No one has ever told me what I looked like at birth, and there is no surviving photo, if ever there was one; but I imagine I resembled most babies: wrinkled, pinkish, slightly misshapen. I do know the date: January 4, 1951; and the time: 1:20 p.m.; and that I had blue eyes and black hair, that I weighed slightly less than five pounds, and was only a foot long. As a result, I was put in an incubator. But miraculously, while a prisoner in the technological womb, I was not, as were so many other newborns of my generation, blinded by the ordeal. Nor did I apparently suffer from being untimely separated from my mother, who exited the hospital some time before I did.
I suppose this is as good a place as any to introduce my parents and forebears. My mother came from good lower-class stock in Colorado. Her father had rebelled early on against his Pennsylvania Dutch destiny, first by joining the army during the First World War (albeit as a noncombatant) and second, by becoming a railroad man rather than staying on the farm. Though seemingly innocuous acts of defiance, within the family they were treated as grave departures from what was expected of him, for not only was he the first member of the exceedingly pacifist Bucher family to fight in a war since the revolution of 1776, but he was also the first one since the arrival of the ancestors on American shores in 1684 to decide not to plough and plant and harvest.
My mother’s mother was originally from Sweden, but had come to the United States – Kansas of all places – at such a tender age that she had no recollection of fjords or the busy port at Stockholm where her father had been the assistant Harbor Master. I’ve never known why my great-grandfather gave up that occupation to move to a sod house on the prairie and take up farming, but he must have had his reasons. My grandmother, even when I knew her, was an exceedingly beautiful woman: statuesque, blonde, with brilliant blue eyes and a seductive smile that must have left scores of men apoplectic with desire. My grandfather, on the other hand, was of average looks, not unhandsome, but not striking either. He was a small, muscular man with brown hair and gentle gray, slightly watery eyes of the sort one associates with a beloved hound.
My mother was by all accounts a precocious child, far too advanced in her thinking and desires (particularly after becoming an adolescent) to feel terribly at home in the Colorado towns where she grew up. The major event in her youth was being forced (by the Depression and subsequent dismantling of the Uintah Railway where my grandfather labored as a railroad fireman) to leave the hamlet of Atchee, where she had spent the first 12 years of her life. I have never quite understood what was so special about this place. Perhaps it was its extraordinary beauty, high in the rugged Uintah Mountains near the Utah-Colorado border. Perhaps it was the presence of the Utes who captivated the imaginations of my mother and her younger brother with tales of courage and endurance. But I think mostly it was that my mother, within the small community of less than a hundred was able to roam at will, dream without checks being placed on her fantasies, feel secure within the extended family formed by those living in the soon-to-be-extinct town of Atchee.
All this changed for her after the move to the metropolis of Grand Junction where the order and adventure of village life was replaced by the small-minded conformity of home on the range, where pious farmers, rather than rough and tumble railroad men, dictated societal norms. In her studies, though, she excelled, graduating at sixteen from high school. By eighteen, determined to be a writer in the tradition of Zane Grey and Helen Hunt Jackson, she decided to abandon the unenlightened Western Slope of Colorado for the bright lights of San Francisco. In the process, of course, she also cut herself off from the immediate inspiration of place, but felt that with Atchee now a ghost town anyway, she had stored in her memory the best of what she wanted to tell about in her writing of a world, that like most fiction, never existed anyway except in the writer’s potent imagination.
Since no firms, even then, employed writers in quantity, she found work as a secretary. It was the usual low-paying drudgery, but at least the privation was only on an economic level. She worked sporadically on a romance novel about a Ute princess and a dashing cowboy, and to augment, if only slightly, her meager wages sold a few pseudonymous “True Confessions” pieces that were anything but. It was, she rationalized, writing. And when the magazines arrived with small checks attached in payment for “My Husband Left Me – For Another Man,” and “I Was A Teenage Hellcat Until...” she carefully cut her stories out of the filth and lies surrounding them, filing the clips away in a trunk along with photostats of the checks.
To the more serious writers and students she began to meet, however, she did not advertise this aspect of her career, preferring instead to talk “literature” with them, espousing the belief that it would be a woman who would write the Great American Novel. This was not feminist cant; by a woman, she meant herself. But within a year of her arrival she outgrew this group of mostly Berkeley intellectuals for whom this kind of talk was a mandate. While initially enthralled with their intelligence, she began to find them less urbane than snobby, less captivating than tedious, less educated than pretentious. And so she was glad-delirious almost – when her new roommate, an aspiring sculptor, began to introduce her to her friends. Within weeks she had bid adieu to the scholars on the other side of the bay – even though she did enjoy the ferry rides – and gravitated to the bohemian fringe living in rarified squalor around Market St. and up on North Beach.
My father, a painter, was a member of this dangerous group that consisted largely of 4 Fers, homosexuals and European refugees. That my parents were physically attracted to one another surprised no one. Both were beauties. My mother, auburn-haired, buxom, long-legged, with an aquiline nose and bright green eyes, not to mention a quick intelligence, vivacious spirit and a penchant for tight pants and sweaters, was clearly a young woman who would attract considerable attention. My father, a fancy dresser, with piercing blue eyes and raven-black hair, had Clark Gable looks and Cary Grant charm. He was a Basque, at least thrice transplanted, not by design but by destiny. I know little about his family except that they were largely killed off during the Civil War. Of the four boys born to Victorio Lauçanno Axunguiz and Rosario Soroa, he, Jerónimo, the youngest, was the sole survivor. His brothers perished in the fighting, as did old Victorio, who after the surrender of San Sebastian to the Fascists, was rounded up, transported to prison and never heard from again.
I guess my father must have escaped annihilation by leaving the Basque provinces for Barcelona before Franco’s victory. At any rate he spent a lot of the war in the Catalan capital where he apparently got involved in the black market trade of cigarettes. After Catalonia fell, he crossed the border at Port Bou, but he was hardly welcomed when he arrived on French soil. Instead, he was immediately interned in a refugee/concentration camp in Perpignan. I have no idea how long he lingered there, or how he got out, but somehow he managed to flee to Paris in 1939. There he would have probably remained very happily had Hitler not decided that he wanted to make the City of Light German, thus setting into motion his second exile in as many years, this time to San Francisco via Canada and New Hampshire.
I’m not certain of the circumstances of how my mother and father actually met, or even what year, or what they saw when they looked into each other’s eyes, or whether their lovemaking was passionate or perfunctory, or if they had ear-whispering secret names for one another. About all I know is that my becoming wasn’t the expected result of their getting to know one another.
I Become Worth Fighting For
According to my mother, among the most difficult experiences of her life was having to abandon her newborn infant to the care of the hospital pediatric staff. This ranked just behind leaving Atchee, seeing her then boyfriend off to the war, and missing her senior prom because her little brother had broken his arm an hour before her date was to pick her up and had to be taken to the hospital. My father, on the other hand, did not find the situation terribly perplexing. He rationalized that it would give them a few more weeks to prepare for my arrival. He had balked at doing anything preparatory to my birth, telling my mother that there was no reason to spend money on baby things in advance as there was always the possibility that I might be stillborn, in which case they would have no need for diapers and pins and receiving blankets and sailor outfits.
This inevitably would send my mother – already anxious – into either a convulsive rage or convulsive despondency, or both. At the end of her hysterical outburst my father would tell her that he was not trying to be malicious, only practical in his thinking. More accusations from my mother would follow, but true to his obstinate colors, he never relented and bought a single item.
Now that I was a reality, though, my mother expected that they would go on a shopping spree. It didn’t happen. My father still insisted they wait a bit to make sure that I would actually survive. There was, I gather, some cause for concern. I was not growing very fast, was suffering from colic and frequently refused to eat. My mother, as a result, set up a vigil at the hospital, even spending the night there on occasion. My father would drop by from time to time, usually on his way to or from the racetrack, but leave after a few minutes explaining to my mother that he found the hospital atmosphere unbearable. She was too concerned about me to argue with him at the time, but his absence was duly noted by my mother who, while watching me sleep, would busy herself planning recriminations. She also became increasingly upset with her parents. Though they never ostensibly told my mother that they saw no point in coming all the way from Colorado just to attend a baby’s funeral, they continually postponed their visit. “You’ll need more help when you bring baby Christopher home than you do now,” my grandmother would tell her cheerfully when they spoke on the telephone. “Give us a few days warning, and we’ll be there for his real arrival.” It was the word “real” that bothered my mother the most. I may have been living encased in a machine, but I was, after all “real.”
After a week or two my mother, no doubt exhausted by the routine, began to become considerably frustrated and irritated – with my father, my grandparents, the doctors, and I suspect, with me. Finally, one evening, when the pediatrician was walking away from his 30-second check on my condition without having even acknowledged my mother’s presence, she pounced on him, metamorphosing in an instant from an always-so agreeable-and-understanding tabby cat into a vicious jaguar. First she yelled an obscenity at him. Then when he turned to face her, she physically attacked, clawing his face with her long painted nails, kicking him in the shins and testicles with her pointed high heels. The nurses leaped into action, and eventually succeeded in pulling my mother away from the frightened older physician, now bent double from the attack on his private parts. Even though restrained, she still managed to get a few more good licks in, biting one of the nurse’s hands, landing at least one more blow to the buttocks of the crumpled, hapless doctor. The security police were summoned, my mother placed in handcuffs and ignominiously led away by two burly cops. She was interrogated in a small, windowless room by the officers and a hospital administrator. By now, she was completely calm again. Her audience was apparently sympathetic. The doctor and the nurse, whose hand had been rather badly chewed on, however, were wanting to press assault charges and have my mother incarcerated in an institution. In the end my father overcame his abhorrence of hospitals and arrived on the scene. Turning on his charm, in this case a combination of gravity, conciliation and concern, he spoke to the wounded pair, eventually convincing them not to go forward with their plans to heap further misery on my poor distraught mother. She was banned, though, from the hospital, leaving it up to my father to monitor my progress. Whether he actually did I have no way of knowing, but fortunately for all concerned, I came home three days later.
I Become a Sawyer
I was given the patronym Sawyer at birth, not Lauçanno, not Sawyer-Lauçanno, not Bucher. Although an invented name, it was the appellation my father was using at the time, and therefore, had some illegitimate legitimacy.
There are two versions of how he came to be a Sawyer. The first, more colorful explanation, was that he chose Sawyer because he had read and admired as a youth Las Aventuras de Tom Sawyer. But the real reason, I think, was that he was taken in as a refugee by a family from New Hampshire named Sawyer. Loyalist sympathizers – there was a Gerald Sawyer who fought in Spain with the heroic Lincoln Brigade – they apparently initially sponsored him, or at least provided him with sponsors or a a place to crash land after his perilous escape from France. How long he stayed with them, or why he left to venture across the country to San Francisco, I have no knowledge. All I know is that about the time he met my mother he was using Sawyer as an alias, a ruse, he felt, was a ruse that would throw off any investigators from the INS.
This struck most of those who knew him as quite an amusing for there was absolutely no way, had he fallen into the clutches of the dreadful and dreaded immigration authorities, that he could have passed. Nothing about him was corn-fed. His English was atrocious; his manners, including manipulating his dinner fork only with his left hand, were clearly non-American; in short, his whole demeanor was decidedly European.
He also ceased to use Jerónimo, his first name, for a while, as someone early on – maybe it was the Sawyers – informed him that he had the same name as an Apache chief, albeit spelled differently. As Jerome seemed too fancy, and in his eyes, European, he decided on the quintessential American name, Joe. Who could ever deport Joe Sawyer?
None of this was a problem for him until I was born. It then became an excruciating dilemma. For several days while I lay incubating he pondered what my last name should be. Should he perpetuate his Spanish self or his American identity? What would be the consequences of negating his own patronym? In essence: who was he? And who should I be?
In the end my mother decided, since Jerónimo/ Joe had gone temporarily missing when it came time to fill out the papers. (They had apparently both agreed on Christopher.) She simply listed her name as Bucher; my father’s as Sawyer; and me as Christopher Sawyer. Seven centuries of history, of a legacy, of Basque pride (the Lauçanno family never adopted the conventional modern Castilianized spelling, Lozano) were wiped out with the stroke of a pen on a sheet of white paper.
I Become A Focal Point of My Parents’ Problems
Now that I was at home and expected to survive, my father apparently decided to take a liking to me. He chucked me under the chin, cooed goofy sayings into my ear, on occasion held me. He even spent an afternoon all alone with me while my mother (finally) went shopping for baby things. This affection on my father’s part both pleased and annoyed my mother. Since she could not forget that my father had not been attentive to my plight while I lay, as she put it, “in limbo between life and death,” she would haul out ponderously icy reproaches now and then, blunt daggers to hurl against him.
There were other problems between them as well. Chiefly, money. My mother had quit her job at Lily Tulip a month or so before I was born. My father didn’t work. As a result their meager savings, that is to say the cash my mother had put aside, dwindled quickly. My father was expected now to get a job. “But I have a job,” he would exclaim. “I’m an artist.” “Then go sell some paintings,” she would retort. This would then lead to a fairly lengthy, always unresolvable row. In the end it was my mother who went to work, leaving me in the care of a couple of her cousins.
But to give my father his due, he did work. In fact, he had two jobs. He painted daily and he played the horses at every opportunity. The latter activity, indeed, consumed a fair amount of time. In the morning he’d buy a racing form, repair around the corner to one of the cafes on Columbus Avenue or Broadway to drink an expresso and handicap the races, and then take the bus out to the track. Besides, he argued, gambling on the horses was far less risky than gambling that immigration might descend on him as he slung chow (for pennies a day!) in some greasy spoon. Despite the logic of his arguments, my mother just couldn’t understand how difficult it truly was being an illegal alien. She had a hard time buying a) that he had two jobs; b) that he was unemployable because of his lack of papers. She offered as a solution herself in marriage, truly a sacrifice. But my father, holding fast to his principles, refused to commit himself to such a bourgeois act.