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  • Karl Thunemann

Living on the Ragged Saturnine Frontier

A member of my writers’ group has asked if I ever write about my childhood. I have written extensively on this topic, but never quite satisfactorily and never for this group.

We live in a senior co-op, and the dining room is where we often share childhood stories. Not me. My wife had a picturesque, even exotic childhood, so she carries the load for our household, and I nestle down beneath her tailfeathers.

I consider my childhood to have been unhappy, and blame it mostly on my father’s mercurial rage, usually directed at my older sister or me. She bore the brunt of it. For the first few years, I was by turns wary, silent, and terrified. But by age 8, I began to imagine intervening. If only I could be an uncle, interrupting this spectacle by leaning across the dining-room table to say, Now Paul, don’t be so harsh on the child.  I imagined that these words, coming from a peer, would so humble my father he would never act this way again. But I was no uncle. If I tried to step in, his rage would shift to me, redoubled.

My own rage at age 8 went unexpressed, except for a couple of angry outbursts at school that sparked no investigation. I decided to withdraw from my family as much as I could. I don’t remember a moment of judgment. I was just a kid—I was no strategist. I also tended to be suspicious and—oddly enough—I feared abandonment. As a young adult I would realize I had abandoned my sister. I asked my mother if we had been close, and she said we were.  But I don’t remember a consequence. I simply took refuge in a saturnine countenance, though I couldn’t remember when it possessed me.  I had no name for this cover, but it was rigorous. I was in mourning.  Put it this way: I learned to be somber, melancholic, moody, dour, and glum. Of course. I didn’t know any of these words, and I learned only recently how to pronounce saturnine (ˈsa-tər-ˌnīn). It rhymes with aerodyne and leonine. So now I uncork this word as a gift for my 75th birthday.

Some five decades later I would conclude that my father was gripped by an undiagnosed dissociative personality disorder. I only speculate on its cause. Although it never went away completely, we found peace in our last dozen years together. But this essay is not about my father.

My parents were conscientious and meant to be loving. They introduced a silly game to foment informality: A pinch and a punch for the first of the month. They probably didn’t know that it was a Welsh recipe to repel witches: A pinch of salt to weaken them, and a punch to take them out. And we had our glorious annual camping vacation at a private preserve in the Sierra Nevada. For those two sublime weeks, my father was never in a rage, and we were the family we might have been.

What is it like, resolving to become melancholic at age 8? I schooled myself to mute my enthusiasms. I easily found disappointment and curried it. But I also formed an alliance with my little brother—we shared a room—and I tried to protect him without inculcating him in my contra-rage. Christmas, magical as it seemed, became a perpetual source of bitter discontent.

What were my enthusiasms? I loved baseball. My parents became camping friends with a man who had played third base for the Triple-A Oakland Oaks (almost the major leagues!) and I was more thrilled at that than by his PhD in psychology or even his beautiful young wife. Yet, though I have many memories of hanging out on playground outfields, I don’t think I ever caught a flyball, not even one. And while I was romantically obsessed with model train layouts, I lacked the dexterity and temperament to build my own.

painting by Robert Maniscalco via Fine Art America

I invented board games to simulate baseball (I was ahead of the times) and suffered my little brother to play them with me. He recalls that my rules were all too fluid. And I came up with a one-boy baseball solitaire, played in the front yard with imaginary teams of boys in the neighborhood. To pitch, I spun and dropped a peewee football. My “swing” was a dropkick:  I made a hit or out depending where the ball landed in the yard or street. The rangy flowering plum tree near the sidewalk robbed me of many an extra-base hit. No doubt the neighbors thought me odd for spending hours at this game, but I never heard from them. Nor from my parents: Now I feel gratitude for this inattention.

Going to college may have civilized me. I hung out one year at the home of my journalism teacher, becoming friends with his wife and three daughters. Oh, I was better, but my saturnine mien remained on the outlook, protecting my wounded inner 8-year-old. I was known to hurl my cards across the room when I lost at bridge. I must have had some very tolerant friends.

Sometimes an aberrant behavior would escape my shroud of saturninity. One afternoon—I couldn’t have been older than 9—I was walking home when the sight of a car in the driveway alerted me that we had visitors. I broke into a sprint, raced up the walkway, threw open the door and entered by sliding across the polished hardwood floor as if I were stealing home. There was no applause. The adults all looked at me blankly as if I was a real weirdo.

And again, decades later, I became pals with an aunt who had known me since I was a small boy. I rarely saw her then, for we lived in distant cities.  As she neared the end of her life, we shared many family stories and intimacies. When I lowered my bandanna to reveal my saturnine sorrow, she smiled sweetly and said, “I always thought of you as my golden boy.” This made me wonder at this other boy with a completely different outlook, so long hidden away.

For many years I struggled with my connection to my sister.  We even had a period of estrangement after an incident when she told our mother, my wife and me that we were going to hell, addressing us one by one. Eventually my sister entered an era when she was ill most of the time, in and out of hospitals—she seemed to suffer the tortures of Job. I visited her frequently for nearly 30 years, sometimes at home, sometimes in hospitals. She always shared her religious beliefs with me, clearly hoping I would see the light. But in the end, as her final illness took possession of her, she said she would no longer proselytize me. I thanked her, reminding myself that her growing cognitive problems could make this pledge difficult to keep. But keep it she did: a real lesson in loving-kindness.


Did you know?

Eeyore is saturnine. The gloomy, cynical character of A. A. Milne's gray donkey typifies the personality type the ancient Romans ascribed to individuals born when the planet Saturn was rising in the heavens. Both the name of the planet and the adjective derive from the name of the Roman god of agriculture, who was often depicted as a bent old man with a stern, sluggish, and sullen nature. The Latin name for Saturn was Saturnus, which is assumed to have yielded the word Saturninus (meaning "of Saturn") in Medieval Latin; that form was adapted to create English saturnine in the 15th century.

--From the online version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary.


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