This blog has been “in my head” since November 11 when I first recalled my grandmother who was born on that day. But it’s coming “out of my head” now because I was in a store today and – being a compulsive reader of everything in front of my face – I noticed some magazine cover that asked in bold letters: “Are We Overparenting Our Children?” I don’t ever buy that magazine and I already know the answer, but the question gave me some interesting comparisons with my own childhood.
When I traveled to the far north as a child to visit my Swedish grandmother, this is where she lived. Her house was on the narrow peninsula on the upper right of that photo that jutted out into the river. It would be just off the photo to the right. The hills to the left was the location of my other grandmother’s, Hilda’s, farm house, as well as a huge open-pit iron ore mine.
It was an absolutely wonderful place for a city kid to explore and play!
Her house was an old, old house right on the river shore. Her back yard sloped down gently to the water, where there was an old rowboat tied up, an old shed, and miscellaneous rusty metal things that a child could pick up and wonder about without knowing the names of them. The rusty metal objects were all sizes, some very heavy, some probably associated with the little boat or with fishing….But all great for a kid’s imagination!
I knew the river had a “drop-off” about ten or fifteen feet out from the shore…It was daring to walk on the sharp pieces of hematite rock which made up the river bottom, walking out away from shore, finding the really huge pieces of hematite that you could stand up on and stick out of the water a little further. But then you’d find the drop-off. You found it when your feet began sliding downwards, pulling you deeper into water over your head and out in the river current. You could swim, sort of, but people never really did swim way out into the river. There were fish and bloodsuckers swimming around in the river near your legs too.
I wish I had photos to share, photos that would give substance to the images in my head. Just one such, I remember being put into a large antique baby buggy by some “big kids” in the back yard…and then they let go while the baby buggy and I rolled down towards the river….I think it fell over in the grass, but, funny, I don’t really remember getting out of there.
One of my “jobs” was to make sure the gate in the front fence was locked closed in the evening. Grandma said it was to keep out the cows from drifting in. But I never saw any cows on the dirt road in front of her house. It was one of those lapses of logic that kids don’t really ask about.
The dirt road in front of her house went slightly downhill and then after a sharp curve, it went all around the peninsula. It was a great place for sledding in the winter. This is the kind of sled I used. Great for steering precisely where you want to go – and best if lying down flat on your stomach, sledding head first, of course, into anything you steered into! I remember being vaguely aware of trying to sled on the side of the road so an unexpected car wouldn’t get you, but the sledding was best right down the center of that road….
The old house itself had lots of places for exploring indoors. I had free run of the strange closet mazes upstairs and the wonderful credenza with my Grandma’s Swedish catechsim books and Bibles from when she was a girl. I could never read the handwriting on the letters she had saved. The whole upstairs was full of the presence of family members who had occupied those rooms before. My own mother slept upstairs there, but that was too exotic for me to think much about. I learned to read upstairs from all the delightful old children’s books. I took them out of their box, sat inside the box, and then picked up whatever was my favorite that day. I was four years old.
This looks just like the coal bin in my Grandma’s basement. If I was lucky I could shovel around piles of coal, and if I was really lucky, I was allowed to put a few shovels of coal into the coal furnace. There is a distinctive sound made by scraping the black metal shovel across the cement floor of the coal bin as you gather up lumps of coal for the furnace.
I could play down in that basement as long as I ever wanted to, much to the amusement of my Grandma.
Here is a small diagram of my favorite thing in the basement. You sat on the seat and worked it like a bicycle pedal, and then that big circular thing went around and around. It was a very heavy stone and it took a lot of little-girl leg power to get it turning and keep it turning. And then this is what you did with it: you got an axe and you held it just right against the wheel as it was turning and with a wonderful loud screeching, grinding noise, it was supposed to make the axe very, very sharp. Rusty old knives, rusty old pieces of metal, sticks, big stones – it worked on everything!
So, in addition to that big wood stove that I remember, Grandma’s basement, upstairs, and back yard were my favorite places to explore.
I was curiously unsupervised. Overparented? I was fortunately, happily, wonderfully under-parented!
I wonder…would I have let my own kids play with the old equipment near the boat at the shoreline? Would I have let them test themselves near the drop-off, near the river current? Would I have wondered where they disappeared for “hours,” quietly, somewhere upstairs in the closets and attic rooms? Would I have let them play with axes and axe grinders – all by themselves, as their imaginations took them away to other places, other times – and they felt so amazingly “adult”?
All I know is I am grateful for the “benign neglect” which accompanied my childhood. As I said in my O’Hare Airbase posting, I never gave them cause to doubt me….as long as I obeyed every “rule” and never talked back, I had all the freedom in the world!