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Things The Way They Were

Tell me more about what it was like back then, my son urged. Well, I never rode in a car seat as a baby, I told him. In fact, my mom held me on her lap, juggling me and a cigarette at the same time.
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There are just so many more rules nowadays. As I handed my 11-year-old a medicine bottle to open for me, I explained that when I was growing up we didn't have child-proof lids or warning labels. Both my parents smoked, including my mother while pregnant with me. I survived, I assured my kid -- who handed back the medicine bottle -- lid off. "All in the wrist, Mom," he said, "it's all in the wrist."

But I clearly had his attention. Tell me more about what it was like back then, he urged, fascinated with what life was like growing up in Ancient Ann's World.

Well, I never rode in a car seat as a baby, I told him. In fact, my mom held me on her lap, juggling me and a cigarette at the same time. She smoked filtered ones because they were more elegant, she once told me. Unfortunately, she later learned that lung cancer could be most inelegant.

When I was a baby, my non-driving mother and I would ride the public bus to the store. The driver would get off and help her lift my stroller up and down the bus steps. You didn't need exact change or tokens because the bus driver, who smiled and tipped his hat at you, actually knew how to make change.

"Wha?," said my son, pondering the concept of both riding public transportation and having a public servant who, well, actually served the public.

I continued, knowing I would shock the child with this zinger: When I was learning to ride a bike, no one made me wear a helmet. Also, I was fed baby food with sugar in it so that when Mom licked the spoon, it would taste good; and when I was school-age, I ate canned tuna more than once a week for lunch without a mention of mercury poisoning.

Kool-Aid was the summer drink of choice in my youth and we always added red or green food coloring to our onion-soup-and-sour-cream dip. We made it blue once, but for some reason, we liked it red or green better. Mac-and-cheese was a meal that came in a box and you didn't microwave it because we didn't have microwaves. On nights that Dad worked late, we were allowed to eat our Swanson TV dinners on little TV trays in front of the TV.

Speaking of which, I can recall only three stations that came in clearly on the TV -- assuming you taped the rabbit ears to stay at a precise angle. When someone wanted the TV volume turned up higher, they got up and moved the dial.

"No remotes?" the little one was on the verge of disbelief now.

"No remotes," I confirmed. "Also, our phones had dials not buttons and the receivers were attached to them so you couldn't walk and talk. You were chained by the phone and there was only one phone in the house. It was in the kitchen and hung on the wall."

I ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, always served on Wonder Bread -- the white bread with a balloon in the package and so many preservatives that it never grew moldy. I suspect there is an intact loaf of Wonder Bread on a shelf in the Smithsonian. Salad didn't come pre-washed in a bag and now that I think of it, the only salad I recall involved a head of iceberg lettuce and tomatoes from my grandma's garden. And no dear son, we didn't have sushi.

I read books checked out from the public library. My friends and I played tag in the street on summer nights. We caught fireflies in jars, careful to punch air holes in the tin lids using the same opener we used for our soda cans. No pop-up ring tops. As a teenager, I drank diet Tab. Whatever happened to Tab anyway?

I climbed trees, played in corner lots that weren't littered with discarded beer bottles or dirty hypodermic needles and on more than one occasion, beat the summer heat when someone opened a fire hydrant. The fire department's response time was slow; we figured they were hot too and understood that only rich people had air conditioners and nobody in Newark N.J. had a private swimming pool -- the turf of Hollywood stars alone, surely.

"Your mom let you do that?" the boy asked incredulously. It was probably my mom who opened the fire hydrant, I told him.

He begged for more.

When I tried out for the twirling squad, nobody worried about my self-esteem. "You weren't good enough," the coach said, "practice more and come back next year." My son cast an eye in the direction of his trophy cabinet, one for every soccer, baseball, basketball, flag football and lacrosse team that he and his sister ever signed up for. I just kept talking.

Mom was the only dishwasher we had in the house. For her birthday, my Dad got her a new vacuum cleaner and she was pleased. We drove an hour down the shore on family vacations and brought most of our groceries with us. As a teenager, I poured baby oil all over my body when we went to the beach because we believed that once you fried your skin crisp and it all peeled off, what would be left was a deep dark tan.

"Why did you do so many dumb things?" the boy asked.

"Because we didn't know any better," I answered, taking away the iPad in his hand and replacing it with a book.