Current Journal Wednesday, June 18, 2008
‘F’ Is Also for ‘Finding Oneself Fascinating’
One of the things I find a little grating is how we modern-day writers tend to find ourselves fascinating. Our tendency toward navel-gazing and over-sharing can be too much. That said, I’ll proceed to do just those things, so forgive me. This is an essay I recently wrote about my family, and I hope it makes a point that relates to the homeless, which, after all, is meant to be the focus of this blog! KS
‘F’ Is For ‘Family’
When I look back on my childhood, I admit that there were some challenges. My parents’ marriage was tumultuous, it ended in bitterness and rancor — some of it public — and, in my teens, I had a stepmother who, though supportive in many ways, essentially went to war with me, which almost did me in (and I don’t think the battle did much for her peace of mind either.)
Yet my life growing up I remember mostly as wonderful; more and more, I see how good it was. We were not rich, but my parents were interesting and hardworking people. I doubt my dad would want to claim this moniker, but, in his way, he was a feminist. When I was four, he built me a race car of my own. It was gasoline powered (wonder what the price of gas was in the early fifties?), and he even dredged out a race track behind his Texaco service station where I, wearing my mandatory helmet, routinely drove my little car round and round, pedal to the medal, with a family of boys who were professional race car drivers. I had my picture in the local paper, and, although my aunties predicted doom over such an activity, to me it was fabulous. My only frustration was that my car’s engine had a governor on it so it couldn’t go reeeeeaaaly fast.
When I was six, Dad got me a pony, and, as a family, we traveled around Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia to horse shows. Mother sewed the elaborate costumes required for showing; Dad and I trained and showed horses together over the next eighteen years. Horses were my world, and the absorption with them kept me ‘off the street,’ so to speak, for a very long time.
Mother was a career woman, a pianist, who had a radio show with her brother called “The Romantic Young Baritone.” Staying home wasn’t her gig, so she became the accompanist for a ballet studio and sometimes took me with her, plopping me into dance classes for eleven years (sort of against my will, but I can keep good rhythm as a result) and dragging me to every symphony concert and ballet that came to Knoxville. My Life in a Tutu was probably a good counterbalance to my Life in Boots, Jodhpurs and a Racing Helmet.
So, despite the strain in my parents’ marriage, I remember our house always being full of people for Bridge and Canasta parties, which ended with everyone around the piano singing show tunes while my mother played. I love those memories. I had a gajillion cousins that lived close by, some rich and prosperous, some poor as church mice, but we all got together every Sunday after church at my grandparents’ house for a big Sunday lunch cooked by Grannny Maude, my mother’s mother, who I was crazy about.
Granny was a strong country woman who was a ground breaker in her way. Her sixth child, my Uncle Jack, born at home like all the others, received a brain injury from a difficult birth which left him with tremendous and evident mental and physical disabilities, including cerebral palsy. In those days, the only acceptable answer was to ‘put him in an institution.’ But she refused. And I can only begin to appreciate what a battle that must have been in the 1940’s. Instead, she kept him with her until she died in the 1970’s and, scandalously, always took him in public, which was unheard of at that time. There was no such thing as Politically Correct in those days, so she and Jackie were regularly publicly ridiculed. “Isn’t that awful? She shouldn’t have him out in public…people like that shouldn’t be seen…” etc. But Granny didn’t care, or, if she did, she didn’t waver. He was her child, and she wasn’t about to put him aside somewhere out of sight. Before she died, she extracted strict promises from my aunts and cousins to have Jackie live with them, which they did. What a gutsy broad she was.
I see homeless people downtown who have grown up very poor, like some of my cousins. They’ve lived very rough lives, and so did many of my cousins — the ones I played hide and seek with on Sunday afternoons in my Granny’s orchard. There are people living on the street downtown who are maybe not as severely disabled as my Uncle Jack, but nearly so.
I am always asking myself: what makes the difference? It’s a complex sociological formula, I’m sure, involving geographical location, the decade, people staying in one place rather than migrating, and a myriad of other factors. Yet somehow the ingredient that rises to the surface in my mind is this one: family.
I have cousins that ended up multimillionaires and cousins that lived in mobile homes the size of a camper and were always in trouble with the law, usually for public drunkenness. But these cousins helped each other, even adopting each other’s children, and that camping trailer was staked down on my Granny’s farm in the country outside Knoxville long after she died. Nobody ever ended up on the street for long. There was always a relative somewhere in the Tennessee hills that would take you in and, in the space of fifteen minutes, come up with a meal that would feed the five thousand.
When you see the pain in the lives of people who are homeless, it challenges some pretty basic assumptions about your own life, at least for me. One of them is worthiness. I think deep down inside of us we have to believe that somehow we deserve what we have in order to have some peace of mind about the relative splendor in which we live. And when you see good people who’ve had really hard lives living on the street, where do you go with that? God’s will? Karmic justice? Or can we, as many would like to, lay it all at the feet of personal responsibility?
For me, it’s a mystery and involves a far bigger picture than we are able to view from right here where we are. I’m not willing to make too many assumptions about other people’s lives, whether they deserve what they got, whether or not any of us is ‘worthy.’ I’m just purely and simply grateful for what I’ve been given, which is a very great deal. And the greatest of the gifts I’ve received is family, past and present.