There is a picture of my parents with me when I’m not quite a year old. They look like the college seniors they are. Eager, young, with a freshly-scrubbed but slightly exhausted look about them. I am shouting or singing, happy not crying, and wearing a diaper.
I think back to my boyfriend in my own junior year. To our own bright naivety which ended in the rainy season of the following year. We were thinking we might get married, fantasizing names for the two children we’d have, but wisely wanting to wait until after college when we had more resources to handle kids. Thanks to birth control (and good luck), we had time for the fantasy and the relationship to end before the pregnancy came.
Looking at this picture, I see a timeline for myself that I escaped. The one where a nice guy, but one with whom a relationship wasn’t going to last, and I didn’t have a pretty excellent little kid. The one where we then have to deal with being parents when the relationship inevitably fell apart despite our efforts and hanging on longer than we would have without a kid. The one where the kid always would have the oddness of having a divorced parent who was around less and less as life went on, but who was still somehow “next of kin”. The one where my own life choices would always be informed by being a parent, and where I would both gain and lose by that fact.
Given how different my perception of what I want in life was just a few years later and how consistent many parts of that vision have remained in the decades since, it’s clear that I wasn’t ready to make a decision on parenthood until I was nearly 30. I am so grateful I had the time to come to that decision and connect with the reality that being childfree is the life I want. Thank goodness for birth control and non-pressuring family!
I flip ahead in my photos and there is nearly one year old me, playing on a blanket with my 50 year old grandmother—four years younger than I am now. I have an abstract sense that I should think “Oh, that could have been me; I could have had the specialness of that relationship!” but my actual reaction is more like having reached the safety of the sidewalk after a near miss by a turning car.
A cute, little, chubby-cheeked, laughing child with a goofy baby-tooth grin and Grandma is having so much fun with her. But I’m ever so much more comfortable imagining the child’s view than the grandparent’s.
Here we are camping (Is Grandma in curlers? Oh, the 1960s!); she was always so active. I bet she and my biological father really bonded over their love of the Sierras. Here are my cousin and I, so close in age and so different in appearance, fumbling around with the door of a tent, not really able to coordinate much yet. Sitting up mastered, but not so much the standing and walking.
A month on and I’m a year old, delighted at the sight of Grandpa. I’m inside a parked car, standing up by clinging to the windowsill, mouth and eyes wide with happiness. The window glass reflects my grandfather taking the picture of me—shine of head where the hairline is already giving up ground at age 51, hand curled gracefully out of the way of the lens. An iron bridge is reflected behind him, like a giant Erector Set creation.
We jump a couple or more months ahead in time. Notice of my 2nd immunization against polio—a spectral shadow of death in the past scatters in the light of my childhood, now distant past and the threat largely forgotten. I have learned to walk and here are photos—I stand! Leaning against a table or a box. I toddle to play with the knobs on a big old cathode ray tube television—poor toddlers today, so many fewer delightful knobs. I pick up random objects. I lurch around a living room. A relative in her teens or twenties—wearing an A-line dress, a cardigan, and a bob cut not that different from the one I recently had in the present—kneels on the floor to interact with me. It’s my grandparents’ house, the living room—less tidy than I remember it later—as we all visit, with a cardboard box full of toddler toys, a stack of magazines, a male relative lounging shoeless in white socks, horn-rim glasses, dark pants, a white short-sleeve shirt with something in the pocket that looks like a smartphone but can’t be so is probably a calculator or notepad. At the side of the picture a man’s bare legs and bottom of their shorts and the edge of what might be a woman’s skirt.
I see the clues to the time as well as knowing the family dating of this old snapshot and think back not to my earliest memories, but my historical knowledge. What was happening in the world then. What were these adults dealing with in the world around them. What headlines of racial tension, nuclear tests, the space race, gun violence, and new countries escaping colonial rule were they reading and perhaps discussing?
Time rolls on. My parents, looking a little more experienced at this parenthood thing, grinning as wiggly little me on her lap tries to reach for a stuffed animal offered by the photographer or their “assistant”. Probably not my grandparents, judging by the peasant-style shirt my father is wearing. The hair cut is still respectably short, but the widening lapels and simple X lacing up the front of the shirt betray hippy sensibilities. My mother is radiating confidence. Her hair continues to transition from an-updo-short-of-a-beehive to the natural long look I recall from childhood. She must have graduated by now and be working professionally.
And then it’s the end of that year. Early in that month I had a smallpox vaccine. Thank goodness for vaccines. Science really did help the course of my life run more smoothly and pleasantly.
That Christmas is the first where I could coherently open my own presents and I was very interested in the process, judging by the picture where I’m ignoring the photographer and tearing into the paper, while my cousin looks off at someone to figure out if she’s allowed to begin.
There was a huge family reunion when we visited the area where my grandparents and most of the rest of the family lived. We two first great-grandchildren held on laps, my great-grandparents in the center. All very respectable, but at the far edge of the picture, my hippy uncle in sheepskin jacket, long hair, and medium-long beard (Has he ever cut it since?), and my aunt with her long straight hair. Would they be welcomed to this gathering without the powerful admission ticket of the first great-grandchild, my cousin sitting on her mother’s lap? That they were was good for everyone. The connections re-knitted after a break. The generation of cousins above mine shown more possibilities in how to live their lives and express themselves. Everyone loosened up a bit over the years. And that hippy uncle of mine is now the leading genealogist to whom the family turns with history questions. 🙂