The Mystery of Mame

A family wedding is coming up next weekend, and my cousins will be converging in Massachusetts for the festivities. The twenty-something bride and groom, who met in college, have been together for several years. I look forward to much boisterous laughter, good wine, dancing, and perhaps a serious conversation with my cousin Nancy, who recently divorced her husband of thirty-five years.

But I also approach this event with some trepidation. Over the past few months I have learned via the family grapevine that  my kissin’ cousins (first cousins once removed, to be exact) believe I have the inside story on our shared  family history. Our grandmothers were sisters, part of a sprawling Irish Catholic family from outside Pittsburgh. There were seven or eight siblings, not counting the ones who died in infancy, and in the early twentieth century, they married and  fanned out  from Baltimore to Cleveland, Missouri, and Los Angeles. I know a little about my grandmother, my father’s mother, but my data was barely enough for me  to help my sons complete their family trees in  the fifth grade social studies project. It’s a mystery to me why anyone would think I know the history two or three generations back, to County Roscommon.

 What I do  know is that my paternal grandmother, Mary Katherine–called Mame, by her friends and family –was a very private  woman. It was impossible  to draw  a story out of her. As a child, my parents, younger sister and I  lived upstairs from Grandmother, a  widow,  and my aunt in a two family house in Baltimore.  Grandmother  was in her seventies when I was born, and old photos of her  show a study woman with glasses, short white hair and mother of pearl button earrings. She  did not read to me, nor did she regale me (as my other grandmother did, to my great delight) with stories of her childhood, her courtship by my German-American grandfather, or anything about her earlier life. She had moved with her husband and six children to Sparrows  Point around the time of World War I, and lived in a Bethlehem Steel house until my grandfather died and the company gave her thirty days to vacate. By the time I came along she had been widowed for over a decade, and moved to the northeastern edge of Baltimore City. Though she was a constant presence in my early life, I can recall almost nothing that she said, beyond her habitual greetings (“You’re a little fraud,” she would say, or “You’re an old stick in the mud,” though she said it nicely, so I got the affectionate subtext). When I discovered and pretended to adopt a litter of kittens living in long sewer pipes stacked up in a nearby contractor’s  yard, she curtly  told me that she disliked all cats on principle.  When I asked why, she said it was because a cat had knocked something over and caused a fire in her father’s factory when she was young.

Her world looked pretty limited from my vantage point. She never learned to drive, never took trips or vacations. She had two visitors that I can recall—our spinster cousin Virginia, and my grandmother’s younger sister, Aunt  Stella, who traveled by train from Cleveland and stayed for a week. Grandmother took the trolley down to St. Dominic’s Church in Hamilton, about two miles away, or to the A & P. She patronized  another large grocery store two blocks away from our home, and a pharmacy and bakery on the Harford Road. Her life appeared to revolve around doing light housework,  cooking meals for herself and my aunt, going to Mass, reading The Catholic Review and Maryknoll Magazine, and listening to the radio. She often had homemade brown edged butter cookies waiting for me and my cousins, but never any Coke or root beer, only ginger ale– never one of my favorites. She did not play cards or board games. And I never saw her drink anything stronger than a little peppermint  schnapps over ice—exactly once, at  the housewarming party at our new row house. In a short-lived family kerfuffle, my parents had  been obliged to cede our upstairs apartment in Grandmother’s  two-family to my aunt and her new husband.

 Somehow, it seems wrong that I remember so little of Grandmother  when I spent so much time in her presence. What I do remember is the night when I was in sixth grade when two policemen showed up at our house with Grandmother in tow. She was wearing her good winter coat, and dressed for church—with earrings, a nice dress, good shoes and  stockings.  It must have been a weekend, for though I was in my pajamas and perhaps even in bed when the doorbell rang, I was still awake. Grandmother had been discovered pulling at the locked front doors of St. Dominic’s church, trying to get to Mass. Someone must have alerted the cops, who could not get a sensible response from her, but looked in her wallet for identification, and found the relative living nearest the church—my father. My mother took my sister and me back upstairs to our room and explained that our grandmother had been mixed up. Though it was nighttime, she ‘d thought it was time for Sunday morning  Mass.

The next week my father, his brothers, and his sisters gathered to strategize about what to do about Grandmother. This was long before any talk of Alzheimer’s, day care  programs for elders with  dementia, or home health aides. So within days Grandmother was shuttled off to a nursing home on the other side of the city, a place run by an order of nuns who went by the strange, unreassuring name of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. My father took me to see Grandmother every  month, and  he  visited much more frequently on his own.

The last time I saw Grandmother they had her in a white restraining jacket, her hands and arms covered completely and tied back tight against her body. My father said this was to prevent her from scratching at herself violently.  Her body had shrunk to that of a preadolescent girl, and she opened her large blue eyes briefly, then seemed to fall back to sleep or into some sort of reverie. I was thirteen, and seeing her made me strangely sad and morose. After that, my father stopped making me come with him to the nursing home.

One night a few years later, I was at my usual Friday  spot,  CYO. The last song, a slow dance, played sweet and long. Couples draped themselves against each other on the dance floor, barely moving, and a few girls stood outside smoking and waiting for their rides home. I disentangled myself from  my partner when the song ended, said good night to my friends, and made my way outside to wait for my mother to pull  up in the family station wagon. Mom was matter of fact: “Your grandmother died earlier tonight.” I don’t remember whether we talked about it on the way home. My father, stoic and deeply religious, was philosophical. After all, Grandmother had lived a good, long life, had enjoyed many years of good health, and had been a devout Catholic. “The Man Upstairs figured it was time,” Dad said.

As a child, I sought stories and entertainment from my elders. I got none of this from Grandmother, who did not see her role as my companion or  teacher.  A few years ago, my aunt handed me some old family papers she wanted to get rid of. Among these were several  detailed blueprints and patent applications for a  broiler oven and assorted other kitchen appliances. I  assumed that these were drawn by my grandfather, a master mechanic and engineer. “No, your grandmother did those,” my aunt said.

I never learned whether Grandmother got her patent. As far as I’m concerned, she was a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Perhaps by the time I came to know her, she had long since stopped being Mame. She  had become simply Mom or Grandmother. She had  given up all her dreams, and resigned herself to a  life of prayer, reflection and domesticity.

Top Ten Picks for Summer Reading

Recently one of my students– one not as committed to my course as I’d hoped when the semester was new and all students looked promising–asked for summer reading recommendations. No doubt she had taken to heart the general advice I give students who wanted to know  how they could expand their impoverished vocabulary beyond those fillers,  hackneyed words and expressions—“that said,” “I personally,” “quintessential,” “incredible,” “dichotomy,” that turn up all too often in nearly every freshman essay.

 Though  the summer solstice is a couple of weeks behind us now and the fourth of July is already a memory, a good six weeks of summer remain. So here’s a summer reading list, not only for that student and her classmates, but for anyone looking for a good book. There’s no theme here—it’s as eclectic a list as you’ll stumble across.

 *A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers. In Eggers’ debut book, a young man from Illinois loses both parents to cancer within a short time, leaves the college life  behind, cares for younger brother, moves to California and experiences many setbacks and adventures along the way. Funny and sad, and worthy of its self-promoting title.

 *The Interpreter,  by Suki Kim.   In this mystery set in Manhattan, first generation Korean-American Suzy Park, the interpreter of the title, solves a weird and sad mystery about her deceased parents. (Park attended my alma mater, Barnard, which is how I first learned about her and her novel.) Gripping read.

 *Love, Loss and What I Wore,  by Ilene  Beckermann.  A quirky and interesting little book, sort of an autobiography in miniature, with drawings of the outfits the author wore during key times in her life–elementary school, high school, college,  dates, weddings, other key events in her life. Her commentary on each ensemble, full of  the memories it conjures up for her, is  wry and sometimes poignant. I love this book.

*The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe. You can’t truly  understand the ‘Sixties if you don’t read this book about LSD and goings on in San Francisco in the era of free love, drugs, and hippies. This is nonfiction but written as a “nonfiction novel,” a form  Truman Capote, Norman Mailer  and Kesey pioneered in the 1960’s.

 *The Summer Before the Dark, by Doris Lessing—or anything else by Lessing.  All books by this 2007 Nobel laureate are worth reading, but this one about a middle-aged woman’s rediscovery of her true self  is the most accessible. If you are a real trouper, then read the very long, very complex but amazing The Golden Notebook, the defining feminist /political novel Lessing is most well known and respected for. If you prefer a heroine closer to your own age or experience, then start with the shorter  Martha Quest, a coming of age story about a young white woman growing up in what was thenRhodesia, nowZimbabwe. I picked this book up by chance up at an English language bookstore in Paris during college and fell in love with Lessing’s work, then read almost all of her early novels, set in Rhodesia when the Brits ruled with an iron hand.

 *Old School, by Tobias Wolff. Endearing tale of a boys’ boarding school from the point of view of a student. The plot revolves around the visits (fictitious, of course)  of three famous writers to the school–including Ayn Rand and  Robert Frost, and  a writing contest the boys engage in for the prize of a short one-on-one meeting with one of these  authors. Sad and funny and very good, this novel is a cut above the usual Dead Poet’s Society type narrative.

 *Cry, The Beloved Country, by Alan Paton.  A classic, set inSouth Africa in the  days of apartheid. This and the early Lessing books give one much context for understanding  what is going on  in many parts of Africa today.

 *The Welsh Girl, by Peter Ho Davies.  Set in the remote part ofWales during World War II, this novel tells the story of a 17 year old Welsh girl and her relationship with one of the German POWs  held in the village, and  also explores the conflict between the Welsh and German cultures. The novel is beautifully written, conveying a strong sense of time and place.

*Eleanor Roosevelt, Volumes I and II, by Blanche Wiesen Cook. Start with the second volume, 1933-1938, The Defining Years, if you really want to learn how this woman influencedAmerica. If you like details of the early lives of biography subjects, begin with Volume I.    Readers under thirty should bear in mind that  in the 1950’s, few women ran for political office, and Mrs. R was the closest we had to Hillary Clinton.

These ten should keep you busy on the beach.











Fashion Passion, Part 8: We’ll Always Have Paris



I’m in front of the writer Colette’s grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery, 2001. I’m wearing my all purpose basic black traveling clothes—black long sleeved t-shirt, black pants, black jacket, black wearable bag, black raincoat, and I‘m carrying my husband’s navy blue backpack. Since it’s Paris, I’m wearing the standard Parisian scarf-around-the neck, and I’ve got on black sneakers because my knees no longer permit me to roam around Paris in 4 inch spike slingbacks as I did in 1968. (I don’t smoke Gauloise cigarettes any more, either, as I did then.)  This seems as good as any place to conclude  my fashion journey.

 My grandmother and my mother took me to department stores and dress shops, persuaded  me  to try on dozens  of dresses, pants, coats (always in August, always itchy and unpleasant at that time of year),shoes, hats, sweaters, jumpers, vests and skirts. Their comments—“That does nothing for you,” “That‘s slimming,” “That color is bad for you,” “that’s cheaply made,’” “That is so you! “ –have taken up permanent residence in my head.

Fashion should reflect who we are—how we choose to reveal something of ourselves to the world, as well as  how we choose to keep other aspects of us mysterious, private. It doesn’t have to be a display of affluence or self-indulgence. Fashion says  who we are at a moment in time,  who we have been and who we want to become.

 Photo © 2011 Tom Viti

Fashion Passion, Part 7: Thift Shop Chic


The dress set me back  a dollar at the Greenwich Hospital Thrift Shop. The hat, three bucks. The chestnut colored chunky shoes were holdovers from my first trip to  Paris the summer after  junior year of college.I bought them for the French equivalent of $42, an outrageous sum for shoes in those days.

My friend John Vachon took this photo of me standing outside my bedroom in what we used to call a  “group house” in Cos Cob.  Vachon, married to my then-husband’s college French teacher, was  a photographer for FDR’s Farm Security Administration in the 1930’s and  for many years, a staff photographer at Look magazine.

A few of us were going  out to dinner at a local steakhouse when John shot this photo. The dress dated from the 1940’s and featured a keyhole necklace,  a peplum, and Joan Crawford-style shoulder pads. Sequins were sewn all along the keyhole, so no jewelry was required to jazz it up. My boss, upon seeing me in the dress for the first time at an English Department Christmas party, remarked that her aunt had one just like it during World War 2. This was my all purpose party dress until 1980, when I officially marked the end of the ‘Sixties by handing  off  my vintage frock  to a friend’s young daughter for her dress-up collection.

Photo ©1972, John Vachon

Fashion Passion, Parts 5 and 6:

Part 5:Best Friends and Sport Chic

It was late spring and in a few months, my pal Ann and I  would go our separate ways—I was headed for Notre Dame Prep across town, and Ann was off to seventh grade at Hamilton Junior High  in the neighborhood. Ann and I had been best friends since third grade. We were buddies in Girl Scouts, and we were absolutely inseparable.  The day this photo was taken in my back yard, I wore a boat-neck pullover with three-quarter sleeves—a classic design, good for those of us with short necks, said my grandmother. It was risky to go with the stripes because they made me appear  wider, but I loved that Jean Seberg Breton sailor look. 

Ann was always been more of a no–frills type, and on this summer afternoon she  sported a tailored white blouse, very classic, with clean lines. After college, she became a flight attendant and flew the friendly skies, wearing various versions of this tailored look over the years  before she moved on to an entirely different sort of work. She lives in the Pacific Northwest now, and it’s a safe bet she still has a closet full of classic white shirts.

Part 6: Jackie Kennedy, the Pillbox, and Chanel











I was in eighth grade. Senator John F. Kennedy was running for President. He was young and tanned and he never wore a hat or an overcoat like my dad and all the other fathers did in winter. Mrs. Kennedy was young, slender, and chic. Up until now it seemed that President Eisenhower had been in the White House since the beginning of time, and first lady Mamie was an old lady, boring, with weird tightly curled  bangs. I was into rock and roll, Elvis Presley, Jackie Wilson and  Ray Charles.

Jackie Kennedy was everywhere—with her Chanel suits, pink and orange, her pillbox hats, her fine boned face and wide smile. Awkward, chunky, an eighth grader wanting desperately to get to high school and grow up, I studied Jackie’s every outfit—in Life and Look magazines, on tv, in the newspaper. By now I was choosing my own clothes and shopping alone, armed with Mom’s Charge-It of Baltimore shopping plate and a spending limit of fifty dollars. For my Easter outfit that year, I got a navy wool suit with Chanel jacket and pleated skirt, a gold-toned circle pin with my initials engraved on it, bone colored pumps and a beige pillbox hat with a small veil.  I added white gloves from Mom’s top dresser drawer to complete the look. I didn’t realize that Jackie was reed-thin, and that  it would be best for me to avoid an open-pleat skirt like this one. The collarless jacket look I love, to this day. When I see this photo I feel as though I was secretly a 40 year old woman living in a 13 year old’s body.  Thank God for what would come next– hemlines would rise, morphing into tunics over pants, girls (and then boys) would grow their hair very long, jeans would become the building block for any ensemble, patchouli oil would replace Chanel No. 5 purloined from Mom’s dresser.  And the only pillbox hat around would be in a Bob Dylan song.


Fashion Passion, Part 4: Party Time

For little girls growing up in the ‘Fifties, nothing said Party! better than diaphanous organza, in pink, pastel blue, or yellow. Here I am at Munder’s Restaurant, at  Aunt Sara Jane’s wedding reception. In my family children were usually excluded from such events, but Aunt Sara wouldn’t hear of that, so the cousins were there in full regalia.  My cousin Mary Jane, appropriately enough,  wears her best Mary Janes and white socks, a jumper and white blouse, and Mother is all-Dior in her black New Look off-the-shoulder cocktail dress. Bud, the groom, in white shirtsleeves and tie, stands  in the background to her left. My dress was the only one of its kind at my favorite shop, Jean’s Juveniles, where Miss Elva and Miss Edith would descend on us as we walked through the  door, tending to our every want and need and steering my mother towards the nicest, most expensive dresses. For the wedding, I wore a  stiff crinoline petticoat  to make the skirt stand out–very Lady Gagaesque.  The horizontal stripes are tan, pink and white—the dress looked like a piece of that ribbon candy we used to see around Christmastime.

In descending order of height next to me are my sister Anne and my cousin Paul in the short pants. The nun in full pre-Vatican II drag is Aunt Mary Alice, who was  sprung  from her convent for the  afternoon.

 I kept that dress for years, and handed it down to my little sister. I reprised it briefly in fifth grade—when I had clearly outgrown it, the hem by then a good six inches above my knee. It was the perfect costume when I played the role of a  little girl excitedly awaiting  Christmas. That was my thespian debut,  in the Drama Club skit  at the Hamilton Rec.


Traveling Light

“Simplify! Simplify!”   ……Henry David Thoreau


My father’s dark brown hair began to thin and turn gray when he was in his early forties. He had the barber cut it short in a “wiffle.” Whenever someone remarked on his receding hairline and his expanding tonsure, he’d laugh, rub his hand back over what hair remained and say, “I came into this world with nothing and that’s the way I’m going to leave it.”  When he shuffled off his mortal coil at eighty-one, he left with a nearly bald pate and very few material things that he and my mother didn’t own in common. A half century old cribbage board, his fishing gear, his briefcase, a Catholic missal, a book about his Navy outfit, some tools, two rosaries and the daily diaries he started keeping after he retired. There were a few family photos from his childhood in Sparrows Point, and his clothes.

 My mother died a few years later. She spared us the sorting, the divesting, and the squabbling. She,too,had spent decades giving away things she no longer used or needed. Her will was detailed and explicit, down to the Lenox china, the dining room furniture set, and the manufactured home in Florida, where she spent her winters.

 In contrast, my 95 year old neighbor, a widower, died leaving his two bedroom ranch house crammed from attic to basement with stuff. Three sets of china filled the kitchen and dining room cabinets. Thirty year old draperies hung in the windows, and more were stored in the closets along with wool blankets, table linens, towels, and sheets—most of them untouched for many seasons . The basement was overflowing with his late wife’s craft items—dried flowers, jars of pipe cleaners and paper fasteners, glues, wires, rolls and sheets of crepe paper, and scissors of all sizes.  The pastor from the little white church down the street and I volunteered to help clean out the house, as there were no close relations in town. One hot summer day, we dragged a tall ladder from the garage and opened the trap door to the attic, where we found the wife’s wedding dress, dry rotted and carefully packed away in a large flimsy cardboard box from Jordan Marsh, and a World War II air raid warden’s helmet. Even after the man’s cousins and their children claimed a few chairs, or a set of dishes, there was more stuff. We called the Salvation Army to haul away some of the better furniture. The Vietnam Vets and Big Brothers took even more–fifty years of accumulated, mostly useless possessions.

 We arrive in this life with few accoutrements—the umbilical cord is cut and taken away, we get a fresh little diaper and a onesie suit, and we’re off to the races, a lifetime of accumulating stuff. Three months before my first son was born, he’d already owned a brand new crib, a hand-me-down changing table, a freshly repainted chest of drawers that served his father and his two uncles in succession, and some very cool outfits his cousin Nico had outgrown. Within weeks the baby had a menagerie of stuffed animals—a monkey that almost accompanied my son to college 18 years later, a windup plush cow that shook its head aback and forth to “Hey Diddle Diddle” music, a farm mobile that played “It’s a Small, Small World,” and a special mirror with Velcro straps that fastened on to the crib bars, so the baby could see himself. By the time the baby was a year old, his toys filled the shelves in his room and overflowed on to our wide sun porch.

 Our older boy was  joined a few years later by his brother. We added to their paraphernalia large cardboard “bricks” for playing “Master Builder,” wooden train sets, Playmobils, Legos, GI Joes, and Lincoln Logs At first tricycles, then two wheeler bikes, in-line skates with lots of padding for elbows and knees and wrists, and soccer, baseball, and track gear, gym bags, spikes and shin guards filled our basement garage and laundry room. Remembering my mother’s mantra—when they outgrow it, get rid of it, I obsessively cleared out the gear as soon as the younger boy outgrew it.

 Ours is a culture of acquisition. Without fully realizing it, we accumulate decades of electronics, books, suitcases, CDs, magazines, appliances, baseball cards and tee shirts. The antidote, I suppose, lies either in taking one of those pledges where you don’t buy anything new—except food—for a year, or in ridding the home of places in which to put things—and forget about them entirely.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to dispose of my American lit paperbacks from college.  I haven’t opened them in at least 20 years, and they are literally disintegrating on the shelf. In the close summer  air, I smell the sweet scent of liberation.

Fashion Passion,Part 3. Furs, Leggings and Hats: Mother and Child

In the 1950’s, little girls got their first handwarmer muffs about the same time they graduated from diapers. Until my sister came along when I was four, I enjoyed the benefits of being an only child. My mother had not yet returned to work, which meant more time for shopping. Now, she not only enjoyed dressing herself, but also got a kick out of dressing me out in the latest fashions. Here, I wear a matching coat and hat outfit, complete with the article of clothing little girls disliked most—the dread wool leggings, which in Baltimore parlance (Balamorese)  is  pronounced  “leggins.” Leggings were cut narrow, and since little girls then rarely wore long pants, mothesr would tuck, or rather cram, the bottom half of the little girl’s dress into the leggings. Under this coat  the leggings came up like overalls, with adjustable straps  and a zipper.  The entire ensemble had the effect of making one feel like a little sausage, packed tight  inside its casing.  To compensate  for the unpleasantness of the leggings, my mother  bought me this little red patent leather purse (more on that later, for it would come to no good), and a white rabbit fur  muff.

My mother has traded her black peplum skirt for a light colored, shorter garment with a sporty little side vent, and she wears her muskrat coat, bought before the war, and altered from its original full-length to this stroller design. In the  early 1960’s , she  had it remade into a cape. Eventually it stayed in the very back of the hall closet in its special furrier’s bag for years, until my sister rediscovered it during her first hippie phase in the early ‘Seventies.

And the red  purse? The summer after this photo was taken, on a four–hour car ride to the shor, I chewed on the strap all the way to Ocean City. The imitation patent  leather must have been toxic, for I was sick for several days with a bellyache, and had to see a pediatrician who prescribed  paregoric. When I wasn’t looking, Mother disposed of the once-beloved purse, dumping it into a trash barrel behind the Hastings Sea-Mist Apartments.