But stressful challenges were ahead for all of us. Our mom still figuring out her persona now as a single adult woman, “divorcee”, and part of the progressive community that existed around the university. And me, matriculating into junior high. The start of school each fall had become the yearly low point for me, and now doubly so because of a big new school full of loads of kids that I would not know and may or may not be comfortable with. I had survived my last couple years of elementary school without too much psychic damage, though I got through it by being more of a trained seal than a fully engaged person. My emerging approach to my academic school work was exemplified by my zeal for working my way through the color-coded SRA reading program, reading their generic, homogenized, level-rated prose pieces and taking the comprehension test after each, before moving on the next piece and eventually up to the next color level. What I was reading was not particularly interesting to me, the whole point was to try to “level up” relative to my classmates, which had some self-esteem boost for me.
I have no recollection now of the first time I set foot in the institutional halls of Tappan Junior high for my first day of homeroom and six different classes each day, probably one of the youngest kids there given I was a year ahead of myself in school, having skipped kindergarten many years back. The building was a big square block surrounded by parking lots on two sides, athletic fields on the third with no significant landscaping to make it look like anything but a venue for some sort of incarceration or some bureaucratic government work. Each class seemed a claustrophobic and intimidating new venue for me packed with my “peers”, kids generally one year older than I, and at this preteen age, that one year was particularly significant developmentally. Intellectually I could hold my own with anyone there, and intended to demonstrate so academically. But physically and hormonally I was definitely on the young side, despite my previously expressed precocious sexuality which I had spent the last three years mostly repressing.
Tappan had about a thousand kids grades seven to nine, which means that there were over three hundred other seventh-graders where I had previously had maybe thirty peers at both of my elementary schools. I could do the math. With only maybe twenty kids from my sixth-grade class at Burns Park also starting at this big new school, here were nearly a thousand strangers that I would be intimidated by until I had the opportunity to develop a relationship with each. And of the three hundred plus seventh-graders, how many of them was I likely to share a class with? Maybe half? And the older kids, the eighth-graders and ninth-graders, what opportunity would I have to share a class with them? So I was doomed to spend the year walking the halls between classes with some eight hundred and fifty older strangers staring at me. Every day in class the weight of that intimidating anonymity bore down on me and took its toll.
It truly was the math of alienation. Having seven different classes each day, each with a different teacher and mix of kids, the dynamic was completely different than elementary school, where you spent most of your day with the same teacher and group of thirty kids. Each teacher probably interacted with a hundred and fifty students each day, so most of the teachers seemed fairly businesslike about it, like “Well here we all our now lets get to work!” For the most part the focus was curriculum and not community, instruction rather than interaction.
If I had had my druthers, I would have wanted to have the opportunity to develop a relationship with my teacher and each of my fellow students in a given class before we even attempted to address the subject at hand. But we kids were not consulted on how things were to proceed in each class, which meant that each teacher was pretty much on their own, without the input of any other human being in their classroom, to set the rules of engagement and try and present their subject to us in a way that would be compelling and cause us to learn. I think this sort of classroom environment was intimidating for most of the teachers there too, and each developed their own mechanism to cope with a very unnatural situation. Even though at home I was beginning to have a relationship with my mom more as a fellow human being than as an iconic parental figure, other adults, particularly my teachers, who I did not have such an extensive relationship with, still intimidated me.
It is the exceptional teacher that can rise above these difficult and discomforting circumstances with a level of charisma plus knowledge of their subject to be a compelling “sage on the stage”, along with an infectious extroversion that quickly connects them to the other people in the room. None of the teachers I encountered in seventh grade came anywhere close to that level, and were mere struggling mortals like myself. But given the rules of engagement between adult and youth in this institution, these shared challenging circumstances were rarely if ever discussed. Clearly the most compelling curriculum of such a large venue was in fact the jamming together so many youth and adult stewards, a curriculum that was mostly ignored.
As I said, I had developed the approach in my last years of elementary school of being a trained seal of sorts when it came to my school work. Just tell me what I have to do to “level up” and I will do it and egoistically accept my gold stars and any other accolades. School was mainly about demonstrating competence, hopefully doable with the minimal amount of the chore of actual learning. My real pursuit of knowledge would happen in my life outside of school where I could explore what really interested me on my own terms, time frame and pace.
So I was devastated when I received a “C” on my first writing assignment for my English class, essentially because I had just minimally followed the rubric my teacher had given for the piece written and put nothing of my real thinking into it. Four dry paragraphs, each beginning with a summary sentence with two or three additional sentences detailing aspects of what went into the summary statement. The terse comment on red at the top of my paper next to the letter grade, which I can’t now remember, indicated that my teacher wanted me to write more about what I really felt about the topic, rather than a mechanical exercise of structuring sentences and paragraphs within the rules of English grammar and prose.
If my English teacher and I actually had a relationship of any sorts and could have had a friendly discussion about it, maybe it would have helped me more in my development as a writer. As it was we did not, and I licked the wounds to my pride, and felt all those fears from my tenuous sense of self-esteem that maybe in this bigger pond I was just a little fish academically and really did not pass muster as an elite student. Next time I would try to do better to redeem myself in the eyes of my one person judge and jury passing judgment on me.
The one class where we kids could interact with each other to some degree was homeroom. It was a special short period after my first two classes. It was a “class” of sorts because we reported to a given room and sat in the same desks with the same teacher and thirty other kids each day. But there was no curriculum other than listening to announcements from the office over the public address system and other occasional administrative announcements and tasks from our homeroom teacher. The rest of the time in class we were allowed to actually get up from our desks, move about the room and actually interact with each other in unstructured small groups not unlike real human beings.
Given this possibility for more natural rules of engagement between us young humans, the problem for me with homeroom was twofold. First the venue, a classroom full of desks jammed with thirty kids and nowhere else we could go to have conversations with individuals or a small group without everyone else jammed in the room seeing and even overhearing the interaction. Talking to a person of the other gender was particularly problematic, because it created the visible possibility that everyone noticed that you might “like” somebody of the opposite sex or they might “like” you. I don’t think any of us other than the most “alpha” boy or girl had enough un-tenuous self-esteem to attempt such a provocative act.
Second was the relational dynamic among my fellow male types in the room. There was a stratification from those who defined themselves and were acknowledged by others as the cool guys, then other boys because of their physical characteristics – homely faces or overweight bodies – or psychological – extreme shyness or lack of social skills – were considered uncool. So if you talked to a kid who was generally seen by the cool kids to be uncool, then you were in danger of being uncool yourself. This was important because the cool kids enforced their coolness by quietly (or occasionally not so quietly) deriding everyone else. So if you wanted to avoid their derision you needed to be in their group or at least stay off their derisive radar.
One particular incident exemplifies the lengths a shy kid like me, who aspired to be part of the cool group, would go to protect my tenuous status. The alpha male in our class was a kid named Victor, who had established his alpha credentials by his stories of having “made out” with several female peers including one of our classmates Ramona. His exploits were considered heroic, but Ramona, who had allegedly “made out” with a couple other guys as well, was defined by Victor and his coterie of boys as a “slut”. So with him and his entourage on one side of the back of the room and Ramona in the other back corner, one day Victor led a stage-whispered “cheer” that was audible to Ramona but not to our teacher up at the front of the room.
“Give me a ‘R’… give me an ‘A’… give me an ‘M’… give me an ‘O’… give me an ‘N’… give me an ‘A’… what’s that spell?” With the expected response from all the boys, “Slut!” I was sitting just in front of Victor and for a complicated set of reasons, was intimidated into participating, at least half-heartedly in the cheer. Not only did I not want to get on Victor’s bad side, but any acknowledgment and discussion of sexuality, given my own natural precociousness always percolating under the surface of my repression of it, was intriguing to me, even if in this case, so corrosively misogynist.
Victor’s shared exploits were my first exposure to the discussion of sexual feelings and behavior related to those feelings with my peers since my own sexual adventures and missteps at age eight and nine. My naked encounters with the other boys in the bushes. My proposition to Molly to let me try putting my penis in her vagina. And the utter devastation of my supposed friend Jimmy ratting on me to all my classmates gathered for recess that I had said that I would, “Pull down my pants” for my classmate Amy who I had a crush on, which led to my teacher admonishing me for having those feelings rather than Jimmy for inappropriately sharing my private thoughts with the group.
Siren songs of love were calling to me every day from the radio, from CKLW and other popular music stations I heard on the radio in my room, in our car, and in the various ice cream shops and diners that I frequented on my own, with my friends or with my parents.
Tommy James and the Shondells had their hit, “Hanky Panky”, about a young man obsessed with his girlfriend’s ability to do a sexually suggestive dance. Though I had never seen such a dance done, my way overactive imagination tormented me with images of gyrating midsections and “come hither” eyes flashing. Is that what young women were expected or at least being urged to do for the guy they liked? If some girl I liked did the Hanky Panky for me I would surely be embarrassed, make some inappropriate response and our whole relationship would be ruined! Did Ramona do such a sexually suggestive display for Victor? And now he’s teasing and shaming her as a “slut”. Is this all part of the contemporary courting ritual between males and females? Again, here is where I lacked that all-knowing omniscient older sister to set me straight that my line of thought was way off base.
My own romantic feelings for girls were better captured by the sweet even syrupy music and lyrics of the Association’s hit “Cherish”…
Cherish is the word I use to describe
All the feeling that I have hiding here for you inside
You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I had told you
You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I could hold you
You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I could
Mold you into someone who could cherish me as much as I cherish you
With huge radio play, both songs cloyingly whispered in each ear, one the devil and the other an angel, but both uncomfortably compelling as the hormones were perhaps just beginning to juice my mind.
The other school venue where all this puberty stuff played out in a very discomforting way was gym class. First of all, we were expected and even verbally admonished to take showers after our gym class activities. Given not wanting to be singled out for “B.O.” (body odor), we all mostly complied. But this involved open showers where all of us boys in the gym class would routinely see each other naked for a few quick minutes until we got our towels round us and then dressed. I actually still enjoyed getting naked with other boys, though I could not even give the slightest hint of that for fear of being labeled some sort of deviant. But being a year younger than most or all of my classmates put the physical immaturity of my genitals relative to most of my peers in view of others. Though I have no memory of being on the wrong end of any derisive barb about my lack of endowment or pubic hair, there was always a fairly high level of anxiety in me about being in what felt like such an unsafe environment at school. At least I was not chubby like a few of my peers, who suffered additional derision for their corpulence when they had to parade around naked.
This anxiety was doubled down when we had gym class in our school’s indoor pool. I can’t imagine this is still done today, but we were actually encouraged by our adult gym teachers to do swimming class in the nude, the reason being avoiding having to deal with the difficult logistics of wet swimsuits with no real place to keep them and dry them after swim class was done. My art teacher got in on this when he had everyone in our class do posters advocating for something. When I shared with him that I was having trouble thinking of a subject for my poster, he convinced me to do one related to the gym swimsuit issue. My poster showed a wet swimsuit hanging in a school locker with the heading, “Skip the drip! Swim suitless!”
On days when we did class in the pool, our gym teacher generally wore his regular gym shorts and polo shirt, since he did not routinely get in the pool with us. But it was a weird dynamic. Thirty some mostly naked boys being instructed by a clothed adult. There were even instances where our teacher would touch our bodies, say to correct our form to help us attempt a proper back flip when learning how to dive. On one hand there is an intrinsic human freedom and joy in “skinnydipping”, that is at least in the appropriate environment with consenting peers who have a measure of comfort and relationship with each other and sufficient privacy. But in gym class with a clothed adult “coach” and thirty other nude peers (some of which you may be completely uncomfortable being around) staring at your naked body while you attempt your dive, which will be graded, it was just a continuing source of anxiety and discomfort for me. But then to wear a suit, besides the difficulty of what to do with it for the rest of the day, would be to single myself out as not being comfortable showing my private parts, parts that would be seen in the shower later anyway.
I have no idea if the same nude swimming was done by the girls in their gym classes, though the same issues involving the suits would apply. But given my own precocious sexuality being rekindled by the early beginnings of puberty mitigated by my learned timidity in this area, the fantasies of my active imagination of the girls gym class in the pool were never discussed with anyone else.
There were certainly girls I was developing crushes on from afar. A couple were classmates and even perhaps someone i was partnered with as a lab partner in science or to do the occasional group project in one of my other classes. But briefly talking to them or even acknowledging them in the hallway outside the prescribed context of an assignment in class felt totally impossible. What if one of my male peers saw and later noted, with others listening, “So you like her!” I could not possibly be honest but would have to equivocate and deflect somehow and say something neutral like, “She’s okay!”
Add to my female classmates the array of older girls in eighth and ninth grade that I would see in the hallways between our numerous classes or in the lunchroom, a number developing their physical stature, long legs and obvious breasts. They and their male entourages seemed so much more mature than I was.
In fact as a general rule I came to feel and judge myself inferior, in one way or another, to the vast majority of the other kids at my school. And with a thousand other kids to compare oneself against, that becomes quite a comedown. It was one of the worst features of junior high for me, and as long as I was on campus, traversing the hallways or trapped in the classroom, day in day out there was no escaping the withering comparisons, even if just in my own overactive imagination. I think I would have been much better served if I had spent all those hours engaged with kids who were significantly younger or even significantly older, so the dynamic of who was in the superior position was obvious and not always being aggressively fought over and asserted vis a vis one’s peers.
Yet another discomforting dynamic was that among the cool kids that I was aware of, male or female, academic prowess was never a trait that was trumpeted as or acknowledged for being cool. In fact it seemed mostly judged decidedly uncool. Looking back and given the fact that many of the kids in my school had parents involved in the intellectual milieu of the university community, this seems surprising. But for me, wanting to be part of or at least not wanting to run afoul of the in-crowd, I began to follow the path of least resistance of not trying anymore to excel at my school work, at least visibly, for danger of being singled out for ridicule. That said, most of what I was being taught was not particularly interesting to me in terms of any real world context I was involved in, so I felt no great loss!
My self-directed life, my sanity, my centeredness, continued to be in the projects I engaged in at my own initiation. That previous August at Cape Cod had marked the beginnings of a more positive relationship with my brother, moving away from the previous intense sibling rivalry that included my dumping on him much of my anxiety from the divorce, school, and my resulting tenuous self-esteem. Now we were becoming collaborators in creative projects and the creation of fantasy worlds full of characters and their made-up narratives that we jointly wove.
Back during our August vacation by Long Nook beach, my brother and I had put our imaginations in synchronous orbit to come up with our narrative based on the DC comics Justice League and my made up countervailing organization of bad guys, the “Crime Society”. Throughout the fall of 1966 and into 1967 we continued to spin stories with these characters, filling evenings after school with a much needed distraction and imagination therapy for my psyche, battered by the rigmarole and travails of school.
Beyond the comic book world of heros and villans, any play environment. I read a couple science fiction books I found in the school library, The Angry Red Planet and The Red Journey Back, about a secret journey by several humans to Mars, which turns out to be inhabited by mobile telepathic plants. The humans are accepted in friendship by one race, calling themselves “The Beautiful People”. The other race, known as “The Terrible Ones”, is dedicated to eliminating “The Beautiful People”, and the earthlings get caught up in this conflict. Compared to some of the sci-fi classics by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov, the story is pretty pedestrian, but the fantasy narrative environment, of these competing races on Mars and the alien humans in the middle of it, caught my fancy.
I can’t remember whether I convinced my brother to read the books or simply gave him the gist of the story, but we collaborated on creating the Mars of the Beautiful People and Terrible Ones in our basement. I remember using a simple combination of four or five Tinkertoy pieces to create the plant creatures, differentiating somehow the two conflicting races. Two-inch plastic soldiers stood in for the humans, dwarfed in size by the larger Tinkertoy Martians.
Like our previous house on Prescott our current house on Martin Place had the unfinished basement with the concrete slab floor. A simple wood staircase led down into the middle of the basement from the kitchen, with stringers and treads but no risers, creating a separate but visible area under the stairs. Opposite the stairs was the furnace, dividing the rest of the basement into one half with the washer, dryer, and a big two-basin sink, and the other half which was our play area. We designated the area under the stairs as the home turf of the Beautiful People while the rest of the basement play area was where the Terrible Ones roamed.
With the environment in place we wove our story arcs from day to day, since we could leave our toys set up indefinitely in that half of the basement. Like we had earlier with our Civil War soldiers, we gave names to individual figures, Earthling or Martian, and developed their back stories, which contributed to the drama – heroism and tragedy – of the ongoing unfolding story we hatched and played out on the concrete slab floor. We would brainstorm – “What if the humans try to broker a truce between the two races?” – and then by consensus either agree or jettison the idea, weaving the agreed upon ideas into the evolving narrative.
Any or our toys that could be used to create a self-contained world of sorts became fertile soul for developing narratives. We had a fairly extensive set of Aurora HO scale slot cars and track that I would set up somewhere in the house where it could remain set up for weeks until we got bored with that configuration and dismantled it in favor of a new cooler configuration. One venue was under my bed (half of our original bunk beds) where there was two feet of clearance under the bed frame. Another was under the big table in my brothers bedroom where I figured out a way using string to hang a multi-level raceway from the underside of the table. A third was in our unfinished attic, deployed on a big four by eight foot Beaverboard suspended on four wooden crates, which my dad had purchased and concocted years earlier for us to play on. The attic was the preferred venue in terms of size and scope, but not being insulated it would be a lot hotter in the summer or colder in the winter than the rest of the house.
We developed personalities for each of our maybe dozen slot cars. The “alpha” racing car Cobra and Stingray (as per the Rip Chords’ 1964 hit song “Hey Little Cobra”), plus the bigger more muscle car Mustang and MaKo Shark, and the hot rod with its oversized sponge rubber rear tires. We were riffing also on the cartoon show Wacky Races, where each car had a very distinct look and personality. As we drove them around the track (or put them on “cruise control” at a steady speed that would allow them to take even the sharpest curves uncontrolled without spinning out), we would make up each car’s back story and ongoing narrative, with a particular spectacular car wreck providing a new story element.
Some of our cars had tiny little working headlights, so in the evening we could turn off all the lights in the room and watch the little cars traverse the serpentine track visible only by the illumination of those headlights. It somehow created a compelling tiny alternative reality with a hypnotic quality to it like staring into a campfire on a dark night with no other light source around. My brother and I would sit for hours in the dark focusing on just those two pairs of headlights, either quietly calming our minds, or verbally weaving our car stories back and forth, campfire stories of sorts.
The Avalon Hill game company even had a car racing board game called Le Mans that I had bought, which attempted to simulate the respective capabilities of twelve different race cars and provided two tracks on the game board – Le Mans and Monte Carlo. I had absolutely no real knowledge of car racing other than occasionally watching the Indianapolis 500 or some other race on television. But the game interestingly differentiated the cars by the number of spaces each could go at each of its series of gears. Cars started in first gear and then each subsequent “turn” each could continue in that gear or go up or down one. Corners could be negotiated safely in second gear or also in third gear but with a chance (based on a die roll) of spinning out. One had to plan ahead on a long straightaway to gear down sufficiently before hitting the turn. The Le Mans track with its preponderance of long straightaways favored the cars with the fastest top gears, but the curvier Monte Carlo track interestingly favored other cars with slower top gears but faster second and third gears for cornering. It was the system the game employed, with the charts that supported that system, that intrigued and engaged me.
What was also continuing to capture my imagination were the array of Avalon Hill military simulation board games I was buying and playing outside of school. Besides still often playing these games solitaire, I had found at least four neighborhood friends who shared this interest, and who would devote a Saturday and/or Sunday with me setting up and playing a game. My friend Carl even had a ping pong table in his basement that could be commandeered for several days at a time for a game that took more than one day’s effort to set up and play. With my other friends we would play on the living room or family room floor with their parents sometimes watching quizzically from across the room at our passion for something, that to the uninitiated observer, might seem like a very esoteric or arcane obsession.
My friend Burton had a particular love of the Avalon Hill naval games. Him maneuvering his destroyers as I tried to get my submarines past them playing U-boat. Or his array of British ships trying to find and sink my superior but outnumbered German battleship in Bismarck. Or similarly in Midway, each of us trying to find and sink each others aircraft carriers as my Japanese fleet approached the strategic American held island. Or most theatrically, both of us scrambling around the entire floor of his living room moving two-inch flat cardboard renderings of World War I battleships and cruisers across the floor for a reenactment and possible re-visioning of the battle of Jutland in the North Sea. Each game coming to a head and possible decisive turn with the roll of a die and a particular good or bad result for one side or the other leading to a groan by one of us and a cheer or sigh of relief by the other.
On my friend Carl’s ping pong table we could set up both his and my set of Avalon Hill’s Guadalcanal and thus play the game with hidden movement on the jungle covered Pacific island except where units actually came adjacent to each other. We could also set up the double-sized board of Avalon Hill’s Blitzkrieg, and enjoy playing the game with two fictional World War II era armies, a game featuring units and rules that included land, air and naval units in the same game, where previous games focused on only one of the three. The two boards were also modular so they could be attached to each other either as two halves of the same landmass or as separate peninsula’s separated by an intervening body of water. Each configuration leading to very different military strategy considerations.
On a card table in the cloistered backyard of my friend Jack’s house on a beautiful spring day, my outmanned American units including the 101st Airborne division trying to hold off his Panzer divisions’ furious assault down the clogged mountain roads of Luxembourg in Avalon Hill’s Battle of the Bulge. Or after he had moved back to the east coast, trying to play the same game by exchanging sheets of paper indicating unit movements following the games “play by mail” rules.
Though most of these games could be played solitaire, and more often than not throughout the decades I have played these complicated board games by myself, this was a particular year when I had as many worthy opponents as I could want beyond my own self, and went a long way to making this the most compelling activity in my life during my seventh-grade school year. The strategy and tactics were an intellectual exercise that really intrigued and engaged me. And I would imagine myself a real general in the midst of a real life and death conflict situation, just like what my dad had told me of his war experiences. Sometimes at night as I lay in bed trying to fall asleep my mind would ponder options for my next set of moves in a game being played with a friend that had been left unfinished and to be returned to at the next opportunity. My school work only rose to that level when the anxiety of a particular upcoming test or still unfinished project gnawed at my mind.
The array of perhaps a dozen military simulation games we were playing inspiring me to check out and read books from the library about these specific battles and the larger historical context of the war that made the results of each battle particularly significant. What if the Japanese fleet had captured Midway? What if the Allied invasion of France in 1944 failed?
As opposed to school, here was learning that had a very engaging context and as a result actually stuck with me to become an important part of my skill set as an adult. Language arts in the reading, interpreting and arguing over the interpretations of the voluminous rules of play that came with each game. General cases and exceptions, and when rule 10.2.1 regarding movement after combat trumped the general movement rule stated in 10.1 Rules that were poorly written and ambiguous that required additional discussion to come to an agreed upon interpretation. It was all a joint wrestling with the precision of language use with the relatively high stakes of impacting who might win or lose a particular battle and have the ego boost of appearing the most skilled strategist or tactician.
History in the events represented in each game, the larger context and time period that surrounded the games events, and speculation on what might have happened if these pivotal conflicts had had very different outcomes. Imagine two preteens sitting on the living room floor staring at a cardboard game board for Waterloo discussing the implications if Napoleon had succeeded in defeating the Anglo-Prussian army in this climactic battle. If the European monarchies opposing France had somehow come to peace with a France led by Napoleon, would France have emerged as the republic it was when Napoleon took power, or would he have reasserted his status as emperor and France reverted back to just another monarchy like those that opposed it.
And finally all the applied mathematical concepts around ratios, probability, and the general abstraction of complex events into simpler mathematical models. Why would the German coastal defense divisions have a lower movement factor than regular German infantry divisions, since both had soldiers on foot. And why would motorized divisions have movement factors only 33% higher than those regular infantry divisions with soldiers on foot, since vehicles could travel at least ten times farther in a day than a person could walking.
Losing myself at least for a weekend day in one of these games, helped relieve or at least medicate the stresses of my weekday anxiety at school. And adding to those stresses, was the worry regarding my mom, and her situation taking a turn for the worse. It seemed we had returned from our two-week August vacation on “The Cape” at least temporarily rejuvenated, but the grind of our lives that fall, mine in junior high and hers at home, was taking a toll. She by nature the fiercely independent person was continuing to live dependent of the monthly child-support check from our dad. Money that kept us going, but never quite enough to pay all the bills particularly when there was an unplanned expense with the car or me getting braces on my teeth. She was feeling more and more lonely, she a very social person now with no partner to share her life with. I think all of that contributed to her continuing anger at our dad for his infidelity, she had not signed up for this whole single-parent thing.
Being the oldest other person in the household and old enough to understand and appreciate the issues, I became more and more my mom’s closest confidante, not always totally willingly. She would invite me into her room and I would sit on the rocking chair opposite her, she sitting on her bed, often with all the family bills spread out on the comforter, triaging what to pay and what could be put off until the next month. Trying to pay the bills with limited money was particularly traumatic for her and having someone else in the room to vent to made it somewhat more bearable.
She shared with me her residual anger with my dad. He had promised her that once he got his PhD and his teaching position that she would be able to continue her education and find a good career for herself, but now, in her state of anxiety and single-parenthood, things were very difficult. She shared her understanding of some of the sexual details of his affair with their mutual acquaintance, and her continuing anger at his conduct, much to my discomfort, but I did not share that discomfort with her but sat quietly and listened.
She shared her continuing rage at her own mother, a relationship that had never been a good one, but one that through therapy she had come to see had put a huge hole in her confidence and self-esteem. With tears in her big round blue eyes she would look at me and say, “Just imagine if you had a mother who didn’t love you!” I sat uncomfortably and tried my best to imagine.
Looking back, I never really developed a relationship with my grandmother Caroline. During my childhood we would generally travel to visit my grandparents once a year, usually either at Thanksgiving or Christmas. I remember my grandmother as a tall, boisterous and gregarious person, her big voice and persona, actually not that unlike my mom. I don’t have a recollection of her ever trying to connect with me one on one or develop that special relationship that kids often have with a grandparent. I have a bit more of remembrance of connection with my grandfather, including from later viewing of pictures of he and I together, both of us with big smiles on our faces.
It was in that fall of 1966 that my mom sent a fateful letter to her mom (at the suggestion of a therapist) strongly telling her mom off for all these wounds. My grandmother Caroline shared that letter with my Aunt Ruth (my mom’s brother John’s wife) and then a couple weeks later my grandmother died of a heart attack. We did not go back east to attend the funeral. Ruth subsequently sent my mom a letter accusing her of killing her mother, a letter which my mom shared with me in one of those sessions with the bills on the bed. It was the beginning of what would turn out to be a thirty-year rift and estrangement between my mom, her brother, and her sister-in-law.
With every story, every confession, every rant, every vent, I would see my mom more and more as a real person like myself. When I was younger I had somehow seen all adults as having always been adults and never really a kid like me. But in her stories, particularly those about her childhood, I saw that she was in fact not profoundly different than me, just aged. My iconic, bigger than life, (always seemingly with a better argument than mine) mother, was a grown up kid still struggling with her self-esteem, still trying to unravel and rationalize her relationship with her parents, still trying to figure out a path forward for her own development, not unlike me. She was struggling, wounded, afraid, longing; just like me. This was not an evil queen who had vanquished my dad, but just a former kid like me, grown up for better and for worse.
In retrospect, some would say that she probably laid more on my shoulders then she should have. But even though it was stressful for me to hear all this stuff about her, about my dad, about my own behavior, I was glad to be treated as a full-blown person, not some semi-functional “child” who needed to be protected from the real world.
Those sessions together in her room, were the focal point for beginning to forge a different sort of relationship between us. Transitioning from the classic mother-son thing to something more akin to comrades or even war buddies. More and more, we were beginning to interact with each other as two people sharing a less than ideal situation and trying to help each other make the best of it, or at least get through the day in one piece.
Also significant to me and my evolving reframing of adults and the adult world was the developmental path of my mom’s younger sister Patricia, my favorite aunt Pat. She had still been a very young at heart young adult when we first played together at my grandparents house, not one of those “grown ups” like my mom and dad, my grandparents, and other adults in my world.
In yearly increments during holiday visits to my grandparents in Binghamton over the years I had watched her development from that much older kid who chased me around my grandparents’ house with a pillow to person taking on all the persona, trappings and responsibilities of the adult world. First marriage to my uncle Ray. Then the birth of her first child, my cousin Mark. Now I was going to visit her in Dayton Ohio, where she lived with her own nuclear family, two kids now with little Caroline, in her own home, running a household and wearing the hats of wife and mother, just like my own mom. Having originally felt like kids and adults were two different species, my aunt Pat’s continuing life narrative proved that in fact we kids eventually turned into those adults that had so often intimidated or otherwise vexed me.
Though I was seeing inside the development of my mom and her younger sister, my dad was a different story. With my dad it never got to this deeper level. He would share experiences, past and present, but not the emotions he felt around those experiences that would give me an insight into who he really was. Sure he had told me stories of his travails in the war and other significant happenings in his life before, but they were told more neutrally, like the trained journalist that he was, leaving one’s feelings, one’s bias, out of the telling. It is that missing bias, his own feelings relative to his difficult circumstances, that would have revealed so much of who he was.
It was only those occasions when he got angry, generally inspite of himself, that revealed passions. But the passions exposed seemed relatively petty, like when his favorite team blew a big play or lost a big game. Or when he whiffed on a tennis shot or a third strike in a pickup baseball game. I never got to see his passion around his teaching.
Having this close encounter with a real adult woman who happened to be my mother, finding her story so compelling, and surprisingly finding so much common ground between us, I was beginning to develop what would become a greater comfort level around women generally than around men. Contrasting my mom to my dad, she seemed to be the one operating with more maturity and levels of thought. She was the one I found it easier to connect with, that I felt safer being with, the one with the more interesting narrative.
For all his academic prowess, for all his experience of the war and its all too real life and death stories, my dad seemed somehow less mature. He seemed driven more by forces he did not control or even understand. Unlike my mom, he did not seem to be able to clearly verbalize the things he was passionate about, or have a sense of humor, at least a sense of knowing, about his own shortcomings. Though he consistently and unselfishly gave so much of his time to my brother and I, and we both knew he loved and cared about us deeply, he always seemed more tenuous, and therefore somehow less safe for me to share the depths of who I was. We did things rather than shared things. After a memorable activity he never said to me anything like, “Wow, that was a lot of fun!”
He also would get caught up vicariously in spectator sports, and get visibly frustrated and even angry if the team we were rooting for, particularly his alma mater the Michigan Wolverines, did not play well or ultimately lost the game. My brother and I would be disappointed as well, but he seemed to take it all more personally, and not be able to easily let it go and continue with his day undiminished.
But given all those limitations, he didn’t treat us as the inferior children to the superior adult. We were more like equals, he just the one with the money, the car and more knowledge of how to navigate the world we lived in.
We continued to spend weekends with him, staying in his apartment by the Arboretum. And on the occasions when our mom was under the weather, he would come to the house, do the shopping and other chores, even sleep on the couch overnight if necessary. He had actually given up his job as an English professor at Eastern Michigan University, work he loved, to take a job doing semantics research for the University of Michigan. I don’t recall why he did so, or recall ever asking him, but I can only assume looking back that it paid more money, his paycheck having to support two households.
The two adults I was closest to, one female and one male, both enmeshed in the difficult aftermath of a divorce, money issues, were trying to be good parents to their two kids. Though they both were working very hard and overcoming many of the obstacles in front of them, it seemed the former was doing more growing and developing in the process. This would have ramifications for me later, as I would become more and more uncomfortable with the conventional trappings of being a male person in our society, and resonate increasingly with the struggle of the underdogs of the female gender.