By Sondra Shapiro
You know you are getting old when you begin longing for the good old days.
When I began working at this newspaper 34 years ago, I was a youngster catering to an elderly readership. I used to publish nostalgia pieces done by local seniors but found it difficult to wrap my head around the idea that a passage of time could make someone long for something that no longer exists.
Well, now I relate all too well. Lately, I’ve been lamenting my good old days when:
•Yard work was a silent endeavor — a task performed with manual rakes, hedge clippers and lawnmowers — tools that allowed for quiet contemplation and an appreciation for the great outdoors. Open windows on warm spring and summer days permitted indoor dwellers to enjoy the sounds of birds singing, gentle breezes and the aromas of flowers and freshly mowed grass.
Instead, as I sit here trying to concentrate on writing this column, I feel a headache coming on as I suffer through the daily ritual taking place in the yards of my neighbors — the cacophony of grinding, piercing noises from electric- and gas-powered lawnmowers, leaf blowers and hedge clippers. Even with the windows closed, the harsh sounds filter in. I wonder how such sound-polluting contraptions can be more efficient than their people-powered predecessors?
•The days before indoor and strip malls — when the square in each community was the central gathering place to socialize and shop. No one used a car, instead part of the adventure was the walk to the square where we would pass the homes of friends and relatives, and if we were lucky, they would be outside and we could stop for a quick visit.
For me, it was Malden Square. The walk might result in a stop at Hunts Drugstore — which eventually became an imagining equipment store — for a frappe or Triple-Decker candy bar, a sinfully delicious confection consisting of a layer each of white, milk and dark chocolate (I still find myself craving them). Or I might part with a nickel for a large, sour pickle at Santoro’s sub shop.
Malden Square was a shopping Mecca that included Jordan Marsh, Woolworth’s, Malden Jewelry, Bakers Shoes, Kotzen’s Furniture, two movie theaters and numerous restaurants and clothing stores. We rarely drove, so we bought only what we could carry home. And since there were no credit cards, only layaway, we rarely overspent.
•Outdoor socializing. The front porch was the gathering place where moms would share a cup of coffee and gossip with a neighbor, and we kids would play on rainy days putting on plays and musicals or just playing with our dolls or plastic army men.
When it wasn’t raining, playtime took place outdoors, with no exceptions. We would never think to stay inside unless we were sick. Sure, we didn’t have computer and video games to entice us, but we were lucky we didn’t. The adventures awaiting us outside were so much better than what a video or TV screen could offer us. The options were endless: kickball, hopscotch, Red Rover, hula hoop and jump rope contests, fort building, fallen chestnuts and pine cone hunts or tag.
•Penny candy — when it really did cost a penny. Unbridled excitement awaited us kids at the corner grocer. For me it was Sam’s on Main Street, a stone’s throw from my house. I could go in with a nickel in my pocket and come away with a small, brown bag of scrumptious treats — bull’s eyes, Squirrel Nut Caramels, a Mary Jane. I was partial to the two for a penny pieces like malted milk balls and red jelly coins.
•Double feature movies. OK, so this is not an outdoor activity, but one that was reserved for rainy Saturdays. The idea that we could get two, first-run flicks for 50 cents was an economical way for our parents to get rid of us for an afternoon, not to mention allowing us kids to escape into a fantasy-filled experience of faraway places like the old west or a post apocalyptic earth where apes ruled. Parents never had to worry about movie ratings since foul language and nudity was a rarity.
•Letter writing — a truly-missed form of communication. Recently my husband was going through boxes of mementos when I spotted a stack of letters he wrote to his parents when he was in college. Since I didn’t know him then, these letters introduced me to the young man he was and helped me to better appreciate the man he is now.
Today he is a devoted son to his elderly parents; as a college student he looked up to them, sought out their advice and appreciated and thanked them over and over again for their financial and emotional support.
My husband often mentions his college days — the stories clouded by the passage of time. So his letters are a virtual time machine where ordinary and special days are brought to life. Angst over a test or finding a job after graduation, requests for simple items like toothpaste and toothbrushes, thanking his dad for helping him find his first car … and most poignant, a special paragraph to his dad telling him how much he appreciates and loves him.
Letter writing forced us to live in the moment with our thoughts and emotions. Helped us articulate feelings and describe experiences. Brought us closer to friends and family because we took the time to sit down, gather our thoughts and share them.
Letters preserve a moment in time in a way that an email, text or tweet can never do. For those of us who saved these priceless treasure, they provide us with reminders of forgotten, mundane events and long-gone friends. They are reminders of the people we once were, what was important to us at the time and how we are the same or different.
I think I miss the art of letter writing most because the practice exemplifies a slower time when few of us were in a hurry or in search of immediate gratification — aptly recounting a lifestyle that is lost, but lovingly recalled.
Sondra Shapiro is the executive editor of the Fifty Plus Advocate. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her online at www.facebook.com/fiftyplusadvocate, www.twitter.com/shapiro50plus or www.fiftyplusadvocate.com.