Growing up in Cedar Falls, Iowa I had two siblings, sisters Beth and Casi, so it was odd there were three other kids in the house. Two were first cousins Dick and Lee from Austin, Texas, roughly my age, and who had joined our household due to their own mother’s illness. The fifth was Daniela Salvadori, a foreign exchange student of Italian heritage whose parents had immigrated to Venezuela. She was slightly older than Beth and was serving as what today is called an au pair girl. We just called her “Dani,” enjoyed her smile, watched her create hand-made pasta, and appreciated the Spanish lessons.
Our home was in a beautiful, wooded neighborhood atop a high ridge not quite overlooking the Cedar River which was too far away to be seen through the forest of oak trees. Other homes were perched atop this ridge and they all had kids. We played together constantly and there were many ways to do so: treehouses, sandboxes, a sprawling garage that the next-door neighbor children had turned into a replica of a Dark Ages castle that we called Camelot, a pond at the bottom of the hill where we caught frogs in the summer and on which we played ice hockey in the winter, one home had an outdoor trampoline, there was a neighborhood pool, etc.
The other kids were added de facto into our already sprawling family, and we moved between homes so fluidly, and had so many sleepovers, it was sometimes difficult to remember who lived in which house. The various playrooms and bedrooms were kind of shared as communal property and—this being the innocent fifties and early sixties—no one ever locked their doors. What would we have locked them against, during those bucolic “wonder years?”
But things were hardly innocent and carefree. Kids are kids, and—especially around kindergarten age—they quarrel. Someone trips and gets hurt and it’s someone else’s fault, a popular toy is fought over, a batch of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies aren’t split evenly, and other such calamities threatened the peace not infrequently. Even living in our own “Camelot” we would quarrel, cry, and be all too ready to accuse our closest friends and family members of foul deeds.
“I was playing with the ball, and he took it!”
“It’s my turn with the bongo board. She’s already had it too long!”
“Hey, who stepped on my train track and broke it? The whole train set is ruined!”
Fortunately, there was a supreme matriarch who presided over the neighborhood—or at least over our own household. When tempers flared or voices were raised, it was my mom who came to the rescue and sorted it out. Wise as Solomon, with the patience of Job, and with the empathy of whatever Biblical character had lots of empathy, she somehow managed to turn each altercation into a teaching moment.
Was she a great teacher, one who could sit down with us calmly and help us see both sides of the altercation? No, she was a terrible teacher. She never taught anything. She was—it seemed—the most clueless person on the planet. She never had any advice to impart to us and no great understanding to bestow. In fact, all she ever did was ask questions—and had nothing to contribute beyond insatiable curiosity.
But she did have one thing that gave her almost super-powers: a rocking chair. It was one of those old-fashioned ones. You know, with rockers made from curved wood that you could actually see—not something buried in mountains of upholstery like today’s La-Z-Boys. It was very stark, in minimalist Shaker-style, and might have adorned an Amish household in the 1800’s. I remember it well, for I spent so much time in that chair contemplating the horrific crimes that had been committed against me by one of the other kids.
My mom would gather up the crying child, take us into the “conference room” as she called it (a corner of the laundry), and sit us down on her lap in the conference chair. Oh, that conference chair! Never was there anything more solemn in a child’s life. It was a throne of analysis, a Delphic oracle of insight, a cathedral of contemplation. It was where my mom would hold me lovingly, stroke my hair, dry my tears, and…ask questions endlessly.
“So,” she would begin. “Tell me what happened. I want to know everything. Every detail. I can see that something horrible has occurred and I need you explain it all to me.”
Well, what kid could keep crying in such a benign environment of understanding and support. Yes! I was aggrieved! An awful deed had been done! Justice was sorely needed. And thank God here was someone who appreciated the gravity of the situation and wanted to hear all about the calamity. They’d come to the right place, for sure. I was just the one to explain it all. And so I would.
“Well, you see, I was playing with the train.”
“Yes, go on.”
“And Jimmy took one of the engines.”
“I understand that would be a problem.”
“He was so mean about it! He just took it!”
“Why do you think he did that?”
“He wanted to play with the engine on his own track!”
“Did he not have an engine?”
“No, he had three flat cars and a caboose.”
“And how many engines did you have?”
“I had two engines.”
“Were you using both engines?”
“Well, I was using one of them but I was about to use the other one so I could have an engine on each end of the train. That way it could go in both directions. That’s why I was building the train in the first place! I wanted one that could go in both directions!”
“A train that could go in both directions sounds amazing. But did Jimmy know you were planning to use the other engine?”
“Well, he should have known!”
“Did you tell him about the kind of train you were building?”
“And he was building his own train and needed an engine?”
“Yes, but it was my engine. I got it for Christmas, remember?”
“Yes, it was your engine. Santa Claus gave it to you.”
“Yes, he did!”
The chair was rocking back and forth, back and forth, while sordid facts were being gathered in evidence.
“Do you think it’s sad that Jimmy doesn’t have his own engine?”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t give him the right to take mine!”
“No, it certainly doesn’t.”
“How do you think we could get Jimmy an engine to play with?”
Very long pause.
“Maybe…” [Here was me, the six-year-old brilliant train engineer, at work solving a complex railroad problem.] “Maybe he could add his flat-cars to my train, and then we’d have a really long train, and he could pull it one way and I could pull it the other.”
“That sounds really fun! You’d pull it one way with one engine, and Jimmy could pull it the other way with the other engine. You’d have a train engineer at each end. You’d have the best train in the whole neighborhood!”
“And two engineers! Wow.” I was getting excited, seeing the vision unfold in all its glory.
In moments I’d be off the rocking chair, best-friends again with Jimmy, and taking the play to a much higher level.
Sometimes the Rocking Chair would have to be used not just with one child, but with two—or even several if a true melee of antagonism had broken out. Again, my mom never had any advice to offer, never identified who the miscreant was and punished them as would have been proper. All she ever did was…ask questions. She was so curious.
“So, Jimmy’s crying too. Do you think he’s sad?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Is Jimmy normally fun to play with?”
“Normally he is. Not now.”
“Something must have made him sad. What do you think it was?”
“Well, I took the ball because it was my turn.”
“But if it was your turn, that shouldn’t make him sad. Why would it make him sad?”
“Maybe he didn’t understand it was my turn?”
“Why would he be confused about that?”
“Well, we never decided who got the ball for how long.”
“Do you think if you discussed that and agreed on the rules, that would help?”
“Do you think we should have that discussion with Jimmy and see if that would help?”
It wasn’t always little Jimmy. It could have been any of us kids. The Rocking Chair had an amazing capacity to calm us down, even though my mom—herself—never had any wisdom to offer. Other parents had more direct approaches. Sometimes at their houses we’d be yelled at and told to quit crying. Arbitrarily someone would be sent to their room. All the toys would be grabbed and put away, along with an angry admonishment like: “If you kids can’t play together happily, then you can’t play together at all!” These parents were decisive, knew who was at fault or at least thought they did, and took quick, aggressive action. They were everything my mom wasn’t. Yet somehow these other parental interventions always made things worse. It was very puzzling.
Decades later, I had my own family and my wife—having come from a household where apparently raised voices were more often the currency of dispute resolution—was open to learning another way. And from my mom she did, also learning that the technique had been passed down from my maternal grandmother—and Lord knows where she’d learned it.
Derry was a natural and picked it up instantly—even if we didn’t have a rocking chair per se.
Years later, our daughter was trying out for the high school play and failing miserably as an actress. It was a scene of conflict where a child and their parent were having a squabble. Kristen’s character was supposed to be yelling at her daughter. The director was getting frustrated at Kristen’s tepid, unconvincing performance.
“Kristen, just act the way your mom did when she yelled at you as a kid!”
“My mom never yelled at me as a kid.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Every mom yells at their kids.”
“No, she never did.”
Kristen’s best-friend Sandra, who’d been at our house countless times, came to the rescue.
“No, Kristen’s right. Her mom never yells at her.”
Our daughter didn’t get the part. Instead, she was made Assistant Director. Why? She had an amazing ability to keep everyone on the set calm, happy and working productively together—a skill no one else seemed to have.
My mom turned 100 today, and we’re having a big party at her Seniors Home. Some of those kids from our old neighborhood will be there—ones I used to play with—most of us now grandparents.
I’m pretty sure no fights will break out. We all remember Connie and the rocking chair.
[Jacques Voorhees, April 17, 2023]