As I get older, I am more and more amazed about the story of how my mother, Jane Roberts, decided to go to Ann Arbor. An unlikely odyssey in 1946 for a single young woman of 23, but one that started a chain of events that led to my birth. Thirty-two years later in 1978, I would embark on my own odyssey to Los Angeles, coincidentally at age 23 as well.
Based on her telling, Jane had had a childhood mixing idyllic joys and adventures with some difficult family relationships, particularly with her mother Caroline. Jane was the first of three children, her brother John just two years younger and her sister Pat born to an entirely different generation 14 years later.
Caroline was an outside-the-box character as well, a highly talented person in an era when most women played second fiddle to men. She lived large and seemed to pretty much take the world by storm, with talent, charisma, drive and general chutzpah. If you had made a movie of Caroline’s life, you would have wanted Bette Davis to play the part.
The tales my mother and my aunt Pat told of their mother (some probably apocryphal) included:
* She was secretary to Wendell P. Endicott, the owner of the Endicott-Johnson shoe company.
* With no education beyond high school herself, she worked her way up to become president of the Binghamton New York PTA and a force in local Binghamton politics.
* People would say to Jane, “Your Caroline Roberts daughter…you must be so lucky to have a mother like that!” (Jane did not feel lucky in the least!)
* She and her sisters were all excellent swimmers
* A lifelong Catholic, she would attend Masonic temple events with her husband George (who was a Mason) and not reveal her religious affiliation until well into the evening, presumably after all the other wives were enamored of her.
* She gave great parties, entertaining her guests by playing the piano and singing.
* She had to marry George Roberts when she became pregnant with Jane.
That last item, if in fact true, may have set the stage for a very difficult relationship between mother and daughter. My mother shared with me, on numerous occasions, that her mother (Caroline) did not love her and did little or nothing to support her. Jane carried this wound throughout her life.
Jane grew up talented as well, like her mother. In pickup baseball games as a kid, she was always the first pick. In high school she focused her athletic prowess on tennis. Teaching herself with never a coach or a lesson, Jane became a local amateur champion, winning city championships and the prestigious Watson trophy at the IBM country club tournament. She graduated from high school with great grades and excellent scores on her New York State Regents exams. She was accepted at the Syracuse College art school and attended for one year.
Jane was smart, talented and good looking and had an abundance of men in her life. The two most significant for this story were Jim Fischette, who she was engaged to marry, and Eric Zale (my father) who she eventually did marry. As my mom and aunt Pat told it to me, the events played out as if right out of the soap operas. Jane got engaged to Jim, a handsome guy from a rich Binghamton family with plans to go to law school and become an attorney. At the same time, Jane befriended and dated Eric, the sports writer for the Binghamton paper, who covered her tennis triumphs. Caroline did not like Jim because she felt that he and his family were rich snobs.
After pressure from her mother, Jane eventually broke off the engagement with Jim, a decision for which he never forgave her and she later told me she regretted making. But in the wake of that decision, after returning from his service in General Patton’s army in World War Two, Eric presented Jane with an unorthodox proposition.
Eric had been admitted to the undergraduate program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He proposed that Jane come to Ann Arbor as well, not to marry him, but to live there a year on her own to get residency, and then he would pull strings to get her admitted as well. This academic tag team was not the typical proposition a young man made to a young woman in the late 1940s. But Eric, later my father, was a unique character himself. He was probably even brighter than my mother but as shy as she was gregarious. He was exceedingly cleaver and creative and never planned to live life by the standard rules that governed others. Years later, he told me that he often felt like an alien form outer space trapped here on Earth.
So Jane accepted Eric’s proposition and they headed off in his car to Ann Arbor. Eric started school at the University and Jane got room and board living with a family and taking care of their young kids. She worked other part time jobs to earn money. And so it went for the year until Jane got her Michigan residency and, as Eric had promised, was accepted into the undergraduate program to study sociology.
I still shake my head when I think of the decisions they made. That Jane would leave her family and her world of friends and head off 800 miles from Binghamton New York to Ann Arbor Michigan with Eric, not as husband and wife, but as two individuals looking for the best path forward in their lives. Did they have a plan at that point to eventually marry? They are both dead now and I never found that out. But it was several years later before they finally did marry each other.
What I take from this story is that my parents pursued unorthodox paths for their own enlightenment which eventually brought them together and led to my birth. They had not led their lives so far by the book, and they would raise a child in no less of an unconventional way.