Last night, at a gathering of women of my certain age, a friend introduced me to Mobile Check Deposit. I stared incredulously as she took a photograph of the front and back of her check, hit a button, and then, somewhere – well outside of normal banking hours – her bank acknowledged these photos as tantamount to legal tender. As I scurried to the App Store to join this revolution, my friend exclaimed, “You’ll never have to go to the bank again!”
This got us talking.
Remember going to the bank? Not stopping at an ATM, but spending time – quite a bit of time – in an actual bank.
As it happens, this same group of my parenting peers who are trying our damnedest not to raise entitled sociopaths spent a meaningful portion of our childhood at The Bank. And The Post Office. The Grocery Store. The Dry Cleaner.
Our kids do not.
I’m convinced that the death of the Saturday errand has made a difference. That difference is as small as the new little icon on my phone, and as big as what our kids understand about the world and their place in it.
Saturday morning, May 1980. Before my feet have touched the shag carpet, my father is up and mowing the lawn. Eventually the sun peeks through my rainbow curtains, and the hum of the lawnmower stirs me into consciousness. A few Scooby Doo’s and a bowl of Fruit Loops later, I get dressed, manage a few curls with my Gillette Clicker, and join the Judge family Saturday as it kicks into its predictable gear. My brother and sister and I take our place on the pleather bench seat of the station wagon. And we’re off.
People’s Bank was on the other side of town, and we typically started there and worked our way, stop by stop, back toward home. Our neighbor, Dolly Widener, was a bank teller, and we would always line up at her window. Not only was she a lovely person, but we kids knew we’d score bonus lollipops.
Thinking back, I have no earthly idea what took so long for the grownups on each side of that plastic window to accomplish these transactions. I remember the tellers getting up from their seats repeatedly, then landing a giant metal stamper with a “ka-CHUNK,” and hand writing some elaborate set of codes and words on each check. They seemed to constantly have to confer with managers. Finally, a drawer would open, and Mrs. Widener would count the cash on which our family would rely that week, slipping it into a small envelope with the bank’s logo on it.
Certainly, going to The Bank was not a whole lot of fun. But I remember these images because my head was up, my senses trained on this crushingly dull adult ritual. My body was slumping, eyes rolling, elbows occasionally finding my sister’s ribs. But there was nothing to do but watch and wait. So we did.
On a good week, for reasons I can’t explain, our family’s banking required only the use of the drive-thru vacuum canister. Physics never put a pneumatic tube to cooler use.
From the Bank, it was on to the Dry Cleaner. We took in the sweet toxic smell, while my mother produced the glossy pink slip, and the clerk triggered the carousel of plastic-covered suits and dresses and trench coats. I’m convinced my father’s work shirts were always at the 359th degree of that circle, every time. It was boring, but there was nothing to do but watch and wait. So we did.
The Grocery Store offered payoffs. My mother wasn’t terribly restrictive when it came to junk food, and the right trip to the store stocked our house with every iteration of Hostess snack cake. Mom worked full time. These products made us happy, and her life a little easier as she packed our school lunches. No one knew back then that it took 386 years for a Twinkie to decompose. [And yet, if you ever ate them, that modern day revelation wasn’t all that surprising.]
Occasionally, when a mattress or sofa had given out, the Saturday stops included the Levitz Furniture Show Room on Route 9. Upon entering the warehouse, the three of us would disappear into the sprawling acreage of displays, flopping our bodies on each sectional, picking the swankiest living room pieces for our imaginary grownup houses, and eventually making our way to pay dirt: the waterbeds. My parents didn’t seem concerned that someone would kidnap us, nor did they likely appreciate that we were wreaking havoc a few hundred yards away. They took whatever time they felt was required, talked at length with the salesperson. When a purchase was made, we all waited for it to be retrieved from the stock room.
Before the march of human advancement obviated the need to do these tasks in person, this was Saturday.
The simplest segue to May 2016 is to state the obvious: that technology has spared us, and our kids, nearly all of those stops to transact, retrieve, and collect what is needed to subsist in the week to come.
Amit and I split the few true “errands” – grocery store, dry cleaner – but almost never do we have our kids in tow. After all, they’d be bored.
Even if we do occasionally bring one of them along, the weekend time spent on tasks that meet our collective needs pales in comparison to the hours devoted to events in which our children take center stage.
Ask most parents in my cohort what they’re doing for the weekend. Count how many times their answer begins with the name of one of their kids. You’ll lose count quickly.
Kate has two soccer games, then a birthday party.
Jacob has play rehearsal, both days, so [partner] is taking William to his travel baseball.
I guarantee you will not hear the following:
Well, the vacuum cleaner died on me – again – so it’s back to the Sears appliance repair in Framingham, where the kids and I will wait for three or four hours, likely missing the matinee of Benji that I told them we could see, maybe, if there was time.
If the Saturday errand is an artifact of a very different time, I think it merits some reflection. Perhaps even a requiem.
It may be that lavishing on our children all those reclaimed hours that technology “freed up” suggests a generosity, a desire to let them try new things and to witness it when they do.
And yet, as in every trade-off, something is lost.
Each time I slid into that back seat, on some level I was learning and accepting my place – in my family and in the world. And that place was appropriately sized to scale, which is to say: it was small. Not unimportant, not trivial, but small.
In the swirl of late 70’s and early 80’s suburban weekend commerce, I was a kid standing in line with her brother and sister, captive to what the adults around me were making happen so our family could function. All that activity had nothing – and yet everything – to do with me. While my wants were subjugated, my needs were being met in full.
Today, not only do we rarely force our kids to bear witness to the essential mundane, we become a staffing agency to ensure seamless coverage for their sports and social engagements.
To be sure, I love seeing them run, and dance, and play. But in this inversion of familial primacy, they have to be learning something very different about their station. It’s little wonder that when I “occasionally” tell Devan “it’s not all about you,” it has negligible impact. My actions- our family’s actions – drown out those words.
As a parent, I somehow failed to internalize, much less pass on, what my upbringing taught me: that there is a difference between focused, individualized attention, and love.
We’ve also lost the animating power of boredom. In all those errand-ing hours, boredom was a reality for me and my siblings, and also a challenge. Certainly, we nudged and sparred and farted on each other. We fought for the front seat and wrestled for control of the radio dial. We foraged through our mother’s black hole of a purse. We counted ceiling tiles and found animal shapes in their water stains. We tried to slip amusing items like Preparation H into the shopping cart to see if Mom would notice. My sister and I made up imaginary adult identities. One time she won a supermarket drawing under her pseudonym, “Sue Krutchlem,” requiring my mother to plead with the manager so Christine could get her prize.
We were undeniably present. If you’d asked my mother at the time, she might have said we were a little too present.
Fast forward, and my kids treat boredom like a stinging insect that has just landed on their bare arm. Get it off! Get it off!!
And I am ashamed to say that Amit and I most often capitulate, ostensibly in the name of just getting through what needs to be gotten through.
The devices come out.
But ultimately, just absence.
My kids wait, but they don’t watch. Years from now, they won’t recall much detail about the few times and places where they had to just sit. After all, whether you’re at Target, or the waiting room at Jiffy Lube, or your brother’s dentist appointment, Minecraft always looks the same.
All those Saturday errands of my memory cleared the way for a very different Sunday. This usually involved going to see relatives, most of whom lived within an hour’s drive. A tough draw was a day we were due to visit my paternal grandparents, who had religious figurines on most surfaces and a paucity of good snacks. My siblings and I had to content ourselves playing in their bomb shelter.
But more often, we went to see our aunts and uncles and cousins in Burlington, or Wayland, or Woburn. The kids would disappear into rec rooms to play air hockey or, I am sure, sneak as much “screen time” as the UHF era allowed. We didn’t see the adults again until dinner.
My family would head home after nightfall, and the car was quiet. I remember looking up at the moon as we drove along the highway and being convinced it was moving alongside our car. I believed this far longer than a child with access to great public education should have believed it.
But occasionally, I was equally sure the moon was following the car just behind or in front of us. Maybe the moon had gotten confused. Or maybe someone in that other car needed the moon more than we did that night.
That’s the thing about boredom. In its vast expanse a young mind takes in her world, and even a bit of the universe.
We can’t let our kids lose this vessel. It should be theirs to fill, be it with mischief, or humor, or fear, or wonder.
We also need to resize their positions, at least a little. Center stage is heady, and bright, but life is rarely a solo act.
My weekends didn’t belong just to me, but they taught me about where and to whom and how much I belonged. And that this was my time to be small, and being small meant you sometimes had to wait.
Even for the moon.