My father had two sisters who developed a fast friendship in college with a round-faced, soft-spoken woman. The friendship went further than college bonds usually go. She ended up as their sister-in-law, my mother.
Amazingly, the friendship went further. They remained close friends until the day they died. This was particularly amazing because all three pursued individual careers, with notable success, in different cities.
Father had inordinate affection for his sisters. I suspect he also had an acute sense of responsibility toward them, because they did not marry and start families of their own.
The result was I grew up with four parents, each a powerful influence in my life.
More important, he had an extraordinary capacity for camaraderie. He made friends with authors and actors, politicians and professors, doctors and lawyers, musicians and journalists. People of all ages and all professions marched through our living room, provided tea and cookies by my ever-obliging mother.
Doubtless he left some impression on me. I remember my first girlfriend, who came from an aristocratic family, once asked me, “Do you have to start a conversation with every waiter and janitor in town?”
She once said of two virtual strangers, “They are good people. I want to be good to them.” That was her dogma for all people. I thought it naïve then; now I think it wise.
Whenever I hesitated, afraid to venture in a new direction, she would say, “You haven’t done it; try it. You may like it. If you don’t like it, try a different thing.”
Both the aunts painted, one in water color and the other in oil. I learned to sketch from them. More important, I developed a taste for art and an eye for design: I learned to distinguish fonts, separate a Bodoni from a Garamond, recognize painters, know why Monet looks quite different from Matisse, and even enjoy seeing a Renzo Piano building as much as a Philip Johnson house.
She was gentle and soft-spoken. When she made a point, it seemed like a thought casually dropped for others’ benefit. She wrote affectionately; all her letters drip of motherly concern and a carefully honed let-go philosophy. When I was twenty and she had sounded perturbed about an office event, I had quoted her from a Captain Drefus letter from Devil’s Island saying that “of all losses, the loss of reason was the most appalling.” When I was fifty and mentioned a trouble brewing in my office, she sent me back the same quotation, adding she trusted my ability to stay steady and rational.
The greatest gift she gave me was the equanimity that Indian seers have talked about. I learned to see both sides of a question, and be ready to accept both sides of a person. I will never match her, but I began the journey of seeing more than what is apparent, finding a place in the heart for others’ foibles and one’s own drawbacks. I knew she was a beloved teacher in her school, but it has taken me years to realize she taught even better at home.
I am cynical enough to believe that all families have dysfunctional elements, often covert. Chance had me reared in a four-parent family, where love was lavish, care was unquestioned, and where, for fortunate me, all the four, imperceptibly but extravagantly, stacked up gifts that never tarnish and sparkle forever.