Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Homeless Man on Marsh Street

Yesterday, as my son, Bill, and I left the pharmacy on Marsh Street, in down town San Luis Obispo, we passed a man with reddish hair and a sad face. As we walked by, I was strongly aware of his feelings of despair, but he didn't ask for anything, so I continued on.

"Do you give people money even when they don't ask for it?" I asked Bill. He said,

"Yeah, I do, when I can tell they need it."

"I wanted to give something to that man in front of CVS. He looked so miserable."

"I noticed him, too. Maybe he'll still be there when we go back to pick up my prescription."

Later, when we came out of the pharmacy, we saw him again. This time he approached us, and asked for help.

"Could you spare a little money, so I can get something to eat?" Bill and I both dug in our wallets for something to give him.

"It was so cold last night, I couldn't get warm...and I was hungry. I'm still hungry." We both gave him some money, saying we wished it could be more. His face brightened into a smile, he thanked us, and started off down Marsh Street.

This poor guy kept returning to my mind. We could tell he was new at asking for money, reluctant to do it, but driven by need.

I thought about how easy it is, now, for people to fall out of the system and become homeless. It hasn't ever happened to me, but it could have. I have often been on the edge, financially, wondering how I would pay the rent. Somehow, I always did.

I live on a tiny income in a mobile home park. I own my home, free and clear, because I bought it years ago when mobile homes were cheap. I don't feel poverty stricken, and yet technically, I am below the poverty level. Even so, what a chasm there is between me and the redhaired man who is hungry and homeless!

My house is warm and dry, I have a bed to sleep in and food to eat. I have a studio in which to paint and a computer to write on. I have musical instruments to play and books to read. There are geraniums, succulents, trees, and a beautiful bougainvillea growing in my back yard. My son, Bobby Jameson, owns the house with me, lives here, and is the reason it is warm and dry even though the roof is 40 years old. He worked on it for months to be sure it could withstand the winter rains, and it has.

So I feel rich. I have everything I need. But the homeless man with red hair has nothing he needs, except the clothes he wears. And you can multiply this man by the hundreds, just in this one town. Worse than that, many of the homeless are women and children.

This breaks my heart. If only I could help! That is, with more than just a couple of dollars.

I grew up in the depression. There were many homeless then too. We called them "hoboes," and we would feed them when they came to our house hungry. They wandered about, "rode the rails," and lived however they could. We were far from rich, but seemed to have everything in comparison to the hoboes. I wished I could help them, and so did my mother, but all we could do was give them food when they happened to come, and now and then a hat, or a sweater, or a pair of shoes.

This disparity of fortune is heart-wrenching. The only positive side to it is that it makes me appreciate all that I have. Because of the homeless man with red hair, I know I am truly rich.

Monday, December 27, 2010

How Are We Doing?

It occurred to me, as I was watching the news on TV this morning, that human beings haven't made much progress since we first arrived on earth. We are still doing the same things, just on a larger scale, and in more complicated ways.

We used to fight man to man. Then clan to clan, village to village, area to area, and country to country.

At first we killed only one at a time. We have made so much "progress" that now we kill hundreds at once, and have the ability to kill thousands.

In addition to continuing to fight each other, the way we treat each other, even those with whom we are "at peace," hasn't improved much either. At least, in primitive societies people worked together, cooperated for the welfare of the whole group. Now we cooperate less and less, and it's every man (or woman) for himself.

In the process of vying with each other for money, property, or power, we lose sight of simple human connection. We don't know how to work together for the good of the planet we live on, but are blinded by desire for personal gain, or for the success of personal agendas.

Couldn't we take a step back and look at what we are doing to each other and to our earth? Can't we pay attention to what it is we are losing?

And if the world dies, where will we live then?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Stories From My Life Now on New Blog

I posted a few stories from my life on this blog, and then realized they are not really relevant here. Today, I started a new blog, Troy Parker Farr--Stories from My Life. I will keep Think About It for other things. There is a link to Stories from My Life in the upper right corner of this blog.

Friday, November 12, 2010


I love war
It’s what we’re all living for
It gives us a chance to see foreign lands
And show them their fate is in our hands
I love war

I love war
It’s what we’re all rooting for
It lets us know that we’re the strongest
In every war we stick around the longest
I love war

I love war
It’s what we spend money for
We can’t waste our wealth on education
We have to use it to defend our nation
I love war

I love war
It brings us power galore
It gives us the chance to rely on force
Without any foolish thoughts of remorse
I love war

I love war
It thrills me down to my core
We have bombs that are very smart
We have killing people down to an art
I love war

I love war
It’s what we’re all fighting for
We can’t expect to have a life of ease
We have to support our wars overseas
I love war

I love war
It’s a situation I adore
Never mind health care for those in need
It’s much more important for war to succeed
I love war

I love war
It’s what every patriot’s for
Forget about people whose money is gone
War’s what we’d rather spend money on
I love war

I love war
It’s what we’re all rooting for
We’re the greatest country in all the world
Our guns always ready and our flags unfurled
I love war.

I love war
Peacemakers I deplore
They interfere with all our fun
They don’t know what makes Sammy run
I love war

I love war
It’s so much fun keeping score
Never mind if the rich get obscenely wealthy
It will trickle down and we’ll all be healthy
I love war

Monday, July 12, 2010


In Evanston when I was a little girl, and we still lived at 1428 Maple Street, I can remember wandering about a small part of the neighborhood to houses of people we knew. Most of them were Websters—there were at least three nearby houses occupied by Webster families, and most of the other houses seemed to be occupied by relatives of the Websters.

There was a house on the next corner and across the street that had a white wooden double swing in its yard, with seats facing each other. I don’t know who lived in that house. I don’t think I ever knew, but I used to go and swing on their swing with one of the Webster children, or with one of my brothers. It took two of us to make it go. I don’t remember ever seeing the people who lived there, but they never came out to stop us from swinging on their swing.

The parents of the Webster kids we used to play with lived only a couple of houses away from the house with the swing. Betty was a little older and Ronnie a little younger than I. Their father, Ronald, Sr., was one of the first people to become sober in AA, just as it was beginning, but that was years later. The grown-up Websters, Ronald and Betty were friends of my parents for many years.

One Webster family lived almost directly across from us on Maple Street. They had a huge white house and a white picket fence enclosing their large yard. One day as I was walking by, their big dog came up to the fence. I reached out to pet him, but Instead of letting me do it, as I expected, he growled and then barked at me so loudly I was terrified. I was also surprised. It was the first time it ever occurred to me to be afraid of a dog, or any other animal. I loved them and expected them to love me back, which they usually did.

Next to this house was another Webster house, with stairs going up to a big veranda. One winter day, I was on my way home, all bundled up in a winter coat, scarf, hat, leggings, and boots. As I passed this house, I suddenly realized I had to go to the bathroom. I started up their stairs intending to ask if I could use the bathroom, but it was too late. I felt embarrassment, failure, and fear as I became aware of the telltale liquid warmth in my pants. I was afraid of what would happen to me when I got home. I was right. My mother was angry, told me I was a bad girl, and sent me to bed without any supper. That part I didn’t mind since I didn’t like to eat then.

At Ronnie and Betty Webster’s house, their father used to create a skating rink in their back yard in winter, and that was where we all learned to skate. At first we had little double runner skates that attached to our shoes just as roller skates did. They were supposed to make it easier for us to balance, but they didn’t glide very well, and we fell down a lot anyway.

Eventually, we all graduated to single runner skates with high lace-up shoes attached. It took a long time to be able to keep our ankles straight, and at first it felt as if we were skating on our ankles instead of on the blades. Still, it made winter great fun whether we skated well or not, and we all learned in the end.

Once, when I was quite small, I ventured down to the corner of our block and got the idea of continuing on around the block. I turned left at the corner and after a house or two, came to some large brick buildings. I had no idea what they were. I continued to the next corner and turned left again.

Along the side of this building there were insets below the level of the sidewalk that admitted light to the basement windows (I found out later). I didn’t know what they were for, and got down into one of them to explore. There wasn’t anything to see, except the dried leaves at the bottom. Then, for some reason, I began to take off my clothes.

A man in a black suit and hat, and a white collar, came and gently lifted me out. He put his suit coat over me and asked me where I lived. I told him and he took my hand and walked me home. He was very nice to me, not threatening at all.

I wish I could say the same for my mother. She was exceedingly angry and had a lot to say. She made me feel like a fallen woman, if you can feel like a fallen woman at three or four years old.

Even though I remember this incident clearly, I have no recollection at all as to what motivated me to take off my dress. I found our later that the man in black who took me home was a Catholic priest.

My father didn't think much of Catholics in general, but he was very grateful to this particular priest for bringing me home. In fact, he made a point of going to find him so he could thank him for his kindness to me.

Friday, July 2, 2010


As I was growing up, my mother would alternate between being effusively loving and understanding, and being harshly critical and emotionally cruel. She would be one way one day and different the next. It kept me confused and constantly off balance.

She was a charming woman, witty and intelligent, and also very musical. Our lives were full of music. She played the violin, and we all began learning an instrument as soon as we were able.

I loved music, and loved my mother’s spontaneity and enthusiasm, but I hated and feared her anger and criticism. She enchanted people, and I was just as enchanted by her as anyone else. That’s what made it so painful when she turned on me, just when I trusted her the most. It would make me feel like the most horrible person in the world.

Now, from the perspective of many years of living, my emotions about my mother, and about myself, are no longer caught on the horns of a dilemma. Now I see that she was misguided by her own need to compete and to excel, to make people love her, and to be in the lime light.

She must have had a tremendous need to convince herself, and others, that she was not just acceptable, but way above the norm. Her magnetic personality so overwhelmed me as a little girl, that I, in turn, found it hard to believe I even had a right to breathe, let alone excel.

When I was six, my mother took me on a trip to Massachusetts, leaving my brothers at home with Dad in Evanston. We went on the train to visit Mother’s twin sister, my cousins, and my grandmother in Cambridge. I loved the train. It was fun to sleep in the berth at night, after watching the porter make it up. It was exciting going to the dining car, where there were white tablecloths, gleaming silver, and fresh flowers on the tables.

I did my best to be good and everything went smoothly.

When we finally arrived in Boston, and took a cab to Cambridge, the house where they lived, an old two-story frame house, looked austere in comparison to houses in the Midwest, but when we went inside, it was full of life. My three cousins, Nancy, Persis, and Jimmy kept things humming.

The morning after we arrived, Gramma, who was very interested in appearances, took charge of me and fixed my hair with her curling iron. I was happy, because my cousins all had curly hair and mine was straight. She picked out a pretty light-green dress for me to wear, and ironed all the packing wrinkles out of it with a little iron she had right there in her room. I looked at myself in her long mirror. She had transformed me! I hugged her. “Oh, thank you, Gramma! I look so different!” She smiled. “You’re welcome, dear. Now you look so pretty.”

I was ecstatic. Norm had curly hair, Bob had wavy hair. Only Fran and I had straight hair, but he was a boy. Now, for once, with my newly created curls, I actually felt pretty as I went down the long narrow staircase to breakfast.

We children sat at a little table in the center of the kitchen. I was so proud of my hair and my green dress, happy and serene inside, comfortable in the pit of my stomach, where often there was a tight knot of fear.

My cousins, Nancy and Persis, were at the little table with me, and Jimmy was next to us in his high chair. We all had bowls of cereal. Jimmy kept putting his little bare foot under the edge of my cereal dish, lifting it to make it spill a little. “Don’t do that, Jimmy!” I pleaded, “You’ll make a big mess!” but he kept teasing me with his toes, and pretending he was going to do it again.

I was about to tell my Aunt what was happening, when Jimmy misjudged, and spilled my cereal all over the table and onto my clean dress. I was horrified.

Before I could say anything, Mother came in the room, saw the cereal on the table and on my dress, and assumed that I had done it. Her face darkened with anger. “Marjie, why on earth did you do that? A big girl like you! You ought to be ashamed!” “But I didn’t do it,” I protested, “Jimmy did it with his foot.” Jimmy shook his golden curls and smiled sweetly, “Not me!” Nancy and Persis were too afraid of my mother’s anger to speak up. My aunt hadn’t seen what happened. No one said anything.

Mother was furious. “You’re a bad, bad girl!” She pulled me out of the chair, slapped my hands, and dragged me up the long dark stairs to the bathroom. She took a comb, wet it under the faucet, and began to comb out my beautiful new curls. “No, no!” I wailed, “You’re ruining my hair!” But she kept on. “Bad little girls don’t deserve to have pretty hair.”Then she mopped off my dress, and wouldn’t let me change into a fresh one because I had been “bad.”

I felt a terrible pain deep inside. I felt ugly, and somehow tainted, even though I knew I had done nothing wrong. And now I had to suffer the shame and embarrassment of going back down stairs with my wet, straightened hair and my damp, mopped-off dress. I hated my mother for believing I was bad, and I hated her for humiliating me in front of everyone else.

Anger, pain, and humiliation, swirled within me, tearing at my insides, shredding my self esteem. The beautiful sunny day could just as well have been dark with rain. It no longer held any exciting possibilities. I was just an ugly little girl with straight, hair. Somehow, even though I was innocent, it seemed to be what I deserved.

I didn’t feel like playing with Nancy and Persis in the back yard. They were running around and laughing. I didn’t feel like laughing. I sat on the stairs that went up to the kitchen door, my chin in my hands.

An old friend of the family, “Uncle Kay,” came out the back door to greet me. I had always loved him and he had always loved me too. “Hello, Marjie!” he said cheerfully. It was hard to answer, or even look at him, even though he was one of my favorite people. I managed a subdued, “Hello.” He bent down toward me smiling and patting my shoulder. “How was the trip on the train?” he asked, “was it fun?” I looked up at him, and saw his familiar unruly red hair, kind blue eyes, and friendly smile. I wanted to smile back, but just couldn’t. “It was O.K.” I said, without enthusiasm. I could tell he was surprised—he was used to happy responses from me--but on that day, I just couldn’t be my real self.

When Uncle Kay went back in the house, I could hear him ask my mother and aunt “What’s the matter with Marjie?” Then I heard them telling him all about that morning. I put my head down on my knees and wished I could die.

Mother sent me to bed early, because I couldn’t eat. It was still light. For some time, I could hear the voices of the other children far away downstairs. I lay there in bed and watched the tops of the trees as the sky grew darker and darker, until I couldn’t see them anymore. In the dark I felt very alone. With all my heart I wanted to be good and kind and beautiful. Why couldn’t I do it? I loved people, and I wanted them to love me. Why couldn’t I make that happen?

In the morning, I was not hungry, but I tried to eat breakfast, so Mother wouldn’t scold me. It was hard. The cereal tasted like cardboard.

The doorbell rang, and when someone opened it, I heard Uncle Kay’s cheerful voice in the front hall. Soon Mother called me into the hall and told me Uncle Kay had come to take me for a ride in his car to see the lighthouse out by the ocean.

Suddenly, the day looked brighter. “Get your sweater,” she said, “it’s cold near the shore.” It only took a minute to get it from upstairs and I was ready to go. “You didn’t comb your hair,” said my mother, “for heaven’s sake!” “I think she looks fine,” said Uncle Kay, smiling at me, and I felt a little lifting of the heavy pain inside. He gently took my hand and led me out the door and down the walk to his car. He opened the door and held it open for me while I got in. I felt like a princess.

It was fun riding in his car. It was a convertible sedan, like our Franklin—a “touring car.” Since there were no windows, my hair blew every which way and I didn’t care. As we got near the ocean, I could smell the salty sea air. It was delicious.

After Uncle Kay parked the car on a bluff near the ocean, we walked over sand and rocks to where the lighthouse stood. It was gleaming white, tall and round, with windows at the top. Uncle Kay pointed up to where the windows were. “There’s a great big light up there and it sweeps around and around to warn ships at night or in bad weather.” “Why does it have to warn them?” I asked. “So they won’t run aground when they can’t see where the land is.” In my mind I could see a ship on a stormy sea at night, with men on board straining through the darkness to see the light that would save them from sinking.

On the way back to the car, we stopped and sat on a flat rock to rest a minute and look at the ocean. Uncle Kay handed me a little package he had been carrying. “Here,” he said, “this is for you.” I took it in my hand. It was wrapped in brown paper. “Open it,” he said. When I pulled the paper away and opened the box, there was a curling iron. My own curling iron! A tear splashed on it and glistened in the sun. I was overwhelmed.

Uncle Kay hugged me gently. “Oh, thank you!” I said, hardly able to talk, “Thank you so much!” Uncle Kay smiled. “I don’t think you need it,” he said, touching my hair, “I like the way you look. I like you just the way you are.”

I looked up at him, surprised. His red hair was bright in the sun, and his blue eyes warm and friendly. “If you want curls, now you can have ‘em, but remember, that’s just being pretty on the outside. I love you because you’re already beautiful on the inside, and that’s where it really matters!”

* * * * *

The gift that Uncle Kay gave me that day was far more than just a curling iron. It was the assurance from someone I really cared about that I was an acceptable person, worthy of being loved. During my growing up years, which were often painful and difficult, he continued to be my staunch ally. His unswerving, uncritical love and loyalty through the years often kept me going when I wanted to give up. He made me know that life is worth living, even when it hurts. That was his real gift.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


When I was five, we moved to a new house in Evanston on Hinman Avenue. It was larger than our house on Maple, but not large on the scale of houses in Evanston. It was in the same block as Miller School, a grade school, where older brother, Norm, started his educational endeavors, and I followed the following fall.

I had already taught myself how to read, so was started in the second grade. Reading was one of my passions. I had discovered that in a book I could go anywhere in the world and learn about other people, how they lived, and what they did. It was a way to escape from the painful aspects of my growing up years. Norm dubbed me, “Bookie,” only one among many other unflattering names he constantly dreamed up.

Some unique things happened on Hinman Avenue that happened at no other place we ever lived. There was a balloon man who came by every so often carrying a fistful of gas balloons in many colors. As he came down the street, he blew a shrill whistle to attract attention. Bobby, who was four when we moved there, would almost go berserk when he heard that whistle. He would race around the house, upstairs and down, calling out to anyone who would listen, “B’loon man! B’loon man! B’loon man!” He would keep it up until finally he got the attention of my mother, or some other adult, and got his “b’loon.” Sometimes the rest of us would get one too, but nobody cared about “b’loons” the way Bobby did.

One year the balloon man came by on Memorial Day. We were just starting out to go to the Memorial Day Parade, so my mother bought us all balloons. We must have looked quite festive as we walked along toward downtown Evanston, holding all our balloons. But soon, Bobby, in his excitement, lost hold of his balloon and began to cry as it floated slowly and inexorably upward. Frannie, who was the generous one of the family, said “Here, Bobby, you can have my balloon.” Bobby accepted it with a big smile, and his tears stopped.

But after another block or two, he lost that balloon too. Norm, who was not generous, but was bored with hanging on to his balloon, grumbled “Here, take mine, I don’t want it anyway.” Once again, Bobby was enthralled, but as we were nearing downtown, that balloon got away from him too. I wasn’t generous either, but I felt sorry for Bobby and gave him my balloon. “Hold on tight,” I cautioned, but before we had gone another block, that balloon followed all the others.

Bobby stopped still, and, for a moment, looked as if he might cry again as he watched his last balloon float away into the sky. Apparently he was pondering the loss of all his balloons and trying to make sense of it. My mother was impatient and said “Come on, Bobby, we’ll miss the parade.” Bobby, with his eyes on his balloon, still visible far above, gave a huge sigh, and stated firmly, “God wants all my b’loons.”

Another wonder of our life on Hinman Avenue was a hurdy-gurdy man who would come by once in a while with his music box, and a little monkey that sat on top of it. He wore a red felt vest with gold trim, and a cute little pillbox hat that he would doff whenever anyone gave him a coin. I loved that monkey, and used to save every penny that came my way in preparation for the day that the hurdy-gurdy man would come by.

A soon as the hurdy-gurdy man established his position on the corner near our house, I would grab my pennies, and rush out to where he was. When I held out my hand, palm up, with a penny in it, the monkey would reach out his little hand and take it. As he picked it up, I could feel his little fingers brush against my skin and felt a shiver of delight. His little hands were so human, with perfect little nails.

I always wished I could have spent more time with him, but as soon as my pennies were all gone, the hurdy-gurdy man would pack everything up, pull on the leash so the monkey would jump up on the box, and away they went.

Years later, at Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, I saw another hurdy-gurdy man with another monkey, in the same kind of little suit and hat. When I gave him pennies, and felt him take them out of my hand, I was transported back to Hinman Avenue, and once again flooded with joy at the touch of those little fingers on my hand.

Another thing unique to Hinman Avenue, didn’t interest me, but it fascinated Norm. Until they finally put in a stop sign, there were frequent collisions at the corner near Miller School. We could hear them from our house, as the metal on metal sound of the crash was loud and distinctive on our quiet street. Norm would rush out to see what had happened, to find out if anyone was hurt, and to watch all the activity of the police and the ambulances, if any. He became quite a connoisseur of auto accidents.

While at Hinman Avenue, it was decided that I had to have my tonsils out. When my mother told me about it, she referred to the operation as “tonsils and adenoids.” I had a vague idea of what and where tonsils were, because Norm had had his tonsils out a year or so before, but was vague on just where or what adenoids might be.

When Norm had had his tonsillectomy, my parents decided to have him circumcised at the same time, since it hadn’t been done at birth. When he heard I was going to have my “tonsils and adenoids” out, he said darkly, “Boy, will you be surprised when you find out where your adenoids are!”

The most exciting thing that happened when we lived at Hinman Avenue was that we acquired a car. It was a 4-door Franklin, and was convertible. They were called “touring cars. It had no permanent windows. The ones it had were made of ising glass, and snapped in when they were needed—not a quick process.

My father often took us for rides in the Franklin, usually out in the country somewhere, often for a picnic. We loved it. I remember one particularly exciting day when my father thrilled us all by reaching the terrifying speed of 37 miles per hour—the fastest we had ever gone!

The part of the house that I loved the best was the library. It had a fireplace at one end, windows at the other, and a beautiful Persian rug on the floor. The walls were lined with books. It was my haven. I spent many hours there lying on the rug, looking at, or reading books. I was sad when in the summer I was seven, we moved out to Geneva, Illinois, in the Fox River Valley.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


The day following Sunday, December 7, 1941, Fran, along with several of his friends in Geneva, Illinois, where we lived then, went down to the draft board and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He became a night-fighter pilot, and in 1943 was sent to the South Pacific. Fortunately, he later came back safely from that seemingly endless war.

In the years after the war, he and his wife, Barb, had several children—six, and he was just as wonderful a father to them as he was a brother to us. He had a light touch, and knew how to get across principles of behavior to his kids without anger or cruel words. He loved each of his children for their own individuality, and encouraged them to be who they wanted to be. I admired him for being able to do, so wisely, what I didn’t naturally know how to do. I learned from him, as I always had, by watching how he handled situations and people.

In time, he became an engineering test pilot, and was stationed at Alamogordo, New Mexico. One day, he was flying an F-106 jet plane, testing a device intended to hold a sophisticated new missile—the Cruise Missile, I believe. Unfortunately, the device holding the missile was not sufficiently strong, and broke apart from the plane. Part of it cut through the fuselage, severing the hydraulic systems that enabled the pilot to control the plane.

Now, there was no way to change the plane’s speed or direction. He tried to use the ejection seat, but it jammed. (Later, there was an investigation which found that all the F-106s at Alamagordo at that time had their ejection seats improperly installed. Any pilot who tried to eject would have had the same experience Fran had.)

Somehow Fran got the canopy open and used his chute to lift himself out of the cockpit, but the F-106 had an unusually high tail. His head struck it, and he was killed instantly.

It was an especially terrible experience for Barb and the six children, and changed their lives irrevocably from then on.

It was also a devastating blow to all the rest of the family. How could I even begin to describe such a loss! All of us knew he was, in some unusual way, different from the rest of us—better, bigger, kinder, fairer than any of us were able to be. There was never any indication that he knew this. I don’t believe he ever thought of such a thing. He didn’t know it. We knew it.

Many years later, I fell into conversation with a business acquaintance in Tucson, Arizona, and found that he was part of the ground crew at Alamogordo the day Fran was killed. As he recalled that day, his face was sad. “He was the greatest guy—just the greatest guy—the best of all the pilots there.” He paused for a moment, his eyes moist. “Everybody loved Fran Parker,” he said, “everybody.” He told me how that day everyone on the ground was shocked when the accident happened, and how bad they all felt because it happened to Fran.

I felt fortunate to have the opportunity to hear about that fateful day from a person who was actually there, and who knew my brother. I was not surprised to hear of the love and respect the people on the ground at Alamogordo had for him--my kind, funny, loving brother, Fran.


When I was born, I had a brother, Norm, who was about a year and a half older than I. My brother, Bob, was born about a year and a half after me, but I have no memory of it.

I was four when my brother, Fran, was born, and I remember it very clearly. My mother came home from the hospital after what seemed like a long absence. She was brought in and carried upstairs on a stretcher, and it seemed strange to see my energetic mother carried in that way, covered in sheets, except for her head, and looking so lifeless.

“Where’s the little baby?” I asked, as they were puffing carefully upward, “Didn’t it come home too?” Before they could answer, a nurse in a white uniform and a stiff little cap came in the front door carrying the baby. I couldn’t really see him. He seemed to be just a bunch of blankets all wrapped around each other. I bounced over to get a better look, but the nurse said, “Shh! He’s asleep. You can see him later.”

When we were finally taken into the bedroom to see Fran for the first time, my older brother, Norm, just looked at him for a minute, and then said, “Hmph!” My younger brother, Bob, looked at him for a few moments, making his assessment. “He’s too little to play with!” he said in disgust. “Well, he’s going to grow bigger,” I assured him.

I didn’t see anything wrong with that new and exciting person, and looked at him in fascination, especially at those little miniature hands. I reached out a finger tentatively to touch one, and Fran’s tiny fingers closed around one of mine so sweetly and deliberately, I felt a surge of love and joy. There began a connection that was never broken as long as he lived.

Fran was the happy one and the generous one of the family. His heart was big, uncritical, kind, and giving from the start. I was selfish, Norm was selfish, Bob was selfish, but Fran was always willing to share whatever he had. Our mother was always telling us to share our playthings, to be fair, and to be kind to other children, but no one had to tell Fran anything. He seemed to have been born knowing these things.

When we lived in Geneva, Illinois, where we moved when I was seven, we used to go on picnics to the Camden Woods, a lovely hilly area west of town. We used to have to lug everything quite a distance over the fields from the car, with everyone carrying something, and Norm always grumbling as he carried the large thermos of lemonade. My mother would spread out a tablecloth on the ground, and we would picnic under a huge oak tree. After that, we would all scramble up our favorite hill, which had a wonderful flat top and wasn’t hard to climb.

One day, as the grown-ups talked and we played on that hill, Fran found some loose change in the grass--an exciting event! Bob looked jealous, disappointed that he hadn’t found it first. Bob would have kept it, Norm would have kept it, I would have kept it, but not Fran. He counted the change, and without a moment’s hesitation handed some of the coins to Bob, saying, “Here, Bob, here’s your share.” Bob was ecstatic. I was amazed. I wouldn’t have even thought of doing such a thing, but couldn’t help but admire him for doing it, and loved him for being the way he was.

Not only was Fran generous and kind, but he was funny. He could always make us laugh, even when we were mad at each other, and many of our childish battles and rivalries would just melt away because his humor would make it seem so silly.

Later, we moved back to the “North Shore,” the suburbs north of Chicago along Lake Michigan. His imagination and humor were fun for us all. When we lived in Glencoe, and he was in high school, he had all sorts of inventive schemes in his room to make things easy to do. He rigged up a string to a light chain so he could put out the light after he was already in bed. At night he arranged his clothes on a chair by his bed so that in the morning he could get dressed in less than a minute.

He was creative about everything—always looking for a better way to do anything he had to do—and also was imaginative about getting a laugh. He put up a sign on the wall by his door, saying, “Only good-looking people may pull this string.” A little red string hung enticingly from the lower part of the sign. Of course, no one could resist pulling it. When they did, it opened downward, revealing a message that said, “My, but you’re conceited!” Everyone had to laugh.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


My very first memory is of being in my crib in the dark, crying because I was wet and cold. I was standing up, holding on to the railing, wondering where my mother was. Whenever I cried, she always came to see what was wrong, and then would take care of me and provide whatever was needed. This time nothing happened. Nobody came.

After a while, I stopped crying. I remember the wrought iron railing--how cold it felt to my hands--and the little decorative bulges where the bars met the top rail. I stood there realizing that this was something new and not at all right. I had to do something. I remember feeling that I must get out and find my mother, and put all my energy into trying to get out of my crib to go find my mother.

I could see light from the hall through the partially open door. I had never gotten out of my crib before, but was determined to do it now. I remember struggling over and over to get over the side, and just falling back into the crib, but I kept trying. In the end I made it, and found myself triumphantly on the cold wooden floor.

I tottered toward the light from the hall, and just as I pushed the door open and went through, I saw my father coming toward me. He looked so surprised to see me there, out of my bed and in the hall.

He gathered me up in his arms, carried me back into my bedroom, and took care of everything just as my mother would have done. He changed my diapers and the crib sheets, and soon I was back in a dry, warm bed and fell asleep.

To have my father fulfill my mother’s role made a great change in how I viewed my small world. Since my mother had always been the one to come when I cried, she seemed like an extension of myself. Now, for the first time, I was aware that she was separate from me, and that I was separate from her. I knew I could decide to do something on my own, and then do it.

Much later, when I was older, I found out that on that night, my mother was very sick with the flu, and my father had to get up and take her place. When he did that, I became aware of him in a new way. Now he was more than a pleasant, smiling entity in the background. He was someone who could take care of me as my mother did, and who wanted me to be comfortable and safe.

It was the beginning of a close bond with my father that lasted until he died a few months before his 100th birthday. The night that this all took place, and that the bond began, was shortly before my first birthday, in January 1920.

Monday, June 21, 2010


Earlier in my life, I made many mistakes because of the fear of rejection or the expectation of emotional pain. Unfortunately, this was what I learned as I was growing up.

My mother was emotional and spontaneous, sometimes extravagantly loving, and sometimes harshly critical. The alternation between love and criticism kept me forever off balance. I never knew what was coming next, and had no confidence that I was O.K., or ever could be. In fact, being O.K. actually meant, in the end, pleasing my mother, or at least managing to escape her wrath.

My father was not spontaneously affectionate. I can’t remember ever hearing him say he loved me, but I knew he did, and was always comfortable being around him. He made me feel loved by spending time with me, teaching me things, encouraging me in art, taking me to the Art Institute in nearby Chicago, getting me into classes there as a teenager.

His lack of spontaneity in the realm of affection was made up for by a wonderful sense of humor. He was always funny and often had me and my brothers in stitches at the dining room table, while my mother, who needed to be the center of attention, would say, “Oh, Norman!”

My father was brilliant and intellectual, a walking encyclopedia. I remember once when I was traveling with him on a long train trip—probably going out to the Black Hills in South Dakota--he got into a long discussion about deep sea fishing with a man sitting nearby. I had never heard him mention the subject ever, and yet he seemed to know all about it.

He had a photographic mind and remembered everything, so I was often surprised at how much he knew about almost anything anyone ever brought up. Although he had a Ph.D. in history, he had found that he hated teaching unresponsive undergraduate students, and in desperation decided to become a patent attorney, like his father and brothers, and join the family firm. He taught himself the law by studying for a year or so, and passed the bar exam the first time.

It is fun to have a funny parent, and one that enjoys teaching you things. He made learning a pleasant adventure, and thinking and figuring things out a lifelong pastime.

My mother was musical and played the violin very well. She was spontaneous and witty, and charmed everyone with whom she came in contact. People either loved her extravagantly or hated her guts.

Looking back on my formative years, I can see how I was shaped by the pain and the inconsistency of my spontaneous parent as opposed to the steadiness and comfort that came from the more diffident one. To me, spontaneity was not to be trusted; intellect and humor were. Emotions were apt to bring pain; thinking was safe.

Emotional pain cut deeper than ideas. Emotions could leave lasting wounds. No matter how much my father tried to help me to believe in myself, it could all be destroyed in an instant by my mother.

As an adult, I had no idea who I was. I felt like an anchorless, rudderless boat adrift in a huge sea. Where did I belong? Who did I want to be? What direction would I take if I could find my rudder? I never knew.

I got married, had children, and got divorced. I did the best I could, but not having any clear concept of how to find emotional stability, I had no idea how to teach my children to be stable and self confident people. You can’t teach something you don’t know.

Now, with the perspective of 91 years of life, I can look back on my first few years and realize that I was the victim of a parent who was herself a victim. My children were in turn the victims of my lack of belief in myself. I feel sorry that I was unable to give them any sense of direction or feeling of security, sorry that I got to know myself and believe in myself long after they were grown. I don’t feel guilty because I was doing the best I could with what I knew and had to work with at the time, but I am regretful because I think they missed a lot.