My childhood was all about waiting.
While many families with young children were fleeing New York City in the mid-1960s, my parents put their names on a waiting list for a two-bedroom, middle-income apartment on the Upper West Side. In 1968, they moved in and my older brother was born.
They waited for a three-bedroom before having me and my younger brother.
My father died in that rent-controlled apartment in 2009, at the time he was still paying less than $500 a month rent. It was worth the wait.
We left the city and its spiraling number of homeless and crack addicts twice a year. In the spring we visited cousins in Englewood, New Jersey who had a big, grassy backyard. In the summer, we drove to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina in a rental car. On a kitchen calendar my two brothers and I counted down the weeks, then days for those trips to begin.
During my childhood, we had to wait for things.
My father would meticulously record each day of our vacation with his 35mm Leica Rangefinder. Before we could start a round of mini golf or jump in the pool we would wait for him to take a reading with the light meter, focus the camera and shoot. Printing 14 rolls of film would have been an extravagance beyond his comprehension, so he developed the images into slides.
When we returned home at the end of August we would wait more than a week for yellow Kodak packages to arrive in the mail, then take turns popping each 2×2 image into a viewfinder to relive summer memories: diving for pennies in the town pool, the last moment on a water slide before the plunge, dripping sand from fist to castle. Eventually, my dad would set up the projector and a portal would appear to that other world.
My children don’t understand waiting and savoring things.
My 13-year-old daughter has a digital camera that she rarely uses; she prefers to take pictures with her phone. On a recent family vacation, she took pictures until the memory was full.
“When I was little,” I told her, “we could only take 36 pictures, after that the film ran out. I had to think about what I really wanted to remember.”
“Well couldn’t you delete pictures?” she asked.
No, I had to wait. I waited until I saved up enough allowance to buy more film. If I wanted to see a movie I waited until my parents would take me to Loew’s 84th, where the floor was sticky with spilled soda and the balcony seats smelled like stale cigarette smoke. When my best friend and I wanted to hear our favorite song, we would wait by the radio for hours until Casey Kasem played the 45.
Once a month or so, my mom would take my brothers and me to Shakespeare and Co, the local bookstore. There I would read the back covers of dozens of books in the children’s or young adult sections, before choosing the two titles I wanted most.
My daughter’s kindle has more than 300 books.
When I was 9, I went to sleep away camp. Once a week I wrote to my parents and they wrote back. My father’s letters began “Dear Kimmy,” a name no one called me face-to-face, including him, and ended with a smiley face in the O that started his name, “Oscar.” It was so unlike his imposing personality. In fact, those yellowed relics are the only evidence that he addressed and considered me directly. I still have each one.
Recently, I suggested that my 11 year-old son write a thank you note to his uncle for a birthday gift. “I can just text him,” he said. “Then he won’t have to wait.”
This past Halloween we watched “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown” on Amazon.
Halfway through my daughter asked, “What’s so special about this dog pretending he’s a pilot?”
Beginning in early October my brothers and I waited for this TV special. We marked it on the kitchen calendar because if we missed it, we would have to wait another year. We watched in the reverent silence usually reserved for religious services, because it couldn’t be rewound. Each moment of that show was something to savor more than the Halloween candy that could be replenished in a store.
“What’s so special about this?” she repeated, impatient with not getting an answer as quickly as Siri can deliver one.
“We waited for it,” I said.
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Kim Brown is a teacher, mother and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Village Voice and the New York Post. She tries not speaking to children until she drinks coffee in the morning.