The Taxonomy of Plants: A Tale of Multi-Generational Autistics

Hannah King

mystinkybackpack.blogspot.ca

GRANDPA

If you wanted to talk to my grandpa, plant taxonomy was a good opener. He would take us for long walks in the forests of North Jersey. Be quiet now, don’t scare the wildlife.

“What kind of plant is that, Grandpa?” I would whisper. I never remembered the answer. But I liked to hear him talk to me.

Photo © Hannah King
[image: Close up of a barnacle-covered rock at low tide.]

Every July, us kids would stay at their house near the shore. Grandpa, who had been an inventor at Bell labs, kept the tidal charts taped to the side of the refrigerator so he knew when to fish, when to swim and when—at four in the morning—to take the six of us racing down the pebbly sidewalks to collect shells and walk the puddled moonscape of a Jersey low tide.

Back home in his garage, he had set up aluminum tables with giant volumes for us to pore over: collected stamps from around the world, each crispy page a pageant of colour. On the other table, weighty blue tomes that told the story of money: year-by-year pennies, nickels, dimes. Silver dollars. $2 bills. Worn ancient coins he called “worthless” that I would shift and pour from hand to hand. “Where is this one from, Grandpa?” He would talk to me.

At 10:00am each day, the phone would ring. Grandpa’s chess partner calling in his move. Like two men in distant mirrors, each would make a move on his own chess set, then bid goodbye and hang up. Grandma would go and cook. Grandpa would walk to the piano and play old standards for hours then. Not much in the mood for chit chat.

Photo © Hannah King
[image: Long view of an extensive low tide A single person
is visible in the far background.]

Upstairs at night on steel-framed beds, we would listen to the roll of thunder and the clatter of rain as storms rolled through. Grandma and Grandpa, meanwhile, had retreated to their side of the hall. The storms, like the seas, turned us all into wilder children but no one ever came to say calm down or comfort us. My brother told me the thunder and lightening was “God bowling.” I pulled the damp sheets tight, fell asleep.

Grandpa never missed the name of a plant—ever. My brothers would marvel at his memory, as he recounted the history of plants, places, weather patterns, the old hurricanes, matters numismatic, philatological. At the end of July, we would bid them goodbye with quick hugs and pile into the station wagon to go back to the midwest. Our visits to Jersey were at once exotic and a kind of homecoming. These were the people my father had left behind.

DAD

When he was a young man, my father went to lunch with his uncle in the city. There, his uncle offered him a job in the family business. When my dad hesitated, his uncle shook his head and frowned. “You don’t want to turn out like your father,” he said.

My father left that fateful lunch and decided to move his young family to the countryside of Wisconsin. Took us all fishing, camping, hiking, off to wander the hills like a troupe of semi-feral von Trapps, freed from the rigid city life of family business, barefoot and happy living in a house on “some land” with horseless stables and a million grasshoppers flicking our legs as we ran through summer weeds. On hot days, we would line up in the garden to plant seeds in neat rows and Dad would talk to us about the life cycle of animals and fish, of plants and pollination. As with my grandfather, the outdoors was where I knew my father best.

My dad’s garage was different than Grandpa’s. He kept a couple vintage cars in it. My favourite one had a canvas roof and smelled beautifully musty. The cars had brand names and a lot of information attached to them, which Dad told us but I forget. What I do remember is the smell of sitting in that car, especially after a rain.

Sometimes Dad would go out to the garage and sit, too. In the years when he was unemployed, a phantom anger would overtake him—usually at dinnertime—and he would shout, throw things across the room, break chairs, lose all control in the house with us, then retreat to the garage and the car. Everyone would scatter from the dinner table but me. I could hear him out there wailing and crying through the screen door. Then morning would come with an apology.

Script for a parent apology. 1. Listen. 2. Say “It’s ok, I understand.” 3. Stay still: here comes the hug.

DAVID

My brother Mike was an engineer, like Grandpa. He got married first, had kids first. His son, David, was diagnosed as autistic as a young child. Intensive therapy was prescribed and they said yes.

When my nephew was little, he used to like to run and throw himself onto me. I knew why; I remembered doing that too. But times had changed, and with an officially “autistic” child present, we were all quickly versed in a new and uncomfortable way of responding. It was a whole new language of “Hands quiet.” “No repeats.”

David has loved the moon from the time he was very small. He can tell you about the cycles of the moon and when each kind of special moon is coming. I like to go outside away from the din of our family gatherings and look up with him. In the dark and the quiet he can ask me questions as many times as he wants; he can flap. I try to think of things that will bring on a flap. I try to stay connected in the dark under the moon.

US

I ran too, like my Dad. We moved ourselves to Canada. My son was diagnosed autistic as a young child. Intensive therapy was prescribed and we said no. We chose to unschool and now travel with whatever time and money we have. Our most recent trip is to the Bay of Fundy, which has the largest tides in the world.

The tide schedule sits on the hotel dresser. I check and re-check it; then the alarm rings. We all scamper about in the dark, grabbing cameras, throwing on yesterday’s wet clothes, forgetting shoes, race-walking down to the shores. Under the light of the stars, it all looks like a stellar landscape with giant, exposed boulders covered in prickly crustaceans, tiny sleeping barnacles hanging off heavy curtains of seaweed, waiting to breathe when the waters rise again. I walk along cold spring water beds, searching the sand for ancient volcanic rock, petrified sea mammals, and any kind of creature to touch and hold and share. 

Kyle is up ahead of me, singing, running, jumping. He grabs a stick and draws into the wet sand: a giant map of Toronto’s subway system. “Next station is Spadina. Change here for Line Two!” The sun is a gold ball rising above us. Behind us lie the dark tunnels of St. Martins. 

In a few hours’ time, the tidal bore will rush through, filling up Fundy. It is a sight to behold when that brown wave comes racing down the riverbed. After the tidal bore, the river settles into a lazy flow that is at once deep brown and yet silvery-reflective. The reflections are more focused than the sky and clouds above: the water’s surface like God’s finely tuned camera lens. We sit on the mucky shores and just look. 

Back at the hotel now, the day has just begun but we are wiped out. Not much in the mood for chit chat. Kyle flips out the camera and looks at the photos we shot. Ron makes some coffee and checks his iPhone. I sit down in the quiet and write.