A counterculture childhood

In an excerpt from her new book, the author remembers toting the Viet Cong flag as a toddler.

By Lisa Michaels
Published July 15, 1998 9:06AM (EDT)

A few years ago, when I was visiting New York, my Grandma Leila (the archivist of the family) produced a pristine copy of Life magazine, dated November 21, 1969: the day I turned three. Johnny Cash is on the cover, playing acoustic guitar in front of the massive wheels of a freight train, steam gusting up around his waist. He has one pointy boot poised on the edge of a railroad tie, and a silver lamé scarf glitters at his neck: "The Rough-Cut King of Country Music," the headline reads. Inside is an article on Jesse Jackson -- "black hope, white hope" -- and photographs of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's first seminar on death and dying, in which a beautiful young woman talks about her leukemia while health care workers weep behind a two-way mirror. It is a sampling of the times, but that wasn't why my grandmother saved it for twenty-five years.

On the last page of the issue, under the heading "Parting Shots," is a picture of me just shy of three, carrying an unfurled Vietcong flag across a patch of trampled grass. At the top of the frame, the flag bisects the body of a man, leaving a diagonal of rumpled coat, one arm stuffed into a pocket. Long, bottle-nosed cars are parked on the street behind him, bleached white by the glare. What looks to be cold autumnal light shines through the flag -- two silky panels with a star in the center -- and lifts a white corona around the edges of my head. I look highly serious, hunched over to counter the weight of the long pole, wearing a short dress and little brown work boots: a pintsize protester, trudging along, head down, my chin slung forward in concentration.

The editors at Life wrote a poem to go with the picture, which they called "The Burden of Protest":

Is toting a Vietcong flag

In a war demonstration the bag

Of a child or a parent?

We'd say someone's errant --

This kid should be off playing tag.

It's a smarmy piece of copy -- never a good idea to take the moral high ground in a limerick. Notably, the poem took a potshot at my mother, who to the editor's mind was conspicuously absent, having loaded me up with my ideological burden and disappeared.

But my mother says she was there that day, and the picture lied: I had picked up the flag on my own. She can almost recite the doggerel from memory. "That poem was a criticism of my parenting," she said once with a laugh. "Some mothers worried about stuff going on at those rallies, but me, a nice girl from the suburbs, I was a trusting soul. I came to pick you up from your dad and there you were dancing around with that flag. Your dress -- you can't see this from the picture because it's black-and-white -- was red velvet, a real thick velvet, and some part of the flag was red and you looked gorgeous. They found one shot where you seem burdened, but really you were having a blast. And the photographer knew it."

The first time I saw this picture was in my father's house. I must have been eight or so. He had trimmed away the offending poem, framed the photo in mat board, and typed his own caption. I can't reconstruct his text entire, because the picture was lost in some move, but his final line sticks in my head: "Could it be that at three you caught the spirit of the worldwide movement for socialism, and shouted, 'Hey, everybody, wait for me!'"

Clearly, he had caught the spirit. I imagine that at three I measured the world on more intimate terms: my father was the sun; my mother was the moon. Years later when I looked at my father's handiwork, hung in the living room, the site of many a strategy meeting and leaflet-folding session, I felt a mixture of pride and pique. I was the treasured one, matted and reframed. But his gaze fell on me at an odd angle. That caption says much about what my father wanted me to be: a comrade, a willing enthusiast for the work to be done.

But caption or no caption, looking at that picture now takes my breath away. November 21, 1969. Two months earlier, my father carried that same flag into the Harvard Center for International Affairs -- an organization that did counterinsurgency research for the government -- and along with twenty of his fellow Weathermen ran through the building, dumping over filing cabinets, breaking windows, and tearing out phones. In the tumult, blows were exchanged between protesters and staff. Two months after the picture was snapped my father would be in prison. When I swung that flag across Boston Common, it was a swath of fabric to me, nothing more. I waved it over the sunlit grass in a calm between emergencies, one sock up, one down, oblivious to what was to come.

I told my mother the story of my father's caption, nearly thirty years after their divorce, and she laughed with a rueful note of recognition. Still, I was surprised that she didn't leap at the chance to peg him. Instead, her laughter wound down to a sigh: "Well, I suppose my reading is just as suspect. So Pollyannaish: the sun was shining; you were the perfect child." And it's true, out of the tangle of the past my mother preserves mostly primary colors, the quality of the light, my power and exuberance. Even though she knew that in those months my father was anxiously preparing for his trial, that she was planning to pack up and head for Mexico, that our lives were about to fly apart.

My parents met at Cornell in 1962, on a grassy slope overlooking Lake Cayuga. My father, a junior, was a fitful student; my mother was a freshman, thrilled to be taking up the scholar's life. When I asked her what she thought of him that first day, she squinted off into the distance, choosing each word carefully -- "lean, intense and witty, sparkly-eyed, charming." She wore her hair shoulder length, bobbed up like a Ronette, her eyes rimmed with black liner. And the clothes? "I think we wore skirts, for crying out loud. Short skirts -- above our knees." I wanted to see how they looked, what they wore, but my mother would rather describe the surroundings: the big drop down from Cornell to the lake, a narrow band of silver visible through the trees, the magnolia in the library courtyard that scented the air at that time of year.

My father invited her to see a musical at the playhouse. lt was The Fantasticks, and at the memory of it she started into one of the songs, something I'd heard her sing when I was a child, never understanding the reverence that came over her as she sang the maudlin lyrics. "Do you remember that kind of September when days were long and oh so mellow?" It was a love story, of course, and when they came out and walked through the darkened campus, my mother and father stopped on a wooden bridge, one of many that spanned the hillside's narrow gorges. The water rushed through granite pools below them, and over the white roaring they spoke perhaps too intimately for people who had met only that afternoon. It didn't seem odd to them. "I was aware of this immense electric energy between us," my mother said.

"You don't know," my father told me once, "how stunning your mother was. I was in the Jewish fraternity, and we used to sit around with the yearbook looking at the incoming freshman girls. She was a knockout."

I came across that yearbook picture in a family album when I was still a gawky schoolgirl. It's a three-quarter profile shot, my mother's thick straight hair spilling over one shoulder and beyond the frame, her long nose and smooth forehead catching the light.

"You were so pretty!" I told her, unaware of how I bungled the compliment with the past tense.

My mother bent over me, studying the photo as if it were of some other girl, someone she knew once and with whom she had long since lost touch.

As my mother tells it, she and my father were rarely apart in that first year. She helped him with his homework, and they spent many long nights exchanging stories -- the way all lovers talk in the beginning, I suppose, with the kind of eloquence that passion allows. It wasn't all directed inward. That spring, in Michigan, SDS released its Port Huron Statement, and at the same time word was beginning to filter up from the South about the protests there, tales of sit-ins and marches and lynchings. It seemed that all around them, on the lawns and in the ivy-covered brick buildings, there were signs of a general awakening.

I suppose you could say my parents were both idealists, though that word has become tinged with naiveté. I mean it in a positive sense: they both believed that human conditions could be made better, and they were willing to work to make such change come about. Over that year, they talked a lot about where they had come from -- the first step toward deciding who they would become.

- - - - - - - - - -

Out of varied pasts, my mother and father came together, a testament to the attraction of opposites. The only photographs I have of their brief union were taken during that time: four black-and-white frames from a coin-operated booth. My mother is nineteen, my father twenty-one. Their faces are pressed together in front of a pleated curtain, scrubbed and gleaming in the washed-out prints. My father could have stepped straight off a balcony in West Side Story: his curly hair slicked back into waves, his skin olive, lips full. He is laughing in the first shot, the gap in his front teeth giving him a vulnerable air. My mother's hair sweeps away from her face and cups his cheek, the last wisp seeming to give him a cleft chin. She says they had gone out to dinner in Greenwich Village and missed the train back to Valley Stream. Grand Central Station, 1 A.M.; "God, we were so in love." And yes, it's all there in the photo: their faces full of the sharp present tense of happiness.

Not long after that, my mother brought my father home to Huntington, and her parents gave him a withering reception. Kate and Bob served an endless parade of highballs and tried to mask their disdain with tight smiles and platitudes about how some of their best friends were Jews.

My mother still can't say what proportion of crassness and wisdom made them warn her off my father, but she thinks that if they hadn't hated my father, she might not have married him. Their college romance was showing its seams. But as soon as her parents made their disapproval known, as soon as they brought their stuffiness and bigotry into the equation, she told them, "In a pig's eye. I'm marrying him."

And marry they did, in 1964, when my father had just graduated from Cornell and my mother had finished her sophomore year. My grandfather Bob, despite his rue, invited his business friends and spared no expense. At the rehearsal dinner my mother ate frogs' legs with garlic, and out of some mixture of fear and indigestion she spent the night before her wedding retching in the hotel bathroom. At the reception she and my father got separated, and she wandered through the cacophonous crowd, still faint from her sleepless night, being kissed and gripped by hundreds of near strangers.

After the wedding, my parents moved in with Grandma Leila in Valley Stream. My father took a job teaching in the Newark public schools, and my mother transferred to Sarah Lawrence to finish her bachelor's degree. The change in colleges suited her. Sarah Lawrence had no official majors; students were allowed to design their own curriculum. That freedom and rigor renewed my mother's interest in her studies, at a time when talk inside the classroom had begun to seem disconnected from the urgent mood in the streets. In the fall, eight hundred students were arrested at a sit-in at U.C. Berkeley. In the spring, Lyndon Johnson launched an all-out war on North Vietnam. My father went to teach in the ghetto and brought home stories of families barely clinging to the hem of working life.

Late in her second year at Sarah Lawrence, my mother took a poetry course with Muriel Rukeyser. The class met in a cottage set in a nook of the campus, surrounded by a flowering garden. Inside, the students sat in a circle, with the doors thrown open to the greenery, and talked about poetry and politics and daily life.

My mother thought of Muriel as a mentor and went to speak with her often, but one afternoon in particular frequents her stories. She had just found out she was pregnant, and at twenty-one, with a war on and her marriage under strain, the prospect of motherhood made her worry.

"I don't know if this is a good time to bring a person into the world," she said.

Muriel looked her in the eye. "Don't worry about the baby," she said. "Babies are powerful. They look helpless, but you'll see: the world will turn around it."

That summer, my mother graduated from Sarah Lawrence and she and my father moved to Newark to work on the Newark Community Union Project, part of a wave of student activists moving to the ghettos. NCUP ran a storefront office headquarters and held meetings that stretched into the early morning hours. My father went around ringing doorbells, visiting with people in the neighborhood, working with them to file complaints against the slumlords.

Around that time, my mother's uncle took her aside and offered her a job at his bond brokerage firm. She was a bright girl; he needed people like her. She could rent a place in Manhattan, get a nanny for the baby, and start socking it away for a house on Long Island. My mother smiled and said thanks but no thanks. She had set her sights on another career: she wanted to teach school in Harlem.

It would be a while before she fulfilled that goal, but in the meantime she and my father lived in a world her uncle would have found unfathomable. They rented a dingy one-bedroom apartment in a section of Newark that had cobblestone streets and erratic garbage collection. They didn't drink or smoke, never did drugs, never ate out, never went to the movies. Instead, they spent their days organizing rent strikes, trying to get the trash collected, and, in late 1966, backing a black liberal Republican, Earl Harris, in a bid for a council seat against a white Democrat.

In a profile of Tom Hayden in New York magazine (another clipping Grandma Leila saved) the writer has this to say about NCUP: "Newark Community Union Project: Romance drips all over it; the young radicals love it out there across the land." In a photo that went with the article, a group of these vanguard youth are gathered on a Newark street corner, dressed in what would now be called casual business clothes. Midway through the piece, my mother makes a cameo appearance, as "the Lost Daughter of Goldwater Parents." In the writer's description, Ann, "pretty, long hair falling to her shoulders, closes the door, heading for Earl Harris' headquarters. 'If Harris loses we're going to have a fight here. Some of the community people are carrying guns.' Her eyes are flashing. It is prom night all over again."

I read these lines to my mother not long ago, thinking she'd laugh at the patronizing tone, but instead some of that flashing resurfaced: "Prom night! Yeah, and Newark fucking exploded." She was almost hissing with the memory of those riots, which would convulse the city six months later.

But the writer, despite his glib style, did manage to capture my parents' shared conviction for political work. In the private realm, they shared less. My mother, who was tending to a newborn and keeping the house polished, was becoming disillusioned with the division of labor in the new society. My father wrote the speeches and she typed them; he was to speak at a meeting and she was to give him a ride. This had as much to do with the times as it did with the depth of my father's needs, but it seemed to my mother that even amid the radical movement some aspects of the old order remained the same. When they argued, my father went off to the headquarters and she stayed up into the middle of the night scrubbing the kitchen floor with a rag and brush.

- - - - - - - - - -

When I was four months old, my parents' marriage came apart. My mother moved to the Lower East Side and took a job teaching school in Harlem, as she had vowed to do. My father stayed in Newark. From both of their accounts, the time after their split was one of unexpected liberation. Their divorce was to be a progressive agreement, part of the new society that was to come. They passed me off with a bottle and diaper bag wherever their schedules permitted. It seems they were better friends in those years than they had been when passion clouded the air between them. "We planned things together," my mother told me once. "We had never done that before."

Their separation meant that three days out of the week my father was fully in charge. He learned how to lull me to sleep, how to warm a bottle without scalding the milk. He laughs to recall how he would set out from my mother's apartment, holding me on one arm, the bag of creams and bottles on the other. "Ann would say, 'Don't forget to put the wet clothes in a plastic bag and the dry clothes in the bag marked "D" and the damp clothes in the bag next to the pacifier, which is on top of the pediatrician's phone number.' I would nod knowingly and start losing things the minute I left her apartment." Once, he showed up to meet my mother for the tradeoff, feeling snazzy in a new khaki suit, only to have her point out a giant blossom of urine on his pants. Still, my father says he was grateful for the chance to be a real parent: "In the evenings I would sit in a chair and read and you would crawl around, using me as a home base. I enjoyed being 'forced' to miss my political meetings for a while."

After the Newark riots, my father went to work for Students for a Democratic Society, organizing at colleges up and down the eastern seaboard. He was based in Boston, but would always manage to end up back in New York by Friday night, where he would take me for the weekend while my mother went out. Sometimes he brought me along on the speaking circuit. We "crashed" on the floors of people's apartments, went to student meetings, and rode buses together. "We had to take a Port Authority bus from midtown Manhattan to Newark," my father wrote me once, describing that time, "and, not being able to occupy you for the whole ride, I would let you crawl around on the floor where you would proudly pick up cigarette butts and show them off to me and the passengers -- who were horrified. I think that a lot of my permissiveness was an attempt to cope. I was looking for some type of parenting 'style' that would allow me to be in charge without feeling the need to control. Out of that you developed a highly self-sufficient style of your own."

While my father canvassed for SDS, my mother began to distance herself from politics. At twenty-three she had believed that if she could gain entrance to the White House, if she could get Lyndon Johnson to sit still in his grand leather chair and listen for an hour, she could make clear to him how purely wrong the whole war effort was, how cracked in its very foundation -- and, in the face of her lucidity, he couldn't help but change his mind.

It was a measure of my mother's faith in her own power that she actually went to the White House in 1968 and camped on the steps with a group of her friends, insisting on a meeting with the president. They stayed for nearly two days, sleeping on the cold marble steps, with no one paying them much mind, until King Haile Selassie arrived for an official visit and the protesters linked arms across the gate. Then the Secret Service arrived and whisked them away. My mother's picture was in the New York Times, to my grandparents' mortification. Two Secret Service men are lifting her up by her arms, her crossed legs dangling in textbook civil-disobedience style, penny loafers on her feet. She looks, in fact, like the darling coed: pegged pants and cardigan and glossy hair flipped up at the ends. My father loved that picture. He described it to me once in startling detail, a wistfulness in his voice at my mother's former passion.

But although my mother and father were both bent on political change, it seems to me that they worked from different sources. My father identified with the oppressed. It was fury at their conditions that spurred him on, and if one method wouldn't work, he would try another. My mother was attuned to other people's suffering, but what drove her to action was the idea that reason could win out. As a young girl, she once dreamt she was appointed to solve the world's problems, and she set about fixing them one by one, until solving the last dilemma presented the solution to the first. But in waking life, the problems were more intractable, and all her smarts and energy were dwarfed by the country's ills. Gradually, my mother lost heart for the slow, backsliding muckiness of protest politics -- all the evenings spent arguing with people who mostly shared her views. I suspect that some of her disavowal of mass movements was a reaction to her relationship with my father, but whatever its roots, she stopped going to meetings, gave up trying to change the government, and started looking around for a smaller sphere.

She found the beginnings of one when a group of her friends rented an old hotel on the Massachusetts seashore and convinced her to join them. We left Manhattan in the summer of 1968, when the garbage workers were on strike and the mercury was climbing into the nineties. "Every inch of air had its own vile and particular smell," my mother said later. She let go of our apartment, packed all our belongings into our VW bug, and drove up the West Side Highway, leaving those cloying streets behind.

Her fellow household members were computer programmers, psychologists -- many of them old friends. "Suddenly, I was living the Sgt. Pepper life by the seashore," she said. Everyone pitched in for food and cooked together; chores were posted on a rotating wheel on the fridge, with each person taking care of a slice of the housekeeping pie. On Sunday evenings, the housemates gathered in the living room for meetings where issues were raised and occasionally resolved. Her share of the rent was about forty dollars, and since we ate rice, beans, and vegetables, and spent our days on the beach, she didn't need to work. She got a little pin money from her grandmother, and passed the summer in a pleasant haze. We would wake up
late and eat oatmeal at the big farm table with whoever else was around. In the afternoons, she and her friends would gather down at the beach and stretch out a blanket. My mother would read, marvel over my dawning consciousness, then take a nap while someone dangled my feet in the surf.

When she talks about Manomet, my mother's voice goes soft and she looks out into the middle distance, conjuring the long green lawn below the house, the path through the dunes to the water. She was buoyed up by the company of her friends, by the salt breeze that slipped into our room at night, and her sense of freedom and ease seeped into me. On most days I wore nothing but sandals. Sometimes she put a diaper on me; more often I was allowed to squat where I pleased. My mother was in no hurry to potty-train me. She believed then that children were possessed of a native vitality, which would guide them toward good health and good human relations. She saw her job as one of gentle helmsmanship.

In fact, I was wild as a baby goat. I ate whole sticks of butter, bit anyone who crossed me, and pushed my mother's friend Miriam over the line one day when we sat down for breakfast together and she lifted the lid on the sugar bowl to find a turd curled up neatly inside. In the moment of shocked silence while Miriam's spoon was poised, my mother pointed out that the sugar bowl did look something like a toilet -- it was round and porcelain, even if the scale was wrong -- and then they howled together at my dainty replacement of the lid. But Miriam helped make it clear, if it hadn't been before: I was socializing myself for a society of one.

Lisa Michaels

Lisa Michaels is a contributing editor at the Threepenny Review. Her memoir, "Split: A Counterculture Childhood," will be published by Houghton Mifflin next summer.

MORE FROM Lisa Michaels

Related Topics ------------------------------------------