My Face Before I Was Born

The Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066.

My father would say that, and my mother would glance at him sideways, and then down, with a smile that suggested she had some kind of secret.

The Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066.

It was the kind of fact my mother learned from TV quiz shows and wrote down on little slips of paper. I’d find them tucked into the Reader’s Digest or wedged between the cushion and the arm of her nubby blue chair. She had a diploma from a small town high school in the coal regions, and a certificate from a music school in Pottsville. She was a first-rate private secretary and an accomplished violinist, but she did not possess a college degree. She felt that lack all of her life, especially when she met my father, whose master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania must have both impressed and intimidated her.

Who fought in the Battle of Hastings?

Such a question could send my parents into peals of laughter. I looked it up once, in the Encyclopedia Americana that was in a bookcase in the back bedroom. The battle had involved the French and the English. We were Irish and Russian. And it was 900 years ago. Probably nobody we knew had been there.

Once on a family vacation we drove past a sign for a town called Hastings.

"Is that where the battle was fought?" I asked.

"My goodness no!" my father said. "The Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066!"

"Everybody knows that," my mother said. She gave my father a poke, and then that smile again.

As I grew up, I would encounter random references to the Battle of Hastings.  In history class, the chapter heading “The Battle of Hastings” would elicit in my mind “was fought in 1066” as surely as Dominus vobiscum would call forth et cum spiritu tuo. Studying linguistics, I learned about the importance of the Battle of Hastings in shaping the English language. That the battle was fought in 1066 seemed only to be a side note.

In adulthood, I developed an interest in crewel embroidery, and studied the Bayeux Tapestry. “It depicts the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings,” said a lecturer one night. I finished her sentence under my breath: which was fought in 1066.

My father died in 1985, the day before my parents’ thirty-ninth wedding anniversary. My mother gave away or sold his clothes, his books, their house in Florida, their furniture, and drove their almost new Crown Victoria back to Pennsylvania, where she lived her remaining eight years in the spare bedroom of her sister’s house. It fell to me then to sort and arrange the few things she had kept.

Among them was the wedding snapshot that had always stood on her bureau. It shows my parents on the lawn of the house my mother lived in then, the house I would be carried to nine months later. The train of her white satin gown trails off to the left, and a breeze seems to be lifting the dangling ribbons of her bouquet. Her face is framed by her fingertip veil and the candlelight pearls my father has given her. My father beside her looks not at the camera, but at her.

The silver plate frame that had held it for so many years was bent and corroded, and the glass had cracked long ago. I got a new frame for it, and as I removed the velvet back of the old frame I found, tucked between the photo and the cardboard spacers, a receipt from the Taft Hotel in New York City. It showed that my parents had spent their wedding night and four nights more there.

They had occupied Room 1066.

What face did you have before you were born? a Zen master might ask. I look at this picture and know that I am there. In my mother’s womb on this fine June morning the egg that is half of me waits, and somewhere in my father the other half waits too.

The Battle of Hastings is about to begin.

Margaret DeAngelis is working on a novel set in Schuykill County. She has been awarded fellowships to the Jentel Artist Residency in Wyoming and the Vermont Studio Center and has attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.

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