“The Past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”
The Go-between, L P Hartley 1953
At five I played ‘Ring-O-Ring-O-Roses’ and ‘What’s The Time Mr Wolf’. I went to birthday parties, passed the parcel, ate cubes of pineapple and cheese off cocktail sticks without ever wondering why, and danced unabashedly to ‘The Birdie Song.’
At six I devoured Ladybird books, crawling into small spaces to lose myself in tales of beanstalks and giants, pirates and treasure. I counted the interminable minutes before children’s TV started when I could watch Sesame Street, Bosco and Tales of the Riverbank with Hammy the hamster (which spookily, was a Canadian series*). Most of the time I was outdoors with just my sister and our imaginations, making mud pies and playing cowboys.
At seven I remember rainy day despair turning to excitement when my mother pulled a cardboard treasure chest of colouring and dot-to-dot books from nowhere, and how the wet afternoon melted into insignificance outside the warm yellow womb of our farmhouse kitchen. Any book by Enid Blyton unfailingly had the same effect.
At school I minded my ‘P’s and Q’s’ and covered my mouth with my hand when I coughed or sneezed. I wrinkled my nose and squeezed my brain to extract the right words in Gaelic to ask the teacher permission to go to the toilet. Like everyone else, I lived in fear of being caned by the headmaster.
At eight I became an expatriate when my family moved to England. Suburban roads replaced the single-track lanes of rural Irish farmland and I mourned the home from which I was ‘untimely ript’ in pillow-soaking nighttime vigils for many, many months.
At nine and six my sister and I walked the mile to school together, crossing the main road with the lollipop lady. Knowing she looked out for us we sometimes took an alternate route, coming from the left instead of the right, just to catch her out.
I learnt my Green Cross Code, waiting for the green man before crossing the road. A succession of skillful teachers brought to life Guy Fawkes, Henry VIII and Isambard Kingdom Brunel; characters and scenes from history indelibly graven on my minds eye. I drank my free school milk and got ‘seconds’ of my favourite school dinners (spotted dick and custard!).
Breaktime meant playing in the sandpit and moving the jumpers the boys used as goalposts when they played football on the field during lunchbreak; but I never was any good at handstands, no matter how much I practiced. After school I’d call for friends and we rode around on our bikes, dammed streams, and climbed trees. My favourite ice cream was a ‘Feast’ or a Cornetto.
Growing Up Worlds Apart
Here in Canada, when little legs tire of walking they ride in a wagon. My kids read ‘Brown Bear, Brown Bear’ and The Magic Schoolbus. In Kindergarten the teacher says ‘criss-cross applesauce’ and they know she wants them cross-legged and quiet for circle time where they learn to count from books that list, ‘One pine tree, Two bear cubs, Three hockey pucks, Four geese, five peewee players…’
They stand silent and still every morning while the familiar notes of ‘O Canada’ filter through their consciousness, alternate French and English lyrics pouring into the room through the school tannoy system.
They’re taught to sneeze into the crooks of their elbows and know the difference between the hand sanitizer and the soap dispenser in the washroom. They’ve picked up the Canadian habit of answering a ‘Thank you’ with ‘You’re welcome,’ high-fiving is a reflex action and they shout ‘Aaahh-some’ like they were born here. ‘Agadoo’ and ‘The Birdy Song’ would never cut it, it’s ‘Gangnam Style’ all the way.
The dinnerlady and her HUGE stainless steel pots straight out of a giant’s scullery, along with school kitchens, is now extinct. Kids eat packed lunches boomeranged home to minimise school waste and make mums feel sick if they forget to include a bag for the banana peel and messy yogurt pot. Those who prefer have meals made and delivered by the ‘Lunch Lady.’
Breaktime is now recess. Kids play hockey or fill every crease in their bodies and clothes with rasping migratory grains from the sandbox. Football has become soccer, the headmaster a principal, and I’ve had to google ‘cooties’, ‘doozy’ and ‘duotang’ just to be able to understand dinnertime conversation. Their ‘T’s’ have become ‘D’s’ and it’s hard not to laugh when they count to ‘ninedy-nine’ or enthuse about Silly ‘Puddy’.
They teach me about the Battle of 1812 and Terry Fox on the walk home, pausing only to say ‘Hi’ to Glen the crossing guard as he sees us safely across the road. On larger roads the white walking man signals we can venture across six lanes of traffic with minimal trepidation.
Days brim with sports, art classes and playdates. There are pool parties and outdoor movie nights, and no one leaves a birthday celebration without a bulging loot bag or swag from a piñata. They’ve ridden Harley’s and swum in the Great Lakes. They shoot hoops in the backyard and decorate the drive with sidewalk chalk. On hot days they pester me for Freezies or Fudgsicles and never fail to find happiness in a box of Timbits.
Yesterday I overheard one say to the other, ‘D’you know what booty is?’ ‘No’ came the reply, and I tensed as we both waited expectantly. Pushing thoughts of Beyonce and J-Lo from my mind I wondered if anyone heard me gulp. The answer came back clear and guileless, ‘Pirate treasure.’ Aaaaaand exhale….
Countries and experiences may change but the magic’s still the same.
* other childhood favorites originally from Canada include The Littlest Hobo, The Beachcombers and Fraggle Rock