Monday, January 21, 2019

momento mori

The awful-est handshake I ever received came from my father when he came to pick me up at the train stop in the town where he lived.

Like all children who lived with one divorced parent, the parent who lived at a distance was idealized and I was dying to see my father ... who greeted me not with a longed-for hug on the train platform, but a handshake that was supposed, I suppose, to indicate my advance towards adulthood. But I had not yet been allowed to be a longing child, an idealizing child, a child who wanted at least one parent to want him. My ideal crumbled on that train platform ... another bit of evidence that not only did my mother find me a burden, but so did my father.

Looking back (from an age of 79) at a time when I guess I was six or seven and traveling from New York City for the first time alone on a train I thought might somehow lose one small child, I had been afraid of the train and its iron-clad ways. What if the train simply took it into its head to deposit me somewhere ELSE ... the wrong place ... the place of no succor ... Omaha, maybe. But on the platform, when I finally got there, the news grew worse: There was a handshake to replace a badly- (perhaps even piteously-) needed hug and a kiss to allay my fears. Did no one care for this solo child?

My single-parent mom did not feel that my fears of the train and its vagaries warranted her riding all the way up out of New York, where we lived, to the Northampton, Mass., where my father lived and taught Shakespeare at Smith College. She didn't want to turn around and go back. She felt he was a villain in her piece. I felt he was a salvation ... I mean someone who would ease and soothe. I would go alone. For the first time. And I had been scared. Scared of the train's intractability. Scared of the power wielded by adults. Scared that no one loved me and I was alone. Scared that -- as was in some measure true -- I was a chattel to be shipped like a bit of train freight.

In later years, my mother would observe, "the greatest change in the 20th century was in the treatment of children." And perhaps it was so. On the other hand, weaning always has a price. (In other times she also observed that "the greatest change in the 20th century was the loss of servants and that too was probably true.)

Anyway, I got off the train and stood on the platform and saw my father and felt the muscles in my stomach loosen up. I was saved. Here came my salvor. He advanced. I advanced. His hand was outstretched, I thought perhaps to enfold me. But instead the hand remained outstretched, a barrier to what I so badly needed. He shook my hand.

How could anyone give what s/he had not once received? And I suspect my father too had felt the lash of of the outstretched hand, the barrier, the sign post for a bit of rail-borne freight. Surely my mother had felt that lash as well with the death of her mother during the Spanish Flu epidemic.

I look back today -- or did last night -- and see the scenario in its wider realms. How is anyone to cope with a child? How is anyone to know and extend a loving hand? In memory, my voice calls out, "But this was a scared kid, for Christ's sake!" Who will look after a scared kid? Who could NOT extend the enfolding hand?

A hug? A kiss.

Rail freight.


One way or another, I guess everyone has been dealt a poor hand, but last night that handshake moment landed on my doorstep and I was sad for the kid. Overnight, the piercing nature of this small memory on a train platform lost its searing sting. It's not so bad ... and I wonder to what extent I too have transmitted what I hated/feared so much. I am sorry for whatever evils I had landed on my own kids. It's sorrowful shit, but since I cannot keep up with the stand-in of current events, I flop back into my own sorrow, towsle my hair and kiss and hug.

A rattled, associative memory.

And a hug.

And a kiss.

A bit of freight I have come to collect.

A bit of death -- momento mori.

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