Another installment about my biography, written informally and occasionally here on my blog. I had a fairly unusual childhood, and questions about it come up often enough in interviews and conversations that I’d like to discuss it. I’m not going to focus on the objective details, so much as my own sense of my experiences, and how they might have led to where I am today.
I’ll add to this series on an irregular basis as the spirit moves me. Feel free to ask questions, or treat this as a meme and discuss your own recollections.
When my parents separated, my mother returned to the United States with my sister and me. We were (I believe) four and two. I remember little of this, until living in a house in Austin, TX around 1970, and attending kindergarten. Bits and pieces before then — visiting the fire station in Gainesville, TX, a block from my grandparents’ house, and being welcomed to climb on the fire engine. Watching the moon landing with my grandfather Lake, a ferociously complex man if ever there was one. Buttered toast made by my grandmother Lake, who never saw a fat calorie she didn’t approve of being on the plate, for all that she was a very small woman late in her life. (This consisted of slathering butter on a piece of Wonder bread and sticking it in the oven on a cookie sheet until a gleaming yellow sponge with crusty edges was ready to be withdrawn and served to a happy grandchild.) Giving her hairspray for Christmas because it was all I could think of.
But none of those memories are in sequence. More like a slideshow permanently set on randomize. And a weird one at that. When did I decide that the lath ceiling of my grandparents’ upstairs bathroom could roll open like Venetian blinds? I became fearfully convinced that the Beagle Boys lived in my grandparents’ attic and were spying on me in the tub from above. My grandfather, a vastly large man with a life history that would fill out a Faulkner novel (or possibly a Lake novel, some day), sticking his dentist’s fingers into my mouth and offering to pull out my loose teeth. Only two fingers would fit, and they tasted like tobacco, gum and old man sweat — perhaps my most visceral recollection of him.
You get the idea. I had a strange imagination, and was already untethered a bit from the reality of what was going on around me.
In Austin, we lived in a house on a hill that was later destroyed to build the Mopac Expressway. (The entire hill was destroyed, not just the house.) I used to take my wagon down to the store to buy bread and milk for my mom. That was also where I sustained my first closed head injury, tumbling into a creek bed while climbing to look at the trains. Still have the scar, buried inside my eyebrow.
Somewhere in there things went bad, and my memories edited themselves so thoroughly I have no recollection of this at all. My sister and I were passed among our aunts, then into the hands of our father, who as a single dad in 1970 successfully sued for custody. I still have the little Matchbox truck he gave me the day we went to live with him.
My very complex grandfather and my very ill grandmother moved to DC to live with Dad and us kids, in a house on Alton Place. Granddaddy Lake was a southern man of the oldest school, but he adored his grandchildren, and so for my first grade year my lunches were packed and my laundry done and my homework supervised by this grumpy old man whose wife was bedridden and whose son was off making a living. I look back now on how staggeringly improbable this was, in purely cultural terms, and marvel at the family ties that brought him to us. They made me take ballet in hopes it would address my chronic malcoordination (ballet class just made me even more socially outcast). Then Dad married my stepmother in June of 1971, just after my seventh birthday, and we promptly moved back to Taiwan, where in many respects, my conscious sense of my own life begins in earnest.
What did I learn from those jumbled up years? I’m not sure. How not to trust, a lesson it took me decades to unlearn. (The story of my parents and grandparents isn’t mine to tell in detail, not here and now, but you can easily see how it affected me.) To love buttered toast. To be more than a bit rootless. Did that make of me a writer? I doubt it. But it made me someone who watches the world very carefully, and that is very much part of being a writer.