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This is part one of a series on the subject of childhood. Look for the next installment on Friday.
What It Was Like After I Was Born
by John Gruen
I grew up in Dallas, Texas, which is everything you think it is: sprawling oil and tech corridor, most shopping per capita in the US, possibly in the world. A system of highways. Troy Aikman, Michael Irving, Emmitt Smith, Jesus. Ross Perot and I went to the same barber.
One summer, my family and I went to Jefferson, Texas. Jefferson’s a hamlet in East Texas that lies like a low-slung monument to quaintness. Cypresses and Victorian homes and anachronistic steam trains. There’re only 800 houses in all of Jefferson, and something like 15% of these are Bed and Breakfasts.
We stayed in one. I distinctly remember reading Many Waters, which is one of those Madeleine L’Engle novels about an overachieving family and their time-traveling adventures. In this one, twin brothers travel back to just before the Flood. They meet Noah and Ham and Shem and Japheth. Other stuff happens; they fall in love with a girl and she winds up becoming a star. Her body is transformed into billions of tons of hydrogen so that she might survive God’s divine wrath.
This is cripplingly romantic to the prepubescent mind.
The proprietress of the B and B where we stayed–my mom, dad, sister and I–was a seventy-nine-year-old woman named Ms. Ruth. She probably had a real first name, but I don’t think anyone cared to ask what that was. Something about going along with the extratemporal vibe of the place and wanting to accept her as our own personal bayou matriarch. Nothing less would do. Anyway, she made us breakfast and gave us beds and we gave her forty-five dollars a night. We went on tours of old homes, took a day trip to Caddo Lake on the Texas-Louisiana border, went to dinner theater. My sister and I fought, my dad wore a John Deere hat, my mom wore those huge sunglasses that had gone out of style ten years before, but who gives a fuck when you have two ten-year-old kids and you just spent the last two years providing hospice care for your sister who died of breast cancer a few months ago.
That was my first experience of death. My aunt Martha went through the procedures of metastasized breast cancer and then she died. My mom was by her side when it happened.
My dad was with my sister and I at home.
I asked him what it was like to be dead. He answered with a question.
“What was it like before you were born?”
That still scares the crap out of me. Martha was buried near her father at Laurel Land cemetery a few days later. Her mother would soon join them.
My second experience of death was in Jefferson. We woke up on a Sunday morning and there was no breakfast. No waffles or fruit or juice or coffee. It’s the Bible Belt, maybe Ms. Ruth’s in church. My mom doesn’t remember reading about this in the brochure. My mom went into her room to check on her and found her—slightly stricken looking with the sheets half-off the bed, as though she’d seen it coming for a half-second and then stopped seeing at all. She’d died sometime in the night. Thirty minutes later, the local Justice of the Peace came with a few medics and carted her off in a body bag.
Somehow the burden of calling her next of kin fell to my father. Her children lived in all the normal places: Little Rock and San Diego. I was surprised at the way my father described their nonchalance. They were probably mid-stream. They’d have to cancel appointments and pedicures. I’m not so surprised anymore.
Later that day, my mom and sister went to the antique malls. My dad rented a canoe and fishing poles, and the two of us went fishing. We all met up in the late afternoon and piled into the family’s Mercury Grand Marquis and headed back to Dallas. My dad joked that we had to get out of town before the locals came after us with pitchforks.
John Gruen is a native of the Lone Star State. A writer, artist, and observer of international politics, he lives in Brooklyn, NY. His high school superlative was “Most likely to win the Nobel Prize for something he didn’t do intentionally.”
Quick story. I got the following e-mail from this guy.
from: Max Silvestri
to: Alex Carnevale
date: Jun 5, 2007 4:37 PM
subject: Sopranos vs. Comedy
hey Alex,I made a trailer for my show Sunday that I hope disproves your notion that the finale of the greatest television series of all time is more exciting than a monthly downtown comedy show. By the way, go fuck yourself.
Naturally, this confused me deeply. He wanted me to link to him, but he still recommended I fuck myself? Then I realized the difference between Max and me — I don’t hate Alex Carnevale. Coming to this breakthrough was so beautiful, in the end all I could say was ‘thank you.’ Thank you for telling me to go fuck myself. Really.
N.B. Max has asked that I publicly declare to everybody that he didn’t tell me to go fuck myself. This is like Isaiah Washington saying, “I said ‘I love fags’ — everything cool?” No, Dr. Burke everything is not cool and no Dr. Silvestri, everything is not cool. This is like Sophie’s Choice, but instead of daughters I have a long running television series and an incredibly funny night of standup. This will likely end like Styron’s novel–with me in tears.
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