Memoir: Beginnings and first recollections 1961-65

I am born at 10:10 pm on May 7th in a room at West Suburban Hospital, in Oak Park, Illinois. My parents are Ernest Bruce Bendelow, 30, and his wife, Patricia, 29. 

They currently reside on Second Avenue in the near-by Cook County suburb Maywood, but Bruce will soon complete purchase of a three-story, four-square home at the corner of Chicago Avenue and Elmwood in Oak Park, just in time for my birth.

I can safely run for US President.

My father is not wealthy, but he has job security, a decent income, and a safe home in the suburbs, with–now that I exist– four kids. He is thus living one of his generation‘s most common versions of the American Dream: a decent place to raise your kids. Last September, he turned 30.

The post-war American economy that his “Silent Generation” has matured into is booming. Abroad, American arms and industry still rule the world. At home, there is steady income growth and quality of life growth across vast sectors of society. It is a rational time to be optimistic about the future. Perhaps accordingly, his is the youngest of all American generations in marrying and having children.

On my birth certificate, Bruce’s occupation is listed as “salesman,” which he’s done since returning from the Korean War and a University of Tulsa Marketing degree around 1955. He has been working at his father Ernie’s advertising art agency, Bendelow and Associates, located on North Wabash in Chicago’s Loop. Among the authors he works with is Malcolm Smith, a founding father of Sci-Fi art.

Business is so good at the firm that Bruce looks forward to letting his father retire and taking the agency in the next several years. To house his growing family, he has purchased this home on the north side of Oak Park at 435 N. Elmwood Avenue:

Like many men of his generation, Bruce returned from service overseas and almost immediately started a family with a woman he married during the war: Patricia Sue Colgin, of Tulsa, Oklahoma. My oldest sister Susan Diane was born in 1952 while he was still in the military.

Like the huge cars and roaring economy during the 1950’s, my father’s life seems to have moved fast.

E. Bruce Bendelow, my dad, in the early 1950s

In his short life, Bruce has done well as an athlete, student, and soldier. He was a successful football and hockey player, and was described by Hayes Barclay, the quarterback of his undefeated OPRFHS Varsity team, as “a dear man, and a great athlete.” Bruce started at end on offense and defense. and was seen by his friend as a bookish sort who would end up teaching at Phillips Exeter, or a similar prestigious eastern boarding school.

He does not disclose what he experienced as a US Marine in his Korean War service to his family. This is typical of members of his generation, who repress whatever disturbing emotions they feel, put their heads down, and work hard. Discharged as a Staff Sergeant at 22, he is a respectable man positioned for more success in the patriarchal society of his time.

I am the fourth of what turns out to be five children born to Patty and Bruce.

Infant I

While Bruce seems to be a pretty positive person overall, a sports fan, a reader, a salesman with a gift for gab and a generous, thoughtful spirit, my mother Patricia Sue (“Patty”) (née Colgin) is generally depressive and anxious, and already medicating her menacing moods and trimming her figure–like many American women in similar situations at this time–with pills.

My mother Patty, after sobriety and post-divorce, 1985-ish.

She will spend most of the 1960s and the first few years of the 1970s as an alcohol and pharmaceutical addict. My sisters attest that after she’d found sobriety (in 1972-3, just before the divorce she sought in 1977), if you were to ask my mother what was the most cherished memory she had of her life so far, she would say it was giving birth to me, “her precious baby boy,” the one for which she’d prayed and wished for so long.  

I do nothing to merit my mother’s undying devotion to, or her entirely undisguised bias in favor of me and against my sisters. This imbalance in her parenting will underlie many future conflicts between me and my sisters, especially my nearest siblings, Sheila Elizabeth (born two years before me) and Sarah Fontaine (my “Irish twin,” born in 1962). I now believe that a strong factor in my mother’s undue affection for me was her immediate society.

A product of her southern, evangelical upbringing, Patty Sue holds strong biases regarding gender and races. Though probably unconscious of much of her bigotry, she can not suppress it long. When she feels threatened and anxious, which is often, it comes out. Her valuing of me over my sisters can be explicitly sexist, brazenly depreciating my sisters to their faces–much to my growing chagrin.

The Momma’s boy, left, c. 1965. My sister Sharon Jeanne stands behind me, oldest sister Susan Diane holds younger Sarah Fontaine, and Sheila Elizabeth stands at right.

In the company of my sisters, Patty sighs wistfully to me, recounting how, with each of her previous three pregnancies, her dream of a baby boy had been cruelly deferred. But as a Christian, she kept praying and hoping, until this blessed night at West Suburban hospital when the nurse handed her me, said, “it’s a boy,” and God’s love for her was made manifest. Just like that her patriarchy-assigned role as provider of male progeny–a role determined for her by the social and historical circumstances–was gloriously fulfilled.

At last, she felt herself an accomplished woman in her society. Her eyes tear up as she remembered the joy of that special moment.

But then what?

Alas, the joy and contentment she experienced at my birth does not last. And here, perhaps, is a first reflection on my narrative:

My mother had conflated achieving a male child with her entire life’s purpose. Once she had me, all that dream-invested energy had to go somewhere. And her immediate circumstances–with no community to support her development as a full, multi-dimensional person–provided no larger or replacement purpose, or even satisfying smaller goals that could give her a sense of fulfillment.

My sincere, passionate mother, as the provider of girls only, had prayed to achieve the male child that would remove her sense of incompleteness and make her, in her evangelical, traditional world, a worthy woman. But once she received her blessing and rejoiced, she could not hold on to her joy, and her passionate energy went in darker directions–into numbness-seeking and controlling her moods through pills and alcohol. 

A corollary I draw from this observation for my readers? Try to pursue abiding purposes; avoid those that evaporate once achieved. 

If only mom had found a craft or interest that did not violate the mandatory norms of her culture! With a healthy outlet for her energies, she might have been more healthy, like her church friend, the poet Luci Shaw, who in her work to this day uses Walt Whitman-esque free verse to explore the intersection of Christian scriptures with lived experience.

A likely aggravation to Patty’s problems was a lack of access to new ideas about women just then arising in the world, ideas that–who knows?–might have inspired new, productive goals in her life. Although she was an avid reader her whole life, in 1961 at the time of my birth, it is almost certain Patty was unaware of Simone de Beauvoir’s influential The Second Sex (1949). Betty Friedan’s best-seller, The Feminine Mystique, wouldn’t be published until 1963, and by that time, Patty was wallowing in despair at my sister Sarah Fontaine’s arrival: another girl. In a deep bitterness that persisted for many years, my mother would tell my younger sister when she was old enough to understand that she should have been a boy. 

My sister Sarah next to the desired boy-child, c. 1964

But what could Patty know? In the Plymouth Brethren culture’s narrow worldview, she was kept ignorant of the empowering feminist writers of her day. In retrospect, I see how narrowly she missed the historical window when millions of American women awoke to their own agency, and I regret that she wasn’t born just a year or two later.

After reading Freidan’s book, women in suburban America began to gather in consciousness-raising groups, for The Feminine Mystique had described and named their pathetic condition. Friedan’s first chapter depicts the walking wounded of an epidemic “housewife’s malaise”:

Just what was this problem that has no name? What were the words women used when they tried to express it? Sometimes a woman would say ‘I feel empty somehow . . . incomplete.’ Or she would say, ‘I feel as if I don’t exist.’ Sometimes she blotted out the feeling with a tranquilizer. Sometimes she thought the problem was with her husband or her children, or that what she really needed was to redecorate her house, or move to a better neighborhood, or have an affair, or another baby. Sometimes, she went to a doctor with symptoms she could hardly describe: ‘A tired feeling. . . I get so angry with the children it scares me . . . I feel like crying without any reason.’ (A Cleveland doctor called it ‘the housewife’s syndrome.’) A number of women told me about great bleeding blisters that break out on their hands and arms. “I call it the house wife’s blight” said a family doctor in Pennsylvania. [emphasis added] ‘I see it so often lately in these young women with four, five and six children who bury themselves in their dishpans. But it isn’t caused by detergent and it isn’t cured by cortisone.’”

Alas, Patty was stuck in a particularly insular evangelical Christian worldview, the cultural bubble in which she was raised and educated (not beyond her sophomore year at conservative Wheaton College, where she met my dad, and where she learned traditional ideas regarding a woman’s purpose in life).

Instead of feminists, Patty’s female mentors and role-models were people like her mother, Mildred Colgin, and her mother-in-law, my paternal grandmother Mary “Mae” Bendelow. I imagine that if Patty had come to them saying something like, “Help me! I feel a lack of purpose in my life!” these upstanding church ladies would have counseled her to trust in the holy scripture and obey her husband. After all, the Bible clearly commands wives to submit to his authority (Ephesians 5:23–“The husband in head of the wife, even as Christ is head of the church” and Titus 2:3–wives’ purpose is “to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled”). 

My mother’s role as a Christian housewife was first of all to lead a morally clean life, then to participate in the community of believers at Woodside Bible Chapel, and of course to do as every virtuous woman would: take good care of her house and kids. A purposeful life, her androcentric culture told her, was a life of service to others.

Woodside Bible Chapel, at the corner of Thatcher and Chicago Avenues, Maywood, Illinois was a Plymouth Brethren assembly

Once a nice marriage, kids, and home in a good neighborhood had been attained, no alternative ideas from the wider culture challenged Patty’s sense of life’s possibilities. Around 1962-63 she probably despaired, feeling the sense of loss that comes when after much sacrifice, one achieves a goal, but then searches in vain for something else worth doing. 

Patty’s depression (Friedan‘s suburban woman malaise) lead her to the doctor, and the pills he prescribed–probably Diazepam, Phenobarbital, or other tranquilizers of the day–comforted Patty in a way that church services did not. And at some point in the early 60s, she must have discovered that booze amplified the pleasant effects of the pills, and she became an alcoholic.

Once the pills and drink had hijacked her brain’s pleasure centers–probably by 1966-67–and once she saw that her culture’s criterion of righteous living was thereby lost, Patty may have given up, sinking into a vicious cycle of abuse–>shame–>more abuse, and all of us in the house cycled with her.

The house at on the SW corner of Elmwood and Chicago Avenues; my awareness and my mother’s addiction began here.

There were some happy times in this home. Though their social circle was limited to Woodside’s Couples Club, photos and my sisters’ stories of that time attest to Patty and Bruce having creative fun. Bruce enjoyed writing skits performed with much hilarity at the club, and their intimacy was such that they brought forth my younger sister in November of 1962.

I was reportedly a happy and healthy boy, doted on by mother and sisters alike. In a houseful of girls, a boy’s little pee-squirting penis must have seemed an amusing novelty. 

The author at age two or three, 1963-64

A friend familiar with my narrative asked what effect(s) my mother’s unwarranted favoritism may have had on me, the object of her adulation, as I developed. It’s likely that before I knew of its corrosive effects on my sibling relationships, I reveled in my favored status. But by the age of six or seven, my sisters let me know that they resented me for it, and it became a perpetual problem for me.

With the benefit of retrospect, I will hazard a few tentative claims:

  • Because every interaction with my mother that my sisters witnessed could result in my sisters’ retaliating later against me, my growing mind may have developed a strong, even an over-developed, sense of the other, a kind of worried empathy. As subsequent chapters will show, I became a very adept “people pleaser,” striving to prevent any conflict with others by being agreeable to a fault.
  • It’s also possible that I felt a certain “noblesse oblige,” a feeling that I had to be extra good, diligent, and worthy of the unmerited favor I received. In combination with the stern-father morality of the Plymouth Brethren, this feeling of obligation made me a strict rule-follower, something that both benefited and damaged my relationships in years to come.
  • When I had my own children, I was vigilant of my own parenting and that of my spouse, worried that any favoritism or bias would be communicated to my children. Because of my own childhood, I understood better than most what hard feelings could arise when the parents suggest a hierarchy among the offspring.

I have some vague memories of my earliest years in the house on Elmwood. I can recall watching Walt Disney’s “Wonderful World of Color” on NBC Sunday nights, and driving a little red fire engine my parents got me in the backyard and on the sidewalks around the house.

We watched this in black and white, alas!

I also remember negotiating the house’s central staircase, which had a landing, while wearing a cast on my foot. I believe that I broke the foot while exuberantly flying down that same staircase. Our socio-economic status meant that my foot got excellent medical care, and I recall how frightened I was when it was time for the doctor to saw off the cast, and how delighted I was to get it off, pain-free, despite the scary-looking plaster saw.

Perhaps because they were traumatic, I recall other accidents in that house.  One happened with the washing machine in the basement.

It had two rollers that rinsed the clothes. It looked like this, and it must have fascinated me.

The offending washing machine

I put my fingers out to touch it one day and experienced great pain as the rollers pinioned my little fingers. I can’t recall how I got extricated, but my fingers are fully functional to this day. 

I also have a clear memory of an older woman–perhaps my grandmother Mildred or Mae?–at work on a table on another machine–a Singer sewing machine like this:

It makes clothes and punctures fingers.

That central mechanism–the needle that went up and down at various speeds–captured my interest and I felt a strong urge to know more. I stuck out my fingers to explore its whirring and experienced stabbing pain. 

No lasting damage was done in either case, but together they characterize something essential about me as a human, something still true about me: I find technologies fascinating, and get curious about machines, systems and how they function.

As my early experience shows (here comes another reflection/general truth), when one pursues an interest in tools, one must proceed cautiously with them, learn about them before touching, or risk danger. As the aphorism states, “curiosity killed the cat.”

I had to learn this lesson again and again the hard way, as when , at age nine in our next house I was so interested in how a Super 8 projector worked that I took it apart without unplugging it first. I had to receive two or three serious shocks before I figured it out! 

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