Looking Back, Moving Forward
Looking Back, Moving Forward
Although I was too young to remember it, one of the most memorable incidents in my life happened when I was but an infant. The maid had placed me carefully on a couch in the living room and tucked me in securely while she went about her household duties. A bit later, sensing that things were too quiet, she came back to find my four-year-old brother sitting on me. I had already turned blue, but fortunately she was able to rescue me. The story was told repeatedly during my early years and made a deep impression on me.
Why did my parents keep telling this story? Was it because I survived, or was it because they thought it an amusing story? What if I had died? Would they have thought that amusing? I found the retelling of the story disturbing, and I believe that periodically hearing about the incident gave me a basic distrust of my brother. Did they tell the story because I was of less value than my brother? Was it because the act was somehow cute, using me as a pillow? In some ways the incident laid a foundation for my uneasy growing-up years.
When I was two years old, my parents purchased a large house that bordered college property in Wellesley, Massachusetts. It was a three-story house with a complete apartment on the third floor, five bedrooms and two baths on the second floor, and three sitting rooms, each with a fireplace, plus a kitchen, dining, and living room on the first floor. It also had a full basement. From the time they purchased the house, I believe they had in mind that it would be necessary to rent out at least two of the five second-floor bedrooms. Perhaps they also had notions of converting two of the first-floor rooms into bed-sitters.
The house was originally designed to fit the needs of three Wellesley College professors, maiden ladies who each wanted a sitting room with a fireplace for herself. My great-aunt Hannah, my grandmother's sister, occupied the house's third floor apartment.
Outside, at the rear of the house, was a lawn between two elm trees, big enough to be a drying space for a clothesline, yet hidden from the street. On the adjoining Wellesley College property, faculty housing had been erected: a grouping of three, three-story apartment buildings. A long service driveway and a chain link fence separated our property from the college's.
One of the few times we had any contact with a faculty member was when I, a small girl of perhaps three or four, opened the casement windows of my room, which looked out on faculty housing. It being a warm, sunny day, I climbed onto the windowsill with my legs dangling over the side. Mother, totally unaware of this, answered her ringing phone to hear a concerned college faculty member say to her, "I wonder, Mrs. Austin, if you realize that your little girl is sitting in her window with her legs hanging outside?" Horrified, mother gasped a quick thank you, dropped the receiver, and rushed upstairs to find me peacefully basking in the warm sun, totally unconcerned about the twenty-foot drop beneath my perch.
Miss Elliot, the next-door neighbor, was a single lady who knew a lot about birds. She'd often lead bird walks in the woods that bordered much of the Wellesley College campus. She was a good friend and very generous to invite me to go with her, so as a youngster I learned a lot about identifying birds by sight, song and habitat. I loved going with her whenever I could.
This lady, as did others in the neighborhood, often "took in" renters with some relation to Wellesley College. In our case, it was usually graduate students--women, of course, since it was then strictly a women's college. Miss Elliot tended to accept short-term visitors to the college, lecturers, speakers, artists, for whom the college itself had no accommodations. The only public housing facility in town was the Wellesley Village Inn, but this was not very near the college and was quite smal