Pete Peterson's 'The Education of an American Dreamer'

Freudian psychologists tell us that a child's separation from the mother, when the child suddenly realizes he or she is no longer the center of the solar system, is nearly always painful. When the separation takes place at a very young age, suddenly and in the midst of tragedy or trauma, it is especially painful. As indeed I learned. Thus, the year went by. My father, deprived of his helpmate at the restaurant, decided to try anything to get her back. This led him to bring her to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, which by the early 1930s was already a major medical institution serving a wide range of conditions both physical and mental. My mother stayed there for two or three weeks, and returned with a diagnosis of "nervousness." How language changes. What was once called "melancholia" evolved into "neurasthenia," then "nervousness," and then the dire-sounding "nervous breakdown." Today she would have "clinical depression," the debilitating state memorably described by novelist William Styron as "darkness visible." The cure prescribed, in those days before effective and tolerable psychotropic drugs, was rest and counseling. She got the rest, but not the counseling.

Enter Mrs. Boulos. That Kearney, Nebraska, could be so filled with immigrants strikes me as remarkable only in retrospect. Our little neighborhood seven blocks from downtown included not only Greeks but a poor Lebanese Catholic woman. Her kitchen was always fragrant with the smell of fresh-baked pita bread. She offered a lifeline of escape from the lonely quiet imposed by our mother's need to rest and withdraw. As soon as my brother, John, was big enough to toddle, I would take him by the hand first thing on weekday mornings and lead him through backyards to Mrs. Boulos's kitchen door. Barreling into her warm kitchen, we left behind our distracted mother and received instead the indulgence of an older woman whose own children were grown. She must have liked having children around, because she fussed and served us piping hot rounds of pita bread and tousled our hair as we sat at her kitchen table with our toys.

If my own mother ever resented this turn to a substitute, I never knew it. She was probably relieved that we left her to her rest, and neither she nor my father ever worried, because the Bouloses were friends as well as neighbors. As John got older and more athletic, he tried to outrun me to Mrs. Boulos's door, but it didn't matter who got there first since she was equally warm and giving to us both.


My father played a small part in this equation. As my awareness grew, he was a distracted and elusive figure who appeared mainly late at night. Sometimes, if I was up early on a weekday, around six or so, I could see him leave for work. He would rush into the kitchen fresh from shaving, his cheeks aglow, combed-back hair still neat and glistening, wearing the uniform in which he presided over the Central Cafe—dark pants and a white shirt, a tie that he stuck between the buttons of the shirt to protect from stains, black shoes, and white socks, the socks white on the theory that white was better for the feet because it retained less heat and moisture. Then he was gone. There were no hugs, kisses, or conversation, only the kitchen door banging in his wake.

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