When he was six years old, Willie Nelson’s grandfather bought him a Stella guitar purchased from a Sears Catalog and he taught himself to play. Music was a way of life in the Hill Country of Texas in 1940, and he was in good company. His parents had split into different lives and left him on a farm with his grandparents. In spite of family disruption and austere beginnings, Willie’s love of melodies, poetry and the fame that came with performing was the key to everything that mattered — a sense of belonging, a job, a belief in a higher power, and, importantly, chasing the girls who chased the guys on stage.
It’s all about the backstory. You say you’re writing a memoir? If you’re going to court those who would share your life, you must be quick to show them how unlikely it was that your name could ever famously grace the front of a book considering your early years. You must, they say, beat unbelievable odds to tell a compelling story that will sell.
Willie, and so many other of our unlikely guitar heroes rose above mortal mediocrity with the simple act of picking up, you guessed it, a guitar. Once they saw Elvis on Ed Sullivan and they made that vow, hell itself couldn’t stop ’em. A further example of improbable transcendence is the prodigious child who took to reading to escape family chaos – the loser youngster who would trudge daily to the library barefoot in the freezing rain where the kindly librarian gave them understanding and encouragement where there was none. And lastly, of course, is the tale of growing up poor. Not just poor, but “dirt” poor. Dirt poor with neglect, abuse, and family dysfunction sets the stage to any worthy biography. Because you can’t have a rags to riches story without the rags.
Though I also got a Stella guitar from Sears, learned how to play four chords, and was peeking around the corner in my pajamas the night Elvis swung his hips in black and white, I never won any Grammys, or talent shows, or even for that matter, Employee of the Month. I read, but not neurotically. And I never grew up in poverty, ran away from home, was physically or deeply emotionally abused, possessed a life-changing deformity, stole food so we could eat, or moved from town to town to hide my shame. How then could I dare presume to write the life story of ‘despair to destiny’ without any despair?
The Childhood Less Traveled
I can’t. Memories of my youth and adolescence come with no regrets. No implausibilities, resentments, scars, or warning labels. Two working parents, two younger brothers, one older sister. Nice schools, nice house, nice neighborhood. To use an ironic twist on the line from the rags-to-riches biographies: “We were all quite well-off, but I was too young to know it, and too happy to care.” My parents were a product of their times, and so were we children. Okay, the folks smoked and drank a lot. Maybe even fooled around. They argued fervently, and, depending on where addictions took them, they confused and ignored us. All true, but I learned that I cannot change the past, only my thoughts of the past. And thus would I abide.
Because we were taught obedience, values and respect. And as we grew into the world we would learn critical thinking, balance and grace. Whether rich or poor, loved or unloved, most of our mid-century generation survived our circumstances and so-called childhood wounds. No blame, no shame. For when it came to parents, good or bad, we had one of each, and their failures were offset by their dedication to the cause as we all reached adulthood with an education only minimally bought with emotional scars. Sure enough and eventually, with some guidance and hope and time, I learned Forgiveness. More powerful than redemption, more sensible than regret, and easier and more attractive by far than victimhood. Forgiveness of myself, and thereby of others. It all starts with the knowing that once you surrender to your true self, you see that your past has nothing on you, and you had nothing to do with it. You are the cause and effect of your own experience. Forgiveness is the holy water in the church of true meaning.
If I had a votive candle for every memoir author who took a shot at their days as a young Catholic, I could light up the night sky over the Vatican! Oh. My. God! How could a kid not be ruined for life? How is 17 years of going to weekly Mass and memorizing the catechism and fingering beads on aching knees not in itself a set up for prize-winning biography?! Fortunately, in truth, I never took the liturgical circus at all seriously. With my apologies to Scientologists, fringe Mormons and Christian cult survivors, I would suggest that the cartoons I watched on Saturday morning had the same lasting anguish as the one I prayed at on Sunday.
Being a mid-century Catholic was just something we kids did. Like staying out late on warm summer nights and throwing snowballs at police cars in the winter. There was mystery and magic, singing and ceremony, genuflecting, and fresh doughnuts in the church basement after Mass on First Friday morning from Wagner’s bakery across the street. I was baptized, confirmed, and confessed until I took to making things up. We loved having macaroni and cheese with fish sticks on Friday instead of meat. And although, like you, I have heard the stories of treachery, there were a lot of perks to being an altar boy. And perhaps, just perhaps, whatever values I hold could be among them.
So for me, there is no lingering doubt or spite, and no smoldering mental scars or guilt. I came to know that Grace is not something to be begged for from afar and above, it is our birthright. I have merely curious childhood memories from the joyous hypocrisy of that particular organized religion. Move on, folks, nothing to see here! Maybe if I had been Jewish…
The Young, The Innocent, and The Tenth Street Hustle
After leaving Saint Michael School (Home of The Tykes) and departing the parochial life for junior high school, we former Tykes were all required to attend ‘Catholic classes’ on Wednesdays after dinner. That got old real fast. But I do remember discovering the more ‘enlightened’ public school girls. The name was Maria, no kidding, and she was a dark-eyed beauty who surely had come to sit next to me from the set of Westside Story. She looked at me until I gulped air. She then seduced me into an awkward kiss in the shadows behind the school gym after our “Love and Marriage for Young Catholics” session, which was referred to in whispers as “Virgin Class”.
That was the last formal religion course I attended. Maria scared me to death, and dad, to my relief, was tired of driving us there after bourbon and supper and a little more bourbon. Besides, if I had really wanted to impress the girls, I would have worked harder at learning more guitar chords. Like Willie did. Or I might have starred on the football team instead of getting an after-school paper route. And so there you go: “Kinda well-read, sorta guitar-strumming, must be dirt-poor school kid has to work until dark to help support the family!” Paid my dues, I did!