a short sketch about family imprinting
As I waited for the light to change, a pickup pulled up next to me. A five-year old boy popped up over the passenger side window sill. He had surprised me and he knew it. I grinned back just before he ducked down and I was left to watch his Detroit Tiger’s cap dance in a silent chortle.
Sometimes I wonder how many children watch me. I know I studied adults when I was a youngster. I could pick out my Aunt Dorothy’s feet in a beach full of bare feet. I could recognize my Uncle Tony’s laugh in a crowded room, my grandfather’s skinny forearms sticking out of his rolled up white shirt sleeves in the middle of his Italian-club card games.
In the years before television (yeah, I was around then) I spent endless, boring summer evenings on our front porch watching and reading grown-ups. In the winter, from my roll-out mat under the front room table, I could observe my relatives and neighbor’s foot gestures as they counted trump in the kitchen. I gave secret names to the walk-on characters in the drama of my daily life. They were as familiar, predictable and comfortable as my Hopalong Cassidy bedspread.
This early imprinting must run deep—think salmon returning to their hatchling stream. At times, when I meet strangers I find myself at home in their presence. I once told a woman at work that she had a lovely voice. Later speaking to a favorite aunt, I realized they shared the same vocal timbre. Just when I think I have distanced myself with study and travel and sophistication, I find myself back where I was spawned.
I wonder if I was more than a faceless chauffeur to my teenage daughter’s friends on their way to ski-club. I wonder if my nieces and nephews cast me in the lead role of the tragedies and comedies of family affairs. Or am I simply one in the chorus of elders? Will I recognize a fragment of myself in a niece’s choice of spouse? Will I see my cowlick on a nephew? Or be pleased that he shares my love of corny jokes? Or will I simply be the wallpaper of their lives? I’ll never know. The legend happens in their mind, not mine.
I pulled off my cap and played a couple rounds of peek-a-boo with the boy in the truck. He ducked then popped up grinning. The light changed and I drove off.