In 1969, my mother was 12 years old. When I talk to my mom about life in 1969, she doesn’t mention the political turmoil, Woodstock or President Nixon: rather, she tells me (in reverent tones) about Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong and the moon landing.
My mom was the eldest of 6. Her childhood was marked by poverty, alcoholism and caring for her younger siblings. She was a very smart, science-minded and space-obsessed young girl. She tells me she once made her three younger brothers haul a heavy bolder up a steep hill so that she could “study it closer.”
She sneaked out of bed at night to watch Star Trek. And in 1969, her mind was full of space, astronauts and trips to the stars.
My mother’s first dream was to become an astronaut. Sadly, this dream was dashed when she was told this was not a proper occupation for a woman and she should focus her attention on Home Ec and babysitting. It was 1969 after all.
My mother is a genius, probably one of the smartest people I personally know, certainly the most well read, and the person I am closest to. As adults, we talk a lot about my childhood; sometimes my mom refers to it as “that acid trip.” Which is sort of accurate. However, the more I think and write about my formative years, the more I start to see it as a kaleidoscope: When I turn the knob one way, I see pictures of life with my birth father, tainted by drugs, abuse, chaos and lots of other unsavory/scary things. However, when I turn the knob again, other thoughts and events come into view and the whole of my young life becomes a bit clearer.
In 1986, I was 9 years old. My mom was 29.
My mom was a pretty vivacious 29-year-old. I remember her working as an aerobic dance instructor for a brief time; but her main occupation was as a reporter for the local newspaper. She was also always working on side-projects and creative endeavors: One day I came home from school to find she had cut and died her hair blond and bought a red car (it was a Subaru Justy, a very practical little box of a car.) She told me she got it in red so that she could be “a blond in a red sports car”. Another day, I came home to find her on her hands and knees retiling the kitchen floor (with a Bob Vila How-To book laying open next to her for quick reference).
In 1986, we were living in Wallingford, Connecticut, where we stayed for my 2nd, 3rdand 4th grades of elementary school. We rented an old house from my mother’s friend’s father, who lived in the apartment in the attic.
1986 was also the year of the Challenger Disaster. The period leading up to the launch was very exciting. Schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe was chosen from thousands upon thousands of schoolteachers nationwide, who had entered a contest to become the first civilian to take part in a space shuttle mission.
I remember it being talked about a lot at school, I may have even written a report on McAuliffe. It was certainly one of the few topics that kept my interest. My mom asked me about it and determined, “She’s a bit of a hero for you, huh?” And, it was true.
I remember the lead-up and excitement around the contest, as well as the launch itself and the subsequent explosion and tragedy: all seven crew members dead, including my young hero.
I recently went back to look at some of the footage and found myself particularly interested in interviews with McAuliffe. What was it that made her resonate with the 9-year-old me? I wasn’t, after all, that into space or science at that time. It probably had to do with how smart and sharp, yet carefree she seemed. She also seemed incredibly kind. In the contest interviews, she talked about the importance of having a sense of adventure in life. Upon accepting the award from President Reagan, she asked to say a few words, and the first thing she did was express how grateful she was to the nine other finalists and for the friendships they had developed in the past two weeks of the contest. It was her sincerity in these words that really struck me. She was brave and adventurous, but also kind and noble.
I talked to my mom a little before writing this, trying to jog my memory about some of the times/facts/markers of the disaster. Not surprisingly she reminded me about the post-disaster investigation, and physicist Richard Feynman.
Feynman was a theoretical physicist who was part of the Manhattan Project in the 1940’s having been one of the scientists responsible for creating the A-bomb. He went on to become a world-renowned physicist and win a Nobel Prize. He was also terribly funny and interesting to read, even if you’re not that into physics. When I was in high school, my mom, step-dad and I went through a bit of a Feynman-craze, passing his books around our house.
Feynman was elected to serve on the committee investigating the Challenger disaster and it’s cause. It was Feynman’s leadership and dedication to the truth that was ultimately responsible for discovering the reason for the explosion. This involved fighting a bureaucracythat seemed uninterested in revealing any “weaknesses,” in the system. Feynman fought the system, found the cause, and made it public. By doing this, he brought a sense of justice for those who died, laid the path for NASA to improve it’s engineering and helped prevent future failures. This was one of his last great contributions to the world; he died of cancer two years later.
Our lives come in waves, don’t they? We flitter through space and time. Always, we think that this moment is somehow the most important moment in our lives, and even while we try to hold onto it, it drifts away.
Yet, looking backwards, my mind finds these anchors, not just memories but important thoughts and ideas: Connections that link us to the best parts of each other.
Starting this essay, I wanted to write about my childhood heroes. I wanted to investigate whether or not I hold up to them today and what that means. Ultimately, however, I don’t think it’s quite the right question. I think perhaps the better question has to do with what connects us to our heroes. What is it about them that we aspire to? Simply the act of aspiring tells us already there is something of them in us.
My mom and I were both very brave children. We were bright and lively by nature, but thrown into incredibly tough circumstances. Like our heroes, we have had to be resolute in the face of life’s vast complexities, continuing to move forward in our explorations. Our adversities have never squashed our thirst for life, and I think that is perhaps the most important trait that makes one a hero.