Thursday, February 25, 2010

Childhood Solitude

The latest edition of Smithsonian magazine has a fascinating article by Joyce Carol Oates, entitled Joyce Carol Oates Goes Home Again, in which she reminisces about her childhood in upstate New York, next to the Erie Canal.  I read it with increasing interest as I realized how much my own childhood had in common with hers.  She's eight years older than I am, so her childhood was in the 1940s while mine was in the 1950s, but our experience was very similar, although she grew up on a working farm in New York state and I grew up in a small California town, Napa.  It's a fascinating article and I won't try to quote it in depth - go read it yourself, it's worth your time.  But something struck me that I want to talk about.

She spoke of all the time she was able to be alone, to explore the woods and fields near her home, and of walking alone to school.  For some years she actually rode a Greyhound bus seven miles to school in a nearby town, standing alone by the highway to wait for it. 

I too remember walking alone to school, even to elementary school:  up the long block of E Street, past York Street to the short blocks of Georgia and Spencer Streets, across Jefferson (a major street, I was to be very careful and look both ways as there was no stop sign), up long kitty-cornered Legion Avenue, then left on Brown Street, past the winery warehouse, and over to Lincoln School.  No one thought anything of a ten year old child walking to school alone in 1956, a point Ms. Oates also makes.  The only time I had to take a bus to school (NOT a Greyhound!) was to junior high; I attended two different junior highs, both too far across town to walk to.  I don't remember why I had to change junior high schools.  But the high school, again, was within walking distance, six blocks down York Street.

I'm sure some parents now allow their children time to go out alone and discover who they are and what they can do; but the children attending the elementary school in my neighborhood are only rarely alone.  Usually they have Mom or Dad or both; often the entire family.  And many of them don't walk; the cars clog my neighborhood streets as parents drop children off or pick them up, and the parking spaces fill up with SUVs and minivans. 

I always liked to go out and walk along the railroad track, looking at the unbuilt world, more than I liked walking on the sidewalks.  I walked on the sidewalks to get places; I walked on the railroad track to think.  I spent as much time as I could around "the creek," another good place to think - I learned much later that it was Napa Creek, a major tributary of the Napa River.  It's built up now, and the railroad track is a 4 lane street, but the area I lived in, south of the old High School, was semi-rural then; I remember before the sidewalks went in, when the entire area was bisected by an active railroad, that ran freight cars past our house; the tracks crossed the creek on a wooden trestle, massive wooden supports dripping congealed black tar.  Of course we put pennies on the tracks to see them mashed flat, but after a few pennies it loses its fascination. 

The creek was across an alley and a field; in the first 10 years or so of my life there, the field was actually farmed by a man called Mr. Massa (or Massey?), who plowed it with a horse, a big black mare (if I remember right) with a white blaze.  The horse lived in a pen next to a big fig tree, and we used to go and feed it figs, although we weren't supposed to go on Mr. Massa's property.  I don't know if feeding the horse convinced me that figs weren't "people food" or if I subconsciously thought that figs belonged to Mr. Massa, but it was forty years before I tasted them and realized that I love figs! 

Behind Mr. Massa's field was the creek, which my dad pronounced "crick."  The creek fascinated me because it was wild.  No houses faced on it where I lived.  It was screened by a row of trees and blackberry bushes, and when you scrambled down into its 20 foot deep bed, you were alone.  Of course we weren't supposed to go there, especially alone.  It was the resort, we were told, of "tramps," although I never saw anyone but an occasional neighborhood kid.  There was a rope swing on one of the big old trees, over the only really deep pool.  The later in the year, the lower ran the creek, until September or October when it was down to a few stagnant, scummy pools.  In a rainy winter, those 20 foot banks ran brimful of muddy, fast-moving water, and it was dangerous; we didn't go there in winter.  Farther downstream, people had built houses next to the creek, and winter storms undercut some of them badly - I don't recall if one ever actually washed away, but I've seen some that had to be abandoned or moved.

I envy Ms. Oates her Erie Canal.  I would have loved to have an actual canal to look at, with real boats on it, when I was a child.  But I made do with "the creek."  Unlike Ms. Oates, I didn't explore the town, but I had my own little patch of wild at the creek, to go and be alone in.  I wonder how a child can grow up today with no chance to spend time alone, thinking.

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