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Posts Tagged ‘childhood’

After a miscarriage and two not very robust children, I was a healthy and quite presentable baby and this must have given mother a lot of satisfaction.  Mother was a very hands-on parent, and she would lie about on a couch or bed and schmooze with all or one of us. Often in these sessions she would say silly things, such as “You are so pretty people should throw quarters at you,” or “someday you are going to marry Hattie Heintz,” or “I’m going to save you for seed.” (Tex said that this last was demeaning and should not have been said, though he has himself often said that “children are like waffles, the first should be thrown away,” even in his son’s presence.) I was embarrassed and dismissive of these verbal blandishments, which is not to say that I didn’t find comfort in them. They probably bolstered my ego but they didn’t fit my self image. I have always thought of myself as “all right looking,” rather than with a more elegant adjective, but was neither vain about nor worried over my looks – then or later.

The family came back from Fredericksburg poor and papa was without work. His first job I know about was as accountant for a small retail firm, which he left when he learned that he had been hired merely to keep watch on the incumbent accountant, a role that he found obnoxious and demeaning. My earliest memory of him was one afternoon when I went on my tricycle to meet him at the South Alamo streetcar stop. He was pleased to see me, but his depression was so deep that even as a six-year-old, I was affected by it. He did not usually show his unhappiness, though it underlay his major domestic behavior – outbursts of violent anger, usually taken out on mother, often on Tex and rarely on Thea or me.
Soon papa got a job selling calendars and other “advertising novelties,” things merchants bought as advertisements or to give to valued clients for goodwill.  It was a hard and demeaning task that took a lot out of a not very robust body and God knows what from his soul. It was certainly beneath his talents and reasonable aspirations, but he carried it with dignity and without any complaint that reached my ears. Being treated with disdain by rural Texas rednecks, it is not surprising that he would often leave a client muttering, “verdammte Schweinehund!” The ads for Miller’s Death of a Salesman that ran for years in The New Yorker, showing Willy Loman carrying his sample cases, always evoked tears in belated sympathy.

My earliest and most influential memories of Buntz are of his relentless teasing, a demeaning reinforcement of my babyhood, of calling me babyface, pie-faced and a crybaby. This last was ultimately true, for he didn’t let up until I was reduced to tears – which was their purpose and never took long. These memories are strangely disembodied. They are never associated with a particular place; there is neither context nor consequence. This dissociation must be the result of their being recurrent, of being endemic in my early childhood – and that is the way I remember them.  If I had done anything to provoke him, it has left no memory trace. I can’t remember mother’s scolding, remonstrating or even saying, “wait till papa comes home” in association with this teasing, though I presume she did, just as I assume that some of the not infrequent beatings he got from papa had been for this teasing. I have never, either as child or as adult, talked about this to Tex or to anyone else and so have no take on it other than my own scarred and evanescent memories. Nor can I pinpoint when they ended, but I assume they morphed into fighting –which was recurrent but never very severe. I credit this recurrent behavior with having deprived me of self confidence – a formative element in my history.

It would be a mistake to leave a one-sided picture. Buntz was also a real big brother to me, especially as we moved into boyhood, and played softball and kick the can with neighboring kids. There were things like a toy steam engine and a small printing press, with which we would play together. In such things he was always in charge and they never caught on with me, whether because I was still too young to find use for them, too stupid to catch on, or just overwhelmed by Buntz’s superior capabilities. I remember no overt recognition of the age difference as being relevant to my poor performance, either in these educational toys or in the tasks we were expected to undertake together. This doesn’t mean that family members didn’t see them, but only that I was never supplied with the defensive excuse, which I must have made but have no memory of. A bright 7- or 8-year old can keep up with a run-of-the-mill boy of 10 or 11, but a bright older puts the younger at a disadvantage.

And Buntz was bright and loved the stage. He got out papa’s old collapsible high hat and did clever magic tricks with the magic kit he had been given. We occasionally took bicycle trips, riding the 5 or so miles across town and, after a desultory visit to the miserable zoo, biking up a long hill to have the exhilarating even longer coast down, then cooking our bacon and eggs over a fire and maybe taking a second ride down that hill before returning home. Once, on a very hot day we made the “south loop,” a road that circled past some decrepit old missions and returned to town. We had become awfully thirsty when, blessedly, an old Mexican driving a mule pulling a wagonload of watermelons appeared. We scrounged up the fifteen cents to buy one and broke it open. Good!

My earliest memory of my mother must have happened while I was in kindergarten. Mother said that she was going to visit the class and this made me nervous – not over anything I might have done, but for what she might do. I said, “OK, mama, but just don’t pull anything!” That strange locution expressed my fear that she might lean over to kiss me or otherwise reveal my still babyish ways. Already I felt the need to preserve my public image as a boy. I went to kindergarten at Bonham School near where South Alamo and South Saint Mary streets crossed, about half a mile from home. At first we three kids walked together, though soon I was alone and drove my bicycle.

My schooling had an unusual degree of continuity, some of the first-graders being in high school with me. We had an especially nice class that was made up of the more capable half of the first graders who all were skipping a semester – presumably to pioneer starting classes twice a year. It caused us to begin each grade in mid-year but also created a class made of the more focused students. I remember some who stayed together for several years: the very pretty Lorraine Nicholson, who was to accompany me and Charles to Austin a decade later, Dorothy Darlington, who dramatized that pre-fabricated stage name by being dressed very provocatively as an 8-year old, Mary Louise Guenther, only child of the flour baron, on whom I had a secret crush, and the stately blonde Lillian Riley. The boys I recall were Dan Richardson, bigger and stronger than me and my Mexican neighbor, Rudy Gonzales.  It was probably a couple of years later when I got the first of two black eyes in a valiant but unsuccessful effort to protect the sanctity of the M in my last name.

My final memory of Bonham Elementary School was at our last spring fair, at which the children performed for the assembled parents. The boys in our class, mounted on stick horses and brandishing wooden swords, galloped in a circle to spear the brass rings the girls were holding. To my delight, I won the ring, for Mary Louise was the princess who awarded the winning knight with a kiss. But that moment of glory went by so fast that I was not able to savor it – to my great disappointment.

We had a bitch dog, Lady Lou that provided me with my first lesson in sex. When I was about seven, she was in what we called a dog procession and got hitched end-to-end with one of her entourage. We three kids anxiously ran into the house to tell mother of her parlous state and she promptly got the hose to cool down the masculine ardor. When mother explained what was happening and why, I piped up with, “I bet that is the way it is with people.”

I remember the incident but not my contribution to the discourse, which I was told about later. I like to think it is true as an early example of my tendency to jump to valid conclusions from limited data. The use of inference to reach a conclusion is requisite to creative thought but jumping to conclusions from insufficient evidence is easy and very misleading. Mother had a way of doing this, as shown by an incident that contributed to the family lexicon. We were taking the customary Sunday drive, going along a country road where a recurrent little sign was fastened to the wire fence that read: “Jax, a lager brew.” That is all. Mother said, “I’m glad they finally came out with a five-cent near-beer.” In those days soft drinks were five cents but a bottle of the de-alcoholized beer of the prohibition era was fifteen cents. “How do you know?” got only one of mother’s characteristic little shrugs. At the next country store we confirmed that this price revolution had not happened. “Jaxing” proved to be a very useful verb in all subsequent family debates and, though it never made it into the dictionary, it did pass on to the next generation of our several households. Theorizing means that one must make inferences, and my tendency to do so seem to have manifested itself early, as Lady Lou’s indiscretion disclosed, but I still heed the warning of Jaxing.

Despite this early lesson in childbirth and mother’s openness, I remained terribly ignorant of sex. I once inadvertently opened the bathroom door just as Thea stepped out of the bath. She folded her arms over her chest and crossed her legs as she shouted at me and I wondered at her ability to hide her penis, for I found it quite impossible when I tried. I don’t know how old I was but it was when I should have known better. Obviously my childhood culture did not include “playing doctor” I was also well along before I learned about menstruation and was shocked to learn about it when I did.  Once Thea came home from a shopping trip with two intriguing packages; I wanted to know what was in them and had to have Kotex explained. I was unbelieving – and in a sense I still am and use this female indignity as an answer to the theory of “intelligent design” in creating humans.

It was not that I didn’t know boys from girls; I remember playing house all alone, it was to me a dark secret that I was imagining myself married; I remember once when a bevy of girls marched down our street from high school to the streetcar on Alamo Street, one with an excessive mother-fantasy picked me up and cuddled me and I kept hoping it would happen again; I remember the sense of pleasure and guilt when I came home from a big New Year’s party thinking about the girls who had kissed me. These occurrences all took place well before puberty. They were innocent of any thought of intercourse, of which I as yet had no awareness and therefore are not, in my opinion, really sexual, but certainly involved a great longing for contact with the other sex; they relate to what I have called nurturant love in Bridge. They address the issue I raise about gender identification, which is so sharply underlined by those who seek sex-change operations.

It was a bit later that I had my one oedipal dream — the only early dream for which I have a clear and explicit memory. I was no longer young anymore, I think in high school. I was in my parents’ bedroom and my mother was lying on the bed and giving birth to a baby. As I was watching the head emerge from her vagina, I realized that it was me that was being born. As I was pondering the impossibility of this dual self, I awakened. There was nothing erotic or prurient about the event, it was clinical and its interest to me was this duality that I was confronting — a philosophical issue. It was simply a naked dream about my self.

I don’t remember what prompted papa’s one foray into the subject of sex, but it was to say that one should not have sex with a girl one would marry — a rule rooted in the class society of 19th century Germany. I was vaguely aware that he had had mistresses as a young man and of the custom of casa chica in Mexico, but it ran counter to the egalitarian mores I had absorbed. I was then still a boy but knew that that was not the rule I would follow. Tex told me much later that when he was given this lecture, papa had cited Uncle Eduard, whose dalliance with native women in the South Pacific had led to syphilis, as reason to restrain oneself.

I was not subjected to this or any other moralizing from papa. He wrote long moralizing letters to Tex when he was off at college, but not to me. I suspect he had had enough of pissing into the wind. Despite this absence of moralizing, coupled as it was with the absence of any supernatural retribution, my behavior was constrained by strong moral inhibitions. The sexual urges were strong and I had the usual fantasies, but I did not act them out. Not so much from shyness as from a strong sense of moral right and wrong and the feelings of guilt aroused by any transgression. This did not apply only to the sphere of sexual mores, but to social conduct in general. I still have twinges of guilt at things that I have done long ago that I consider unseemly even when they are neither illegal nor immoral, but only against my own convictions about propriety.

This shyness is caught in a bitter-sweet memory. One summer we went on a kind of overnight picnic, taking along some of the Jockusch kids who lived in Galveston, among whom was Hetta, a bit younger than me. Their mother had been an LUC girl and whenever they visited their grandparents in the Groos mansion, we always got together. It was through them that we had access to a beautiful private pool owned by a German lumber baron’s widow, in an out-building, with the artesian water falling over a pyramid of lava rocks. Hetta was a very sweet girl, no beauty but attractive and we were automatically paired in our pre-adolescent social activities.

For some reason, it had been decided as we were all turning in for the night that there should be watches through the night and we children were paired off. Of course, Hetta and I were paired and assigned to keep the first of the watches. As the other campers fell asleep and the night grew quiet. I was tempted to hug and kiss her, but my conscience kept me from it and we spent the hours talking about the wonders of the stars. It was then, as I remember, that I first expressed the enigma that still captures my imagination: I can with difficulty imagine the universe as never ending but cannot picture its ever ending, for then what would lie beyond the boundary? I now wonder what so restrained me and feel I cheated myself and wonder if Hetta also felt cheated. Though I had not seen her since college days in Austin, she wrote me when she saw my letter in the New Yorker (1995), and in the correspondence that followed we shared reminiscences about that trip. I was to visit her in the spring of 2005 to reminisce and perhaps find out, but sadly she had died.

My only formal sexual education did not come until one spring day in my junior year in high school. An assembly was announced; uniquely with separate assemblies for the boys and girls. Soon a herd of tittering teenage boys was filing nervously into the assembly hall. A round non-descript man with a cheerily sober air bounced onto the stage. All I remember from the half-hour lecture was the warning that every drop of semen lost in masturbation was the equivalent of 20 – or was it 50? – drops of blood. By then I had been inducted to the pleasures of this sin by Buntz, which had given it a kind of legitimacy, and I just figured it was well worth it.

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