Monday, October 09, 2006

“Mea Culpa”

“The first serious problems in my life began when I was 3 or 4, and they greatly changed the way I grew up.

Before these traumatic events, however, there was a two-way squeeze to cope with: my older sister, Helen, 20 months older, felt unwanted, was unwanted, and nearly finished off the competition by trying to knock my basket from its perch on the sewing machine. I guess this was the last aggressive act of her life. My mother identified with pretty little me, while my sister resembled Father’s family whom Mother disliked. Still, I had not been a boy, a disappointment to my parents. Then, after 19 months, I, in turn, was displaced by a bright and handsome brother named for Father but called ‘Fumpty.’

I tried to please and soon learned to parade my charms for what they seemed to be worth. For instance, when anyone said, ‘Where did you get those china blue eyes?’ I would answer on cue, looking up beatifically, ‘God gave them to me!’ I didn’t then, of course, see the similar derivation of ‘beatific’ and ‘Beatrice.’

Early on, I disliked my name. One reason was the nickname it engendered. I was aware of the meaning of the word “beat” and resented my young uncle, then working his way through college by delivering ice blocks during the summer at the resort where mother’s family and ours had small cottages, side by side. He liked to tease and called me ‘Beat-an-egg’ as he walked by. I guess that is the way he handled his sexual response to me, or maybe he was jealous that my father was doing well in business and he had to haul ice. Maybe both.

An early memory is of a kindness – a pretty lady very gently removed a splinter from my hand. She might have become a useful mother surrogate but was only an acquaintance.

Another memory is of barging onto the side porch where Mother and Father’s brother’s wife were nursing babies. They continued chatting merrily but somewhat self-consciously together, then started giggling nervously as if caught in some kind of conspiracy. I can still see my mother’s pink nipple and the shape of her enlarged breast as the baby removed it from his mouth and turned to look at me with annoyance at the intrusion.

I stood there observing the scene.

Mother asked in a flip tone, “Want a suck?”

I don’t know now whether I did or not, though the invitation must have brought back painful recollections of being weaned. Still, not one to turn down a challenge, I leaned over and took a swig. The warm, watery liquid tasted sweeter than cow’s milk. I think I was rather disappointed. The experience stacks up as an unpleasant one. I blame my mother for being so unfeeling as to challenge me. Perhaps she was jealous of my girlish freedom.

But, that wasn’t the only stupid action that left its mark. The worst and most traumatic bêtise I must blame on both my parents because, if Mother was lacking in good sense, my father should have stepped in. Here is what happened:

In the days before we had a car, we went by train five miles to visit Mother’s family in Patterson, New Jersey. The family lived over my grandfather’s plumbing shop. There were six bedrooms, but a large family. At three years old, I was put to death – just a minute: that phrase slipped out of my unconscious, and I meant put to sleep in the same bed with Uncle Jim, my unmarried uncle who was then in his early 20s …”

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