Sunday, March 6, 2016

7891. BELOW THE WATER LINE (pt. 184)

(pt. 184)
When my mother was young, she had
rheumatic fever. Without even knowing
what it was (still don't, actually), I heard
that all the time. The story went that, in
danger of developing rickets (another
total unknown to me) she was sent to a
sort of 'fresh-air camp' for rheumatics,
in Hibernia, NJ. She talked of all this in
such high and happy terms that I always
figured the camp must have been a real
boon to her : outdoors, open air, fresh,
trees.  Hibernia, NJ is a real place. I've
visited there a few times myself, and
in fact have searched diligently for any
trace of what and where this 'camp' may
have been. To no real results. My Aunt
Mae, now dead, told me how she and my
mother drove up there once or twice, so
that my aunt (driving) could bring her to
the very location of the camp  -  which
she knew of from living in that area some.
That's all I know; but my mother would
come out with all these hokey sayings and
nursery-rhyme sorts of songs and ditties,
always saying she learned them for her
camp days in Hibernia, NJ. As it turned
out, her two later heart operations were
from a root-cause bad heart caused by
some sort of inflammation and damage
of the valves and ventricle due to the
rheumatic fever.  As a kid, funny as it
is, it's also difficult to get to the bottom
of stories like this  - I heard it all a
hundred times, but never had anything
really clarified, or questions answered,
while the people in question were alive.
I guess it goes like that. Remember that
'children should be seen and not heard'
stuff? That was one of those things that
sometimes kept me from popping out
with a big, 'Hey! What's going on?'
I guess these were Depression era issues.
In the same vein, a corresponding issue
having to do with my father became  -
rather than physical  -  a 'mental' wound
that never healed. My father had  -  his
entire life  -  a real violent sensitivity to
any issue having to do with his
manliness and/or sexuality. The supposed
very 'macho' stance of his sense of self
and bearing, muscles and brawn, had a lot
to do with proving himself tough. Not much
in the way of height, perhaps 5'7" at best,
he'd often make accommodating remarks
about how his stature did not in any way
reflect his 'Manhood.' In fact, I distinctly
recall, verbatim, his once telling me that
"I have a small Peter, Gar, but I made
five kids with it." You have to imagine,
please, what saying this to an eleven-year
old kid meant. By one's father. I was
bizarrely unaffected, I guess, but only
because I really could never fathom the
depths of whatever in which he dwelt
that would have brought this factor to
the front like that. I was silent, and
stunned. The root cause of all this  -
I did only much later find out  -  had
to do (and I recite all these here as
a sort of personal revelation, the sort of
thing only befitting a memoir-accounting
of this very personal sort as I've been
doing here in these 'Avenel' posts. My
father is long dead, and this material
lives on in my personal narrative), with
the fact that, as a foster child, my father
had somehow been accounted for as a
girl, listed by error or fraud, allowing his
foster family the privilege then of having
a 'boy'. However, on the days of the visits
of the foster-care inspectors, or whatever,
to meet the qualifications for remaining
in that household, he'd be dressed for the
day, when a young child, as a girl. I realize
it sounds bizarre, seems bizarre to read it.
but I am told it was so. It left a brand on my
father's psyche that, somehow, apparently
never left him. Each of us, as we mature,
are given various factors we must deal with,
things within that  - once we recognize them
 -  begin demanding their own attentions
and accommodations. It's never easy and  -
to make things worse for my father, I can
only imagine the cringes he went through
when having to answer for being in the
Navy and thus at sea, for those South Pacific
years, on shiploads of guys. Let the
poor man rest in peace.
We are all wounded along the way, I guess,
and it's hard to say or admit. I know that it
caused some really peculiar moments for
me  -  the self-doubts and all the anxieties
that such family and personal revelations
cause. Nothing I could have ever done
about it, of course, but the wounds grew
into me anyway; not out of me. How freaky
was it, later on, realizing the seminary as a
part-time crib-fest of (what I still call)
'perverts' here and there. Man-to-Man love
is one thing  - and you can have it, as it
doesn't concern me at all  -  but inflicting
that within the midst and the centers of
the power-relationships of mentoring and
the boarder-school environment, along
with the repressions of a perverse, iron-age
religion, is both criminal and asking for
trouble. And asking for revenge too. It
takes a troubled man to sing a troubled
tune, as the old folk-song goes.
Yeah, me. That's just how it went. I'd
always wished I was 6' 2", just to have
that under my belt (pun intended?). But
then what does anyone really know about
that? And who cares, except the bearer?
I'm told it's all about heart and feeling
anyway. But, the point being made is
the damage inflicted : This is a case of
'school' finally NOT being culpable; it
had nothing to do with this one. On fact,
school did good. I learned words, language,
numbers, good sense, ideas and 'history',
and at least the rudiments of all of that,
well enough to plod on the rest of the
way by my own powers. That's really
all that can be asked. The rest of it was
psychological. Whether 'drama' or not, 
it too is part of my make-up, and whatever
part that may be, I find it missing in a lot
of other people I meet. I wish I had their
(apparent) internal peace. When I look
at School 4 today (and School 5 too, I 
guess) as bare and tree-barren as they 
now are, ringed by guards and a cop 
car and all those clingy parents always
mauling around their kids at morning 
entry and afternoon pick-up, I see only
the rock-ribbed and solid old-time 
matter by which I was schooled there.
The rest is all beside-board, having to
do with nothing. It was, however, from
there that I took all my  basics, and that's
all that matters now. My mother kept
that school elevated, in her eyes, to a
pinnacle of learning and being. I never
did, but she would speak of with 
reverence, right down the end of our 
block. I remember once, when we first 
moved there, and even before I entered 
school (meaning, I guess, it had to be 
Summer/Fall '55), she and I were walking 
across the school parking lot, perhaps
going towards one of the stores on 
Avenel Street, over the lot where 
teachers used to park their cars (gone 
now, it's a new addition of elementary 
classrooms at the base of Inman Avenue).
Instead of being paved, back then, the lot
was covered with the coal-fire ashes and
cinders from the school's furnace-burning.
I asked her, as we walked over it, the
loose and cindery gravel-stones, what they
'do' inside. She  -  using the cinders as the
example  -  said 'oh, they teach you how to
make things, use things, like these cinders.'
I'll always remember that, in whatever clarity
it had, as being, to me, a telling beacon of her
idea of learning : 'Utility.' Education, leaning,
and knowledge had to do with learning how
to use things, make things from the matter 
around you. Perhaps, in her unschooled way,
she didn't even really mean that, or didn't 
understand or realize that she did, but I see
it all now  -  and remember it vividly  -  as
a quite fine piece of utilitarian thinking on
her part. In many ways now a complete 
opposite to the kind of thinking I live by,
yet  -  then again as I think of it  -  what am
I doing here anyway, except making something,
from the sad, stupid, sorrowful cinders of my
own dead life? Or trying to anyway.
'....Writing this is a 'nest of memories, a tangle
of anecdotes told to me and misheard, or
misremembered; regrets and revisions forced
by time; of days and words lying dormant,
 sometimes for decades, until something - 
some dream maybe, or some secret cue  -  
cracked their husk to a small, provisional
understanding. In short, like something 
vague and circumstantial, yet real and perfect 
too, it's a complex, non-linear, sometimes 
contradictory and often inclusive bit of a mess.
A lot like life, if gotten right.' I thought of that, 
and went and dug it out, as I thought some more 
about what I was doing. This chapter, here, about 
my mother and my father, I admit, it rattled me a 
bit, maybe shouldn't have been told, came out of 
nowhere, when I was not expecting it. It smells of 
myself, and of my town, here related. But, what  
makes one a writer, perhaps, is that needed 
willingness to follow your thoughts anywhere,  
especially if they lead out of the present,
in search of what they will say to you about
the past. So, then, here it all took me, and 
here then I am. All surprises yet.

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