CHILDHOOD, THEN AND NOW

family-photo-of-the-ross-family

“Back when I was a kid …”

“When I was your age …”

“There used to be a …”

Do you do this?  Of course you do!  We all do. You only have to achieve the ripe, old age of 25 before you start framing the present within the lens of the past. Joni Mitchell said that something’s lost but something’s gained in living every day, but I fear that childhood isn’t experiencing any true gains. In fact, it seems the opposite to me. Has childhood changed since I was eating porridge at my parent’s breakfast table? Or is childhood immutable? Is it only the outward trappings that change?  

… something’s lost but something’s gained in living every day …

It’s hard to know. Once you leave childhood, everything is viewed through the lens of experience. Of comparison.

Photo of boys playing marbles from Yours.uk

I do know that how time is spent in childhood now is different than when I was a kid. I know I had greater liberties than kids today. Once our teeth were brushed, we were free to roam the neighborhood. We vanished into the parks, playgrounds, backyards and forests within walking distance. Our playmates were the random assortment that came with the neighbourhood – actual three dimensional creatures we were forced to co-exist with – not online avatars.  You had to learn to get along. You came to know which dogs to steer clear of and which ones to pet. You knew who could be counted on for a cookie and who would holler, ‘Get offa my lawn!’  I introduced my five year-old self to a lady I unfailingly addressed by her full name –  Mary Langley – who lived down the lane. I was a particularly feral child and she’d made the mistake of leaving her kitchen door open; her fault, really. Why she tolerated my daily incursions, I’ll never know. Her teenage son, Phil, thought I was a nuisance. Exploring their home, however, was my serious childhood anthropology … plus, there was the bonus of a homemade cookie. There was a bouquet of  vivid orange, paper-y Chinese Lantern blossoms in a vase in her living room. I never see this plant where I don’t think back to Mary Langley.

Our playmates were the random assortment that came with the neighbourhood not online avatars.

Photo for girls playing ring-around-the-rosie by IowaCulture

Hours were spent inventing games, observing wildlife, examining flora and fauna.  The discovery of a ring of amanita muscaria – the polka dotted red capped mushrooms favoured by fairytale illustrators – was conclusive proof that fairies were real.  

The TV was only turned on for things like National Geographic specials. As I write that I can still hear the trumpet soundtrack announcing the start of the show; can you? On weekends, my dad played poker with us at the kitchen table. He called it 21 and it was meant to teach us math; a homegrown, beta version of today’s Kumon or Mathnasium classes.

bob-ross-the-cucumber-tree-book-cover
The Cucumber Tree photo and book by Bob Ross.

This neighbourhood tree served as the FaceBook, SnapChat, and Instagram of the neighbourhood’s children.

I came across a quote from Michael Crichton in the back of Bob Ross’ book, The Cucumber Tree, about growing up in Vancouver in the 1940s. This neighbourhood tree – actually a type of  magnolia – served as the FaceBook, SnapChat, and Instagram of the neighbourhood’s children. It was the mustering point for each and every one of their expeditions. It’s branches could hold legions. How important was the cucumber tree? Bob convened a reunion of the old gang in the  tree back in 2001 and Pete McMartin did a story on it for The Vancouver Sun newspaper. (LINK?*) The Crichton quote  resonated with Bob and it does with me, too.  I’ll abbreviate it but here’s the gist:

“ … the natural world – our traditional source of direct insights – is disappearing.  Modern city-dwellers cannot even see the stars at night.  … It’s no wonder that people lose their bearing, that they lose track of who they really are, and what their lives are really about.”

Bob Ross with family and friends wearing Bus Driver hats.

Bob’s book is a charming excursion back to a time when no one had a house key because no one locked their doors; a time when crime was a rarity and drugs virtually non-existent. It was a time when you manufactured your own entertainment and a bicycle was a ticket to far-flung adventures. At night, the stars shone brightly overhead providing perspective on one’s patry significance in the grand scheme of things.

Bob Ross with family and friends tobogganing in Vancouver.

Bob’s childhood concludes with the decommissioning of the McCleery farm at the foot of Macdonald Street in 1954. It was sold to the City with the caveat that it would remain a park/golf course for perpetuity. It’s a fitting conclusion to a chapter in the history of Vancouver, a gentler time, and dare I say, a time we would wish back again for Vancouverites yet born.

Bob Ross and friends playing baseball in their backyard.

This week’s giveaway!

All my copies of The Cucumber Tree have been swept away in a tidal wave of nostalgia.  They’re now all spoken for.  I do have, however, some copies of We’ll Cross That Bridge, the author’s book about his pandemic project to cross every bridge in the Lower Mainland. First come, first served. If you don’t hear back from me, you missed out. (More giveaways of other cool stuff planned so don’t despair.)

If you’d like a copy, register for my newsletter* then send me an email and I’ll arrange for a copy to be available for you.

*After you’ve registered check your junk/spam/promotions/inbox/trash folder for your confirmation email. Those that do not do this step will not be fully registered and unable to participate in this giveaway.


This week’s question for readers:

WHAT IS SOMETHING THAT YOU EXPERIENCED IN YOUR CHILDHOOD THAT KIDS OF TODAY ARE MISSING OUT ON? WHAT IN THE MODERN WORLD MIGHT YOUR CHILDHOOD HAVE BENEFITED FROM?


Submissions to last week’s question:

Is technology complicating your domestic life or improving it?

September 1st 1962 and our family had just moved to Quebec City from West Vancouver.We moved into the lower side of a 4-plex in Ste. Foy suburb until we could find a house to live in. My dad spoke French as a result of being sent to the (French) Catholic school in Duck Lake Saskatchewan, but my mother, brother and I knew absolutely no French other than ‘merci beaucoup’. I can only guess that the couple upstairs from us figured that out as we moved in. Later that afternoon, there was a knock at the back door. My mother opened the back door and found a homemade tourtiere pie sitting on the doorstep. Only as an adult did I begin to appreciate the kindness behind that gesture. 

The upstairs neighbours who had left the savory pie became friends. My parents kept in touch with them regardless of where the two families were living. By the mid1970s we had moved back west. During a trip to Vancouver, our former neighbours came for dinner. I will always remember that dinner. 

In 2010, we moved to a country where I didn’t speak the language or know the customs and I appreciated that gesture even more.

Lindsey McCann

I’ll never forget the kind man who came up to me on the street and gave me his umbrella.   I didn’t have a coat and my shoes were all wrong for the weather.  I was soaking wet, through and through.  He had a rain coat and he simply came up and said, “You look like you need this more than me”.  What a prince!!!

D. Varley

I lived in an apartment building where no one spoke to anyone else. I lived there for four years and I rarely even saw anyone else.  It was a walk-up building so we only passed each other in the stairwells.  Maybe if we’d been stuck in elevators with each other we might have spoken. I don’t know.  I moved away to a new building.  In my first week there someone left flowers on my door mat welcoming me to the ‘floor’.  Someone else left a Post It note introducing themselves.  Funny the difference between the two places. I now try to be the first to say hello.  That’s what I learned.

Name Withheld by request

When my dog, Chucky,  died, the people at the dog park all signed a card and dropped it off at my house. I didn’t think they even knew where I lived. It meant a lot to me.

Chucky’s “Dad” Andy

13 thoughts on “CHILDHOOD, THEN AND NOW”

  1. Hi Jane,
    One of the greatest joys I remember experiencing as a child growing up was working with my hands. Whether it was building forts or putting on puppet shows, the creativity is sparked has carried forward through out my life. As far as what my childhood might have benefited from today’s modern world? In a word, Google. The vast trove of information that‘s available offers unlimited possibilities.

  2. Jane,

    Saturday morning, chores done, four bored neighbourhood kids, aged 8 to 11 decide to walk to Horseshoe Bay. Sauntering along, we collected pop bottles to pay the toll on Lions Gate Bridge. I don’t remember the exact route but we did stop at the foot of Denman street where two of the kids father worked for Vancouver Barge and Towing. The causeway was daunting and the swaying bridge intimidating. Walking on, tired and hungry, we realized we had no way home and no bus fare.This was well before families had cars at their disposal and pay phones were not always nearby. Victor remembered his uncle lived close to Horseshoe Bay, so late in the afternoon we arrived at this unsuspecting relatives home. We did get a ride back to the Dunbar area of Collingwood and 28th and were royally grounded. We had fun, took care of each other and learned a lot about planning ahead.

  3. Dear Jane,

    I recently discovered a diary that I had written when I was 14 years old, and lived on a homestead 7 miles from the nearest village of Meota, Saskatchewan.
    An uncle was one of the first to raise Arabian horses in western Canada. He had four young half-Arabians that weren’t selling, so he apparently said “If I can’t sell ‘em, I’ll give ‘em away”. So he selected four of his nieces and nephews whom he knew liked horses, and we were invited to his ranch north of Jackfish Lake. We each drew a name from the hat, and mine said “Bay with white face”. That is likely the most exciting day of my life! (I called him Kolibey which I believe is Nobility in Arabic.)
    My cousin and I used to ride everywhere in the countryside, to school where there was a barn, always bareback, often riding 20 miles a day. In hunting season we would overhear where our brothers were going to go, and we would get up an hour earlier and ride out and scare up the geese or ducks. Our parents never seemed to worry about us. It was total freedom.

  4. Kids today don’t seem to have the opportunities to experience and explore freely their neighbourhood on foot as we did. We were trusted to watch out for each other, not to fall out of trees and to get off the road when a vehicle approached. Expectations we met, for the most part. We were not tracked with an app, or expected to update our mothers with a regular text. For a number of years in the late 1940’s we lived near Burnaby Lake in an area that still included a farm and dilapidated barn that held an old horse drawn sleigh that we kids would clamber on (wasn’t our farm or barn, but the doors were open…). We roamed the neighbourhood, playing in the bush, on the field and across the Interurban tracks to the boggy shore of Burnaby Lake. There were kids in almost every house, which meant that there was always a gang of us ready for adventure. In the summer we spent hours hidden from sight crawling around under the tall bracken at the edge of the field, drawing treasure maps in the dirt, or making trails in the bush. Little brothers were tolerated most of the time and either sent home or sworn to secrecy when we crossed the tram tracks to forbidden territory at the lake shore. We returned home only for lunch, unless we were lucky enough to have brought something in our pockets or a kind mother produced sandwiches. In the evening kids were summoned home with piercing whistles, or in our case by our Dad as he bellowed my brother’s and my name in a voice that we could never deny hearing!
    The very most important thing that we might have benefitted from in those days is vaccines! There was no protection against most childhood diseases, with polio probably the deadliest. There was a little girl in my grade four class who wore a metal leg brace, a legacy of her experience with polio. Many children suffered from measles, scarlet fever, whooping cough and mumps, treated with quarantine and home nursing. In a family with several children it could take many weeks for a disease to run through the kids, with their worried and exhausted mother nursing each one in turn. Those parents would have appreciated the lifesaving gift of vaccine protection for their children.

  5. I am deeply grateful that I grew up when I did – in the 60’s and in the idyllic setting of what was then Rhodesia. We enjoyed a care-free existence, outdoors from dawn till dusk, without the scourge of social media to derail us or spoil our enjoyment of life.

    I am convinced children today are missing out on so much – all the things we did, like inventing our own games (both indoor and out), going for bike rides and walks alone through the bush, with only the occasional baboon to worry about (no lurkers with evil intent), no TV, computer games or drugs – just sun and fresh air and rosy-cheeked freedom.

    I have never felt deprived or short-changed, only gratitude for what I had, and profound sadness for the youth of today who will never experience those things, and for whom the future is uncertain in this very troubled world.

  6. Hi Jane

    I think kids today are missing out on having elderly people as a part of their day-to-day lives. Many grow up, as I did, without grandparents nearby and don’t become acquainted with seniors in the community.

    The Richmond neighbourhood in which I grew up during the ‘60s and ‘70s was full of young families. Almost all of the mostly three-bedroom, two-storey or split level homes had at least 2-3 children, providing plenty of playmates for myself and my two brothers. When our back-door neighbours sold their house we were anxious to see how many kids the new owners would have, their ages, how many boys and how many girls. Imagine our disappointment when our new neighbours turned out to be a retired couple – old people with no kids and probably not likely to let us hop their fence as a shortcut to get to school.

    Mr. and Mrs. Patterson turned out to be wonderfully friendly and open-hearted people, eventually becoming sort of surrogate grandparents to us and great friends of my parents. As a retired RN, Mrs. Patterson was the neighbourhood go-to for basic medical advice. Every year she shared her traditional mince tarts, fruitcake and Christmas pudding with our family. She would eventually become my knitting guru. Mr. Patterson’s retirement hobby was leatherwork and there was hardly a Christmas when there wasn’t a handbag, belt or wallet under the tree, commissioned by one of my parents as a gift for the other. When the Pattersons replaced the fence that divided our property from theirs (our subdivision had no back alleys), Mr. Patterson made sure there was a gate, providing easy access between the two yards.

    The Pattersons were always there for us and we for them. They provided me with an appreciation for what “old people” and their lived experience and knowledge bring to our lives.

  7. The following is from someone born in 1935:
    When I was 10 I had penpals (2 were born on the same day as I) and the other lived in London, England and told me about her world just after the war. Also, I lived on a dairy farm just outside Toronto and my father was not able to find young men to help with the work, also my mother was pregnant; so he taught me how to drive a tractor with a clutch when I was 12. I never had to miss school as happens in some countries, so feel fortunate.

  8. We got bread and milk delivered as many families did when I was young. It would seem dull to today’s kids, but a big treat was when the delivery men let us ride along the route with them while we sat on the floor in the doorless well of the truck that they used to enter and exit the truck with their goods. That would never be allowed today. Also the bread man and the milk man would enter kitchens without knocking and look in our fridges and bread boxes to see what might be needed. Usually my mom would be making breakfast and simply carried on as these men “snooped”. She would make the occasional request for extra butter or cinnamon buns, but other than that, they knew everyone’s order and would fill it without having to ask. Great memories of a simpler time.

  9. Jane Macdougall,
    I especially enjoyed reading your column on “Childhood, Then and Now” in this morning’s Sun. I am submitting the story below in response to “What is something that….” It is longer than the responses in your column but the context is essential and the lesson learned applies even more today.
    Thank you for your consideration.
    masako fukawa

    Stanley, my husband started writing about his childhood experiences 8 years ago before Alzheimer’s began destroying his memories. He and his parents were relocated from their farm in Mission to Vernon in 1942 until 1949. He recorded his stories to share with his children and grandchildren but your readers may find it of benefit also.

    My Classmate, My Hero (Heroes Come in All Sizes)

    Looking back over my 76 years of life, I’m still awed at the moral authority of a friend–still a child–who stood up to defend me when I was about to be attacked by schoolyard bullies. They felt justified in ganging-up on a “Jap-kid” who represented to them, the enemy races that their country had fought and just defeated. There were still constant reminders in the media about the atrocities committed by the Nazis and the Japs against whom all good people could freely vent their hate. They saw in me an opportunity to act out some of the revenge which was only a pay-back for being born of an evil race.

    It was in 1946 or 1947, at Coldstream Elementary School. I was in the schoolyard playing with my usual play group, the boys who, most days, walked together to the school from the Coldstream Ranch side. I was the only Asian kid in the group.

    I was surrounded by a menacing group of boys whose antagonism had been aroused by some of their number. When I was pushed, the unofficial leader of our group, Bob Schram, asked the standard schoolboy question, “What did he do to you?” The response was, “He’s a Jap, you know that,” implying that all Japs were fair game for vengeance for being bad people.

    Bob’s voice was authoritative. “So, what. He’s just as good as you are. Leave him alone.” They backed off.

    I still marvel at the status that Bob conferred upon me without hesitation–that I was as worthy as the other kids who were white. Having been exposed to anti-Japanese propaganda in the Hollywood movies, on the radio, in school in the Victory Bonds and Stamps campaigns, war propaganda films, and in the print media, although I knew inside that I was a good person, as were members of my family, I did not have confidence in the goodness of all ethnic Japanese I did not know personally. I was not immune to the racist propaganda that I saw and heard all around me. Like most children, I learned early how minorities were viewed by the majority and largely accepted the biases in the public mind. Before that moment my own mind was not independent enough to believe and assert what Bob had said about my own worth.

    It was a huge boost to my self-confidence and sense of self-worth to be supported publicly at a crucial time. A friend and respected schoolyard leader had spoken up to say that I was a good person.

    It was just an incident in Grade 3 in a country schoolyard but I have always remembered it, felt grateful for it and tried to follow the example of my heroic friend by speaking out in similar situations. In our multi-ethnic society with its racial and religious diversity, it constantly surprises me how we seem to be able to find any number of reasons to dislike or be suspicious of those who are even the slightest bit different to ourselves. It taught me that even one child’s opinion, simply stated, can make a huge difference in our lives. I have remembered this for a lifetime.

  10. Childhood for me was a series of exhilarations and adventures. We hung by our knees from the monkey bars in the park, played tree tag, reached through picket fences in lanes to snitch raspberries, and played Knock Out Ginger, Kick the Can and Red Rover. The oldest kid in the group always gave the orders and we all obeyed without question. We had a tree fort in the woods, where we picked huckleberries and blackberries. We were always scratched and dirty, and had wonderful times getting that way.

  11. I grew up in a small town, Metcalfe Ontario, population 300.
    We had such freedom, my friends had ponies, we rode them everyday after school. It taught us independence and responsibility.
    I was pony crazy, riding freely through the fields, we rode those ponies everywhere we could, even in the Metcalfe fair, teaching us fun competition.
    We rode our bicylces, played hopscotch, bounced rubber balls, went to Sunday school, learning the importance of simple pleasures.
    Community was really the biggest lesson there was to learn, people helping people under any circumstance, life long friendships established and kept.
    We still say, lucky us.

  12. Hi Jane,
    One of the greatest joys I remember experiencing as a child growing up was working with my hands. Whether it was building forts or putting on puppet shows, the creativity is sparked has carried forward through out my life. As far as what my childhood might have benefited from today’s modern world? In a word, Google. The vast trove of information that‘s available offers unlimited possibilities.

  13. I recently discovered a diary that I had written when I was 14 years old, and lived on a homestead 7 miles from the nearest village of Meota, Saskatchewan.
    An uncle was one of the first to raise Arabian horses in western Canada. He had four young half-Arabians that weren’t selling, so he apparently said “If I can’t sell ‘em, I’ll give ‘em away”. So he selected four of his nieces and nephews whom he knew liked horses, and we were invited to his ranch north of Jackfish Lake. We each drew a name from the hat, and mine said “Bay with white face”. That is likely the most exciting day of my life! (I called him Kolibey which I believe is Nobility in Arabic.)
    My cousin and I used to ride everywhere in the countryside, to school where there was a barn, always bareback, often riding 20 miles a day. In hunting season we would overhear where our brothers were going to go, and we would get up an hour earlier and ride out and scare up the geese or ducks. Our parents never seemed to worry about us. It was total freedom.

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