Last night over the dinner table we were reminiscing about some of the things my mother used to say to me when I was a little kid. Well, say and sing. See, Mom made up lullabies for each of us kids when we were a couple weeks old. They were nothing elaborate, just a few lines of her own lyrics set to a short segment of a familiar tune. I still remember my younger brother’s song. I won’t embarrass him by repeating the words, but the tune was taken from Beethoven’s 6th, and it worked like a charm. Not only did he learn to fall asleep on command, he became a huge classical music fan. Mom claims he could hum most of the themes in all nine Beethoven symphonies before he learned to talk.
On one level, they were lullabies, but on another level, they were like the extended or true versions of our given names. Mine she sang to the tune of “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City,” from the musical Oklahoma: “What are we going to do with David Jeffrey? The naughtiest little boy in all the world!”
So that was me: David-Jeffrey-the-Naughtiest-Little-Boy-in-All-the-World-[Patronymic].*
Mom was really pushing the envelope of the lullaby genre with that one. There’s a kind of ironic distancing there that you wouldn’t find in either of my brother’s lullabies. It’s easy to imagine what might have been going through her head when she made it up: “Okay, you rotten little kid. Since you won’t go to sleep anyway, take this!”
It’s true, though, I was pretty rotten. Not mean rotten – except to my little brother, whom I tormented – but tantrum-throwing rotten. I cried constantly. My parents still recall one time when I screamed for two hours straight at a nursery school. From the moment they plunked my four-year-old butt down in the nether regions of that house of God, I began howling at the top of my lungs. My older brother was allowed to attend services, why couldn’t I? They said they could hear me faintly from upstairs in the sanctuary, all throughout the sermon. It is in such seemingly minor incidents, I think, that one can locate the fertile seeds of what would become life-long obsessions.
I didn’t break the crying habit until I reached puberty. We’ve all heard the pop psychological explanation for such behavior: “Oh, he just wants attention!” But I think I was alert enough to realize that in my case, the opposite was true. If I wanted attention, all I had to do was stop crying for a little while. I can still remember the acute pleasure I derived from making myself and others miserable. Misery was more than company – it was a lifestyle. Hence my mother’s affectionate nickname for me as a child: Eeyore.
Nobody worried much about political correctness back in the early 1970s. Whenever we became especially cantankerous, Mom would threaten, “I’m going to give you back to the Indians!” That always seemed like a fairly attractive alternative, however. So sometimes she would change it and say, “I’m going to take you back to the A&P!”
I was always very well behaved in the supermarket.
* Some things you just don’t want Google to pick up, know what I mean?