Life

“I Have This Vague Recollection of Standing on the Playground and Having the Boys Make Fun of My Socks”

Meet Robert Carlson, 87, from Pasadena, California.

Robert Carlson.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy of Robert Carlson.

Having met so many 80-plus-year-olds in possession of a bottomless well of stories and life advice, we present the series “Interview With an Old Person”—which is, well, exactly what it sounds like. To nominate yourself or an elderly person in your life, email humaninterest@slate.com.

Christina Cauterucci: What’s your very first memory?

Robert Carlson: I was born in Brooklyn, 1930. My mother and father both worked, and there was a housekeeper. She was there during the day to keep an eye on me and my sister … and there was a lot of teasing that went on. I do have a memory of that woman being in my life, around age 4 or 5.

What did your parents do?

My father worked as a salesman for an automotive chemical company. He worked for them his entire life after he got out of the Marine Corps in World War I. And my mother worked in a department store, Lord & Taylor’s, in Manhattan in the fashion department. She never finished high school. Very fashionable lady, wore hats with veils, that kind of thing.

Interesting sideline about my mother: My sister and I think she was born in Ireland. Well, I know she was born in Ireland; she finally acknowledged that, many, many, many years later. But she was in that generation that remembers looking for work in Manhattan, at the department stores or elsewhere, and the signs in windows would say, “Help needed. Irish need not apply.” That maybe contributed to her reluctance to let people know she was born in Ireland.

But my theory is that my mother might have been illegal. Because when she came here, her mother and father were not there, and her brother didn’t come until a number of years after my mother. My mother was brought to Connecticut by an aunt from Ireland. As far as I know, she never voted. My father was a political person and voted. My mother had very little if any at all interest in politics. And so I had no way of confirming or verifying [that she was undocumented]. I’ve tried several times to check her out on these various websites checking on ancestors, and I’ve never been able to track her down.

When did you find out she was born in Ireland?

I would have been in my 20s. We were raised Catholic, and my sister got married in a Catholic church that we attended in San Mateo, California, and my sister and my mother went to see the pastor about arrangements for the wedding. The priest asked [my mother] when she was born—we didn’t know how old she was. My sister says my mother sort of hesitated, and then finally told the priest when she was born, which made her quite a bit older than we thought she was. Another one of the questions was, “Where were you born, Lenore?” And that was apparently even a longer pause, while she, in my mind, played over: Should she lie to this priest or come clean? And out it came: Limerick, Ireland.

What was it like growing up in Brooklyn?

I went to a Catholic elementary school called St Patrick’s, in Bay Ridge. I have a memory of one of the nuns who, when you misbehaved, would ask you to extend your hand with palm down, and she would pop you with a pencil on the top of your hand.

We lived in Brooklyn for 10 years, until 1940, when my father was transferred by his company. He worked in San Francisco. I moved from a Catholic school with a uniform, in Brooklyn, to a public school. I remember being on the playground—I showed up the first few days wearing, believe it or not, knickers. And socks, you know, you have the socks that go up to your knees, and the knickers come right over the socks. And I have this vague recollection of standing on the playground and having the boys make fun of me and point, and once in a while run by and slap my socks.

How many times have you been in love?

Two. My wife now, Maureen, the mother of our four children—we’ve been married now 54 years. But I was married before. And my wife, after we’d been married maybe two years, at the age of 27 or 28, got cancer. Breast cancer. And she was dead within 18 months after a variety of surgeries. I was, at that point, practicing law, I think in my second or third year, and decided after she had died after that long illness to go back to school. And I went back to a master’s program at Harvard Law School, where I met my present wife.

How did you two meet?

She was in school working on a Ph.D. in the School of Education at Harvard. She also was raised Catholic and was going to church more or less regularly in those days. It was during Holy Week, Easter week, and I remember going to church right in Harvard Square. Afterward, there was a dinner, and I wound up sitting near my wife and was immediately interested and began a conversation with her. That began a rather whirlwind and relatively short courtship period before we got engaged.

Robert Carlson in his late 30s, with his wife, Maureen.
Robert Carlson in his late 30s, with his wife, Maureen.
Robert Carlson

How short?

We’re talking weeks. Maybe three weeks?

Oh my gosh! What were those weeks like?!

I saw her every night. [Laughs.] It did cut into the studies, but I’d come home and work after seeing her, so I managed to keep up my schoolwork.

What sorts of dates did you two go on?

Maureen was and still is interested in sports, especially basketball, and was a great big Boston Celtics fan. And I played basketball in high school and junior college and was a huge Los Angeles Lakers fan. And so the first date was a Lakers-Celtics game at the Boston Garden. It was quite early on that I knew I was fascinated. She was a very beautiful woman, still is. Very bright.

Was it common at that time to get engaged after such a short period of dating?

Not at all. She was at that time living as a house mother or whatever, in a small liberal arts college near the Harvard Law School campus, Lesley College. And I remember her telling me how many times she would tell small groups of students, “Don’t ever do what I just did.” [Laughs.] Because they’d come up to her and say, “Ms. Donnelly, you’re getting married? Didn’t you just meet him the other night?” I was 31 or 32, and Maureen was 28 or 29. Our families, needless to say, were somewhat taken aback. My mother hadn’t even met her, and I’m not even sure I’d told my mother I was dating her, or my father.

Who is the first person you voted for?

I was 18 in 1948. I don’t remember voting for Franklin Roosevelt. I might have voted for Harry Truman, actually, because I don’t think I missed an election. And actually, in those days, I was a Republican and I didn’t vote for Truman. I’m losing it a little bit. I think I might have voted for Dwight Eisenhower first.

Were there any elections that you felt particularly passionate about?

Well, John Kennedy. That was a major transition for me. I had voted for Richard Nixon after Eisenhower, which almost ended my marriage before it even began, with my wife, Maureen, who could not believe—she was from very strong Democratic family, she has never voted for a Republican in her entire life. So that was a shock, and I forget exactly how that came out. I managed to talk my way around that one.

John Kennedy had been elected president in 1960, I did not vote for him, but I became a Kennedy fan even before I went to Harvard, but the year at Harvard sort of nailed it for me. It was hard to go any place in and around Cambridge or Boston without bumping into a Kennedy person. And that year I was there, when I met Maureen, in ’62–’63, was also the year Pope John the XXIII became pope, and the beginning of Vatican Council II, where he made a mighty effort, as the expression went, to open the windows of the Catholic Church and let some fresh air in. Boston was a great place to be at that time if you were a Catholic compared to Los Angeles, where the archbishop was extraordinarily conservative and very supportive of the Vietnam War and a hard-nosed anti-communist. The archbishop in Boston was a very well-known cardinal, much more progressive and open-minded, and it was reflected in the church itself. So it was a very exciting time, and I think I left my conservative credentials somewhere behind and have been somewhat more progressive and liberal ever since.

How did you shift to being a Democrat?

It evolved in a relatively short period of time. Being in that environment—remember, I was not working, and therefore I didn’t have to deal with a lot of very conservative clients who would simply espouse the undiluted merits of the free-market system. The discussions I had, the people, the speakers [on campus], the articles in the paper, even the Catholic Church itself, and being exposed to the Donnelly family, Maureen’s siblings and Maureen—it just sort of happened.

Do you use the internet now?

I get a ton of stuff every day—I’m sure after this interview, I’ll sign up for one or more of your several newsletters. But I take Politico, I take the Washington Post, I take the New York Times, the L.A. Times. I take Barron’s, I take Hive. I don’t read everything that I get, and when I do get something, I’ll skim. And I communicate with a Friday breakfast group. I also have a Friday lunch group, also men, and then there’s the book club. I also have written letters that have been published in the local paper, and I’ll send those around to people and try to get something started that way. And I’m Googling stuff all the time.

What’s the best piece of advice someone’s ever given you?

After you’ve written something, rewrite it. And then after you’ve rewritten it, read it again, and then rewrite it again. There isn’t anything you’ve written that’s worthwhile and important that can’t be improved. Of course, at some point you’ve got to put it down, especially if somebody’s paying for it. I’ve started to fool around with writing what I privately call poetry, but in front of other people, I refer to them as “ditties,” because it lowers people’s expectations. But it is actually fun to just let something sit in draft form and keep tinkering with it, playing with it.

Robert Carlson laughs.
Robert Carlson at 63.
Robert Carlson

Could you read me one of your ditties?

Sure. Here’s one that was written in December of 2016. It’s still labeled “draft,” but it’s pretty close. It had to do with—I go to an Episcopal church every Sunday here in Pasadena called All Saints. It’s full of people who have done things on the cutting edge: marrying same-sex people, pushing for the ordination of women, that kind of thing. In this particular poem, there was a woman who’s a priest who’s also a psychotherapist, and she led a discussion, and the new rector joined with her. Clearly, she was the lead, but he, a couple of times—maybe this is a little too harsh, but, he interrupted her. He’s a wonderful man, and she told me at a later time when I showed her this poem that he apologized to her. So he was quite aware of the unfortunate male quality of what I’ll call talking over somebody. And this poem is called “Talking It Over.”

Talking over, not about a suitable subject for conversation,

But talking over her, as she is talking.

With voice raised more than slightly for emphasis

Announcing his important presence in the discussion,

He’s underscoring a salient point or livening up the discourse.

He’s adding to the mix an all too familiar joke or perhaps one of his tiresome stories.

Or offering an instructive example he thinks is both apt and urgent,

He illuminates the essentials crisply with confidence.

Can’t wait for a suitable pause in her conversation

To permit him to drop his illuminating wisdom not so gently into the conversation.

(The wait for that felicitous opening can sometimes be interminable, you know.)

From birth, it seems, he was bred to be the breadwinner, not the baker

To bring home the bacon, not be the cake-maker

To take charge, to lead, to interrupt if he must

To assert, to overlook, to slide around and over any hurt.

Virility needs to be heard now, not later.

Mary the Virgin Mother, the church’s exemplar, set the tone for centuries:

Patient, obedient, mild, temperate, service to others, men in particular.

A new day has surely come. Happily, modern role models, agents of change, arrived.

Thanks Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Susan B. Anthony, and Hillary Clinton.

At GM, the Go Man car company, the late what’s-good-for-GM CEO Charlie Wilson

Has been followed almost 40 years later by Mary Barra the current CEO of GM. 

She talks over business deals with her male colleagues.

They don’t talk over her.

Lucky for Lucy, Annie, Phoebe—these are our granddaughters—and all the many bright young gentlewomen,

Won’t be bumped, stumped, pedestal-mounted, ignored, or Trumped so much anymore.

That’s my poem.

Wow, what a great poem! Thank you so much for sharing that.

Well, thank you. It was the first one in the pile. That’s maybe a little more serious. A lot of them are just goofy stuff. By the way, that was not all aimed at this particular rector.
It was aimed much more broadly at, I think, a problem that too many men have.

What makes you happiest today?

The love and devotion and support that is pouring out from our children who are scattered around in several places, and our grandchildren—some of whom are in Pasadena—toward my wife, in her situation. She’s got lots of serious medical problems and spends a lot of time in a wheelchair. She was diagnosed with heart failure, Parkinson’s, and then suffered a stroke. But there’s an amazing strength and stamina and love that she has in spite of that combination that would take most of us down. It’s very wonderful for me to see these incredible kids spending the time flying from Salt Lake, and John from Boulder, and our son Bobby from Northern California, coming down to visit their mother.

How do you socialize these days?

[My two best friends] Bob and Mike and I, and five or six other men, have breakfast together every Friday morning, including this morning. These are men we have a lot in common, and our wives know each other, and we belong to a book club together, and so forth.

Where do you have breakfast?

At a very nice place called Julienne’s in San Marino. Open for breakfast and lunch only. We have the same table and the same waiter. This has been going on for years. He knows us by name, he’s a great guy. We don’t have to call, it’s our table for an hour and a half every Friday morning. We have managed to somehow or other make ourselves known, not only visually—because we celebrate birthdays and put on funny hats—but we make a lot of noise, probably too loud, and there’s a lot of clowning around that occurs. So we have people who come over and tell us how wonderful it is to see all these old men enjoying themselves.

Read more from Slate’s Interview With an Old Person series.

Gertrude Johnson Howard, 82, From Phoenix

Elva P. Higgins, Age 96, From Eastern Kansas

Louise Gili, Age 100, From Millburn, New Jersey

Christina Cauterucci is a Slate staff writer.