Afflictions & Departures

By Madeline Sonik


It is a bright yellow daffodil day, and I make my entrance. There is nothing spectacular about my arrival. My mother, like ninety-six per cent of women who have babies in North America in 1960, opts for the conventional hospital birth. This includes perineal shaving, enema, and epidural anaesthesia. Dead from the waist down, she can't feel my passage or the straight incision the doctor makes in her flesh to allow the gleaming forceps to clamp down on my head. I am healthy, seven pounds four ounces, in spite of the fact my mother smoked the entire term of her pregnancy. In the year that I'm born, Congress has not yet passed the act requiring cigarette labelling, and there are no health warnings on cigarette packages. The US Surgeon General hasn't yet announced smoking as a major cause of lung cancer, and it will be twenty-four years before the rotating cautions on packaging includes, "Smoking by pregnant women may result in fetal injury."

I am whisked away, swaddled in pink flannel, and tucked into a hospital nursery crib far from my mother's ward. In future years, irreversible brain damage and mental retardation will be linked to the lead-based paints that coat baby cribs. A decade from now, ninety per cent of children under the age of six will have elevated lead levels in their blood and the government will ban the use of lead-based house paints. Studies will show that newborns who do not bond with their mothers in the sensitive period after birth risk emotional despondency and insecurity. But right now, as a nurse prepares my first bottle and my mother, still numb, prepares to light a cigarette, the daffodil sun is still shining and we are all blithely ignorant.

As a child born in this year, there will forever be things I have missed. I will never get to meet the queen of etiquette, Emily Post, nor watch an original episode of Howdy Doody. And, although I will see it in re-run over a hundred times, I will miss witnessing the first televised presidential debate, where Nixon's flop sweat reinforced his title "Tricky Dick" and loses him the election. I will not know the anxiety the world feels when Captain Gary Powers' U-2 spy plane is shot down over Russia or hear the resounding thump of Khrushchev banging his heavy shoe. I will not know what the word "integration" means, or even how to say it for two years, although in this year of my birth, two white public schools in New Orleans will integrate, and in Greensboro, North Carolina, blacks will stage an anti-discrimination sit-in at a lunch counter. Many things that have occurred and are occurring, things that will blossom and flower, go to seed, and blossom again, are both behind and ahead of me.

I will not recall the move my family makes from American Street in Detroit, Michigan, to Ravine Drive in Cleveland, Ohio. I have not yet heard the word "communism," and would have believed The Bay of Pigs was a place out of Wonderland. I am vaguely conscious of hearing my mother speak to someone about a Berlin Wall, and see it in my mind's eye as the barred panels of my crib. One day I stick my head through the crib's slats and get stuck. I scream but no one comes. As I panic, trying to pull myself free, for the first time in my life I am aware of a terror that my life may end. I am not aware that John F. Kennedy advises "prudent" families to have bomb shelters, that nuclear annihilation may be just around the corner. Some older, calmer part of me takes control, and I twist, then slide, my head back into the crib and fall asleep exhausted. If I dream, I do not recall. If I wake again, I do not remember.

In months to come, I will learn what a yo-yo is, and watch two teenaged girls who live on our block manoeuvre a hula hoop. I will know my mother's favourite soap operas, The Edge of Night, As the World Turns, and Guiding Light. I'll find comfort in the constant drone of the television. My mother will tell me one Easter that she never liked our house in Detroit because a child died there after eating toadstools. My grandmother will continue to own the house and return to it monthly to collect rent from an impoverished black family. I will not know the word "slum," but will think when I hear it that it's something good to drink. I will become addicted to the tea and sugar my mother gives me in my glass bottle and develop headaches and become cranky when I don't get it. I will acquire both a terror of darkness and a security blanket, and become an insomniac by the age of three.

Ernest Hemingway will kill himself, Marilyn Monroe will kill herself, William Faulkner will die of a coronary occlusion after years of hard drinking and domestic strife. I will be oblivious to all this. I will be oblivious to the fact that both Aldous Huxley and C. S. Lewis die the same day that Kennedy is assassinated in Texas, and that a week from this day, in England, the Beatles will release their single "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

But I will be aware of the frightening phone call my mother makes, the call in which I still remember hearing her say, "Someone has shot the president." And me, asking, afterwards, "Why? Why did they shoot it?" And my mother saying, still anxious, "Little pitchers have big ears," and my thinking of Dumbo, the flying elephant, and hoping my ears had grown large so I might fly away.

**Excerpted from AFFLICTIONS & DEPARTURES Copyright © 2011 by Madeline Sonik. Excerpted by permission of Anvil Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.