The Childhood of Others

After seventeen years of love and marriage (and other less romantic interludes), coming home to my husband’s birthplace almost feels like coming home to my own. The 1917 Dutch Colonial farmhouse has been in my husband’s family since the 1920s when his grandparents bought it shortly after they were married. They raised their two children, my father-in-law and his sister, in this house. The two children rode a horse to the local one-room schoolhouse in the 1940s.

Eventually, my father-in-law went to the University of Illinois, but his academic career was cut short by family obligations that required him to take over the farm after his junior year. His father had died while my father-in-law was in high school. After his departure from the U of I, he moved back into this house. He married shortly thereafter and raised his own three sons—my husband and brothers-in-law—in the same house in which he had grown up.

My father-in-law was a character. He was dynamic and wiry and sometimes impatient. He loved children and animals and anything else that celebrated nature’s insistent fecundity. He was a farmer in every sense of the word: he loved things that grew. He had an earthy sense of humor paired with an unshakeable view of right and wrong. He often said, “Damn it, Judy!” to his wife of forty-plus years in a way that always made everyone laugh. (Though, maybe not Judy.) He was incredibly athletic and his hand-eye coordination was legendary. He was a great juggler, basketball player, and all-round catcher-of-things-thrown-unexpectedly-at-him. He died seven years ago.

I am sitting at his desk right now. The lower left hand drawer was just the right size for my husband in his infancy. Apparently, when the 23- and 20-year-old husband and wife returned home from the Urbana hospital with their firstborn, that was my husband’s crib. Just like this desk, the entire house has a steady, comforting sense of loving practicality. It is no-nonsense. There are myriad objects that are thirty, fifty, or nearly a hundred years old: things that were made properly. Story goes that when the house was first built, they let the structure sit empty for a full year before applying the plaster walls. “So they wouldn’t crack,” my husband told me.

It feels good to be in this office surrounded by enduring physical evidence of other people’s lives. My husband’s philosophy textbooks (see John Cage mention below); a 1943 read-aloud edition of Jane Eyre that shows loving use around the greyish-green edges of the Frits Eichenberg woodcut on the cover; Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book (1950). Feminine Psychology by Karen Horney, MD *cue: adolescent-pun snicker* (1967), which I opened to page 118:

“We might ask in conclusion, how can analytical insights contribute to diminish the distrust between the sexes? There is no uniform answer to this problem. The fear of the power of the affects and the difficulty in controlling them in a love relationship, the resulting conflict between surrender and self-preservation, between the I and the Thou, is an entirely comprehensible, unmitigatable, and as it were, normal phenomenon. The same thing applies in essence to our readiness for distrust, which stems from unresolved childhood conflicts.” (from a lecture entitled, “The Distrust Between the Sexes,” given in 1930.)

That last rests on my favorite shelf of the small library: a selection curated by my mother-in-law that would make a splendid sociological time capsule upon which one might tack the engraved plaque, “Evolution of the American Woman, circa 1970”. Horney is tucked happily between The Complete Scarsdale Diet, Born to Win, How to Live with Another Person, Open Marriage, and Eating is Okay. I love the combination of intellect and improvement.

It is a pale, cool day here in central Illinois. The wind is picking up and the temperature is dropping outside the north-facing window to my right. I miss my family of origin on the alternating years I am here in Illinois on Thanksgiving, but I relish the solidity, comfort, and substantiation of my husband’s life before I knew him.

The back door just swung open and a gaggle of cousins piled in. “Happy Thanksgiving! Anyone home?” How many years has that cry been heard through this house, I wonder.

November 22, 2012. De Land, Illinois.

PS I have been particularly interested in book dedications and acknowledgements lately and loved these two in particular that I happened upon in this room:

From Jane Eyre, Second Edition:

Author’s Preface

A preface to the first edition of “Jane Eyre” being unnecessary, I gave none: this second edition demands a few words of both acknowledgment and miscellaneous remark.

My thanks are due in three quarters.

To the Public, for the indulgent ear it has inclined to a plain tale with few pretensions.

To the Press, for the fair field its honest suffrage has opened to an obscure aspirant.

To my Publishers, for their tact, their energy, their practical sense, and frank liberality have afforded an unknown and unrecommended author.

The Press and the Public are but vague personifications for me, and I must thank them in vague terms; but my Publishers are definite: so are certain generous critics who have encouraged me as only large-hearted and high-minded men know how to encourage a struggling stranger; to them, i.e. to my Publishers and the select Reviewers, I say cordially, Gentlemen, I thank you from my heart.

Having thus acknowledged what I owe those who have aided and approved me, I turn to another class, a small one, so far as I know, but not, therefore, to be overlooked. I mean the timorous or carping few who doubt the tendency of such books as “Jane Eyre”: in whose eyes whatever is unusual is wrong: whose ears detect in each protest against bigotry—that parent of crime—an insult to piety, that regent of God on earth. I would suggest to such doubters certain obvious distinctions: I would remind them of simple truths.

Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.

These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them; they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth; narrow human doctrines, that not only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ. There is—I repeat it—a difference; and it is a good, and not a bad action to mark broadly and clearly the line of separation between them.

The world may not like to see these ideas dissevered, for it has been accustomed to blend them; finding it convenient to make external show pass for sterling worth—to let white washed walls vouch for clean shrines. It may hate him who dares to scrutinize and expose—to rase the gilding, and show base metal under it—to penetrate the sepulcher, and reveal charnel relics: but, hate as it will, it is indebted to him.

Ahab did not like Micaiah, because he never prophesied good concerning him, but evil: probably he liked the sycophant son of Chenaanah better; yet might Ahab have escaped a bloody death, had he but stopped his ears to flattery, and opened them to faithful counsel.

There is a man in our own days whose words are not framed to tickle delicate ears: who, to my thinking, comes before the great ones of society, much as the son of Imlah came before the throned Kings of Judah and Israel; and who speaks truth as deep, with power as prophet-like and as vital—a mien as dauntless and as daring. Is the satirist of “Vanity Fair” admired in high places? I cannot tell; but I think if some of those amongst whom he hurls the Greek fire of his sarcasm, and over whom he flashes the Levin-brand of his denunciation, were to take his warnings in time—they or their seed might yet escape a fatal Ramoth-Gilead.

Why have I alluded to this man? I have alluded to him, Reader, because I think I see in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognized; because I regard him as the first social regenerator of the day—as the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of things; because I think no commentator on his writings has yet found the comparison that suits him, the terms which rightly characterize his talent. They say he is like Fielding: they talk of his wit, humour, comic powers. He resembles Fielding as an eagle does a vulture: Fielding could stoop on carrion, but Thackeray never does. His wit is bright, his humour attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius, that the mere lambent sheet-lightning playing under the edge of the summer-cloud, does to the electric death-spark hid in its womb. Finally; I have alluded to Mr. Thackeray, because to him—if he will accept the tribute of a total stranger—I have dedicated this second edition of “Jane Eyre.”

-Currer Bell

[Charlotte Brontë]

Dec. 21st, 1847.


From Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage 

To whom it may concern