Talking with granddaughters over the weekend, I realized how strange my younger days seem to them when they hear stories of farm families from the ’40s and ’50s who survived in isolation for weeks at a time with nothing for entertainment but board games, jigsaw puzzles and a radio.
The granddaughters recently were reading columns I’ve written since the COVID-19 pandemic forced much of the nation to spend more of its time at home than normal. I have compared the current time of family isolation to those old days when blizzards would smother our farm and we’d be stranded for days and weeks at a time. But these days, even as people have stayed home and limited outside contacts, they’ve still had phone calls and video link-ups. We used our party-line telephone only for medical emergencies or prairie fires, and the first video we had in the house came from those interminable home movies my dad filmed.
Locked away from the world by weather, we passed the time by listening to radio programs, when the static allowed. We had a phonograph and a stack of dinner-plate sized vinyl records. We had a couple of dog-eared decks of Bicycle playing cards for Whist and Rummy and Go Fish, a bunch of jigsaw puzzles with as few as 25 and as many as 1,000 pieces (some missing) and a Monopoly game board with the top hat and cannon playing tokens and piles of play money handled so often the colors were nearly worn off the various denominations of bills.
To the girls, reading about it from the perspective of an age when everything I just mentioned could be downloaded to their ever-present cell phones, the old days apparently seem pretty romantic. To me, it seemed, well, normal, just the way things were. I tried to look back at my young life through their eyes and their perspective. Nope, it still just seems normal. I wouldn’t trade today’s conveniences for yesterday’s basics, although there’s a certain allure to the notion of listening to “The Green Hornet’’ or “Grand Central Station’’ again.
It seems to me that every farm family in our rural neighborhood listened to those shows. It also seems that every family owned a Monopoly set. It was a great way to keep the kids occupied, not only when our family was stuck at home during a storm but also on those infrequent occasions when the neighbors came to call and the folks made an evening of it. The adults would shoo us kids off to a far bedroom or the upstairs hall with the Monopoly game while they got out the playing cards for a spirited evening of Canasta. I’ll confess we tried to eavesdrop on the adults’ conversation during those visits. I don’t recall ever hearing anything particularly interesting.
Back home when we got out a puzzle, I stayed interested until we had found all of the pieces to fashion the border. When it came to filling the interior of the picture, I was mostly indifferent. I liked to come along when the puzzle was down to about 10 remaining pieces and find the last two or three, but that was about it. As a dad, I enjoyed watching the kids work on those puzzles. I’d pitch in sometimes, but mostly I watched. Which doesn’t explain this: During Christmas at the Capitol, a jigsaw puzzle sometimes is laid out on a small table on the first floor of the building. When I worked in news in the capital city, I couldn’t walk past that table without pausing to find and put in place at least three or four pieces. No matter what picture was being created, I always stopped and worked the puzzle. Just for three or four pieces, but still, what’s up with that?
Vinyl records have made a comeback in recent years. People swear by the quality of the sound. And groups of young people I know have formal “board game nights,” during which they play modern versions of the old games that occupied my family during times of isolation.
For some reason, that just tickles me.