The Bike BasketBy Elizabeth Flock
Two things changed my life: my mother and a white plastic daisy bike basket. I have thought long and hard about it and it’s true. I would be a different person if my mom hadn’t turned a silly bicycle accessory into a life lesson I carry with me today. I was eight years-old back in 1973 when bikes had banana seats, streamers blowing in the warm air, playing cards fixed to the wheels so the flap-flap-flapping of them hitting each spoke would sound to us like motor bikes. Helmets were unheard of. Parents didn’t need to watch you when you rode down traffic-free streets. Bicycles were everything in my leafy, affluent town a stone’s throw from New York City, where my father worked. My mother stayed at home to raise me and my two brothers – most of the mothers I knew did the same. You get the picture. For our purposes here, it was summertime in New England. Life didn’t get much better. Those were the days of “go play outside” and “don’t be a tattle-tale, I don’t care who did what to whom,” or “I’m sorry you’re bored but I’m not here to entertain you.” Back then, in summer, it was normal to leave the house in the morning and stay out until dinnertime. Our mothers let us be kids. Trophies were only awarded to winners, parents didn’t always say please when they told you to do something and if you were told to share you shared. Not because ultimatums were issued but because parents had the last say. They didn’t negotiate. They didn’t plead. They said. We didn’t have factory-made elaborate fortresses with thick wood beams and trolleys, we had homemade forts tucked anywhere parents couldn’t easily reach. Forts were where we ate dirt on dares. Where we told secrets and where attacks were planned. We didn’t have fragrant wood chips under our metal swing sets, we had patches of earth kicked bare by legs pumping to get higher and higher. Mothers were burdened with the same things they are now but back then it seemed less of a chore than a given. I should add that this is a presumption filtered through young eyes. That was what life looked like in my childhood. But things were a little different in my town, consistently voted one of the richest in the country. We’re talking rich. Though homes were indeed mansions, wealth was not paraded around town – it was considered gauche by an older set. There were well worn station wagons and kids got to “play dates” not by hummer or mini-van but by – you guessed it – bicycle or calling around to see who could give them rides because mothers were busy running households and getting things ready for when fathers trudged home from their high-powered jobs in The City. In the mid-seventies through to the eighties there was a boom in our town population as more and more families were moving out of the city, children and fistfuls of cash in tow. They were dazzled by good schools, beautiful old rambling homes and stretches of land they could now afford. So school was filled with show-offs whose parents were new to money and thought they needed to earn their place in town by flaunting their bank accounts. I went to a private girls school. There were only 45 students in my graduating class. The seventies were filled with turquoise and silver and macramé but my school didn’t know or didn’t care. If jewelry was worn it was gold not silver. Diamonds and pearls were common accessories. Cars weren’t borrowed they were handed over on sixteenth birthdays. And trust me, the kids in my school noticed and cared about such things. I should tell you that I, too, had many advantages but it was different for me. Why? Because I didn’t know I had advantages. My parents surveyed the changing landscape, saw the emergence of fast and new money in town and wisely decided things would be different in our house. I couldn’t talk on the phone for hours like my classmates could. Oh, and I talked on the family phone not on my own private line. That’s another thing. If you looked up someone in the phone book you would see three or four entries because each child had their own line. My mother and father were united in their parenting philosophy but it mostly fell to my mother to enforce it. Looking back I honestly don’t know how she did it. Swimming upstream against strong green currents of Ben Franklins must have been a Herculean task but she made it look effortless. If we complained about not having what another kid did we’d hear something like: “I don’t care what [so-and-so] got for his birthday, you are not getting a TV in your own room/a car for your birthday/a lavish sweet sixteen party.” Grown-ups were addressed as Mister and Missus, not by first names. We shook hands and looked in eyes. We had to earn our allowance by doing chores around the house. We didn’t have a housekeeper, together WE were the housekeeper. I can still remember how long it took to rub brass polish into the legs of our coffee table and buff them shiny. My brothers can no doubt recall hours spent vacuuming or mopping or cleaning out the garage. Like the two little girls growing up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we made our own beds (no one left the house until that was done) and picked up after ourselves. We had to keep track of our belongings and if something was lost it was not replaced. These were both non-starters and anomalies. And so we come full circle. It was summer and one day my mother drove me to the bike shop to get a tire fixed and there it was in the window. White, shiny, plastic and decorated with daisies, the basket winked at me and I knew - I knew - I had to have it. “It’s beautiful,” my mother said when I pointed it out to her, no doubt knowing where the conversation was heading. “What a neat basket.” I bet I tried to hold off at first. I’d like to think I played it cool for a short while. But then I guess I couldn’t stand it any longer: “Mom, please can I please please get it? I’ll do extra chores for as long as you say, I’ll do anything but I need that basket. I love that basket. Please, Mom. Please?” I was desperate. “You know,” she said, gently rubbing my back while we both stared at what I believed was the coolest thing ever, “if you save up you could buy this yourself.” That had not occurred to me and while it was indeed a good idea it was flawed on many levels. “By the time I make enough it’ll be gone!” “Maybe Roger here could hold it for you?” she smiled at Roger the bike guy. “For that long? He can’t hold it for that long, Mom. Someone else will buy it. Please Mom please?” “There might be another option,” she said. And so our layaway plan unfolded. My mother bought the beautiful basket and tucked it safely out of reach in some hiding place I couldn’t find and trust me, I looked if only to salivate over it. Each week I eagerly counted my growing nest egg supplemented by extra work here and there (washing the car, helping my mother make dinner, running small errands on my bike that already looked naked without the basket in front). And then, weeks later maybe, I counted, re-counted and jumped for joy. Oh happy day! I made it! I finally had the exact amount we’d agreed upon. My mother made a big deal about it. At dinner that night my mother and father raised their glasses and toasted my achievement – it was my first “big” purchase and this was to be celebrated. I remember that dinner tasted better than any other. The sky outside was bluer, I was sure of it. Everything had a sheen of happiness. Then as if from Heaven my basket appeared in front of me, the price tag still on. I nearly cried. My smiling dad fixed it to the front of my bike and minutes later, in the twilight of the evening, they watched me ride up and down our street for all to see. It was one of the sweetest nights I can remember. Days later the unthinkable happened. A neighborhood girl I’d played with millions of times appeared with the exact same basket strapped to her shiny new bike that already had all the bells and whistles. My eight year-old feet pedaled hard and fast home to tell my mother about this calamity. This horrible turn of events. And then came the lesson I’ve taken with me through my life: “Honey, your basket is extra-special,” Mom said, gently wiping away my hot tears. “Your basket is special because you paid for it yourself.” I sniffed, “She didn’t even want a basket. Her parents got it for her after she saw mine!” “Elizabeth, listen,” Mom said, pushing strands of my hair out of my face and behind my ears. “Your basket is different. You don’t know it yet but it is. It might look the same but it’s not. You worked hard for a very long time to be able to buy it. You earned it. You set a goal for yourself and you reached it and we are so proud of you. If you got everything you wanted when you wanted it you wouldn’t care about any of it. I know that doesn’t make sense to you right now but it’s true. You have to work for it sometimes. And when you do, you appreciate it more. She’ll stop caring about it after a while but you will never forget this basket, I promise.” I have worked very hard throughout my life, professionally and personally. I have achieved a level of professional success that pleases me. I have tried hard to be a more evolved person. I have struggled with marriage and though I failed and that is heartbreaking I know I did everything possible to try to save it. Rarely have I gotten everything I’ve wanted when I’ve wanted it. I’ve had to earn it all. And I have appreciated every milestone reached. And so my mother was right. I have never forgotten that white, plastic, daisy bike basket.