Published April 26, 2018 in Warp & Woof
Who Am I, and How Did I Get Here?
Rare Reflection on Origins and Motivation
What is my earliest childhood memory? It’s hard to say. Experiences from early childhood can sometimes be counterfeit. But one that I identified years ago, when my parents were still alive to confirm its authenticity, is standing in our driveway on a warm summer day, looking at the sun glinting off a sparkling two-tone green 1950 Chevrolet.
Both Dad and Mom agreed, as the memory flashed unexpectedly into my consciousness, it must have been when we had just gotten a new car – right about the time of my third birthday. My mind’s eye saw not only the car, but the red brick house on one side, the side door to the kitchen, the green grass of the front yard. It was real to me. No photograph was found, and the family photo album was intact at that point. Why did it appear to me just then?
Had the memory been somehow implanted earlier by my parents? Or, was it truly experienced, suddenly disgorged from my subconscious? Does it matter?
Here to Please
Pleasing my mother and father was one of my most important goals in early self-awareness. I remember the emotional distress of that struggle (especially pleasing my father). I remember my mother being forced to “run interference” between my father and me from a very early age. I had no siblings. A fils unique has a special burden since his parents’ entire legacy is embodied in him! Yet, he also has the advantage of a simple family structure to master. He is there to please his parents, full stop.
I don’t remember any pain in childhood. Anxiety, for sure. But, actual physical pain, no. If asked today, I’d say my childhood was a privileged and comfortable one. Yet, another early memory (vague compared to the car in the driveway) is my mother telling ME, age 4 or 5, that it was wrong of my father to spank me — although I don’t remember the spanking.
As I grew older, loneliness became palpable. Another bit of collateral damage from singleton status? Again, it was emotional rather than physical pain. There was always a wall between me and my neighborhood and school friends, even between my cousins and me (three of them my age). The cousins had different parents — and siblings. I retained no connections in adulthood with any childhood friends, and little with the cousins for that matter (except for polite Christmas cards).
As I progressed through school, the drive to please was seamlessly transferred from parents to teachers. I did well. My learning style seemed to favor logical discourse, more than analytical experiment. Sciences were okay, especially physics and astronomy, but math needed to stop before it got too abstract – no calculus for me. People did interest me, however, and studying their behavior was fun. I loved to draw, then write. Mostly, I drew cars but wrote about people.
There were conflicts. I believe I was bullied – but, do not remember details or assailants. Again, don’t remember pain, only anxiety. I relied on authority figures to protect me from bullies. It usually worked.
The Sundwicks and the Chambers
Extended family filled the void left from limited immediate family. The Sundwick clan, especially, was a powerful force. They came from Swedish-speaking Finland in the late nineteenth century, settling in Michigan’s Keeweenaw Peninsula – Houghton and Hancock, the UP “copper country.” My paternal grandfather was a piano tuner by trade, and violin maker by art. He sold his violins in the area, and several have been recovered by the family. He had eight children — my five aunts, my dad, Uncle Bob, and a third boy, David (who died in my childhood, never knew him well).
The Chambers family of Wisconsin, by contrast, was largely a mystery to me. My mother told me of her eleven siblings (yes!) and itinerate Methodist minister father (circuit riding?). But, she left her family when she married my dad. I’ve had no contact with any of the Chambers family, not in childhood, not in adulthood. One sister-in-law showed up only at Mom’s funeral in 2007. It was a very sad story. Why?
My mom and dad met during World War II in Detroit – the war industry (nee automobile) employing both. My father had an occupational deferment as an engineer. Mom felt she was “adopted” by the overbearing Sundwicks; did her own family even miss her? What dark stories lay under the surface?
The Sundwick family dynamics placed the two oldest sisters and my father as titular (but squabbling) family heads. The younger siblings were always the “children” – this seems to have taken a toll on Uncle Bob, in particular.
Family hierarchies tend to last a lifetime. Four of the eight children died early, by my reckoning. One survives (she’s 95). My father’s two youngest sisters, especially, tended to portray Dad as a demi-god. He was revered, and fawned over, by both. Uncle Bob, on the other hand, was generally ignored – his contributions minimized. He died early of heart disease. His brother David had died even earlier, after crippling war injuries sustained in the Pacific. I knew him only as wheelchair-bound. But, it was cancer that killed him.
In 1953, when I was not yet six, we moved from Dearborn to Flint. We lived only a few blocks from Uncle Bob and his family of three kids. Flint seemed to me like “Sundwick City.” My mother wasn’t happy about it.
Yet, all my schooling from age six through high school graduation was in the public schools of that fine industrial city. It was mostly my mother who kept the standards high – and she was class-conscious. She embarked upon a college education for herself, would become a high school English teacher upon completion of her degree in an early graduating class of U of M-Flint, 1960. She was an adult, part-time, student. We had hired help around the house (Thelma, our African-American housekeeper and Boyce Buckner, our African-American yard man). Mom was going to get that college degree! She loved English literature more than anything, but I remember a sociology discussion with Mom about the distinction between middle-middle and upper-middle class. She steadfastly maintained we were middle-middle class. I heard her, but as I look back, it really seems more like upper-middle – at least in that Flint environment. My father’s position in plant-level management, with an engineering degree, solidified our standing — especially when Mom became a high school teacher. Our country club membership was a marker, too.
I needed to move on. The Flint public schools did nothing to encourage me to stay and contribute to the community. My high school guidance counselor, my teachers, my parents, those aunts, all understood – Flint was no place for anybody like me, the anointed one in the Sundwick family.
My dad always talked of job security, his chief concern – you won’t find it in industry, work for the government, he said. My mother felt that a mind was a terrible thing to waste. And, my friends all received those same messages. We all left. Apparently, that trend only accelerated over the ensuing decades. Flint is now the poorest city of its size in the U.S. Not surprising that it would be forgotten five years ago when planning water supply redirection.
The social milieu of Flint, Michigan in the 1960s was perhaps an extreme case of the opposite of what I sought. Any “Big City” was the draw. It would only be there, I imagined, that I would ever fit – among intellectuals, people who made a difference with their minds and words. Not so much their hands, feet, or backs.
My strategy would be to get established somewhere in the public sector (or academia), then build a life. Unfortunately, the prospect of an end to student deferment after my college graduation forced a decision during those peak Vietnam War years. I postponed graduate school.
I wasn’t drafted, however (high lottery number). By that time, I found myself working in a public library system in Tampa, Florida. It was close to my parents, who had left Flint when I went off to college. The story continues with my pursuit of graduate work in the library field, at the University of Maryland, called “Library and Information Science” in those days, now simply “Information Studies.” From there, I embarked on my father’s dream career, the federal government – at the Library of Congress.
As the anointed one in the family, I was obligated to become a parent. I had two sons with my wife, and my new role as solid rock, playful pal, and guarantor of their safety, was activated in the experience of parenting.
Now that I’ve “gone the distance’ – the boys are men, self-sufficient (mostly) –retirement has become feasible. Some personal issues remain: how long do I have? What happens when wife retires? When to downsize? But, these are still beyond the horizon. As I ask myself, “does it matter?”, motivation does sag a bit, as I’ve accepted that the world is bigger than me and my family. My contribution to it may be relatively small. But, it keeps growing.
Grandparenthood has given me a slight burst of enthusiasm — grandchildren do matter, after all. As I replay the rock, the playmate, the safety guarantor, roles yet again, I reflect on those origins. The family line continues.
My legacy could be teamwork. One son sees himself as the natural leader of a team, the other as a contributor to the team. What defines the team? Common bonds and purpose, I think. It’s not as hierarchical as the large family of three generations ago – much flatter organization chart!
I can enjoy that structure.