I was raised on an island. The river split the north siders from the south siders. Two downtowns. Each side with its churches and movie theaters and dime stores and drug stores and banks and schools and envies and rivalries. The Island, neutral territory, right in the middle, squeezed long west to east. Island Street split it crosswise, bridges at either end. To the west side, across the Field, the massive dark brick and gothic arched doorways of the High School (where Dreamworld still sometimes takes me, footsteps too loud on marbled halls, looking for the right classroom). Then, across Main Avenue (with two more bridges) the Municipal Building, with the city offices, police department and fire trucks all tucked together. The city garage, with the street sweepers and the snow plows nestled under the foot of the north side bridge. The public library and the post office facing each other across Main, further towards the south. East of Island Street, two city blocks for the residents. The corner bar where my mom met my dad when she was seventeen and he was just back from the Navy. Goldin’s junk yard, where we were forbidden to go. A lumber yard, torn down before I hit my teens, bordered by a tall thick hedge of lilacs. Fewer than twenty houses. Elm Street, my street, ran between the two blocks, the big trucks rumbling back and forth between the paper mill and the world. Three or four boys close enough in age to Dan and me to be our friends.
The Island tapered to a point at its western end. Bounding us to the north, the Fox ran wild through its main channel. It roared over the rapids every spring, but by late fall was so diminished by the government dam you could walk far into the riverbed if you didn’t slip on the stinking, weedy moss that draped the rocks. We called it seaweed, dark green, slimy, and smelling of rot. The river was scary and comforting. We were embraced and encircled and bounded by it, and that made us feel safe. But the adults warned it could kill us if we weren’t careful, if we ventured too far into the rapids, if we lost our footing. At times I felt that I was an alien, living on the Island only by some sufferance of wild nature. Tripping on acid one night in my teens, I sat on the bank, the Shamrock Bar noisy behind me, the bridge rising to my left, and it looked like there were thousands of little Sinclair brontosauruses running down the channel. It was obvious to me then that the river always ran like that; the drug was letting me see it unshrouded.
The river’d been tamed by a series of Locks and Dams, carved and stacked in the 1850s by the mysterious Corps of Engineers to take boats step by step from Lake Winnebago down to Green Bay and out to the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Seventeen locks all told, with five snugged through town just north of the main channel. Between the locks and the river rose the gray brown blocks, the girders and sulfurous smokestacks of Thilmany Mill, the beast pumping the town’s financial heart, its energy drawn from the river. Along the Island’s southern edge, sedate and uninteresting, the river’d been canaled more than half a century before and flowed through the electric plant, powering the rest of the town. We were the Electric City. One of the very first.
For my first five years, I ran free on the Island. I’d’ve been happy to spend all of my life there. I never longed to visit faraway and exotic places. Look how it turned out. A lifetime of travel. “Ran free,” he says. The story I’ve heard is that Dad put up a low white picket fence in the back yard where I could play. It was hot in the summer and at four years old I’d take off my clothes and unlatch the gate and go running. Mom would get a phone call. “Your Scotty’s loose.” They tied a rope around the latch. I took off my clothes, untied the rope, unlatched the latch, but then re-tied it before I ran off. I don’t know how many times that happened. I’ve always been rather proud of it. I’ve a memory picture of myself undoing the rope, but I’m pretty sure it’s constructed from the stories. It’s not a true memory, not anything direct. This doesn’t mean it’s not real.
I’m trying to figure out what formed me. What I have to work with are memories, those funny, fragile things. Some of my memories are accurate reflections of events that happened. Some of them started with a real event, but have been altered as they bump up against other events, against my willingness to remember certain things (or not), or they’ve been shaved and shaded and reshaped by subsequent events and things I’ve been told. Some of them are completely false, entirely fabricated. They all feel exactly the same. They all feel true. They all are true. They just don’t all map to an actual out in the world historical set of facts. But I’m less interested (less, not un- ) in what actually happened than in what (or how) I remember.
My first ever memory finds me on the floor of the living room, looking at the bright reds and yellows of the Sunday comics, spread out on the floor. It’s the day my grandmother walked into the river and drowned. The day she didn’t take me with her. My parents took Beth and Linda to church. They’d only be gone for an hour. I can see sturdy shoes and legs up to the knee. Hear voices without understanding what’s said. See the front door open and close. It doesn’t concern me. I’m aware of it, but nothing is as fascinating as the colors and the figures on the crinkly paper I’m crawling on. The colors so bright, bounded by the heavy black lines.
The house we were raised in is gone. I haven’t been by, but Google maps shows the empty lot, the gravel driveway going back to nothing. The sidewalk that went up to the front steps is gone. The walk that Dad had poured that ran along the side of the house to the back door is gone. There’s a fence separating the back of our lot from the one behind it, but the maple tree that rose there, that I climbed, that I sat in reading for hours looking out over the Island is gone. The above ground pool that we spent one long summer putting in when I was fifteen is long gone. One of two elm trees that stood on the grassy strip between the front sidewalk and the street is still there. Everything else is gone. The garage that was at the back of the lot, basketball hoop over the door, Dan’s pigeon coop in the back corner gone. The footprint of the house is dirt. Whoever demolished the house filled in the basement but didn’t bother to put in sod. The rectangle of dirt seems much too small. Ravaged, condemned, abandoned. Without my dad’s hands there was no reason for it to keep existing. I look at the image on the screen with wonder and relief. The loss would hurt so much more if that broken building still stood there.
My older sisters are traumatized by this. I don’t know what Dan and Carrie think. I think it’s strange, but I’m relieved. No one else should be living there. With his youngest married and his Parkinson’s advancing, Dad sold the house and he and Mom moved to Sullivan Street on the far south side. For thirty years he’d tended to that house and every alteration, every shelf, tile, screen, cabinet, bench, plumbed pipe made it better. And then we saw, over the next few years, how neglect and bad choices made it worse and worse. The new owners were oblivious. They hacked away. Why move the front door to the side of the porch, destroying its warm welcoming symmetry? Why the boxy additions at the back? They made it ugly. I’m glad I never saw what they did inside. Some nights Dreamworld takes me in and I stumble my way through half built rooms and dead-ended hallways, arguing with the strangers who are moving the walls. I wake up angry.
Linda spent her first few months in the house across Elm street, on the corner, before Dad bought this one for the family he and Mom intended to have. Does Linda have memories of her first house? For the rest of us, this was the only house.
When I was very small, the house was heated with coal, the monstrous octopus laboring in the basement. There was a small room next to the furnace room for the coal. The coal truck would come by, back up across the side yard. The chute extended into the coal room window and the chunks tumbled down. Coal dust billowing. The loud sound of the clattering against metal.
Winter mornings Dad would be first up, down to the basement to put shovels full into the furnace. We kids would come downstairs and take turns sitting on our heels against the grate in the living room, warming up as the heat rose. Sometimes I’d sit on one of the basement steps where I could watch him, his shirt off, his face grim. Not his favorite chore, but I was envious and imagined when I’d be big enough to help.
But he replaced the coal furnace with gas before I got the chance. Over the years he added a sidewalk from the front walk to the back door, retiled the kitchen (I did help with that), added an upstairs bathroom, built desks and bookshelves for his kids, screens for the big front porch. He got a small inheritance one year from Aunt Ann and used that to put an above ground pool in the backyard. We spent weeks that summer digging. He put a fence around the backyard to keep neighbor kids from sneaking in and drowning.
He tried to get one side of the house painted each summer. By my mid-teens he was trying to devolve that chore to me, with mixed success. The summer I was eighteen I spent lots of nights cruising the Valley doing cocaine runs with Paulie. Things were loose in those days. We’d go from bar to bar, he’d put a few sampler lines out and sell a few bags. All out in the open. He brought me along to have somebody to talk to in between stops. So dawn might find me up on the ladder, painting the edges off my high. Dad would see me there when he went off to work, shaking his head. Those were the years of our estrangement. We were each convinced (wrongly, as it turned out) that the other didn’t like them very much. So we avoided talking. Eventually Mom took us in hand, tired of the resistances. We repaired the breach by going to a Gordon Lightfoot concert. It worked.
“When I was your age I walked a mile in the snow through the forest to go to school,” says the curmudgeonly grandfather to the slacker kids, who roll their eyes impatiently. Weirdly, in my case it turns out to be true. Nicolet, where I went for kindergarten, and St. Mary’s, a block from there, where I did second through seventh, were exactly a mile from my house. And the best walking route was the path that went through the woods from the intersection by the municipal pool up to the dead-end of East 7th. And in those pre-climate change days, we were covered in snow for most of the school year.
The clean smell of the snow. The crisp taste of it. To be bundled up and walking in a blizzard. Glorious. You wear the right layers, move quickly when you first get outside and your body heat kicks in in just a few minutes. You can be comfortable for hours. Southerners don’t understand it. You can be skating and sledding and building snow forts and having snowball fights without any discomfort. The wool scarf is damp across your mouth as you breathe through it. It tastes of ice. Shoveling the walk, sweating under the layers, shoveling the path from the back door to the garage, snow as high as my chest.
Spring. Mom planted flowers along the side of the house. Snapdragons. I’d put my finger in the little mouth imagining it might bite. Even though it never had before didn’t mean it might not this time. The drowsiness of the early summer sun and then the heat of late August where there would be a few days finding us all mid-afternoon on our upstairs beds with the fans blowing through the house, staying as still as we could, waiting for evening.
Kindergarten was a half day of games and recess and I was popular with the little girls. Amy was my first crush. I knew so little about myself. I didn’t know that I was sensitive. I learned quick how mean boys could be. They were already belligerently competitive and I hated it. Tried to avoid the team games. I was better on my own.
I was mystified when the teacher pointed to the clock on the wall and told us to watch the second hand. I hadn’t seen a clock like that before. The ones I learned to tell time with at home only had two hands, so this quick moving one was obviously the third hand, not the second one. Language.
First grade was boring. I was sick a lot. If I was sick I could stay home and be curled up on the couch wrapped in a blanket reading books or watching cartoons. I was asthmatic. My teacher was concerned. I was missing a lot of school. I was obviously capable of doing the work, but I didn’t want to bother with it. My parents took me to a psychologist. We went into his office and I greeted him by name. “How did you know that?” He was startled. “I read it on the nameplate.” It was reflected in the mirrored glass on the bookcase so I’d read it backwards. I knew I was showing off. He gave me lots of tests, which I loved. I’ve always been very good at standardized tests. Afterwards I sat in the hallway outside his office for a long time, watching the dust motes sparkle in the light streaming from the high windows. I wondered what he was telling my parents. Years later, Mom told me he said, “You’re going to have trouble with that one.”
They sent me to second grade. I’d spent an unhappy nine weeks of first grade at Park School on the north side; now it was into second grade at St. Mary’s on the south side. I didn’t know anybody. I had no alliances. The cliques had been formed long ago. Most of the teachers were nuns and most of them were terrifying. I withdrew. I don’t think I ever really recovered. I only learned about selective mutism recently, but that would have been the diagnosis. I’d been kicked off the Island.
I started reading when I was three. Beth would “play school” with me when she came home from first grade. I followed her finger as she ran it along the page of her reader. I said the words after her. We turned the page and I said more words. The symbols on the page made sense to me. Beth ran downstairs shouting, “I taught Scotty to read!” My mom laughed, “He’s just copying you.” But we took the book to show her and I read another page and another.
I’d come down the stairs in the morning, into a sea of cigarette smoke. On sunny days the light would illuminate the smoke, turning it to a silvery mist. Stepping around the corner, out of the stairway, into the living room, I’d see Mom sitting in the corner, reading. Dad was off to work, my older sisters off to school, she’d cleaned up the breakfast dishes and before she got into whatever housekeeping chores she’d planned for the day, this was her time. She sat with one leg tucked underneath her, cigarette in hand, coffee cup nearby imprinted with lipstick, intent on her book. What book might it have been?
She was a volunteer leader with the Great Books program. The boxed sets sat on the shelf in her study off the kitchen, called her “sewing room.” Women didn’t have “studies.” Dad had a den. Mom had a sewing room.
My kindergarten had a library that you could borrow books from. What a fabulous idea! I brought a few home every day and then the teacher called my parents and said I needed to bring at least some of them back. I was so eager to get new ones I wouldn’t think about the ones I was supposed to return.
Is it a surprise that I’d read through most of Shakespeare by the time I was ten? Every book on Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology in the children’s department of the Public Library, where Mrs. Black indulged my curiosity and guided me gently. One afternoon I was playing in the dining room, on the floor with my Kenner Girder & Panel set, building little toy homes and office buildings. Mom was working on a poem. “Who was the goddess who had to go to the Underworld for half a year?” she called. “Persephone,” I hollered back, without interrupting my focus. “And her mother?” “That’s Demeter.” “Thank you.” Her friends would be skeptical when she shared the anecdote. But we knew what we knew.
After the Greeks and Romans I read north. Of the Norse gods, Thor was my favorite. I imagined what it would be like to be pulled through the air by that hammer. Odin’s cloak hung round him like tragedy. Loki couldn’t be trusted. Not too many years on, in the library I found the boxed album sets of the Götterdämmerung, listened to the clanging of the anvils in Mime’s workshop, trying to imagine how Wagner could have conceived it all.
A friend of my mother’s was outraged at what she let me read. “He can’t possibly understand those books.” Mom didn’t bother to defend it, just let me keep reading. I thought, “I know I don’t get all of it. But I probably get more of it than you do!” Polite kid that I was, I didn’t argue, although I was annoyed. What was she worried about? What did she think those books were going to do to me?
Mom and I had an argument when I was in my teens, about life choices. That she’d always wanted to be a writer and hadn’t been able to, couldn’t make that choice because of her obligations. I was full of freshman philosophy classes and said that was a choice too. It’s always a matter of choice. She was frustrated, became angry. “Should I just leave you all and go off on my own to do my thing?” “That’s a choice,” I said. I was young and naïve and idealistic, with no understanding of the way that a brilliant woman’s choices were constrained in a small town in the middle of the American century. We were both right, of course. But her right was more real.
She wrote anyway. Poems. Short humorous essays, some of which she was able to place in the big city paper. Joined writers’ groups. Got published in anthologies. Did readings at the local bookstore. Eventually self-published a couple of books of poems and stories. Taught workshops. Planned a book on dealing with Dad’s Parkinson’s and his death. But the years and the wine and the depression eventually caught up and the writing stopped and the last book was never finished.
Dad built and repaired. Mom learned and created. They both taught. Dad was stuff, the material world, machines and wood and tile and concrete. He was very concrete. Mom was ideas and words and aspirations and mythologies. Dad’s was a world of things that you made and fixed. Mom’s was a world of ideas.
The story they told us was that they sat on a park bench and decided they were going to make a family, the kind of family neither of them had ever had. They would dance together in the dining room singing “Someone To Watch Over Me”. That turned out to be enough for him. It wasn’t enough for her, although on some days it might have been close.
She got a job as a teacher’s aide. She went to college. She got a Master’s degree. She became the reading specialist at the High School. She was ambitious. She was successful, but never as successful as she wanted to be.
He was happier than she was, because he wasn’t that kind of ambitious. But he’d get frustrated during the years when his wife and children were off finding themselves, while he worked at the garage 50 and 60 hours a week getting it all paid for. By the mid-eighties he realized he’d been putting kids through college for nearly twenty years.
He thought he was being enlightened when he let her get a job. He worked to understand that it wasn’t his permission to give. That took some time. She wrote an essay for an anthology of feminist writing, but published it anonymously to make sure he wouldn’t know.
They were multifaceted and complex. They can’t be reduced to sketches. Neither can the town in which they raised that family.
My sisters, older and younger, remind me that they had different childhoods from mine. Each of us did, as the family grew, as the parents’ marriage rose and fell and rose again; as America traversed the sixties and seventies. The five of us spaced three to four years apart. Linda ten years old in 1957. Me that age in 1965. Carrie in 1973. A different world for each of us. Beth remembers our house as the center of the small town’s intellectual life. Carrie remembers being mostly an only child, her siblings all having moved on. Mom used to say she raised five only children.
I loved that we were raised on the Island. Very special. Eleven thousand people in my little town, but fewer than a hundred Islanders. Not north side or south side (although I was fonder of the south side). Placed uniquely in the world. I liked the isolation and still do. I’m not a joiner. I don’t root for the home team. I thought I’d’ve been happy to spend all of my life there. I had no ambition. Dreams, maybe. And I’m not saying that I wanted not to leave, just that I imagined I’d be just as happy if I didn’t. I didn’t feel any need to escape. There wasn’t anything I needed to escape from. I didn’t need to leave the Island because there wasn’t anything lacking.
Google tells me that my siblings live 2.6, 127, 128, and 137 miles from the house we were raised in. I live nearly a thousand miles away. I look at the numbers with a sort of bemused wonderment.
I made choices. There would be bridges and I would cross them. Because there were things that I could do. Good things, things that would matter. Things that would be helpful and would make a difference. Things that I couldn’t do from my island.
If you’re a strange kid, I suppose there’s a couple of paths. Your strangeness, your inability to fit in, becomes a torture. It cripples you, manifests all too often as depression. Or you lean into it, adopt it, flaunt it, make it your brand. I’ve always been lucky. Growing up when the 60s counter-culture was in full flower, being nonconformist and unconventional could be acceptable. Yes, I was crippled, but yes, I leaned into it.
Because I had responsibilities. I had talents. And the cosmos requires that you use your powers for good. I don’t think there are many things that are more fundamental to my understanding of human existence than that. Buffeted I might be – certainly would be – by my fears and my appetites and my ego, but I would still have to address that responsibility. That my parents would be proud of me. That would be the measure.
Define normal. Describe typical. When we watched Leave It To Beaver or Ozzie and Harriett or Danny Thomas I wasn’t searching, wasn’t comparing what was on the screen to see if it reflected our lives. I wasn’t looking for clues. I wasn’t looking for models. It would never have occurred to me to wonder if our lives were normal or typical. They were the way things were here. I knew well enough that in other places things were different. All that reading. I look back now, with my head tilted one way and it seems almost a caricature of small town mid-century American normal. My dad the auto mechanic, Mom at home with the five kids sewing all of the dresses for my two older sisters. The vegetable garden in the back yard. The swing, the sandbox, the basketball hoop above the garage door. TV dinners on Wednesday night. Cub Scouts. Jonny Quest. Walter Cronkite. Sunday mass.
But that’s scarcely a complete picture. It seems to be a classic American small town life, and then you gently tap at the shell of it and inside it’s unique and wonderfully strange. All of it is true.
The millworker with his shot and his beer, smoking at the bar and complaining about the government is no more or less emblematic of the town in which I was raised than is the woman who went from sewing all of her daughters’ dresses while composing poems to spending her days trying to help the kids and grandkids of that guy find a path beyond their raising through language. That the town had more of him than there were of her doesn’t change that.
West coast commenters wanting to cast Alabama out of the country for irredeemable racism. Texans eager to secede and New Yorkers saying, “Good riddance!” As if all the complexities of states and towns and the complicated people who live in them are sanded away into homogeneity based on polling data. That what someone believes can be predicted by knowing where they live, or where they were raised. In my post-graduate year I took a seminar on using statistics in medicine. Hack Schoolman poses the question, “You know that the 5-year survival rate for this cancer is 20%. What does that tell you about the patient in front of you?” It tells you nothing. In five years that particular human being is going to be entirely alive or 100% dead. We’re not Schrödinger’s cats.
You can believe that if you knew everything there was to know about someone when they were five, their town and their family and what they read and watched and listened to, you could make a predictive map leading to where they’d be at sixty-five. Is that comforting in some way? Believe it if you like, but it’s an untestable theory. The boy in the middle doesn’t have that knowledge. There’s just the breeze, the snow, the lilacs, the comfort of being safe at home. The island and the river.