What We Don't Know We Must Invent
Posted: May 18, 2023
We were a happy family that kept many secrets and how does one pry open those locked doors?…
The past is so fascinating to me now that I have so much of it and last Monday night at a New York nightclub I listened to a big band of men in tuxedos playing 1920s jazz that I heard when I babysat the neighbors’ kids when I was 10, which I did for the chance to watch TV, which we, being Sanctified Brethren, did not have in our home, but these were Lutherans so they did, and after I wore the kids out and got them to bed, I watched old movies about sophisticated people dancing to syncopated rhythms just like what the band was playing. My Brethren considered this music wicked, apt to lead to gin, maybe fornication, but at the age of 10 I found it joyful and I still do.
Brethren music was draggy, even the hymns about joy were sung lamentfully, and the recognition of the happiness of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Tiger Rag” and “Shreveport Stomp” was a tiny step toward independent judgment.
I want to know more about my childhood but all the people are dead who knew what was what, and they left no record. We were a happy family that kept many secrets and how does one pry open those locked doors?
I have a faint memory of my mother adding five years to my age when I was in the 3rd grade so that I could be kicked forward to 8th, which she felt was more my level. I enjoyed 8th grade though I got the nickname “Shorty” but good things happened to me, I decided to be a writer, I was too small for football and so avoided concussive injuries, I got kicked out of shop class for carelessness and was sent up to Speech where I found I could make people laugh, which opened up a career possibility.
It’s only now that I question her decision. Is it better to lose five years of childhood and gain five years of old age? I’m trying to get my head around this. I feel I grew up too fast, failed to learn simple social skills such as Cooperation and Mutual Respect, but on the other hand my 80s have been a delight and now I have a decade of fifteen and not just ten.
Thanks to COVID, I’ve had plenty of time to think this over. I sleep twenty hours a day but wake up for periods of coughing and urination and some contemplation of the question: was I cheated or am I blessed?
I’ve known the answer to that question most of my life, even in my 20s when I tried to be tragic, and I awoke on Friday morning with the blessed urge to get out of bed and accomplish things — a sure sign that Paxlovid was doing its job — and I did a couple loads of laundry, called my beloved who is in Minneapolis playing the opera, neatened up the kitchen, managed to get the duvet cover over the comforter, and resisted the urge to go back to bed so that I could enjoy being 75 now, instead of 80, a definite boost, though of course I’m not telling anyone lest I be accused of defrauding Social Security and Medicare.
Everything comes at a price: my shortened childhood made me habitually apologetic with no skill for self-advocacy. My mother felt I was precocious and this led to bad decisions on my part and serious pitfalls, but thanks to COVID, life is reduced to the bare essentials. I shall now have chicken soup for lunch. I will do a load of white shirts. I shall continue revising my next book, “A Salad of Ballads,” which comes out whenever it’s done. I will clear up some piles of my debris. I will order more chicken soup from Zabar’s Delicatessen and some kosher dills and a couple sesame bagels. I will take the shirts out of the washer and into the dryer. I will read a half-dozen dire columns about impending disasters in our Republic. I will set up the ironing board and iron the shirts and put them on hangers.
This is a very big day for me, after several days of unconsciousness. I was once a fairly popular published author and today I am an amateur housekeeper. A lonely man in quarantine, making my way independently as best I can, as we must all do from time to time.
Garrison Keillor © 05.15.23
America's story teller, known for his heartland wit and wisdom, and for many years as the voice of Prairie Home Companion on NPR. For additional columns and postings, subscribe to .