I was tempted to call this “Nobody’s Autobiography”, but thought that may be just too self-deprecating. I love autobiographies – not of famous people – just of ordinary people with ordinary lives. They reveal details about the individual to which most people can relate – rather than the larger-than-life situations of the rich or famous that, if digested, lead to hero worship and fantasy. A good autobiography, it seems to me, is less concerned with fact and more concerned with perception. It is entirely plausible, then, that an autobiography may not be factual down to the last jot and tiddle, but reveals truly how an individual perceives themselves and the memories of their lives. In that respect, it is a more accurate portrayal of someone’s life than an encyclopedia entry would be.
There is an ego trip involved in posting an autobiography, I suppose. I mean, why would I think anyone would care? Well, I am supposing there are others out there like me, who find the famous boring and the mundane interesting. I also think that, while we are each individual, there are commonalities to people’s stories that give cause for community building and empathy. Anyway, as egomaniacal as it may or may not seem, the following portions are the snippets of my life thus far that I consider integral to who and what I am at this moment in time.
LEARNING TO LEARN
Monica patiently taught me everything she learned in class that day. My earliest memories consist of my sister’s diligent efforts to prepare me for school. I suppose she had little else to do in rural England, especially in the winter, but I know she did it purely out of love. I vaguely remember crying when she got angry because I was placed in her class on my third day of school. In retrospect it was hardly a gift for an eight-year-old girl to have her five-year-old brother sitting next to her in the classroom. I seem to recall that did not last too long. Thankfully, Australian schools didn’t allow children to skip more than one grade, so a year later all was right with the world. Her constant reward, until she left home at eighteen, would be my father’s reminders that she would never be the student I was. Spite can be a powerful motivator. Monica earned several degrees and fluency in many languages.
Mr. Cooper was the only man I remember until just before we left England in 1960. He was a kind-faced, gentle plot farmer who gave me potatoes many nights for our supper. He was never too busy to talk, although I recollect none of the conversations. After many years I came to the conclusion God put him in my life so I would have some idea what a real man should be. There can be no other reason I recall him so fondly, since I can only put together scant visions of time with him. At fourteen, the day my mother told me about the letter from his daughter, I cried myself to sleep. Cancer gave him a terrible end.
Add to those a very few memories of climbing the hill from beside the train station, time with Uncle Peter who returned from WWII a schizophrenic, Uncle Bob the Royal Air Force Commander and my mother’s father with his candy store in the city, and you have the sum of my recollections of life in England. To this day I see photos or hear stories from that period of time and feel like they belong to someone else’s life. Forty-three years later, while studying at Cambridge, I revisited Jubilee Hill. I even found my house and expected a flood of memories to return. There was a drought that day.
We immigrated to Melbourne, Australia so my father could find work as a mold maker in a pottery factory. Six months living in a Quonset hut, on a hostel for indigent immigrants, almost broke my mother. I can still picture her crying – constantly. My first actual memory of my father, who had apparently never been absent, is in the communal dining room when I was six. I rearranged my underwear at the table and paid for it with the first of many beatings. I frequently ate my dinner on the floor, “like any other animal”. Old Dr. Kilmire told me many times that I must be an especially bad boy to make my father hurt me like he did. I was forty years old before I could feel anything but hate for my father.
We finally managed to rent a house in Thornbury, a very dilapidated urban area of Melbourne. My father couldn’t stand our “brutish” neighbors until he was drunk and would avoid them like the plague during the day, but by every evening they were the best of friends. As an adult I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many broken pieces of humanity in one place. It was here that I was taught to hate anyone who didn’t speak English. They were ignorant immigrants. I only made the mistake once of mentioning that we were also immigrants. The difference was that we deserved to be here, and I can only presume it was because of our select heritage.
After realizing that I would not start school in the fourth grade, only the second, my father was incensed and from that day directed my ‘education’. I could not play with any children in the neighborhood, nor did I get to keep toys or other frivolous items very long. Chemistry sets, science and math books, microscopes, telescopes – all bought second hand – were my recreation. I had a natural inclination toward art, but my father, also artistic, decided I would do it only his way. Until I was ten I became his learning machine. During that time I learned especially well that anything I truly loved I had to put away and ignore. If my father saw me with any little item not provided by him, it would be thrown away. I believe this pattern of disregarding the things that I held dearest has been at least a small factor in all of my three failed marriages.
My father had become quite proud of himself. He beamed every time a teacher or other respectable person described me as a little genius. He relished seeing my report cards, which he would use to emotionally destroy my sister. I was “well on my way to being a Renaissance man”, a phrase I learned to abhor. Thirty years later I found out why he was so driven to make me his little genius. He had left school in the third grade during WWII, and his family was too poor for him to ever return. As an adult he taught himself to read better, and learned math, trigonometry, applied calculus, chemistry, physics, and engineering from books. The job he finally got in Australia was because he lied about being a ceramic engineer, and he knew more than enough to pull it off successfully. He was, in his own right, a genius, but was ill prepared for life in the real world and found it nigh on impossible to make friends. In me, he hoped the world would know he had a certified prodigy. As it turned out, I am simply certifiable.
At age ten I contracted a streptococci infection that, having developed into rheumatic fever and pneumonia, weakened my heart. I also contracted an attitude adjustment. After six months of illness, and a protracted hospital stay, I took up crotchet to keep my sanity. I’m not sure it helped, but it was the only thing I could do laying flat on my back. My father thought it effeminate and was mortified, but I didn’t care. After finally being able to move around, I went out into the front yard with whatever piece I was working on at the time. Embarrassed, my father retaliated in a very predictable manner. The son upon whom he had hung all his hopes of recognition was now also a source of shame.
My mother, on the other hand, took it upon herself to do anything she could to increase my comfort. I remember vividly laying on towels on a table – the kitchen table, I think – being gently massaged with oil to relieve the aches and pains of rheumatic joints. Whenever I find myself needing to be truly loved, this image automatically pops into my mind. It was tedious, I am sure, for my mother, but was done with such patience and devotion. I have never stopped to wonder if my mother loved me – I have absolutely no doubt.
One by one, I stopped doing each of the things in the manner my father had taught me. I no longer drew or painted his way, studied or did homework religiously, or used any of the scientific paraphernalia I had acquired up to that point. My mother signed my report cards, which I then spirited back to school, leaving my father without a tool to bedevil my sister. His alcoholism had advanced to the point of affecting his memory, which made it easier to pull off. I no longer gave him any reason to rejoice in my existence. It worked quite well. Of course, some of the negative aspects of our relationship also kicked into high gear. I became his only target for venting his frustration with a world that treated him so unfairly. It was a calculated risk, and seemed a small price to pay for bedeviling my father.
During this time I was required by my mother to attend church with my sister. My mother went to a different church downtown, and my father avoided churches at all cost. He had no time for God in his life and, I’m afraid, I agreed with him. The churches I attended were full of pious, judgmental adults who delighted in punishing children for the sins of the parents. Mother began attending her church groups, an Anglican Lyceum and a Spiritualist Union, several times a week in order to find respite from her dismal life at home. God took away my mother, my only protection from my father, many hours each week and filled my Sunday mornings with nasty old people. I didn’t hold God in particularly high esteem. At fourteen, my mother’s previously agreed ‘age of consent’, I stopped attending any church. Except for occasional weddings I couldn’t avoid, mine included, I didn’t return to church for twenty-five years. Well, except for when I was seventeen, but that is part of another section.
These early teen years were very difficult. I was a slight child with a sickly hue as a result of the prolonged bout with rheumatic fever. This, of course, made me a likely target for bullies at the all-boys high school I attended. My teachers all loved me, except for my attendance problems, even further encouraging bodily harm. I began avoiding school just as I avoided my father. Academically I still did well, but eventually had to be escorted to and from school to ensure my attendance. My only friends were Jimmy, a boy smaller than I with very old adoptive parents, and Phil, a survivor of polio who had braces on both legs. We were a motley crew of misfits in a vicious world. Phil, who had to lift himself into and out of everything, had developed a massive upper body and became our protector. Everyone else was terrified of him because he was different, not to mention his somewhat maniacal look.
Phil kept telling me to fight back, but I was too scared. He told me that I needed to act crazy and they’d leave me alone. I consistently ignored his advice preferring to try to disappear into the background. One day, shortly before my fifteenth birthday, my life changed. Two especially cruel kids were always upset that I received good grades. On that particular day the teacher was late to class and they decided to ‘pants’ me, yet again. Pantsing, by the way, is the Aussie term for holding a kid down, stripping off his shorts and underwear, and throwing them out the window. I snapped. When the teacher arrived one of them was in the corner with a bloody nose, and the other was on his back on the teacher’s desk, with me on his chest pummeling his face. Surprise was my only real weapon. I was sent down to see “Bulldog” Burke, the assistant headmaster, who barked me into his office with all the ferocity it seemed he could muster. Once inside with the door closed, he simply looked at me, smiled with an ugly grimace and said, “Sit here for a while so they think you’re being adequately punished. Oh, and by the way, it’s about %$@#^&* time.”
At fifteen I had to make a very important decision. Stay with my father in Australia, or move to the U.S. with my mother and brother. My mother had finally had enough emotional abuse and divorced my father. She wanted to return to America to find her mother and sister from whom she had been separated since childhood, and the half brother she had never seen. It was a tough choice that took all of a minute to make. Bye, Dad!
Next: Learning to Live