Excerpt: 'Anyone Can Grow Up'

In Anyone Can Grow Up, Time columnist Margaret Carlson looks back at political headlines, and the not-so-obvious way that her family prepared her for a life in journalism.

Here is an excerpt:

Part One: Personal or Family Matters

My story doesn't begin with tales of working on The Harvard Crimson or memories of evenings gathered around the dinner table discussing the issues of the day. In the Bresnahan household, we sat around the dinner table all right. Eating was a major pastime. But the issues of our day ran more to the progress of my mother's projects for fixing up the house (a more sophisticated toolbox and she could have built us a new one), under what conditions my father would be allowed to attend the weekly poker game (my mother, whose Irish father died from drink, worried over the amount of beer consumed at these get-togethers), and trying to get Jimmy, my older brother, who was having a hard go of it, to say how school had gone that day. There were four of us back then, my stay-at-home mother, my father, who worked at the nearby military depot, Jimmy, and me. The setting was typical, the paneled station wagon in the driveway of the cookie-cutter postwar house. The chatter at dinner was incessant but rarely about the news. My parents loved John Kennedy (he was Catholic) and didn't love Richard Nixon (he wasn't, and picked on Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was). Politically, that was about it.

Yet my parents propelled me toward journalism as surely as if they'd had the Alsops over for cocktails every night. My brother had suffered serious brain damage at birth, and their struggle to give him a normal life stamped my view of the world. I learned quickly to dislike those who slight the weak or different or unlucky. I learned that when no one is looking, those who think of themselves as the best people can behave like the worst. It wasn't the pale kid with asthma who taunted my brother, it was the tall, good-looking one with the Schwinn three-speed and the Ted Williams bat. From an early age, I kept a list of "People Who Must Be Stopped." Like some tiny, pigtailed Mike Wallace, I tracked down the parents of kids who didn't play fair and squealed on them. I had a moral purpose in becoming an annoying tattletale, but that didn't make me less annoying. It was a wonder I had any playmates at all.

By the time I arrived, the two high school sweethearts, Mary Catherine McCreary and James Francis Xavier Bresnahan, already knew the life they blithely assumed would be theirs was over. Two years earlier, soon after my father returned from the war, they had brought their first child, deprived of oxygen in a difficult delivery at an army hospital, home. There was no testing then for developmental problems. Only gradually did they discover how severe the damage was. Decades later, in the blissful two weeks my parents visited after my daughter was born, my normally taciturn father told me of the morning when I was four and Jimmy was six and he'd been trying for months to get my brother to sound out the letters on the back of the cornflakes box. I'd absorbed every bit of that tutoring, at the same time it bounced off my brother. One morning I sat down and read off how many box tops were needed, how the contest was void where prohibited, and that the employees of Kellogg were not eligible to compete. He told me that that night in bed, he and my mother cried themselves to sleep, half in sorrow, half in relief.

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