Wednesday, May 21, 2008


As constant readers know, I keep trying to work the most cosmic and eternal of forces and patterns off against the tiny internal worlds of individuals. I use myself as my lab rat, not out of narcissism but because I’m at hand and don’t have to expose anyone else to my blundering. It doesn’t mean the practice eliminates lying, since people are notorious for lying to themselves, but it does give me access to dreams and fantasies. Most tantalizing is that it doesn’t REALLY give me access to my sub-un-pre-conscious -- all those decisions and assumptions that were wired in by my first experiences and my brain still considers to be “reality.”

But I do have a bit of help also at hand: my family’s photo albums. Looking at them is a corrective or sometimes a prompter. The biggest puzzle of my life for me has been a phenomenon that I suppose all children suffer and ought to -- even the children of the Umeda in their theoretically “natural” and therefore idyllic lives. One could call it “dethronement” or maybe “heartbreak” or maybe “facing reality.” It comes from the absolute necessity of leaving childhood, unwilling as one may be. People used to say to me, carelessly, “Oh, you’ll change when you grow up!” To me that meant nothing less than the loss of identity and I was determined not to let it happen. But it did.

Here I am in the backyard, believing that this is the center of the world. My company is Roma&Noma, the fraternal twin granddaughters of Old Lady Otto who lived next door. They were my first inkling that something was “up” in the outside world. One clue was that they had a series of beautiful picture books about Swedish identical tripletts: “Flicka, Ricka and Dicka.” (You can buy them at I looked. Reissued, I suppose.) So I knew people were sometimes linked by rhyming names and something else I didn’t understand. Nationality? The other clue was that these two “older” girls enjoyed teaching me arcane knowledge like how to curtsy in case I met a queen. I was to practice on Old Lady Otto, who accepted curtsies as her due.

But all this didn’t interfere with my world view much. I couldn’t reach the handle of the screen door, so my father nailed on a spool and weakened the spring so I could go in and out. I often went to visit the sprinkler, a jaunty jingling little gizmo. One morning, feeling grandiose, I went out and sat on it while wearing my underpants. Then I went into the house complaining that I was wet and needed dry pants. My mother was probably canning. As soon as I had dry pants, I went out and sat on the sprinkler again. Maybe it was some kind of potty issue, but I do remember it and to me it was about sensations: hot, coldwet, clammy, dry, hot -- new cycle. My mother, exasperated, spanked me. I was shocked, even horrified! What could I possibly have done to deserve such treatment? My mother was also probably pregnant.

After all, I had accepted this new brother and was perfectly willing to teach him to play chess, which was -- after all -- part of the family culture. I had every confidence that I was doing it properly. I didn't feel dethroned until the second brother. (The chair in which Mark is propped is my reading chair now. Hoarding “perfectly good” furniture is also part of the family culture.)

This summer afternoon in the front yard of my Aunt Allie down on the sheep ranch in Roseburg is also perfectly available in my memory, though I have no idea who that little blonde girl might be. What I remember most vividly is that marbles bounced around in the business end of the mower. We carefully mowed the entire yard, which remained unchanged. At some point a local rancher stopped by to ask my aunt something. Aunt Allie said he came in the back door laughing. He’d asked me if the folks were inside and I’d said, with an airy wave of the hand, “See for yourself!” The Queen of the World in her domain, perfectly confident.

I’ve been trying to get back to that ever since -- both the attitude and the place. Somehow, soon after that, I became a sniveling, fearful, clingy little bookworm. Therapists have asked if I were somehow abused or attacked, but I can’t remember anything. My mother couldn’t remember anything. Some research suggests, and Gell observed, a kind of stage just after the Terrible Two’s when children say NO to everything as a kind of declaration of independence: a way of marking a boundary. Then comes something that seems very like the mourning of a loss. It may have something to do with brain development as wiring is switched around, some cells snuffed, new cells added. Leaving babyhood. Gell noted that some Umeda children were exceptionally vulnerable and went through a whiny, angry, sometimes self-destructive phase which everyone simply ignored and tolerated. He remarked it was a good thing they weren’t in a modern household full of expensive breakables. My mother would spank me or when that didn’t work, lock me into the basement where I would sit against the door at the top and scream as loudly as possible.

I suppose now the child is whisked off to the counselor. I don’t suppose nowadays many parents have the time, the energy or the insight to see this as a panic attack, to take the child to hold and rock for a while. It strikes me that a lot of parents need the same holding and reassuring. Some will assault such a child to the point of breaking bones or even death. It must remind them of their own internal life. Parents who are drunk or high might not notice a troublesome child, so that it sinks into depression or just wanders off into the larger neighborhood. Shrinks like Erik Erikson have been trying to tell us for generations that when there is a preponderance of a particular strategy of child-raising, it is one of the forces that creates national character. On the reservation it is quite obvious to me that Headstart has changed the generation about to assume leadership -- for the better, I think. That was certainly the intention.

I came to consciousness during WWII and, since my parents didn’t much censor, sat in newsreels watching a triumphalist and heroic account of the military, but also seeing the devastation and suffering of the people. By then I knew that in Japan and Germany, to say nothing of the rest of the world, things were quite different. (My great-uncle’s son was in New Guinea but not in Umeda.) I think this coincided with my separation anxieties, gave them the aura of a worldwide condition -- which, of course, it is. I wanted to be like those brave soldiers, teaching the little brothers to play chess, so to speak. But I was terrified of loss, which meant death, until I learned to accept checkmates. That came much later.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is one of those perfect posts, Mary. You had me laughing (sitting on the sprinkler)...but...left me crying (at all that occurred during the war of our youth. Well done!
Cop Car