Archived Opinion

The secret life of Quintin Ellison

In a time-wasting exercise, I was giving thought recently about my earliest memory, which is of getting my knee stuck in the balusters of a porch in my family’s house in Columbia, S.C.

We lived there briefly while my father attended graduate school at the University of South Carolina. My memory might not be particularly earth shattering, but it certainly has the virtue of earliness. I had been born but a short time before, maybe two or three years previously.

What I remember about the knee incident I pretty much spelled out in that first sentence. I can add that my mother or father rescued me. Never the sharpest knife in the drawer, I managed to get stuck several more times in the porch balusters. There apparently was enough room for me to slip my knee between but not enough, for some reason, to pull it out again.

Following the knee incident, my next vivid memory is getting locked with a friend in the bathroom of that same house in South Carolina. We couldn’t figure out how to turn the lock and free ourselves. I’m frankly unsure how this suspenseful incident resolved itself. Though it seems self evident that I was freed somehow since I’m not writing this some four decades later sitting in a bathroom of a residence in Columbia, S.C.

My trip down memory lane started after reading the highly enjoyable The Secret Life of James Thurber. Thurber was writing in response to the then just-published The Secret Life of Salvador Dali. Thurber, in his article, bemoans a lack of childhood romance and drama when compared with Dali, who recounted wild real and imagined happenings that he wrote took place when he was a young lad. Dali, of course, grew up to be a great artist. Thurber grew up to be a fantastic humorist.

Childhoods, I concluded, obviously count for something, so I thought I’d think about mine.

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Dali recounted a youth peopled with glamorous and interesting adults. Thurber, an Ohio boy, made do with “mainly … 11 maternal great-aunts, all Methodists, who were staunch believers in physic, mustard plaster, and Scripture, and it was part of their dogma that artistic tendencies should be treated in the same way as hiccups or hysterics.”

I understand Thurber’s feeling of paucity, I truly do, and I feel the lack more and more the older I become. I didn’t, however, even have the great aunts he mentions. They were all well away in Virginia and North Carolina while I was undergoing my formative growth way down yonder in the Deep South.

Though in fairness, I do remember visiting my Great Aunt Tillie in Danville, Va. Tillie was short, don’t ask me why, for Lucille. Great Aunt Tillie was legally blind, but she could make out vague outlines. She was never one to let a little thing like terrible eyesight and possible visual misinterpretations blunt her acid tongue. She once heatedly accused me of biting my toenails though really my legs at the time were just propped up, where admittedly they shouldn’t have been, on the back of her sofa. But I certainly wasn’t biting my toenails, nor have I ever done such a thing — truly.

My personal story picks up steam ever so slightly when we moved from South Carolina to Starkville, Miss. We lived in a small brick ranch house in the suburbs of this fine college town. This was in 1970 I believe, and residents were still experiencing the upheavals of desegregation. But, I was too young to have much cognizance of that important historical event.

What I remember is trick-or-treating in the neighborhood. I remember learning to ride a real bicycle instead of a tricycle. That happened when my sister persuaded me to sit on a two-wheel bike. She gave it a little shove down what Mississippians and 4-year-olds on a bike for the very first time would consider a mountain — a very steep, long, scary mountain.

But of the Civil Rights movement that helped shape our great nation, I have no real memories at all. I do recollect that in first grade in the Mississippi elementary school I attended black and white children tended to sit separately, automatically and apparently voluntarily. On one occasion several black children were passing a blowpop sucker from hand to hand, sharing, but that blowpop wasn’t extended to me or the other white children. I desperately wanted a taste of the blowpop, it was cherry as I remember, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t have a taste, too.

Which is my recollection of the travails of desegregation in Mississippi. That’s hardly the makings of a good book, a good column or a good story, for that matter. But in the end, I accept that I am the sum of these small, rather lackluster memories, as Thurber accepted he was of his. They are what they are — we can’t all be Salvador Dali, after all. Some of us must just be ourselves.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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