Monday, April 29, 2013

For Ben Banks - With Love and Espionage

By Pierce Meriwether Webber
Reposted with permission

In my childhood memories I recall us being gathered – Ben Banks’ five nieces and nephews – about once or twice a year.  Most memories from my youth are a fog, but among the mental images from those times, there is one that comes back more clearly than the rest, inaccurate as it may be.  Until now this memory has remained a secret hidden by a conspiracy to protect the innocent. 

My sister Penny and I would see Taylor more frequently than Shelton and Gwen, because she also lived in New Jersey.  But a First Cousin Summit (with all of us in attendance) was less common and more special.  Uncle Shelly had a State Department job, which meant that Gwen and Shelton’s attendance required them to fly all the way from Paris for many of those years.  To our delight then and to our delight now, all of our parents made a concerted commitment to our relationships.

Our summer-time First Cousin Summits brought us to Deep Creek Lake, Camp Renoia, East Fork Hunting Club and Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Island.  There were winter-holiday summits in Hartford at our grandparents’ house on Second Street or at a family-run convention center near Freeport, Maine for much larger Grant Family Gatherings.  Our parents, Annabelle, Lydia, Shelly, and their youngest brother, Ben, had grown up with a strong first-cousin affiliation. This was in part because their grandfather had Kaliphon, an island estate for summering in the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River.  It enabled their generation’s summits.  These served as a model for their rearing of our generation. Kaliphon was sold before any of my generation was born or can remember, but we grew up with the family lore surrounding it.

A notable absence from most of these gatherings of my cousins was our Uncle Ben.  To my innocent mind Ben was an enigma.  Why didn’t he have children to be our cousins?  If he had kids, maybe we’d see him more.  Why must he live, as if in exile, all the way in San Francisco?  What kind of adult man doesn’t have a wife?  I’d never known any.  The shame of his relative absence from us was that Ben was so worldly, full of character, full of good stories about his brother and sisters, and he was kinda cool – youthful – for his generation.  (He was the only one of the four who drank, and though good taste was yet an undiscovered idea to me, he had it.)  It didn’t hurt that he had my mother’s highest esteem, as well.  It caused me to miss him.

Holiday dinner conversation among my parents, aunts and uncles was always lively. Political discussion at family meals was inevitable – it could be broad and deep, allowing for differences of view and opinion,  without personal grudge.  Despite the persistence of cold-war dichotomies, it was the era before fox news.  Arguments were expected to stand on the merits of their supportive facts, rather than won based on who was speaking them or the political identity of the person being offended. In our family’s case the positions tended toward the political right, tempered with this: “Even Liberals and Socialists deserve our love, too, of course.”  Our grandfather was a minister, after all.

…But when Ben was present it was as if justice had an advocate, and history and facts weren’t just foot soldiers for sound (shrewd) business and protestant (soft) American righteousness.  Ben’s book knowledge, it was plain to me at a young age, was expansive.  His knowledge rivaled Uncle Shelly’s and his stories were rendered, though humbly, with more color, texture, detail, logic and purpose than anyone else’s.  With Ben present, bold opinions that went otherwise unchallenged lost their ubiquity and authority.  The dialog became charged and meaningful.

When Shelly and Ben would spar from across the dining table after a ham or turkey dinner in the late afternoon winter sun, I sat silently in awe before giants.  Usually not for very long.  Dessert would turn to coffee would turn to Bridge.  I was secure in the knowledge that I had nothing to contribute.  It was all out of my depth.  All I cared about was the television, and more often than not I’ll bet I squirmed and whined to get away from the table to find one.  My Uncles’ combined cultural knowledge was formidable and intimidating, and it meant that they were the two main talkers during the good First Cousin Summits, the ones when Ben could be there.

As I grew more comfortable listening through the years, it was Ben’s alternative view that enabled me to see some point, some over-all good that might come of years invested in books.  It would be years before I would act on that feeling – I was a lazy student and slow reader – but, where in others I perceived a subjugation in the world of letters, from Ben I saw in it a liberation.  Before I read a single “chapter book,” before I ever faked a book report by reading the shortest choose-your-own-adventure, I was drawn to books in an abstract way, because I knew that Ben was made powerful and respected by them.

This experience proved to amplify my uncle’s mystery to me.

“Mom? Why doesn’t Uncle Ben have any kids?”  No one gave a direct answer.  My cousins had the same questions and only Shelton, who was eldest by 4 years, didn’t find the topic interesting.  Or he knew something we didn’t and relished the advantage, so kept his mouth shut.  To me, there was quite obviously a conspiracy to deceive us, and it was big.  It had more longevity and was more sacred than the Santa Claus Conspiracy and the Easter Bunny Conspiracy.  Naturally by this point, into each of these conspiracies I had already made passage through the rites of initiation and this had nothing on those.  This was something real.

I don’t remember exactly how I learned the truth.  It may have been that my mother leaked it to me during one of our long commutes, after incessant interrogation while Harry Chapin sang Cats in the Cradle on the cassette stereo.  Or maybe her fiancĂ©, Kent, said something while he was stoned one time, driving around on some errand with me sitting shotgun, listening to Sympathy for the Devil, or Learning to Fly.  I know I got it from a close source and there was music in the foreground.  Whoever or however it came to pass, it was my duty to be the whistle-blower…rather, I should say, the informant or the liberator.

My memory of how I executed that role is as unreliable as my memory of how I learned of Ben’s taboo nature.  The music of the dialog is more present than any particular facts.  And I cannot avoid thinking of my own role with delusions of grandeur.  Still, I can piece together enough to give you an impression of what it may have sounded like…

The next First Cousin Summit to follow that revelation occurred during the off season at hunting camp.  I may have been 10 or 11.  Taylor a year older, Gwen two years younger and my sister a few months shy of Gwen.  Shelton was an adolescent with two years on Taylor.  He was out on a walk with some of the adults.  Aunt Lucie and my mother were cooking in the kitchen.  Taylor, Gwen, Penny and I were meeting, without supervision, on one of the 7 top bunks of the full-size bunk beds in the bunk room.  At first we talked about the confusion of our grandmother’s many names. 

Penny asked, “why do we call her Goggy and the Banks call her Nai Nai?”  I may have gotten into the habit of calling her Nai Nai, which Penny didn’t really like.

Gwen knew the answer, which I think went like this, “Nai Nai is mandarin for your mother’s mother, but we say it wrong and call our father’s mother Nai Nai.  Maybe because we called Gung Gung, Gung Gung first and Nai Nai sounded better along with Gung Gung.  But why do you call her Goggy?”  It wasn’t a name she used.

No one really had a decent answer.  It’s just what we called her.  In an attempt to draw contrast and a possible explanation I offered, “Well we call our dad’s mother…”

“Our dad’s step mother.” Penny corrected me.  (Our dad’s dad had been a widower.)

“…We call our dad’s step mother Nanny.  So that name was taken.”

Taylor may have had a good reason for why we called her Goggy, but I don’t remember it.  Our grandmother was also called Ibby.  We all knew that story already, though I’m sure someone recited it.

“I like the sound of Nai Nai better,” I said.  It sounded exotic and not as childish.

Penny liked Goggy, because that’s what we call her, and Taylor thought they were both nice names.

The subject of our only living-grandparent-in-common opened the window for a digression.  I lowered my voice – we may as well have been huddling under a mass of Bean Matte Wool Blankets, the ones with the satin rims, to ensure no adult could hear us.  I think I pulled the conversation, like the blankets in my imagination, over us something like this:

“Have you guys figured out why Uncle Ben never comes to our family gatherings in the summer…AND why he doesn’t have any kids…AND why he lives in San Francisco?”

Taylor said, “Well he works for Customs and public service jobs don’t get that much vacation.”  She was advanced in some ways for her age.

Gwen – “Maybe he just doesn’t want to have kids.”

“Well,” I began, “I don’t know.  You know how my mom and Kent have to say they’re engaged just so they can live together in the same house?”

This was a shock to Gwen. “You mean Aunt Annabelle and Kent are engaged?!” 

“Nai Nai would never allow them to live together, unless they planned to get married,” I explained.

“You mean Goggy.”  Penny corrected.

“Well, maybe Ben has a secret, too.  Think about it.  Isn’t San Francisco where homosexual people go?”  The long word conferred an adult-like authority on my question.  “And why isn’t he married? Or why doesn’t he have a girlfriend?”

“He has a room-mate.  Daniel.”  Taylor or Gwen had met Daniel, but I don’t believe I had.

“Exactly!  I think he doesn’t have kids, maybe because he likes men, …not women!?”

       And silence.

“I mean, we’d still love him no matter what.”  I reminded them.

Taylor – “Yeah, but why wouldn’t they tell us?  Why would everyone lie?”  She was astonished.

“Maybe Nai Nai – Goggy,” I pre-empted my sister, “doesn’t think it’s ok for Ben to be that way.” It was a gently made suggestion. 

Diplomacy, not my strong suit, was essential.  Goggy was still very much the monolithic matriarch of the family.  Whole plans were scheduled with her in mind above everyone else.  Her house had unique laws, many of which were only implied or couldn’t rationally be explained.  To compound my challenge, we all generally had a greater natural commitment to placate authority over a loyalty to our peers.

“Or maybe they’re scared we might become homosexual, too,” Gwen chimed.

Penny didn’t follow the logic. “But only you or Shelton can be homosexual, Pierce. You’re the only boys.”

“No, I think men and women can both be homosexual.  Gay is for men, Lesbian is for women.”  I was advanced, too. 

“But I love Uncle Ben,” Penny reminded us.

“So do I!  We all love Uncle Ben. It’s ok if he’s gay.  And we can love Goggy, too.  It’s not her fault she feels that way – It’s just how things were when she was young.”   I’m certain I had heard my mother say this exact thing and had just now repeated it verbatim…

Taylor summed up – she had probably had enough, “Well that’s ok.  I love him, too.  Of course we love him, even if he’s gay.”

I offered a soft conclusion, “It’s not a problem with Uncle Ben that makes them lie to us.  Everyone lies because they’re trying to protect us from Nai Nai.”

“Goggy.”  Penny reminded me.

“Huh…,” Gwen sighed openly as if gears were starting to mesh, “…I thought something was up.”

We agreed not to reveal what “we had worked out,” in truth what I had surreptitiously exposed.  We would proceed as if nothing had changed. 

And in my memory, that’s the way that my Uncle Ben’s mother, Elizabeth Price Banks, was outed by a pre-pubescent insurgency for being the Authoritarian of Her Time that she truly, in her most excellent self-image and in our highest esteem, truly was.

Eventually, as I became closer to him, I discovered that Uncle Ben kept Cavalier King Charles Spaniels instead of children.  These days, I see the wisdom in that.  Children can be so treacherous.

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