Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Bad H.R.

In the old days, H.R. was short for Human Resources, though now extra letters have been added or the title changed completely to things like the Office of Employee Happiness or Office of Employee Satisfaction, or even Office of Employee Engagement (though, to me, that sounds like an overly optimistic employee dating service). Yes, these days all of that is possible, undoubtedly meant to soften the blow of the (to some, I suppose) harsher sounding Human Resources, though not necessarily more clarifying. For I think Human Resources was, for all its vagueness, clear enough, or at least we had grown used to its vagueness and had come to understand that what was once called the much clearer Personnel Administration was then simply called “H.R.” Now it’s Employee Happiness. Definitely cheerier.

But none of this is the H.R. I’m speaking about. Rather, I’m speaking about me at age seven. My mother, who, if you read this page even occasionally, you know was named Elaine and you also know that she was the only Anglo-Chinese-Jew with a cross-dressing monkey in America (or perhaps anywhere in the world) in the 1960s. (Now, if you’re reading this posting for the first time, I realize that may sound alarming, even more alarming than mere political incorrectness, even more alarming than Personnel Administration must sound to someone hoping to hear Office of Employee Happiness, and for that I apologize in advance, alongside which I also say, however, that I can’t change history; it is what it was.)

No, the H.R. I’m speaking of is a rather small and most certainly immature, even spoiled version of H.R. Jakes, a character who comes off rather well in most instances in The Curious Autobiography, but in fact was no different than any other sinful kid. Oui, c’est moi. And today, I would like to give you one example of his/my sinfulness, that you might learn from it. It is the lesson of ungratefulness, and it has to do with the aforementioned monkey, and came at the very end of Elaine’s Chinese period and near the middle of her being Jewish.

For we had visited my sister, Betsy, in her new home. She was then living at the Philadelphia Zoo, an excellent zoo by any standard, and not a bad place, if one must leave one’s sister somewhere, to have deposited her. When we left Betsy in the capable hands of the primatologists at that zoo, I was six years old, she was a girl, clad in a delightful red floral ruffled dress with lace trim, carrying a small monkey-sized (i.e. child-sized) parasol, also red, also trimmed with lace. When we went back to visit her, I was seven, she was a boy (Jo Jo), and she was no longer wearing a dress or any clothing, a circumstance that to me, at first blush, was a bit alarming though slowly I came to realize that monkeys did not normally wear clothing. On our way back from that visit we went through Doylestown, Pennsylvania, en route to New Hope. It wasn’t the most direct route, but Elaine wanted to pick up some groceries at the rather larger-than-the-Acme-in-Lambertville grocery store in Doylestown on the way home. And I liked it because Foster’s was there.

Foster’s was, you see, by far the best toy store in all of Bucks County. In the mid-1960s one could see, lined up in the window, toy soldiers of durable plastic, carefully painted and of very high quality. These were not cheaply made toy soldiers. They were, as I sad, of the highest quality, and equally of the highest cost, so expensive that even on her payday I wouldn’t be able to talk Elaine into buying me one, though I might be able to get her to remember which one or two I really liked so that she would, for my birthday or Hanukkah/Christmas (we inexplicably celebrated both religious holidays), possibly purchase one for me.

That day coincidentally Mr. Foster had placed in the middle of his store in the prime display area a full, wonderfully beautiful toy zoo, all also of high quality plastic, all also very expensive. It featured, I recall, a crocodile and hippopotamus exhibit, giraffe pen, elephant house, aviary rife with tiny exotic birds, and of course a simian exhibit, complete with a small monkey house, every piece carefully molded and painted. It was, for all intents and purposes, almost an exact replica of any real zoo. It even had a Zoo sign. It could, as finely wrought as it was, potentially compliment any dilettantish train table, such as the one my Uncle Ed had set up in his basement. I loved going to Ed and Lee Ann’s house to watch the train go around that track, though his was not so large that one could have placed in it very much of this rather extensive zoo.

Of course, at age seven, I wanted this zoo, really wanted it, as children tend to really want things. Perhaps this was the case simply because the massive “toy” was, in fact, virtually an objet d’art. Or perhaps it is because we had just visited my sister (now brother) for the first time since leaving him behind at the Philadelphia Zoo, and the toy simian enclosure was, in fact, perhaps the finest piece in the collection of tiny animal exhibits.

But Elaine, being a humble schoolteacher sans husband could not afford such an expensive toy for her child now or even at Hanukkah/Christmas time. Yet she loved the no doubt by then bratty-because-he-was-practically-begging-for-the-toy-zoo H.R. Jakes, and she even went back into the store to speak privately with Mr. Foster about a layaway plan, while H.R. gazed in the window at the soldiers. But to no avail. At her salary, she would have to have had an item of that on lay away at least a couple of years.

So my dear mother and her best friend, Sheila, partnered up to make a replica in balsa wood of the zoo they had seen at Foster’s, all from memory. Now if you’ve ever worked with balsa wood you know it’s soft and cuts easily but is also rather fragile. And though she tried very hard to replicate that zoo of finely cast plastic, all she could do was to make another zoo, not really very much like it, poorly glued together of roughly cut pieces of balsa that, in all honesty, did not look much like the original zoo or all that great at all. But it was handmade, and from the heart. And that was much more important to Elaine and Sheila than it being perfect or expensive or even durable. It was the thought and the valiant attempt that counted. To her and Sheila, that is.

But to H.R. that was not the case. He wasn’t expecting the zoo for Hanukkah/Christmas—he knew she could probably not afford it—but he was also not expecting a homemade knockoff model, either. Now he should have done the right thing, he should simply have said, “Wow! Thanks, this is really cool! It must have taken you guys hours…” (for no doubt it did) “…to make this!” But instead he was, I recall, coldly honest, “Gosh, is this a zoo? It doesn’t really look like a zoo to me.” In his defense, seven-year-old children do have a tendency to be honest. On the other hand, he might have taken a moment to think about all the countless hours and love that went into rendering the gift. But he didn’t.

Why am I “confessing” this to you so many years after the fact? Not for cathartic reasons—I don’t tend to do that, as you probably know if you read this blog even semi regularly. Nor is it to evoke pity for a spuriously Sino-Hebraic child with, effectively, two mothers and a cross dressing monkey sister who was left at a zoo—the sister, that is. No, actually, even at the time, it was fine with me to be different than all the other kids at school. Rather, it is that you might learn from that bad H.R. (and I might continually learn, too) not to be ungrateful when someone does something for you, even if it seems to you a rather small or imperfect thing. It may not seem like much to you, but it is the best they can do.

I am thankful to this day for the memory of that homemade zoo, one that I myself could have enjoyed if I had used even a touch of imagination and a dab of appreciation; yet I failed to do so. But I perhaps garnered from that experience something more valuable and durable than poorly glued together balsa wood or perfectly molded plastic: I learned how to give and to receive, how to love past imperfections and how to be a better human being. And I now humbly offer that lesson, at the expense of my seven-year old self, to you.

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