First, a tale of a train ride: I don’t like it when God opens my eyes. Over my shoulder stood the ghosts of famous child psychoanalysts: Winnicott, Klein, particularly John Bowlby. I like to imagine we all were horrified.
Last night, at about 8:30, I was taking the R7 train from 30th Street in Philadelphia to Bristol. It’s part of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA [or SEPTIC to its friends]), and the line I was on–the R7–terminates in Trenton, New Jersey, where you can pick up connections to New York or Philadelphia or Washington. It’s a creepy train at best. The conductors are mostly snotty and not at all helpful. Perhaps they have a reason. Their passengers aren’t much better.
Last night I spotted a woman with tan skin in front of the car. She was escorting her two children: a lovely little girl with some sort of cheap game machine, a girl who sat quietly with her mother the entire creaky ride; and a little boy, not even two years old, who screamed, whined, and sobbed…who squirmed and fought during the entire trip. It was horrible to hear and to witness.
I thought of a guy I knew in college who would have said things like “Lady, you wanna feed your animal?” I found the line coming back to me because I was becoming furious that I had to be subjected to this performance from a kid who was so out of control it’s miraculous his mother did not get physical with him. He was just miserable and she was trying to keep her head about her.
And that is my key–the door that open to Total Recall.
How many times did I, as a near-baby, squirm and try to get loose, to be up way past my bedtime, to squirm and shriek and whine in a state of rage and misery. And how much patience did this woman have to hold him tightly and try to stop his sobbing and howling? It did not work.
I left the train at Bristol, took as much of a deep breath as I could, and went to my car. The family was still aboard and the kid was still yowling.
Part of my reaction: she was either and Arab-American or African-American Muslim wearing a black headscarf. Would I have become upset if she’d be “just like me” or even mere Black? I don’t know. But yes, I was thinking “Go the f— back to your own country and torture us from there instead of subjecting us to this.”
But she wasn’t torturing anyone. In fact she was the victim, along with her son…and thank God she got her daughter to move to the facing seat so the little boy could lay down.
The little boy was me, of course. Kept up far too late, but probably because there was no man with her who could help, and no woman either. I remembered long rides home when I was no older than that kid when I suffered from exhaustion and maybe hunger at having to sit still in a damn train just because there was no one to help and no help for the length of the trip.
There’s always a moral and it’s called Patience and Tolerance. When I had an insight into what was happening I calmed myself down and went back to a book on digital photography. I could not teach the mother about parenting and she probably could not teach me about manual controls on a Nikon, either. We just handled each other. I only thought I wanted to break the invisible barrier and whisper “It will be okay.” And I pray to God that it will be, that it was not part of a pattern of emotional abandonment that one day will come back to bite them all.
Second, A tale of two photographs
The back of the photo reads “Kenneth 1944.” The picture was taken (I imagine by my father) when I was a few months old. It was summer or early fall. How old was I? Maybe six months. There was still a war in progress in Europe and the Pacific. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President. My father, who’d been in the Marines in World War I, had volunteered to go back to the service after Pearl Harbor but was sent home. “Jack, we don’t need you right now.” I suppose they were praying they would never need to call a 44-year-old man back to active duty on Saipan or the Philippines.
The picture frightens me. I had no reason yet to believe in the terrors that were awaiting me: abandonment, rage, grief. I was far away from being hurt and learning to hurt others in return. My mother looked pleased. The woman I grew up knowing was embittered and permanently pained. She had not yet inflicted the Awful Wound upon me for which I would spend years paying her back. My father had an elderly niece, who assured me in June 2001, that he would have destroyed me, but died in 1954, so so did not get the chance to finish the job he was already beginning even against his will and judgment.
I look weird. My head seems too big for my body. I look like a moron, to be quite honest. Surely I was and am not. Yet there is that blank stare: a baby already unsure of his place in the household. And my mother was oblivious. Oblivion was the state of life in my house.
Third, a tale of a son
The other kid is Ben. He’s 29 now, so I’m guessing that is a school picture because I’m a better photographer than that. It’s one of those yank-out-of-your-wallet things. I have others of him that I made myself, and they crafted, not ground out of a machine.
Ben was a happy kid. He gets morose now and then because that is the family disease. It took me no small effort to make amends to him particularly because he was living home when his parents’ divorce shit hit the propeller blades. He was also his parents’ volleyball–we batted him back and forth like a damn toy.
My ex and I got everything wrong but how we treated our children. They survived us. Some kids–e.g., my ex–did not get past the trauma of a father who was turned down for active duty in WW2 because of paranoid schizophrenia or perhaps Borderline Personality Disorder. Whatever it was, it was horrible and took years off my mother-in-law’s life and ripped away pieces of my wife’s brain. She lost the ability to feel. I was collateral damage because the errors of my marriage have never receded from their permanent place where they haunt me.
Yet I write to forgive as I know I never shall be forgiven. It’s lonely in here some days….
Ben and his brother Jake are my jewels hauled out of a burning house. Neither of them ever had to get dragged home on a suburban railroad in a state of manic exhaustion. And if they did it’s because the damn fools were partying a bit too vigorously:-).