Confession of an Only Child
Confession of an Only Child
Of course, I know what they say about me, Evelyn and Harold’s only child and, adding selfish chauvinism to all that, a son.
They say I was born to be spoiled. And I was. And that’s not all bad. I never doubted I was special. I saw it in my parents’ eyes the moment I could distinguish their faces from the do-dad dangling over my crib. It got only worse (better) as I grew. My mother, a British immigrant in her childhood, dreamed her child would go to college, and every indication along the elementary way to matriculation that Bobby would fulfill that dream brought accolades down on my young ego.
Not to worry, Uncle Henry was often there to demand to see my hands and, butcher that he was with hands in other’s food, told me every time to go and wash. And Mrs. Kearns, my fourth grade teacher, sent me home the second quarter with two red check marks (bad!!) for deportment on my report card, entirely, I still tell myself, for pushing Bobby Plotnick to the floor during a line-up in front of the class.
Still, the long arc of my childhood was to convince me that I was bound, if not for glory, for success. My high school classmates came to the same conclusion.
All of which, thinking oneself special, was greatly exacerbated by my vocational choice, which requires, as a cynical parishioner once observed, standing at the door on a Sunday morning after the benediction and collecting compliments.
Okay, so I’ve been spoiled, but, I hope, not spoiled rotten.
What they don’t say about me and could, only child that I am, that I am too damned self-reliant. I had no sibling with whom to wile away the rainy days and vacant hours. I learned not only to cope with solitude, but to need it. Don’t fence me in or crowd me: I’ll escape to some quiet place.
In these latter days of my patriarchalism and arthritis, obsessive self-reliance is a problem. At the liquor store the other day I had to ask a clerk to help me lift a box of Summer Tandy out of the refrigerated locker; and I was embarrassed that he did, what I could not, one-handed. When the attendant at Home Depot loaded my SUV with three forty pound bags of lawn dirt, I felt obliged to tell him that once upon a time I was a shot putter and could throw a sixteen pound ball more than forty feet, but I was now in my eighties and I have a hard enough time tying my shoe laces, thank you.
Oh how the spoiled have fallen. Our daughter mows most of the lawn week in and out. A grandson changes the fluorescent light bulbs. We have help opening and closing the cabin in Vermont. I hire (and am glad that I am able to afford it) workers to do most of the things (e.g., changing motor oil and filters; cleaning gutters; fixing appliances) I once managed solely with the aid of Google and a full tool box.
“Growing old ain’t for sissies”: Will and Dorothy Gamper hung the framed mordancy on their dining room wall. Growing old is even more difficult for an only child with inordinate pride in his own ability to do anything.
Well, I am what I am, as Popeye insists. I am working on it, a new more vulnerable self. I may, as my mentor insists, have to reach back to my beginning, becoming again like a child, when in the days of the dangling do-dad, I readily sought help.
The graveside ritual, echoing Genesis 3, intones the verdict on our humanity, “dust to dust.” Add to that fearful symmetry another one less final, “diapers to diapers,” and resolute self-reliance vanishes in a closet stacked with Depends