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Authors: Russell Baker

Growing Up

BOOK: Growing Up
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Growing Up

Russell Baker

Copyright

Growing Up
Copyright © 1982 by Russell Baker
Cover art to the electronic edition copyright © 2011 by RosettaBooks, LLC

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

Electronic edition published 2011 by RosettaBooks LLC, New York.
ISBN e-Pub edition: 9780795317156

To Doris

 

This book was conceived as an intimate family document, a sort of extended letter to my children telling them what the world was like when I was young and they did not exist. I thought it important that they know this because, born in the gorgeously prosperous 1950s, they were likely to be spoiled by the comfort and plenty of American life. As a child of the Great Depression, I wanted them to realize that their privileged American existence might be only a brief accident of history and that disaster was always lurking just over the horizon. Failure to be aware of this reality seemed to me likely to breed a dangerous softness, and I wanted my children to be hard as I thought I had been when growing up in less prosperous times.

As this book illustrates, I was deceiving myself about that. The reader will quickly discover that
Growing Up
is a story about three strong women and a weak man whom they rescue from his own lack of aggressive instinct. Nevertheless, as my children aged and became adolescents, I began sermonizing on the hardships of my own childhood in the Great Depression and criticizing them for lack of grit. Their bored responses showed how tiresome I was.

Eventually it became apparent that I was in danger of becoming that pathetic sitcom character, Sappy Old Dad, and ought to change style. I was, after all, a writer, not a preacher. Instead of preaching about “the old days” and how hard life had been back then, I decided to try re-creating those “old days” with writings that might catch a teen-ager’s interest if not too long-winded. I produced a few personal letters recounting childhood events – my father’s death, for example – and containing sketches of family characters. There was an ample supply of characters, for my father was one of twelve brothers and my mother had six. Marriages brought aunts galore into the family circle, and there were cousins in battalion strength. With so many grown-ups itching to be heard, children were naturally encouraged to hold their tongues, and so I learned to listen, store up memories, and form impressions.

In middle age, looking for ways to interest the children in the past, I discovered that my head was crammed with this material collected in childhood. I began telling the children about these old-timers, stories about who had been in cahoots with the Ku Klux Klan, whose Mason jar of moonshine was hidden behind the lime barrel, how Uncle Irvey had tricked Uncle Harry into voting for Herbert Hoover in 1928, the time Uncle Jim was jailed for driving a stolen car and the police took his shoelaces to prevent him from hanging himself, and other such homespun.

In New York where I worked for the Times and had friends in the publishing world, I would occasionally entertain at wine-soaked dinners with reminiscences of my large cast of uncles, men rich in human idiosyncrasy, vice, and futility. These were good-humored stories, reminiscences of people and times that were pleasant to recall, far different from the horror we feel when reading the tales of abuse and abandonment common in today’s childhood memoirs. My friend Tom Congdon, who was then an editor at E.P. Dutton, thought they might be material for a book about growing up during the Depression. Contracts were signed and, to my dismay, as well as Tom’s, the book simply refused to be written.

Writing a book is quite different from telling amusing anecdotes over the second bottle of Bordeaux, as I discovered during long months of desperately trying to forge all those amusing anecdotes into a coherent story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Eventually 300 pages of manuscript did emerge. It had the weight of a book, but after delivery to Tom and my agent neither one had the heart to phone and speak the truth; to wit, that my book was just an incoherent assortment of anecdotes with no beginning, middle, or end, and certainly no story. In short, not a book.

Their silence, which persisted for three weeks after they had received the manuscript, was eloquent. In a moment of cruel reality I started to read the manuscript from the top and was ready to nap by Page 30. It was a bad moment such as a writer experiences only upon discovering that two years of hard work have been utterly wasted. Saving it would require scrapping almost the entire manuscript and writing, essentially, a brand new book that told an interesting story.

Many a writer, I suppose, would have opened a vein rather than undertake such a labor, but I am a hardened veteran of an overworked newspaper rewrite desk. For a long period as a newspaperman I specialized in putting incomprehensible journalistic prose into the mother tongue. This usually involved throwing away a vast quantity of material and detecting the bare bones of the story its author was struggling to tell.

Now, studying my own monumental mess with the rewrite man’s brutal eye, I immediately saw the story that was struggling to get out: Three strong women and a weak man living through hard times – can they give him the strength he needs to survive?

Once the story was clear, confusion fell away and the rest of the task became obvious. Much of the material discarded from the first book could be used to enrich the basic story; much more would simply have to go. Now the rich cast of supporting characters had a vital reason for appearing. Uncle Harold brought the artistic necessity for a story teller, which I had been so shamefully slow to grasp. The tale of Oluf, destroyed by the Depression, created an ominous human illustration of the ever-present economic nightmare that threatened Lucy Elizabeth.

In all this large cast there is no one famous. This made the writing especially satisfying, for I have spent most of a long life in journalism writing about famous people, and it is good finally to feel that perhaps I may have prolonged life for a few people who deserve to be famous though almost nobody has ever heard of them. It is good to think that I have re-created one or two of them so close to living reality that they might lodge in a reader’s mind and seem as important to the great order of things as Barbra Streisand and Donald Trump.

There are many here who are worth remembering – my grandmother Ida Rebecca who lived by the light of coal-oil lamps, saw ghosts and bore twelve children, eleven of whom were boys; my joyful Irish-Cuban Aunt Pat and that rarest of human creatures, a good man, Uncle Allen, both of whom gave us a home in the worst of times. And especially Lucy Elizabeth, my mother.

C
HAPTER
O
NE

A
T
the age of eighty my mother had her last bad fall, and after that her mind wandered free through time. Some days she went to weddings and funerals that had taken place half a century earlier. On others she presided over family dinners cooked on Sunday afternoons for children who were now gray with age. Through all this she lay in bed but moved across time, traveling among the dead decades with a speed and ease beyond the gift of physical science.

“Where’s Russell?” she asked one day when I came to visit at the nursing home.

“I’m Russell,” I said.

She gazed at this improbably overgrown figure out of an inconceivable future and promptly dismissed it.

“Russell’s only this big,” she said, holding her hand, palm down, two feet from the floor. That day she was a young country wife with chickens in the backyard and a view of hazy blue Virginia mountains behind the apple orchard, and I was a stranger old enough to be her father.

Early one morning she phoned me in New York. “Are you coming to my funeral today?” she asked.

It was an awkward question with which to be awakened. “What are you talking about, for God’s sake?” was the best reply I could manage.

“I’m being buried today,” she declared briskly, as though announcing an important social event.

“I’ll phone you back,” I said and hung up, and when I did phone back she was all right, although she wasn’t all right, of course, and we all knew she wasn’t.

She had always been a small woman—short, light-boned, delicately structured—but now, under the white hospital sheet, she was becoming tiny. I thought of a doll with huge, fierce eyes. There had always been a fierceness in her. It showed in that angry, challenging thrust of the chin when she issued an opinion, and a great one she had always been for issuing opinions.

“I tell people exactly what’s on my mind,” she had been fond of boasting. “I tell them what I think, whether they like it or not.” Often they had not liked it. She could be sarcastic to people in whom she detected evidence of the ignoramus or the fool.

“It’s not always good policy to tell people exactly what’s on your mind,” I used to caution her.

“If they don’t like it, that’s too bad,” was her customary reply, “because that’s the way I am.”

And so she was. A formidable woman. Determined to speak her mind, determined to have her way, determined to bend those who opposed her. In that time when I had known her best, my mother had hurled herself at life with chin thrust forward, eyes blazing, and an energy that made her seem always on the run.

She ran after squawking chickens, an axe in her hand, determined on a beheading that would put dinner in the pot. She ran when she made the beds, ran when she set the table. One Thanksgiving she burned herself badly when, running up from the cellar oven with the ceremonial turkey, she tripped on the stairs and tumbled back down, ending at the bottom in the debris of giblets, hot gravy, and battered turkey. Life was combat, and victory was not to the lazy, the timid, the slugabed, the drugstore cowboy, the
libertine, the mushmouth afraid to tell people exactly what was on his mind whether people liked it or not. She ran.

But now the running was over. For a time I could not accept the inevitable. As I sat by her bed, my impulse was to argue her back to reality. On my first visit to the hospital in Baltimore, she asked who I was.

“Russell,” I said.

“Russell’s way out west,” she advised me.

“No, I’m right here.”

“Guess where I came from today?” was her response.

“Where?”

“All the way from New Jersey.”

“When?”

“Tonight.”

“No. You’ve been in the hospital for three days,” I insisted.

“I suggest the thing to do is calm down a little bit,” she replied. “Go over to the house and shut the door.”

Now she was years deep into the past, living in the neighborhood where she had settled forty years earlier, and she had just been talking with Mrs. Hoffman, a neighbor across the street.

“It’s like Mrs. Hoffman said today: The children always wander back to where they come from,” she remarked.

“Mrs. Hoffman has been dead for fifteen years.”

“Russ got married today,” she replied.

“I got married in 1950,” I said, which was the fact.

“The house is unlocked,” she said.

So it went until a doctor came by to give one of those oral quizzes that medical men apply in such cases. She failed catastrophically, giving wrong answers or none at all to “What day is this?” “Do you know where you are?” “How old are you?” and so on. Then, a surprise.

BOOK: Growing Up
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