Tag Archives: Childhood

Marginalia, no.248

The animals in Winnie-the-Pooh are lacking in genitalia, they seem to have no activity in life other than calling on one another and eating snacks – but the experienced critic need not be fooled.

~ Frederick C. Crews, The Pooh Perplex

The unexamined life may be the one worth living after all, but that conclusion is only available to someone who’s done some examining already and spoiled it for himself. One summer afternoon when I was eleven or twelve I remember feeling a sudden regret that so much of my childhood was over with. That was the moment I ceased to be an artist and became a critic. As every critic knows, there’s no return to the Hundred Acre Wood and the clique of asexual snackers.

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Little People and Big People

If the fog was thick we might not see the ocean, but the one infallible sign that we were nearly to my grandparents’ house on the coast was the sudden, strange blanket of ice plant that grew in the sandy soil on either side of the highway. Being small I liked to imagine myself big and this sort of landscape helped. In the afternoons I was a giant running up and down the dunes through the miniature forests of ice plant. At dinner I tore up broccoli oaks from the mashed potato hills and crushed them between my molars.

We spent two nights on the central coast last weekend. At the local toyshop in San Luis Obispo my daughter picked out a Playmobile set with a little girl and boy like herself and her brother, but three inches tall. We spent an afternoon at the beach. The wind was cold and our ears began to hurt so we explored the sand dunes instead. My son and daughter, little people just moments before, ran towering over the familiar forests of my childhood.

We went to see The Secret World of Arrietty. The movie is based on the Borrowers books by Mary Norton and concerns a family of tiny people who live beneath the floorboards of a house. In one memorable scene Arrietty steps from a small borrower-sized passage into the vast cavern of the humans’ kitchen. We experience a similar change of scale, perhaps, when we enter the high airy theater where giants and giantesses act out (on the screen) their literally larger than life conflicts and romances. On the big screen even little people like Arrietty are brobdingnagian.

Coincidentally, I just finished reading T.H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose about a lost colony of Lilliputians living on a dilapidated English country estate. White tells us in the first paragraph that his heroine, Maria, was “one of those tough and friendly people who do things first and think about them afterward. When she met cows, however, she did not like to be alone with them.” I kept expecting the phantom cow (mentioned twice more) to arrive on the scene at a crisis in the plot. It never did. Rather than a Holstein or Jersey, this one was a MacGuffin.

Like Alice we find ourselves little one moment, large the next, then little again. These transformations follow their own schedule, you can’t plan them. The professor in Mistress Masham says that “people must not tyrannize, nor try to be great because they are little.” Trying to be little because you are big is just as hopeless. My son recently told me that the “Kid Community” (himself and his sister) wanted rights. What rights do you want? I asked. “We want to be treated like miniature adults,” he said. When I was eight years old I thought I was a grown-up too. Now, at thirty-eight, I feel more like a child.

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My Life as a Bird

I recently received several letters from the dead. I had gone to see my parents for the day, a glorious drive across the Golden Gate into wine country where sunlit almond orchards shimmered pink under snowy mountains. While there, my mother gave me a “baby book” she’d kept when I was an infant. Tucked inside were a handful of letters written to me – between birth and my first anniversary – by various grandparents, an uncle (the only writer still alive), and my great-grandmother.

In a typewritten two-pager dated October 11, 1973, my paternal grandfather introduces himself:

Here you are, 3 weeks old, and I haven’t even written to you yet! Don’t understand this to mean that your grandfather isn’t proud of you, or that he doesn’t love you very much – just say that I am a lousy letter writer and a little on the lazy side.

There’s another from him written a year later that includes his reflections on Watergate – an interesting coincidence since my wife and I only watched Frost/Nixon last week. Later in life, this particular grandfather, an old Iowa farm boy, would write an unpublished autobiography full of corncrib wisdom, charmingly titled I Was Here, World – Did You Notice?

In another letter from October ’73, my maternal grandmother is admiring a photograph of me that she has just received. “You’re a little puffy around the eyes,” she says, “but being born isn’t easy.” Considering myself in the mirror this morning I have to admit that I’m still a little puffy around the eyes. Being thirty-seven isn’t easy either. (I know, I know, this can hardly be interesting to anyone else, but bear with me…)

The letter from my still-very-much-living uncle, includes a brief disclaimer about this whole business of life that I’ve just been launched upon, and a heads-up about certain kinds of people I’m bound to run into sooner or later:

Lots of people now-a-days are really cynical and say they would never want a child of theirs to be born in such a world, a world of war, hate, greed, envy, hostility, sickness, pollution, etc. But [Ian], those are like dead people, they can’t find the happiness in life and so they think there is none.

Finally, inside a white envelope stamped with an 8-cent Dwight Eisenhower, there’s a card from my great-grandmother, Mary Irene. It’s decorated with a pencil sketch of a mother bird flapping excitedly over her nestlings. (A printed note on the back says it was drawn by a female polio victim who held the pencil in her teeth and spent two months on the picture).  “Dear Wee [Ian],” Nanny writes:

Welcome to this world. It isn’t always an easy world. It is confusing and sometimes hurtful but there is joy and happiness to be found here, and may you find it in all fullness. May you, in good health, grow strong and sturdy, remembering always that you are God’s gift to us and that life is God’s gift to you. Use it well.

I don’t suppose very many letters are written to persons so patently unable to read or appreciate them as I was when these were put in the mail. But I was the premiere member of my generation on both sides of the family, and born at the far end of the country (my parents were in college), which probably accounts for it. Coming into possession of these letters now and reading them for the first time, I get a hot fluttering in my throat, a blush of omphaloskeptic vertigo. Too crisp glimpses of the past can make the present look blurry and precarious.

Use it well. I was just reminding a friend the other day how in our twenties we still talked in terms of what we were “going to do” with our lives. Whatever that was fated to be for each of us, we’re doing it now. Perhaps that’s why so many of our acquaintances, now that we’re in our late thirties and early forties, suddenly throw everything into the air and start over, no matter how recklessly. They panic, I think, at the sense of creeping irrevocability – Death, perhaps, by another name. I feel that panic too sometimes. To judge by every Woody Allen movie I’ve ever seen, it’s not going away anytime soon.

In an early chapter of Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov describes a visit to his St Petersburg home by General Alexei Kuropatkin, a friend of his father. Sitting on a couch, the general tries to impress young Nabokov by laying out matches in overlapping patterns that mimic stormy seascapes. Someone enters the room and the general stands: the matches scatter on the floor. Years later in the Crimea during the Russian Civil War, Nabokov watches a tramp with matted hair and beard approach his father to ask for a light. Nabokov senior pulls some matches from his pocket. There’s a moment of startled recognition: the tramp is General Kuropatkin, in hiding. But it’s not so much the fate of Kuropatkin that interests Nabokov as the symbolic continuity of the matches:

The following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.

A strange bit of literary advice, but I was reminded of it yesterday morning when I found myself dressed for work in black woolen pants, a black sweater, black shirt, black socks, black boots and a black pea coat. In fact, two ideas suggested themselves. First, I realized that I was dressed for a funeral (I saw the faces of the deceased relatives whose letters I’d just received, and then myself in a coffin). Second, it occurred to me that my dress approximated the ravens I’d seen the day before. Walking with my son through the outdoor farmers’ market we’d heard their froggy croaking and found them hurriedly building a nest of foot-long twigs above someone’s third-floor bedroom window. They were twice as big as our regular crows, a mating pair, with ruffled chests, Roman noses, and wide purple-black wings.

Nabokov has his matches, and of course his butterflies. Here, perhaps, is my symbolic continuity: “Bird” was among the first words I ever spoke; like a saddled cowboy I used to ride the back of a giant cast-iron rooster in the garden; later, a songbird landed on my head and frightened me so much that for years I wouldn’t leave home without a hat; a favorite story from my father’s boyhood involved an aggressive pet goose named Big Chief Harvest Moon; then, of course, my maternal grandmother was always collecting owls – owl-shaped salt and pepper shakers, figurines, music boxes, etc. ; and of course there were the birds I had shot with my BB-gun when we lived in the country, blackbirds and sparrows mostly, whose feet I collected in a painted wooden box; and don’t I still take my children bird-watching at the shore and in the hills? and don’t I look anxiously for each year’s first hummingbird, first robin, first mourning dove?

And now here are these letters by slow post from my personal antiquity, one from a beloved great-grandmother with a curious drawing of a mother bird and her hatchlings on it. And here is this pair of squawking bully ravens and their ill-chosen nesting site, toiling with mere sticks to make a space in the world for their helpless little ones. And here am I, the little bird grown, rushing off on a frosty morning with my own son underwing to drop him at school.

I occupy three places at once, my image repeated as in a collapsible telescope: I am the long-awaited, the fresh from the egg, the mother hovering over her nest. My son is myself and I am my father. I will become my grandparents, and my great-grandparents too. Line up the symbols and scan for syntax – but what does it add up to? What does it mean? I’m not sufficiently perceptive (or schizophrenic) to read it. I can only smile at the correspondence and recall a favorite passage from Saul Bellow’s Herzog:

But he had not forgotten the odor of his mother’s saliva on the handkerchief… All children have cheeks and all mothers spittle to wipe them tenderly. These things either matter or they do not matter. It depends upon the universe, what it is.

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Remembering Mary Irene

Mary Irene and I used to hunt snakes in the fields behind her house. By July the mustard flowers and tumbleweeds had dried up and blown away to uncover the little holes where I imagined that snakes plotted and hid. Playing the chivalrous protector, I would lead her by the hand through the field, poking a stick to right and left as we went. Once or twice I upset a harmless garter snake but never proved myself lethal.

Mary Irene Hart was my great-grandmother. For some reason I called her Nanny. She didn’t care for the nickname (she was no goat, she liked to say), but she put up with it. She was born in Colorado and had three sisters. Their father abandoned them early on to go north (to Canada? Alaska?) and chase after gold. Their mother raised them alone after that. They all worked and struggled but were happy enough. The girls liked to pretend that they were the March sisters from Little Women. Mary Irene was indisputably Jo. She was funny and curious, a bit of a ham and a tomboy. She got herself into trouble.

There are photos of her from the 1920s with a flapper haircut, wearing dresses and sweaters and hats by turns fashionable or frumpy. She’s laughing, pointing, squatting at a picnic, hiking in the Rockies, posing with an infant on her hip and a cigarette in her hand. She surprised everyone (or no one) by getting pregnant out of wedlock. She married my great-grandfather Small in a hurry and they moved to New Mexico where the baby was born – a boy. But she didn’t know how to care for him, and they were miserably poor. Her mother had to come from Colorado to rescue them.

The little boy grew up to rescue her too.  At some point, Mary Irene and her family moved to California, near San Francisco. Eventually her sisters and mother came. By now there were three children, my great-uncle Sonny, my great-aunt Marty, and my grandmother Barbara. Great-grandpa Small was a drunk and had favorites: he fawned over Barbara and blamed Marty for not being as pretty and compliant as her sister. He sometimes beat Mary Irene. One day he had knocked her down in an alcoholic rage when Sonny (by then a young man) charged at his father with a bat and told him to leave the house. He did, and he never came back.

After her children were grown and starting their own families, Mary Irene fell in love with a red-haired widower with the last name of Bennett. They had been good friends for years and it seemed meant to be. They married and were happy for a while, but after five or six years he ran off with another woman. She kept his last name the rest of her life.

My mother often took us to see Nanny when I was a boy. She lived alone in Antioch, below the grassy foothills of Mt Diablo, where the inland rivers are sifted through the delta on their way to San Francisco Bay and the Pacific. In front of her house was a lattice made of cinder blocks with the shapes of flowers carved out of them. Nanny herself was thin and wrinkled; she’d been a smoker all her life. When she opened the door a soft odor of cigarettes and perfume poured out. The living room was cool and an amber glow came through the curtains. Pictures hung on wood-paneled walls; there was a ticking clock, a television, a couch, framed portraits and ashtrays on side tables, and a china cabinet full of glass and porcelain figurines.

Nanny would take us out for shopping and lunch. She drove a ‘60s model Oldsmobile or Buick. I was crazy about that car – its white-walled tires, its flaring terminals over the tail-lights and its wide chrome grille. Bouncing on the vinyl backseat (without a belt, of course) I could sense the car’s mass and torque and felt like an astronaut floating free in the belly of a rocketship.

One year for Christmas or my birthday Nanny gave me a hardbound Companion Library edition of Mark Twain: Tom Sawyer on one side, Huckleberry Finn on the other. Of all the books I’ve lost track of down the years, I think I miss that one most.

There was a conversation that Nanny and I rehearsed almost every visit, another ritual like the snake hunt. It took place on the couch in the living room when the TV was turned off. Mary Irene would smoke elegantly and I would watch spellbound. “Nanny,” I would say, “where does the smoke go?” Then she would answer, “It follows beauty,” and trace the curling ghostly line through the air.  She’d end by pointing at me, pressing her finger to my lips.

No long ago my mother gave me some of Nanny’s china and a photograph of her as a young woman. It’s strange to see people frozen in the blush of youth whom we knew only in their later years. On the one hand, we’re disturbed: time’s toll is made plain. But then we’re consoled too: our memory of the person is somehow expanded, the portrait brightened a little. Looking at this picture I want to believe that there’s some corner of time where Mary Irene still stands outside by the garden with her funny pose and grin. In her eyes there is only – what? Laughter perhaps. There’s no mention of the burden of living, the trials of marriage and children, the expectation or memory of loss or pain; no rumor at all of the snakes that hide in the fields and aim for our ankles.

Those snakes got her eventually, despite all the protection my boy’s heart could offer. It happened when I was eleven. There was a stroke, paralysis, a hospital stay, another stroke, and she was gone. I had never lost someone close to me before. My mother called me in from play to tell  me the news. I shut myself in the bathroom with the lights off and cried. I fought hard not to understand it. How could she be so totally lost to us and yet so palpably near at that moment? It was as if she had turned a corner only a second before and I might still touch her arm if I reached round fast enough. Where had she gone? Maybe she had followed beauty too.

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Political Zoology: A Cautionary Tale

Man is a political animal.  But seeing what the animal is, what may politics become?  …We have the faculty of secreting political wisdom and voiding it in the form of systems exquisite in their logic and their pertinence to our needs.  But we remain illogical and impertinent, so all our systems are realized in gross imperfection, since we have to operate them.

~ Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows

The trouble with liberal democracy is the illiberality of the dêmos.  The politics of identity and the affirmation of grievance govern all.  There is an almost universal lack of generosity.  I do not exempt myself.  In fact, I consider myself an early victim of this kind of unhealthy political enthusiasm.

During the election of 1980 (when I was seven years old) my parents were on opposite sides of the fence.  My father, a republican, supported Reagan.  My mother, a democrat, stood by Carter.  I don’t remember my parents debating the merits or demerits of either nominee, I only recall their preferences – and the ubiquitous images of the candidates passing over the television screen every evening.  I was a Carter man.  Not for any valid reasons, but simply because I liked him.  He looked friendly and I was charmed by his southern accent and the fact that he had once been a peanut farmer.  My friend Roger, however, was for Reagan, who had the endorsement of both his parents.

One day while Roger and I were talking in my backyard we somehow hit on the topic of the upcoming election.  Things grew heated when he insisted Reagan would make a better president, and I countered that Carter was, in fact, a better man for the job than any second-rate actor.  Roger took offense, slandered Carter’s intelligence and then punched me in the face.  I turned my back and sat on the ground and cried.  Roger turned his back to me, too, pretending interest in a nearby shrub.  A sudden fury tore through my little frame.  I grasped the hard object nearest at hand then leapt up behind Roger and cracked him on the head with a metal corkscrew spike, the kind used to secure backyard swing sets to the ground.  Then, while he held his head and cried, I yelled out something definitive in favor of Carter and promptly banished Roger from my backyard for the day.

Seeing what the animal is…

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