Column: Freedom of summer vacation, childhood unparalleled today

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 13, 2004

By Love Cruikshank,Love notes

By this time, the holiday feeling would already have taken hold. School for me always started the Tuesday after Labor Day and ended the Friday before Memorial Day, or as we called it “Decoration Day.”

There was, of course, a bit of unpleasantness to get through first.

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There was the piano recital. The piece for that would have been memorized by this time, but the gloom induced by the conviction that I was going to forget it in front of the entire audience poisoned to an extent my holiday mood.

Then there was the dance recital, “Kid Night Follies.” Something always seemed to go wrong with that performance, but the boo-boo was not usually entirely my fault. So I could be philosophical about it.

Memorial Day didn’t always come on Monday then. Whatever day it came on, my parents, and whichever of my friends I chose, and I, set off for the local cemetery, and the cemeteries at Auburn and Brownsville where other members of the family were buried.

On the floor in the back seat of the car were great buckets ofwater, holding iris, peonies, and spirea, with which to decorate the graves. The lilacs, of course, by that time were all gone. Though, if the weather had been warm we sometimes would have little red climbing roses.

Most of the graves we decorated belonged to people dead long before my time. On some of them were special markers marking service in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, but strangely enough not World War I. The men in the family were either too old or too young for that one.

We were a talkative and remembering family. So I grew up being as well acquainted with relatives lost in the Civil War as I was with living relatives. There was to be sure a sadness about visiting their graves, but the stories about them were cheerful, even funny, so the visits were not morbid nor cloaked in gloom.

Looking back I think we must have observed Memorial Day on the Sunday before the actual day. Because swimming pools opened on Memorial Day. We started swimming when the season opened, not at a pool, but at a sand pit located on the Iowa side of the Missouri River.

We swam as long as we possibly could, every day. The latest I remember was on a Halloween. My cousins did better. They once swam on Christmas, though they had built a huge fire on the shore to welcome them when they came out.

Until I was in junior high there were final exams from the fourth- through the sixth-grades. I don’t recall that they troubled me a great deal except for fractions which I didn’t really understand until a friend of my father’s finally explained.

Since four was bigger than two I couldn’t understand why a fourth would be smaller than a half. A practical woman, she simply took an apple cut it in two, then in four and asked me which of the pieces I would rather have.

A former school teacher, she deplored the practice of not letting children count on their fingers. As with me and the apples she felt children understood better when they reasoned from tangibles.

My father couldn’t understand why I worried about math exams anyway.

“Your daily average grades are high enough,” he said, “that if you flunk the exam entirely you will still pass.”

I wanted to believe him, but alas, daddy had no tangibles to offer me.

All this, though, when summer vacation started, and the recitals done with, was behind me. I have never since known the exaltation, the glory of utter freedom that I experienced then.

I was not overly fond of school and have no desire to relive my school days, but there are times when I think wistfully that it would be almost worth it just to experience again that magical sense of freedom.

I look at children now and wonder if it is as good for them as it was for us. We didn’t have television, but our world was safer or seemed so. No need for supervised playgrounds, and little league baseball.

We all had a few chores to perform. After I’d made my bed, practiced my piano lesson, and picked up the groceries my mother needed, the day was mine. I was expected home when the noon whistle and the four p.m. whistle blew. Otherwise I enjoyed a freedom I have never known since.

I talked on the telephone recently to a friend I grew up with. We agreed that despite the fact that we were subjected to two world wars and a depression we picked the right time to be born.

(Love Cruikshank is an Albert Lea resident. Her column runs Thursday.)