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by Ruth Hallett

I arrived as an immigrant in New York with my parents when I was in the second grade. We were poor and lived in a working-class neighborhood. I remember being happy and not missing material things. I didn't have many toys so I made my own dolls from clothespins, yarn, cloth and buttons. I loved to draw and the biggest treat was a new box of Crayola crayons -- how I loved the smell and the strange names like "burnt umber" and "burnt sienna!" Occasionally we would go to the candy store where I bought Archie comics for 10 cents. A new, clean pink "Spaldeen" ball assured me some attention from the boys. The only collection that I had was several years later when I was in junior high school -- clothes for Ken and Barbie, the originals. We didn't have a television set for the first nine months that we were in this country. When we finally got one, I watched "I Love Lucy" religiously. When the TV was in repair, in those dark ages before video recorders, my mother called the upstairs neighbor to ask if I might watch it at their house.

My children always had a TV and VCR. They had store-bought toys. Their collections consisted of action figures and matchbox cars, stuffed animals and beanie babies. They had Atari, Intellivision, Gameboy, and videos. While I had to be proactive in creating my own entertainment, they had the media do most of the work for them. On the one hand, it was nice to see that they had incredible attention spans and "sitzflesch"; on the other, I wondered how destructive the media blitz really was. Lucy is very artistic and would sometimes draw or color. David occasionally entertained us by creating shows with his animal puppets. But for the most part, they were tuned into Disney, Sesame Street, and "I Love Lucy" (some things never change and yes, she was named after her.)

My birthday parties took place at home, with a table set with festive paper plates, nut and candy cups, birthday cake, soda and pretzels and potato chips. We hung crepe paper streamers from one corner of the celing to the opposite, twisting them and criss-crossing them in the middle. We wore party dresses and party hats, sang songs, played "Pin the Tail on the Donkey" and "Musical Chairs." My children's birthday parties were at gyms, party spaces, karate studios, restaurants and theaters.

When I was a child, we played in the street. We didn't use the phone to communicate -- we called to each other through open windows. Everyone came out. The girls played hopscotch, or jumped rope, or told fortunes in chalk-drawn grids -- after a while, it was pretty obvious in which squares one should put the boyfriend, the favorite car, the honeymoon destination and the number of children we thought we'd have. I'm amazed that we didn't get bored with it. The boys played stickball or "Ringoleevio." The mothers sat on the benches in front of The Projects on warm summer evenings and talked. Sometimes they set up a table and played Mah-Jongg. I don't think children born in the late 70's and early 80's ever heard of any of it. My children NEVER played in the street.

I walked home from school with my friends, stopping at the luncheonette for an eggcream and a pretzel, and in the warm weather went out to play. In the winter, we'd decide on the way home who would go to whose house. My children either had organized afterschool activities, or formal arrangements for playdates, with the obligatory notes to the teacher that so-and-so's mother or babysitter was the designated pick-up adult. There was even stationery available for this purpose, with boxes to check off to facilitate the exchange.

Some things never change. Kids are still expected to call home, though it made me smile when my daughter's friend didn't know how to call her mother from our rotary phone!

Ruth Hallett, an attorney living in New York, grew up in the Marble Hill section of the Bronx. She went back to school to study law when her children were 17 and 12. (They made sure she always did her homework!)


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