How to Recover from a Happy Childhood | #teacher | #children | #kids


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Recovering from a happy childhood can take a long time. It’s not often that I’m suspected of having had one. I grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, a daughter of immigrants. When I showed up at college and caught sight of other childhoods, I did pause and think: Why didn’t we grow our own tomatoes? Why did I watch so many episodes of “I Dream of Jeannie”? Who is Hermes? What is lacrosse? Was my childhood a dud? An American self-inspection was set in motion. Having lived for more than forty-five years, I finally understand how happy my childhood was.

One might assume that my mother is to blame for this happiness, but I think my father has the stronger portion to answer for, though I only had the chance to know him for seventeen years before he died unexpectedly. He was an extoller of childhood, generally. I recall his saying to me once that the first eighteen years of life are the most meaningful and eventful, and that the years after that, even considered all together, can’t really compare.

The odd corollary was that he spoke very rarely of his own childhood. Maybe he didn’t want to brag. Even if he had told me more, I most likely wouldn’t have listened properly or understood much, because, like many children, I spent my childhood not really understanding who my parents were or what they were like. Though I collected clues. Century plants sometimes bloom after a decade, sometimes after two or three decades. I saw one in bloom recently, when my eight-year-old daughter pointed it out to me. I’m forty-six now, and much that my father used to say and embody has, after years of dormancy, begun to reveal itself in flower.

Growing up, I considered my father to be intelligent and incapable. Intelligent, because he had things to say about the Bosporus and the straits of Dardanelles. Incapable, because he ate ice cream from the container with a fork, and also he never sliced cheese, or used a knife in any way—instead, he tore things, like a caveman. Interestingly, he once observed that he didn’t think he would have lasted long as a caveman. This was apropos of nothing I could follow. He often seemed to assume that others were aware of the unspoken thoughts in his head which preceded speech. Maybe because his hearing was poor. He sat about two feet away from the television, with the volume on high. He also wore thick bifocal glasses. (In the seventies and early eighties, he wore tinted thick bifocal glasses.) The reason he wouldn’t have lasted long as a caveman, he said, was that his vision and his hearing meant that he would have been a poor hunter. “Either I would have died early on or maybe I would never have been born at all,” he said. The insight made him wistful.

If I had met my father as a stranger, I would have guessed him to be Siberian, or maybe Mongolian. He was more than six feet tall. His head was large and wide. His eyes seemed small behind his glasses. His wrists were delicate. I could encircle them, even with my child hands. His hair was silky, black, and wavy. He and my mother argued regularly about cutting his hair: she wanted to cut it; he wanted it to stay as it was. He was heavy the whole time I knew him, but he didn’t seem heavy to me. He seemed correctly sized. When he placed his hand atop my head, I felt safe, but also slightly squashed. He once asked me to punch his abdomen and tell him if it was muscular or soft. That was my only encounter with any vanity in him.

It would have been difficult for him if he had been vain, because he didn’t buy any of his own clothes, or really anything, not even postage stamps. Whenever there were clearance sales at the Dillard’s at the Sooner Fashion Mall, my mom and I would page through the folded button-up shirts, each in its cardboard sleeve, the way other kids must have flipped through LPs at record stores. We were looking for the rare and magical neck size of 17.5. If we found it, we bought it, regardless of the pattern. Button-ups were the only kind of shirts he wore, apart from the Hanes undershirts he wore beneath them. Even when he went jogging, he wore these button-ups, which would become soaked through with sweat. He thought it was amusing when I called him a sweatbomb, though I was, alas, aware that it was a term I had not invented. He appeared to think highly of almost anything I and my brother said or did.

He had a belt, and only one belt. It was a beige Izod belt, made of woven material for most of its length, and of leather for the buckle-and-clasp area. My dad wore this belt every day. Every day the alligator was upside down. How could it be upside down so consistently? He said that it was because he was left-handed. What did that have to do with anything? He showed me how he started with the belt oriented “correctly,” and held it in his left hand. But then, somehow, in the process of methodically threading it through his belt loops, it ended upside down. His demonstration was like watching a Jacob’s-ladder toy clatter down, wooden block by wooden block.

I loved Jacob’s ladders as a kid, I think because it took me so long to understand how they produced their illusion. And I also loved the story of Jacob’s ladder in the Bible, which was similarly confusing. Jacob dreams of a ladder between Heaven and earth, with angels going up and down it. Another night, Jacob wrestles with an angel, or with God, and to me this part also seemed to be as if in a dream, though we were meant to understand that Jacob’s hip was injured in real life. This is not Biblical scholarship, but I had the sense—from where? My Jewish education in Norman can perhaps best be summarized by the fact that my brother’s bar mitzvah is the only bar mitzvah I have attended—that Jacob was the brainy brother and Esau was the good hunter, with the hairy arms, and Jacob had stolen Esau’s birthright blessing by putting a hairy pelt on his arm and impersonating Esau before his father, Isaac, who was going blind. And yet we were supposed to be cheering for Jacob. And Jacob’s mother, Rivka—that was me!—had been the orchestrator of it all. What a sneak. Though it was also a classic story of a household that appeared to be run by the dad but, for more important purposes, was run by the mom.

My dad loved arguments. If he had been a different kind of man—more of an Esau—he probably would have loved a brawl, too. He sought out arguments, especially at work, where arguing was socially acceptable, since it was considered good science, and my father was a scientist. Fighting was a big pastime in my family, more broadly. Our motto for our road-trip vacations was: We pay money to fight. I remember once breaking down in tears and complaining that my mom, my dad, my brother—they all fought with one another. But no one ever wanted to fight with me. I was the youngest by six years.

I did not call my dad Dad but, rather, Tzvi, his first name, which is the Hebrew word for deer. I assume that my older brother started this. As best as I can deduce, Tzvi went to bed at about 4 A.M. and woke up at about 10 or 11 A.M. It was therefore my mom who made me breakfast—two Chessmen cookies and a cup of tea—and packed my lunch, and drove me to school, and bought my clothes, and did the laundry, and cleaned the house, and did all that for my brother and my dad, too, and did everything, basically, including have her own job. But if I thought about who I wanted to be when I grew up, and who I thought I was most like—it was my dad. My dad slept on many pillows, which I found comical and princess-like. (When I was twenty-three and in medical school, I realized that this was a classic sign of congestive heart failure.) He was a professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, though arguably he was better known as a regular at the Greek House, a gyro place run by a Greek family which sold a gyro, French fries, and salad for less than five dollars. My dad was beloved there, as he was in many places, because he gave people the feeling that he liked them and was interested in what they had to say, and he gave people this feeling because he did like them and was interested in what they had to say.

My father had a Ph.D. in applied mathematics, though it had been obtained in a school of geosciences, and so he had been required at some point to acquire competence in geology and maybe something else. He had grown up in a moshav, a collective-farming village, in Israel. The few photographs of him as a child are of him feeding chickens; of him proud alongside a large dog; of him seated in front of an open book with his parents beside him. His mother’s name was Rivka, and she died before I was born. When one of my partner’s sons saw a photo of her, in black-and-white, he thought that it was a picture of me.

Although my dad didn’t say much about his childhood, he did speak, more than once and with admiration, about a donkey from his childhood, named Chamornicus, that was very stubborn. The name, which is old-fashioned slang, translates, approximately, to “my beloved donkey,” but my dad used it when someone was being intransigent. My dad admired stubbornness, especially of the unproductive kind. He once took my brother on a four-week trip to China and Japan. My dad had work conferences to attend. My brother was sixteen or so at the time. My dad took my brother to a bridge that Marco Polo had crossed and said something to the effect of “Isn’t it amazing to think that Marco Polo crossed this same bridge?” And my brother said, “What do I care?” My dad was amused and impressed. My dad also cited with great pride my brother’s insistence on eating at McDonald’s or Shakey’s Pizza while they were in Japan. “He stuck with his guns,” he said, with his characteristic mild mangling of cliché. My dad had a gift for being amused, and for liking people. He was particularly proud of saying, of the anti-immigrant, anti-N.E.A. politician Pat Robertson, “He doesn’t like me, but I like him.” And even when he genuinely disliked, or even hated, people, he enjoyed coming up with nicknames for them. I learned the names of dictators through my parents’ discussions of people nicknamed Mussolini, Idi Amin, and Ceauşescu. He had gentler nicknames for my friends: the Huguenot, Pennsylvania Dutch, and, for a friend with a Greek dad, Kazantzakis.

I said that I was never involved in the household arguments, but I do remember one fight with my dad. He told me a story about something he’d done that day, and I was appalled. He wouldn’t tell a student of his what a herring was. It was a problem on an exam, about herring and water currents. The course was in fluid dynamics. Many of my father’s students came from China. Their English was excellent. But apparently this particular student was unfamiliar with the word “herring.” A deceptive word: it looks like a gerund but isn’t.

My father, who learned English as an adult and would put a little “x” in our home dictionary next to any word he had looked up, and whose work answering-machine message promised to return calls “as soon as feasible,” was, at the time of the herring incident, unfamiliar with the word “cheesy,” having recently asked me to define it for him. He was also accustomed to having students complain about his accent in their teaching evaluations. All that, and still my dad expressed no sympathy for this student. “It’s part of the exam,” my father said that he told the student, as if the line were in the penultimate scene of “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” My dad had a weakness for narrating moments in which, as he saw it, he dared to speak the truth. One of his favorite films was “High Noon”; this paired well with another favorite of his, “Rashomon.” In one, there’s good and evil; in the other, a tangle of both that can never be unravelled.

I now see that he must have doubted himself in this herring incident, though. Otherwise, why was he telling me the story? I said—with the moral confidence of youth—that he should have told the student what a herring was, that it was an exam on fluid dynamics, not on fish. And I told him that I thought what he had done was mean. We had a pretty long argument about it. But my father stuck with his guns. He said, “When you go through life, you’ll understand that, if you don’t know what a herring is, people don’t tell you. You have to know it yourself.”

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