Mary Van Deusen

My Autobiography


It's fascinating going back to see my view of the world at the age of 13. As could be expected, some of it was right; some wrong. And some parts I'd completely forgotten.

Governor's Island

My whole family were storytellers, so it was inevitable that I would become one, too. Any event would set mother off on some long ago memory, and I'd wiggle around to get comfortable and then just enjoy. One of my favorite stories was about me, of course. My birth, to be specific. I was born in wartime, something that was not part of the experience of most midwesterners.

It's hard to imagine New York City being blacked out, but mother described father's nighttime trip to the harbor as having to navigate the street lights by squinting at each small cross left untaped to see if the light was red or green. The ferry took them across the harbor to Governor's Island, the army base where mother and father were married. My brother had also been born in the army hospital there, but it was a point of teasing pride for me to remind Bob that I was born on the officers side, while he was born on the enlisted side.

But officer side or not, wartime babies were popping out faster than the hospital could cope. To streamline the procedure, each woman was given a castor oil cocktail to induce labor, then the new baby was actually placed in a drawer, there being too many of us little ones to fit the normal hospital facilities.

It was a point of pride with mother to remind me that I had come into the New York harbor on the same day as the U-505 submarine that sat outside Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. On the day I was born, she had looked out the hospital window and watched the sub be towed past, an upside down broom signifying its capture.

Mother always concluded this story by describing her worry because their ticket to the island said two people had arrived, but there were now three coming back. But her smile always told me she would have never left me behind.


I had only a single memory of my father, and that was of hiding under the bed when he came to visit. Rather than dying when I was three years old, father actually died when I was in my freshman year of high school. Saying that he was dead was a useful way for mother and grandmother to avoid talking of him in later years. Mother had left him when I was 6 weeks old, fearful that an alcoholic would not be a safe guardian for her children if anything happened to her.

When I was still very young, they would speak of him with great anger. Later, they tried not to speak of him at all. Mother had returned anything that reminded her of him, and I was left with no information except what I was able to find out for myself. I was an adult before I found the files mother had hidden that contained the love letters he had written trying to convince her to come back, and the photographs that were sent to her after his death. I stole those from her files, knowing she was likely to burn them at any time. After mother's death, my brother burned all of her diaries, only letting me keep one. In looking through it, I came across the day that mother had discovered my removal of the letters and pictures. Surely another one of mother's famous "coincidences".


From a book proposal I wrote on "How to Slow Down Time":

I have two ways of remembering. One way is to concentrate on what I want to remember before I fall asleep. Frequently I awaken with the answer for which I was searching. The other way is to consciously look for memory threads to pull. I do this by mentally placing myself back in the situation I'm trying to remember. That is, I try to sneak up on what I want to remember by free associating from what I do remember.

Sight: I start by trying to see what's in my bedroom. I look at the mirror on the wall and see the frame of the door next to it. That reminds me that if I walk out the bedroom door, I'll see the door to the basement immediately to my right. I had forgotten that the door was there. I look past the door to the kitchen table in front of me and remember that the sink is on the right.

Smell: Let's switch to another sense. As I stand in the kitchen, what do I smell? It's bacon. Suddenly I'm back in my bedroom, the place where I would have smelled breakfast cooking, with my back to the bunk beds. I turn to see the beds and suddenly see a glass block window to the left of the bed. I had forgotten that, too.

Touch: I can feel the curves of the bunk bed frame. That surprises me. I was expecting something square, but now I remember the shape of the maple corner supports. What else can I feel? There's the cold of the concrete step that leads from the bedroom to the unheated extra room. As soon as spring arrived, and the room was warm enough to live in, I would move from the bedroom I shared with mother to my very own room. I step down from the concrete and realize that I'm touching linoleum. Again, I had forgotten the floor covering.

Hearing: I stop for a moment to listen and, in the distance, hear a train. I keep listening and begin to hear the burp of the coffee perculator from the kitchen.

4a arithmetic
8a arithmetic

A Rat In The House Might Eat The Ice Cream. That was how we learned to spell arithmetic.

They say the world divides between those who love geometry and those who love algebra. I was an algebra kid, and I loved the simple and pure mechanics that led irrevocably to right answers. Multiplication, long division, the simple concept of variables in 8th grade - I loved them all.

Well, let me take that back a bit. I did despise word problems. Something about looking for the trick in the description always drove me dotty. I fear I was far better at memorization than at logic. Daddy, as an engineer, loved arithmetic, too, so it was usually daddy who listened to my endless recitations. Bless his heart.

mother reading

If it's hard to hear mother's voice in my head without also hearing the ever present laughter, then it's just as hard to remember mother simply sitting without a book in her lap. It was from mother that I received the gift of reading.

Early on there were Little Golden Books. When I'd awaken with nightmares, I'd pick up a pile of them and take them to my favorite spot behind mother's chair - the one with the hot air vent. And there I'd sit and read until the shaking stopped, and I could return to bed and sleep.

The earliest "real" book I can remember reading was Lamb's "Tales of Shakespeare". Shakespeare-light without the difficult sentence patterns. I went through most of mother's books as a child, and some, like "Graustark", are still old favorites that I reread every year.

If reading were comfort, then mother was blessed
By the words of a thousand remembered events.
An old green cloth bag, Marshall Fields on its side,
Carried murderers foul and detectives quite thick
To the buses and trains and pillowed night rest,
And the first morning coffee before the day hit.

Like many a habit a child learns from mom,
I carried my books with me, too, all the time.
I studied with Ghandi and watched with some dread
Graustarian villians and sad severed heads
Of a hero who thought that the times they were best.
Forgive me, but noble and dead? Take a rest!

                   A Thought While I Can Still Remember

Book series provided endless birthday and Christmas presents, though mother was fairly poor and I read so fast as to make her gifts go away too quickly. And library books. Book wagons were a dream because I could take out twenty at a time and just have to get them to the front door. Even as an adult, I could read 6 or 8 novels a day and could only carry enough for a cross country train trip by mailing them back at long stops, then rebuying in the gift shops. One of the few good things mother would say about father was that he could read as constantly as she did, but he was able to pet her back all the time he was doing it!

As with all else, I've kept all the family books. Our home has a 37 foot long hallway with floor to ceiling bookcases on each wall. At the end is the library, and that has 10 more bays of bookcases, 10 feet high. And we still don't have enough room for all our books!

That's a '61 Lafite Rothchild she's drinking, by the way!

report card front
report card inside

But love school as I did, I loved staying home even more. Luckily, grandmother loved having me there. I did alright with my academic record at Warren, but I'm pretty sure I was A Number One on absences!

It was easier in the winter to get to stay home. First I'd lay on the floor behind mother's chair, leaning against the hot air vent. Then I'd sneak out the front door and stand barefoot in the snow. Voila! Just enough symptoms to get to stay home. Yeah!


We attended church for many years at St. Ailbe, and would usually stop afterwards for a coke and hamburger at a bar on 87th street. Mother enjoyed her religion, but it was less one of theory and more one of comfort. "Catholic with a small c" was how mother described it. I fell asleep most nights to her quiet mutterings as she recited the rosary. Comfort for us both.

Address of Welcome
Address of Welcome Program

With my nerves at public speaking, life would have been so much simpler if I'd never wanted to do things that made me be in public so often. It wasn't that I wanted to be in public. It was just that the things I wanted to do forced me in that direction. The result was that I spent most of my life taking risks, and living scared.

Since all my growing-up-family were quite risk adverse, I never understood how such a cuckoo as I was ended up in the family nest. That is, until I became obsessed by genealogy. Then it all became quite clear. It wasn't that I was a cuckoo; it was that the genes that made me take such risks came from a long line of ancestors of which I had known nothing. Learning that didn't decrease the fear, but at least it let me understand why I kept doing such things.

Public Activities

Still a Child    

When I Was 17    
    Love Letters
    A Young Married Lady




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