As you might imagine, I did not intend to write a post called 46 to 60. It was supposed to be 50 to 60. But the days fly by.
And it occurs to me, as I pause to consider this approaching birthday by writing something about it, that in singling out these 60 days prior to turning 60 as a time to reflect, to appreciate all that has come before, I’ve created a microcosm of my life–each day potentially standing in for a year. I could have taken each day and looked back on a year.
But here we are already, 14 days in. And yes, I started my year of posts not on the first but on the 13th. So that sounds about right…
In my day-to-day living, despite being a writer, I so rarely pause to consider my life. After all, these days I’m trying to be present; I’m trying to live this life. During my year of posts, however, I did consider. And now I’m going to again. I’m going to look back for a moment before I begin to look forward.
my first 14 years
On the first of April in 1957, during a blizzard, I’m born in Rapid City, South Dakota. My father is in the Air Force. Three weeks later, my first trip–cross-country in a car to Atlanta, where we will live. In the car are Mom, Dad, Lilli, and Lance. I get a large red wagon for Christmas. Each of my parents is an only child so I have all four grandparents to myself.
1958: By my first birthday, I’m walking—in a very short, petticoated, polka dot dress with smocking on the front and a bow in the back. I reach out to touch the flame on my birthday candle and wipe away a tear, my faith in the world taking a hit. Later in the year, I wear a pair of red Keds. And I climb out of my baby bed in the dark, dropping to the floor. I wear my father’s dungarees and love our dog Lance. My sister is born in December.
1959: I receive lots of things for Christmas but what I do first is sit down at my new table to read a book. For my second birthday, I wear a blue dress with a petticoat and black Mary Janes instead of white lace-ups. I have a party with friends who are equally dressed up. I love blowing out my candles and my mother lights them again. The second time is even more fun, and I clap for myself. I lean across the table, comfortably, as my friends have a turn blowing out the candles. At Christmas, it’s a tricycle that captures my attention.
1960:A new decade for the world and another new sister for me. In the photos I seem to do what people tell me to, but there’s a series this year where it looks as if I refuse to smile. My first memory comes somewhere around here–grown-ups drinking green drinks and the brick ledge around the fireplace. As if I own the world, I hook my arm around the back of a chair at my sister’s second birthday party.
1961: Long legs and short shorts, I turn 4 this year, amazed by my newly discovered older second cousins. I stand up on my seat in the back row of the Fox Theater to watch my father walk across the stage to receive his PhD from Georgia Tech.
1962: We move to the house where I will grow up. I start kindergarten and hear French for the first time when Henry Gambrell’s mother performs a French puppet show for the class. I am mesmerized. I walk into my mother’s darkened bedroom and stand by her bed. She tells me to turn around and look at the TV.You’ll want to remember this, she says.John Glenn is about to orbit the earth.
1963: My 6th birthday is my first one at school, and no one believes me. But I want the birthday carton of milk. I’m worried I wasn’t going to get it. I answer the phone on November 22, 1963, and listen to my great-aunt say that the president has been shot. I look down the hall for a grown-up but see no one.
1964: I play with dolls even though I have no recollection of this. What I remember is playing school with animals around a table, dancing to Jesse James at my grandparents’ house, playing ship on the gray steps out our kitchen door, playing something (explorer?) for hours in the small bushes that surround our back yard. Another sister is born.
1965: My grandfather dies. I go to the funeral, and right before my grandmother gets in the car, I say, “Pop never got to meet Beth (my new sister), did he?” My mother shushes me. I learn there are certain things you don’t say. I turn 8. My mother takes us out of school for the six weeks before Christmas, which we spend in Florida. My next oldest sister and I are allowed to walk downtown by ourselves to eat lunch at the drugstore. It rains. I call my mother to come get us, and she says, “It’s Florida. Wait five minutes and it will be over.” I feel stupid for not knowing this already.
1966: My father drives us to see the hippies on Tenth Street. There are protests against the war, and Walter Cronkite every night with footage of Vietnam. Hanoi, Cambodia, Laos, Ho Chi Minh are household words. I wear sleeveless shells, skirts, and loafers. I like to perform for the camera—dances and cartwheels. I am still smiling. I sit with my housekeeper in the kitchen waiting for news from the hospital–it has happened. I have a brother.
1967: Everything happens the year I’m 10. I read Gone With the Wind and take friends to the Fox Theater to see the movie on my birthday. (I LOVE to read.) My grandmother takes me to Europe–10 countries in 14 days. My grandfather takes me to my first concert–the Monkees. I write my first novel with my best friend Dee.
1968: In the spring is the My Lai Massacre. The total of American combat deaths reaches 22,951. Then, a few days after my I turn eleven, Martin Luther King is shot. I’m watching TV in the basement, and I take off up the steps to tell everyone. Marty Jr is in my grade at Spring Street. Two months later, I wake up to my father sitting on my bed to tell me Robert Kennedy has died. Nixon is elected.
1969: I listen to the Age of Aquarius… This is the year of Woodstock and Joni Mitchell. There’s busing and integration. We wear POW and MIA bracelets. I’m 12, tall and thin on my last day at my public grammar school, but during the summer, I stay at my grandparents’ house in Mobile and do nothing but eat and watch TV. I have no sense of my body and gain 25 pounds without noticing. My grandfather boards up windows in preparation for Hurricane Camille. Before we go to sleep on cots in the den, my grandmother opens the back door. The wind howls in the darkness. Back inside, it’s hot and stuffy without power. I start 7th grade at a private school.
1970: Another new decade. I turn 13. Four dead in Ohio… At my new school we have spend-the-night parties. I invite my best friend Ellen to go with me to Mobile for spring break. From the bed in the blue bedroom we make crank calls. One evening—my grandfather has just walked in the door—he answers the phone. Oh no, he says, over and over. A boy we just met at a church supper the night before is dead. A lumber truck misjudged a turn and dumped its load on top of him in his new car. That summer, for the first time, I head to New England–to a French camp in Vermont for 7 weeks. No one meets me in New York to help me change planes, and I do it by myself. In Vermont, the air feels right in a way I won’t understand until much later. I listen to James Taylor and Carol King. Camp is as magical as those first French words I heard at the age of 5.
1971: When the new year begins, I’m in 8th grade, which is when I get caught sneaking out a window to meet a boy–at a Latin convention. I learn I don’t like how it feels to be in trouble, to be forced to say, “I’m sorry.” For too many years, not-getting-in-trouble will be the way I make decisions. In April, I turn 14 and the Apollo 13 astronauts arrive home safely, which I don’t remember. During the summer I spend another 7 weeks in Vermont. I am less angry than I was at 13.