Each of us comes from somewhere, for me that is Rhode Island. RI is a very small, densely populated, state along New England’s rocky coast. It has more coastal water views per capita than any other state, more economic disparity cheek by jowl, with poor fishermen and sailors routinely passing by the glittering Newport mansions. RI has a very part time state legislature, and the state house is within an hour’s drive of every part of the state, so residents can drive to the state house of an afternoon to discuss issues with their state representative. The sense of living in close proximity to power, economic disparity, and the prevalent rocky shores of RI play a significant role in the unfolding of my story. I was a skinny, boisterous, energetic, boy with a buzz cut, and a pronounced RI accent, struggling to make my way in the world.
In order to survive and thrive in a turbulent world, I became a storyteller. My story begins on a sunny Saturday in 1961 in Newport, RI. Nature was green and alive. The sea breeze gave a certain wistfulness to the day. Five year old Jay raced six of his eight mostly older siblings across the lawn of the Baptist Ministers retirement home. 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 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 very focused. Carefully picking up and perusing each book he soon caught the attention of a couple of the sales ladies at the books tables.
Sales lady: “Little boy, how old are you, and how much do you have to spend?”
Jay: “I’m five, and I only have a quarter, but need to buy some books to read.”
Sales lady: “We have a new rule, not posted yet, that any year old can fill a brown grocery bag with as many books as they can read for only twenty five cents.”
Jay was in heaven! In those days kids learned to read in first grade which he wouldn’t begin for another several months. However he listened to and carefully copied 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. Heaven is when the world conspires for your happiness and wellbeing. That five year old Jay of course was me.
At my birth 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 incredibly close. It’s hard to imagine it being otherwise since Pat and Steve were my most frequent companions growing up. But I am told my mother did not breast feed me, did not hold me or cuddle me, nor spend any time with me unless I made a big 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 my siblings. Just how it was for me. My parents loved us deeply but were completely overwhelmed by parenting for most of my childhood.
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 older siblings would often look after me while my mother focused on the new babies. In total my mother gave birth to five more children after me, for a total of ten kids, by the time I turned eight. However it was those first 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 turned out well, but simply to acknowledge where I come from. My parents did the best they could, given the circumstances, and poor primary attachment leaves its marks for life.
I was a willful child. That summer of 1961 was trying to play baseball with my older brothers but wasn’t very good at hitting. Wanted to hit a home run, or at least get on base, even if only through sheer desire and power of will. My oldest brother Johnny was pitching. My turn finally came at bat. Swung with all my might and landed in the dust. Strike one. I stood up, brushing the dirt from my clothes, and prepared to do better. Connected with the second pitch with a firm smack of the ball. Ran with all my might to first base. They told me to go back. It was a foul ball. I had hit the ball and desperately wanted to stay on first. They made me go back. I was so furious in that moment that I could not see straight and missed the next pitch. Strike three. I threw the bat at my brother. My mother immediately appeared and made me take a time out in my room, setting her egg timer at thirty minutes to time me, and left me to fume.
It was hot in the room. I could hear my brothers continuing to play baseball. The tick, tick, ticking of the egg timer was taunting me. Hurled it to the floor smashing it. Now had no way of knowing when my time out would ever be over. Finally my mother came to see why I hadn’t reappeared. Told me how disappointed she as in my behavior. She picked up the pieces of the broken egg timer. Told me that any money I received for birthdays or Christmas would go to pay the cost of replacing the broken egg timer. Then was sent back out to play. But my day was totally ruined. Baseball no longer held any appeal. My ego self was thoroughly frustrated and dissatisfied. So I slunk off to be by myself and cry.
Our family was incredibly and increasingly poor. My father Ed worked all of the time preoccupied with his role as founding minister of a small working class Baptist congregation. In 1961 Ed was a 40 year old American Baptist minister, with nine children, earning $3000 a year (equivalent to $23,000 today) serving a small white working class Baptist church in Portsmouth, RI. The birth of their final son still two years away. This was poverty, but in a small town way, it had its own sense of belonging. New England small town poverty seems more dignified and humane than urban poverty, or southern poverty, but we learned to do without nevertheless. Late 20th century American middle class consumerism never held any appeal for me. We didn’t need all that stuff, but did hunger for more than we had, to be someone, to have enough. Minister’s families were looked up to as somehow special. Poor kids from large families were not. We had both circumstances. Being highly educated poor is a rather 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. Each spring we plowed and planted the lower portion of our property for a vegetable garden with potatoes, corn, squash, carrots, and beets. In what is the garden that we learned transience, to paraphrase Ecclesiastes, that for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven; a time to plant, and a time to harvest; a time to seek and a time to lose; everything had its place and time. This understanding would greatly influence my spiritual journey and my life path.
The garden’s vegetables were a major part of our diet. We children were responsible for weeding and tending it. Rae made do with whatever she could buy cheaply to supplement. She 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 from it. Our freezer was stocked with various indeterminate inexpensive cuts of meat. Most of the meat was discolored with freezer burn ruining its taste. 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 her student loans for teaching in an economically depressed zone.