Finally after much procrastination and fiddling around, I present the latest installment of Reading For My Life. It is a memoir about me, my life and books. To read the earlier chapters, just click on the Reading For My Life label at the end of this post. (You might want to get some coffee or whatever beverage gets you through long stints of reading from a computer screen. There are 11 previous chapters.) I value any and all comments, such as: Wow that was great! or Huh? I didn't get it. Also, corrections of typos, historical or technical inaccuracies, etc.
Fear and Loathing in Pittsburgh
1950 is the year I ceased to be an only child and became a big sister. Politically the world was in a mess. The USSR and Communist China signed a 30 year pact and Europe was half controlled by communism. The first war of my lifetime, the Korean War, began a decades long effort by the United States to keep communism at bay. (It is not even funny that England and France had thought Hitler would get rid of communism as they dithered with him before World War II finally started.) Congress passed the McCarran Act, hoping it would keep communists out of America, while the Atomic Energy Commission worked on the hydrogen bomb. My take on all this is that the ennui of middle class America was one big state of denial about the extreme dangers bubbling just below the surface. About all that science brought us in 1950 was Miltown for anxiety and antihistamines for colds and allergies.
About half of the books I read from 1950 were historical novels and the other half concerned contemporary times. Only one, The Wall, by John Hersey, was about WWII. The Grass is Singing, by Doris Lessing took place in Africa (riots against apartheid in Johannesburg were in the news that year.) Bright Green, Dark Red, by Gore Vidal was about revolution in Central America. There were best sellers about the Catholic Church; a writer who was a fictional version of F Scott Fitzgerald at work in Hollywood; social upheaval in Boston and another female writer who became a bestselling author and lived an immoral life. There were three science fiction books on my list, all predicting political and social breakdown on Earth. World Enough and Time, by Robert Penn Warren, though it was historical, probed questions about truth and justice that are relevant today.
In film, "All The King's Men" took Best Picture and Best Actor (Broderick Crawford), though I do not think it captured the book well at all. "A Letter to Three Wives" won Best Director (Joseph L Mankiewicz) and was the story of three wives worrying about whether or not their husbands were faithful. Best Actress went to Olivia de Havilland in "The Heiress", a film based on Henry James' novel, Washington Square, which is set in New York society in the 1840s.
Of the songs that were popular in 1950, the only ones I recognize were "If I Knew You Were Coming I'd've Baked a Cake" (first song title with a double contraction?) and "Good Night Irene."
Way back then, so near to the beginning of my life, what was going on? As the year opened, I was almost two and a half years old. It was winter with snow on the boughs of the fir trees surrounding the house. Before spring was more than a suggestion, on March 15, my sister Linda was born. The Ides of March and what used to be Income Tax Day, brought this intruder into my family. Here was another person with whom to share my parents' attention. My first response, when they brought her home from the hospital, was to unwrap her from all her blankets and look her over. What do you know? She was NOT perfect! The second and third toes on each of her feet were stuck together. Well, I had been instructed that I would have to be Mommy's helper with the new baby, so off I ran in search of the screwdriver. I figured I could separate those toes with the tool my father had taught me how to use. Right away, I was in trouble. Laughter and then disapproval greeted my efforts to be the big sister.
And so it went. This baby had colic, she cried for hours, had to be held and carried. She spit up her formula and smelled bad to me. Secretly I thought maybe she could be sent back, but after the screwdriver incident, I kept this idea to myself. I was saved by the regular visits of my grandmother, who seemed to understand my position without having to be told. I had my own little table in the dining room and there she would sit with me, teaching me how to cut with scissors, how to color inside the lines, how to put clothes on paper dolls. With Grandma, I felt smart and special and interesting.
This year also brought new terrors. I seemed to be afraid of everything. I still had nightmares, but there were dangers in the daytime as well. Though I had happily gone to the basement at my grandmother's house, I was in an agony of fear every moment I spent in the basement of our new house. First of all, there were no backs to the stairs. You could see through to the floor far below. It took me forever to get down those steps as I fantasized that my feet would get stuck in the spaces. It was a big basement and had dark corners and spiders and webs, but if I wanted to stay close to my mother (and I followed her everywhere), I had to go down there when she did the laundry.
Outside were further challenges. Behind the house was a narrow strip of flat ground and then began a slope down to the creek. Once I was down there, I loved to watch the flow of the water, the frogs and the minnows. But I needed someone to hold my hand because I was convinced that if I fell, I would roll down the hill and drown in the creek. Where do these terrors of childhood come from? Do we hear the adults worrying over us to each other? Are we told too often to be careful? Do we feel that their dismay over our falls and minor injuries hurt them too? All I know is that a black, shaggy dog as big as I was would visit our yard and jump up on me and I would become hysterical if I was anywhere near that slope to the creek.
But Daddy was good. He would take me outside and patiently show me how to walk down a hill, how to keep my arms at my side when the dog came around and how to say, "Go home!" We would walk around and examine the wonders of the natural world together. My dad knew birds by their songs and he would have me listen and look for the birds. As the good weather came, I had a favorite spot on the top step of the stoop outside our kitchen door. It faced the road in front of the house, so I would watch the cars and trucks go past, look at the shapes in the clouds, sing songs and make up stories in my head.
I turned three years old in August. I knew songs and nursery rhymes by heart because my mother took time to read to me and sing with me. I loved books and the piano and crayons and colored paper. I loved jumping in the piles of leaves my dad would rake up and when winter came again, I loved my snowsuit and my boots and walking in the snow. Linda could sit up now and crawl and she had a great laugh. She survived the bottle and could eat real food. We could play and have our baths together. Perhaps it would turn out all right.