When I was in elementary school, sometime early on I noticed my parents celebrating their anniversary. By then I was able to add two and two, so I did a little subtraction and found the evidence supported the notion that I was conceived three or four months out of wedlock. (That makes me just a bit of a bastard.)
When I was born, my mother was twenty and my father was nineteen. Trying to imagine the situation, looking at the timing -- I don't know, and I probably will not ask, but I would be willing to place a five-dollar bet that my mother figured out what was going on and then clamped down and held onto the secret for at least a couple of months, maybe more. And during that time, she kept on doing her thing, which was smoking and drinking.
I mentioned that my mother's mother, my Grandma Jean, was a very proper woman. My mother? From an entirely different planet. Virtually no basis for mutual understanding.
In her early years, my mother was raised by an amma in the Philippines, and she spoke Tagalog before she spoke English. When I first saw Lynda Barry's drawings of her Philippine grandmother, she squatted and smoked exactly the way my mother squatted and smoked. Exactly.
(This introduces the question of what my Grandma Jean did to occupy her time in the post-war Philippines. Given the shadiness of the whole situation, I find myself curious.)
My mother began smoking and drinking heavily in her early teens and continued until the end of her life in her early sixties. When I was a child, she loved to tell me how she started drinking early by convincing her mother that ale was a non-alcoholic beverage, so she was allowed to brew for herself and her friends.
Mom was the center of her social group. That was her natural role -- wherever she was, her people would gather. And if she picked up and moved to a new place? She'd quickly gather a new group of friends. In her presence, lively, funny, intelligent conversation sprang up naturally. You read about pub culture from time to time? Mom was pub culture.
She was also tiny -- never topped a hundred pounds unless she was pregnant. Nervous as a terrier. Vomited more than anyone I've ever known -- you actually had to watch your speech around her if you didn't want to cause an incident. A compulsive reader, her particular vice being mysteries, the endless round of Agatha Christie and Rex Stout. She was also wanted to be a writer and was a very promising artist who was badly hampered by self-doubt.
You know the Elwood Dowd character from Harvey? "I used to be very, very clever, but now I'm very, very nice?" If Dorothy Parker went through a similar transmutation you might have something like my mom. Everybody loved her. She was smart, and she was funny, and she was nice, and she was drunk.
She was terrified of her mother. The Grandma Jean that had always been so good to me was the same woman who more or less drove my mother to drink by the time she was thirteen. Grandma Jean had a cold side that I could only detect by its effect on others, and whatever was wrong between them in the first place could not have been helped by the fact that my mother was a rabid party animal with four-wheel drive.
What was my mother doing at that point in her life? She was out of high school, and I don't think she tried college until some time later. I wonder if she was just living at home.
So I imagine my mother getting pregnant, and holding onto the secret, staying there in a state of indecision, still relishing the fact that she's the only one who knows, one eye on the clock, the other on the calender, smoke in one hand and beer in the other...
From what I can piece together, my father came into Mom's social scene from the outside, after everyone else knew each other for years, just sort of swooped in and there they were.
Dad's a big, good-looking guy. Handsome enough to irritate at times -- we've been mistaken for brothers more than once. He's a writer and political animal, and helped found the National Association of Letter Carriers. I'd like to note that he's a different man now than he was then. Quit drinking and smoking, generally put himself together. We're very close these days and spend time together regularly.
But back then he was a scared kid working on his own drinking problem. His mother had remarried, and he didn't get along with his stepfather.
So one fine night, my parents -- and I may well ask Dad about this -- sat down to discuss their situation, and make some concrete plans for the future.
And then they fled the state, telling no-one where or why. Hit the ground running. For a while they traveled with a con-man, a story I regularly pressure the old man to write.
While working on this, I had a flash of inspiration and looked to see if there were any recorded effects on a fetus if the mother experiences stress or anxiety during pregnancy.
It turns out that there are particular stages of development when a mother's stress can cause very specific types of impairment. And that mother's moods have been documented as expressing themselves in their unborn children. And that cortisol, a stress hormone that's particularly significant in the development of PTSD, travels through the placenta.
When I was a kid, Mom stated to me repeatedly and directly that she never smoked or drank while pregnant. I never asked, but she told me. Spontaneous denial is pretty much the effective equivalent of confession, and that is how this one payed out.
When I recently spoke to psychiatrists, Dad manned up and suggested that I get checked for fetal alcohol syndrome. The diagnosis was positive.
(This, incidentally, explained one of the great race identity mixups of my life. See, black people -- not African Americans, I'm including folks from Africa and the Caribbean -- tend to assume I'm Asian when we meet. It is not like a subtle thing and it's happened since childhood. Over and over again.
"Excuse me, I don't mean to be personal, but are you part Japanese?" was the most graceful phrasing. "Hey, rice boy! Hey, rice boy! Hey, rice boy, I'm talking to you! Oh, I'm sorry, white boy. I thought you was a rice boy," the most abject. Got a gray fucking beard and she called me boy.
And my brother and sister would speculate on my paternity with seeming seriousness -- there were candidates. Now, the resemblance to my father is unmistakable.)
You don't give someone fetal alcohol syndrome by having a stray beer here and a glass of fucking wine there. Mom got hammered, and I got hammered right along with her. And I'll bet anything the wee fishy proto-oaf found it a fucking relief.
Let me be straight here. I am not blaming Mom. If I was a pregnant teenage alcoholic sitting in my room and then fleeing my family across the country? I would not do that shit sober. It just wouldn't be sensible.
Anyway, Mom and Dad went from Richmond, California, to Ceder Rapids, Iowa, to have me. Didn't let anyone in the family know until the day I was born.
When I was a kid, Mom would tell me that they were so poor that for the week before I was born, all she could eat was ice chips. This is plausible. But I also recently read that a small mother having a large baby would sometimes be starved before delivery in order to reduce the birth weight of the child.
And so we have a picture of the nature of my gestation. I will set aside my sympathies for the other parties involved, as this is my story. I began life whiplashed between anxiety and drunkenness, and at the end of my term was starved into diminution. I entered the world already loaded with both genetic and developmental baggage, and the world I entered into was an Iowa February.
When I was hanging out with Mom in my late teens and we were both drunk, my will snapped and I opened my big fat mouth. "Mom, why on Earth didn't you have me aborted? I mean, what were you thinking?"
She looked at me with that monkey smile of hers, eyes gentle and sad, rocked on her heels and blew smoke from her nostrils. "Seany, I needed someone to talk to."