I remember the day when I first laid eyes on my father’s childhood home in a working class neighborhood in Pittsburgh, PA. There was nothing at all remarkable about it, except for its proximity to the school he attended as a boy. He had frequently and dramatically shared with my sisters and me how far he had to walk to school, how he practically had to climb mountains and brave the elements for miles and miles, simply so he could learn to read and write, manipulate numbers properly, and discover the location of such exotic lands as “Siam” and “Ceylon”. Imagine half-pint trudging through a Minnesota blizzard in February from her little house on the prairie all the way to the church/school building in Walnut Grove and you have a pretty good idea of how he depicted his daily childhood commute. “But I did it, day after day and without complaint,” he told us gravely, “because it was my duty as a son.” Right. Two blocks away from his nondescript boyhood home was his nondescript boyhood elementary school. When my sisters and I confronted him with this “disparity”, all he could muster was a sheepish, “Hmmm. Seemed further.”
Now that I’m a parent myself, I’m a bit more forgiving of my father’s faulty memory than I was back then. My 7 year old, Luke, is especially interested in my childhood experiences and we’ve had a number of conversations about that in the past few months, conversations that have tested to the breaking point both my memory and my desire to fill in the gaps with a touch of artistic license.
Luke and I were riding bikes in our neighborhood recently when he asked, “Dad, when you were my age, what did you do for fun? Did you have computers?”
“No, Luke, no one had a computer in their homes back then. We did have TV’s, but we only got three channels and I was the family channel-changer. I sat in a bean-bag chair two feet away and changed the channel whenever my dad told me to.”
“Did you have Wii’s or DS’s?”
“No,” I answered solemnly, sensing an opening. “We were poor and didn’t have much. I went to bed hungry almost every night. I only had one change of clothes and one pair of shoes that lasted me from 1st grade through 6th. By the time I reached 2nd or 3rd grade my toes were sticking out through the end. And forget about toys. I was happy to play with whatever I could find in our yard—sticks, rocks, and an occasional mastodon bone.”
“Oh, yeah. We used the bones as bats and pitched the rocks in our pick-up baseball games. But we had to be really careful because sometimes when we hit a pop fly a pterodactyl flew by and snatched it in mid-air hoping it was something edible. And we didn’t get to school on a bus. We had to walk a really, really long way. Back in those days, when the earth was cooler, we had snow virtually every day and I can remember some days when it was four feet high and we had to tunnel our way there. On the days when it didn’t snow it was still pretty tricky because we had to dodge saber-toothed tigers and outsmart velociraptors. But I did it, day after day and without complaint because it was my duty as a son.”
“Oh, yeah, right,” he protested now, rolling his eyes and turning around to confront me face-to-face. “Everything you just said is a lie, isn’t it?!”
“No, Luke!” I exclaimed. “I really didn’t get to school on a bus. And ‘lie’ is a harsh word. Do you know what ‘embellishment’ means?”
Timothy Swenson is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at email@example.com. Viewpoints expressed in these opinion pieces are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.