By Her Hand

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”

Reasoning by Analogy

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”

Thursday’s Children

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”

Three Little Words

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”

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.

Continue reading “I’m Not Lisa”