I grew up in an eccentric but loving extended family, with two brothers and a sister, a father who brought home wierd stuff from the lab and a mother who cooked extremely interesting things... and a grandfather who was an alien. A resident alien, and a loyal British citizen to the day he died.
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This book grew out of a series of essays on "The Daily Brief" about my family: how my father 'snake-proofed' my brother and I, and how he tried to teach us to tell time, how we came to have a horse in the back-yard, a bany brother who was our real-live baby-doll, aSiamese cat who came to us courtesy of the neighbor's pet goat, and a jade-green Plymouth station-wagon which my mother drove for thirty years. All the stories are there - even the one about the great uncle who had a pair of ladies in frilly skirts tattooed on his fore-arms, who did the shimmy when he flexed his muscles.
The only fly in the general ointment of happiness was Dad’s intermittent
attempts to teach us to tell time. I don't know why Dad fixed on that particular skill. Perhaps the success of snake-proofing, and the way we eagerly absorbed everything about his nature walks led him to overconfidence. (He still does the
best nature walks of anyone I know. A long time later, I went to Greenland for a year, and went everywhere asking, "What is that? How does it grow? What made those tracks? How does it survive? What about the birds?" No one could tell me. Dad wasn't there.)
For some reason, he decided it was a Useful Skill, and it was his duty to pass it to JP and I, about the time when both of us were in grade
school. Pippy was spared these exercises, on account of her youth--- she was a toddler then--- and her tendency to throw up, when stressed. He even got this awful cardboard mechanical teaching aid, a heavy pasteboard clock face with plastic hands that were geared so you could move the minute hand, and it would
incrementally move the hour hand. I don't know what happened to it; we
probably ditched the horrible object in a subsequent move. In my mind, it is right up there with thumbscrews and the Iron Maiden. It was an Object of Torture. Given a choice I would have burned the damned thing and danced around the bonfire sky-clad.
It would be another uneventful evening in "Chez Hayes", when Dad would
decide that a lesson was in order. He would produce the clock training aide,
summon JP and I to attend, while Mom would retreat to the kitchen and grimly
pour herself another glass of Chablis.
"OK, what time is this?" (Clock hands set, little hand at eight, large hand at 20 minutes past)
"Mmmm... Eight twenty..." I would make an educated guess, and JP and I would breathe a sigh of relief, although we would know the inevitable outcome
of this session. It was only delayed, not averted.
Dad moved the hands to half past eight. Another intellectual hurdle.
"What time is it now?"
"Eight... sixty." JP looked at the horrid little training aid, and made a stab at logical progression.
"No! What time is it?!!"
We were doomed. Exasperation was building up to the full fury of the
"Eight what? It's right in front of you, what are the hands pointing to?"
"Eight... and six..." I would start bravely, voice quavering.
"How many minutes does that mean?"
I would look at the horrible cardboard clock face, and my mind would be a
total blank. Terror at the inevitable explosion was the only thing in my mind.
Dad's baffled fury at our almost total incomprehension of the concept was a
constant to be relied upon. Every rational thought was driven instantly from my mind: instant intellectual paralysis was achieved. It was inevitable: we would give the fourth or fifth wrong answer, and Dad would explode.
"Eight... eight..." I would fish desperately for inspiration, for a miracle, for knowledge, for an angel to swoop down and whisper the answer into my ear.
"Eight what?" Dad's hand smacked down on the chair arm, " Can't you see it, it's right in front of you?!!"
JP and I would dissolve into tears. End of exercise, end of the Inquisition until next time. The end result of the whole thing was that I didn't really learn to tell time until I finished grade school and went on to junior high, where classes ended
on a scheduled time, with a short "passing period" before the next class. At that point it made logical sense, but I vowed a secret and mighty vow that Dad would
never be the one to teach me to drive. Mom says that he tried, but I was dissolved in tears before even reversing out of the driveway. I am sure that was Pippy: wild horses wouldn’t have dragged me behind the wheel of a car in which Dad was a passenger until quite some years after that.