Abbie at 10 on Prince.
I never wanted to grow up. In fact, one of my childhood heroes was Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. For one thing, I thought grownups were ugly. They were too big, which prevented them from getting around easily.
One time, I remarked on this to my father, telling him that I felt sorry for grownups, because they couldn’t run and play.
“If adults wanted to run and play,” he responded, “they would.”
I sincerely doubted this. To do it properly, you had to be of a certain size. Not too big, not too small. There was one other thing I didn’t like about adults. They would put their overlarge faces, every pore of which was apparent to me, very close to my small face, and then grimace in a way they seemed to believe was charming to me. Then they would ask me some question, to which they obviously knew the answer. Like, how old are you? Privately I resolved never to do that to a child, in the event that I too should ever have to grow up.
Let’s bracket the high seas of adolescence. We can call that stretch of years, “Growing Up and Not Liking It” — to paraphrase the title of a pamphlet on the joys of being a teenager — for example the fun of getting ready for prom night — put out by a company that manufactured sanitary napkins. Though I never got asked to a prom, I pondered the pamphlet as did all the girls I knew. Some of them were certainly better at negotiating the rigors of growing up and liking it than I was.
In a way, what I was doing through the early stages of young womanhood was trying very hard to recapture the sense of self-congruence — of fitting neatly into my skin — that my ten-year-old self had taken for granted. The chief reason that, as an untenured assistant professor of philosophy, I risked my job rather than vote for the candidate for department chair backed by the powerful senior bloc, was that I didn’t want to turn into one of those grimacing grownups!
During those years, when I’d be reinstated only to be fired again, my parents were alive and their interesting friends, some lifelong and some of more recent collegial vintage, and my own friends — who included young colleagues as well as friends from earlier years — were like concentric circles keeping my adult life afloat. It really was a lovely world, as I think of it now. It kept some of the continuities of the child I’d been, but continuities now recast in a language that interested me more than I’d anticipated. As it happened, the field of philosophy felt homelike to me.
If any long shadows were gathering, I did not care to see them. Nor did they (the long shadows) care to be seen.
It was only after my father and mother were both gone that the terrain they’d vacated assumed a different look. (When the cat’s away, the mice will play.) This happened by degrees. For example: one of his collegial friends, a philosopher whom my father had brought into his college in the City University of New York system, and who’d even spoken affectingly at the memorial service, began giving talks, in academic venues around town, blasting the Jews, ancient and modern! When I’d met him for lunch hoping to discuss this turn in his thinking, he threatened to stalk out at the very start of our conversation.
Beyond that peculiar incident, another had wider impact in my life. A family member who’d enjoyed friendly but not close acquaintance with my own collegial friends as well as the inherited friendships from the world of my parents, managed to draw off and away from me most of those relationships. That achievement must have required rhetorical and persuasive skills whose dimensions I’m not quite able to fathom. The only ones disinclined to believe what I later learned was an avalanche of defamatory fictions were people from the small town in Downeast Maine where my parents had owned a home fronting the Bay. The townspeople knew who actually paid the bills and attended to repairs. They had no interest in elusive allegations.
The concentric circles that at one time had kept me afloat mostly fell away. I had to fight to publish my father’s posthumous book, fight to secure his papers and get them properly archived, fight to sell the house in Maine when the time came to do that, suffer through the longing for whatever collegial and inherited friendships were now taken from me irretrievably, get such papers of my grandfather, Rav Tsair, as I owned properly archived at Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion, and meanwhile fight to reconstitute the health jeopardized by all those combats. Any relationships or friendships still retained were either formed or reconfirmed by me as my own. They were not inheritances.
What’s the upshot? Well, it’s something like a restored congruence with my original self: the ten-year old. In one way, I did grow up. But in another way — the way of the grimacing mouther-of-words-nobody-can-believe — I’m still
the girl who never grew up.