If you grew up, as I did, on the North and West Texas plains in the 1950s and 60s, the world came at you in strange and circuitous ways.
You could always get a direct view of the immediate world, of course, by going outside and watching the wind blow and the dust circulate and tumbleweeds bounce past (i.e., by communing with nature). But that lacked romance and narrative, to my young mind. Better to learn about the world through a stack of library books or the squat black-and-white TV.
Books were superior, but you couldn’t read 24 hours a day, even though I sometimes tried. TV had its own diversions. The trouble was, the TV was planted in the living room and, when my mother was ironing nearby, she often added her own narration.
Mother often held forth on hygiene, which she found sorely lacking in the modern world and particularly in her two daughters. The year the Pope (Paul VI?) visited the U.S., she watched, with growing horror, a televised scene of his ring being repeatedly kissed by eager worshipers. She banged her iron down and announced that, “Hygiene is being set back by centuries! Think of all the germs that are being spread on that ring! It’s the decline of civilization!”
We worried a lot about hygiene in our family and had been presented with a lengthy list of rules about never drinking from the same cup as another person or putting your lips too close to a water fountain or touching money too closely. Public restrooms, as you can imagine, came accompanied with a litany of instructions that included suspending yourself several inches in the air and not touching any surface if you weren’t protectively swathed in paper towels.
Equally dangerous, in our family’s view, was Communism. Communists were everywhere, trying to infiltrate the Wichita Falls school board or turning our local minister, Brother Jim, a little pink (which was why we changed churches). Sometimes, we could see Communists on TV — chubby-cheeked, wearing hats and thick coats. The Communist men — and this was especially abhorrent — enveloped one another in large bear hugs. To my family’s way of thinking, this was not only unhygienic, but also unmasculine.
“Look at that!” Mother said scathingly. “They’re hugging! American men don’t hug. They shake hands like men.”
It was true. I probably never saw two American men hug till I was old enough to vote. Women embraced freely, especially if they were related to one another or had been gone a long time. Women and men could hug, too, as long as they didn’t seem to enjoy it too much. But men, no matter how much they cared for one another, packed all that emotion into an enthusiastic handshake. Maybe, if one of them were dying or had just scored a winning touchdown, they could hug, as long as they made it brief.
When did it change? With the hippies? The millennium? Color TV or the fall of Communism?
I don’t know. These days, I look around at a world my parents wouldn’t recognize, although I have an uneasy feeling they’d be ardent Tea Partiers if they’d survived this long. But they didn’t. And, sometimes, I find myself explaining 2011 to them, trying to reassure them. In so many ways, you never completely quit talking to your parents, the people who created your world and dominated your early days.
Here it is, I tell them. Here is a modern world where skyscrapers fell almost 10 years ago, where Communists are remembered with an almost patronizing fondness, since they recall memories of a simpler time, where tiny phones can replace visits to the library.
And men — even American men — get to hug all the time. And that’s good! We all need as much human contact as we can get in this lonely age. We all need a friendly touch, don’t we?
Even though it’s one-sided, I begin to sense this conversation isn’t going well. Somewhere, on the other end, smelling salts are being pulled out and the faces are aghast and freeze-dried. Could it still be those lingering concerns about this country’s first black president?
Maybe next time, we’ll talk about advances in hygiene. Gay marriage, I’m inclined to think, should be brought up another day.
(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read a somewhat related post about how it all ends in a courtroom