When I was a boy my father’s colleague at the NYC Board of Education’s Human Relations Unit, Evelyn, became a regular visitor to our family. My mother, also named Evelyn, was fond of her. My sister and I loved her. She was funny, irreverent, a good athlete, a folk guitar player with a beautiful voice, had a “retarded” dog, a black cocker spaniel named Twosie, and she seemed to love hanging out with us. My sister had prominent, slightly bucked teeth (as they called it in those days) and so did Evelyn (picture a young Joni Mitchell). Evelyn taught my sister to stick out her teeth and hold her hands up like paws whenever she called “Beaver Patrol Report!” The two of them would do the Beaver Patrol salute and we’d all laugh.
It turns out Evelyn had survived a horrific childhood. In hanging out with her smart, irreverent, darkly funny colleague and his family she got to experience what seemed to her (before her eternal falling out with her friend and colleague) a healthier version of family life and childhood. She was as much an older sister to my sister and me as an adult.
After my own troubling childhood I often found myself in the position Evelyn was in, hanging out with the children of my friends. I was paid a great compliment by one of my friend’s children when he was about five: Eliot’s not a grownup, he’s more like us. I was. I am. I am never far from the most life-affirming feelings of my early life, when it comes to imagination, creativity, having fun, drawing, playing music. I love to play, and why should I not?
Because, the adult will say, work is far more important than play. Work is what gives meaning and value to life, a sense of self-worth, productivity, respectability. Play is for vacation, maybe. I honestly pity the average workaday motherfucker, too tired out by grim responsibility to be playful.
There is a certain point to the adult view, of course. If I had ever tried to sell any of my writing, had any literary success, had sold several books, I’d be a published author and that would be my career, turning my daily practice into a monetizable, recognizable job. When people asked me what I do I’d just say “I’m a writer” and it would be true, since I made a living by my words. Instead, I play at writing, which is more fun, but far less lucrative and practical. In the eyes of the world I’m just one of a hundred million would-be writers, “publishing” my work, gratuitously, in cyberspace.
I think of my father, hours before he died, telling me his life had been basically over by the time he was two. A very sad thing to hear your father say the last night of his life. It explained why he acted like an inconsolable two year-old so often, but, damn, it was hard to hear.
I have the two haunted photo portraits of his maternal grandparents. I can hardly look at them, in their beautiful convex oval frames. One or both of these long dead ancestors created of their youngest daughter a savagely angry religious fanatic who whipped her first born across the face from the time he could stand. No doubt, it had happened to one or both of them, with their parents. And before that, the parents of their parents and so on down the endless tragedy of history.
I think of this whenever I think of parents and children. It is easy enough to blame the parent, or the child, but that’s a game for suckers. To me, the real action is getting some goddamned insight and making some positive changes in your life, before you sorrowfully confess to your oldest son, right before you die, that your life was basically over before your great-grandfather was two.