The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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My husband, Bill, and I own the local pharmacy, and though we are both pharmacists, my husband is the one who stands behind the counter and talks to everyone. I am usually in back, taking care of more mundane tasks.
Recently Bill agreed to be an unofficial “big brother” to Louie, a twelve-year-old boy in town. But Bill lacked the time for the endeavor. And so, as happens with many projects, Louie was handed over to me.
Louie had never known his real father. His mom had lived with her boyfriend for several years and had a daughter by him. Things were OK until the boyfriend, who paid child support for three other daughters, decided it would be cheaper if his girls came to live with him. And so seven people crowded into a three-bedroom apartment. There was no money, no affection, and no peace. Louie’s mom hated the boyfriend’s daughters. Louie called his mother by her first name, never “Mom.”
I took Louie shopping for new clothes. (He had never been to a mall.) We went to movies and restaurants and picked out his costume for Halloween. I helped him with his homework, and I often accompanied him and his mom on doctor visits. I felt uncomfortable, but Louie wanted me there, so I went.
One day, Louie came into the pharmacy after school and said, “Guess what.”
“What?” I said.
“I had to write a paper at school about someone I thought was a hero.”
“Like Spider-Man?” I asked. Spider-Man was the supreme being in Louie’s world.
“Yeah, I was going to write about Spider-Man, but the teacher said it had to be someone we know.” He paused. “Do you know who I picked?”
I shook my head.
“Guess,” Louie said. He was all grins.
“Your grandma?” I said. Louie loved his grandma and talked about her often.
“No, not Grandma,” Louie said. He looked as if he couldn’t believe I had guessed wrong. “Someone nice who does everything for me and who everybody likes.”
Was Louie talking about me? Had I truly made such a difference to him? My face began to grow warm.
“Your mom?” I said feebly.
Louie made a face. “Not her. Do you give up? Do you want me to tell you?”
I nodded and prepared to look surprised.
“It’s Bill!” Louie shouted. “I wrote my paper about Bill.”
“Oh,” I said in a small voice. Louie hardly saw Bill, who was always busy with the pharmacy or community activities.
“Yeah, ’cause he’s a pharmacist, and he helps people, and he’s really nice. He tries to make sure people get well when they’re sick.”
“That’s great,” I told Louie, hiding my disappointment behind a fake smile.
Later, I told Bill that he was the hero of Louie’s English paper.
“Not you?” Bill asked. “But you do everything for that kid.”
I shrugged, feeling hurt and rejected. What did it take to be Louie’s hero? How much did I have to do for him before he would look at me with stars in his eyes?
Later in bed, it began to make sense. Heroes are usually inaccessible, beyond our reach, objects of worship. And that’s what Bill was to Louie. I, on the other hand, was always around, always accessible, always within reach.
Robert Bly has been my hero since the early eighties. A couple of years back, he was scheduled to give a poetry reading in town, and a friend invited me to a dinner for Bly after the reading. The idea of breaking bread with my idol was almost too much.
At the reading, I soaked up Bly’s words and presence. After he was through, I raised my hand and asked a question that ran on a bit, becoming part comment. I don’t remember Bly’s answer so much as the intensity of my need to have an exchange with him.
During dinner I talked too much, performing more than conversing. I began to feel a little embarrassed, unable to manage the high. Later I felt vaguely ashamed.
I remembered a time in 1970 when my mother had attended a Margaret Mead lecture at my old high school. After Mead was done speaking, my mother leapt up to ask the first question. She rambled on, digressing into an autobiographical narrative, until finally Mead asked, “Madam, what is your question?” Within a month my mother had been hospitalized for a manic episode. For the next six years, she struggled with bipolar disorder, ultimately losing her life to a drug overdose.
I keep thinking that Robert Bly is my Margaret Mead. I’ve gotten professional opinions that I am not bipolar. Still, I can’t shake the connection. My mother died at fifty-six; I’m fifty-four.
The experience with Bly helped temper my hero worship and pointed me back toward the heroic energy in myself. I want to enter elderhood with a clear and humble sense of what to do with that energy.
Silver Spring, Maryland
At sixteen, I was a high-school dropout and “fundraiser” for an environmental organization. My job entailed hanging out at the office for several hours, followed by several hours of walking around the suburbs knocking on doors and asking strangers for money. My colleagues were bright, cynical, unambitious misfits in their early twenties. I admired them and desperately wanted to fit in, but I was too young.
My co-worker Crow was on tour with his band when I started at the organization, but all the old-timers (i.e., those who had been around longer than six months) had stories about him. There was the time Crow took acid, got undressed, and climbed on a table at a hotel bar; the time he decided to break into the zoo’s aviary and “free” the sleeping ducks; and the time he mooned a senatorial procession.
When Crow returned from his ill-defined “tour,” the occasion merited several wild parties, but his antics soon wore thin with my co-workers. I couldn’t understand why. I was enchanted by Crow, who treated me like a sidekick and a little sister. In return, I idolized him.
Crow and I hopped trains, hitchhiked, broke into swimming pools and graveyards, and shoplifted oranges and cigarettes. He procured hash and psychedelics and shared them generously with me. He introduced me to street musicians and homeless people, from the merely eccentric to the insane mutterers. He taught me how to act tough so I wouldn’t get ripped off buying dime bags in the park, and how to roll a fat, tidy joint. I never refused anything he suggested, and I defended him to his critics. I thought he was beautiful and brilliant and tragically misunderstood.
But Crow grew restless. He had pissed off everyone he knew (except me), he said, and it was time for him to move on. I missed him terribly and tried to follow in his footsteps, embarking on my own journey to wildness, shooting up any drug I could dissolve in a spoon.
For the next five years, I thought of Crow often and kept up with his whereabouts through friends. Then one day I bumped into him at a convenience store. He was in a hurry, but he gave me the address of the place where he was staying. I stayed up late that night, imagining our reunion.
The next day, he buzzed me up to what turned out to be his mother’s apartment. His hair didn’t look as shiny as I remembered. His skin was dull and gray, his lips chapped. I noticed food between his teeth, spittle at the corners of his mouth, the way his eyes darted around when he was trying to be funny. The stories he told sounded suspiciously like the ones he had told me years earlier, only with new names. His wildness seemed affected, theatrical. I excused myself to go to the bathroom, where I took a long, hard look at myself in his mother’s mirror. I saw someone who I did not want to be.
University Park, Maryland
I met Pat in my consciousness-raising group. A few years older than I, she had gotten pregnant young and been through a disastrous first marriage. Now she had married Clay, a graduate student of whom she spoke with awe and wonder. Money was tight, she told me, and parenthood had its problems, but together they could handle it.
I admired Pat. She had experienced life, whereas all I’d ever done was go to school. At the age of twenty-two, I had never had a serious relationship, and I feared I never would.
“Why don’t you come over for dinner and meet Clay’s friend Gary?” Pat volunteered.
Gary was quiet and shy, and only slightly more experienced than I. The only thing he and I had in common was our fierce admiration for Pat and Clay, but it was enough. We moved in together after three months.
It was a disaster. We spent much of our time with Pat and Clay, either as a couple or individually, seeking their advice on our struggling relationship. Pat would explain to me that I needed to be more of this and less of that. I tried, but with no success.
One balmy summer evening, I asked for advice yet again while Pat was preparing dinner. “Sometimes relationships just don’t work out,” she said, bringing her knife down on the carrots. The next week, Gary broke up with me.
I was devastated. In addition to losing Gary, I had lost Pat and Clay, who quickly replaced us with some newlyweds in need of guidance.
Pat and Clay eventually relocated to the West Coast, and I lost track of them. Years later, I was sitting in a bar in Cleveland with Mike, whom I’d just met at a work-related seminar. Mike had just moved to Cleveland from San Francisco and was telling me the long, sad story of his unhappy marriage and divorce. Eager to change the subject, I said, “I once knew some people who moved to San Francisco, and it affected them strangely. The husband had been a socialist, but last I heard he was calling himself a ‘Marxist from an ESP perspective.’ ”
Mike’s jaw dropped. “You don’t know them!” he said.
Mike and his wife had been newlyweds with relationship issues. Pat and Clay were “helping” them.
“The last time I saw my wife,” Mike said, “she was standing next to Clay, wearing only a towel.”
On a warm June evening when I was sixteen, I helped my mother and father celebrate their twenty-first anniversary at home. My sister was off at college taking a summer course, and it was a quieter celebration than usual. We didn’t get out the records and dance and frolic and toast to what a good life we had. Mother had been on the phone a lot that summer, always while Dad was at work. And Dad’s usual three afternoons a week at the golf club had turned into daily visits.
Halfway through our silent meal, I said, “What’s up with you two?”
Forks and knives went down, and both my parents began to cry.
It was no one’s fault, they said. They had grown apart.
I saw at once that it was true. Mother read; Dad didn’t. Dad lived for golf; Mother loathed it. Mother wanted to work toward her PhD; Dad was content with his high-school diploma. The one thing they had in common was we girls.
Outwardly we were a seemingly perfect family. Dad won the Rotary Club’s “Father of the Year” contest in 1980. Mother won the local women’s league’s “Mother of the Year” contest in 1981. They filed for divorce in 1982.
Though as a teen I usually seized any opportunity for histrionics, I showed abnormal maturity and restraint following my parents’ announcement. By the end of the evening I was consoling them and assuring them they would find their soul mates: “You’re both so young: only forty-two!”
My parents became heroic figures to me that evening. They taught me an important lesson in courage: Don’t let other people’s mores and expectations dictate how you should live. And they taught me something I’ve shared with my married-with-children friends: Don’t stay together for the kids.
True heroes are rebels and risk-takers; sometimes they fail, but they always admit it. My parents’ decision to divorce allowed them both to have loving and happy second marriages. And I declared my independence and proudly marched out of the closet not long after my parents showed me that life is too short to waste time pretending.
Mary Beth Simmons
West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania
When I was growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money, so it seemed strange that we had a cleaning lady. Ann was a tough, sinewy, bawdy woman. She came weekly and always sat for a half hour at the kitchen table, having coffee with my mother. Then Ann would wrap her hair in a kerchief, pull out a pail, fill it with water and a foul-smelling cleaning solution she brought to the house in a plain shopping bag, and begin scrubbing tiles and bathroom walls.
Ann’s son Tommy would sometimes come with her. I was eight, and he was fourteen. He and I would watch television or maybe build a windmill with my erector set. He read comic books to me and told me the guy on TV wasn’t the real Superman because he couldn’t do half the things Superman could do in the comics, like travel to other planets and go back in time.
Tommy sat back on my bed with his long legs crossed and the comic book folded in half so that he couldn’t accidentally read ahead. After he’d left with his mother, I’d climb up on my bed and try to imitate him, crossing my legs, folding back the comic book, and even snapping it on my leg when I had finished, the way Tommy did.
One time Tommy and I set up an elaborate battlefield with my green plastic army men. Tommy placed each one as strategically as Napoleon, with soldiers not only on the floor, but hidden behind bed legs and high up on bookshelves. As soon as we were finished setting up, though, Tommy had to leave. The battle would have to wait until the following week.
I left every soldier in place, walking carefully across the room all week long so as not to knock a single one over. I asked my mother to be careful when she was putting away my underwear and socks. I showed my father, a veteran of World War II, the battle plan. And I kept the door of my bedroom shut so that no one would disturb the waiting troops.
But the following week Tommy didn’t come. His mother said he was with his father. And so I played alone, and when I was done I placed each piece back in the exact spot Tommy had chosen for it.
Again the next week he didn’t come. “With his father,” Ann said.
So I waited another week, guarding my army men, playing with them disappointedly when Ann showed up alone once more. I sat on the bed and folded back an old issue of Superman and snapped it on my leg when I was finished reading it. What Ann didn’t tell me was that Tommy had gone to live with his father for good.
I eventually returned the soldiers to their drawer. I don’t know how long it was before I stopped wondering if I would ever see Tommy again.
Michael J. Cohen
Carmel, New York
My husband and I have two sons, ages eight and four. A couple of years ago I purchased a short book about Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who served as an interpreter and guide to Lewis and Clark on their expedition to find a northwest passage to the Pacific. I read the book aloud to my boys on a long car trip. Thus began their fascination with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and the Corps of Discovery.
Since then we have celebrated Lewis and Clark’s lives over and over, reading books, watching documentaries, attending reenactments, collecting memorabilia, and hiking along the Missouri River to spots where Lewis and Clark camped. My four-year-old asked for a Lewis and Clark birthday cake, and I am busy working on Lewis and Clark costumes for Halloween. Wherever we go, my boys wear their (faux) coonskin caps and carry their (faux) leather canteens. When the little one scraped his knee on the gravel, the older one scoffed and said, “Lewis and Clark didn’t cry when they fell.”
I’m not sure why my sons have such an interest in these two men. Perhaps it’s because we are farmers and live off the land — at least, as best we can in this day and age. Perhaps it’s because they have many acres to play on: the boys can pretend our barn’s sprawling hayloft is Lewis and Clark’s keelboat, or hike through cornfields in search of a new species of plant.
Their constant questions about their idols sometimes overwhelm even me, a lover of history, nature, and books. (As I write this, one of them interrupts to ask what Lewis and Clark used as toothpicks.) Sometimes, when they ask why Lewis and Clark did a certain thing, I hastily reply, “They just did it because they were heroes.”
Wolsey, South Dakota
I spent a lot of time on my grandparents’ Kansas farm growing up. My tall, handsome grandfather was my hero. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of the time when my grandfather asked Uncle Albert to bring the yearling in from the pasture for butchering. Albert led the calf in on a rope and tied it to a stake. We all stood by for the killing. I was ten years old.
The calf trembled. My grandfather raised the sledgehammer to crush its skull. Then he started crying, dropped the hammer to the ground, and told Albert to take the calf back to the pasture. Grandpa walked to the barn, stifling a sob. Grandma asked him later what they would do for meat for the winter, and he told her they’d buy it in town, but it wouldn’t be one of their cows. After that he raised milk cows and sold milk.
My grandparents had a huge vegetable garden and an orchard of fruit trees. They had a henhouse and sold eggs. Grandma canned, and the cellar was always full of good things to eat. As for me, I became a vegetarian, though we didn’t call it that back then.
Carol B. Knight
A group of us were sitting in front of the retreat house smoking, our awkward teenage bodies posed on the concrete steps, when Father Frank approached, coat collar turned up against the cold, hands shoved in his pockets. I would have done anything to get his attention.
The smile on Father Frank’s face disappeared when he saw me. He reached down, took the cigarette out of my mouth, and offered me his arm, as if inviting me to take a stroll.
“I don’t ever want to see you with a cigarette again,” he said as we walked up the steps into the retreat house. “Those kids are older than you and have already chosen their path in life. You, my dear, are still young and pure and must always strive to remain so.”
I did not feel so young and pure at that moment, standing close to him.
After Sunday-school classes that afternoon, most kids headed outside or to the ping-pong table. I snuck away to Father Frank’s small office. I did not like the look of his reading glasses resting on his perfect nose. He motioned for me to come inside and sit. He laid the glasses aside and leaned back from his desk. I admired his coal black eyes, his solid jaw and manly stubble of beard. His full lips moved, awakening me from my trance: “Are you staying to attend our service this evening?”
I nodded. My ride would just have to wait.
“I am also offering confession,” he said, glancing at his watch. “And it starts right about now.” He stood up. I swallowed hard and followed him down the hall.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” I began. What does a fifteen-year-old confessor say to the object of her desire? I wasn’t giving away much at first: impure thoughts, sneaking smokes, talking back to my parents . . . “and I think you are the handsomest man I have ever met, and the smartest, and I am afraid I worship you more than I do the Lord.”
There. I had said it. If I could have seen through the confessional veil, I’ll bet I would have caught him smiling.
“My child,” he said, “your passion for Christ is so strong, you mistake me for him. You will learn to guide your emotions as you mature. And you are a wonderful witness for the Lord. Go now and be at peace.”
My legs were shaky as I walked along the row of pews and sat down. I’m not sure what I’d expected. To be honest, I felt a little cheated. I didn’t even get penance. Didn’t he realize I was serious? I sulked as mass began.
During the sign of peace, Father Frank left the altar as usual and came down among the congregation to offer handshakes and blessings. As he walked toward me, I held out my hand, but he ignored it. Instead he put his palm on my cheek, his little finger tucked under my chin, and he kissed my forehead. “You will always be my special student of God,” he whispered in my ear.
I sat back down on the pew. Had I just dreamed it, or had Father Frank kissed me? A classmate sitting next to me elbowed me in the side, but I continued to stare straight ahead, silent and smiling. I had never felt the Lord’s presence so strongly.
Durham, North Carolina
When I was thirteen, my mother was everything I wanted to be: beautiful, kind, funny, sexy, smart, independent. She worked nights as a waitress to support us, and during the day she went to school to learn to be a court reporter. My father stayed at home, debilitated by depression. He was, and is, a brilliant man, with a master’s degree in physics, but he was prone to spells of darkness that left my mother to care for children and household alone.
Mom did such a fine job of raising us that my brothers and I never had an inkling that we were poor, or that there was something severely wrong with our father. She was our bulwark against all threats, from tyrannical teachers to bullies to our father’s emotional absence.
One weekend I had a friend over to spend the night. This was unusual, as I preferred not to expose friends to my father, who would sit in a darkened room with a book propped in front of his face. But my father, in a rare moment of liveliness, had agreed to take us skiing in the morning. He even planned to ski himself.
Our plans fell apart, however, when my mother didn’t come home that night. At first we figured she was held up by the blizzard that tore at the shingles. But when she still wasn’t home by 11:30, we knew that something had to be wrong. I pictured my sexy, beautiful mother buried in a snowdrift, or stuffed in a dumpster somewhere. My father took out the Volkswagen and plowed through the snow to try to find her, but succeeded only in getting stuck, and a neighbor had to dig him out.
I began to imagine myself as an orphan because, after my mother’s death, my father would surely hang himself. I would be separated from my brothers and stuck in a home with disturbed kids who liked to start fires and fornicate in the bunk above me. Or, worse, my father wouldn’t kill himself, and I’d be forced to live with him and listen to his weird, depressing jazz for the rest of my teenage years.
That my mother might be all right and not call was inconceivable to me. Whatever problems she and my father might be having, she would at least call me, her only daughter. The thought of her death was horrible, but it was almost as bad to think that she would torture me this way.
My mother came home the next morning, her clothes disheveled, hair mussed, and makeup smeared. My joy at discovering she was alive was quickly stifled by the sight of my parents standing like mannequins in the kitchen, staring into their coffee cups in silence. I turned and went back to my room, where I hid under the covers with my friend.
A few weeks later, my mother moved out, taking me and my cat with her. We stayed with a girlfriend of hers. I slept on the couch and listened to the rumble of traffic. This was the first of several separations my parents would endure. Each time, I would go with my mother, my brothers with my father.
I never heard any explanation for what had happened the night of the blizzard, but I could guess. It didn’t matter whether she’d spent the night passed out on someone’s floor or in bed with a family friend. The fact that she’d never called was, to me, a far worse betrayal.
Nearly thirty years later, I am married with children who are still young enough to worship me. I can only imagine the crushing burden it must have been for my mother to be both breadwinner and caregiver, saint and savior. She could have run off and never returned, but instead she came home and tried to pick up where she’d left off.
Miraculously, my parents are still together, bound by an agreement only they understand. Somehow they forgave each other, and I forgave them, just as I hope my own children will forgive me one day, when they emerge from the pearly haze of childhood and see me for what I really am: a human being, with all the ugliness and beauty that human beings possess.
I adored my dad. He was the one I went to for guidance, because he always knew the right thing to do. When I married and moved away, he and I continued to be close. He came to visit me the summer that O.J. Simpson was on trial for the murder of his ex-wife. Dad was absorbed in the court proceedings on TV. O.J. had been the football player of his generation.
One afternoon I asked Dad if he thought O.J. was guilty.
“Well,” he said, “even if he is, she asked for it, wearing those short skirts.”
I never asked him for advice again.
I was a young, aspiring actress when a renowned acting coach came to teach a workshop in my hometown. I must have impressed him, because he offered me a scholarship to his course in Los Angeles. I packed my bags and moved without hesitation.
He was an insightful coach, and a strict disciplinarian. I grew enormously under his tutelage. When my scholarship ran out after three months, he offered me a sort of internship: I would run errands for him and collect tuition from the other students in exchange for free classes. I gladly accepted.
The work was simple, and I was able to get it all done in an hour or so each day. The hard part was enduring my coach’s indirect advances. One morning, as he told me all he wanted done that day, his bathrobe fell open, revealing a flabby chest and scrawny bird legs. I felt fortunate not to have seen more. I didn’t find him attractive in the least, but he made it clear that he desired me. More than once in class he used the cover of an exercise to tell me, “I want to fuck you so bad.” I put up with this only because I knew I could never afford the lessons any other way.
One day in class, when I had failed to understand his directions for an exercise, he tried to humiliate me using information that I had divulged to him in confidence. His anger spilled over, and he screamed at the entire class, calling us “lazy amateurs.”
I was shocked, but also mildly amused. The guru’s polished surface had cracked.
Apparently, however, only I had noticed. A number of students approached me after class and said that they were sorry I’d had to endure such rage, but surely I could see that he was right. Glassy-eyed, they continued to follow him, but I didn’t. I quit.
Molly Maslin Arbogast
© James Carroll
When I was eighteen, I got my first real job, at the Dairy Queen across from the county pool. The father and son who ran the place were always yelling at each other in the kitchen.
The father worked forty hours a week at an outboard-motor factory, and the rest of the time he oversaw the restaurant. Every weekend the father was in the kitchen, working on some repair, or just running the business. He was driven, focused, and dedicated. As someone who was just entering the job world, I admired his work ethic and tried to emulate him.
The son, who was the nominal manager of the restaurant, lacked motivation. If it weren’t for a wake-up call from his father every morning at 6 A.M., he would likely not have made it in to work.
One Sunday morning at the Dairy Queen, the father and son were yelling at each other as usual. My fellow employees and I took it in stride, until the father grabbed his son in a headlock and began punching his face. Never had I seen such a violent beating. Afterward I did not talk to anyone, and the son avoided me as best he could.
Though I had witnessed the father’s flaws, I managed to keep a mostly positive opinion of him. That summer he died of a massive heart attack while mowing the Dairy Queen lawn. I had just quit work to prepare for college, but I agreed to stay on for one more week, as a favor to the family.
One afternoon I was at the family’s house, helping to clean out the basement, when I found stacks of sadistic pornography: women tied up and gagged and penetrated with objects. The material had belonged to the father, they told me, and there was more of it.
To this day, I have never had another hero.
We met when we were twelve, before we had our periods, before beauty and boys became all that mattered. We went to the same all-girls school. She lived in a big, sunny apartment overlooking Central Park, with an elevator operator named Luis and a nanny’s room and her own polka-dotted bedroom with a private bath. Her world seemed much farther from mine than the forty-five-minute subway ride to my family’s roach-infested apartment in the Bronx. I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to be her.
My friend grew more beautiful every day, with her long black hair and olive skin. A little girl on the street mistook her for Cher. Men asked to take her photograph. Her peasant blouses got lower and lower, and her Levi’s got tighter and tighter. Meanwhile my shoulders got more rounded and slumped.
We talked so much on the telephone that I had to get my own line, paid for with baby-sitting money. We talked about our teacher and the other girls in our school, but mostly we talked about her boyfriends. She taught me how to dress, how to wear my hair, what music to listen to, how to smoke pot, and how to eat an entire Sara Lee banana cake without gaining weight.
We have remained friends through the years of marriage and children, and we even live in the same small town. I have found it increasingly difficult to maintain my separate sense of self when I am with my friend — so much so that I recently cut off contact with her to focus on the hard work of trying to build a healthy family. She doesn’t understand, and I don’t blame her. Although I don’t want to be her anymore, I don’t know if I can be friends with her and still feel good about myself just the way I am.
I adored my older sister, the artist in the family. Throughout high school, I followed her around like a disciple and enrolled in every art class, just to be like her.
In printmaking I thoroughly enjoyed the mechanics of the craft, but I dreaded the design portion. As I faced the blank piece of paper, wishing for beauty to appear, my stomach would tighten, and I would pray for the disagreeable task to be over so I could begin the cheerful work of setting up the silk screen and materials.
My first print was a repeating pattern based on the plant cells I had seen under the microscope in biology the period before. When the paint ran on my first design, I sat dejected, believing it to be ruined. The teacher looked at what I had and suggested layering another screen of paint over the first, adding shapes to the pattern. I was astonished. You could do that?
The next semester, still striving to be an artist, I enrolled in a pottery class. My creations had to be symmetrical, recognizable, and useful for me to like them. My teacher tried to get me to think more creatively, but I couldn’t. She sighed a little more heavily with each bland new submission.
After finishing yet another perfectly symmetrical vase, I whacked the still-wet clay with a ruler in frustration and smushed it to half its size. In a foul mood, I turned it in to the teacher like that. She loved it.
I switched my major to biology the next day.
When I was a boy, I idolized my much older brother. He was smart, stoic, and cool, wore long hair and torn jeans, and rode a motorcycle. I ignored his few bad habits, like smoking cigarettes and occasionally selling drugs, and imitated everything else about him: his voice, his gestures, his nonchalance. I fought my parents over haircuts until finally, when I was ten, they let me grow my hair long. Mostly, though, I copied my brother’s stoicism: no emotion, no pain. Once, on a winter car ride, I sat freezing for hours in the back seat because I didn’t want to be the first to roll up the window or reach for a sweater.
Being like my brother meant not showing my feelings, not letting on that I had desires. As I got older and realized that I was attracted to men, I struggled to find a way to be like my brother and also be gay.
Over the years, I suffered many crushes on men but never told any of them I loved them, and I turned down many women who were attracted to me, not knowing I was gay. I began to notice that my brother could not maintain relationships either, even with women he truly loved.
One day I realized that if I didn’t abandon my brother as a role model, I would grow old alone. I started expressing my feelings. Though in many ways my brother is still my hero, I had to go beyond his example to become myself.
In my final year of high school, while my peers wasted their time working on cars, attending parties, or playing sports, I devoured books, especially the ancients — Plato, Cicero, Seneca — for they seemed to possess the secret of living a “good life.” I identified with the young Stephen Dedalus, surrounded by ignorant Dubliners, in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Burning to read the ancient philosophers in their original tongues, I became a classics major in college. I was fortunate enough to earn a year’s scholarship at a prestigious Scottish university renowned for its Greek, Latin, and ancient-history departments. Classes were held in a stately edifice erected before Columbus journeyed to the New World, and my professors were all widely published scholars. Clad in black academic gowns and standing upon daises, they were like gods who rained down wisdom on their young, ignorant charges.
I especially admired Professor G., who taught medieval Latin. He was the type of scholar I hoped to be: aloof, brilliant, and disciplined. I would study his assignments at a prominent table in the department library and even hang around the dark, wood-paneled corridor where his office was, hoping to earn the least bit of acknowledgment from him. When he greeted me as he passed, I felt I was part of an elite cadre.
Since I spent so much time in the classics-department building, I became friendly with the doorman, the clerks, and the maids, who would often stop and chat in lilting Scottish accents about their families or the weather. One aging, portly cleaning woman named Margaret took me under her wing. We would walk the cobbled streets to her seaside cottage. Along the way she would ask me about my family and life in America. In turn she would talk about her deceased husband or her son Alistair, who as a teenager had drowned in the sea in front of her house: “Auch aye, my wee Alie. I miss him so.” In front of a peat fire, we would share bread, cheese, and meat pies. Margaret reminded me of my own grandmother, and I grew to love her.
One Friday afternoon, the final day before winter break, Margaret and I were chatting in the empty library when Professor G. strolled toward our table. As I quickly opened a book, Margaret called out, “Good afternoon, Professor G. How are you today?”
He walked to a nearby shelf to retrieve a book and left without deigning to answer her. Margaret slowly turned her eyes to the floor, clearly hurt. I reached over and held her hand.
There is a Latin saying: Amicus Plato sed magis amica veritas, which means “Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth.” I earned my classics degree, but never became a scholar. Instead I went to work in human services.
North Scituate, Rhode Island
By the time I was ten years old, I was searching teen magazines for beauty tips. I even checked out library books on modeling and how to be popular. Luckily my brother Sheldon was around to guide me.
Sheldon was five years older than I, and I thought he was the coolest, smartest person in the world. When he’d invite me into his room to listen to the latest Grateful Dead or Joni Mitchell album, I behaved like an eager student, savoring every lyric and riff. Sheldon would read to me from the I Ching, Abbie Hoffman, and Ram Dass. Later, I would sneak into his room to “borrow” these books. (He eventually bought me my own copy of Be Here Now so he could have his back.)
One day I was scrutinizing the photographs in Seventeen magazine, searching for how I ought to look. The models were all blond-haired, blue-eyed Cheryl Tiegs look-alikes. With my dark hair and ethnic features, it was clear I’d never look like the girls in the magazine.
I mustered the courage to ask Sheldon which models he thought were pretty. As he flipped through the magazine, I pointed out possibilities: “How about her? She’s pretty, don’t you think?” After making it clear that he didn’t think there were many examples of “pretty” to be found in those pages, he showed me the girl he liked best.
She was the only dark brunette, olive-skinned, large-featured model in the whole magazine.
Gramps was a giant to me, his six-year-old granddaughter. His skin was like tanned leather, and no one cared if he got dirty. Dogs followed him, men hushed when he talked, and everybody knew his name. When he drove, he waved to other drivers with just a flick of his finger and a nod of his head. Gramps operated huge tractors and combines and knew how to handle unruly steers. I wanted to be just like him. When he gave me one of his Pioneer Seed caps, I wore it everywhere.
I was in college when my mother told me this story: One day, my first-grade teacher, Mrs. B., called my mother in for a conference. Mrs. B. was concerned that my short hair, tomboyish behavior, and Pioneer Seed hat indicated “homosexual tendencies.” She thought my mother should know.
My mother laughed and said, “Is that all? I don’t care if she grows up gay or not. And for your information, her grandfather gave her that hat, and she loves him. That’s all that matters.”
Mary Beth Kwenda
As a girl I worshiped Wonder Woman, with her stars-and-stripes bustier and her invisible plane. I loved the way she deflected bullets with those golden bracelets and roped villians with her magic lasso. She was strong and sexy, whereas I was small and powerless, with a psychotic mother, a rageful and distant father, and struggling grandparents. My chest was flat, and my stick arms and legs stuck out awkwardly from my skinny torso.
Even so, my best friend, Teedy, called me “Wonder Woman” as I chased him around the blacktop on languid afternoons. He could sense that strength and power in me somewhere.
I am now six feet tall, and my friends call me “Amazon.” People often tell me I look like Wonder Woman. I smile and flick my wrists as if deflecting bullets.
Best friends are the ones who know who you really are.
I thought of the Dalai Lama as my last living hero. I was awed by stories of his escape from Chinese-occupied Tibet and the way he remained a “simple monk” even after becoming a world leader. My other heroes were all dead: John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi. All were seekers of truth and peace, not just for themselves but for the world.
I wanted to emulate them, but their examples seemed impossible to follow. I had spent a lifetime hurting other people and myself. By putting my heroes on pedestals, I had put them beyond my reach.
One day I met Lucy at work. We both had kitchen duty. To keep ahead of the bills, she held down a second job, because she had three sons to support. Despite her long hours, she always came to work cheerful. When I kidded her about her red hair, she elbowed me in the chest and said, “It comes out of a bottle. I’m grayer than a rainy-day sky from all my worries!” She laughed, and so did I.
One month she missed a car payment, and her car was almost repossessed. Then the government decided to garnish her wages because, several years before, her kids had been taken in by a foster family, and the feds wanted her to pay them back. They even put a hold on her bank account. Then her landlord sold the house, and the new owner gave her thirty days to move out.
“I used to sell pot when I was young,” she confided to me. “The fucking government is on my ass so bad you’d think they wanted me to go back to doing it!” She laughed, but this time her laughter was bitter. “I don’t even want to ask if it could get any worse, because I’m afraid I’d find out.”
She pulled extra hours on both jobs, keeping her cash at home so the government wouldn’t take it or lock it up. She even saved a little extra and took her kids to Disney World for two days, to help relieve the stress. When they got home, the house had been broken into, and the money was gone.
“I don’t know why I even try anymore,” Lucy grumbled. “It’s getting so bad that every time the garbage truck comes, I think he’s making a delivery!” We laughed a little, though I could see she was close to crying.
Eventually she found another place to live and got access to her checking account again. She got a loan from one of her bosses and somehow settled things with the government. She is one of my heroes, not because she got her life back on track, but because she kept working toward her goals even when they seemed impossible to attain.
I still have my old heroes, but Lucy has opened my eyes to a host of new ones: A friend who’s a single mother and is going to college. My father, who never gave up on me during my long stretch in prison. My mother, who wrote me twice a week, just to let me know I was in her thoughts. The two friends who fought to keep their marriage together after one of them became sick.
My world is full of heroes now, and I no longer place them on a pedestal, because I want to keep them within reach.
St. Petersburg, Florida