Phoenix, Arizona: March 1958-59

It is March, the month that my daughter Benith was born. Every year at this time, no matter where I have lived, memory turns to Phoenix 1958. March was cool that year, cool for Phoenix I should add, sunny and almost brisk, puffy white clouds against a blue-blue sky. Ben and I and our nineteen month old baby, Renee, were living in a brand new house we bought soon after we returned to Phoenix after Ben’s discharge from the Air Force the previous October. We moved into the house in early January, the biggest house we could possibly manage—and that a real stretch. It had 1800 square feet of living space: three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a big living room, big family room that opened into the kitchen as well as a dining room and good sized entry hall. It was a great floor plan, but we had no money to buy carpet or furniture. The living room and dining room were empty, the kitchen had a small, inexpensive Formica dinette set we bought cheap and an old hand-me-down Bendix washing machine that sat next to the back door. The family room and bedrooms had old furniture my parents were able to scrounge for us: an old studio couch, an old platform rocker, an old bed and dresser, a crib and a twin bed for Renee when the new baby came. The house looked bare and cold, which was not helped by the color scheme I’d chosen—beige tile floors and pale pink walls, yuck. The view out the windows didn’t help: bare dirt in back, a straggly rye grass lawn and two small mulberry trees in front. This was a brand new neighborhood. All the houses looked as raw and bare, as dreary and depressing, as ours.  All in all, our much anticipated house was a big disappointment.

But our life didn’t just consist of that house. We had my parents; we had good friends from church we loved to visit. We could get out of the house, go for a drive—explore the desert or go to the green lushness of Encanto Park, take Renee in her stroller to feed the ducks in the lagoon. On weekends, we could drive up to Flagstaff to visit Ben’s family, a beautiful drive up over Mingus Mountain down through Jerome, a big, fascinating ghost town, then down into the Verde Valley and over to the red rocks of Sedona and through narrow, forested Oak Creek Canyon before the steep, twisty climb up the Mogollon Rim to the Douglas fir forest where Ben’s parents, brother Dave and sisters Libby and Mary Ellen lived. Great fun to be surrounded by family, play Rook (a card game that was ok with conservative Baptists), do jigsaw puzzles, laugh and joke. Our parenting duties were shared with the whole household. Ben and I could leave Renee with her Grandmother Richardson, get out of the house and explore Flagstaff and Northern Arizona with Dave, Libby and Mary Ellen. We were so young—me turning twenty on New Year’s Day 1958; Ben turning twenty-one eleven days before that, terribly young to have taken on all the heavy responsibility we now carried. It was wonderful to let go of that load for a while, be kids again.

I am so glad we moved back to Arizona when Ben’s enlistment was up, that we didn’t go out to Western Washington and embark on home building there. Even if the Richardsons had stayed there, not moved back to Arizona, we could not have depended on them to stay. Ben’s dad, Stan, was too restless, his feet too itchy. My parents were the family we could count on. Dad used his contacts to help Ben get a job at Litchfield Naval Air Facility; helped Ben do the ‘creative’ financing that allowed us to qualify for the G.I. Loan on our house. He and Mom welcomed us into their house when we got to Phoenix, let us live with them until Ben got a job and we were able to move into our own home, a two and half month stay that was relaxed and comfortable.

It felt so good to be with my mom again. She was so calm and peaceful. Life was better when I was around her, working together, sharing household duties—cooking, laundry, cleaning house. When I was with her I was totally in the moment, able to savor each moment, moments I wanted to taste to their fullest because life was very good those two and half months we lived with my parents.

 My parents were living in a house and neighborhood I would have loved to live in when I was growing up. The house, which they bought while Ben and I were in Japan, was an older home, probably built in the 1920s, a modest Spanish Colonial in an older neighborhood in a nice part of Phoenix, a neighborhood with abundant trees and large mature shrubs softening the edges of houses and defining yards. The house was across the street from a good-sized park with tennis courts and a playground with swings and a slide and paths that wound around tall palms, ash trees and other heat-tolerant trees. It was mid-October when we arrived, and the weather was beautiful, stayed beautiful—Phoenix winter at its best: bright sun and blue-blue sky, mild days when it was delicious to be outside. I would put Renee in the hand-me-down fold-up stroller and take her for walks around the neighborhood and through the park, put her in one of the toddler swings and gently push her for a while, then go back to the house and put her down for a nap. Mom worked part-time at Penny’s, and if it was one of the days she worked I would cook supper. On days she was off we would work together, sew during the day after finishing the morning chores before it was time to start supper. Calm, peaceful days, satisfying days. Days lived in the moment, each moment savored. When I was with her I shared the zen-like ‘mindedness’ that was my mother’s special gift.

I was three and a half months pregnant when we arrived in Phoenix, and even before we arrived my father had arranged for a doctor to deliver the baby gratis. Doctor Kilpatrick was a lovely woman married to a Presbyterian minister Dad got to know through his fundraising for the Rescue Mission that he established in Phoenix. Once a month, Mom and I, Renee in my lap, would drive out to Scottsdale where the doctor had her practice. I liked Dr. Kilpatrick very much. She was serious, calm, patient and understanding. She knew how tight money was for Ben and me. She was not only taking care of me without charge, she had arranged for the birth to take place at the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital in Tempe, a small but very good hospital that had the lowest charges of any in the area. Their fees for delivery room and three days after birth care: $60 dollars. Even Ben and I could manage that, such a relief. Thanks to my parents and Doctor Kilpatrick, the birth of my second child was a very different experience than the birth of my first child at the military hospital in Japan.

I thought nothing of it at the time, took what came for granted, but looking back now, I can see how impersonal the whole military hospital experience was. I have no memories of any of the doctors or nurses at either the maternity clinic or the hospital. I was alone in a private room with my baby. In my memory it is just Renee and me, no one else. With Beni there was Dr. Kilpatrick, and there was the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital itself. I was not alone in the Labor Room; Ben was with me. And after delivery I was taken to a large, multi-bed room—four beds, perhaps? It was so nice to have other new mothers to talk with, share experience with. And it was so much better to have Beni in a nursery so that I could really rest and recuperate, to have her with me just for feeding and cuddling. I needed that three-day break from full-time motherhood. I could enjoy Beni when she was brought to me, then hand her over and go back to sleep without any sense of guilt.

Another thing that made this second birth so different from the first was the result of my own doing, a decision I made back in Japan after Renee’s birth. I had always wanted to breast feed my babies, but Ben was vehemently against it, and I gave in to him, which meant so much more work and anxiety—sterilizing bottles and nipples, boiling water for the formula for twenty minutes because the water off-base was not safe, plus the anxiety of making sure Renee, who was a slow feeder, quickly full, had taken enough formula, then having to decide if it was safe to put what was left in the refrigerator. On top of that was the need to heat Renee’s bottle when she woke up at night, waiting it for it to get to the right temperature while she cried, often getting it too hot and having to cool it down, all of this while she cried. All of this knowing that if Renee were breast fed I could just pick her up when she cried and take her to bed with me while she nursed. It was seeing all that extra work–and my pointing it out to him, that convinced Ben that breast feeding was best. I can see now how angry I was at myself for giving in to Ben about breast feeding, and how angry I was with him for pressuring me into giving it up.

Even before Beni was born I consciously decided that was going to enjoy this baby. I had been so anxious with Renee that it made it hard to enjoy her fully. I was so afraid that every mistake I made would warp her for life. But that hadn’t happened. In spite of my anxiety she had been a contented baby, a bright, sweet toddler, open to life and the world around her. I dismissed the theory of infants as blank slates on which their parents every mistake was written as I watched her grow and develop in her first year. Now I set aside all books and articles of advice on child rearing, including Dr. Spock, the current guru, and decided to trust my instinct, to trust myself and most important, to truly enjoy both my children. I was a child who had been enjoyed by my parents and grandparents. I was convinced that the best gift one could give a child was not to just love them, but to enjoy them. And I did just that. I enjoyed this new baby. I set aside anxiety and worry and just enjoyed her, held her, rocked her and marveled at her long fingers and nice little nose.    

This photo of Beni was taken by a neighbor in her back yard. It is the only photo I have of her taken in her first year. I am not a photographer, and Ben had lost interest in taking photos. Money was very, very tight. But my parents had a camera. Dad took photos. Why did I not make sure some good photos were taken? Deeply regret that failed opportunity to record her first year.

~~

©Loretta Willems, March 9, 2021, Bellingham, Washington

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