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"A riveting book."
- Mike Gallagher, The Mike Gallagher Show
"A delightful memoir of more innocent days"
- Kathryn Jean Lopez, National Review Online
"Mrs. Cheney says she knows her grandchildren cannot live as she once did, but her touching memoir makes one wish that they and other young Americans might possess what she evokes so well as she tells her own and her family's story: the resiliency to deal with challenges, the determination to do one's best, and an optimism about their future and America's future"
- Myrna Blyth, National Review
"Lynne Cheney's credentials are, as far as I can tell, unprecedented among vice-presidents' wives: a doctorate in English, author of numerous books, Lockheed Martin Corp. director, chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, she is known for her combative conservatism, yet there is almost nothing about partisan politics in this nostalgic memoir. On the other hand, there is a good deal about achievement...In the '50s, girls were not typically encouraged to express aspirations beyond home, hearth, and helpmate. Young Lynne Vincent did. I am intrigued enough to hope for a sequel that reveals more about her blond ambition."
- Grace Lichtenstein, Washington Post Book World
I am wrapped up, lying on a bed near a window where white curtains stir. A small boy comes into the room and picks me up. And he drops me.
I have been told that I cannot possibly remember this, but if it happened, and I believe it did, it occurred in a duplex apartment at 630 West 11th in Casper, Wyoming, where my parents brought me after I was born. My mother, the most vigilant of souls, would never under normal circumstances have left me where a child might pick me up, but about the time I turned two months old, my father, a surveyor, had a terrible accident, and I can imagine her being distracted. He fell into the canyon below Seminoe Dam, and although he caught himself on the canyon wall about twenty feet down, he was still badly injured. Rescuers lowered him with ropes and carried him two miles on a makeshift litter to an ambulance. When he arrived in Casper, doctors determined he had broken a leg, both ankles, and every bone in his right foot. My twenty-one-year-old mother was told that my twenty-five-year-old father would be "a cripple for life."
She brought him home from the hospital, took care of him as well as me, and one unseasonably warm winter day pushed his wheelchair out onto the stoop in front of our apartment, where someone took his picture. I've looked at this photograph for years, noting patches of snow on the ground and my father in his shirtsleeves squinting into the sun, and then one day not long ago, I discovered my mother, bare- armed, hiding behind his wheelchair. Apparently not wanting her picture taken, she has tried to crouch out of sight. And where am I? Could this be the moment when my contemplation of the white curtains was rudely interrupted?
The date on the photograph is December 1941. The Germans have taken most of Europe, and the Japanese may at this moment be winging their way to Pearl Harbor. A great conflagration is sweeping the world, and in Casper, Wyoming, a small boy drops an even smaller baby on the floor. He is my half-brother, Leon, who is not yet two.
My father's first wife, Tracy Schryer, died giving birth to Leon on March 6, 1940. My father's Mormon mother, Anna Vincent, a beautiful, red-haired woman of legendary will, was so determined that Tracy's Catholic relatives not raise Leon that as soon as the funeral was over, she boarded a train with him and headed for La Junta, Colorado, where she and my grandfather lived. My father, blaming Catholic teaching for Tracy's death, fully supported Anna's leaving with his son. Tracy had hemorrhaged while giving birth, and my father was convinced that her Catholic doctor, believing her soul was safe, had neglected her to focus on the baby, who had to survive and be baptized to avoid eternity in Limbo. Grieving and bitter, my father wanted every bit as much as my grandmother to keep Leon away from the Catholic church.
The trip to La Junta was long and caring for a newborn hard. I imagine Anna holding him close against the spring chill, trying to persuade him to nurse from a bottle, trying to keep the bottle and the baby clean. The milk supply on the train was unreliable and once ran out entirely, whereupon my indomitable grandmother bullied the conductor into wiring ahead so that milk would be waiting at the next stop. By the time she had cared for the baby for five days on the train, she loved him as though he were her own.
My mother and father must have met not long after Tracy Schryer died, because they were married ten months later. Photographs show my mother pretty and stylish, her hair rolled back from her face. My father, with a head of black curls, looks as if he knows how to enjoy himself, and, according to those who knew him then, he did. He loved pool halls and poker games, and he was good at starting fights. Although not a big man, five foot ten perhaps, he had a large temper, and when he felt offended, he would go after the offender, never pausing to consider the other person's size or how many friends he might bring to a fight. In a memorable dance-hall brawl in Cheyenne, Vince, as his friends called him, took on a half-dozen soldiers from Fort Warren and ended up with his jaw so swollen he couldn't eat for days.
In a photograph dated 1940, my father has on a wool overcoat, belted at the waist. In another photo taken at the same time, he has his coat off, revealing a double-breasted pinstripe suit. My mother is the photographer, it's a bright winter day, and you can see her shadow on the snow. And you can understand why she fell for him. As he stands by his new Oldsmobile coupe, hands in his pockets, he looks positively dashing.
I suspect that this picture was taken on December 28, the day my parents eloped to Harrison, Nebraska. I would be born on August 14, 1941, seven and a half months later, so they no doubt suspected I was on the way. But my father may have had another reason for wanting to marry quickly, and that was to create a home for Leon. There were trips between Colorado and Wyoming, with my parents going there and Anna bringing Leon to Casper, and it may have been on a visit to see his father, newly home from the hospital, that the little boy succumbed to the temptation to pick up the baby he found lying on the bed. His effort to carry me was no more successful than my father's attempts to convince Anna that Leon should live with him. She was determined to raise the little boy she had cared for since his birth, the little boy who by this time was calling her Momma. When he was three years old, my grandmother and grandfather officially adopted him.
One might have expected Tracy's family to be up in arms, but sorrow piled upon sorrow for them, leaving little room for indignation. Tracy's father, Paul, died in 1943, and her mother, Theresa, in 1944, at age fi fty. According to her obituary, Theresa died of a heart attack, but I remember visiting the house she lived in on David Street and seeing her, rosary in her hands, weeping for her husband, lost so soon after her daughter, and I wonder, did she die of a broken heart? Six months later, there was another death. Tracy's brother, Technical Sergeant Russell Schryer, who had survived thirty months of service in the China-Burma-India theater, was killed when a cargo plane he was aboard crashed into a hangar at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio.
At war's end, when Betty Schryer, Tracy's sister, got married, she healed whatever rifts there were by inviting the Vincents to her wedding and even asking me to preside over the guest book. In a photo in our family album, I'm standing solemnly in front of the dark-haired bridegroom, wearing a long dress with puffed sleeves. Betty, beautiful in white satin, smiles from the center of the picture — beams, really, as does her sister Doris, the maid of honor, a lovely brunette in taffeta, holding a bouquet of carnations. They have lost parents, a sister, and a brother, but there is still happiness in the world, and in this moment, they have found it.
Copyright © 2007 by Lynne V. Cheney
Posted March 10, 2012