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Friday, March 15, 2013

If I Put My Clothes In A Bag

In this Christmas photo from 1951 (posed in future graduate of University of California-Berkeley tee shirts) are Bob, Bill, Dave and Mom in back, with Steve at age two in Dad's lap. As is obvious by her expression, Mom was pleased to have more children. For the rest of her life she would gloat how she tricked Dad into continuing the production of offspring.  Had Steve been a girl his name would have been Helen Elizabeth after the aunts back in Neenah. When Mom asked if Dad was disappointed with having another boy, he replied, "When you got a good thing going, why change?" 

NOTE: The posts in Chapter II follow the events leading up to my father's return to Neenah as I saw them. If you are just beginning to read this blog you may want to go back and start with the first post HERE. For those of you who are reading because they love stories about Neenah, I'm certain you'll find this chapter engaging and an important part of a moving human drama that has everything to do with Neenah, its history and the six degrees of separation that link link us all together.


In addition to the general household chaos, my brother Bob was proving to be a square peg in a round world, particularly when it came to school. At virtually every grade level, getting an education was an endless sea of frustration for him, Mom and Dad, and especially his teachers. In elementary school while all the other children were learning to print their names, Bob tried his hand at writing in braille, and when the teacher objected to that, he worked on standard printing that could only be read upside down in a mirror.  The same was true when it came to learning rudimentary math: he did his work in Roman numerals. At the start of one school year his new teacher - a man and fresh out of school himself - promised Mom to make Bob his special project, only to concede defeat by the second parent-teacher conference:

"Some day someone is going to teach Bob something. It just isn't going to be me." 

The problem, of course, wasn't limited to school. At home Bob began in the kitchen, where he methodically made every cake in one of Mom's cookbooks to better understand the process. He then moved out to the garage where he progressed from  crystal sets to Heathkits to sufficiently powerful transmitters that started the neighbors on a rampage for the interference he caused with their television reception. In high school Bob and a friend even got a hold of a surplus Navy radar system that was eventually confiscated by War Department officials, in this case for interfering with operations at a new missile base on nearby Angel Island. Invariably the odd man out in any social situation, Bob was nevertheless an essential component in my brothers' ever expanding circle of friends. For while Bill had the power to attract followers like an adolescent Pied Piper, Bob's highly tuned engineering skills made it possible for them to assemble soap box derby cars, construct a simple but effective backyard roller coaster, or connect the entire neighborhood's collection of electric model trains into a single domestic transit system that on a dare ran through every room of our house.

Mom and Dad weren't entirely on their own when it came raising their family. For the first 20 years of their married life Mom's widowed mother lived with them or very near by, helping with the meals, cleaning, child care and whatever else was needed.  The relationship between these two ladies, as can be seen here, was at best cordial. A school teacher by training, Grandma openly favored Mom's older sister, Angela, the superior student, taking little or no interest in Mom's extraordinary artistic and musical talents. Having lost everything in the Depression, Grandma was at the same time financially dependent on Dad, whom she thoroughly disliked in spite of his advanced degrees and academic awards. And while she was unfailingly treated with the customary respect of those times, it was never enough to make her happy. After weekend visits to Angela and her husband George, Grandma inevitably made a point of telling Mom how instead of being put to work they treated her like a queen. 

In keeping with all this turmoil was Bob's beloved cat Tatter. The embodiment of domesticity at home, Tatter would turn feral outdoors, becoming fiendishly aggressive when it came to dogs. Undeterred by their larger size and greater ferocity, Tatter would roam the streets in search of canine prey, enticing them to chase him back to the tree in our front yard. From there this cat would launch a surprise attack, dropping down from the branches onto his unsuspecting adversary, biting and digging his claws into the hapless dog's back. Frequently bested but never deterred, Tatter spent the better part of his surprisingly long life in a condition consistent with his name, often at death's door from extensive injuries, with Dad serving as veterinary nurse.  In this capacity Tatter became the one remaining positive connection between Dad and Bob as my brother's intensely challenging intellect - in deadly combination with his teen years - pushed their relationship to the breaking point.

And while most other mothers under these circumstances would have seen the wisdom of drawing the line at three children, Mom wanted more. Dad, however, did not. At least that was his official position. When Bill came home from school in tears one day because his friend Brian was being taken to an orphanage, Dad immediately got on the phone and confirmed the report as true, learning that the boy’s widowed mother Sally had suffered a breakdown, lost her job and no longer had enough money to take care of them both. A few more calls and Dad had arranged for Brian to live with us until his mother was back on her feet. He then found her a secretarial job that paid more than the one she had lost. “Jesus knew I that I was in need and He sent your father and mother to me,” Sally told me decades later, kissing my cheek in their absence. At Dad's funeral Brian wept openly:

"He was the only father I ever knew."

On the issue of adding permanently to the inventory of Adams children, Mom's mother took sides with Dad. "They're all going to end up in prison," she predicted on more than one occasion. Grandma had lived with Mom and Dad off and on for years, and when we moved to San Anselmo she came too, renting a second floor garage apartment nearby. While accustomed to acting as a geriatric au pair, in San Anselmo Grandma had found part time work as a book binder at the public library and had started taking art classes at night. She enjoyed this new found independence, and so the idea of resuming her role as caregiver to a houseful of unruly boys (not to mention a predatory cat) was anything but appealing. She relented with my brother Steve, born in 1949, but when Mom discovered four years later that she was once again pregnant, this time with me, Grandma was fit to be tied. She told Mom in no uncertain terms that at 78 she wanted no part of any more babies. Mom would just have to tough it out on her own. I was the last straw.

At the hospital the nurses all proclaimed that I was a particularly adorable baby. Here just past my first birthday I am a curly-haired  Cupie Doll, ecstatic over the brief privilege of being allowed to sit in the soap box derby cart I had been watching my brothers build in the garage under Bob's direction. My brothers would later tease me by saying I was adopted, but with time I came to realize I was the only one of us who bore any resemblance to Dad.

Without Grandma, Mom had no time with a family of four to indulgently savour the prospect of having a new baby. Dad, however, off again on yet another round of meetings and hotel rooms somewhere, found himself alone, contemplating what it meant to be a father. In a break from his schedule he wrote home to Mom how he had come to realize that these four boys were an important part of his life and for the first time he was looking forward to the child waiting to be born. It was a letter Mom wore out reading and rereading, as she had begun - now entirely on her own with her children - to doubt the wisdom of large families. To her surprise Dad had even picked out a name, something he had never done before: Peter - for the late U.S. Senate chaplain Peter Marshall, whose biography, "A Man Called Peter," Dad had just read - and James for his own father, a man Dad had grown up without ever knowing.

As for Grandma, she pretty much stuck to her guns.  She did not come over when Dad took Mom to the hospital (one of the neighbor ladies assumed that responsibility), nor did she call or visit Mom, or come to see me, her newest grandchild, during our four-day hospital stay, the standard of that era.  Mom was certain this meant the breach with her mother was permanent, but when Dad brought us home and turned in the driveway, there was Grandma waiting on the stoop, as she had every other time in the past, in a freshly laundered white apron. Without comment or discussion she came over to the car, gathered me up in her arms and carried me inside - having shooed out the interloping neighbor and  once again taken charge, getting everything and everyone cleaned and organized for the arrival of the newborn baby. 

And as the neighborhood kids came over to stare in amazement at this latest addition to our family, one in their number was Mark - the boy who was an albino to the world but just another kid at our house. An only child, Mark looked me over carefully and then went up to Mom and asked her where babies came from. Not seeing his education on the matter as a responsibility she wanted to assume, Mom explained that she had packed a bag of clothes for the baby, gone to the hospital and brought me back home with her. Giving this answer the serious consideration only a child can muster, Mark asked one further question. "If I went home and put my clothes in a bag, would you bring me home from the hospital?"

CHAPTER II continues HERE.


  1. Peter,
    It sounds like Bob was the later day forerunner of Steve Jobs minus the quirky diet and acerbic personality. Maybe I am getting ahead of myself or maybe I missed it in the earlier blog, but what becomes of him as progresses through his teenage years into adulthood? Enjoy the blog and look forward to the weekly updates!

    1. One of the remarkable things about Bob is that as intensely analytical and abstract as his thinking is, he is at the same time observant and sensitive to the feelings of other people, which is a very rare combination. The important parts of his story will become clearer in the upcoming posts, of course with the primary focus being on his relationship with my parents. The blog is not about him per se, but he is an important player in the story. Let me know if I leave you with any unanswered questions.

  2. I was just looking a pictures from the family reunion in San Anselmo back in 1998. George and Michiko were still alive and the Reiner girls were all there. My daughter Isabelle asked why your name and my name were printed in the same color on the family tree that was drawn and I explained that we were all of the same generation. She gave me a funny look, the kind she usually gives me when she doesn't believe me ;-) Happy St. Patrick's Day. Keep the posts coming. P.S. Deb is going to be friending you on Facebook. When I showed her this post while we were on the plane waiting to travel back to Dallas from Madrid she really enjoyed it and wants to be updated regularly.

    1. Glad you're finding the posts interesting. We'll have to see if we can't straighten things out for Isabelle at the reunion next summer!