On September 24, 1970, I had just begun teaching at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. In 1968, as a student, I had transferred to Westmont from Chico State College (as it was then) to begin my junior year. Wendy and I were married in Chico on September 14, almost exactly two years after we met. We enjoyed a reception at her parents’ home early that afternoon, and set out for Santa Barbara soon thereafter—Wendy at the wheel, as always, and my brother Rick following us in a van with our relatively few possessions. (How I ended up transferring to Westmont in the first place is a long story, for another day. Suffice it to say that it was providential.) We arrived in Santa Barbara around 1 a.m. on Sunday, and I started classes the next day, I believe.
Shortly before I graduated in 1970, the dean of faculty Arthur Lynip (one of my favorite professors; he and his wife became our lifelong friends) asked me if I would be willing to take a one-year job teaching English at Westmont while the college conducted a search to fill the position. Of course I was delighted to do so; I had been accepted at several grad schools but wasn’t eager about that prospect, and Wendy and I were expecting our first child.
Anna Elizabeth Wilson, as we named her (Elizabeth was my mother’s name), was born at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara on September 24, 1970. Wendy and I had read Anna Karenina aloud together the year before. Does it seem odd to you that this was our inspiration? It didn’t seem so to us.
September 24, 2021, a day unimaginable to us back then, is Anna’s 51st birthday. She has lived in Missoula, Montana, for a few years now, and we don’t get to see her as often as we’d like, but we are in close touch. Banal phrases, yes—“in close touch”—and yet true. As I am typing, one of our two cats, Nina, is stretched out on my legs. Some years ago, Anna asked us if we could take Nina in, and we did so, as we had done several years earlier with our son Andrew’s cat Boom-Boom (who is still with us, elderly but quite sweet). Even now, I often think of Anna when I look at Nina, because it was in Anna’s company that we first came to know her.
These tidbits won’t have much resonance for you, taken in themselves, but insofar as they remind you of the unfathomable layers of your own life, they may give you the same sense of awe that I am feeling just now. Why should we feel this sense of mystery (which Tolstoy, for instance, evoked in so many different guises)? Is it all mumbo-jumbo, as some contend, designed to suppress the brute reality of our existence and allowing various canny manipulators to profit from our willful credulity? I must admit that I find this disdain completely unpersuasive.
One thing I learned after Anna was born was how ecstatic Wendy was to be a mother, and how much she loved children—not just Anna and, in due course, our Andrew and Mary and Katy, but children across the board, other people’s children too: She had a bond with them, and they flocked to her. (Children and “old people,” in whose company we now find ourselves!) I hadn’t known this, though in retrospect it made perfect sense. “Bah! What sentimental tosh.” Or so you may irritably suppose. Not at all. Just the facts, insofar as we’re ever competent to report on them. When I first saw Wendy, age 18, and immediately fell in love with her, I wasn’t thinking about children (or old people). I wasn’t really “thinking” at all.
Hardly any of our friends were married in those early days; they waited a bit. But one recently married couple, Jon and Margaret Falk, were in their senior year at Westmont while I was teaching. Wendy and I visited them often in the tiny house they were renting; when we drove over there, in that pre-car seat era, we put Anna in the back in a cardboard box padded with blankets. Memories of our evenings with them (they later served in South America and Africa, among other places) are mingled with recollections of our first months of parenthood.
These small mysteries of time and memory point beyond themselves, suggesting that more lies ahead of us in a reality that exceeds our grasp but which we will someday know firsthand.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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