I did not simply cry as an infant. I was a full-blown hysteric. Within weeks of my birth I turned red and developed intense heat rash all over my body. Everything bothered me. The blankets bothered me; the heat bothered me; I screamed when I was held and I screamed when I was put down. Some forty years later I would be diagnosed with kinesthetic ADD and put on medication. But in May of 1963 the pediatrician had a simpler solution: “take off all her clothes and stick her under the air conditioner.” He sent my parents home with a smile and pat on the back. They were too mortified to tell him that they did not have an air conditioner.
As a new accountant, my father kept the pair of them on a strict budget. My parents grew up poor and believed that a more financially secure life would begin with budgets and savings. With 10 dollars a week my mother ran the household, buying groceries, soap, toiletries. Their one extravagance was that when it came time to purchase an alarm clock for my father to use to wake himself up for his first accounting job they bought a clock radio instead of a 39 cent basic alarm.
My father often stood with his body inside the refrigerator in a pose of deep concentration. He counted the eggs in the refrigerator every evening when he came home from work as his way of helping my mother keep tabs on the budget. “There are 7 eggs,” he remarked. “We had 4 this morning for breakfast.” He looked at my mother with respectful apprehension, knowing full well that the day had begun with a dozen eggs. “Did an egg break?” he asked, hastily adding, with the love of the newlywed, “it’s OK if you dropped one, darling.”
My mother beamed at her beloved man. He was a man of virtue and responsibility, and she felt proud to be able to tell him that she shared his concerns. “I used one egg in the cornbread,” she explained, and elaborated upon the cup of cornmeal, cup of flour, the two teaspoons baking powder, one teaspoon salt, and two tablespoons of sugar. “After I mix the dry ingredients I add two tablespoons of oil, one egg, and a cup of milk. It takes a lot out of our staples but it should last for a couple of days.” My father gazed down at her proudly; “how about that,” he said with admiration in his voice. “Who would have thought cornbread had an egg in it?” He said this as though my mother were the most clever wife in all of Choctaw County, and he kissed her on the mouth, and pulled her up from her seat, holding her close while they swayed to Lefty Frizzell on the clock radio. He was losing his blues.
That June they drove home from the doctor’s office in silence and put me to bed in my crib. My hysterics kept everyone in the brick four-family apartment building awake all night long. Naked and red, I thrashed helplessly and angrily, seeking relief. There was no breeze to be felt in the Oklahoma summer. My parents got up grimly the following morning and began the routine again except that today there would be no walk to the park in the flimsy stroller, my mother’s only escape from the apartment. How could one stroll a naked baby in small-town Oklahoma in the 1960s? It would bring shame upon my father for my mother to neglect me so in public. Weeping most of the day, my mother fanned me with newspaper, attempted to breastfeed me, walked with me and jiggled me. At 5:15 she looked out the window and down the sidewalk in anticipation of my father’s return from work, and relief for her in the form of another human being to walk the baby. He did not appear, and as my screams intensified she began to lose all hope. She put me down, in nothing but a cloth diaper as plastic pants would worsen the rash, and turned on the clock radio. No one could mistake “Lovesick Blues” for a lullaby, but it hardly seemed to matter anymore. She lay down beside me and despite my screaming she fell asleep for a minute. Or maybe it was two. Desperate for the screaming to stop, she picked me up again, her own agitation and crazed terror fueling mine, and she went once more to the window. This time he appeared, without his jacket and tie, and as he came nearer the apartment she recognized the burden at the top of his side; his left shoulder and hands supported the large window unit air conditioner. He carried it into the living room, installed it, and turned it on. Within seconds there were only two sounds in the room; the exhaust chamber churning out the hot air and the DJ reading the 6 o’clock news. By 6:30 the three of us were breathing deeply and peacefully; the steady roar of the air conditioner providing a shuddering bass underneath Patsy Cline. She was “Back in Baby’s Arms.”