In Part 2 of this blog post I related how my fifth grade principal, mistaken in his belief that I was laughing at him (I was laughing at a classmate’s joke), struck me eight or ten times with his open hand. My mother had promised to take action if anyone ever abused me, but I told her what the principal had done and she never went to confront him. Considering who she was, how bravely she faced so many other circumstances, I couldn’t understand why she didn’t go. Years later, it remained with me as a perplexing instance when my mother said one thing but did another.
With the passage of time, in this case three or four decades, I gradually began to put this story beside other stories and see a very different picture. In that time women certainly weren’t treated as equals. Many career paths simply weren’t open to my mother. In addition, my parents were divorced. All in all, she may have decided to pick her struggles wisely and concluded this vain (and obese) principal with his old guard, country club friends would never apologize and might even be vindictive.
I realized how frustrating it must have been for her to be limited because she was a woman. How thwarted she must have felt to need a husband to take an active role in business or stand up to a man like the principal.
A few years earlier, at midlife, she had gone to college to get a teaching degree so she could earn a living. When I was nine, she took a year off from college to create abusiness making placemats. Money was always tight. She tried to borrow for the business, but she couldn’t. Eventually it failed for lack of capital. All this had been going on during the time I asked her to go to the principal.
I’ll never know exactly what went through her mind, but I no longer think of her as having failed me. Rather, I see the difficulty of her situation and how she tried in so many ways to move her life—and mine—forward.
So the event, the blows showering down on me, remains the same, but its meaning is transformed. And with new meaning comes a reshaping of my story. Was it untruthful before? Is it fully truthful now? With each metamorphosis of a life story we shape anew the past and our own lives.
Part 1 of this blog post discussed Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending, and its premise that we make stories of our lives. If this is true, we can change our lives, change our pasts, by gaining new understandings that reshape our stories. I wanted to relate this concept to a personal experience.
When I was a boy, my mother told me that if anyone laid a hand on me I should tell her. She said she would deal with that person. I believed her because she was strong in many ways, including her temper, her sense of humor, and her love.
My story takes place only a few years before the crucial events of the 1960s that the narrator is recollecting in The Sense of an Ending. I was in fifth grade. During those happy moments between classes when the kids would turn sideways and backwards in their desk chairs and chatter until the noise level soared, a friend told me a joke and I started laughing.
At that moment the principal entered the room. He strode directly to me and started hitting me with an open hand.
“Laugh at me, will you?” he demanded as he struck my head and upper back eight or ten times.
I was in pain and stunned. My friend and I exchanged puzzled glances.
I took my mother at her word and told her what happened.
She promised that she would go and speak to the principal and ask him to apologize. But she never went.
In my next blog I’ll discuss how my perception of my mother’s failure to act changed with the passage of years.
“You’re not going?” I called after the dachshund, but he had turned his rear toward me and continued away to the spot where I had first seen him. There the tiny figure paused and pointed his long nose like a compass needle in my direction.
“I’ve brought the lawsuit against you,” he said, “for your own good.” – from A Floating Life by Tad Crawford (Chapter 8)
“This led to the Delta Works, a true wonder of the modern world. It included an immense double gate to stop storm surges from entering the mouth of the Hollandse Ijssel. I realized that by becoming an engineer I could contribute to these projects that might take decades to build. . . . My dream is to repeat on a far grander scale what happened that night. To use the immense force of a tsunami or hurricane to protect against the very damage that it might otherwise inflict.” – from A Floating Life by Tad Crawford (Chapter 11)
“Soon after, a dawn began like no other I have ever seen. It lit the waves, clouds, and sky with a rosy light so saturated and intense that it seemed to me a birth canal through which creation itself was replenished.” – from A Floating Life by Tad Crawford (Chapter 32)
As anyone familiar with Homer knows, the dawn is “rosy-fingered” and the sea “wine dark”. But why is the dawn rosy?
“In 1405 an armada of 317 enormous junks, some reported to be as large as 500 feet in length and 150 feet in width, began the first of seven epic voyages that would take place over the next three decades. Traveling as far as the coasts of India, Persia, Africa, and even perhaps Australia, Cheng Ho’s armadas brought trade and tribute to China. . . . One final fact left me pondering for some time. Cheng Ho was a eunuch. He had been castrated, at the age of thirteen, along with the other young prisoners with whom he was taken, and placed in service to Chu Ti. As Chu Ti rose to become emperor, Cheng Ho rose along with him. But had the sacrifice been worth the reward?” – from A Floating Life by Tad Crawford (Chapter 12)
This statute of Cheng Ho is in Stadthuys (Red Square) in Melaka, Malaysia on the route of the western fleet’s journeys. Photograph by hassan saeed from Melaka, Malaysia [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http:/ /creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Some believe Cheng Ho could have reached the Americas before Columbus. His life and voyages are amazing. Link: http://geography.about.com/od/historyofgeography/a/chengho.htm
“Ahead, near the Great Lawn, I could see bears converging from several directions. Far too many to count. On a bandstand raised near the leaping light of a bonfire, a band of a dozen bears played drums, fiddles, and flutes in a jig that reverberated through the park. Around the fire a hundred or more bears danced with legs crossing forward and back and arms outstretched to clasp one another’s shoulders. . . . I squeezed between a couple of bears, tossed my arms over their shoulders, and let the frenzy of the dance move my limbs.” – from A Floating Life by Tad Crawford (Chapter 15)
“The Bear Dance” oil painting is actually on display a few steps away from Central Park – it’s part of the collection of works by William Holbrook Beard owned by the New York Historical Society. Link: http://www.nyhistory.org/node/43788The Society also owns Beard’s famed painting “The Bulls and Bears in the Market” which is set on Broad Street with the New York Stock Exchange in the background.
“Each night we drank sake together, hundreds of young men in uniform. We wrote poems about cherry blossoms and recited them. How brief is that beautiful moment of the blossoms—that is what all the poems said.” – from A Floating Life by Tad Crawford (Chapter 30)
This photograph of cherry blossoms was taken at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Link: http://www.bbg.org/discover/cherries. Cherry blossoms have played and continue to play an important role in Japanese culture.