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  • Karl Thunemann

Gratitude: Suppressed and Sawed Off

Do I hear grumbling? If I were reading these memoirs in sequence, I would be grousing by now. I might protest, You promised us a memoir about gratitude, and so far you have written two dozen missives or epistles or whatever you call them, and except for a couple of cute little curtsies in that direction, we’re still waiting for some honest-to-God gratitude.

A couple of weeks ago I had the strangest experience. I had trouble sleeping, so I got up to visit my loving-kindness practice. When I was finished, I tilted back in my recliner, fully expecting to go right to sleep. Instead, I slipped into a prolonged reverie about gratitude I owed my parents—dating back nearly 60 years—that I never acknowledged. This reverie lasted nearly two hours and was predominantly appreciative.

Prior to my sophomore year in high school, my parents decided to move from the working-class town where we had lived for ten years to a suburban town that seemed more genteel and intellectual. They chose this moment, they said, because my older sister had just completed her glowing career in the high school music program of the first town, and they thought I would be more likely to thrive in the deeper suburbs. They were absolutely right. In my freshman year at my sister’s school, I was completely ignored. I had virtually no friends and no favorite teachers, save possibly for the math teacher who couldn’t really be counted because he was a buddy of one of one of my father’s own high school friends.

Of course, my parents had their own desires. They wanted to move. Years later I figured out that my mother had scorned or hated nearly every town where she and my father lived--more than nineteen years--until she made it to this suburban redoubt. So they really moved for themselves, I could say, withholding any gratitude. That was easy for me, as gratitude was not in my foreground. But give them credit. They were right about me.

I joined the tennis team. The best that could be said--and that only after the coach persuaded me that I could use my left arm to toss the ball up for my serve--was that I was not the worst player on the team.

It started with the band director, spending his summer enrolling new students. I came in with my proposed list of classes—Social Studies, English, Geometry, German, Latin and PE—and Mr. Reed said it seemed a little heavy: What did I do for fun? I admitted that I liked to write, and soon I was enrolled in Journalism. I would never study Latin. But in journalism I met a band of simpatico students. I would work on the student newspaper for three years. And while that instructor didn’t teach me everything I would need to know about journalism, he started me along the path toward critical thinking--an essential element of a sound education. 

The gratitude I owed did not have to be overblown, for it was not as if I had a brilliant career in high school. As a sophomore, I joined the tennis team. The best that could be said--and that only after the coach persuaded me that I could use my impaired left arm to toss the ball up for my serve--was that I was not the worst player on the team. And I was a graduation speaker. My effort was hackneyed. I mainly recall a friend of mine--not allowed to graduate with the class--warning, if you hear a gunshot during your speech, that will be me. I had a social studies teacher who ignited my love for U.S. history. And a teacher in senior English who told me I should spend the summer with Marcel Proust. Not possible, I explained. I had to work. I could not admit my ignorance: Who was Proust? How was I to know that Proust had been dead for 40 years, and that it would be another 40 years before I would spend a figurative summer with him? *

My father played tennis with me, once. We were alone on a public court, early in the morning. My father was intense--as I recall it, I did not win a single point. He was so terse, so full of anger, I could only surmise that he was suffused with shame at the very thought of playing tennis in public with his disabled son. I ought to have been ashamed of him, but that never occurred to me.

When I was a junior, my scores on a scholastic aptitude test were high--and my mathematics score was a bit higher than my verbal measure. After receiving these scores, I decided that I would take no more math classes. I did this to spite my father, and it really worked. He railed at me for rejecting a God-given talent. Unsaid--though understood—was his belief that I could hardly afford to be this cavalier, considering my God-given deficits.

There was an unacknowledged family tradition that after our father had flown into a rage at my sister or me at the dinner table, our mother would come around and try to ameliorate the effects. That made my mother a sort of ally. But after the math wars started, my mother would slink around to say it really wasn’t fair of me to use my debating skills in an argument with my father.  †

So I was at war with my parents, and yet I still benefited from their decision to move. It would be decades before I traced my declaration of war to age 8, when I showed outbursts of anti-social rage at school. Efforts to suppress it were unavailing. The root cause of my rage seemed wholly disembodied. I was angry at my father’s outbursts against my sister. I longed to be an uncle, licensed to admonish him not to be so harsh on the child. If it came from a peer, I imagined he would be overcome with shame, and decease. But if I spoke out, he would only turn his invective on me. I already was a recipient, but not as hopeless as my sister. To my 8-year-old mind, a far greater portion of his wrath fell on her. And, oddly enough, I felt protected by my disability. I knew that his rage at me was triggered by my disability. And even at that young age, I knew that the disability was not my fault. I never asked her, but supposed my poor sister could find no such excuse. For all she or I knew, our father savaged her for being herself.

I could go a lot further, but I think for now I have reached the end of my tether, Oops, that’s not an apt metaphor. Keep paying out that line, and let’s see where I wind up. May I begin by spelling gratitude with a capital G!

* What course might my life have taken had I not been imprisoned by ignorance and timidity? Ah, this would be a very different memoir!

†    When Eric Berne published Games People Play in 1964, it almost felt as if my family offered living proof for a few of his theories.  I think he called this particular game Uproar.


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