Our son will be four in a few months. Four is one of the first ages I have memories of. We lived in Kingston Upon Thames, my bedroom carpet was blue, and the house felt like it was huge. I doubt it was. I was little.
That may have been the last year that my parents were still married. The divorce, or perhaps it was a separation at first, happened the following year. My mother and I moved back to our home town of Brighton to be closer to family and those years in Brighton are full of beautiful memories.
I remember my great-grandmother lifting me up to watch the trains pass by her kitchen window. I remember running up the six flights of stairs to my grandmother’s apartment (well, I used to call it a flat) filled with excitement. I remember the layout of the home we lived in too, a flat that felt huge, but again, probably was not. I was a tall kid, but I was still little.
All the perceived notions you may think a five, six or seven year old kid may have about being raised by a single mother were not true. Life was awesome.
Good Job, Mum!
Our school was a wonderful place. So much love there too. When I heard that Mrs Smith retired last year, I hid my testimony to her in one of my recipes. When we arrived at school each morning, Mrs Stark was already in the kitchen getting started on the day’s “home cooked” lunch. From time to time, she’d even ask us what she should serve that day, guiding our decision toward the produce she had in the fridge.
Our community was rich. Not wealthy. Rich with single mothers who supported each other and loved each other, especially on the days that they would go without food themselves so they could make a meal for their kids, patiently waiting for tomorrows paycheck. My mother worked three or four jobs at a time to make ends meet, and every single night of the week, there was a home cooked meal on the table.
We all ate three square meals a day. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack. and there was never a candy in sight. There was no candy at synagogue and there was no candy at school. There was however, one very special exception.
The Good Work Stamp.
If you did something exceptional in class, and I mean exceptional, it would be rewarded. This wasn’t about getting 100% or solving the math problem. This was about pushing through and achieving something that you’d really worked hard for.
Mrs Smith would send you down to Rabbi Efune’s office so you could show him your work. You’d run down the stairs, knock on the Principal’s door and show him your achievement. He’d grin from ear to ear, take this huge ink pad out of his desk draw and give you the “Good Work Stamp”. It was a seal of approval. Then you’d get a candy. Just one. Our favorite were the soft ones shaped like fish.
One of the proudest moments of the my young school career was the day Mrs Efune (yep, Rabbi and Mrs Efune ran the school together) sat me down on the stairs and told me she would not tie my shoes for me. She encouraged me to do it on my own, and I did! I felt so accomplished! Now that I could tie my own shoes, the world was my oyster!
I was excited, she was excited, and she scribbled my accomplishment on a piece of paper and sent me over to Rabbi Efune’s office to get a good work stamp. Rabbi Efune invited me in, grinned from ear to ear and opened his desk draw to get the ink pad but after he stamped my “work”, there was no candy. He was out of candy.
I ran out to the yard and told everyone.
I got a good work stamp!! I tied my shoes!! I showed them the scribbled note and the good work stamp and I was the happiest kid the yard, because when Rabbi Efune grinned with pride, you knew it was from the heart. I didn’t care that there was no candy that day.
There was no candy on Tu B’Shevat either. The holiday was always a big deal but when I was a kid it as the new year for trees. One year, we took a field trip the Old Age Home and planted a tree. Our generation shared that moment with our parents and grandparents. I was one of the lucky few to be able to tell three generations of matriarchs about the tree we planted. I came home that day and excited by all the fruit we’d shared and nuts we’d eaten.
Ten years later, my great grandmother moved into that home for the final years of her life and I looked for that tree only to discover that the new wing of the home had been built over that yard. My Tu B’Shevat memories were void of fruit leathers and fig newtons but to this day I remember holding that spade, digging the dirty and planting that tree.
Did our parents, school and synagogues deprive us by starving us of candy? Hell no. We were the richest kids alive.