Category Archives: memoir

My heart is a potato

A belligerent refusal to stand down, even when others’ well-being was at stake. She couldn’t be wrong. Everyone else was wrong —wrong! — including the experts.

Sound like my sister?

Yes, yes it does, but I’m describing Typhoid Mary aka Mary Mallon. People died because Mary Mallon couldn’t be wrong. Such a tale of misdeeds, makes me think belligerent homicide should be a thing.

I’ll be goddamned, I thought reading about her for the first time years back. We must be related.

I might be thinking about family — about our particular pathologies, the Irish quirks of mind — because of this potato. I’m not kidding.

My heart is a potato

It’s a little silly, maybe even hilarious — my heart is a potato — but it also strikes me as some of the truest words I’ve ever written.

Potato leek soup and Irish soda bread on a plate that was my mother’s

As I fling myself about in search of a new writing topic, it’s clear that this time I’d like to draw from my own history.

I know so little. I said to my cousin Ginny recently that everything I know about the Mallons could fit into two paragraphs. I’ve heard a bit more about my mother’s side, but because of one particularly unreliable aunt (talk about personality disorders!), I don’t know how much is even true.

Not that it matters for writing fiction.

My mother, on the right, was the middle of three girls.

Snippets of memory

For the first time since Covid arrived, we took the dog to Wellesley campus for a walk. It was a little cooler than expected but beautiful and because of spring break, emptier than usual.

Driving home we passed the low-slung brick building where I went for prenatal care back in the 90’s. I couldn’t remember the name of my midwife, even though she delivered both boys. Michelle, maybe. Diane?

But K and I had a good laugh concerning something I did remember from C’s birth.

First, I have to say that the nurses attending both boys’ births were absolute angels. They could not have been more competent or more kind.

Second, I had opted not to rely on pain medication and managed (just barely) to stick to that, so just about every ounce of consciousness was taken up with the business of riding each contraction. Further, because of how my labor didn’t really speed up until the very end, after a dozen hours of labor, I was falling asleep in between contractions. What I’m trying to tell you is that I was a little out of it.

So when K told me that one of the nurses had been by, without thinking I responded, “Was it the hairlip or the hunchback?”

It sounds like a dream but it was not. I’m not proud of my blurt and hope I can be forgiven for lacking even my usual minimal filters because of the intensity of the birth experience.

But can you imagine? One four-and-half-foot tall nurse dramatically bent over, the other with a deformed upper lip. And again: both angels.

Age, portraits, and Covid

AGE

It’s official: I am a GOMER. Look at me with over-the-glasses sunglasses and Medicare card!

(GOMER is an acronym that stands for Get Out of My Emergency Room. Emergency room physicians well know that patients of a certain age can come into the ER with a minor complaint, only to have testing reveal major health issues. Hence, the quaint moniker.)

I start dinner prep at around 4:15. I groan getting up off the couch. I often can’t remember why I went down to the basement: to fetch something from the downstairs fridge, from the dryer, from the pile of used Amazon envelopes?

PORTRAITS AND COVID

Two nights ago my phone spit up a series of photos from early 2020. What a stunning reminder of how shocked and frightened we all were at the beginning of the pandemic. I’ll share a few. You’ll see the results of my mask-making and you’ll see expressions both haunted and grim.

April 2020

Because COVID has wrecked our sense of continuity, this review of images helps to ground me. So does the following narrative.

Two years ago, my husband had just returned from China. Mid-February we both came down with what we thought was the flu, or was it Covid? We couldn’t get tested because they said it was too long since exposure, it being a month after he returned. This, even though peers in his office had returned more recently. A dozen engineers were sick as I tried unsuccessfully to round up a test.

I might’ve sprung the $200 for an antigen test but they were too unreliable to make it seem worthwhile. I rinsed groceries with a dilute bleach solution and left mail in the garage for four days before bringing it in the house. The postman to whom we open the door because he’s a nice guy and he loves Finn and Finn loves him became a threat I silently referred to as my “sole vector of disease.” He reported that he’d never smelled so much Lysol in his entire life. I watched the red dots on the Johns Hopkins COVID chart guessing correctly that we were right behind Italy. We cancelled first a trip to Florence and then the compensatory trip to Quebec.

I’m curious what others remember in those early weeks. How long ago does it seem? How strange, still?

We approach 1,000,000 now
Hand sanitizer shelf

Fade Emphasize Reorient

This photo of my father, sister, and me on the back porch at my grandmother’s served as a writing prompt. It goes on some but if you want the gist, just read the first two paragraphs. Some of the pix below are double exposures created in response to this week’s Paris Collage Collective’s challenge. Those filter-plays made a statement about memory — how in one moment one detail comes forward and another fades and in another moment, some other emphasis occurs, some other element disappears.

*. *. *.

The thin woman on the porch lounger I don’t recognize, but she is my mother. Her eyes are closed, head canted away from the chair across the porch where my grandmother — her mother-in-law — sits. Is it respite Mom seeks? A moment of quiet in the hubbub of family — nieces, nephews, sisters and brothers-in-law — all crammed tight in the borough of Queens, mere blocks separating their cluttered lives?

Meanwhile, on the steps my father puts one paternal arm around my sister, who is seated on his lap, and uses the other to pull a reluctant four-year-old me into his side. He looks intent. Perhaps he exerts a little force. The sun is in his eyes. Does my mother sleep or merely pretend? I’m certain that I am whining, while my sister stares with a stoic maturity at the camera lens, her left arm hanging at her side, a casual refusal to hold the fatherly hand that keeps her on his lap.

His hand looks so big.

My sister and I wear matching red plaid dresses with white aprons. I’m certain my mother sewed them. Earlier that day, she must’ve helped tug on our matching white ankle socks and buckle our patent leather Mary Janes.

His hand so big, our Mary Janes so small. A repeating rhythm of white — socks and apron bibs. His face intent, mine in high whine, my sister stoic.

I imagine my grandmother is talking to my mother and my mother’s closed eyes and head canted away constitute a pointed refusal to engage. It’s not just the weariness, in other words, of raising children. There is a third out of the frame, by the way — my brother.

Legend has it my mother was hysterical and temperamental but to hear her tell it, the family in Queens was cruel and excluded her. Who wouldn’t turn away? Who wouldn’t throw a dish or two at some later date, especially if after twelve years or so she continued to feel marginalized, unheard?

I can speak to my mother’s bouts of hysteria but I can also say with confidence that she was a good judge of character. So who knows? I suspect alcohol had a lot to do with any undercurrents and skewed allegiances.

My whining face shows up again and again in the scant archive of my girlhood. Usually with my father behind the lens, perhaps in service of a Christmas photo. Early on I think: what a sour puss! Later: what was it about my father’s gaze that so discomforted me?

Who knows with what harsh insistence he demanded we three sit still? My squirming surely had something to do with the outfit as well — the built-in tulle slip, itchy in the extreme, and the too-tight collar, one year wrapped in a faux mink.

We were special alright. The matching expertly-made outfits a kind of testimony.

When my cousin sends batch after batch of recently converted slides, the paucity in my own family record is once again brought to mind.

The gaps in the record. The whining.

On a porch in Woodhaven, Queens, I am sipping Coke out of a glass bottle. Unbeknownst to the adults, ADD not even being an idea back then never mind a diagnosis, the caffeine probably calmed me, afforded some extra boost with which to deal with the reluctant pose, the itchy dress, the summer sweat in my father’s armpit, my mother’s non-discriminating refusal to engage.

In many pictures I can’t tell if the tow-headed girl is my sister or me.

In one batch, there are gleeful baby shots. Clearly me but a version I am unacquainted with. There I am clothed only in a diaper — smiling, mouth open in laughter, a slight blur because I’m leaning into a joyful roll. These photos are doubly provocative. One — as previously mentioned, the absence of such photos in my family photo boxes. And two, the near certainty that someone NOT MY FATHER looked through the lens, therefore capturing a child mid-rolic, giggling with a sparkle missing in every single Christmas photo.

I say “every single Christmas photo” like it was an annual thing when it may have only happened twice. The tradition unsustainable, for whatever reason.

We came to the porch in Queens from Schenectady, Pittsfield, or Rome, Georgia. Outsiders. Tow-headed from southern sun — okay Georgia, then. Where my brother was born. Dressed like little dolls, fed Coke, called to sit for a picture. My father sports a crew cut — the engineer on a corporate ladder, unlike the family he left behind — cops, homemakers, secretaries, and linemen. He pulls me close. I don’t like it. My mother’s head turned away, eyes closed.

If I saw girls dressed like this today I’d cringe and wonder what nightmarish home schooling they were made to endure, what fundamentalist dogma corrupted their souls. But back then it was standard fare. Siblings dressed as twins. A mother who sews.

And then there’s the father trying to exert control, imposing mild threats perhaps, one daughter wriggling in complaint, the other consigned to his big hand on her thigh, her own hand hanging down, passive and apart.

Dove serenade

Bougainvillea blossoms litter the yard like the tears of a passing angel. The pool, mid-repair, gapes like a wound. Another one.

Birdsongs I don’t recognize stitch at the margins of sky. I’ve learned that at least some of the songs are produced by a pair of mockingbirds. Irritating, mischievous creatures. My brother despises them and wishes he had a BB gun.

Snapshot: two nights ago, Billy fell asleep during the Lakers game but any attempt to change channels was met with an indignant snort.

Dogs bark from across the canyon.

My back hurts the usual amount. Took Tylenol yesterday. It helped. But even with my hands crabbed with arthritis and my achy sore spine, around here it’s hard not to feel like a locomotive fueled by blessings.

Look at me pop up to get a blanket for brother, lean over using both arms to spread on lap and legs. There I am standing and chopping onions for dinner after kneeling and clipping the rosemary bush. I get to take my own damn shower.

What makes you feel gratitude this Memorial Day weekend? This is a Peet’s coffee household. Oh, yes!

The generosity of others is on full display. I might’ve mentioned that I like chocolate covered almonds. Within three days, the basket on the kitchen counter over-spilled with bags of the confection.

A misty smog smudges the sky again this morning. It has generally cleared later in the day, but sitting under its pewter gloss now, it’s hard to believe the sun will shine. Isn’t that a comment about something?

Silhouetted against the grey, perched on a dead branch: a mourning dove. She regales me with her call. When she flies off, her wings creak.