I was a happy child. I’m basing that on the fact that I’m grinning in all six existing photos of me as a baby, and also because that was the report from the front lines. I was a “handful,” but I was happy. I think you get born with a bunch of that, if you’re lucky, like scoring red hair or a musical bent. But also, my parents didn’t mess it all up. They appeared to be on the same page regarding whatever discipline I got, and never fought with each other to my knowledge, and in general led me to believe that everything was in good solid hands and I could expect certain outcomes and didn’t have to guess or play the odds or one against the other. Also, I didn’t have all that much stuff.
I had plenty. I had everything I needed. That would be food and affection and limits and drawing paper and rules about using extra drawing paper underneath so I wouldn’t dent up the cherry dining room table, and other rules. I was appreciated and hugged and laughed with and laughed at and I had a clear idea what I could get away with (nothing, according to me; everything, if my older siblings are to be believed).
I was thinking about that when Dave was hunting around for a pencil sharpener. He was looking for a plug-in model but had to settle for one of those little square numbers you have to actually shove the pencil into and turn all by yourself with your other hand. Evidently it worked great. He was impressed with the point, although he’s still wondering where the plug-in one is. It reminded me of back-to-school shopping when I hadn’t even been to school yet.
It was grand! Mom had a list sent to her from John Marshall Elementary as I was to enter first grade. We went to Robinson’s Five And Dime and started checking things off the list. I remember one of the items was a “pencil case.” That was a little zippered bag–was it plastic? Did they even have plastic then? Pre-plastic. And pencils (Number Two: five of them). And one of those little square pencil sharpeners. It worked great! There’d be that little crunch inside, tiny violence in the box, and even the scent was sharp: carbon and wood, earthy and pungent, as though everything you would ever make might already be in there. And a Composition Book. Those had a mottled black-and-white cover. And a big square Gum Eraser. And a ruler.
This was the most extended period of Acquiring Things That Would Be Mine that I had ever experienced. The only other way to get new things was to grow out of old things (and then you were likely to get your sister’s even older things) or get two new dresses for school in the fall or get toys on your birthday or Christmas, and not that many of those. Man, we were flying through that list! My pencil case was blue. Why would I remember that with fondness almost sixty years later? Because we didn’t have a lot of stuff.
If we had, I wouldn’t remember any of it. I wouldn’t have cared about it. Happiness comes cheap, and a lot of the time that’s the only way it comes.
As an adult, I romanticized the days when people my mother’s age could have been delighted with a Christmas orange in their stockings. I knew that kind of joy was a thing of value you can get only by not piling on.
We’re likely to be coming up on those days of value again. Our profligacy will have to come to an end soon. We can’t keep pirating unearned energy out of the rocks. We won’t be able to afford the doo-dads we thought we could when the big vein was being mined and we were living off the jackpot like it would last for all time. The good news is our children will be happier.