The world I grew up in was nothing like the world today. It's a much smaller place than my world was. When I was a boy, it was a place that held awe and wonder. It beckoned me to come and explore its vast expanse at my leisure on a summer's day. In the winters it held places where a kid could go and entertain thoughts of an approaching Christmas season while skating on its ponds or on the Public Gardens. We were able to travel from one area to another freely to sled down its hills and admire the Christmas lights that stretched across the city.
As long as I checked in when I was supposed to and showed up where I should be, things were pretty loose. The earliest limits I can recall were when I was restricted to Forbes St. and the Wyman St. schoolyard. But then I turned age three and suddenly it seemed that no one cared where I wandered off to... as long as I wandered back by supper time. And the rule regarding when I had to finally come home in the evenings was simple... I had to go home when the streetlights came on. No clock or watch was needed.
My world, while bigger, was much more accessible. Unlike today, where the fear of strangers hold us bound to small areas, as a boy, I could go almost anywhere my feet, bike or the buses would take me. My boundaries were enormous by today's standards. As I grew older I learned about the city I lived in through personal encounters. As far as I could travel in the time I had to kill was my only limit. Sadly, that world has long faded into quaint tales from my childhood that make me feel far older than I should.
For kids and, in particular, parents, the city and the world around us has become a place of untold danger. It has become an evil, fearsome place where a stranger with horrible designs lurks waiting around every corner to snatch your goods or worse, your children.
The fear of others that exists today is so much greater that it has come to function almost like a wall. And while walls might help in keeping us safe from the dangers outside, they also serve to keep us inside; they hinder our ability to see, restrict access and prevent us from exploring places beyond the walls of our worlds.
And while the world got smaller so did the neighborhoods. Or at least what people refer to as neighborhoods. In today's world the word is a relic of speech. When I was young it was used to describe a community. Its meaning has been lost over the years and it's used in a way that is more geographical in sense than it is a communal one. It didn't just describe where I lived; it defined how I lived. When I told someone that I was from Jamaica Plain, that person not only knew where I lived but they knew what kind of people I lived with.
Today the word "neighborhood" is used to describe an area not a community. It tells people little about the people that built it or their history. "Neighborhoods" today are generic, so mixed in their cultural and ethnic make-up that almost nothing can be determined about the people who live there. Usually the people who occupy that area, that "Neighborhood", are anything but neighbors.
They are strangers who share a common space. Most people don't have any idea who the people are that live in the houses that are next to their own. Indeed, in a multi-unit building, they are just as unlikely to know who shares the other apartments in their building, let alone the other houses on their street.
When I was growing up I knew almost every family on my entire street. There wasn't a street within a 2 mile radius that I didn't know at least one family living on it. And even if I didn't know them most people still knew of me or my family. The homes were connected in a way that doesn't exist anymore; at least not in large urban areas. It may still be true of smaller towns where families have roots that are long established and with people who, once they settle, stay there a lot longer than people seem to do in cities like Boston.
The families I knew growing up in Jamaica Plain really were "neighbors"; connected to each other by choice, not just chance. We had no internet, no cable TV with channels devoted to our local area, yet news traveled quickly and efficiently from one home to the next. Families on my street may not have known what happened downtown until the evening news informed us, but any event worth knowing about that took place in our neighborhood was passed from house to home as fast as sound could travel.
It was what I always thought of as a Neighborhood News Network, and Mothers were the reporters and the anchormen who delivered the news.
While the tribes of wandering children formed their groups for the day's adventures, mothers would spend their day exchanging information about the daily goings-on. The stories would be spread from one home to the next by the mothers who manned the homes on the street. Fathers would receive all the details of the day's events over the dinner table or after the local TV news broadcast. Before if it was really important or juicy.
It was because of the all-seeing eyes of the mothers in my world that I never felt concerned or alone on the streets and sidewalks. In fact, I often felt, as did most of the kids in my neighborhood, that there was no real way to hide from the mothers watch. And that brings me to one of my favorite mother stories.
The names have been changed to protect the innocent.
The story starts simply enough with my mother asking herself or no one in particular, "Where's Michael?"
After polling those in the house, checking all my secret hideaways and not locating me, she leaned out our front door and looked around. Not seeing me in the yard or around the nearby houses, she did what mothers in those days did often on a weekend or summers day ... she hollered my name out into the neighborhood air.
"MICHAEL!!!" she called. Not getting the appropriate response she would let out another bellow... "MICHAEL!!!!"
Two houses down another mother answered my mothers call.
"He went with Joey to Gerard's house!" hollered a mother named Edna.
"Thank you Edna, I'll call Gerard's!" my mom replied.
Like the dogs in the movie 101 Dalmatians, their calls filtered thru the afternoon from one home to the other; spreading the news of my status as whereabouts unknown. Like hounds they set to tracking me down in a determined effort only mothers are capable of.
Gerard's mother got the call from my mother and went out to look for me around her house. "Mikey Cannata, are you out there?" she yelled for all to hear. Gerard's sister, a notorious squealer who would undoubtedly make a great mother someday, told her mom that Gerard, Steve, and the rest, including me... went to the Green Street Playground.
Steve was a kid that I did not actually know well since he was older than me and thus didn't hang out with us "little" kids... unless, as was the case that day, he was told by his mother to watch his little brothers. Steve lived in a triple-decker that was right next to the fence that bordered the playground. Steve's Mom's kitchen looked out over the upper ball field at Green Street.
Gerard's mom called Steve's mom and asked her to see if I was playing there. If I was, she was to tell me to get home; now, my mother was looking for me. I had never met Steve's mom or even knew for sure where he lived. And as far as I knew she had no idea who I was at the time either.
I and the kids I was with had just started a casual game of catch in the field next to Steve's house. The second floor window opened and a lady appeared that everyone instantly recognized as a mother. Not anyone specials mother mind you... just someone who had that Motherly authority. But we all turned our attention to her because she looked like a mother that was about to make some very important announcement to the world around us. Without looking at me she leaned out and bellowed as only a mother can do.
"Mikey Cannata?" came the cry of the day. "Have any of you kids seen Mikey Cannata?" she asked the group in general.
All the kids in the park immediately stopped what they were doing and looked about. Needless to say all eyes eventually settled on me. They all may as well have been pointing their fingers they locked in so sure.
I was amazed at what happened. This lady out of nowhere, a complete and utter stranger was looking for me! She was opening her window and telling me my mother wanted me and I was to go home... she wasn't just asking me either... she was telling me in no uncertain terms to go home! And my response back then to that stranger's inquisition was completely different from how I react today to strangers asking or telling me to do something for reasons unknown.
I went home! Directly and quickly!
Today if a stranger in my "neighborhood" asked me if I saw their kids and if I did, would I tell them to go home, I would cast a wary eye, give them a wide berth and ignore them. In today's world you can get arrested just talking to another person's child let alone telling the kid what to do or where to go and expecting them to obey.
But in my world, the world I knew as a boy, it never crossed my mind to question this mother. In my world when a mother told you your mother was looking for you... you didn't argue. You went home.
My mother was a small woman whose voice barely reached us on the third floor of our home. But, because of that special frequency that only a Mother's voice has, her call traveled well over a mile that day. In a most low tech fashion it communicated across a great distance, on a wavelength of community caring that flowed through a network of neighbors. I was a mile away, but I had never left my backyard. For those of us living in that world a Mother's eyes saw everything through a prism made of community.
I used to look forward to the future. If I had known what it held then the things I looked forward to would have been very different. My dreams would have been filled with less anticipation and a lot more anxiety. And if I could today, I would travel back to those yesterdays and never ask for another tomorrow ever.