Consider the lowly pinball; yes, it’s a ball bearing, no question. It’s round and it’s shiny. That’s basically it. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, the same thing might be said of me. I’ve always exhibited something of “roundness,” and no matter what my shape or weight, I almost inevitably get the same comment from friends I’ve not seen in some time: “You’ve lost weight, right?” No. No, I haven’t. In all probability, as the decades accumulate and like most other men, I gain. But I might well be one of those people you remember as having been, well, larger, rounder than I am. And shiny, also, no argument. Because I understand it has been recently discovered there are people born with a genetic disposition toward optimism, and here I stand—hardwired for happiness, as it were: round and shiny. And if it takes something to get the ball started rolling in one direction or another, it didn’t seem altogether likely to occur in the land of my birth.
I was born in Saginaw, Michigan, the evening of the eighteenth of June in 1939. My mother was in labor in St. Mary’s Hospital, and my father was down in the car in the parking lot, listening to Jack Benny on the radio. World War II was revving up, which would eventually reverse the damages of the Great Depression, the scars of which marked almost all the adults that comprised my family and my family’s circle of friends. But this was not a sad time. My father, J. George O’Brien, was a complex, spirited guy, a small businessman who was basically a salesman. He had served in the Navy at the conclusion of World War I, enough to get some advanced education in Annapolis, but just how much or what kind was never shared with me. For a while he worked for Reid Paper Company in Saginaw, until he and another junior executive left to go out on their own, and before his death in 1957 at the age of sixty-three from cancer, he had become something called O’Brien Enterprises, which entailed leasing a fleet of cars to busy businessmen, doing some packaging designing, and primarily representing a new process called Cry-O-Vac, the plastic second skin affixed first to turkeys and hams that was about to proliferate all over the country, for which he was to represent exclusive sales over seven Eastern states.
During his tenure at Reid Paper Company, he caught the eye of a young secretary, Evelyn MacArthur, the daughter of a Saginaw executive of the Automobile Club of America, who was himself a Scot born in Glasgow, and the proud, patrician father of three other lovely young daughters—Marion, Bernice, and Aldine. Evelyn, easily the prettiest of the four daughters, was then engaged to a young man named Carl “Cullie” Berger, a fledgling in the automobile business, and whether a date had been fixed for their nuptials is lost in the mists of time, but even so it was not enough to dissuade my father, who proposed to Evelyn, and, by God, eloped with her to New York on the spur of the moment, leaving Cullie and the consequences to fade into an oft-repeated comic anecdote. My father was thirteen years older than my mother, and their rail journey to their honeymoon in New York—where they tied up with his close friend, the songwriter Gerald Marks (“All of Me”) and his sophisticated, towering wife, Edna, a troubleshooter for the Newspaper Guild at the time—was marked by Mother’s weeping throughout the entire journey and once, in Manhattan, covering up her lack of social and language skills by pointing to an item in French on a menu and bravely ordering poached eggs rather than the substantial wedding meal she was hoping to have. Naturally, she never let on that it had been a mistake.
In the library of Imaginary Farms, my home in Connecticut, hangs an oil portrait of my mother, dated 1933, painted by my father’s cousin, H. Cranston “Bud” Dolan, an amateur painter, but a good one. It portrays a rather serious, lovely young woman in a white summer dress with a becoming neckline scalloped in red and blue, her hair enclosed in a matching white cloche, who seems at best to be politely enduring the process. Had she been fortunate enough to sit for someone like Whistler, for example, she might have been encouraged to relax more obliquely, but she wasn’t, and so the results never made it aboveground or out of any basement we as a family ever occupied until I was settled in Manhattan and asked to have it sent to me. It may well have secretly pleased my mother to be rid of it, for she exhibited nothing but derision for it throughout my childhood. There is a decidedly melancholy air to her expression, but the melancholia at this time was yet to be substantiated.
In 1935, Evelyn and “O’Bie,” for such was his universal and affectionate name, had their first child, Robert, born dead, and devastatingly delivered by their close friend, Stuart Yntema, a young ex–army physician who had become our family doctor, and who never again touched my mother in so much as a physical examination. I recall, around the time I was ten or so, sobbing on my bed on Park Street over a disappointment for something I had expected to achieve at school. In a rare glimpse behind the parental divide that always existed between my sister and me and our parents, my mother confessed that in her entire early life she had never known a single moment of unhappiness or disappointment until, she said, “Bobby was born dead.” She paused for the effect to stifle my sobs before going on. “I think being handed something like that as one’s first defeat is a fate I wouldn’t wish on anyone. This is nothing by comparison, it’s just what happens. You’ll be fine.” And she patted me reassuringly and left the room. We rarely, if ever, referred to my dead brother again, and although there were ritual and frequent trips to Forest Lawn Cemetery, where my father’s parents were buried and where grew a collection of MacArthurs and O’Briens as the years piled up, we would inevitably stop silently for a moment at the small grave marker under a spreading fir tree, marked only with “Robert H. O’Brien 1935.” My brother Bobby remained outside the screen door circle of our allowed awareness, something reverent, sad, and ultimately apart. I longed for him. For the idea of him, as well. I still do.
Janet, my only sibling, was born the following year, on December 12. In those days, of course, women were kept confined to the hospital for fully ten days before being released to go home. When my mother finally arrived at Park Street with her beautiful daughter, it was December 22, and in her bedroom, which eventually became our bedroom, was a tiny white Christmas tree, a sweet nightlight that was subsequently pulled out of storage each year thereafter as its own celebration and the harbinger of the Christmas to come. I can only imagine the mixed feelings that little white tree must have triggered in my parents as they thought back on a heartbreaking earlier Christmas.
The joke, of course … because there was always a joke … was that on the twenty-eighth of that June of 1939, when Mother brought me home from the hospital, it was hot, it was summer, and Nursie Devitt was clearly itching to get her hands on me. So Mother and Dad packed Janet into the car, and off they went to our grandparents’ cottage on the Saginaw Bay for the Fourth of July holiday ahead. I was healthy, I was obviously in the right hands, and they wanted to give Janet some attention. As it happens, the exterior of the house was also being painted over this period, and when they returned home on the fifth of July, they were amazed to learn the painters had stuffed cotton batting in their ears, so intense, so interminable, so powerful was the wailing of Baby Jack. This story was repeated endlessly over the years with everyone roaring with laughter at the implication that this kid was loud then, and would always be loud. I was in my mid- to late thirties when the wife of a close associate in San Francisco, with two or three children of her own, exclaimed with horror how everyone knows that one of the cardinal rules is never to separate an infant from actual physical contact with at least one of its parents for something like the first six months. Mother and Dad didn’t know this then; they believed I was getting the best care in the world. And I didn’t know it until I was an adult, but issues of abandonment that have haunted me all my life must have begun right about there.
But Michigan in the forties! Oh, my God! How, without the benefit of a Norman Rockwell, can one represent the dappled sunlight, the innocence, the inherent freshness of that time? In my baby book, meticulously kept by my proud father in his florid and nearly baroque handwriting, is a snapshot of the house on Park Street, neatly named Twin Elms. It had two of them on the corner lot of Park and Mott, two giant trees so huge, so powerful, they might serve as templates for characters in a Tolkien story. The one nearest the front steps, spreading above the generous porch upon which a squeaky glider in its period striped fabric swung, was squat, thick, and masculine, a kind of judicial or professorial elm, massive with branches, lacy with leaves. And the one on the side of the property, I was always reminded, went “up the furtherest without a single branch than any other tree in Saginaw.” I have no idea if this is remotely true; like so many of my family stories, it had more the ring of authority than of actual truth.
Among my first real memories is one of me seated on my tricycle at about five years of age, gazing upon the lawn brilliantly studded with blooming dandelions, a field of lavish, glowing gold surrounding the house. I felt unmistakably rich; I recall clearly thinking myself the most fortunate and clever of lads, secure and, in the only word that I can somehow associate with that feeling … “inevitable.”
Another scene alternately flashes into view: My sister and her friend are secreted in our bedroom having a play session, with bath towels wrapped like huge turbans around their heads, chattering like proverbial magpies. I am seated just outside the closed door of that bedroom, banished from their society, with, of course, an identical terry towel turban wrapped around my head. I am not invited in, nor even allowed communication, although I continually shout eager suggestions through the closed door. And I’m both stumped and furious. I was obviously such fun, and clearly able to adapt to any creative situation with as many, if not more, resources than they! I didn’t understand it then, and I don’t now. But I think one kind of handwriting was already emerging on that wall, outside where the two little girls played. A choice was being expressed, if not already made: I preferred to sit sullenly in the hallway in a terry cloth turban, courting a muse neither athletic nor, quite honestly, “appropriate,” as my mother might have expressed it.
We were good kids—that much is true. The axis that seems to separate this century from the last stands out to me as significant. It represents the moment before children began to grow up so quickly, as they do today. No television, of course. No Internet. No “parental controls” were necessary because we could so easily be excluded from whatever influences were deemed inappropriate. “Dad, could I please stay up tonight to listen to…” “No, you cannot!” Case closed. I think back on my high school graduating class, in which there was one group of boys who might well have lost their virginity by graduation day—two or three at the most. Then there was our group: we were, so far as I can ascertain, all virgins prior to going to college. And proud of it, too!
Well, in my case, I would say I was relieved. I did not abstain from any moral obligation. To be honest, I was “otherwise engaged.” I have loved and adored women all my life, from childhood on, but was never, I confess, truly sexually attracted to them. When I hear people debating what makes a child one thing or another … “nature or nurture,” genes, whatever … I think back on my childhood fantasies, and although I never wished to be female, I felt a closeness, a sense of identification with my female side, if that isn’t being too coy, far stronger than with any similar male influences. I was, we remember, a “dreamer,” sitting for hours with a magazine or a book, or staring off into space to the consternation of my parents. I had no affinity for throwing or, God knows, catching a ball; any spheroid going anywhere near me caused an immediate sense of panic and a serious impulse to scream as loud as possible. I would sit on my bicycle, urged by my mother to “find some kids to play with, for crying out loud,” hanging on the metal mesh of whatever neighborhood chain-link fence was closest, hoping, praying, dreading that the indifferent scramble of boys playing whatever game would look up, see me, and say something like, “Hey, O’Brien! Just what we need! Get your ass in here and help us, will you?”
No one ever said that. So I drifted through the high school years with the growing awareness that I might be funny, like my dad, or clever, like both my parents, or even manipulative, like my mother; and so in that context I began to cobble together the scraps of a personality that could gloss over the problem areas with a light touch, take advantage of the gifts modestly, without seeming to be too pushy, and finally, well, “pass.” So off I went to college, with an armload of prizes skillfully garnered over those early years, smart as a whip, newly appreciated for my musical and lyric gifts as someone useful to include, and best of all, as the single, significant 1950s epithet would have it—popular! You just couldn’t do better than that.
Copyright © 2013 by Jack O’Brien