Oct 16, 2019

When I was four, we moved to New Haven for a year so my dad could get his Ph.D. in philosophy at Yale. Doug and I went to an all-day preschool run by three black women. I loved Miss Green, while Doug’s favorite was Miss Brown.

For the first months back in Minnesota, when I was five, we were unsettled. I went to two different kindergartens before we rented an old two-story house on Dudley Street in St. Paul, and I started attending Gutterson Elementary School—“Gutterdump,” as the kids called it—a staid, old-fashioned red brick building with an asphalt playground. It was there I was sent to the principal’s office, not to be disciplined but to show her the drawing I’d done of my class having a parade. Her office was on the second floor, however, and when I reached the top of the stairs and looked around, I couldn’t tell where I was supposed to go. So I went back downstairs and only pretended to my teacher that I’d done what she asked. (I no longer know what my parade drawing looked like, because the first example of my artwork in my childhood scrapbook is a turkey, also drawn when I was five. Just for the fun of it, I’ve updated that turkey and plan to post both versions in my upcoming Thanksgiving blog.)

Another memory I have, besides being scolded once for whispering during nap time, is of asking a first grader on the playground if it was hard to learn to read—because I was already anxious about my ability to master this skill.

The Dudley house had a row of pink peonies on one side of the front lawn. (I still remember the sticky sap on the buds and how they swarmed with ants.) There was an ample backyard, where we had a swing set—and where my dad built a snow igloo that winter for Doug and me to play in. Behind the garage, a previous tenant had planted corn, melons, and asparagus that we ate—well, except for the melons, which usually were stolen before they were completely ripe. My dad got my brother a black lab we called Blackie and a black cat for me, Timmy.

On Halloween I went in costume to our next-door neighbor’s house by myself, and when Mr. Landis opened the door, I said “Trick or Treat,” as instructed. Instead of giving me a treat, however, he said, “What’s your trick?” Confused and bewildered, I turned and ran home.

For Christmas we got a tree so big that Dad had to cut off the top. One evening we went to downtown Minneapolis to see the windows of Dayton’s Department Store, where they had festive scenes like Santa’s workshop with mechanical elves.

Sometimes Dad would have to stop by his office on our way home from somewhere. We would drive through “Dinky Town,” where the college kids hung out, a name I’ve always remembered because it seemed so cute to me. Then my dad would park behind the Philosophy Dept. building and Doug and I would wait in the car for what always seemed like an eternity. My father never actually took us inside, so I have no idea what his work environs looked like.

Before Easter that year, when just my dad and I were in the car, he stopped at a store and came out with a pink box. He said he’d bought a cake and put it in the backseat. But I could have sworn I heard sounds coming from the box. It wasn’t until we got home that I discovered he’d bought me a little duckling.

He made a tiny cage for it—a foot square, out of wood and chicken wire—that we kept out by the garage. When I let my duckling out of its cage, it would chase me all around the yard, which delighted me.

But then our neighbor, Jack Landis, told my father that it was inhumane to keep a duck in such a small enclosure. My father claimed at the time that he called some expert at the Farm Campus of the university who assured him that it wasn’t inhumane. Though my father was fascinated by animals, he was convinced that they didn’t have feelings, a hard thing for me to understand since they so obviously do. In a similar way, he would renege on his promise to pay for my braces years later, claiming my dentist had assured him that having protruding teeth wouldn’t damage my self-esteem, and, even more years later, when I insisted that sexual abuse was always hurtful to children, he would claim that the “foremost expert on child development” had reassured him that it wasn’t.

I gave my duck to the Como Park Zoo to live out what I hoped was a happy life, and to this day, I’ve never eaten duck.