Perhaps you recall, as I do, that in the very earliest memories, parents are huge! My mother was huge and my dad was huge! Of course, they not only loomed gigantic physically, they also had a huge influence on me. That, I never thought about as a child, but we’ll return to influence later.
The other remarkable thing about my parents, in early memories, is how different they were from each other. My mother was soft, gentle, smooth-skinned with a soprano voice. My dad was completely different. He was even larger, but besides that, he was hard, physical, hairy and his voice boomed so loud I could feel as well as hear the vibrations. Needless to say, they smelled completely different and I generally saw them at different times of the day, or, more accurately, I saw my mother most of the day and my dad only for small segments on most days. They did different things, said different things, held me differently. There was no way as a child that I saw them as two different examples of a larger class of things called “people.” They were as different as night and oranges to me.
These differences were not just physical and perceptual. As I grew older, I also realized that the species of “Dad” and the species of “Mom” also behaved quite differently. For example, I could generally count on my dad to remain calm and to get things done whereas in an emergency, my mother generally fell to pieces emotionally. No, come to think of it, she always fell to pieces.
When I was about five years old, my parents took me to a stranger’s house for one of their “Bridge Parties.” To me, “Bridge” was a complete mystery. I understood the concept of games; e.g., “Mother May I”, “Red Light Green Light”, “Pick Up Sticks”, “Checkers”, and (my personal favorite), “Red Rover, Red Rover.” In Red Rover, Red Rover, the opposing team formed a human chain by holding hands. Everyone on a team would chant in unison, “Red Rover, Red Rover, let Tommy come over.” (Tommy was my nick-name at the time). There were two really cool parts to this game in addition to the chanting. One, when it was your turn to make a human chain, you might get to hold hands with a pretty girl. Two, when you were called, you were allowed, indeed encouraged, to run as fast you could, and then SMASH right into the opposing team! That was fun. Honestly, I think I’d like to do that right now. But “Bridge?” The adults just took turns throwing cards on the table. Yet, they were generally screaming and laughing while playing this game. They seemed to be enjoying themselves but I had no idea why.
In any case, however much Mom and Dad enjoyed “Bridge Club”, I certainly didn’t. My parents took me into some random bedroom and said, “you will sleep in here.” Right. I’m five years old in a strange place and I am supposed to go to sleep while there is, basically, a mini-version of Woodstock going on about ten feet from my five year old (and therefore highly sensitive) ears. No, I’m not going to sleep. Even as a five year old, I knew that wasn’t happening. I’m not sure how my parents could have deluded themselves, but apparently they managed. Since sleep was out of the question, I needed to find some way to occupy myself. What I can do? I’m going to explore the room!
I rather liked the room. It had wall to wall carpeting and dark, heavy, solid wood furniture. I padded about the room looking at this and that, but there wasn’t much to see really. This is what necessitated me to go to phase two of exploring the room; that is, looking under and in things. I looked under the bed, but it was just dusty. I knew it was a long shot that anyone else was trying to invent a new color and keeping the best results under the bed in little jars that had held maraschino cherries, but you never know. Well, actually, yes, eventually you do know. But I didn’t know then because I didn’t know that many people so I didn’t really know how many might be trying to invent new colors. Since then, I’ve met many people who do exactly that although not quite so literally as I was trying to do way back then. I have eleven grandchildren and every one of them is inventing new colors, each in their unique way.
My explorations of the bedroom bureau began very disappointingly. Drawer after drawer was filled with clothes. Sigh. Then, as they say, my eyes actually did become as big as saucers. Large saucers. Because lying right there atop some boring gray gaberdine pants was the coolest biggest gun I had ever seen! I liked my guns! In fact, one of my earliest memories was of a red plastic one. But now, as a “big boy”, I had metal guns. Even better, when I pulled the trigger, they went “BAM” “BAM” because of the caps. I liked my own guns all right, but this gun was way, way cooler. For one thing, it was all metal. Mine were partly plastic. And, the gun was shiny with a depth of its own — except for the handle which had a wonderful pebbled grain.
I could have enjoyed looking at that black gun (similar to, but not identical to the one above) for an hour. But, of course, I had to pick it up. Well, if the look of that gun had been exquisite, and it was, the feel of the gun thrilled me, filled me with uncertain terrors never felt before — to quote Mr. Poe. But alongside the terror was admiration that quickly blossomed into love. The object that constituted the gun seemed so beautifully and solidly built. Had I ever before held something that heavy and dense? I don’t think so.
I knew that my parents had told me to stay in the room and go to sleep. But they were the two people I loved most in the universe. How could I keep the discovery of something this cool, go unshared? I had to let them find out just how cool this gun was. I probably also thought that no little credit would be coming my way for being the discoverer of this marvelous instrument. (Somehow, it never once crossed my mind that the people who owned the house probably already knew about this gun). I definitely thought of it as my discovery, and so it was, in a way. And, if I were never going to get any credit from Grandpa for inventing a new color, at least I would have this great accomplishment forever written into my plus column.
Out into the living room full of laughing, screaming adults somehow getting pleasure out of “Bridge” I tottered, slightly off balance from the weight of the gun, though I was able to hold it one hand, just the way the cowboys and policemen did. “Look what I found.” Now, listening to the memory of how I said it, I realize it probably was getting credit for my discovery rather than sharing it that most motivated me. Ah, well. Live and learn, as they say. I expected to gain some credit for my discovery and some appreciation for the gun, but I never expected the eruption of adult action and concern and panic and fear and anger and utter surprise. They provided such a sensory overload that my memory is like a loud noise and a great white light. Not only did I receive no plaudits for my wonderful discovery, I definitely had done something unspeakably wrong. (I later discovered that the gun had been loaded with the safety off). But at the time, I felt only bewildered disappointment. However, the one thing I do recall through the white noise was that Dad remained calm and managed to take the gun from me without my trying it out on him for fun. Meanwhile, Mom was being her usual “hysterical in an emergency” self.
At the time, I did not think that my mother was “typical” of all women nor did I think that she was “atypical.” It’s just that I knew this about my mother, but my mother formed one edge or point on the growing conceptual map of people. And, everything that was true about her was all there together in her own rather large corner of my mind: soft, smooth, soprano, hysterical, gentle, slightly hard of hearing, illogical, loving, beautiful, and fun. Her body positively writhed when she found something funny. Early on, I tried to learn how to cause one of those paroxysms of laughter. Dad, on the other hand, could be counted on in a crisis. He was also hard and hairy and loud and undemonstrative. When, he laughed, most of the time, it was “UH!” That’s it! One sort of half snort, half laugh. I do that too sometimes. On the other hand, I also go into a full out writhe with laughter as well. I am part Mom; part Dad just like most of us with respect to our parents.
My parents had two different professions as well. Dad was an engineer. He was very logical; yes, even as a very young kid I saw this. Mom was an English and Drama teacher. Years later, at CHI in Atlanta, talking with Doug Engelbart, I discovered his parents had the same combination. As an adult, I can imagine that their professions not only seemed to be choices that sprung from their native talents, but that the professions, in turn, helped cement these traits in place.
I met other family members at a young age and each of them was quite different as well. My mother’s mother, Ada was smart, soft, and she told me “Old Pete” stories. We listened to radio programs together such as “The Lone Ranger”, “Roy Rogers”, “Hop-along Cassidy”, and “Tom Corbett and the Space Cadets.” Grandma was the Superintendent of Sunday School at the Methodist church we went to. She also founded the Firestone Park Dramatic Club and ran it for decades. Meetings were held at my grandparents’ house and the women (all the members were women) read plays. This turned out to be a cool deal for me because, as a little kid, whenever someone didn’t show up, I filled in because my memory was so good, that even without trying, I knew all the parts. Grandma also had to take “iron shots” because she was anemic. The best thing though was that she baked peanut butter cookies and when she made a pie, she made butter, sugar, and cinnamon roll-ups!
Her obituary from the Akron Beacon Journal begins this way: “Ada Weimer: Founder Of Drama Club Mrs. Ada P. Weimer, 78, founder of the Firestone Park Dramatic Club and its director for 30 years, died at Edwin Shaw Hospital Wednesday after a six-month illness. Born in Akron, Mrs. Weimer, 1384 Grant St., attended Greensburg High School and Heidelberg College. For many years, she was a Sunday school superintendent at Firestone Park Methodist Church, of which she was a member.” Apart from that, it lists her three sons and daughter whom she “left behind.” No mention of her peanut butter cookies though. Occasionally, after much begging, she would also make popcorn “from scratch” in a kettle. Not mentioned. She also spent a lot of time canning for the extensive “root cellar” my grandparents had in their basement. Not mentioned. Sometimes, she would walk with me up Grant Street to meet Grandpa at the bus stop. On the way, she never failed to scowl at the “beer joint” up the street where the overwhelming odor of beer and alcohol would flood out onto the street. Not mentioned. On rainy days, Grandma would take out two large shoe boxes that contained her extensive post card collection. Each had a photo, or more rarely, a cartoon, on one side and a hand-written or hand-printed note on the other side. They had come from many US states and from many countries around the world. The foreign ones also had interesting stamps to ponder with miniature scenes or portraits or animals from far-away places. I found all of it fascinating: the varieties of handwriting, the stamps, the pictures, the addresses. I would often ask her who these people were and what their comments meant. Usually, she would answer, but occasionally she wouldn’t. The newspaper was silent on the whole matter. Not one single post card was cited.
Grandma was affectionate as was her sister Mary, but their sister Emma took the cake. She was forever pawing, fawning, making a fuss, telling me nursery rhymes, hugging, kissing, etc. All three of these women were somewhat overweight and typically wore loose print dresses. I tend to think of my grandmother mainly wearing white, or off-white dresses with small flowers printed on them. Mary, on the other hand, the largest of the three, tended to wear dark blue dresses with white flowers. Emma typically wore brown or yellow dresses but made up for it with bright red lipstick and lots of make up. That entire branch of the family held family reunions every year. Much later, I met a cousin of Mom’s that had grown up with her family for a time. He eventually became a psychology professor at an Ivy League School. Although I met numerous distant uncles and cousins over the years, I don’t much recall any of these more distant relatives. Grandma’s mother had come from Wales. My Grandpa painted a picture of the Welsh cottage that she was born in. It was beautiful and set in beautiful country but quite modest in size.
Now, speaking of Grandpa, he was as different and distinct from Grandma as Mom was from Dad. Grandpa smelled of pipe tobacco and although he too, like Dad, seldom laughed very demonstrably, he always seemed to have a twinkle in his grey eyes. Grandpa was extremely smart and knew about everything; or so it seemed at the time. Besides that, he was multi-talented. He worked as an engineer, but he was also an artist of some note. He was also an accomplished musician. Best of all, from my perspective, he was an excellent teacher. When we went out to the garden to pick corn on the cob, he taught me something about plants, soil or gardening. Einstein died when I was almost ten years old. Grandpa showed me the item about it in the Akron Beacon Journal and then proceeded to tell me about Einstein’s work (in elementary terms). He subscribed to “Sky and Telescope” as well as “The Atlantic” and “Scientific American” and the magazine of the American Museum of Natural History. He would point out particular articles to me and then discuss them with me or explain something in more detail.
No need to point out and describe every single person in my family. The main point is that each of these people seemed very very different from the others. Much later, I can see many “family resemblances” in terms of skills, interests, psychology and physical characteristics. But as a child, I perceived none of that. It never even occurred to me that we all needed to breathe or had two arms and two legs. If someone had asked me, I could have answered correctly, of course, but the similarities among these people never crossed my mind. Every week, I listened as The Lone Ranger and Tonto found someone in trouble, tracked down the bad guys, shot a gun out of their hand and rode away. After they were gone, the beneficiaries of their bravery would remark that they didn’t know the true identity of The Lone Ranger, but he had left behind a single silver bullet. In retrospect, these stories were quite formulaic. But at the time, every story was just a different story. And so it was with folks in my family. They were different. They were individuals. Beyond that, they collectively made up the space of possible individuals.
As childhood continued, of course, that people-space continued to grow. New people often revealed, not just that people could be more extreme on existing dimensions such as age, size, or how much they laughed, but they forced me to consider and construct entirely new dimensions as well. People, it turned out, came in different colors; they spoke with different accents. In fact, they spoke in entirely different languages! When I was about three and a half, Mom, Dad and I all left for Portugal. My Mom told me later that I was frustrated that a bunch of Greek sailors could not communicate with me. I don’t recall this. But I do recall a little of learning to speak Portuguese although to me, it was not “learning to speak a different language.” It was just that I encountered people who spoke differently and I learned to communicate with them. Some people don’t laugh much while others laugh quite a lot. Similarly, some people spoke the way I was used to and others spoke some entirely different way. It never occurred to me, as a child, that they spoke an entirely different language and certainly not that they spoke that strange other way because of their own family and their own country. If asked, I imagine that I might have answered that they chose to speak Portuguese rather than English. But mainly, it just was. I didn’t consider why people were fat or skinny; why they spoke with an accent or not; why some people were male and some female; why some were old and some were young. Each person was simply and completely the way they were. They went about their business and as I interacted with them they punched at the edges of the net of my ideas about what people were like. Each person punched outwards in their own direction and the space of people grew larger and larger and larger.
I guess not everyone reacts that same way. It now seems to me, as an adult, that some people only expand their space of people a little ways from the points laid down by their first family and friends. When someone is too different, they are not really part of the whole human condition, but instead, are assigned to some other category such as “old person” or “toddler” or “professional athlete” or “foreigner” or “cripple” or “gay.” For some, each category requires special treatment different from all the rest. If, for instance, a “professional athlete” assaults or rapes someone, that might be okay because there are special rules for such folks. If, on the other hand, a “foreigner” assaults or rapes someone, they should at least be put in prison and quite possibly killed.
Indeed, even my own family gave some hints that this was the way to think about people. You had to be careful with grandparents because they were “old” and could be easily injured or broken into small pieces. When my cousin threw a xylophone across the room and hit me in the head, no punishment was forthcoming because he was “just a little kid” and “didn’t know any better.” When I went to the hospital, people did not seem to be treated as people but rather as “patients” or perhaps as “pneumonia” or “burn victim” or “appendicitis.” Given names were rarely used. Although, even as an adult, I see that there are commonalities in the way doctors need to treat patients with particular diseases, it seems to me that there are also often important differences as well.
One way that people differ quite a bit is how they treat and categorize other people. To me, every new individual I meet still seems quite different although the differences I see now are not nearly so gigantic as the differences that I saw as a child. It might be similar to the way in which both our house and my grandparents’ houses seemed gigantic in that there were so many separate places or regions to the house.
In the next blog, I examine further implications of family matters.
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