I wasn’t the only kid coming home to an empty house.
Divorce had become a thing in my Generation X upbringing. The two couples that lived across the street both wound up with them and lots of kids at school were having it happen. I remember my 8th grade French teacher lost it in class because her husband told her he was leaving her. Moms were hitting the workforce in bigger numbers but that wasn’t all that prevalent in my neighborhood. As far as I knew, all the women in my neighborhood were homemakers.
Media even came up with a term for us: Latchkey kids. I like that one better than “day orphans.” Supposedly we were the least parented generation in history but I don’t buy that. I don’t think my grandfather or great-grandfather were into relational parenting. You can be there and not be there, you know?
Before my dad’s death things were a 60’s family sitcom. We walked home from school in a pack. When I walked through the back sliding-glass door I’d drop the book bag, put on my “play clothes,” and hit the neighborhood. Wars were fought. Games were won or lost. Trees climbed. Forts built. Playboys discovered. 360’s and 180’s were attempted. G.I. Joe even had his hair set on fire and thrown from a roof simulating an ejection from his plane and parachuted down. Near-death experiences were fairly common but never spoken of in front of grown ups.
The streetlight would come on we’d hit our houses for dinner around a table. We talked. Then we’d watch Fonzie be cooler than Richie but the Cunninghams loved him anyway or we’d watch Charlie’s Angels trying to hide the only way teenage boys could watch Charlie’s Angels from our parents or some dumb show called “Battle of the Network Stars.” Then we’d bathe and go to bed. This was pretty much every day of my life as I remember it.
I earned my key in 1980 after the tectonic shift of my dad’s death but the reality is things were starting to change, anyway. Some of my neighborhood tribe had already started high school. The rest of us were riding the bus home from the new middle school that opened when we were in 8th grade. The neighborhood afternoon fabric had already started to fray.
She wasn’t far behind my opening the latch. My job was to make sure my little sister, who was still walking home from the elementary school, got in the house safely. My mom would roll in and ask about our days and do mom chores until about 5:30pm. Then she was off to work on her Master’s degree and wouldn’t come home until around 10pm.
Once I’d checked in with mom and was free from assigned chores, and since the neighborhood had fallen victim to age-related dissipation, I got my boom box (did I mention it was 1980?), loaded the backpack with punk cassettes and a thermos of water, wedged my bats on the handlebars and rode the 10-speed to the batting cages.
The unlimited pass my mom purchased gave me about two hours a day of self-therapy. Two hours of pounding baseballs with punk rock providing the soundtrack was all the therapy I’d get…and I looked forward to it. My mom later told us she didn’t think of getting us professional help. “Therapy had a very different stigma back then,” she said. I believe her.
The streetlight rule still applied, and I’d fire up the microwave or toaster oven and forage.
And I was alone. (To this day, I don’t have any recollection of what my younger sister did during that time)
For four hours.
In my room.
I listened to a LOT of punk music. I started reading Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe. I journaled. I created solitaire rules to play board games that statistically simulated college football teams and professional baseball teams so the dice rolls caused them to perform like they did in real life (look up Bowl Bound and A.P.B.A. baseball…I still have the football game). I watched our new cable television that had all sorts of re-runs of old TV shows. I watched baseball if it was in-season. I don’t remember doing it much, but I’m sure whatever homework was assigned got half-assed done.
Things could get dark, too. What’s going to happen if my mom had a heart attack and died. Do we have any money now and are we going to have to move in with Mama Jeannie? What do I do if the power goes out? What do you mean, tornado warning? I can’t figure out how to half-ass my homework there isn’t going to be anybody to ask until about 10 or so. How do I keep my mom from crying so much? How am I supposed to get the money to Tim so his dad can buy us Kiss tickets? Probably sneaking into Halloween wasn’t the best idea and now every creak in the house is Michael Myers. My mom already said she can’t take me to the end-of-school dance and Angie is going to be there and I have to find a ride. How do I turn off the noise in my head?
There’s a reason solitary confinement is a punishment. Over time it wears on you, man. And it wore on me. Like Dr. Suess said, “Sometimes you’ll play lonely games, too. And they’re games you can’t win ’cause you play against you.”
In my room.
For four hours.
So, you want reason two that I fear abandonment? I know what it’s like to be truly alone. And it’s way worse that coming home to an empty house.