Wednesday, February 28, 2007


There is a commanding voice inside of me that tells me not to write anything in which I am weak, or a victim, or helpless.

I hear Jeffrey’s scornful voice. See his sneer.

I hear my mother saying Don’t be a baby.

I see imaginary people turn away in disgust and I want to turn away with them. I want to run long and hard in the opposite direction of these stories that seem my truest stories just because they are at the bottom of the barrel.

This is sort of a disclaimer, I guess. But also a story of its own.

I think this is what makes writing hard for me.

It is very hard to get as soft and willing and pliable as the truth demands.

I see the note I wrote to myself a few days ago. I’d forgotten about it. It’s just two or three short sentences, scribbled in the heat of the moment to remember the feeling I wanted some day to write about. It’s an ugly little note, the kind of thing you’d find in someone’s diary, not the kind of thing that is supposed to be seen by anyone else. It’s something you’re supposed to hide. I knew that when I wrote it, but it seemed crucial not to forget.

Still, I’d much rather not tell this story again. But maybe I can tell it more fully than I have before, maybe I can be on my own side more fully than I have before. That's what I'm aiming for.

I’m in my father’s room in the daytime. I know it’s a Saturday morning because (a) my father is home and (b) he has Saturday morning energy to get things done. On this Saturday it’s the blackheads that he says are in my ears. He noticed them this morning in the kitchen. I’ve never heard of blackheads. I don’t know what they are. He says they are ugly and have to come out. He will take care of it. I should come to his room. My mother is a shadowy figure in the kitchen, complicit, not looking closely but agreeing.

My father tells me to sit on his bed. It has a dark green silky cover. There are windows that look out over a small field, but I can’t see the field from where I sit, only the sky.

My father leans over me, tells me to tilt my head to the side. His fingers go inside my left ear and his fingernails begin to squeeze a tiny piece of my skin. It’s like he’s using pincers. I yell. “Dad, it hurts!” I try to jerk my head away. “Now, now, now,” he says in a distant voice as if he were talking to someone who isn’t there, “Don’t pull away. I can’t do it if you pull away.”

Out of the corner of my eye I can see his eyes focused on the inside of my ear. It feels like he has a tiny knife in there. I yell again, but he insists. He does not let up. He's holding a towel in one hand, bending over me, and my mother is somewhere behind him like a nurse in the operating room.

This is my father, the man who leaves the house on Monday mornings to go to the office, fresh from his bath, in a good suit, radiating energy, leaving us behind. Always confident in his opinions, confident that he is better than almost everyone he meets.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


Last week I carried out the futon and frame that my mother gave me when I left the ashram years ago to move into a writer’s cottage in the woods – the futon that she had slept on for about ten years, the futon that wasn’t comfortable as a couch and which, because it was so low to the ground, had become Tamar-the-black-dog’s perch in my office, not mine. I’d been thinking about getting rid of it for a long time and hadn’t been able to. My mother’s bed? A gift from her? Not easy to leave on the street with a duct-taped sign on it saying FREE FUTON. Which is what I did.

This week she sent a $20 bill folded into a Valentine. She always sends one, one that’s cute and funny, with no signature, just question marks. I remembered the year I was just back from having disappeared into Europe for four years – I was back and behaving, working as a strait-jacketed legal secretary on Park Avenue, and of course I sent her a Valentine. It was witty and made her laugh. So much nicer for her than not knowing where I was.

I thought I owed her a lot because I’d been gone all those years without being in touch. Of course, all those years I’d been living practically with a gun to my head, captive to a vicious guru-type who slapped me around, convinced me I was mentally disabled and so ugly and useless that nature would never let me reproduce. But when I managed to run away from that and return to the States, all I was was worried that I’d been mean to my mother.

I did not thank her this year for the Valentine or the $20 bill inside. I always make sure to thank her for what she gives me. This time I called to make sure she was okay after the snowstorm though I knew she was. There was another gun to my head telling me to call anyway. I kept the conversation brutally short. I didn’t mention her card or the money. I felt it hanging heavy in the air between us, especially when she described the heart-shaped cookies the neighbor had given her, but I said nothing.

I think I am carrying a great deal that I don’t need to. I am carrying my mother’s painful childhood, and my father’s -- childhoods that they will never admit were horrible. Instead, all that pain slides down into my lap and I too must keep quiet about it.

I’ve been a good soldier. I can keep quiet about anything.

I can see that the new land ahead – if I want to keep striking out for new land and it seems I always do – will mean doing things differently. Maybe even hurting other people’s feelings. Or making them furious. Things I have always avoided at any cost.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


I realize that in my mind when I think back I am in the dining room – or sort of suspended above the dining room in the far corner so that I can see through the swinging door into the kitchen and through the other door into the living room. I look down and through these rooms as if they were a stage set, the walls reaching only ¾ of the way up, the ceilings not there.

The Armonk house. Sold when my father went bankrupt. I see my mother in the kitchen like a shadow, my father in the living room. There is a certain silence that hangs over the scene. And empty space.

I am up in the attic, a room where the ceiling comes to a point. It slants steeply on both sides so you can only stand up straight walking down the middle of the room. I’ve painted the white cupboard doors a bright yellow.

I like it up here. I have this whole top floor to myself. I wish I knew people who would come over and sprawl on the old couch cushions I have on the floor. I wish I had a lot of records that I could play for them. I’d know all this music and I’d turn them on to all sorts of things they hadn’t heard before – obscure John Prine, Dylan, Leonard Cohen – but I don’t have all those records. Records cost too much. And when these people came we’d get high and they’d ask me about the curved, twisted piece of driftwood I have standing on top of one of the speakers that sit on the floor on either side of the turntable/radio that is also on the floor and I’d say casually as if it was nothing that I brought it back from British Columbia when I hitchhiked there and back last summer when I was sixteen. It sounds so good to be able to say that, about hitchhiking. It implies so much that isn’t actually true. The hitchhiking part is true, but not the implications. Those never happened, but no one needs to know that. They can assume I’ve done the drugs and had the sex.

When a boy calls and says he wants to take me to the movies I wait in the living room by myself with my nylon-stringed guitar. I want him to find me like this, the guitar tossed casually on the couch though I can’t play very much.

It feels good to carry it though. I like to carry it in its black case down my driveway in the afternoon after a stifling day at school where I didn’t speak to anyone, down the road that’s mostly woods with a few houses here and there hidden in the background. It’s not a road where you see people, but now and then a car goes by. I like it when one does. I want people to see me – a girl with long hair and patches on her jeans carrying a guitar. I’d love a boy to see me like this. I’d like him to stop.

I carry my guitar to Edgar Lane which is close by, a dirt road and I walk into the shady shadows of Edgar Lane to where there are two old stone pillars marking where someone’s driveway used to begin. The driveway is all grown over. It was never paved. It dates from a time before there was paving. It’s a very long driveway – it goes for a couple of miles and the house it once led to has long since disappeared.

I sit by the pillars on Edgar Lane and open up my guitar case and I play Blowin’ in the Wind. It’s the perfect song and only has three chords, all easy ones. Now is the perfect moment for someone to find me. They will see a pretty girl playing a guitar in the woods. They will love me. They will want me.

I get restless. I don’t know too many songs. No one drives by. Or maybe one car. There are fewer cars here even than on the main road, but that’s partly why it would be the perfect place to be found. I pack up the guitar, walk back, back up the driveway, back up the two flights of stairs. My mother is in the kitchen making dinner. Making supper, that’s what we call it. Dinner is too fancy a word. Each younger sister is in her room on the second floor, their doors closed.

My mother calls up the stairs when she wants us to come down. By then I’ve done my homework.

We eat in the kitchen, me at the head of the small table that’s pushed up against the wall, under the window, my mother on the side closest to the stove, my two sisters side-by-side. My father comes home later from the city. He’ll eat by himself in the same chair I’m eating in now.

Sometimes I am quiet during dinner, not saying anything. Sometimes I am angry quiet, sometimes just empty quiet. Sometimes I say things that make my sisters laugh or my mother. I can entertain them while in my mind I am racing away. I want to go places my mother has never heard of. I know – I am certain – there are worlds and worlds she knows nothing about. I hate it when she says I can’t do something – like the way she told me I can’t wear my best most patched jeans to the city. I hate her tiny world. She doesn’t know anything about what’s in the songs I listen to. She gets mean sometimes. She says no – she shouts no – and she doesn’t give a reason. She says she doesn’t have to give a reason.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


I’m in a small room at the end of the hall with the door closed so no one can see me. For all they know I am busy in here. This is not what I thought living in New York City was going to be like. Moving to New York City had felt like buying a new dress. It would change everything.

It felt very good to say to Jeffrey – the New York City boyfriend – the one I had liked so much – or rather the one who I wanted with desperation to like me – the one who a few months ago I had said to in the afternoon in his Salvation-Army-furniture one-room apartment that I liked so much because I had never had a boyfriend with an apartment before, I had said we should break up.

I said it because liking him and this life that he brought me into – this one with sex, finally, and an ounce of pot in a plastic bag next to the waterbed, with people who called on the phone or rich adults who were friends of his stepmother who asked you to drive their red Triumph convertible back from Southampton and hand it over to a doorman at the Plaza, and Bob Dylan concerts and movies in the afternoon and hamburgers in coffee shops – all these things – it was all excruciating, on loan as long as Jeffrey thought me gorgeous. He stared at me and said I was beautiful, but I couldn’t be that beautiful and he knew so many girls who didn't sit up against the wall and cry – ones that laughed and chatted, even ones like him who took Manhattan apartments and having a car for granted. Not to mention all the girls who had something to say when you asked them what they were doing. Like Tammy, so cute and petite in her parents’ Woody Allen upper West Side apartment, who gushed as we came in, “God, I’ve spent all afternoon making a dragon out of clay!”

I had broken up with him, the new boyfriend, the first boyfriend really, to get it over with. He could have changed my mind in three seconds, but he let it go that time. And then called two months later, sobbing. No boy had ever sobbed for me before. That’s when I got to tell him I’d be living in Manhattan now, going to school there instead of in that vile hick town.

But now I am here and I am the only person in the city with her door closed.

I want to be writing. I say that, but look at me. Jeffrey just gets high and sits down at his typewriter when he wants to write. He stays up til dawn and finishes his screenplay. And then he’s really happy. He loves his screenplay. He’s written a novel too that he likes alot. I’ve seen it. A whole three inches of white typed pages. He just sat down and wrote it. No big deal. I didn’t like his novel when I read it, but still.

When I write it’s little gnarled words on the page that I tear up and then I go to bed as soon as it’s nine o’clock so I can get out of here.

Here in this room. With the same books as always on the tall narrow bookshelf, looking down at me, and my ten or twelve records leaning against the trunk that is the table for the turntable. It’s like having people in my room who have made things – songs, guitar playing, stories – how did they do it? I am not one of them. I’m a fraud.

I had thought I’d write at this desk, but now that I am here, it’s not how I imagined it. I hadn’t imagined that dark laminate of fake wood. Or the soft yellow plastic of the seat of this school dorm chair. Or the smooth grey of the linoleum floor that I try to warm by throwing a fringed cloth over the trunk.

I walk to the classes on my schedule where teachers talk about this great book, this brilliant writer, that masterful poet. I wanted to be one of them. I had thought I just had to get out of my parents’ house, then out of that hick college town. Still, it has not happened. I write the little things I must for school, but those don’t count. I want to be the kind of writer who writes out of her own insistence not because the teacher is waiting for his assignment.

I hate the words “I want to be a writer.” No writer would ever say that. And I fucking say it all the time.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


I knew when I was still little enough to imagine being a bride in a long white dress carrying red roses, when I was still little enough that when we went to the place with my mother with several little books plump with green stamps that she had licked and stuck in and I could pick whatever I wanted I picked the bride doll, sleeping in a box beneath clear cellophane. When I was still that little I knew my dad had been married before. He had told me. In the back seat one day I came up with a good idea. “Did you have any children in your other marriage?” I asked him. He said no, which was too bad because I wanted a brother.

My mother hadn’t been married before. From what I could tell she’d never had a boyfriend to speak of before she met my father in her late twenties. She mentioned a few times going to a regatta once on a date. I’m not even sure what a regatta is. Something to do with boats. My mother spoke of it as something she had really looked forward to, had really thought of as something special, but when she told the story she kind of injected a mocking tone as if she had been so ignorant then to be impressed by a regatta. It was easy to imagine her though, excited that something was finally happening for her, that perhaps now there’d be glamor. The story ended with her anticipation. We never heard what happened or who was the boy who had invited her.

My father told me about some of his girlfriends. I heard about Ilona, the first one I think, the one in high school. Then there was some countess. I think that was the one he spent a weekend with in some fancy resort, knowing that at the end of it all he wouldn’t be able to pay for even half of it, but going ahead anyway. He liked telling me that story. Then I heard about the American girl -- a Smith girl on her junior year abroad who told him to move to the States, and he did, in time to go to her family house for Thanksgiving when she spurned him. And somewhere along the way I found out that he started seeing her again after I was born. My mother found a letter. We were still living in the basement apartment on Warburten Avenue in Yonkers.

On my sixteenth birthday, wandering through the house -- a house far from the one on Warburten Avenue -- looking absently into drawers, I found a notebook that my parents had used for awhile starting from before my sisters were born. It had been my father’s idea. His is the first entry. He suggests to my mother that they write to each other in the book since they can’t talk to each other.

In one of my mother’s first entries she is suggesting they split up. “You can have the farm,” she writes, “and I’ll take the baby.”

Years later when I was in college, a time when I saw quite a bit of my dad, when he liked to take me out on his arm for expensive dinners, he told me how he had just run into that first American girlfriend again at some conference, how he had recognized her across the room and -- here he is so proud of himself as he delivers the punchline – accosted her with the line, “Dr. Livingston, I presume?” That was the end of the story as told to me. His witty pick-up line. He probably stuck on one or two more sentences about how happy she was to see him, but I don’t remember them.

Once my father was looking at a couple of small black-and-white photos I had of him in an album. They were from before my birth. In the first he is jaunty in a trench coat and cigarette between his fingers. He looks like he has the world at his feet. In the second he is no longer smiling. My father laughed ruefully. “Before and after the first marriage,” he said. I’ve been told it lasted six months.

He told me once, on the beach in Santa Barbara, that he had decided early on that he wasn’t good at relationships and that he would focus on his work instead. I was about twenty-two and I had written to him back in New York, my first attempt to break the fraud of our relationship, to tell him all the things I never had. He had written back, had said he would be in Texas on business and that he’d come see me in L.A. and we could talk about the letter.

He came on a Friday night. “Let’s not say a word about it tonight,” he said in my furnished studio. “We’ll have a nice dinner and tomorrow we’ll drive up the coast and we can talk then.” He told me all about the people in Texas he was doing business with. They were very into EST and he had done a seminar just to please them, had hated it, had subverted the process by pretending his name was George and walking around all weekend with that name on his nametag, had hung up on the recruitment phonecalls that came afterwards. But still he wanted to work with the men in Texas. He showed me their business card with its logo of the rising sun.

On Saturday as we drove north I asked what he had thought of the letter, but he said again, not now. We had our extravagant lunch – all I could think about was the letter I had written and what this conversation would be like, but again he said, no, no let’s wait just a little longer.

After lunch he suggested we walk out onto the sand and then he began to talk, saying that thing about not being good at relationships. In my letter I had complained about being brought up Catholic. He said that he had thought it would be good discipline, better than no religion at all. I'd said too that I'd wished he had been more upfront about the money problems while I was in high school. On the beach he said he'd wanted to protect me.

I took a stab or two at conversation, but each time he deflected my words with explanations. I had wanted to show him how grown up I was, or who I was, but I couldn't seem to get out of the back seat.

On the drive home he told me that if I wasn’t careful I’d become like my mother: no ambition. “Ambition” was not the word I would have used, but I knew what he meant. I was broken inside and had no idea where I would find the strength to create anything of any worth or meaning at all.

Saturday, February 10, 2007


I sat down in the Hungarian Pastry Shop. It had been a few months since I’d been there and I missed it. They don’t have computers for checking email, their pastries are so-so and their weak tea is served in small cups, but it has something no other place has. Itself. When I’m there I feel at home.

I sat at the end of three little tables pushed together. A young man sat at the end of the threesome, up against the wall, his head down, plugged into an Ipod, scattered papers and a couple of notebooks giving him a fevered appearance.

A young woman joined him. They sat across from each other. He handed her a notebook right away and for a couple of minutes she read silently. Then she handed it back. “It’s pretty dark,” she said. “Isn’t it supposed to be love poetry”

“That’s just the beginning,” the young man said quickly. “I’m telling where I come from.”

The young woman opened up a lap top. They talked back and forth for awhile – she sitting up straight and very confident. He pretending to be.

She said she had to finish her play. “And when will I be able to read it” he asked. “Oh, any time,” she said. “A lot of people have read it – you know, friends and stuff – and they all say they liked it, but yesterday I had the best experience. Peter sat down with me and went through it word for word and told me how to make it better and what really worked.”

She starts typing. He is reading and writing. He wears a colorful knitted cap with long ear flaps.

“Isn’t this a great word?” she says, and tells him a long unfamiliar word. He copies it down. She reads him the definition from her computer dictionary.

“Have you read Bukowski?” she asks him later during another talk break. He says he hasn’t, not much. “He’s got this great line in one of his poems – something like, ‘beware ordinary men, beware ordinary women, they seek only ordinary love.’ Isn’t that great?”

She goes back to her typing after he says something like, “Writing a poem is crazy. Until it’s not. That’s all I can tell you about writing a poem.” He says it with a wry little laugh, and then adds that he goes nuts if he doesn’t chain smoke. He goes out for a cigarette and when he returns she starts spontaneously reading to him from her screen. I can only hear every other word or so. I can tell there’s an emphasis on lush language, something like this: And are they princes or are they whores these beasts that curse us underfoot, that crawl and crawl and do not ask for consequences…” Stuff like that. There are several mentions of the word “whore” spoken in lilting suburban tones.

“Did you write that?” the boy asks.

“Yeah,” she says casually, “But it’s hard, you know, how when you change one thing in a play then you have to think about how it will affect everything else.” She says this again two or three more times using slightly different words.

The boy says, “I know what you mean. More than I can say.”

During all this I am reading the Times. I write a few pages about the depression that keeps crashing in on me, and then I read a friend’s manuscript. I wear ear plugs so I can hear only what I really want to.

Her cell phone rings. She dives for it, has a quick cheery conversation with an invisible person and then leaves.

It’s time for me to go too. “Do you know a place nearby that has internet access?” I ask the boy and we look at each other for the first time.

“Do you have a student ID?” he asks. “You could go to Butler Library.”

“No,” I answer. “Not for thirty years.”


Funny how there hasn’t been a word from my father since I visited in September. I wrote him – hand wrote – two letters within a month of returning. I didn’t want to be romantic, but clearly something had gotten into me, handwriting my father two letters. He didn’t answer and I snapped out of it.

When I spoke to my mother on the weekend I didn’t ask about him. My mother is Gossip Central and I usually ask for news of father and sisters, people I don’t want to be in touch with but have idle curiosity about, like thumbing through People magazine at the check-out counter.

I have a chapter ready to review sitting on the Desktop of my computer, but this morning it felt too hard, like I was up against some hard unyielding surface. I didn’t open the chapter. I left it for another day. In the shower it had seemed easy – oh, just take a look at that chapter, brush it up, it’s ready to go – remembering reading something Hemingway had written about how he always left something half-done at the end of the day so he’d know where to start the next morning.

Instead I went for a walk with Tamar, hoping that would stir things up. Thought about how the stakes are so artificially high around this manuscript, how it feels like I must complete it to prove something and it becomes like writing in front of a firing squad.

I pick up wood as I walk, can’t resist the pieces lying around that will fit the fireplace perfectly. I could go buy a bunch of wood for $20, but I enjoy the treasure hunt, picking up these scraps for free.

The way my mother used to pick up cigarette butts. She’d pick them up on walks, bring them home, dip them in alcohol to sterilize them (she’d been a biochemist) and smoke them. “If I buy a whole pack I’ll smoke them,” she said.

That was the year my father was living in England. I was in third grade. It felt normal for my father not to be at home. Even when he was home my father wasn’t of the home the way we – my mother, sisters and I – were. We had no other place to go. My father clearly had lots of choices. He was always happy going on business trips and his living in England just seemed like an extra-long business trip.

I had always wanted a father who came home at night, who was there. When I said I wanted a coming-home daddy my father laughed. He liked that one. He liked very much that he was not a coming-home daddy, an ordinary person. I had just confirmed it.

When my mother asked if we should go to England too I said yes. Of course. My father was the life of the party. Without him it was just us, sitting down for hot dogs and potatoes and broccoli and a glass of milk at each plate in the kitchen. Going for walks with my mother while she picked up cigarette butts.

I felt I was in grown-upper hands with my father around, someone more part of the world. When my mother drove she always missed the exit, always subjected us to long extensions of what was already a dull trip as she navigated back onto the highway in the right direction. My father didn’t do that. He drove with confidence, even and especially into the city. He could drive into the city – be it New York or London – without getting lost. He could take us to a restaurant or a theater. Not my mother. She didn’t take us to places like that. She took us for a walk in the woods, at most to a local movie. She stayed at home, and made sure everyone was in bed early.

Years later, after England, she’d get up and go downstairs to where my father was still up in the living room. Whenever she did that I knew there’d be a fight. I hated hearing their voices filtering up as I lay in bed. “You ruined my life,” I heard my mother shout once. He didn’t shout during those times though I knew he wanted to. But he didn’t want to be like her, shouting and crying. He spoke in measured tones that were so monotonic you knew they were tiny atom bombs, waiting to explode.

Once I went downstairs during a fight. I got up out of bed, went down in my nightgown. “I want a glass of water,” I said.

“She just wants us to stop fighting,” my mother said with a little laugh.


Yesterday I asked my mother on the phone what happened to the little puppy we got when we were living in the big white housed called Avenel in Virginia. “We didn’t have a puppy there,” she answered. Her voice was a little hard, a little uncertain. “Yes, we did,” I said. “I remember you yelling at it when it shat on the living room carpet.” I remember my mother pushing the puppy down with her right hand, forcing his head almost into his shit, yelling at him like she meant to kill him. She said you had to do it that way or they’d never learn. I believed her.

“I remember the puppy we got in England,” my mother went on, cheery and soft now. “Remember him? He was so cute, and then he got sick and died.”

“Buffin,” I said.

My mother had wanted an Old English Sheepdog. She’d had one growing up. All our dogs til then had been mutts and strays that came and went. This time my mother went to a breeder. She paid money and brought home the grey and white fluffy puppy. She said he had papers. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew Buffin was a bought dog, not a found one.

I went back to boarding school within a week or so after Buffin came. I hardly remember him at all. But I do remember, a few weeks later, hearing that he had died. He’d gotten sick. My mother told me in her weekly letter.

It was the same day that I heard myself promise Jane and Sheila that I would move in with them. Jane and Sheila weren’t my best friends. They were okay, but not part of the tight-knit group I did everything with. But I had gotten to talking with them that night during recreation time in the big hall and they had invited me to room with them – they needed a third.

Then I was lying in bed, a single bed in a long double row of single beds, separated by curtains. There was a window at the head of each bed, a small sink in the corner and each cubicle had a small wardrobe. I lay in the dark.

I could not stop crying. I had cried in bed many times in school. I often felt sad there and knew how to cry without anyone hearing me. But this was a crying that would not stop. It seemed to go on all night. I kept thinking of the puppy’s death. The little puppy. Though I hardly knew him I could not stop crying for him. And I kept thinking too of the promise just made to Jane and Sheila. I wished I hadn’t said yes. I didn’t really want to move in with them, but I was cornered. When they had suggested it I didn’t know what else to say. It had even seemed kind of innovative at first. You weren’t supposed to move in the middle of term, but now it just felt like moving in with two girls who were dull and on the edges of things. Plus, I was scared. What would my regular friends think? I knew it would need some explaining.

And then I kept thinking of my mother at the fair. It had been my idea to go, the last time she came to visit. I had pushed and pushed to go on the rides – the bright tents hastily set up in some muddy field. We’d ended up in some kind of metal box car that swung and dipped and jolted. You had to hold on hard. My mother sat across from me in a black and white checked suit. She held my baby sister on her lap. I saw her face freeze with concern as she grabbed a bar and held the baby tight.

Afterwards, she put her hand to her brown hair and said, “Oh, one of my combs is gone.” She’d lost one of the silver combs my father had brought her from a business trip to Morocco. My father’s presents to my mother were not romantic. I knew that. But they looked valuable.

As I kept replaying the scene of my mother in the tilting ride, the loss of the comb, Buffin’s death, the waves of crying kept washing over me. As soon as one was done another would begin. I felt I had done something horribly wrong in making her go on the rides. If it weren’t for me she’d still have the lovely silver comb.

Within a few days my friends went on the attack. “How could you leave Ann?” they hissed. “How mean you are.” Ann was in the single bed across from me. She was my official best friend, but I didn’t really like her best. I liked her a lot, but not best.

I went ahead and moved in with Sheila and Jane. I didn’t know how to get out of it. The good friends weren’t reliable after that. Sometimes they were fun like before, but sometimes they would not speak to me.

I asked my mother if I could stop going to this school. I let her and my father think that it was because I wanted to live at home. And for a little while I thought maybe I’d like it at home again. I imagined doing homework at the dining room table in the evening with my sister, the lamplight soft like in Little House in the Big Woods.

But it wasn’t like Little House in the Big Woods and shifting to a new school didn’t help. I didn’t know what had happened, but I couldn’t make friends anymore.

Saturday, February 03, 2007


We moved back to the States the summer I was fourteen, back into the house we’d lived in twice before, the one my parents bought when I was three. It was an old white clapboard house that stood back from and above the road.

While we’d been living in England my father had had changes made to the house. Now there was a black asphalt driveway that took you up the hill and curved around to the back of the house that had become the front with a big front door and a porch. The old front of the house looked mournfully down to the road with its plain unadorned face.

At the end of the driveway was now a two-car garage and a short flagstone path bedecked with a rose trellis leading to the house. There was a new front hall with a bathroom (with a shower, something the old house had not had). There was beige wall-to-wall carpeting over the old boards and a set of narrow French doors at the bottom of the stairs leading up from the living room.

I liked the changes. It made the house a little more like other people’s, softer and more comfortable. It looked richer too.

There were other changes. My father lived at home now. In England he had only come home on weekends. Here, he didn’t have a fancy executive job like he used to. He was doing something like selling asphalt and showed me the glossy brochure as if it were his latest international project. I nodded my head, confused, and left the room as soon as I could.

By Christmas I knew we were poor. I had never thought about money in the house before. Suddenly, its lack became very clear.

My father slept on the fold-out couch in the new front hall. He took his morning bath in the new bathroom, kept his suits in the new walk-in closet, his underwear and shirts in the big piece of make-believe antique furniture in the living room. He was always in some stage of his elaborate dressing/bathing ritual in the living room as I went to the kitchen for breakfast. At night he closed the narrow French doors at the bottom of the stairs, and listened alone to his records – Mozart, Beethoven, operas and symphonies, sitting in one of the two new armchairs and nursing a scotch and soda.

My mother bought one week of groceries at a time – a block of CrackerBarrel cheese for the week, one jar of jam, one box of cookies. The houses where I babysat were so different, so American – cupboards crammed with crackers and cookies and cereals, refrigerators so full you had to take things out to see what was there, magazines scattered across the living room floor, scarves and hats falling out of closets, children’s rooms filled with toys no one played with.

Our house was not like that. In our house there was nothing extra.

One set of everyday dishes, One set for holidays. There was the everyday cutlery and the make-believe sterling in the wooden box lined with green felt.

We had our school clothes, one or two pairs of this, one or two of these, “that’s all you need.”

The girls in school didn’t wear the same thing for weeks. I planned my outfits carefully, stretching what I had to give a semblance of plenty – finding a blouse in my mother’s closet she no longer wore, turning a dress into a shirt that looked good with jeans. The other girls were a mystery to me. Where did they buy jeans that fit so well? Where did they get the money?

My father never said anything about being poor. He put the thermostat up to 70. My mother told him to wear long underwear and turned it back down to 65.

Then my father took me out. To the opera, to a fancy restaurant in the city with big menus. At those times I never looked at the prices. We were out of the house and could pretend we didn’t have to go back.

Friday, February 02, 2007


In second grade I wanted to play the main part – the princess -- in our just announced class production of “The Princess Who Never Laughed.” I was confident. I was one of Mrs. Foster’s favorites, but when she announced the roles, she named a rabbity little girl as the princess. I would be the herald.

A herald. I had the part of a boy, not a princess. Something in me was not surprised. Though I wanted them, I was never going to be the kind of girl who got the princess parts. I didn’t have that kind of mother.

My mother knew how to dress me for the part of the herald – dark green tights and a tunic. She would not have known how to make me into a princess.

My mother grew up on a farm at the foot of the Rockie Mountains in British Columbia. Her father was a failed British businessman, her mother the Uruguayan girl he’d gotten pregnant. Striking out on a homestead on the frontier with four little children, three more to come and no farming experience was a desperate move. My grandfather became a local laughing stock – too stiff and refined to be a real farmer and a gruff, unfriendly man whose children avoided him. My mother says she felt sorry for him and sat with him after supper in his library of red-leatherbound classics.

Theirs was the only house in town with indoor plumbing. She and her six siblings walked to the one-room schoolhouse carrying their shoes to make them last longer. School went through eighth grade. After that pretty much everyone quit. My mother finished high school by correspondence, the only one in her family to do so except for the firstborn, a boy.

“Give her a plain name,” said my grandfather when she was born. “So she doesn’t take on airs.” My mother’s name is Joan.

Twice as a child I visited my mother’s family in British Columbia where each and every one of them lived. My mother was the only one to move away. Her sister, my aunt Moon, had a ranch out there, the family’s gathering place. Moon looked like a man, with short grey hair. She dressed like a man and kept house like a cowboy. These are my memories of the ranch, a place that is spoken of with affection and nostalgia amongst the cousins I hardly know.

I am six years old. A crowd of cousins is going to sleep outside in a tent, away from the house where the grown-ups are. I am the youngest. The rest, who all know each other from years of growing up together, are eight and ten and twelve. I have never slept in a tent or a sleeping bag. These kids have been doing it all their lives. In the tent they whisper and giggle about all the snakes outside. I dare not go out to pee or say a word. I wet the sleeping bag.

I sit on the top of a corral fence with a crowd of relatives. Inside the corral men wrestle calves to the ground to brand them with hot irons on their rear flanks. There is much laughter when a man sits in a mound of cow shit.

We swim in the pond outside my aunt’s house. When you come out you have to pull leeches off your arms and legs.

I am standing in the barn while cousins run above in the hay loft. I watch a foot break through the flooring.

When the grown-ups aren’t around my cousin John shoots a chicken then mashes its head into the ground with a rock.

I am left alone for a morning in my grandmother’s cottage which stands on the ranch within sight of my aunt’s house. A teenage boy who I’ve seen around, he’s working for my aunt for the summer, comes to the door. He comes in, asks me to take off my clothes and get into bed with him. I do.

This is where my mother comes from. She was not mean. But it was as if part of her had died. The soft part. She functioned, got three meals a day on the table, took us on walks, made sure we could swim and ride a bicycle. But she did not snuggle. She did not pause, she did not come close.

I came home from school one afternoon and she was in the kitchen, making my birthday cake. With the leftover icing she had written my name on a piece of wax paper in big loopy letters. I was delighted. It was as if someone else, not my mother, had done this beautiful dreamy thing.