In order to survive and thrive in a turbulent world, I became a storyteller. My story begins on a sunny early Saturday in 1961 in Newport, RI. Nature was green and alive. Five year old Jay raced his eight mostly older siblings across the lush lawn of the Baptist Ministers retirement home. He was intent on beating them to the used book tables at the home’s annual bazaar. Jay loved books. Every June his family would go to this giant yard sale to help support the retired ministers. Jay clutched a single quarter in his small fist, the spending money his mother had given him for the day, and he wanted to spend it all on books. Adult books were each a quarter, children’s hard cover books a dime, and children’s paperbacks a nickel each.
For a five year old Jay was unusually goal oriented and focused. He quickly calculated he could only buy a few books unless he found some way to do better. Carefully picking up and perusing each book he soon caught the attention of a couple of the sales ladies at the books tables. They asked how old he was and how much he had to spend. When he told them five and $.25 they looked at each other and introduced a new rule. Any five year old could fill a grocery bag for $.25 with as many books as he could read. In those days most kids learned to read in first grade which Jay wouldn’t begin for another several months. They didn’t know he had listened to and carefully mimicked his brother David, who had just finished second grade, as David had learned to read over the previous two years. Jay already read at a second grade level. He went home that afternoon with two dozen books stuffed into a shopping bag and with the biggest grin on his face. That five year old Jay of course was me.
If the circumstances of our birth was our destiny, this could be a sad story. But it is how we respond to our circumstances which creates our destiny. This is a joyous story of redemption and awakening. Each of us have stories which help explain us as unique human beings. It wasn’t until I was undergoing Jungian psycho-analysis in my late 40’s, a required part of my preparation for ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister, that I discovered the source of my unreasonable craving for fame and fortune, for love and reassurance, and my desperate need to be widely recognized. My mid-life crisis analyst called it extreme extroversion with narcissistic tendencies, an inflated sense of self, and a deep desire for admiration. He said it was a common condition for highly successful entrepreneurs and investors but less so for ordained ministers. But what would any of this mean to a five year old? I liked to be the center of things.
When I was born my mother already had four children under the age of eight. She became pregnant again two months after my birth with my sister Pat. She was pregnant again four months after Pat’s birth with my brother Steve. The three of us born within 24 months of each other have always been close. But I am told my mother did not breast feed me, or any of us, did not hold me or cuddle me, nor spend any time with me unless I made a fuss. There was little opportunity for the human attachment suckling, snuggling, or breast feeding. This is not to say that I had it worse off than any of my siblings. Just how it was for me. My parents were completely overwhelmed by parenting during most of my childhood.
I think David, two years older than me, and Pat and Steve, born so soon after me, might all have been even more greatly affected by their birth order in such a large family than I was. After my sister Pat was born my oldest sister would often look after me while my mother focused on the new babies. In total my mother would give birth to five more children after me, for a total of ten kids, by the time I eight. However it was those first five years, without sufficient parental comfort and attachment, which seem to have so greatly influenced how my life would unfold. I don’t say this as a victim of circumstances, or to blame my mother, since my life has turned out well, but simply to acknowledge where I come from. Poor primary attachment leaves its marks for life.
Our family was incredibly and increasingly poor. My father Ed worked all of the time. He was preoccupied with his role as the founding minister of a small working class Baptist congregation. In 1961 Ed was a 40 year old American Baptist minister earning less than $3000 a year (equivalent to $23,000 today) serving a small white working class Baptist church in Portsmouth, RI. By then my parents had eight children already, with my mother Rae pregnant with the ninth, and their final son still two years away. How does my situation of birth compare to yours? In retrospect, New England small town poverty seems to me more dignified and humane than urban poverty, or southern poverty, but we learned to do without nevertheless. Minister’s families are looked up to as somehow special. Poor kids from large families are not. We had both circumstances. We were highly educated yet poor, with high expectations for our behavior and accomplishments, which is a much more complex socio-economic location.
Needless to say my parents struggled to feed so many on so little. I was always hungry, and with so many children to care for, including three under five and another on the way, my mother Rae was an indifferent housekeeper and a horrible cook. With little money, broken kitchen equipment, a non-stop unpaid position as a minister’s wife, and too many children, she did the best she could. Each spring we plowed and planted the lower portion of our property for a vegetable garden with potatoes, corn, squash, carrots, and beets. We children were responsible for weeding and tending it. Rae bought loaves of three day old bread and those number 10 cans that were cheaper if they were dented or had lost their labels. Imagine the game of roulette played in opening unlabeled number 10 cans for dinner. No one knew quite for sure what we would be eating. Our freezer was stocked with various indeterminate inexpensive cuts of meat.
We didn’t know how poor we were though until my oldest sister graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a teaching degree. When she came back to teach in a local public high school the federal government forgave two years of her student loans for teaching in an economically depressed zone. It wouldn’t always be that way but while I was small it was. Because we were such a large family, coming of age between 1960 and the late 1970’s, my siblings and I had a wide divergence of childhood experiences. But education was our family’s core value. Being a highly educated family in a small RI town was a great place to have grown up. A wonderful place to be from.
Of my nine siblings, one would become a professor of nursing, one a professor of communications, one for a time a very leftist political science professor, another a public school teacher, one became a professor of physiology, and one a professor of moral development, another was for a while a marine biologist, and the youngest two were a consultant and a general contractor. So six of my nine siblings had PhD’s and served as college professors. I think you can safely say we all grew up with a great sense of resilience in life, largely grounded in our educational attainments, though not entirely so. This small town environment helped create the successful transcendentalist capitalist that I was to become. And I will always be grateful for it. These aspects of my childhood helped shape the man I became.