People may be surprised to hear that my father was a meditative man, frequently pondering over the vagaries of life. This scared the b’jabbers out of my mother.
Pop would often go into a reverie while sitting in the parlor, staring at a point high on the opposite wall, a few fingers lightly resting on his mouth. Sometimes he meditated in the dark, smoking a cigarette and nursing a beer.
Pop sitting in the dark was not as strange as it sounds – he loved to listen to the ballgame on the radio, and often listened in the dark so he could visualize the game better. When the game ended, he forgot to turn the lights back on.
So far as my mother was concerned, people who thought were dangerous. Mom valued security and conformity above all else, and she was in constant fear of losing either. To Mom, people who thought were trouble – it was as if people who thought had committed a sin and needed to go to confession.
I remember one afternoon as a boy, sitting in the parlor and reading a book. Pop was in his chair, long legs crossed, beer in hand, thinking. Mom walked by the doorway, her arms full of laundry, but stopped and slowly backed up the hall, reappearing in the doorway and glaring at Pop.
I looked up to see Pop staring at the wall, hand resting at his mouth, lost in thought, and I heard Mom growl in her best threatening voice, “Harold Francis…you’re thinking again!”
Pop didn’t say a word; just one eyebrow rose in response. Mom plowed ahead, whispering with a scowl, “Y’know what happens when you think, don’t you? You get ideas!” And she stomped off down the hall.
This was very confusing to my young mind. Wasn’t the purpose of thinking to get ideas? I thought ideas were good things. After all, I was sitting there reading a book, learning about thinking and ideas. Of course, Mom saw that as “educational” and that was something that was good. She supposed education was good as long as it helped you find a good job, which created even more security and conformity, so it was okay. If she ever considered that it might lead to thinking and ideas, though, it would have been evil and in need of confession.
Of course, there was always the possibility that Pop was not meditating, but simply well into his beers. So far as Mom was concerned, a drunk was far more normal and safe than someone who thought. Drunks did not get ideas; drunks just “got up and got another ‘un”. Mom lived to see just how wrong that was, but that’s probably another story for another time.
I often wondered why Mom feared ideas. Perhaps Pop had come up with some real doozies in the past and she had been leery of ideas ever since. I never asked her. Certain topics were totally taboo with Mom, and if she was asked about one of them, she withdrew into silence like a turtle pulling her head into her shell. Apparently, speaking your mind was as bad as thinking ideas – they threatened the cosmic order. On very rare occasions, she would blurt out what was really on her mind, but would instantly regret it and withdraw. No doubt, she went off to confession about it that very Saturday afternoon.
I suppose that may be the reason why Mom often said to me: “You make me nervous.” I love a life of the mind and like to discuss things, and Mom saw it as foreign and threatening. Oddly, she loved to read, and when she mentioned that she was reading a good book, I’d ask her what it was about, but then she suddenly went mute, and I could see her withdrawing right on the spot. It was as if she could not articulate even the simplest narrative of the very book she was reading. Perhaps she suspected that I was trying to trick her into thinking. I’ll never know. It is one of the mysteries of my childhood. That, and what the heck Pop was meditating over for all those years. Perhaps it was over the very same vagaries of life that vex me.