Friday, January 29, 2010

I Was So Much Older Then...

“It is never too late to have a happy childhood.”
~ Tom Robbins

In the past two weeks I’ve read two autobiographies. Both are exceptionally well written and absorbing; I recommend them. The first is Wait Till Next Year by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. The second is The Center of the Universe by former advertising executive Nancy Bachrach. Although the two books are about American women growing up in the Northeastern U.S. at approximately the same time, the experiences they describe could not be more different.

Goodwin’s Irish Catholic father, Michael Francis Aloysius Kearns, was a bank examiner. As he began rising through the ranks in his career, he moved his wife and three daughters from Brooklyn to Rockville Center, Long Island. It was the kind of neighborhood where houses were close together and Catholics, Protestants and Jews were able to blend in a true community. (Racial integration was a fait accomplis in local schools, but still a few years away in the neighborhood.) Children played with one another and parents socialized with their neighbors. Whenever young Doris’s mother, who suffered from a severe heart condition, was hospitalized, neighborhood moms stepped in and formed a localized social safety net. The only real division came during baseball season, when the families divided themselves into three camps: supporters of the Yankees, the Giants and the Kearns family’s great passion, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Although she tells her story with considerable wit, Nancy Bachrach’s childhood in Providence, Rhode Island was anything but carefree and supportive. Her father was a tinkerer and inventor of things that were going to make the family rich…but somehow just added to their debts. He was also a self-styled Mr. Fix-it whose jury-rigging filled the Bachrach home with booby traps and ultimately led to disaster. Mr. Fix-it’s illusions extended to the effect his wife was having on their three children. When Nancy Bachrach was growing up, her mother was a towering, terrifying woman who combined brilliance and great charm with severe mental illness — so severe, she required periodic treatments with a “rain hat,” which was the family’s shorthand for electro-convulsive therapy. The maternal family tree seems to have been crowded with people with a slippery grip on reality, as well as with gangsters, gamblers and grifters. Nurturers were few and far between.

Reading two such different stories in close succession, I found myself repeatedly thinking about the unpredictability of life. When little Doris Kearns was growing up on Long Island, my own family lived less than 20 miles away. Yet our communities were very different. Where I lived, the houses were farther apart and adult neighbors rarely spoke to one another. I wonder — has anyone ever done a study on the effect of yard size on community cohesion? Nancy Bachrach and I worked in the same company for quite a few years and collaborated on projects several times. Let's just say this book explains a lot.

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
~ Deepak Chopra

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