While life in a ravine provides security, the lack of sunshine in these hollers has its drawbacks; so when a day comes with rich, sunlight beaming through the trees, thirty feet above me on the edge of this declivity, I head upslope. As I push forth a tune enters my head . It’s Ricky Nelson’s “Garden Party” from back in 1972. Remember “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself?”
I say aloud to myself in the woods, “No, you can’t be serious, Big Turtle. Ricky Nelson, a deep thinker? Hardly.”
I always figured Nelson must have been singing about some girl friend who jilted him, but not so. According to Wikipedia, Nelson was lamenting negative criticism about a change in his singing style. That made me think of my own career path which was in crisis around the same year. Thus, I decided — well at least for now anyway — that these lyrics capture the single most important lesson I have ever learned. A man must learn to please himself and learn it early.
You see, in that same 1972 I was one year away from taking the preliminary examination in PhD school. I was not optimistic for a positive outcome. Oh, the essay part was fine, but I knew, no matter how much I’d hoped, that my mind simply was not prepared for random questions from the 800-year- old canon of English literature. I wasn’t a walking encyclopedia. That was for folks who bomb GRE and LSAT tests, the quantitative types. Anyway, I was wondering why I was even at that university, why I hadn’t switched to a school of education, why I hadn’t just become a cub reporter somewhere. Perhaps I could have found something less esoteric than the historical, finer points of English literature. I was in hell and well behind Ernest Hemingway. Truth is, I liked playing around in aesthetics and literary criticism.
All these years later, lumbering up the steep incline to the meadow, I decided I had not been selfish enough back then, perhaps a better steward of my talents — and that would have included honesty about my real mental skills. I was not selfish about pleasing myself as the best of the Hippies were doing at the time. I don’t mean selfish like rejecting the Man or the Establishment. I was never a druggie and as a kid I was never one to rule the sandbox or hog the ball. I mean selfishly manifesting my “rabids” as Dad used to call them. Acutually I was disgustingly cooperative.
To illustrate, in the Fifties I was enthralled by the anthology, television drama “The Big Story”(1949-1957). Everything from the musical theme from “Ein Heldenleben” to the real life heroism of newspaper reporters kept me attentive to the heroic dramas. Why didn’t that enthrallment stick with me, set me on fire, convict me of a journalism career? Well, who can know? To ask the question now is absurd. I suspect I didn’t want to start at the bottom. Anyway, why carry this rumination to the meadow and muck it up with soggy, regurgitated might-have-beens?
“Because . . . because,” I said into the woods, “the speculation is worth the effort. There must be some value in hindsight . . . if not for my life, perhaps for someone else’s?”
You see in the Fifties in the time of “The Big Story” and impressions being made on me, my mother had been dying. Helen was the mystery parent, the one I never knew. She was not there to tell me that her father, my grandfather, had actually started a newspaper. He had also taught school, been a farmer, cattle dealer and businessman. I would like to have known him, my maternal grandfather. The paternal grandfather, the entrepreneurial industrialist, had the stronger sway in family heritage.
I mumbled into the grass at chin level, “I wonder what might have happened in my life if someone had told me I had a grandfather who was a newspaperman. But Helen died in 1951, just a year into the TV drama series, and I was nine. And I don’t want to blame anyone for not telling me. I don’t know, maybe someone did. My dad was busy just dealing with his business and the loss of our Helen. And an electrical engineer wouldn’t have thought of any career coming out of a literary leanings. Hell, I might have been the second James Reston.
A couple years later the big, black Buick four-holer ascended the drive. The barge bore our new stepmother. She was in her fifties, lonely, and like my dad bereft of her husband, an eye specialist. Like Helen, he had died of cancer. My father, Helen and Judith had gone to high school together. Later on Helen and Judith attended the same university. They were even in the same sorority. Both were liberal arts majors. “Your mother,” she said once, “was pretty with plump cheeks. She was kind and gentle, quiet and shy, but slow in many ways. ” That is the only full sentence I ever heard from anyone, including my father, about my mother. She has always been a spectre, an enigma in my life. And yet, I feel her presence now as I recall her picture on my desk. She was all those things Judith described — a little turtle. I look at her dimpled picture and all I remember is her once covering me with newspaper on a chilly evening on the porch. We were moving and the blankets were stuffed in a barrel somewhere. Oh, and I hear a voice, not a distinctive one, singing “Maresy Doats.” She has her back to me as I sit at a table. She is washing dishes and glancing out the window.
So, for certain, I was not born alone like a tortoise buried in the sand on some dark beach. That’s where they come alive, you know, with not a creature in attendance. I suppose, when and if they have a long life, its due to hard, lonely survival and luck of health.
After a boy loses a mother without a trace, not to mention a paucity of anecdotes, he’s free to invent his own Helen. This would be a Helen who had none of the shortcomings, weaknesses and faults of his father and stepmother, himself or any other human contact. What a nice opportunity afforded the boy! By inference he could create a character from all the ways his brothers and he himself seem not to match his father and that composite will become his mother, a creature of omissions. And, of course, whatever pleasing behavior, he doesn;t see in the stepmother will be attributed to Helen. She will then be a perfect image of someone and an imaginary influence in his life which, if she had survived would have made all things good and happy.
I’ve reached the meadow now. The sun indeed is out and the day warms. What a blessing to be able to invent your own mother. A man must please himself and so must a tortoise.
Steadfast and cautious,