Wading Barefoot across Flat Black Shelves of Slate
It’s easy in the midst of the corona crisis to feel glum. What will the future look like? No one really knows. Everyone’s sense is that it will be poorer and more straitened. Our lives will be less easy than the lives we lived before. We can all be forgiven for sometimes feeling a little tearful.
I live in Boston. The other night I received a robocall. I let it go to voicemail. When I listened the message said, “this is the mair of Bawston, Marddi Walsh. If you’re feelin’ sad or depressed, the ciddy is heah for you. Call 311.” I couldn’t repress a sob and said to his disembodied voice “Thank you, Marty.”
Lord Byron lived through times of unprecedented uncertainty too. Europe underwent prolonged and bloody warfare as the European powers fought with revolutionary France. In these wars obscure commanders like Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington grew to fame, to power, and to wealth. Byron refused to celebrate the politicians and generals who benefitted from the crisis. Instead he dwelled on personal courage.
The drying up a single tear has more of honest fame, than shedding seas of gore, he wrote. And why? — because it brings self-approbation.
Thinking about Lord Byron’s life, and in particular his difficult boyhood, has made me think about my own early years. He inherited an estate at age ten. That irrevocably changed his life. I too had a glum sense around age ten of impending changes in my life. I recall vividly how pessimistic I was then about the future.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sometimes enormous change that looks dreadful in prospect, turns out to be transformative in a positive way you could never have predicted or expected. That’s what happened to me anyway.
What follows is a reconnoitering of that boyhood change. It’s also a recollection of how, even at an early age, I managed to dry my tears and to assemble some self-approbation. As I look back on the ten-year-old me, and recall his story, at the way he coped with something he didn’t think was going to be in his favor, my self-approbation even now, at age 62, increases. Maybe it will for you too.
Where I’m from
I was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1957. My father was an assistant professor of English literature at the Ohio State University. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. We lived that year in a small wooden house that I don’t remember, though I’ve seen pictures of it. My parents were both farm kids from central Illinois. My father’s parents were illiterate Hungarian immigrants who’d made their way first in coalmining and then in farming. Although my mother’s family was better off than my father’s, and farmed their own land, they weren’t lords, by any measure, though they must’ve seemed well-off from my father’s perspective.
After high school, my father served in the navy at the end of World War II. He benefitted from the G. I. Bill, which paid for him to go to the University of Illinois after the war finished. Afterwards he did a PhD at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. My mother and father could scarcely believe their luck when they were able to go off to the East Coast in 1950 on my father’s graduate fellowship. My mother worked as a secretary in the education department. My father wrote a dissertation on English romanticism. When Ohio State offered my father a job, they were both happy to return to the Midwest. Neither of them would have known then that his first teaching job would be a lifelong position, that he would rise to prominence in the university, as would she in a different context, that both their children would be born in the university’s hospital.
My first boyhood memories are of a brick house we moved to when I was seven. It had three bedrooms upstairs and wasn’t particularly big. It did have a large backyard with a stone fishpond, a swing set, and half a basketball court. I sailed boats on the pond, dreamed of flying on the swings, and took zero interest in the basketball court. Down at the end of the street was a bird sanctuary where skunk cabbage was the first thing to come up in the spring. Two blocks away was the Park of Roses that had playing fields and a ravine as well as a formal flower garden. A creek ran through the ravine into the Olentangy River. In summer we caught small crayfish that we called crawdads in the creek. We broke its ice in winter. We balanced on logs above it and waded barefoot across its flat black shelves of slate.
My mother was a greater presence in our lives than my father. She had lunch waiting when we walked home from elementary school at noon. I remember hot Scotch Broth from a can of Campbell’s with either a tuna or peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She was part of a modern dance group at the local recreation center. It was part exercise, part appreciation of non-classical ballet, and part a social hour with women who became her closest friends. They may as well have been sisters. She participated in the League of Women Voters and the Parent Teachers Associations at all our different schools. She threw sizable cocktail parties for speakers who visited the university’s English department. A famous poet, Stephen Spender, came to our house and leaned stagily on the mantlepiece with his drink. She took me to a United Nations festival held annually at the fairgrounds. She was more elegant than the mothers of many of my friends from school. I approved of her consciously and loved her unselfconsciously, without complications.
My father was more difficult. He was taller and bigger than all of us as well as redder in the face. Most of the time he was away at the university. He believed my brother and I would turn out to be stupid if we watched as much television as we wanted. So our hours of TV watching were limited and we had summer reading lists. We could sometimes get away with disobeying the limits if we watched re-runs of Gilligan’s Island or Bewitched before he got home from work. The set had to be switched off as soon as we heard his car in the driveway.
He was a bigger enforcer of rules than my mother was. He raised his voice sometimes. He was sometimes visibly angry over small infractions. It was better not to disturb him. When I had to telephone him at the university, however, he was usually much nicer than I expected. If my mother was a reliable, loving, and not-overly disciplinary parent, my father was the opposite. I remember trying hard to love him when I didn’t. These may have been Oedipal feelings. I wanted to protect my mother from him.
Signs of LGBTQ at an early age
My usual playmates were girls rather than boys. I played illicitly with the Barbie dolls of a girl who lived across the street. I knew I was supposed to be playing softball instead. I knew there’d be stern disapproval if I was caught by my father or hers. As far as she was concerned, my playing with her dolls was fine.
I did have one friend who was a boy from school. He invited me to his house to spend the night. There was a game of softball in the street I was compelled to join because he wanted to. I was on his team and missed fielding a crucial ball. The other team scored. He had a meltdown and went running into his house. This was awkward. I was embarrassed and wondered whether I should go home. His father interceded on my behalf. We were later friends again when we chatted after dark in the tent set up in his backyard.
I was good in school. The reading I had to do in class had been modeled for me at home. Hearing my father’s love of language when he spoke at the dinner table was one of the best things about him. Because I was more at home in language than others, I had the attention and approval of teachers. I knew subliminally that, though this wouldn’t get me cheerleader or football player popularity, it would be useful in later life. When late in 1967 my parents told my brother and me that we were going to England for a year, and would go to new schools in London, I was as shocked as any ten-year-old can be. I had a deep, sinking feeling.
The prospect of being taken out of school was upsetting because it was taking away my strongest suit. I knew I’d have to start over at a new school, make new friends, start at the bottom, get used to a whole new set of rules. I felt no enthusiasm about seeing Big Ben or Buckingham Palace. All that would come later. Why was I so afraid? Why so unadventurous?
Going on board ship
It may’ve come partly from the feeling that I was different from other boys, though I didn’t know what that meant other than having none of their interest in competitive sports. It may’ve just been that I was a nervous person. But as I had no choice, I was forced against my will to adapt. I began to find things that attracted me about leaving home. We were going to England on a ship, the United States. I began to be interested in ocean liners and sea-going. This might’ve been from my father’s having been in the navy. It might’ve been from an earlier sabbatical in 1956 when my parents had gone back and forth to Britain on small ships of the Holland America Line. They had good memories of these times. I was conceived in England on that trip. My mother was pregnant with me as they returned to the States in December. The ship weathered a North Atlantic storm, and she was thrown out of her chair on to the deck. She was all right. I was all right. My parents both loved to tell the story. I began to think of going to Britain as something that might be fun.
In August of 1968 I can remember driving in New York down the West Side Highway to the piers where the ocean-going liners were docked. I’d done some research on what the United States looked like, how fast the ship was, and how many people would be on board. There ahead of the car in the near distance were the colored funnels of the ships of many different countries. I remember seeing the distinctive ironwork around the stacks of one of the twin ships of the Italian Line. Then I caught sight of the squat red, white, and blue stacks of the United States. “There it is! There it is!” I shouted jumping up and down in the back seat.
No kid was ever as excited at that moment as I was. My father, who was probably anxious about driving in New York traffic, and the imminence of an international departure, turned around with a raised hand as if to strike me and a raised voice. “Calm down!” My mother rebuked him and told him it was all right for me to be excited. But I knew it was all right even before she said so. I had never been more thrilled in my life. And that kid’s instincts were right. The whole world was about to open up for me. My fear had fallen away.
Dear reader, try and imagine your childhood self on the verge of a great change that terrified you. Allow yourself to have a little cry about your fear at the immensity of that change. Re-considering my childhood has made me newly appreciate all that I was given. It has made me remember a determination to adapt and a capacity for excitement that had me hopping around the back seat of the car. I somehow think that those privileges, that ability to cope, that ultimately unworried embrace of something new are all things that I still have today. They make me dry my tears even in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. Slowly, self-approbation builds and I look upon the uncertain future with a new confidence that whatever happens, I can handle it, and probably even enjoy it. Thanks Marty. For the time being, I have no need to call 311.