Instead of saying good-bye to 2018, I thought I’d do what people have been doing throughout the year and have a look back at 1968. But on my own terms. Since I was born on the cusp of the baby-boomer generation, I hadn’t developed the hormones to appreciate the summer of love. Nor can I share the memory of hearing the Beatles White Album when it first came out, talk about John and Yoko nude having been filtered from my ears. Uprisings in Prague and Paris had to wait for me to discover arthouse films decades later. Martin Luther King’s final speech is a second-hand recollection created from grainy footage, a cracking soundtrack. Yet, for all these missed experiences, 1968 was a pivotal year in my life.
A typical Chicago deep freeze ushered in the New Year and kept us indoors with the television, fighting over what to watch with such ironically limited choice in those days. I’d escape the arguments by visiting my grandmother’s apartment, the unit above ours. Grandmother preferred radio to television and was always baking something sweet. Her apartment had white walls and ceilings, a white carpet running throughout – no shoes allowed – and cream soft furnishing. For all the lightness this color scheme brought in, a sense of sadness brought on by my grandfather’s death some months earlier filled the rooms with darkness.
Joy returned to our lives in the early spring. Most of the black snow, soiled by the city’s pollution, had melted and the maples were starting to bud. My grandmother had baked a devil’s food cake, a dark chocolate sponge with thin white icing. We were celebrating that night, marking the date on our mental calendars for future years. My parents’ divorce had been finalized and my mother and grandmother saw it as a day to be commemorated. Not a private clicking of glasses with a sense of relief that a legal ordeal was over. This was louder, cheerier and more public with all seven children involved in overeating and joking. My mother’s laughter like a song floated over the long dining table. I can’t remember what was said that evening, aside from hearing the word divorce being bandied around. I don’t recall my older siblings appearing upset or unhappy with this twisted display of victory. With hindsight, I’m certain the older children, a few in their teens, were angry and saddened but dared not show it.
I was too young to realize how sick and inappropriate this divorce party was. While these off-color festivities became less exuberant over the years, fading away by the time I was in high school, the residue stayed with me for decades. My social self had been born. Marriage was a form of imprisonment and divorce was women’s emancipation.
Within a month of this inaugural divorce party, Martin Luther King had been assassinated. My world suddenly stretched beyond our apartment, my grandmother’s apartment and our Chicago neighborhood. Downtown and the south side of the city became battle grounds for three days of riots, watched by my family on our black-and-white Zenith television. On one of these afternoons during the riots, I sat combing Barbie’s hair and staring out our first-floor window when I saw a large khaki vehicle roll down our residential street. I remember seeing a couple of soldiers with their helmets on – the characters from the news were now outside our building and in my life. Only it looked like the news about Vietnam and not the riots. I must have briefly entertained the idea that Vietnam was being fought on American soil, in the middle of the country. I would later learn that the National Guard had been called in, some 11,000 soldiers, alongside 10,000 Chicago policemen.
So strong was this true-life moment that I wrote about it in my early teens, when I had learned the word juxtaposition. I described the army tank – or was it a truck? Childhood memories are not always the most reliable. The khaki vehicle, its soldiers, its rumbling wheels and roaring engine against the narrow street of parked cars created a juxtaposition. And like any juxtaposition, it created a meaning greater than the sum of its parts. For the six-year-old child with the Barbie doll, it was the first experience of sensing fear brought on by government authorities, government agents in the form of soldiers.
The drama of the riots tumbled into the last days of school before the summer break. The late afternoon sun streaked into our living room and I had parked myself in front of the television to watch The Flintstones. My mother, in her paisley housedress, appearing large and formidable, had entered just as the ads came on. A brief announcement about the news coming up at six droned as it did to my ears in those days. Anything that wasn’t comedy or cartoon sounded like a monotone din. The news was about Robert F. Kennedy. His death in hospital had been confirmed. He had been shot just after midnight at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles soon after winning the California primary elections.
Within seconds my mother’s eyes and cheeks glowed with wetness. It was the first time I saw her cry. I didn’t think she was capable of such a weak, babyish thing. I hadn’t seen her cry over the death of her stepfather (the only grandfather I ever knew), or over anything to do with her marriage ending. I struggled to understand it. I wondered if she had a crush on this Kennedy person, this man with foppish hair, large ears and a row of teeth too big for his mouth.
My mother wasn’t the only one crying that afternoon for a man she had never met. I saw that too on the black-and-grey news. Men as well as women wiping the tears from their faces, talked about RFK and JFK and Martin Luther King all in the same breath. I was starting to put pieces together. This grieving over the loss of a famous person was part of something bigger and people were afraid of an uncertain future when the present and immediate past was so unpredictable and fierce.
In the last days of summer, just a week before school was to start, riots erupted again in Chicago – this time at the Democratic Party National Convention. I watched television with my mother and grandmother, seeing cars alight and hippies and police batting at each other. My siblings joined us, squeezing into the sofa, finding space on the floor – all except for my eldest brother. He returned home in the small hours of the next morning, smelling of smoke as he passed my bedroom door, his pony-tail disheveled, a rip in his jeans. I assumed he was in the riots but was too afraid to ask.
Later that morning, my mother berated my brother for taking risks and being out past the curfew. In my childhood, we always had a curfew and could be stopped by police if we were out past ten – midnight for older kids. But these riots brought about a special curfew and no one was allowed on the streets after sunset. A city in lockdown.
The autumn was all about school and being in the first grade, the first time I spent all day at school. I liked being around other children who were not my siblings and adults who were not my parents or grandmother. But I didn’t like the air-raid drills, the fear of the Soviets attacking America from the sky. We masked our terror with laughter – and people we didn’t like were called commies.
One night in November of that year, the news interrupted our family viewing of The Beverly Hillbillies with images of a stand-off on the tarmac of JFK Airport. A Pan Am jet had been hijacked by guerrillas and was going to Cuba. My brother with the pony tail scratched his armpits and made gorilla noises until a sister explained to me that animals had not broken out of a zoo. Vietnam wasn’t the only place under siege.
The year ended on a high note as everyone was talking about the Apollo 8 mission, with men actually inside a space capsule orbiting the moon. We were all drinking Tang like the astronauts. It wouldn’t be long now before they would be walking on the surface that we knew was not made out of cheese.
It was Francis Xavier who said, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” As 1968 came into my sixth year, it played a part in the making of this woman. But gratefully, perspectives change with hindsight and memories can be altered with time.