When my family came back from Japan and started living just outside New York, I
was put in a new school. They listened to me talk, tried to find out what was wrong,
must have tested my hearing--"is she deaf?"--and then decided that since they couldn't
understand me, I must be mentally retarded.
What was it like to have been diagnosed as mentally retarded? It was very
quiet in that classroom (and I do like quiet). It was easy to have a nice little space to read.
On the other hand, I can feel now (not then) how much it would have affected my parents.
A reasonable degree of success and adventure runs in my mother's family. Her grandfather was superintendent of schools in our largish New Hampshire town. Of his sons, one ran away to become a chiropractor and real estate speculator in San Francisco. (He’s the little boy who appears on the front cover of the first edition of The Vanished Child.) One became a successful stockbroker; one, an academic type, got his doctorate at Heidelberg, where he distinguished himself at beating the world chess champion one game out of three before he got TB and went off to become a prospector in Alaska.
My mother’s aunt broke the world record for sprinting when she was at Mt. Holyoke. (The record would be broken, thirty years later, by Marlene Dietrich.) Aunt Helen would make her living as a teacher in New York, but her passion was climbing mountains. For twenty-five years she was the secretary of the American Alpine Club, made numerous ascents of Mont Blanc, and made what is even today the only successful ascent by a woman of the north face of Mt. Sir Alexander. (One of her companions was killed on the way down.) She didn't give up the idea that she would conquer Everest until she was 65.
None of them had children. The stockbroker and his wife had one baby boy, who died
of meningitis. The chiropractor, who according to the San Francisco census married
a fake psychic, doesn't have any recorded children. Aunt Helen had her mountains;
Uncle Arthur had TB.
My grandfather was the one who stayed home. He took care of his father's real estate investments. He was a gentle man, and his father had been anything but; for whatever reason, he avoided marriage. He married late, to a wonderful woman we'll get to later, whom his friends had been urging him to meet for years. They had one child, nine months and four days after the wedding, the only child of that generation.
My mother grew up with parents who seemed to her old enough to be her grandparents
and aunts and uncles who lived in darkened rooms. Her mother's mother lived with
them, and so did her mother's aunt. These two sisters were very close and very old-
fashioned; though they died in the 1930s, neither of them ever wore skirts above the
ankle, or cut her hair.
They were weird.
My mother didn't want to be weird. She wanted to be modern. She married a man from
Nebraska when all her relatives had come from New England. She had gone to Japan,
and to Wellesley.
And her daughter was mentally retarded.