My mother stands with my father in the garden waiting for me. They are both much younger than I am now. I’m still getting my things together, watering the flowering pots, pulling a final weed. Settling down to write is always like this for me, a slow process with detours and evasions. My last minute hesitations are only efforts to ready myself for the beginning of our long journey together.
Writing my way through this trip won’t be easy. Standing next to their Oldsmobile station wagon, my parents’ bags are all packed. They are not interested in rushing me; rather they are indulging me as if I was still a young child. They know every step of the way and I am feeling my way through each uncertainty. The memory I’m working from, although deeply buried in my prenatal past, is extremely tenacious and persistent. It buoys me at the same time that it eludes me. Yet, the contentment I feel at its revelations pushes me to continue.
Bill and Sylvia wait by their brand new 1947 Oldsmobile because my mother is momentarily out of breath. In the middle of her seventh month of pregnancy, the child she is carrying sometimes takes her breath away. That child is me. Working today from resurfaced postcards and newly assembled medical records, and counting backwards through time, I find myself included in this trip on which they are embarking. It is all somehow very familiar. My father waits with my mother patiently now as she catches her breath. His recent surgery and slow continuing recovery have taught him a certain tolerance with his young wife which he didn’t show in her earlier pregnancies.
It is the beginning of fall and their older children have already left the rented summer cabin on Long Island Sound. Charlotte, Katie and Freddie are traveling with Emily who has been living with the family since last spring, right before my father’s surgery. Their trip home will be much shorter than ours.
Our journey was carefully laid out over the long summer months of my father’s convalescence in Sag Harbor. That summer, there were many visitors to their cabin by the sound. Family and friends brought with them maps and brochures which my parents savored as they routed their automobile trip back home to Chicago. This trip, their immediate future, was the one thing they could plan with assurance. Although my parents remained hopeful, the months and years ahead were not so certain.
My mother’s doctor advised against the trip. And, of course, her parents worried. She was their only daughter. It was late in her pregnancy and their route was drawn out longer than it need have been. Surely, she was exhausted by the recent months of constant caring for her recuperating husband. My mother however, promised that they would travel slowly and rest often. In her third pregnancy, she was confident of her own strength. So my parent’s began in New York taking me with them.
What I do recall when I think long and deep, about this trip through miles of motels are rooms filled with autumn, large beds and big radios vibrating the otherwise quiet air with music and stories. As promised, my parents took plenty of naps together slowing our homeward progress but keeping the three of us comfortably close.
Tucked between them, I can still feel the sound of my parent’s conversation slowing down to a whisper and then silence. Silence at least until my father began to snore. His snoring tempered by the music of the radio in the background is reassuring and never bothersome. It reminds both me and my mother that he is still there lying beside us. He pulls closer to my mother as they nap.
My mother’s body is getting larger every day. Although my father’s hands and arms grow stronger on this journey, his large frame still remains much thinner than usual. There must have been jokes about my mother’s growing belly. My father joked about everything, I’m told. Trying as hard as possible to find hope in their future, they would have been delighted at the prospect of this new child. Perhaps, this baby would be their second son. They had already produced a second daughter and another boy would even things out. But the Fates, those three Greek women who spin and weave and cut the threads of each life’s tapestry, didn’t assembly a pattern of evenness for my parents’ children. Rather, they envisioned in their own image, three daughters and only one son.
In future years, this disproportion allowed us children to sort out in our own fashion how we would bond and divide among ourselves. Aware somehow of my parent’s playful hopefulness and the three silent ancient weavers who will outlive us all, I always watch these maneuverings at what feels to me a distance.
The luxury of privacy which an extended car trip affords, easily surfaces in my memory. This is the longest time I would ever have alone with both my parents. Its memory perched only weeks before my birth is undeniable.
After some days on the road, my parents and I are waiting out the sudden rain and holding up in a motel room for some extra days alone. So far the weather has been pristine. This particular autumn seems to hold only crisp clear hints of the coming snow. The rain comes as a surprise.
Taking advantage of this unanticipated change, my parents decide not to drive through the torrents but to wait for clearer traveling conditions. My mother is reading aloud from Howard Fast’s Citizen Tom Paine. Years of studying speech have shaped her always acute sense of her own presence into a fascinating reader’s voice, and my father loves hearing her read aloud. To her reading is an easy art, and its subtle intonations allow her usually acquiescent voice a welcome chance for creativity.
Listening against the continuous backdrop of the falling rain, my father relaxes in the rhythms of his wife’s voice. My mother’s close by reading summons images of his eccentric and dramatic Aunt Helen who, like my mother, had trained for the theater. When he was a little boy and recovering from polio, his father’s sister would often read to him. In her voice books he rarely looked at on his own became exotic. Her playful readings always renewed his interest in his neglected books. Usually, he much preferred the company of others.
My father was never much of a student and perhaps, that is why he was so proud of my mother. So obviously a student and so gifted with words. It was one of the things he loved about her, her education. And it was one of the things she loved about him, his taking her and her education seriously.
My mother had picked up the copy of Citizen Tom Paine that had been lying by my father’s bedside for the past four years and packed it for their long car journey in the fall of 1947. She had bought it for him the April just after they were married. The book received an excellent review in the New York Times. She always read the book reviews in that paper and not much else. When she told her new husband about it, he replied in an effort to impress her, that he might like to read it. She soon surprised him with a copy.
At that time, my newly wed parents were living in my grandfather’s house, 37 Shorthill Road in Forest Hills, New York. It was wartime in 1943 and there were seven adults living under the same roof: my grandfather, his sister (the aforementioned Aunt Helen who had no children of her own), his nephew Jack, the son of his eldest sister, Henry and Katherine the servants who, as my mother wrote in a letter to her parents, actually ran the household, and Bill and Sylvia. My father had brought his young bride to the house where he himself grew up.
In that sturdy, formal, red brick house, there wasn’t room for the rowdy love making of newly weds. At bedtime, my mother tried to engage my father in one of her favorite habits, reading before falling asleep. It was something my father wasn’t accustomed to. But the adventures of Tom Paine, resourceful and rebellious like my father caught his imagination, for awhile. My parents didn’t stay long in my grandfather’s crowded house. The following November, despite the shortages of places to live in wartime New York, my father managed to rent a more private house not too far away. Presumably from that time on, Citizen Tom Paine rested unopened on their night table.
Now, four years later in the stone and timbered Lodge of a Midwestern resort, my mother was again reading Citizen Tom Paine to her husband. This time I was also listening. Three absent very real children rounded out their family now whereas as newly weds they were only figured in their parents’ dreams. Now, my parent’s dreams are quite different. My father’s illness makes everything uncertain. Citizen Tom Paine however remains the same and my mother’s reading continues sturdy and clever as always. Wrapped in my mother’s cadences, Tom Paine’s spirit, with all of his passion and fury, surrounds and transports us all.
In that cozy room with the knotty wood paneling and the clean smell of rain drifting in the barely opened windows, the three of us wait for the weather to change. All of us wish it wouldn’t, wish that we could stay there forever, listing to the rain and the story of Citizen Paine.
Snuggled safely in the moment, my sudden and powerful movements cut short my mother’s reading. She pauses a moment to comment on my vigor. My father broken from his reveries of Tom Paine, Aunt Helen and his three absent children feels keenly, perhaps for the first time, the extent of his diminished strength which lies so near my intruding and evolving energy.
Wanting only to encourage each other, neither of my parents mentions the juxtaposition of my father’s weakened health with my spirited activity. Instead my father makes a joke about the three rambunctious characters they didn’t take with them on this trip. Instead my father says that it was wise of them to take only a character whose rumpuses were silent and under control.
The rain keeps falling, my mother continues to read and for the rest of my life, I will feel most comfortable and secure when my revolutionary thoughts and endeavors are quiet ones.
My mother is walking through the fallen leaves, listening to them crackle as they blow across the ground and crumple under her feet. Nestled inside of her, I am listening too but not to the far away sound of the leaves rather to the rhythm of her thoughts.
This is the last morning of our trip and my father is just beginning to pack up the car. We spent the last night of our journey here at the lodge of Starved Rock State Park, just west of Chicago. We had traveled south and west from New York so that we could come north through the Missouri towns of Joplin and Kansas City, where my mother grew up and where her grandmother, aunt and brother still lived. Along the way we stayed at every secluded forest lodge we could find and we found several.
There is a certain sadness in the air this morning mirrored by the coming winter and the ending of our journey. In her eighth month of pregnancy, my mother is reminded by her heavy body that there is also much to look forward to. She decides to take a walk around the grounds and readjust her vision. She doesn’t follow the steep trails leading through the sandstone bluffs to the Illinois River. She sticks to the level ground that circles the lodge. She wants to stay close to her husband.
In the distance she watches my father as he works. It will be a short ride into Chicago, and she plans to mail the picture post card she has just written to her parents from there. “Will be close to 1800 miles by the time we reach home” she reminds herself as she goes over the wording of her postcard. After all the discouragement she and my Dad received about the hardships of this journey, its achievement is something she is proud of.
Next week will be Thanksgiving, and Bill’s father will be in town. Shortly, after that is Bill’s 41st birthday and the next day their fifth wedding Anniversary. Last night, huddled together in front of the big stone fireplace, they have decided to celebrate that event in private at a Chicago hotel where they have never stayed before. They know for sure that they want to hold on to the satisfying seclusion that this trip has allowed them. Soon after that comes Christmas, then New Year’s which will be filled with more company.
Images of her sorely missed children run through my mother’s thoughts. Emily who only last spring was hired as a nursemaid for the children has been a godsend to the family. My mother can see them all together clearly this picture book morning. Emily has taken the children to Palmer Square just across the street from their apartment. Right now, my mother imagines that they are playing as she is in the crispy leaves. She kicks up her foot in unison with children’s imagined kicks. Together, they watch the leaves cascading to the ground. She knows that Emily has been the one constant in her children’s lives in the previous months. The children haven’t seen their parent’s in weeks and coupled with their long absence last spring, my mother wonders what kind of memories they hold in their tiny heads of their absent parents.
It was quite sudden last April when she and Bill first left the children in Chicago. Easter Sunday was April 6th and my mother had chosen that day to celebrate Katie’s second birthday. Katie whose real birthday was April 1st, had actually been born on Easter Sunday and my mother wanted to keep the jubilation of that day associated with her daughter’s birth. She had even made matching dresses for the girls to wear and there were two large stuffed bunnies that took part in all the indoor festivities.
The bunnies didn’t accompany them that day however as family and friends piled into the brand new Oldsmobile station wagon for the short drive to an outside amusement park. 16 mm movies show the girls and Freddie riding on a kiddie train and my parents flirting with each other like teenagers. I was not yet in the picture.
Just a week later, my mother was writing to her parents from New York City and explaining why she was there and not visiting them in California. My parents “were on a strenuous round of seeing a doctor a day…Charlotte was with them.” Charlotte was the oldest of the children. She was the easiest child to travel with, no bottles, no diapers. Her first year of life was spent in New York and she could easily be left with familiar friends there while her parents achieved their mission. The letter was light and didn’t give much information. My mother choose instead to write in detail about the dress pattern she was considering for the girls and new dresses she had purchased for herself that were wrinkle free and just right for traveling.
By the end of the week my parents would be back in Chicago and on their way to the Mayo clinic in Minnesota. In Rochester, after several days of tests my father was admitted to the hospital on April 24th. It was in this time frame just before he entered the hospital that I was conceived. I like to think that I grew out of the comfort my parents gave each other in this hectic and uncertain time.
Hospital records and my mother’s letters to her parents show that my father had a series of operations. On April 28th after a single barrel colostomy my mother sent a telegram to her parents “Operation highly successful. No Danger of recurrence”. His last operation for the removal of his rectum and sigmoid and a large, invasive tumor was on May 14. The next day was Ascension Day, just 40 days after Easter.
After a six- week’s recovery in Minnesota, my parents returned to Chicago—but not to their home. They stayed at the Palmer house, an old and stately downtown hotel. There Bill could rest quietly away from the bustle of small children. And the children’s lives could continue, as if normally, with Emily, away from their visibly ill father.
There they stayed until the whole family left Chicago for the rented summer home on Long Island Sound. From New York, my mother wrote to her parents that there is a “big fenced in back yard with plenty of room to keep the noise away from us”. The family was together again, but some separateness was still needed.
How would the children respond to her now my mother wondered as she her steps rustled the noisy leaves? Just last week as Chicago drew nearer, she and Bill had discussed their plans for the coming winter. At first my father suggested that my mother go to California to visit her parents. She had put off that promised trip several times over the past two years, for reasons that had nothing to do with her husband’s recent illness. She clearly much preferred her life in Chicago as a wife and mother to her role as a dutiful daughter which her parents always insisted upon. Now, after so much time, her delays seemed painfully obvious. Now, her pregnancy made such a trip impossible and anyway, she didn’t’ want to leave her children again. So she encouraged my dad to travel, visit friends, do some business. He was better now and a trip alone would restore his confidence. It would be the first time they would be apart since his operation. As she watched him from across the lodge’s grounds, she wondered how they would fare without each other.
As my mother dragged her feet through the leaves making a ribbon of unbroken rustling around her thoughts, I too felt my dad at a distance. Sensing then my mother’s troubles, and feeling them so close to my own well being, it’s no surprise today that the sound of crackling leaves beneath my feet still makes me uneasy.
Recently, I found an old photograph of my parents’ 1947 station wagon. Its wooden sides and boxy frame make it quite a classic car. Even though I can’t remember ever seeing this car, its contours are very homey and familiar. On the back of the picture “September, 1948” is written in my grandfather’s hand along with the address of the first house I can remember living in and the name of my uncle in Kansas City, “Ralph”.
In the picture, my mother and all of us kids are leaning against the Oldsmobile, almost as if the car is holding us up and in a way connecting us. This picture might have been taken on my mom’s thirty first birthday just 4 days after my father died. It was taken by my grandparents who had come from California and were with us now in New York. Copies of this picture were sent around to other members of my mother’s family.
My mom is wearing a black coat and hat. The difficult smile on her face attests to her sadness. She is holding me in her arms and I am reaching away from her out to Emily who is standing just outside the frame. Since my birth and my father’s accelerating illness, I had spend more time in Emily’s arms than in my mother’s. Katie and Freddie are standing at some distance from my mother on opposite sides. Katie is holding in her three-year-old hand a straw hat with a flowing ribbon. Her Easter birthday hat is a bit out of place in this early fall weather but she holds tightly nevertheless to this memory of a happier time. It is only my oldest sister Charlotte who stands solidly next to my mother.
During the last three months of my father’s illness, we children were divided up among family and friends. Charlotte accompanied my parents to New York, where my father knew he was going to die. He wanted to be near his father, his brothers and his cousins. Chicago was a place of happiness and success for him. New York though where he had grown up was always his home. Katie, Freddie and I stayed in Chicago. Emily and family friends continued to look after us. Eventually, my grandmother arrived from California. In the very last weeks of August, Katie and my grandmother went to Missouri. Katie most surely noticed that she was left behind by her father, mother and older sister, and she needed some extra attention. There they visited relatives in Kansas City and Joplin. In Joplin, they received the news that my father had died. They flew together to New York to meet up with my mother and the other children.
Where I was at the time is harder to discern. No one ever talked about it and there are no written records. There is however a ten second very fuzzy 16 mm clip of me in a baby carriage, sitting up straight. Freddy standing very close by, is stepping even closer to the carriage and holding on tightly. Above us adults move in and out of the frame packing up the Oldsmobile station wagon whose wooded door is easily recognizable. These perhaps, were our final moments in Chicago before moving to New York. Someone, thinking of my absent parents picked up the family camera and focused in tightly on my brother and me, huddled so sweetly together. Soon after this Emily went with us to New York to be with my mother.
This photo of family togetherness is really a picture of a family coming together again not only after the loss of their father but after being apart. It was not easy for the children to warm up to a mother who they’d seen so little of in the past months. It was not easy for my mother to smile broadly with the sadness of my father’s death so immediate.
Those of us who could stand are leaning on the car for stability in this captured moment of a family trying to hold itself together. I’m only eight months old and can’t stand firmly yet. It is my mother who connects me to the car she is leaning against. Just as it was my mother who connected me to the “1800” mile car trip just months before I was born.
Snow is on the ground now. The flower pots are all stacked and put away for next spring’s planting. My young parents are no longer standing in the garden waiting for me to begin. Rather, my writing coupled with their patience and our joint optimism unites us in our own triad of cutting, spinning and weaving. They have taken their long awaited place in the landscape of my life. Alongside rustling leaves, sudden autumn rains, articulate rebels and my far away siblings, I take note of their distance and their presence.