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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.