A young Tanzanian boy at the Kilimanjaro Kids Care orphanage is very ill with AIDS. I remember him well from my previous visit to the orphanage two years ago and look forward to seeing him again when I return at the beginning of February. Not only does my heart ache for his suffering, but his name adds poignancy to the situation, for his name is Innocent. A loving mother, now long gone, saw her precious baby as embodying that concept. He is innocent in his plight, with a disease imposed on him in the womb; he is just one of many such casualties around the world. Other children at Theresa Grant's orphanage also possess special names such as Gift. Even the adult teacher of Swahili is blessed with a special name—Gladness.
These hopeful appellations remind me of the concept of innocence, which I define as sweetness in one's perception of life or the ability to see the world with fresh eyes, with an openness and willingness to experience available opportunities. I understand that growing up means a loss of innocence in many ways, but I would hope that childhood still provides a time to be truly innocent. I am dismayed by the rush to too-early adulthood that I see in many young people today. I fear that our culture, with its temptations and pressures to be like TV and celebrity images everywhere, is stimulating a precocious mentality headed in a negative direction.
I think I was lucky to be a child of my generation. At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, I remember making dollhouses out of orange crates with my friend Jeanette, saving one pack of Double Bubble gum through almost a whole summer, splitting a section a week as a Saturday ritual. There just didn't seem to be a materialistic thrust in our environment. Even as a teenager, I lived in what I still fondly recall as a relatively innocent time. Although now a cliched memory on You Tube and other forms of communication, the 1950s and early '60s were indeed filled with tooling around North Hollywood's Bob's Drive-In in my boyfriend's green Chevy convertible, throwing parties with parental supervision, having a curfew and letting my parents know where we were going. Of course there were occasional parties where people sneaked in beer, or spiked the punch, but that was about it. The occasional swear word might be a four-letter word starting with "s" but not much more. Public displays of affection were not encouraged, but we did find time to park and kiss in Stough Park, a Burbank hill overlooking the lights of the San Fernando Valley.
As kids, my friends also felt safe, playing until called in for dinner such games as Hide and Go Seek and Kick the Can. It makes me sad to see how children need to be monitored after dark in many corners of the world that are not childproof. We respected our parents and enjoyed their participation in school functions. I was not embarrassed at all when my parents chaperoned my senior prom; it seemed natural. Most of the boys I dated would linger in my family living room so they could talk and laugh with my father and enjoy my mother's warmth and vivacity.
I was lucky to be surrounded by this atmosphere of innocent security. Certainly there were threats in the larger world; we had bomb drills and I still remember nightmares about my mother melting in front of me from an A-bomb attack. There was prejudice and poverty. The Korean conflict took older friends of mine, and one of my college friends died early as a helicopter pilot in the impending Vietnam War. So all was not sweetness and light, but somehow we still felt that sense of safety and eagerness to confront what lay ahead for us.
I hope for this generation time to be a child, "looking up, ... Holding wonder like a cup," as Sara Teasdale noted in "Barter" as a great image of beauty. There is plenty of time later for kids to be disillusioned, to experience the heartbreak that may come from premature intimacy, to have to be so serious and dedicated all the time. There is but a fleeting childhood.
Jeanette and I often walked to the meadows near our homes to lie on our backs, hands crooked behind our heads and simply gaze at moving clouds. We enjoyed time then, time to imagine and dream, to be innocent and hopeful.