We saved precious little of my mother’s writing. To the best of my knowledge, neither notes nor letters nor even a grocery list remains. We have my father’s correspondence to her in the last stages of World War II, when he left New Jersey for Army Basic Training and then shipped to the Philippines for several years. My mother preserved these letters in a tidy bundle stored in the lower right-hand drawer of her dresser, but her replies are lost. Other documents were thrown away several years after her death, at around the time we gave away her clothing in an effort to help my father move on. My sister Ellen kept one birthday card signed with my mother’s uniquely spelled “Mommie,” but that ‘s all we have. Continue reading “By Her Hand”
A classic puzzle that cognitive psychologists use to test thinking skills is the Tumor Problem, which poses the following hypothetical dilemma. A patient has a malignant tumor in his abdomen. If the doctors direct a strong dose of radiation through the surrounding healthy tissue, it will destroy both the tumor and the healthy tissue. On the other hand, the dosage that can pass through healthy tissue without harming it is too weak to destroy the tumor, and the patient will die. What can the doctors do to destroy the tumor without damaging surrounding tissue? Continue reading “Reasoning by Analogy”
My first photo album contains a pockmarked old picture of my mother baking Christmas sugar cookies. The dimpling is the result of the photo being ironed into the album at too high a temperature, but it’s still easy to make out the subject. My mother stands in the red-tiled kitchen of her first home with my father in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. She is wearing a red top and grasps a cookie sheet with a red potholder. I recognize her signature shade of vermilion lipstick, which she used to paint onto her lips with a tiny brush. Against the backdrop of these shades of red, her pale face glows ethereally. She smiles broadly as she leans forward to place a freshly baked cookie from the sheet onto a platter of others. Closer inspection of her shirt reveals that it’s maternity wear, which provides a further explanation of the glow and also dates the photo to December 1956. At age 31 she is pregnant with her first child, my brother Bill, due three months later. She had had two prior miscarriages in the previous two years, so making it through her second trimester around Christmastime would have had special significance. Continue reading “Thursday’s Children”
The fall of 1975 was a time of beginnings and endings. It was the first day of my last year in middle school. It was a time of trendier clothes and turning the corner on childhood. In preparation my mother took me to a local hair salon for an official grown-up haircut, another of the rare occasions when just the two of us were together. I got a fashionable Farah Fawcett-style cut with wings on either side of my face that didn’t look great. The wings were sprung too tightly on account of my thick curly hair, but I didn’t care. I felt like a movie star. At the salon my mother showed me how to deliver a cash tip into the stylist’s hand after paying up at the counter; my first glimpse of the mysterious social transactions of adulthood. Continue reading “Three Little Words”
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”
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”
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.
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”
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”
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.