Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Do We Live Here? Really?

I have continued to think about the fierce way that my parents tried to raise me outside of the norms of our times, or at the very least, neighborhood. I lived in a subdivision that was part of a Catholic Parish. Everyone went to Parochial school, and Mass, and everyone lived in 1950's ranch style houses with perfectly flat even grass lawns and tar driveways with new model American cars, just washed, parked in neat rows. My neighborhood reminded me in many ways of the scary planet with all the little children bouncing identical balls from " A Wrinkle in Time".
My house, on the other hand, was a two-hundred year old farm house, falling apart at the seams. We had a rickety white fence and the grass grew waist high by mid summer. Where my neighbors had plastic runners to protect the pale blue wall to wall carpeting my parents had dog and cat fur laden oriental rugs, often tangled up from the animals racing through the house. Where my neighbors had perfectly clean white walls we had bookcases up to the ceilings.
It went deeper than that , of course. My father wrote at night, by the light of every bulb in the downstairs and to the sound of Mambo and Jazz. The house was full of African art. Our car, oh the horror, was a fourteen year old Peugeot with a hole in the floor and one door tied shut with rope.
I have often wondered why my parents bought this house ( other than the extremely low price, even for the times, of $30,000). Why couldn't we have lived with the other college faculty, where I could have had neighbors who did not honestly, genuinely, believed that I was going to burn in hell, and that I talked " like I was from England" ( not really, much more Websters than OED) and that reading was for the bathroom, only. Were they trying to make sure I grew up to be able to assimilate into the culture at large? Did they think that being chased through the woods with nail guns by the neighborhood ruffians would be character building? Did they think it wise to make us aware that we were in fact a sort of strange minority, so that when Reagan won in 1980 I would not be shocked silent and wonder where these Republicans came from? (If so, they failed).
My brother and I did learn, and fast, to drop our snobby college town accents and unnecessary vocabulary words. I learned to argue for religious tolerance, and when that failed, I learned to lend out my library of horror fiction as a springboard for more wide ranging discussions ( what is a succubus you ask? perhaps you should ask the nuns?) . I learned to speak television, and barbie, and soda pop and once fluent found that I loved this culture, I was not faking. I also learned that standing fast worked better than running with most bullies, but that with a select few it was important to run like the wind. I learned that most parents hide the Playboys and the cigarettes in similar places, even if in other ways they are not like mine. I learned to assimilate, in other words. But I am still wondering why my parents put me in a place to feel like a second generation immigrant ( in a neighborhood where many of my neighbors were just that).


  1. I've been thinking a lot recently about the idiosyncratic and inexplicable decisions parents make - perhaps we're all doomed to follow the Philip Larkin parenting method? I'm sure that Trefusis Minor will think exactly the same of me for insisting on sending him to French school, despite living in West London. There must have been method in the madness, though from reading your post it must feel like more madness and less method. x

  2. There was a method to the madness, and I think it was intentionally being the odd family on the block in a place where it could all be explained by the obvious " he teaches college...and they are pagans or something" instead of living among the other faculty brats and still being the oddest family on the block. But it is also quite possible that they were just trying to save enough money to send us to private school. No matter what the cause, or the logic, I do not feel harmed. I intentionally sent my own children to a variety of schools in a variety of neighborhoods so that they could see that in some settings we are the very fortunate- owning a home, owning a car and in other settings were are so sadly lacking in private plane, or even boat.
    French school and West London sound like a good mix to me.