When I was just a wee tyke of probably three or four years of age my father and grandfather took me to a zoo in a firehouse. No, really. It must have been some kind of fundraising thing for my grandfather’s local firehouse; they had animals in pens right inside the firehouse where the fire engines were usually parked. My grandfather was once a volunteer firefighter; he had to quit after he’d helped rescue a badly burned child and the emotional trauma of holding her in his arms was just too much for him. Nevertheless he visited the firehouse often and kept good relations with the firefighters through the years. So, as my father and his father took me around this makeshift zoo we came to a popcorn stand, and the firefighter manning it greeted my grandfather pleasantly and then he turned to me and asked with a kind smile, “Would you like some popcorn?” I meekly accepted and my grandfather thanked him.
We went around the zoo and visited the animals as I fed my popcorn to them. As we completed the circle we came back to the popcorn guy who saw that I had emptied my box and so asked me if I’d like more. My grandfather took a step forward and held up his hand, and said, “No, thank you, that’s alright, but thank you”. My grandfather escorted me away from the stand and then turned to me, bent down close to my level and looked me in the eye as he said, “Let that be a lesson to you: Never take advantage of your friends.”
I was thunderstruck. I recognized that this was clearly a life lesson; I was being given instruction on how to live my life. Nobody had ever so directly given me a lesson like that before, and looking back on my childhood it’s one of the only times I was ever taught something like that. The more I reflected on it, the more I realized that my parents didn’t do much to prepare me for life, either the childhood I was living or the adulthood to come.
For my mother’s part, I know she had post-partum depression for some time after she had me. I’m told there were long stretches of time when she couldn’t get out of bed. I have some dim recollections of that, of coming home from school and sensing her sadness, but I don’t know much about that time, or how long it lasted. She went on to get her PhD in Psychology, worked in clinical psychology, and ended up with her own private practice. There’s some irony in that. Whenever I think of the past, and about my parents, I rarely think about my mother because she was so – absent. There, but not there. Not much involved, even after she got over her depression.
My father was involved with my early upbringing and spent time with me when I was just a tyke. He gets along with and loves the company of small children. He would spend time with me, play with me, tell me bedtime stories, and I have dim but fond memories of that. His involvement in my life gradually diminished. What strikes me most about my father is that he was a college professor in the Educational Psychology Department: teaching teachers how to teach, and test design. The irony here is that, well, you might think that being the son of a college professor was like, y’know, every day a classroom!
No day was a classroom.
My parents taught me virtually nothing. We didn’t have much by way of conversations, even when we came together as a family for dinner; we just watched the evening news on TV. They left my schooling up to the schools, and my upbringing was largely upkeep. Somewhere along the way I learned not to ask many questions of them; there was very little by way of life lessons, or guidance, or emotional support. No conversations about my friends or our activities. No lessons on home or macro economics. No discussion of my school day.
They took no little to no interest in whatever thing in which I was interested. By way of example, my father used to paint and build plastic scale models of WWII planes, and he did teach me the basics of how to build them. He occasionally bought me some models, too. I mostly had to “borrow” his supplies – glue, X-Acto knife, sometimes paint – but looking back it’s striking to me that we never did this together. He would make his models in his part of the basement, and I would make mine in my room, and there were no more lessons. What strikes me most about that is that it was a shared interest and activity, one of many things which we could have shared together, but didn’t; such a waste of so many perfect opportunities to teach and bond with his son.
He was also an artist (as in, art school art degree) but taught me nothing of art; how to make it, or how to appreciate it. Come to think of it, he knew something about plumbing, home and car repair, and cooking, but again, taught me virtually nothing of any of that. He did teach me a few other practical things: He taught me how to draw a tank, break someone’s knee, drive a car. Probably a few other things I don’t remember, but not so many I’d need more than two hands to count them. And that thing about breaking someone’s knee? OK, here’s the story: There was a time in grade school when I was getting bullied. My father found out and taught me how to kick the side of their knee, which would probably end up crippling them. Then he told me I should never tell anyone about that. As an adult I look back at that and… I have questions, but no answers.
My mother – well, my mother even less so. I can’t think of any practical thing she taught me, or of emotional involvement or support after early childhood. It’s hard to talk much about my mother because despite living under the same roof we seemed to have a minimum of interaction, so there aren’t many memories I have of her except for the fact that she was there – living with us, perhaps cooking dinner; she was my father’s wife but she didn’t seem to do a whole lot by way of being mother to her children. Well, me at least, my sister might be a different story. I can recall that my mother taught me how to do my laundry – but that was somewhat self-serving as it relieved her of that responsibility.
She made me take piano lessons. OK, to be fair, she did ask me. We had an upright piano which we got for my mother, who could play but she never played. One day when I was a young boy my mother and sister were talking and it must have been something about piano lessons (I’m not sure, I wasn’t paying much attention to them), when suddenly my mother turned to me, leaned down and put her face quite close to mine, and asked me, “Would you like to get piano lessons?” I was actually somewhat taken aback; I’d never given the idea any thought. I had no interest in piano and no idea that “piano lessons” would mean weekly sessions learning to play with a piano teacher ad infinitum, but in that moment I felt there was only one right answer to give, so I told her “yes.” I had no idea what I was getting into.
When the lessons started I was deeply chagrined to learn that they also entailed practice time on my own. That was just more homework as far as I was concerned so I tried to avoid it, but my mother would admonish me and force me to practice although she never taught me anything herself. It took me some years to work up the courage to tell her that I no longer wanted to take piano lessons; apparently my reticence at learning and practicing weren’t sufficient clues. In retrospect I was probably just fulfilling her own wishes in some way.
I spent a lot of my childhood alone. I was an outsider outside the house, and inside the house I felt like an occupant. I think my parents wanted to have children but didn’t want to raise their children; they would give me a kiss and say, “I love you”, but I don’t know what that meant for them. My free time was my own to spend and my problems were my own to try to figure out. Growing up I wasn’t alone but I felt alone.
Now I’m a loner and I don’t feel alone any more.