When I was perhaps four years old and my brother Billy was just old enough to sit up unassisted, my maternal grandmother and a great-aunt came to visit us in Red Bank, in Portland, Maine. My mother left Billy and me in a playroom, sitting on the floor playing with wooden blocks. She left the door slightly ajar and made periodic check-up visits from the adults' kaffee klatch.
I tried to teach my brother to stack blocks. Of course he didn't have quite the motor skills for it, but I didn't know that. He often managed to stack two blocks, but never a third. Billy began to get frustrated, but I just knew that if we worked at it he'd be able to do it.
(It might help you to know that I have a stubborn streak. Billy has too, and we both got it from Mom.)
We were facing each other, blocks between us, and to reassure him I moved around to his side of the blocks and put an arm around his shoulders. At that very moment, my mother made one of her visits. Via peripheral vision I saw her take a peek at us and then tiptoe away. Even at four I knew this could only mean one thing: she would return with the other adults to show them this scene.
In a very early example of my built-in contrariness, I promptly returned to the other side of the blocks.
When I was in my forties I told this story to my mother and she said, "You were a little bastard even then."
Lest ye be misled, I must say that by all accounts I was a very well-behaved little boy. Mom's reference was to my fondness for teasing, a trait inherited from and reinforced by Dad, but not much appreciated by Mom.
It was in Portland that I learned to read, although no one seems to know exactly how that came about. It would have been sometime around 1945, so I didn't learn it from television. What I have heard from my family is . . .
I attended Nursery School the year before Kindergarten. The facilities were in a grammar school. One day I "disappeared," and was tracked down by a couple of adults. I was in a lighted closet, looking at a first grade primer. One of the adults asked, "Do you want to learn to read?" and I responded indignantly, "*Eye* know how to read."
Asked to read a page aloud, I did so, astonishing the adults. No one in the family remembers teaching me to read at that early age, so this is just going to remain one of life's little mysteries.
We moved from Portland to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, when I was in the first grade. I remember only one or two other incidents from Portland, and they are not interesting enough to post here, but I do remember feeling "homesick." For months after we moved, I played with my blocks occasionally, using them to create in miniature all the rooms in the house that we had left.