As a baby boomer, Denise and millions of others are becoming senior citizens. She explores what it means to be over 60 today.
It seemed we lived in a simpler time in the 1960s. I was just a pre-teen discovering the world and finding it an interesting place. I didn’t yet know what I wanted to be in the future but I was open to exploring possibilities. I had no idea really that we were struggling financially. My mom didn’t work outside the home (she did plenty of work in the home let me tell you). My father worked hard and studied in the evenings to be an electrician and plumber. He did some of the most menial jobs in that field. He would often come home smelling of a sewer having unclogged someone's leech lines or cesspool. His greatest fun was trying to hug me after first coming in and watch my nose curl up.
My siblings and I played outside most of the summer, inventing our own fun worlds. There was always a woodpile beside the garage because my dad was always building and repairing something. My sister and I often would use the broken and warped boards to build a make-shift fort for the day. We would find rusty nails and hammer the boards together using a rock because dad didn’t like us messing with his tools. I can’t begin to guess how many times I stepped on a rusty nail that went through my flip-flops and into my foot. It seemed I got a tetanus shot at least once a summer.
The innocence of childhood is like the innocence of a lot of animals.
— Clint Eastwood
Swinging on Palm Branches
Next to our home, growing on a few feet from the street, were 5 big date palms. Here in California palm trees are not uncommon. The problem is that they rarely produce any fruit because of the cold winters. But the palms grow big. This one had some long branches that nearly touched the ground. We found that they were strong enough to hold up our weight and even swing on. My nearest sister (in age) and cohort in crime and I would climb onto the swing set hold a palm branch and swing down like Tarzan and actually out over the street. Our street wasn’t very busy but now and then we scared a driver to death by swinging out just above their car hood as they passed. This made them swerve and us squeal with glee. The two of us didn’t much think about the bad example we were setting for the younger siblings or the fact that if we had lost our grip we could have been killed by a passing car. It’s a good thing our parents never caught us. We would have had trouble sitting down for a week, to be sure.
No man knows the value of innocence and integrity but he who has lost them.
— William Godwin
It was the summer I turned 13 when my siblings and I were bowling with my Aunt. I asked several times what the time was. I was hoping not to miss a favorite TV show. After the third time, I asked, my aunt became annoyed and asked if I knew how to read a clock. Of course, I could read a clock. She pointed to the clock on the wall at the end of the alley and said I should read it for myself. I told her it was a dumb place for a clock to be mounted since no one could see that far away. I really thought everyone saw the way I did. How could I think anything else? She immediately told my mom, her sister, that I should have my eyes checked. The optometrist said I had astigmatism and was “legally blind” without glasses. Going home with my new glasses, I couldn’t believe that I could see individual leaves on trees and actual blades of grass at my feet. Those glasses were so thick and heavy that I got sores on my nose and behind my ears but I managed to get used to them. Everything changed once I could see.
A Bomb in Birmingham
It was September 1963, when my aunt and uncle visited just after the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four young girls about my age were killed going to Sunday School. One of them was named Denise. I couldn’t help think that could be me. I go to Sunday School. My name is Denise. I was too naïve to think about the irrational concept that they were black and I was white. They were girls in church. Then my uncle said it. He laughed and said if he had known about it, he would have contributed dynamite to the cause.
My shock and mortification were so overwhelming that I couldn’t breathe. Suddenly I was glad he wasn’t related by blood but only by marriage. I would HATE to share DNA with a creature such as that. At only 9 years old my world grew to include racism. I was pretty sheltered up to that point. But there are some things you can’t unhear, you can’t unsee, you can’t unknow once known. I never wanted to speak to him again. I felt dirty sharing the same air with him. Fortunately, my parents had a falling out with them and they didn’t visit us again. I felt for their children, my cousins growing up in that environment. I knew that there were monsters in fairy tales, but that day, I found out there were monsters disguised as real people and walking among us. Some even in our own families. I didn’t need glasses to see him for the monster that he was.
“Killing in the name of religion defines someone who is ignorant and actually void of religion. God does not condone terror. To kill innocent people to make a political statement is like shooting a dove to say hunting is wrong.”
— Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem
Did your innocence die the day those four children did, like mine? Were you aware of the civil unrest before that day or were you like I was sheltered and blissfully unaware of the unfair and unwarranted treatment of some American citizens? What are your thoughts on the subject of those days before we knew there were monsters in the world? Please leave me your thoughts in the comments below.