Are you the first born child in your family? If so, are there a trillion Ektachrome photographs of your early years crammed into countless albums and Thom McCann shoeboxes? Or are you the second child with a fairly sizable collection of childhood photos, many of which involve your older sibling interacting with you—isn’t that cute how he loves his little sister? And because you’re the first girl are there lots of pictures of you in your little girly-girl dresses and pinafores and Mary-Janes and your pretty hair full of bows? Or are you the third child desperately searching for a single photograph of yourself and starting to think that maybe you were adopted at the age of 8 and all memories of your birth family were deprogrammed out of you by the secret government agency that placed you with those crazy Jews in Chicago? Except then you realize that you look exactly like your parents now that you’re in your mid-40s, especially as related to patterns of weight gain and hair loss. Oy.
I don’t know that much about birth order research but I imagine my plight is fairly common. By the time I was born, my parents had put away the Brownie camera, allowed dust to collect on the photo albums, and stashed the slide projector for good. Where documenting every breath and hiccup of their children seemed like such a good idea a few years earlier, by the time I came along they simply couldn’t be bothered to record my milestones. Yawn. They’d seen it all before.
This is one of the only photos I have of myself at a very young age. Dig the designer duds with matching cap! It looks like something Jean Shrimpton would have worn in a mod Carnaby Street photo shoot. Also note the thick custom-fitted plastic that covered every bit of furniture in my grandparents’ apartment, thus turning expensive luxurious upholstery into squeaky thigh-sticking encasements. And what am I holding? Aren’t I a little old for that? My sister still makes fun of my extended relationship with the bottle. But each time she tells the story she exaggerates it a little more. I think in her current version I’m still drinking out of a bottle at 18. Part of the mythology I have of myself is that my early childhood was one long idyllic happyfest, and that I never knew a moment’s discomfort until my parents’ divorce a few years later. Then why in the few photos that do exist do I look like I’m suffering from clinical depression? Who is that sad little kid in this picture?
One trauma with ties to third-child syndrome that I never fully recovered from was my family’s now fabled trip to the 1964 New York World’s Fair. They planned the trip for months—got all the maps, read through the colorful brochures, planned their detour through Hershey, Pennsylvania where the air smells like chocolate, bought tickets to “Oliver,” the hottest show on Broadway starring future Monkee Davy Jones as the Artful Dodger, and packed everything they needed into our 1963 Buick Skylark for the long trip. Oh wait, everything except for one little tiny thing they left behind…ME!
Why my parents would leave their five-year-old son behind on such a child-centered fantasy vacation is something that I will be talking about in therapists’ offices well into the new millennium. I’ve asked every member of the family to explain it and no one can. Was I such a horrible brat that they couldn’t take the chance I’d jump off the Unisphere or get lost in the Johnson Wax Pavilion? My sister, who has a tendency to infantilize me, swears I stayed back with my grandparents so they could teach me to walk. At age 5? If my parents did have a five-year-old who couldn’t walk they should have been taking me to a doctor’s office, not gallivanting around General Motors’ Futurama or singing “The Happy Plastic Family” at DuPont’s “Wonderful World of Chemistry.”
When the Betrayers finally returned home from The Best Vacation Ever, my brother and sister regaled me with stories of unlimited fun and excitement. To throw me a sad little bone, my parents brought me a comic book tour of their grand adventure called “The Flintstones Go to the New York World’s Fair” in which Fred and Wilma meet up with George and Jane Jetson in the City of the Future exhibit. Pebbles Flintstones gets to go to the World’s Fair, but I had to stay home.
It would be another ten years until I made it to New York, and not with my family, but on a trip alone with my grandparents. I got a secret thrill on our way out of Kennedy Airport as we drove past the decaying Unisphere rotting in its original Flushing Meadow perch. At left is a photo of me taken a year after the Big Trip. As you can see, my mood hasn’t improved, nor has the furniture been released from its plastic bondage. At least now my sister looks equally depressed. Was I already honing my Jewish knack for inducing guilt?