On a hot sunny day in 1969, one of my four siblings announced that we were going to Florida--the next day. Our family vacations always involved camping in local state parks, not exotic places like Florida. This was my mother's wild idea. Apollo 9 was about to launch and my mom liked to be where the action was. Five days and 180 mosquito bites later (we camped most of the way down), we stood on a beach and watched the rocket take off, the first and second stages blazing away in a pink flash. At the first moonwalk, we were sitting beneath the wing of the Wright Brothers' plane, watching Walter Cronkite's broadcast.
We lived in amazing times and my mother made sure that we were a part of them. We were in the streets for marches, picket lines, state funerals and inaugurations. Democracy was participatory. There was no grim sense that we were all going to hell in a handbasket. There was always faith that we could change things and the sense that it was our responsibility to try.
She was 45 years old and expecting her sixth child when other women were busy liberating themselves. She entered graduate school shortly after Maria was born, and when she graduated nearly 10 years later, she checked a box on the federal job application indicating that she could relocate abroad. Her first job was in Germany. Possibilities. Faith.
And reality. I didn't know any other kid on our block who had to pay overhead on their Kool-Aid stand. We paid for the cups, the sugar and the purple potion packets and counted our pennies afterward. We took part in planning elaborate backyard carnivals and birthday parties. In our teens, we planned trips without much input from mom. My sister got run off the Appalachian Trail at gunpoint, and I ended up out of money and eating peanuts intended for pigeons on Boston Common on the last day of my bike trip along Cape Cod--but we were allowed to learn these lessons for ourselves.
Our early 1960s home had a wall of windows that faced our patio. The wire fence between the yards was low, bent and rusty enough to disappear into the green background, so the view down the long slope into the neighboring yards seemed unobstructed. We "borrowed" the neighbors' yards each time we looked out the window. I like to think that this was what life was like with our mom.
Not to say that there weren't boundaries in our lives. Traditions were absolute: no elbows on the table, church on Sunday and oyster stew on Christmas Eve, Independence Day fireworks downtown on the national Mall, cross with the light, be loyal to old friends and local businesses. It's just that the richness of life was available to everyone and was only limited by what we could imagine.