In the world in which I grew up, children were included in all family social activities. This meant that every Sunday and family holidays were spent together with my parents and grandmother, along with my mom’s friends. My dad had his friends at his place of work, but somehow we never spent any time with them, and I only knew them from those few occasions when my father took me to his office for the day. He was trying to convince me that I should aspire to be an electrical engineer like him, and was hoping that he could get me excited about the projects on which he was working. I could tell by the way his colleagues deferred to him that they held him in high professional regard, but spending the day looking at blueprints and doing calculations never seemed to be the kind of life I envisioned for myself. I got off on a tangent here (I tend to do that) because what I want to talk about is my family’s social life.
My mother was definitely the social dynamo among us. She was the one who organized our various functions, arranged who to invite and where, and not only planned our events, but dealt with the logistics of who needed to bring what, and what was the best time to get together. Some couples didn’t in fit well with others, while others needed to be included in a rotation somewhere so as to not be dropped completely. She managed all this with enough charm and grace that everyone was drawn to her, and hoped to be part of her inner circle. My father and grandmother, left to themselves, would have been happy to stay home, but they both acquiesced to her social needs. As for me, I just took it for granted that this is the way life was, and it wasn’t until I was in college that I wished I had Sundays to spend with my own friends (but rarely did.) Being an only child, and having been around adults my whole life, I felt comfortable around them. I read enough and listened to enough other adults that I had no problem in holding up my end of the conversation, especially when the topics got around to science, politics, literature, or social issues, all of which I found interesting.
When the weather was warm enough to be outside, my mom’s favorite place for us to gather was a park in Wilmette adjacent to the beautiful Bahai Temple, built by the followers of the Bahai faith in this pretty Northeast suburb of Chicago. Adjacent to Lake Michigan, it was a pleasant 45 minute drive along the Lake from the South Side, where we lived, past downtown, past rows of expensive houses and the neo-Gothic architecture of Northwestern University in Evanston, to reach our destination. We loaded the cars up with blankets, folding chairs, big metal coolers, and enough Hungarian specialties and homemade goodies to feed an army. Everyone would have a special dish for which they prided themselves, and being the skinniest person present, I was always being enticed to try one more morsel of something delicious. This is not a terrible burden for a growing boy! Our friends and I were both surprised that I didn’t gain weight. I would give a lot to have that kind of metabolism today! There were three or four other young people close to my age who would accompany their parents on these outings, but I had few interests in common with them (other than the food) so I often would find them going off on their own. Sometimes they would include me at the urgings of their parents, but we never clicked together, and I was just as happy wandering off by myself with a fishing pole to the Lake, or sitting under a tree and reading.
My aunt Susie (about who I’ve written before) and her husband were regular members of our group. Her husband Fred, who never cared for or tolerated direct sun, always parked himself in the shade, where I would sometime join him, and listen to his views on the future of electrical appliances, which he designed. My aunt had an incredible ability to find four leaf clovers. She would look down on the ground and find one in less than a minute. This frustrated me to a great degree, as I would spend a half an hour poring over the grass, saying I couldn’t find a single one. Then she’d walk over, bend down, and pick up another one in the very same spot I’ve been fruitlessly exploring.
One of the couples who were among the regulars was about 10-15 years older than my parents. They had no children, and the wife seemed to particularly seek out my company. She, unlike many adults, talked to me not as a child but as an equal, and seemed genuinely interested in the things I had to say. Shortly after I first met her, I noticed the letter A followed by a string of numbers tattooed in the inside of her arm. She told me the tattoo came from the time she spent in a concentration camp called Auschwitz. I could tell by the sad look in her eyes it was not a topic she particularly wanted to talk about, and when I asked my parents later, they told me it was one of those horrible experiences of the War that no one wanted to discuss. Naturally, this made me want to find out more, so I went to the library and looked up some information. From the stories I read and the photos I saw, I could understand why those who were there didn’t want to talk about it, particularly to a young boy. I couldn’t understand how one human being could do to another the things I read about! I noticed that neither my parents, nor their friends, all of whom lived through World War II, some in POW camps, some in concentration camps, some sent to the Russian front by the Germans – none of them wanted to talk about their stories, not even amongst themselves. I didn’t understand their reluctance at the time, but I do now.
Each summer when I lived in Chicago, my family would pack up the car and go for a two week vacation to Wisconsin. My aunt and uncle would come along with us most of the time. We would rent a cabin near one of the thousands of lakes, cook in the kitchen, and drive to see the local sights. Wisconsin Dells is a mini Grand Canyon with more tourist shops than I ever wanted to visit, and was one of my dad’s choices to repeatedly visit. I preferred when we went further north to Lake Tomahawk or Eagle River, where there was more opportunity to fish for Walleye or Muskie. I would spend a good part of the day by myself in a row boat, going out early in the morning or in the evening. I didn’t so much care if I caught any fish, but the tranquility and the rhythms of Nature spoke to me. Thanks to the education I was getting in high school, I became interested in philosophy, and the time I spent in the boat was useful to try and test the concepts in my books against the reality of the world as I was beginning to perceive it. I began to see how my classmates thought I was an odd kid, and I also began to care less about their acceptance. This lack of caring, however, did not extend to girls, who I began noticing more as the hormonal changes of teenage life focused my attention on the opposite sex. Unfortunately, it took me a very long time to find a woman who could understand and share my view of the world, as I sadly discovered through a series of failed relationships.
More to follow…