My mother woke me very early one morning on my fourth or fifth birthday. Men were waiting downstairs to wallpaper and paint. This was my birthday present—new wallpaper. I had to quickly dress and stay out of my room until they were finished at the end of the day.
“C’mon, we’ll get your sisters and go visit Joanne!”
It may have been that day or another that my mother took my two sisters and I to see her youngest sister, Joanne, who was in the Maryland countryside about an hour from our home in Washington. Joanne was 10 years younger than my mother so she would have been about 20. She attended Georgetown Visitation high school and junior college with the Smith girls who lived at an 18th century Maryland estate, Mt. Airy. During her school breaks Joanne stayed with the Smiths and in mid-June they would have been lounging around the pool with their cigarettes and tanning lotion.
We all got our hair washed and were set out in the sunshine to dry while my mother, Joanne and the Smith girls painted their nails, gossiped and laughed over beer in the estate’s coach house.
My mother directed me to sit in an oversized lounge chair near the shade of a mighty Southern Magnolia.
“Lay down there, Regan,” she said, “Don’t get up until your hair is dry.”
The old-growth evergreen burst with sturdy white flowers that looked like folded linen, sweet-smelling like the Smith girls. This is the first time I remember birds flying in and out of tree branches. The sun fell through the breeze into the dark fleshy leaves and lulled me into a meditative reverie that I can easily reconstruct whenever I’m under a summer tree or feel the whiff of magnolias or their cousin gardenias drift past me.
At the close of day we returned home and I ran upstairs to my new room. Everything was covered in red roses—the walls, the ceiling, the bedspread and pillows. It was the best birthday present I’ve ever received and indeed, the only one I can remember as a child.
My sisters and I were born one after another in the Naval Academy Hospital in Annapolis where we lived in the years immediately following World War II. After my father left the Navy, we moved to a red brick colonial on Fox Hall Road in Washington and my father started his first job as a labor lawyer for John L. Lewis, founder of the United Mine Workers. They held the same liberal political views but Lewis, a devout, moralistic Mormon and my father, in the early stage of his alcoholism had battling temperaments.
By the time I was in the first grade, the job, the house and the rose-filled room had all gone south.
My father picked up work in law firms and corporations throughout the Midwest, and my family started moving around the country with him.