Mailboxes along the roads and old barns set back in fields overgrown with weeds often served as landmarks in rural Montana. These landmarks told us where we were and how far we had to go. Sometimes they signaled “home” and the end of the road. At other times, barely visible through swirling snow, they told us it would be awhile. The word pictures of those mailboxes and old barns may be about events, personalities or furniture.
My Dad was a reader, and the big leather rocking chair in the corner of the living room was where he sat to read. He had other leather club chairs too but he rarely used those. This MBOB is about that rocking chair.
Farm kids in the 1950s were not routinely babysat. They were cared for by their parents until they were old enough to be left alone. Since parents didn’t care to be trapped at home for seven years running, of course, this was the reason children learned how to behave in public from age two and going forward–until they could be left home alone.
The Age of Accountability was not just a doctrine of the church in those parts. It was a spot in the road, a pinpoint of light cast over a child’s life when that child was made to know that henceforth and forever, they were “old enough to know better,” “should be ashamed of themselves for acting like that,” were discovered to have been “acting like a baby,” or were expected to “act their age.” Now that magical and powerful phrase “act your age” was quite fluid in its applications but the use of it by a parent had a couple of standard characteristics.
First of all, it had a floating definition. Exactly what “act your age” might mean at any given time had everything to do with the behavior (sometimes called “acting up”) that constituted the moment’s violation of standards. Secondly, it was an all-in-one imperative, with no stairstep escalation of corrective or threat. It meant the behavior that made the phrase necessary would be corrected or cease–immediately. Because they had been hearing the phrase directed at other children for years, any child who heard “act your age” directed at them the very first time knew they had arrived at The Age of Accountability. It was time to get with the program.
The Age of Accountability was never discussed and it was never defined but heaven help the child who ignored his or her arrival at The Age of Accountability. Floating definitions and ambiguous expectations aside, children who had reached their age of accountability (anywhere between age 8 and 12) were expected to be able to stay at home on their own for periods of time.
My brother and I, the only two of seven still at home, were quite young when our parents left us home alone one afternoon. Knowing they would not be back until well after dark and after our 9:30 bedtime, they explained to us the arrangement that had been made for our supervision-from-a-distance.
The first farm near us was about 3/4 mile across the fields and lay in a bit of a dip with a grove of Russian olive trees on the south and west sides, concealing their buildings from our view and concealing our house from their view.
The next farmyard 1/4 mile beyond them was on the crown of a small hill with a bird’s eye view of the east side of our big farm house where they could see, through a clear Montana prairie night, the first floor kitchen window and the second floor windows of our two bedrooms. It was explained to us that Walter and Nina would, at 9:30 pm, go out into their yard and look to our farmhouse, to confirm that the lights were off. This evidence would tell them that we had gone to bed as required and that everything was as it should be.
Since none of our farms had phones, there was only one way to be sure that we were ok (if the lights in our house were not off when Walter and Nina looked). Walter would be duty bound to get his car out of his garage, drive the mile and a half dirt road to our house to check on us. Such an unnecessary botheration of a good neighbor, absent an open compound fracture, was not to be tolerated and we knew it.
We sure didn’t want to give Walter and Nina any reason to think we needed checking on, so at about 9:25 (in case their clocks were fast) we turned off the kitchen light, went upstairs to make sure the bedroom lights and hall light were off and then we retired to the living room with our books and played Sousa marches on the hi-fi. My brother, being older, has dibs on Dad’s rocking chair and I curl up on the davenport. [In this memory, you know, it is a davenport. It can’t be a sofa or a couch. Far too pretentious.]
As we settle into our reading, we forget that our surveillance of the long, long driveway from our mailbox, a half mile north of the house, was severely compromised since the living room just had one one south-facing window. About 20 minutes later, without warning, the lights of our car sweep across the side of the big white garage and reflect across the living room window as Dad makes the final turn into the yard.
Scramble! Hit the switch for the ceiling light! Turn the lamp off! Push the books into a pile! Run for the double doors that lead to the stairs which we take two at a time in the dark. Fly under the covers in our respective rooms.
Our hearts are pounding so hard Walter and Nina can probably hear them. Quiet! Lay still. Ok….they’re in the house now. I heard the back screen door slam shut. Going on 45 seconds now–I think we’re good.
The stair light comes on. Uh-oh. Dad calls up the stairs in a slightly bemused tone, “The rocking chair is still moving….” Neither of us answers. After a moment we hear him walk away from the stairs.
It’s hard to go to sleep. The fun of getting to stay home by ourselves has been spoiled.
In the morning we come down to breakfast feeling pretty guilty and wondering if we will be scolded. We aren’t.
The lesson was a simple one: it’s better to do what you’re supposed to do than have to worry about the consequences because you didn’t.