Chapter One, How I Got That Way, Part 4

All babies of the family aren’t spoiled

My sister holds me without dropping me or torturing me.

My sister holds me without dropping me or torturing me.

Whatever the status of the theory among psychologists, I am a believer in the influence of birth order. I am the youngest of three children. My brother is ten years older than me; my sister, eight. My parents, breaking from the pattern of their parents and relatives, and probably most people of their class, spaced their children carefully, but the one in between my sister and myself was born dead, possibly due to insufficient prenatal care or nutrition. Not much was said about this child, whom I learned only lately was a sister. Add more secrets.

The arithmetic of the situation, when I finally figured it out, suggested to me that I was an afterthought at best, an accident at worst. My mother claimed to me that, unlike my brother, who was likely conceived out-of-wedlock, I was eagerly awaited, but that never convinced me that I was planned. Everything important, as my sister was pleased to report to me regularly, had already happened by the time I was born. I felt and was made to feel, that my parents and my siblings were actually something like a family, but I was a barely tolerated late-comer. Both siblings claim I was the spoiled baby, and will claim it and treat me that way to this day. My claim is that any spoiling that may have occurred ended the day my mother became a member of the work force, when I was five and was outweighed by the intense sibling jealousy I experienced.

In addition, the sequence of events in the history of our family combined with the big gap in the birth order, was still another reason why I grew up feeling left out and misunderstood. My siblings, in spite of my parents low educational and job status, had a childhood that was in many ways middle-class and definitely urban, following a depression-era rural babyhood. I, on the other hand, was a child during our family’s economic downturn and went to high school in the backwoods. My brother was allowed to skip classes. I was despised by teachers and students alike for my precociousness.

Both siblings got infinitely better schools and a mother who did not work. I got mediocre to rotten schools and a mother who pretty much ignored me once I started school, when she was not terrorizing me. Both siblings got music lessons and instruments. I had to beg for both and did not get them. It is true that I received less physical discipline than they did, I suspect because my parents had evolved slightly in their parenting skills, but what I did get was plenty and I took it alone. These circumstances I acknowledge as further reason for the social space between us, but neither of them do.

One might assume that a disadvantage of being one of the younger ones would relate to hand-me-downs and some of my bitterness about birth order does relate to a lifetime of hand-me-downs, but that is not what the psychological theory is talking about. The book I read, so long ago that I cannot cite it, said that the baby in the family will tend towards rebellion, having been at such a disadvantage in the sibling rivalry wars. This is very true in my case, exacerbated by the fact that during my childhood, both parents were usually at work, leaving me to the tender mercies of my older siblings during those times when I was not actually on my own. My first attempt to run away from home was at the age of six, just before my brother actually did leave home at 16.

It must have been a school holiday, or a Saturday when both parents were at work. I had been left in the care of my brother and sister. They had ganged up on me and were tormenting me, taking away whatever toy or book I might pick up and mocking me when I tried to retrieve it. I finally went to my closet, gathered up as many dresses on hangars as I could carry and marched out the door with no goal in mind but to get to somewhere else. I got about three blocks away before both of them realized just exactly how serious I was and that I would probably keep on walking until I fell down. They surely realized how severe the punishment would be if my parents came home and found me missing. So they eventually ran after me and coaxed me into coming home. For them, I am sure, it was just a scare, but for me it was a psychodrama spelling out my position in society. It was also the earliest sign of rebellion I can remember.

The birth order people also say that if there is more than a three year gap between the baby and the next sibling up, the baby is going to take on aspects of an only child and that is also true in my case. My brother left when I was six, my sister left when I was 13 but was away from home as much as my parents, or more, as soon as she entered high school. She had a long bus ride downtown to the vocational high school my parents insisted both siblings attend rather than a nearer regular high school. I spent my entire adolescence as an only child. My sister did live with us, off and on, after her marriage when her Marine husband was overseas and during those times we were allies against our parents. But, mostly, I was alone.

The only child is also going to be rebellious, having been deprived of any allies and experiencing the parents as an opposing block. She will either have the rebellion crushed out of her by the parents or learn to defend herself with great skill. I am inclined to claim the latter is more true of me. This child learns to amuse herself, play alone, read and write in journals and will excel at solitary activities. This is a very accurate description of my adolescence, during which time little foreshadowings of later rebellion popped up through the ladylike personna demanded of me by my mother.

Left and right, and pink in the middle

Politically, I am what you might call the opposite of a “red diaper baby,” that phrase referring to the children of Communists. In Berkeley, I had a friend who proudly displayed on her mantelpiece a picture of her father shaking hands with Fidel Castro, in the very distant past, early in the leftist history of Cuba. It is from her that I first heard the phrase “red diaper baby.” And, of course, the pre-eminent red diaper baby is Bettina Aptheker, daughter of a famous Communist and a leader of the Free Speech Movement.

Although everything about my upbringing is about as far right as you get without becoming a wing nut, I have often wondered if I did get a little tinge of leftie philosophy through my father. If steel mills in the 1940s were unionized by people whose ranks included Communists, as I have read, then its possible that my father was influenced by Communism without ever realizing it. One should remember that many early American Communists were an extremely idealistic bunch, before they were turned off by the violence of Communism in the USSR and China.

When I asked my father once about communism, he was vehement in saying that it meant that you work hard for your money but the lazy guy down the road can take it away from you. On the other hand, when I asked him about unions, he was vehement that unions were the only way the “little guy” could gain any of the advantages of the “big guy.” I recall that a very detailed account of the methods and value of collective bargaining ensued. My father repeated the union philosophy when I asked about Republicans vs. Democrats. Republicans were the “big guys” and Democrats were the “little guys.”

My father plays a banjolele on board a ship on the Great Lakes as a merchant seaman, probably his first contact with unions.

My father plays a banjolele on board a ship on the Great Lakes as a merchant seaman, probably his first contact with unions.

My father’s commitment to the Democratic party is illustrated in the following story. Once, while my parents were visiting me in Berkeley, my father was driving me down University Avenue when I told him I had not registered as a Democrat in the last election. He slammed on the brakes, pulled over, turned to me his terrifying countenance and roared, “You didn’t vote Republican, did you?” I hurriedly assured him, “No, no, Daddy, its a new party, Peace and Freedom.” He was mystified, but mollified. I have joked with my children that if any of them vote Republican, my father will rise straight up out of his grave and come to haunt them.

During my entire childhood, I overheard discussions about unions and strikes and the joy when the occupations of both my mother and father were finally unionized, even though it was by then too late to be of any benefit to my mother. Later, when we moved to central Florida, my father was “safety man” for the union at American Cyanamide in Bartow, where he worked for 25 years, and because of that was invited to Jimmy Carter’s inaugural ball. They did not go, they could not afford it and would have felt out of place, but I am very proud of my dad as a union man and of the recognition he received from the union through that invitation. Later in my life, I was fired on suspicion of being a union organizer, long before I knew what a union organizer was. I had only said the word “union” to co-workers, completely unaware that it was a bad, even dangerous, word in some circles.

Before the move to Miami, I remember overhearing the discussions between my parents, who arose at 5 a.m. to get my father to work at the steel mill. I often awoke with them and lay in bed listening to their conversations, something I continued to do throughout my childhood. I would wake up with them and lie in bed listening to the talk going on in low tones over coffee in the kitchen. For some reason, probably because early morning is when neither of them would be bone-weary from working all day, they never fought then. It was the only time I could be sure the conversation would not turn into a brawl and pretty much the only clue I had that they might actually have loved each other in their own peculiar way.

Figuring large in the early morning conversations in Cleveland were the negatives about the North–the unbearable cold that exacerbated my mother’s arthritis and the negative attitudes both my parents experienced from neighbors and co-workers because of their southern origins. But the negatives about the South were also in the mix and the big one of those was that mills, indeed jobs in general in the South, were not unionized. The problem was that my father believed there would be no union job for him if we moved to Miami and he was right about that. For lack of a union, my father would be paid much less and be far less safe and have to work much longer hours. For my father, “good job” was synonymous with “union job” and the conversations —and fights— that took place before we left Cleveland were so full of the word “union” that I believe it might been one of my earliest words, along with “Studebaker,” a word I’m told I amused everyone by saying repeatedly and precociously.

The importance of unions to my Dad became clear to me as I grew up and heard the stories of the Depression, which hit, they said, the rural South long before it hit elsewhere. One story, told to me by my father, reluctantly, when I was a teenager, is that he and his older brother Julius, as teenagers, decided they had had enough of their poverty in Ft. Green, two children in a vast family supported only by what Granny and Grandaddy could grow on a few sandy acres after their general store burned down. They decided they would jump on the freight train that passed daily through Ft. Green, when it stopped at the water tank a few miles from the house, ride it to Detroit and find jobs in the steel mills.

This, they did, southern boys with only the dimmest of ideas about what a Detroit winter might look like, taking little with them and certainly not including appropriate winter clothes. They got to Detroit, found steel working jobs as planned, but could only afford to live in the coldest and dampest of basements. When winter came, they were at a complete loss, having never even seen snow. Julius caught pneumonia and died and my father, at age 17, had to bring his body back to Ft. Green on another freight train. Whatever that experience might have been like, and that part he never told me, one thing I figure he had learned was that cold, good jobs and unions all went together.

My parents’ politics and, no doubt, my own, were greatly influenced by the Depression. One name that came up frequently in the early morning conversations was FDR, the affectionate name for Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR, I knew early on, had “gotten us out of the Depression,” had created jobs for the unemployed, had put the kabosh on the big guys and thrown more than a few bones to the little guys. In my house, “FDR” was a name spoken with only slightly less reverence than that of Jesus Christ—in my father’s case, with considerably more reverence than that of Jesus Christ. One of the more startling experiences of my childhood was the day I learned that there were people who did not view FDR with the same reverence my parents did, the day I met my first Republican.

It came about because of my sister’s violin. Musical ability is a hallmark of my father’s family, all of whose men played guitars or fiddles or ukes. No one before my generation had had any formal training, but I am proud to claim that I come from a long line of folk musicians. My mother did not play, but sang, and not just in church. One of the perks my siblings got during the Cleveland middle-class period of our history, that I did not get, was formal music lessons. Jack got guitar lessons. Audrey got violin lessons. These stopped when our fortunes fell and we moved to Miami, but the violin itself stayed with us.

Audrey never played it and I have only two pieces of evidence that she ever did play it, since I was too young to remember her lessons. One is a photograph of her at age ten or so, clowning with her violin on the steps of a friend’s house in Cleveland. So envious was I not only that she had played the violin, but that she had had the confidence to clown, that for years I used to lie that the picture was of me, even though my mother had attempted to comfort me by telling me I could tell people I wished the picture were of me.

My sister clowns with her violin in the picture I always wished were me.

My sister clowns with her violin in the picture I always wished were me.

The other is that one summer soon after my mother started working and it was Audrey’s job to take care of me, she amused me by getting out the violin and teaching me how to tune it and hold it and then turning me loose to teach myself to play it, which I did, at least to my own standards. From there I learned a scale or two and then spent hours “picking out,” i.e. playing by ear, simple songs from the radio, school or Sunday school. The violin was my best friend on Saturdays, when all three of them were at work and I was at home alone all day. It was a time I treasured, just my music and me at the age of ten.

My big sister had had her violin lessons, years of them with a caring teacher of whom she and my mother spoke with affection, “Madame” someone. But, she had lost interest about the time boys came into her life and the violin passed, temporarily as it turned out, to me. No one clued me in that, in some circles, teaching yourself to play by ear and never learning to read music, does not really count as playing  the violin. (I could read music—somewhat— to sing in church, but not to play an instrument.) At about age 11, I played well enough, certainly, to amuse myself and to play at “show and tell” in my sixth grade class, well enough that I was allowed to play when the rest of the family was home, though only with clothespins clamped onto the bridge to serve as mutes.

My mother, my sister and I were at that time attending a somewhat unconventional Baptist Church some distance away, which I suspect my mother chose because it was attended by more respectable, middle class people than the churches closer to us in our working class neighborhood. It was part of the upward mobility. One of the very, very unconventional things this church did was to have a church orchestra—something I have never heard of before or since in a middle class Baptist church, where anything other than an organ or piano is usually treated as highly suspect in terms of respectability. Much care is taken to avoid being associated in the public mind with “holy-rollers,” who might have tambourines or guitars, in addition to or instead of, the organ. Orchestras, I suspect, carry some of that taint with them.

The orchestra got organized sometime after we started attending that church and I was breathless with excitement after the first service where it performed, because my own Sunday School teacher was playing the violin. I could not wait to tell her, after the service, that I, too, played the violin. She immediately asked me where I took lessons and when I said I had never had a lesson, except from my sister, I could see that she could not make that compute with the information I had just given her, that I played the violin. She at first denied that I could possibly play without having had lessons. Recovering herself, however, she soon asked me if I wanted to take lessons and I told her, yes, but I doubted my parents would pay for them.

Somehow, I ended up taking a grand total of three lessons from this woman. I would get on the bus and ride what seemed like a very long way, even further than the church, out of the area of houses that looked like my own house to bigger houses in a neighborhood that sported no chicken coops in the back yard or junked cars in the driveway. I soon become disillusioned by the fact that my teacher had zero interest in hearing the songs I had “picked out” and was only interested in whether I could play the infinitely easier exercises in the lesson book. It made little sense to me.

I arrived a little early one day and fell into a conversation with her elderly mother while I waited for my lesson. The mother, dressed in clothes I was unaccustomed to seeing outside church, proceeded to grill me about my family. What did my father do? What did my mother do? Where did I go to school? Never a shy or inarticulate child and completely innocent, at that point, of classicism, I told her everything I knew. As this woman, clearly a gossip, tried to assess my qualifications for being a student of her daughter’s, I tried to impress her with my knowledge of history and current events. I did, after all, read newspapers. When she asked me who my parents had voted for in the last election, I told her I did not know, but they were definitely Democrats and loved FDR.

To my utter shock and dismay, she then launched into the first political tirade I had ever heard–how FDR had ruined the country, how FDR was a Communist (hot topic at the time), how he had betrayed his family by catering to “the lower classes.” I was dumbfounded. I had never heard anyone say anything bad about FDR and it seemed sacrilegious to me that she should speak of him as if he were the devil. I stared at her wide-eyed. By the time my teacher arrived and rescued me, I might even have been close to tears. That night, hurt and bewildered, I told the story to my mother, who consoled me by saying that my teacher’s mother was an old woman and probably not right in the head—also, that she was probably a Republican, two ideas that fit together easily at my house. What happened after that I do not remember clearly. I only know that we never returned to that church and I never had another violin lesson. Luckily for me, my prior disillusionment with the violin lessons made it much less painful when they stopped.

Whether my first experience with Republicans had anything to do with the end of my violin lessons, I do not know with certainty, but the story throws into clear relief the hazards of upward mobility. Even such an aspiring woman as my mother, who may have been persuaded to spend money for violin lessons for me as part of my training to be a lady, would have no truck with anyone who so obviously looked down on her family and dissing FDR would have been a big part of that. FDR, in my family, was the nexus where pride trumped ambition. And, it would not surprise me if the violin-teaching family had not also been Yankees. It was, after all, Miami, where crackers and Yankees were forced, willy-nilly, into co-existence.

So, politically, my background is heavily southern Democrat with a possible dash of leftist leaning because of the unions-in-the-steel-mills connection. The operative word here is “southern,” southern Democrats being historically considered much further right than northern Democrats.

© Jentri Anders, 2016


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