In the Govans neighborhood, the man sitting on the lawn on the right is William Howard McLean, Jr, a young accountant in Baltimore. His friends call him “Unk.” He has a birthmark on the left side of his face, what we now call a port wine stain, although he just calls it “my birthmark.” He parts his hair on the left, a shock of it flows across his forehead. In his arms is his young wife, Dorothea, a recent graduate of the Maryland Normal School. They pose in front of the porch of the family home on Beaumont Avenue, a big house that will become deeply revered in the lore of the extended family. The mere mention of “Beaumont Avenue” in the decades to come will flavor a conversation with semi-mystical connotations of stability, energy, hope, and happy survival during the first half of the 20th century.
This young couple have a secret. Nothing nefarious! Heaven’s! Why would you think such a thing?
This is their secret: 1/8.
And you are waiting for me to tell you what it means. My smile, you can see, is a bit wan, a prelude to a chortle, in fact. Because I don’t know. Because this secret was never revealed, despite the pleadings and trickery and clever ruses that we tried to use to extract a confession.
These are my parents. Bill and Dot. Mom and Dad.
There were some inviolable rules growing up, not the least of which was that holidays and birthdays and anniversaries would be honored. This meant that you had to buy a card, sign it, and present it to the correct recipient no later than before midnight on the date of the occasion. My mother’s birthday, May 10, is a day I frequently remember as the occasion for my mother to describe, in morally graphic detail, the degree to which my soul had lapsed into purgatory for failing to get that card. It is a dark place. But never mind my obsidian heart. The giving and receiving of cards also required that we augment Hallmark’s perfectly acceptable sentiments with some of our own – not exhaustive, but decent. mannerly, … sentimental. And here’s the mystery. On every one of their cards to each other, my parents invariably, just along the bottom margin would appear their secret code, would jot the following hieroglyphic message to each other:
1/8 1/8 1/8 1/8 1/8
Always in multiples. But the exact number of repetitions did not seem to be important, and when pressed to explain, both would simply say ‘this is between us,’ and never could we three kids ever drag even the slightest detail out of them. They would smile, like Madonnas, and would give the other a peck on the lips, never lingering, but with a mutual twinkle in their eyes.
I think in this picture, in the early days of a long relationship, is where we find 1/8. If I look hard enough, and even though the print is grainy, I can just see that it’s written all over their faces.