At some point in my adulthood I came to realize what I thought of as my children’s precious childhood memories were actually my memories of them. As they got older, I understood they remembered little of the details of family vacations or the long museum treks we made them go on in the name of education. Those were my memories.
Because we lived in multiple countries during our prime child raising years, those memories are spread out geographically. So we do not encounter refresher courses every Thanksgiving when we visit the old house. I can’t say if we’ll ever get back to some of those places (I can say for sure we will never organize the hundreds of photos we took that now reside in massive shipping boxes), so they really do now exist only in memory.
Like CVS, the ubiquitous American drugstore. Or rather, one specific CVS, in Arlington, Virginia, near the apartment we lived in for one year. That was where, alongside television, my kids learned about America.
Both kids had been born in Japan as part of my Foreign Service career. They were raised there and in the UK up to preschool. This was pre-internet, pre-mega-cable TV, pre-free international calls with Skype and its successors. The kids grew up with where they were, and even in England that meant very little American pop culture, with what did sneak through filtered by British cartoons and telly. My daughter knew Thomas the Tank Engine, Peppa Pig, and Blue Peter before she knew Mickey Mouse and Porky Pig. It was a very big deal when a VHS tape of some Disney movie arrived from the US.
So in 1993 my kids knew almost nothing about American culture. It was the near-daily visits to CVS that filled it all in. CVS would constantly redecorate for the next impending holiday. Christmas was a massive occasion, of course, but they did St. Patrick’s Day and Valentine’s Day right as well. The candy aisle with its changing holiday theme was an important stop, and for a while the kids knew the holidays more by color than name — the green holiday, the orange one, the pink one.
There’s more to CVS than just candy, and so we had plastic pumpkins and cardboard turkeys and pilgrims at home. In those less woke, less politically correct times, much of all this was mirrored in my oldest daughter’s kindergarten classes and she felt right at home having her tutor CVS help her keep up. The funny thing was that many of her classmates were from Central America, refugees from America’s warlets there, and were learning the textbook versions of things like the Fourth of July and MLK Day along with her. Nothing said America better back then than a white teacher leading a room full of war refugee Hispanic kids from El Salvador in some poem about King’s life.
Alongside mother CVS was father TV. Since it was supposed to be educational, the TV was usually on PBS, and my kids watched Arthur and The Magic School Bus endlessly. Arthur then was sponsored by Juicy Juice, and the juice commercials were animated bits that flowed along with the main cartoon.
One day in CVS my oldest child shouted, “They have Juicy Juice!” as if she had sighted land after months at sea. She had not understood the concept of “commercial” and had just assumed those were less interesting parts of the show. The connection between advertising and what was on the CVS shelves was a major life event: you could buy that stuff.
It was through this, and joining Girl Scouts, that my Japanese wife learned how a certain kind of American eats. She had never seen an open can of SpaghettiOs or a Lunchables package or made Hamburger Helper or Kraft macaroni and cheese. But as each of these miracle products was advertised on Blue’s Clues or eaten at a Girl Scout event, it moved into our kitchen, at least for one try.
The biggest disaster was the Hamburger Helper, in that my wife did not know she was supposed to add meat; she thought everything came in the box. Dumping all that meatless goop on hamburger buns to make “Sloppy Joes” did not make things better. Baloney, pork rinds, and sugared breakfast cereals were purchased, sniffed, and discarded. There was a lot to learn.
I should have been a better father, or at least a more American father, but instead I relied on CVS as a surrogate. I remember, even if my kids do not, the simple pleasures of rediscovering those “American” things during each visit to the drugstore. Thanks, CVS.