Sep 23, 2019


I love this picture of my mom and me. She was twenty-five when I was born and couldn’t have looked more glamorous, in my humble opinion. She’d married my dad the year before, after meeting him at a hospital in California where she was stationed as a WAC (Women’s Army Corp). She was so attractive she had a host of admirers—her “smooth half dozen,” as a friend called them. My dad approached her, asking if she could introduce him to the brainiest WACS she knew. At one point in their conversation, when he attributed to the wrong author the quote “Malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man,” she corrected him, telling him it was A. E. Housman. That was the moment he decided she was smart enough. Though they only dated briefly before he was sent back to the hospital where he headed up a pathology lab, he was quick to propose to her, worried that some other guy would beat him to it if he didn’t move fast.

What I didn’t know until years later was that my mom had been engaged to a man called Jimmy, and that the wedding invitations had already been sent out when a girl from his hometown showed up pregnant with a child she claimed was his. She—my mom—had married my dad on the rebound, she confessed to me; humiliated by Jimmy, who went home and married the other girl, she was trying to save face. As for my parents’ nuptials, all I know is this: They were married by a female justice of the peace, Mom wore a suit instead of a wedding dress, they honeymooned in southern California, and on the way to Minnesota, the train caught fire and Mom’s trousseau went up in smoke.

I’ve already written about the Quonset hut we lived in while my parents continued their college educations at the University of Minnesota on the G.I. Bill. It was only a few years ago that I asked Mom what memories she had of me as a baby. “You drooled a lot,” was her first recollection. “Do you remember my first word?” I asked. “You pointed at the fixture on the ceiling,” she told me, “and said ‘light.’” (I love that!)

Later she recounted how, as soon as she’d started having contractions the morning of my birth, a friend had driven her and my dad to the hospital since they didn’t own a car. I made my debut before my father had even finished filling out the necessary paperwork.

It was the happiest day of her life, my mother reminisced. Unlike when my brother was born, however, the hospital didn’t allow babies to stay with their mothers, she explained, but put them in a nursery after birth. So the only time we spent together during those first few days was when she breast-fed me. (That, I find appalling.)

Some time later she stopped nursing me because I bit her, she admitted. They didn’t have pacifiers back then, so I started sucking my thumb…with the result my baby teeth came in with a space between two of them. (Now I’m remembering that, according to one dentist, this had caused my adult teeth to come in with a space too.) Also, Mom told me, my nose was smashed to one side when I was born. (OK, my nose is still turned slightly to one side, but then, so is Harrison Ford’s.) Both my cousin Mark and I were very obviously pigeon-toed at birth, but while Nat and Ray (my aunt and uncle) had him wear baby shoes with a metal bar between them at night to help his feet and legs grow straighter, she and Dad didn’t with me, worried that I’d be too uncomfortable. (Instead I wound up wearing Stride-Rite saddle shoes throughout elementary school.)

Mom also recalled a day she came home and found I was gone, an absence that my father hadn’t noticed. They discovered me toddling around the neighborhood—on an odyssey I like to think was prompted by an adventurous spirit.

As for the day my brother was burned, I don’t have any memory of how he wound up on the floor beside his stroller, with his cheek pressed against the floor heater. As I wrote in my blog “Catastrophe,” I was told I must have left his stroller by the heater, maybe even overturned it as I pushed him around. But there was more to the story, as I’ve said:

The secret my mom would keep over the subsequent decades was that, though she heard my brother’s scream, she didn’t come right away. She’d been in the next room, writing a letter—and instead of jumping up and rushing to see what was wrong, she’d kept on writing until she finished the sentence.

I have a hunch I’m the only one she ever told this to—and she didn’t have to spell out to me that her delay might have caused my six-month-old brother’s third-degree burn, rather than a milder one.

As for my interpretation of my dream, I think it expressed a truth about me—that even if it didn’t show, I was deeply scarred by that tragedy as well.


At the center of this family photo is my grandfather Frank, his third wife Marie and daughter Margret who is my age. On the left is Nat and Mark. There’s no sign of my uncle Ray, so he must be taking the picture.