I was a latchkey child. Only I didn’t know it. Because back in the Stone Age, when I was a child, most of us were “free-range” kids. That didn’t necessarily mean that our moms weren’t at home when we got out of school, but we certainly did spend a lot of time … unsupervised.
My parents certainly wouldn’t leave me alone for long periods of time, at least until I was 9 or 10. An evening out for them usually meant that my brother would be called upon for duty (see “Memory Monday: My Brother the Babysitter”).
But there were shorter periods of time I spent by myself while my mother went on a quick errand. And there was this matter of roaming the neighborhood on my own….
We all did it. If you had already joined up with a friend for play or you just wanted to spend some imagination-game time on your own, you might play in your back yard. If you wanted to advertise for playmates, however, you played in your front yard. And once you had paired off, if backyard entertainments didn't suffice, the neighborhood became your playground.
On Pico Street, there were no playmates on either side of our house. To the left, in the corner house, lived the Marquioli family. Margaret was older than I and her older brother was a bully. To the right was the Donaldson family. The three children were all junior high and high school age, but this house was a sort of Mecca for Children Who Love Toys, Gifts, Candy, and Lots of Attention. The mother, Kathleen Donaldson, was a generous soul who adored children and loved to give things away. Her daughter Arlene occasionally babysat for me; it was she who taught me how to make paper doll clothes. Another reason I loved this family was that they all had red hair and freckles, so I didn’t feel self-conscious about my own looks. I managed to find various excuses to invite myself over to visit the Donaldsons.
Janie lived across the street and down a house. Janie’s mother always had a disapproving look on her face and was forever worried that we would break something in the house. So we always ended up playing outside. But that didn’t seem to ward off disaster. Janie and I would do experiments. One day we got carried away harvesting marigold seeds and decimated Janie’s mother’s perfect circle of marigolds in her front yard. Then there was Janie’s disastrous encounter with the rock salt we used with our ice-cream maker. Six-year-old child, salt = food, that’s all I’m gonna say.
Debbie’s family lived kitty corner across from the Marquioli family, at the very “edge of civilization” before the desert started. Her family was large and loud. It seemed that everyone over the age of 12 smoked. There was a brother named Arky who looked and acted like a fusion of James Dean, the Fonz, and Elvis Presley. Debbie and I also had a gift for getting into trouble. Once when we were playing “jump across the ditch” I fell onto a cactus in the ditch. Not the kind with a few large needles, but the kind with thousands of very fine needles.
Kathy lived across the street and around the corner. Her parents were schoolteachers and were into health food before it was really fashionable. Kathy and I never did anything risky. We never roamed the neighborhood and usually never even played outside. I usually got bored and left early.
The Pattersons were the last to move in; they bought the house on the other side of the Donaldsons. Pam Patterson and I would often go on our own made-up treasure hunts around the neighborhood, but usually we could not go very far. This was because her younger sister, who was deaf and was not allowed to go more than a couple of houses away without an adult, often wanted to tag along with us. So instead we would plan camping trips. Trips without parents. And without siblings. Just us.
And what was there in our neighborhood that attracted us kids? Sometimes it was the desert, which was filled with road construction debris and an assortment of desert animals. Sometimes we would sneak across the lawn of Old Man Smith’s house. He was a recluse who was known to shout obscenities through the door at Halloween trick-or-treaters or other trespassers.
And our parents? They were around, sort of. If there was a real emergency, we could run home to them. But they didn’t stand around in the front yard watching us. Well, sometimes Janie’s mother did. But mostly we were left on our own to engage in not-quite-dangerous-but-not-totally-safe minor acts of dare-deviltry.