Flipping through an ancient family album the other day I came across a drawing executed by my son, now 43, when he was in first or second grade at Deans Mill School in Stonington.
As I recall, seeing it for the first time in 1982, when he brought it home, shook the foundations of an illusion that we, as parents, had been living.
We were in our sixth year of doing without a television. Our son and his younger sister, we trusted, were ennobled by the absence of the tube, and their imaginations stimulated. When we moved to Stonington in the late 1970s, we hooked up the antenna from the FM to the aerial — remember those? — on the roof, directed it toward Boston and delighted in the programming on WGBH-FM.
In the evenings, before or after dinner, the children would listen to “The Spider’s Web” and then, sometimes with us, to “Reading Aloud.” We listened to “A Wrinkle in Time” and “Tuck Everlasting” and then we listened to “Dear Theo,” the letters from Vincent van Gogh to his brother, and “Fannie by Gaslight” and “My Antonia.”
At bedtime we assiduously read to the children, and no matter how colorful or splendid or wild the children’s storybooks, the one character who reigned supreme for the kids was the minimally illustrated Curious George, the rascally monkey.
Oh, were we smug about our fortitude and wisdom.
Then, home came my son’s drawing. With a charming sense of immediacy, and in that universal primary-aged rendering of stick-and-balloon figures, what was depicted was a boy, smiling with widespread arms, next to a television. Our son had called his art, “I went to my grandmother’s.”
Of course, he was out in the world, and despite the draconian exile of a television from our home, he already had discovered he could listen to TV by turning the dial on the FM tuner all the way to the left and picking up the audio of the nearest television station in the area.
That innocent and happy drawing was only the first indication that our programming, as it were, was under siege. The next revelation came when several of his school friends came home with him, principally to behold the freak house. That is, a home without a TV. Our son negotiated his worthiness among his friends, but still carried the shame, I suppose, of being the only one among his buddies to be so deprived.
Before long, and despite our loving intentions, we conceded to the medium. But we went small — another delusion. This is four decades ago, pre-plasma, even early video game, so the warped thinking was that if we allowed only a modest black and white in the house, it wouldn’t become so dominant. Let me just say that the family had to push me out of the way to watch their favorite programs. I had succumbed again to my addiction, all the small-screen idle fascinations of a misspent youth.
Through the years our children watched and they also read, probably no more or less than their peers. They somehow managed to grow into educated and reasonable adults, and doting parents themselves. We marvel at how our grandchildren, tender kindergarteners and early graders themselves, take to reading. And, of course, to TV, and smartphones and all manner of screens and apps and communication advances.
Still, I do not regret the years we endured without, and the evenings we spent listening to stories on the radio, reading and telling stories ourselves, heartened by wherever the children’s imaginations took them.
I also took some relief, despite the unbridled jolt that my son’s drawing provoked, that the television he brought home was, for a time yet, only on paper.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day in New London. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org