If you grew up, as I did, on the North and West Texas plains in the 1950s and 60s, the world came at you in strange and circuitous ways.
You could always get a direct view of the immediate world, of course, by going outside and watching the wind blow and the dust circulate and tumbleweeds bounce past (i.e., by communing with nature). But that lacked romance and narrative, to my young mind. Better to learn about the world through a stack of library books or the squat black-and-white TV.
Books were superior, but you couldn’t read 24 hours a day, even though I sometimes tried. TV had its own diversions. The trouble was, the TV was planted in the living room and, when my mother was ironing nearby, she often added her own narration.
Mother often held forth on hygiene, which she found sorely lacking in the modern world and particularly in her two daughters. The year the Pope (Paul VI?) visited the U.S., she watched, with growing horror, a televised scene of his ring being repeatedly kissed by eager worshipers. She banged her iron down and announced that, “Hygiene is being set back by centuries! Think of all the germs that are being spread on that ring! It’s the decline of civilization!”
We worried a lot about hygiene in our family and had been presented with a lengthy list of rules about never drinking from the same cup as another person or putting your lips too close to a water fountain or touching money too closely. Public restrooms, as you can imagine, came accompanied with a litany of instructions that included suspending yourself several inches in the air and not touching any surface if you weren’t protectively swathed in paper towels.
Equally dangerous, in our family’s view, was Communism. Communists were everywhere, trying to infiltrate the Wichita Falls school board or turning our local minister, Brother Jim, a little pink (which was why we changed churches). Sometimes, we could see Communists on TV — chubby-cheeked, wearing hats and thick coats. The Communist men — and this was especially abhorrent — enveloped one another in large bear hugs. To my family’s way of thinking, this was not only unhygienic, but also unmasculine.
“Look at that!” Mother said scathingly. “They’re hugging! American men don’t hug. They shake hands like men.”
It was true. I probably never saw two American men hug till I was old enough to vote. Women embraced freely, especially if they were related to one another or had been gone a long time. Women and men could hug, too, as long as they didn’t seem to enjoy it too much. But men, no matter how much they cared for one another, packed all that emotion into an enthusiastic handshake. Maybe, if one of them were dying or had just scored a winning touchdown, they could hug, as long as they made it brief.
When did it change? With the hippies? The millennium? Color TV or the fall of Communism?
I don’t know. These days, I look around at a world my parents wouldn’t recognize, although I have an uneasy feeling they’d be ardent Tea Partiers if they’d survived this long. But they didn’t. And, sometimes, I find myself explaining 2011 to them, trying to reassure them. In so many ways, you never completely quit talking to your parents, the people who created your world and dominated your early days.
Here it is, I tell them. Here is a modern world where skyscrapers fell almost 10 years ago, where Communists are remembered with an almost patronizing fondness, since they recall memories of a simpler time, where tiny phones can replace visits to the library.
And men — even American men — get to hug all the time. And that’s good! We all need as much human contact as we can get in this lonely age. We all need a friendly touch, don’t we?
Even though it’s one-sided, I begin to sense this conversation isn’t going well. Somewhere, on the other end, smelling salts are being pulled out and the faces are aghast and freeze-dried. Could it still be those lingering concerns about this country’s first black president?
Maybe next time, we’ll talk about advances in hygiene. Gay marriage, I’m inclined to think, should be brought up another day.
(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read a somewhat related post about how it all ends in a courtroom
ha! growing up in the 50s and 60s on the north and west texas plains (graham and wichita falls), i have to relate this story. it was summer church revival time in graham, and the church split in two and it’s never reunited, because some people thought we should all drink the communion
winegrape juice out of one cup (the one-cuppers) and others thought that was unhygienic, that we should each have our own little cup (the many-cuppers). we came down in the many cup camp. i remember (age ~5) wondering if that’s why they killed jesus, so we could fight over the cup situation.
That’s funny. I’m from West Texas, and MY parents worried more about me (or anybody else) being TOO clean, surely an indication of laziness.
This is a beautiful piece. Even though both my parents are still living, I haven’t quit talking (in my head) to them either. I grew up in Zimbabwe which is as remote from Texas as is 1950’s Wichita Falls from today. It’s my job to refract all sorts of odd things about Texas for their benefit and – just as you’re trying to explain 2011 to your parents – I’m trying to explain America to mine. A never-ending task for us both!
My mom must have taken lessons from yours on the public restrooms. Her advice also warned against hanging your purse on that hook becuase someone could just reach over the door and grab your purse while you were occupied. And one must always remove and dispose of the last couple of squares of toilet paper because the person ahead of you probably touched those.
Freeze-dried faces. Love it! I was really glad my dad passed away right before 9/11. He believed in America. My mom couldn’t understand the Internet, so she would not have gotten cell phones either. I can feel them shaking their heads now, watching us veer into disaster. What I wish our parents had warned us about was toxic chemicals. They knew a time without them. Now toxic chemicals are everywhere in the environment, messing up hormone systems. Take glyphosate. One nasty chemical. And more and more of it is being sprayed on American fields because Roundup Ready crops don’t work and require more herbicide, not less, as Monsanto promised. Glyphosate gets in our air and water. Endocrine-disrupters are often estrogen-mimics and are believed to cause breast cancer, reproductive problems, and the feminization of male … frogs. No one has dared suggest yet that the stuff may be affecting the male race. Maybe endocrine disruptors are why American men have started hugging?
This is so funny and poignant. I find myself talking in my head to all sorts of people all the time, and found this very comforting!
Funny, Ruth. It’s tough, I suppose, to accept to many changes from the “good old days.” My dad is 90, and although he is liberal is so many ways, he refuses to accept same-sex marriage (although he does drink from water fountains).
my mother would love the internet, that I know, and I think she’d be okay with President Obama. she gave rides to blacks during the bus boycott, which made all the rest of her family think she was crazy. times have changed a whole bunch.
Very nice piece, Ruth. I found myself identifying with many of your points. I remember being suspended in public restrooms above the toilet (I’m convinced that is why I have weak kidneys today, trying to hold it!) and since my mom got a case of lice as a child from wearing another girl’s tam, we were never to use someone else’s comb or wear their hat! I’ve also often thought too, what my dad would think of the world today. He passed in 1981 and the world has changed so much in 30 years. Thanks for another wonderful, thoughtful piece.
My family is from Central Texas. For them the big issue was underwear. It had to be pastel pink, blue or white briefs. No one of any “use” wore underwear that was a different color. A small amount of lace might be tolerated but nothing unbecoming of a “lady.” One of my aunts allowed her teenage daughters to wear purple (gasp!) underwear. This abberant behavior was explained by her “being a Yankee.”
Growing up in a rural farming community with a farmer dad, I never saw guys hug either. Come to think of it, I never saw married couples hug either. On the hygiene thing, I think your mom was onto something with the Catholics. It always seemed sacrilege for them to go to church and drink out of the SAME CUP for communion. Yuk! We Methodists are much more safety-oriented.
I don’t think I ever saw guys hug while growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, which was a much different town then than the metropolis it has become. Coming from a neighborhood where everyone was the same, my parents were aghast that a Catholic, A CATHOLIC, was elected to be a U. S. President. My parents mellowed through the years and became quite accepting of many changes that happened in their world. Only my mom is left now. She would love to embrace the internet, but she keeps getting stuck trying to know all the details of how a computer works. Enjoyed your look back in time.
Ruth, I had to laugh at your mom’s aversion to kissing the pope’s ring. This recovering Catholic went to a funeral awhile back and was appalled that the majority of the audience participated in communion that required drinking wine from the same cup. I don’t remember that from my childhood at all and I didn’t like it as an adult. Eeeww!
I am, however, a fan of man hugs.
The combo handshake/hug seems to be a fave in some areas. The men start with a hand shake and then it progresses to a half hug with the handshake hands still shaking. I guess that is safe than the whole hug.
“In so many ways, you never completely quit talking to your parents, the people who created your world and dominated your early days.”
Yes, I often ask my mother (deceased many years) what she thinks about something, and we can have whole conversations. I am comforted by the fact that my son will hear me in his head long after I’m gone.
I’m a little off topic here–still ruminating on your lead. I often do think about pastors and how many hands they shake and people they kiss and how often they are in hospitals to visit the sick and I think they really must get a lot of colds. But the pope’s ring? I’m sure someone washed it later!
As I recall in the Vatican there is a statue of Saint Peter and people come and kiss the foot. It’s been kissed so many times it’s been worn down. I don’t know if the statue is still open for, er, kisses, but I wonder what your mom would think…
I really could relate to this story. I work the night shift and read it earlier on my I phone. I left a comment but I do not see it so I am leaving another because I enjoyed the blog so much. It was great and made my night. Thank you and I will be coming back to read more!