MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Every family has its own mythology—stories we tell again and again, until it’s difficult to distinguish the colorful characters in our heads from the real people we know and love. These stories are true, or at least, they feel true. But they don’t just record our history—they also illuminate the forces that shaped us and the values that continue to define us.
In my family, our legend was the marriage of my parents, Donald Jacobs and Bonny Jean Godfrey—two young star-crossed lovers, up against the world. And while not every tale needs a villain, every protagonist needs an antagonist—an obstacle to overcome. Fair or not, the legend of our family wouldn’t be complete without its adversary: my grandmother Ma Godfrey.
I’m told Ma Godfrey could hardly hide her disappointment when I was born. There was no rational reason she should have been upset that her daughter—more than a year into her marriage—had given birth to a healthy baby girl. But despite my parents’ wedding, despite the home they had bought and the future they were planning, my maternal grandmother still hoped against hope that they might separate. She simply believed that my father—who was from a poor family in Hammonton, New Jersey—wasn’t good enough for my mom.
Having a child had, in her mind, sealed their fate together—and deep down, some part of my grandmother blamed me for it. Making matters worse, I looked like my father, with my blond hair and blue eyes. “You’re not a Godfrey,” she’d tell me. “You’re a Jacobs.” She might have meant that as an insult, but I took it as a compliment. Yes, I was a Jacobs, and proud of it.
Ma Godfrey’s ambivalence toward me wasn’t overt. She didn’t treat me much differently from the way she treated my four sisters; she read me books and played the same games she played with all of us. She didn’t withhold birthday cards or Christmas presents. But there was always an edge behind her comments. She was always a little faster to reprimand me, or to make a cutting, offhand remark. We all talked back at times, but I alone got a beating. Ma wasn’t a warm woman, not with any of us girls, but her lack of affection seemed most pronounced with me.
When I was twelve years old, I’d had enough. I can’t remember what she said to set me off, just that it was mean and unfair and made me absolutely livid. I decided I wasn’t going to spend another minute with a woman who might love me but sure didn’t like me much, so I called a cab company to pick me up. Luckily, my destination was just a few miles away.
My father’s mother, Grandmom Jacobs, was the perfect opposite of Ma Godfrey. Every time I walked in her door, she would smother me in kisses. Her home was old and lived in and smelled like burnt Italian bread toast—a smell that to this day takes me right back to her kitchen. She always bought me my own cantaloupe for breakfast. She kept candy in the top drawer of the dining room buffet. And she loved us—all of us—fiercely and without reserve. When the cab dropped me off, she opened the door, pulled me inside, and wrapped her arms tightly around me. Safe in her grandmotherly embrace, I heard her whisper, “That bitch,” followed immediately by, “God forgive me.”
* * *
Maya Angelou once wrote, “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” That was what my parents’ love seemed to me: unstoppable, indomitable, and full of hope.
My father came from a working-class family of Italian heritage; his name, Giacoppa, had been changed to Jacobs when his grandfather, Guytano Giacoppa, arrived at Ellis Island. In 1944, at age seventeen, my father decided he wanted to fight in World War II. Too young to enlist, Donald needed his mother’s permission, and though she wasn’t keen on having her young son go to war, she signed his papers. He trained as a signalman and was sent to the South Pacific. Dad was very proud of his military service, and when he returned after the war, he took advantage of the GI Bill to attend business school in Philadelphia. He studied finance, which led to his first job in the banking business, working as a teller in Hammonton, New Jersey. It was a respectable job, but not the illustrious career my maternal grandparents had hoped would support their daughter.
A couple of times a week, Dad would stop by the Rexall Drugstore in town to order ice cream from Bonny Jean Godfrey, who worked the soda fountain. Today, their story seems too Norman Rockwell–esque to be real: the handsome young GI and the sweet girl behind the counter, the marshmallow-topped ice-cream cones and black-and-white tiles. And as in all good love stories, there was conflict: my grandfather, a pharmacist who owned the store, and my grandmother were determined to stand in the way of this growing romance. They watched the lanky young nobody from across the store, dismayed as he charmed their obviously smitten daughter.
My maternal grandparents, Ma and Pa Godfrey, had both gone to college, and they were determined their only daughter would do the same. Worried that Bonny Jean might decide instead to marry Donald, they forbade her from seeing him.
Bonny Jean did enroll in college courses, but she left within two years’ time and didn’t graduate. And she and my father never did stop seeing each other. Instead, in a secret act of rebellion unbeknownst to my grandparents, they sneaked away to Elkton, Maryland, to elope.
My parents continued living separately in their respective homes, and a year later they had an intimate wedding at Ma and Pa’s home, with siblings and parents in attendance. My mother’s parents went to their graves never knowing about the secret betrayal of their daughter. But it was a rebellion just the same, and it represented the pact of devotion my parents made to each other above all others. They created a sacred circle of loyalty that day, one that expanded with each daughter born—me, Jan, and Bonny at first, and then, when I turned fifteen, the twins, Kim and Kelly. My parents always had each other’s backs, and they taught us to do the same. We might squabble with each other, but if anyone outside the family hurt one of us, they’d find all five of the Jacobs girls ready to fight back.
* * *
Every weekend of my childhood, my parents would pile us into our brown-and-white station wagon and drive us from our home in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, to New Jersey to see our grandparents. We’d fly past the Nabisco factory, my sisters and me playing and arguing in the back seat. We’d ride past the row houses in Philadelphia, then across the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge, finally arriving in Hammonton. Once there, we split up: my father and I would stay with his parents, and my mother and sisters would stay with hers. I can’t say for certain, but I’m pretty sure Ma and Pa Godfrey refused to allow my father to sleep with my mother in their home.
I didn’t mind, because I preferred being at Grandmom and Grandpop’s house with my dad. Grandpop loved to fish, and some days we’d come in to find dozens of rockfish spread out over the kitchen counters, the back porch, and even on the washing machine. I was mesmerized by their sleek, black, shiny scales, even as my grandmother screamed, “Maledetto, Domi!”—her nickname for Domenic. “Who do you think is going to clean all these fish?” She didn’t speak Italian, but she’d made it a point to learn a few curse words for such an occasion.
My grandparents showed their love for my sisters and me through incredible food. It was at their house that I learned to appreciate pasta, homemade tomato sauce, and good Italian bread. My grandfather always sat next to the toaster, popping in thick slices of Italian bread and making sure we all had toast. The Italians have a saying, “Finire a tarallucci e vino”—to finish with tarallucci (little cookies) and wine. It essentially means, no matter our differences or our arguments during dinner, we finish as family. All’s well that ends well—or at least, I think you’re dead wrong, but let’s put it aside so we can enjoy the pleasures of life together. That was Grandmom and Grandpop’s home: a place where every meal ended with satisfaction—in our stomachs and hearts alike.
The kitchen was tiny, with a linoleum-covered table in the middle and leaded-glass cabinets along the wall. We spent a lot of time in that room, though I also loved their living room, where my grandmother proudly displayed a framed photo of my seventeen-year-old father in his navy uniform. It was a slightly ramshackle little house, and there wasn’t a piece of new furniture to be found. But its features felt homey and welcoming, and my sisters were always a little jealous that they didn’t get to stay there, too.
They’d be across town with my mom for much of the weekend, visiting the Godfrey grandparents in a very different kind of home. Ma and Pa Godfrey’s lawn was flawless, with an embedded sprinkler system keeping the grass a perfect jade green; it even had a manicured rose garden alongside it. Ma had a collection of Hummel figurines arranged in a recessed bookcase, and a living room full of elegant furnishings, including an organ that she played with precision. She had an exquisite set of Lenox china, which my mother would later present to me with the words, “Promise me you’ll never tell your grandmother I gave this to you.”
Down in the cellar, shelves held perfectly arranged jars of peaches, pickles, and applesauce, which Ma made and canned herself. There was a freezer packed with ice cream, and a long wooden swing that hung from the ceiling. Even though it was a cellar, it always appeared freshly painted and absolutely spotless. Even spiders seemed afraid to trespass on Ma’s domain. It was pristine, like everything else in that house.
At the end of every weekend, all five of us had Sunday dinner with both sets of grandparents. We’d start at Grandmom and Grandpop’s house with a bountiful Italian feast: homemade noodles that Grandmom had hung to dry in the kitchen, braciole, meatballs, spaghetti, Italian wedding soup. The house would be suffused with the aroma of basil, oregano, fresh tomatoes, and garlic, and I could never get enough of the tastes and smells. We’d eat our fill, get wrapped up in Grandmom’s warm hugs, and then head over to our Godfrey grandparents’ house for Sunday dinner number two.
At Ma and Pa’s, the table would be set with a crisp tablecloth, the Lenox china, and the good silver, and Ma would bring out platters of roast beef, mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans, and cake for dessert. Of course, we’d already stuffed ourselves with Italian food, so nobody really wanted to eat, but Ma would always press us to take one more slice, one more spoonful. These Sunday dinners were a time of family togetherness, certainly—but also of unspoken competition between Ma and Grandmom.
By the end of the second dinner, Jan, Bonny, and I would have upset stomachs and just want to go home. My parents would load us into the back seat of the station wagon, where Jan and Bonny would instantly fall asleep. But I liked to stay awake, to listen to Mom and Dad talking quietly in the front. Outside the car, the night would be black, but I felt comforted by the glow of the dashboard, the smell of leather seats, and the gentle murmur of my parents talking and laughing all the way home.
* * *
Starting when I was about seven years old, I’d walk up the street most days to wait for my father to get home from work. Working bankers’ hours, nine-to-five, he arrived each evening at suppertime, and our routine was always the same. He’d pull his car over, open the door of the blue Ford sedan, and lift me onto his lap. I’d grab the steering wheel with my little hands, “driving” us back to the house while he worked the pedals.
I loved this tradition, and I felt immensely proud of my dad, so handsome in his dark suit, sometimes wearing a Stetson hat, and always smelling like Old Spice aftershave. This was the late 1950s, and we were a Leave It to Beaver kind of family; when we got back to the house, my mother would be busy cooking dinner, hanging out the laundry on the clothesline, or darning socks. My dad would settle into his favorite chair and read the paper or turn on the Philco black-and-white TV to watch the Phillies game. Sometimes, Jan and Bonny and I would pull up our little chairs, too, so we could watch with Dad.
Sunday dinners with the grandparents were elaborate, but our nightly dinners at home were a big deal in their own way. Every evening, around 5:00 p.m., one of us girls would set the table, and someone would lay out a clean tablecloth. Mom would put out flowers—freshly picked from our garden, never bought from the store—or a seasonally appropriate centerpiece. Candles would be lit, and we’d all take our seats—never officially assigned, but always the same. We had a rectangular table with six seats (until the twins came along, at which point we had to add a seventh) and my father sat at the head, in front of the fireplace. Traditionally, wives would sit opposite their husbands, but my mom hated to be so far away from my dad. Instead, she sat beside him, where they could touch each other’s arms or playfully nudge when they disagreed. I sat at the other end, beneath a picture window that looked out on the backyard and the woods that lay beyond, while Bonny and Jan filled in the rest of the seats.
For all the care and thought that went into arranging our table, there was much less effort put into what actually went on it. While Ma Godfrey spent time trying to one-up Grandmom with dishes and desserts, she had never bothered to pass her excellent culinary knowledge on to my mother. Simply put, Mom was a terrible cook. Nearly everything came from a can or the freezer—which wasn’t unusual for families of our time. We’d be eating Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks or Campbell’s Cream of Chicken soup mixed with white rice (our favorite dinner), served on a china platter, followed by a crystal dish of chalk-pink Junket custard. For the most part, we ate it and didn’t complain—I didn’t know steak came any other way than thin and overcooked until I had dinner at a friend’s house and realized for the first time that beef could have flavor other than salt. Still, since we weren’t allowed to leave the table without finishing our plates, there were a few nights I sat there well past 9:00, struggling to choke down the last bites of boiled hot dog and sauerkraut.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter what we ate, because we did it together. We laughed and gossiped and recounted our days. Those were the moments when we got to share our lives with each other, and nothing outside of the halo of candlelight mattered.
I started Sunday dinners at my own home after I married Joe, knowing how important those dinners were to me as a child. We continued them as the kids grew up and through the eight years that we commuted, most weekends, back and forth from D.C. to Delaware when Joe was vice president. I like to think of the number of meals that have taken place in our kitchen in Wilmington—the stories we’ve told, the decisions we’ve made. The kitchen has a big table, but it almost never goes unused, even now that it’s just Joe and me. There are always kids and grandkids dropping by, or friends and neighbors who can be convinced to stay for dinner. When staff come by to plan an event, we usually end up there at the table eventually, eating a good meal and catching up on everyone’s kids or vacation plans. Even when we’re just ordering sandwiches from the local deli, I get out the cloth napkins and light a candle. If we’re going to eat, we might as well take a moment to enjoy it—and each other.
* * *
Until I was ten, we lived in a two-bedroom house in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, where Jan, Bonny, and I shared a room. It’s funny, the things you remember: Our bedroom had a dark blue wall with little bumps on it—a result of frozen paint—and in the summer, when we were covered with mosquito bites, we’d lie on our backs and rub our legs on that wall to scratch the itchy spots. In the winter, we’d slip out of bed in our flannel nightgowns and pull our covers down onto the black linoleum floor, which was heated, to warm ourselves up. And every spring, a robin made her nest in the rose arbor outside our front door; eventually, we’d see cracked, light blue eggshells on the ground and know that her babies had hatched.
When my father got a promotion, we moved to New Jersey for a couple of years, and then to a bigger house in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, where I had a bedroom of my very own. No more sharing with my sisters—now I had my own double bed, with a headboard that had built-in bookshelves. I had a vanity, with a big makeup mirror and ceramic poodle lamps on either side, and I decorated my walls with pennants, including one from the Ice Capades. My sisters and I loved ice-skating, and in the winters, Mom and Dad would take us to Washington Crossing, where people would come from miles around to skate along the frozen canals.
I loved my sisters, but like all siblings, we got into fights. Being the oldest, I was always left in charge when Mom and Dad went out. Inevitably, Jan—just a year younger—would end up screaming, “You’re not the boss of me!” And I would yell, “I am the boss of you!” Wrestling would break out, and it would last until I sat on Jan to subdue her or said something mean enough to shut her up. Once, when one of my sisters broke one of my beloved poodle lamps, I ended up chasing her around the house with the fireplace poker. I wouldn’t have actually stabbed her with it, but she didn’t know that.
Jan and I took turns instigating fights, but the most memorable was started by my mother. It was the summer after my sixth-grade year, and Mom had brought home a couple of bushels of fresh Jersey tomatoes. We were sitting around the dinner table when she picked up a tomato, smiled mischievously, then winged it at my dad. Splat! His shirt was a dripping mess of seeds and thick juice. I gaped in shock, which turned instantly to delight as Dad picked up a tomato and flung it right back at her. Then chaos: All five of us were grabbing tomatoes and flinging them at each other, howling as red splotches burst all over the room and ourselves. My mom kept a clean house, but it never stopped her from having fun.
My mom and dad laughing as they hurled tomatoes at each other is one of my favorite memories. It was the only “fight” I remember seeing them have, though I’m sure there were others, real ones that happened behind the scenes. I knew my mother’s temper could flare on occasion, and Bonny swears she once saw my mom throw a plate at my dad, Frisbee-style. Marriage is work, and my family, like all families, struggled at times. But for the most part, my parents kept these challenges from us. They made sure we always felt nothing but loved.
* * *
As a kid, I used to love going to Pa Godfrey’s drugstore, imagining my parents lingering at the soda fountain and chatting with each other across the counter in their younger days. But it was just as easy to imagine Ma Godfrey giving my father a dirty look from across the store as he flirted with my mother.
Ma wasn’t great at showing her love, but I took it for granted that she did love me. On the day she died, I went to visit her in her home. There she lay in her bedroom on a hospital bed, with a hospice nurse by her side. I knew this was good-bye. As I leaned down to give her a kiss, the hospice nurse said, “Now, Mabel, give Jill a kiss.”
And Ma whispered, “No.”
“Ma, I know you don’t want to kiss me, but I’m going to kiss you anyway,” I said. I kissed her and left.
My feelings aside, Ma was a woman before her time—college-educated when few schools accepted women. She worked for fifty years as a teacher, and she wanted her daughter to be educated and independent. When I visited her as a little girl, she would take me to her school—an old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse where she taught kids of multiple grades. When she read to her kids, she was enchanting, and I saw how she pushed them to be their best. Many of her students were from poor homes, and every year, she’d collect coats to distribute, as well as knit gloves and scarves for those who needed them. I admired her generosity and the way she inspired her students. It was a lesson in teaching I’ve kept with me.
Ma Godfrey never did relent in her opposition to my parents’ union, even after five children and many decades together. We all just ended up sidestepping her anger—even Pa, who secretly sent us little care packages filled with Lifesavers and chocolate candies. We were never allowed to let on to Ma that he’d sent them, because she was so set against helping my parents in any way. And though all of us girls ended up knowing that my parents had eloped, we knew not to reveal that to Ma in order to protect our father.
What’s even more remarkable is that, in their later years, it was my father who insisted that he and my mother keep going every weekend to see both sets of parents. Mom would have been fine with skipping a visit to her parents every so often, but Dad insisted. And when Ma Godfrey was elderly and sick, Dad was the one who looked after her, keeping her books, making sure she had everything she needed in the house, and checking in on her regularly. My grandmother had plenty of money to support herself, because Pa had owned the pharmacy. But my father provided the kind of attentive, familial care that money can’t buy—and that a lesser man might have withheld.
It was his own type of small rebellion, showing up for someone who could never have asked for help. Giving kindness to someone who hated you. Putting aside your hurt feelings or bitterness at rejection because the woman you love most in the world cared about this person. That was what family meant to him.
In Adam Bede, Mary Ann Evans, who wrote under the pen name George Eliot, wrote a passage that perfectly encapsulated the love my parents had, the love I desperately wanted for myself:
What greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel that they are joined for life—to strengthen each other in all labour, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?
Through disapproval and conflicts, my parents had carved out a small piece of the world just for themselves. I can still feel their joy if I concentrate: the sounds of soft laughter in the front seat of the car while their daughters slept in back, my father wrapping his arms around my mom as she cooked, two dinner seats pulled up next to each other at the table to capture every single moment of closeness they could find. Their love, their loyalty, their unflinching devotion to each other—that was the small request I made to the universe: Give me a love like theirs. Give me a family of my own.
Still wearing my button-down shirt, pleated skirt, and tights from school, I stomped up the hill from my house and turned onto the road where a kid named Drew lived. I was a thirteen-year-old on a mission, though I wasn’t quite sure exactly what that mission was. Not knowing who might be home, I began banging on Drew’s storm door. He was startled when he saw me behind the glass but moved toward the door with all the cockiness of the eleven-year-old neighborhood bully that he was. He opened it, and, without thinking, I pulled back and punched him in the face. “Don’t you ever throw worms at my sister again!” I shouted, and then I turned and ran home.
Bonny was just nine years old then. She was a quiet child, though she would grow into a bubbly, affable teenager, the head cheerleader in high school, and a member of our homecoming court. And while she was strong-willed with her family, a trait she shared with me, she was too shy to stand up for herself with the neighborhood kids. This boy Drew tormented her with worms so much that she had become terrified of them. She hates them to this day.
Holding my sore hand, I raced back down the hill as fast as I could and burst into the house, my heart thumping. Bonny was in the dining room with my father, who’d just gotten home from work. “Daddy!” I said. “I just punched a kid for throwing worms at Bonny!”
In 1964, not every father would be thrilled that his thirteen-year-old—his daughter, no less—had gotten into a fistfight, but my father beamed with pride. “Good for you, Jilly-bean!” he said. “That’s the way to look out for your sister.”
* * *
It’s easy to idealize the past, especially when you come from a close-knit family like mine in the Philadelphia suburbs of the 1950s—the perfect cocoon for childhood. We caught fireflies on hot summer nights. We climbed trees too high and wandered through the woods unsupervised. There were no parenting books—at least none that would have made their way into the Jacobses’ home—and, for better or worse, my mom and dad simply followed their instincts.
Child psychologists will tell you that children who feel safe—children who know they are loved and valued—tend to test boundaries more often. Compliance, it’s sometimes thought, may be more a sign of resignation to a situation children feel is stacked against them rather than a sign of good behavior. Rebellion against adolescent gatekeepers, on the other hand—parents and teachers, seemingly arbitrary rules, expectations heaped upon them—can help kids figure out what they believe and who they are.
As the oldest of five girls, I was the first one to push the boundaries my parents set. I had a curfew of midnight on the weekends, which I would regularly break. And just as regularly, my parents would wait up, catch me coming in late, and ground me. Relegated to my room, I’d send notes back and forth with my friend who lived next door; our houses were close enough that we had set up a pulley system between our bedroom windows. She and I would send silly messages to each other, attached with clothespins to a string, and that at least helped pass the time.
When I was really restless for adventure, though, I’d sneak out late at night after my parents were asleep.
From June to August, the Upper Moreland Swim Club was the place to be for many of my friends. It was a refuge from the relentless summer sun for anyone who could afford the membership. That did not include my family or my friend Susan’s. We could occasionally be invited as guests, but that only served to remind us that we were otherwise unwelcome in suburban teen paradise, so Susan and I decided we’d just break in.
On prearranged nights, long after midnight had come and gone, I would tiptoe down the steps and out of the house and walk a half mile to Susan’s. She’d come out to meet me, and we’d walk another mile and a half to the swim club. With no streetlights, it was pitch-black, and we walked down pavement still warm from the day’s heat. We hid at the sight of cars, lest some Good Samaritan (or kidnapper) felt the need to pick up two stray thirteen-year-olds. To get to the pool, we had to run across the multilaned Pennsylvania Turnpike, dodging cars going sixty miles an hour. Even now, I can’t believe we did this—two young girls, out alone at 3:00 a.m., darting across multiple lanes of highway traffic. Once we got to the club, we had our final obstacle: jumping the towering chain-link fence. But after that, the pool was all our own. For one joyous, splash-filled hour, no one could tell us what we couldn’t do. Then we’d climb back over the fence and walk the dark trail home. My parents slept so heavily, they never found out—which is good, because I would have been grounded forever.
* * *
My father infuriated me when I was a teenager. He was the strict parent, the disciplinarian with the unenviable task of trying to keep five daughters in line. Whenever Mom got mad enough to yell at us, it was only a few seconds before we’d all end up laughing. But when Dad got mad, the yelling was real. He and I clashed most of all, not only because I was the oldest but also because he and I were so much alike: strong-willed, sometimes judgmental. We had high expectations for the people we loved, but most of all, we had high expectations for ourselves.
I often say that our fathers are our first heroes, and mine was no different. I wanted him to approve of me, and I worked hard to impress him. When I said I planned to go to college, he said, “Which one?” When I told him I wanted to go to graduate school: “What took you so long?” There were times when it felt like he expected too much of me. But when I ran my first marathon at age forty-seven, my father was the first person I called. It felt wonderful to make him proud. He didn’t lavish us with praise, but when he said, “Good job,” we knew we’d earned it.
My father and I loved each other, but we still quarreled regularly, especially during my teenage years. When he was really upset, he would call me a “cold fish.” It makes me smile now, but back then I didn’t find it so funny, so I found my ways to get back at him.
When my mother was pregnant with the twins, she paid me a quarter to do the ironing so she wouldn’t have to stay on her feet. I’d dutifully iron all the clothes, and when I got to my father’s undershorts, I’d reach for the can of spray starch, knowing he’d end up with a rash in unmentionable places. That was a satisfying revenge for a while, until my mother caught me and put an end to it.
I started smoking when I was about fifteen, and sometimes I’d do it up in my bedroom, sitting near the window and blowing the smoke outside. Both my parents smoked in the house, so I wasn’t worried that they’d notice the smell. I hid my cigarettes and ashtray underneath my bed, where I also stashed my “dirty” novels. It was the perfect hiding place … until my father came into my room looking for something one afternoon.
I watched in horror as he crouched down to peer under the bed, then reached under and pulled out the ashtray. He stood up, looked at me, and quietly asked, “Were you smoking?”
“Yes,” I said. He was too calm; I knew this was not going to end well.
“Come with me to the back porch,” he said, and then he turned and walked out of the room.
I followed Dad to the porch and sat down at the picnic table, dreading whatever was to come. “I don’t want you smoking,” he told me. “It’s a terrible habit.” Then he handed me three cigars. “You’re going to smoke these, and I want you to inhale them.” I just looked at him. “Go ahead,” he said, and I put the first cigar in my mouth.
On the first inhalation, I started coughing, my lungs rebelling against the thick, sickly sweet smoke. My father stood over me, watching with his arms crossed, and when I finally managed to catch my breath, he said, “Go on.” I inhaled again, and once again my chest heaved with racking coughs. By the time I finished that first cigar, my lungs were on fire, my throat was raw, and I felt like I was going to be sick. And there were still two more to go.
Somehow, I managed to smoke all three of those cigars. But the instant I was finished, I ran upstairs to the bathroom and threw up—and not just once. I was so sick and miserable that my father started to feel bad. He came up, sheepishly knocked on the door, and said, “Come downstairs, Jill.” When I didn’t answer, he tried again. “Come on—we’re ordering hoagies.”
Hoagies! As if I were in any state to eat. As if I would give him the satisfaction of a conciliatory meal. Even if I had been able to eat a hoagie, I wouldn’t have—just to spite him. Later that evening, as I slowly recovered and became increasingly hungry, I plotted sneaking food from the kitchen without my father noticing. But you couldn’t have paid me to eat one of those hoagies. I went to bed with a stomach full of nothing but righteous indignation.
I also didn’t stop smoking. It wasn’t that I particularly liked doing it so much as I didn’t want to be forced to do, or not do, anything. In my hardheaded rebelliousness, I refused to be moved by my parents’ logic or reason. And once they realized I wasn’t going to stop, my father gave in. “Okay,” he conceded. “You can smoke, but only in the house.” They didn’t want fifteen-year-old me out on a street corner, a cigarette hanging out of my mouth. So we compromised. I kept smoking at home, quitting only after I got to college and realized I didn’t have anything to prove by doing it.
* * *
Few people who knew me as that rebellious kid guessed that I would grow up to marry someone as steady as Joe. The political world requires a certain type of personality, and it’s not one that has ever come naturally to me. Joe has always approached it with grace and dignity. He has built a reputation among political allies and foes alike as someone who keeps his word, who listens, and who can put politics aside to make progress. He’s always been a statesman in the truest sense of the word.
This is one of his most admirable traits, but to be honest, his approach drives me a little crazy at times. We’ll run into one of his colleagues, and Joe will be genuinely friendly and engage in conversation. As we’re walking away, I’ll say, “Joe! What are you thinking? Don’t you remember the terrible thing that guy said about you last year?”
“No,” he’ll reply. “I forgot.”
Joe has an incredible capacity to forgive, and he’s incapable of holding a grudge. But that means that I end up being the holder of the grudges. I’m the one who wants to stomp up the hill to confront the mean kid. I remember every slight committed against the people I love. I can forgive, sure—but I don’t believe in rewarding bad behavior.
In fact, I never did grow out of the stubborn determination I developed as a girl. I still hate being told I can’t do something, though I’ve learned over the years how to stand up for myself rather than lash out in anger.
In the 1970s, being a senator’s wife came with a lot of societal expectations. I was expected to stay home with the kids full-time and devote myself to Joe’s career. I did stay home for a while, and I always supported Joe. But I knew from day one that I wouldn’t be able to just live his life, so I went back to work. I pursued my education at night. It took me fifteen years, but I eventually completed two master’s degrees—one as an education reading specialist and one in English—and then a doctorate in educational leadership. Joe used to joke that I did it because I was tired of our mail being addressed to “Senator and Mrs. Biden.” And it’s true, I did hate being called Mrs. Biden—that’s Joe’s mom’s name, not mine.
Throughout my career, Joe has supported me every step of the way. I realized early on that teaching was more than a job for me. It goes much deeper than that; being a teacher is not what I do but who I am. I stepped away for a little while to be a full-time mom, but once I was comfortable that the kids felt safe and secure, I went back. I just couldn’t stay away for too long, so when I told Joe I was going to pursue a full-time position teaching at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) after the 2008 election, he said, “Of course you should.”
I’ve been told this was a historic first—that I was the only Second Lady to hold a full-time job while in the White House. Some saw it as a sign that I was a modern woman, while others said I didn’t take the role of Second Lady seriously enough. But I never intended to make a statement. I just wanted to do the thing I love best.
So for eight years, counter to the advice of several senior advisors, I lived a double life: on Mondays, I’d go into the Eisenhower Executive Office Building of the White House, to an office with gleaming floors and marble columns, a stately fireplace, and floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto the grassy expanse of the National Mall. The next day, I’d go eight miles down the road to that small cubicle on the NOVA campus in Alexandria, Virginia. I’d alternate between worlds throughout the week.
There were times when it did seem ill-advised—nights when I had to wedge myself into the tiny nook beneath the Seal of the Vice President of the United States in the forward cabin of Air Force Two so that I could grade papers as Joe and I flew home from some out-of-state event. But I relished the tension of my life, caught between State receptions and midterm exams. Having dinner with the most powerful people on earth, holding study sessions with single moms just hoping to find their way to better jobs, scrambling into a cocktail dress and heels in the ladies’ room at NOVA to make it on time to a White House reception.
I was grateful to be Second Lady. It was an incredible honor. But the role I have always felt most at home in is being “Dr. B.”—working with first-generation college students, teaching them to write essays that would help them get into four-year colleges, helping military veterans see how the skills they learned in combat can be applied in civilian life. That was a deeper part of myself that couldn’t be ignored. There was balance in the chaos that felt right. And I’m glad I was stubborn as a cold fish to make space for both.
* * *
While I butted heads with my father’s disciplinarian parenting, my mother was always the person who made me feel safe to be who I was. She was the nurturer—not necessarily in a physical way, as she wasn’t much for cuddling and hugging. But she was there for us in other ways, always ready to listen to our problems and fears. Mom was the least judgmental person I’ve ever known—a trait I wish I had more of. She understood that people had weaknesses, and her first instinct was always to help rather than criticize. In this, she was the complete opposite of her own mother; Ma Godfrey judged everyone and everything—just look at how she treated my dad. In retrospect, this was probably exactly why my mom swung so far in the other direction.
Since Mom was so trustworthy, my sisters and I always felt like we could tell her anything, and we did. Mom knew when I had my first boyfriend, she knew when other kids in the class started smoking marijuana (or grass, as we all called it back then), she knew when one of the girls at school got pregnant. There was nothing I was afraid to share.
* * *
Years later, there is no sound I miss as much as my mother’s voice on the phone. Not what she said, but simply the notes, the tones, the rhythm of her sighs. Hers was the one call that could always calm me down; in my saddest, most frustrating times, just hearing her voice would get me through it. More than anything, I wish I had recorded her voice, but that’s the kind of regret you never foresee. It’s hard to know how badly you’ll need something that seems small until it’s gone.
But her love for all of us girls, and my father’s love, too—in spite of our quarrels, or perhaps because of them—stays with me. It made me unafraid to push as hard as I needed to, to take chances and pick myself up when I fell flat on my face.
Winnie-the-Pooh author A. A. Milne once wrote, “One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries.” From my adolescence to today, I have found that the disorderliness inside me has an important role to play—and that the discoveries I make as a result are almost always unknown pieces of myself. I’m so grateful my parents gave me the confidence and support to explore when I was growing up. The lessons I learned through that messy process, both good and bad, guided me as I plunged headfirst into the next uncertain and chaotic phase of my life.
Copyright © 2019 by Jill Biden.
“Don’t Hesitate,” from Swan by Mary Oliver, published by Beacon Press, Boston. Copyright © 2010 by Mary Oliver, used herewith by permission of the Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency, Inc.