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The Perfect Child
I was raised in a brick dormitory at Dewing College, formerly the Mary-Ruth Dewing Academy, a finishing school best known for turning out attractive secretaries who married up.
In the late 1950s, Dewing began granting baccalaureate degrees to the second-rate students it continued to attract despite its expansion into intellectual terrain beyond typing and shorthand. The social arts metamorphosed into sociology and psychology, nicely fitting the respective fields of job seekers Aviva Ginsburg Hatch, Ph.D., my mother, and David Hatch, Ph.D., my father. Twin appointments had been unavailable at the hundred more prestigious institutions they aspired and applied to. They arrived in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1960, not thrilled with the Dewing wages or benefits, but ever hopeful and prone to negotiationtwo bleeding hearts that beat as one, conjoined since their first date in 1955 upon viewing a Movietone newsreel of Rosa Parks’s arrest.
Were they types, my parents-to-be? From a distance, and even to me for a long time, it appeared to be so. Over coffee in grad school they’d found that each had watched every black-and-white televised moment of the Army-McCarthy hearings, had both written passionately on The Grapes of Wrath in high school; both held Samuel Gompers and Pete Seeger in high esteem; both owned albums by the Weavers. Their wedding invitations, stamped with a union bug, asked that guests make donations in lieu of gifts to the presidential campaign of Adlai Stevenson.
It was my father who proposed that their stable marriage and professional sensitivities would lend themselves to the rentfree benefit known as houseparenting. The dean of residential life said she was sorry, but a married couple was out of the question: Parents would not like a man living among their nubile daughters.
“What about a man with a baby?” my father replied coyly. It was a premature announcement. My mother’s period must have been no more than a week late at the time of that spring interview, but they both felt ethically bound to share the details of her menstrual calendar. He posited further: Weren’t two responsible, vibrant parents with relevant Ph.D.s better than their no doubt competent but often elderly predecessors, whowith all due respectweren’t such a great help with homework and tended to die on the job? David and Aviva inaugurated their long line of labor-management imbroglios by defending my right to live and wail within the 3.5 rooms of their would-be apartment. If given the chance, they’d handle everything; they’d address potential doubts and fears head-on in a letter they’d send to parents and guardians of incoming Mary-Ruths, as we called the students, introducing themselves, offering their phone number, their curricula vitae, their open door, and their projected vision of nuclear familyhood.
The nervous dean gave the professors Hatch a one-year trial; after all, an infant in a dorm might disrupt residential life in ways no one could even project, prepartum. And consider the mumps, measles, and chicken pox a child would spread to the still susceptible and nonimmunized.
On the first day of freshman orientation, three months’ pregnant, my mother greeted parents wearing maternity clothes over her fl at abdomen, an unspoken announcement that most greeted with pats and coos of delight. Mothers testified to their daughters’ babysitting talents. My father demurred nobly. “We’d never want to take any one of our girls away from their studies,” he said.
When I was born in February 1961, it was to instant campus celebrity. It didn’t matter that I was bald and scaly, quite homely if the earliest Polaroids tell the story. Photo album number one opens not with baby Frederica in the delivery room or in the arms of a relative, but with meage ten daysin a group photo of the entire 196061 population of Griggs Hall. A competent girl with a dark flip and a wide headband, most likely a senior, is holding me up to the camera. My eyes are closed and I seem to be in the windup for a howl. My mother stands in the back row, a little apart from the girls, but smiling so fondly at the camera that I know my father was behind it.
David Hatch would be a role model before the phrase was on the tip of every talk show hostess’s tongue. He paraded me in the big English perambulator, a joint gift from the psych. and soc. departments, along the ribbons of sidewalk that crisscrossed the smallish residential campus, or carried me against his chest in a homemade sling, which my mother modeled on cloths observed during her fieldwork in a primitive agrarian society. In public, at the dining hall, he spooned me baby food from jars, switching off withh my mothershe nursed, he fedcausing quite the stir those many decades ago. He was a man ahead of his time, and the adolescentshhhhhis grad school concentrationnoticed. My mother predicted that Dewing grads, especially Griggs alums, would blame us when their future husbands didn’t stack up to Professor-Housefather Hatch, the most equal of partners.
We lived our fishbowl lives in three and a half wallpapered rooms furnished with overstuffed chairs and antique Persian rugs, the legacy of a predecessor who had died intestate. We had a beige half kitchen with a two-burner stove, a pink-tiled bathroom, a fake fireplace, and a baby grand piano, which the college tuned annually at its own expense, presumably in the name of sing- alongs and caroling. The nursery was a converted utility closet with a crib, later a cot. When I was seven, my parents petitioned the college to enlarge our quarters by incorporating a portion of Griggs Hall’s living room into our apartment. Noting my birth date, they asked the college to consider fashioning Miss Frederica Hatch, the unofficial mascot of Griggs Hall, a real bedroom; it was, after all, her sabbatical year.
The board of trustees said yes to the renovation. Griggs Hall had become the most popular dorm on campus, despite its architectural blandness and its broken dryers. The Hatch family had worked out beautifully; more married couples had become dorm parents. Some had babies, surely for their own reasons, but also after I was a proven draw. When I went to college in the late 1970s, to a bucolic campus where dogs attended classes with their professor- masters, I noted that these chocolate labs and golden retrievers were the objects of great student affection, supplying something that was missing for the homesick and the lovesick. The dogs reminded me of me.
I was a reasonable and polite child, if not one thoroughly conscious of her own model-childness. Because I needed to be the center of attentionthe only state I’d ever knownI developed modest tricks that put me in the spotlight without having to sing or tap-dance or raise my voice: I ate beets, Brussels sprouts, and calf ’s liver. I drank white milk, spurning the chocolate that was offered. I carried a book at all times, usually something recognized by these C-plus students as hard, literary, advanced for my years. I drew quietly with colored pencils during dorm meetings. I mastered the poker face when it came to tasting oddball salad-bar combinations (cottage cheese and ketchup, peanut butter on romaine) favored by adolescent girls so that I’d appear worldly and adventurous.
Over the years, certain objects and rituals became synonymous with me: the wicker basket with its gingham lining in which the infant me attended classes; a ragged blanket that my psychologically astute parents let me drag everywhere until it dissolved; the lone swing that my father hung from the sturdiest red maple on campus; first a pink tricycle, then a pink two- wheeler, its handlebars sprouting streamers, which I garaged on the porch of Griggs Hall, no lock needed.
I didn’t exactly raise myself, especially with five floors of honorary sisters living above me at all times. But there was the omnipresent ID card around my neck granting me entrance to all buildings and all meals, with or without a parent. Aviva and David were busy with their classes, their advisees, and increasingly their causes. Assassinations at home and wars abroad necessitated their boarding buses for marches in capital cities, but babysitters were plentiful. I was safe at Dewing, always, and good with strangers. Tall, spiked wrought-iron fencing surrounded our sixteen acres, a relic from the days of curfews and virginity.
Between seventh and eighth grade, I grew tall; incoming freshmen took me for a baby-faced classmate, which was to me a distressing development. I had no intention of blending in. I wanted to be who I’d become, the Eloise of Dewing College, an institution that others, transients, occupied only fleetingly.
Looking back today from adulthood, it’s too easy to idealize my childhood in an exurban Brigadoon, Boston skyline in the distance and, for the most part, kind girls in every chair. We hoped Dewing could get better, its standards higher, its students brighter, its admission competitive, but it wasn’t to be. Smart candidates would soon attend schools that accepted men and boasted hockey rinks. Housemothers came and went throughout my Dewing years. There was less intra-houseparent socializing than one would expect, given the geography of our lives. The older ladies, some carryovers from the secretarial training days, woreor so it seemed to meperpetual scowls. They couldn’t hide their disapproval of modern Mary- Ruths in blue jeans, of their unstockinged legs, their gentlemen callers, their birth control prescriptions. Where were the debutantes of old? The girls who wore fraternity pins on their pastel sweaters and foundation garments beneath them?
My outside friends saw my home as the whole of Griggs Hall and beyond, its acres of campus lawn and flowering trees, vending machines on every floor, cool and pretty girls whose perfumed copies of Glamour, Mademoiselle, and Vogue beckoned from open mailboxes for hours before they were retrieved. They envied my long reign as the charter mascot. Often I came to school with my hair braided and adorned in intricate ways, courtesy of a team of boarders who preferred hairdressing to homework.
Eventually everyone, even my unconventional and high-profile mother (union grievance chairperson, agitator, perennial professor of the year, and public breast-feeder), faded to gray in the archives of Dewing houseparenting. When I was sixteen, the college hired the enthralling and once glamorous Laura Lee French, most recently of Manhattan, maybe forty, maybe more, to pilot Ada Tibbets Hall, the artistic and wayward girls’ dorm next to Griggs. The timing was excellent: I was growing invisible by then, a teenager rather than a pet, despite the darling Halloween photos of me in every yearbook printed since my birth. Just as I was craving more attention, along came Laura Lee, dorm mother without a day job, single, childless, and ultimately famous within our gates.
We overlapped for two years. It was awkward even for my parents, unembarrassable progressives though they were. Fearing scandal and campus glee, we four kept our secret: that Laura Lee French, in the distant past, had been married to my father.
Copyright © 2006 by Elinor Lipman. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.