One of the conversations I overheard on the train trip recently (if you’re a writer, take a train trip! Better yet, take a train trip from somewhere deep in the South, going to points North--you’ll have endless material to pull from for who knows how long) was between two women who discovered, by chance, that they were both from the same street in Brooklyn.
They were deep in their sixties and speaking of the good old days. One of them grew up in the apartment below Thelma-from-Good-Times; her whole family, in fact, lived above them. The two women laughed and talked about the old neighborhood, the deli shops that used to be there, the ones that still were, and the department stores where they had once worked, oh so long ago; then one of them got serious:
You know back then, everyone in that building raised my kids. I didn’t think anything of leaving them with my neighbors.
Mmm-hmmm, the other woman replied, nodding in agreement. You can’t do that now. Some of these girls—you try and give them advice and they tell you to back off!
Thelma's former neighbor leaned in close and wagged her finger. It takes a village to raise a child, you know.
It takes a village to raise a child--a cliched expression if ever there was one, and an expression I thought little about until I grew up and had children of my own. Then, finding ourselves living far from family, we have learned how difficult it is to try and raise two children without a support network close by--a support network we at times so desperately needed--and still need (will we ever not need it?).
I had to stifle an urge to reach over my seat and grab hold of this woman’s arm, and, perhaps, pump it up and down in earnest agreement. But, of course, the problem with overhearing conversations on trains is that you often can’t just join in. And the train lurched to a stop at Union Station and the kids and I had to scramble for our bags and head out. I wanted to hear the rest of the conversation, though; to be drawn into the attractive picture these two women were painting of life back in Brooklyn, back in the days when they were young working mothers, living in a busy and friendly apartment building where everyone knew everyone else, and your kid was safe with your neighbor or your second-cousin-twice-removed for a few hours while you worked to make ends meet, or went out for groceries, or to a doctor's appointment.
I’m possessive about my kids, and the way we raise them. I have to admit that I still sometimes bridle a bit when family members step in with parenting advice (I have gotten better about this--back when I was a naive first-time parent I mistakenly thought I knew it all), and I certainly tense up when a stranger tries to step in and parent my own kids, even if for a minute or two. One time, on a field trip I was chaperoning, another kid’s dad did the goofy two-fingered “I’m watching you” hand signal at my own son, while I was standing just a short distance away. I still tense up when I think about this—about how this dad who doesn’t know my kid at all, doesn’t know how hard it is for L. to stand still and focus when in a crowd of kids, would dare do that ridiculous hand signal in his direction. I don’t think those women on the train were talking about annoying parents, or even strangers; they were talking about family, and friends and neighbors so close and committed to each other that they were like family. I think we've lost some of that way of life--both because of the increasing strains--financially and emotionally--being placed on families today, and because, little by little, our society is growing more and more fragmented.
I wish the times hadn’t changed so much that we find ourselves the way we are now: sequestered off in our own homes and worlds; boxed in and wary of the person next-door, relying on strangers to take care of the kids and not an eccentric grandmother filled with stories to tell, or aunts, or older cousins. I have grown up and into a deep appreciation of what it means to have that village behind you; that reliable and stalwart presence holding you up, closing ranks around you in this increasingly threatening and chaotic world.