An American Childhood

I am firmly under the spell of Annie Dillard’s magical way with words. This is a focused autobiographical look at her childhood growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, a privileged daughter with two younger sisters, grandparents firmly entrenched in Pittsburgh high society and wealthy enough that her father could quit his job to float down the Ohio River for a few months and then figure things out. Dillard reads a ton of books, begs for a microscope for Christmas, nurtures the budding scientist/botanist/naturalist that she later becomes, and also offers a look at someone raised with Church as purely a social event and debutante expectations.

“I began reading books, reading books to delirium.”
“In fact, it was a plain truth that most books fell apart halfway through. They fell apart as their protagonist quit, without any apparent reluctance, like idiots diving voluntarily into buckets, the most interesting part of their lives, and entered upon decades of unrelieved tedium. I was forewarned, and would not so bobble my adult life; when things got dull, I would go to sea.”

The chapter on her mother was particularly delightful, an intelligent energetic woman with a penchant for word play and mischievous tricks. She planned for weeks for an eye surgery by saying right before she went under, “Will I be able to play the piano?” to which she expected the doctor to say “Yes my dear brave woman, you will be able to play the piano after this operation,” to which she was going to reply “Oh good, I’ve always wanted to play the piano.” She regarded the instructions on bureaucratic forms as straight lines, “Do you advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force or violence?” After some thought she wrote, “Force.”

One Sunday afternoon Mother wandered through our kitchen, where Father was making a sandwich and listening to the ball game. The Pirates were playing the New York Giants at Forbes Field. In those days, the Giants had a utility infielder named Wane Terwilliger. Just as Mother passed through, the radio announcer cried–with undue drama–“Terwilliger bunts one!”
“Terwilliger bunts one?” Mother cried back, stopping short. She turned. “Is that English?”
“The player’s name is Terwilliger,” Father said. “He bunted.”
“That’s marvelous,” Mother said. ” ‘Terwilliger bunts one.’ No wonder you listen to baseball. ‘Terwilliger bunts one.’ ”
For the next seven or eight years, Mother made this surprising string of syllables her own. Testing a microphone, she repeated, “Terwilliger bunts one”; testing a pen or a typewriter, she wrote it. IF, as happened surprisingly often in the course of various improvised gags, she pretended to whisper something else in my ear, she actually whispered, “Terwilliger bunts one.” Whenever someone used a French phrase, or a Latin one, she answered solemnly, “Terwilliger bunts one.” If Mother had had, like Andrew Carnegie, the opportunity to cook up a motto for a coat of arms, hers would have read simply and tellingly, “Terwilliger bunts one.” (Carnegie’s was “Death to Privilege.”)