The summer of 1970—I traveled with my mother visiting the homes of assorted relatives—spending a little time here and a little time there. Some people do this while on holiday, for pleasure or perhaps adventure, but we had little choice. In some ways we were homeless—like two tramps making their way around the country carrying with us what little we had.
In the summer of 1970—I was a toddler—and my mother was 21-years-old.
My father—he was serving a Tour of Duty in Vietnam.
Three summers earlier, my father and his friends decided to take a car for a “joy ride”. A joy ride is a nice way of saying that he committed Grand Theft Auto. When he appeared before the judge he was given a choice—either go to jail or join the military.
The following summer, my parents, newly married and living on an Air Force Base decided to have a baby. After all, my father would be deployed overseas and his future was uncertain—not to mention that it only cost $20.00 to have a baby at the military hospital. We were a family, that first summer of my life, but soon after he was gone to fight in a war that he didn’t believe in, and my mother and I were alone.
I remember that summer not from my own recollection, but from the memories of photographs and stories that have been told to me through the last nearly four decades. I imagine what that summer must have been like for my mother and me—the tumultuous era, the devastating uncertainty, and the comfort and support of the family who loved us.
My mother’s warm and loving smile; her blond hair, not exactly the platinum bouffanty-bob that it was in photos where her belly was big with me and not exactly the long stringy hippy-hair she sported when I was a bit older. She, like so many people, was changing and becoming someone other than she used to be in a world that no longer resembled what she once knew—not exactly a metamorphosis but something pushed into change and rebellion by forces that no one could see.
We visited my maternal grandparents in Chicago. My grandfather, a large and boisterous man who chain smoked Winston’s would do what he could to make his only grandchild laugh; instead he would scare the hell out of me with his attempts. My Nana’s yellow-owl cookie jar was filled with what my grandparents called “treatie-boos”—and when we left their air-conditioned Illinois apartment, I imagine my mother’s relief that she was no longer forced to live with her father’s alcoholism.
My paternal grandparents lived in Pittsburgh. My grandfather, a short bald Italian man with a huge nose, would lovingly care for me—his smile would light up his face and he smelled of the auto shop where he worked mixed with the scent of pipe tobacco. After raising three sons—I was a sweet reward for him, and every day he would make my breakfast, come home to see me at lunch, and feed me dinner at the bright orange linoleum and silver kitchen table promptly at five o’clock.
My Aunt Kathi crocheted a pink bunting two months before I was born. She was so certain that I was a little girl; she ignored warnings that her efforts may be in vain. Her husband, my Uncle Joe would steal me from my crib while I napped and hold me instead.
In Washington D.C. my radical feminist Aunt Carol and my Long-Haired Hippy Uncle Tom took my mother and me to march in an anti-war protest on the capitol. My uncle missed the draft by two numbers and hated the fact that my father was forced to be where he was. Evenings were filled with Bob Dylan’s voice and the scent of marijuana in the air. When I became ill with a high fever, my uncle calmly drove us to a nearby hospital in rush hour traffic. He never let his worry and panic show through his stoic hippie self.
The Summer of 1970—the strength of my mother’s love surrounding and protecting me from the pain that possibly lurked in the future. She wondered and waited for bad news while cherishing and sharing me with others who loved me just as much. Everywhere we went I was reminded who I was and it was a basis that carried me through to adulthood.
That summer, more than any other summer of my life—I learned about being loved.