I’m working on my own solo memoir, and I encountered a really good piece of advice. “Start with the hardest part.” OK, here’s a first draft of the beginning of my hardest part, the time between going off to college to the first move to California. Sharing it with you is a commitment: no turning back.
It was 6:30 AM, Sept. 12, 1957, and I hugged my father good-bye as he headed off for his commute to the Chicago Loop. He had to use the station wagon to get to the train station, because the Chrysler sedan was going to take me to Ann Arbor for my freshman orientation. That Chevy “Woodie” had been my ride to high school for my whole senior year, but it wasn’t going to take me to college. It was a dilapidated beast, with a leaky roof and holes in the floor, and I loved it. Brushing snow off the seat in the winter was a small price for independence. But this was my mother’s road trip, and she would drive me and my luggage on the four-hour trip in a dignified sedan.
My brother got on the school bus and then we were free to go. It was harder saying goodbye to my cats than to any of the rest of the family, because I wasn’t sure I would ever see the cats again. Nobody loved them but me. Nevertheless, it was time, and off we went.
The first hour was a route I knew by heart. Every summer we’d go to Cadillac that way, past New Buffalo and Union Pier and Bridgman to St. Joseph and Benton Harbor. But now instead of going north through Saugatuck and Holland and Grand Rapids, we headed east after St Joe to Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor. The car was crammed full of my stuff.
I remembered another time my mother and I had loaded the car to the gills. We were driving the station wagon to take my father’s newest hunting dog north to the trainer, but most of the load was supplies for the summer. We spent the morning lugging everything out and stowing it, and it was about at St. Joe that my mother suddenly shouted, “Oh my God, I forgot the dog!” I can’t remember whether we went back for the dog, but I don’t think so. I think we kept going.
And we kept going now, with only a short stop for sandwiches and a cup of coffee on the far side of Grand Rapids. It was a beautiful warm September day. The car was a Chrysler New Yorker, maybe 1954, automatic transmission and velvety fabric on the seats. It still smelled new. It was my chariot to a new life. I was launching into what I thought would be a brilliant prologue to a life as a practicing MD. Everything was on my side. I’d been the valedictorian, had won a National Merit Scholarship, and had been admitted to an elite honors program at the University of Michigan. And I would finally be on my own. Three years later, that Chrysler would be my own car at Northwestern University, and its back seat would be my chariot again, this time into a lifetime of love.
What did my mother and I talk about for four hours? I have no idea. I’m sure I babbled over and over how much I’d miss everyone, that I’d be sure to write often, and how soon Thanksgiving vacation would come: a shorter time than my span at summer camp. I wasn’t going away, I was moving ahead.
I was clueless. I didn’t understand the scope of what I was leaving behind. My cats. The woods and fields that had sustained me through all my childhood. The baby grand that had been my working-partner. Above all, the iron constraints that had groomed me to be the invincible star student who would soar effortlessly to a brilliant career. I would no longer be stranded nine miles out in the farmland, only being allowed out for dates by the end of my senior year. I wouldn’t have the dizzying stress of state piano contests. I wouldn’t have the oddly useful cocoon of being a high-school misfit with nothing to do every day but follow the assigned halls to the assigned classes and go home to practice the piano and do the homework.
And I would not spend my home-time fearing what my unpredictable mother would do next, whether it was her impish gift for my sixteenth birthday, Cold Cash—sixteen silver dollars in an ice-cube tray—or a razor-sharp assault on my core. This sounds weird to me now, but I think it’s accurate: I would miss the abuse. In my own way I took on that burden myself, and I did a slam-dunk job of it.