It was 1961, a moment of firsts. My father was the first in his family to come to the West; my mother was the first in her family of Scandinavian immigrants to go to college. "I was wild about it," she confesses, eyes gleaming. "All those books I thought I had died and gone to heaven!" Her freshman year she met my father, and they became the first interracial couple on campus. This among ten thousand college students.
After my mother was sent away, my parents met in secret and were married at the Seattle courthouse one Saturday. "I wore a pale green princess-style dress with matching jacket like Jackie Kennedy might have worn only much cheaper," she says, smile firmly in place, "and your grandfather immediately disowned me." Without his support, she was forced to drop out of college and banned from ever going home or seeing her mother and brother.
The newlyweds were broke. The apartment swelled with international students who were also broke and who stopped by for dinners of vegetable curry and groundnut stew. I remember being poor a chalky taste like scorched kidney beans and I remember the stew, my mother's wooden spoon swirling peanut butter into tomato sauce a vivid, oily spiral of red and brown. I remember murmured discussions about Cuba and Vietnam lasting late into the night, backed by Bob Dylan's whine or smooth African Highlife on the hi-fi. I remember the scent of vanilla drifting from the coffee table and the squish of warm wax between my fingertips as I caught candle drips before being chased off to bed. I don't remember my father.
After politics, my parents' great loves were movies and dancing. I know little else. If we are riding the bus and pass a former hangout of theirs, or if I come across a photograph of one of their friends, my mother dusts off a memory and presents it to me. "Your poppie used to like this place," she might say, or "That girl was dating a West African too, and once we double-dated." She chooses these anecdotes carefully, sparingly, as if we are still poor.
I was born at Saint Elizabeth's Hospital in Spokane, Washington in 1963. I don't know why Spokane, which is hundreds of miles from Seattle. I do know that my mother enjoyed being pregnant, sleepy, swollen with a ready-made excuse to spend entire days reading. I can see her seventeen years ago, propped against the sofa bed of their tiny apartment, stacks of history textbooks and news magazines and dime store mysteries covering every inch of the linoleum.