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Sunday, February 21, 2016

I'm Nobody: Memoirs

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us -- don't tell!
They'd banish -- you know!

How dreary to be somebody!
How public like a frog
To tell one's name the livelong day
To an admiring bog! 

Chapter One

I am born – but it’s complicated

My parents, like many, met at college. However their cases were different from most people. It was 1949, and both of them were late students. Dad had been in the Army in World War II, and had been working as a taxi driver in Kansas City before the G.I. Bill got him into college. Mom had worked as a telephone operator during the war, and had a brief and terribly unhappy marriage that ended in divorce. They were both in their late 20s.

It was a whirlwind romance. They met in September of 1949, and were married in February of 1950. They had known each other an entire six months. For the rest of her life Mom advised people to know each other a year before marrying. Once I asked her if she regretted marrying Dad on such short notice. Her reply? “Never.” Then she thought for a moment. “If I’d met his family first I might have thought twice.”

Dad came from a difficult, dysfunctional family. He was the next to last child of six, and left home at 13 to become a hobo and ride the rails during the 1930s. He lied about his age and his name, worked on the Civilian Conservation Corps for a while, and goodness knows what else until the war started. He never went to high school, and had an 8th grade education. I suspect he had to take remedial classes or get a GED before college. He had three sisters and two brothers. His sisters were thick as thieves and very bossy. They were all into music, and tried to interest him in it. He had a lovely baritone but refused to use it. I was never sure if he was really tone deaf or faking it so his sisters would leave him alone.

The sisters had picked out a very good friend of theirs for him to marry. He would have none of her. Then he married my Mom, a divorcee who couldn’t have children. I don’t think his sisters ever completely forgave him, and they never really accepted Mom.

My mother knew she couldn’t have children, because she had life-saving surgery several years before that included a hysterectomy. She and Dad discussed whether or not to adopt, decided they would, so they went to an agency and got on the list.

In early 1953, a 19-year-old girl became pregnant by 30-something unmarried man. I have no idea and never will if this was seduction or rape. I was told that she went to him for help, and he sent his lawyers to tell her that as he was a pillar of the community, she mustn’t ruin his life. She went to a sister’s in another city for the duration. In those days there was no safe abortion. Your choice was between risking your life with a back-alley abortion or going for an ‘extended visit’ somewhere where no one knew you, where you had the baby at a home for unwed mothers. You couldn’t choose to keep the baby, either. Many times the nurses wouldn’t even let the girl see the baby before whisking it away.

My birth mother cared enough to meet my parents while she was still pregnant, but didn’t care enough to give me a temporary name for the adoption papers. She couldn’t wait to put the entire thing behind her. I was born at 9:26 pm on a Saturday night. By 10 am the next morning, she was out of town. When I tracked her down in my 30s, she wanted nothing to do with me. I respected that and didn’t take it personally. I only wanted a medical history, and was able to get that – as well as the above story – from the sister she stayed with while she was pregnant. I wasn’t the kind of adoptee that wants a ‘blood connection’ with someone. I met quite a few blood relatives, and while they were nice people who rather startlingly looked like me, they were strangers. My real family is the one I grew up with. Blood may be thicker than water, but love is thicker than blood. Does that make me well-adjusted or odd? I don’t care.

I was born in one of the worst snowstorms to hit Kansas in a November. My Dad was away on business, and that Saturday night Mom got a phone call: “Mrs. Sturdy, your baby’s here. It’s a girl.” I’ve always joked that she had the easiest childbirth of anyone. Because of the snowstorm and Dad’s business trip, it was four days before they could travel the hundred miles or so to the town I was born in. I was tiny, and it was a Catholic hospital. Dad always claimed the nuns carried me out in a hanky. I was born with dark brown shoulder-length hair that never fell out, and huge blue slightly crossed eyes. Mom’s birthday is eight days after mine, and she always said I was nearly a birthday present. After probably a ton of paperwork, they took me home.

I have no memory of that home. It was in Concordia, Kansas, and we lived there only a year and a half. I can, however, share some of the stories Mom told me. She had a book that told new mothers what to expect from the child, such as when it probably would walk, start talking, and other such things. After about eight months she threw the book away. I did nothing on schedule. Not even close.
According to Mom, I never babbled. But at the age of seven months, one day as I was sitting in my high chair waiting for breakfast, I pointed to a button on my shirt and said, “That’s a button.” First thing out of my mouth. That was her first clue the baby book was going to be useless.

I had no teething pain. She told me she walked into my room one morning, and I grinned up at her, and a little black tooth had appeared. Yes, black. My baby teeth came in decayed. I started going to the dentist very early, and had fillings in nearly all my baby teeth. Evidently they were able to scrape some of the black off, as my baby teeth weren’t solid silver. Every six months I was taken in to have my teeth coated with fluoride to prevent my permanent teeth from doing the same thing. It worked, by the way, but the enamel on my permanent teeth was thin and weak. I’ve had tooth problems my entire life, and lots of fillings no matter what I did.

For the first six months, a social worker dropped in at odd moments without notice to make sure I was being treated well. Mom said she always picked the worst moments to arrive, but evidently thought things were all right because the adoption was indeed finalized. One of those worst moments: I got my diaper off, and had been finger-painting myself and a nearby wall with poop. Lovely.

I never crawled. Mom says I went right from scooting on my butt to walking. I crawled later, when I got a puppy (at age 3), to follow the puppy around.

Mom believed in doing things with a baby, in showing the child as much of the world as possible, right from the get-go. She never talked baby talk to me, which could account for the first sentence. She also read to me with the book in front of both of us, right from day one (okay, four). In spite of my bad eyesight, it evidently had an effect. I've been a bookworm my entire life.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Analysis of Go Set a Watchman

The book came out just as I was moving, and of course I forgot which box it was in. Finally I’ve read it, and then I needed to mull it over. I thought it was a good sequel – and yes, I know it was written first – to To Kill a Mockingbird, a book I have always loved even though it made me cry.

If you haven’t read it yet, read no farther, because I will mention details that will spoil the adventure for you.

I’ve heard complaints that the saintly Atticus as portrayed in the first book was ruined. I disagree. One reviewer stated that the first book was a little girl learning that her father was God, and the second a woman learning that he wasn’t. This is true, but it’s not the entire book in either case. Atticus’s character doesn’t change between the books, not a single iota. Our knowledge of him, however, deepens in the second. Yes, he attends the meeting where considerable hatred of black people is spewed, He does not, however, join in the spewing. And later he explains to Jean Louise that the person doing most of it came from elsewhere, and attends all such meetings saying the same hateful things. Atticus is quite clear he doesn’t agree, but feels he can best serve the community on the inside of this committee. He does, however, have the parochial attitude towards black people that pretty much anyone in the rural South at that time had. While he doesn’t hate them, he in no way considers them equal to white people. The book is very plain, spending pages discussing it, that Jean Louise is unusual for being ‘color-blind.’

Jean Louise is an outsider. She doesn’t quite fit in anywhere, not in Maycomb, not in New York. All of Maycomb knows this and expects odd behavior from her, explained in their minds as “She’s a Finch.” The entire Finch family is known for being eccentric. And right here is the crux of this book. In Maycomb, your entire life is determined by your Place. You might not like your Place, but you can’t get out of it, and trying to – even in a tiny, well-meant fashion, like a black man trying to be nice to a white girl he pitied, can be punishable by death. In addition, your Place is determined by the circumstances into which you were born, which Henry stated beautifully to Jean Louise, that if he ever stepped out of line, people would shake their head and say that was the Trash coming out in him.

No matter what he does, or how educated he becomes, Henry will always be Trash. No matter what she does, Jean Louise is a Finch, and will be seen as eccentric even if she isn’t. For example, the swimming with their clothes on turned into skinny-dipping in broad daylight to the people of the town, and nothing will convince them otherwise. In one way this gives her more freedom, because any odd thing she does will just be chalked up to Finch Eccentricity.

Her Place in Maycomb dove-tails with her father’s. While he can effect change in the community from the inside, she can change it from the outside. She, by her eccentric Finch ways and her New York ideas, and her color-blindness, can cause the community’s comfort zone to expand. Henry is being groomed to continue Atticus’s work after he’s gone. Even as Trash, if he’s careful, he’ll have an expanded Place, thanks to Atticus, leading the community into the future from the inside. They have both been set as watchmen.

“Love who you will, but marry your own kind,” said the aunt. This is harsh, but in its way true, although the definition of ‘your own kind’ is different in other places than it was there. To Aunt Alexandrea, it means someone of your own social status. To most of us these days, it means someone who shares your values, world view, and your passion in life.

At the end of the book, Jean Louise has shed the last bit of childhood, and can see her father as a human being, with faults and nobility mixed, like everyone. She also sees she has a Place in Maycomb, if she chooses to take it. She can, and probably will for a bit, go back to New York. Sooner or later she will return to Maycomb, and her Place in it. I don’t think she’ll ever marry. Jean Louise Finch is unique, and no one is truly her own kind.