It’s interesting to consider how intelligence ebbs and flows. Or, at least, how our understanding of our own intelligence ebbs and flows. At 18, fresh out of high school, I thought I had it all figured out (it being life, or my path, or where I was headed). Or perhaps I merely thought that I was on the road to figuring it all out. Being a senior in high school gives you that kind of misguided assurance. You’re the oldest in the school, you have a post-grad plan mapped out, it’s all coming together. Entering freshman year of college strips you of some of that confidence. New environments have a tendency to destabilize. But still I was certain that confidence would come with time, that by senior year I would certainly have it figured out. 22 is so old, how could I not have everything squared away by then?
It’s easy to look to superiors — in age or otherwise — and assume that they possess the kind of self-assurance and knowledge that you lack. They’re older, so it must be a given. I’ve learned slowly over the years that this is not necessarily true. The period of formation never ends. I know that now. Mostly as I stare down the barrel of so-called adult life and realize that I’m nowhere near mature enough for it. And then realize that the idea of full formation — when growth stops and life starts — is a hoax. Something they sell you in college brochures and cliché films.
It never ends.
This thing we call evolution.
Formal education ceases. But learning never does.
But with that realization has come another, equally as important. Irish novelist Colum McCann put it this way: “The essence of intelligence was to know when, or if, to expose even the heart’s deep need for instruction.”
Once we realize that a college diploma doesn’t entail having it all figured out, and finding a real job doesn’t mean that learning ceases, we can begin to recognize our so-called sources of “instruction.”
With little reflection, mine are abundantly clear: family.
I’ve only ever conceived of family as within reach. My house on Buncombe street, my grandparents right around the corner, an aunt and uncle five doors farther. More aunts, uncles, cousins than I could wish for within a two mile radius.
My grandparents’ house was built for nine children. Structurally, at least. My grandmother’s brother was a Notre Dame architect back in the day. But when he graduated, he abandoned the classicism and adopted a Wrightian flare. The house was always unwelcoming from the outside, stuck up on a hill amidst trees that never seemed to bloom. But the inside was warm. Even in the days when the grandchildren marched through with hands pinned to their sides, afraid of breathing wrong and breaking one of the countless expensive trinkets lying around. Or, rather, afraid of putting their parents within reach of grandma’s wrath.
So the house was built for nine kids, for 24 grandkids — who weren’t even a thought during its construction — but not adorned for them.
My grandmother didn’t love children. She had nine because, at the time, large families were part of the Catholic way. That’s not to say she didn’t love her children; she absolutely did. But her affection didn’t take the form of freshly baked cookies each day and traipsing through the backyard with children at her heels.
She was always prim and proper. There hasn’t been a family dinner in my memory where she appeared in anything other than newly pressed slacks, button up blouse and fine jewelry. She was old fashioned in that way, and fashionable. And perhaps the reason I have a penchant for fine clothing and jewelry.
On Christmas Day we would always walk to my grandparents’ no matter the weather. The year it was 70 degrees, I wore a skirt and no jacket. The year it snowed on the walk back, after midnight, I stopped and reveled in the notion of a “white Christmas,” although it wasn’t really Christmas anymore.
Our last stop on Halloween was that house, which always seemed to embody the spirit of the holiday: a little spooky up on that hill, among all the barren trees. We would sit rigidly on the finely upholstered couches, fighting the urge to touch our faces and smear the paint that had transformed us into a witch, or a tiger or a jester.
Our penultimate stop was my Aunt Carol Lynn’s, five doors down. I will never forget the year they had bats under their shutters; fittingly, one decided to make its home on the front steps on Halloween night, resting under its wing as trick or treaters marched past. If I hadn’t known that they had a real bat problem, I would have mistaken it for festive decor.
Carol Lynn always had rice krispy treats, homemade and waiting. She had candy too, but our pillow cases were already full of that. The rice krispies were what kept us coming back year after year.
And childhood understanding of family was mostly that — preoccupied with treats and holidays and gifts. Sitting on those fine couches, surrounded by adults whose intelligent conversation escaped me. At the time, the intelligence I gained from them seeped into me unawares; I learned by example, but what I learned was beyond me then.
Consciously, in those moments I thought only of the candy, or the gifts waiting for me under the tree. Subconsciously I was being formed, as we so often are by our families.
The person they were molding was not clear to me then. But now, older and searching a little harder for meaning, the examples they set have become more clear. The lessons and the lectures — which at the time seemed irrelevant or boring or unintelligible — now hold greater sway over me.
Each phase of my life has been peopled with figures determined to teach me. Throughout the school years, it was my teachers. Throughout college, peers and friends bore some of that responsibility. For so long, I thought that was the end of it; after college, it’s all up to me. But my impending graduation combined with a sometimes overwhelming sense of confusion about my next steps has forced me to consider things differently. Learning doesn’t end, and those who have peopled the so-called formative years will still be there to advise and inform. Mostly the family whose lessons I am just now beginning to understand and who remain by my side always.