Friday, January 25, 2008

Biographical Matters

I’m finishing up with a book on tape, Ken Burns’ Mark Twain. I usually pick up these items when I have a road trip to accomplish, like helping a friend get back from Atlanta after he gets hosed by his travel agent (but I digress). I was struck by Twain’s detailed memories of his childhood home in Hannibal, Missouri, but the quantity and quality. I guess the reason they made such an impression was because I did not particularly romanticize my childhood. Quoth Yoda: “All his life has he looked away to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was, what he was doing!” It wasn’t that I had a particularly bad childhood, though as a sensitive (i.e. wimpy) child, the bad I took more personally and allowed to make a bigger impression on me. Anyhow, I'll give this walk down memory lane a shot. The rose-colored glasses are not on--what I see is what you get.

Lombard, Illinois: what can one say about it, aside from Wikipedia’s pithy blurbs? Located near the center of DuPage County, it was mostly a conservative Republican town. The street I grew up on featured a mix of Victorian, Depression-era, and 1960s homes of varying styles and levels of maintenance. On the north side of the street, marking the back border of my yard was the Chicago and Great Western Railroad, which was a single-track freight line that shut down sometime during my high school years. The track lay abandoned for years until it was torn up and turned into a paved bike path, much to my mother’s dismay. The town already had a packed-gravel “Prairie Path,” and that path had seemed to attract one of the town’s three major crimes: indecent exposure (the other two being B&E and DUI). Mom was afraid the path would attract “weirdoes.” The track was on a high berm, which had been covered by trees. It made a great adventure, exploration, and hiding area.

My family's home was one of the later models on the block, built in 1966. It was a white-sided split-level ranch with basement and two-car garage. Mom and Dad had the garage added after the house was built. The doors were on the sides of the house, with the "front" door being the one by the mail box, while the "back door"--the one we used most often--was on the side with the driveway.

The house had three bedrooms, one bath on the upper floor, with the kitchen, living room, and dining room on the ground floor. For most of my early childhood, the downstairs and hallway carpets were a rather rough, flat green pile. When my parents divorced in 1976, Dad had a choice between the TV and the stereo. He took the TV, so my sister and I grew up on a POS TV.

Dad was a sales manager for Eastern Airlines. He came from a loud, raucous, hard-drinking Irish family from the West Side of Chicago. He was the third of four boys, and his very strong Irish-German mother's favorite. Mom worked at the rate desk of the Eastern reservations office. She grew up in Lombard, the third of four girls, the daughter of a very strong German mother and somewhat passive postal worker. The Leahy brothers and Goodney sisters, plus their various children, led to rather large family gatherings, which were some of my happiest moments from early childhood.

My parents met, as I understand it, when EAL was based at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. Before they got married, they headed for the suburbs. I was born in August 1969. After suffering through a Midwestern summer pregnant, Mom insisted on getting central air conditioning when she became pregnant with my sister.

I was a tiny and frail baby. I didn't grow much in my first 11 months of life, nor do the usual things babies do: roll over, crawl, sit up, or walk on my own. At month 11, Mom became overwhelmed by her concerns about my health, and brought me into the doctor for some tests. When her GP couldn't find anything obviously wrong, she referred me to Loyola University Hospital. After a month of testing, the doctors discovered that I had hypothyroidism, a glandular condition that was easily fixed through daily maintenance medication. I started growing normally at that point, but would end up in physical therapy (and curiously, the learning disabilities program) until I was 10. There was some financial impact from my condition, too, as my father returned to the Army Reserve at the time to pay for my medical bills.

My sister was born in 1971. She was perfectly normal and healthy. Despite my mother's insistence that I'm full of shite, my first memory is of she and Dad bringing my sister home. As near as I can recall, I was happy to have her there. As we got older, she and I would come to regret some of that initial optimism.

I attended a pre-school attached to the nearby Baptist church, as well as CCD classes at the local Catholic church until my parents divorced, and then switched over to Sunday School at Mom's Lutheran church. I would say that my sister and I got plenty of church growing up, Catholic and Protestant. The rituals differed, but Jesus was front and center. Despite the "mixed marriage" (as it would have been perceived at the time), the differences between the two denominations did not make much impact upon me.

I am unable to recall much about my parents' married life, except perhaps for fleeting memories, like my sister and I bouncing around and under Dad's legs while he was trying to watch a football game, and Dad shouting, "Kathy! Could you do something with the kids?" This was the early 1970s, and the father-as-breadwinner, mother-as-child-raiser expectations were very much in force. Dad traveled a lot for Eastern, and I can Mom packing my sister and I into her VW Beetle ("Betsy") to go pick up Dad at the airport, and at least one occasion when she got angry because he didn't inform her that his flight was delayed and he was coming home late. I can recall my father and mother going out to dinner one night and my asking Dad to bring me back "a matchbox." Of course, in child-speak, that meant "a Matchbox car." Dad took me literally, and didn't understand why I was disappointed when he brought back the requested item.

There was one family vacation I can recall at Walt Disney World in 1974. I remember being in an almost unbearable level of excitement when we were on Main Street--the sort of excitement that only kids can feel in such a surreal and wonderful place. We stayed at what was once called the Dutch Inn (now the Grosvenor Resort) in Lake Buena Vista. That might have been my first experience with staying in a hotel, and it made a grand impression on me, as did the theme park. Being the easily frightened child that I was, I refused to board Pirates of the Caribbean, which Dad had held off visiting on a previous trip to enjoy with his son. Disney World was the first place I can recall being lost. I wasn't paying attention while walking down the stairwell in the Polynesian Resort; I was following a woman with a similarly colored beige trenchcoat, but when I looked up, I'd called the wrong lady "Mommy." I was quickly located and called, but I remember that moment every time I walk up those stairs.

Those were some of the happier times, but change was on the way.

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