The Bad Old Days

Dec 26, 2020

Today I darned a sock. Well, not a sock exactly. A support stocking. (If I’ve already admitted to darning, I’ve already revealed my age).  I didn’t do the best job. Nowhere near the neat woven stitches my mother and grandmother were capable of producing. But I remembered the basic principle as I realized at the same time it is a fairly useless skill. Now we throw out socks with holes. We don’t fix them. But this is not a lament for the good old days.

While I was sewing I could almost feel, almost see, the black darning egg we had in my house growing up. It was wood, painted black, and looked, indeed, like an egg on a stick. Truth in advertising. There actually was a special thing you used for this task.

Then I began to think of other childhood experiences. Unsurprisingly, considering what is happening, I thought about getting the polio vaccine. I think I was in kindergarten and wearing my red plaid dress with gold buttons. All the children lined up in the school gym and were handed a sugar cube with a neon pink stain. And I thought about how worried our parents must have been and how grateful for the vaccine. And I realized that both my parents, as children, had lived through the 1918 epidemic, and imagined what my grandparents must have gone through.

I remembered having measles, and mumps and chicken pox and German measles. My sister had been very ill with measles. How frantic my parents were. And I recalled the nights when she suffered from whooping cough and they stood with her in the bathroom running the shower so the steam could help her breathe. And I was grateful that my children did not have to endure any of that.

What I remembered, too, were the metal dog tags issued to children in New York City in the 1950s. Souvenirs of the Cold War. They were embossed with our names and addresses. Maybe ages and gender as well. Their purpose was to identify our bodies in case of a nuclear holocaust. Of course, they would have melted. They would have been as useless as the “Duck and Cover” drills we practiced. Hiding under our desks would not have kept us alive. It might not even have protected us from the shattered glass of the tall public school windows.

Our present is horrible. Duck and Cover has been replaced by Active Shooter. We are reliving 1918. So many, many people have died, and we learn our leaders not only did not try to prevent but actually welcomed their deaths.  People have lost loved ones, jobs, homes, hope. And so many are still in denial, in defiance. I worry about getting ill and about how the experience of the pandemic might harm children. I feel cheated of time with my grandchildren and friends. But remembering what came before—no, this is no lament for the past.