My mother always described my relationship with her parents as "warm and loving," but I remember them with a mixture of sun and clouds. Both my grandparents were into fishing, and it was fun to accompany them and watch them use home-tied lures to catch trout by the dozen. They taught me to fish, and though I was better at splashing in the stream, one time I did catch a pretty rainbow trout. I remember that my grandparents had a small house trailer in the driveway, a great place to find a safe cubbyhole when playing hide-and-seek or just hiding from adults.
But one day, my grandparents took me to a chicken farm and I remember with horror watching chickens run around with their heads cut off; my grandmother had grabbed a chicken by the neck, killing it instantly with an expert ropelike snap of the wrist. I can't remember exactly when I started finding my grandparents' humor rather odd my grandmother once said, "Wee, wee, wee that's what the French say when they take a piss," only to be matched by my grandfather's question, "What's the longest thing on a giraffe? Answer: it ain't his neck."
My father's side of the family couldn't have been more different. His father was Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, the leader of the American Methodist Church and the first president of the World Council of Churches. Granddaddy Oxnam was well known as a supporter of many liberal causes. He achieved national attention in the McCarthy era when he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee. After grueling testimony, he was cleared of any "Communist leanings," but in the minds of some American conservatives, he was always seen as the "Red bishop."
I told Granddaddy I thought it was "cool" that he was on the cover of Time magazine. His response stays with me "Yes, Robbey, I suppose it's 'cool.' But you see Time magazine every week at your house. Who was on the cover of last week's Time magazine?" I couldn't remember. He just smiled knowingly. I had learned an important lesson about the fleeting importance of fame.
My dad was prominent in his own right as a university administrator a dean at Syracuse University, vice president of Boston University, president of Pratt Institute, and finally president of Drew University. Although I often sensed he was frustrated that he didn't match fully Granddaddy's achievements, Dad was always heroic in my eyes. He was my role model as a professor and an intellectual leader; I desperately sought to follow his example. Dad also had a genial laugh and inner warmth that drew others to him; in my eyes, he was both a "hero" and very "real" at the same time.
Dad also had a wild side. One time, when my grandfather was proudly sitting at a homecoming football game at Depauw University, where he was president, his son buzzed the field in his biplane, causing the players to scatter for cover during a play. With that bizarre sense of humor, Dad was a hard man to dislike, even when he resorted to strict discipline, such as whipping me with a thick leather belt when I had been "sassy" or had "broken the rules."
In his early twenties, Dad went off to Hollywood and studied to be an actor. According to my mother's reports, he was "too studied" to be a good actor, but he had the looks, with a Clark Gable mustache and a Rudy Valentino dark complexion and flowing jet-black hair. It was there he met my mother, Dalys Houts, blond and beautiful (so it appears in her publicity photos).
They were married in 1939 and I arrived in 1942. In the late 1930s, my mother pursued her undergraduate degree (courtesy of support from my dad's grandmother) and my father began his graduate studies, both at the University of Southern California. It was the end of their acting careers and the beginning of a more successful life in the academic world.
Mom, who died in the summer of 2004 during the editing of this book, was a complicated lady who had her share of supporters and critics. By the end of her long life, especially in the thirty years after my father died in 1974, I think the supporters outweighed the critics (surely spearheaded by two true gentlemen who were by her side in the later years: her genteel second husband, Harry Jaecker, and later, the lovable Ralph McVain, both of whom predeceased her). At Heritage Village in Southbury, Connecticut, where she lived after Dad's death, Mom finally fulfilled her acting dream by starring in several amateur productions and in a one-woman show where she took on various roles as defined by their hats.
Excerpted from A FRACTURED MIND by Robert B. Oxnam. Copyright 2005 Robert B. Oxnam. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion.
Blood at the Root
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