It’s a very strange side effect of my mother’s death this year, that many of my childhood memories have returned. I’m not sure where they went in the first place — though I have a few ideas — but they’re back now. And, it’s been an interesting process, re-cataloging them as an adult.
When I was a kid, nobody knew what dyslexia was, and even fewer knew about autism spectrum. I’d never heard the word autism until I was in college, on a class visit to the state hospital. There was a boy there — my age — curled up in a fetal position in a very large crib. He weighed no more than 90 lbs, and he rocked back and forth every moment he was awake. This, I was told, was what being autistic meant.
So I was dyslexic, asthmatic, probably somewhere on the north end of autistic — and at 13 years old, I must have been pretty creepy. My parents (who I am now told neglected me in almost all ways) decided I needed to do more “normal’ things. I’d never had a friend. I’d never been to another kid’s house. I’d never been to a sleepover or out to a movie. I lived in my room — mostly with the door closed — and I’d been there all my life.
We went to a little church three times a week, and the teenagers there all went out together every Sunday night. Nothing organized — not dates or parties — just riding around our little suburb, or out to get a Coke at a Dairy Queen. Evidently, my parents paid one of the 18 year old boys to take me with them.
This must have been a really awkward thing for a teenage boy. I tended to wear the same clothes every day. I didn’t know how to talk to people. I wasn’t pretty or sweet or any of the words people like to think describe them. And I’d never heard pop music or “news at the top of the hour,” or even carried on a conversation with anyone I wasn’t related to. But Eddie — the senior in high school who needed pocket money — made sure I followed along everywhere this little group went on Sunday nights.
One evening after church, however, Eddie didn’t have any money to go out, so everybody went back to his house.
I’d never been to anybody’s house. My grandmother’s. My aunts. The preacher’s. And that was it. I knew the house on Father Knows Best and Make Room For Daddy — and even the big Ponderosa ranch house on Bonanza. But that was about it.
Eddie’s house was modest. There were doilies on the tables, and hard chairs in the living-room. There was a table with an aqua surface in his kitchen and a mixer on the counter top. In hindsight, this was a very modest and moderately low income household, even though both of his parents worked. The house was older and built of wood, with trees and bushes neatly trimmed in the yard. It was like the house we’d lived in when I was small — not like our shag carpeted, wood paneled, gun-cabineted house in the suburbs.
Eddie, like me, was an only child. His house was uncluttered and uncrowded — there were no siblings to demand attention. His parents were older than mine. I suspect now that they wern’t THAT much older — but my parents married before they were 20.
Most importantly, his house had a stereo record player — which was a big deal in the late 1960s — and Eddie had records. While he and the other kids talked and did whatever it was they were doing, I looked at record album covers and played the Temptations and the Supremes on the stereo. He had Beach Boys. The Lettermen. Glen Miller. All pretty standard issue stuff — and all completely new for me.
Evidently, I was not particularly welcome in this group of teenagers, because after a few weeks, Eddie explained to me that I needed to learn how to be polite and how to act with other kids. I remember crying because I didn’t know what he was talking about. I hardly talked at all. When I did say something, though, I must have been loud and curt and out of place. I asked a lot of questions. I stared at them when they talked. I had no common experiences with those people. I didn’t know any of them or how to be interested in them. They talked about things I didn’t know anything about.
I remember trying to listen to them. Trying to figure out what they were talking about so I could “fit in.”
But it was like a foreign language. The only common ground I could ever find with them was music. I’d asked for a radio for Christmas — and it had become my window into the world. Where I’d never even heard pop music before — I was now listening to one of the Dallas rock-and-roll stations (KLIF 1190 on your radio dial) every night to go to sleep. I knew all the songs and all the bands and I could sing along. I listened to the radio non-stop from the time I woke up in the morning, so that no matter what came on Eddie’s car radio — I knew it. It gave me common ground.
I didn’t know what most of the songs were talking about — but I knew all the words.
I still know the words.
But somewhere in the last couple of decades, I stopped listening to music. Some music you can’t get away from — it’s always there in TV commercials, elevators, playing in the background in stores. But on the whole, I had lost all that music. There were too many other things to focus on. Even my iPod was full of recorded books.
But something happened when my mother died. All the music came flooding into my head. Simon and Garfunkle. The Beatles. Marvin Gaye. The First Edition. Tommy James and the Shondels. Smokey Robinson. Janis Joplin. Then the Bee Gees (the old original Bee Gees, not the Disco Bee Gees.) Carole King. James Taylor. Harry Nillsson. The Doors. Neil Diamond. And on and on.
I now have an iPod/iPad/iTunes full of music. Four decades worth of music.
And I remembered Eddie who is probably a grandfather. I think the last time I saw him, he was teaching school, and his wife had just had twins. That was a long time ago.
Eddie didn’t teach me to be a proper teenager, but he did introduce me to music as a bridge to other people. And that was enough to get me by until I was older.