We were at table with some friends recently, talking about the foods we used to like as children, when my husband said, "I made pancakes for lunch one day when I was in kindergarten."
"How nice," we said. "Did your mother help you?"
"No," he said. "The day I made pancakes I was alone in the house."
We put down our forks and, bit by bit, got the story out of him. It seems that, arriving home for lunch and finding the house empty, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He found the box of pancake mix, measured some into a bowl and poured in the milk. Then, having lubricated the griddle with Crisco, he set it on the stove and turned on the gas.
While the griddle was preheating, he went into the next room and dialed his girlfriend's phone number. The girl's mother answered and wanted to chat, but he was worried that the griddle would overheat. He finally got rid of the lady, ran back into the kitchen, climbed up on a chair next to the stove, and started ladling batter onto the sizzling griddle.
We stared at him with our mouths open. "What?" he said. "I knew how to make pancakes. My grandfather had taught me. Besides, that was nothing. I was babysitting my brother and sister when I was eight."
"You were?" we chorused, the food now cold on our plates.
"Sure. When my parents went out they would put my brother and sister to bed. I got to stay up and watch TV."
"But," I said, putting aside scenarios such as fires, gas leaks, and sudden fevers that might deter parents from leaving an eight-year-old in charge, "weren't you scared that a robber might come?"
"No, no," he said. "I knew where the .22 was kept, in my parents' bedroom closet. I knew perfectly well how to handle a gun. I'd done lots of target practice with it in the woods."
This was childhood in the 1950s, not in a sharecropper's cabin in West Virginia but in suburban New Jersey, in a household of caring, college-educated if possibly over-optimistic young parents.
There is a lot of criticism today of fathers and mothers who overprotect their children. Helicopter parents, I know how you feel! I refused to go to a Rolling Stones concert with my once gun-wielding, pancake-making spouse because my baby had developed a couple of funny-looking spots on her forehead. To you I dedicate this story of pancakes and guns, not as an example but as reassurance. Kids, mostly, can survive anything.
(For a completely different story of childhood survival, check tomorrow's post.)