As a child growing up I, like most people I suppose, accepted everything that happened to me at face value, as being the natural and normal order of things. It didn’t occur to me until much later, far into my adult life as I reflected back on my childhood, how strange, indeed pathological, my childhood was. What were my parents really like behind their respective personas? Is it just me who feels this, or does everyone eventually reach a point at which they suddenly realize that their parents were a mystery, or more accurately, two separate mysteries, to them?

My father and my mother were to a great extent hidden from me behind the parental roles that they played. Neither of them had a clue about child-rearing but I think they both tried to play their parental roles as best they could, as they understood them. But they were just roles. My father’s approach to the family was apparently formed by the culturally-pervasive values of his generation in America, in which conformism and keeping up proper appearances were all-important, and the main (perhaps only) role of the father and husband was to be The Boss of the family. The role of women in a family was to be the minions of their husbands or fathers and to be supportive and carry out their assigned tasks. In our family there was little or no sense of emotional bonding or family cohesiveness, largely due my father’s oppressively overbearing and domineering persona, but also, I’m sure, due to the fact that both my father and mother had grown up in families that had very little significant communication or closeness. I think it must be often that human beings who are more or less strangers to each other get thrown together by the forces of chance, by the accidents of marriage and birth, and live out their lives in uneasy familial relationships with people they don’t really understand.

As I said my father was The Boss and he made sure that we all knew it. It was the sum total of his role within the family and in my life. What was most maddening and frustrating about him was that he apparently believed that his own opinions and preferences must have universal validity and thus ought to be shared by all other right-thinking people. He could be shockingly intolerant, and for the most part I felt bullied and harassed by him. I don’t remember him ever saying anything positive about me, or about my siblings or our mother. Nor did he ever offer any words of comfort or encouragement. As a young person I so thoroughly resented his heavy-handed authoritarianism and his utter disregard for my (or anyone’s) feelings, opinions, or preferences that I grew up with a profound distaste, even antagonism, for all forms of authority. But, as with most people who have been bullied, I also grew up with a great sense of empathy for all those who are unrespected and unacknowledged, those who have little or no status and who seem to be overlooked and ignored by our excessively status-conscious social culture. Though I never had the courage to defy my father openly, a quiet but extremely deep wellspring of rebellion was developing inside of me, which would inevitably grow into a lifelong (mostly peaceful) resistance to authorities of all kinds and to conventional behaviors.

My father and my mother were astonishingly different from each other in every way. They seemed to have no interests in common and no real rapport. One of the great mysteries of our family was how they ever became a couple at all. How does this happen?

As for my mother, it took me a long time to appreciate and fully comprehend how extraordinary and interesting she was. She was a mostly quiet person who didn’t draw attention to herself, and she, like most women of her generation, deferred to her husband in all things, at least in those ways that were outwardly apparent. But she was also extremely smart and had an unusually wide-ranging and inquisitive intellect. When I was a young kid I assumed my mother was just an ordinary housewife and mother, but eventually I noticed that there was something unusual about her when I started to take note of her books. She had a lot of them. She had a keen interest in ancient history, the history of religions, Biblical archaeology, the classics of antiquity, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and philosophy. She also had amazingly wide-ranging interests in literature. She had a tremendous appetite for everything literary, from the classical to the avante-garde. Especially intriguing was her collection of counter-culture, “subversive” literature. She had read all of the Beats, especially Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg. She had a great interest in Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright. She was fascinated by the Autobiography of Malcolm X. She read contemporary satirists like Tom Wolfe. She was interested in everything, but especially in points of view that were outside the mainstream and that challenged long-established cultural orthodoxies. Underneath her humble housewife persona she had this sharp and rebellious mind. It took me a long time to realize that my mother was a little unusual and that other kids’ moms probably were not knowledgeable about the history of the medieval Church, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the satires of Juvenal, the histories of Livy, or the philosophy of Schopenhauer as mine was.

Much later in my life, in middle-age, I remembered with a sense of awe and also some perplexity those bookshelves of my mother’s. I realized that all along there must have been a much deeper and more extensive mental world going on within her, a world I wished that I could have known better. Of course, we talked from time to time about her literary/historical/philosophical interests, and it was actually during such talks that I felt most connected to her. Perhaps it was her instinctive and habitual emotional reserve that led her into this quiet and solitary passion for inquiry, this lifelong private exploration of the whole world of ideas. I wish now that somehow I could have followed her more in her mental explorations, participated in them more with her.

While my father could be an extremely difficult man, I had very conflicted feelings about him. His lack of regard for me and my siblings and our mother was infuriating, but I came to see that it was not really direct malice on his part but instead a strange lack of ability to see others as complete human beings, probably because of his upbringing and his cultural conditioning that had trained him into such habits of mind. It was like some weird kind of disorder of perception, a huge blind spot in his way of perceiving others that made it impossible for him to see another person except in terms of his own preconceived ideas and his personal likes and dislikes. His own personality imposed itself on everything he saw and experienced in an automatic way, as if it were the most natural thing for him. I have often wondered how a person gets to be that way. What strange forces in his own family and his own upbringing shaped his personality to be like this?

On the other hand, as maddening and frustrating as he could be, he did have some admirable qualities. He had a great respect for learning and for genuine skill, although unlike my mother he was much more interested in technological and scientific knowledge than cultural. He was scrupulously honest and his integrity was sincere and unaffected. He took on challenging tasks without fear or hesitation. He was generous in contributing his help to his friends and neighbors. He was extraordinarily competent in many skills in which I felt I was, and probably always would be, painfully deficient. He was apparently capable of fixing anything and building anything. He knew his way around the world. He didn’t seem to ever doubt his own ability. He had an amazing ability to take the initiative in difficult situations. What was really awe-inspiring about my father was that he just seemed to assume that he was capable of doing anything that he needed to do, and so he approached each thing to be done with a calm confidence, and he did it. In fact he seemed to know how to do everything except how to get along with and communicate with other people. I was simultaneously awed and infuriated by him. At times I desperately wanted to emulate him and at other times I wanted to be the exact opposite of him. Sometimes these feelings coexisted simultaneously. To say that I felt conflicted would be a great understatement.

My father and my mother were these too strangely mismatched, utterly incompatible people, brought together by who knows what mysterious chance events and random forces. And I, in an agonizingly difficult process, somehow grew up into a weird, awkward amalgam of the two of them, and other strange things as well, perhaps destined to always be incompatible even with my own self.