The differences between my mother’s childhood in Europe and mine in the United States

Tracey Folly

*this is a work of nonfiction based on actual events, and it represents my mother's and my firsthand experiences.

I grew up without cable television, and my mother grew up without electricity or a toilet

I grew up in a poor neighborhood on the east coast of the United States. Every block had a bar, and every corner had a drug dealer. I couldn’t go out after dark, and I had to be home before the streetlights were lit — right until I got married and moved out of the house at nineteen.

We didn’t have cable television.

There were two television channels, which we changed by standing up, walking to the television, and turning a knob on the face of the television set. Then we had to twist another knob on an antenna that sat atop the television, which would spin the antenna mounted on the rooftop to face the direction where the television signal was the strongest.

We didn’t have a microwave oven until I was in high school, and we didn’t have a toaster oven until I got divorced and moved back into my parents’ house in a new neighborhood. We had two gas stoves with four stovetops apiece, and we had two toasters. There was an outdoor gas grill we could use in nice weather. We also had two refrigerators and a chest freezer. They were always full.

We always had enough to eat.

Our house had seven sinks, four toilets, three bathtubs, and one shower. We had hot and cold running water that was always available but wasn’t always drinkable.

In the summer, the neighborhood kids would open the fire hydrant on the corner. By the time the fire department came to turn off the spray, the water pipes inside our house would be spewing rusty water that we couldn’t drink. We could still use the water for bathing, flushing toilets, and washing dark-colored laundry.

It would take until the following day for the water to run clear enough for drinking or cooking.

My mother grew up in a poor fishing village on an island in the Azores, which is technically European, both politically and geographically. She lived in a one-room shack with her mother, father, brother, and two sisters. The shack had dirt floors. When they swept, the floors got lower. When it rained, the floors turned to mud. They made their mattresses out of straw.

There was no electricity. When it got dark, they lit candles. If they ran out of candles, they went to bed.

My grandmother cooked over an open fire using wood the family gathered themselves. They owned a single kettle for cooking, but there was never much food to cook in it.

They stored their food in a basket that they hung from the ceiling to keep the rats from eating it before they did. It didn’t always work.

When my grandparents were lucky enough to buy a loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese, they cut them into small enough portions to feed themselves and their four children for a week. By the time they reached the last crust of bread, it was stale.

There was no easy way to get water. The entire village shared a single water pump, and it didn’t always run. When one villager saw that the water was running, they would run through the village shouting for everyone to gather their water receptacles and line up at the pump. The people at the back of the line usually went home empty-handed.

My mother and her family didn’t have the luxury of indoor plumbing. They didn’t even have an outhouse. When nature called, they wandered into the woods and did their business into a shallow hole dug for that purpose. Once the hole was full, they filled it and moved into a new area, and dug a new hole.

When I wonder how I survived childhood without cable television, the Internet, or cellphones, I remember that my mother lacked running water, indoor plumbing, and even enough food to eat. Compared to that, I had everything.

What was your experience when you were growing up?

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