Looking back, I realize that my mother seems a "hands-off" mom much of the time. And for this I am grateful. Today she would probably be thrown in the slammer for neglect.
She was around, of course, puttering in the rose garden in her bathing suit or taming the bougainvillea, making lunches and supervising sleepovers. But she did not micromanage our time. Indeed, she rarely seemed to know exactly where we were or what we were doing. There were no cell phones. When it was time for dinner, she rang a big brass bell off the kitchen steps.
Growing up in the foothills near Santa Barbara, Calif., my siblings and I would take off many mornings with breakfasts we'd pack ourselves and go on what we dubbed "Early Bird Hikes." We'd watch firefighters torch the tinder-dry hills in "controlled" blazes, dare each other to run across a field where a horse was grazing, test each other's ability not to flinch as we lay soldier-like under a swing, sneak into a stately mansion that was once the "summer" White House, build forts of eucalyptus boughs and scout for wildlife. That's right, wildlife.
One day we strode proudly into Mom's bedroom to present her with a six-foot gopher snake suspended between two sticks. She shrieked -- a dainty, 1950s scream. How could she have known the snake was thoroughly dead and harmless, the tire treads clearly visible on inspection?
After the snake incident, my dad, the chief pathologist at a local hospital, fashioned me a snakebite kit. To get his attention, I'd shown him a Boys' Life article on rattlers in the local Mission Canyon. The kit consisted of a sharp little penknife with which to cut an X, a tube to make a tourniquet, some white bandages and pamphlet with advice. "Place the tourniquet between the snake bite and the victim's heart. DO NOT run, this will only elevate heartbeat and circulate the deadly poison faster." And finally: "After making an X at bite site, suck out poison and spit it out. Do not swallow rattler venom."
When the weather was lousy, we had a detective club (having devoured the Hardy Boys mystery series), made up plays or lyrics to popular songs and lip-synced to Fats Domino. Television was restricted to a couple of programs at night. Every few days while we were running our private-eye business, Mom would knock on the door to report a crime. Sometimes a priceless brooch had been stolen, a back door jimmied, or a husband gone missing.
She would come with evidence and some "clues." And off we would go, racing to solve the crime.
At night, we sometimes slept in tents pitched in the back yard. Or pretended to sleep. While the adults talked or drank their martinis or had dance lessons with other couples, we often went off to spy on our neighbors. It seemed pretty harmless. Now I think it was perhaps a bit weird. I guess in our own way, we were looking for anything against the social grain: Socialist meetings, wild orgies, something. The only thing I remember witnessing was a mild fight between a young couple in their living room on Mission Lane. We also sneaked into a neighbor's pool for a moonlight swim one night. Today we would be set upon by hounds. Or shot as Peeping Toms.
When we weren't tramping around the foothills or exploring the creek near the Natural History Museum, we were at the beach, digging for sand crabs, watching shimmering grunion run on a moonlit night, body surfing, lazing under an umbrella with sand in our sandwiches, napping or pretending to read. We also watched the "shark patrol" helicopters bear down on the beach. Occasionally they spotted something dangerous like a hammerhead shark, and we'd all go running for safety. Sometimes Mom would drop off my sister, Claire, and me at the park where we roller-skated our lungs out while she bought groceries. We spent hours hitting tennis balls against our garage door or trying to catch lizards with lassos made of long grasses. Sometimes we would go to a movie matinee with Gram, who lived with us. Afterward, we'd go with her to the fudge shop and then to the bakery next door as she picked out crullers, bear claws and twisted cinnamon doughnuts for breakfast.
This is not to say there wasn't a darker undercurrent to these long-ago summers.
Worries about the Bomb were omnipresent. The Los Angeles Times ran weekly articles on radiation fallout patterns. At age 11, I knew Crescent City, on the Oregon border, was the safest place to be in case of a nuclear attack.
My parents took courses titled "How to Deal With Radiation Sickness," and neighbors talked of bomb shelters. In 1962, my father built one and permanently defaced our lovely Italianate sunken garden, ruining its scalloped fishpond and pergola.
Considering the times, I admire my parents for trying to preserve the sacred fulcrum that is childhood. They didn't burden us with adult anxieties; granted, some seeped through to me, an already anxious child and precocious newspaper reader. But dinner conversations were not punctuated with political fatalism, botched security breaches, worries about terrorists or neighborhood pedophiles. Fear was not the salt and pepper of our summers. They didn't share their adult worries with us.
Maybe my parents were repressed or guarded.
But those precious summers were their gift to us. They let us explore our own corner of the world. In our own way.