What He Did Do Was Farm

An e-mail from Tom Wolfe to one of his nieces, providing history and recollections of his family, especially his mother:

October 15, 2007

Dear Mary,

I’ve been meaning to respond to your note from way back when for a long time now, but I’ve found it hard to do—largely, I think, because it’s hard to write about Mom, and I never knew Dad. I’ll give it a try though.

In case you’re not aware, the founders of our Wolfe family in America were John R. and Honora Buckle[y] Wolfe. She was reportedly from Belfast, making theirs a most unusual union in those days. They probably arrived in the U.S. from Listowel, County Kerry, Ireland in 1846, perhaps traveling through Canada, though I don’t know for sure. John R. came from relative wealth, so it’s not clear just why he and his family emigrated. It was, of course, during the Potato Famine, and leaving was the thing to do then. They arrived with three or four of their eventual ten children. John R. worked across the country on the railroads and Hennepin Canal before settling in Lost Nation in 1854 where he took up farming with other Wolfes who apparently accompanied him on the trek. Their fifth child, my grandfather Maurice (pronounced “Morris” by many Irishmen), was the first of that family to be born there.

Maurice married Sarah McAndrew (s?) sometime or other and promptly had five sons: Ray (my father, born in 1896), Phil (no children), John (two children, Jack being a good friend), Melvin (five children and Cousin David’s dad), and Jimmy (five children). Uncle Dan McGinn always claimed that Grandfather Maurice was once a Texas Ranger, but I don’t believe it. He also alleged that he was an excellent shot with a 45 caliber revolver, a gun that is very heavy and difficult to shoot accurately. What he did do was farm, and that’s where his five sons were raised. Sarah died first, sometime in the early to mid twenties, and Maurice died toward the end of that decade.

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I found this photograph among my dad’s things. I’m guessing it’s his first-grade class picture, which would make the tight-lipped teacher Miss O’Brien. Fourth from the left in the back row—that’s little Tommy Wolfe.

“My teachers taught me by hand,” Dad wrote in an essay from 2003. “In other words, they took immediate and unsubtle action when I misbehaved. My first grade teacher, Miss O’Brien, had a large paddle and demanded that offenders step to the front of the class, grab their ankles, and accept a few whacks. When she caught me crawling around the floor one day, she called me forward to receive my punishment; but I was too frightened to go and thus got away with it.”

He continued:

Other teachers had other methods, but they all tolerated little or no nonsense from me.  My second grade teacher, Miss Kruse, made us put our noses in circles on the chalkboard, a fairly non-violent approach, but she also had a good right cross. I discovered that once after pushing a classmate’s face into the water fountain and having to explain myself to her. After telling her an outrageous lie to the effect that my brain had no control over my hand, she simply swung her right hand and gave me a resounding slap. My third and fourth grade teacher, Miss Barr, made us stand in the corner, sometimes with our hands over our hands. She also pinched our ears with her long fingernails and hit us with yardsticks, rulers, and her hands. Despite it all, I never doubted that I deserved what I received, I certainly never told my mother, and I really liked her anyway.

I could stare at this picture for hours. By my count, two girls are smiling and one girl is smirking. Everyone else looks terrorized.

In Which My Talent Is Recognized

Grey Line with Black, Blue and Yellow by Georgia O'Keeffe (1923)

In 2005 my dad authored an essay titled, simply, “Sex.” In it he related the following anecdote, of which I have no memory:

As a parent I tried not to make the same mistakes as my mother, but it wasn’t easy. When my son Brendan was somewhere between four and seven, he was watching a public television show about reproduction in our upstairs bedroom with my wife Franny while I was downstairs washing dishes. I later learned that at one point he began drawing madly and asked his mother if what he had drawn was in fact a vagina. When she stammered something possibly incoherent, he asked her what it was and what the sex act was. She, true to her upbringing, told him to go ask me. When he came into the kitchen, he showed me the picture, a remarkable likeness of a vagina for such a young kid, and then he asked me how the act was done. I thought about blowing him off but decided to be frank. I explained it graphically but briefly, and that’s all he wanted. He received the information in the same manner he would have if the question had been how dew was formed. He absorbed it and then walked away having already lost interest. I had finally done something right as a parent!

image: Grey Line with Black, Blue and Yellow by Georgia O’Keeffe (1923) 

I Am Still Trembling As I Write This

"On Family Fun" by Tom Wolfe, pages 1 and 2

I found this essay among my dad’s papers.


Tom Wolfe

January 6, 1981

Who in the name of all that is sweet and holy ever said that families should stick together in order to have fun? I have a profound distrust for anyone espousing such a philosophy. Over the years, I have discovered that sanity for me lies in avoiding “family fun” like the plague.

Occasionally, I stray though. Last summer, a friend and I thought we would try the super father role, a mental derangement of which we all paid dearly, fathers and children alike. For three days and two nights, we stayed on a small Mississippi sandbar with six small, screaming, and semi-delirious children, seven million mosquitoes of indeterminate age, and the filthiest, smelliest scum the Mighty Mississippi could offer us for water. By the end of this nightmare, neither of us could tolerate children any[more], nor, for that matter, were we too crazy about each other. This winter holds no terror for me. I laugh at twenty inch blizzards, and I scoff at sub-zero weather because I know in my heart that nothing could possibly be worse than a child-and-mosquito-infested sandbar!

My wife not only believes in “family fun” more than I do but she practices it often. It is presumably for this reason that she smokes God knows how many cigarettes a day, has stomach cramps, and has a little twitch beneath her left eye. She will periodically gather all our children into the kitchen and tell them they are going to have “fun” cooking something. Our teenaged girl invariably mixes the wrong ingredients, then spills it all onto the floor; our nine-year-old boy sticks his face as closely as possible to his mother’s Gallic countenance and talks nonstop; and our seven-year-old girl just manages to be underfoot. After about a half hour of this “fun,” my dear, gentle wife will invariably snap and scream some horrible epithets at the children wihci [sic] would destroy any normal psyche but, strangely enough, never seems to significantly damage their relationship with her. She always insists afterwards, long afterwards, that it was worth it.

Recently, “family fun” unobtrusively insinuated itself into our home once again like a fog in the night, this time in the guise of apparently harmless games called “Scrabble” and “Uno.” At first, other family members played the game, but I, not trusting such things, gave it a miss. Unfortunately, I weakened and was soon seated around the table with everyone else. I even smiled a little—but not for long.

Tonight was surely one of the most harrowing examples of all this I’ve experienced in recent years. Our teenager took forever keeping score; our little one kept showing all her cards and nearly drove me crazy with her creative method of dealing cards; and our freckle-faced boy giggled until both my wife and I were on the raw edge of hysteria. I am still trembling as I write this, and I doubt that anything on God’s sweet earth will induce me to participate in such “fun” again.

image: “On Family Fun” by Tom Wolfe, pages 1 and 2