Saturday, March 16, 2013

I always had a happy birthday

January 25, 1962

Dear Mother & Dad,

We were glad to get your letter yesterday with all the news. We were sorry to hear that you have had so much illness during the moving. The moving is certainly a trial enough.

The old Pomona Ward LDS chapel
We had our stake conference Saturday and Sunday also. LeGrande Richards and Henry D. Taylor were here and our stake was divided. We have a new Pomona Stake. I am a member of the new high council. Our stake will comprise just five wards to begin with. It is surely a lot more compact than it was. Now we won't have to travel 30 miles for stake meetings. Although, we don't have a stake building within the confines of our stake, so we may still go to Riverside for a while. I guess a stake building will be our first major project.

We have been having some real cold weather here lately. It almost reminds me of Utah. There has been an unusual amount of rain and snow has fallen in the foothills just a few miles north of us. So we really have a wintry atmosphere. I will say the mountains are beautiful. I want to mail this this morning and I must leave now. Love, Perry

May 1962

Dear Family,

I read the letters with the utmost joy. It took me nearly an hour to read all of them, but a pleasanter hour I have never had. Gene enjoys them too as well as all of the children. That speaks quite well from our end of the line for their continuance.

I've been sitting here thinking what I could write about. Yes, I've been busy (very). It is getting hot. (You all know how it can.) The weeds are growing profusely (without any effort.) School will be out on June 16. The children count the days twice daily. But Linda and Dale have decided to take a summer school course--typing for Linda and a science class for Dale. . . .

[At this point, Perry mentions enclosing something he has written. He doesn't give the title, so, since it is near Perry's birthday, I'm including something he wrote about his birthday.]

Happy Birthday to Me

I don't know just how the subject came up, but we were discussing birthdays. In the course of the conversation my wife stated that, as a child, she had never had a happy birthday. I said I had never had an unhappy one until the State of Utah interfered back in 1934. From that time on, happy birthdays have been a bit harder to achieve I had to admit.

With that sketchy bit of information, we extended our discussion into our backgrounds to discover some element of truth which might, perhaps, give us a clue to the brightening of our future birthdays, which after age 50 begins to pose a dilemma. It is remarkable what small things can trigger a discovery. In our short discussion we learned more about each other than we did in our courtship, which was too brief and we were too enamored with each other for learning such inconsequential things as how we celebrated birthdays.

My wife came from middle class; I came from middle class poverty. My wife always had a birthday party; I never had a birthday party. My wife always received birthday presents; I never received birthday presents. My wife never had a happy birthday; I always had a happy birthday. That paradox seemed worth pursuing.

My wife always had a birthday party. The proper children were invited, and they came properly attired, each carrying a proper gift. To her mother, a birthday party was a model of efficiency, the shortest route to achieving a happy birthday. She was married to a time-study engineer--an efficiency expert, and no doubt had picked up some fragments of information which she diligently applied to her homemaking responsibilities. To insure this efficiency, she hovered over the children, carefully directing them from one activity to the next. Everything was neatly programmed and structured because a happy birthday must be insured and she, as mother, knew best how to get there like the shortest distance between two points. Everything moved with precision. Then the finale: "Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!" They each had a small piece of cake, some punch and then, "Now you may go home boys and girls. Your mothers and fathers will be looking for you." Happy birthday? The child had only been brainwashed. She might as well have been asked to write I had a happy birthday ten times.

Little Perry
In my early years, my birthdays were models of beautiful neglect. Whether this was due to the urgency of caring for a large family in poverty, or whether this was actually supervised neglect I cannot say. In later years my mother only laughed and sidestepped the issue when questioned directly. I suspect she was afraid she might be trapped into an admission that she had not done all she could.

There was a great equality among the people where I lived. There was a small bank in the center of town that took care of the needs of the merchants, and I heard that a few city people even carried bank accounts there. But if one had rounded up all the farmers in the area and had them unload their cash, the disclosure would have shown no more than two or three who had thirty cents more than the others.

That was great for equality, but it made it rather difficult for public services to operate, particularly schools. Along about March, there was always a community stir as to just how much longer school would last--there was just so much money left. Schools usually managed to hold out until about the end of April, and then just stopped of a sudden, like an engine out of gas. At that time, children emerged from their confinement and took to the fields, hills and mountains for their lab work.

But the parents were disturbed by this sudden release of energized bodies and sought some way to give their children an education equal to that in other communities. I listened to all this without sensing at all the knell of disaster which the adults seemed to feel.

Although I was only eleven and considered myself left to moderate as a future voter in the community, I rather favored schools as long as it wasn't carried too far. I particularly liked the way school ended--sudden, abrupt. It gave the whole year's learning a heightened effect like the play whose ending is sharp, clean, right after the denouement. And my favorite speeches have always been those that ended just a few minutes before one expected them to end. Rambling on after an obvious point of conclusion is an unforgivable crime against artistry.

Perry on right with a cousin or friend
But the end of April would have been my chosen time for school to conclude anyway. The end of April is just six days before the sixth of May, my birthday. The thought of going to school on one's birthday was unthinkable. I knew a lot of children who had to do just that. It was pathetic. I saw them coming to school, their heads hanging. Sometimes they mustered a grin and said, "Today's my birthday," only to be interrupted by that jarring school bell. To be forced to work arithmetic problems and list the products of Brazil on one's birthday seemed like a pernicious violation of the human spirit. Their parents should have been more thoughtful.

It takes time and preparation to enjoy a birthday anywhere near its potential. Adults have no idea of the emotional impact it is to a child to become a year older. It is the culmination, the absolute denouement, of 365 days of activity and should be treated with reverence. There should be no wham-bam-happy birthday sort of thing. But adults are terribly efficient.

The preparation for a birthday begins the day after the last birthday. It is a symphony beginning with allegro and gradually, from day to day, week to week moves into other components. There must be ups and downs, fasts and slows. All crescendo exists only in the sickness of addiction. There must be diminuendos, lento con esprecione, and da capo capo capo.

The finale should begin about one week before the birthday. In my case, it began with the simple statement by somebody, usually my father, that my birthday was approaching. That was all. Nothing else. But it heightened the awareness, and with the slight hint gave me confidence that my symphony was not being played to an empty house.

There might be other suggestions through that week and on the eve many of them. "Tomorrow you'll be eight," or whatever. Becoming a year older is so dramatic to a child that he can hardly approach it alone. All this time there were no harried discussions about parties or what they were going to buy. Never did they ask, "What do you want?" I only wanted to be a year older.

Perry tackles a turkey
When the day arrived, it was necessary for me to arise at least an hour early. The day was mine and I chose to lengthen it. As I walked out by the pond, I heard the killdeers say, "Happy birthday." The meadowlarks adapted their usual song to "Happy birthday today." The sheep and lambs walked up to the fence and bleated, "Happy birthday." The old cow, usually quite indifferent, looked my way, nodded a ditto, and went back to her cud. It is true that foxes can talk if you know how to listen.

Language lessons were forgotten. School was only a memory. A whole day. The world called to me. There were nests in the willows, muskrats in the swamps. I was master of my own curriculum. I had to hurry. Bareback on my pony, I would get around as much of it as I could.

By evening there was still the excitement of uncertainty. I yet did not know if I would have a cake. I am not sure if I always had one, but I believe I usually had one. It was frosted with whipped cream and had only a few colored candies sprinkled on top. The books I had read and the pictures I had seen all seemed to strongly indicate that a sugar icing with candles were the proper covering for a cake. But since we were poor, I knew that I could not expect to be just like everybody else. Sugar we had to buy; cream we produced; candles were a frivolity. But it didn't matter. I knew I was a year older, and I knew there could be no retreat.

Then one day--it was March, I believe, 1934. We received word that the rest of the state of Utah felt sorry for us. It had taken a lot of doing--arm twisting, maneuvering, and straight talking, but now, at last, there were enough people who felt sufficiently ashamed that now they were going to share their money with us. School was going to run until May 18!

Of all the dastardly, low-down, diabolical tricks adults could pull on children that had to be the meanest! To go to school on my birthday? And be like all those other kids whose thoughtless parents had them be born in October and February? I believe I still have a residual distrust because of that traumatic event which shattered my world. I know now that when somebody gives me something, I am certainly going to give up something. The exchange may not always be of equivalent value.

Adults do the best they can, I suppose. They certainly mean well. They mean so well that they view children's play as formless, needing structure, without educational value. They seek to thwart it, supervise it and a best channel it far beyond any optimum necessity. They are anxious about free, spontaneous, unstructured play. This is because they do not have good memories or have such low opinions of themselves that they have abandoned their own resident judgements in favor of that of others which changes from season to season. In either case, they are too far removed from where a child's world unfolds, and they fail to see that in play a child is seeking mastery of his world.

Two thought by authorities fascinate me. Einstein is reported to have said that play is the highest form of research. Bruno Bettelheim said, "Through playing out feelings children master emotions which would otherwise overwhelm them."

I have read some interesting research on ants. In this I am particularly interested, perhaps because of the injunction: "Go to the ant thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise." It seems that ants are not at all concerned solely with building and storing, nor are their movements always the shortest distance between two points. Their lives are full of abundant play. They take circuitous, aimless walks, stop and pass the time of day with another traveler, and occasionally some little thinking fellow will stop and converse with some philosopher and about the height and breadth of a leaf and the wonderful transparency of glass.

Almost everybody gives at least lip service to the value of play. I am sure that more and more we will discover its value. My concern is that the more we recognize its value, the more we will try to supervise it and make it ours rather than the child's. It may be argued that children can't play all the time. That is true, perhaps, but of this I am certain: Whenever we interrupt a child from free, spontaneous, unstructured play, we had better replace it with something terribly good.

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