The Nature of Knowledge Itself
Kathleen McKitty Harris
My husband and I sat across from each other in a Catskills coffee shop; August sunlight bleached its storefront windows. Slivered white rectangles—stereoscopic images of the bright summer windows in my view—were cast onto the lenses of my aviator sunglasses, and their reflection highlighted the smudges on the surface.
“Baby, your glasses are dirty. Let me clean those for you,” my husband said, while gingerly sliding the wired temples from the crooks of my ears. He positioned each lens in the cave-like hollow he formed in his open mouth and exhaled a whispery “ha” to moisten and fog the glass.
I watched as he wiped them on the hem of his t-shirt. The gesture sparked the memory of an offhand comment my father made once when I was little, as he removed his thick-lensed eyeglasses and buffed them with a kitchen dishtowel on a Sunday afternoon.
“Eileen cleans my glasses with alcohol and a bar rag. She says it’s the best thing to clean lenses. She used to clean her father’s glasses with whiskey. Cuts right through the grease.” My father went on to describe the chemical properties of alcohol and oil, explaining that “like dissolves like” and that some molecules are electrically drawn to others.
I was eight, and I did not yet understand the science of such things. Yet, I knew the name of the barmaid—Eileen—who worked at my father’s preferred midtown watering hole. I knew that Tommy Fahey, his favorite bartender, hailed from County Kerry in Ireland and that he enunciated the anomalous pronunciation of his name—“FAH-hee not FAYYY-hee”—to the newbies who sat astride stools and ordered Jameson rocks. I knew that Maggie was the owner of the bar that my father frequented, and that she didn’t tolerate rowdy behavior. I knew that my father would pour himself a tumbler of scotch—two fingers neat—and dip a dishtowel into the amber liquid while he finished his story. I knew that he would not let the remainder of it go to waste, and would lift my parents’ Waterford wedding crystal to his lips as he spoke.
I understood things about my parents’ marriage, too. My mother’s leather-bound telephone book, kept in the desk drawer near the rotary wall phone, had hastily-scratched entries for my father’s hangouts— under “M” for “Maggie’s”, and under “P” for “Pig and Whistle”. My mother never cleaned my father’s glasses, as Eileen did. There was something unnatural in this stranger’s tender act towards my father— this woman, reaching over the brass-edged bar, letting her fingertips graze his stubbled face as she removed his glasses. Such vulnerability was uncharacteristic of my father—a jut-jawed Brooklyn boy whose eyesight would blur and lose focus without his visual aid, leaving him defenseless with his back to the barroom door.
Jean Piaget, the renowned child psychologist and theorist, famously noted that we are formed by schemas, or cognitive frameworks. These structures allow children to retain and interpret vast amounts of information during their development by creating mental shortcuts, so to speak— grouping cows with horses, for example, or apples with oranges. In many cases, children only change such schemas when overwhelming evidence forces the need to modify it.
As for me—I grouped sadness with marriage, whiskey with Daddy, and glasses with bar rags.