They say that when you leave a place, you leave a piece of yourself behind. Sometimes, you get to return to those pieces.
I took my first breath in St. John’s Hospital at Seventh and Maria. That makes me a native Saint Paulite, even though I grew up in the suburbs. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, many suburban parents-to-be chose Saint Paul hospitals to welcome their babies into the world.
As a suburban child, it was a big deal to go shopping at the downtown department stores, and each trip we took, my mom never failed to point out St. John’s at the top of the bluff. “That’s where you two were born,” Mom would remind my brother and me. Anytime my brother and I were fighting in the backseat, Mom would remind us that we’d all wind up back at St. John’s if she crashed the car because we had distracted her.
But it wasn’t fighting with my brother that sent me back to St John’s at the age of eight; it was a case of pneumonia. I would lie awake at night in the children’s and maternity ward on the hospital’s third floor, listening to traffic in the neighborhood. During the day, I would perch at the window of my room, hoping to see someone familiar emerging from a car in the visitor’s parking lot.
That was the last time I visited St. John’s in its hospital form, although Mom continued to remind us of our entry spot to this world on our more sporadic downtown shopping trips. It seemed everything was moving to the suburbs, away from the city.
The hospital relocated to Maplewood in the early 1980s, with the old building standing empty until Metropolitan State University moved in. I was working in downtown Saint Paul about the time construction took place at the old property on the bluff, and I witnessed its transformation into Metro State. During the construction, I would frequently lift my eyes to the bluff where I was born and marvel at how I had managed to remain so close to it.
A decade later, I decided to apply to a graduate program at Metro State, and I interviewed with the Program Chair in his office on the third floor of St. John’s Hall. What had been the original hospital building was now a series of offices and classrooms. Gazing around the office, I tried to figure out what part of the third floor this had been. Was it the nursery? Part of a hospital room? Mostly it just felt familiar, as if I had physically occupied that space before.
My first grad-school class was held in the basement of St. John’s Hall. Walking into the tiny classroom, I wondered what this room had been. The janitor’s office? A storeroom? In my class introduction, I shared that this had been the building of my birth, forty-some years earlier. Other semesters I would stand by a third-floor window, look out at the parking lot, and for a moment feel like that eight-year-old, waiting for someone familiar to step out of a parked car.
Now, a decade later, I teach at Metro State, and my classes are frequently held in St. John’s Hall. Each time I introduce myself to the class, I proudly mention that I was born in the building, many years earlier.
Seventh and Maria is my place of origin. There will always be a part of me up on that bluff, waiting for my return.
Carol Anne Wall is burning the ends of all the candles she owns as a busy mom, project manager, writing teacher, and multiple-dog owner. She frequently wishes for more hours in the day, especially if they could be dedicated to sleeping.