Every family has its quirks and its culture. A visiting small girl says the drinking cups, after being washed, are “s’posed to” go upside down. Perhaps as a hangover from the days when cups were on an open board exposed to dust and cinders. A visiting teenage boy is surprised to learn that other families don’t talk about hockey at every supper. For the first time he realizes that his family, which has brothers in youth hockey leagues and a father in the NHL, is unusual. A child of Arab or Russian mafia heritage might take honor killings or violence for granted. It was a Russian writer, Tolstoy, who said each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. A unique family culture is seldom sketched out and colored in until a grown child can move away and look back with an adult painter’s clear gaze.
It’s strange how, so many years ago, as a boy, I filed away instances where my surrounding family all told me I was wrong, when at the same time I somehow knew I was right. With four of my brothers older than I, there was often considerable force to the words directed at me. Buffeted by their strong views I could only smolder in silent fury and despair. I don’t know what queer survival instinct led me to resolve to keep sparks of memory. Maybe God was looking out for me. When I was many years older I would revisit the various problems to check whether I was wrong.
My family believed in violence. Feeling things were not right, I was like a British writer’s lonely character, Winston Smith, in Nineteen-Eighty Four, struggling to grasp what was missing. One day there was a light in the darkness, like a wooden bridge appearing within the void of my isolated family, as a brother taught me a concept: Chickens have a pecking order. That was us. This helped me grasp the physical bruising, but I still didn’t get the mental bruising. Children don’t have the words.
Today I have the words to say, “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.” From The Desiderada I can say that even the poor and ignorant have their story. I can maintain a blessed determination to see all people as having a right to exist with human dignity. As a child I had no such words, very little confidence, and much despair: How could I be right if that meant all the older wiser ones were wrong?
Actually, I saw this dramatized once on a Star Trek episode, Plato’s Stepchildren. On a little planet, a small number of ancient Greeks, about the same number as the family of the gods on Mount Olympus, have magic powers. And just as the most powerful Greek god, Zeus, is the chief of the gods, so too do these Greeks have a “right and proper” hierarchy based on the relative strengths of their powers. Except one fellow. A dwarf named, ironically, Alexander. He has no powers at all. Among the Olympians Alexander is forced to be everyone’s servant, a breathing marionette, an object of fun, a fool.
Into Plato’s world beam Captain Kirk and Spock. Although without powers themselves, they still have credibility: They both assure Alexander he is an OK person. Poor Alex: It’s the very first time in his life he has ever been validated. Alex cries out something like, “It’s them! All this time I thought was something wrong with me (that I deserved this) but it’s them!”
Since boyhood I’ve forgotten harsh incidents in my family, just as I have forgotten every close call on the road. Now that I’m a grownup, with a car, I can drive courteously and safely. I even drive the Deerfoot Trail that many locals avoid from year to year if they can, or drive white knuckled on the rare occasions they have to use it. When a local wrote into the newspaper to complain the editor commiserated, saying, “There are five freeway exits in a row with no two the same.” Sometimes highly educated engineers can all be wrong.
Since then many dollars have been spent to improve that particular highway, but still, it’s as if our city road engineers don’t prioritize being predictable, as if they prefer to use the artsy right side of their brain in planning their loops of spaghetti. That’s why when I give people directions I always have to add which lane to be in, not like in my old city. My point is this: While I have surely made mistakes every time I had to use a new highway, I have forgotten each of the mistakes (except for my most recent, learning the new Stoney Trail). Just so have I have forgotten all the times since attaining adulthood that I was able to stop, reflect on something from childhood, and say, “Ah-ha! I was right.”
It’s only natural to forget specifics. I guess down the years I dropped each memory once it served its purpose. But it’s healthy to remember that such instances occurred. Here’s what still baffles me: How could I, as a child, have known which instances to file away? How could I have known that sometimes I could be “a minority of one” yet be right? Maybe my artistic side allowed me to see past the grip of family culture.
How nice to think I’m artistic. I’ve come to believe that every culture needs artists, of paint and print and more. I’m not surprised evil dictators will always smash the freedom to show art. The communists smashed, and now the Islamics are smashing. Today I see, in my mind’s eye, an Arab boy who’s entire village—everyone he knows—all agree that he should some day kill his own sister, if need be, for honor. Strangely, he loves his sister. Could it possibly be OK to think your dear older sister is equal? And one day that boy comes across a printout of the old 1948 United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights, or a still older declaration saying his sister has “the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Reality cracks. “It’s them!” The boy looks up in horror.
~In the Cuban-made movie Strawberries and Chocolate an artist yells to a young communist, “You need me!” with “you” being “Cuba,” meaning that even under communism art is vital.
By the way, an American, Robert Redford, sponsored it to be distributed in North America, which is how I saw it.
~My favorite Deerfoot Trail improvement is that all the level crossing traffic lights have been removed.
~Last night I heard about a teenage girl saying, “What? Women didn’t used to vote?” I heard how this week is the 100th anniversary of Canadian women getting the vote, three years before my father was born. (More precisely, it’s January 28 for the province of Manitoba, April for here in Alberta) I think it’s significant that five people—not just one hero—worked together for this. There is a statue of the “famous five” in our city plaza.
~I think a tavern offers too many escapes, so if you want to get liberated then it’s better done over coffee, perhaps in a kitchen—that’s where I remember women doing “consciousness raising,” in groups, when “Women’s Liberation” was current.
~I suppose the above Arab boy would slam shut the doors of his mind, forgetting what he knew, unless he found others safe to talk to. I think those rare souls who can get liberated in the library, all by themselves, only do so if they can hear a voice as they read the page.
~It must be a special frustration for liberated Muslim women and men: They can look behind to see what they were like when they were un-liberated, and so they know what others are still like, but no radical Muslim can look ahead to see that one day he could be free.