THE HOUSE WHERE I grew up, in Durham, New Hampshire, is the only one on the street with a fence surrounding it. That fit. Our family—my mother, my father, my older sister, Rona, and I—never belonged in that town. Or anywhere else, it seemed to me, but in that house, with one another, like a country unto ourselves, a tiny principality with a population of four. Arguably three, since my sister tried to remove herself as much as possible.
There was a phrase we used in our family: “one of us.” We didn’t use it often, but what it meant was that we’d encountered a person who might get inside the fence and enter the fortress of our family. No one ever did, fully. The only ones who were truly “one of us” were ourselves.
My father comes into my room just after six every morning and wakes me with the snap of my window blinds. “Time to get up, chum,” he says. Four decades since he lived there last, you can still hear England in his voice. Years later, when I’m in my thirties and beyond, and he’s long dead, I will sometimes be at a movie and Sir John Gielgud appears on the screen, and, though he looks nothing like my father, the sound of his voice will be enough to make me cry.
There’s no unkindness in the way my father wakes me. He simply believes it’s an unconscionable waste to stay in bed when the sun is shining. Or even if it’s not. My whole life, I have been unable to sleep late.
Every morning, my father brings my mother coffee in bed, then comes back down to make his breakfast. He’ll be eating it when I come down the stairs. Porridge, maybe, or an egg. He always reads while he eats breakfast. It might be the letters of Harold Nicolson, or the journals of Simone Weil. Although he knows Paradise Lost by heart—eighteenth-century literature is his field of specialty, and he teaches it at the University of New Hampshire—he may still read over a passage from Milton that he’ll be lecturing on today. Sometimes my father will read the Bible at breakfast—another book he knows well.
My father’s parents were British Fundamentalist missionaries who left the Salvation Army because of its excessively liberal teachings to join a sect known as the Plymouth Brethren. The second to last of their seven children, my father, Max Maynard, was born sometime around the year 1900, in India, where his parents had come to proselytize. Of the many mysteries that surround my father’s family, the first concerned the date of his birth. He claimed his parents told him they were so occupied with the Lord they hadn’t written it down. I never met my father’s parents, or any parents so consumed with God that they’d forget the year of their child’s birth. If nothing else, the story told me something about my father’s perception of them.
As a small child, my father had loved to act and sing, but his deepest passion was for painting. He had known for a long time that he wanted to make art, but hadn’t dared ask his parents for paints. When he was ten, he finally got himself a paintbox, which became his most treasured possession. He painted and read constantly, and with so much reckless abandon that he broke the inviolate rule of his household, to observe the Sabbath with no activity but reading of the scripture. His older brother saw him painting and reported the news to their parents.
His father called him to his study.
“Bring me your paints,” he said, and when my father delivered them, his father placed them in his desk drawer and slammed it shut. “For one year, Max, you shall not paint,” he said.
My father broke with the church and with most of his family when he was a young man, having emigrated from England by now and settled in British Columbia. While most of his brothers and sisters pursued a life within the church—one, Theodore Maynard, becoming a moderately well-known Catholic theologian—my father took up with a group of early modern artists in Victoria who were regarded as a radical bunch. One, a much older woman painter named Emily Carr, would become the mentor and inspiration of a group of young modern artists in the twenties and thirties. Several among this group would later become celebrated in Canada, part of what was known as the Group of Seven.
From the little I’ve been able to gather of those early years of his—decades before I came on the scene—my father led a bohemian life: making art, making love, making poetry, and waking up with a terrible hangover the next morning. He was a handsome, dashing man—blue-eyed, blond-haired, compactly but athletically built, with the broad shoulders of a powerful swimmer. He had a cleft chin and a strong jaw, but what probably melted the hearts of women, more than his good looks, was his ability to draw and write for them. He could dash off light verse or a romantic sonnet in flawless iambic pentameter, illustrated with a funny or erotic drawing of a couple in mad embrace, or a caricature of himself, on bent knees, holding out an armload of flowers.
When I was sixteen I learned my father had been married once before his marriage to my mother. Although that news came as a terrible shock, the stories of my father’s many flamboyantly romantic escapades in Manitoba and British Columbia were almost a source of pride and legend in our household. I think my mother actually derived some pleasure out of the sense of my father’s romantic and rakish past. He used to say she had probably saved his life; it was all so reckless and undisciplined before she “whipped him into shape.”
He met her in Winnipeg, where he had fled, on the lam from some romantic disaster. He was hired by the University of Manitoba as a last-minute replacement for another professor—the only reason he could have gotten an academic job with no more in the way of credentials than a bachelor’s degree.
His lack of formal training in literature hardly kept him from establishing a reputation as a riveting lecturer. My mother—at nineteen, in her senior year as the English department’s top student—was assigned the job of being his assistant, with the task of reading student papers. Partly, it was supposed, she was serious and sensible enough to withstand his attempts at seduction. She had already earned a reputation as a single-mindedly driven young woman, headed for a brilliant academic career.
My mother labored over her first batch of essays with elaborate corrections and comments. After she’d delivered them, he stopped her outside his classroom to compliment her on the job she was doing.
“But you mustn’t trouble yourself with tracing plagiarisms as you have,” he told her.
“I didn’t trace them,” she said. “I recognized the sources.”
Where my father’s story has tended to be murky (relatives we never meet; an ex-wife I learn of only well into my teens; vague talk of a former career as a cowboy, a radio announcer, a diving instructor), my mother’s is so well known to me, from her own rich retellings, it has taken on the aura of mythology.
She was born Freidele Bruser, the second daughter and last child of Jewish immigrants who fled the pogroms of Russia for Canada in the early part of the twentieth century. Her father was a shopkeeper and a dreamer—a tender-hearted, not particularly practical man who once opened every box of Cracker Jack in his store to give my mother the particular treat (a tin ring) she longed for. The store—a whole series of them, always named The OK Store—went bankrupt regularly.
My grandmother, a woman of fierce ambition and pride in her children, particularly my mother, launched Freidele in the study of elocution, the oral presentation of poetry, popular in rural areas during the Depression. From the age of four, my mother was hustled to the front of grange halls to recite verses—sometimes comic, sometimes sentimental and tragic—in a voice that was not simply loud but strikingly clear, and capable of bringing the crowd to great laughter or tears.
All through my growing up, my mother recited poetry to me. In the middle of dinner or driving to the store or hearing me describe an incident that happened on the playground at school, she plucked lines from her head—maybe Shakespeare, maybe Milton—that referred in some way to what was going on in our lives. For as long as she lived, whenever I needed a line of poetry for a paper, or a debate speech, and, one day, for my wedding, I only had to ask my mother.
There was more to my mother’s encyclopedic knowledge of literature than the fluke of her photographic memory. She loved poetry, most of all reciting it out loud. Even when she wasn’t quoting poetry, its rhythms were present in her speech, as they were in my father’s.
For both my parents, I think there was a sensual pleasure in shaping the words of Keats or Donne or Yeats or Dylan Thomas or Wordsworth. Neither one of my parents played a musical instrument. For them, language was music. They loved the sound of the human voice delivering the best the English language had to offer.
They loved rhythm, meter, timbre, inflection. They were performers who knew instinctively when to take the breath, when to lower the voice very slowly, or pause, or linger over a syllable—and they did it so well, even a person who didn’t speak a word of English would know, just listening to them, that this had to be poetry, and pay attention.
My mother won the golden Governor General’s Award at the age of sixteen for being the top graduating senior in all of Canada in the year 1938. That earned her a full scholarship to college at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. She’d lived in small prairie towns all her life.
My mother was eighteen (Fredelle now, not Freidele) when she met my father in Winnipeg. He called her Fredelka and courted her with sonnets he wrote her, sketched beautiful drawings of her, and the most elegantly humorous cartoons of himself on his knees, beseeching her to accept his suit. But she was Jewish; he was not. Her parents had told her she must never marry a Gentile, and she had never disobeyed her parents.
But the same qualities in my father that made him such an unacceptable candidate for a husband in her parents’ eyes were, no doubt, part of what drew my mother to him. He was a dark and dangerous character who distrusted conventions of every sort, and the most romantic man she’d ever met. He introduced her to modern art and classical music. All her life, she’d been the good daughter. He was the Bad Son. She fell wildly in love.
My mother was my grandmother’s favorite, and as the favorite, she carried the responsibility to heap honor and glory—the Yiddish word is naches—at her mother’s feet. Because her mother sacrificed everything for her—so she could have her elocution lessons, so she could go, as her older sister did not, to the university—it went without saying that my mother’s mother was entitled to complete loyalty and devotion in return. Her life, her accomplishments, her successes, belonged not to her alone, but also to her critical and hugely demanding mother.
Every summer she returned home to the prairies of Saskatchewan to work in her father’s store. My father began courting her by mail, but her parents withheld his letters to her. He got himself a radio show in Winnipeg, and read poetry to her over the airwaves, under the pseudonym of John Gregory. But his voice was unmistakable. On Valentine’s Day, 1943, he sent her this:
Not all the loveliest words will go
In rhyme with “dear Fredelle”
But all the fondest thoughts I know
Are subject to that spell.
Like honey dripping from the comb
In streams of amorous sweet they come.
My lily flower, my luscious peach
My pretty octupus, my leech
My swordfish whose sharp-pointed dart
Runs precious panic through my heart
My biblio-vandal whose least look
Rips all the pages of my book,
My dazzling jewel by whose glare
The very sun is in despair,
My arching sky, my curving earth,
My death, my life, my second birth,
My sun-warmed field, my shady tree,
My time and my eternity,
My cigarette, my nicotine
My coffee, tea, and whole cuisine
My loaf of bread, my jug of wine
All this and more, sweet valentine!
Knowing she had to find a Jewish husband, she went to graduate school in Toronto to put some distance between herself and my father. A young Jewish man, recently back from a distinguished career in the army, courted her. He was intelligent, kind, deeply in love—a man who had all the signs of becoming an excellent husband and a good father. But there was none of the romantic excitement with Harold Taubman that my mother felt for Max Maynard. Every day came a new letter from him, in his exquisite artist’s hand, on nearly transparent onionskin, sometimes decorated with drawings.
Reading these letters now, from a distance of more than fifty years, I am struck by the wit and extravagance of my father’s expression to my mother. But I see something else too. These are not so much the letters of a man who burns for a flesh-and-blood connection to a woman as they are the words of a man in love with the idea of such a romance. There’s an unreality to his fervor. My father has made himself into a character who might have been created by the romantic poets. He is drawn relentlessly to the impossible, the tragic, the unattainable. The vision of life without Fredelka inspires him with nearly suicidal despair. But never in all the hundreds of pages he writes does he realistically envision a life with her.
Hearing of Harold Taubman’s proposal of marriage and my mother’s anguish over the decision, my father sent her another poem:
I simply can’t make a decision
On the one hand the talk’s circumcision
And all it implies
On the other: revise,
Change outlook, have faith and some vision!
She held him off for five more years. In 1946, she left Toronto for Ph.D. studies at Radcliffe, where she earned a doctorate, summa cum laude. She wrote her dissertation on the concept of chastity in English literature. She liked to say she was the world’s foremost authority on the chastity belt.
My father sought a job as close to Cambridge as he could to be near her. The job he found was at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Weekends he traveled to Cambridge, begging her to marry him. Seven years after he’d begun courting her, she said yes. Her parents were broken-hearted. It was the first time in my mother’s life that she had failed to please her mother.
This is as much of my parents’ story as I hear growing up. The next part I learn only later.
Although my parents had written hundreds of pages of letters to each other, they had lived in different cities, separated by hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles for most of that time. They knew each other largely through words on a page.
The day my mother moved into my father’s bachelor apartment, she found empty vodka bottles hidden in a third-floor closet—an experience she describes with comparisons to the story of Bluebeard’s bride opening the door to the forbidden room and finding her life destroyed forever by the discovery of what lay inside. That very day, she also came upon a letter he’d written his ex-wife—no doubt while drunk. “I’ve made a terrible mistake,” he wrote. “I’ve married a clever little Jewish girl.”
Until she moved in with my father, my mother knew almost nothing about liquor, coming from a family where wine was touched once a year at most. But having flown in the face of her family to marry my father, my mother could not tell her parents the truth—that the marriage was in trouble from the beginning. She kept the fact of my father’s drinking hidden not just from her family but from everyone she knew—and, as much as she could, from herself.
By the time my sister was born, in 1949, my mother’s onceboundless hopefulness about her own bright future was vastly diminished. By my birth, in 1953, her marriage was in many ways already finished.
“You were conceived the last time we made love,” my mother eventually tells me, years later. Her words strike me with something close to physical pain.
I have a photograph of my mother when she must have been a new bride in Durham. She is sitting on the porch of the little apartment my parents rented. She’s not yet thirty. My mother had always said she was simply smart, that her older sister Celia was the beauty. But the young woman in this photograph is, like the older woman she will become, exotically beautiful. She wears a simple cotton dress, pushed down over her shoulders. Her body—which she always worried about, and tried to slim down—is not heavy so much as ripe. (In an era when women were encouraged to bottle-feed their babies with formula, she insisted on breastfeeding.) She has curly black hair and dark eyes of unmistakable intelligence, and her skin is so brown that when she was younger, she was more than once denied entrance someplace when she was thought to be, in the word of the time, colored.
It isn’t just my mother’s romantic hopes that are dashed early. Wife of the fifties, she can’t get a job. The University of New Hampshire has a strict policy against hiring faculty wives. When she applies for high school teaching jobs, they tell her she doesn’t have the right credentials; she needs education credits. She could go back to school, but she sees no way to study, pay for school, and care for her children.
As a young faculty wife in a small New Hampshire town in the late forties and fifties, my mother doesn’t know what to do. Bursting with ambition and energy, the lone Jew in a world of blue-blooded WASPs, far away from her family, inhabiting a lonely and difficult marriage, my mother pours her prodigious energies into the toonarrow space of domestic life: baking, sewing, entertaining, shopping for bargains, growing flowers, canning vegetables, and raising her two daughters to have what she had not: fame, fortune, career success, access to the big and glittering world of the city.
My mother has always been a wonderful writer and storyteller, but these days the only writing she does takes the form of letters home to her parents in Manitoba, and to a couple of old friends from her Radcliffe days, Marion and Phyllis. Recognizing, as she must at this point, that these letters may be her truest forms of expression, she keeps carbons of the hundreds of pages she writes: funny stories about her husband and children and life as a faculty wife in a small New Hampshire town, tirelessly looking for an outlet that might give more direction to her life.
A letter she writes to the Sunbeam Appliance Company, in 1959, remains, as they all do, in her correspondence file:
I want to express my total disenchantment with Sunbeam vacuum cleaners and with the kind of repair service provided under your one-year warranty.
In May of this year, after carefully studying the analyses in Consumer Reports, I purchased a Sunbeam canister cleaner, Model No. 635, confident that I was acquiring a topquality machine and a “best buy.” From the first, the vacuum seemed long on noise and short on suction, but I tried to persuade myself I must be mistaken. In October, the cleaner developed a roar like that of a jet plane; it smelled and felt hot when operating, had lost suction almost completely. I took the machine to the place of purchase, for repair under the warranty. My vacuum departed and was gone ten weeks—a long time for a housewife to be without a cleaner.
Last week my Sunbeam returned, with cord neatly folded and a fresh new bag inside. Happy, I plugged it in. Imagine my surprise. The machine roars like a jet plane, it smells and feels hot when operating, it has no suction at all. Pins and fluff on the carpet before vacuuming are not disturbed by the mighty assaults of the 635.
There seems no point in returning this ruin for further “repairs.” Evidently—after five months’ use—I must purchase another vacuum cleaner. It will not, I think, be a Sunbeam. Since I clean my house once a week, I figure it cost me something over $4.00 for every whirl with my magical Touch’n’ Lock. A more appropriate motto might be Touch At Your Own Risk. Sincerely … .
Money is a theme of my mother’s letters. Our family is always coming up short and searching out new avenues for earning it. Even more, my mother keeps looking for ways to make use of her inexhaustible energies.
“You know I’ve always said I wouldn’t sell if I were starving,” she writes to her parents, in the summer of 1954. “But I am now engaged as a salesperson of the Book of Knowledge encyclopedia. Who knows, I may discover I have capacities I haven’t explored. If nothing else, the whole thing should provide me with invaluable literary material … .”
My mother works hard selling the Book of Knowledge, and earns a set for our family. But the huge commission checks elude her. In another letter, written a few months later, she mentions to her parents that she’s applying for a Guggenheim grant to work in England and Wales on research concerning Dylan Thomas, who has recently died.
“It is unlikely that Guggenheim will greet my application with cries of joy (and large checks),” she writes. “Chief against it is the unlikelihood of any committee viewing seriously a researcher who comes accompanied by two small girls and a diaper pail … .”
She doesn’t get the grant. In the years that follow, my mother’s letters to her parents no longer mention academic and scholarly aspirations. They are breezy, chatty, and lighthearted—reports on my sister’s activities and mine, mostly, and English department gossip.
A single letter to an old Radcliffe friend, Phyllis, comes closest to offering a glimpse of the frustrations my mother must have felt during her years as a New Hampshire housewife:
You asked if I were happy. Ten years ago I would have had a definite yes or no. Yes, I think I am; but I am a different person, and I no longer think of happiness in terms of either utter serenity or perfect ecstasy … . I would say that I understand the Ode to Melancholy and Wordsworth’s Intimations much better than I did ten years ago. I think I am in some ways a “better” person, and yet less a person … . I am afraid that you will find me not at all the girl you remember. Overweening personal ambition is no virtue; but while I had it, I could have danced on a bed of nails.
Though our family’s resources are modest, my mother makes it possible for me to have adventures she could only have dreamed of in the tiny prairie towns of Saskatchewan where she grew up. With her loathing of Walt Disney (who, in her view, bastardized so many of her favorite books) she would never have taken us to my dream destination, Disneyland, even if money hadn’t been an issue. But she brings my sister and me, by bus, to operas and the ballet in Boston. She enrolls us in dancing classes and French lessons. She seldom takes us to children’s movies—I see Old Yeller and Pollyanna with friends and their families—but she does take us to Death of a Salesman, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and many Bergman films. Afterward, she spends an hour or two critiquing the actors’ performances, the direction, the script.
Our family is always short of money, and though my father seems oblivious, my mother worries constantly about bills. She tutors French and Latin for a dollar an hour. She takes substitute teaching jobs and teaches English composition at a nearby air force base, where I am sure she enjoys the attentions of her students, all men. She gets a job teaching high school English.
My mother’s a born teacher, also a born performer—funny, confident, genuinely interested in her students, prodigiously energetic. She counsels them on their writing, also their relationships with their boyfriends, their girlfriends, their parents. There must be at least a dozen students who stop by our house on a regular basis. I know all their names and also their stories.
She likes to hold classes in our living room. Wearing one of the full-length silk or wool caftans she has designed and sewn for herself, she serves homemade cookies while students read their writing out loud, and everyone—but especially my mother—offers comments and criticisms.
I never miss the chance to sit in on these sessions. I’m so proud of my glorious, brilliant, funny, outrageous mother. I take in every word she tells her students about writing. In between these classes, I sit beside my mother on our couch when she’s marking student papers, and read all her comments in the margins. Her comments are often longer than the student’s original paper.
To a student who comes out with an unfortunate cliché, she will be funny but ruthless. “Are you sure, Cynthia, that you want to say your heart soared like a piece of popcorn on the stove? Let’s think this through … .”
“Linda, Linda, Linda,” she begins. “Would you really like me to tell you how many papers I read, every year, that begin with ‘Webster’s Dictionary defines … .’ I don’t think you would, as a matter of fact.”
“No need to go on like this, Rick. You’re taking the reader to the bathroom!” she says.
By the time I’m twelve or thirteen, I’ve heard enough of my mother’s comments that when one of her students reads a paper, I know just what she’ll say. Everytime I sit down to write, I hear her voice.
As my sister and I grow older, our mother creates an unexpected new career for herself as a writer for women’s magazines. She starts out writing articles for My Baby magazine and Baby Talk—chatty, helpful stories about toilet training and sibling rivalry. She sends Good Housekeeping a story called “A Jewish Girl’s Christmas,” about her experience as the lone Jewish child at a Christmas celebration of Gentiles in her little prairie town, at which she, alone, received no present. A few weeks later comes the letter: The magazine is publishing her story in its Christmas issue. I have seldom seen my mother happier.
With her first magazine check, my mother buys our family a Danish modern teak table. Her choice is telling. Mealtimes in our family are the most important event in our day.
In all the years of my growing up, we never once go to a resturant. At least once a week my mother points out how much better and more cheaply we could eat at home. “I bet this meal would have cost ten dollars if we’d gone out,” she says, setting out the brisket. “Eleven, with tip.”
She loves the ritual of a family meal, and sees to it that we eat together every night. She’s a good cook—a “peasant cook,” she calls herself. Everyone who’s tasted her pie says it’s the best they’ve ever had. But the real attraction of meals at our house is the conversation. Recounted by my mother, a trip to the grocery store or a conversation with the paper boy becomes a three-act comedy or drama, with my mother in the starring role. If she has less than total reverence for strict veracity, she maintains complete respect for the rules of good storytelling and comic timing. I so love the sound of my mother’s voice regaling us with her adventures over dinner, I can hardly imagine taking in food without it.
My mother’s next purchase with Good Housekeeping money is a Danish modern desk. Up until now, she has worked on our living room couch or spread her papers on the dining room table. Now she sets up an office in her bedroom. She gets an electric typewriter and a file cabinet. In manners similar to the way my father purchases art supplies, my mother stocks up on notebooks and pencil sharpeners and stamp dispensers and brightly colored file folders. She gets stationery printed with her name, FREDELLE BRUSER MAYNARD.
Until now, the only places I’ve ever been are Manchester, New Hampshire, for our annual back-to-school shopping trip; Ogunquit, Maine, two times a summer, to the ocean; Boston, to the ballet or the opera with my mother; and Winnipeg, Canada, to visit my mother’s parents for six weeks every summer—a trip on which my father never accompanies us.
My grandmother’s one-bedroom apartment is very hot and stuffy, and my grandmother seems to take all my mother’s attention, and not to have much interest in my sister or me. I don’t know kids my age in Winnipeg. Every day, we have to take a city bus to the nursing home to visit my grandfather, who doesn’t even recognize my mother anymore. My mother’s cousin Ernie and his wife, Naomi, always bring my sister and me to the Canadian Exhibition and take us on the rides, which is something we don’t do in our family. Otherwise, these trips are spent doing little besides visiting relatives, most of whom are very old. Because of this, for a long time I actually suppose Canada is a Jewish country, like Israel.
In the summer of 1964, my mother announces that she’s taking us to New York City for the World’s Fair. I’m thrilled and amazed, since we never visit the kinds of places other families do. We’ll stay with our old friends, Joe and Joan McElroy, and my mother will visit her editor at Good Housekeeping.
I’m craning my neck to catch every sight as our bus pulls into the Port Authority Terminal. It’s nighttime when we arrive in New York, and my mother wants my sister and me to go straight to bed when we get to Joe and Joan’s, on East Thirtieth Street, but I can’t sleep. I love the sound of traffic and the lights blinking out the window.
The next day my mother takes us to Flushing, Queens, for the World’s Fair. But it will be Manhattan I love, not the fair. We go to Chinatown and Little Italy and the Museum of Modern Art, so I can tell my father I saw the Picassos. Joan introduces me to two friends of hers, and my mother tells me they’re lovers. She has told me about homosexuality before this, but I’ve never actually met someone who’s openly homosexual. What interests me most about Don and Phil is that they don’t seem embarrassed. So much embarrasses me. I can’t imagine how it could be that they wouldn’t feel the need to keep their story secret.
The next day my sister goes to Greenwich Village, and my mother brings me with her to meet Betty Frank, her editor at Good Housekeeping. I have only ridden in an elevator a handful of times on our annual Boston trip. My mother is wearing a suit, and I’m wearing my best dress. Betty shows us the test kitchens and a room full of free products that have come in the mail. “Maybe someday you’ll come and work here,” she says to me.
The world opens again. The summer I’m twelve and my sister sixteen, our mother takes the two of us and my cousin Gail to Mexico—after spending a full year not simply saving the money, but studying Spanish. “Never go anywhere you can’t at least make an honest attempt at speaking the language,” says my mother.
We don’t take a tour. We cross the border in a train known as the Aztec Eagle, and stop in towns where few Americans venture—certainly no women traveling alone with three young girls. We ride Mexican buses and tromp through the dusty streets of villages where we never see another American, in search of some artisan my mother’s read about in one of her books on Mexico. As usual, my father is not part of our trip, but my mother has brought along a drawing of his—the doodle of a horse, done in red pen at an English department meeting. In the tiny village of Teotitlán del Valle, she locates a weaver who will take my father’s design, made on a three-by-five card, and weave a woolen rug from it. A year later, the rug arrives: a perfectly rendered, three-foot-by-five-foot woven version of my father’s design. One day, years from now, it will hang on the church wall at his memorial service.
Good Housekeeping gives my mother her first regular writing job: ghost-writing a monthly advice column by a famous psychologist. My mother has no training in psychology, but the psychologist doesn’t seem that knowledgeable herself, from the looks of the background material she sends my mother—clippings from old articles in Reader’s Digest and Coronet magazine, usually.
Around this same time Good Housekeeping gives my mother a second job: writing first-person stories for a monthly feature called “My Problem and How I Solved It.” One month she adopts the persona of a woman who discovers that her husband is a compulsive gambler, or homosexual, or unfaithful, or impotent. Another month, her son has been discovered to be taking drugs, or her teenage daughter announces she’s pregnant, or her mother has cancer, or she does herself.
The one problem my mother never tackles in the pages of Good Housekeeping is Alcoholic Husband. She never touches that subject with my sister and me, either. For all the years I live in that household, with two dazzlingly articulate parents who can talk in fully formed paragraphs about any aspect of English literature, religion, art, or politics, my mother never discusses my father’s drinking. Never a mention of liquor. Never the word vodka spoken. Never drunk, drinking, hangover.
Intuitively, I recognize the irony of living in a household in which my mother is dispensing psychological wisdom to families about relationships, marriage, child-raising, even as our own family continues to skirt the terrible, unmentionable issue of my father’s drinking. In our family, where so much apparent freedom of expression exists that I knew, at age five, the meaning of words like “sodomy” and “misogynist” and “anti-Semite,” I am in my teens before I know what an alcoholic is. The only other person I’ve ever observed drunk is a character on The Jackie Gleason Show, Crazy Googenham. Kids I know at school think he’s very funny, and like to imitate his slurring speech and staggering gait. He never makes me laugh.
I know my father’s been drinking when I open our front door and hear Mozart horn concertos. The particular recording he favors is an old LP of Dennis Brain on the French horn. The record is very scratchy, probably because my father is so often drunk when he puts it on. More often than not the needle skids over the grooves a couple of times before he gets it right. Then he sits in a Danish modern chair we have, with his back to the hi-fi and his arms raised, conducting an imaginary orchestra in our living room. “Killed in his thirties. Car accident,” he tells me of Dennis Brain. “But the music! Jesus Christ, the music he made. What this man accomplished!”
Then he may sigh and stand in front of the painting of his that hangs over our fireplace, The Woman in the Red Hat.
“He who hath wife and child have given hostages to fortune,” he says. It’s a line he quotes to me regularly. Oddly, though I understand the quotation refers to the sacrifice of art for parenthood, I never suppose my father resents or regrets my existence. I know he adores me and delights in everything I do. Now, as he says this, I show him a drawing I’ve been working on.
“Wait here, Daddy,” I say, though I know he’s going nowhere. I run and get a couple of my mother’s silk scarves and put on my leotard. Then I’m back. In our living room, to the music of those horn concertos, I whirl around the room, dancing for him.
My father wants to spend his days painting and considering the nature of art, the definition of beauty, the existence of God. He spends every Wednesday afternoon in the English department meeting instead, discussing fine points of grading systems, the pros and cons of requesting new chairs for the department office. The doodles he draws on three-by-five note cards during these meetings tell the story: exquisite drawings in red ballpoint pen of mountains, horses, trees, beaches—beautiful, unpopulated landscapes or angry abstract scratchings. One drawing from those department meetings I remember with particular clarity. It’s a rooster, head thrown back, eyes burning, with an arrow piercing its breast. My father.
A group of students have circulated a petition demanding that courses like Eighteenth-Century Literature be replaced with others featuring the work of minorities, dissidents, rock poets, and political activists. A member of the English department my father likes and respects has been denied a promotion for failure to publish. (That my father himself does not receive promotions is a fact we all learned long ago.) On days like these, my father goes straight up to his attic studio when he gets home from the university and pours himself a glass of vodka. If we can keep him from having that first drink, the night will go all right. If he has that one, we all know, he will have others.
His temper can be ferocious and his words to others, when drunk, are often brutal. But my father is never anything but tender and melancholy toward me when drinking. When he’s drinking he talks about his family, his younger sister Joyce in particular, who died young, of diabetes, and whose many letters, in the years before her death, he had left unanswered. “Joyce, Joyce, Joyce,” he sighs. I am never sure, when he does, which one of us he’s talking to.
My father would never raise a hand to me, sober or drunk. I cannot remember a time when I was so young I didn’t know it was my job to take care of him. I have friends, growing up, but my chief companion is my father.
We pretend nothing’s wrong. There are two stories: the way life really is in our family, and the way we make it look to the world. We have a day life and a nighttime life. In our day life there is a father who puts on his oxford shoes and tweed jacket and corduroy pants and fedora hat every morning and mounts his ancient three-speed bicycle to ride to his office at the university, where he has been passed over every year for promotion for lack of an advanced degree. My daytime father is trim, handsome, fastidious, funny, brilliant, and courtly. His clothes are old, even shabby, but there’s enormous stylishness and grace about him. This father can hold a room transfixed, and often does, with his withering assessment of Dwight Eisenhower (“a second-rater”) or Norman Vincent Peale (“a vulgarian”), his analysis of a poem by Eliot, a drawing by Rembrandt, his thoughts on the Epistles of Paul, or his unexpected affection for Gilligan’s Island. My daytime father is formidable to the point of inspiring fear in those who don’t meet his standards of excellence. But for one who does—and I fall in that category, and my sister too, though she has little use for it—he is the most thrillingly appreciative audience and supporter.
But there’s the other father, Nighttime Daddy, whose behavior, especially in my later years at home, spills out with growing frequency into the daytime hours. This father is unshaven, unkempt, red-eyed, and ranting. My nighttime father sleeps in a separate room from my mother, in a single bed surrounded by clothes in piles on the floor, library books that have been overdue for years, student exams, half-marked, with pages flung in all directions, half-finished letters to old friends in British Columbia he hasn’t seen for fifteen years. My nighttime father is rageful and depressed—a man who might become convinced, at ten o’clock one night, that his problems at the university all stem from our not owning a better car, or his not having a particular kind of raincoat (which will result in his riding the bus to Boston the next day to buy it. Though he leaves the coat on the bus. And forever after my mother regales friends with the story).
My nighttime father once thrashes around for hours trying to catch a bat that has gotten into my sister’s bedroom, and when he finally gets it, but accidentally kills it in the process, he plunges in such despair he buries his head in his hands. Nighttime Daddy often brings me to the attic past my bedtime to look at half-finished paintings. There are always bits of construction paper taped on these paintings, representing elements of the landscape he’s still shifting around. Now, at close to midnight, I stand barefoot and shivering in the attic as he moves the bits of construction paper from one spot in the landscape to another. What do I think about this rock? That branch? That cloud? “It’s good there,” I say. “Don’t you think this might be better, old chum?” he says, moving the rock again. I agree, then go back to bed.
Although we never discuss the specific exploits of Nighttime Daddy, Rona and I are well acquainted with the circumstances most likely to bring on his emergence, and we do what we can to avoid them. We tell friends not to call the house after eight o’clock for fear they’ll wake our father, who goes to bed very early, unless he goes to bed very late. When he’s awakened by a phone call, he may deliver a terrifying lecture. “Jesus Christ! What in God’s name are you doing calling at this hour?” It’s eight-thirty.
My own behavior never sets my father off, but certainly my sister’s does, if she’s ill mannered, or dismissive of his criticisms, or if she ignores him altogether, which is her approach wherever possible. If we play our music loud, or bring home an English paper with a teacher’s comments that reveal the mediocrity of the instruction we’re receiving at our school, that will be enough to send our father to the vodka. Rona adopts the strategy, early, of staying in her room, away from trouble, as much as possible—reading mostly, and playing her guitar. I do the opposite. If I stay close by, keeping an eye out for danger, maybe things will be all right. I will tell Daddy anything to keep him happy. If I am pleasing and lovable enough and keep my father entertained, as he seems to be in my company—sketching and working on reports and taking walks—he won’t need to climb the stairs to the attic.
When I ask Daytime Daddy to help me with a report on dinosaurs, he drives with me to the library to assemble research materials—never simply an entry or two from the encyclopedia either, but stacks of books. Home again, we set to work executing the most magnificent posters and pencil renderings of a triceratops the fourth grade at Oyster River School has ever seen. But if the project extends past the hour of six P.M., and he has his first drink, Nighttime Daddy takes over. Midnight finds me barely able to keep my head up while my father redoes the chart depicting the span of the Mesozoic and Jurassic periods.
“I can’t keep up this sort of thing,” he says, his head in his hands. “I’ll be destroyed in the morning.” Suddenly he flings the stack of file cards we’ve assembled for my oral presentation across the room. “Jesus Christ!” he rails. “We need more time to do this properly! We haven’t even got to the pterodactyl.”
My sister makes the choice, very young, to disappear into a world of books. Even as a small child, she sits for hours reading and thinking. I read my Beverly Cleary books and Nancy Drews. But I am never a reader. Oddly, for the child of two people whose house is filled with books and who seem to have a substantial portion of English literature committed to memory, I find my solace in television.
From the moment we get our set—in 1960, when I’m not quite seven—the life I observe on the screen becomes a crucial part of every day. Except for times I’m playing with my dolls or drawing, I live in our TV room.
I watch everything: Romper Room (though I’m too old) and Truth or Consequences, Art Linkletter, and Bozo. I will watch Bowling for Dollars or Jack LaLanne, if I have to. I watch Death Valley Days and Highway Patrol. But what I really love are the family situation comedies: Ozzie and Harriet. Pete and Gladys. Make Room for Daddy. Donna Reed. Leave It to Beaver. Over the years, the list will grow to include My Three Sons and The Dick Van Dyke Show and my particular favorite, The Andy Griffith Show.
I Love Lucy, though I watch it, actually interests me less than the others. Lucy and Desi are, like my parents, an unconventional couple. What I mostly look for from television—situation comedies especially—are the glimpses it gives me of what I imagine to be normal, all-American life.
This is why I love the Anderson family on Father Knows Best. The father on that show seems so wonderfully ordinary. I love it when the husbands go off to work in their suits, and come home at dinnertime, give their wife a peck on the cheek, and go in the den to read the paper. I love the mothers in their shirtwaist dresses with aprons on, their tidy kitchens, their preoccupation with their children and the bridge club.
In these families, if anybody’s behavior gets out of line, it’s the children. Beaver Cleaver gets into scrapes all the time. So does Opie on Andy Griffith, and Kitten on Father Knows Best, and Rusty on Make Room for Daddy. When the kids make mistakes, though, the parents are nearly always wise and sensible—stern, maybe, and even angry. But you always know what to expect from them.
I never get tired of watching these shows. I don’t care if I turn one on and it’s a rerun. In fact, I like it when the episodes become familiar.
There is a little ritual I perform, watching these programs. I tell nobody this, but I have memorized not just the names of the cast members, but every single name that appears on the credits. I whisper them under my breath as the last bars of the music play, ending with “Glenn Glenn Sound.”
The one thing that’s guaranteed to get my father drinking is my mother’s absence. She doesn’t take trips often. But every year, the week between Christmas and New Year’s (the week of my father’s birthday, though how old he will be no one can say), my mother takes the bus to Princeton, New Jersey, to spend a week in the company of several hundred English teachers from around the country, marking the essay question on the college board exams. My mother experiences her annual trip to Princeton as the one week out of fifty-two when she gets to live anything close to the academic and scholarly life for which she’s been trained.
It isn’t Florida or Hawaii, but this is also the closest my mother ever comes to taking a holiday, the only time she gets to stay in a hotel, or eat in a restaurant, or function not as a faculty wife but as a teacher. Where in Durham my mother has never had much success making friendships with the stay-at-home faculty wives, in Princeton she is much admired among the other teachers, having earned a reputation for regaling the group with comical readings from her favorite examples of terrible student writing.
My mother loves her college board trips and looks forward to them all year. All year, I dread them. Christmas is a hard time for my father anyway with the memories it evokes of his dead younger sister and his abandonment of the church. He endures my mother’s and my sister’s and my celebration of December 25, with our Santa decorations and piles of presents and flashing lights, but he is horribly depressed by the spectacle. “I am living with vulgarians,” he explodes, having spent the last hour stuck in the traffic caused by crazed holiday shoppers. “Jesus Christ! The world’s gone mad!”
From the moment my mother gets on the bus headed for Princeton to the moment she walks in our door again five days later, Daddy will be drinking. All around us, happy-looking families continue to celebrate the holidays. Our house sparkles with lights. But the cheer of the season is out of keeping with what’s going on at our house. Christmas carols and a recording of the Messiah in which the needle sticks in a certain groove and endlessly repeats the same three measures. Our beautiful tree, tilting loopily, or, as it did one year, crashing down as my father lurched into its branches, leaving him lying in a glittering mess of broken ornaments and strings of blinking lights.
One terrible night, during one of my mother’s Princeton trips, two policemen show up to tell my sister and me that our car has been left in the middle of the road with the headlights on and the motor running. By this time our father’s in the attic and we know better than to go get him. This is a small town in the sixties. Policemen still look the other way about certain people’s tendency to tie one on now and then. They pull our Buick into the driveway for us since neither Rona nor I is old enough to drive. Twenty-five years later, my sister names that night as one of the reasons she didn’t get a driver’s license until past her fortieth birthday. How could she ever believe the roads could be safe?
The winter I’m sixteen, my parents take a vacation to Mexico—the only vacation I ever remember them taking together. My sister is long gone by now, attending university in Canada. I’m a junior in high school. Still, my mother hires a college student to come and stay with me at our house so I won’t be alone. I do not say it to her, but this is what I’m thinking: It’s not being alone here that’s scary. It was all those years you left me with Daddy.
My mother is in no way a religious Jew. Still, she is utterly, culturally Jewish.
Years before the Holocaust, my mother had already absorbed from her mother a view that saw the world divided in two: Gentiles and Jews. All her life my mother still saw the division between us and them wherever she looked. She was pregnant with me the summer Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed—an event that loomed large in her imagination. That same year she was asked to serve with my father as chaperone of a dance held at a fraternity where Jews were not allowed admission.
My mother experiences the world of the fifties—particularly from her little corner of small-town New Hampshire—as hostile and alien to someone like her. She has come to view her own husband as quietly, reproachfully anti-Semitic, in his uneasiness over her rich, highly spiced cooking, her overly dramatic home-sewn dresses, her dark skin. Never one to celebrate a Sabbath or attend synagogue or mark Passover, she conveys the oddest mix of messages to my sister and me about our split-down-the-middle heritage. She calls herself Jewish, but never speaks of us that way, though neither are we Christian.
My mother celebrates Christmas with more energy than most Christians I’ve known. But our family Christmases, filled with music and wonderful food and decorations, always leave my father disheartened.
“You’ve turned the birth of Christ into a pagan ritual, Fredelle,” my father says. “A celebration of mammon.”
It has been almost half a century since my father belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, or any other church. Still, he reads his Bible almost every day. His speech is filled with the rhythms of the Old Testament.
My father loves language, but teaching English literature at UNH is not what my father intended for his life. “Castration!” he calls it, in one of his early letters to my mother, during their courtship—back when he thought he’d be leaving academic life soon.
If he isn’t reading his Bible at breakfast, my father studies some art book he’s checked out of the library. Taking a spoonful of his porridge, he pores over a reproduction of Cézanne or Raphael or Caravaggio. Years before, when I was very young, he traveled alone to Florence. I know, as he looks at his art books, he’s remembering that trip.
More than anything, my father loves art. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know, as clearly as my name, the central fact of my father’s life: that he wants to paint, and that he can’t make a living doing it. At the university, he also teaches a humanities course in which he’s known for creating chalk renditions of the Old Masters on the blackboard. El Greco one day. Titian the next.
But apart from what he draws for students and the huge, mural-size pictures he makes with a stick in the sand on our twiceannual family trip to Maine, the art my father makes is seldom viewed by anybody besides my mother, my sister, and me. Not being a member of the university art department, he is not permitted to show his paintings in the annual show of faculty work in the arts center on campus. He enters his paintings in the town art exhibit instead. His bold, slashing landscapes of dead trees and craggy rock formations on the Canadian coastline and back roads in New Hampshire always look out of place among the still lifes of pussy willows and bowls of fruit. Although they are priced cheaply, nobody ever buys one.
Now and then some visitor to our house will comment on my father’s paintings. In our living room is a single haunting portrait in oils he calls Woman in a Red Hat that people mistakenly suppose to be my mother (as, years later, when it hangs in my house, they will think it’s me). In our front hall are a couple of exquisitely rendered line drawings. One is of my mother in a chair, mending a shirt. This is my favorite drawing. I love to imagine the scene in which my father sketched it.
The other line drawing that hangs in our house must be a self-portrait, because my father calls it Myself When Young. But the man in this drawing—though he bears a certain odd resemblance to my father—appears so frightening I don’t like to look at it. He is bare chested, and very thin, with the skin stretched over his bones, and his face is skull-like and deeply melancholy. He stands in a landscape that might as well be the surface of the moon—no trees or houses in sight. It is a portrait of desolation.
Nobody has a father like mine. There are times when I wish I didn’t have a father like mine either: when he takes me swimming at our town pool, and puts on his bathing cap before entering the water, or when we go for walks and he not only carries a walking stick himself, but instructs me on how to swing my own, smaller stick, in rhythm with his. Times like those, and many other times, I wish for those other, golfing, barbecuing, pipesmoking fathers who live at my friends’ houses, or inside our TV set.
But I’m also protectively proud of my father. Nobody else’s father writes funny limericks on the spot the way mine does, or sits on the side of their bed at night, reciting Wordsworth or Yeats, in a voice as good as any actor in the Royal Shakespeare Company. Nobody else’s father can deliver, on the spot, his views on the drawings of William Blake or the definition of beauty.
He is not a large or particularly athletic person, like some people’s fathers, but his power with language allows him to take possession of a room. Many times, in my later years at school, when I’m writing a debate speech or engaged in some kind of political discussion or preparing a report, I’ll ask my father to provide me with the language for my beliefs. Moments like this, he quotes from the Bible, or from literature—as, all my life, I quote him.
And nobody else’s father can draw like mine. Any time I need a drawing, whether it’s of a girl on a bicycle or the musculature surrounding the heart, all I have to do is ask him and he’ll render the image perfectly. Draw me a hand petting a kitten, I say. Draw me a soldier dying on the battlefield at Gettysburg. Done.
For him, love of art is inseparable from love of the outdoors—not raw wilderness, but the landscape of a dirt road cutting through a barren landscape, abandoned boats lying on a shore, an orchard or (a theme he returns to several times in his work) a church in the woods. My father possesses a pure love of light, and trees, the curve of a hill, the angle of a barn roof—shadows and colors. Weekends, as early as I can remember—age five or six maybe—we head out to the horticulture farm of the university with our walking sticks. Now and then, my mother and sister come, but often it’s just the two of us under the experimental apple trees sketching a field of cows or a stretch of abandoned railroad tracks.
Sometimes, walking along the path on our way, my father stops so suddenly it seems as though he’s been jolted by electrical current. He points his walking stick toward the sky.
“Look at that, chum,” he says.
“See how the light hits that branch?” he says. “Study that cloud formation.”
Now and then my father, who doesn’t like to drive, rides the Trailways bus to Boston or New York to see a particular show of paintings—Van Gogh or Picasso, or the Flemish masters—and comes home so moved he’s almost weeping. He teaches my sister and me to recognize all the painters’ names and styles of painting. Sometimes when he’s drunk I’ll hear him on the phone late at night, talking to the one artist friend with whom he has stayed in contact, Jack Shadbolt, now a celebrated painter in Canada.
“He who hath wife and child hath given hostages …” I hear him say, the old refrain.
We have a routine, Saturday mornings. Nearly every week, with our dog Nicky, who goes with my father everywhere, we go together to the art supply store, in Dover. My mother complains that Daddy has plenty of art supplies already, but there’s always something we need: a new box of Cray Pas, a sketching pad. Charcoal. A tube of the new acrylic paint he loves.
We go to the liquor store next. I stay in the car. Then we stop at the newsstand on Main Street for a bag of freshly roasted Spanish peanuts.
In the afternoon, we take one of our excursions: sketching or looking for horseshoe crabs on Great Bay, or cycling along the paths through the campus at the university, studying the construction of some new building, or stopping at the art gallery to look at an exhibition there. We often stop by the experimental livestock barns at the university to visit a bull we particularly like. He’s so large, and so angry-looking in his small pen with its iron bars, with foam coming out of his nostrils, pawing the dirt with a huge hoof. We are sad, watching him. One week, when we stop by the bull’s barn, his pen is empty. We ask the man where the bull is. “He got too big,” he says. “We had to put him down.” My father is very quiet the rest of the day.
In summer, he and I cultivate a garden patch over at the university, where he teaches me how to plant tomatoes (sideways, so the root system will be well supported), and how to build a good squash hill, and the secrets for tall corn. “Nine bean rows will I have there, and a hive for the honey bee,” he recites, as we draw our hoes across the soil. “And live alone in the bee-loud glade.”
Every spring, when the brooks melt, we make paper boats and load them into our bike baskets, and launch them in the little stream out behind the university arts center. We jump back on our bikes and follow the course of the stream as it winds through the campus, watching to see if our boats make it through the underground culverts and cheering when they do. If I have a particular report for school, we stop at the library. Once, when my report is on the eyeball, we stop in at the biology department, where my father has a colleague who gives us a glass jar filled with cow’s eyes we bring home and dissect up in my father’s studio. To him, the lens seems beautiful and jewel-like. We study the iridescent tissue of the retina for a long time.
My mother possesses more energy than anyone I’ve ever met. She can whip up two dresses in an evening—one for me; one, matching, for my doll. The next day, she sews a third matching dress, this one in her size. One day I announce that two small stuffed animals of mine—a bear and a rabbit—have married and are now expecting a baby; she sews the rabbit’s maternity dress. A few weeks later, when I come home from school, she rushes me upstairs. “Lucy’s in labor,” she says. The offspring she extracts from under the doll bedcovers, no larger than my thumb, looks like a cross between a rabbit and a bear.
She can make up a poem on the spot, recite Lady Macbeth’s blood-on-the-hands speech, or any of a couple dozen others, critique debate arguments, conjugate Latin verbs, grow zinnias, bake miniature doll pies in pop bottle caps. One day I discover, when I get home from fourth grade, that my glasses have fallen out of my bookbag somewhere along the mile-long route between our house and Oyster River Elementary School. My mother sets out immediately to retrace my route, but discovers that, this very day, pavers are laying down sand along our road to make a sidewalk. So my mother gets her rake, and rakes the sand in search of my glasses. Halfway down the street, she finds them.
When I tell my mother I need a sweater for a particular toy bear of mine (the rabbit’s husband, three inches tall), she knits one on toothpicks. Having been identified as a picky eater who hates the junior high school cafeteria, I am met by my mother outside the front of the school building every day at noon and whisked home for lunch, where the special kind of soufflé that represents one of the few foods I will eat is currently in the oven, timed to come out at the moment of my arrival home.
My mother greets me at the door, when I get home from school, wearing a full-length gown of her own design with antique jet beads around the collar and cuffs. She has been working on magazine articles, but she sets her work aside when I walk in the door. She wants to hear about my day.
As I get older, this includes wanting to hear everything about whatever sexual things might be going on with me. I tell her nothing. More accurately, since it remains unimaginable not to tell my mother everything, I make sure there’s nothing to tell. The only things going on for me, sexually, happen in my head, which is the one place my mother can’t get to.
When I’m fourteen, she still comes into the bathroom when I’m in the tub. “Look at those little nips!” she says, laughing. “I think you’re finally starting to develop.” She doesn’t buy me a bra, though. Years after the other girls in my class have theirs, I continue to wear undershirts—the reason I hurry to be first in the locker room for gym class, so I can get one of the two bathroom stalls and change there.
Often, on Sundays, we take a drive to a country store a few miles out of town that sells a particular kind of anadama bread we like for toast. My mother has a standing order for two loaves. But there’s another part of our ritual visit to Calef’s Country Store. We never leave without spending a few minutes in the section that features a bunch of old-timey books. One that my mother opens regularly (but never buys) is called Jokes for the John. On the drive home, or later, at dinner, my mother (the same woman who also quotes Shakespeare and Chaucer) regales us with dirty jokes. My sister says nothing. My father says “Please, Fredelle. Restrain yourself. The girls.”
Who else has a mother who taught her the meaning of the word cunnilingus?
How is it I forgive her? She means no harm.
Every morning, I come into bed with her for what my mother calls “cuddle time.” I do this when I am very little. My own children will one day come into bed with their father and me when they’re young, too. But for me, the practice of getting into bed with my mother in the mornings continues into junior high. Maybe longer, but my sister left home when I was thirteen, and since she is the one who remembers what happened, I only know for sure that it was still going on then.
Rona felt sufficiently uncomfortable about what went on at cuddle time that she spoke to our mother about it, she tells me later. “I told her I thought it was inappropriate,” she says. Another family friend who sometimes came for visits, Ellen, told my mother the same thing. Our mother dismissed their comments, Rona says. “Joycie just can’t get enough snuggling,” my mother laughed. “Can you imagine what she’ll be like with men?”
What I remember: my mother’s dark skin and full breasts, showing through the worn, almost transparent nightgowns she sleeps in, the once-luxurious but now faintly shabby hand-me-downs from her sister Celia; the smell of her and her black hair that I like to style because it’s so curly, and my own is straight. She kisses me on the lips and I kiss her back. There are names for the kinds of kisses we share. Suction. Cutie. Movie star.
She may comment on my body, check to see if I have any pubic hair yet, make a joke about my pink, childish nipples. She calls me “triangulo,” because she says that’s the shape of my bottom. “Look at your legs,” she says. “People will think you’ve been in a concentration camp.”
(Later, though, when I fill out a little, this will also be a subject of discussion. “I’m tipping the scales at 105,” I write to her, from camp. “I can’t come home, for sheer shame!”)
Whenever my grandmother comes to visit, she brings a tin of a strange green ointment called Zambuk, available only in Canada. My mother sees nothing odd or hurtful in applying Zambuk to my vagina, at night, as late as junior high. My guess is that her mother probably had done the same with her, though what the Zambuk was supposed to do is never clear to me.
For my sister, the story is different. What Rona remembers is walking past our mother’s bedroom to the bathroom, listening to my mother and me cuddling, but taking part in none of it. We all knew, in our family, that Rona didn’t like to be touched.
One day, when I come home, I see she has left out a copy of our local paper, turned to the sports page, which is rare in our family. She has drawn an arrow, in red magic marker, to a photograph of a high school football player in uniform. With her marker, she has drawn a circle around the boy’s crotch, with an exclamation point.
“Can you believe this, in the paper?” she says. I know right away what her problem is, because I know my mother. She doesn’t know football players wear athletic cups. She thinks this boy must have a very large penis—thinks he’s having an erection, in fact, for all the world of sports fans to see—and she had to point it out.
My mother suffers from other frustrations. Despite her determined optimism and cheerfulness, her dreams, not only for romantic love but also for a career, were crushed a long time ago. She has her magazine career, and her teaching, but her biggest hopes rest with her daughters now, and because I am a more willing and responsive recipient, she places her most ambitious expectations on me.
She is a lifelong dieter, never wholly successful in her battle; I will be slim. I will receive the best education. I will be loved by a wonderful man. I will not have to worry about money as she does. I will see the world beyond New Hampshire.
Though my father was a champion diver as a young man, and he still possesses a surprisingly strong body and a forceful crawl stroke, he is not a follower of organized sports. In our family, we do not own a single ball or piece of sporting equipment besides our croquet set. I am twelve years old when I point out to my parents that I would like to learn to ride a bicycle—an idea that has never occurred to them. This earns me a reputation as the family athlete. My sister never learns to ride a bike.
My mother and father coach my sister and me to write. Before we knew how to form alphabet letters ourselves, we gave dictation. We spoke; our mother wrote down what we said and told us how to make it better. Soon enough, she gives us a typewriter.
Our family sport takes place in the living room. There in a circle of shabby furniture, surrounded by my father’s paintings, my sister and I read our manuscripts aloud for our parents. With file cards and yellow legal pads in hand, they take notes and analyze, one line at a time, every metaphor and choice of adjective. They talk about the rhythm of our sentences, the syntax, the punctuation. My father is a careful and demanding editor, but my mother’s criticism is the most exacting. Her instruction is incomparable, but it carries a price. My mother is teaching us not just how to write, but what to say. Back in that living room, I am adopting more than my mother’s punctuation and sentence rhythms as mine. On the page, I could not differentiate between my own feelings and my mother’s.
My sister, Rona, is regarded as the real writer in our family. I like drawing better, and dancing, and acting in plays and playing the guitar and singing folk songs. But I’m acutely aware of my father’s story, too. I know well that the fact that you love to do a particular thing doesn’t mean you can earn a living by it, or that anyone will ever acknowledge your talents. Singing and dancing might make me happy, but are less likely to make me successful—something that matters a lot in our family.
Partly in anticipation of its future significance, my mother has typed what we’ve written, as far back as preschool days, and saved every poem and story in suitcases—one for my sister, one for me.
My childhood suitcase features not just the usual Mother’s Day verses and school book reports but a three-act play, written when I was nine, chronicling the life and loves, including the sexual peccadilloes, of Henry VIII. There are hand-drawn fashion magazines in the suitcase, and tragic folk songs, and comedy routines, and the beginnings of several novels. Dozens of poems. Earnest, idealistic reflections on the Goldwater-Johnson election of 1964 (the year I turned eleven) and school busing and the Vietnam war. When I’m seven, my mother gives me a mimeograph machine for my birthday, and I begin producing a newspaper that I sell door-to-door on our street. It would never occur to me that our neighbors wouldn’t be interested to read what I write. Or that I shouldn’t charge a nickel for it. Later, a dime.
My mother schools me young to view my writing as valuable. She conveys another lesson too: Whatever happens in my life, I can look at it as material.
When my sister is thirteen or fourteen, our mother encourages her to enter the Scholastic Magazine writing contest. She wins—that year, and again, for years after that, collecting prizes of $25, $50, sometimes even $100.
The Scholastic prize money sounds to me like a fortune. As soon as I’m old enough, I also enter the Scholastic contest—feeling, now, the pressure to match my sister’s early successes or top them. I enter in every division available to me: fiction, essay, poetry, dramatic script. Through most of junior high, and into high school, the month before the Scholastic deadline and the week when prizes are announced will be two of the most important times of my year. If I win only one award, I will be disappointed.
When Rona’s sixteen, our mother mails a short story of hers called “Paper Flowers” to the Ladies’ Home Journal. The magazine buys the story for $500. The story will later be named as an honorable mention in the annual volume of Best American Short Stories for 1964. At age eleven, I’m proud of my sister, but also consumed with a need to match her achievement, and with an anxiety that I might not be able to.
In the fall of 1965, just before my twelfth birthday, I start keeping a diary. I write in it every night—entries that sometimes go on for five or six pages. In my journal, I talk about all my darkest secrets: My embarrassment that my mother is still giving me baths. The jealousy and competition I feel toward my sister. My impatience with my classmates at school, my longing for a close friend, and my sense of having no one who understands me, except for my mother. I write about my secret and shameful interest in boys, my wish that I could attend dances, and my belief that my mother would never in a million years guess that I could care about such things. I am consumed with a desire to win contests, earn money, earn recognition from the world and, above all, from my parents. I also worry about death, the meaning of life, the universe.
Sometimes, in my diary, I will refer to my father as being “stormy” on a particular night. So stormy, in fact, that one night he takes away my diary entirely, and sends me to bed, until my mother steps in to rescue me. “Stormy” is a code word for the word I don’t dare write even in my diary: drunk.
SEPT. 5, 1965
… Today I listened to a Judy Collins record. Oh, music excites me so. But listening to the record, and Rona playing the guitar, I feel so hopeless and far behind … . I never seem to get anything done or polished enough. My slow typing. My dreadfully inadequate, repetitious choreography. Mummy would say this diary is completely without form or direction. Oh dear.
… I think a lot about dying these days, and how I have an image of myself as the center of things, like the universe revolving around the earth! Oh, but I am so inconsequential! I must do something … .
… I have always thought of our family as a kind of divine circle, speculating even on close friends, and their limitations—their not being wholly correct. I realize now that even Mummy has flaws! I guess truly no one can come into the “divine circle” except me. One is always so alone!
… I desperately need to talk to someone, but everyone I talk to is part of my depression so I can’t talk to them, of course. How little I have in common with these people … .
… I must do something. I must win Scholastic Contest this year!
How sad for Daddy not to have any family of his own other than us. I often notice Daddy talking about being a bachelor and REALLY PAINTING. What a lot he gave up for Mummy. It must often be sad for him to have given up the full cultivation of his talent. He thinks of art constantly! I don’t think that I’ll marry a man so much older, if I can help it.
Reading Maria Trapp’s autobiography of the Trapp Family Singers. It has a lot of religious overtones. How simple it would be to be religious. How safe … .
… People are always such a disappointment … .
I feel depressed about a space travel article I read. It talked blithely of underground living and space migration to stop the population explosion. And to think I may well live to see this day, where all purpose goes out of life, and one’s goal is merely survival. To misquote Anne Frank, “I still believe all men are good.” Are they?
Daddy just started an awful scene. He took away my diary (it was only 9:15) saying it was too late for me to be up writing. Luckily, Mummy came to the rescue … . A father should be a steady person, not necessarily happy and well adjusted, but steady. If he punishes you because he’s had a bad day or his shoulder hurts, no reprimand will be meaningful … .
… Today in math the problem of infinity was brought up. Does space go on and on and on? … If not, does it stop all of a sudden, as people once thought the Earth did? And what would lie beyond? Nothing. What is nothing? … I am so little and inconsequential … . I must make my mark!
I finished Gone with the Wind this morning. How I cried, at Bonnie’s death, Melanie’s goodness, and alas, Scarlett’s alone feeling, with no shoulder to cry on. A ruined life. I was particularly moved because, oddly enough, Rhett reminds me of Daddy, and therefore he seemed closer to my heart I realize this book is sentimental, with no shape or symbolism or form, but any book that can create such a vivid picture of so sad an event has got to have something. It is the best book I’ve ever read
Daddy is stormy tonight and wants me to go to bed, so I must hurry … .
A few nights later I note my father’s upsetting behavior again. This time I call it what it really is.
When I came home last night, Daddy was drunk and moody—you could smell liquor on his breath all down the hall. For some people, life is so easy, so secure. Fathers in crew cuts, nice and dull, who bring home the paycheck. Not so here.
The December 8 entry marks the first time I have used real language to describe my father’s drinking. The next night, when I open my diary to write again, there is a letter stuck inside the pages, written on a yellow legal pad. My mother’s handwriting:
My Dearest Joyce,
Yes, I did look at your diary this morning … . Actually, because we are so close in feeling and temperament, I haven’t learned much I didn’t already know. I understand very well you longing, in a way, for a steady, crew-cut, run-of-the-crowd father. (Do you think I haven’t wondered ruefully, at times, what it would be like to have that kind of husband?) But of course if you had that kind of father, you wouldn’t be you. Round and round the circle goes. You really do have an extraordinary (and extraordinarily difficult) father—and in life one pays for everything. Remember the little mermaid, and what it cost her to walk on land with little human feet? Everyone has some problem; this is ours. And it’s not, after all, disastrous. When Daddy is drunk he is sad, disgusting, embarrassing, pitiable … all these things. But not mean or cruel or violent. And—this is the important thing—whatever follies he commits at midnight, he gets up in the morning, goes to work and—as you would say—brings home the paycheck—i.e., meets his responsibilities. Read around a bit in the lives of painters and poets and you’ll see that this is not a bad score.
After some twenty years, I think I have as good an answer as possible. There is no use indulging in self-pity. (“Why did this happen to me? Other people have it so easy.”) And there is certainly no use complaining, attacking, berating—or even speaking about the matter. There is nothing I could say to Daddy that he hasn’t said to himself. Try to imagine what it must be like to live with the knowledge of one’s own dreadful fallibility. Positively speaking, there are just two things one can do—try to avoid situations which you know will aggravate the nerves; and accept, without struggle, the fact that this is how it is. You’d be surprised at the serenity that comes with acceptance. I used to—at awful moments—cry and accuse and attempt to stop the avalanche. This was painful and utterly futile. Now I just turn out the light and go to sleep, knowing that tomorrow the coffee will be made and the cereal cooked as always.
One final observation. If you work things out mathematically, our lot is not so bad Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week—168 hours. Say, on an average, six of those hours are unpleasant—I make it 3.36% of the time.
And all the other times? You have a father who is highly intelligent, gifted, sensitive, witty, gentle and absolutely devoted to you. How many children can say as much?
More than thirty years later, with a daughter of my own, I reread my mother’s letter to me, at twelve, with the deepest kind of sorrow. It’s misguided enough for a parent to tell her child she cannot speak of her most painful feelings. But my mother goes further than that. She tells me I must not even acknowledge my feelings to myself. She requires me to support her denial. She has even provided mathematical proof: scribbled calculations in the margin, allowing her to arrive at the figure of 3.36% as the portion of my life in which I am actively affected by my father’s drunkenness.
The twelve-year-old who reads my mother’s letter in her diary that night recognizes none of this. I acknowledge only the brilliance and wisdom of my mother’s reasoning. I am so accustomed to my mother’s invasions, I don’t even recognize the invasion—only her supreme and matchless understanding of me.
DEC. 9, 1965
Today I found a note in my diary that Mummy wrote me. She has read it. And, oh, how she understands me! And what use is a secret if it isn’t one? She has upheld the tradition—the infallible, the God in my life, knowing all! Right now I’m crying too much to go on writing. Let me go to sleep.
As I enter my teens, my father’s “stormy” times will become nightly, not occasional events—the percentage of the drunkenness rising. But after the diary episode, I will not speak of my father’s drinking again to my mother or anyone else for many years, or even write about it in the most secret place.
Every now and then, some night when my father’s drinking, he will stumble into our kitchen to fix himself “a spot of tea” and leave the kettle on the stove with the burner on. In the morning, we’ll come downstairs to find a little silver-colored coin that used to be our teakettle. I have a collection of these. For the purpose of her storytelling, my mother transforms Daddy into someone resembling Mr. Magoo. Only with better eyesight.
I never speak with my mother about the fact that she read my diary or that after the night of December 9, 1965, I never write in it again. From now on I focus my writing energies on the kind of writing that wins prizes and makes money.
When I am eight or nine, I write to the president of CBS, informing him of my availability to replace the child actress Angela Cartwright in her role as the daughter on The Danny Thomas Show, if she should ever become unavailable. At fifteen, I write to the Children’s Television Workshop, suggesting that they include a teenage character on Sesame Street and, if so, that I get to play her. That same year, I write a letter to Seventeen magazine, proposing that I write an article for them, and enclose samples of my work. The magazine buys a short essay I write. I receive a check for $100.
After that first sale, I pursue more assignments with Seventeen. I send off proposals, as my mother taught me. I begin getting jobs: a roundup of summer camp options for teenagers, a report on wedding fashions. I travel to New York to meet with editors, pitching a long list of possible topics. I still don’t plan to become a writer. But I believe that writing may provide me with a ticket to New York City, the place I’ve wanted to get back to ever since our trip to the World’s Fair.
I have friends at my school. I act in plays. But I have never shaken the feeling that I’m an alien in this place. More than anything—fame or success or writing prizes—what I long for is a sense of fitting in somewhere. Maybe it will be New York.
I am also thinking a lot about boys. At dances I stand on the sidelines, wishing someone would ask me. A boy at school says, “Did you get the license plate number of the tractor that ran over your face?” For days after, I study my reflection in the mirror. I know I’m not beautiful, but I had supposed I was cute. I must be wrong. Certainly no boys are calling me.
In my junior year, something happens that seems to me more wonderful and surprising than any debate team trophy or writing prize. A boy asks me on a date, but this one is smart and confident and funny and well liked at our school. I cannot imagine why he would have sought me out.
Jim is seventeen, a year older than I. He’s tall and solid as a tree trunk, a boy who commanded the soccer goal at Oyster River High School for four years. This fall, I begin attending those games. Because so many of the players on the team are graduating seniors, there is a deeply significant atmosphere surrounding these games that even a person like me who hadn’t been following the team’s career would have picked up on. This group of boys is playing their last games together. They have never played better. That October they will win the state championship in their division.
Jim has curly blond hair, glasses, and a sharp wit, but unlike me, no burning ambition. He has no apparent interest in applying his fine intelligence to winning any prizes besides the only one that mattered to him: to successfully defend the space between Oyster River’s goal posts. He has lived in this town all his life, and plans to attend the University of New Hampshire next year. He likes to barbecue steaks and play air guitar along with Jimi Hendrix and go out in a little boat he has on the bay.
Shortly after the soccer team returns from the championships with their trophy, and following a week of nonstop celebrations in which even I participate (though unlike nearly everybody else at these gatherings, I don’t drink or smoke pot), Jim asks me if I’d like to go for a drive with him one evening. His car is famous at our school: a Model A Ford he and his dad have fixed up.
We drive out to Great Bay, site of so many of my sketching trips with my father. On a back road, with no other cars in sight, he pulls over the Model A. In a clump of bushes he clearly knows well, someone has hidden a six-pack of beer. He opens the back of the car and takes out an old stadium blanket, also a pillow. Taking my hand and carrying the beer and the blanket in his other, he leads me through the woods to a clearing where he lays down the blanket. We lie down. He opens two beers. It’s chilly here, but he has wrapped his soccer jacket over my shoulders. He takes off his glasses and kisses me.
All that winter and spring, I am Jim’s girlfriend. After school now we head to a diner downtown where Jim and a bunch of friends, mostly soccer teammates and their girlfriends, drink Cokes and fool around. One of the boys in the group has a family-owned cabin in the woods where we go, once the snow comes, to drink rum-laced hot chocolate and ride toboggans. I’m terrified of the steep hill and the speed of the toboggan run, but when Jim sits behind me and wraps his arms around me, I feel safe enough to go down the hill with the others.
He possesses a quality rare among high school boys: an appreciation for irony. He loves a few things: his car, his boat, beer and rum, Jimi Hendrix, his soccer teammates. He does not dream of New York. And he seems to feel, for me, the nicest combination of passion and affection. We neck for hours: on his stadium blanket, in his parents’ basement, lying on dunes at Ogunquit beach, in the backseat of his Model A with the tattered old window shade pulled down.
That spring, I learn that Phillips Exeter Academy, the prestigious boys’ prep school a couple of towns over, will accept a handful of female students for the first time in its one-hundred-and-ninety-year history. For years I’ve watched with envy and resignation as so many of the brightest, most ambitious boys in my school headed off to Exeter in ninth or tenth grade. (Not Jim, though he would have been smart enough. “Why would I want to go to prep school?” he laughs. “Do they have a better soccer team?”)
A few days after Jim’s graduation, he picks me up and we head to the town pool, which is not yet open for the season. Jim’s best friend on the soccer team, Greg, is taking off the next morning on a hitchhiking trip across country. A group of friends has decided to celebrate his departure with an illegal swim.
Except for my few sips of beer with Jim, I have never broken the law. Now he lifts me up so I can climb the fence with the others. We strip down to our underwear and jump in the familiar waters I know from a dozen childhood summers when my mother brought me here, or when my father embarked on his ceaseless quest to teach me a proper crawl stroke. The diving board isn’t up yet, but Greg is performing cannon balls off the stone wall at the deep end.
The stars are out. The water’s very cold. We’re all shivering. Jim passes around his flask of rum. Greg asks him one more time to come along on the hitchhiking trip. “Why would I want to go someplace else?” he says. “I like it here.”
The knowledge that I’ll be attending Exeter has changed things between us. I still feel excitement at the sound of his car horn outside my house on Saturday nights, and we still take the rum or the beer and the blanket out into some field or other. But the relationship feels finite and terminal now. I never say it, but as we head into the summer I am thinking I should begin my life at Exeter unattached and available for what I imagine to be some wonderfully sophisticated, prep school—style affair.
Three weeks after he took off on his hitchhiking trip, Greg returns from California. Once again, a group goes out to celebrate. Just boys this time. For some reason, Jim doesn’t join them.
On a stretch of two-lane road I will find myself traveling every day the next fall as I make my way from Durham to Phillips Exeter Academy, the car with Jim’s friend Greg and a half dozen other friends, mostly soccer teammates, misses a curve and slams into another carload of teenagers. Everyone in both cars is killed.
I don’t learn this news until the next night, when Jim shows up at my door for our usual Saturday night. I had gotten us tickets to see a Shakespeare play, so I’m more dressed up than usual. Getting into the car, I’m telling him what I’ve heard from my mother about the production. Jim is uncharacteristically silent.
“I don’t think I can go to the play,” he says, as the Model A heads down my street.
“What’s the matter?” I ask him.
We drive to a patch of field out by Great Bay, where we lay down the blanket and put our arms around each other. Although I have seen my father in a state of despair, when drunk, I have never seen a boy or man cry before.
Jim is never quite the same after that. The next couple of times I see him, he’s drinking—straight Scotch this time, not beer. There’s a sharp, bitter edge to him. He seems unreachable.
I get a waitressing job at Ogunquit and rent a room a few blocks from the beach. Jim drives up to see me once, then no more.
I show up for my first day of classes at Exeter that fall thinking that maybe I have finally found a community where I belong. Far from feeling the need to keep their talents concealed, as a person was wise to do at my old public school, the Exeter boys flaunt their intellectual and artistic obsessions. For the first time in my life, I don’t need to conceal the intensity of my interest in accomplishment or success. The school is filled with young men in suit jackets and ties, every bit as driven as I am. More so.
But though Exeter provides more academic excitement than anything I’ve ever known at Oyster River High, the social atmosphere at the school, in its first year of coeducation, is tense and strained. There are only ten girls in the senior class, and nobody knows what to do with us. Now and then, in a classroom, a teacher will ask one of us for the female point of view. Most of the boys, intimidated by the scarcity of female students, steer clear of us.
My mother asks me every day now, when I come home, what boys talked to me, whom I like. I am self-conscious, embarrassed, and paralyzed. I think about boys all the time now, but the more I do, the less able I am to behave in anything close to a relaxed and comfortable way. The whole area of sex becomes increasingly scary and unnatural.
There is a small group of rebellious types on campus who have made the choice not to attend college at all next year, but to go off into the country someplace and start a farm. They wear overalls with their ties and jackets, and they play Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” a lot. Listening to them, I feel a wave of longing for the boys on the soccer team. As brilliantly as the Exeter boys hold forth in the snack bar or the couches in the art gallery discussing Nietzsche or Sartre, they seem sheltered and unworldly compared to my old crowd that spent winter afternoons at the cabin, or, most of all, Jim, in the backseat of the Model A.
I am too uncomfortable to attend meals in the dining hall. I live on peanut butter sandwiches and candy bars instead and put on weight. “Your face certainly is getting round,” my mother says one day. “I guess we don’t need to worry anymore about that concentration camp look of yours.” Another time she asks me, “Do you know how many calories are in a tablespoon of peanut butter?”
I decide to cut my intake of food down to the barest minimum. From January, when the last of my college applications are mailed—to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale—until graduation in June, I do little at the school but attend my classes, send article proposals to magazines, and rush home in time to go, with my mother, to the Elaine Powers exercise salon. I go to bed with Saran Wrap around my abdomen and see my weight drop thirty pounds within a space of five months. By spring, I have received my acceptances to all the colleges and decided on Yale.
I send a proposal to Doubleday for a how-to book I want to write about making dollhouse furnishings, which I have constructed since childhood. I am given a contract and a check for $1500, and I buy a jigsaw and a bunch of hand tools and balsa wood.
I also buy myself a platinum blond bubble-cut wig. It’s part of my plan to transform myself into a completely different person. I love it that I am unrecognizable now, even to myself.
The week after my Exeter graduation, weighing 88 pounds and wearing my blond wig, I hitchhike to Boston, apply for a secretarial position at a mail-order catalogue, and get the job, not mentioning my plan to leave in the fall to begin my studies at Yale. I rent a room on Beacon Hill for the summer. I make myself a schedule that calls for me to get up at six, write for an hour, walk two miles to work, type at the office from nine to five, walk home, exercise till eight, work on my dollhouse book, eat an apple and an ice cream cone, and go to bed by ten-thirty.
The word anorexia is not known to me at this point. But the condition is.