I spent much of my childhood flailing against what I perceived as bondage, trying to separate myself from my parents, grasping for ways to declare that I was different from them in such profound measure that we could have belonged to different species with our own languages and customs and beliefs. But now in my ninth decade, my mind gropes into the past for artifacts of that childhood, a lost city buried beneath the dense and tangled intervention of years that creep and glide and suddenly rush in an alarming stampede.
Why disturb this archaeology for the mummified remains of memories? Why arouse the demons, the nightmares, the enemies of peace? I’ll uncover a long-buried resentment, or embarrassment, and it will glitter so brightly that the future will be obscure and unimportant. I’ll dwell upon my father’s rigid authoritarianism or my mother’s pathological fear of giving offense. My father died twenty-one years ago, and my mother seven years later. Why can’t I let them rest in peace?
But it’s natural for children to torment their parents as they were tormented, or what they perceive as such, even though it could be as mild as instruction in how to eat without spilling food beyond the plate. And what about the pleasures, the euphoric moments? When I was five years old, I got a miniature filling station as a Christmas present. It had gas pumps and a couple of miniature cars and a bay for changing oil and fixing tires, and it would have been thrilling but for one thing. My older brother’s present that year was an electric train, and my pleasure was subsumed by the sense that favors bestowed upon the firstborn would always outshine those bestowed upon me.
But it’s understandable, the power of this silent, deadly undertow, because the past is almost infinite now while the future has constricted in all dimensions except the speed with which it hurtles toward a conclusion. It’s like descending from a mountain summit, leaving behind an endless breadth of peaks and sky, a vast panorama reached after a slow, arduous trek, while ahead is a rapid plunge into forested canyons dark with shadows that whisper of the unknown. An imperfect metaphor, like most metaphors, which try to breathe life into inanimate things or paint prosaic concepts with a sheen of profundity.
I was bullied throughout my early years of school, and in that small-town milieu where being good at sports brought one privileged social standing I remained on the outside looking in. I was also shy and until late in high school, tongue-tied around the opposite sex. I had friends, but they, like me, were members of a circle more likely to be invited to the principal’s office to face the dissonant music that played there than to have a date to the prom.
The dour face of that man comes to visit here in my ninth decade. I don’t feel the old seizure of trepidation, only the resentment of being punished for a misdeed committed by others I could hear giggling as I was escorted out of class. On the playground the bully snatched my glasses and in the resultant flailing and pushing to get them back they were broken. Somewhere I was made to believe that a tattle-tale was the lowest form of life, so I could only mumble an excuse to the teacher and to my father, whose normally stoic demeanor would give way to a smoldering rage over such carelessness and irresponsibility.
I escaped the bully when my family moved and I went to a new school. But a few years ago, when I was doing some internet research on the community where I spent a half dozen unhappy years, I came across his obituary. He was survived by a wife and children, and I wondered if he had bullied them as he had bullied me. I wondered if he had found someone else to bully when I was no longer within reach. I wondered if he ever felt remorse for the misery he visited upon his fellow human being.
I generally try to refrain from indulging in schadenfreude, because I think its corrosive effects far outweigh its pleasures. Once we take delight in someone else’s pain, for whatever reason, we have diminished our own humanity. I never knew the man’s wife and children, so their loss of a husband and father, as sad as it might have been for them, was wholly abstract to me. I did feel happy, though, that I was alive and well and his life, tainted by his violent and repeated attacks on someone smaller and weaker than himself, was over.