Massachusetts

Little boy with hands in pockets and little girl holding a partly eaten apple

Timmy Tompkins at 2 in field with Suzy Abbott at 3 (his Eve?) holding partly eaten apple.
Belmont, Massachusetts, 1950.

Earliest Memories

Watertown, Mass., near Harvard, 1948-1949

Electrical Introduction

My first memory was seeded by my parents telling me in later years about running round and round the dining room table in our little apartment in Watertown, Massachusetts, where I learned to walk. Worried that I might bang my head against the corners of the table, they taped cloth padding to them but did not restrict my new freedom of locomotion. I clearly see the dark-stained and polished table in my mind’s eye, with the window beyond. My back is toward the living room. I turn around and see the carpet and the dark stained wooden molding where the walls meet the floor. A few inches above the floor is an electrical outlet. This memory is enhanced by my parents’ telling of it, since the mental image I see is a 360 degree still, not a movie, and it’s the only one I have. Mom and Dad plugged wires into the outlet, and I wanted to try plugging something in too. I found a bobby pin and managed to poke the tines into the slots, creating an explosive short circuit that sent me reeling backward in surprise. They say I was stunned, didn’t cry, but didn’t try that experiment again. An electrical desiny was set for life as one of my well-trodden paths.

Belmont, Mass., near Harvard, 1949-1950

(Remembered event – no photo, no parental suggestions – of Dad showing me his…)
Harvard Lecture Hall

As in film noire, I am walking hand-in-hand with my dad down a long hallway, eventually going into a lecture hall that seems very large to me. Dark, except for light coming in the door. He picks me up. My eyes adjust. Maybe 200 seats, all empty, in the standard sloping design. We command the wide, low “stage,” which is furnished only with a lectern, which we ignore.

Suddenly he is performing, holding forth with expansive gestures to go with a reverberant Shakespearian actor’s voice, head erect, shoulders back, chest out, declaiming an improvised passage of philosophical rhetoric of cosmic consequence, in jest, but with an underlying serious – even tragic – element that I sense but do not know at the time, thus the enduring memory. As his own autobiography attests, this 30 year-old man was in the midst of a wrenching reboot of his faith, from the given to the struggled-for, while starting a family and turning his back on career opportunities and friends in the church who had constituted his support network and sustained his ambition for more than a decade of arduous academic and vocational-preparatory work. Now he had a 2-year-old son, a bright and devoted wife – a doctor’s daughter – and a fierce beast of a question about who he really was. That moment in the dim lecture hall was one of the times I loved him dearly, as he allowed me briefly into the unsteady drama of his metamorphosis.

Little boy pretending to drive on old pickup chassis
Timmy Tompkins at 2, at the wheel of an old auto chassis in Belmont, MA, 1950

Suzy Abbott

It’s a warm afternoon in my third year. A mild breeze is rustling the tall weeds growing up through the skeletal remains of an old pickup truck parked for good in the vast back yard of the rambling run-down farmstead, which is the first home I remember in detail. I like to play on the roofless chassis, stand on the ragged seat and rock the big steering wheel back and forth as though I’m driving down the road. I’m happy to be outside in the sun, away from the house, some distance from my mother’s scrutiny. Danger is remote. She seems happy too, busy by the back door, no doubt humming a piano sonata theme as she hangs the wash on the long clothesline to dry. Our eyes meet, across twenty yards of grass, weeds and a low rock wall. I yell, “I be a good boy,” a stock sentence she reminded me of several in subsequent years. She laughs and waves, tickled that I know what she wants to know about me. She goes into the house.

Suzy Abbott, a year older and bigger than I am, skips around the corner of the weather-beaten barn clutching her doll under one arm. She’s chasing a yellow-and-black butterfly as it darts and swoops, her sturdy, sandled feet prancing in the dust. I am fascinated by her, the first girl in my life. My heart accelerates as the butterfly lures her near me. But she veers away as the animated patch of color in the air changes course.

Suddenly my driving game is old, lifeless and boring. I climb down and join the chase. Running with purpose, I catch up to her soon. I am excited just to be near her but I do not venture to speak. She looks around, and when our eyes meet I am thrilled by her smile of inclusion into the happy family of her afternoon. But when she turns forward again the butterfly is gone. She searches for it in the sky and in the nearby weeds. Her face is sad; I’m afraid my approach has ruined her day. She asks her doll to help, holds her overhead, turns her face in all directions, asks, “Do you see it? Where did it go?”

The butterfly is gone. She turns a glum gaze on me, and I begin sadly walking away with my hands in my pockets. But suddenly she perks up with a new idea. “Do you want to go see the old shed?” My brows go up and I nod an energetic yes, while bashfulness grips my throat, allowing only a squeak of an uh-huh to escape. I don’t know what shed she’s talking about, but I’m game for any adventure she’s into.

“Come on,” she whispers, adding intrigue to attraction, and leads the way around a sprawling scotch broom, between long-tentacled blackberry vines, across a plank, and through tall grass. Suddenly it’s there, a little dilapidated tool shed with a sloping roof. She puts her finger to her lips for quiet and creeps around in the weeds toward the door. I follow at her heels in wide-eyed excitement, crouching as she does and trying to make no noise. Our pants rustle the vegetation as we passes, and I wonder if the mysterious entity that her behavior suggests may be lurking in the shed can hear us.

A narrow door sags from rusty hinges. It’s slightly ajar. I  marvel at her bravery as she peeks in, then pulls the squeaking door open enough that we can slip through. She walks boldly to the middle of the dirt floor while I stay close to the door. It’s warm and gloomy inside, windowless, with light beams coming only from the door and a few holes in the roof and the rough lumber walls. A rusty rake with a broken handle hangs cock-eyed from a nail on the wall. A fly buzzes in a dark corner, perhaps caught in a spider web. A porcelain insulator still clings to an old wire with fraying cloth insulation that dangles loose, near where a light fixture may have been. Suzy slides into the spell I’ve fallen into, moves a step toward me, and says, “Take down your pants.”

I am shocked to my core, breath interrupted, can’t meet her gaze, look down. She steps closer. “Come on, let me see, it’s OK.” My stomach is tight. I’ve never been schooled against this kind of behavior, yet I fear we are drifting into seriously naughty territory. But she’s older and not worried. Confused and speechless, I raise my eyes to hers. “You’re scared,” she says softly, then with a palms-up gesture, swinging her weight to one hip, “But it’s OK. It’s a secret.” She props her doll against the wall of the shed, steps back into the middle and takes the waistband of her pants in each hand, “Come on, I’ll do it too.”

I want to see her. I am an only child at this point, no sister to demystify the gender question that has been elevated, not minimized, by Mom’s modesty, even around my dad. Suzy smiles to see me come around, “We’ll do it at the same time. Now.” I grip my elastic waistband and pull slowly, matching her pace as her pants slip slowly down to her knees. I’m embarrassed for her to see my face blushing hot.

“OK,” she says, “now take down your underpants … at the same time!” My head is dizzy from shortness of breath and sustained tension, but she presses on, leaving no time for debate or second thoughts. “Here we go—.” I follow her as she pulls hers down slowly, revealing the strange difference beneath.

It doesn’t take her long to confirm her hunch that all boys have similar features. After all, she and her 4 year-old big brother Bobby bathe together. But I find myself staring at her anatomy; there is an elegant simplicity about her shape. Now I feel her looking at my face, and I meet her gaze as it holds my eyes for a stretched moment, while I yield to her calm strength. This may work out OK; it won’t be the first secret I’ve kept from my mother. Another second, suspended. I knew she’d be different from me, but she isn’t scary-different. I find my voice, “How do you go?”

Putting her finger to the little slit she says, with no hesitation, “It comes right out here.” I’m wondering how she aims with nothing to hold onto, when she giggles and breaks the spell, “OK, pull up your pants. Let’s go home.”

We’re dressed in a snap, she gets her doll, and a minute later I’m following her through the weeds again, my imagination filling in what I cannot see. She has planted a desire linked to experience, conscious or not, that will last a lifetime.

As we round the scotch broom I look to the back door of the house, worried that my mother will be looking for me. No sign of her; I can hardly believe my luck. Suzy begins prancing toward the corner of the barn, without a goodbye, holding her doll very close. I wish she were holding me like that. I might begin to cry. But I run over to the old truck and try to drive my blues away.

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