Tag Archives: childhood

My Soul vs the Company Store

I think I may have sold my soul to the company store.

I was quite late to online shopping generally, but once I got on board I sure took to Amazon. I’m no shopaholic, going into debt buying figurines or other crap I don’t need and in fact, I strictly use Amazon gift cards for purchases (no extra fee for the “privilege”). I find stuff there I can’t get in stores, love the convenience, and often ferret out good deals. There is no question Amazon has made my life better.

Now that being said, I often feel Amazon knows me just a little too well. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they’ve got psychologists on payroll to help them assess customers’ personalities and buying habits. Amazon is “Big Brother” albeit a mostly kindly one. Seduction is a far better technique than bullying, no?

When I first purchased a tablet (from Amazon) I steered clear of those produced by Amazon, i.e., Kindle/Fire. I wanted some of my life to take place away from Amazon’s watchful eye. I was pretty happy with the tablet, that is until this year, when after having it just over 2 years, the touch screen began to go bad. The virtual alphabet wouldn’t let me type certain letters, important ones like “a” or “t” for example. I’d tap “a” and it would type “s.” Being who I am – somewhat tenacious by times (especially when saving money is involved)) – I tried to work around not having a full alphabet at my disposal. Also – and try not to think less of me – I wanted to give the tablet a chance to fix itself or mend its ways.

Equally bad, I was hitting things on the screen I didn’t intend. To my surprise, I joined a “drum jam” on Facebook. I discovered this when I got my acceptance. Oh my! I had never even seen the group before let alone intentionally pressed “join group”. I hastily apologized and removed myself. That was innocent enough, but it occurred to me I could get myself into worse trouble with a bad touch screen. What else might I inadvertently join? Who might I send a message to? What might I purchase? No, it was time for a new tablet.

I strictly looked for inexpensive ones, just basic internet, I don’t need a lot of tricks and features I’ll never use. Also, I was irritated that my initial outlay of cash had gone south so quickly. This led me to an older model Amazon Fire. For weeks, I let the marked-down tablet languish in my online shopping cart. And for those same weeks, in my mind I kept hearing the words to the old song about the company store. When I was a kid, we had access to a pile of old 45 and 78rpm records, oldies left over from my parents and older siblings, and this was one.

For kicks – and because I don’t feel like looking them up – I’m going to share the lyrics from memory: “Sixteen tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. St. Peter don’t you call me because I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.”

My sister and I would happily sing along to the baritone-voiced narrator. I didn’t know what a “company store” was or why someone might be so indebited to it he’d be unable to get into heaven. I just knew the tune was catchy!

Decades later, I eye Amazon warily, feeling fairly certain with the purchase of their tablet (and its “special offers” i.e., ads, imbedded into it) that I’ve indeed sold my soul to the company store. I bet there won’t be much of anything they don’t end up knowing about me. “I owe my soul to the Amazon store…”

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Now for your viewing curiosity: Playboy (sort of)

I remember the first time I saw a copy of Playboy magazine.

After she married, my older sister, trying to be a hip woman of the world, gave our father a subscription to the men’s magazine for Christmas one year. This was odd for several reasons. Ours was a conservative, religious household. Our father was no ladies’ man and gave no evidence (beyond becoming animated about the yesteryear film star Mitzi Gaynor) of being all that interested in such things, at least not at that point in his life.  He was not even lusty toward his wife, our mother (no bear hugs, kissing, or vocal hubba-hubbas, let alone swats on the ass were ever on display). My mother would surely not have approved of either the magazine or the gift but I now expect she must’ve looked the other way, and not objected audibly since it was her favorite daughter doing the gifting. That’s my best explanation anyway.

After we expressed interest, it was decided that my sister, two years older, and I, could see an issue of the magazine. We were probably 11 and 13 at the time. However, our father went through it first and then handed over a heavily redacted magazine. There were thick black lines drawn through much of the copy. Of course, then I was most curious about what had been hidden from us, although now, I expect I’d have been disappointed with the verboten content. This because our father had odd ways of thinking in general, and related to children, especially girl children, poorly. He grew up surrounded mostly by rough-and-tumble brothers, didn’t understand us, had no interest in trying, and was old enough to be a grandfather to his youngest children, of which I was one. Lord only knows how he decided what wasn’t fit for our viewing.

I have to tell you, though, even in its weird condition, the magazine was a happy surprise, in that I’m still a bit shocked that we were allowed to see it at all. I don’t remember much of what I thought about the visible content. I’m sure I didn’t relate to the women shown or the overall sensibility, but no doubt was glad to learn what it was. Curiosity has driven me all my life and this subject was no different. My sister and I looked at the magazine together, alone, and then returned it. There was no conversation with any adult as to what we’d seen, or if we had questions. This was typical of how things were done in our household, and I’d have expected no different.

Dear Santa, I hope you can read my letter after it’s burned…

When I was a child you know what I got to do on Christmas Eve? What every kid loves! Practice my penmanship! What’s this, you ask? Well, my mother would have us sit down at the dining table and carefully write our letters to Santa. In fact, we needed to re-write it until our individual letter was honed and mistake-free. Once my mother said it was okay, we burned our letters in the fireplace, with the understanding this was how they got to Santa. Burning wasn’t optional. I told myself elaborate stories about how the ashes must somehow magically reconfigure themselves back into a letter once they’d cleared the chimney.

This little enterprise was a sham on several levels. First, having to practice handwriting on Christmas Eve. And then burning a letter no one would ever read. And there’s the fact that the presents we were going to receive had already been made or purchased, so fat chance of getting anything requested. (What did my mother think as she read our wish lists of things we stood small chance of getting? “Chumps”??).

I never knew anybody else who grew up with this peculiar ritual so tonight I googled “burning Christmas letters to Santa.” Bingo! We got hits! It seems that it’s a custom for British children to burn their letters to Santa. I was knee-jerkedly going to tell you well my family was certainly not British – my father was 100% Italian (northern-not-Sicilian), and I learned to recite that we were “Irish, Dutch, French and German” on my mother’s side, something I went on saying for decades. My mother proudly liked to claim her “Irish” heritage and always wore green on St. Patrick’s Day. Except…except turns out that’s not entirely true.

About 2 or 3 years so I independently discovered very detailed maternal genealogy online and learned that yes, there was German, French, and Dutch back there, but the “Irish” bit was negligible. (If I recall, my mother was an eighth Irish, meaning her children were a scanty sixteenth.) Moreover, there was a healthy dose of English! This was both freaky and kind of exciting to me – surely not on the level of discovering you’re in line to inherit the Rockefeller fortune, or that your real dad is Kevin Costner – but interesting nevertheless.

I kind of wonder now if that heretofore undiscovered English heritage a few generations back is the reason I had to burn my letter to Santa on Christmas Eve. Well, blimey, mates! Bollocks, I just don’t know. I think I’ll go eat some crisps and think about it…

Mary and Joseph (as you – trust me – never knew them)

My parents both came from a rural area in a neighboring state. As a family, we often returned to the area to visit since many of our relatives remained there. The home and 40 acre farm that had belonged to my paternal grandparents stayed in the family, although the house itself was left more or less vacant for years. My uncle and his brood lived right down the road and were essentially the “next door neighbor” to the farm although next door was separated by some distance, which was either a short drive or a medium walk.

At some point, my uncle procured Mary and Joseph statues from his church. I don’t mean he stole them; the church must have given them away. I don’t remember a baby Jesus being part of this package, although it’s been a long time and living elsewhere, I had limited observation of the affair. I did, however, see Mary and Joseph up close and personal over a period of years. First, they turned up in the living room of the farm house (I guess my uncle didn’t want them at his house? Not sure.). When I was still a kid and our family visited, we sometimes stayed in the vacant house (which we called The Old House), and having Mary and Joseph there too scared the bejeepers out of me. I found life-size, or near life-size statues in this case, just creepy. To this day, I tend to sidle up to statues and stare intently, waiting for sign of movement, an eye blink or something. At any rate, I hastily moved past the living room when Mary and Joseph were in residence.

On a later visit, Mary and Joseph were now on the stone front porch of the house. I guess they decided to take in the air, a change of scenery. There was a story, told by one of my cousins who lived down the road, about a friend of hers commenting on the strange people that she always saw on the front porch. There was enough of a distance between the porch and the road that surely they could have been mistaken for the real thing.

By the time I entered my teens, Mary and Joseph had migrated from the porch to the property proper. They were looking a little worse for their advanced age and what with roughing it in the great outdoors. Joseph’s ceramic hand had broken off so that his raised appendage was now just wire (I hadn’t known that such statues were built around wire frames till I saw that). Joseph looked a bit like a berobed Captain Hook. The farm grounds were the site of our annual summertime family reunions. These reunions were noted for their marked consumption of keg beer. Somebody stuck an empty on Joseph’s wire hand. It was not me.

There was a long-abandoned, decrepit 2-story house on the property that was referred to as “the shack”. It was abandoned far more completely than the main house. There were no doors and windows; looking through the front door – or the opening where a door might have been – you could see clean out the back side to the fields behind it. The last time I saw Mary and Joseph they were far from the main house and appeared to be heading in the direction of the shack. I happened upon them in tall grass. Mary was upright but Joseph, beer can at his side, was now lying on the ground. Oh, I wished I had a camera. It looked like they were headed home, with Mary trying unsuccessfully to rouse drunken Joseph off the ground after a late night.
maryandjoseph2

Barbie gets a “makeover”

It’s the season for toys. Which makes me think of childhood toys and things I wanted. I wonder what I’d be coveting now if I was a kid? For one, I think I’d be attracted to the little play kitchens. Which seems like a horrible idea. Hey! Let’s all start pretending to do the drudgery you’ll be doing the rest of your life. Why not have a little play bathroom so you can practice cleaning a toy toilet? And trying to get rid of the mold and mildew stains in the caulk of ancient tiles? That sounds like fun! And laundry – let’s not forget that. A play laundry station so you can enjoy hours of fun slogging through pretend dirty socks.

I know children want to emulate adults. I did too. The kindergarten I attended was separated into various corners, one of which was a “house” and one was a “store.” I thought both of these were great. Playing house and playing store was fun. Of course, no actual scrubbing or cooking was involved. And I didn’t have to part with any real cash money when buying things at the store. I learned nothing of any practical use from these set-ups or kindergarten generally. But I attended long ago at a time when activities like reading Nietzsche – or reading at all – and studying supply side economics were not yet on the curriculum.

Barbie still seems to be doing the brisk business she did in my youth. I didn’t have a Barbie but still coveted the Barbie swimming pool. The commercials made it look so glamorous and entertaining. Ken and Barbie in their chaise lounge chairs. Or frolicking down the slide. I don’t think I ever saw the toy in real life so maybe it would have disappointed. At any rate, my dolls never got to find out if they’d enjoy a swanky pool; they had to content themselves to swim in a plastic bucket (and only outdoors). I also dreamed of owning a plastic doll head – not sure who made her but probably Mattel – that was roughly life-size. The toy was for applying makeup and fixing hair. I don’t know where a head would go once fixed up, hardly out on the town, but still.

My mother didn’t approve of Barbies. She said children shouldn’t have dolls with “figures.” No boobs, no ass, I guess. Instead she wanted us to have baby dolls with that little hole in their mouth to pour water down which came out the little hole between their legs. You know, as I write that, it sounds twisted. Then again, perhaps this one WAS a realistic toy. As toys, baby dolls were too limited. You couldn’t play games with baby dolls or give them interesting lives. They just had to be babies. Always.

Our school had an annual bazaar, at least when I was very little. One of my older sisters was involved in working at it. When it was over, she got a hold of two Barbies – leftover prizes? – that she then gave, one apiece, to her little sisters. We were beyond thrilled! Barbies! Just handed to us! For no reason! Unsophisticated and sheltered as we were, we (or at least I) failed to recognize or mind that these dolls must have been second-hand. They didn’t come in boxes or all fixed up. In fact, although my Barbie was a white lady with long red hair, she was given to me along with an extra head, which was a darker-complected lady sporting a curly afro. I took it all at face value, as if that was how it was meant to be. I didn’t question the Barbie gods. I’d switch out the heads and make a whole new character with a different name.

Our mother was angry that my sister and I were given the Barbies. But uncharacteristically, she didn’t take them away. Instead, she relied on her standbys, shame and guilt. I think she wanted my sister and me to voluntarily give up the dolls, to see for ourselves the inherent wrong-doing in keeping them. No f-ing way! Voluntarily give up this goldmine?! Coveted Barbies? Even used and a bit downtrodden? No way. Being shamed and guilted was not enough to make me turn on Barbie.

My sister, though? Oh, this is good. She did not want to give up her blonde-haired Barbie, but she also wanted to please our (un-pleasable) mother. We had 2 little school desks in our basement that the school had gotten rid of and my father had brought home. One day when we were playing, soon after getting the dolls, my sister went and got a hammer from our father’s tool bench. She put her Barbie, naked, on one of the desktops. And she attempted to give Barbie a boob reduction with the hammer. Oh yes. I still see this image in my mind decades later. It was troubling to say the least. Where on earth had my sister come up with such an idea?? Here she was, trying to have it both ways; keep Barbie but also eliminate the woman’s “figure” that our mother found so distasteful in a child’s toy.

It didn’t work. My sister’s Barbie was made of a hard plastic and her boob merely cracked on one side. So forevermore, my sister’s Barbie had a botched boob job. MY Barbie stayed intact; I was not about to take a hammer to her. The fact that she had a woman’s physique didn’t faze me one bit and I held tight. Although when I washed her hair the top fell out, resulting in a kind of male pattern baldness, while the rest turned orange. That bothered me most of all.

Candy Cane City and The Motorcycle Guy

I wrote recently about older guys. Specifically those I encountered when I was young. I’ve thought of two more related stories.

There was a candy-cane themed playground in my town. I really liked it, both for the red and white striped décor, and the equipment (I’ve always been fussy about playground equipment, having favorites, well, heck, to this day). It was fenced in and had a sign at the entrance bearing its name. However, and this may sound funny, it attracted a “bad” crowd. Not kids, i.e., bullies and other jerk-offs. No, the crowd that hung around by this playground and in the adjacent parking lot, was an older group, comprised of Vietnam vets and bikers. They were a rough-looking group, especially to a little girl. This was their spot, but it was an oddly public location for a daytime hangout and all the more peculiar for the backdrop of the cheery playground. A patch of woods sat beyond the playground which had a reputation for giving cover for private goings-on, but I don’t recall a steady stream of these guys moving in and out of the trees. I remember them staying in the open. I’m pretty sure they were drinking, but other than that, I couldn’t really say.

These hardened fellows never specifically bothered me or my friends – to my knowledge there weren’t leers or “I’d-like-to-get-me-some-of-that” comments. I don’t remember them paying us little kids any mind at all. Still, because of the guys, there came a point when my mother forbid us to go to the playground.  I was very sorry to have it become verboten and I’d look over forlornly when we passed by it. (The irony of being banned from a place called Candy Cane City…) Eventually the playground was torn down – to encourage the “element” to move along? – and the guys stopped hanging out there.


When we were 10, my best friend got a crush. We both had crushes all the time, so this wasn’t anything unusual. However, my friend set her sights on an older guy who rode a motorcycle. He may have even had facial hair. A mustache maybe? I thought she was out of her mind. This was a man! What was she thinking? Still, she was my friend and I’d support her. I went with her when she decided to leave a note on his parked motorcycle with her name, phone number and the message “call me up.” It felt very scandalous. That phone number, mind you, was the family phone number, for the only house phone (as was true for almost everybody back then). Like me, my friend lived with her parents and a mess of brothers and sisters. This wasn’t a covert operation.

A short while passed. My friend told me someone, a stranger, had called for her. When she came to the phone he asked only, “How old are you?” “Ten,” she truthfully said. That was the end of that call. But here’s the weird part. My friend did not believe the caller was the motorcycle guy. I was sure it was. How could it not be? And wasn’t his question, no doubt spurred by the hand-writing and syntax of a fifth-grader, an obvious clue? She wasn’t convinced. To this day, I’m certain it was him. I’ve sometimes wondered what he must have thought when he got that note and realized (confirmed?) he called a little girl.

The “sexy” school girl look (yeah, RIGHT)

I read a post which reminded me, not in a good way, of the 8 years I had to wear a hideous, scratchy, red plaid jumper/skirt to school year round. I’m well aware how the sexy school girl look has become so bizarrely fetishized, but I’m fairly confident most of us who ever authentically wore it, did NOT feel or look “sexy.” In grade school, I’d be hard-pressed to recall anyone who even looked good in that miserable uniform.

We were pasty-white, skinny kids mostly, who in winter found our little legs raw and chapped from having no protection from cold. Coats were mostly short too, so they were no help (What sense was that? To bulk up a kid on their top half alone and leave the lower half-open to frigid temps??). Our legs were either red or chalky-dry from the elements. Oooh sexy!

Since we were kids, scabbed knees and ugly leg scrapes were par for the course too. Nothing says “sizzling hot” like oozing, scabby cuts! It didn’t help that our playground for recess, lunch break, and some sports activities was a parking lot. Many a child running at full tilt took a nasty gravel burn fall on that pavement. The girls, in stupid skirts and knee socks got the worst of it.

Kids from big families like mine, often passed down uniforms to other siblings so it wasn’t unusual to see a girl overwhelmed in a too big or poorly fit uniform she’d been stuck with. I remember one wearing a skirt that fell below her knees. That skirt wore her.

In later years, the girls in my grade started wearing gym shorts under the skirts, both to facilitate the change for gym class and as a kind of fashion statement. And even as someone who sometimes did it too, I have to say it was an odd look, as the (pre-spandex and lycra) shorts just added a weird bulk to the ensemble. Another habit among the older girls was to roll the waist band under once or twice to “shorten” the length of the skirt. That didn’t work so well either, because the skirt flared immediately below the waistband, plus there’s be a thin white cotton button-up blouse already tucked in to the skirt, so the result was several layers of bunched-up fabric at the waist.

In all the years I dressed up for Halloween or any other costumed event, never once did the thought of trotting out the sexy school girl look cross my mind. Thinking now, what would make a good costume, might be cultivating the authentic school girl look: atrocious jumper/skirt; fake blood leg cuts and scars; pilled, elastic-shot fallen down knee socks; beat-up, industrial-looking shoes with untied, broken laces; shapeless, boxy, short-sleeved button blouse of thin, cheap fabric paired with trainer bra or white undershirt. Topped off with a bad haircut and home-cut, uneven bangs. Now that, that would be a costume.