How Lives Begin

by Stephen Whitlock

It’s 1976.

I grew up in the East Village, in New York City, surrounded by art. I was young, maybe 4, when I learned where babies came from. Upon leaving the Finnish fundamentalist faith of my youth, I made my parents a promise that I would still attend church on Christmas and Easter.

Previously: How Lives End

One of my earliest memories that doesn’t have to do with my tonsillectomy or the arrival of my baby brother — and I am not equating the two — is of seeing President Kennedy ride along East 161st Street in the Bronx in the back of an open limousine, moving up the hill that begins at Yankee Stadium and ends at the Concourse Plaza Hotel, next door to which my family lived. One of the few aphorisms I have committed to memory is a Nick Hornby line from “Fever Pitch”: “The natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter what the score.”

Where I grew up, there lived a man named David. When I was 8, my parents divorced and my mother married a man whose career took us from Washington to Melbourne Beach, a town on the “Space Coast” of Central Florida, where I learned to surf. The first note I ever wrote for my mother wasn’t very special, but she seemed to think it was. Several years ago, my mother announced that she was spending Christmas in Egypt with friends. My mom didn’t watch “Mad Men.”

My father was one of those charismatic professors who forever have a coterie of graduate students pressed around them. A few months into my fourth-grade year, in 1987, my father and I hitched a ride with a trucker in Texas, who drove us all the way north to Rochester, Minn., a small city famous for the Mayo Clinic. I never knew my father had a half brother until the last year of his life, when letters from a clerk in the Pakistani Army began arriving in London, freighted with festive green and gold postage stamps. Daddy’s not here too much anymore.

Forty-two years ago, when Alice Waters taught preschool at Berkeley Montessori, I was among her pupils. When we first moved to France, social gatherings involving food made me anxious. In fourth grade, my best friend and I made a papier-mâché map of Africa for Sister Ernestine.

When I was 18 and about seven months pregnant, I bumped into a friend of my mother’s at the clinic. I was lying stark naked on a hard wooden slab with two men slathering my limbs in sticky, pungent oil. No eye contact, quick shake of the head, say something firm but polite: “Sorry, not today.”

Before my son, Lev’s, 6th birthday, we asked him if he’d like us to do anything special. So I’m 19 and climbing into the back seat of a cop car in the middle of the night. I learned I was pregnant for the second time in the 86th Street subway station.

In 1997, when I was 21 and in between colleges, I worked as a printer at a dating-service photo lab in Austin, Tex. Louisa May Alcott, author of “Little Women,” the classic American novel of four sisters born into a distinguished if profoundly broke family, wrote elsewhere that to “help one another is part of the religion of our sisterhood.” As a 21-year-old art student, I answered a help-wanted ad at the SoHo studio of Jeff Koons.

I came to Los Angeles when I was 25 to be an actor to be an actor. There they were, my mother and my father, smiling up at me from the third row at my first-ever tap-dance recital. On Friday afternoons, my father-in-law, Howard Jack Malach, would leave work early and drive across town to Grodzinski, a kosher bakery, before it closed for Shabbat, all for the sake of the babka . When the Maxwells couldn’t pay up, they settled their account with maple syrup.

I ran my first marathon in 1993 at age 33 and hobbled around for weeks afterward. One evening in the spring of my son Joseph’s freshman year in high school, he brought up something he said he’d been thinking over since the previous summer. “So how does it feel?” is the question you hear when your book completes the long ascent from production purgatory to movieplex.

Not long ago, I found myself in the back seat of a small car deep in the jungle of India, an arm’s length from a 40-pound python, which sat tightly coiled within a burlap sack. The strangest package I’ve ever received came in the mail one fall day in 2006, from my cousin Jim in New Orleans. I stood by the mailbox holding a package that weighed about as much as an apple.

One day last summer I got an e-mail from one of my best friends, updating me on the last few months of his life: work developments; a vacation recap; a reply to a barbecue invitation; and “one other thing” that he would tell me about when we met. I was on assignment for Sports Illustrated for a story on Muhammad Ali who was known as Cassius Clay at the time, so I went to visit his parents’ house in Louisville, Ky. It was 2 a.m. when the Haitian National Police brought the rape victim to the emergency room.

I was 10 in 1951.

Previously: How Lives End

Stephen Whitlock is a freelance writer who lives in Stockholm and New York. He has written for the New York Times, Financial Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure and Wallpaper, among others. Photo by Moyan Brenn, from Flickr.