The Other I

September 4, 2017

My Dorothy Day childhood

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:50 pm

To explain why, at the age of six, I decided I wanted to live in New York, I think I need to begin with my mother.

Like my Dad, Mom was a second generation immigrant.  Her family emigrated from Warsaw, Poland,  she was bi-lingual, had three older brothers, earned a BA, and was very attractive.  Unlike Dad, she accepted Roman Catholic beliefs  with unquestioning peace.  Also unlike Dad, she did not possess the incisive analytical intelligence which made him such a successful lawyer, and which is by and large still thought of as an indicator of a high IQ.  That is how I grew up believing that girls could never be as smart as boys, and why, until my older brother demolished my plan, I planned to be a man when I grew up.

Today cognitive psychologists understand that intelligence is much more complex than the verbal, spatial, and mathematical skills measured in traditional IQ tests.  Howard Gardener of Harvard University identifies 9 independent kinds of intelligence  including interpersonal intelligence, or empathy, which is the ability to  understand the feelings and motives of others, even when it is different from what one is experiencing oneself.

In retrospect,  I think my mother was on the genius level in terms of interpersonal intelligence.  But as a child, I just thought it was what one would expect of a mother.  I didn’t realize it was smarts, that it was an immensely valuable contribution to holding the family together.  She moved with Dad to the farm because she was a loving, committed wife.  But Dad wasn’t a farmer.  He was a lawyer and didn’t live his dream on the farm seven days a week.  He went off to the city five and a half days, and really worked the farm on Sunday afternoons as a recreational escape.  Mom, though, lived on the farm seven days a week.    She never complained, but she was very sociable and liked having people around.   She was lonely on the farm.  We did have a telephone, but obviously no internet or TV.  We didn’t even have a radio in the first years.  Although she always made people welcome, we lived on that house on the hill.  She was not, in that sense, a part of a village, or a community.

I didn’t want to be like my mother.  I thought she belonged in second place.  When I was told I looked like her, I was insulted.  I wanted to look like my Dad.  But as I look back now, I realize I shared her loneliness.  I had four brothers by the time I was six, but no sisters.  And when I finally got a sister, I remember being appalled that she was just a baby!  She wasn’t going to be any good as a playmate.  I couldn’t wait to start school, and when I did,  I loved it.  I got good grades and the only C I ever remember getting in my life was for penmanship, of which I was very proud, because I thought Dad’s writing was almost illegible too.

I would like to believe now that I also inherited some of my mother’s social intelligence.  Coming from my father’s side of the family, however, we have a streak of Asperger’s syndrome – the exact opposite of social intelligence – and I do not know how empathetic I might be.  I do know that I am a city person, that I find even village life too isolating.

In any case, I know now that it was not just my father, but equally my mother, who made my childhood so enriching.  She was a wonderful, loving teacher.  She was not competitive with us.  She did not, for instance, need to demonstrate that she was a better seamstress or cook or card player with us.  She enjoyed her children, she was proud of us, and encouraged us to be our unique selves.

I think I inherited my particular capacity for loneliness from her.

And that is why, by the time I was six, I’d made up my mind that I was going to move to New York.

That’s my personal story.  I also think, though, that our idyllic life on the farm had some long-term limitations for all of us.  We paid a price for living in that idyll.  About which, more on my next post.

Stow, OH: Wyoga lake at sunrise

Picture by Eric Upton;;  Stow, OH: Wyoga lake at sunrise


  1. Interesting! We all get to know our mothers much later in life! Is it one of girls aligning more with their dad than the mother, when young?


    Comment by tskraghu — September 4, 2017 @ 9:05 pm | Reply

    • That’s an interesting question. I suspect there isn’t a single answer that applies to everyone. I know I identified with my father because I saw him as the leader, and I didn’t want to be second-best. But once I accepted (at about the age of three) that I couldn’t choose to be a man when I grew up, I did identify with my mother in that I learned to work together with others in a way I doubt I would have without her influence.

      Interestingly, research suggests that many boys who grow up to be gay have a deeper appreciation of their mothers than of their fathers. Not sure whether the boys would say they identified with their mothers, and how trans-cultural the phenomenon is. We need more research. Might be possible now that homosexuality is not illegal in many more countries than it used to be.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Terry Sissons — September 6, 2017 @ 1:56 pm | Reply

  2. Terry,

    Thank you for that delightful and incisive piece. My admiration for your parents and your family upbringing grows with each addition. Keep them coming.



    Comment by tonyequale — September 5, 2017 @ 2:53 pm | Reply

  3. Thank you for your comment, Tony. I will admit that my own admiration for my parents and my upbringing grows with time, as well. I will be interested in your further thoughts on my coming posts reflecting on what I perceive to be the limitations of growing up on that house on the hill. Not that I criticize my parents for shortcomings. Parents cannot produce totally mature children in need of no further learning when they leave home. (If they could, we might as well give up living, because there’s nothing more to learn. NOT, I must say, a condition in which I find myself. I am sometimes appalled at my past ignorance. At least I know now that I always have more to learn — even at the old age of 78!)


    Comment by theotheri — September 6, 2017 @ 2:04 pm | Reply

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