An Only Child Prepares for the Pandemic
I learned at an early age how to be alone. I had no choice; I was an only child. I grew up on a farm in southeastern Illinois, so I spent countless hours entertaining myself. On occasion, children from a nearby farm would come to visit, but for the most part I was left to my own devices. I invented games, acted out scenes from my imagination, read, and became obsessed with television. I watched westerns like Gunsmoke and The Rifleman, situation comedies like The Donna Reed Show and Father Knows Best, children’s shows like Captain Kangaroo and Ride the Reading Rocket, and of course cartoons like Popeye and Huckleberry Hound. Reruns of shows that had aired before I was born? Soap operas? Talk shows? Check. As long as a program invited me into someone else’s life, I watched.
My own life was unpredictable and often interrupted by my father’s rage. He’d lost both his hands in a farming accident when I was barely a year old and had become an angry man. One day, I found a packet of white tablets in our medicine cabinet. It would be years before I’d come to realize they were Phenobarbital that a doctor had prescribed as a sedative for my father after his accident. “Sometimes, he’d just go out of his head,” an aunt told me years after his death. “Mercy.”
He wore prostheses, or as it was common to call them in those days, “hooks.” Watch Harold Russell in the 1946 film, The Best Years of Our Lives, and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about—sets of curved steel pincers at the end of plastic holsters. A system of thick rubber bands and cables opened the pincers when my father contracted his shoulder muscles and his biceps. When he was angry with me, as he often was, he took up a yardstick or a persimmon switch or his belt and used it to whip me.
I was eager for the imagined life as well as moments of stillness. I found them in the hours I spent reading, or in the tents I made from blankets draped over my mother’s clotheslines, or in the woods on our farm. I liked to disappear into those woods to look for the tracks of deer and raccoon in the creek bed, to listen to the squirrels barking and chirping high above me in the hickory trees, to hunt for morel mushrooms among the mayapples. Sometimes I’d come out of the woods and find a patch of tall prairie grass where deer had bedded down for the night. The grass was tall and swallowed me up as I made my way to where the deer had lain. I lay down on the bent grass and looked up at the sky. White clouds drifted overhead, and for a time I was out of my father’s reach and hidden from the rest of the world.
Such periods of solitude have become necessary to me as a writer, and, I dare say, as a person. I’ll always be that only child who’s well acquainted with seclusion. My novels ask me to spend my days inventing worlds and characters and events that never happened in the real world. Days spent alone in a room, alone with my imagination. In the first days of the pandemic, I felt myself relying on the solitary moment to calm me. Each morning, I went for a run or a walk, and I kept my attention on one foot going out in front of the other. As long as I did that—as long as I stayed in the present moment—I was able to keep myself from feelings of panic and fear.
My relationship with my father was complicated, but the one thing he taught me that I’ve found invaluable these days is how to work. During my teenage years, I spent long, hot days, on a tractor, going back and forth over a field with a plow, or a disc, or a harrow. Summer days, I walked the beans, which meant I went up and down the rows of a bean field cutting out weeds with a hoe. Down the length of a field and back again. Over and over, until I was done. The only way to do that is to concentrate on the next weed, and then the next, and the next. To put your head down and go. To not think about the next row. To understand that step by step the work gets done.
I value my writer friends who say they’re having trouble concentrating on their work these days, but my own story is different. Like the only child who wanted to escape into invented worlds and other people’s lives—who wanted to find moments of peace away from the tumult of my father’s house—I now take heart from the workings of my imagination—that work that takes me away, at least for a time, from the here and now.
Copyright © 2020 Lee Martin
Lee Martin is the author of six novels, including The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, and the recently released, Yours, Jean. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University.