Really? Were they?
As humans, we tend to look back on the past with a lot of nostalgia. We are wired to let the ugly parts of our lives go and hold on dearly to the bits and pieces that bring back the joy. I’m no stranger to that tendency.
It might strike you as odd that growing up 10 miles west of Washington, DC, would seem like a suburban town with a small town feel. But it did. My parents moved to our house in Falls Church when I was four and my sister two. My parents still live there. And actually, my dad grew up in a house not far from where they live now.
I am a member of a group on Facebook for those of us who grew up in Falls Church. Those of you who are still there know that the main topic lately is the gentrification and growth that has rendered the little place we knew and loved into something unrecognizable. Falls Church was a colonial village well known to George Washington. It had a quaint downtown with comfortable yet old architecture. Well, that’s my perspective.
To my dad? I’m guessing by 1966 it was a souped up place that had grown up around the land on which my dad and his friends trod. It was still recognizable as his home for most of his life. Until now. In the past ten or so years, his boyhood home has been razed and a new monstrosity in its place. The architecture is not even close to what it used to be. The downtown area is now a mass of tall buildings that might be considered skyscrapers. Burger King is gone. Applebees is on the wrecking block. They don’t fit into the mold the city council wants to project. In fact, the city council has decided that they want to turn Falls Church into something the locals by and large do not want. Their marketing team has pushed a slogan calling it “The Little City”. That makes me want to vomit.
With every passing year, it becomes a place that is disconnected from my heart and soul. I’m not sure I’m happy about it either. I wonder what it will look like 100 years from now. Although I will be buried there, it’s probably best I don’t know. Heck, for that matter, maybe the city council will force everyone to be reinterred from our church cemetery to make way for something else?
On the other hand, this world is constantly evolving, and I wonder if I even have a right to be disgusted with the change? After all, the town in which I grew up hardly resembled the place where my own grandmother grew up. She grew up in Arlington (across the Potomac from DC), and back then, it was a farming community full of country folk. She didn’t especially like being lumped in a category of “country folk” although she enjoyed living where she did. And when she and my grandfather bought their house in Falls Church? That was truly the country. Times have certainly changed.
Which makes me think. Were they really the good old days? Parts of them? Sure! But ask women my mom’s age. They might not wholeheartedly agree. My mother grew up in a world very different than mine. She was encouraged to major in one of two subjects (teaching or nursing) or go to secretarial school. Mom wanted to study archaeology. That was not an option in 1955 because it was a male dominated profession. The good folks at the University of Minnesota told her to consider something else. By 1984, that way of thinking had gone the way of the dodo bird. Thank goodness.
She and her peers were expected to be stay-at-home moms. I’m not denigrating stay-at-home mom’s, so don’t go off on me. My generation grew up with a choice. She lived in a world where there were clearly defined gender roles. Kevin and I swapped those roles when it suited our family’s needs.
Mom might even say that during her tenure as a stay-at-home mom with preteens, she was forced to grow up. Her generation didn’t lock their doors at night. The neighborhood chats did not include topics such as the battered wife down the block or the sexually abused kids on the next street. Their conversations were sanitized and polite for company. Any forays into the seedy side were discouraged or forbidden altogether. I didn’t know anything about those topics for a really long time.
Up until I was 12 and Barb 10, we lived a rather ignorant existence. Mom let us ride our bikes without a whole lot of supervision (at least in the minutia). We had a lot of latitude, even though we lived 10 miles from our nation’s capital. The spring right before our birthdays changed everything in our world. It changed everything in the world of our friends as well. The event? The kidnapping of Sheila and Katherine Lyon from Wheaton Plaza as they were shopping for Easter stuff. The Lyon sisters were the same age as Barb and I were. Their family story had a tragic ending, which wound up being a cold case. The Washington Post called it a “regional unhealed trauma” and it really was. From that day forward, we were no longer allowed the same freedoms because Mom was justifiably terrified. It was really the first news story that I can remember that discussed a side of life we had never known.
And yet my parents were fully aware that it was not an anomaly. Those events happened, but they just didn’t make headlines and they certainly weren’t discussed in polite company. My parents’ peers surely knew about these things, but they had a tendency to pretend they didn’t.
They really weren’t the good old days, because since Pluto was a pup, there have been evil people in the world who prey on others. There have always been adulterers, cheaters, abusers, scammers and charlatans. But for some reason, we looked the other way. We knew the fathers who would go to confession on Saturday and then head out Saturday night to repeat the behavior for which they had just repented. There were wife beaters, sexual abusers, gamblers, alcoholics and drug addicts in the pews around us, but we chose to look the other way because they stood for something we didn’t understand or even comprehend. They weren’t like us, so we had to make it seem as though they were.
If my grandmothers were still alive, I’d ask for their opinion. But given that my Grandma Creech returned a clothes washer my aunt and mother had given her as a gift (it was electronic, with an agitator!) to replace it with one that cost way more and had a manual wringer, I’m not sure I’d give her reply a lot of weight! My Grandmom Dunn left a memoir for us (thank goodness). One of her stories was about her first job working at the Press Corps. She liked her job well enough, but her boss was an alcoholic who would disappear for hours. It was her job and the secretarial staff to make excuses for him and present him in the most esteemed light possible. She didn’t say, but I can’t imagine my honest and hard working grandmother appreciating having to do that. In the end, he was outed somehow and fired.
I think I’m going to give myself an assignment. I’m going to try not to glorify the past at the expense of the present. I’m going to work at seeing the good in where we are right now. One thing for sure: I will never forget the Lyon sisters and how their family probably feels about “the good old days”. I’m pretty sure that Mr. and Mrs. Lyon thought they were awful.