answering a critique
One of the joys and burdens being a writer are working with writing groups. Without their support, I couldn’t go on, but sometimes their questions feel like barbed arrows.
A critique I receive is, “There isn’t a sense of time and place, of era and world in your memoir. Readers want to be grounded somewhere and they need details that you, as protagonist sense and know, to do that for them.”
If I tie this aspect of reality to my memoir, it will have to be in retrospect and through research, because in some odd sense I didn’t truly live “through” those times in history.
one shattering moment
In the world, but not of the world. This is how I can best describe my life in the late 1960s and the 1970s. The instability of the times did sometimes impact me directly. Like the moment when Martin Luther King, Jr. was fatally shot through the neck on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.
I was high above the skies of Wisconsin, flying home to Chicago from a visit to my family in St. Paul, Minnesota. As I stepped off the plane at Midway Airport, I searched in vain for my twenty-seven-year-old, red-headed husband. Instead, a burly, Chicago policeman approached me, “Mrs. Ward?”
My throat constricted with fear. I didn’t yet know of the assassination but could sense deep unrest within the airport crowd. Had something terrible happened to Jay? Although his job as an Assistant State’s Attorney in the Cook Criminal Courts sometimes took him into dangerous neighborhoods, I never worried about him. I had spent hours of my life in those same neighborhoods as a caseworker for the Cook County Department of Child and Family Services. I knew safety in any urban space was a relative illusion. Yet, here was this policeman, I glanced at his badge, Officer Andrews, asking for me.
He sensed my unease. “Your husband is fine, but I’m here to see that you get home safe. He has to remain on duty tonight.”
That was really strange. Jay often worked late into the evening, but never all night. “Why, what’s happened?”
“Dr. King has been assassinated. The westside of the city is rioting — fires, shooting, and looting. It’s a real bad scene. The trains are shut down. It’s not safe for taxis to come to the airport. My partner and I are here to see you home.”
skirting the turbulence
I numbly followed him to baggage claim. Our route from Midway to my Rogers Park apartment circled the city. We rode west to the suburbs, then north, back east, and finally south into Rogers Park. Because I didn’t have a key with me, the officer had to break into my place – just one of many ironies on a night when people were killing one another in anger over the death of the disciple of non-violence.
Chicago would never be the same again. The curtain that had hidden the deep resentments of its oppressed citizens had ripped away. American culture fell apart at the seams. Traditional meanings of personhood, humanity, and civility no longer held but appeared greatly flawed. I had been a civil rights activist since I was fifteen and participated in my first sit-in. Now those dreams seemed to be going up in flames, but I couldn’t stay to fight the fire.
At that moment of my life, the intensity of a deeply personal struggle overshadowed all concerns outside our family.
Jay and I had been married for four years. I was twenty-six years old, ancient by the standards of a time whose cry was “Never trust anyone over thirty.” We had been trying to conceive a child for three years, but I remained “barren” – the word I gave myself. No medical tests gave us any answers as to why this should be true. Still, like clockwork, my detested menstrual cycle arrived every month. We decided to apply for adoption and were turned down. You’re too young, the agency worker told us, “Give it time.” Would I never be a mother?
The turmoil that arrived in the spring of 1968 made working as a social worker among the marginalized people of the city much harder than it had been. And it had never been easy. My gynecologist speculated that perhaps the stress of my job contributed to my infertility. I loved my work but my yearning to become a mother overwhelmed all my other goals. Every time I heard the lullaby, “Hush, Little Baby,” I ended up in tears. I handed in my resignation at work – and lost my best black friend, my desk mate. “I thought you were made of tougher stuff,” she said. We never spoke again.
lady in waiting
Within a month sitting at home hoping to conceive became as stressful as any job. I applied for a position as a secretary to Building Construction magazine, a job I figured wouldn’t carry the stress of casework. I got the job and soon after moved up to associate editor, work I would have killed for when I first left college. My lifelong ambition to be a journalist, however, had been swept away by the tsunami of my drive to become a mother. I treated the position as a stopgap measure, not a stepping stone.
Reading, researching and writing about the field of architecture, my workdays flowed in a calm remote from the continuing storms that tore the world as I had known it from stem to stern. Mass protests in Prague signaled the beginning of the end of Soviet control of Eastern Europe. The Tet Offensive by the North Vietnam forces made it increasingly clear that our nation was in a fight it couldn’t win. On June fifth, just when it looked like Bobby Kennedy might bring the Kennedy magic back to the White House, he was gunned down in a hotel kitchen.
riot in the park
Then in August Jay, my husband once again responded to the call of duty. This time the turmoil arose when hundreds of students and other young Americans traveled to Chicago and massed outside the Democratic Convention Headquarters. Their intention – disrupt the convention process to protest the country’s on-going involvement in the Vietnam conflict. Determined to keep law and order, the Chicago police force sent officers to disperse the protesters. Those who would refuse to go would be arrested. Jay would be there to monitor the legal process.
As I could see on my television screen, nothing that formal or settled could have happened. The students pushed back and broke away, storming the city streets. The police officers reacted by clubbing the protesters. I curled up in a tight ball and prayed that Jay would get home safe. After several months of concentrating my whole being into remaining calm and relaxed, I collapsed emotionally, unable any longer to ignore the world falling apart. Jay came home, safe and sound, with some fascinating tales to tell, but I felt as battered as any protestor.
Like the phoenix
Yet, that was the month that after four fruitless years, I finally conceived. When my period didn’t arrive as it should in September, I put it down to the stress of the times, but by October I began to have hope. I made an appointment with my gynecologist and didn’t tell Jay. I didn’t want him to suffer the intense disappointment that would go with getting his expectations raised.
The doctor confirmed my suspicions. He had no idea why now after all these months my reproductive system had clicked into proper order. Nonetheless, deep inside, under my heart, a new life blossomed. Very few moments in my life have matched the joy I felt at that moment or the continued euphoria I experienced as I share the news first with Jay then with our parents. The only one I wasn’t too happy about telling was my boss, the editor at Building Construction. I loved my job, but I strongly believed that I’d be happiest being a full-time mother.
living a dream
When Kristin was born the following May, we were living in an apartment in the far flung southwest suburb of Palos Hills. It was a grassy, pleasant environment, but very isolating for me because Jay needed the one car we could afford to drive to work. Still, I was so wrapped up in the wondrous adventure of caring for Kristin that I barely noticed how alone I was. A beautifully delicate little baby girl, she had round blue eyes that took up half the space on her heart-shaped face. She needed to nurse about every two hours, which I would later learn is natural for many newborns, and I found meeting her needs filled my days.
On weekends, Jay and I went adventuring. Kristy did very well on car rides. Travelling through Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin, we discoverded “antiquing.” The last century was so much more satisfying than the present. We returned with large and small treasures with which to furnish our home. Kristy went along with anything and never showed a single moment of stranger anxiety. For me the nine month following Kristin’s birth were the true honeymoon period of our life.
for a while
There’s a verse in a song from Fiddler on the Roof –
- “Now i have everything,
- Not only everything,
- I have a little bit more
- Besides having everything,
- I know what everything’s for.”
It often ran through my head in those halcyon days. I couldn’t imagine that life could ever be better.
To say it was never again that good would be false. In the coming years, however, my life blurred the chaos of the 1970s. My stormy everyday life blurred the turbulence and tumult beyond my front door.