As 2022 moves toward its close, I find myself reflecting on endings—heightened at this moment by the recent passing of my dear cousin Tom. (I should say that WE lost him, as Tom is being mourned by family and friends across the globe. He touched many lives. He was that kind of guy.) But it’s my own personal recollections of Tom that have gotten me up early to write on this bright, but chilly So Cal day.
Hermosa Beach—Dark and Light
Tom and his brothers Wayne and Mike were my closest pals when I was a young girl. With their mom Ida and dad Jack, they lived close enough to my own home in Hermosa Beach for the four of us kids to be regular playmates. Wayne was my bestie, and Tom—we called him “Tommy Dale” in those days—was our sidekick. Hermosa wasn’t the upscale beach town it is today, its average home price currently soaring over two million dollars. Back in the early fifties, it was a sleepy little beach town, cheap enough to offer refuge to dirt-poor Dust Bowl migrants from the Midwest and Great Plains, bringing along their pale-skinned, tow-headed children, among them the Baptist girl named Sherry who taught this daughter of Jewish atheists to adore the Baby Jesus in a prayer circle in her family’s garage, as well as the teenage boys who called me the “N” word—thanks to my naturally olive skin tanning to a deep brown from daily visits to the sea. Those boys confused and stunned me by throwing me to the pavement in the alley behind my house, stuffing bitter-tasting incinerator ashes into my mouth. Oh, the dark and the light of those early days, in which I learned to know myself as an outsider; grew to hate my own skin; witnessed the beauty of sweaty, shirtless men, sawing intoxicatingly Terpenic lumber under the hot, mid-day sun; melted into the eternal rhythms of the Pacific’s waves; and developed a perverse combination of fear and attraction to “white boys.”
Hermosa was downscale enough for my plumber father Charlie to afford a plot of land a few blocks from the beach. Alongside his brothers and friends in the construction trades, he built a house for my family to enjoy until my folks succumbed yet again to their biennial urge to pull up stakes and move. Endings—and their inevitable companions, beginnings—were pretty much a constant of my childhood, but I never quite got used to them. Perhaps that’s one of the many reasons why my protagonist Fleur has had something of an obsession with the void.
Cowboys and Indians
Until we moved from Hermosa, I played cowboys and Indians with those Karson cousins of mine every weekend. I have to laugh—or cry—at how even a progressive family in the 1950’s had virtually no consciousness of the racist inaccuracies of the trope. We Karsons were hooked like most of white America on the Westerns that proliferated on fifties TV. I was particularly keen on The Roy Rogers Show and Kit Carson, even insisting on being called Kitty Karson for a year. While Roy’s wife Dale Evans didn’t rate being part of the title, she got to sing with Dale at the end, and when I sang along with them, “Happy Trails to You,” I could pretend I was her.
In my games with my cousins, though, I was relegated to the status of “Indian.” The boys may have been fathered by my own dark-haired, Russian-Jewish dad‘s brother, but their mom came from a Christian family in Iowa, and their children’s hair was as nearly white as those Okie kids in my neighborhood. So, while the boys got to be the cowboys and wear toy guns in their holsters, dark and female Sharon was relegated to being a gunless Indian. But at least I belonged; I got to be in the game. Vague discomfort, but no void.
I have other memories of the boys, especially at Christmas time, when our uncle Red dressed up as Santa. Which is pretty funny when I think of it, as Uncle Morris’ nickname was “Red,” not only because of his ginger Jew-fro, but because he was a political “red” before our world got divided up into red and blue states.
Little did any of us know that our friendship would be blasted apart by the cruel, way-too-early death of the boys’ father. They and their mom were whisked off to live with their maternal grandparents in Iowa. I wasn’t to see Tom—or Wayne—again until we were college-age. Wayne ended up putting down stakes here in SoCal, but for Tom, it was an on-and-off thing. And it took years for Tom and me to form the soul kinship we developed in the years before he died.
I love the inter-weavings of this life! The Tommy Dale I remembered from Hermosa would undergo multiple incarnations (as would I) before Tom and I became close as adults. Tom shared with me a few weeks before his death that he’d been a young swimming champion, as well as the captain of his high school football team, making three touchdowns at the Homecoming game that earned him a recruitment to Columbia University. He turned down the offer in order to be able to care for his dying grandmother and sick mom and older brother. He wouldn’t have said it himself—he had little ego, our Tom—but that’s the kind of guy he was.
When we first reconnected in our early twenties, I recognized him as what we Jungians tend to call a “puer aeternus” (after the seminal book of the same name by Marie-Louise von Franz): someone who tends to be unconsciously identified with the awe and wonder of the divine child archetype and can sometimes linger, lost and uncommitted, in a youthful stage of development until finding work that will mature more unformed parts of the personality. I knew that psychic space, as I was very much a “puella” myself until parenting, working toward becoming an analyst, and then committing myself to writing for publication grounded me enough to mine the creative joy of the divine child energy while chopping the wood and carrying the water of embodied life. As Thomas Mann said, “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” It’s hanging in there with the difficulties that develop us.
Tom grounded that puer in himself in a host of ways over his lifetime: in an ongoing, loving partnership with his precious artist wife Anne; in his devotion to their talented daughter Sara; in caring for his aging mother and ailing brother; in playing the violin and ukulele; in teaching union organizing at the college level; in offering transcendental meditation classes to vets struggling with PTSD. And in so doing, he was able to retain his relationship to that awe and wonder of his birthright. A natural-born writer and artist, he remained until the very end sensitive, honest (sometimes to a fault), quirkily humorous, curious about people and the world. He and Anne threw incredibly imaginative Halloween parties. He loved big ideas, always putting his own very individual stamp on them. He read Jung and Freud and tons of history. In our last conversations—lucid virtually until the very end—he delivered a summary worthy of a university lecture of the history of cotton and its impact on England and the United States and the origins of American slavery. Like virtually every Karson male I’ve known, he loved to debate ideas. The last time I saw him, he participated with Anne in the Zoom component of the book launch of my novel The Mysterious Composition of Tears. During the Q and A, he held up his hand and started to read his own ideas into the philosophy behind the book, and I teased him that he was describing his own agenda, rather than mine. That kind of banter was safe with Tom. He didn’t have a defensive bone in his body. He was that kind of guy.
The Poignancy of Paradox
It has felt all along to be such an impossibility that Tommy Dale could be dying, that my younger cousin could die. Ironic, isn’t it, when the novel I’ve just released has numerous scenes of Fleur wildly cavorting with the dead at a black hole event horizon? But as Wolfgang Pauli reminds her in the book, what is life but paradox?
Tom battled an aggressive form of prostate cancer for ten years. In that time, he lived his life to the fullest despite the sometimes profound discomforts of treatment—treating Anne to a trip to Italy and at one point coming out to L.A. and hosting our whole extended family and some friends to a group tour of the Mt. Wilson Observatory to view Jupiter through its 60″ Hale Telescope. Tom was as blown away by the cosmos as Fleur is. As much as I am. When I last phoned him just a few days before he passed into the Great Mystery, he uttered my name with great tenderness before letting me know he was no longer able to engage in our typical philosophizing. We’d already had THE conversation about how he felt to know he was dying, and he’d reported, “I’ve never done this before, so I’m just observing what it’s like as I go along.” I imagined that the lifelong practice of transcendental meditation didn’t hurt. He was the embodiment of Ram Dass’ mantra: “Be here now.”
And me? Here and now, my eyes are welling up with tears. I’m going to miss him terribly. His fabulous, funny, thought-provoking stories. His wit and kindness that made talking with him a balm. His ability to articulate new ideas. His imagination-rich mind. Tom was one of my super-supporters in this life. He wrote me when the first edition of The History of My Body was released in 2011, “Beautiful Sharon… I’m so happy for you and proud! A book! I remember thinking as a kid that a book was a kind of impossible accomplishment…still do!”
If you haven’t figured it out yet, my protagonist Fleur comes pretty close to the energy of the divine child in my own psyche. I’ve been so lucky to engage with Tom and to witness his very human divinity. And, in turn, the child in me has felt so SEEN by the child in him. For me, he was a very particular kind of guy: blood kin, yes, but also heart-and-mind kin. Child to child kin. Soul kin.
Happy trails, beloved Tom, until we meet again.