was already dark) the memory of Rod reminding me that morning – one of several reminders – that he would not be at the office that night as he would be at a seminar across town, came to the front of my mind. Suddenly the implications of that recollection hit me like hot lava: my poor 4th grade child had nowhere to go since 4:30!! It was now past 5:30!!! No cell phones for ordinary people back then. It would make no sense for me to get off the freeway (partly because it wasn’t moving!) and try to find a pay phone. I just sat in my car alternating between praying incoherently, yelling at the cars outside of my windshield, and berating myself for being a horrible parent. I hoped and prayed that the Boy would remember the instructions we gave him for when something might happen and we weren’t there to get him in time. He was to go to Cindy’s, the diner next door to the school and order something, sit there and wait. We had worked it out with James, the owner. But by the time I would get there he would have been waiting over an hour and a half! Did I mention what a loser parent I was? And that it was dark out?
Finally, I got to Cindy’s and I ran in. I looked from side to side as I came in the door but the Boy was not there. I asked Ellie, the waitress, about my son and she said that he had been there but he left. I was frantic! Where would I look now! I turned to leave with my brain racing and the Boy came in the door. I looked up and saw my neighbor’s car driving off. Mimi was Stevie’s mom. They lived around the corner from us but I had spent more time with her at the park during soccer and baseball seasons. I hugged and apologized to my Boy and then remembered we still needed to pick up my daughter. The glare and sharp rebuke from the principal would almost feel good.
The Boy remembered that I was supposed to pick him up at school. When I didn’t come he went across the street and found Rod’s office locked. He came back and went to Cindy’s. One of his teachers was there and he bought the Boy a hot chocolate. After a while the Boy assured the teacher that I would come and pick him up there and so the teacher left. When I didn’t come he went to the pay phone and called his grandma who wasn’t home. He thought about it and the only other number that he could remember was that of Stevie so he called and talked with Mimi who came to pick him up. They sat in the parking lot in her car until I drove up. When they saw me run into the restaurant she let him out of the car and when she saw our reunion at the door of Cindy’s she drove off.
When I got home I called Mimi (only one of several people in Eagle Rock who now knew the truth about my deficit parenting skills). She was so understanding! “Oh, things like this happen. I was glad that he thought to call me. You would have done the same for me. Feel free to call if you ever need me to pick him up.” After thanking her profusely, I hung up. How gracious she was! She made it easy for me to face her again at the next sports event.
I guess it still takes a village.