Maria had just turned for a moment to see why my sister was crying when I squeezed through the railing of the balcony. Eighteen months old, down, down I fell to a gravel parking lot three stories, 40 feet, below. My luck: no cars in the lot that day. My luck: I didn’t know what falling was, so I tumbled, relaxed, through the blue Italian sky. As Maria turned back to the balcony, a boy with a tousle of dark curls yelled up from the street below, “Hey, is this your baby?”
In 1954 my parents both won Fulbright Scholarships to study in Rome for a year. They promptly packed up my sister and me and sailed third-class on the S.S. Vulcania, a voyage of a month, during which the only baby food onboard was mashed peas. In Rome, they took an apartment on the third floor of a building facing St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. My mother had a job teaching English to Italian students who stood and clicked their heels when she entered the room; photos show a slender woman with Roman nose and mahogany hair cut in a pageboy. My father, who was doing research for his Ph.D. dissertation on praise during the Renaissance, appears tall, lanky, and studious. They hired a young Italian woman to babysit while they were at work.
Summoned by Maria’s screams and the boy’s shouting, a neighbor ran out to find me unconscious and rushed me to the Santo Spirito, an ancient emergency hospital on the banks of the Tiber River. My mother, trudging up the Janiculum hill, passed a neighborhood kid on his bicycle. The look he gave her made her heart begin racing. When she arrived at the hospital, a technician was just getting ready to take x-rays. I was conscious now, and he carried me in his arms through a maze of damp concrete passageways lit by naked light bulbs; my mother followed behind holding the plates by the edge. The x-rays showed a small dark spot on the back of my skull, which the doctors thought might be a crack. The next day my parents carried me in their arms up the hill to the Bambino Gesu, a clean, modern children’s hospital run by Daughters of Charity, a group of Catholic nuns who wore headpieces called cornettes with wings that swooped out a foot on each side of their faces. There the sisters tucked me tightly into a single bed, and I stayed for three days, being force-fed by a nun who declared that I didn’t have many teeth because my mother was not feeding me enough. The x-rays taken at this hospital showed nothing. Either the injury had healed quickly or the first x-ray had been mistaken. At the end of my stay, the hospital refused any payment.
Finding the incident lacking in drama, the Italian paper reported I’d been found in a pozza de sangue, a pool of blood; the truth was that I had only suffered a minor concussion and was otherwise fine. The story spread through the neighborhood that St. Peter had reached out his hand and caught me. When my parents brought me home in the stroller, the whole neighborhood turned out, even the Communists who had been siphoning gas from my parents’ Fiat every night. Children and adults placed their hands on my head. “Sancta bimba,” they said. My one moment of fame and I don’t remember any of it.
When I told a friend who is an art historian about this episode, she showed me a print of Miracolo del bambino caduto dal balcone, a 14th-century Italian painting depicting a Mighty Mouse-like Saint Agostino Novello swooping through the air to catch a child falling from a balcony. Novello, it turns out, is the patron saint of children falling from balconies. Clearly, this was not an uncommon occurrence in medieval Italy.
How to explain this happening? Lack of building codes? And my surviving unscathed? Luck? St. Agostino? St. Peter? Who knows, but that is how my story begins.
When we returned from Italy, my father completed his Ph.D. in English and we moved for brief stints to Princeton, NJ, and Knoxville, TN (which I remember because each morning we discovered yet another huge shining brown cockroach under the dining room table), before settling into Chapel Hill, NC. If I had started my life in a starring role, I was quickly relegated to a secondary role as my sisters Laura and Agnes came along, then my brothers Osborne and Matthew.
Chapel Hill was a sleepy town of tree shaded neighborhoods and little crime then. It was founded in 1819 to serve the University of North Carolina, the oldest state-supported university in the country. The population was around 12,000 when we arrived. It more than doubled during the years we lived there, 1956-1969, and it has doubled again since then.
My most vivid memories of Chapel Hill revolves around our house on Rosemary Street. It was an old clapboard house near the campus. My father had lived in it before as a student when it was a rooming house. When I was six years old, my parents bought it. Neglected for many years, it needed complete renovation. Every wall had to be replastered and painted. They tore down the wall between the living room and dining room, leaving only the two-sided brick fireplace between the two rooms. Then they added a sun porch and a wooden deck. Dad painted the outside of the house himself, perched on a ladder with a can of olive green paint. With four bedrooms upstairs and another bedroom downstairs, it was the right size for a family of six raucous children, several temperamental cats, and a dog that tore through screen doors at the hint of thunder.
Each morning Dad would walk to the university, reading as he walked, our mutt Poppo trotting behind. The joke was that Poppo sat in on Dad’s classes the first year, then sat outside the door after that. Dad was often spotted going through the stacks at Davis Library calling, “Poppo. Come here, Poppo.”
I remember particular objects from the Rosemary Street house more than I remember particular events. Not a single birthday party or Thanksgiving stands out in my mind, but I can still picture a carved statue of Romulus and Remus suckling from a wolf and a tiny, brightly painted Sicilian cart and horse, both relics from the year in Italy. A marble statue of a lion, its head resting on its paws, for many years followed our every move from the side table in the living room. On the wall hung a fabric collage stitched by a family friend, with the message, “Salvation is of the Lord.” In it, the figure of Jonah is falling from his boat into the open mouth of the whale.
Outside, my siblings and I roamed the neighborhood freely and played in the spacious yard. In the fall we raked oak leaves into forts and jumped in them. On summer nights we competed fiercely in Capture the Flag with other neighborhood kids until it was so dark we were running into one another. Kenny, the boy across the street, ordered snakes through the mail from Florida and allowed us to hold his boa constrictor. Sometimes we watched it eat mice. One night when his parents were having a party the boa got loose. No one could find it until a guest went to pick up a glass from the floor next to her chair and found the snake coiled around it. Later Kenny put a live snake in the freezer as an experiment. His mother opened the freezer and screamed, “Kenny!” He returned the stiff serpent to its cage, where it thawed and slithered off to a corner. Kenny also had his own chemistry lab in the former kitchen pantry and was renowned in the neighborhood for a series of minor explosions he engineered. He is now (no, not a terrorist) a scientist at the Research Triangle near Chapel Hill.
The neighbors next door had five children. The father was a doctor; the mother, a buxom woman with stringy brown hair, once a code breaker in WWII, spent her days working crossword puzzles and rarely changed out of her housecoat. Tides of children flowed in and out of the house. Perhaps in self-defense, she never cleaned. Dustballs gathered like tumbleweed in corners. An old shoe stood forgotten on top of a bookshelf. The living room floor became the anointed spot for neighborhood card games.
We were blissfully unaware that the world outside this idyllic childhood was roiling with conflict and change. 1963, when I was ten years old, was the year George Wallace became governor of Alabama. His inaugural speech proclaimed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!” Jessie Helms, a little known North Carolina radio announcer at the time, echoed Wallace’s sentiments on our local station. 1963 was also the year the Beatles released their first album, Please Please Me. My older sister became the proud owner of a record player and entertained us with endless repetitions of “I Saw Her Standing There.” Martin Luther King was arrested with others in Birmingham, Alabama, for parading without a permit. A month later, Bull Connor unleashed fire hoses and police dogs on demonstrators. And the moment no one who lived through it will ever forget: John F. Kennedy’s assassination. I was standing by the flagpole at Estes Hills Elementary School when a red headed kid ran by with the news. Lyndon Johnson was immediately sworn in and he reaffirmed U.S. support of the South Vietnamese. In Chapel Hill, protests over civil rights escalated into mass demonstrations. My parents joined hundreds of other marchers. A friend of theirs who was picketing a segregated grocery store had acid thrown at him.
These events were a distant drumbeat to a ten-year-old, however. I was happy; I had the run of the town. I went anywhere I wanted on bike or by foot: to the pool, to the tennis courts, downtown, to a friend’s house. Day camp? Childcare? Didn’t exist. In the summer my mother signed Charity and me up for a pottery class taught by Jacobena Hobbs, an exotic Yugoslavian beauty with long blond hair. Her plain white house in a quiet neighborhood appeared unremarkable, but on entering, we found the center of the living room dominated by a pottery wheel, and wooden shelves holding pots in various stages of completion lining the living room walls. In the sitting room to the right hung African masks, spears, and a remarkable collection of musical instruments. The kitchen had been abandoned to clay mixing. Every object wore a thin skin of orange, even the mixer. Then there was the bathroom. Above the toilet hung a toilet seat with a lid. Lift the lid, and the seat inside framed an enlarged photograph of Jacobena and her husband from the rear, completely nude. The hall displayed postcards from all over the world, including The Mermaid from the harbor in Copenhagen, Denmark, an image that became interchangeable in my mind with Jacobena. .
Each class commenced with tea served in the sitting room and stories of the countries she and her husband had visited. “We drove across Africa in an old British taxicab,” she told us in her thick Slavic accent, pouring as she spoke. “It kept breaking down and all the local tribes people would come out to help us. Sometimes the repairs took days and we had to stay in the village.”
“Why didn’t you get a better car?” we asked.
She laughed, shaking her hair back from her face. “Oh, no, that was how we met people and found our instruments. Crossing borders, we hid the instruments under our luggage.” Hot mint tea brewed from leaves in her yard, sweetened with heaping spoonfuls of sugar: the Maasai tribesmen. Lemon tea: the Tutsis. For some reason, all this seemed a perfectly natural prelude to making pottery. I spent the class constructing a two-foot high coil pot with a long, skinny neck and a clay head for a stopper. Jacobena and her husband eventually donated their extraordinary collection of African instruments to the University of Michigan. Living in Ann Arbor years later, Charity came across a plaque on the Bell Tower across from the Michigan League acknowledging the gift.
In 1966 I was 13. Every night the family gathered around our TV to watch the news with Walter Cronkite (Walter Concrete, my parents called him). The images of soldiers and bombings were relentless. By then the U.S. had 190,000 troops in Vietnam and MLK had made his first public speech opposing the war. The Beatles declared, “We’re more popular than Jesus now.” Later John Lennon apologized, saying, “I didn’t mean it as a lousy antireligious thing.” My sister was still spinning Beatles records, but there was also Bob Dylan, the Temptations, and the Supremes.
That summer my parents got it into their heads that it would be fun to drive across country (six children and two adults shoehorned into a Ford station wagon for two weeks) and rent a house for the summer. Not only would we drive together, but we would camp along the way. It was a teenager’s worst nightmare. To make it possible, my parents purchased a pop-up camper to pull behind the car. It had two double beds, and they bought a bunk bed cot to set up between the beds. The two of them were going to sleep in the back of the station wagon. At that time, we ranged in age from six to 15. What were they thinking? Asking us to sit in the same room for 15 minutes was courting trouble. Also, the air-conditioning in the station wagon worked great, but only if you happened to be in the front seat, which my parents owned.
Things began to unravel about 4:00 p.m. on the first day of driving. We had left Chapel Hill at 10 in the morning after my mother had made at least 16 trips back inside the house to check the stove, the water, to retrieve Laura’s pillow, Matthew’s shoes. About 4:00 the first groans of hunger erupted. “When are we going to stop? I’m starving.”
“Soon. Why don’t you read your book.”
“I finished my book. Hey, get your feet off me.”
“Get yours off. And give me back my book.”
“No. You’re not reading it.”
“I don’t care. Give it back.”
“Here, then.” [Smack]
“O.B., don’t you think we should find a place to stop soon? Everyone’s getting hungry.”
“We got a late start. We can keep going a bit longer.”
“Dad, I have to go to the bathroom.”
“You can wait.”
We finally limped into a campground in Tennessee. Setting up camp took a long time. “Laura, can you get some water?”
“Why do I have to do everything?”
By 9:00 Matthew and Osborne were in their bunk bed, and with food the complaints had died to a dull roar. The older kids were sitting around a campfire with my parents. “What’s that noise?” Charity asked. Everyone listened. “It sounds like growling.” We huddled closer to the fire. Then Dad laughed. “It’s your brother snoring.” After that, Osborne had to stay up until everyone else had gone to sleep before he was allowed to enter the camper.
In Ohio, my mother called out the coast guard when we were out of sight too long in a small sailboat, and in Nevada the camper was almost washed away in a flash flood. But by the time we reached California we could set up camp in a half an hour flat, and the arguments had subsided to a dull roar. To everyone’s astonishment, the house Mom had rented sight unseen turned out to be three blocks from the ocean and have a yard filled with lemon and avocado trees. The kids went to day camp while Dad worked each day on a mystery novel, which he later published under a pseudonym. It was not a bestseller.
In 1968 I was 15. Civil rights demonstrations continued to rock the UNC campus along with massive unrest over the Vietnam War. On April 4, I was at a friend’s listening to “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” when the radio announcer broke in with the terrible news that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Later that year President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, but that was followed with the tragedy of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. I watched the reports with my family on our black and white TV and wondered why so many bad things were happening.
About that time I began to long for a change. I felt I knew every flowering bush, every tree, every house, every store in Chapel Hill. I could have walked blindfolded from our house to The Dairy Bar three blocks away, where we stopped every Sunday after church to buy hot donuts from racks dripping with sugar. The Intimate Bookstore, farther down, owned by Charles Kuralt’s brother, was a maze of tiny aisles and towering shelves. At Easter, truckloads of noisy baby chicks and geese arrived at Roses 5&10, crowded into huge metal washtubs heated by light bulbs. Danziger’s: one entered with reverence to stare into glass cases of dark chocolates, cunningly shaped maple sugar candy and marzipan. Pappagallo shoes, the women’s shop with its racks of lacy slips, the bakery with its crème horns, the two movie theaters where $.25 got you a seat for as long as you wanted to stay. A Coke at the Skuttlebutte was $.05, or you could go across campus for a $.10 ice cream cone at the Circus Room with its panorama of circus animals carved into the walls. Two legs and a couple of quarters provided hours of entertainment. When I’d spent my money or wasted enough time, I’d head home past stone walls and grassy lawns, past college boys tossing footballs on fraternity porches, past Betty
Smith’s house, past the place where Thomas Wolfe lived while he wrote Look Homeward, Angel.
Gradually it had all begun to feel too familiar, like looking at your own reflection too often in a mirror. So I was not unhappy when Dad announced in 1969 that he had taken a new job with the Folger Library and we were moving to Washington, DC. Only later would I realize the historic period I had lived through in Chapel Hill. But then I was just glad to be going, moving on, and unaware that I had slipped through another barrier, leaving childhood behind.
Sarah O’Connor is an associate professor in the School of Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA, where she teaches courses ranging from freshman composition to creative nonfiction. Before coming to JMU, she was the editor of the Mary Baldwin College Magazine. She has published numerous articles in such places as The Virginia Quarterly Review, Commonweal, and Writing on the Edge.