My dear friend Harold, in an expansive and nostalgic mood at the café yesterday, told me that two days after he graduated from high school he said goodbye to his drunken father in Albany and hitchiked to New Orleans, where he signed on as a deck hand on a towboat that pushed barges to Little Rock via the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers. It was brutal and boring work, he said, but there was plenty of good food and high pay, which he saved for college. He won honors as an undergraduate at LSU, then was awarded scholarships and grants, one after another, for his masters and Ph.D. at Harvard.
“Along the way I found a mentor who suggested that I look into the work of a chap by the name of Erik Erikson,” Harold said.
“Yes. I objected on the grounds that my general interest was the literature of the Italian Renaissance, but Dr. Ramsey said understanding how we form our identities couldn’t hurt. Turned out he was absolutely right. In any event, I was immediately captivated by Erikson’s life story. He believed that we must embrace the notion that will is our personal salvation. One wills what has to be, not what is.”
“Another way of saying that we all must choose who we become?” I said.
“So you don’t believe in predestination.”
“Well, that’s not exactly the same thing, is it? Who we are is often different from what happens to us.”
“It’s said that a child forms his identity from the reflection in the eyes of his parents. But I did not recognize myself in my father’s hateful glare. I always knew I was not the loathsome creature he wanted me to believe I was.”
“That must have been awful,” I said.
“Water under the bridge, lad. I was lucky because it turns out that I am my mother’s son. Not his. But back to Erikson…”
Erikson’s mother was named Karla Abrahamsen, Harold said. She fell in love with a Danish man, who abandoned her the moment he learned she was pregnant. She struggled to raise her son alone, and when Erik was three she married a Dr. Theodor Homberger. During his childhood they kept the details of his illegitimate birth a secret.
“Eric was a tall, blonde, blue-eyed boy. At temple school he was teased for being Nordic. At grammar school they hassled him for being Jewish. He always knew he was different and just did not fit in.”
“Doesn’t it? But instead of allowing his difficult childhood to shape his life, he decided he would make himself into the man he wanted to be—a scholar, a writer, an innovator. Which is why he officially changed his name. Erikson means son of Eric. Himself. His own creation. That was his point.”
After a while I said, “Harold, allow me to say you’ve done an excellent job in creating yourself.”
“Thank you, Jim. Yes, I managed it. With help from a few people who cared.”
“I hope Vittoria does the same.”
“She will, lad. She will. The news of her adoption, shall we say, has crumbled only the façade of her building. Pretty soon she’ll see the benefit in putting up a fresh new coat of stucco, in a color of her own choosing.”
“In the end,” I said, “she’ll be proud of her work.”
Harold nodded. “And so will we.”