LOUDER THAN BOMBS: CHILDHOOD
When I was about four, my parents decided to make several home improvements. Back then, it seemed that every Berkeley family we knew had a deck on which the grown-ups—the mothers in their seventies wrap dresses and the dads in their weekend jeans—would sit drinking sangria and discussing Nixon, Bob Dylan, and public education while the kids mucked around in the playroom or tiny backyard in their school-made tie-dyes and Sears Toughskins. My mother had particular ideas about adding our own deck and playroom, ideas that involved French doors, window seats with giant stor- age drawers, and textured linoleum flooring. Although she was an academic—at the time, in graduate school at U.C. Berkeley, furiously at work on her dissertation—my mother nonetheless loved to work with professionals to help her make the right decisions about interior design and clothes.
My dad, for his part, had definite ideas about the second-floor room that was to be added: my room. Or, rather, he had one definite idea. My room had to have a skylight, and my bed was to be positioned directly beneath it. “Suze, as the official Little Dipper and Pleiades finder, you need the right tools,” said my dad, who had conferred on me a special status for my knack for spotting these constellations in the night sky. “Furthermore, you may find, as I do, old pal, that you do your best star contemplation alone.”
I remember two things vividly from that time. The first is that on the opening day of the renovation job, the construction guys left the French doors open while they were digging up the backyard to build the deck. I forgot that the ground outside was gone and walked right out into the pit, gashing open the bottom of my jaw on rocky debris. I had to go to the emergency room for stitches, and the remain- ing nettlefish-like scars still undergird the dimple on my chin. My mother was distraught and flailing, cracking her knuckles antsily and spraying me with Bactine. My dad, an ice climber by avocation, was a little more laid-back. He crouched down and took a look at the jagged green threads knitting my skin together. “You’re tough as nails, Suze-o,” he grinned.
The second thing I remember is lying in bed beneath the skylight. It was long and rectangular, and I would align my body with it at bedtime. My mother usually came in first, to read me poetry, often “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes. She would lean over my bed, throatily whispering, eyes wide with menace. After my mother had read this or another poem selected for stimulating a sense of cadence, Dad would come in. We would look up at the night sky and think. It occurs to me now that I never thought about what he was think- ing; I guess I was too little to think that we were separate. What I thought was: Here are the stars; they are beautiful and strange; Dad is with me.
There is also something that I do not remember, but that I remember my parents worrying about at the time: As a young child, I was a chronic sleepwalker. I would not just roam into my parents’ room or into the kitchen but actually walk out of the house and down the street to our family friends’ house, ring the doorbell until one of the groggy adults answered, toddle into their living room, curl up on a sofa, and go back to sleep. The bewildered parent would call our house, and Dad would come scoop me up and take me back home.
The conflation of these events has always struck a primal chord in my sense of my own beginnings. Everyone has his own Genesis, the creation myth that allegorizes the idiom of his early childhood. But children, like all orthodox adherents, are literal thinkers, and, like native peoples, provincial ones. The universe originated in their homes and neighborhoods, and all the figures and fixtures therein are singular, monolithic, and mystical. Proust and Piaget said as much. A magnolia tree growing in the front yard, for example, is The Magnolia Tree; its gray polished bark is crinkled in a distinctive elderly-elephant-knee pattern where the first branch forks off from the trunk. A big slide at the playground is The Big Slide, a high diving board at the local pool is The High Dive. Such structures, which seem generic to parents, are the Everests, Denalis, Ulurus, Shiprocks of their children’s aboriginal dreamtime. The children know every crack and contour of them all, have practiced strategies for mastering them, each child emerging as the mythical hero of her own folktale once that mission has been accomplished.
As a person gets older, however, these things present as personal archetypes, themes. One’s life, it seems, plays out as variations on them.
Room. Poems. Gash. Sleepwalking. Stars. Ice.
There is a giant so-called reference book called The Secret Language of Birthdays, which catalogs every day of the year and offers an astrological analysis of people born on that day. Whenever I see it at Barnes & Noble or on someone’s coffee table, I sheepishly crack it open and look up everyone I’ve met since the last time I scoured it to see how it pigeonholes them. One of the neatest, and also one of the most idiotic, things about it is that each day gets its own headline, which is supposed to capture that person’s astrological essence. Of course, they’re often wrong. Mine, for example, is “The Day of the Boss,” which is, as I am sure my younger brother would confirm, not correct. My dad’s, however, is “The Day of Laughter and Tears.” When I read that for the first time, I closed the book.
I am not someone who invests the portfolio in horoscopes, but I relish the feeling of cosmic symmetry when they seem to be on point, and if there ever was such a thing as a Gemini, that archetype could not have found a more impeccably corporeal landing than in the dual nature of Dugal Thomas. All Gemini’s twin aspects were writ large in my dad: good/evil; contemplative/foolhardy; kinetic/ paralyzed; expansive/hermetic; funny/brooding. You never knew which you were going to get. This is, as adult children later learn, one of the textbook characteristics of alcoholics. Knowing this explains a good deal, but in my experience, it doesn’t do much to help significantly on the ground. As a child, even as a comprehending adult, all you are ever certain of is that any encounter will imprint you with either fear or delight. I was one of the lucky ones—at least until I was ten, it was unequivocally of delight.
Partly, this had to do with my mom. Although she very much wanted a baby, Mom was not, I think, prepared for the reality of having one. She was extremely anxious when I was born. She is this way constitutionally (as am I), but she also had a number of other very real weights pressing down on her at that time. For one thing, my parents—both New Yorkers—had just moved to California so that my mother could attend Cal’s Ph.D. program in English Renaissance literature. For another, she had married my father only a year and a half before, after dating him for a handful of months—this directly on the heels of a disastrous nine-year marriage to her college boyfriend (note that my mom went to college—Wellesley—at sixteen), an intense and acerbic young man who had graduated at the top of his class from the Groton School, Harvard College, and Harvard Law School and who had competed with, shamed, and degraded her as much as he had idolized her. In my father she saw a charming, light-footed chap who had graduated with a straight-C average from Harvard; who was as much a painter, photographer, and naturalist as he was a patriot, a mountain climber, a guy’s guy. Who also idolized her. He loved that she was tall and leggy, and for my mother—who, to this day, is self-conscious and klutzy and combats chronic back pain because of her height—his flattery was ambrosial. He loved how brilliant she was, and for my mother—who had spent a lifetime trying to impress her exacting parents, and then her ex-husband, with academic achievement—his praise was a lullaby. He loved that she was so lost and needy; she loved that he loved it. Of course he would support her going to graduate school—piece of cake! Of course they should have a baby right away—no time like the present! My dad made everything look so exciting, fun, easy. His trademark lines were: “So, I have an idea,” and “Whatever you want—I’m easy!” Beware of peddlers with magic beans.
So there they were, three thousand miles from most of their friends and family, starting out on their exciting, fun, easy life. And you can tell from photos of that period that life was exactly like that for them then—certainly, I never witnessed them so goofy and huggy with each other. They looked relaxed and gorgeous, my mother’s black hair, high cheekbones, and model stature glamorizing my dad’s jocky, redheaded boyishness. But when I was born, in November 1968, fun and easy came to a grinding halt.
This is invariably true when a baby enters the household, even if you’re over the moon about him. As every parent knows all too well, babies’ needs are so constant and urgent that life is instantly more intense and demanding than you ever imagined it could be. It is fun for some, perhaps, but life with your first baby is not easy for anyone. Especially for my mother. First of all, she was expecting someone else—a boy, for one thing. But, while embarrassed by her first fumble on maternal instincts, she was delighted with a girl. The first thing she said post-delivery was: “Her name is Susan Gregory, and we’re going to read Milton together!” At least the first part was true. My mother’s mother is from the South, where matrilineal naming traditions are common. On my nana’s side of the family, the tradition was to name the eldest daughter of the eldest daughter “Susan Gregory” plus the last name of the infant’s father. So I was the sixth in an unbroken line of eldest daughters having girls first. But I was different.
Nana was the first to see it. “This child is a redhead,” she declared, on her first visit. “And she has blue eyes.” My mother stiffened, irritated by her mother’s hubristic prophecy. “Oh, Mother, don’t be ridiculous,” she sniffed. “She has black hair and brown eyes, like all the Susan Gregories. And look at her legs—she’ll be tall, too.” Nana shook her head. After a few weeks, when my true coloring began to emerge, it became obvious that Nana was right: I was a blue-eyed redhead. And, as it turned out, I was compact and athletic. Just like my dad.
Second, it wasn’t just that I wasn’t the baby my mother was expecting that compounded her anxiety. It’s that I was a baby. People try to tell you what it’s going to be like to have one, but there’s no way you can understand it until you yourself have your own—whether you give birth or adopt. Some people are totally gaga over babies right away and squirm gleefully at their every belch and wiggle. Some people regard the newborn period as an endurance trial and are much more relaxed and happy once the baby can sit up, at around six months old. Some people are just not into babies, period. I’m not sure into which bunker my mother thought she would be slotted, but she found out right away that she was not only a member of that last troop, but also its leader. My mother was not, is not, a baby person.
For starters, there was the whole physicality of it. For a tall, physically unfit woman, pregnancy is extra hard on the back; she had to take pain medication for it. This may be why she didn’t breast-feed, but she probably wouldn’t have considered it at any rate. It would have felt unpalatable and unseemly to her. She may have been a grad student at Berkeley in the late sixties, but make no mistake: Pixie Thomas was, is, no earth mama. While she is no society matron either, my mother likes the fancy (as do I). She is a strictly Ferragamo flats, Yves Saint Laurent knit top, and Chanel lipstick woman. My mother was just plain different. Different from me, different from the other moms.
For one thing, she not only worked, she also did not really cook or bake unless there was a grown-up dinner party. For another thing, she didn’t look anything like anyone else’s mother. Where I grew up, near the Berkeley Hills, it was not the hippie but the cute tennis-skirt-wearing woman who was the reigning benevolent despot. My mother was the anti-Californian: intense, intimidating, anxious, bookish, hyperbolic, unathletic. She was not an officer of the PTA. She did not have a straight blond bob but obstreperously corkscrewed black hair. She was nine miles high of blindingly reflective white skin in a bathing suit, which was, like the hair, black. As a child, I sensed that the other California moms regarded her with an uneasy combination of inferiority, discomfort, and mockery. I figured that’s how they must view me, too (minus the inferiority).
Although my parents did host festive dinner parties to which children came, we did not have many children over to our house outside of the close friends who lived down the street. But even so, ours was definitely not the “play” house. The walls were not decorated, like those of other Berkeley houses, with abstract artwork or Latin American wall hangings but were lined, floor to ceiling, with books—not ordinary paperbacks but, as my friend Ben said, “smart books.” And it was messy. One of my mother’s favorite, or at least one of her oft-cited, mottoes is “One can’t pay enough for good help.” This wasn’t some perverse entitlement of the upper class. It was simply the dictum of a housework hater.
Indeed, my mother came from a long line of bookish women who hated pretty much every facet of domestic life. Cooking, laundry, mopping, washing dishes, tidying, and organizing (unless it was in relation to books) were not their bailiwick. Such busywork drained the mind and the soul; plus, they just weren’t good at it. True, my nana did love needlepoint, and she always worked at embroidering lovely, functionless little pillows until in her later years her gnarled, arthritic fingers forbade it. But she was using the time spent in handiwork to think through Aeschylus, or what would have become of Christianity if the Greeks had gotten hold of it rather than the Romans. Ask my grandmother if you might have a little lunch, and what you got was a sliced apple matted with cinnamon powder, or maybe Campbell’s beef consommé in a tempered glass mug ringed with the translucent flecks of whatever viscous pabulum it had last contained. She hired a cook to serve any group of more than four people. Nana’s own mother, as well as her maiden aunts, had been the same way.
And so was my mother. She was the go-to person for a trenchant parsing of Jonson’s “Cary Morrison Ode,” but the kitchen and laundry basket rendered her powerless. She couldn’t get things organized, or even tidy. Lurching stacks of books and papers were permanent architectural features of our dining room table; we ate in their shadow, in the small enclave described by their colonnade. The chieftain of the refrigerator was the old stoneware pitcher, whose primitive maw glistened with a mucilaginous brew of tap water and frozen orange juice concentrate. The bottoms of Pyrex baking dishes were mosaics in brown. That much went unnoticed. The rest had to be taken care of, so my mother always allotted a respectable portion of the household treasury to a cleaning crew. But such was her genuine detachment from the mores of housekeeping that she never realized that the crew was phoning it in. The top layer was attended to, but the by-products of human decrement remained in perpetuum. Had the cleaning crew been headed up by a stern Russian or Caribbean woman telegraphing her disapproval, my brother and I might have gotten the idea that someone was in charge. Even if we had felt a little embarrassed, we might have felt that even if there was no order in our home, Order itself did exist in Homes. As it was, I don’t think either one of us gave it a second thought. Home was where Mom metabolized books and daytime television simultaneously.
Excerpted from In Spite of Everything by Susan Gregory Thomas. Copyright © 2011 by Susan Gregory Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.