Saturday, May 19, 2012

Growing Up In The Fifties

I was born in Chicago, but my family moved to
Winfield, Illinois when I was about 4 years old.
Playwrights of that era, Eugene O’Neal, Edward
Albee, were actually writing about my family…
the nightmare inside the American Dream.

I have a few images of those first three years on
Keystone Avenue. I remember sitting in a chair on
the second floor, looking out a window at the rain…
I remember the lilac bushes that lined our driveway,
and the beautiful smell. On Mother’s Day, when I was
three, I fell down a pile of bricks and cut my head. A
little girl put a dirty rag on my head and took me home.
I remember, as we were driving to the doctor, asking my
parents if I was going to die.

My father was the manifestation of The Dream:
took care of his family during the Great Depression…
served honorably in the army…went to night
school and became a well known lawyer in Chicago…
knew the famous politicians of Illinois during that time.
He was a social Darwinist and a hedonist. He was a
good man and kind to his children.

Of rest of my “nuclear” family,  my mother, an intelligent
and psychic woman, was schizophrenic….my brother
was schizophrenic…my mother’s father, who lived with us
till he died when I was 18, was an alcoholic. Because of my
mother’s condition, we rarely had any guests…I grew up
in a pretty closed container. When I was about 8 or so, my
mother went away to a psychiatric hospital for treatment.
She received shock treatments. When she came home, she
was not the same person. The treatments had solidified her
paranoia. My father seemed, at that point, to have given up
trying to find a way to help her. From that point on, until the
drugs that treat schizophrenia got better, it was just mom,
wandering around the house, talking to herself and crying.
It was living in a loony bin.

My father would pontificate at dinners about his exploits
in court. We were a captive audience. He was always extolling
the good life we had…how you had to be tougher than others
to live in the world. I sat there, silent, absorbing. It seemed
to me there was a glaring contradiction in my father’s philosophy:
yes, we lived in a nice house in a bucolic setting…ate great food,
ect.,  but we weren’t happy. Even at a young age, the message
was clear: material wealth had nothing to do with happiness.
This idea was reinforced throughout my childhood.
You could say, I was born with a silver koan in my head.

But, actually, where and when I grew up was great for a kid….
our house was in an oak forest that was being gradually tamed
into a suburb…we kids would run around in the woods, built
forts; in the trees, on the ground, under the ground. That part
of it was great. As my brother and I grew older, we began to
fight a lot. He was 20 months older, and he would win. He
would also start the fights. I developed a strategy, where, if
I knew the fight was going to happen, I would first hit him in the
face as hard as I could, then run into the bathroom and
lock the door until my father got home. That seemed to work
pretty well. I hated my brother. There was a situation where
my brother had fallen out of a tree, and was helpless for a short
time. I actually contemplated killing him. I thought of the suffering
he was causing the family. I finally came to the conclusion it
wasn’t my decision whether he lived or died….
that was a turning point in my life. I was about 12.



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