By Scott Graber
This morning I’ve got my coffee — Cafe’ Bustelo — and a recent article that appeared in the New Yorker titled “Becoming You.” I’ve read this provocative piece by Joshua Rothman twice.
Rothman begins his essay by saying most of us cannot remember our childhood. We remember images, moments, but nothing substantial.
“What I recall from when I was four are the red-painted nails of a mean babysitter; the brushed-silver stereo in my parents’ apartment; a particular orange-carpeted hallway …”
But we don’t retain memories of our “feelings, thoughts or personalities.”
Rothman writes that we rely on others — mostly our parents — who tell us what we were like as children. But when they are gone there are only faded photographs showing a 5-year-old standing in front of a 1952 Buick along with his or her unsmiling grandparents. These days there might be some old Super 8 film footage of a fifth birthday party; but there is nothing to reveal our personality — shy, upbeat, outgoing — other than a few cryptic comments by one’s 3rd-grade teacher — “Scott seems to enjoy recess.”
The question posed by Rothman is whether our adult character — anxious, inhibited, reserved, reckless — has anything to do with our personality as a child. Were we as confident and well-adjusted at 6 as we seem to be now? Have we changed as we have aged, or are we just about the same as we were 65 years ago?
This then brings us to Rothman’s larger question of whether our life is about “continuity” or rather, “changeability.” Have we been the same careless, carefree person from ages two to seventy two; or did something happen that radically changed our view of the world and our role in that world?
This, of course, takes me to my own life and the narrative that I have carried around in my head since I began to bore people with my own story — a story that begins with a red-headed, Noxema-scented boy building sandcastles on the strand at North Myrtle Beach. A story that continues with a happy, well-loved child and an untroubled childhood that ended when I was 12.
It ended with a report card awarding me a “D” in math. A report card that was followed by others revealing a middling, mediocre student and triggering a desperate, sometimes angry response from my father.
All of which ended my happy, carefree childhood replacing it with a troubled teen-aged-time when I struggled, unsuccessfully, to please my unhappy father.
According to Rothman, this episode puts me into the episodic, transformative, “Divider” category where people change, developing different personality traits from those they had as children. Not only do Dividers believe they are periodically changed, but they seek to change themselves as they get older.
The flip side of this coin are “Continuers” — those who who believe that you continue to be who you are regardless of what happens during your life. Rothman says these folks have no tendency to see their life as constituting a story or development.
“Dividers tell the story of how they’ve renovated their houses, becoming architects along the way. Continuers tell the story of august property that will remain itself regardless of what gets built. As different as these two views sound, they have much in common. Among other things they aid us in our self development. By committing himself to a life of change, Tim might have sped it along. By concentrating on his persistence of character, my father may have nurtured and refined his best self.”
Regardless of whether we believe we have changed — or have remained the same — it is fun to seek out those who remember us when we were children or young adults. That is why some of us go to college or family reunions.
Some years ago I sought out an old girlfriend — a person I had known when I was 19 — trying to rediscover something about my younger self. I remember sitting in her living room that overlooked the Rappahannock River, asking, “Tell me about that guy who was young, smitten, and walked you down Duke of Gloucester Street 59 years ago. Was he a jerk?”
“You were a boy,” she replied. “Unformed, naive, somewhat uneven in terms of hygiene. But not a jerk.”
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org