I was lying back in a dentist’s chair the other day getting my biannual scrape & polish when the hygienist withdrew her arms from my gaping maw and asked if my mother took a particular antibiotic when she was pregnant with me. A bit taken aback I answered:
“I honestly can not recall, you see I was very young at the time.”
I’ve been pondering that moment now for several days and have been probing my personal databank for early memories. Lots of thoughts about being a little kid and what I can recall. Memories of being very young are limited to images and feelings really. I can recall sleeping in a crib, and jamming myself up against the bars, all wrapped… “tangled up” even, in a blanket, and wanting to have the shiny blanket edge up against my cheek. I have a vague memory of a wheeled toy, probably a wooden-block train that was held together by magnets or hooks and eyes. These memories are from when I was between one and two years old. I know this because they take place in the house my parents lived in when I was born. They moved into a new house in the autumn of 1966 when I turned from two to three years old.
My earliest memory that is complete and coherent, that is where I can recall the exact time, place, event, and even my concurrent thoughts happened in 1966, about this time of year. It was a blustery Spring day and my parents tossed me and my sister into the car one evening and went to see our new home, which was under construction. Of course my earliest cogent recollection would take place in a car. To me the car was far more important than the house, as it was tangible, while the house was at that moment, only a frame.
At this point I should probably readjust my readers to the realities of American life in the mid-1960s, because many of the circumstances of this memory would come as a shock to anyone born after, say … 1975. This was the America of the Space Race, and The Cocktail Party. This was that odd suburban apogee between Eisenhower’s Fifties, and the Bizarro World late-Sixties/early-Seventies, which began a march to pave the agricultural areas around every American city with grade schools, grocery stores, and thousands of cookie-cutter homes, which continues to this day. Back then it was new, and clean, and covered in aluminum siding, whereas now it is just tired, artificial, and covered in Trex decking. I was born in Northbrook, Illinois. My wife, having visited there once as we drove across the USA on our return from the UK a decade ago called Northbrook “Beavercleaverville”. In a lot of ways it is a spot-on description, as it is a quintessential American suburb. Lying at the extreme north end of Cook County, halfway between downtown Chicago and the Wisconsin border, in the early 1960s it was the edge of civilization. To the south were suburbs and city, to the north were fields of corn. At that leading edge of suburbia were tract homes and my parents bought one in 1966.
What was a cornfield a few months before was now subdivided into 100 or so homes. Given the absurd name of “St. Stephen’s Green”, as if it invoking Faiche Stiabhna could somehow bless this newly-created collection of brick facia and pastel-colored houses with some measure old world charm. (What is it about American real estate developers that makes them want to butcher the language so? Applying meaningless, vaguely Celtic or Anglo-Saxon names to meaningless bits of land; Pine Lake Glen, Lindenwood Estates, Wyndham Place… as if the application of a name can rise the mundane into meaningful. The practice went out of control in later decades but in the 1960s it seemed to be almost quaint and restrained, perhaps a measure of optimism rather than crassness.) Thanks to Google we can look down upon this scene now 43 years later:
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What is different now from those mid-60s memories are the trees. The stately Maples and Oaks that dominate today’s view simply did not exist in 1966. The land was flat and empty as a corn field, which indeed it had been the previous season. Construction debris was littered everywhere, no grass and no trees. The elementary school and its playground, across the street was shiny and new having been built in 1965. New houses, all looking vaguely similar with only color variations to the themes to distinguish them from one another were being built all around. From a vantage point anywhere in the subdivision you could see the layout of the streets and all the houses, as there was no deciduous foliage to obstruct the view.
My perspective that day was the back seat of my dad’s blue 1965 Mustang. Like a million other Americans my father was enchanted by Frey & Iaccoca’s pony car and bought one in late 1964, trading in their “Think Small” VW Beetle for the deep-blue Ford. Technically I was not in the back seat on this particular day, I was in my favorite toddler riding position. Today’s toddlers are bucketed and belted into child seats, complete with head restraints, a fully padded and personal Zone of Safety which is then secured to the vehicle by straps of nylon webbing rated to a tensile strength in excess 2000 lbs. On that Spring day of 1966 I was standing on the transmission/driveline tunnel of the Mustang in my teddy-bear print footy PJs, holding onto either front seat with my up stretched arms. Safety? That was left entirely to my father’s competence at the wheel. This was the 1960s, when men were men, and America had not yet fallen into the fearful clutches of Ralph Nader and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Speaking of which, I would not be surprised if my parents each had a cocktail in small plastic cups that day as they drove, my father a G&T, my mom a vodka similarly prepared; on that specific detail, my memory is lacking. No worries about child safety, or safety of any sort really… just a family drive out to see the new home. We rolled to a stop at the corner, and my father pointed off to the right, calling the attention of my sister Cathy and me to “Our new house!” Still under construction and merely a bare skeleton of two-by-fours, with the framers still swinging hammers and putting together the second floor, I stared in awe. At that point my parents pointed out to me where my bedroom would be, which was in the upper right corner. I can recall my exact thought at that moment, which was:
“Without walls it will get awful cold out there in the wind.”
I don’t know why that memory remains lodged so well in the crevices of my grey matter, but it is all there. The smell of the nearly bullet-proof thick vinyl seats. The pebbly texture of the material covering the transmission/driveline tunnel that made such great friction with the soles of my footy pajamas. How the front seats came up to shoulder-blade height on my parent’s backs. My mom’s red hair and floral-print clothes. My dad’s slick jet-black hair and white short-sleeved shirt. The center console of the Mustang laid out before me, shifter waiting to impale me like a speared fish should we collide with something. I can still see the details of that car’s interior; the chromed horn “bar”, really a three-pointed star, with concentric arrayed holes, overlaid on the blue plastic steering wheel. The raised center of the wheel with its running pony under “glass”, with the raised handle-like protrusions around the edge that just begged to be grabbed and turned. The oblong curved rectangular shapes of the dashboard that hung over the same rectilinear yet rounded shapes of the glovebox and instrument cluster, the latter with that uniquely Detroit speedometer with the numbers arrayed fan-like left-to-right, orange indicator swinging. Circular dials anchoring either end of the speedometer. Groovy climate-control levers that looked like the throttles of a Boeing 707.
The perspective from that perch, from the height of a two-year-old, meant that my parents were giants. Towering above my full height, even while sitting. Looking UP to see their faces. Faces in the full bloom of youth, my father was thirty-one, my mother twenty-eight years old. Both younger than I am today, by a fair margin. In a lot of ways that is how I still see my parents in my mind’s eye. I can only hope my kids have a similar mental frame grab of me from the early 90s. Today my parents are in their seventies and if I haven’t seen them in a while it is always a short, sharp shock to my vision to see them as they are today. No longer young, and certainly NOT giants. For me however it is always that view from the back of the Mustang that is “mom & dad” to my brain.
Imprinted like a baby bird, it is forever how I see them.
I need to find a photo of a dark blue ’65 Mustang to illustrate this story. I also need to come up with a new category as I’d like to take some time and space here on my website to start interviewing people (my readers, and others) about their early car- and perhaps parent-related memories. Stay tuned for more on that.
Beyond my brief inquisition in the dental chair earlier this week there is a reason why I’m exploring this theme. The wife of a “car friend” passed away recently, leaving my friend widower, and more importantly her young children without a mother. I’m going to the memorial service tomorrow and wanted to conjure up in my mind something relevant to say should I be given the chance to speak. I’ll need to frame this in context suitable for the occasion, but it is the idea of that imprint that is important. Thoughts?