Not Knowing

It’s July 1975 and we’re back in Brooklyn at my distant cousin’s Rite of Ordination. A group of unknown relatives from my father’s side of the family greeted us warmly at the church when we arrived from the New Jersey suburbs. After the ceremony, we attended a party at someone’s modest home, probably the family of the newly ordained priest. Because they were outside our immediate family circle, these relatives met my teenage attempts for attention with kindness and respect, instead of the usual wrist flick of dismissal I was used to. Each person I approached at the party listened with an amused smile as I tried and failed to work backwards through the family tree, from my father to our common relation. I marveled at being treated like a grown-up even as my ancestry bit tanked again and again. Continue reading “Not Knowing”

Relief

My parents rarely made a big show of birthdays. Maybe it was their Depression-era frugality or the fact that there were five of us kids. Birthday celebrations at our house usually consisted of a cake baked from a mix and a few modest presents after dinner. Spring 1974 was different, though: My mother threw me a surprise 12th birthday party. Her prior record of thrift combined with my middle-girl low expectations made me the perfect dupe for her scheme. The day after my birthday she arranged for my brother Bill to take me to the Paramus Park shopping mall, which had opened only two months earlier. To my friends and me, it was the greatest cultural institution to hit Bergen County since the Route 17 Drive-In. In addition to all those stores in one covered space, it had indoor trees and the first food court of its kind in the country. Continue reading “Relief”

I’m Not Lisa

Mid July 1975 my family was driving to Brooklyn, NY, to celebrate the Rite of Ordination of a distant cousin we had never met. Having turned 13 a few months earlier I was enjoying the rights and privileges of my own upgrade to teenager, which included my mother sitting next to me in the back seat of the family station wagon. For the long car ride she had volunteered to hem the green and white–checked peplum top I’d started sewing in a summer school class but hadn’t quite finished. I held out the pinned-up hem for her as she sewed with both hands, taking out pins one by one from the fabric and putting them between pursed lips as she went along. The twangy country-pop song “I’m not Lisa,” sung by Jessi Colter, came on the radio.

I’m not Lisa, my name is Julie.

Lisa left you years ago.

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The Black Box

During my mother’s week-long hospital stay in late summer 1973, my father distracted us kids by easing the household embargo on what we called “good cereal”: the brightly packaged, sugary stuff that all my friends seemed to eat, but was strictly forbidden in our health-conscious home. That itself should have been a clue of something extraordinary taking place, but I don’t remember being sad or worried about my mother’s hospital stay. Her absence from home felt like an adventure, an exciting break from routine, like the time we had slept over our cousins’ house for a few days between the sale of our old house and the closing on our new one. My sister Ellen remembers that during the week my mother was away, all of us kids kept house and made meals. She remembers baking a lemon meringue pie that came out perfectly, a feat she has never repeated. Continue reading “The Black Box”

Facts on Cape Cod

Each August my family would drive 270 miles from northern New Jersey to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, for a glorious two-week vacation. The trip was an annual highlight, rivaled only by Christmas. For weeks prior to departure we kids rode a rising crest of anticipation, comparing detailed packing lists and discussing all the ways to blow our meager allowances. On the day of travel time slowed further, as my mother chased after us with the milk container to finish every last drop, and my father condensed the clothing of five children—packed in paper grocery bags—into two duffle bags, a holdover practice from his army days. He carefully fit the bags and all of our beach paraphernalia into the foredeck of our small sailboat, the Wahoo; the rest went into our grey Dodge station wagon. Forever-and-a-day later, my mother would give the go-ahead for us to pile into the Dodge. After one last check of the brake and indicator lights on the boat trailer, my father would proclaim, “We’re off, in a cloud of steam!” Continue reading “Facts on Cape Cod”

The Heavens May Give

One sunny morning when I was eight or nine, my sister Ellen found a hamster in a cellar window well off the back steps of our house. We never knew how he got there (in hindsight, he had probably escaped from a neighbor), but his miraculous heaven-sent entrance into our life was eclipsed only by the fact that my mother agreed to let us keep him. He was white with a tan hourglass-shaped patch on his back that wrapped around to his pink velveteen forepaws. We named him Muffin. His house was an old fish tank furnished with an exercise wheel and cedar shavings for nesting, where he kept my younger siblings and me spellbound for hours. We wrapped him in fabric scraps from my mother’s ragbag and lulled him to sleep in our cupped hands. We fed him whole peanuts in the shell and watched in fascination as he gripped each one and deftly maneuvered his sharp incisors to reveal the nutmeats hidden within, not to be eaten but instead hoarded within expanding cheeks.

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Object Permanence

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My mother was expert at identifying illness through visual cues. A trained nurse, she had once correctly diagnosed a case of tonsillitis in me by spotting a tentative swallow. This skill became particularly useful during a stretch of hot summer weather when I was seven or eight years old. It was the late 1960s, and my family attended weekly Catholic mass in our suburban New Jersey town. After a string of stifling Sundays in the church — an upgrade to air conditioning was still a few years away — it became apparent that I was prone to fainting spells. Each week, about halfway through mass, I would begin to feel lightheaded. The full standing-to-kneeling repertoire of the Catholic service didn’t help matters. When my countenance crossed a certain threshold of paleness — recognizable only to my mother — she would skillfully steer me through the narrow pew, past my siblings and other parishioners toward a side exit, sparing me the embarrassment of public collapse.

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