I am what is called a Titanic baby. I was conceived after my parents saw the film on a Friday night in January when snow still covered the ground and they wanted to be close and warm. They had not seen a movie in two years. They had been locked up in their floundering bakery, struggling to make from hundreds of bread loaves and cookies and cinnamon rolls enough money to pay off their mortgage and provide for the children they already had. On the ride home, they told each other everything: how the bakery had consumed them with expenses and how they had lost their love for it and how they felt like they needed to run before it was too late. The bakery, they believed, had become the Titanic. She took his hand. She said they should have another baby instead. I am what is called a Titanic baby because Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet made my parents want someone to throw them a lifesaver. Anything to hold onto.
They met on a play set. She was from Utah — she had gone to school for playwriting and dropped out when she found an ad for a nannying position in Bethel, Connecticut, near where my father worked for his father’s electrical construction company. She had never been to the east coast. She moved into the left wing of a million-dollar pre-Revolutionary War mansion and took care of three little girls and in her spare time directed plays, and my father, in his spare time, looked for roles, which is how he met her. She wanted him to learn to ride a unicycle for a lead in the next play. She said, “Maybe when we know each other better, I can write plays and you can star in them,” and that became their plan, however flimsy and insubstantial it was.
He showed her all things she had not seen before — the beaches of the east, the freezing mountains, the lakes. He proposed to her one evening beside the colossal aging fireplace in the mansion of the family she nannied. For months leading up to their engagement and even years after their marriage, they went into nice restaurants and libraries and McDonald’s to reenact their proposal, to see the reactions of the people around them. “Slip off your ring and give it to me under the table,” he would whisper. Maybe people were jolted when they saw him kneeling beside her. Maybe she wasn’t a good enough actress and difficult to believe. Maybe he played the part perfectly and people were gripped by the possibility of their future. They played that one scene, over and over.
She had always wanted to move south and he had always wanted to take her. She was charmed by the quiet people and the peeling antebellum houses and the long tresses of pine between them. So they drove with all of their belongings in his station wagon. He found a job cleaning mall bathrooms. They bought a Cape Cod-pink house in the city that they couldn’t afford, and two years later the bank foreclosed on it. They worried for weeks about where they would go — if they should live for some time with his parents if they should move back to her hometown in Utah. One night before they were forced to look for a new place, he asked if she had always wanted to open a bakery, which she said she hadn’t, but maybe it would be a good idea. Mold crawled up the wallpaper of the single-wide trailer they moved into, dark carpet and so few windows that when they shuffled through the chilly rooms, they felt like cave-dwellers. The new town seemed compact enough to learn every person’s name. That’s where they chose to start the bakery. That’s where they began to wear out their nights and days. They no longer had time to write plays, to reenact engagement scenes in restaurants.
My parents opened the shop on the corner of Main Street. They refinished the floors and painted the walls. They bought ramshackle ceramic counters from a junk shop. They ordered wheat from an Amish family they had befriended. During the day, their three oldest children played board games and drew pictures and sword fought in the back, trying to dip their fingers in the cookie dough or steal pastries from the cooling rack without my father seeing. The shop smelled like vanilla extract and coffee and sourdough, busiest on Sundays after the town poured out of the surrounding churches.
The business was so flimsy, if one thing went wrong, it could crumble. If he woke up a couple of hours late. If she was too busy taking care of the kids to help him in the back. If they needed to replace an oven. The landlord hiked the price of their lease and fewer people began coming in. Then winter happened and they barely had cash to buy their tickets for the Titanic and they realized they were sinking and decided to have me and waited less than two days to jump ship.
They became freelance journalists instead. He began writing a historical novel. In my earliest memories, he sits in his ladderback chair in a grove of trees behind our house, filling a composition notebook with a fountain pen. For the first ten years of my life, I thought nothing of his placement outside, of the thirty or forty notebooks on his bedroom shelf. I pulled a ladderback chair beside him. I showed him my drawings while he wrote. “Very good,” he said. “Maybe one day you can write a best-seller and buy us a better house.”
Each day my mother stayed inside the house, crumpled into an armchair, editing the articles my father had written for various construction magazines. When she was done, she put his name on the byline and sent it to the publisher and sighed as she stretched across the blue 3 fabric. Then she would slump to the kitchen and turn on the stove and cook dinner for her five children, pots of vegetables she grew in her garden. Money was too short to give us much more. When the steam from the saucepan cleared in front of her face, I could see the worn slope of her mouth. She whispered to my father, over and over, “We need to work smarter, not harder.” I could hear the forcefulness of the words fading with each repetition. Maybe the two of them were tired of my brothers begging my father to get another job. They were becoming teenagers then and wanted cars to go places and clothes that weren’t from the Christian charity shop up the road. Maybe my mother remembered a dream so far back there was no point in trying to retrieve it.
One winter my parents drove us to Pennsylvania, searching for a house they discovered online, a new dream: a rickety stack of beams built in the late 1800’s, likely without sheetrock or insulation or plumbing. The house was supposed to be in a village called Equinunk. We drove sixteen hours, crammed into a van with headliner fabric that hung down like a circus tent. Three feet of snow covered the ground, concealing any “for sale” signs. Every business was closed. After scanning the roads for hours, silent but for the scratches of the windshield wipers, we gave up on finding the house.
My parents parked in front of a frozen lake and let my brother, who had been asking to play in the snow the whole drive, run down the hills. Geese dotted the shore, unmoving, watching us step to the edge of the ice. In the woods, we walked through a pet cemetery. We stayed north for a night before my parents drove us back. My parents were not people who could handle the cold. Another raft had slipped under their weight — they didn’t mention Equinunk or the house we meant to buy or that lake again.
To save their marriage they bought a yellow Victorian home that had been foreclosed on. The realtor led them around the house, showing them the bathroom sliding off of the second story, the pair of two-by-fours holding up the porch, the mold spreading across the ceiling in every room. The realtor didn’t tell them that they would spend more money fixing all of the house’s tiny failures than the initial price they would buy it for, but she gave them a moment to think things over. They stood in the bathroom with the tall window and stained clawfoot tub and soft linoleum peeling away in patches. They stood there and imagined how they would put down soft cherry wood flooring and paint the kitchen blue and build a trellis outside in the yard where currently there was a pile of someone else’s rubble. They imagined new carpet on the stairs so their children’s feet would not be splintered by the aging wood when they ran from their rooms in the morning. They told the realtor they knew how to work a table saw and a power drill and a lathe. They told the realtor they knew how to repair anything.
We lived in the house for a year before they divorced. I didn’t remember until three years after their separation that I had actually been there for my father’s bakery deliveries, years after the bakery closed when he made them from our home for extra cash. I had been there, surrounded in the backseat by the bread and pumpkin cakes and mocha-Kahlua cookies still steaming in cling-wrap and warm on my lap, the top of my head barely visible. I had been there for his long conversations with the ladies who worked in the antique shop or old man in the lumber yard or the librarians who had known me since birth, watched as those people slipped a couple of extra dollars into his hands, those people who saw my parents struggling with their dreams and their mortgage and the five children they loved.
Those delivery days required enough charm and small talk that when we finally rattled home along the dirt roads, I was so tired I could barely keep my head up. Each time our wheels dipped into a pothole, the empty racks rocked against my stomach, clanging together like chips of ice. And even though all of the other days we had tried to steal cookies from the table and our parents clapped our hands away, on delivery days my father gave me any pastries left over. I knew to close my eyes as soon as I heard the cadence of the turn signal and the gravel churning under the wheels in the driveway and the engine flicking off. Not once did my father wake me. He scooped me into his chest and onto the living room couch, and when I opened my eyes, he dropped a cellophane-wrapped cookie in my lap. One dollar and twenty-five cents. I never had to pay him back.
I remember the dining room light clicking on behind a blue lampshade, my mother whispering at the edge of the table as they counted out the number of goods that did not sell. I remember the warmth of vanilla and malt and sometimes walnuts. I remember everything in that double-wide trailer – a piano in the corner they’d bought secondhand and tuned themselves, three unraveling wicker chairs, a set of Charles Dickens’ novels my father gave my mother as a surprise one Christmas. As a child I would blindfold myself and try to walk from one end of our trailer to the other, tracing surfaces with my fingers, dodging tables and countertops, navigating the place my parents had put together to feed and foster and nourish us. Outside, the world still teemed with icebergs — cities too expensive to live in, lead roles they would never get, failing bakeries. Icebergs that could sink twenty-six years of marriage. Icebergs that I would watch splinter my parents apart as they slumped below the surface, sometimes taking us down with them.
NELLIE HILDEBRANT is a writer based outside of Charlotte, NC. She lives with one small dog and many bookshelves of travel guides. Find her on Twitter @nelliefranh.