Ballad of a bohemian childhood

How a child who was almost named Windowsill, and was forbidden the pleasures of Oreos has come to appreciate his unconventional parents.

Published June 15, 1998 3:53PM (EDT)

I almost entered the world with the first name Windowsill. My father, deep in his psychiatric residency program at the time,
read that his favorite poet considered it the most beautiful word in the
English language. In the end, he would settle for giving me the middle name Blake, as in William.

In a sense, it helps me to think of someone else, a stranger with a
funny name, suffering the charms of my bohemian childhood. It
makes certain events more like fiction, and in that way more
believable. There is Windowsill at supper, his father engaging
him in the serial, existential topic of conversation: whether or not
Dad, as father and life bearer, "owns" him. This is young Win's
introduction to philosophy, justice, debate, the dexterity of the
mind. His age: 7.

Next witness the youngster, though truly practiced in a life of
imagination, becoming bored. The map may have been scribbled over by
energetic, paint-splattered parents, but the child will always find
his way to Boredsville. What does the child do in a household gripped
by the latest Boho dietary chic, macrobiotics? A
household bulging with thickly bound and impressive volumes, but
empty and silent to the world of television? What does a kid do without
things as fun to do, as say, eating Ho-Hos and watching Captain Kangaroo?
When I wanted TV, my mother suggested I look out the window
instead -- to see what was on "organic TV."

With advice like that I usually shuffled over to Ted Davis' house.
God bless Ted Davis. From Friday night to Sunday morning, I left
Ted's couch (and the soothing glow of "Happy Days" or "Welcome
Back Kotter") only to smother my Bisquick
pancakes in King's syrup. "Portrait of the Psycho as a Brand Deprived
Youth" works nicely in explaining my state of mind while standing in
the Davises' kitchen. Fritos, Skippy, Oreos, Coke. Coke! These were
the magic words with which to open a boy's hitherto unenlivened jaws.
At our household only organic graham crackers were served up.
Our peanut butter was, well, just that.

In our suburban Baltimore home, words such as "Mork," "Tyco" and
"J.R. Ewing" were never uttered.
The lords of my manor weren't the icons so firmly entrenched in the pop
cultural canon of the '80s, but instead were Prince Valiant and Tintin
-- heroes of vividly illustrated cartoon novellas by Europeans.
Mom sent us all to bed -- me, my brother, herself -- dreaming
of Captain Haddock, Tintin's best mate. She invented a different voice
for each character, giving straight-shooting Tintin sharp, Oxford
English, while the bumbling detectives Thompson and Thompson were
assigned a more stuttering and Cockney inflection. If Haddock was
on a bender, and of course he often was, Mom would startle and delight
us with a booming tirade: "Billions of blue blistering barnacles!"
She really sounded like a drunk guy.

- - - - - - - - - -

Whether Dad was at the hospital, working on his highly
autobiographical (yet still unpublished) novel or romancing his
mistresses, he remained a strange, endlessly imaginative body in the
wobbly galaxy of our home. Of all Dad's grand projects
(and there is always one afloat, from
mastering physics to understanding the entirety of sumo culture), one
from my boyhood sticks especially in memory. He converted our parents'
bedroom ceiling to a scale model of the solar system.
A large light bulb encased by one of those round, crinkly, Japanese
shades hung as the sun. The planets, painted paper orbs, dangled from
fishing line. I remember standing below tiny blue Pluto, shivering.
The coldness was partially inspired by Pluto's loneliness, hovering in a
bleak corner of the room away from Earth's action, above a crater of
clothes. But mostly I shivered because it was winter and we heated
our house with a wood-burning stove.

When Dad wasn't tripping my mind -- "If I wanted, I could sell you. There's
quite a market really for healthy, white babies" -- he was strengthening
my body. Every couple of months a green, anonymous truck dumped a small
mountain of cut wood in our backyard. It was up to my brother Asher
and me to stack it quickly, covering the bristled wedges with a tarp
before the rain and snow got to it. Each morning, groggy and twitching in
the chill of winter, we were to stock the iron wood holder for the day,
while the other kids in the neighborhood were inside, warming themselves
with cups of Swiss Miss hot cocoa.

Those same neighborhood kids attended the local public school, while
my parents -- naturally -- sent my brother and me to a Waldorf School
where we studied knitting, bee's wax and German. The kindly nodding
teachers were trained exclusively in Waldorf-founder Rudolf Steiner's
methods. The children were to learn to love learning. Languages and
crafts took favor over history and math. We had a friend named Rama
Moon. Another was Plato Rafael Hieronimus, who remains my oldest chum.

My parents divorced when I was 11. They hadn't been getting
along for some time; I always remember thinking they would be better
friends if only they weren't married.
This has been true. Dad moved to Northern California soon after the split,
and lives there still. He works six days a week as a shrink and
publishes poetry in a magazine he founded called Edge. He's still
putting the Dad back in dada, treating life like one
enormous piece of found art. The last time I stopped by he was in the
middle of designing a "brain chip," which I understood to be like a
computer chip, but for the brain. When he finished explaining the
various lines and diagrams scattered about his work table, I could
only ask weakly, "So, you want to go get a grilled cheese sandwich?"

Mom moved into a communal household of several friends near
Washington, D.C., finding something closer to peace than happiness.
Mom speaks candidly about things like spirituality and destiny,
and believes with certainty in God and reincarnation. I can't relate.
My mind isn't open in those ways. A devout nonbeliever of most things,
around my mom I feel like I should be nicer to people so I don't spend
my next life as a blind ant.

I feel more like a close friend to both of my parents than a son. They
continue to lead such unique, uncompromising lives that I find them
fascinating, curious, frustrating as hell. Like friends should be.
During a rough patch a while back, I e-mailed my dad for ... what?
Advice, I guess. He wrote back: "Are you still
desultory about certain observed behavioral patterns which may be
genotypic and/or learned?" I leaned back, away from the monitor, and
thought, no. No, I wouldn't mind being like Dad in many ways, and Mom
in the other ways. No, I have never really wished I had a different
upbringing or truly wanted to be anyone else. Now 27, I see that
more than anything else, I feel as if my parents gave me an honest
introduction to the world. It is a strange, wonderful, often cruelly
disappointing place, and if somebody tells you differently,
their parents misled them.

By Maccabee Montandon

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