I’m 5 years old. On Mama’s stove is a steaming stockpot, filling the world with the essence of chicken and dumplings.
I’m watching her use her fists to mercilessly beat a lump of flour that will become dumplings. She punches the dough, making loud grunts, striking terror into the heart of childhood.
“What’re you making?” I ask her.
“Hush now,” she says.
For many years I sincerely believed that chicken and dumplings were called Hush Now. We ate a lot of Hush Now in my house.
Mama then tells me to “go outside and play.”
Such was the fate of little boys. Any time you opened your mouth to ask a question, you were sent outside to “go play.” God help the child who told Mama he was bored.
“BORED!?” she’d shout. “I’ll show you bored!”
Then Mama’s eyes would fill with holy fire and she would wave her rolling pin around, sermonizing about idle hands. Frankly, you’d be safer telling my mother you were a communist.
So I walk outside to ride my bike.
Back then we all had bikes. Every last one of us. Bikes were everything. A kid in the saddle was limitless.
Sometimes we would be gone for hours on our Schwinns. Nobody worried about us because there wasn’t much to worry about. Our parents weren’t like today’s parents. We didn’t carpool to soccer practice in hybrid vehicles while buckled in FDA-approved car seats, staring at the opiate glow of our iPads.
Our parents drove big-bodied vehicles with names like Lincoln Continentals, Custom Cruisers, and Ford Country Squires. We had no seatbelts except Mama’s right arm. Moreover, we didn’t know what soccer was.
So there I am, riding bikes with my pals. We pull over at a friend’s house. We dismount, midair, while traveling upwards of 89 mph.
We sprint to our friend’s doorstep to ring the doorbell. We are breathless and rosy-faced from exertion.
The door opens.
“CAN MARGARET COME OUT AND PLAY!?”
We all say this to Margaret’s mother in unison, speaking at the same volume of a nuclear weapons field test. None of us kids have problems making eye contact with Margaret’s mom. None of us feel uncomfortable talking to adults.
I bring this up because I recently read a study that found that 93 percent of kids between ages 6 and 14 find it difficult to make eye contact with adults. The study concluded that the culprit was text-message-based communication.
We didn’t text. We wouldn’t have known how. Half of us were still working on the cursive alphabet. We weren’t in constant contact with Mom and Dad, either. In fact, many of us didn’t communicate with our parents at all until we finished college.
That’s not to say Mama didn’t keep in touch with us. She did. Usually, she left us notes on the backs of old bank envelopes in the kitchen.
“I went to Judy’s for bunco,” Mama would write. “Be back soon. Your room better be clean when I get home, or so help me, you will pay dearly.”
So Margaret comes out to play. She brings her cousin Anne along. I like Anne because Anne is a tomboy, and tomboys hold a strange allure over me.
Tomboys are the kinds of girls who get mad at you and punch you in the stomach, which I enjoy. Tomboys can outrun me, outlast me, out kickball me and beat me in arm wrestling. I want to marry a tomboy.
We all pedal hard until we reek of little-kid sweat. We arrive at The Woods. There, we find a suitable place to “do stuff.” This, you see, is the whole point to childhood. Doing stuff.
It’s simple, really. You climb a tree, you kick pinecones, you find a stick that looks like a Winchester and you become John Wayne. You see who can jump out of a tree without breaking more than one fibula.
Life is more dangerous when we’re kids, I freely admit it. It’s not safe. It’s not sterilized. We do many stupid things we shouldn’t be allowed to do.
We don’t wear bicycle helmets. We dangle from rope swings over rocky creeks. Our parents give us pocketknives and lawn darts for Christmas. We build treehouses 48 feet off the ground. Our old man lets us sip his beer sometimes. We eat gluten.
And yet it seems our life is less noisy without excess technology. Our Chevys have no computers. Our brains are capable of memorizing hundreds of phone numbers. We never need GPS systems because we have rural gas station clerks. And most everyone on our street waves Old Glory from their porch.
Tonight, my wife made chicken and dumplings for supper. She placed the steaming bowl before me, and I was a 5-year-old again.
“Is this what I think it is?” I asked.
“Hush now,” said the tomboy.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist and novelist known for his commentary on life in the American South. He has authored nine books and is the creator of the “Sean of the South” blog and podcast. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.