Ten years ago I lost my Mom and last spring my Dad died after ten years as a widower. Less than a year after my Mom was gone, my Dad opted to sell their last shared home and sold or distributed most of their belongings accumulated after almost 50 years of marriage. It was hard and it sucked, but then it was done. Their last shared home was not the home I grew up in. In my early 20s my folks sold my childhood home and moved to a rural area about three hours outside Chicago. It was never my home, but it felt like home, as it was full of all of the trappings of my childhood, including my parents. I got married there and always enjoyed visiting.
My actual childhood home was a fairly standard suburban home just outside Chicago. Come to think of it, my childhood was fairly standard, too. Suburban. Homogeneous. Mundane. My folks both grew up in the city proper of Chicago and, unlike some of my peers, we went into the city fairly regularly. I wrote about some of those trips HERE. For the most part, I had a fairly tame childhood. We ate a lot of meat and potatoes and canned vegetables. We took one memorable family vacation — renting an RV and driving through the western US, but other years were content with a weekend in St. Louis or staying at the Holiday Inn at Janesville, Wisconsin.
It was a no frills kind of childhood.
I was also raised during an era where parents didn’t feel responsible for entertaining or scheduling their kids. Parents did their thing and kids did their thing. Some times those overlapped, like on those weekend trips, but quite often, they didn’t. My siblings and I weren’t involved in sports or many structured activities, so our down time was largely open. I remember as a young child complaining to my Mom about being bored. “Go outside,” she would say.
I read a lot. I listened to old albums on the stereo. I made up my own dance routines in the living room. I consumed television. I devoured my older sister’s yearbooks, memorizing the names and faces of many of their classmates. I would pull volumes of our Encyclopedia Britannica off the shelf and randomly look up things.
One particular coffee table book helped me organize a lot of that unstructured time. I would stare at it for hours, looking at the photos, reading some of the commentary, learning as I went. Alfred Eisenstaedt’s Witness To Our Time was published in 1966 and documented the Life photographer’s international travels and assignments from 1922-1966. A lot of shit went down in the world during those decades. The Great Depression. World War II. The rise of Hollywood. The decolonization of Africa.
At the time, I didn’t really understand all that I was being exposed to, looking at those photos. How I experienced it at the time was as a portal, if you will, into the immense world outside our 1970s suburban living room. That world was glamorous and harsh and cold and hot and romantic and brutal and so damn interesting.
Like most kids, I grew up. My life expanded outside my parent’s home. The hours I spent looking at those photos of Eisenstaedt’s probably stopped once I hit junior high, certainly high school. When we divided some of my parent’s possessions after my Mom’s death, my older sister claimed the book for herself. That made sense, as she was an historian with an emphasis on media and photography. I didn’t think too much of it until my Dad’s death earlier this year.
There I was again, amidst my siblings, divvying up the remnants of my parents’ lives, and, to a certain degree, our childhoods. That kind of act kicks up a lot of dust. A. Lot. Of. Dust. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t been through it. It hurts like hell until it scabs over, as most wounds do.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago when, out of the blue, I thought of that book again. That coffee table book of my childhood I hadn’t thought about in literal decades. Being an adult now, in the age of the Internet, I Googled it. Bam. Within a few minutes I found a first edition copy on sale for $10 through Amazon. Boom. I punched a few numbers into the keyboard and waited for it to arrive on my doorstep. And last week, it did.
When I opened the envelope, the book was instantly recognizable. Like magic. Like a time traveling machine bound in gray linen. As my kids and husband ate dinner, I poured through pages I hadn’t looked at in at least thirty years. It was like being in mass again after a long time away. The images were familiar and comforting. They were as exciting to my 46 year old self as they were to my 8 and 10 and 12 year old self. In those moments of being reunited with so many hours of my childhood down time, I defied space and time and was allowed to go home again.
It was wonderful.
I can see, as an adult woman raising kids of my own now, what an impact those images might have on a young child. I can’t imagine my six year old doing as I had done — his entertainment options are a bit more tech savvy and plentiful than mine were at that age, and having a toddler around means coffee table books are still a few years off for us.
I remain grateful, though, for those unstructured days of my childhood. I remain grateful that my parents didn’t take it upon themselves to decide what was appropriate fodder for their young daughter. I remain grateful for a time that opening the pages of a book on my suburban coffee table was able to take me to places and cultures I could never have imagined. I remain grateful that being exposed to photography made me curious and aware of a world outside the suburbs. I remain grateful that I, too, got to be a Witness To Our Time.