I was born in a hospital established in 1869 by the Sisters of Mercy on Marquette Street in Davenport, Iowa. Marquette was one of the first streets laid out by city founder Antoine Le Claire.
I attended Kindergarten at Thomas Jefferson Elementary school at 1027 Marquette Street, and in 1959 our family purchased an American four-square home at 2025 Marquette Street, a block and a half from my birthplace on top of the hill, a block from the church where my parents wed and I was baptized and confirmed.
My parents married at Holy Family Catholic Church on Fillmore Street. According to Mother it was a quickly arranged ceremony with her brother serving as best man directly from work with butcher’s blood on his clothes. There were no photos of the newlyweds or wedding party.
The Sisters of Mercy and Le Claire provided an ever present background to life in my home town. I remember visiting the cemetery on River Drive where 1873 cholera victims were buried in a mass grave. Sisters of Mercy had tended the sick in a makeshift hospital at a downtown warehouse. That there was a “downtown” is attributable in part to the grid of streets Le Claire laid out in the old part of the city. Antoine Le Claire’s grave marker is prominent near the entrance to Mount Calvary Cemetery where many of my family members are buried.
Davenport was home until the death of my father in 1969 when I left to attend university in Fall 1970. I returned to Davenport for visits, for a couple of summers during college, after returning from an extended trip to Europe upon getting my B.A. in English, and after military service. Davenport was never again like it seemed during my early years. We don’t often have such brutal delineation in our lives as when Father died in an industrial accident. The times I considered returning permanently didn’t last.
Davenport and my life there defined who I am. It was not just the grid of streets where things were measured in blocks in the benevolent presence of nuns.
My earliest defining moment was the day, at age 3-1/2, when a swing-set set up in the basement of our Madison Street home collapsed and injured my head. My parents were horrified. I remember the pool of blood on the basement floor, holding the thumb of the ambulance driver on the ride to the hospital where I had been born, taking ether dripped into a funnel to anesthetize me for the stitches to mend my gashed head. I am lucky to be alive.
What I learned and came to believe through the injury and recovery in the hospital was that in a city there is an infrastructure of knowledge and caring to support us when things happen. I watched the routines of the hospital staff, the doctor checking up on me, changing room mates and bed linen, daily visits from my parents and the handling of my propensity to get out of bed and walk around. This experience assured me that although we are vulnerable, we are not alone.
Over the years, Doctor Kuhl would examine the scar on my forehead and talk about my recovery when I visited him in his office. Today, I don’t think of the scar, and suspect most people don’t even notice it. What I do think about is that while we are not alone, we must be part of a society that helps protect those who are most vulnerable.
When very young, I made a withdrawal from the bank of social responsibility and now the debt needs repaying. Who I became in life was partly attributable to my parents, however the influence of the Sisters of Mercy in a home town laid out by Antoine Le Claire is undeniable. It is also inescapable.
~ From a draft of a personal memoir about living in Iowa.