Avoirdupois

                                         A Life of Weight                                 

Our enduring contribution to twentieth-century politics is the liberation movements of the past thirty years: blacks, women, gays. American civil rights have made the world feel what we know -- the damnable injustice of being born inside a body categorically destined for exclusion from the world enterprise. This knowledge came directly out of the sixties. It is the sixties.  -- Vivian Gornick

The origin of the gesture of writing is linked to the experience of a disappearance, to the feeling of having lost the key to the world, to have been thrown outside. To have acquired all of a sudden the feeling of something precious, rare, mortal. To have to find again, urgently, an entrance, breath, to keep the trace. We have to make the apprenticeship of Mortality.  -- Hélène Cixous

 

 

                                                                               1.   

                               “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”      - Haeckel

In 1953, Studebaker changed the look of their cars. The new coupe was mounted on a 120.5-inch chassis rather than the 116.5-inch platform used for the earlier models. The bigger chassis absorbed shock and gave the car a more upright look. They were said to be perfect from every angle.

Bigger car chassis.

A better thing.

I was born on June 20th 1953. My father was a car salesman. The front of my birth announcement featured a Studebaker. Inside there was a cartoon diaper with a little pin in one corner.  On the diaper was my name and weight. Above that was a caption: The Parmeleys too have a number of changes.

My father would go on to sell Lincoln Mercurys and Fords. He would even own his own small Ford dealership. It would be an unsuccessful business.

My mother stopped driving while she was pregnant. She’d had a miscarriage the year before and her doctor, Dr. Jones, suggested it might have been because she’d been on a long driving trip. Dr. Jones was touted as the best baby doctor in St. Louis. When she became pregnant again, she took a break from driving. It would turn out to be a thirty-year break. She took two buses every time she went to visit Dr. Jones. 

My mother tells the story of my birth with subtle variations each time, but most of it is always the same. One day she noticed some spots of blood in her underwear. She called her neighbor, Ann. Ann thought she should go to the hospital. Mom called my father at work, and he came home to drive us to St. Mary’s hospital in St. Louis, Missouri.

No rush. I wasn’t due for another month. We were just going in to make sure everything was OK.

Mom remembers nuns. She remembers them telling her that Dr. Jones happened to be there, delivering another baby. Since she was there, and he was there, they felt my mother might as well go ahead and have her baby, and they began preparing her for delivery. My mother said she tried to explain to the nuns that she wasn’t due yet, but they kept encouraging her to “go ahead and have the baby!”

We weren’t Catholic. When Mom would tell me the story about the nuns, I would picture the nuns from the Sound of Music. I would picture the elegant Mother Superior, played by Peggy Wood, leaning over my mother, speaking in her loving, tolerant and yet strict voice. And Sister Bernice, played by Evadne Baker, would be rushing about seeming exasperated. Trying to get my mother ready for birth the same way she tried to get Maria Von Trapp to vespers. Sister Margaretta, played by Anna Lee, would be holding my mother’s hand. She would have been Mom’s ally. Sister Sophia, played by Marni Nixon, would be pushing the gurney on which my mother, played by Julie Andrews, of course, would be lying.

They shaved her. Sister Bernice would have done that. My mother says that she so dreaded being shaved again that she agreed to their plan. She always makes note that it was the middle of the night, and that all she wanted was for them to leave her alone, so that she could go back to sleep.

All Maria wanted was to run around in the woods and sing.

Mom doesn’t remember if they broke her water.  She doesn’t remember if they gave her drugs.  She doesn’t remember any pain.  She just remembers wanting to go to sleep. And then I was born.

My father named me Patricia Ann.

It was 4:35 A.M. I weighed five pounds eight ounces. Despite my low birth weight, Dr. Jones told my mother that I would be a big girl. Apparently, I had big girl bone structure. He also said that if I lost any weight I’d need to be in an incubator, but if I gained weight I could go home.

I gained weight.

Dr. Jones never told me when to stop.

He said I could go home if I gained weight. I gained weight. It seems like something fraught with meaning. It seems like I was saying fuck you, Dr. Jones. I had another month in the womb but you happened to be there. Fuck you and the nuns and your fucking incubator. Fuck Maria Von Trapp. I’m outta here.

My mother thought she was going to nurse me. But Dr. Jones told her she could not since she hadn’t prepared her nipples. He told her she should have been rubbing them to get them ready. She asked why he hadn’t told her about that. Dr. Jones simply didn’t believe that nursing was a good idea.

Fuck you, Dr. Jones.

Mom talks about how my smallness made her nervous. She was afraid she would break me. She wanted me to gain weight. For the first month I slept a lot. One day I began to cry and would not stop. Mom called Dr. Jones who reminded her that it was closer to my original due date. He suggested adding Pet Milk to my preemie-baby formula. He wasn’t the only doctor recommending Pet Milk. Pet Milk sales were higher in 1950, during the baby boom, than at any other time in the company’s 45 year history.

It worked. She fed me; I stopped crying and went back to sleep.

A month later Dr. Jones said to begin feeding me pabulum. I wasn’t interested. I spit it out as fast as she fed it to me. My father’s older sister, June, had an idea. She put a spoonful of pabulum in my mouth and quickly shoved a bottle in after it. I reflexively sucked on the bottle and swallowed the pabulum. Years later, I realized that I swallowed food in chunks. I had to teach myself how to chew.

I gained weight. I was 16 pounds at 6 months, 20 pounds at 9 months, 30 pounds at one year. And I was tall. I would almost always be the tallest kid in my class. I was, in fact, a big boned girl.

 

My mother and father met in the Navy. They were both beautiful. She had ash blonde hair and translucent blue eyes; he had dark brown hair, deep brown eyes and a half smile. They were both the youngest of families with two girls and a boy. To the delight of the families, they were both Methodist. However, Dad’s family was Democrat and Mom’s Republican. It was almost a deal breaker. They were both twenty-seven when I was born.

Both grandmothers were dominant in the family. My paternal grandfather died when my father was a boy. My mother’s father deferred to his wife. Neither of my grandmothers approved of the marriage. Why would my mother marry a Democrat? Why would my father marry a Republican?

My father’s mother was diabetic. She had survived a stroke. She had glaucoma. She was at death’s door. She was there for quite a while. The people in her world organized themselves around when she needed to eat, or take a shot, or how bright the sun was, or if one of her soap operas was on the television. She leaned forward in her chair, one hand pressed into her lips, elbow cupped in the other hand. Black and white images of hunky doctors and women with big hair moved across the screen, a foot away from her face.  

My mother’s mother took up space. Not just because of her physical body. She was a large woman but it was more than that. She was a member of the DAR, the Methodist Women’s Auxiliary, the Republican Party, and the Eastern Star. She belonged wherever she was. She never drank or smoked. No one ever drank or smoked in her presence.

Well, my father did.

Two months after I was born, my mother ate a peanut butter sandwich before bed and woke up in extreme pain. She went to the hospital. The doctors removed her gall bladder. My Grandmother Bennett came to St. Louis to help her with me. My father spent most of his time at work where he could smoke without looking at my grandmother’s raised eyebrow.

And then something happened that sounds like a line in a country/western song.

Mom found lipstick on dad’s collar.

A domineering mother who wanted her to “come home with me to Pittsburgh” easily influenced my mom, physically weakened from childbirth and gallbladder surgery. My dad took my grandmother, mother and me to the train station. Neither my mother nor my father thought this would be the last time they saw each other. They believed that they would work out their problems.

My mother is a person who likes to get things done. Despite the fact that she still loved my father, she sought advice from a lawyer as soon as she got to Pittsburgh. In their first meeting the lawyer told her that he did not approve of divorce, but he would do some research for her and give her a recommendation. In their second meeting, he advised her to get the divorce, and said he would handle it. He was never clear with her about why he made this abrupt turn around. He just said she should keep me away from my father. He implied that my father had Mafia connections.

            The people who owned the dealership where my father sold cars were Italian. He may have sold cars to the Mafia. My mother’s lawyer, much like Dr. Jones, was a man who doled out advice with great authority. My mother is a smart, strong willed woman. But she thought people, specifically men, with educations, were smarter than she was. And she didn’t want to wait around for my father. She wanted to get on with her life.

My father felt that my mother had “let herself go”. And apparently beauty was among the qualities needed to sustain their relationship. He unwaveringly denied what the lipstick on his collar might have indicated. However, shortly after the divorce he married his secretary.

Dad would live in Texas, where cars, really big cars, were just a part of life. Mom would live in Pittsburgh, where public transportation was abundant and reliable. 

I would never learn how to drive. In high school, when everyone else was taking Drivers-Ed, I was singing with the school Madrigals.

I have never learned how to drive.

It seems like something fraught with meaning. It seems like a reaction to my father’s occupation being stamped on my birth announcement. It seems like I said fuck you Studebaker and your bigger chassis and your salesmen.

My birthday was the day after the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. The Rosenberg trial took place during The Great Red Scare. I would grow up practicing duck-and-cover maneuvers, to be employed when the Russians dropped the bomb. Senator Joseph McCarthy, chairman of the Senate Permanent Investigation Subcommittee, was conducting investigations on communist subversion in America. A month later the truce was signed, which ended the Korean War.

In 1954 President Eisenhower invoked the Domino Theory when commenting on the importance of Indochina. It would later be used by President Kennedy to rationalize our military presence in Vietnam.

 Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care was the widely accepted "bible" on child rearing. Dr. Spock encouraged parents to trust their own instincts and see their children as individuals. Doctors were telling moms to feed their children on a time schedule. Dr. Spock thought individual children developed in individual ways. He thought they should eat when they were hungry. I remember seeing my mother’s dog-eared paper back of Baby and Child Care.

Dr. Spock would be coined the "Father of Permissiveness" and blamed for rearing a generation of hippies.

            Studebaker made their cars with bigger chassis and I was born.  I was born into a time of shifting social values and notions of political fidelity. I was born into a time of suspicion and intrigue. I was born into a time when the chassis of social structure needed to be bigger to absorb all kinds of shocks.

We didn’t think I was going to be born on that day in June. We thought we were just going to the hospital to make sure everything was OK. My parents didn’t think they were getting a divorce. They thought they were taking a break until my mom was better, and my dad realized how much he loved us. I thought I’d get around to learning how to drive; it just never happened.

It all seems fraught with meaning.

                                                                                                                  Background by Citrus Moon