I can still recall that little child of three or four with an enormous knife in his hand, squatted down next to the fresh caught fish his father had just laid at the water’s edge. I can still see him probing with his knife, around the eye socket and popping the eyeball out deftly onto the tip of his knife. Smiling, he placed the knife up to his mouth as nonchalantly as one of my young nephews would wield a spoon to feed himself the prized maraschino cherry from his bowl of fruit cocktail. The scene was a real one that I saw in the early 1950’s at S.S. Number 11, the one room school I attended for a few years, before school amalgamation and busing came into effect in our area. National Film Board productions were shown at school on the occasional afternoon, a nice break for all of us, but particularly for our teacher Mrs. Clark, who handled all eight grades together.
Like many teachers at the time, and wise parents with large families she sometimes had her more skilled older students help tutor the younger ones. Even learning to sing Oh Canada and many of the old hymns was easier for us when we moved over to the big kids’ side of the room and stood on their seats, while they stood in the aisles next to us, singing right at our ear level. Even those whose pitch was hopelessly off helped us master timing, and rhythm, and the pronunciation of words like henceforth and hitherto, from the classroom’s shelf of ancient hymnals, a reminder that church services were once held there long ago, before the community had built its first church across the road. We all walked to school and back each day, in all kinds of weather, some kids as far as two miles. Very infrequently, if a blizzard came up, people would call one another up on the party line and arrive to pick up whichever kids they had arranged to take home communally(a euphemism for packed in like sardines). One day we even rode home on a sleigh behind our neighbour Bruce Chisholm’s team of horses, when the road was drifted in with snow.Typically we were supervised by older siblings if we had them, or by older children who were willing to help by rolling us along with them, as kids of all ages passed by our house on the way to and from school.
It was a totally different era then, one in which the sight of a small child eating a fish eyeball from a knife was more likely to simply gross people out rather than cause them to condemn the parenting ability of his Eskimo parent (they were not yet referred to as Inuit at that time) Even I understood, as young as I was, that the child had already learned that valuable skill under his father’s watchful eye, or he wouldn’t likely be doing it. My sister Marsha and I were already peeling potatoes and apples quite proficiently by then, but with much smaller knives than his of course, and our brother Keith had already mastered hammering nails with his own little hammer, into any wood he could scrounge from Dad and Granddad. He learned not to use Dad’s big heavy hammer again without asking, when he hit himself on the forehead with the claw part while swinging it like a sledge- hammering railroad man laying rails for the C.N.R.
The wonderful thing about being part of a large family, growing up in the 50’s, the 60’s and even the early 70’s (for the youngest of my siblings) was that there was no such thing as helicopter parenting, a term now used for the hovering over-protective style of child-rearing common today.Yes, there might have been risks involved , yet not one of us broke a bone, cut off a digit or suffered any lasting damage physically or psychologically. We were able to learn many skills side by side with our parents in the midst of their work, and their work gradually grew to be partly ours too. In the doing of it we felt gratified and fulfilled when we got to enjoy the results of the work of our hands together.
In our unsupervised play we used many of the skills we learned surprisingly early, (if judged by today’s standards.) Marsha, my older sister became a talented hypnotist, but unfortunately not a hypnosis regression therapist, as her only successful subjects were chickens. I became a hairdresser of great renown. Keith became a carpenter known for constructing Caradoc Township’s first and only wooden roller coaster, and that before the age of ten! Jeannie became a house painter, already showing promise by the age of two; Kathy became a nanny whose caliber was equal to that of Jo Frost Supernanny by the age of seven; Janice became a hair model for the agency of Patience and Longsuffering. Jimmy became the go-to car mechanic and body man for hopeless wrecks, and Donny was fully prepared for the inevitable call to act as John Travolta’s body double in any future disco movies.
How could we possibly have found our hidden talents if we were not given the freedom we had as children? How could we have learned so much about life if the adults around us, parents, grandparents, and teachers, had insisted on sitting in the middle of every tea party we ever had, dolloping out the hand sanitizer and dabbing our faces with napkins? I am thankful every day that our parents were free enough to let us find our true callings, and that I was able to practice enough to realize that mine really wasn’t hairdressing (sister Janice would say Amen! to that)