Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Boys and Girls

When I was 14 or 15, a girl down the New Jersey shore said to me, I have a great 12 year old girl for you, who's beautiful! She said something similar to the girl, and the girl became my girl friend for a short period of time. I was awkward. I was young. Her name was Laurie Colwin.

What did I know? What did she know? Not much. I took her to a movie in Ship Bottom. (It's in the middle of Long Beach Island, which is about 18 miles long and has one road from one end to the other. Ship Bottom was right in the middle. Never thought about it much, but that's quite a name.)

Then her family moved from Chicago to Philadelphia, pretty far away from us, she was in North Philly and we were on the Main Line in the west, and I was too young to drive. How do you date when you can't drive and it's not in a city? Beats me. When we were down the shore on Long Beach Island in New Jersey that summer, Laurie's older sister Leslie started to teach me to drive on a wide, short dirt road outside the house where they were staying. Leslie was blond, bigger it seemed, certainly more developed, seemed to have real breasts, which probably scared me, certainly scared me, and she told me she had a boyfriend back in Chicago, Steve, I think, and she confided to me that she had “never been laid.” Me, what was I going to say? I nodded sagely and said, “That's good.”

Talk about wanting a do-over. I really liked Leslie. There was another older sister who liked me and we never did anything about it, back home in Lower Merion, my classmate Lynn Sherr's older sister Lois. What is it with all these L names? While I was reading Word Power Made Easy prepping for the College Boards in high school (still in print!!), I learned that L words tend toward the sensual – lascivious, lewd, lubricious (I don't think this last one was one of them that they listed) – so maybe that's it. Lynn's family was Louis, Lois, Lynn, and Shirley, Lynn liked to roll those sounds off her tongue. The tongue was actually what lay behind L's and sensuality, said the book – the tongue was thought to be the center of sensuality. I can see that.

What a great book that was, that I picked up off the rack at Leary's bookstore in downtown Philly, where my mother liked to browse. She was a book lover who foisted that love onto us, which was one of the best foists ever. She kept feeding me books, most of which were great – Patterns of Culture, Catcher in the Rye – but a lot of which were dated – Penrod by Booth Tarkington, for God's sake.

Anyway, who would want to live those years over? Maybe implant our current knowledge and experience, then it might be OK, might be, good ol' “If I knew then what I know now.”

I was attracted to girls, sure, and plenty of them were attracted to me, although I didn't really get that at the time, maybe defensively so I didn't have to do anything about it, and that didn't seem to help with awkwardness. I remember seeking some wisdom from my mother, some guidance. I confessed to her that being around boys was easy, we always had a good time and lots of things to do together, but what do you do with girls? With Laurie I tried to follow what I thought was received wisdom. I asked her to go to a football game with me. I had given up playing football in 9th grade, so here we were in the stands. We walked over to the stadium together, watched together, I bought her a Lower Merion High pennant, walked home, and I probably never saw her again. Where were the role models? It was just hard.

So I told my mother that I didn't know what to do with girls. I was hoping for some guidance, some support, some advice. But my mother didn't take to that easily. If she had time to think and to figure out what to do – she was a thinking type – she could come into my room and start a conversation and say what she thought was helpful, and it often was. It was great when I was in first grade and I would walk to the Henry C. Lea Elementary School at 47th and Spruce in West Philadelphia and play in the playground and when I came hope it seemed like I had peed in my pants a little. So my Mom got down to my level and looked me in the eyes and said, Now Buddy, when you are out in the yard and playing, I want you to think if you have to go to the bathroom, and if you do, then stop playing for a little and go. OK? I said, OK. And it worked!

But going to your mother about relationships with girls was different, awkward, and since I was the oldest child, I was teen training example, I guess, everything was new with me, and when I was 14 or 15 she was only in her late 30's, with four kids and a busy husband and trying to figure out what to do with herself and not be wasted the way intelligent women were wasted in the 1950's. So when I chose to mention this to her, I didn't have the wisdom to sit her down and give a preliminary overview of my dilemma of having urges but operating on foreign territory and telling her what I wanted from her, of course I didn't. Who would?

So I guess I kind of ambushed her out of my confusion, and my embarrassment probably, it's not an easy thing to say, and not the kind of thing my father handled well, although he was a very sensitive man, but not a great communicator, we would say now. He was a neurosurgeon, very. I think I might have even been on the short stairway of our split level house, six stairs up to the four bedrooms in a row with bathrooms at each end, a new development house with 12 or 14 other houses pretty much the same, pretty much all Jewish invading the gentile Main Line, I remember the real estate agent and the developer meeting with my parents and going over who the others were in the development, the Lipshutz's, the Lowe's, the London's, the Simon's, and the crusty old but humorous real estate agent asking, “Where are the Kelly's and the O'Donnell's?” To some laughter, knowing looks, but that was the way it was, and it paid off with a wonderful mixed high school.

But I think I must have caught my mother off guard, of course I did, and as a result she didn't have time to think and to consider, and I must have been frustrating to her in many ways, we had temperaments that were a little off, she could decide on a dime and I took a long time deciding between competing brands of shaving cream. So she reverted to what she had somewhere learned was an admirable thing to do, to give a terse and telling retort. So what she said to me was, “Well, you'd better learn,” with a kind of sarcastic sense, and she moved on with what she was doing.

Well, that's what she did. The quick hit. When she and my Dad and I were away for a few days at an adult camp in Rangeley, Maine, “a true four-season paradise tucked away in the mountains of western Maine,” I wanted them to stay up a little later one night. I told my Mom, “You two each have each other, but I don't have anyone.” I was maybe 20, my sisters were at one camp and my brother at another in Vermont, and they had visiting weekends one after the other, so we were at Rangeley in the interim. My Mom was on the way to bed, so she met my entreaty by turning around and observing to me, “Who's fault is that?”

And then when I told them years and years later that I was going to forego anything in academia or government and go into the practice of pediatrics, she said, “So you are choosing a little life.”

Yes, it was little, that's for sure. But I was able to meet lots of people and try to help them. I was able to reflect on the dilemma of mothers raising sons, how they wish the best for their boys, but their experience is as a girl, and it's hard not to look at a son and think how he is going to treat girls, and what you would want if you were that girl. Girls have their own wounds. In other words, it's a split loyalty. It came home to me early when I visited one of my mothers, a single mother, as I was taking care of her newborn son, and she said to me, “I'm going to teach him how women should be treated right!” Woof. Split loyalty.

You know, life ain't easy. My parents were on the whole wonderful. I never doubted their full love, full, full, full. They gave me terrific support. Yes, expectations, too, carrying on their mission of succeeding in the world at large, not just the confined Jewish world of recent immigrants they had been born into. Nothing was more important to them than their children. They had to have a lot of patience with me, although they took great pride, and invested great hopes, in what an achiever I was and good at lots of things – my Dad said, “If it's a multiple choice test, Buddy can do well in it even if he knows nothing about it.” That's pride. And there was great generosity. Great support. I have absolutely nothing to complain about. I wish they were here. I wish I could pay them back, somehow. I did what I could, I was a good son, I am a good father, I support my wife well in her illness now, I try to help the world, I think you could say I have generally been a good boy, although I did experiment around for a while to see what it was like to be an asshole, but it was just trying to find myself and escape being guilty, is the way I put it to myself now, etc. etc. etc.

But, I have to say, when it came to girls, I really could have used a little help. Laurie Colwin, Laurie Colwin, the first of many failures. That's the way I think of it now. She was a pretty little girl, it certainly was fun down the shore, somehow I got along with her sister better than with her but there was nothing to do about it because my mother had told me, by way of orientation, that boys usually like younger girls better, that was the way it went, which was true, so it wasn't a bad road map. But it would probably have helped me to hear, who knows the way of the heart?

Budd Shenkin

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