American Childhood

Free American Childhood by Annie Dillard

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Authors: Annie Dillard
his legs. It consisted of many scaly layers of fragile translucency, which together appeared bluish. On it, white starbursts appeared at random, and red streaks were visible somewhere inside. The stars and stripes forever. The skin on Oma’s legs was similarly translucent; the freckles seemed to float flat just below the first few layers.
    I found a beachful of neighborhood kids to swim with; I came home only to eat. Evenings Amy and I played cards with Oma and Mary on the porch, or, when we were younger, we colored in coloring books with Oma. Oma was a tidy hand with a crayon. She fought with us over thecrayons as an equal. The big woodland silk moths banged at the glass walls beside our bare shoulders under the lamp.
     
    We left the Lake by rising at three, eating the last of the sweet cantaloupe by lamplight, and driving through horse-and-buggy Mennonite country back to Pittsburgh. We retraced one of the routes the old Indian traders had used in the 1750s, back from the Lake Erie country to the Forks of the Ohio, where they could load up on trinkets and, pretty soon, buy a drink. In Pittsburgh, Oma would go back to work. Although she claimed never to have worked, in fact she and a partner directed the Presbyterian Hospital gift shop as volunteers full time for twenty years. And in Pittsburgh this year, Amy and I would start new schools.
    Now in the embarrassing Cadillac we pulled up in front of our house. From the capacious row of jump seats Amy and I were delivered—suntanned, cheerful, covered with poison ivy, and in possession of suitcases full of new green and purple dresses—to our mother.
     
    The rivalry between our mother and Oma was intense; it was a long, civilized antagonism. Our mother had won the moral battle—we children were shamed, for instance, by Oma’s bursts of bigotry—but Mother fought on for autonomy, seeking to prevent our being annexed to Oma’s big tribe of Louisville Germans. When I was a baby, Oma had several times hauled me downriver to Louisville for Christmas as a prize; Mother put a stop to it.
    If Oma had a great deal of shockingly loose money, we had, we fancied, good taste. Oma had a green-and-blue blown-glass sculpture of two intertwined swans, full of bubbles; we had a black iron Calder-style mobile. Oma had a servant and a companion. We had help. Our “help” shared our drinking glasses. At our parents’ parties, friends ate lasagna and danced; at our grandparents’ parties, guests ate sauerbraten and went to the theater.
     
    Matters of taste are not, it turns out, moral issues. We thought we were grander than Oma morally, that she wasbigoted and vain, quite as if we ourselves were neither. Actually it was her taste we most deplored. We thought that merely possessing a gaudy figurine was a worse offense than wholeheartedly embracing snobbery. We could not see how clearly she saw us, two small children just about to start prep school, who enjoyed the fruits of her family’s prosperity, and who had barely peeped beyond Pittsburgh. She never said a word against our mother. But like our mother, she never gave up the struggle, even, apparently, after she suffered a stroke—for after her stroke she earnestly asked our father from time to time, “Have you ever thought of marrying?”
    He pressed her freckled hand. Of course we loved her.
    It was not, in retrospect, a fair fight. For at our house, we were all so young.

 
    W E HAD MOVED WHEN I WAS EIGHT . We moved from Edgerton Avenue to Richland Lane, a hushed dead-end street on the far side of Frick Park. We expanded into a brick house on two lots. There was a bright sunporch under buckeye trees; there was a golden sandstone wall with fireplace and bench that Mother designed, which ran the length of the living room.
    It was into this comfortable house that the last of us sisters, Molly, was born, two years later. It was from this house that Father would leave to go down the river to New Orleans, and to this house that he

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