Last night as I lay in bed wide awake with insomnia due to eating and drinking too much holiday fare too late in the day, I counted years instead of sheep. I turn 70 tomorrow, and no matter how you slice it, 70 is a biggie. The very idea of it takes my breath away. The usual remedies, like deep breathing, were not working, so I began to reflect on the 69 years I have spent on this planet. What have I done with all these years; what constitutes a lifetime? These were some of the thoughts I was having, more out of curiosity than stress.
As I began my mental journey, I kinda’ whizzed through ages 1 to 5, since I remember next to nothing about those years when we lived in a mostly all-German community in a three-story walkup in Ridgewood, Queens. My mother had four children, each a year apart, so perhaps I basically just felt like a sardine in a crowded can of other sardines. Then she had two or three more!(No, we were not Irish, or Catholic; we were Lutherans.)
Age 9 is the first really memorable year for me, when we moved to a lovely two-story colonial my father built with his own hands in Bayville, Long Island, a seashore community. The move from a treeless, urban existence to what was still a quite rural environment was culture shock. The local kids made fun of me because I didn’t know anything about playing soccer, and threw spitballs at me in fifth grade. Despite the initial torture, I loved living where I could wander for hours on the beaches becoming familiar with the tides and the creatures that washed up on the shore.
Next big stop was ages 14 to 17, junior high and high school, where I was basically an outstanding student with a very troubled boyfriend. No one could break his spell, and somehow I muddled through and survived intact. On to college, more good grades and this time, a boyfriend the complete opposite of the first. However, like the first one, I felt smothered and broke things off before graduation. In my early twenties is when things got really interesting.
I accepted a graduate fellowship to the NY State University at Buffalo where I soon realized I was in way over my head. I had no idea what I was doing there, and at the height of the Vietnam War, with the guilt of a brother slogging through the jungles of South Vietman to save us from communism, I left my cushy college life with a third boyfriend to live in California where he had a college teaching job. (Do you see a theme developing here?)
I fell in love with California but the third boyfriend didn’t work out either (though we are still very close friends to this day). He was part of an academic community and I was just basically drifting, but drifting in a very beautiful place.
After three years, I could not find steady employment and had burned out on substitute teaching, so I did what any sensible college-educated girl would do at that time. I left for Paris, where a tutoring job (suggested by a friend) awaited me.
At 25-ish I arrived in Paris in a long, red plaid skirt, lace-up boots, long hair and a backpack. I was bohemian chic before there were words to describe it. In a nutshell, it was a very challenging year. I was completely on my own, with limited resurces, no clear agenda and very loose ties to my previous life. About eight months later, just after I decided to leave Paris to return to California, I met and fell in love with a young Frenchman. I postponed my departure for several weeks, until even I realized it was an impossible relationship, and left.
OK. So now I’ve accounted for approximately the first quarter of my life. I hadn’t accomplished much, unless you consider being the first in the family to get a college degree in English and a fellowship to spend a year in grad school to be such, but for a kid who didn’t have two nickels to rub together, I had succeeded in seeing a lot of the world. I marvel even today at how that was possible. But I was now closing in on 30, and that was a scary prospect to me…being single, alone and as Bob Dylan would say:
How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone…
At this point I’m still awake, and still accounting for my years, but the next segment will have to wait until next week. I’ve run out of steam. Are you still with me?