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 timeyears 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.
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.
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.
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.
The prompt for this writing was to imagine someone in shadow.
Aspire as in a form of breath. The earring catches on the collar. The heart flutters fast for no reason. Will the silk rug remain in place, the one that was my mother’s? Will the box of old photos reveal any secrets, or even anything new?
There’s my sister on my father’s shoulders, chewing a finger in nervous gesture in the summer sun. He grips her ankles and wears the relaxed face of a young man in his prime. Out for a picnic. Lulu Brook. On the other side of the state park’s carved sign stands my mother, shoulder canted backward as if to put my face front and center. I am say, five months old. There is a lace bonnet on my head. She wears the face of a young fertile woman in her prime, bringing babies into the world on time, every two years, one more to come.
I lived in the Berkshires for many, many years and then, not far from there in the Connecticut River Valley for a few more. But, I never went to Lulu Brook. It’s somewhere in the Southern Berkshires near the Connecticut border, I think. See? I don’t even know. By the time I lived in Western Mass., ages ten to twenty-one with time outs for school and travel and in three different abodes, there were no family outings to state parks. Suburbia and its demands. Dual careers and those demands. Three kids turning into angry or secretive adolescents and those demands.
And eventually, heart failure. His. The angina was so bad one night that he fell face forward into his dinner plate at Lenny’s Restaurant on Route 20 in New Lebanon, New York. If you lived far enough west in Massachusetts, you crossed the New York state line like others drove a little extra to get to the bigger mall. Somewhat revived on the stretcher rolling out the door, my father quipped, “Don’t order the scallops!” He was funny like that. But no sense of humor would keep his arteries from filling with plaque and seizing. Even surgery only granted him three years more.
But on the summer day of the photo, the year of my birth, when he was twenty-eight and my mother was twenty-four, what could they know of what lay ahead?
One generation earlier, hope skewed much more toward survival, my mother’s father arriving to Ellis Island in his twenties, soon to work the docks in Brooklyn and not long after that, to marry my grandmother, Alice, whose family still lived in County Cork. His name was Albert. They called each other “Al.” It wasn’t until my mother’s younger sister was in grade school and visiting a friend’s house that she realized that not all parents called each other “Al.”
My great-grandmother also came here but returned to Ireland for a while after the death of her young daughter, Mary. Perhaps she wanted the solace of her own mother or maybe she needed the quiet rural landscape of her ancestors instead of the grimy racket of Brooklyn. She was already pregnant with another daughter, who she would also name Mary. I think about the second Mary, conceived before the first Mary’s burial, being born into a clutch of intense grief, expected to bear the name of a little girl already gone into the light.
You wonder how a mother could do that to a child, I don’t care if it was common. Rather than placing honor on new life, it has the stink of a curse. “See New Mary! How much longer will she live than Dead Mary?” All Marys will eventually be Dead Marys, but still. The older sister wasn’t yet dead when the cells of Second Mary began their furious division.
Speaking of furious cell division, my mother might have been pregnant with me in this photo. If not, then it is mere weeks off. Is she smoking? Even with two pairs of eyeglasses on, I can’t quite tell, but probably. It’s the right gesture. It’s the correct hand. It’s the reason I was born teeny and spent the first nine days of my life in an incubator.
One of the things you can do when you’ve been awake since one and puttering about since three, is watch the sunrise.
Earlier: I bathed in moonlight. It’s a waning gibbous moon, but very bright. There were shadows.
In a show of solidarity, Finn followed me out and after sitting close and nudging my hand for scratches, curled up in my armpit. That’s the kind of moment dogs give you over and over, willingly and without reserve.
I was lying on the grass on my hard plastic bolster. It may or may not do anything corrective for my spine, that bolster, but every time I stretch my length on it, I groan with pleasure.
Back release under the moonlight. That’s about as radical as it gets these days!
Usually when I don’t sleep, I don’t have to be concerned about accomplishing much the following day. Today company is coming for a patio dinner.
I worry about these encounters, a little. I keep reading about people who “did everything right” and found themselves sick with Covid19 anyway. One such tale centered around an outdoor dinner, no other known possible exposure.
On the other hand, a psychologist friend seeded the idea this week that a kind of de-socialization is taking place. We’re forgetting how to interact with one another. So it seems important to do this. To visit and connect.
Earlier (but after moonlight): finished a memoir by Abigail Thomas. I’d already read the one where she talks about how her husband was mowed down on a NYC street and left with a traumatic brain injury. A Three Dog Life. Well worth the read.
What Comes Next and How to Like It features really great stuff about aging, friendship, relationships with kids and grandkids. Memory. Illness. She’s a dog person big time, so there’s that, too.
I recommended this book to a friend who’s writing a memoir in part because of how short and sweet many of Thomas’s chapters are — almost like diary entries, often no more than two paragraphs long. Somehow, it makes the business of constructing a memoir seem more doable.
Have to share with you a great new term picked up on Twitter: DOOM SCROLLING.*
No definition required, right?
I did that before I got out of bed. In case you’re inclined to suggest that I not expose myself to toxic terrifying national news while lying awake in the middle of the night — let me just say, I wasn’t gonna sleep anyway.
Last night was one of those nights when we might’ve eaten out were it not for the pandemic. I was tired and had no ideas on deck and by the time I got around to fixing dinner, it was too late to roast the chicken waiting in the cellar fridge.
Et voila! Cooked up a batch of toothsome purple rice and served it up with sautéed shallots, yellow peppers, and chicken sausage. Satisfying! Then, even better, I had two servings of rice left for lunch. Tired celery? Throw it in. Red onion? Yes, please.
After a thorough search, I found NINE more notebooks from the relevant time period (A Tale of Two Sisters, 2009 – 2019). I am so appreciative of the many ideas posted in the comments yesterday.
Things I might not have thought of. Beautiful role modeling. Support offered before asked for. I have such a gracious, smart, and warm circle of friends here!
The notebook pile I’m referring to is to the left of the desk.
Today’s class was really good as usual. Because I had just finished Alice Hoffman’s WWII novel, “The World That We Knew,” (which features a golem as a prominent character), I offered the golem as a prompt.
If you could have a creature made out of mud and temporarily animated to serve you, how would it protect you? How would it offer solace?
Mine ended up being a Hosta Spirit, offering resilience and adaptability. It directly addressed how to approach writing about my sister.
It’s a thread-the-needle situation: how to revisit awful, awful scenes without catapulting myself back into that mess? I don’t think it’s impossible, but I need to have some strategies.
The writing that’s already come about her kind of had a life of its own, arriving on the page as if waiting to be written. I really trust that.