A NOTE BEFORE READING: Today’s post and the three Wednesday posts that will follow it come from a memoir project: five Catalysts and five Constants. The project’s essays are all quite a bit longer than my usual posts, so I am going to share this one in four installments.
On the occasion of her eighteenth birthday, my mother received a cocktail ring from her Aunt Catherine. Catherine, who never married, bought the ring in France in the 1920’s. It has a classic deco design – diamonds and sapphires glistening subtly in a platinum setting. It must have looked quite beautiful on my mother’s young hand. It must have looked quite appropriate, too. The year was 1945, the locale was New England, and young women my Mom’s age had occasions to wear cocktail rings. They even had cocktail dresses.
I don’t think, though, that Mom was wearing either a cocktail ring or a cocktail dress the night she met Dad. I’ve gathered it was a much more casual event, a get-together thrown in the Manhattan living room of some of their mutual friends. But regardless of costuming, they did meet, and in April of 1950, they got married. By the end of that decade, they had two daughters. My sister, Martha, was born in early 1956. I was born twenty months later.
It must have been shortly after my birth that our mother made a decision about the future. Inspired, no doubt, by Catherine’s generous gift – and reflecting her own appreciation for the gesture – Mom decided that my sister and I would each receive a cocktail ring on the occasions of our eighteenth birthdays. Martha would get the emerald and diamond ring that Mom had inherited from “Aunt Edina” – her father’s former nanny. And I, who had been named after Aunt Catherine, would get the beautiful deco piece. My mother would thereby begin a tradition.
In the late 1950’s, a sense of tradition probably had its place. And Mom had no reason to believe that her plan wasn’t sensible. She could not have anticipated the decade ahead. She could not have anticipated the dramatic cultural transformations that, among other things, would lead to women burning their bras when they might otherwise be shopping for cocktail dresses.
Maybe no one could have anticipated the Sixties. But there they were: the civil rights movement, the assassinations, the war and the protests against it, flower power, Woodstock. Events in the country seemed to unfold at a pace that was at once necessary and out of control. Those events changed our nation’s context completely.
And at the end of that decade, a much more personal event changed our family’s context. Also completely.
My parents went to a cocktail party at the Country Club, and their close circle of friends decided on an after-party. A late-night meal at the restaurant owned by one of the couples in the group. It was Friday the 13th. June, 1969. The restaurant was probably no more than a ten-minute drive from the Country Club.
My parents were not even halfway to the restaurant when a Cadillac sedan slammed into the passenger side of their tiny English Ford. My Dad, who was driving, got off lucky. Despite the car’s being forced a good fifty feet off its course, he suffered only a few broken ribs. Mom, though, was in bad shape. The paramedics had to cut off the door to extract her from the car. They also had to cut the beautiful cocktail dress she bought in Paris two years earlier.
I was eleven years old that summer; my sister was thirteen. We received the news when the Cooleys (our parents’ closest friends) showed up where we had been babysitting. After telling us the abridged version of the event (which was all anyone knew at the time), the Cooleys took us home to pack some things. Then we went to their house, which was less than a quarter-mile from our own.
That first weekend was strange – so many people coming by with food. An odd energy. It seemed serious, but not too serious, all at once. Although we were told initially that Mom had a broken arm, it became apparent soon that there was more to the story. But it was only when she was “out of the woods” that we learned how dire her condition had been.
Dad was home by the middle of the following week, and so Martha and I went home, too. But Mom would be in the hospital for most of the summer, as her ultimately extensive list of injuries included a broken pelvis, which would take a few months to heal.
I can’t remember if I ever truly felt the pain and fear that an eleven year old might be expected to experience during that summer. I knew, in a way, that I had almost lost my mother. But, I also knew that I hadn’t lost my mother. And so the “almost” was intangible somehow.
I also wasn’t one then to reveal any deep digging into personal emotions. Sure, I would cry openly for hours over a good, sentimental movie or television program, but when it came to family stuff, I was famous for my stoicism. Maybe I did appear stoic. Maybe I had to – if only for the sake of marking my own territory in a land where my older sister’s dynamics absorbed just about all the energy in a given space.
In any event, after the Accident, and after Mom came home finally, my alleged stoicism regarding the event didn’t exactly stand out in the crowd. The whole family seemed somewhat resigned. And rather than celebrate Mom’s having lived, we just tried to pick up where we had left off.
But, we each carried the Accident within us. For years, it would be a burden that we would never forget, and one that we would never explore fully.
to be continued on Wednesday, May 11th