Breaking Away

My son Zac, visiting from Minnesota with his partner Vicky, noticed yesterday that a peg on one of the dining room chair banisters was a bit loose. “I think this chair spindle may be breaking away, see?” he showed me with a worried look.

The chair is part of a knotty eastern maple dining room table, chair, bench, and hutch set that he has known all his life. And I have known all of mine.  When my parents moved from New York to Seattle in 1955, leaving 3000 miles between family and friends, they brought along probably their most valuable possession – this Pennsylvania-Dutch handmade furniture set.

“Why are there three small chairs and one large one?” Zac asked.  I explained that there were also two benches as we began to discuss where each member of my family of origin sat for dinner. 

“Dad would be in the large chair at the front of the table, Mom on the opposite end and then… I forget who sat on the bench and who sat on the two chairs. Perhaps Ann and Laurie sat in the two chairs with me opposite on the bench?  Perhaps the other way around?[1]  I do remember that I was sitting closest to the kitchen.”

The conversation moved toward the role of a dad as head of the household and then on to the meals we ate.  “We had specific dishes for specific days,” I said, as I strained to remember the details. “One day was spaghetti day, one day for hamburgers, another for hot dogs. No. Wait.  We didn’t regularly do hot dogs.[2]  But Mom made sure we had a salad at every meal.”

I spent 20 years, more or less, with my parents at that table.  A good ten of which were with both my older sisters. And I can’t remember the daily ritual with any detail. Any certainty.  I still have my sister Laurie to ask, who usually has a better memory for daily life than me.  But she and I are all that are left of that family sitting around the table.

Why is it that daily life is so unmemorable? At least to me. Psychologists will say that memory is connected to deep emotions.  Only great joys or great traumas stick around. There is sorrow in that.  The years with your parents reduced to episodes.

The vast majority of our lives – 90% plus – are the day-to-day of sleeping and doing chores and eating and interacting with family. I ate thousands of meals at that table with those who loved me most and for whom I am most indebted for helping to make me who I am, yet those years now are but vagueness and incidents.

Counter that with not just the memories, but the life impact of experiences during travel.  There is a vividness from voyages and an outsized sense of influence.  So, let’s use up a few lines chronologically, exploring highlights, as I now recall them, of those episodes in my life that seem most significant.  My times of breaking away from daily life.

To New York and Back

Our family flew, as I understand it, from New York to Seattle when I was six months old. No memories there.  But we went back to family and friends in New York by train or plane three or four times during my childhood.

On one early trip, I’m guessing I was about eight, my sisters and I were in the train’s sleeping compartment and I was experiencing stomach distress for the first time. It wasn’t clear to me about the source of my discomfort.  Laurie suggested that it might be gas, so she and Ann taught me “the farting position.”  Ass up, head down, and let the gas rise to meet its freedom.  Wow!  It worked! And it was really fun too!  I was conscious of this being a key stage in my maturity, knowing that adults farted all the time and now I would learn the tricks of that trade.

There were three other indelible experiences on those early train rides:

  1. Entering a Chicago train station, seeing a large scrolling neon weather sign that read “90° FAIR” and then exiting the train onto an outside platform almost choking on the hot dampness. Growing up in the Seattle area, I had never experienced combined heat and humidity and I thought to myself “nothing fair about this!”  It was the first time I knew that life was different in different parts of the globe.
  2. Hanging out in the train’s “Vista Dome” by myself and watching American diversity roll along.  As a child, it was an extraordinary opportunity for both safety and exploration. The passing landscapes were both mesmerizing and educational.  I remember feeling an overwhelming compassion for poorer folks hanging laundry in small backyards adjacent to the tracks. In other stretches, excited to see the essential alignment of commerce and industry to the lifeline that was the railroad.
  3. Watching the movie “Made in Paris,” an Ann Margaret vehicle, with my family on the train’s small screen movie car.  That movie became the butt of family jokes for years as the “worst move ever made.” But we would preface it with the promotional line “there’s movies on the B&O!” and then off we’d go on some tangent.

Leaving the Country

In living only 120 miles from Canada, we did take trips to Vancouver occasionally.  Pitch-putt golf in Stanley Park, sleeping at the Sylvia Hotel, the only time I remember our family paying for overnight accommodations in a big city before I was ten, and visiting the wonderful Museum of Anthropology at UBC.  A BC-based basketball competition between the Seattle and Vancouver Jewish Community Centers was the occasion for my greatest athletic heroics. But that one will have to be a story for another day.

The first significantly impactful, personality-forming foreign travel was the 1967 visit to Mexico with my parents.  By then, my two older sisters were off to college, and at age 12, I was still pre-pubescent with a tight and loving relationship with both parents. Mexico was a chance to really connect with them when they weren’t in busy, working mode.

I have previously written about Mexico in my writing class. I just reread it and hereby adopt it to this piece in toto. It fits this writing’s theme, and I’ll move on to other travels. (“Mexico as Muse” has been added as a November 2020 entry in this blog.)

At age 14, I traveled to Europe for the first time.  The plan was for me and my sister Ann to spend a month together, hitching around Britain, Ireland, and Northern Europe. Ann was spending a year abroad in her final undergraduate year at the London School of Economics.  Mom, Dad, and I would fly to London, visit friends and family for a few days, then the kids would separate from our parents and go our separate ways.  We would meet up again at the New Experimental College in Denmark for the final leg of our travels.

What our parents permitted, and in retrospect surprisingly condoned, now sounds highly risky from my modern-day parental eyes. They trusted 21-year-old Ann to take care of her little brother.  As we hitchhiked from youth hostel to youth hostel, stayed with friends or friends of friends, and explored historic sites, museums, and European daily life, this was an opportunity for massive maturation and self-confidence-building experiences.

Ann and I set off north from London and we quickly got the hang of hitchhiking.  We were an unbeatable duo!  Ann put her hair in pigtails.  We made calligraphically lovely hand-drawn signs for each destination with the word “please” added in bright colors.  I was still pretty small at the time, and together we appeared as an innocent, altogether cutely safe couple.  One little old lady picked us up saying “I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker before but you two look so sweet.”

Scanning our International Youth Hostel travel booklet, we not only had hostel destinations to achieve each day, but special sites to explore.  In Helmsley, we explored my first castle ruins and smelled the products from the nearby Roundtree Chocolate factory.  In York, we scaled the old city’s medieval walls and toured its child-friendly Viking museum.

When we arrived in Edinburgh, we stayed with Esmee Roberts, a social work colleague of Dad’s social work colleague Henry Maier. Esmee, in her 50’s at the time, was welcoming, warm, refined, and fun. She spoke with a strong Scottish brogue, with cadence and mannerisms matching her nation’s standard fare. And she was black. 

“Bingo!  I’ve got it now.  I understand what racism is,” I concluded. “Culture is just about everything.”

I walked out onto the streets of Edinburgh and saw a bunch of teens hanging around the sidewalk.  One of them came up to me and we started talking. They instantly recognized my accent as foreign. “You American?” one boy asked.  I answered in the affirmative.  Then the kids gathered round me and started peppering me with questions.  They wondered why American’s were such racists. They wondered why we insisted on warring on the Vietnamese.  No. They didn’t wonder. They outright opposed American intervention and started getting angry about it. And I began to feel a bit scared. I assured them I opposed our involvement in Vietnam, then quickly bid my adieu.

I walked off to Arthur’s Seat, the town’s central undeveloped mountain park. It was a cool, sunny, and breezy day.  As I climbed the richly green pastures, replete with grazing sheep, the winds picked up. I had a light windbreaker on.  At the top of the mountain, where the gusts were at their peak, I opened the jacket, grabbed each flap with my fingers, and outstretched my arms.  Leaping into the air, the winds caught my faux sails and kept me, however briefly, aloft.  For moments more than none, it felt like gravity’s hold was broken.

The view from Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat

Eleven years later, soon after the death of my father Arthur, I would awaken with a knowing smile on my face to the line “I learned to fly at Arthur’s Seat.” Twenty-seven years after that, Jean and I flew to our cousins Sybil and Arnold Castle’s flat in Cape Town, South Africa. The name of their apartment complex:  Arthur’s Seat.

From Edinburgh, Ann and I took a train and ferry through Glasgow to Belfast, Northern Ireland.  We were there two days before the infamous 1969 riots broke out.  I remember feeling, even then, that the air was thick with tension.  The place just didn’t feel right, and we decided that we would immediately hitch south to Dublin.

The Irish countryside was a deeply rich green, even in the middle of summer. We stayed in a hostel in the center of Dublin, and in our first full day in town, toured the Guinness brewery. That evening, we went to a pub. Sitting at a booth, a tall, dark-haired Spaniard came up and started chatting up Ann.  She appeared to like it, but I didn’t.  I told Ann that it was time to go back to the hostel, but she refused and kept talking to the man.  I reiterated that it was time to go and what’s more, it was time to go the next morning back to London.  With that, I went back to my hostel bed – men and women slept in different rooms – and didn’t see Ann until the next morning. Again, I told her then that I would be taking off to the ferry that morning and she refused to join me.  So… off I went.

For no legitimate reason, I felt oddly calm and unafraid.  I knew how to hitchhike, had all the proper maps, knew the addresses and phone numbers of contacts in London with my cousins. Piece of cake.

As I disembarked the ferry in Holyhead, Wales after a beautiful and uneventful passage across the Irish Sea, I stuck my finger out and immediately got picked up by a man in a formal grey suit and fancy car.  At no time did I feel at risk or feel like my age was a matter of concern to the gentleman.  He dropped me off at a youth hostel in a magnificent setting along the north Welsh coastal town of Penmaenmawr.  As I was fetching my backpack from the back seat of the sedan, he opened up the “boot” and beckoned me to come back to him.  There, filling the space completely, was an assortment of chocolate treats.  Turns out, my driver was a Vice President of the Roundtree Chocolate Company – the same one we smelled in Helmsley – and insisted that I take as many treats as I could fit in my pack.  I pleaded for mercy, but he kept adding to my load with a giant smile.

The youth hostel was a short walk from the coast, and it was there that I found out that blue mussels, a similar species that were so common in Puget Sound, were actually edible and delicious. I harvested a dinner’s fill with a fellow hosteler for that evening’s meal. He already had the wine and garlic for the steaming.

It was a good first day of my independence.


[1] A subsequent conversation with sister Laurie resolved the matter.  The girls sat on the chairs and I was on the bench.

[2] The very same subsequent conversation with Laurie answered this one too.  Thursdays were spaghetti night, when we eagerly ran upstairs for dinner immediately after watching “Huckleberry Hound” on TV. No other night according to her, and I trust her on these types of things, had a designated meal. 

14 thoughts on “Breaking Away

  1. Very interesting, Daniel! So you hitchhiked, by yourself, from Ireland through Wales (and I’m assuming on to London) at the age of 12? Were your parents outraged that Anne didn’t accompany you? I would have been livid.

    My earliest memory of venturing off on my own was when I was very young, before we went to Germany (so I was probably 3). We lived on a street one block over from a farmer’s field where he had mules. Of course, my four-year-old self was absolutely certain that those were horses, not mules. Anyway, I distinctly remember being mad at my parents about something so I decided I would run away from home. And what better transportation than a horse-mule! So, I packed my little bag with Quaker Oats (no clothes, no money, just oats for the horse-mule) and walk out the front door. Down the street I walk, and around the corner I go, off to steal a horse-mule and run away. Well, I got about half-way down the street and come to a dead stop. I didn’t know where I was. No field with horse-mules in front of me, and, as I looked behind me, I couldn’t remember if I should turn left or right to get back home. I just stood there for the longest time. Then an unfamiliar car pulls up next to me and out pops my Mom. She gathers me in her arms and puts me on her lap in the neighbors car as we are driven back home.

    So much for ever running away again.

    Clearly you had a much more well-traveled youth than I. Love your stories, Daniel. They always bring up memories that I haven’t thought about in awhile and that’s a sign of a good writer.

    Love to you and Pickleball Jean.

    Cathy

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

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    1. Thanks for your own story of irrational independence! I too once “ran away” which consisted of walking down a gravel road to who knows where with no food or means of survival. Kids are so dumb!

      Yes, my parents were livid at my big sister Ann. With aged eyes now, so too would I have been!

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  2. Couldn’t figure out how to “Comment” inside of the blog. Anyways, you’re a good story teller. Re: what sticks in the memory, I have a related regret: all the conversations I would like to have had with my parents, some of which I might have had but don’t remember. I never met my grandparents-another regret. John

    On Wed, Oct 28, 2020 at 10:10 AM Daniel’s Derekh wrote:

    > Daniel Farber posted: ” My son Zac, visiting from Minnesota with his > partner Vicky, noticed yesterday that a peg on one of the dining room > chairs was a bit loose. “I think the chair may be breaking apart, see?” he > showed me with a worried look. The chair was part of a knotty” >

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  3. HI, Daniel

    Thanks for sending out your posts. You must be back in Olympia from your travels?

    I also have the dining set from my parents and the hutch. It was called “Alamo” style and somewhat downsized for a NY apartment of the 1940s. I think they purchased it at Macy’s. We seem to have a few loose chair pegs as well. Right now the table is the surface for a jigsaw puzzle of a Manet painting. Not that easy as most of the pieces seem to be one of three colors (unlike the original painting).

    Hope all is well,

    Andrea

    ________________________________

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  4. Daniel: You are really writing well!!! I’m impressed with the skills you have acquired. Really good. Thanks for sending this post. It was fun to read and I’m looking forward to the next one. Don’t know about the credibility of your reporting as a 14 year old. Sounds terribly over-confident to me. What’s your sister Laurie have to say about it? I piece the puzzle together and conclude you have lost your sister, Ann. What stories you had to tell your parents when you got home. Pat

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    1. Wonderful to hear from you, Pat. I hope all is well on your end.

      Laurie and I just talked about that time. From our current eyes, we couldn’t imagine letting our 14 yo children hitchhike like that. Yes, my older sister Ann is no longer with us, but I will tell you my parents were SO ANGRY with her for letting me go off on my own like that. But heck. It was 1969 and stuff happened.

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  5. Daniel, these memories are lovely. As I ponder my fragmented memories of my own family, I wish I’d asked more questions and paid more attention to the details of quotidian life that have slipped away. I wonder what my daughter will remember when she’s our age. Your hitchhiking story reminds me of my first (and only) solo hitchhiking adventure – also in England, when I escaped the college group I was studying with to spend a weekend in the Cotswolds and the West. My parents would have been aghast, but it was a wonderful adventure, everyone was kind to me (though there was no chocolate in the boot of a car, alas), and I proved to myself that this was something I could do. Thanks for prompting me to remember that trip.

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