One of my mother’s most treasured heirlooms is a copy of the second edition of Our Baby’s First Seven Years, the “baby book” in which she set down the particulars of my early childhood. I flipped through its yellowed pages yesterday, and as I set out on the longish three-leg trip (two hours by land, two at the airport in St. Louis, three in the sky) from Smalltown, U.S.A., back to New York City, it occurs to me that you might be amused by some of what I found there.
The book itself, which is still in print, is a period piece of no small cultural interest. Originally published in 1928 by the Mothers’ Aid of the Chicago Lying-In Hospital, it’s a sober-sided volume that has been drastically revised several times since the second edition of 1941, whose foreword contains the kind of language no longer spoken in polite company:
A baby’s book should contain a great deal more than a mere record of worldly events affecting the new candidate for citizenship. It should have all the delicate and lovely sentiments attached to the birth and beginnings of life of the new individual, but it should include more than this. It should be a record showing the gradual physical and spiritual development of the body and soul….
A record of all the phenomena which transpire during these years will have a value that grows with time, and increases greatly with the number of babies upon whom such observations are made. For example, a study of 1000 baby books such as this, carefully filled out, will give valuable information in every department of medicine, will guide the teacher, the physical culturists, the eugenist, and the statesman, in their broad efforts to improve the race, as well as the physician in the treatment of the individual case.
Fortunately, my mother never got around to turning her copy of Our Baby’s First Seven Years over to her friendly neighborhood eugenist. Instead, she kept it for me, having filled it to the brim with photographs, relics, and unscientific data inscribed in her neat, round hand.
The first item is a picture of me taken at ten-fifteen on the evening of February 6, 1956, thirty minutes after I was born. I weighed eight pounds and one-and-a-half ounces, and had the same broad nose and full lips that are my most prominent features a half-century later. My period of gestation was “uneventful,” my birth “normal,” my behavior “quiet.” A bill taped into the book reveals that Southeast Missouri Hospital of Cape Girardeau charged my parents $134.27 ($926.20 in today’s dollars) for the privilege of bringing me into the world.
“Beginning at nine months,” my mother wrote a few pages later, “he adores television commercials. Will not move or take his eyes from the screen.” At eleven months I could stand up, and on January 18, 1957, I took my first unaided steps. A year and three days after that I spoke my first complete sentence: “Give me some milk, please.” On the next page, my mother made the following note: “By two years old Terry could say anything.”
Later on she recorded an anecdote reminiscent of a scene from Our Town:
Terry was saying his prayers in Nov. 1959. He said, “And God bless Terry Teachout, 308 Powers St., Smalltown, Mo.” I said, “Why do you say all that, Terry?” He said, “I just thought God ought to have my address, too.”
I liked music, too: not only could I sing such simple ditties as “Camptown Races,” “Jesus Loves Me,” and “Jingle Bells,” but my parents had given me a small record player of my own. Then as now, I made the most of it:
Terry listens with concentration to all “serious” music, claps and laughs to gay music. Would listen to records for hours….Listens for an hour or so after nap every day at his insistence of “I’ll hear records, please.”
The printed word followed shortly thereafter. I taught myself to read at three, and within a year I could read “almost anything, all childrens’ books, signs, even newspapers with the exception of difficult proper names.” I was tested upon entering the first grade and was found to be “reading on sixth grade level.”
At this point the entries start to dry up, for my brother was born in 1960 and my parents would be increasingly preoccupied with him. The last handwritten entry in the book is a notation on the “Second Grade” page: “I think Terry did far better socially this year.”
That was the year when John Kennedy was assassinated and the Beatles came to the United States, the earliest events of which I have clear and extensive first-hand memories untainted by retrospective family anecdotage. Before then I can recall only isolated flashes and fragments. Starting in 1963, the veil of unknowing was lifted, and the task of preserving the story of my life passed from my mother to me.