Go play in traffic, kids! was a favourite direction of one of my aunt’s. This particular aunt was snarly, often critical, and never filtered in her commentary on life. Her favourite point of contention was how spoiled we children were, how unappreciative, etc. She also frequently threatened to move to Alaska to get away from us all.
As a child, I never knew how to respond to such commentary. I sensed that she didn’t like us (although she doted on my baby sister), and I also understood that being respectful to our elders was expected, but was I just supposed to take it?
As an adult, I am able to see that this aunt lived a miserable life. She was gay in a time when it was considered criminal, so she had no hope of ever living an authentic life. She fed her bitterness with alcohol, which didn’t help. At times, she could be funny, and despite her harsh words, generous. She was an enigma.
She was also like a fifth sister in our household, being a younger sibling of my father’s and having no family of her own. She fell into the role of eldest child, organized bathroom schedules for extended family gatherings, played the crazy old man from Laugh In at our birthday parties, and led the Christmas tradition of who could get drunk first and pass out under the coffee table. (She and my father competed in this game.)
We had a love/hate relationship right up until her death, and I think of her often. Especially that comment: Go play in traffic, kids!
The thing is, despite the callousness of this wish, it was like we were playing in traffic all the time. Aunt was just one element of the confusion that reigned in my childhood home. The adults, who were supposed to be building a healthy, stable home life to support our growing up years, were busy trying to come to grips with their own addictions, failures, and sufferings. For all intents and purposes, they were partying on the sidewalks, while we kids were wandering the streets looking for fun and distraction. At four years of age, I ‘d already figured out it was safer outside the home than in.
I played a lot in traffic: bike riding, street hockey, skipping – as did many kids in our generation. Parents were seldom in sight. I can’t help but think that the lessons learned in these times helped shaped my character.
My offspring are parents now, and I can say with certainty that their children do not play in traffic. Well, not literally. They have found a much more sophisticated avenue of danger: the internet. At four and five years of age, these little ones are more tech savvy then I, and have already figured out how to unlock password guarded access.
While parents are much more present than generations before, children continue to be exposed to vulnerable situations. I can look back on my life and appreciate the lessons I learned (the hard way), will today’s children be able to do the same?
Or is the traffic just too risky?