Lessons from Living on Peary Street

Editor's note: The death of Jane Louise McGavin has kept the editors of this site preoccupied for some time and inspired some storytelling. This post begins a series of posts that explore stories, storytelling and how they influence families with a particular interest in facing the end of a long life. We are sorry for the distraction and invite you to join in the discussion or to add stories of your family or loved ones. LHM

This book is a record in which Mrs. Clemens and I registered some of the sayings and doings of the children, in the long ago, when they were little chaps. Of course we wrote these things down at the time because they were of momentary interest - things of the passing hour, and of no permanent value - but at this distant day I find that they still possess an interest for me and also a value, because it turns out that they were registrations of character. The qualities then revealed by fitful glimpses, in childish acts and speeches, remained as a permanency in the children's character in the drift of the years, and were always afterward clearly and definitely recognizable.
Autobiography of Mark Twain Volume Two

Shortly after my family moved into the house on Peary Street, we were greeted by Hurricane Hazel. When I left to form my own family, the Vietnam War drew our focus to the “generation gap” that separated many families. My father continued to live in the house on Peary


Street until he died almost six years ago. Just after Thanksgiving, my mother joined him under the tombstone adorned with seven little valentines that reads, “We were so lucky”. Sixty years of family stories begin with life on Peary Street and like Mark Twain's observation about recording moments of his children's youth, Peary Street's stories continue to reflect the character of the nine people who lived there for large parts of their lives.

I imagine that Twain looked at his writing about his children and selected the stories that continued to reflect the character that he saw as they became adults in the same way that I can look at my father's lament that my brother was cold and unfriendly, even as a child. Do we just clutch to an early observation as a justification for feeling that way today? Do the stories of my sister's teacher who cautioned my mother to never stifle her creativity cause us to still see her as the one that thinks differently or is she living to ensure that teacher's insight? While we are asking, was it the chicken or the egg?

For all of the things that my mother did well, she was a dreadful cook. I imagine that preparing meals for nine people on a daily basis could ruin anyone's enthusiasm for time spent in the kitchen, still maintaining a spice rack for appearance rather than for what it might do for the flavors of a meal leaps past boredom into the realm of truly questionable taste. I used to blame her bland culinary efforts on my father who would not eat rice unless it had cinnamon and milk added to it and began every meal by liberally coating dinner with pepper. Think how different our perceptions might have been if we had seen her college transcripts before she died. This document showed a double major in psychology and home economics with her worst grades all coming from cooking and meal planning classes. This bright young woman got A's and B's in her academic classes but scraped by with C-'s in her kitchen curriculum. After years of eating dinner on Peary Street, I cannot say that those grades surprised me.

I lack the courage to state clearly what part of the collected stories my siblings will point to as a shining example for their choices and values, but feel no reluctance in my claim that the chaos of life on Peary Street took me inexorably to appreciate the mathematical precision of deterministic chaos theory. The subtle changes in the environment of the seven children who became adults there, became a foundation of the principles that I used in designing a statistical measure of creativity that assumed that human storytelling can only be described by dynamic systems.

The memories have all been removed from Peary Street with the dust that collected on my parent's hat boxes, art supplies and little tins of unopened spices. They are being moved to Story Chip where they will tell the larger story of oral traditions that live and evolve in the predictable chaos of chaos theory. I have an even dozen reasons that storytelling determines the dynamic nature of our families, rather than resulting from our adventures and foibles. I will be explaining all of them in coming posts. The stories will live on in the explanation of my trip from Peary Street to Story Chip.

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