For this week’s October Memoir and Backstory Challenge theme of Relationships, I’m comparing my life with my mother’s life at the same ages. On Monday, I looked at age 6 when my mother had rheumatic fever and I moved from Utah to Missouri: Mother and Me, Age 6 — October Memoir Challenge. Today, let’s check in at age 23.
By her late teens, my mother began to make choices that would lead her as far away from the farm as she could get. Her 23rd year was a banner year in that project — she graduated from college (the first in her family), moved from Indiana to New Jersey, and married my dad (a computer programmer).
Like most young couples, my parents had little money when they first started out. Their favorite activity was riding the Staten Island Ferry. To this day the Staten Island Ferry advertises itself as romantic and free:
The Staten Island Ferry is run by the City of New York for one pragmatic reason: To transport Staten Islanders to and from Manhattan. Yet, the 5 mile, 25 minute ride also provides a majestic view of New York Harbor and a no-hassle, even romantic, boat ride, for free! One guide book calls it “One of the world’s greatest (and shortest) water voyages.” From the deck of the ferry you will have a perfect view of The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. You’ll see the skyscrapers and bridges of Lower Manhattan receding as you pull away and coming into focus again as you return.
For a farm girl from Indiana, it was quite a leap for my mother to live in a suburb with New York City as her playground.
On my 23rd birthday, I was in the hospital getting my first chemotherapy treatment. I’d been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma during surgery less than a month earlier when I had two tumors removed from my gut.
My hard-won independence from my mother, via college graduation and my first full-time job, disappeared that year. I needed her for transportation and nursing care. After the first treatment, all seven of my monthly chemotherapy intravenous injections were administered at the doctor’s office. I was sick to my stomach for 24 hours each time and took a couple of days after that to recover. Mother slept on an air mattress in the living room of the apartment I shared with a friend for three nights after each treatment. She shopped and cooked for us during those days, seeking out recipes that were flavorful to counteract the tinny flavor that one of the drugs left in my mouth and high-calorie because I was losing weight at this time.
One of the drugs caused excessive amounts of saliva. After the first 24 hours, the next 48 were made miserable because of that symptom. I usually felt well enough to do things but not in public since I constantly wiped my mouth and tongue on a towel. In September, Mother took me to the Great Forest Park Balloon Race but instead of watching it on the steps of Brookings at Washington University as I had done every year since I started college, we stayed in the car and chased the balloons through Clayton. The symbolism of happy colors and slipping “the surly bonds of earth” (from the poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.) felt important to us at that time.
My early, ill-advised, marriage the next year was a partially conscious attempt to reassert my independence.
What were you doing at age 23? Do you know what your parents’ lives were like in their early twenties?