Wednesday, June 1, 2011
I imagine that my being an "only child" shaped my life in more ways than I can coax into consciousness. I've always marveled at people who grew up with brothers and sisters, like my wife (two brothers and three sisters), and my own son and daughter, who have a tight, loving bond from birth. My father came from a big, rural South Carolina family where he had six sisters and five brothers. (I have no dearth of cousins, aunts and uncles.) But my mother, who didn't like the South (she preferred our home in Evanston) was an only child. And her mother, my grandmother, was an only child, too. The matrilineal side of my family tree has, therefore, now vanished with their deaths.
If you do grow up as an only child, you learn early on to enjoy being alone, and to find ways to amuse yourself when your friends---or anyone---aren't around, which can be often. You read a lot, and as the cliche goes, see books as your "friends." And, as with books, it was drawing into which I retreated as a child.
There was something magical to me about bringing forth images that hitherto existed only in my head where no one could see them. I remember spending whole afternoons in the 1950s blissfully seated before a three-legged blackboard my parents got me for Christmas, drawing and erasing until my knees and the kitchen floor beneath me were covered with layers of chalk and the piece in my hand was reduced to a wafer-thin sliver.
Having only one child to worry about no doubt eased the financial stress on my hard-working father. My mother made sure he paid for me to have the suite of lessons she felt I needed---piano, clarinet, even dancing lessons. (He paid, too, for my lessons when I was 15-years-old with cartoonist Lawrence Lariar and, when I was 19, bought me my first car, a used 1965 Corvair (gold) convertible---that, because I was saving up to buy a motorcycle, which was all I could afford, and my mother was afraid I'd kill myself on it so she pressured Dad into getting me the car.) However, none of those lessons stuck with me because all I really wanted to do was draw.
Of course, Dad also taught me how to work. I had part-time jobs during high school, but I remember coming home after my freshman year in college with no job lined up for the summer. On my first night back, my father announced to me that I'd better set my clock early---around 6 AM---because he'd already secured a summer job for me: as one of the student garbage men employed by the City of Evanston (where he was a night watchman) during the summer. I did that job for two summers straight, hauling Evanston's waste and trash on my back in a big, plastic tub. After work, I'd come home filthy, smelling from head to toe of sewage-tainted water from the garbage cans, but it was honest work that built muscle, which I needed because that same year (1967) I started training at a Chicago kung-fu school in the evenings.
An only child learns early the meaning of the title for Stephen Batchelor's book Alone With Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism. Dare I say that an only child learns how to be entertained by his own mind and imagination? That his childhood solitariness is not at all bad preparation for the day when he must sit in formal meditation, concentrating of his breathing and critically watching how his mind works from moment to moment? Or sit for long hours in the library's stacks, doing research on his dissertation? Nor is it bad conditioning for the life of a writer which, as so many have said, is solitary---but not, I would say, "lonely" in any negative sense. Because solitude, for an only child, is as close to him (or her) as a brother or sister. I think only childhood tends to make a person the opposite of gregarious, and perhaps a bit quiet, shy or reserved in social situations, preferring to listen and let others speak. Or at least that's so in my case. Personally, I need time spent alone every day for reflection (away from unwanted external stimuli so I can hear myself think), for study, meditation, or just silently observing Nature (with my dog Nova nearby). But I enjoy people, too, especially intelligent dialogue and experiencing the mystery, the sameness, and the difference in their lives and mine. Alone with others describes the life of this only child (and the human condition) pretty well.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 9:36 AM