I ended up, as of the morning of Dec 1st, with 39, 600 words. That’s about halfway through a Zero draft, so I am continuing on this project. Thanks to all of you who read the excerpts as I pumped them out!all during December, and hope to complete a zero draft by the end of 2013.
The last day of school, we had an all-eighth grade graduation assembly in the early afternoon. Daddy slipped in just after it began, and left quickly a few minutes before the ceremony ended. I knew he’d be waiting in the car for me, parked in his favorite spot, under a big old tree across from the building exit I always used.
–Can we give Edie a ride home? I asked him. –It’s only a few blocks away. He nodded. My father never said no to a request like this.
In the five minutes we had left together that day, Edie and I promised to write to each other while she was at Lutheran summer camp and I was up at Mimo’s . –We’ll get together in August and shop for school supplies together, she promised. –We’ll go to some movies. You’ll see. She patted my knee.
We pulled up at Edie’s white bungalow, and I asked my father to wait while I walked her to the door. I threw my arms around her and hugged her tightly. She was so thin that I thought I might break her, but I didn’t care.
–I ‘ll miss you so much, I told her. –I wish you were coming with me to Mimo’s. Edie smiled, and kissed me on the cheek. –I’ll write, she said. –I promise.
She walked into her house, turned and waved to me through the screen door. On the way back to the car, I kicked a stone down the walk. I slid into the front seat and turned on the radio. –Mind if I listen to something? I asked.
–Sure, go ahead, my father said, and I surprised him by turning the dial to the Orioles game. The score was 2 -1, and the Orioles were ahead. I heard the drone of the crowd behind the announcer’s voice, which rose with excitement as he called the line drive double for the Orioles.
–Can we go to a game sometime this summer? I asked my father. –After I get back from Mimo’s?
My father smiled. He had tried to interest me baseball for a long time, and only recently had I started to pay much attention.
–When you get back, he said. Maybe we’ll get four tickets, and Aunt Sally and Nancy can come along, unless you want it to be just us two.
I was quiet then, and he tried to draw me into conversation.
–What’s Edie doing this summer? he asked.
–Getting her work permit, probably finding a job at the five and dime or the drugstore, going away for two weeks to church camp, I told him.
–Hard for you, he said –I know she’s your best pal these days.
I said nothing. He didn’t know the half of it. Saying goodbye to Edie, even for a month, was killing me. I had no other friends at school, completely by choice. It had been so long since I’d seen Charl that I thought that old friendship was over.I had no plans for the summer except for the four-week stay with Mimo. I wouldn’t turn fourteen till the middle of August, so I couldn’t get my work permit yet. Not only was I stuck without much of anything to do all summer, but I was stuck without Edie, at least until August.
–Almost lunchtime, Daddy said. –I was thinking we might drive out to Lake’s to celebrate the end of school.
All I wanted to do was to go home and lie on my bed face down until Nancy came home from school, then watch crappy tv shows with her all afternoon and all evening. But I didn’t want to disappoint my father. So we drove out to the county for lunch, and on the way home we stopped at the dam and looked out over the falls .
-Can you remember when Mommy and I took you here to feed bread to the fish when you were little? he asked.
–Sort of, I said. –I remember that I was afraid I would fall in, and you held my hand, and Mommy held tight to the other hand. And we went for ice cream after.
–Your mother would be very proud of you, he said, putting his arm around me. Other people at the dam were tossing bits of bread into the water. The fish jumped up out of the reservoir , snapped up the bread and disappeared back into the water. My eyes welled up with tears. I blinked them back and smiled over at him. –Let’s go home now, I said, and the two of us walked slowly back to the car.
Summer descended on Baltimore early that year, and the last weeks of school brought stuffy classrooms, stale, humid air in the cafeteria, and days filled with make-work, since our final projects were done and handed in, and final grades already entered in ink in teachers’ gradebooks. We watched boring film and filmstrips in science, had debates in history class, gave book reports in English class, and in Latin class, we worked on our newspaper articles , since Mrs. Cronin wanted to wring every last drop of journalism out of us before school ended. One of the girls got hold of a copy of Where the Boys Are, and we circulated it, dog-earing the pages with the dirty parts, until Miss McKay, our old maid English teacher, confiscated it when she caught a girl reading it when we were supposed to be diagramming sentences.
In homeroom, Vernon Blake, a tall boy with black horn-rimmed glasses who excelled at math, suggested that we have an all-class farewell party at his house. His parents had already given permission for a cookout. The theme would be the Caribbean Islands, and everyone would wear clam diggers or Bermuda shorts and T shirts. We each contributed two dollars to the kitty, and Vernon’s mother did all the shopping and food preparation.
On the evening of the farewell party, two days before the last day of junior high, my father dropped me off at Edie’s and she and I walked a few short blocks over to the party from there. The Blakes’ back yard, surrounded by a chain link fence like many in the neighborhood, was decorated with yellow and green paper lanterns. Vernon greeted us at the gate wearing a big straw hat. Kingston Trio music came out of a record set up on a card table near the back porch. Some of the girls were dancing on the grass. Mr. Blake was standing over two charcoal grills, poking at the coals with a long fork to see if they were hot enough for the hamburgers and hot dogs. David Poynter, a tall, skinny kid with expressive hands that moved when he talked, was entertaining another group of girls his imitation of President Kennedy’s Boston accent. His sidekick, Ronnie, about a foot shorter than David, was flirting with one of the quieter girls in our homeroom.
Hamburgers and hotdogs were handed out, kids lined up at a long table set up with mustard and ketchup, cole slaw and potato chips, and for dessert, there was cake. Mrs. Blake put on a record, Limbo Rock, and we all lined up in twos to dance under the limbo pole that Vernon’s older sisters held. They lowered it little by little as we passed in twos underneath. There was much laughter and teasing, and in the end, Ronnie and the quiet girl, Anne Kalinski, proved the most adept, first at backbending and making small jumps to pass under the pole, and then, holding hands as they crouched and managed not to graze the broomstick.They got gift certificates to the snoball stand up on the main road, and the rest of us got funny little prizes like the ones at Ocean City out of the claw machine or consolation prizes at the state fair if you weren’t good at the softball pitch. I got a Chinese finger puzzle, and Edie, a miniature paddle ball.
The sun went down, and soon, kids were picked up by their parents, some on foot if they lived nearby, and some in cars. My father arrived, staying in his car in the alley behind the Blake’s house until I spied him there. I told Edie it was time to go, and we said our goodbyes. As we drove off, I could see the last few guests doing the limbo again, while Harry Belafonte sang Shake, shake, shake, Senora, shake your body line, Shake, shake, shake Senora, shake it all the time. Edie and I sang along softly as the car rounded the corner, and kept on singing till we arrived at her house.
It had been a perfect night—dancing on the grass with the rest of the kids from school for the first and the last time, all of us in clam diggers or Bermuda shorts, the smoky hamburgers, the chocolate sheet cake with Congratulations! written on it in school colors, the limbo stick, the stars, the moon, the night, and being there with Edie. I felt suspended in time, balanced perfectly, just for an instant, between the friends I would soon have to leave, and the mysteries and adventures ahead.
My father walked to work across the big road to Mike Schindler’s Cafe, an old roadhouse with a field stone foundation and a large living space on the second floor. Old Mike had died years before, and his family leased the business to my father and his partner, Dickie Ritz. The inside of the place was dark and long, and I was seldom allowed in there, because my mother frowned on it. When my father stopped there on his day off to scoop up the money and take it to the bank, he let me sit up on a bar stool and choose two things to eat. I preferred a small bag of potato chips and a pack of Juicy Fruit. As I worked it all into my mouth, the gum came apart, then gradually disappeared and I swallowed it along with the chips, savoring the perfect blend of sweet and salty. My father forgot I was there. He stood behind the bar and poured a little glass full of brown liquid for a customer, then one for himself, then he and the man both drank it down fast.What’s that stuff, I asked, and Daddy said, That’s medicine ’cause when I was little, I got a snake bite. Then everyone laughed, and I couldn’t figure out why.
We hear you ‘ve got more ice cream in the house.
Armed with mops and rags, friends came from Maine.
They scrubbed the floors, took on the basement room
Where the teenagers, years ago, would gather
Watch movies on the VCR, or blast their music.
You’re back awhile, another little furlough.
It must be odd, this practice of the furlough
The trips from house to hospital to house,
All that time you have now to listen to music,
To think on past Novembers, back in Maine,
Potato cellar work, when you would gather
The spuds, and carry them above ground to a room.
Amazingly, the house now has so much room
Kids gone, all schooled. Back then they had the furloughs.
From school to home to school, they’d gather
Books, laundry, CDs, laptops, strewn through the house
Then all too soon, they’d vanish. Thoughts of Maine
Gave way to missing them, their chaos and their music.
Right now, if you can listen, there’s the music
Of juncos, maybe cardinals just outside this room.
Perhaps some came here when the first snow fell on Maine.
They think of Massachusetts as the place to furlough.
The fine old trees, the shrubbery near the house,
All shelter for these songbirds, so they gather.
They take off, just like planes, then once more, gather,
Trill, call out, caw, or chirp–I guess it’s music
To draw you from the inside of your house.
You tiptoe to the porch from living room
To savor every moment of your furlough.
You’re in the moment now, no thoughts of Maine.
The weather’s getting colder up in Maine.
The forecasts call for snow showers, I gather.
Good thing you’re here, for your October furlough.
Warm days ahead where we are, good for music
From headphones or from speakers shaking the room,
“Take a load off, Fanny” reverbs throughout the house.
May this restorative furlough, dear friend from Maine,
Your family in this house, as you all gather
Be your music, be your joy in every room.
From wikipedia.org: A sestina (Old Occitan: cledisat [klediˈzat]; also known as sestine, sextine, sextain) is a fixed verse form consisting of six stanzasof six lines each, normally followed by a three-line envoi. The words that end each line of the first stanza are used as line endings in each of the following stanzas, rotated in a set pattern.
The invention of the form is usually attributed to 12th-century troubadour Arnaut Daniel; after spreading to continental Europe, it first appeared in English in 1579, though sestinas were rarely written in Britain until the end of the 19th century. It remains a popular poetic form…
For the how-to, see this. ~LSV
Crystal Hill Homestand
Post chemo, i.v.s, dull food, and infection,
from Boston you have travelled home to stay
for R & R, a good steak, and affection
from family, family dog, just for a day
or two or three, in which to laze in bed, but not
that metal hospital cot with sterile linens.
You might walk out on Indian summer grasses
Or shuffle through the leaves, sort of beginning
to bask in autumn sunlight, turn your face
up to the sky, squinting against the rays
that slant onto the earth in this, your own place
not thinking long on next week. No, today’s
the day you want to sit and read the sports page,
reflect on what the odds are for your team,
listen to music, drink tea, begin to gauge
how much you’re loved, how great the stream
of life around you, going on quite as usual,
elections, wars, casinos, Nobel Prize
littering the front page. Soon, you’ll
nap and dream, and waking, will arise—
It’s good to leave the battle for a while
gather up your strength
breathe deeply, and smile.
For Sister Mary Joannes, RSM on her eightieth birthday
I. A Set of One
At fourteen, my teeth encased in braces
afraid of math, more afraid to fail but
burning up to beat down that language of numbers
with pencil and eraser,
I was a hard case.
But you cracked me,
made me ease up on myself,
showed me how the numbers worked out
on both sides of equations.
Your patience forced me.
Like a bulb pushing out green stalk
From a kitchen window in winter.
I extruded solutions,
learned the lexicon of x and y, q.e.d.
II. Keeping Track
One never thinks of a nun
as a bloodhound, but even once
we left school and plunged
fast into the world
you seemed always to find us,
trace our paths to a street address
or post office box.
You wanted news of our new lives,
details from the altar,
the nursery, the office, the court—
You made the connections we craved,
got them down in print, sent them off to us
like paper boats on the muddy river
their candles burning against the black water.
You were the reminder of where we’d been,
and why we had to hold you
and one another
in our hearts.
The large square bottle with its bevelled stopper looked like something from a 1920’s drugstore. I remember that bottle as half full—or half-empty —of amber-colored liquid. It seems to me now that the same bottle sat there for years, though my mother used it nearly every day, dabbing Chanel, as Coco herself famously advised decades earlier, on the pulse points—the inside of the wrists, behind the ears, the base of the throat,on the collarbones. Mother did this quickly, as she was always rushed to get dressed, fix her hair, and “put on my face,” as she said. After her efficient, well practiced sequence– a shower or sponge bath, putting on what she referred to as her foundation garments, then nylon stockings and a lacy white slip, she reached for the Chanel No 5 . Then she stepped into a dress, and sat down to apply foundation, powder, a bit of rouge and lipstick. I loved to stand behind her and watch her blot her lipstick on a white tissue. She rummaged in her jewelry box for earrings and a necklace or brooch–all costume jewelry, nothing expensive. She slipped into high heeled shoes (her sensible ones awaited her in her classroom, under the desk), and was off to teach her fifth grade class. She worked hard, she was very good at her job, and she was the most fashionable forty-year-old in the Baltimore County Public Schools.
The Chanel No. 5 was tempting to me, but even as a seven year old I knew better than to try to gain access to it without permission. There was an often repeated family story, told to my great embarrassment, about an encounter I had with a very shiny, fake gold bottle of men’s after shave lotion that sat perched high on my parent’s chest of drawers. My father called it “stinksweet,” and dabbed some on my wrist after he splashed his face with the stuff after shaving. As our housekeeper Burnell recounted it, I was in my crib napping in my parent’s room, and upon awakening and seeing no adult around, I stood on tiptoes and stretched towards the bottle, loosened the stopper, and doused myself. But when the cool liquid collided with the heat rash on my legs and began to sting, I screamed out for rescue. After that first encounter with scent, I stuck to less potent eau de toilette doled out by my maiden aunt, Sara Jane, who lived on the first floor of our two family house. As I grew older, I favored small bottles of pink- tinted stuff that other little girls gave me for my birthday. I liked these gifts much more than those mustard seed necklaces with the Protestant booklets that accompanied them, or the imitation scarab bracelets.
When I turned ten, I suddenly became interested in grownup things: nylon stockings and teen panty girdles to hold them up, Tangee natural lipstick and clear nail polish from the five and dime, fake pearls and face powder. Summers, I might still play softball and ride my bike till I was a sweaty mess by dinner time, but when I cleaned up, I wanted to look like a young lady, not a tomboy. I began to take my mother’s advice, and after a bath, push back my cuticle with the edge of a towel. I started experimenting with hairstyles I saw in American Girl magazine.And the Chanel No. 5 on my mother’s dressing table seemed to call to me…
Mary Jane and I, just sixteen, wait in the lobby of the old Baltimore Civic Center, waiting for the doors to open so we can be seated for a performance of the Royal Ballet. Suddenly a not-very-tall, muscular young man walks by us and smiles at us. He’s gone around a corner before we realize it ‘s Rudolph Nureyev. Mary Jane and I squeal as we grasp each other’s hands and jump up and down in our high heels and nylon stockings and Sunday best dresses. We’re in heaven.
Rick and I are walking back from a movie, or perhaps a late dinner at Le Potiniere, on West 55th Street, where we always get free drinks because the owner thinks we’re a charming young couple. It is near midnight. A not very tall, very square-looking grey haired man in a burgundy sport coat is staggering around a few yards away from steps down from the sidewalk level to a restaurant or perhaps a bar. He’s with two or three couples, and it seems he’s arguing with them. One of the men takes him by the elbow and says, Ed, come on, it’s time to go home. Rick and I look at each other, amazed. It’s Ed Sullivan. A really big show, right there on West 55th Street. We can’t wait to call our mothers and tell them.
Maureen, Peggy and I are on West 47th Street looking for the Plymouth Theatre. We have tickets to see Runaways. Maureen is driving an enormous maroon four-door sedan her father gave her when he bought a new car. We ‘ve dubbed it the Pimpmobile. We’re running late. Stop and ask someone, Peggy and I tell Maureen, who is stopped in traffic. She lowers the driver’s side window with the fancy automatic button, and calls out to a guy jogging down the block in very short running shorts, “Where’s the Plymouth Theatre?” He stops, catches his breath, and calls over to us.” Two blocks down, 45th Street!” He jogs off. It’s Dustin Hoffman.
The oven bird, seiurus aurocapilla, a variety of warbler, resides in the Northeast U.S. in summer but winters in Florida and Central America. The oven bird likes to be heard, but not seen–rather like a shy child who won’t stop talking but stays in her room. It’s known for its loud and ringing call, “Teacher, teacher, teacher, teacher, ” or alternately, “chur-TEE chur-TEE chur-TEE.” Although birdwatchers reported seeing (or perhaps only hearing) oven birds on Cape Cod near my summer digs as late as last December–our very warm winter in these parts– I’ve haven’t yet seen one this spring. Yet I know his voice, insistent and strong, because it’s in my ears as I plant a summer garden, attempting to transform a sand pile full of weeds into my approximation of an English cottage garden. As oven birds enjoy a diet of terrestrial arthropods and snails, I’m certain some of these warblers will be by sooner or later—I’ve spied dozens of snails in the long-abandoned garden in front of my kitchen.
Here’s what the oven bird sounds like—more a call than a song, but quite attention-getting:
New England’s iconic poet Robert Frost memorialized the oven bird in his sonnet of the same name. The work was published in 1916, in the collection called Mountain Interval, published by Henry Holt and Company. For Frost, the oven bird is not so much a singer as a philosopher who looks ahead to the melancholy of fall even as summer is at its brilliant, sun-drenched best. My grad school professor, the late, brilliant Anne Davidson Ferry, taught me that Frost’s poem was an obvious reworking of Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” part of a conversation between poets across two decades. Still, as bleak as Hardy’s 1900 work seems, Frost’s is even more poignant, and what he teaches us is both disturbing and necessary.
The Oven Bird
First, you’ll need a dishpan
preferably a cobalt blue plastic dishpan that
your mother bought in Poughkeepsie
and a couple squirts of
dish liquid. Green’s the best.
Take a mug with you,
leave the food-encrusted bowls
stacked where they are.
Really, they won’t move.
Walk barefoot to the bathroom
in your favorite pajamas
(or pyjamas if feeling British)
and turn up the faucet
Fill the dishpan two-thirds full
with hot water straight up
from the bowels of the dormitory;
don’t burn your hands.
Placing the mugs and bowls gently
into the now-sudsy pan, carry it,
treading carefully back to your room.
Add the dirty dishes.
Go away for some hours,
come back and remember
they’re still there.
Use the yellow dobie pad
to scrub off bits of
Leave the pad, take the dishpan.
Throw a towel over your arm
like a waiter in a New York bistro.
Pad back to the bathroom.
Rinse off each plate and mug
spoon and knife
Above all, don’t forget the pan.
Lay the folded towel there.
Stack the dishes,
take them home
go about your business.
© 2012 Lynne Viti . All rights reserved. Do not reprint without permission.
I went directly from my Barnard College commencement, to my first graduate school class, at Columbia University’s Teachers College, four blocks uptown. After two semesters and two intensive summer terms, I earned my master’s degree and got my teaching certification. We baby boomers were flooding the teaching market, but I typed up applications to schools in New Jersey, New York, and to satisfy my mother, her school system in Maryland. I took the New York City teachers exam and hoped for at least a job as a permanent substitute. Then, through a serendipitous connection with a professor in the department where I worked as a part time secretary, I landed a job in the tony town of Rye, in Westchester County. I’d be teaching seventh and eighth grade English, and the money was good, as was the health insurance. Playing a bit loose with our unwritten rental agreement with the landlord, we sublet our apartment on 116th Street to a dependable assistant professor who was happy to pay us fifty bucks more than our normal monthly rent. He was in no hurry to move into the city, and that would give us plenty of time to find new digs in the suburbs.
As the opening of school approached, we jumped on our motorcycle –which we were temporarily and illegally housing in our ground level apartment’s living room, having spent what little savings we had on it a few months before, so there was nothing left for theft insurance. We scoured the area around Rye for an affordable place to live. We had no luck at first: the apartments were few and out of our price range. I was forced to endure six weeks of carpooling with a middle aged social studies teacher, a closeted gay man who listened to eight- track tapes of opera every day on our drive to Rye—55 full minutes of Maria Callas and Leontyne Price. All the while he nattered on about this and that—small iniquities he’d endured at the hands of the school administration, the obnoxiousness of middle school youth, the ridiculous demands of the curriculum, and the sorry excuse for a teachers’ union in Rye. Whereas I looked forward each working day to the challenges of the classroom, determined to win the kids over and make them learn as well, my colleague was bitter, tired, and pretty much friendless in the faculty lunch room. I started out feeling tolerant, then became bored with his chatter, then after a couple of weeks, began to dread the rides to and from school. At the end of the teaching day, I wanted to stick around and plan my next day’s lessons, or stare down over-exuberant, misbehaving boys from my seventh grade class in a one hour afterschool detention, so I could become more credible—and feared—and have better classroom management. My opera aficionado driver was in the habit of bolting from school within four minutes of the last bell, and every Monday through Friday afternoon at 2:20 sharp, his car shot out of the faculty lot so fast that I buckled my seatbelt tightly, and said a quick Hail Mary.
One Saturday I mentally tallied up the time spent on the road each week, between our apartment at 116th street and the ivy-covered walls of Rye Middle and High School. Ten minutes waiting for the Broadway bus, another five or ten minutes waiting on the corner of Broadway and 96th Street for my ride, 45 minutes on the Hudson and Hutchinson Parkways, then another five minutes from the parkway exit to school: sixty minutes times ten. Ten hours a week, time I could be spending correcting papers, planning lessons, and boning up on remedial reading, since I’d been assigned to a class of weak readers, but had absolutely no training in diagnosing or dealing with dyslexia. “You’ve been misassigned!” my mother said. She’d quickly decided my department chair didn’t know what he was doing—or didn’t care. Once more, she encouraged Rick and me to move back to Baltimore, where I could get a cushy position teaching English at a new, state-of-the-art high school.
We stayed put, at a safe distance from both our families. Rick gave his notice to quit in the university’s Central Stores department, and we mapped out a strategy—apartment hunting every Saturday, and we’d start asking everyone we knew—my colleagues, his aunt who lived in Old Greenwich, even the librarians at the Greenwich Public Library. We hit upon the notion that we should write up our own ad and place it in the local newspaper. After six weekends of fruitless searching, we turned up what looked like a good deal: a small studio apartment on the second floor of a Cos Cob garage —an “unofficial” apartment, no doubt. There was only one catch: we needed a car, since I couldn’t be riding on the back of our 750 cc Triumph motorcycle to school each work day.
My first car was a red Buick Opel station wagon, not much bigger than today’s Smart Cars. My grandmother sold it to me for a hundred and fifty bucks, about two years after my step-grandfather died. Mimi, by then in her sarly eighties, had never learned to drive, but she was reluctant to part with the Opel for sentimental reasons. So there it sat, through two frigid Cumberland winters and two cool springs, lonely and half forgotten on the parking lot of Mimi’s senior citizen highrise apartment building. The car was seven or eight years old by then, but still looked in fine shape, its body intact and the paint job a shiny candle apple red. There was one hitch: I had to learn to drive it before I could drive it. Aside from a few lessons on an aging Citroen Deux 2CV the previous summer, I’d never quite gotten the hang of a standard shift. I took the train to Baltimore, and my mother drove me west to Cumberland where Mimi handed me two sets of keys and the title, signed over to me. I paid her the first fifty dollars of our informal installment plan.
That same weekend, back in Baltimore, my father took on the task of teaching me how to drive the Opel—on the nearest steep hill. I had no trouble figuring out the “H” configuration of gears. It was starting up from a full stop, on a hill, that flummoxed me. “Let out the clutch! Let out the clutch! LET OUT THE CLUTCH!” Dad commanded, as over and over, the engine stalled and I had to start all over again—shifting into Neutral, depressing the clutch and shifting into first, then slowly letting up on the clutch with my left foot as I hit the gas with my right— and the engine, raced, then stalled again.
I was twenty-four, I wasn’t happy being treated like a sixteen year old just learning to drive, and I refused any more of Dad’s driving lessons . My mother, ever the patient teacher, took over the next day, and taught me how to use the emergency brake to start the car on a hill, until I began to feel more comfortable with the entire operation. Within two hours I knew how to start up from a dead stop near the top of Hilltop Avenue, going uphill. A few days later, I drove from Baltimore to Cos Cob without a problem.
For a small car, Little Red was amazingly capacious. In our move from Manhattan’s Upper West Side to Connecticut, over the course of three days, we transported a queen size box spring and later, the mattress , lashed onto the roof rack, a chest of drawers, a desk, a small dining table, one heavy upholstered armchair, two bicycles, and boxes and boxes of records and books. We could fit three passengers in the back, and two of us up front. Best of all, the Opel averaged 42 mpg, and gas in those days was only about thirty-five cents a gallon. The problems began later, when the New England fall moved from Indian summer days to cold, damp nights. Rick and I soon figured out that Little Red needed a good hard push to get it going enough to jump start the engine. I took to parking on an incline, just in case there wasn’t a colleague around to give me a little push. The Little red Opel came to life readily on sunny days, but if it rained or threatened to, it was anyone’s guess how long it could take to get her going.
We checked under the hood. Rick was handy with cars, and he replaced the spark plugs, the points, this and that, changing up everything. But the problem persisted. This is when I learned what a distributor cap was—after months of troubleshooting, Rick finally figured it out—moisture collected under the distributor cap and caused the system to short out. We took to drying the cap out in the oven at 160 degrees Fahrenheit, a trick that worked well enough. But it required too much advance planning for our busy and freewheeling –twenty-something lives.
There was another issue with Little Red—the shaking. Whenever I drove the Connecticut Turnpike or the Merritt Parkway over 55 mph, the car began to vibrate, just a bit at first, then as my speed approached 60, the car began to shake in a very disturbing way. The steering wheel vibrated, the seats shook, and a jackhammer sound filled the car. My solution was to drive more slowly. I would fall into the slow lane, feeling like a little old lady, but too scared to keep up a good speed with all that rattling and shaking. It sounded as though the wheels were going to fly off. At twenty-three, I might have been willing to engage in a certain amount of risk-taking behavior, but driving a rapidly disintegrating car wasn’t in my playbook.
The adorable little over-the-garage apartment started out as a love nest, but it was a difficult year for Rick and me. He didn’t find work for months, and as a result, was miserable much of the time. He tried his hand at carpentry, doing odd jobs for a few friends in the city, but not much came of it. By November, my younger sister had returned from her backpacking trip to Europe with a broken heart and no desire to move back home , so we let her sleep on the couch. She got a job at a deli on Greenwich Avenue, and was soon joined in the living room sleeping quarters by Rick’s younger sister, who had dropped out of college after one semester. She found a job in an office, typing and filling out purchase orders. Rick began cashiering and then managing the Eco-Center, with its rows of natural foods, macramé and artisan weavings, and a parking lot of electric cars, none of which ever seemed to sell. The bucolic little apartment in Cos Cob was becoming a tenement of immigrants from Baltimore. The background music to all this was ”All Things Considered” in its infancy, Carly Simon and Elton John records, and the disappointing whine of Little Red, not quite able to start up in the cold Connecticut mornings.
In late winter, an old boyfriend of our college friend Suzie showed up for what was to be a long weekend. He parked his old Dodge with its Colorado tags next to Little Red. Dan soon became a permanent fixture. He, too, sacked out on the tiny living room floor in a tattered old sleeping bag. He came and went at odd hours. I began spending more time with teaching friends, going to the theater in the city, out for drinks every Friday after school, or to the public library, where I hunkered down in a corner, grading papers and obsessively writing in my journal.
Little Red continued to act up at least two or three times a week, and always, it seemed, when I needed to get to work. The car didn’t do well in the snow, and once or twice I got stuck on Cat Rock Road and needed a push out from our novelist neighbor across the road. By the time spring came, I was more than happy to promise my first car to my twenty year old sister-in-law, who was heading back to southern Maryland to resume college. In mid- June, when my first year of teaching came to a close and I gratefully received my summer balloon paycheck, I went directly to the local Volkswagen dealer.
Within two days I had a sapphirblau Super Beetle, a car loan with a monthly payment coupon book, and no radio. I packed up some favorite books, my sewing machine, summer cloths and my trusty Smith–Corona electric typewriter, and drove north to Cambridge, Massachusetts, as good a place as any to study Celtic literature and intermediate French, and to get my head straight after a taxing year as a mentorless young middle school teacher living in an overpopulated, undersized hippie commune. Rick stayed in Cos Cob, and as our sisters went their separate ways back to school, he was tasked with evicting Dan, our last remaining garagemate. Driving north to Massachusetts, I gave hardly a thought to the little red Opel. Eventually I’d have to write to my grandmother and let her know I’d sold it—for twice what I’d paid her for it.
But that could wait. I was feeling the inexorable freedom that comes with a reliable new car that could take me away to Cambridge. When I put the key into the ignition, the VW started up, humming evenly. There would be no more parking on steep hills or calls for a good hard push to get the engine going. Lesson plans, my cranky old department chairman, and jump starts in the cold morning rain fell away as I drove up the ramp to Interstate 95 in the late June sunshine. As I shifted into fourth gear and the speedometer hit 70, I found myself humming a Carole King tune. Then I sang out loud, all the way to Boston.
© 2012 Lynne S. Viti, All rights reserved
The day before I graduated from law school, I was married– for the second time. Both he and I were veterans of early starter marriages, both single for a decade. We met at an enormous party in Jamaica Plain, in a house opposite Franklin Park and around the corner from an old stable. We did not lock eyes across a crowded room, like the song in South Pacific recounts. It was a rather empty room, as most of the party was going on a floor below in a cleared-out living and dining room area that the houses’ residents, performance artists, used for their drumming practices. We stood next to the snack table. He introduced himself, as did I, and we began chatting. Within forty five minutes, I knew we had traveled parallel paths—early marriage, followed by long, difficult and ill-fated relationship with a younger partner, Catholic father, Episcopalian mother, and no children. Politics slightly left of center, check. Loved books and music, check. Had been through some therapy, check. We soon fast tracked to living together and planning a small wedding—his immediate family, mine, and three close friends.
My parents, sister, brother in law and their infant son came from Maryland for the wedding, in a small white Congregational church on Boston’s North Shore. There was a fine dinner at a small restaurant in Gloucester, lots of champagne, and a thunderstorm that we completely missed. The next day, my mother told me had gotten some bad news, Mother said. I pressed her for the details, though she was reluctant to say much. Breast cancer, partial mastectomy. I reached for my address book and dialed Mary Jane’s number.
“I didn’t want you to hear about this till after the wedding,” Mary Jane told me. “ You didn’t need to be thinking about this at your time to be happy.”
I asked her how she had found out she had cancer, about the surgery, asked her if she’d have cosmetic reconstruction. Did her children—a son and a daughter, both still in elementary school–know? No, she said). What was the prognosis? Did she have confidence in her doctor?
“He’s kind of nerdy,” she said, “but smart, very smart. He tells it to me straight— he doesn’t sugar-coat it.” She said he seemed like a scientist more than a doctor. She felt confident that she was in good hands. She would have hormone therapy, not chemo, and yearly chest x-rays and follow-up from her surgeon and the oncologist. As I listened, I stood in our kitchen in the third floor walk up apartment, looking out the window near the old porcelain sink, to the parking lot of the hardware store adjacent to our building. The trees along Cypress Street were green, their leaves full and lush. The sun was shining, and soon I would put on my pink and white cotton sundress with the cutout in the back, and then over it, the blue academic robes of Boston College, with the juris doctor hood. I felt tears well up as Mary Jane wished me congratulations and told me not to worry, everyone was praying for her and she knew everything would be all right for her in the end. I twisted the phone’s coiled cord around in my left hand as I told her I would be thinking of her and wishing for the best.
She lived for another eleven years, much of them seemingly free of the cancer, though in retrospect it was lying in wait. I saw her more frequently for a time, staying at her home with my five year old son when Mary Jane and I had our twentieth high school reunion, and then again five years later, when her cancer had begun to return with a vengeance. We went together to our twenty-fifth, but as soon as we arrived, she gravitated as in high school days to her old Mt. St. Agnes crowd, and I, to my Beatle Club, as we had come to call ourselves. At the end of the evening, after the speeches, the wine, the stories and the laughs at our separate tables, Mary Jane and I met up at the door as we had so many times at those old CYO dances, and we wended our way to her car. We gossiped all the way back to her house, about who had gained weight, who looked better than ever, who hadn’t shown up, who had surprised us by appearing that night. She talked about her children, by now young teenagers, who were a constant source of delight and challenge. We fell into our old ways—she, the raconteur of hilarious tales, me, her audience, easily laughing at her stories. On my last visit, she was exhausted, and she refused to come to that year’s school reunion. “Give everyone my best,” she said. I hated going without her.
A month before her forty-ninth birthday, after a year or two of intense and escalating pain and suffering, supported by her steadfast and amazing husband and her friends, her now nearly grown kids and her mother and brothers, Mary Jane died– still young, ever devout and altruistic. My mother, by then in her early eighties, said Mary Jane’s death made her doubt God existed. I didn’t make the trip to Baltimore for the funeral. One more piece of my childhood was gone, and it would take many months and years to remember the good times, to forget Mary Jane’s last act, the unfairness and the randomness of her illness and death.
There’s an old Kodacolor photo of the two of us at age three–Mary Jane was two and a half, really– from my birthday party. It is May, and I’m wearing a smock dress, white anklets and black patent leather shoes. A shiny foil party hat is perched askew on my head. Mary Jane wears a blue jumper with a frilly white blouse. I have no recollection of that day, except for a vague sense of women–my mother, my Aunt Kay, my grandmother–bustling about, keeping order among the toddler guests. The snapshot has aged with an oddly golden glow. Mary Jane, dark-eyed, her straw-blond hair held in place with a white plastic barrette, looks straight into the camera, surprised. With one hand, she holds a plastic whistle with a curled paper tail to her mouth. With the other, she drags a large pink balloon near the carpet. I stand beside her, holding my own balloon and whistle, and we blithely stride forward, into our futures.
© 2012 Lynne Viti
Mary Jane was married the same year I was going through a divorce. My starter marriage had been on the skids within a year or two after the wedding. I remember the day my mother called to tell me Mary Jane and her boyfriend had become engaged, set the date. It was a Sunday morning, when the long distance rates were lowest. I was standing up in the kitchen of the first place I ever lived alone, about five months after the Organic Gourmet and I had separated. The wall phone had a short cord, so I couldn’t move very far from it. I slid down the wall and sat on the floor as Mother talked. I felt happy for Mary Jane but her world seemed so far from mine that she might as well be getting married on the moon. Her boyfriend was, my mother said, a nice fellow who’d gone to Calvert Hall. He worked for the government, the Treasury Department. As she told me this, I was thinking about how much I hated Richard Nixon and how deeply I opposed our war in Vietnam, which had been going on for most of my life, it seemed. “I hope you’ll come to the wedding,” Mother said. “Of course,” I told her. “ Wouldn’t miss it for the world.“ My sister was living in Europe with her Dutch boyfriend and would not be making the trip home. I focused on finding the perfect dress, something elegant and black.
Mary Jane was married in the same imposing white church where Aunt Eileen and my once-handsome, long-dead, charming alcoholic uncle had wed when he was on a short leave during the war. There was a full dress nuptial Mass. My cousin looked radiant, beautiful really, and the groom looked at her adoringly. I was happy for her. And I went through the motions of those familiar liturgies for my father’s sake, for by then I was so estranged from the Church I’d been raised in—all churches, really—that I spent my Sundays reading the Sunday Times and drinking strong coffee, savoring each section of the paper, starting with the news and then moving on in the same order each week, to the book reviews, and the magazine.
After the wedding, we moved on to the reception at a Baltimore country club, and as usual in those days, I drank too much. I flirted with Mary Jane’s cousins on her mother’s side, a family of boys a year or two apart in age, freckled, blue-eyed guys who knew how to tell a good story. I bumped into Mary Jane’s grade school friend, a high school classmate I hadn’t known well but had always thought quite cool and funny, and Fran and I stood at the bar making mean remarks about people we observed from our post. I thought I was being very sophisticated, but in truth, I was miserable—lonely, depressed, sad about my marriage slowly disintegrating and fading. Around us, everyone seemed happy, and when it came time for the groom and his mother to dance the polka, I felt myself stepping away from the knot of guests encircling the dance floor. At first, the groom and his mother whirled around and around, just the two of them, and then, gradually, they were joined by a few more couples, then more, until the onlookers were far outnumbered by dancers. I wandered back to the bar, held out my glass to the bartender and asked for another J & B, please, on the rocks.
© 2012 Lynne Viti
According to my aunt’s plan, Mary Jane was to move on from Mount Saint Agnes Lower School, ensconced in its octagonal building on the hill in Mount Washington, across the campus to the adjacent Mount Saint Agnes High School and the college –a life sentence of sorts. But by the early 1960′s the Sisters of Mercy closed their small high school to conform to new accreditation standards. Mary Jane and her school friends were funneled to a new school that welcomed students from all over the city. There, the daughters of doctors and lawyers would sit side by side with girls like me—the children of barkeepers, door-to-door salesmen, printers, masons and cobblers. I was placed in a group required to take Latin and an experimental math curriculum from the University of Chicago, while Mary Jane and some of her grade school friends were tracked into a much less challenging class. My classmates and I were soon deemed “brains,” and it became obvious to the three hundred and twenty-five freshmen that Mary Jane and her friends were the cool ones. “They’re in with the In Crowd,” my friend Chris joked, quoting a popular song of the day. “They know all the latest dances…it’s easy to find romance.”
The In Crowd knew how to push the limits of school rules on hair and makeup –nothing too teased, nothing too blonde, but a little backcombing was all right. The Rules permitted no eye makeup, though what nun could detect a touch of mascara on a girl? A little lipstick was all right, if it wasn’t too dark or iridiescent, but colored nail polish could earn you a detention. My friends and I came to school with well scrubbed faces.
Mary Jane and I might nod to one another in the halls at school, and we sat at different lunch tables, as the cafeteria was a Petri dish for mean girls, in -groups, pecking order competitions, and the like. I might stop by her table and say hello, but nothing more. Her friends regarded me with an odd mixture of tolerance and disdain.
But outside of school we remained weekend friends. Aunt Eileen would bring Mary Jane to my house after supper, and my mother chauffeured us to St. Ursula’s Catholic Youth Organization’s weekly Friday night dance. In that era of same sex Catholic schools, CYO was an oasis of coeducation—one prayer by Father Martell to start off the night, then three hours of dancing, talking, and flirting. You waited for the boys you liked to come over and joke around. John turned up his sport jacket collar, unfolded the lapels, with his ersatz Roman collar, pretended to be a priest hearing your ersatz confession. I always hoped for one slow dance with Sam, St. Ursula’s best dancer. He was tall and slender, with wavy chestnut hair. Of course, he had a steady girlfriend, but she tolerated his dancing with other girls, so long as it was just once or twice in an evening. I tried not to stand with the girls who lined the walks. Alone, I might get a shy but handsome boy in my sights so I could make a beeline for him if a ladies’ choice were announced, a slow, languid song, like Skeeter Davis singing “The End of the World” or the Angels’ “‘Til.”
My imagination was so colored by Seventeen Magazine ads that I imagined my Wind Song perfume would mingle with the smell of his English Leather aftershave or — if I was lucky enough to dance with Sam– the scent of Marlboros, permanently absorbed into his herringbone sport jacket. After we danced the last dance—if we were so lucky—with boys we barely knew, Mary Jane and I would meet up in the entryway to the church hall. I might catch a glimpse of my classmate Gay over in the corner with her much older boyfriend. They liked to stay in the shadows, he, hunched over her, she looking up at him adoringly. I never wanted to acknowledge her, for it would feel like interrupting an intimate moment. I wondered what that must feel like, to be that oblivious to the rest of us, the uncoupled ones.
Back at my house and upstairs in my bedroom, Mary Jane and I practiced smoking. At first we cadged cigarettes from my father’s pack, which he sometimes left on the commode in the bathroom. I would pocket a couple L & Ms and sneak an ashtray and matches into my room, stashing it in my underwear drawer before we left for the dance. When we came back, we’d get into our nightgowns and sit on the floor by the window, which we opened wide even on the coldest winter nights. We’d light up and work on our technique. She worked on blowing smoke rings, while I was attempting to French inhale, which I had heard about the year before when I was still in junior high. My parents must have smelled the smoke and known we were experimenting, but neither of them ever said a word about it. Eventually, Mary Jane and I saved our smoking for the break when the CYO hall emptied out for fifteen minutes, or lighting up outside after one of my parents dropped us off. We thought we looked so sophisticated, or in the parlance of those days, so “tough.”
Gradually, Mary Jane’s social life and mine diverged just as our school lives had. I was a much more serious and ambitious student than she, and her friends were more precocious than mine. More of them went steady and wore boys’ school rings, filled with wax to fit the girls’ smaller fingers. More of them were on the cheerleading squad, which consisted of petite, pretty girls with teased and sprayed coiffures and carefully plucked eyebrows. My friends were an eclectic bunch, but all of us were studious and focused. We were the journalists, the actors, the math whizzes.
By the time we were sixteen, I was immersed in a new world of books and politics. I read Dr. King and Stokely Carmichael and I got into arguments with my father and with conservative friends at school about civil rights. My father was more than annoyed when my letter to the editor advocating integration of all public entities in Baltimore—schools, swimming pools, restaurants and bars, department store dressing rooms—was published in the Evening Sun. I was fifteen, and I had written it on my own. I hadn’t shown it to a soul, just typed it up om my Smith-Corona and mailed it to the editor. My mother, though proud of my publication, suggestedI should have used a pseudonym. My father said nothing, but conveyed his position through silence.
Mary Jane and I saw each other at family gatherings, but less and less frequently. I was university-bound, with dreams of school in Boston or New York, and she allowed herself to be steered to a local junior college. She left after a semester or two, and went to work, which she seemed to prefer to taking classes. She moved into an apartment with a girlfriend and came home for Sunday dinner. I was drawn into the anti-war movement on my campus, and on my rare visits home, refused to go to Mass with my father, and annoyed my mother with my swearing and my left-of-center political views. I married when I was a senior at Barnard because my parents wouldn’t pay my tuition if I defied them by living in sin with my boyfriend. I returned to Baltimore less and less frequently. While I was refusing to work for the Man, Mary Jane was filing and typing at an insurance company’s office. While my friends and I were drinking cheap red wine, sitting around listening to Bob Dylan records and analyzing the lyrics, Mary Jane was working a second job at a Baltimore department store and dating guys with short hair and steady jobs. I was so absorbed in my rebellion against bourgeois values that I didn’t give her much thought any more. It 1969, and now, we had nothing in common.
© 2012 Lynne S. Viti
I was from a small family–just my parents, my younger sister and me, but we had what seemed like an endless supply of cousins—-older cousins, like Bunky who had been in the army and had played hockey in college, drove a Thunderbird convertible and now sold freezers. Before that, he sold Esther Williams swimming pools. Or Michael, nine years my senior, who was in ROTC at Loyola and got his commission as lieutenant when he graduated. We never saw him, as he was in training all over the country, then posted to Germany, then to Vietnam, ascending the ladder to his pinnacle, three star general. Mary Jo completed her nurse’s training but then changed paths, and went to college, majoring in English. She married a man from Massachusetts and they moved there from Washington, DC soon after their first child was born. By the time I graduated from high school, she had two children and one on the way. Eventually she had five, and she became a busy, full time stay at-home mother.
There were younger Baltimore cousins, and there were the Montgomery County, Maryland and the Ohio cousins, first cousins once removed. We saw them infrequently, and I never got to know the Marylanders as well as the Ohioans, all scattered around the suburbs of Cleveland. There were two “old cousins” from Pittsburgh who had “been sent to California to die,” from tuberculosis, in the 1940’s. Their mother and my grandmother were sisters; their father had made a fortune in stocks, the story went, and the old man had set up a rigid, permanent irrevocable trust that made it possible for them to live off the interest comfortably, then , msyteriously, revert to his secretary’s desdcendants, after my two childless cousins died in the late 1970′s. Neither of them succumbed to TB, and both lived well into old age. John became a real estate agent in a California desert town, and Virginia, who lived Los Angeles, was a very Catholic writer who specialized in taking in and rehabilitating women who were down on their luck in one way or another. John was a recovering alcoholic, formerly a hard drinker who partied with Jean Harlow and Errol Flynn in the old days. His sister Virgina was pious and strait-laced. She had been rejected by more than one order of nuns because she was not hardy enough for the religious life. She wrote two books, biographies of St Margaret of Hungary and Meg, daughter of St. Thomas More.
Cousin Virginia and I corresponded for a time when I wrote for my high school newspaper and fancied myself a journalist Her letters were long, typed on onionskin, and punctuated only with ellipses. I moved on to corresponding with John once I reached college. He was a much more romantic figure to me. By then he had left the U.S. under nebulous circumstances, possibly involving a crooked real estate deal, and had taken up a vagabond’s existence, living in Tangiers, Marrakech, and finally, Sri Lanka where he died. Not until I was in my thirties did I realize John was gay. I heard from my mother that John had adopted a young, handsome Sri Lankan fellow with the unlikely name of Ashley. The last time I saw him was in Holland, when my sister was married in Breda in the late ‘Seventies. By then he had been an expatriate for over fifteen years, and as far as I know he never set foot on American soil again.
Our closest cousins were a trio we saw often–Tim, Mary Jane and Paul. They lived with their mother, who during World War II, had married my father’s brother, Francis. The marriage had not lasted long, because my father’s bright and handsome youngest brother had a serious drinking problem that made him completely unqualified to be a husband, father, or employee. He couldn’t hold a job more than a month or two, and over the years, my aunt and his brothers and sisters had tried everything—drying out clinics, consultations with noted psychiatrists. Within a fifteen year period, Uncle Francis went from the marital home first to a bachelor apartment, then to a rooming house, and eventually to a down and out motel in Santa Monica, where he died in a mysterious gas explosion when I was in college.
But Aunt Eileen had family money, and she and the three children lived a peaceful, comfortable life in an affluent neighborhood of brick colonials and generous lawns, tucked behind York Road and St Mary’s Govans church. Those were the cousins closest to my sister and me in age: Tim was a year and four days older than me, Mary Jane and I were seven months apart, and Paul was a little younger than my sister, Anne. Tim teased and bossed all of us, Mary Jane and I sought refuge in her little front bedroom, and Anne and Paul played together nicely in the club cellar, or outdoors, in good weather. Mary Jane and I were an unlikely pair—I had short dark curly hair and was fair, while she had stick straight white-blond hair and skin that tanned instead of burning. I was plump; she was slender. I was a reader; she was more interested in television, music and movies.
By the time I was eight, Mary Jane and I had developed a weekend friendship, something quite apart from our school friends. Mary Jane went to the all-girls Mount Saint Agnes Lower School, populated by the daughters of doctors and lawyers. I went to the public elementary school near my home, where we might have as many as 45 kids in a classroom. One winter when we were eight, Mary Jane and I took drawing lessons at the Baltimore Museum of Art, a short bus ride from her house. For years after that, even when we were grown with our own children, she would regale us with her account of our first bus ride to the museum. Though we had praticed a dry run with Aunt Eileen along, this was our first solo venture. Mary Jane wanted to get off the bus at the Boumi Temple stop, and as we stood in the front of the bus near the fare box, I kept telling her it wasn’t time to get off yet. The bus driver scolded us to hurry up, girls. I won the argument, and many stops later, we alighted at the museum, with its naked statue of Rodin’s Thinker on his pedestal in front of the main entrance.
On summer days, while my aunt was out doing her volunteer charity work at the school for special kids, her elderly relative, Aunt Ann, came to supervise the five of us. Mary Jane and I were allowed to take over the kitchen, making pizza from the kit, mixing the dough and pretending to throw it up in the air like the pros. Aunt Ann, an elderly relative of Aunt Eileen’s, was always in the background to keep an eye on us, but stayed out of our way. Mary Jane and I deciphered the pizza instructions, spreading the meager canned sauce on our rectangular crust, sprinkling the top with dried parmesan from the paper pouch. We thought it was perfect pizza, and the smell of baking crust was heavenly to us. In those days pizza wasn’t available at every school cafeteria and corner store, and we had no idea what real pizza should taste like. We thought we were gifted bakers.
Starting in sixth or seventh grade, our social lives began to diverge even more. Mary Jane began going to boy-girl parties with her Mount St Agnes friends and their male counterparts from Mount Washington Country School, a military academy where the boys wore smart gray military uniforms with yellow cord trim. I envied her active social life. I was stuck in public junior high, where my social life consisted of spending time with my best friend Ann either at her house or mine, reading Seventeen Magazine and watching the Buddy Deane Show on tv. One spring Saturday, Mary Jane and I trolled the aisles at the five and dime store near her house, inspecting the Tangee lipsticks, compacts, and Maybelline cake mascara and brush sets. I bought some bright blue nail polish, which I thought I’d try out before I got home and my mother could critique the garish color. Mary Jane bought some liquid foundation, because she had just begun to break out in acne. She couldn’t possibly go to the party that night with all those blemishes. “I’m going to wear this to the party tonight,” she confided. ”If my mother says anything, if she asks me what I put on my face, I’m going to say, ‘Blem–Stick, and I rubbed it in.’ So back me up.” I readily agreed to.
I lay back on Mary Jane’s single bed with its rich green spread and white dust ruffle, reading my library book as she showered in preparation for the party. We’d had our dinner and my overnight bag was packed. I watched Mary Jane pull two dresses out of her closet. Holding first one, then the up against herself, she asked, “Which one is better?” The full skirts, with crinolines beneath, rustled as she held them both out at arm’s length for me to compare. “The blue one,” I said. She wasn’t yet allowed to wear nylon stockings, so she laid out some thin white nylon anklets and patent leather flats, and slipped into the dress. I zipped it up, marveling at how small her waist was. She talked about which Mt. Washington boys she liked and which ones would be at the party. I glanced at the clock on her dresser, wondering where my mother could possibly be, hoping she would arrive soon so I wouldn’t have to be left behind at 336 Broadmoor while Mary Jane went off to her party.
But my mother was late, and I suffered the humiliation of standing in the front hallway with Aunt Eileen when Mary Jane, blond and spiffy in her crinolines and party dress, responded to her mother’s interrogation about the foundation makeup. “Blem–Stick, and I rubbed it in. Isn’t that right?” She looked at me, and I corroborated her story. “Yes, Blem-Stick, ” I told Aunt Eileen.
The doorbell rang. Mary Jane ran out to catch her ride with a school friend. The other girl’s father, drafted to be chauffeur for the girls that evening, sat behind the wheel of a long, shiny black sedan. Aunt Eileen and I waved from the front doorstep. I managed to croak out a weak,” Have a good time.”
On the drive home I confesssed to my mother that I felt fat and left out. She told me then what she would repeat for years afterwards, whenever I bemoaned my weight, my boyfriendless state, my unpopularity at junior high.
“Your day will come,” she said, and for some reason, I believed her.
When our sons were young, my husband and I began a tradition of taking them to a play or concert on the weekend or two before Christmas. For several years, after Mister Rogers featured two principal dancers on his tv show, both boys were fixated on the Nutcracker Ballet. In those days, we economized by choosing a production by Walnut Hill School . We figured that at age four and seven, the kids wouldn’t notice that the ones executing the pas de deux and the grand jetés were mere high schoolers. We settled on the matinee, and burgers at Friendly’s afterwards. The next year my father-in- law gave us tickets to the Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker. So decked out in reindeer sweaters and corduroy pants, the boys not only enjoyed orchestra seats at the ballet, but were delighted to shake hands with the fully costumed Nutcracker prince and Sugar Plum Fairy as well as one of the mice, at a fancy cocktail reception in the Boston Four Seasons Hotel.
All too soon, the boys became too macho for the ballet, and my husband suggested Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. By this time a “fancy” dinner– any restaurant that did not serve pizza as its specialty dish–became part of the holiday theater experience. We drove to Providence, saw an Angels in America- inspired Christmas Carol (ghosts of Christmas past, whirling overhead on a pulley contraption; female Ebenezer Scrooge), and got soaked clear through our coats walking in a downpour from the parking lot to a snazzy Italian restaurant –wine for the parents, pizza for one boy, and pasta for the other. The next year, we went to Christmas Revels at Harvard’s Sanders Theater, and afterwards, tucked in to TexMex food. Our younger boy loved the Revels—the costumes, the audience participation singing, the period instruments, and most of all, the antler dance. But the older one, by now in his early teens, decidedly did not. He rebelled, the next year staying home in bed with a fever–or perhaps he meddled with the thermometer to escape revelling. We got a last minute babysitter (our church rector’s son, as I recall) took our ten year old and skipped the dinner out that year.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales went over pretty well with the boys the next year, or perhaps what they really liked was dinner at Legal Seafoods on a bustling night in a suburban mall. At the play’s intermission, the kids asked us to buy them nosewarmers-–worn by the actors in A Child’s Christmas, and sold at intermission to benefit the Boston Repertory Theatre. We suggested they spend their own money; they decided to forego the nose warmers.
Over time, the holiday outing metamorphosed–or faded–into dinner and a movie, and once the firstborn went off to college in Maine, the tradition fell off altogether. At first that made me sad: it was another sign that our children were forging their own ways in the world and did not want to adhere to their childish ways. They had plans of their own, and these excluded their parents.
But with the disappearance of our foursome’s family ritual, there came a new one: the empty nesters’ holiday outing. This year at summer’s end, my husband ordered tickets for Stile Antico, an early music group of twenty-something singers from Britain. For two hours last night we sat with a couple hundred others in a grand, marble arched Catholic church in Cambridge. Until a few moments before the concert began, frigid air from the street flew into the narthex and into the back of the church where we sat in straight backed wooden pews, still bundled in our coats and woolen scarves. An enormous advent wreath, at least six feet in diameter, was suspended from the ceiling where the transept and main aisle intersected, its wide purple and pink ribbons stopping just short of the tallest concertgoers’ heads.
“First one to see someone you know gets a prize,” I whispered to my husband, who responded, “Bet we don’t know a soul here.” A striking woman with long white hair gathered back walked by, and I recognized her as a former administrator from the college where I teach, but that didn’t count because I didn’t really know her, nor she me, before she retired a decade ago. Almost immediately after that I spotted a former student from several years ago—long enough that it took me half the concert to remember her name. She didn’t see me, so that didn’t count either.
The singing began. First, the women’s voices, clear, strong, sweet, emanating from a place I could not see from our pew near the back of the church. Then men’s voices joined the women’s, as the singers quietly took their places in the chancel. The women wore fashionable black dresses, the men, black shirts and pants. But the singers were merely the vehicles for the music, and to a lesser extent, the words— Tallis, Byrd and plainchant. The music made by these thirteen young voices swallowed up the Latin prayers. As I looked out over the audience, the music went into my head on the wings of the church Latin I had learned as a child and adolescent before the days of Vatican II, when the great theologians and bishops banished the Latin Mass to a few outlier parishes. Old, familiar phrases— qui tollis peccata mundi, misere nobis, magnificat anima mea Dominum, swirled around my head, and then as the singers repeated and repeated the words, the sound fused with the words, then made its way into my head and my heart. I was no longer sitting in a cold church a stone’s throw from the Harvard yard, with hundreds of strangers in wool or down jackets. I was somewhere else, where human voices were so excruciatingly lovely and moving that it seemed the closest one could ever get to choirs of angels, or whatever you might call otherworldly, near-perfect beings. These voices became pure sound, capturing me, eliminating all distraction, bringing wonder, then calm.
As though jolted from deepest sleep, loud applause brought me back from where the voices had taken me. We ducked out of the church just as Stile Antico finished an encore, a 16th century Spanish motet. Cold and hatless, we walked back to the car, threading our way past pubs overflowing with ebullient young patrons in Santa suits or elf costumes. We were forced us back into the twenty-first century.
Over the next few days my husband and I enacted our own rituals from the years when we first met, the time Before Children: last minute book buying at New England Mobile Book Fair, reviewing our gift list to be sure we didn’t favor one grown son over the other; lugging the Christmas tree up from its bucket of water (usually iced over) in the garage; giving the living room its annual deep cleaning, from under the carpets to the corners and crannies of the sofa.
Today is Boxing Day, and the trick is to stay more than a step ahead of the December blues. The leftovers from Christmas dinner are stowed in the fridge. The cousins from Maine left this morning. Two lone pieces of pie sit covered with plastic wrap on the kitchen counter. Most of the detritus of Christmas–the bows, the gift wrap, the boxes–has been sorted into recycling bins in the garage.
At 5 pm it’s fully dark. I turn on the outside Christmas lights and make myself a cup of tea. The house, so full of laughter and talk of politics and music and jobs this time yesterday, is silent. The days are growing longer, imperceptibly, but confirmed by the daily newspaper’s almanac: ” Sunset, 4:17 pm. Day of year: 360.”
Before we know it, we’ll be cutting forsythia to force its brave yellow blossoms from tall, spare branches, early notes of spring.
Often it was a quiet day for the four of us, my parents and my younger sister in our small dining room, the mahogany table covered with table pads and the mint green holiday tablecloth. The table had been carefully set the evening before, with the good china, rimmed in gold and featuring a single sheath of golden wheat, and the ornate Stieff silver. My father liked to rise early, well before sunrise, and begin his cooking. By the time my sister and I made our way down to the kitchen, the bird was in the oven, and the sauerkraut and spareribs gently simmered on the back of the stove. The potatoes were peeled and resting in a large pot of cold water on our little back porch. If the weather was grey and rainy, as it often was, we would linger over the morning paper, watch television, play Sorry or Monopoly.
When we were a little older, our father might take my sister and me to the City-Poly football game. By the time I was in high school, I wanted only to go with my Mercy High friends to the Turkey Bowl, the annual Calvert Hall-Loyola matchup. Both games, steeped in years of rivalry, were played at Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium, and the Calvert Hall-Loyola game on those brisk Thanksgiving mornings provided ample opportunity to see and be seen by the cutest boys in Baltimore, as far as my friends and I were concerned.
Dinner was always the same menu, served around five o’clock: turkey with dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans, two kinds of cranberry sauce, giblet gravy, sweet potatoes with brown sugar, sauerkraut, and my mother’s sole contribution to the table—if our housekeeper hadn’t made it the day before—Waldorf salad, a concoction of diced apples, walnuts, raisins and celery held together with Hellman’s mayonnaise– that never made much sense to me and which I ate only under orders, because I wanted to get to the pie. The pie—always apple, always made late the day before by Burnell from her mother’s Virginia recipe—was uniformly wonderful, year after year. There was no mystery to it as far as ingredients went. Burnell used an old coffee cup to measure out flour and tossed in a hunk of Crisco and a little salt, then splashed ice water with one hand while she began mixing the stuff with the other. She worked quickly, and within a couple minutes turned out the dough onto a floured board and began quickly rolling it out. The used a paring knife to trim the top layer of dough, crimped the edges just so, and made slit for the steam to escape during the baking. With the extra dough, she made a small sugar tart of sugar, cinnamon and butter. That was the small day-before-Thanksgiving treat for my sister and me, and we each ate our half while the dough was still hot and flaky, just cooled enough that we wouldn’t burn our tongues.
Over time, the Thanksgiving food became less important to me, though the reassuring cooking smells of roasting turkey and the rest provided an essential background to my coming and going to friends’ houses, to football games, to movies, and parties. By the time I was in college, I began to treat Thanksgiving break as the start of the Christmas-New Year party season, though invariably I arrived home from school with a suitcase full of books that I never touched until I stepped onto the train back to New York. In those days, final exams were scheduled for mid January, so Christmas was a time of cognitive dissonance. I knew I should study, but I was having too much fun catching up with high school friends, prowling parties and dances for interesting college men, and learning to drink scotch with friends of my parents at the odd intergenerational cocktail party. I even tolerated extended family gatherings, where I was cross examined by older cousins and uncles on the politics at Columbia, which they called “that communist school up in New York.”
In my twenties, I often made a point of refusing to make the four hour journey south for Thanksgiving, instead, hanging out with teacher friends at a potluck supper, or scrounging an invitation to Thanksgiving with families of my students oin Connecticut. Gradually my visits home at Thanksgiving became fewer and farther between, and by the time I was thirty my parents had decamped for their annual Florida sojourn by October. There was no longer a home within driving distance on Thanksgiving, and I spent my holidays with my own growing family –my Rhode Island-bred husband and our two young sons–in the Northeast.
Two decades ago, my father died, two days before Thanksgiving. He had been ill for a few months, and I had visited him a few times in the hospital, flying in and out of Baltimore on short weekend visits. By late November he was near death, cared for at my parents’ home by my sister, my brother -in -law, and visiting nurses. On the Monday before Thanksgiving, my mother called to tell me it was time to come home to say my last goodbyes to Dad. I left my husband and children behind in Massachusetts and flew to the place I had been raised in, afraid of what I was now called on to do, without a plan, without a map, without any sense of how to be the good daughter I wanted to be.
My father had been moved from home to a hospice facility by then, and I spent the evening and early morning hours at his bedside. He was comatose, hooked up to oxygen, deeply medicated with morphine. He no longer looked much like my father, only a shell of him. His breathing was labored, his large blue eyes wide open as he struggled with each breath. The patient in the bed next to Dad’s, his cubicle separated by a striped cotton privacy curtain, dozed through a Mel Gibson action movie on the TV bolted into the wall near the ceiling. Someone turned off the television and lowered the lights. It was quiet except for the sound of Dad’s sharp intake of air and breathing out, over and over. I shifted in the rigid chair and tried to loosen up my back. I sang quietly to him, a song he used to sing to me in his off-key way, when I was little, something that was popular before I was born. With my forefinger , I lightly traced the faint scar on his forehead, a souvenir from his time in China, during the war.
He died that night, within minutes after the night shift nurse had given him the shot of morphine and suggested I might want to rest in a room down he hall reserved for family members who were on watch. It seemed I had just closed my eyes when she was gently shaking me awake, telling me my father was gone. I was disoriented and disbelieving. I went to him then, and held his hand and kissed his forehead, thinking I must do this while he was still warm, while his spirit had not yet left his body.
I called my mother and sister and contacted the funeral home to collect the body, and my mother drove me back to the house. We sat up drinking tea, talking and looking through an old scrapbook she had never shown me. It was full of notes and postcards and valentines my father had sent her when they were courting. I fell into bed in the guest room at dawn, wishing I could sleep for days.
When I awoke, my sister reminded me that we had made no preparations for Thanksgiving–nothing. I recall little about that day except for going to the supermarket that evening, finding a frozen turkey and wondering if we could possibly thaw it in time, pawing through the sweet potatoes to find enough good ones, looking for the stuffing mix Dad had always used. I resisted the impulse to tell the few other late-for-Thanksgiving shoppers what had befallen me and my family. I moved through the aisles inefficiently, knowing what I had to do and making myself do it.
The next morning, my five year old nephew and I prepared the dinner. I was comforted by his innate kindness and his willingness to help. It was as though he understood the deep pain we were all feeling and felt it too in his child’s way, and wanted to help. His small hands mixed the stuffing, patted butter and sprinkled salt and pepper on the turkey breast and legs. Standing on a study wooden chair in the kitchen, he was nearly my height, and his chatter about each cooking task kept me thinking about the next step in making the feast, even as the knot in my heart stayed constant. There was nothing in the world to do except make the dinner, if I was to keep my head on my shoulders.
Bereft as we were that year, we still had a thanksgiving after all. The meal little Martijn and I made was not the seamless production my father would have created, but my mother, my sister and her family, and I were together. We had loved Dad and been loved by him. That day there was dinner, there was wine, there was a shared sorrow and there was a bond between him and us that could never be broken.
“James S. Spigelmire, Owned Restaurant and Tavern.” The Baltimore Sun: 5.B. Nov 28 1992.
Elizabeth Gutman seemed extraordinarily powerful, both in intellect and in her clear resonant voice as she lectured on The Golden Bowl, in a packed, overheated third floor lecture hall. Yet physically, she appeared fragile. She wore no makeup. She dressed for winter in two or three layers of well-worn cardigans and a long wool coat, and her long blond hair was untamed and frizzy, a mass around her small face. Her eyes were a deep blue. She was the first college professor who came to know me by name.
I had transferred from a small Catholic women’s college in Boston, where I’d been a commuter, living at home in my family’s Dorchester three-decker. Coming to Barnard, I expected a more serious, all-consuming intellectual life, absent from my first school. I hoped to meet professors who would challenge an inspire me, not merely march me and my classmates through midterms, papers and finals. But I had no idea how hard it would be to find housing on campus . I lived for several weeks in a dingy single room occupancy hotel on the corner of Amsterdam and 121st, occupied by more than a few very old women. A scattering of us, all transfer students, shared the dismal five bedroom suites with their dark, ancient kitchens and bathrooms.
It took what seemed like forever to find friends. There seemed no quick way to make connections with my teachers, either in or out of class. On the corner of 116th and Broadway, every afternoon and evening, a young black guy, tall and skinny, stood with his hand out asking for spare change. I got into the habit of crossing the street block earlier than I might have, just to avoid him. Almost every day, I saw a woman who appeared to be speaking in tongues, yelling into the receiver or a broken pay phone in front of the Campus Deli. The IRT roared by the campus. It was widely believed in my family that I had gotten above my raising, that the local Catholic girls’ college back in Boston was perfectly fine for me and my girl cousins. When I set out for New York I expected to find a welcoming community of sisters and teachers who showed us how to live the intellectual life. Instead, I was surrounded by those who’d had experiences I could only vaguely imagine. A girl in my orientation group with long straight red hair and ginger colored eyes lit a cigarette, exhaled slowly, and said, “ I was playing chess with an architect friend of mine last weekend.” The housing director was impervious to my frequent visits and polite requests for a room in the dorms. Had one opened up yet? There was never even a hint of a smile from her. Eventually she stopped responding except with a shake of her head when I appeared in the doorway of her office twice a week.
“Take Gutman,” said my official orientation guide, a breezy, self-confident sophomore who was giving me registration advice.. “Gutman’s amazing. She makes Proust comprehensible. “ A buzz spread among the transfer students. “I hear Gutman’s really good.
“What does she teach?” I asked. I had no intention of majoring in English.
“Who cares?” said another transfer, a graduate of one of those rich girls’ junior colleges. “If people say she’s good, take her. I’ve had it with bad teachers, man.”
What I didn’t realize until I got to the first meeting of The Modern Novel was that Gutman’s classes were always full and then some. But she never turned anyone away. Columbia guys routinely showed up to take her courses for credit, instead of enrolling just to meet girls. Gutman didn’t care how many students she had; she just kept adding small discussion sections on top of her lectures.
I’d never heard anyone lecture about novels before. I found Gutman’s classes inspiring, stimulating, sometimes thrilling. Each seventy-five minute class sped along as she spoke. I was enveloped in her outpouring of facts, literary theories, and intriguing connections between writers and texts. It was in one of those small discussion groups, as we worked our way through Proust (n French, for those who could read it), Mann (for those who could) , James, Joyce and Faulkner that I was first able to speak out in a class there, to find a way out of my reserve and my feeling that I wasn’t smart enough to contribute to the discussion. Early in the term I handed in a paper, leaving it in Gutman’s mailbox with a note attached, saying how grateful I was that she’d created the smaller sections, where I felt comfortable enough to raise my hand and speak. She returned the paper with many comments and probing questions, as always, but this time, she added an encouraging note. She said my ideas were worth bringing to our class.
I saw her at the college’s Wednesday afternoon teas, too, with her two blond children, the girl with thick braids, the boy all explosive energy, and I delighted in her greeting me—by name—with a wide smile and sparkling eyes. I have forgotten by now, all these years later, what I wrote my papers for her on, but I recall studying for the exam and relishing all I had learned about the roots of the modern novel, psychoanalytic theory, the New Criticism. Gutman had opened my mind up to all this. There was so much more to learn. I had no interest any more in political science or history. I would major in English. I would ask Gutman to be my advisor.
After finals my sophomore year, I went home for the summer and waited tables at a plush restaurant on the south shore. I stayed out late with my old high school friends, drinking beer at the park and going down to the Cape if someone had extra room at their cottage. I’d made some new friends at Barnard, mostly a tight little group of seniors who lived on my floor and had welcomed me into their camaraderie. One of them stayed on in New York for the summer, sharing an apartment on Riverside with some grad students. One day a letter from her arrived, with a clipping from the Columbia Spectator, summer edition. Gutman had died.
Lee had heard a story, one she didn’t really believe, she wrote. Gutman had been preparing for a family vacation. She packed two enormous leather suitcases, and when she picked both of them up at the same time, she suffered a massive heart attack and died instantly. There were few details in the Spectator obituary, only a photo of her, that curly hair, and an intense, direct look in her eyes. I am so sorry, Lee wrote. She knew how much I admired Gutman and was counting on her. I wondered who would push me, steer me, encourage me now. And I could not figure out why the circumstances of Gutman’s death were a secret.
The summer passed in a blur of waiting tables, wine poured, tasted and drunk, empty plates cleared, busy nights, dead- slow nights. On one particularly quiet evening the young assistant manager closed up early and let the help stay on to have a party. In the enormous kitchen, we drank beer and one of the younger waitresses brought out her guitar and sang folk songs. A bus boy, a black kid from Roxbury, sang a Miracles song none of us had even heard yet, it was so new. The boy, no more than fourteen, did it smoothly, lyrically. White and black teenagers and adults stood around the kitchen swaying, feeling soulful. It was easy at moments like this not to think about Gutman. I stopped myself from wondering what had really gone on in her apartment that day. I put it behind me.
And for a long time, I succeeded. I returned to New York in the fall, found a new advisor, a brusque middle-aged spinster who wore tweed suits and sensible shoes and didn’t care what courses I took so long as I satisfied all my major requirements. But several summers later—by that time I had married and, finding myself very unhappy, I was already separated and well on my way to a divorce—I went up north to a writers’ conference. By now I fancied myself a poet. One of the writers there had known Gutman. I had come to work on my poetry, but to tell the truth, I didn’t get much done. Instead, I found every opportunity to talk to the writer alone, about Gutman. I learned in minute increments, over several days talking with this grizzled writer, that the circumstances of Gutman’s life were very sad—no, tragic, like the stuff of the novels we studied in her course that winter. I dared not ask how she’d done it, whether her husband had found her, who had raised their children. I didn’t even know how to phrase the questions. I just sank back into my Adirondack chair, looking down at the grass. I felt such surprise; my face flushed hot. What had there been that I had not seen? What insights had I been unable to produce when the evidence had been right there before me? Whatever sadness and pain there had been in Gutman’s life, I had been oblivious, dense. She should have become a gifted teacher who lived on to teach until old age came to her. The best I can say, which isn’t very much at all from where I stand now, is that she’d made her mark on me.
© 2011 Lynne Viti
I was seventeen, standing in the foyer of Levering Hall at Johns Hopkins. In our ongoing campaign to meet college men, we had come out on a school night to Hopkins, to some sort of political meeting, or perhaps a poetry reading. My best friend MJ was with me, and so was our friend Alma, a year behind us in school. My mother had recently taken up knitting again, and she had turned out some fuzzy mohair sweaters. This night, I wore a pink one, loose and fuzzy, over a short dark skirt.
Whatever event had brought us to the Hopkins campus was finished, and Alma’s very tall, very handsome rosy-cheeked brother was there to take her home. His friend looked short, but only because Bill was so tall, well over six feet. He wore a navy blue shirt black tie, and jeans. Later, after he and I dated for the second half of my senior year, I came to learn that Bill thought this attire made him look vaguely like a Mafioso, but to me he looked like a Baltimore City police, uniformed officer, but without the badge. Nobody dressed this way, at least no college guy I’d ever seen in real life.
Wearing the dark brown skirt and white blouse uniform of Mercy High School meant that I never had to make decisions about buying clothes for school. Coordinated outfits, mostly sweaters and skirts, were absolutely necessary for Sunday Mass, Friday night CYO or going to plays or basketball games at Calvert Hall or Loyola. The styles were dictated by Seventeen Magazine and the junior fashion boards at Hutzler’s or Stewart’s, the local department stores, which in turn probably received their marching orders from Seventeen and Glamour . I had carefully assembled a small but workable out-of-school wardrobe. Though I not yet persuaded my mother to buy me a pair of Weejuns, I had a few Villager skirts and sweaters, the requisite Chesterfield coat with velvet collar, and a shoulder bag that was the envy of my school friends. Even on the coldest winter day, we didn’t wear hats, or hoods. We eschewed scarves. Gloves and the Chesterfield coat were enough for us, no matter how frigid the weather.
But once I started going with Bill, my preppy style didn’t play so well. He was an actor, which is to say he tread the boards at his all – male college, and sometimes, at Mount Saint Agnes, its sister school across town. The theater crowd was sophisticated and cool. They had parties at the apartments of people who were at least twenty-five and sometimes—amazingly, to me—even older. They might gather around a small television to watch a special broadcast of Brando in “On the Waterfront” while they drank scotch and smoked Marlboros or Benson and Hedges. One couple, Ray and his lover, were out of the closet–both in their late twenties, both in college, both army veterans. They, too, were in the college theater group.Ray and Fred lived together in a large studio apartment on Belair Road, in a blue collar neighborhood, where rents were far cheaper than in the student ghetto.
From the time I was fourteen, my mother endured much moaning and crying on my part over my boyfriendless state. “You’re not fat,” she would say. “You’re fine. Not every boy likes a rail thin girl.” By the time I started going out with Bill, she was so relieved to see me with an active social life that she never asked for details on where I was going. And I, in turn was vague. So long as I was home by midnight, I could do as I pleased. She trusted me to make good decisions, she said.
This particular night I wore a wine colored merino wool knot dress because Bill had sent a handwritten note, couriered to me by his sister before homeroom a few mornings earlier. “Kindness of Alma” was written in ornate script in the lower left corner of the envelope, and for the return address F. J. Talma, Francois-Joseph Talma, a nineteenth century French actors whose persona Bill had adopted. In his letter, in florid, formal prose on vellum stationery, he outlined the schedule for the Saturday night. He told me the precise time he would pick me up and directed me to “wear dark, dark colors.” My mother wouldn’ t hear of my wearing black, so the burgundy wool dress — bought the year before for an afternoon tea dance at the Naval Academy– would have to do. I laid out the Chesterfield coat and Bob Dylan boots.
”Oh, we’re just going to a play and a cast party after,” I stold my mother. Indeed, there was a play—Genet’s The Balcony, which I barely understood, and a party afterwards at the home of a couple in their late twenties who lived around the corner from the Northeast Baltimore police headquarters, in the upstairs of a two–family house. Everyone was older than me, and everyone was drinking. I sipped at a glass of white wine, and found myself watching—not really participating—in a conversation between two Mount St Agnes seniors and a Jesuit from Loyola, adviser to the drama club. The girls were tall, blond and sophisticated, and they laughed and chatted and then sang, for the benefit of Father Whatever His Name Was, a parody of a Broadway show tune. I knew the song, “Can Do,” from Guys and Dolls. “Can’t do, can’t do, “ they sang. “The Church says we can’t screw. Can’t do, can’t do.” The priest threw back his head and roared with laughter.
I was shocked. I tried to show no sign of even mild surprise as I half-smiled and backed away. I found a sofa to sink into, and looked around the room for Bill. He stood in a far corner near the kitchen, holding court. “So I said to the professor, “I don’t think it’s a matter of pathetic fallacy. Rather, I think Dylan Thomas was…pathetically phallusy!’” Everyone laughed. I looked at at my watch and saw that it was 11:40, and even though my house was only ten minutes away, I became anxious.
I was quiet on the drive home. Bill lit a cigarette and he, too, was silent. His mother’s car, an older model Dodge Dart, had no radio. I felt I had disappointed him, though I‘d tried my best to be the cool and sophisticated intellectual girlfriend I thought he wanted me to be. He kissed me good night on the front porch. I didn’t ask him in.
My mother was still awake down in the basement family room. watching an old movie on the black and white television, something with Rita Hayworth. Dad was upstairs in bed, long asleep, and Mom was in her pajamas and bathrobe, drinking ginger ale.
” Didn’t we see this once, at the Northway Theatre,when I was in fifth grade? ” I asked her. “Remember, it was a school night. I fell asleep on the ride home, and you had to tell me how it ended.”
“Sit down, sweetie,” she said, patting the sofa next to her. “Wasn’t that Rita Hayworth a beautiful girl?”
Growing up, my little sister and I shared a room. And much more than a room–we shared toys, dolls and books, and a big double bed Mother bought at Sears. All too frequently, we fought—bickered, mostly. Once in a while, the quarrels became physical—a slap, a shove. Since I was four years older than my sister, I usually had the advantage, though she was scrappy and fearless, and sometimes gave as good as she got in the rough and tumble department. When our battles escalated to the point that we required mediation by a higher authority, we went to our mother. “You two have to learn to get along,” she said. “If the United States of America and Russia carried on like this, we’d have a nuclear war. The world could end! ” If she said that once, she must have said it a hundred times. I dared not argue with her, because she sounded so stern and annoyed.
But my sister and I knew we weren’t countries sharing a border, or having political disputes. Our bedroom was small, and my sister kept encroaching on my territory, my half of the room. My half of the closet. My half of the divided chest of drawers. My side of the double bed we shared. Fights within the family, at our house, were not looked favorably upon by the authorities. Dad rarely raised his voice, except to shout at the television when the Colts fumbled the ball or missed a touchdown. Mom might call to us (or scold us loudly for forgetting to wipe our muddy feet when we came in from play) but when she was at her angriest, her voice was quiet—in fact, you knew you were really in trouble when she spoke in that low, clenched teeth voice and her dark eyes flashed and almost bored into you. If she took you by the shoulders and made you look squarely at her, you were done for. Such occasions were so rare that I can count them on the fingers of my right hand.
Instead of quarrels, in our house, we had discussions. We aired our grievances. We had family meetings. We had interrogations and dispute resolutions. And sometimes when I did something I’d been told not to time and time again, I didn’t even learn my punishment for a day or two. It was torture. And once Mother had dealt the sentence, she was in it for keeps, so it was best not to argue with her.
A couple months shy of my tenth birthday, I tiptoed into my parents’ room and removed a new lipstick, Revlon’s Love That Red, from my mother’s dressing table. She was at work, and our housekeeper, Burnell, was in our kitchen making dinner. I went out into the hallway to look into the large mirror, the better to paint my lips. I opened the golden tube, and held the top in my left hand while I unscrewed the lipstick well above the top of the tube—too far up, because when I pressed the lipstick onto my lips too hard, a half inch of greasy Love That Red fell onto the rose colored wall to wall carpet. That was my mother’s pride and joy, the first wall to wall carpet she had ever had though she was forty-three years of age, and we had only moved into our new little house with its splendid carpet the year before. I panicked, quickly reassembling the lipstick tube and dashing back into the master bedroom to restore the lipstick to Mother’s makeup drawer.
Once I had returned the purloined goods, I tackled the cleanup. I took toilet paper from the bathroom nearby and picked up the shards of lipstick from the rug. I flushed the paper and the lipstick fragments down the toilet. Then I attempted to clean the lipstick that had shattered on the carpet. Soap and water seemed like a sensible solution to my little problem. I dampened a washcloth with warm water and rubbing it onto the bar of soap at the bathroom sink, then scrubbed at the red stain on the carpet. It barely worked. After a few minutes of this, the stain had only spread, and looked worse than when I’d started. In desperation, I moved the little mahogany table that sat in the hall a little to the left, to cover the spill. I stood back and appraised the situation. Not bad, I thought. Mother will never notice that.
I was wrong, for I had forgotten the mangled lipstick, which Mother discovered the next morning as she was getting ready for work. “What happened to this?” she demanded, sticking her head into my room as I was getting dressed for school. “Haven’t I told you over and over not to go into my drawers and use my lipsticks?”
I professed to know nothing about it. I tried denying that I had used the lipstick. I tried blaming it on my sister, but she was only five and had no interest in such things as makeup, whereas it was well known in our household and our extended family that I was fascinated by such things—mascara, powder, perfume and most of all, lipstick.Onc e it was obvious that I could not assemble any sort of colorable defense for my conversion of the lipstick, I confessed. Then the real trouble began.
“Where’s the rest of this lipstick?” Mother asked me, twisting the misshapen column of red up out of the tube. It looked like someone had taken a bite out of it.
“Don’t know,” I answered. Her eyes narrowed and the place between her eyebrows crinkled as she frowned.
“It’s been dropped,” she said. “Where?”
I knew I might as well come clean. “I dropped it when I tried to put it on. “
“There,” I said, pointing to the hall mirror. She wet over to the mirror, moved the little table, and looked down. Then I witnessed the full extent of her wrath. I heard, “Never can have anything nice….saved up for years for this carpet….no respect for other people’s things….” Her words tumbled out. Then, she was silent for a few moments. As I stood there feeling guilty and fully expecting to be grounded for the entire weekend, I heard her say,” I don’t know what your punishment is going to be, but it will be severe. I have to think about it, young lady.”
When she addressed me as “Young lady,” I knew I was in for a serious penalty, perhaps no TV for a week or two, no sleepovers at my best friend Ann’s house, no movies on Saturday afternoon, no radio on the shelf at the top of the bed, playing the hits at low volume till my sister and I drifted off to sleep to the sound of Fats Domino or Elvis Presley. Worse than any impending punishment was my mother’s disappointment in me, both for invading her makeup drawer, and for fibbing when she discovered the damaged lipstick. Head down, I slinked off to my room and tried to read the Dolly Madison biography I had borrowed from the school library, but I kept looking at the same paragraph over and over, unable to concentrate. I spent the next hour before dinner playing alone, in my room, with my sister’s doll collection. It wasn’t much fun, as she was extremely particular about her dolls in their national costumes of Spain, Holland, Italy, and Russia. These dolls only stood there. Their eyes didn’t open and close, and they couldn’t turn their heads. I went to the closet and pulled out my own doll, a Saucy Walker almost as big as a real live toddler. I combed and braided her hair, changed her clothes from her dress to pajamas, and waited to be called down to dinner.
Later that week, Mother announced the Punishment. She did so quietly and dispassionately. “Your birthday is in six weeks,” she said,” but this year, no party.”
I was aghast. “No party?”
A year without a party was unimaginable. For as long as I could remember, I’d enjoyed large, elaborate birthday celebrations. My mid-May birthday seemed always to fall on a perfect sunny Baltimore day, roses and late spring flowers in full bloom, warm days, and still-cool evenings. One year my party included a Maypole dance in our back yard. Another year, before we moved to our new neighborhood of identical semi-detached brick houses, my mother decorated our attic at the house we shared with my grandmother and aunt, Ten little girls from our neighborhood played pin the tail on the donkey and musical chairs. We ate cake and Neapolitan slices of ice cream under the pink and baby blue crêpe paper streamers.
By the time I was in third grade my parties had become the stuff of legend at Hamilton Elementary School. One year we invited 30 boys and girls from my class, plus another half-dozen girls from my Brownie troop. We feasted on hot dogs, chips, ice cream and cake. Five picnic tables, most of them borrowed from neighbors, were placed end to end in our yard, from the back stoop to the clothesline poles near the alley. The next year, Mother rented a special separate viewing room at the Colony Theatre, where 15 of us watched “Forbidden Planet” and afterward, shook hands in the lobby with a model of Robby the Robot.
This year I was envisioning a more grown up party, with rock and roll blaring and dancing like the teenagers I watched every afternoon on “The Buddy Deane Show” on TV. My best friend Ann and I had been practicing our dances for weeks—the cha cha, the Madison, the jitterbug—and I had my collection of 45s carefully arranged in alphabetical order according to artist.
“Please! “ I pleaded with Mother. “Please, I will never do anything like that again, I will never be bad again, I will never borrow your things again, I promise!” She was steadfast in her decision.
“Does Daddy know about this?” I asked. She nodded. It was pointless to run to my father, as he backed her up on every disciplinary decision, without fail.
“Couldn’t I just have small party?” I begged her. “A few of my girlfriends? Maybe just one for a sleepover? Please? “
“No party this year.” She was unmoved by my tears.
I kept up my requests for reconsideration for a few days, but to no avail. She had made up her mind. And I would turn ten with no party. Nowhere to wear that new apricot colored chemise my grandmother had brought me from Rosenbaum’s Department Store in Cumberland. Nowhere to wear my new black patent leather dress shoes.
Eventually I grew used to the idea that there would be no big party this May. There was a special family dinner on my birthday, a school day, and I got to choose the menu: Burnell’s Southern fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and green beans. And for dessert, a yellow cake with chocolate icing that Burnell made from scratch. There were ten candles and my mother and sister sang “Happy Birthday” right on key while my father, as tone deaf as ever, sang the words to his own tune, one that sounded vaguely like “Cruising Down the River,” just like every other song we ever heard him sing. I opened my presents—books, a real watch, and a baseball glove—at the dinner table. It was a good birthday.
Years later, my mother would often recall the time she called off my big party that year. ”It hurt me much more than it hurt you,” she said, for she loved social gatherings of all sorts, and she had never been given a birthday party even once during her unhappy, chaotic childhood. I laughed at that comment each time she repeated it over the years, knowing how much delight she found in bringing me and my sister joy, through planning and carrying out celebrations on our most important occasions—birthdays, First Holy Communions, confirmations, high school graduations, and later on, weddings.
I learned three important lessons that year: You can survive your birthday without a party. Don’t borrow someone’s lipstick without permission. And never try to cover up the damage you’ve done. Own up to it, and take your medicine.
Paul and I are standing on the corner of 116th and Broadway when up pulls a big black late model Cadillac. Out jump Juan and the lovely long haired, skinny, tanned, bare armed Boo, whose real name is Elizabeth.
Want a ride? they say. Boo is wearing blue engineer striped jeans and a white t shirt, no bra, and her long honey colored hair is catching bits of sunlight and glinting here and there.
Whose car is this? we ask.
We don’t know, we boosted it, says Miss Debutante, which is how I think of Boo. Juan is tall and handsome with heavy dark brows. He wears blue jeans, an old black t shirt, and a purple beret. His skin is tawny, perfect.
We laugh. Are you out of your minds? we say.
It’s okay, we’re going to take it back in a little while, says Boo. Mostly I am impressed that Boo, who has just finished her freshman year, is hanging out with Juan, a senior. Or maybe he’s dropped out, after the shouting, the cops running into Hamilton and Mathematics Hall, New York City’s finest, billy clubs swinging. One girl who lived down the hall in my dorm said some of the pigs taped over their badge numbers so no one could report them for brutality. The day after the bust I saw people I knew from SDS and their fellow travelers walking around campus with bandages or their arms in casts, or their glasses taped together, but I couldn’t believe that cops would conceal their badge numbers or that the university administration called the police in to get everyone out of the buildings after all those days of occupation, we called it.
So it’s a couple weeks later now and Paul and I have already been down to Baltimore and had these terrible arguments with my parents. They didn’t understand why students were protesting, and they certainly didn’t get the part about the sit-ins in university buildings. Gandhi, we said, Martin Luther King, you see, nonviolent protests against the military industrial complex Bull crap, my dad said. It’s trespassing. I saw the picture in Life Magazine of that Jewish boy with the long hair, smoking a cigar with his feet up on the university president’s desk. We didn’t send you to an expensive college, eighteen hundred dollars a year, to be around the likes of those boys. Maybe you should’ve stayed at College of Notre Dame.
We’re moving in together, we tell my parents. My mother cries and my father gets up out of his red armchair and leaves the room. So Paul and I take the bus back to New York and I move what few belongings I have out of my dorm room in Hewitt Hall and into the sparsely furnished apartment with its galley kitchen. My mother keeps calling me and crying on the phone, telling me I ‘m ruining my life. Then a couple of weeks later she starts writing me letters saying they won’t pay my tuition if I ‘m going to live in sin. Paul’s parents are busy with their own problems, so we don’t hear much squawking from them.
So here we are, Paul and I, talking to Boo and Juan who‘ve boosted a car, temporarily, they claim, and we tell them about our situation.
“Why don’t you get married?” Boo says.
I tell her I don’t think that will work. My parents have been saying since I was twelve that if I got married before I finished college, I would have to pay the cost myself as soon as I slipped that wedding ring onto my left hand.
Juan says he has a better idea. Why not live in the dorm in name only, and live in the apartment we found?
That would be a lie, I tell him. And a ridiculous waste of my parents’ money. Not everyone’s rich like you two, I say.
Juan laughs, but he gets the point. Part of him must realize that he can talk the revolutionary talk all day long but he can always call up his parents for bail money if he gets arrested. Which is exactly what he did the month before, the morning after the bust.
We turn down that offer of a ride in the stolen car, and make our way back to the apartment, half street level, half basement, since it’s in a building wedged into a part of West 116th Street that slopes at a thirty degree angle towards Riverside Drive and the river.
Paul’s been paid that afternoon, and he’s cashed his check at the bursar’s office, no charge for staff. He headed from there to the Daitch Shopwell at 110th and Broadway and bought ingredients for beef stew. I’ve watched my father make beef stew but have never attempted it myself. When Paul turns the key to the metal door of Apartment C and the lock clicks and the door sort of falls open, the room is suffused with the rich smell of beef stew. I haven’t realized how hungry I am until this moment.
Paul checks the stew and thickens it with cornstarch, not flour like my father uses. I taste it and think it needs salt. There’s a loaf of crusty Jewish rye bread with a little paper sticker on one end that says Diamond Bakery. We sit on the floor because there ‘s no table or counter. We drink tall glasses of milk, tear chunks of bread off and butter it liberally, dip it in the stew. We have no television, only a radio, so we listen to the War Summary on WBAI. We turn out all the lights but one, and climb into the bed we bought a few days before, a queen sized box spring, mattress and metal frame. Single bed sheets that I‘ve borrowed from a girlfriend barely cover the mattress, and there’s no mattress pad. There’s a thin old blanket Paul has brought back to New York from his mother’s house. We open the window that faces the air shaft to let in a little breeze.
We need curtains, I say. I can make some this week. Just before we drift off to sleep, it sounds like he says, let’s get married. It ‘s a pleasant thought, and I say we’ll talk about it tomorrow.
We had been married a little over a year. He was twenty-six, and I, four years younger. I’d graduated from college and was working on my masters in education, about to begin student teaching at George Washington High School in Washington Heights. Rick, who had dropped out of college several years before, had a menial job at Columbia University making deliveries for the central stores department. I convinced him to take advantage of the free tuition at Columbia’s evening program, and he had hadrecently completed his freshman composition course—with a lot of effort on his part and much coaching from me. What he learned most in English 101 was not how to write a strong thesis paragraph, what constituted a run-on sentence, or how to marshal evidence to support his claims. Rather, he learned, in exquisite detail, about the Doors, and –as much as one really could learn at that moment in time—about Jim Morrison. In the ‘Sixties, this qualified as a legitimate topic for a research paper in an English composition course.
I had always liked The Doors’ music from the time “Light My Fire” topped the music charts, the summer I met Rick at my summer waitiressing job. He was the bartender and assistant manager at Peerce’s Plantation, and I was one of a fleet of college girls interested in working hard and making what for us constituted very big money. I made a habit of razzing Rick about his conservative politics (he voted for George Wallace in a Democratic presidential primary, quel horreur), and what I saw as his materialistic values. “How can you stand to be tied down by all those objects?” I asked him, parroting a remark I had overheard in the college cafeteria the winter before. The teasing morphed into flirtation, and by summer’s end we were girlfriend and boyfriend. Bending to my passionate undergraduate rhetoric, Rick decided to sell his sleek black XKE, quit his job, and take his first trip out of the country, to Coventry, England, where he planned to attend Jaguar School and learn his way around those temperamental British machines. I returned to New York for my junior year of college, and we continued our romance over the next four months by twice weekly letters on aerogrammes and a few emotional trunk calls from Coundon House Hostel, Coventry to Reid Hall, Barnard College. When his English sojourn ended, he moved to New York, finding a run-down apartment with two Columbia undergraduates on a dicey stretch of West 95th Street. The smell of garlic and fried plantains lingered in the dilapidated lobby of that building. Once, there appeared a handwritten notice, in black pen on a large ragged piece of white notebook paper, taped to the wall of the shaky elevator: “Do not leave garbage in elevator. He looks to [sic] bad.– Super Gonzales.”
I take full credit (or blame) for introducing Rick to the Doors. Though Rick was as straight a guy as one could ever meet, as opposed to Doors frontman Jim Morrison— with his storied reputation for consuming large amounts of grass and booze— something about Morrison resonated with Rick. Morrison’s creation of a charismatic alter-ago, the Lizard King, his posing and his poetic lyrics, and his defiant, rebellious, in-our-parents-faces attitude struck a chord with Rick, who like me and all our friends, was rejecting many of the values he had grown up with in middle class white America. The Columbia student demonstrations and subsequent arrests of several hundred students and community activists had radicalized us all. The beatings and arrests of many of our peers at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention added another layer to our cynicism about the government, the war machine, and our parents’ staunchly traditional values. Spending several hours on a Friday night sitting around dissecting Morrison’s lyrics to “The End,” or “ Soul Kitchen” was nothing unusual in our circle. We thought Jim Morrisson was a brilliant poet, not your average rocker.
Rick was more taken by the Morrison mystique than anyone. When the Doors came to town for several nights at Madison Square Garden, Rick bought as many tickets as our modest cash reserves could cover, and went to nearly every performance. I settled for two, mostly because I had boatloads of school work to do. The Felt Forum was far larger than our usual music haunts—the Fillmore East or a cramped midtown club, Ungano’s. Our seats were so far from the stage that the sight lines were poor and the sound distorted. Still, I had to admit, Jim Morrison, in his white flowing shirt and ultra-tight pants, had an uncanny ability to command the attention of everyone in the house. Joints were passed, dope was consumed, men and women alike were enthralled.
A few months earlier, in the course of his Doors research paper, Rick had met music journalist Patricia Kennealy, Jim Morrison’s sometime girlfriend (or as some accounts have it, wife, via a Celtic Pagan handfasting ceremony). Kennealy, the editor of Jazz & Pop, gave Rick an interview and provided him with back issues, article from other publications, and plenty of inside dirt on The Doors and especially on Morrison. She obviously took quite a shine to my charming, outgoing husband, and I wasn’t at all surprised when she invited us to an after-concert party Elektra Records was putting on for Morrison, the Doors and their entourage. We gladly accepted her invitation and hoped we could pass for the hipsters we knew we weren’t.
The January night was frigid. Rick wore his pastel vertical striped shirt and jeans, and his boots. Opening the closet, I dithered—would it be the red Indian print mini-dress with the enormous bell sleeves, or the tiny lavender double knit with the low cut V neck? I chose the knit, the shortest dress I owned. My hair was long and I straightened it in those days, a process that require me to set it and then flatten it so that all traces of wave or curl vanished. Strategically planning our arrival for after ten, we first went to the Statler Hilton, then soon learned the party was at the other New York Hilton. To save subway fare, we hoofed it from 33rd Street to 54th, a mile and a half—not so easy since I was in high heels, all the while trying to keep pace with a long-legged husband.
The elevator opened onto a penthouse, the first of its kind I have ever seen before or since. We could hear music emanating from one of the larger rooms. Men in electric blue dress shirts and wide ties were standing around in small conversation circles, drinking and talking in animated tones. Rick spotted the Doors keyboardist, Ray Manzarek, and gave me a nudge. There were young women, lots of them, some in flowing hippie dresses, some in more mainstream attire. In an adjoining room, several guests passing around a joint, while a guy curled up in a fetal position underneath the glass coffee table in their midst. “What’s wrong with him?” Rick asked Patricia Kennealy. ”He’s been smoking opium all night,” she said.
What happened after that is open to debate. Rick has one version, I , another. I was standing in the foyer, not far from the elevator. Rick was exploring the penthouse, looking for Jim Morrison. Suddenly a long-haired young man in a gauzy white shirt was walking towards me, smiling. He looked at me very directly, and extended his hand. “Hello,” he said , “I’m Jim.”
“I’m Lynne,” I said, briefly taking, but not really shaking his hand. “Nice party. Who are the guys in the blue shirts and ties?”
Jim Morrison gave a small laugh.There was something of sleep in his eyes and in his voice. I felt my heartbeat speed up. I didn’t know whether to flee or stay put. “We’re going to see a movie now,” he said. ” You like Hitchcock? We’re watching The 39 Steps.”
As a matter of fact, I did like Hitchcock, and had liked him since my mother had taken me to see The Man Who Knew Too Much, when I was nine, followed by North By Northwest, when I was twelve. In a grad school film course, we had screened earlier Hitchcock films, Rope and Vertigo. But I didn’t mention any of this to Jim Morrison because I couldn’t get much out. “Oh, cool,” was all I managed to utter.
At that moment, Rick appeared, and here is where our recollections diverge. He says that he met Jim Morrison briefly, just as I had, but in another room, and that two women whisked Jim Morrison upstairs, complaining that there was a severe dearth of drugs and booze at the party. I remember that Rick appeared in the foyer as I was talking to Jim Morrison, and that I was the one who did the introductions. To this day, Rick claims he has no memory of a movie, but I distinctly recall the mechanical whirr of the old projector, the damaged old black and white print, the rolling of the opening credits, and the first few minutes of a film I was otherwise completely unable to focus on.
Instead of watching 105 minutes of The 39 Steps, we took in the scene around us. People were coming and going from the room, and the smell of marijuana was everywhere. We weren’t much for smoking dope with strangers. Morrison, the Lizard King, was now closeted with his girlfriends and we knew we had missed our chance to engage in profound, poetic dialog with him—assuming he was even capable of a lucid thought at this time of night and in his state of stonedness. It was time to go home, I said. This time, we took a taxi.
© 2011 Lynne S. Viti. All rights reserved.
My mother was a born dancer. Not a hoofer, nor a chorus girl. For most of her working life she was an elementary school teacher. But at heart she was a child of Terpsichore, muse of the dance. And I’m not referring to classical ballet or modern dance, though she clearly saw the value of these, enrolling my sister and me in the Taylor Avenue School of the Dance so we could learn to plié and arabesque with the other little girls. My mother loved any popular dance. But most of all, she loved the Charleston.
She often told us about the time she won a Charleston contest at St. Rita’s fair, when she was thirteen. The prize was five dollars, and she beat out a dozen other Dundalk girls in the competition. I can only imagine what they danced to—a gramophone with a large horn for sound production? A live band from the local Moose Club or Knights of Columbus, perhaps. And when my grandmother got wind of the news, either from a neighbor or perhaps from the happy prize winning dancer herself, my mother was whipped and punished, and one can only wonder what happened to that cash prize, likely confiscated. Whether it was jealousy or a sense of propriety that made my grandmother react this way, I never figured out. More to the point, this episode did not cure my mother of what my grandmother called “making a spectacle of yourself.”
When my father’s extended family gathered for holiday parties and the topic of dancing came up, my Uncle Bill would talk on about how he and my mother “could really cut up a rug” back when they were young and running with the same crowd. At weddings, my mother would be the first one out on the dance floor, though my father could barely manage a foxtrot because of his bad leg. In the ‘Sixties, she was more than willing to get up and do the Twist with me or my sister. When I was in high school, she would watch Shindig! with me and my sister, rising from her chair to Frug or Hully Gully along with the television dancers. We thought this was hilarious, so long as she did not carry on like this in front of our friends.
But most telling of all was the time my father stayed home with us while my mother went off to one of her state teachers’ conventions, this time at the Alcazar, an old downtown Baltimore ballroom and auditorium. I was ten, and my sister, six. For weeks our mother had regaled us with stories of the comedy skit that she had helped write, highlighting education issues over the previous five decades. To show the changing times, her friend Jessie, one of the principal actors, reached under her chair and selected a new hat, choosing a variety of styles, from broad-brimmed 1915 chapeau to Jackie Kennedy pillbox. On the last night of Mother’s convention, our father told us to change into good dresses because he was taking us somewhere special. We’d already eaten, so we knew we weren’t headed for Howard Johnson’s, our idea of dining out. He was very mysterious, simply mentioning as we headed downtown that we were in for a surprise.
He ushered us up to the balcony of the Alcazar’s auditorium. Onstage, sitting at the head of a conference table was Mother’s friend Jessie Parsons. She bent over to stash the 1915-era hat she had just removed from a large box under her chair and placed a ‘Twenties’ style cloche on her head. Laughter erupted from the audience. Then, she appeared– our mother, in full flapper regalia—a sparkling shift, feather boa, long ropes of beads, high heels, and a feathered headband around her short coiffure. Charleston music blared from the sound system. And dancing next to her, wearing an old raccoon coat and waving a pennant, was Jessie’s ex-husband Lee. My sister and I bounced up and down in our seats and squealed as we watched our mother kick and strut, while Mr. Parsons executed the Bees Knees step perfectly. Teachers from all over the state rose to their feet, clapping in time to the music. And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. Mother and Mr. Parsons took a bow, to loud applause. My father whisked us out of the auditorium, though we pleaded with him to take us backstage to see our mother. “Did she know we were going to be here?” we asked. Our father just laughed and shook his head. “Your mother sure is a wonderful dancer,” he said, and then he became quiet.
Perhaps he was remembering a night many years before, when he was young, able-bodied and athletic. The Great Depression may have hovered in the background of their romance, but that night they put their worries aside for a few hours. That was the night he proposed, while they were dancing slow and close at the Dundalk Post Office Outing, as the little orchestra played on.
Some haul their memories around like a heavy sack. Others tamp memories down, trying to ignore the past so that they can get up each morning, put one foot in front of the other, and get through that day, and the next, and the next. And some of us pull memories along on a tight leash, keeping thoughts of the old times under control, working out a peaceful coexistence. Upon waking, sometimes recollections can be so powerful that it’s wise to lie in bed awhile, pretending to do morning yoga stretches, all the while pondering a day many years past. Whether it’s a burden or a gift to hold such vivid recollections isn’t for me to say. But I know I am blessed, or cursed, with an intense memory, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
When I indulge in this morning wool-gathering, I am sometimes transported to Old Baltimore—that industrial city of the ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties, before the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King in’68, before Bethlehem Steel’s furnaces shut down for good in 1995, before the crack cocaine epidemic brought death and sadness to so many people in the city. Old Baltimore conducted its daily business at a slow pace. There was no bustle, as in New York or Chicago. The Baltimore Transit buses ran slowly but they were reliable, with some of their routes dating back to the 1890’s. There were no smart phones, only land lines and pay phones in bars or on street corners. There were no laptops, only adding machines, typewriters, the phone book and the World Book Encyclopedia. The Baltimore Sun’s crime pages might report altercations at a Lanvale Street bar and a stabbing, but rarely shootings. If there were any gangs, they were punk kids from South Baltimore hot wiring cars, or a couple of small-time hoodlums robbing Highlandtown bars for small money.
Old Baltimore had its charms: a Southern politeness, a slow way of life in summers before air conditioning was everywhere. In August, The Good Humor man‘s truck sounded its bells as it made its way through our neighborhood of brick semi –detached homes. Children begged their parents for nickels and dimes and lined up for creamsicles and Rockets. The neighborhood snowball stand in an alley a block from our house drew adults, teenagers and children alike. Teenaged boys scraped large blocks of ice while you eyed the rows of intensely colored flavorings. If you had an extra dime, you ordered marshmallow topping, thick and gooey. Syrup and ice melted, dripping out the bottom of the paper cone and onto the steaming sidewalk. Old Baltimore had its spring rituals—the Flower Mart, the return of the Orioles to Memorial Stadium, and its gridiron boys, the Colts.
But there was a dark side to the city as well. We had our share of crooked politicians with well oiled political machines that kept them in office year after year. The most famous of these was Spiro T. Agnew, born Anagnostopoulos, who resigned in disgrace from the Vice Presidency and pleaded no contest to a charge of accepting kickbacks from contractors who worked on state projects. And de facto racial segregation was the order of the day for most of my childhood and until I was 17, in the city’s schools, at public swimming pools, restaurants, and amusement parks.
In elementary school we memorized the facts about our Monumental City: we were the sixth largest city in the U.S., vying with Houston now and then for that spot. We were the “port that built a city” and our state, Maryland, was America in miniature because of its seaside, plateau, and mountains in the west. On school field trips we toured the Coca Cola plant, the Bond bread bakery, and the Shot Tower. We picnicked in Gwyn Oak Park and at Fort McHenry, made annual visits to the Zoo, and giggled at the naked statue of Rodin’s Thinker on a pedestal in front of the Museum of Art, the sculpture’s bronze all green from the elements. By the time I was sixteen, I imagined that I had outgrown Baltimore. I was all too comfortable at the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s enormous reference room, at the art movie houses on Twenty-Fifth Street, or wandering with a girlfriend into Levering Hall for coffee—and to meet Hopkins men. I grew restless, and eventually I left for points north.My story, from Baltimore to New York to Boston, begins in a two-family house on the Harford Road Number 19 Parkville streetcar line, not too long after World War II.