I imagine my birth experience. There are no memories I can call my own, just mental pictures based on my mother’s recollections that may or may not correspond with actual events. They are borrowed memories, but nonetheless they are the foundation of who I was and who I would become.
I was born on November 30, 1945, three-and-a-half months after the cataclysmic end of World War ll. As I was growing up, very little was said in my presence about the war. I have a photo of my parents doing the dishes in their tiny apartment at 26 Elder Street in Schenectady, New York. The photo was taken in August, 1945, when my mother was six months pregnant . They look like such a happy young couple as they await the arrival of their first-born. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, approximately 185,000 innocent people had just been, or were about to be, incinerated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
According to my mother, I was born on the day of the first big snowfall of the year. My parents did not have a car until 1948, so they took a taxi for the 2.7 mile ride from their apartment to the Bellevue Maternity Hospital, on Troy Road in Niskayuna. My father was nervous at the admitting desk. He took up his post in the waiting room (as fathers did in those days), while my mother was whisked off to the labour room to await the arrival of Dr. T. Watson Smith. Any further recollections were lost to my mother in twilight sleep.
I was baptised at St. Luke's Roman Catholic Church by Monsignor Keane, and given the name Diane. According to my mother, Monsignor Keane commented, somewhat disapprovingly, on the fact that she had given me the name of a “pagan goddess.” Actually, it seemed a fitting name because I was born under the sign of Sagittarius, “the archer,” and the goddess Diana is often pictured holding a bow and arrow. What later would seem a little incongruous was my mother's interest in astrology (even though it was not a serious interest, never extending beyond cutting out the newspaper horoscopes on the days of her children's births and occasionally consulting the daily horoscope out of curiosity). Astrology and other forms of divination were forbidden by the Catholic Church, and my mother was the quintessential Catholic. As for the newspaper horoscope, I never recognised myself in Stella's description of those born on that day. The centaur with his bow has no appeal for me. On the other hand, I like my nominal connection with Diana. It has appealing implications.
We're all born "pagans" and enjoy an ego-less state of connection with the natural world until parental restrictions begin to cut off those parts of ourselves that reach out to relate with the world around us. So gradually that we are not even aware of the process, and before we have developed our own reference points, those parts of us that do not fit the prescribed pattern are invalidated or punished away. This is called "the development of self-awareness," but in fact it is an enforced separation from ourselves. This process seems to begin at different times, but is usually presumed to begin between the ages of 1-3. It also seems to be affected by the development of the use of language. Being a first-born, and having a mother who was zealous to facilitate my intellectual development, I had words for my experiences and so I was able to construct my own memories from an early age.
The earliest event of which I have a clear memory took place on a hot summer day when I was 30 months old. It probably would have slipped into un-memory if it hadn't caused such a stir in the people around me. My mother's repetition of the details kept it alive. By then we were living at 239 Furman Street in an upstairs flat with my grandmother. I had overheard my mother speaking on the phone with my aunt Evelyn, making plans to walk the distance of a little more than a mile to her house after lunch. Aunt Evie's daughter, my cousin Susan, was (I think) a year-and-a-half older than I, so I was probably eager to get to their house to play. I must have decided to get a head start. Busy with my three month-old brother, my mother didn't notice that I had slipped out.
I headed in the direction of their house at 841 Florence Avenue, following the route we usually took - for part of the way. (See the map in the gallery below.) If I'd gone straight along Altamont Avenue I might have ended up at their house (or possibly not), but I deviated at California Avenue. The part of this memory that I can claim as completely my own was taking a tricycle that someone had left on the front walk and feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin as I rode merrily along in search of my destination. Eventually I reached a grassy area, which I later learned was the archery range of Mont Pleasant High School, and sat down to rest - and probably to watch ants in the grass. I was quite far from my aunt Evie's house, but actually quite close to the home of another aunt and uncle, Marie and Ray, who lived at the corner of Forest Road and Norwood Avenue. But I didn't know that.
I was also unaware that my mother had begun a frantic search for me. Our neighbour, Ruth Gleason, drove her car while my mother on the passenger side looked for me up and down the streets and driveways of our neighbourhood. I was nowhere to be found. I was farther away than they could have imagined. A two-and-a-half year-old child had crossed State Street, the main street in Schenectady - and no one seems to have noticed. At some point the police were called. My mother told me she spent the afternoon worried about what my father would say if she had to tell him she had lost his daughter. It was late in the afternoon when she received the call telling her that I'd been found. She said my response when I saw her was just, "Mommy, I'm hungry."
And so began my lifetime of wandering, of becoming Feral.