Thanksgiving was always tense while I was growing up, and I don’t know why. Christmas, now—Christmas was mostly fun and presents and carols and laughter, as I remember. But Thanksgiving was arguments and huffs and recriminations and doors slamming and one indistinguishable great-uncle or another rousing himself from his after-dinner torpor to growl, “Now, now,” from an easy chair, puffing through his mustache like an irritated walrus as he loosened his belt another notch. Thanksgiving was my sisters crying, and my aunt rising like Athena in righteousness at the dining-room table to shout, “You wretched insect,” and my father slipping off to the kitchen to sit at the counter and hold his head, muttering, “Every year. Every goddamn year.”
The rise of college football on television helped a little; at least it gave the younger men something to quarrel about besides the family. But even that wasn’t enough. One of my mother’s cousins had a way of asking, “Why can’t we all be united on this special day?” with a sort of simultaneously superior and plaintive sniff that, oddly enough, usually did manage to unite the family. Unfortunately, it united them only in shouting at her until they had driven her from the table in tears, her damp napkin fluttering down like a flag of surrender on her half-eaten cranberry sauce and sage stuffing.
And then—you could feel it coming the whole day, like condemned prisoners waiting for the gallows’ trap to open—someone would at last bring up the infamous incident of . . . oh, I can’t even remember now what it was. Something like what an uncle’s wife’s sister said about a cousin’s daughter at an aunt’s wedding. And half the family would stomp out in anger, and the other half would stay only to complain about the half that had already left, and everyone would finally agree that they were never going to speak to anyone ever again, or at least not until Christmas. God help us. Who would have a family?
The year that I was fourteen, I was filled with fury, and the cause still isn’t clear. It was fury at my parents, fury at my sisters, fury when I was treated like a boy, fury when I was treated like an adult, fury at the sheer being of being fourteen years old. The real inwardness of that feeling is impossible to call up again—primarily, I think, because it had no content. It was a kind of pure hunger, an unsatisfiable, unending ache without focus, object, or goal. I wanted to be noticed all the time, and I wanted to be invisible, passing through the world unseen. I wanted to be cared for, and I wanted to be unencumbered with care. I wanted everything. I wanted nothing. I just wanted.
Part of it may have been actual hunger. For mothers when their sons’ growth kicks in, it must be as though something unimaginably alien has moved into the house. I remember needing food all the time. As I walked in the door after school, I would tear open a plastic-wrapped tube of Fig Newtons. Before supper, I would eat wax-paper package after wax-paper package of graham crackers—buttering them, it now seems hard to believe, to make them more filling—and still down two or three helpings of the casserole or pot roast my mother put on the table an hour later. On Shrove Tuesday and perhaps once or twice a year more, she would make what we called “breakfast-dinner,” an evening meal of pancakes and eggs and bacon and toast. While my sisters picked daintily at their eggs, my father would laugh and cheer me on as I raced through stacks of pancakes, alternating jam and sour cream with maple syrup and butter.
There was an extravagance to eating and drinking that can’t be recreated at any other point in life. I remember the rain splashing against the windows while I sat at the speckled linoleum of the kitchen table on a Saturday afternoon to eat an entire loaf of sandwich bread, a bag of apples, and a jar of peanut butter, filling the pages of The Count of Monte Cristo with bread and apple crumbs and peanut-buttered thumbprints. I remember swallowing gulp after gulp of water from the silver arc of the garden hose after mowing the lawn in the heat of a summer evening—and then, my belly distended so far I could barely move, falling back on the new-cut grass to watch the angry gnats swirl up against the orange sunset.
But that feeling of being fourteen was something more than just appetite. The lintels of the door frames all through the house were marked with hand prints as I reached up to touch them every time I passed beneath, amazed at my new height. I had spent the summer hauling hay—the hardest job I’ve ever had—and I was proud of my new strength. My parents believed in work for their children, and by the time I left home for good I’d delivered papers early in the morning, and scooped ice cream after school, and followed a harvest team through the wheat fields, and spent a summer with a finish crew, tacking the wooden trim on kitchens through an endless subdivision of identical split-level houses in Ogden, Utah.
Whenever one job ended, there was always some new client of my father’s law practice, anxious—my father insisted—for me to come along and help. I stood behind the taco grill, hour after hour, waiting for customers at a failing Mexican fast-food restaurant, and I hung pictures at an art gallery, briefly and badly. At a placer-wash gold mine outside Nevada City, the summer I was fifteen, I learned how to run a diesel pumping engine and mix the orange and purple glues that held together the huge sections of plastic pipe that carried water up to the mine. I learned to play pinochle at night by kerosene lantern and to sit silently all afternoon, watching for leaks in the 150-foot wooden sluice we’d built, lined with serrated steel frames on hairy mats to catch the washed-down gold that, sadly, wasn’t there.
For my parents, the point wasn’t the money—which was fortunate, because I managed to save none of it. I never did get paid for the summer at the gold mine. The leasing companies came in August to repossess the bulldozer and the backhoe, the sheriffs followed the next day with an eviction notice, and the mining company that was going to make us all rich dissolved in the usual muddle of liens and bankruptcies, lawsuits and countersuits, that seemed to await all the would-be wheeler-dealers and Micawberish romantics of business who passed through our lives.
We had a phrase we used to describe it. The bookshelves in the living room were lined with lawyers’ stories: lives of Clarence Darrow, Learned Hand, and Charles Evans Hughes; memoirs by Bellamy Partridge, Louis Nizer, and William O. Douglas. And somewhere in a biography of one of the great lawyer opponents of Tammany Hall—Samuel Seabury, maybe, or William Travers Jerome—my father came across a line he loved and quoted the rest of his life. When one of New York’s periodic reform-minded grand juries subpoenaed a Tammany official and demanded to know where all the bribes and kickbacks had disappeared to, he simply shrugged his shoulders and answered with the sigh of a man who understands the way money slips away, “It is gone where the woodbine twineth.”
That might have been the motto of all my father’s clients: the oil-shale developers, the penny-stock promoters, the phone-solicitors who were going to put little packets of pick-me-up vitamins on the checkout counters of convenience stores across America, the inventor of a static-electric space heater, the man who thought a Brazilian soft drink called Guarana was going to sweep the country—and somehow convinced Canada Dry to bottle the stuff and give him the doomed distributorship for the entire Midwest.
Unfortunately, that might have been my motto, as well. Even the jobs for which I actually got paid never added up to anything, and the money always seemed to go where the woodbine twineth. Some of it slipped away in buying books—and more books, a few phonograph albums, and yet more books. Why would anyone use the Carnegie Library down by the courthouse when it was possible to own the book: hold it, feel the possession of it while you were reading, then set it as a marker of permanent knowledge on the shelves beside all the other books?
But more of the money seemed to disappear simply in living. I had friends who looked up from a summer’s work with thousands of dollars in the bank, but I could never learn the knack—or understand, really, why the money wasn’t in their pockets to be frittered away.
Once, while I was visiting home from college, my father sent me off for a week to Portland with an enormous, laughing, wild-living man from Denver named Edward Kingman: a former football player, a promoter of impossible schemes, a teller of stories, a buyer of drinks, a thief if the occasion offered, and the best-dressed man I ever knew. We were supposed to close down the space-heater company before the vultures picked it apart: get an inventory, cancel the outstanding orders, change the locks, and pack up the hopelessly confused paperwork for the accountants to look at. Quite how an eighteen-year-old philosophy student was going to protect anyone’s interests isn’t clear to me even now. The idea may simply have been that Edward Kingman was there to see that the company’s officers didn’t loot the place down to the carpets, and I was there to see that he didn’t join in.
But mostly what I remember is the style of the man I traveled with. He seemed to act as though the most important reason for the trip was the opportunity to taste again a brand of pickle sold only in Portland, and he carried me from bar to bar, insisting that I’d be grateful the rest of my life for understanding the differences among piano bars and hotel bars and neighborhood bars and nightclubs. The first morning we were there, he walked in to find me trying to figure out how to use the coffee-maker that slid out of a cupboard in the hotel room. Stopping me—and insisting I put on a jacket and tie—he took me downstairs to the linen-covered tables of the dining room, where, once the china cups and silver coffee-service had come, he explained the code of men like himself. Gentlemen, he said (and it was the first time I had ever heard the word used in any but a mocking way), gentlemen—ladies, for that matter, all people who want to live well—never cook for themselves. When they have money, they eat in restaurants. When they are broke, they go hungry. It was his great boast that, whatever else he had done in his life to survive, he had never tried to economize even to the extent of boiling water for himself.
I liked cooking too much to agree, but the stance of it—the Renaissance-courtier quality of the scruple, the antiquated arrogance, the marking of a point of honor, the proud claiming of an absolute adherence to a style of living—seemed to me at the time an ideal of adulthood: money comes easily, and money disappears easily, and the main thing is never to betray the least concern for it.
That was probably not the lesson my parents had in mind when they sent their children off to work. The three of us remain to this day perpetually tardy night-owls. My little sister has never arrived at anything in her life within an hour of its scheduled beginning, my older sister isn’t entirely convinced the sun comes up before noon, and, compared to me, they are both bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
Faced with children like this, our mother and father no doubt hoped work would teach us early rising—and steadiness and thrift and application and all the rest of the conscientious, Ben Franklinish virtues that remained common coin in South Dakota long after the rest of America became too self-conscious to hold them openly. “When you wake up, get up; when you get up, do something,” my father would intone in the carefully righteous voice of a man handing on to his children the ancient wisdom of his forebears.
In fact, we were bombarded with lots of such things while I was growing up, daily doses of the kind of apothegm and adage Ben Franklin set in Poor Richard’s Almanac: “A penny saved is a penny earned,” “Plow deep while sluggards sleep,” “Never leave till tomorrow what you can do today.” But they had lost, somehow, their reality and purpose”and you can trace, in that loss, the history of a certain swath of America. My great-grandparents, all eight of them original settlers in South Dakota, actually lived their lives by Franklin’s maxims. Their children, my grandparents, merely believed them. And by the time those stern aphorisms reached my parents’ generation, they had become something not far removed from knocking on wood to avert the evil eye or curving out to keep from walking under a ladder: the things people do or say with that apologetic shrug which means they know they shouldn’t still half-believe in such superstitious old-fashionedness.
The long decades of attack on the virtues of the middle class had taken their toll. From Stendhal’s declaration that the shopkeepers and successful farmers of the bourgeoisie made him want to “weep and vomit at the same time” to Karl Marx’s identification of the middle class as the cause of all evil—from the beatnik poetry of the 1950s to the pop music of the 1970s, for that matter—everything in Western civilization conspired against the merchants and farmers and lawyers who filled the middle class.
Even in Pierre, South Dakota, about as far from the European centers of avant-garde civilization as one can get, it made the people we knew uneasy and awkward in their skins—and they could not plead success as the justification for their lives, for South Dakota had seen far too much failure. Those hard prairies and badlands were the graveyard of the immigrant’s dream. The state reached its peak of population not in the 1980s but in the 1880s, when homesteading called in over two million settlers. Twelve years later—after the blizzards, the droughts, the floods, and the locust plagues, after the normal summers of broiling heat and winters of endless cold—there were only a few hundred thousand of them left. The banks and the feed stores in the county seats were boarded up. The farmers abandoned their hopeless plowing. The ranchers gave up when they saw their cattle freezing at Christmas and dying of thirst on the Fourth of July. The deserted wooden churches lasted for a few more years, turning gray in the relentless wind, before they fell in upon themselves and disappeared. “The great plain drinks the blood of Christian men and is satisfied,” Ole Rolvaag wrote in Giants in the Earth, his classic novel of life on the Dakota prairie, as he watched his fellow Norwegian settlers struggle and pray and struggle again, until they too at last succumbed.
The ones who survived were luckier and better placed, nearer the rivers but off the flood plains, closer to the markets at the railheads, sheltered by the hills from some of the worst of the winters. They were harder, too: stern, unyielding people who did not fail because they refused to. But their descendants grew less stern and more yielding generation by generation—a weaker, more diffident people: uncertain of the virtues they ought to pursue and unsure of how to pursue them.
And yet, it would be wrong to say that my own parents had lost—at least for their children—their entire share in the old-fashioned American vision of the complete citizen. What they still held, deeply and truly, was the other side of the Ben Franklin ideal: the eighteenth-century model of a world in which Franklin could be a printer and an inventor and a statesman and a philosopher and a builder and a scientist and a diplomat. My father and mother still believed in omnicompetence, the capacity for everything, the ability to turn one’s hand to anything,
Not, you understand, that they themselves ever quite managed the omnicompetence they preached, or that we children ever lived up to their expectations. But the ideal ruled our childhoods, and it was the most impractical practicality anyone ever conceived. I have a photograph of the three of us posed against the railing of the ferry crossing Lake Michigan on our way to Boston for a family vacation one year while my father attended a legal seminar at Harvard. I suppose I must have been eleven, which would have made my older sister twelve and my younger sister six. And that knock-kneed boy and those two thin, awkward girls were supposed to be able to parse a poem and ride a horse, cook a dinner and use a drill, pick out a melody on the piano and clean the points on the distributor.
Exactly why did my father want us to know how to rewire the toaster? Or at least, since that’s not necessarily a bad thing to know, why did he insist we be able to rewire the toaster and recite all 108 lines of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”?
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December (First make sure the toaster is unplugged) and each separate dying ember (Now take a Phillip’s-head screwdriver) wrought its ghost upon the floor (I said a Phillip’s-head. A Phillip’s-head. The one with the pointy cross on the end). Eagerly I wished the morrow (Finally. Now turn the toaster over and look for the screws on the bottom), vainly I had sought to borrow (Um, yes, I did forget about the crumbs falling out all over the kitchen floor) from my books surcease of sorrow (No, your mother is not going to be mad), sorrow for the lost Lenore (Yes, I’m sure). For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore (That’s all right. It’s supposed to spring out like that), nameless here for evermore (See? That’s where the insulation has worn through). And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain (Yes, that’s why the fuse has blown every morning for the last three days. No, you can’t plug it back in and watch it spark) thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before.
The poor workers who passed through the house to repair things—or re-repair the things we had mangled trying to fix them ourselves—were turned into adjunct professors at my parents’ Academy for Teaching Children Everything. I don’t know why, it may have been the wide-eyed look of innocence my mother reserved for strangers from whom she wanted something, but most of them were charmed by the demand that they explain each step of their work to three rail-thin and skeptical children. I remember sitting with my little sister fully clothed in the dry bathtub, resting our chins on the porcelain edge, while a tongue-tied plumber, sweating in nervousness, tried simultaneously to wrestle a new toilet into place and to explain what the wax ring at the joint was for. The dry-cleaner, the milkman, and the cement-truck driver were expected to have the history of their professions at their fingertips. The Culligan Man, wheeling in his water-softening tank, gave us an amazingly good explanation of acids, alkalis, pH levels, and the buffering of salt solutions. Even the lady collecting for UNICEF had to deliver a potted lecture on the goals of the United Nations before we were allowed to drop our pennies in her orange box.
Of course, it didn’t always work out. My mother couldn’t understand why the roofers wanted more money, not less, for letting me climb up with them to learn about roofs by helping nail on a new layer of cedar shingles. After fifteen minutes—during which I dropped his tuning key down behind the sounding board and my little sister, showing off, played a chord while his head was inside the works—the piano tuner threatened to beat us with a wooden mallet if we didn’t go away.
Meanwhile, we had “Learning About the Great Composers” phonograph records and “Build Your Own Shortwave Radio” sets and Chilton car-repair manuals and booklets called “Teach Yourself the Guitar in Twelve Easy Lessons.” We had reel-to-reel tapes of Dylan Thomas reciting his poetry (so we could lilt, in a Welsh accent, “Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs”), Senator Everett Dirksen delivering great speeches from American history (so we could declaim, in an Illinois accent, William Jennings Bryan’s “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold”), and Vincent Price overacting his way through Shakespeare (so we could recite, in an accent like nothing in this world, Richard III’s “Since I cannot prove a lover, to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain”).
The year that I was ten, my mother decided she would finally finish her master’s degree in dramatics, and it never occurred to her not to take her children with her for a summer at the Black Hills Playhouse—for what better chance could there be for us to see how to put on a play? We learned stage carpentry from the set-builders and silk-screening from the promotion department. We danced and sneered as the wicked children in a production of Carousel, swelled the crowd in The Legend of Devil’s Gulch, and annoyed the workshop actors all summer by reciting along with them their lines in rehearsals for Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit—a play which passed, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, as the latest of the avant garde. “Hell is other people,” my five-year-old sister would snarl from her sleeping bag when we tried to get her up in the morning. She was much better at the line than the actual cast.
A childhood like this was fun, of course, and aggravating beyond belief. By the time my older sister followed our mother’s footsteps and went back east to school at Smith College, she was expected to be able to play the violin, run the monstrous floor-polishing machine over the cork my parents had insanely used to tile the kitchen floor, give an impromptu oration on prison reform, sit across from a bridge player as demanding as my grandmother, and do her own carpentry. Lord knows what her fellow Smithies made of it.
One August, while I was in college at Georgetown, she came down on the train to Washington to visit. I remember, for that was the summer I caught pneumonia while setting up cocktail parties for a catering company in the evenings, working on a clean-up crew for a construction company in the mornings, and sleeping through my junior tutorial on the Greek sources of the Gospel of John in the afternoons. And as we sat on the brick steps of the rowhouse on Observatory Place where I lived with four other students, talking and drinking gin while the humid Washington evening sweated around us, she told me that she had finally decided not to go on to graduate school in French literature but to enroll in law school, because the only thing she really wanted in life was to be rich—so rich that she could hire people to do things for her and never again have to bother with learning how to do them herself.
We laughed and laughed, so hard I dropped my drink, and then we laughed at that, for we had reached the stage of both reminiscence and drinking where everything seems impossibly funny. But what she was remembering was the less-pleasant side of my parents’ desire for omnicompetent children. The truth is, learning to do a little bit of everything, we never learned to do anything particularly well. The attempt to be all things is actually a recipe to be nothing. And there always loomed over us an unfulfillable demand that we would, somehow, already know how to do each new thing—and when he was too tired or irritated to catch himself, the demand would smash out in frustration from my father. I remember my little sister crying on her first skiing trip, because she was afraid to tell him she didn’t know how to ski. I remember his taking me trapshooting when I was eight—and stalking out to snatch his shotgun back in disgust when I missed ten shots in a row. I remember his barking, “Why are you so incompetent?” when my older sister brought him the wrong hammer. It was the worse insult we could imagine, and she sobbed and sobbed alone in her room until my mother sent him to apologize.
Those horrible, apprehensive moments were rare, but we would do anything to avoid them, and what we learned to do was to fake it: fake understanding blank verse, fake knowing how to feed the hogs when we went to the farm, fake being able to reassemble the clutch on the pickup truck. It was a kind of constant pretense of knowledge in the face of the unknown, and my mother and father intended it to be born in us from self-confidence. But to their disappointment, we were anxious children, and its real root was a fear of being discovered not to know, a fear of being found out false.
It’s only now, while I bring up my own daughter, that I realize how cleverly my parents had tried to escape the trap in which they found themselves. They had been sent back to the East Coast for school to become educated members of the middle class at a time in which East Coast education had set itself to the undoing of the middle class. They were cultured people at a time in which culture had turned against people like themselves. They were old-fashioned South Dakotans trying—with the best will in the world, a real desire for accommodation—to remake themselves in a new-fashioned country.
And their solution was not to abandon the Ben Franklinism in which they had grown up, but to invert it: a model of middle-class virtues transformed into a model of nobility. Poor Richard’s “Never leave till tomorrow what you can do today” became “Never leave anything untried.” The demand for hard work, which for Franklin was an adjunct of thrift, became for my parents a tool of experience. Their vision was intermittent, for I think they never brought the idea of a Franklinesque aristocracy to full consciousness. But they wanted something new for themselves and their children, some escape from the unbearable tension the culture had brought against the world they inherited from their own parents. And what they came up with was, in its way, brilliant and lively and filled with adventure.
It was also doomed—as I learned when I went off to work and discovered that having once had someone explain to me how an arc welder works isn’t the same as actually knowing how to weld. I sometimes wonder whether even Ben Franklin succeeded at being Ben Franklin, and he had the advantage of living in the eighteenth century, when skill at everything still looked possible. In the more than two hundred years since, the widening of knowledge made narrowness a necessity. It isn’t actually reassuring to learn ýhat the brain surgeon who’s about to operate on you is also a good computer programmer, or the pilot who’s about to fly you to Honolulu has written a monograph on the mating habits of cuttlefish and other carnivorous cephalopods. Our car mechanic is an amateur literary scholar, and every time I see him he wants to argue the case for the Earl of Oxford’s authorship of Shakespeare’s sonnets—but, as my wife points out, that doesn’t really compensate for her fainting when she opens his bill. (Maybe I shouldn’t have said that Oxford was a lightweight fop who couldn’t have written a line of Shakespeare on the best day he ever had. I’m pretty sure that’s what those “incidental labor charges” were about.)
Once, when I was working for a construction company that was building a new wing on a pharmaceutical factory, the crew boss asked me if I knew how to hang a door. I’d been working all summer, and I felt competent—as though confidence and a general ability to figure things out would carry me through most anything. Besides, I’d taken wooden doors off their hinges at home, planing them down to make them fit after they’d warped, and none of it seemed too hard.
But what he pointed me to wasn’t like the finished jambs and sills at home. It was a raw hole in a half-finished wall. And there beside it on the floor was a massive metal frame and a steel door so heavy I could barely lift it, much less maneuver it onto its hinges or use it (as I originally planned) as a giant pattern with which to square the frame before I attached it. He let me work on that door for hours, never saying a word, until finally, by chance, I got the frame straight enough to fit and wiggled the door onto its hinges. That’s when he walked over and said—more to the door than to me, swinging it gently back and forth—“Don’t ever say you know how to do something when you don’t.”
I must have been sixteen that summer, and the shame of his soft rebuke seemed overwhelming. I took such things hard, because . . . oh, because I was sixteen and I was filled with a hunger to be something complete, to have the kind of natural authority that crew boss had: the weight of it, the gravity of a man who actually knows. I didn’t really want to understand how to hang a door. I wanted to understand the mystic secret of grown-ups. I wanted to be initiated in the gnostic mysteries of adulthood. I wanted to grasp the trick of it—and the people who awakened that desire were invariably cast as surrogate parents.
It’s a wonder they didn’t run away screaming. Who wants his job to entail the adoption of half-grown children with aching holes in their psyches? Besides, my sisters and I already had, with our own parents, as much parenting as we could reasonably use in one lifetime. But there’s something deep in the architecture of children that wants more of mothers and fathers than mothers and fathers can ever be.
Rudyard Kipling saw it, which is why his children’s books spoke so deeply to us. They had the structure of true myth. Think of his stories in the first Jungle Book and what the orphaned Mowgli finds: the reckless father of Bagheera the Panther, the schoolmaster father of Baloo the Bear, the trickster father of Kaa the Python—together with the stability of Father Wolf, the power of Hathi the Elephant, and the authority of Akela the pack leader. Think of Kipling’s novel Kim, for that matter, and what the parentless boy obtains with the wily horsetrader Mahbub Ali and the doddering but wise Lama and the driven Colonel Creighton and the peculiar Lurgan Sahib and the reliable Father Victor. It is the perfection of childhood, imagined in a certain light: since one father cannot play all the necessary roles of fatherhood, a child needs multiple fathers to find fulfillment.
That’s the reason, I suppose, for the long years I spent doing little but hunting for extra parents to adopt me. The boss at the gold mine was a talker named Sam Sheridan, a man who could tell a joke, shape almost anything that happened to him into a story, and charm investors into putting up the cash for any number of his half-baked schemes. But mostly what I remember is his constant patter, the running commentary that poured out from him while we worked—always culminating in some claim of universal law, coined for the occasion. As we realigned the rollers on the twenty-foot perforated drum that spiraled out the rocks too big to wash down the sluice, he’d say, “The rule to remember is: when something’s broken, first you bang on it a little, then you curse at it a little, and finally you go get a bigger hammer.” As we reconnected the linkage for the vibrating table, he’d explain, “The lesson here is: some baling wire, some duct tape, and there’s nothing mechanical you can’t patch up.”
But then, too, out on the ranch, there was a rider who seemed almost never to speak at all. If I knew his name, I’ve forgotten it now, but I have a memory—like one of those gray-edged snapshots from the little Bakelite plastic cameras my grandparents gave us when I was eight—of sitting beside him on the bunkhouse steps one summer evening while he worked neat’s foot oil into a brittle piece of old bridle leather and watched the enormous orange sun setting over the yellow hills. I remember his browned face and dusty clothes. I remember the dark sweat stain behind the leather plait that circled his hat. I remember, as a perpetual model of adulthood, his ability to sit silent and self-possessed for hours, calmly rubbing the oil into the leather until the light failed. And I longed to learn how to be that man—and to be Sam Sheridan, and to be Edward Kingman, all rolled together, all at once.
Of course, even as children, my sisters and I had a pretty clear sense that we weren’t actually going to succeed at being all things. I imagine that’s why I was so unbearable as an adolescent. Already at fourteen I saw the thinning down of things, the fading of possibility from generation to generation, and I was furious at what seemed the unfairness of it all. My father’s grandfather had come west from Wisconsin on his way to join a survey crew in the Rockies and stayed to become the federal judge for South Dakota. My mother’s grandfather had ridden up on a cattle drive and stayed to be the main developer of Pierre. Along the way, he had chased outlaws on horseback, interviewed Frank James in jail and Jack Dempsey before the big fight as a free-lance journalist, become the largest land-owner in the state, and published a memoir called Pioneer Days. All I wanted was to do what they had done and be a little bit of everything: a scholar and a cowboy, a poet and a politician, a wheeling-dealing stock promoter and a Franciscan monk.
The combination didn’t seem unreasonable to me at the time, but my mother and father were always thwarting my attempts to make it come true. Mark this thought, for it is the key to how adolescent boys view the world. The very people who were responsible for what I wanted, who put that desire in me, wouldn’t let me fulfill it. Why, it was so . . . unfair. That’s all it was. Unfair.
I can’t remember exactly which unfairness so infuriated me the Thanksgiving I was fourteen. It may have been my parents’ refusal to let me hitchhike to Rapid City over Christmas vacation. Somewhere in those days I had read Nikos Kazantzakis’ Report to Greco—like Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, one of the great books that can be read only at a certain age—and I had become infatuated with Kazantzakis’ description of the time he had gone off to the mountains to isolate himself, taking along only the Bible and Homer to read. My grandparents had a cabin up in the Black Hills where I wanted to spend Christmas by myself in the snow—and my parents wouldn’t allow it, for reasons that now are obvious but then seemed raw oppression.
So I responded the way adolescents always respond: glowering, sniping away in sarcastic comments, affecting exhaustion, being unpleasant (in the way only fourteen-year-olds can be unpleasant) to my sisters, to my parents, and, that Thanksgiving, to everyone in the family. It must have been around two or three in the afternoon, while I was mocking my little sister for wanting me to play a game with her or sneering at the food my mother and grandmother were preparing. With a sudden growl, Aunt Eleanor rose from the living-room couch to glare at me for a moment over her glasses.
“Stop that at once and come with me,” she commanded, picking up her coat and stalking out the door. She was the kind of person who never looked back to see whether her orders were being followed. It may have been something in her face, or the ramrod straight way she held herself, or the absolute confidence she had that no one would refuse her, but everyone obeyed Aunt Eleanor.
I found her in front, with the car running, and she took me in silence down to the river, below the dam, where the Missouri runs in open water all winter between its cold banks. The defroster blew up against the windshield, barely keeping out the cold as the car idled, and I waited and waited, hunched in protest, dreading the lecture I was sure she was about to give. But she sat there for a long while, looking out at the river, minute after minute, until at last she sighed and began:
“You know Waller Johnson, don’t you? The rancher from out toward Philips. Your father has done some work for him, over the years. Lord, I remember Waller when he was young, a big, good-looking boy off the range. Your great-grandfather brought him to Pierre, found him a place to stay during the school year—partly so he could finish high school, but mostly, I think, so he could play baseball and Pierre could beat Yankton. Charlie loved baseball.
“I want to tell you a story about Waller Johnson. Back in the early 1930s, his mother and father died, the mortgage payments stopped, and the Land Bank repossessed the ranch. Waller must have been eighteen or nineteen, in those days. Somehow, he talked the Land Bank into letting him try to bring the herd to market. We gave him what help we could, but those were hard times all over, and no one thought he could do it—not with four younger brothers and sisters to feed at the same time.
“But he was a tough young man. He kept the herd together through the winter, fattened up the cattle, sold them, and reclaimed the ranch. Then he put each of his brothers and sisters through school and saw them settled, here and there. Finally Waller settled down himself, marrying a girl named Nancy Trike from, oh, I don’t know—Spearfish, maybe. I remember she was a pretty thing, but thin and a little sickly.
“One winter—it must have been ‘42 or ‘43, during the war, anyway—their furnace broke down in the middle of a blizzard, and their baby began running a fever.”
Aunt Eleanor watched the cold water as it murmured past, skinned with ice along the edge. “You’re too young to know what it was like in those days,” she said. “Most of the ranches didn’t have electricity. None of them had plumbing. The roads were bad, and the nearest doctor was at the hospital in Pierre, maybe fifty miles away. The adults could have built a fire, cuddled up for warmth, and outlasted the storm. But the baby was sick, and he had no chance to make it through the cold. So Waller and Nancy loaded up the car with blankets and coats they’d warmed in the oven, and started off through the snow to Pierre.
“It took them three, almost four, hours to make that drive. The blizzard was pounding down from the north, swirling across the prairie, the way it does. If they missed the road or slid off into a gully, they would die—not just the baby, but all three of them, left there frozen until somebody came along and found them.
“I want you to picture this—really see it, as clearly as you can: the blinding snow, that old car creeping along the icy road, the sick child wrapped up between them, Waller and Nancy straining to see, rubbing their breath off the windows—knowing they were probably going to be killed, but knowing they had to try.”
“Why didn’t they stay at the ranch?” I asked, growing colder and more confused every minute we sat there in Aunt Eleanor’s car by the river. “I mean, that way, at least two of them would survive. If they really thought they weren’t going to make it, then they were just throwing themselves away.”
“They did really think they weren’t going to make it,” she answered. “But they had to do it anyway. It wasn’t a choice. It wasn’t something to be calculated, weighing their lives against their baby’s. They couldn’t choose their own survival against a chance, however small, of his.”
Aunt Eleanor turned to look at me directly, and her face was hard with something I couldn’t quite understand. “And do you see why? It’s because they were parents. And that’s what it means to be a parent. They had already given up their lives for their child’s, from the first moment he existed.”
She sighed again and looked back out at the river. “In that blizzard, the bill finally came due, and they knew they had to pay it—the way you will pay it, when your time comes. The way your mother and father will pay it, when they have to. That’s what I want you to remember the next time you’re angry with them, the next time you want to scream because they won’t let you do something, the next time you feel as though nobody understands how grown up you’ve become.”
She glanced over at me and smiled, pulling her cloth sleeve up over her hand to wipe the windshield. “Come,” she said, “it’s time to get back home.”
Years later, I came to see my great-aunt’s story as the answer to utilitarianism and the ethics of calculation, the solution to those “lifeboat cases” we were supposed to ponder in freshman philosophy courses. But at the time I knew only that she was trying, in her way, to let me in on the secret, the mystery of adulthood. We turned away from the cold, gurgling river and drove back up the hill to the house on Elizabeth Street. Dinner was just beginning, and the arguments were already starting to swirl around the quarrelsome table. But my father winked at me across the half-carved turkey. And just as I realized how hungry I was, my mother set before me a plate filled with bright orange yams, green beans, the dark drumstick meat I loved, cranberry sauce, sage dressing—the kind of meal a fourteen-year-old boy imagines every meal should be. My parents were happy that Thanksgiving, I think, and why not? They had each other, they had their children, and they had their family, however much it squabbled and fought, gathered around them.
Nearly all that family is gone now: Aunt Eleanor, the great-uncles with their walrus mustaches, my grandfather, my father. One by one, they slipped away while I was off at school, or back east working at a young man’s job in New York, or settling down with my daughter and my Brazilian wife in distant Washington, D.C. Only the river still remains unchanged, but we can never go back again to see it—not as it was the year that I was fourteen, not as it used to be.
Joseph Bottum is Books & Arts editor of the Weekly Standard and Poetry Editor of First Things.
Image by The Cleveland Museum of Art licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.