Posts Tagged ‘nostalgia’
Originally published January 17, 2011
Our thumb is black, not green. When it comes to horticulture, I have not the golden touch, but the gravel scratch. We have never knowingly brought plants into our care, but all the dead ones littering the house at various stages of our life have somehow not broadcast clearly enough to others to refrain from presenting any to us as gifts. Or perhaps the benefactors had it in for the poor things.
The children have yet to ask for a pet of any sort, but, like most parents, I, too, was once a kid, and it’s only a matter of time. I might frame a gentle refusal in terms of responsibility, commitment, the seriousness of caring for the life of another creature, etc. But behind it all, I know, lies my realization that if this household cannot sustain members of the plant kingdom for any respectable period, what hope does it have for actual vertebrates?
I should have taken the hint years ago, really. My parents bought us a succession of fish just begging to leave this mortal coil, never quite grasping what a death sentence it was for an animal to be brought within my purview. Some lasted for a time, yes, but it was not the fishes’ mortality that prompted my parents not to buy any more; it was simply that no one was interested in them any longer. So they decided to subject a different succession of doomed creatures to our pit of despair.
First up was a salamander that barely lasted a week; that was 1986 or 87. A little while later, a break in the gloom occurred when my younger brother was given a garter snake; he spent a while researching the care and maintenance of these reptiles, and that might account for that lone bright spot in the otherwise sordid history of pets and Thag. It subsisted on scraps of fish from the supermarket, which my mother procured free. We occasionally supplemented this rather monolithic regimen with freshly dug earthworms. You have not lived until you have experienced the unique set of willies to be had from observing a snake devour a live worm. It’s wriggles galore, with a dash of death thrown in as a bonus.
It’s possible the success of this mostly maintenance-free snake went to our heads, and in 1988 my parents bought me a guinea pig. It did quite well for a time, and I grew to love that creature. I willingly cleaned his cage on schedule, and tolerated the stink its presence imparted to my bedroom. I reveled in the squealing that heralded my arrival home from school. I felt flattered, even vindicated, when my younger sister requested a guinea pig later that year – whereas normally, her following in my footsteps would engender nothing but annoyance and dismissiveness.
Eventually, the happy couple produced two litters, of which we sold a bunch and gave away two babies to a friend. All was hunky dory in the Thag pet universe. Until January 1989, when my beloved guinea pig got sick in a hurry and died before we could get him to a vet; my mother even tried shielding me from the immediacy of the death when she took the cage into her bedroom when she realized the moment was nigh. He passed during the night, but my mother sent me off to school the next morning leaving me to assume there was still hope, that the little guy might make it to the vet that day and get treated for whatever was stopping up his digestive tract. Naturally, I couldn’t focus in school at all that day, my mind whirling with concern, and I rushed into the house that afternoon bursting with anticipation of whatever the vet said to do.
My mother gently broke the news; I didn’t actually start wailing until I touched my guinea pig’s strangely stiff corpse, the sensation bringing home the finality of the situation. That feeling didn’t hit me again for another ten years, at the burial of an elderly family member: the hollow sound of the first clods of earth landing on the casket underlined the permanence of the loss, and at that moment a new round of crying set in.
I interred my pet’s body in the back garden-cum-burial-ground that had served as the final resting place of at least one dead bird we had found over the years, and I marked the spot with a triangular rock I found nearby. It disappeared not too long afterward, under unknown circumstances, and I hadn’t even thought about that until now.
We got another snake in the meantime, a boa constrictor. Eventually, the garter snake also died, the boa constrictor and remaining guinea pig were given away, and pet life ceased from my parents’ household. All told, a mixed success, but at least all four children survived more or less intact.
The prospect of a pet for my children fills not so much with dread as with sorrow, really. But it’s precisely the experience of the inevitable loss of a creature for whom one has cared that makes me hesitant to rule out a pet completely. Do I really want to deny my children the depth of emotion that only such a loss enables? It’s a tough, tough question, with no easy answer.
I apologize, but not really, for the non-humorous turn this post has taken. I promise to make it up sometime in the next week with at least one irresponsible analogy, one remark to insult the intelligence, and one bad pun.
We assume, with no justification whatsoever, that your Thanksgiving went swimmingly, especially if you are a salmon. We shall refrain from inquiring about family relations, heartburn, tryptophan, burnt or undercooked pumpkin pie, lousy squash, Superman reruns from the 1950s, King Kong, pointless parades, the Detroit Lions, or the onset of the “official” holiday shopping season.
We shall, however, share some memories of our own Thanksgivings of yore. Our cynical tone here – and our distant, formal use of the first-person plural – should in no way be construed as a lack of nostalgia, or of disdain for the experiences detailed below. Except for the commercials. Oh, my goodness, were they awful, exacerbated by their frequency. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
People make a big deal about turkey and various “traditional” Thanksgiving foods, but we remember no such fuss. There was definitely turkey, but our family Thanksgiving meals bore the unmistakable mark of our immigrant family experience, not the “native” lore. And it wasn’t about the food anyway.
It might have been about the TV, though, at least as far as the kids were concerned. We paid occasional visits to the dining room of whichever home the festivities occupied that year – paternal grandparents, cousins or our own home – but then only to ingest token morsels of turkey and to gorge on fresh rye bread.
The most vivid memories involve our grandparents’ apartment in the Bronx, with its ornate décor and plastic-covered sofa underneath the painting of King Solomon ordering the disputed infant divided between rival claimants, across from the display cabinet with the never-used china and crystal. On top of that rested the candy dish, with the fruit-flavored rectangular candies that our grandmother carried everywhere in case she saw any grandchildren (and, we discovered in later years, in case she craved them, despite her chronic diabetes).
The children would lounge in the small den-cum-cosmetics-boutique (we loved to play with the lights on my grandmother’s three-part makeup mirror) where the ancient, hulking Zenith was tuned to King Kong, followed by Mighty Joe Young – though in slightly later years, it featured Superman reruns, hosted by the guy who played Jimmy Olsen, resplendent in an awful bow tie. The tie was almost as bad as the acting in that show. My parents’ generation grew up, for lack of a better term, watching that, and its rebroadcast every year on Thanksgiving may me suspect that their nostalgia might, just might, be completely unwarranted.
There’s something to be said for repetition: twenty-five or so years later, we still have a stupid commercial jingle stuck in our head, for a now-bust department store, thanks to the network airing the ad at every single commercial break during King Kong (“Consuuuumerrrrrs! We wrote the book – on savings!”). It aired almost as many times as the ad for the windows, with the breathless, this-is-the-most-exciting-thing-you’ve-ever-encountered voice over with images of money pouring out through open windows, then back in again when the Eliminator! windows were installed. Hey, sign us up. A distant, but by no means ignorable, third place went to ads for the similarly long-defunct Child World franchise, with some poor actor in a panda suit pretending to be amazed at the selection.
We never watched the Macy’s parade. Ever. We – and here we use the genuine editorial we, not the pompous, royal we – could never understand why anyone would. Football, of course, we can understand, even enjoy, although we get the impression some folks over in Detroit would rather the whole thing just disappear for a decade or two. In early-to-mid-adolescence, the scene shifted from our grandparents’ place to our cousins’, and football became the default, largely on account of my uncle, and we slowly forgot about King Kong and Joe Young.
And here we shift pronouns again, and you’ll see why. I miss my grandparents terribly. My grandmother died four years ago, and my grandfather, ten. The apartment they had in the Bronx – where they lived since about 1960 – is no longer remotely associated with them, but every now and then I get pangs of longing for the way the china cabinets and their delicate contents would jiggle slightly when we ran or jumped about the place – inevitably getting warned not to thus upset the downstairs neighbors in 4J; for the narrow hallway connecting the kitchen, bedroom, living/dining room and bathroom; for the ugly-as-sin carpet in the den; and for myriad other little irretrievable details that only accented the old-world sensibilities driving everything my grandparents did.
We have our own family celebrations now, and my parents lovingly fill the grandparent niche. I wonder how my children will remember these days. This I can guarantee, however: commercials will play no part in that. We’ve, uh, Eliminated! those from our home.
In my last year of high school I sat in on a history class at the college I eventually attended. It hooked me. Not the subject, mind you; I didn’t settle on History as my major until a bit later. It was the professor: he was brash, sharp and quirky, resembling a longer-haired Larry of the Three Stooges, but with half-moon glasses and a nasal voice that called to mind a very fast immersion blender.
I spent a year and a half abroad before returning to that campus, to find out that the professor had undergone surgery to remove a brain tumor, and the ordeal had changed him: he was brasher, crankier, more unkempt, and much more bitter. He proved so entertaining as a result that not only did I decide to major in History, I registered for every class I possibly could with him. My junior year he took a sabbatical, and I was crushed. Somehow, I muddled through the mild disillusionment, even succumbing to it briefly enough to declare a Business minor as well. I remember about eight things from that set of courses, among them: Present Value, Amortization, that there’s something meaningless called Total Quality Management, and that some people actually need to be taught to use Microsoft Word. People are morons.
People Are Morons, as a weltanschauung, came to illuminate a good bit of other subjects, including History, as well as prepare me for life in the much-touted Real World that was supposed to begin once I was graduated. In fact I’m still waiting for it to begin, thirteen years later, but People Are Morons nevertheless serves to explain much of current events, bureaucracy and pop culture.
I don’t have the chutzpah to adopt People Are Morons as a business strategy, P.T. Barnum style, because really, the way we treat our inferiors – in material, emotional or mental terms – provides the true measure of our character. The mantra functions mainly in an explanatory capacity, when nothing else quite accounts for the mind-blowing stupidity all around us: Lady Gaga; the popularity of Hummers; Glenn Beck as a torch bearer for Martin Luther King, Jr.; Scientology; reality TV; the 9/11 “truth” movement; and why desserts exist that do not contain chocolate.
But back to college (I would if I could – more on that some other time). The day I sat in on that history class, some of my colleagues audited a session in public speaking, a course I ended up taking – under the same professor who was in that speech classroom a couple of years before. I’m pretty sure it was the same room, in fact. There I was, a quiet, somewhat bookish eighteen-year-old, assigned to give his first informative speech, and I had to perform under the critical eye of – as far as we could tell – a seasoned, cynical observer of human expression, who dropped names (sometimes just for dramatic effect, I am convinced) and intimidated us little nerds. He could tell we were intimidated. Or at least it looked that way.
I chose, as my topic, the Protestant-Catholic violence in Northern Ireland, mostly because I liked Tom Clancy’s novel Patriot Games. Except that it took me a looong time to dredge up enough material to satisfy the structural and annotative material the professor demanded. When I finally stood at the lectern, my voice and gestures brimming with confidence and apparent mastery of the material, he just sat there, dumbfounded. Here was this little pipsqueak, proving the know-it-all judge of personality all wrong. When he got over his initial shock, we warmed to each other (and his critiques of my subsequent presentations were not as kind, even the one about chocolate, and even though I brought in the “visual” aids of Toblerone and its ilk and distributed them freely).
During my senior year he directed the dramatics society in a dynamite production of Inherit the Wind, and I can’t thank him enough for the experience. I was the Reverend Jeremiah Brown; the role called for one fabulous, fire-and-brimstone prayer meeting as my big scene. The director had us rehearsing it over and over one evening, and one element of the production had me slapping my kid for objecting to my calling down “Hellfire on the man who has sinned against the Word.” The actor playing the part was supposed to move with my hand such that the sound would resonate, but the pain would be minimal. Except that the last time we did the scene that evening, I didn’t hear the director’s instruction to skip the slap that time. So my interlocutor was unprepared for the blow. Ouch.
I have other fond memories of that period, not least because it’s when I met my wife (well, that’s what she is now; stop getting all picky with my language – that’s MY job). The campus convenience store was open to students of the affiliated high school during certain evening hours, and my eventual brother-in-law taught there at the time. During some banter with a couple of high schoolers, one said to the other, “You know who he reminds me of? Mr. ______.” “Yeah!” said the other. I observed how funny that was, considering that I was dating his sister. They simply didn’t believe me. People are morons.
I was an unholy terror as a child. My parents must rank as saints, because despite the aggravation and frustration I put them through, especially as I approached my teens, they still love and support me unconditionally.
I did some horrible, horrible things. One particularly shameful episode comes to mind.
My older brother and I were once helping to clean out a classroom at the end of a school year, and we came upon a whole roll of raffle tickets. Jackpot! we both thought – once a year the fifth graders put on a carnival, the proceeds from which went to charity. Each activity or treat could be had for a ticket, which those students would sell in the week or so leading up to the event. Naturally, having a limited budget and frugal parents, seldom did I or my siblings manage to get our hands on more than half a dozen tickets, while our better-off classmates, of whom there were many, piled up prize tickets and gorged on Entenmann’s chocolate donuts.
The tickets remained in my brother’s closet at home for several years, and I seldom thought about them. But in eighth grade, I realized that year’s carnival presented me with the last opportunity to get a more substantial taste of the action. So on the morning of the carnival I stuffed the roll of tickets, however many thousands there were, into my backpack and anticipated the unlimited delights that awaited me. Gushing with excitement, I even distributed dozens of them to classmates.
Unfortunately for me (or fortunately, depending on how moralistic you want to get), I neglected to consider the color issue. That year the fifth graders sold blue tickets (or perhaps red, or maybe even green), whereas I brought yellow. No one noticed initially, including me, but about fifteen minutes into the fun, as a particularly perplexed fifth grader was attempting to explain to someone three years her senior that she could not accept what she thought were last year’s tickets, the principal strode in and, with the angriest expression on his face I have ever seen, marched across the gym to me and dragged me back to his office, where the erstwhile beneficiaries of my newfound generosity had already been forcibly assembled. Once they fingered the ringleader, the principal let them go.
It hadn’t even occurred to me that my actions constituted theft or fraud. I made good on the estimated loss I’d caused, sat through some stern lectures and actually felt guilt.
But, truth be told, my escapades paled in comparison to some of my junior high classmates’ capers. As a group, we probably caused more aggravation, damage and career changes than anyone before or after us. At some point during sixth grade, the administration vowed not to take us on any trips anywhere for the next two years. They kept that vow until the traditional eighth-grade trip to Washington, D.C.
In seventh grade, one perennial troublemaker decided it would be funny to chuck a compass out the classroom window. No, not the magnetic implement to indicate direction; the sharp implement to make circles. The compass point sent a poor kindergarten girl to the hospital with stitches in her nose. Said troublemaker was promptly expelled.
In sixth grade, a fellow wannabe thought it might impress the cooler students if he put Alka-Seltzer tablets in the hot water urn that the teachers used. At the time, at least, Alka-Seltzer warned pregnant women against ingesting it. Our math teacher was pregnant. I do believe the pregnancy and birth turned out fine, but we had a scare; she was quite a popular teacher (and for some reason she didn’t return the next year…).
Other less dramatic events colored those several years, including the teacher who told my parents she was at a complete loss, because I wouldn’t shut up, I talked back and fomented open revolt, but scored highest on all the exams and breezed through the homework. Interestingly, hers was the only homework I ever did consistently. Ever. Consequences be damned – if I didn’t feel like doing assignments, I didn’t do them.
I need to remember that with my own kids now. Wish me luck.