THE SEVENTEEN TRADITIONS
Introduction: The Landscape of My Boyhood
The bell rang at Central School one early autumn day, signaling that our eighth-grade classes were over. The other schoolboys and I headed boisterously for the exit doors. As we passed a girl in our class, one of the boys cocked his head toward her, looked at us, and said pointedly, "What a pig."
She heard him, of course, and as I looked back I saw her shattered expression before she walked away. The boys just laughed loudly. "Ugh," one of them added, seconding the remark. I was stunned. This girl was one of our friendliest, and most helpful, classmates. We'd all been in the same class with her since the first grade. Everyone liked her. As I walked home, I found myself unable to shake off this sudden episode. What was her crime, I asked myself? She wasn't one of the beauties in our class, but was that her fault? Did she deserve this boy's casual cruelty? Nothing of this kind had happened when we were in the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh grades. Why now?
For the rest of that day and into the evening, I couldn't stop thinking about that girl's crestfallen expression, and the sneering, insensitive look on the boy's face. The fellow who'd made the comment wasn't a class bully or a loudmouth. But that afternoon, glancing at an innocent thirteen-year-old girl, he was hurtful to her. She was just another girl in the class, perhaps a little plain-faced and pale. What had she done to warrant his verbal fury? Was his real goal to impress us, by demonstrating that he knew who was attractive and who wasn't? Whatever the explanation, I suspected that the onset of puberty had taken over the boy's mind -- that the lower half of his growing body was taking over his top half, where his brain lived, displacing years of looking at the girl for who she was and not how she looked. In this respect, that boy had been a better person at nine or ten than he was that day.
I'd like to think that my siblings and I weren't guilty of such behavior. But when we did act up, my mother had a standard response. Whenever she felt we'd let our baser instincts stop us from thinking for ourselves, she'd say, "I believe it's you." There's nothing wrong with that girl, she'd have told that thoughtless boy. But there is something wrong with you, for prejudging her that way. That always set us straight.
As an adult, I've often noticed how common it is for people to accept conventional, commercially driven definitions of human beauty -- indeed, to accept conventional ideas of all kinds. And I've always been grateful to my childhood, in all its fullness, for teaching me to challenge preconceptions and reject conformity or coercion, those influences that inflict so much pain, deprivation, and tragedy upon our communities and societies today. Despite all my years of higher education at Princeton University and Harvard Law School, I might never have learned to think this way without the guidance of my parents, my family, and the small-town community where I grew up.
In these times of widespread conformity and self-censorship, I find myself thinking back upon my childhood, recalling what made it special for me and for my brother and sisters. Recently I've found myself thinking that I should share these memories with others, in the hope that they might offer guidance and inspiration for the parents, children, and grandchildren of today. And what I hope will be especially helpful, in this very different world we inhabit, are my memories of the traditions in which my childhood was immersed -- traditions that remain vivid in my mind, and that guide me to this day.
I am often asked what forces shaped me. Rather than trying to give a full answer to that question -- which would take longer than a limited interview would allow -- I often reply simply, "I had a lucky choice of parents." My brother, two sisters, and 1 had a remarkable father and mother, who cared for us in both direct and subtle ways. The examples of their lives set us on the solid paths we have explored ever since.
Among other things, my parents were responsible for passing down the traditions they had learned from the generations before them -- traditions they refined and adapted to the unfamiliar country and culture to which they had emigrated early in the twentieth century. These traditions arose from the received wisdom and customs they had learned during their own childhoods in Lebanon, elaborated by their own judgments, sensibilities, and changing circumstances. In turn, they were nourished by regular feedback from their acculturating children, which they encouraged.
Mother and Father each lived to be just short of a century old; we benefited from their seasoned perspectives and wisdom for many, many years. They were forever young, exemplifying my mother's strong belief in the importance of remaining "interested and interesting." And they succeeded in doing this throughout their lives, attracting ever-younger friends to visit, whether we children were home or not. They created the strong family base from which my siblings and I sallied forth into the wider world, full of new experiences and high expectations.
That base was, in part, a matter of locale. My parents made a conscious choice to move to Winsted, a small town nestled in the Litchfield Hills of northwestern Connecticut, where I was born in the middle of the Depression.
Winsted was, and wasn't a typical New England town. Through it ran the Mad River and the Still River, named by the settlers who arrived in those dense woods in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Connecticut is dotted with such mill towns, which depended on the rivers to power their factories. Most of these towns were small, dominated by one or two large factories. Winsted. on the other hand, had spawned a hundred factories and fabrication shops by 1900, and these factories in turn gave rise to homes, shops, and other businesses -- including probably more drinking bars per square yard than any town east of the Mississippi. The town of Winchester, which includes Winsted. is shaped like a lopsided rectangle that angles from the southwest to the northeast. The land is very hilly with ridges, upland lakes, and the valley where most of the factories, stores, schools, and homes were located. When my father opened his restaurant-bakery along the town's mile-long Main Street, the local population was ten thousand, in an area roughly the size of Manhattan.
It was a walking town. In those days, youngsters didn't have to rely on Mama or Papa to drive them around. Nor were there school buses, except for the really distant rural homes. You walked. I walked. It was a good town for walking, with its tree-shaded streets, well-kept sidewalks, and access to just about everything for our needs, wants, and whims. Just a brisk walk away -- no more than fifteen to twenty minutes -- were the schools, the playgrounds, most of the homes, the town hall, the movie theater, the shops, the factories, the daily newspaper offices, the library, the historical society, the hospital and churches, police and fire departments, dentists, doctors, lawyers, the railroad station, the post office, the electric and telephone companies, and the county courtroom.
Winstedites could walk up nearby hills to visit the dairy farms where their milk came from, to relax at Highland Lake (the second largest natural lake in Connecticut), or to explore any number of quieter meadows, woods, and streams. It was a good community for families raising children, with no cement, asphalt, or skyscrapers sealing the people off from the land, the water, their beloved gardens, or the sky, with its breezes and horizons. Nature, unsequestered, inspired my mother to sing so often, "Oh, what a beautiful morning!"
My mother and father had both grown up in small communities themselves. My paternal grandfather died when my father was an infant. Dad grew up with his mother, sister, and brother in the little village of Arsoon, in the mountains of Lebanon. The swimming hole in Arsoon provided an inviting setting, and my father impressed the neighborhood boys with his diving skills every year. As children, we never tired of his stories about daring jumps into the cold mountain waters. Mother grew up in Zahle, a foothill town above Lebanon's fertile Bekaa Valley, the country's breadbasket. She was the fourth daughter in a family of eight girls. My grandparents took four cousins under their wing and raised them along with their own children.
Our parents' families preserved both their own traditions, passed down by their ancestors, and newer traditions learned from their experiences with foreign occupation -- first the Ottoman Turks, then the French. Our parents always stressed that the best from the old should be merged with the best from the new. Winsted's other immigrant families -- Irish, Italian, Polish, and other Eastern Europeans, who worked in the textile, hardware, and clock factories and shops -- seemed to feel the same way. Grown-ups and children spent far more time with each other than is the case today, and the wisdom flowed freely between them.
Winsted was a true community, known for its frequent parades and lively public life. The sidewalks of Main Street were often bustling with townspeople shopping and doing their errands. Neighbors knew each other well and visited regularly, for television had not yet arrived. Most of the national service clubs and associations of those years, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Rotary, the Kiwanis, the Lions, the Elks, the Knights of Columbus, the Red Cross, the Masons, the Salvation Army, the YMCA, had chapters in town. Most factory workers were able to afford a mortgage on a modest house and a secondhand car, if not a new one, and after World War II federal housing assistance programs helped the returning veterans make their way. Situated snugly in the picturesque Litchfield Hills, Winsted -- then the seat of Litchfield County -- enjoyed the status of being the last stop on the railroad line from New York City. Until the 1940s, seven trains left Winsted for the Big City each day. It was like being at the headwaters of a mighty river -- one that flowed both ways.
Winsted also had the reputation of a town where argument flourished. It was known for its noisy town meetings, and for the heady conversations that erupted constantly in its bars, restaurants, and grocery stores, not to mention the post office and the town hall. The town still followed the New England town meeting tradition, in which residents voted each year to approve -- or disapprove -- the budget. The people of Winsted weren't inclined to delegate their fights to elected representatives. Instead they aired their concerns in a constant stream of public debate, much of which found its way into the local newspaper, the Winsted Evening Citizen. Our town was one of the smallest in the country with its own daily newspaper, and the residents took full advantage of the megaphone it afforded them.
Winsted had the misfortune of enduring a recurrent natural disaster, courtesy of the Mad River, whose waterpower encouraged the construction of several factories on its banks. Again and again, though, the Mad Rivet overflowed those banks, giving rise to three generations of catastrophic floods that culminated in a devastating hurricane-fed wall of water that socked the town in August 1955. Each new flood led to innumerable problems, and innumerable questions for the townspeople to grapple with -- a veritable reservoir of municipal conflict, resolution, or procrastination.
Yet Winsted never seemed cowed by the regular assaults of the Mad River. For a town of its size, it produced an impressive array of long-lasting philanthropic institutions, including the Litchfield County Hospital, the Beardsley and Memorial Library, the Gilbert School, and the grassroots charity known as the Volunteer Winsted Fire Department.
The towns givers were matched, of course, by its takers -- led by the industrial factories, which were low-paying and vigorously anti-union. The older companies were always vigilant about keeping new union factories out of the area. They seemed equally determined to keep fresh air and water at bay, using those two resources as their pollution sinks and sewers. The original factories were not very charitable institutions. And in the 1950s many of their founders' descendants lost their competitive spirit and sold out to absentee owners, who soon moved or closed down their acquisitions. By the time my siblings and I were off at college, Winsted was evolving from a diverse, self-contained mill town to a bedroom town, full of workers who commuted to jobs in Hartford, Torrington, and Waterbury. The air and water became cleaner after the factories closed, but the toxic soils and hollowed-out buildings remained, economic tripwires to any prospects of new development in the area.
As with many such communities, Winsted in those years was marked by ethnic and religious divisions, and these in turn were linked to economic hierarchies. In those years, the town was 99 percent white. There was a calm, though by no means complete, social self-segregation between the Protestant and Catholic families, preserved by the memberships of the town's large Catholic church and the four Protestant churches. There was little bitter overt hostility between the groups; for better or worse, people knew their social place. Civically, on the other hand, all bets were off. The first generation of immigrants knew that the old-line Yankees ran the town and controlled the economy, but with each decade their children and grandchildren asserted more and more political power, and by the 1950s the Yankee industrialists' children were leaving town for more affluent communities.
My boyhood in this small town was shaped by my family, my friends, our neighbors, my chores and hobbies, the town's culture and environment, its schools, libraries, factories, and businesses, their workers, and by those storms that came from nowhere to disrupt everything. All these things defined my mental landscape. Yet childhood in any family is a mysterious experience, one that transcends its most obvious parts. What are the elements that influence human development? Water, air, and nutrition interact with genetic material to develop the body, including the brain. But what shapes the mind, the personality, the character? Try explaining why one sister or brother comes out so differently from the others when they all were raised in the same household, by the same parents, under the same economic, social, educational, and recreational circumstances. Mysterious it is, but that only makes the process more fascinating.
Years later, I came to realize that my own experience as a child had been touched very deeply by certain objects that were part of my natural surroundings -- objects that stimulated my senses and mind in a lasting way. As a little boy I embraced their presence, and allowed them to usher me into an intimate world of imagination, curiosity, reverie, wonder, and awe. They afforded me a sense of solitude, quietude, and comfort; they served as speechless hosts for my childhood communion.
During my early teens, my older brother, Shafeek, gave me a book by James Harvey Robinson, the noted social and intellectual historian. Much of the book was beyond my years, but one thing in this slim volume remained with me -- Robinson's emphasis on the importance of reverie in daily life. As I entered adulthood, I found that reverie became harder and harder to achieve in any given day, in our society of instant communication, fast food, fast commuting, and ever faster ways for everything.
By the early 1970s, we were well on our way to the total immersion experience of the television age, in which most children watched thirty to forty hours of TV a week. They read less and their vocabulary decreased. The decades that followed saw the arrival of twenty-four-hour cable television, VCRs, home computer games, and the Internet -- each in turn cementing the place of the TV screen in our children's lives. In those years I remember reading about the Fresh Air Fund, a program that offers New York City's poor children a chance to spend a few summer weeks in the countryside. For many of these children it was the first time that they had ever walked on soil, on earth! It was the first time they smelled fresh cut grass and hay. For some, it was the first time they'd seen an authentic sunset, not just the televised variety. Today, children everywhere are deprived of exposure to nature in the same way; they grow up with their eyes, ears, tastes, and other senses trained on a corporate world of sensual virtual reality -- removed, as no other generation in human history, from the daily flow and rhythm of nature.
How very different were my early years, lived so close to nature's bounty. When I reflect back on the importance of my family and my childhood, I find that my mind often floods with imagery from these natural surroundings that stirred my imagination in those years. What became a little world to me, as an adult, was a very large world to me as a child. Nature has its own power, drawing us into its magical ambience. And I remember it vividly:
FIRST, THERE WERE SOUNDS ...
A child does not take sounds for granted. Especially nature's sounds, emanating from unseen or mysterious sources. Repetition never dulls their music.
An old-timer down at the school ball yard once told me that no creature in the animal or insect kingdoms makes a sound without a purpose. As a child, I challenged myself to separate one sound from the next, distinguishing them as birdwatchers do. On summer nights, it was nearly impossible to pick out the strands of the cacophony that drifted in from the fields, bushes, and trees -- so many creatures were engaged in their ritualistic recitals. But I listened as the peepers and crickets talked with one another. I even tried to hear the lightning bugs, the fireflies, though they remained silent in their inscrutable luminosity.
Other sounds were harder to ignore. I never enjoyed the barking of the neighborhood dogs, the neurotic domesticated canines whose incessant yelping interrupted the feral sounds of the outdoors. But the most perceptibly urgent and haunting sounds were the high-pitched snarls of the cats at mating time. Before the birds and bees were explained to me, I knew what these tomcats were up to. They kept me awake more than a few nights. I much preferred the sounds of the primeval woods and fields, especially the long howling winds as they swirled through hills and valleys, swaying the trees and bending the tall grasses.
There were other songs that rang true to my ears. The daily mooing of cows on the hilly outskirts of town reminded us that soon the dairy farmers would deliver their fresh milk. The splashing and gurgling of nearby brooks and streams seemed as though it had been ongoing for thousands of years. As I sat by these flowing waters, waiting to see a fish here and a tadpole or frog there, my schoolboy's patience paled in comparison with those eternal waves.
THEN THERE WAS THE MAPLE TREE ...
Directly in front of the stairs leading to our house stood a magnificent maple, more than sixty-five feet tall. Its branches spread before my bedroom window, and they were my four distinct seasons, my wildlife menagerie, and my mystery forest, all in one. In the springtime its leaves sprouted and matured quickly, inviting squirrels to climb and leap around with abandon. Its interior spaces hosted birds of every variety-- imperious crows, friendly chickadees, stately blue jays, motherly robins, hardheaded woodpeckers, frequent sparrows, even the occasional cardinal. I watched them flitting about on the smaller branches and twigs, and wondered about the meaning of their calls to one another. The effusive crows would wake me up with their insistent territorial sparring. When it got too loud, I would slam the window shut.
With the coming of the New England autumn, the leaves turned dazzling colors, and when they fell, they turned the road, lawns, and sidewalks into a carpet of leafy beauty. I loved walking through their ankle-deep drifts, kicking the fragrant, starchy leaves into the air or collecting the best ones to place in my schoolbooks. Our street was full of large maple trees, so the fall produced a canopy of brilliant hues high above the street where the trees meshed with one another across both sides of the road to form their protective ceiling. Even today, just the crunch or rustle of fallen leaves underfoot kindles within me a nostalgia for those days of bonding with the ebb and flow of the seasons.
Yet nothing could quite match the beauty of this maple a few weeks later, when wet snowflakes clung to its bark in the early morning hours after the season's first snowfall. The maple in wintertime became a sound runnel for the symphony of wind, as it fluttered and whistled, then growled and howled. It synchronized nature's forces into a veritable orchestra for my young ears. The maple was so strong and deeply rooted that no winter wind or hurricane gust ever stripped anything more than an exposed twig from its mooring. We never named the tree, but for me it had a personality nonetheless; I associated it with a cluster of mysteries I imagined while lying in bed next to my outdoor companion. In my eleventh year we grew closer, once I was tall and strong enough to latch on to the lowest sturdy branch and swing back and forth. The following year, still taller, I learned how to climb this giant, scrambling ever higher into its skyward reaches -- while my mother stood below, reminding me to respect the law of gravity.
THEN THERE WERE THE FRUIT TREES ...
The maple was only the largest of the many trees in my childhood landscape. The green apple tree in our yard was easy to climb, easier to sit on, but the apples bordered on mangled. Worms got them, bugs got to them. Only a few apples at a time were good enough to eat, but the scarcity had its own appeal. To find an apple that was edible was a treat, all the more enjoyable because it was a surprise.
The pear tree, just a few feet from our kitchen, was something else. This wasn't a tree for climbing. It had more serious business, which was to produce a regular crop of delicious pears every year. To this day I can taste the juices of the pears I plucked from its reachable branches or picked up from the ground. During the winter, my mother let us savor the preserves from the tree's overflowing harvest. It was such a sweetie of a tree, demanding nothing but some sun and rain and producing in return its wondrous fruit for some forty years before it gave out. As a young Yankee fan, I couldn't help likening it to the "old faithful" of my team, the clutch-hitting first baseman Tommy Henrich.
We even had a Concord grape arbor. Its output was erratic, but when it ripened, the large purple grapes were both very juicy and very sour -- far better to look at than to devour.
THEN THERE WAS THE GARDEN ...
Near the large field behind our street was our garden, where my parents planted an assortment of vegetables in our very rocky New England soil. The pebbles and stones were countless; I knew this firsthand, because one of my chores was to clear them out to make room for the tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, string beans, rhubarbs, radishes, parsley, and squash. I learned to admire farmers whose families had to care for so many acres of planted furrows and orchards when I realized how much work it took to manage our plot, which was the size of a large living room.
One summer, when I was nine or ten, a mysterious unseen creature took a keen liking to the lettuce plants in our garden. I was appointed the lookout for whatever omnivorous beast was raiding our crop. Soon enough I spotted a rabbit happily chewing away in our little plot, and I gave chase. The rabbit took off, but I gamboled off after him, holding a large rock in my hand. When I finally overtook him, the trespassing herbivore suddenly froze and looked frightfully at his towering assailant. I lofted the stone in the air, aiming at him from less than four feet away. For a few seconds I just stood there, breathing hard from the run, my hand suspended overhead. I saw those wide open eyes, and the crouching bunny to whom they belonged. But something held me back.
Finally, I put down the rock and turned back. The rabbit scampered, then hopped away. I could not explain what had happened in my mind, except that it had a lot to do with the image of a dead rabbit, its eyes closed. Looking back on that moment today, I know that that's when I realized I would never be a hunter -- perhaps seeding my interests in safety, health, and conservation. I learned something about myself on that day of no regrets -- among other things, that there were ways to defend a lettuce patch without destroying an innocent rabbit nibbling its meal.
THEN THERE WAS THE ROCK ...
Not every friend I made in childhood could be found in my yard. One unlikely companion was just a few minutes' walk away -- a boulder I came to think of as "the rock."
I discovered the rock as a boy of four, and immediately felt a kinship with it. Sometime in the late nineteenth century, it had been placed within the spacious grounds of the Soldier's Monument in the town of Winchester, where Winsted was located. Built to memorialize three hundred soldiers, including several dozen who died in the Civil War, the monument was an imposing, three-story, sixty-three-foot Gothic Revival structure on a two-acre hilltop spread donated by a local benefactor.
The rock sat near the circular dirt road that rounded the monument. More times than I can remember, my mother would give me a sandwich or an apple, and off I would scamper to eat it on my rock. It was some four feet high and about as wide; to a boy of four it seemed larger. But clambering up to the side of the rock was easy, and at the top was a comfortable seat. All kinds of insects seemed to love to crawl over the rock, and I took great joy in following their trails, noting their amazing variety and knack for coexistence. On a clear evening I could look up at the stars from that perch, wondering what was out there. When it was cool on a sunshiny day, I would hug the rock for warmth.
As a ten-year-old, I flew kites from the rock, unleashing hundreds of feet of string as my brightly colored kites soared in the brisk breeze high above the woods and houses in the eastern part of town. Sometimes I couldn't control the pull on the kite, and the string would leap from my grasp or break clean off. When I finally got it stabilized as high as it would go, though, I would tie the string to an iron tether ring -- driven into the rock during the horse-and-buggy days -- and watch it fly.
I never attributed any mystical or animistic qualities to the old rock. In its mute solidity it was simply a place to be, a place to rest, a place to play, a place to dream.
THEN THERE WERE THE WOODS ...
In colonial times, the woods of northwestern Connecticut were considered nearly impenetrable. In my youth they were still plenty dense, but negotiable in our daily walk to school. Half the fun was getting there, whether I went alone or with a school chum or two. Once we were out the back door, we headed up a flight of steps, through a field, across a pair of small roads, past the monument, and then we plunged into the woods. Downhill we went, over old stone walls, past a small but intriguing cave, through a thicket of trees and bushes, until we reached the residential street that led to the Central School. Wet, dry, snow drifts, butterflies, birds, rodents, birch trees, high grasses, ledges, trails, shafts of sunshine, gusts of wind -- it all took a few minutes, but the woods were never tiresome and always engrossing. There was always a piece of wood to whittle, a dead branch to strip and to turn into a staff, a smooth stone to hurl high through the trees, mica to astonish, a snake to slither away at the sound of our footsteps, or a granite foothold to leap from as we hurtled down the wooded slope. It was fun, liberating, and when the snows turned into drifts just a little perilous, our school day was made a little more adventuresome.
THEN THERE WERE THE FIELDS ...
The fields and the meadows were for romping, just romping, jumping, skipping, and rolling in the grass. They were for inspecting beetles and chasing grasshoppers, marveling at butterflies and plant-circling bumblebees and other pollinators, and staring at the incredible hovering hummingbirds. Meadows were for pulling out blades of stiff grass and humming tunes with them. They were for spotting ants and anthills and crawling closer to watch their amazing, selfless work instincts and drive to bring food or their fallen kin back to their underground lairs. Ants never seemed to get discouraged, no matter how many times they were thwarted -- a trait that did not escape my notice, even at the age of seven.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once defined a weed as a plant whose virtues were yet to be discovered, and in those days before herbicides and lawncare firms, we never gave a thought to the difference between grasses and weeds. Dandelions were beautiful to me, as were a large variety of flowers -- daisies, black-eyed Susans, day lilies, jack-in-the-pulpits, whether they were in vogue or not. I made a study of their petals and stems, and of the busy, focused insects that were attracted to them.
THEN THERE WERE THE LAKES ...
Near our home were two lakes -- the recreational Highland Lake, and Crystal Lake, a smaller lake, on even higher ground, that served as our precious drinking water reservoir. Crystal Lake was just to be seen -- no fishing or swimming. The town officials wanted to keep it as pure as possible. Highland Lake was another matter, and it was crowded with boats and swimmers, cottages and year-round homes. Polio was the great fear for many mothers of that period; doctors weren't yet completely sure of how the disease was spread, and many gave stern instructions to keep children away from crowded beaches. So I didn't swim very often in our lake, but we did motor or, with my two sisters and brother, walk around some of its seven miles of circumference. What excited me most as a little fellow were the spillways. The lake would spill over the road at two points, cascading down to the fast-moving Mad River a quarter mile below. My father would drive through the spillway waters, and to me, those five seconds of spraying water made it feel like we were on a brief ocean voyage.
Things sure look big when you're small.
THEN THERE WERE THE RIVERS ...
The two rivers that crisscrossed our town's valley, the Still River and the Mad River, were troubled waters of different kinds. The appropriately named Mad River was the longtime source of several Main Street-destroying floods. But for decades it had also been receiving the bulk of the sewage from the towns and factories on its banks. The Still River, in like fashion, seethed with such an assortment of chemical dyes from the bordering textile and other factories that it looked at times like a botched rainbow.
As a result, there was no fishing to be had in these rivers, no swimming or picnics by their banks. The industries there and upstream had long since taken control, using these rivers as their sewers and dumping grounds, stealing the watery arteries from generations of Winstedites. Back then, most townspeople assumed that rivers were primarily for receiving waste -- so much so that few of us seemed to feel robbed of our rivers. Without them, we were told, the plants would have never been built there. Worse yet, the standing pollution from the factories gave the town government little incentive to process its own municipal sewage. The rise of the environmental movement, and the cries of "Hey, these are our rivers," were still years away.
We still had many lessons to learn.
THEN THERE WAS THE SNOW ...
When I say snow, I mean huge snowfalls -- twenty to thirty inches at a time, sometimes piled on top of earlier drifts. I can still feel the swirls of wind-drenched snow filling my ears, neck, nose (I never liked hats, gloves, or scarves), the huge drifts we would plunge into with squealing bravado, and the endless shoveling of walks, stairs, and driveways. Sleds we used in order to go down moderate or steeper hills. But nothing could match up with what we called the "huge jump." The portal to the Soldier's Monument was a structure that was made of stone and looked like a giant quadrangular chess rook. It was probably about fifteen feet high. When the snow drifts reached six or seven feet, we would climb up to the top and jump into the drifts, our little bodies nearly disappearing into the deep pits our momentum created. Then we would go back and do it again. Snow, for us, was never something to be avoided. It was to be relished, battled, tackled, and deployed for sliding, plunging, and molding into different forms and shapes.
Our New England schools almost never closed. Except for the few who came from miles away, most of the students walked to school. Whatever the weather, we were expected to tough it out. Today, two- or three-inch dustings commonly close some urban and suburban schools. But when I was a boy, a good snowfall still brought out the best in us -- among the children, who weren't afraid to trudge through a snowbank to get to school and among the adults, who felt more obliged as neighbors to shovel their sidewalks -- sidewalks that were used back then far more than now. It was a matter of pride.
THEN THERE WERE THE STARS ...
Today the sight of stars has been abolished from city skies, debauched as they are by pollution, neon, and streetlights. From Winsted's hills, during the early 1940s, we could see the stars with a clarity that allowed us to identify many of them without difficulty. The North Star, the Big Dipper, and the Little Dipper were familiar sights in our sky throughout the year.
For me, the stars were replete with fantasy, wish, wonder, with a sense of awe at the vastness, even eeriness, of the unknown. They stirred sentiments that exhilarated me as surely as many people are moved by great music. As I reclined on the rock, lay half-asleep outside on our porch, or just stood on our lawn, I found the stars nearly overwhelming. Are those stars or planets? I wondered. How far away are they? Do people live on them? Do they really spin around or move at incredible speeds? Could they ever smash into the Earth? Everything around me seemed to melt away at the sight of the stars. Though I was too little to put it into words, I was already feeling a sense of fascination with the idea of infinity, and with the ultimate secrets of the universe. And those ideas were real -- not something that could be turned on and off with a remote control, no screen to keep me at a distance from nature's reality.
Did living this way -- embedded not within a cacophony of electronic visualization and flashy advertisements, but within the natural world -- make a difference?
It did for one little boy growing up in northwestern Connecticut.
Of course, I didn't have this landscape all to myself. In fact, as the baby of the family, I was sometimes the last in line to appreciate nature's wonders. But the embrace of my family, and my status as the youngest, gave me many advantages. I was following a path already traveled by my parents Rose and Nathra, my older brother, Shafeek, and my two sisters, Claire and Laura. As the last in line, I took a lot of ribbing. But somehow that only made me more observant and responsive to my elders.
My father had come to this country by steamship in 1912, at the age of nineteen. He had twenty dollars in his pocket, but he had confidence in his abilities, and a willingness to work hard. His first job was in Detroit, doing piecework at an automobile factory. From there he worked in one of the large textile mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a short time after the historic labor upheavals of those years. Then he moved to Newark, New Jersey, where he became a small distributor of groceries in that kinetic multiethnic melting pot. He had always intended to start his own business, and finally started a grocery store in Danbury, Connecticut. But he wanted to live in a smaller town, for he believed that a family would be best served by a place where people knew each other and life was more stable, less chaotic and disruptive.
In the early 1920s, my father returned to Lebanon. When he came back to Connecticut in 1925, with his nineteen-year-old bride, he found just the kind of place he wanted in the town of Winchester, which includes the town of Winsted. Winchester fit the measurements of the polis, the ideal small city-state outlined by the ancient Greeks. Pop found a building he liked on Main Street in Winsted, a building with upstairs apartments and a storefront on the ground level. He rented out the apartments, and below he opened up the Highland Sweet Shop, which eventually became a full-service restaurant and bakery he called the Highland Arms.
My mother was a standout student. After graduation she quickly became a teacher, first in her hometown and then in a nearby town -- already an adventurous move for those times, when single women were to remain under their family's roof until they married. At that time village school boards tested a teacher's knowledge publicly before hiring, an event mother recalled with amusement over how she handled the challenge. Within months influenza struck that community and many of her students were stricken. Against all advice, mother insisted on visiting each of her students at home. She attributed some of her immunity to huge doses of raw garlic and fresh oranges daily. In her adopted country she gave birth to four children in her first nine years of marriage, and assumed the twin role of mother and active community-minded citizen.
Her first born, Shafeek (which means "the compassionate one" in Arabic), was wise beyond his years as a youngster. He took responsibility as a family duty. He loved exploring Winsted and the surrounding towns, farms, forests, and lakes with map in hand. He was the unusual big brother who took a continual interest in his younger siblings -- in our well-being, our education, and our horizons. When he went off to the Navy in World War II, we felt like we were losing our coach -- our source of curiosity and adventure, the older brother who taught us to dream about unusual futures.
Claire was the classic big sister. She filled in when my mother was preoccupied with other family or community matters, making sure I ate my food and did my chores. A selfless child, she regularly tended to the needs of others. During the war we raised chickens for their eggs and meat, and Claire disliked -- indeed abhorred -- plucking the feathers off a chicken we were preparing to have for dinner. But she found other joys in life, among them playing the piano.
Laura was an independent, mischievous child. When she was about two years old, she wriggled out of her carriage when no one was looking; my mother found her calmly trying to pet an unusually sociable black garden snake in the backyard. She was a runner, and very independent; she liked going where no one in the family had yet gone. But she also loved her sleep, and her piano lessons, and the banana split sundaes her big brother made for her in the restaurant.
Together we made a nicely balanced family, a mutually enriching group who enjoyed and benefited from each moment we spent together. Like nature itself, a family has certain built-in purposes: to protect its members, to nurture its children, to propagate itself so that it survives and thrives from generation to generation. Historically, the family is also the channel through which traditions are conveyed. In the distant past, traditions were shaped and enforced by larger groups -- tribes, clans, and sects -- from the top down, gradually trickling down through the extended family and then the nuclear family. Often this was done through social sanctions, sometimes with an iron fist. Today, except for some extended first-generation immigrant families, the job of passing down traditions is left to the nuclear family, and to many broken two-parent collaborations. Without the support of a strong community, the family is on its own, often forced to handle its regenerative and comforting functions while dealing with everything from economic insecurity and long work hours to the omnipresent commercialization of childhood.
Family, in short, is a gift. If you tried to put a value on all the functions American families perform, as though they were being purchased in the commercial marketplace, their total cost would compare favorably with the gross national product. Indeed, outsourcing family services to the market is already a formidable industry. And it will become more common unless we take to heart the intangible, noncommercial role that functional families play in the spiritual and material lives of our children. As helpful as many family services are, they can no more substitute for the real thing than the purchase of infant formula can replace the gift of natural mother's milk.
In our fast-moving contemporary society, the mounting external pressures felt by most families are eroding their ability to protect and nourish their children -- to offer the guidance that helps children to face the world around them. Still, I believe this tide can be turned. The most devastated families in our history -- those who survived the serial brutality of slavery -- managed in many heroic instances to pass their traditions from one generation to the next, even as their oppressors tried every means they had to stop them. This resilience, under horrendous conditions, is a testament to the primordial, universal human need to invest the raising of our children with meaning, and with a sense of connectedness to the world around them.
As I look back on my own childhood, I realize how fortunate we were that our parents understood their own familial pasts, and that the traditions they observed in their own families would offer them an important framework as they tried to give their children healthy roots and prepare them for stable, well-directed lives in their new country. And so, in these pages, I have tried to capture some of my family's traditions as I experienced them in childhood and recall them today. I share them not as recipes or prescriptions, but as stimuli for your own thoughts and recollections -- as an occasion to revisit lessons passed on within your own family. Such family traditions challenge the notion that the fads, technologies, how-to manuals, and addictions of modern life have somehow taken the place of the time-tested wisdom fashioned in the crucibles of earlier generations.
The garb may change, after all, but the wearer does not.