Sam and Henry: the real names of things

I was a pretty solitary kid, pretty shy. Mom was always telling me to go outside. ‘Go out and play in the street!’

“Take your sister!” she would yell at my older sister, and she always meant me.  Bringing me along was a lot like dragging an anchor; eventually I figured out how to peel off and go on my own. I didn’t want to be where I was not wanted. Mom wouldn’t listen to these protests, I had to figure out how to separate from my sister, to give her air, room, her own life, her own friends.

Luckily, not far up the hill from where we lived, there were some twins my age, girls born a few minutes apart.  Both parents were architects, and were not around so much; neither were the teenage brother and sister.  We hung out in their driveway and in their backyard amongst the hollyhocks with their lovely English Grandmother.

It was okay with Mom if I went up there alone to play, as long as I told her where I was going. We had lemonade stands, we tried to sell our dolls, we played with trolls and creepy crawlers. We skipped rope, did a little hopscotch. On command from the grownups we attempted to stem the tide of bamboo shoots flooding up between the Japanese style river stones in their yard.  We took knitting lessons; we drew. Time passed.

Those were the days when Captain Kangaroo’s bangs and his smock were funny, yet we admired Mr. Green Jeans and his good humored skill in handling a helicopter. Popeye was my hero; we both liked spinach. Jackie Gleason wasn’t drinking coffee apparently, but he crooked his pinky, he wore a nice suit, he advertised coffee, and the Folger’s man lit the San Francisco skyline near the Ferry clock tower while sipping from his own bottomless cup.  Broadcast TV was still partially live and we had very limited access to anything like it on our own. You didn’t use the Hi-Fi without close adult supervision, either. We played outside, using our imaginations, some garden tools, some toys, rocks, dirt, water, bugs, and each other. And away we go, indeed.

Winslow sisters did irrigation on the scale of large civil engineering projects out on the rosebushes back by the gazebo in our yard. Watering was a collateral duty of playing outside. Inspired by a sump pump sporadically shooting water out from the sub-basement into the mini aquecia lined with baby tears traversing the width of the back yard, we built diminutive but efficient trenches. We dug holes to China if left on our own long enough; Bugs Bunny did it, so why couldn’t we?

Our house and all the houses nearby were built on fill in the 1920’s, right on top of a creek bed; Bret Harte Creek, according to the maps. So when it rained our sub-basement filled with water. The sump pump kicking on meant the water table was high and the furnace was in danger of flooding if we didn’t pump. It filled the ditch temporarily. It was water we could wade in, it was as clean as any local creek, since it was creek water. Sometimes we swung on the gate, watching; other times we took off our shoes and socks and explored with our toes.

T-Tiger was the family dog. He and Kiki the cat were some of my earliest buddies. A fierce temple guardian of a babysitter; T-Tiger once saved my younger sister when a neighbor’s German Shepherd Bootsie (a dog tortured by loneliness to the limit of sanity and trained to attack anyone except Mr. Hunter and Pearl who came to the gate and tried to enter) got out and charged down on the side of our house on the path where we were playing. Bootsie lunged, clamping his jaws around M’s face. She was a tiny child with a big crown of curls, and we all stood frozen for a moment in shock. T-Tiger lunged right in after Bootsie and locked on, seizing the exposed flap of neck near the big dog’s jugular; holding on until he could be persuaded to slowly unclamp his jaws from my tiny sister’s face in exchange for his life. What a fright it gave us all.

There was a lot of crying that day, but everyone survived. I don’t know what eventually happened to T-Tiger, but Bootsie’s unprovoked attack did not earn him a trip to the Department of Health to get a rabies exam, which seemed odd. T-Tiger deserved a purple heart. Why we don’t have a statue of that dog I will never know.

M. has since forgotten the incident.  No child died, but T-Tiger was the reason for that: loving instinct with Lhasa Apso teeth standing behind it.

My best friend was the younger twin. My Dad could never tell them apart. Once he was talking to me about the twins and he couldn’t exactly remember their names to differentiate. I didn’t have that many friends, I couldn’t believe he couldn’t remember. This seemed like a scam. After all, this was the guy who convinced us that you could not order a chocolate Sundae on any other day of the week. I waited, not helping at all.

They were fierce in correcting him when he mixed them up. He would try tentatively to call to one of them when they were over at our house. If he got it wrong, not only would her feelings be hurt and would she stomp off after scornfully correcting him with her true name, he would still not have learned to tell them apart, but would be trying to apologize to empty air.

To me they were quite different. The older one was bigger. She was brassier, and hung out with my older sister more.  The younger one was quieter, sweeter.  She is still in my life; she carries pieces of me in her memory that perhaps no other living person has. I am still so blessed by this friendship.

Dad solved the problem the same way he would later solve many a problem with confused proper nouns: he renamed the twins. While he stood there in the kitchen, trying vainly to name the one he wanted, the one which was my friend, perhaps to invite her on an outing, he was struggling even for both their real names. He was blocked. He kept saying “You know, the *twins…*” He not only couldn’t seem to think of the name he wanted, he couldn’t think of their names at all. I didn’t believe it. I hardly knew enough to forget stuff, knew nothing of whether grownups ever really do that.

I have this problem now sometimes. You remember the other parent’s name, but not the child. Or you remember the other child’s name, but not the sibling’s name. Our brains get full, and can only hold so many names. Now that my Dad is gone — I unwittingly sometimes rename people. I don’t mean to. I manage to map the wrong name onto them once, and it’s hard to get it off later, as though names have some kind of glue attached to them, wrong or not.

Thus the two girls names became Sam and Henry, and were known as such ever after in our house.  _We_ all knew who Sam and Henry were:  the twins; our friends.  Eventually we either told them about it or they busted us calling them that in front of them one day by asking us who Sam and Henry were, anyway.  They could never tell afterward between them who was Sam, and who was Henry. My Dad was thus saved from their righteous indignation, and from seeming to be ignorant, callous, or rude.

Over time, Kenelm Fayette Winslow renamed restaurants, television shows, food, cities, people: you name it. This was his way. If you wanted to keep up, you had to learn the lingo.

I remember the day they asked him to clear it up, once and for all. We were all in our kitchen again. My Dad was working on something over on one of the cutting boards. I think it was C. who went over and asked. “Mr. Winslow, which one of us is Sam, and which one of us is Henry?”  We had been upstairs having an argument about it, and all came galloping down to ask.

My Dad looked up from whatever he was working on. He bent down and looked at her and said:  “You mean to tell me after all this time, you … _don’t know_…?”

He went back to what he was doing for a second. We all thought about it, waited, watched him. C. said she didn’t know. She looked at us, and we didn’t know either. What were we going to do?  Then he started slowly started to laugh. We started to laugh. Everyone laughed. He looked up at us again.

Any questions?

E. had forgotten all about those names when I finally found her again after many years by way of a lucky search.

By the real names of things we know our future, but whether we call them beloved, call them Sam, Henry, T-Tiger, Margie, Liz, Kiki, Col, Karen, Grandma, or Mom, the names we give them in our hearts are the only ones we must remember in the end.

Thanks, Dad. For this knowledge we have received, we are truly grateful.

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