Thursday, July 25, 2019

Florence Days: the Opie-ness of my youth

Florence Days, 1971
30th Street
Station at 30th and Tucker. That's our house, the Tucker house, behind,far left.

Since I got back from Ireland, I’ve been processing—stories, sights, sounds, the meaning of witness, trauma, language, and on and on. It’s all still so fresh and percolate-y, that I have to make myself stop sometimes before processing becomes spiraling. I have to divert my still-overwhelmed and always-obsessive brain like the toddler it is, with something shiny, soothing, or sweet.

My friend Katy said something recently (Ooh! Shiny!) that brought up one of my happiest childhood memories—the arrival of an annual carnival to my little corner of the world—which got me thinking about the way I grew up, and how incredibly lucky that was.

I grew up in an area of Omaha, Nebraska, called Florence. Until it was consumed by Omaha, Florence was a small town, and it clung to its small-town atmosphere as long as it could, at least until I left home in the early 1980s. We had Zesto, our own little grocery story with oiled wood floors and a butcher, a hardware store, a variety store where we could buy socks, school supplies, fabric, etc., and a library. We had two drug stores, Rexall and Koebler, which had a soda fountain. We had a bowling alley, Kelly’s North Bowl. Like all small towns, we had a bar, the Frontier, and several churches.

Back then we had only three TV channels, no devices or technology, and hard-wired, non-mobile phones (some still with party lines). If you stayed inside, you were either put to work or bored to tears. Most North Omaha kids’ parents couldn’t afford lessons (my grandma got me piano lessons by bartering my babysitting services with the Presbyterian minister’s wife), after-school programs, pool memberships, or day camps, so sunshine or snow, we just roamed. We lived that outside-light-to-dark, glorious kidlife.

My parents both worked. I had three brothers, and when my parents divorced, we all moved in with my widowed grandmother, while Mom worked two or sometimes three jobs. Her main job was office/medical assistant for my uncle, a family doctor. She was greatly underpaid, as were most working women back then (and many still today), and she picked up bartending or waitressing jobs to make ends meet. Grandma was home, but she was busy cleaning, cooking, baking, doing laundry, mending, and more for us four kids and Mom, in a 17-room home that had been in our family for 125 years by then.

We always had what we needed—clothes, food, shelter, and Cub Scout/Brownie uniforms—and we never thought of ourselves as poor, though we certainly were. And anyway, we weren’t really poor—they lived in the trailer court.

My brothers and I pretty much ran amok, unsupervised, since Mom and Grandma were always working. Our dad was mostly MIA in our post-divorce years (that’s another story).We had a few rules—stay in the neighborhood, call if you weren’t home by dark, call if you need help, stay away from the railroad tracks and out of trouble. Our “neighborhood” included the entire north end of Omaha. We Florence girls (and the boys too) ran in tight little packs of gritty urchins, our knees skinned, our hands and faces scraped and probably dirty, spitting our nickel-a-pack sunflower seeds as we fed ducks in the cemetery, played in the park, hung out at Zesto or Kelly’s, or just wandered. We walked or rode our bikes.

And the carnival! Every year, the carnival came for Florence Days. There was a parade down 30th Street, Florence’s “downtown,” which was lined with banners, flags, and booths for the occasion. The Yo-Yo Man came to Koebler’s to do tricks for the kids (and sell yo-yos), and the carnival would set up in the park a block from our house. They were in town for several days, and for the duration, I spent dawn to dusk at the park, grilling the poor guys (there weren’t any carny women in those days) about carnie life. If I bugged them enough, they’d pay me $.25 a day to feed, water, and groom the ponies (in retrospect, I’m sure they were just desperate to keep me busy and QUIET—I could talk non-stop, almost without breathing, back then). I fancied myself an expert horsewoman and, like many kids, made plans to run away with the carnival.

I didn’t have much “stuff” growing up, but I did have a whole lot of independence. I was self-reliant and solved (mostly) my own problems. I never worried, and neither did my mom, about the possible dangers of young girls hanging out with carnies (those kinds of fears would come a short time later, but that’s another story). My mom and grandma didn’t know where I was or what I was up to for long stretches, but they knew I’d be home around dusk/dinnertime. I learned to take care of myself (which is maybe why I was able to wander around Ireland on my own?).

Times have changed, I know. I had experiences later that made me a slightly paranoid, overprotective, ever-present and intense parent with my own three kids (sorry, kids). Then last week, my daughter let my 9-year-old grandson walk by himself from my house to the library (maybe 6 blocks away in the tiny South Dakota town where I've lived since I left Nebraska). I experienced a moment of sheer panic and wanted to stealthily follow behind at a safe distance, spying from the bushes. Thankfully, I remembered my own childhood and quickly came to my senses. I want my grandkids to have that sense of adventure and self-reliance I had as a kid. I want them to explore and reach their own conclusions about the world, not to be told everything. I want them to put the devices down and go outside. So I sat on the porch (with my cell phone and binoculars) and watched him go.

Notes: All photos from
Another post about Florence:

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