I was born on April 2, 1955 in the maternity ward of the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor Michigan. My mother, Jane Roberts Zale, was 32 years old, older than many first time mothers in those days. My father, Eric Michael Zale, was six years older than Jane. Theirs, I would later learn, would be a very unorthodox style of parenting, much more egalitarian than conventional practice, giving me a greater amount of freedom than most kids were blessed with. But given particularly my mom’s childhood story (I know little about my dad’s) that gift of an independent childhood had been passed through the generations.
As I get older, I am more and more amazed about the story of how my mom decided to go to Ann Arbor. An unlikely odyssey in 1947 for a single young woman of 23, but one consistent with her independent spirit, well nourished in her own childhood, that started a chain of events that led to my birth. Another thirty-two years later in 1978, I would embark on my own comparable odyssey to Los Angeles, coincidentally at age 23 as well.
Based on her telling, my mom 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. Born in Dedham Massachusetts outside Boston, my mom would later recall to me only good memories of adventures playing outdoors as a kid. Her family moved to Watkins Glen New York during the depression, after the jewelry business her dad worked for as a salesperson failed. From that period more stories from my mom of playing in the namesake glen across the street and roller skating on the smooth slate sidewalks of the town at the southern tip of beautiful Seneca Lake, one of the Finger Lakes of upstate New York. The fact that my mom was able to live the life of a tomboy is an indication of her own parents’ more egalitarian approach to child raising.
My grandmother Caroline was an outside-the-box character, 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. She and her sisters were also athletic women, all excellent lifelong swimmers. She graduated from high school and went to secretarial school in Boston, financing her tuition by playing piano in a silent movie theater before “talkies” became popular. In her early twenties, before she was married, she became the executive secretary to Henry Wendell Endicott, a private investor who served on the board of Sears and Roebuck and several foundations. Later as a married woman with kids, and no education beyond high school, she worked her way up to become president of the Binghamton New York PTA (where the family lived during my mom’s teen years) and a force in local politics. I am told she threw great parties, often entertaining her guests at the piano, playing and singing.
My mom always felt that her mother never really loved her, telling me the story that my grandmother was forced to marry my grandfather after becoming pregnant with her, and resented my mom for it. Some of this may be apocryphal, as my aunt Pat, my mom’s younger sister, has a different recollection. But I think it is safe to say that my mom, who was also multi-talented and charismatic like her mom, felt like she lived in her mom’s shadow. My mom used to tell me that people would come up to her as a kid and say, “You’re Caroline Roberts’ daughter. You must be so lucky to have a mother like that!” She did not feel lucky in the least! In my own limited interaction with my grandmother, I don’t have a recollection of ever really connecting with her. Don’t know if that says anything about her parenting skills or not.
My mom was much more connected with her dad, my grandfather George. Not so imposing and charismatic as Caroline was, George was more of a kind heart and my mom always felt his love and support throughout her life. But he was a talented person as well, serving aboard a U.S. submarine in World War I as an electrician’s mate. After the war he worked at a jewelry store as a salesperson until events surrounding the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression closed the business. He was able to leverage his wartime submarine electrician training and experience to get a job and eventually make his career working for IBM. It is interesting that all her adult life that I witnessed, my mom seemed to more naturally connect with men, while being more competitive with other women.
Jane grew up athletically and academically talented as well. She used to brag to me later that in pickup baseball games as a kid, she was always the first pick, even before the boys. In high school she focused her athletic prowess on tennis, teaching herself to play, with never a coach or a lesson, and would later became a local amateur champion, winning city championships and the prestigious Watson trophy at the IBM country club tournament. She graduated from high school in 1941 with great grades and excellent scores on her New York State Regents exams.
My dad, born Eric Michael Zaleski, was born in Old Forge Pennsylvania in 1916. I know little about my dad’s youth beyond the fact that he was not particularly connected to his family, because I never met any of them and he rarely talked about them or his youth. He was the second youngest of six brothers, his parents both immigrants from Poland, which was part of Russia at the time. I am told his father John was a very unhappy and angry man, who had been a tuba player in the Russian Czar’s band but the political upheaval in Russia had led him and my grandmother Helen to emigrate to the U.S. in the early years of the 20th century, and he could only find menial work in this country and he could never reconcile the bitterness of his misfortune. My dad had a better relationship with his mother, and I recall when I was a kid that he would occasionally buy her philosophy books, written in Polish, the written language she knew best, and mail them to her for Christmas and her birthday. But according to what I was told, he was raised mostly by his older brothers and it was a difficult childhood for him.
Eric grew up in Johnson City, the middle of the “tri-cities”, squeezed between Endicott and Binghamton New York. He found work as a sports writer for the Endicott Daily Bulletin and went on to be their sports editor. Among other things, his work involved covering the local amateur tennis tournaments, which is how he first became acquainted with Jane. He took advantage of an ROTC program to help pay for his initial years of college and enlisted in the U.S. army in 1944 as a second Lieutenant in Patton’s Third Army as the commander of a platoon of light artillery that was involved in the 1945 invasion of Germany. His tour of duty lasted beyond the German surrender, and he ran a trucking operation in Germany after the surrender staffed by former German prisoners of war.
He was born Eric Michael Zaleski, but during his young adulthood, including on his byline writing sports columns for the Endicott and Binghamton newspapers, generally went by the name “Ed Zale”. There was certainly a lot of negative stereotyping during those years against Polish ancestry, perpetrated by nativists and eugenicists particularly among the Waspy intelligentsia, that Poles were slovenly, unsophisticated and unintelligent. My mom’s story was that Eric changed his name before he enlisted in the army, but Pat recalls that Jane put pressure on him to do so before they finally married. I haven’t been able to confirm either of these, but from a letter that I have found written to him by the University of Michigan in 1947, they referred to him by the name Eric Zaleski, even though in his diary from that same period he referred to himself as Ed Zale. But on my parents’ marriage document in 1950 he is listed as Eric Zale. This may confirm my aunt Pat’s remembrance.
Like so many young men of his generation, I believe my dad’s war experience transformed him in ways that were both positive and negative. Certainly running the trucking operation after the war was something he was obviously proud of by the way he would later animatedly describe it to me. But he also had the experience of ordering a captured German SS officer shot in cold blood for refusing his order to get on a truck in the midst of a chaotic battle situation. And his unit liberated a German death camp with its horrific content of emaciated living prisoners and exterminated dead. He was a shy, sensitive and cerebral person, and I can’t imagine that these horrors and atrocities of war did not scar him deeply. Though he was happy to share most of his war experiences with my brother and I when we were kids, it was only many years later that a conversation with my brother triggered him somehow to mention the incident of liberating the death camp, something he might otherwise have never shared with anyone.
After high school, at what she said was her mother’s urging, Jane attended Cortland State Teachers’ College, now the State University of New York (SUNY) at Cortland, to train to become a teacher. After a year she decided she wanted to pursue her interest in art instead, and she attended art school at Syracuse University. But Syracuse was an expensive private school, and after a year her parents’ limited finances, still recovering like many from the Depression, prevented her from continuing and she returned to Binghamton.
While at Syracuse Jane met Jim Fishette, a smart handsome guy from a well-to-do Binghamton family, whom she dated and after he returned from service in World War II in 1945, agreed to marry. She had also met Eric before the War, since she was entering and winning local tennis tournaments that he was covering for the Endicott paper, and had dated Eric as well. My mom’s telling and my Aunt Pat’s recollection are somewhat different on this, but one way or another it seems a bit of a classic soap opera plot. Jim’s dad was the head of prestigious law firm and his mom a society matron. Jane’s mom, coming from more working class roots, did not like Jim and his family because she felt that they were rich snobs, but thought much more highly of Eric. Jane eventually broke off her engagement with Jim. Later she had second thoughts, asked Jim to restart the engagement but he refused, possibly influenced by his mother.
Many years later, after my mom and dad divorced, she shared with me that she still regretted her decision not to marry Jim and had periodically sent him letters telling him so. And when some fifty years after the original breakup, after Jim’s wife had died, she got in contact with him and he still did not want to have anything to do with her. From my aunt Pat’s recollection and my dad’s diary he kept in 1947 and 1948, Jane continued to be torn between Jim and Eric, to Eric’s continuing frustration as expressed often in his diary entries.
Eric had been admitted to law school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. As my mom told it to me, my dad 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 do what he could to help her get admitted to the university as well. Whether my mom went off to Ann Arbor chasing him, to escape her family, or to pursue her continued education, it was an unconventional thing for a single young woman to do in the late 1940s. My dad was a unique character himself, probably even brighter than my mother but as shy as she was gregarious. He was exceedingly clever and creative and never planned to live life by the standard rules and conventions that governed others. Years later, he told me that he often felt like an alien from outer space trapped here on Earth. (If only I’d asked him to say more about that, but though a talented writer, he was never much of a talker!)
So my mom left home and came to Ann Arbor, finding room and board living with a family and taking care of their young kids, and working other part time jobs to earn money. And so it went for the year until Jane got her Michigan residency and, as Eric had envisioned, was accepted into the undergraduate program at University of Michigan to study sociology. Even in Ann Arbor, even continuing to date Eric and periodically express her attraction to him, she went through bouts of doubt whether somehow Jim would take her back, to Eric’s continuing consternation as expressed in his diary. The stuff of soap opera indeed!
So Jane and Eric finally were married on February 4 1950 in what my aunt Pat recalls was a simple ceremony at the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church near their house in Binghamton, without formality or formal wedding attire, and a reception followed at their parents’ house. She was 26 and he was 33. The web of connections included Steve Hambalek, Eric’s best man, who worked with him at the paper, often covering the Endicott-Johnson factories and families, which were such a key part of the economy of the region. He knew Caroline and would use her as a source for information about the Endicott family. Years later Pat worked with Steve when she was society editor for The Binghamton Press, the beginning of her own professional career as a writer, columnist and newspaper editor.
It was some time after that that Jane and Eric decided after much deliberation that they were ready to have children. Jane had completed her bachelors degree in Sociology and Eric was a graduate student, now switched from law to English Literature. The way my mom told this story to me, they agreed that she would be a very different mother than her own and he than his father. In addition my mom, always a thoughtful and scrupulous planner, decided to go into therapy to prepare herself for being the best possible parent.
My conception planned, and my birth heartedly anticipated, I began this incarnation at the University of Michigan hospital in Ann Arbor in April of 1955, just a month after Claudette Colvin, a fifteen-year-old African-American youth was forcibly removed from a bus in Montgomery Alabama for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman. Six years after Simone de Beauvoir’s book, The Second Sex, would start to rekindle the feminist movement that would bloom in the 1960s, which both my mom and later I would get caught up in. It would be two and a half years later that the Soviet Union’s successful launch of its Sputnik satellite would start the spare race and, like the civil rights and the women’s movement, also turn America upside down.
They shot a few eight-millimeter home movies that I saw later of both my mom and dad holding me lovingly in their arms and playing with me. Though there was no sound the looks on their faces and the other non-verbal cues from their movements indicated that they were both happy with each other at that point, and thrilled to have me as an addition to their little family.
As part of their plan for my birth, Jane and Eric moved from the apartment where they had been living to one a couple miles away on South State Street, closer to the University campus, but also uniquely suited to their idea of raising a young child. Just across the street from their upstairs apartment was the practice field for the football team, a large enclosure of manicured green grass lawn maybe 150 yards on each side, surrounded on three sides by a brick wall and on the fourth side by a chain link fence separating the field from railroad tracks of a small rail yard (where freight cars seemed always to be parked). It had several entrance doors that were latched but not locked, so it represented a contained space where a young child could wander, but not leave, all the while easily in view of an adult seated anywhere within the space. Though the football team practiced there often on fall afternoons, most of the time it was vacant.
I was a toddler, too young then to remember that time now, but my mom told me how she would take me across the street to the practice field, find a nice spot to sit with a book, and let me roam the space to my hearts content. It was the perfect metaphor for her and my dad’s ideas of child raising. Giving a kid a safe space but as much room as possible to strike out on their own and explore their world at their own direction.
I think I was about three years old when my parents managed to buy the little white house on Prescott Street across from Almendinger Park. The place where and when, in the second half of my fourth year of life, I can still remember for myself the subsequent events of my life. My oldest discrete memory is standing in the small living room of our house with very little furniture other than a couple of chairs, holding out three fingers on my two outstretched hands and exclaiming to all in earshot, “I am three and three-quarters!”