Tag Archives: Childhood

Memories of Childhood

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I have a clock that produces bird songs on the hour, and the bird for 7:00 is the robin. I just love that song. It sends me home to my childhood in New Jersey. (The clock also devours batteries, so it’s often silent for months at a time until I feel like feeding it.)

Next to robins and my brother, the thing I miss most about New Jersey is the ocean. We lived about six miles from the Atlantic, and I rarely saw it until I was in seventh grade and was old enough to walk or take the bus to the beach.

When I was very little, we would go to a park with a little beach on the river, and we would swim there. I have a memory of my dad swimming with me on his back while I held on with my arms around his neck. There was a little pier people fished off of (I had a bamboo pole, but I hardly ever caught anything), and sometimes we’d jump into to the water from there.

There was slimy seaweed in the river, and also horseshoe crabs, with a rigid tail which we kids called “stingers.” They creeped me out, and I lived in fear of stepping on one. It was said that if you stepped on a “stinger,” it would go right through your foot.

Photo by Chosovi; used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

We lived around the corner from the public elementary school. (I attended the Catholic school five miles away.) The campus property was part of a former farm. There was a pond there called The Cow Pond because supposedly one of the farmer’s cows drowned in it. During the winter, when it froze, we’d ice skate there. One summer I found a plank of wood and thought it would make a good raft, so I threw it in the pond and hopped on.

It did not make a good raft. I went home in wet clothes and had to explain to my mother why I would do something so stupid as jump onto a piece of wood in the pond.

There was a small wooded area on the school property that we called “the woods.” I spent many hours of my childhood in there. A huge tree stood in the middle of it with thick branches that we all loved to climb. Eventually the woods were cut down and a primary school was built there. I mourned the loss of my climbing tree.

The elementary school had an incredibly smooth sidewalk at the front of the building. That was my favorite place to roller skate. This was in the old days, when you attached your skates to the bottom of your shoes and tightened them into place with a skate key.

Photo by Black Market; used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

It’s funny how listening to the video of the robin brought all these little scenes back to mind. At the time, I thought my town and my life were boring; but now my childhood seems magical.

The Joy of Childhood Poetry

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The Joy of Childhood Poetry

One of my earliest memories is of my mother reading Mother Goose books to me. I know that even as a little tot I had a large repertoire of rhymes that I could recite by heart. In kindergarten we learned lots of songs that were essential nursery rhymes set to music: Jack and Jill, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Old King Cole, London Bridge is Falling Down, and many others. Mother Goose nursery rhymes were a passage of childhood for my generation, as they had been for hundreds of years.

mother gooseWhen our children were young, we continued the tradition, buying different collections of rhymes and reading them to the kids over and over so that they soon knew them by heart. There’s something about rhyme and meter that imbed themselves in the unconscious, and even more so if they’re combined with a tune. I think you could sing the first line of a Mother Goose rhyme to an Alzheimer’s patient, and he’d be able to finish it for you.

To my sorrow, I found during my second teaching career (2006-2014) that most of my elementary school students weren’t familiar with nursery rhymes. In elementary general music, many activities start with a well-known rhyme. Since my students didn’t have a shared knowledge base of rhymes, I had to teach them a rhyme first before we could use it as the basis of a music experience. Sigh.

Back in the day, memorization of poems was a popular classroom activity. Few teachers today are able to spend time on this pursuit, because it’s usually not measured on standardized tests.

However, I still partially remember four poems I learned from Mrs. Susan Westerfield when I was in second grade, more than fifty years ago. Since they are in the public domain, I will share them with you. (Please forgive the improper formatting. I am a dunce when it comes to code.)

SwingThe Swing
By Robert Louis Stevenson

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside—

Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown—
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!

ShadowMy Shadow
By Robert Louis Stevenson

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me when I jump into my bed.

The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow-
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball,
And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.

He hasn’t got a notion of how children ought to play,
And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.
He stays so close beside me, he’s a coward you can see;
I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!

One morning, very early, before the sun was up,
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;
But my lazy little shadow, like an errant sleepy-head,
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.

Gingham by JeromeG111 CCLic

Photo by JeromeG111, used under Creative Commons License

The Duel
By Eugene Field

The gingham dog and the calico cat
Side by side on the table sat;
’Twas half-past twelve, and (what do you think!)
Nor one nor t’other had slept a wink!
The old Dutch clock and the Chinese plate
Appeared to know as sure as fate
There was going to be a terrible spat.
(I wasn’t there; I simply state
What was told to me by the Chinese plate!)

The gingham dog went “bow-wow-wow!”
And the calico cat replied “mee-ow!”
The air was littered, an hour or so,
With bits of gingham and calico,
While the old Dutch clock in the chimney-place
Up with its hands before its face,
For it always dreaded a family row!
(Now mind: I’m only telling you
What the old Dutch clock declares is true!)

The Chinese plate looked very blue,
And wailed, “Oh, dear! what shall we do!”
But the gingham dog and the calico cat
Wallowed this way and tumbled that,
Employing every tooth and claw
In the awfullest way you ever saw—
And, oh! how the gingham and calico flew!
(Don’t fancy I exaggerate!
I got my views from the Chinese plate!)

Next morning where the two had sat
They found no trace of the dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole the pair away!
But the truth about the cat and the pup
Is this: They ate each other up!
Now what do you really think of that!
(The old Dutch clock it told me so,
And that is how I came to know.)

Wynken by Crossett Library

Photo by Crossett Library

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod
By Eugene Field

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe,—
Sailed on a river of crystal light
Into a sea of dew.
“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”
The old moon asked the three.
“We have come to fish for the herring-fish
That live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we,”
Said Wynken,
Blynken,
And Nod.

The old moon laughed and sang a song,
As they rocked in the wooden shoe;
And the wind that sped them all night long
Ruffled the waves of dew;
The little stars were the herring-fish
That lived in the beautiful sea.
“Now cast your nets wherever you wish,—
Never afeard are we!”
So cried the stars to the fishermen three,
Wynken,
Blynken,
And Nod.

All night long their nets they threw
To the stars in the twinkling foam,—
Then down from the skies came the wooden shoe,
Bringing the fishermen home:
’Twas all so pretty a sail, it seemed
As if it could not be;
And some folk thought ’twas a dream they’d dreamed
Of sailing that beautiful sea;
But I shall name you the fishermen three:
Wynken,
Blynken,
And Nod.

Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
Is a wee one’s trundle-bed;
So shut your eyes while Mother sings
Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
As you rock on the misty sea
Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three,—
Wynken,
Blynken,
And Nod.

I even remember drawing illustrations for Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.

What about you–did you learn nursery rhymes as a child? Did you memorize poems in elementary school? What are some of your favorites? Share with us in the comments below.

The Impact of a Wonder Child

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The Impact of a Wonder Child

When I was seven, I joined Brownies. Not only was it a lot of fun, but for the first time in my life I met girls my age who did not attend my parochial school.Brownie cap

Kathy was one such new friend. When I met her, I had no idea what a huge impact she would have on my life. We were close friends for about eight years. I’d go to her house, only a few blocks from mine, whenever I could.

Kathy was a genius. No, I mean it. Literally. Not only was she an honor student, she was interested in everything: stamps, science, literature, art, music—and she pursued everything with a focus that was all-encompassing. I shared many of the same interests, but I didn’t have her discipline, or the resources she and her sister Freddie (for Fredricka) had: parents who liberally supported their interests by buying them stuff.

For example: stamps. I collected stamps. (Hey, it was a popular hobby in those days.) Half of my stamps came from the US. The other half were from Germany, because my aunts and uncles and cousins lived there. They purposely varied the stamps they used on letters to my family because they knew I’d be steaming them off the envelopes and mounting them in my album.

stampKathy, however, ordered stamps from ads in the back of magazines. She would send a request to a stamp company, and they would send her small collections of stamps from different countries in little glassine envelopes. It was called “buying on approval.” She would decide which envelopes she wanted and return the rest with her payment for the stamps she kept.

I was forbidden from doing that.

Kathy and I would get together with our stamp albums and admire each other’s collections. Hers was truly awesome. But she found interesting specimens in mine to compliment. She generously shared some of her most exotic stamps with me. I gave her my “doubles.” She explained some of the finer points of collecting, like first day covers, and not separating blocks of stamps. (Before the days of self-stick stamps, postage came in perforated sheets. You separated the desired stamp and licked it, or moistened it with a damp sponge, to activate the glue and make it stick to the envelope. Multiples of the same stamp were more valuable if they were still joined together.)

As the years went on, I took piano lessons, and so did Kathy. Then she also took drum lessons. Her huge old house had an actual music room where the piano and the drum set lived. She also owned (and played) a guitar, a zither, and a recorder.

Kathy offered to teach me how to play drums. She even provided me with a notepad where she wrote down all the rudiments so I could practice them. (I, however, didn’t have drums, or parents who wanted me to play them, so I could only practice at Kathy’s house.)

We spent many afternoons sitting at the piano and singing. We worked our way through songbooks by Peter, Paul, and Mary, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez. Even though I could play piano, Kathy was a much better sight-reader than me.

Books 3Both of us loved to read. I got most of my books from the library. Kathy used the library, too, but she and Freddie had multiple bookshelves packed with their own tomes. They had all the Nancy Drew books, all the Hardy Boys, and the Bobbsey Twins, and Cherry Ames—you name it, they had it. And they’d let me borrow anything I wanted to read.

Often, on a lazy summer day, we’d each choose a book and go to the backyard and climb a tree, where we’d perch and read. After a couple of hours, their mother might come out with a pitcher of lemonade and glasses, which she’d fill and hand up to us; or maybe some corn on the cob that she’d boiled and buttered for us. Good times.

swedish-flag-mastKathy’s family’s heritage was Norwegian, and she loved everything about Scandinavia. When her bedroom was due for an update, she painted it blue and asked for yellow curtains, so it would match the flag of Sweden. She loved Norse mythology, an interest I did not share. She pursued her love of Odin, Thor, and Freyja through comic books. I stuck to regular books.

After reading millions of comic books, Kathy began drawing her own. Her depictions of the human form were strikingly realistic, posed in heroic stances. Then she took her art one step further: she drew scenes from mythology on felt and colored them in with embroidery. Incredibly stunning.

In ninth grade we both entered the same public regional high school. Our circle of friends widened considerably. Kathy continued to be an academic superstar. I did well, but not as well as she. As high school went on, I discovered that Kathy was considered quirky. Tall and slender, with an unruly mane of kinky long hair, she attracted attention wherever she went, not always of the positive variety.

We shared some activites, but not others. For example, when our school got a computer lab (this was in the late sixties—the computer filled a room; students had access to two “terminals”), I dismissed it as a faddy gadget; Kathy signed up for as much computer time as possible.

glockenspiel-279774_640Musically, I was strictly a chorus person (though I was also an accompanist). Kathy was in both chorus and band, her outlet for her percussion skills. She didn’t play drums in marching band, she played a lyre-shaped, handheld glockenspiel (this was back in the days before marching bands had a stationary percussion ensemble, or pit). But she earned the ire of her band mates by composing her own glockenspiel parts when the arrangements didn’t call for one.

Always a lover of science, Kathy made the high school chemistry room her second home. She’d hang out there before and after school and during her study periods. She organized the chemical storage room for the chem teachers. She even had her own lab coat, which she wore for her senior yearbook photo. (See why people thought she was quirky?)Chem glassware wikim commons

Meanwhile, I discovered boys. I am ashamed to admit that I ditched Kathy in favor of one-on-one time with my Romeos. Little by little, we grew apart, mostly because I purposely ignored her.

I heard she had a rough time in college. She studied chemistry or physics at Cal Tech for a few years, but quit before getting a degree. She transferred to a different school to study early music (she was by that time a very good harpsichordist), but stopped just a few credits short of earning a degree. I don’t know if she ever did get her Bachelor’s.

I’ve only seen her once in my adult life. After Greg and I married, Kathy and another mutual childhood friend came to our apartment once for dinner.

Thanks to the magic of the internet, I have an idea where Kathy lives and what she’s up to. I know performance is still a part of her life–I’ve seen her on YouTube rocking out on organ with her band, a smile on her face and a familiar twinkle in her eye. But I’m uncomfortable about reconnecting with her. Too many decades have gone by, and I suspect there may be awkward feelings.

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The reason I am sharing Kathy’s story is because she was an incredible influence on my life. She encouraged me creatively, especially musically. She was my early role model and a polymath (though I didn’t know that term until recently—it means a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas). She widened my concept of possibility.

Is there someone you grew up with who helped shape the person you are today? A childhood friend who shared your creative interests? Someone who dominates your memories in a positive way? Share his or her story in the comments below.