I’m 15 or 16, floating in the swimming pool out back, gazing up at blue space. My ears submerged, I can still hear Burt Bachrach’s song, “You say the sky’s in love with you,” sounding from my tape deck at the pool’s edge. For years that’s how I think the song goes. Floating, looking up, I try to imagine what it would be like disappearing somewhere up high, what it would be like to erase my thoughts and feelings, the moment. Would I then be able to be who I am? But I can’t think too long like this, can’t sail beyond the infinity of the weight on me that is home.
* * *
They say home is what your heart keeps returning to. But for some it’s an accidental place, an extension of someone else, not yourself, something you arrive to by association. That’s how it was for me.
In 1964, we arrived in New Canaan, Connecticut by way of Chicago, Illinois, by way of Talara, Peru, by way of Bogotá, Colombia, my mother’s country. My dad, John, was a blue-eyed blond from Iowa, and my mother, Maria, a dark-eyed beauty from Bogotá. Lined up, we, their five kids, looked liked UN reps — blonde, almondy-skinned Mara; red-haired, fair Jane; slanty-eyed Jake with his yellowy complexion; and the tannest among us, Blaine. I was dark too, and wore my medium-length blackish hair with bangs. Our ticket into WASP-land was our dad being a gringo and top executive with a big plastics company.
In the beginning, our parents must have had a dream to create an amazing union between north and south, dark and light, or what they conceived as these. We kids felt the burden of their challenge down to our very bones. There was so much fire between our parents, and it translated down to us, mostly in the form of ire. What must have started out as affection and desire turned to argument, and we kids never ceased struggling to find a place somewhere in-between all their differences.
It’s a curious fact that after moving to New Canaan, we who as kids had draped ourselves around our father’s back and shoulders, once obediently held our mother’s hand, once wrapped around one another in child’s play in South America, became distant, even unfriendly with one another. I never once saw my parents embracing, and we kids never got a parental hug or acted tenderly with one another. I wonder now if in an attempt to be all-American, we instinctively followed our father’s hard, unyielding stamp.
The habit of not exchanging tenderness of course began with our parents who themselves had an antipathy toward expressed love and need. Our mother seemed consumed by need, and it was poison to our father.
At 14 or 15, I am standing in the hallway before my parents’ bedroom, watching my father bolt after my mother who’s trying to seal herself inside her closet after plucking a handful of coins from my father’s dresser and tossing them at his face. My father’s wearing only tennis shorts, and his powerful, ashen white legs taking off look like weapons to me. He throws my mother on their massive bed, pinning back her arms. She’s gone haywire because he’s come home late again.
“I can’t take it anymore! I can’t take it anymore!” she spews into his face.
“Control yourself, will you, please!” he shouts between gritted teeth. I can see the trinity of medals on his silver neck chain – Jesus, the Virgin Mary and St. Christopher – dangling before her face as he straddles her, clamping down on her arms. “Jesus! What’s wrong with you! Can’t you control yourself!”
She’s sobbing now, but he keeps shaking her — to get rid of her tears, for they too are an affront pointing at his weakness and failure to be there. Weakness and failure have no place in my father’s life, or ours. Not here, not now. Not ever.
New Canaan was then and remains a paean to what my mother used to call “Anglo Saxonism,” and, during her more virulent moods, “the pallid perfection of Anglo Saxonism.” In the late 1960s, you strolled alongside the cool façade of Colonial style buildings along Main Street in tennis whites, golfing apparel, Brooks Brothers attire, your team uniform, your emblem of belonging, seemingly unscathed by what was roiling the world at large – the Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations, the Vietnam War, the feminist and Black power movements. New Canaan moved to the beat of its own drum – the country club imperatives of money, good social standing and conventional order that compelled my father too. As an only child born during the Depression, he knew what it was like to want and was driven to succeed. To make money and to spend it well must have been his all-abiding dream.
My dad grew up on a Midwestern farm, the only child of a Welsh mechanic and drunk, and a woman of German and Sioux Indian heritage who believed the sun rose and sank on account of her boy. John was a straight-A student and graduated early from high school, then college, and after the second world war got bit by the bug to travel and see more of the world. He hungered for what was exotic, and found its penultimate form in my mother whom he met while working as a young engineer for Standard Oil in Bogotá. She worked part-time for the company, moonlighting in the theater, her first love.
Dark, zaftig and dramatic, my mother looked like Ava Gardner in her youth, and, as the story goes, when my father passed by her wearing a red bow tie and brandishing a cigar, she confided to a fellow secretary, “I’m going to marry that blond gringo.” Even then, he had the brisk air of a man sure of himself and of conquering whatever lay in store for him. John and Maria were married inside of three months.
My father struck his in-laws as a model American – concerned for the world at large yet rooted in family values. In fact, he was eager to start a family of his own, to have the brood he’d never been a part of. He and my grandfather, a judge, shared similar simple but deeply grounded views – Kennedy was the good man of the world, while Castro represented all its evil. My grandmother, a Spaniard who’d grown up privileged, saw in my dad a man of vision and drive who would take my mother places and go far.
My mother was the antithesis of my dad, fun-loving and madcap, a superb horsewoman who rode and partied with her own circle of British admirers. She had jumped half naked into fountains and once stuffed smashed bananas into the trousers of a male friend who lay passed out drunk on a couch after a debauch. She was a fabulous dancer, and there was no party where she failed to be the center of attention, flirting wildly, whirling her skirts, flinging back her head, while surrounding male admirers yelled, “Viva!” “Ole!”
After their marriage, Dad assigned himself the role of keeper to my mother’s flame, at parties, positioning himself, drink and smoke in hand, at the periphery of the circle at whose center my mother caroused. If she got out of hand, he would grin wildly, biting down on his pipe or cigar tip, as if that might automatically set a limit to my mother’s intemperance —which, incidentally, never had to do with drink. Throughout their years together, that’s how it always was.
Our parents first lived in Bogotá, where I was born, then Mara, then Jane, all of us 13 months apart. Soon after Jane’s arrival, our father was transferred to Talara, a small Peruvian town alongside the Pacific coastline, where a Standard Oil refinery loomed like a giant spider and foreboding emblem. There, we lived in a camp for engineers of Standard Oil and their families, among Brits, Texans, Colombians and Peruvians. We were nurtured by nannies, fed by cooks, and while we kids cavorted alongside the sea, our parents indulged in an endless round of cocktail parties, picnics, fishing and golf. In the midst of this, Jake and Blaine were born.
After school, I’d cross the street and perch on a high dune, overlooking the sea. I was sure Dad’s country sat on the horizon. Squinting, I tried to make out the details of buildings and things in the distance. My Dad’s country was the land of Marilyn Monroe, skyscrapers and cotton candy, and I longed to go there. My dream came to be, when, after failing to get a long-awaited promotion, dad decided the best way to pay back his company would be by leaving. Overnight, we found ourselves in Chicago, where Grandma Jenkins lived.
The first images I recall on the black and white TV at the Ridgeview Hotel in Evanston, our temporary home, were replays of the assassination and funeral of John F. Kennedy. It was my first time seeing television and my first time seeing snow. Evanston’s tall, gloomy buildings rose out of a white covering that seemed to stretch to infinity. From a high window perch, I could see a park, snow-covered benches and swings below, but no kids. I ran my forefinger along the windowsill, picking up the soot and grime of ages, and thought my life was over. I had just turned 10.
It was a time of doubt for everyone and we too worried about the future. Wondering how our family would fare if Dad didn’t find a job, Jane and I bought a piggy bank and started collecting pennies, nickels and dimes. Our mother, who’d grown up with hired help, barely knew how to cook, and now struggled learning how to drive and write checks. A rotten driver, she smashed the brakes too hard at the mere sight of another vehicle. She was an equally bad cook, and her failed attempts led to tantrums, feet stamping and tears of frustration, and dad wasn’t there to placate her nerves. Thankfully, Ana, a young woman who’d come with us from Peru, helped out, taking charge of my brothers who were still very young and pacifying our mother with her gentle humor.
Ana was only 18 when she came with us to the states. As a girl, she would accompany her aunt, our cook, to our home in Talara to babysit us. She was one of several girls from a neighboring village who’d been plucked up by Americans and Brits to work in the camp, “one of the lucky ones,” our parents would say. When the time came for us to leave, we couldn’t bear to let Ana go; her aunt, her only living relative, approved our taking Ana with us out of the country and a life of poverty, which is the only other kind of life she would have known.
In the United States Ana quickly assigned herself the role of big sister to us and angel to my mother, always there to lend a hand. From the first moment of arriving in the states, our mother seemed overtaken by a heightened sense of imperative about how an American mother and housewife should be. She was on a mission to get noticed and accepted, and this extended to me. Her idea of helping me fit in at school was forcing me to perform a Spanish dance in front of my Girl Scout troupe, decked out in a flamenco dress, flaming red lipstick and heels. I’d grown up performing Spanish dances that my mother taught my friends, my sisters and me at the Staff Club in Talara. I’d danced then for my grandmother, my mother’s mother and people we knew in the camp. But this wasn’t Talara. And Sucita, my nickname for my grandmother, had died of cancer just months before coming north. I felt freakish raising my arms, playing castanets and performing steps to music that seemed as strange here as it must have seemed to my all-American classmates. Spanish dancing felt wrong here, out of place. To top it all, I had just started wearing glasses, pale blue and horn rimmed they were, with sparkly tips. I felt like a bad imitation of my mother. Everything about her seemed wrong here — her accent was too thick; her voice and make up and clothing, too loud. I wanted her to disappear. And myself with her.
After school, I played listlessly with a new, blonde Barbie, a doll I’d gotten for my 10th birthday. With her long legs and big boobs, she too was foreign. Although I’d begged for her for a year, I couldn’t coddle her, or even pretend to like her. I resented her as much as this cold, sad place that was a poor substitute for our better life in Talara.
Just as I felt myself sinking helplessly into feelings of loss about my past and childhood, dad did find a job, and announced we were heading east. He flashed his new business card at us which showed he was “Assistant Manager of the Western Hemisphere.” We were all so impressed.
“That’s bigger and more important than being president of a country,” I said.
“The whole western hemisphere?” asked Mara.
“Yes, all of it,” said Dad. In two years he’d become manager, then vice president, and in five years, the youngest president the company had ever had.
That summer, we headed east in the blue wood-sided Buick, singing “La Cucaracha” and “Pío, Pío,” songs we knew from our childhood, and new ones just learned, watching The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show — “I wanna hold your hand,” “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.” Every other mile, we kept asking, “When are we going to get there?” just so our mother would reach for the sour ball jar she had tucked alongside her and Blaine, who sat on her lap the whole way. The sourball jar was her lure to keep us quiet.
“Oh, can I have a red one, please?”
Finally, we reached Connecticut with its winding roads and greenery everywhere, flush up to the sky.
Gazing at the back of my dad’s head, I said, “Everything is so green here…”
“Yes,” he cackled, “green like money.”
We turned right off Route 123 onto Valley Road, then right onto Hickok Road. Our house sat at the top. Gray shingled, with white shutters, it was three stories high and set on close to two acres. At the end of the back drive was a basketball hoop and the front yard sloped so we could sled down the lawn and driveway when it snowed.
“Ah, ha,” my father announced as it came into view. In the rearview, I watched his bright eyes widen then narrow into focus. We all gasped delightedly, as if this was our first true home.
Soon after we moved in, Mrs. Ross, a Swede up the street, invited us to swim in her backyard pool with her two pale children, and promptly informed our mother, “You’d better make sure your children don’t get too dark. They’ll put them in the back of the bus come September.” The comment, delivered straight, put my mother in a state of apoplexy. But instead of following Mrs. Ross’ advice, my mother did just the opposite.
My two sisters and I, who tanned easily, had always been forced to wear hats in the South American sun to protect our complexions. My mother’s own fashion trademark was the big wide-brimmed hat – that, and big sunglasses. Now we no longer had to wear hats. I could almost hear our mother thinking, “We are going to be who we are, goddammit.” The following summer, dad installed a pool for us in our own backyard.
In New Canaan, my mother registered the coolness at large, but was not about to be stymied by it. She’d encountered bigger obstacles growing up during a period called The Violence in Bogota, where people like her father who declared themselves to be against the oligarchy could be shot dead at any time. Once, when my mother was five, while stepping out of a courtroom with her father and some of his friends, a car stopped below the steps of the building, a car door flew open and someone began shooting. A friend of my mother’s father ferreted her to safety in a taxi, and no one was killed or injured that day.
My mother’s papito had invited her into courtrooms where he presided, and later, into the bars and cafes he frequented, to join male society, discussing politics and issues of the day. She had witnessed plenty of conflicts, some, life and death, and the experiences must have stamped her deeply. She would not let her legacy go to waste, and in the United States held onto her past, her family and her country by writing about them.
She wrote about peasants, idealistic priests and members of her family who had been writers, activists and just plain crazy. There was her great grandfather on her father’s side who had been so jealous of his young wife’s singing voice that he imprisoned her in an attic, where she died mad while still in her twenties. There was a distant cousin who tied a rope to a chandelier in church and took a plunge from the choir during the middle of a mass, landing buck naked at the foot of the altar. My mother wrote about her Uncle Saul, who wandered the streets of Bogotá, a paper slip tucked inside his jacket pocket on which he claimed was the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe.
Our mother was torn by her desire to be a good mother, a good wife and a good writer, and, unable to fathom that she could be all three, determined that to be a good writer came first. It was a decision she frequently announced at the cocktail hour whenever Dad was around. “My priorities are my writing, my children and my husband, in that order,” she would say, tossing us a wink. She said it to prick dad and make us laugh, but we also knew it was true.
Our mother told stories and lived in them. Two images of her stand out during this time, our family’s coming of age in New Canaan. In the first, she is upstairs in the writer’s studio dad built for her, typing on the old Remington that had belonged to her father. She poured out her stories about Colombian campesinos, her father, mother and the past on that fine, black metal instrument. Her excitement registered even in the way she pronounced the name of her writing tool, rolling the rr’s and placing an accent on the final o. “I am going upstairs to write on my Rrrremington.”
In her study, surrounded by books and the past, she could be herself, thriving in an isolation fed by intellectual constants and memory. Immediately to the left on the dark polished oak table was a wooden stand, built by my dad, on which sat the American dictionary. Further left, a pocket Thesaurus propped like a mouse on the elephantine back of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Shelved in the bookcase at the end of the room were my mother’s favorites — collections of The Best American short stories, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marques, Graham Greene, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Anita Brookner.
Afternoons, other kids returned home from school and were greeted by the cacophony of vacuum cleaners and pots and pans clanging in the kitchen, while we were treated to the symphonies of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky and the accompanying, rhythmic clatter of our mother’s typing, drifting downstairs from her studio on the third floor. She had a sign always posted on her workroom door that read, “Please in the name of God, do not disturb me!”
Our mother’s studio had three large square windows overlooking the back yard and woods. She sat on a flat cushion on the hardwood bench she preferred to a desk, her back erect, her restless hands with their red painted fingernails feverish upon the keys, creating the fresh staccato of our North American lives. The staccato, like her presence and stories, called us back to what we had left behind, pressing it into memory.
Her studio had been the attic. I’d hide in its closets stretched out in a small space in front of storage boxes and empty luggage. Overhead were slanting wood slats dividing long sections stuffed with pink insulation, and to the left near the cubby entrance, one solitary light bulb. I would stretch out on the rough wood planks reading Jane Eyre, Little Women, and Nancy Drew mysteries, and later, the forbidden books – Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, Jill Johnston’s Lesbian Nation — both of which I ferreted from the library. I fingered the sparkly pink insulation, which I expected to feel cottony, then had to deal with the sting of invisible needles pressing through my fingers and palms as I turned book pages. For hours, I read and perspired and felt myself to be insulated from the nagging, noisy outer world. I felt I was growing in secret.
The other image I have of our mother is that of the woman virtually immobilized by her responsibilities, trying to raise five incorrigible children on her own. In this second frame, I’m maybe 16, having just learned to drive, and almost all of us are in our teens. My mother’s left hand folds faintly around the wood banister leading to the first floor and basement. Close up, a slight discoloration is visible on her ring finger underneath her platinum wedding band that is surrounded by two diamond-studded rings. The center diamond on the main ring, round and prominent, belonged to my grandmother. I remember my mother telling me about the ring as we sat together in one of the dimly lit rooms at the Ridgeview Hotel. She had traced her mother’s hand before she died, and then, in the apartment in Evanston, raised her own hand, examining it, as if it held clues to the past and the future. Leaning against one another, we’d dreamed of days gone by, revisiting times with Sucita, tangos and finca gatherings with our aunt, uncle and cousins, all the familiar that had been snatched from us in an instant by an unnamable entity.
In New Canaan, I see our mother as if for the first time. Her long, dark, elegant, lean hand that does not grasp the rail, alights on it like a bird unsure of landing. She stares straight ahead at no one in particular, eyelids fluttering as if to protect her eyes, which are black, radiant, yet intent upon nothing.
“Go, I don’t care what you do…”
“Really,” I say, unbelievingly. My brothers and sisters have just run downstairs past her and out the front door against her protests, not bothering to ask her permission. It’s what we do whenever he, the authority-that-is-no-longer, is not home. And because he is rarely home, we too are almost always fleeing. It seems the thing to do, the ultimate rebellion. I’m about to follow, but am just looking before I go, just checking – because no matter how selfish we become, as the first-born I need to know. It’s my habit.
Our father is away on one of his many business trips and there is chaos now and no order. There will never be order in our family again, not as we knew it, just as our father will never be a part of our family again, just as we will never again possess the close-knit sense we once had when we were kids that was itself a kind of promise, a false belief in our own family’s immortality when we were living in a dream in South America.
We were surrounded by rituals then that held us together. In Bogotá, and Talara, greeting guests, going out, even going to bed happened in unison, and we had the warmth and kindness of an extended family, friends and hired help to make life easy. But here in the north, the days of dressing up just to greet adults, of exchanging pleasantries, of exercising politeness “just because,” dissipate and die. We rush ahead, no longer part of a unit but competing against one another, with no time left for kindness or consideration.
My mother’s husky, normally mellifluous voice is flat in this frame, utterly devoid of feeling. Moved by momentary concern, I find myself asking if she wants me to stay, but she says no, so I am free to go.
Later I learn from Mara that it’s because the doctor has prescribed Valium for her to ease her anxiety that she’s acting so cool and detached. Normally, our mother is anything but laid back. Mara also informs me that she and my mother smoked pot together. Where was I that I missed that? Mara said our mother took two puffs – “Just to try it, but she said it didn’t do anything.”
Our mother is on Valium. We think that is so cool. It feels like a boon to us. For years we tease her about the way it made her.
“Mom,” we would say, “the house might have caught fire and you could have cared less when you were on that stuff.”
“You mean becuss oaf mai leetle peels. Tank god, forr mai leetle peels.”
Our mother’s spells of depression consumed us. When her writing did not go well, it was darkness everywhere, and she became a different person. She gazed at us, contempt in her eyes. Beading, her eyes told us that somehow we were to blame. Nothing we did or said could make things right. “My five serpents,” she called us, eliciting a vision of Minerva with snakes coiled around her head.
Didn’t the snakes inspire, keep her company?
On the bad days, she misplaced her glasses, her purse, her keys and you could find them anywhere, even in the most unlikely places. Her big, black-framed glasses might be found propped on a refrigerator shelf looking like a weird accident. On such days, my mother couldn’t do anything properly. One time, distracted, she seared a roast, still with its plastic wrap on. When I mentioned to her that she was burning plastic, my mother, the inventor, insisted the butcher had told her this is the best way to sear meat!
If her mood was merely dark and not malevolent, I could approach her.
“Mom, are you okay? What can I do?”
“Nothing, nothing, Arya. It’s not your fault. It’s my writing, my life. I will never accomplish anything. This has all been a waste.”
“Oh mother, that’s not true. Please don’t say that. You’re very good. I love that story you wrote the other day about the campesinos. It’s wonderful.”
“No, no. That story is shit, shit. No one is going to publish that. No one here wants to read about South American peasants. I am cursed, Arya, cursed.”
It was virtually impossible to lift my mother from her deep, dark place. Even though my siblings and I each took turns playing doctor, psychologist, clown and muse with her, on her bad days, we succumbed, growing listless with her, un-talkative, a little afraid. Will she ever come out of it? What does dad think? Does he know she’s so depressed?
If there were prayers, they were surely private. Although we’d been raised Catholic, we avoided Mass. When dad was away and Sunday came, we pretended to go to church, running out the door and packing into the red Mach I, the kids’ car. But instead of going to Mass, we crossed the New York border to buy Boone’s Farm wine, then cruised, drank and smoked dope.
Like most kids we knew, we just did what we wanted. With our friends, we competed for the biggest allowances, the coolest cars and clothes, the latest and best models of skis and tennis rackets, the most decadent parties.
By the time I was 17, we were all teenagers in our family, each of us with our own habit of constantly harassing our mother for favors, staying out late, getting our way. We didn’t take no for an answer, and our mother just couldn’t take it. Once, she just threw herself on the floor, screaming, shaking her head and kicking, her hands gripping her hair. She was desperate, and it stopped us all right. Mara ran into the bedroom she shared with Jane and sealed herself inside the closet. Jane jumped into bed, pulling the covers over her head. Jake ran upstairs and got on his knees in the middle of the bedroom he shared with Blaine and began praying. Blaine hopped into his bed, placing the small narrow pillow he’d had since he was a baby over his face, and began rocking to and fro. It was the way Blaine dealt with his migraines too, which were almost a daily event. I remember taking charge that day by running into my parents’ bathroom, grabbing hold of the nearest towel, dampening it and swishing it gently across my mother’s face.
Her periods of depression intensified with our bad behavior and our dad’s absences, and could only be assuaged by a miracle, it seemed. The small miracle was laughter, which we kids could sometimes work. Blaine was a great mimic and could slay us all with his imitations of teachers and ladies we knew playing tennis. All he had to do was twitch his raised eyebrows like someone debonair to crack our mother up. But the only happiness she really wanted was a short story acceptance in a literary magazine.
We rejoiced with her when she won top prize at a big writing conference and each time she got published in The New Yorker, and we became giddy with her when she succeeded in publishing her first novel. The bigger the success, the longer the period of elation. But we always knew, even as we experienced the joy of one of her accomplishments, that the mood would not last long and that a descent into darkness would be inevitable. The bigger the triumph, the deeper the plunge that followed.
In those days, before therapy was a staple of North American life, we didn’t have a clue about bipolar disease, and simply viewed depression and unpredictability as our mother’s natural states. Aside from her brief stint with Valium, my mother’s only medication for her highs and lows was her writing. It was her panacea, demon and savior.
Her bad days were awful, but when she was in good spirits, she could lift you so high, it erased everything that had come before. On her good days, all our mother had to do was walk into a room full of people and there would be no one else anyone paid attention to. She delivered a story, gesticulating with her hands, flipping from English to Spanish, mesmerizing, making you look and listen with your entire being and hunger for more. It was also true that she listened with the same degree of intensity and enthusiasm, and this was also what drew people to her.
She wanted to seduce with her writing too. My mother wrote in a frenzy. There was so much to say and she only had a few hours to get it all down before we returned home from school and devastated her peace and quiet.
I understood from the start how truly important writing was to our mother and did what I could to help, even editing her stories. The changes I made usually had to do with grammar, the order of a sentence, a misspelled word. She was always so grateful for the corrections, as if they were a kind of love for which she was desperate and the only kind of love she cared to get. She kept saying she wanted “to conquer the English language,” and strove to get rid of her accent, which she viewed as an obstacle. She never did get rid of it, turning it into an asset, an exotic charm that accented her amazing vocabulary.
My sisters and I were passionate advocates of our mother’s writing and avid readers like her. Weekends, in our early teens when our dad was away, we hung out in our dad’s den with our mother, reading and discussing, Jane twirling a stray strand of her auburn hair with one forefinger as she pored over the works of Jane Austen or the Brontes. Mara, who favored Dostoevsky, Proust and Collette, sat with an open book on her lap, back straight, reading in the fashion of our mother with one hand propping her chin. I liked to read lying down, stretched across the soft brown leather couch in the den, my face so close to the page I could practically smell the text. Reading for me was sensual, and I preferred the short story form and the minimalists, as did our mother. Dressed in a colorful mu-mu, a turban on her head, my mother presided in my dad’s “king” leather chair.
We couldn’t read without opining. The more we read, the more we learned to discuss articulately what we felt about what we were reading. My mother encouraged us to be bold, even outrageous.
“Absolutely,” or “Absolutely not!” she would cry out, raising the forefinger of one hand to feed or stymie one of our opinions. A blow to a favorite writer was always personal.
“How can you say that!”
We couldn’t disengage from what we loved. Hearing our commotion on their way outdoors to play tennis or football, my brothers would peer into the den, gazing at us askance, somewhat suspect that an idea, a story, could hold us in such thrall and elicit such emotion.
The rare moments of these gatherings may have given us the illusion that we were close, a unit, but we were far from that. It was as if each one of us was that one firecracker every family tends to have that keeps everyone in a state of constant attention and alarm. In our household, there wasn’t one person like that, but seven, and with time, we seemed only to progress toward combustibility.
One wintry day, after an argument, Mara and Jake decided to resolve differences re-enacting the switchblade fight scene from West Side Story, knives in hand, across the street on a frozen pond. The Sterling boys stood behind Jake yelling, “Get her! Get her!” while Jane and I stood by Mara.
“You die, you die,” Mara kept saying as she circled Jake, jabbing the air with the small kitchen knife that was her weapon. Whenever Jake and Mara got too close, slipping and sliding on the ice in their rubber boots, Jane jumped in, “Okay, cool it! Cool it!” Mara grabbed a corner of Jake’s ski jacket and threw him down, then pounced on him, aiming her knife at his jugular. Luckily, it was a clear win, so no blood had to be drawn.
Violence was in the air and under our skin. Our dad had a harsh, cold temper. This meant you did what he said or suffered the consequences, which usually meant a mighty blow. He yanked his daughters by the arm and attempted to stare us down, teeth gritted, to win a point, and pinned my brothers up against a wall and raised them up by the scruff of the neck if they didn’t do as told. He never played with us as if we were kids, tackling us playing football and stepping on our heads when he came up behind us in the swimming pool. Rough and hard, he acted with us as if we were his equals physically, bullying us to get his way. There was no time to be gentle, only time to get ahead.
Our mother hollered a lot and banged on doors to stop a ruckus, and threatened to tell my father all the things we’d done wrong when he got home. There was so much to tell though, and she was so exhausted by the time he got home from a trip, and so fearful of his reactions to being told the truth, that there was little choice but to keep the crap she knew about us to herself. When dad did get home, he just wanted to play tennis, drink cocktails, watch football and relax. He didn’t want hassles. He didn’t want to know about Jake’s smoking pot, or his stealing Ana’s car and being caught driving up a one-way street in town during the wee hours. He didn’t want to know who’d just gotten suspended from school or whose fault it was there was a dented car in the driveway. He just paid for the problem and tried to forget about it, going back to what he liked doing best, living in his distractions. It was what we each did best.
Dad bought a hot red MG to drive to play tennis, fearing his Benz was too wide to take down the narrow, winding roads to the club, and he bought a sailboat that slept seven that decorated his view of the bay alongside his office in Rowayton. His toys were his rewards, but not for us. He was wise not to let us drive the MG, and, although we did on occasion go out with him on his sailboat just to enjoy a ride, it became the vehicle he used to leave everything, including his job, taking off for weeks at a time on excursions with his buddies along the Hudson or to fish along the coasts of Maine or Cape Cod.
On the Talareña, his sea mistress, he concentrated on the ritual of keeping us on course and became a different man, somber and intent, without the aggression that his business on land demanded. Watching him grip the wheel, his eyes on the distance, you sensed him disappearing into an infinite and unfathomable loneliness, and he held onto that wheel as to his loneliness as if they were the only things he truly possessed.
In New Canaan, my relationship to my dad ended and a new relationship began with my mother, one in which I played mentor. The perfect image I’d had of my dad, the little girl’s image of the heroic strong guy who would always be there, shattered as he kept disappearing, lured by the demands of his job and the promise of money, success and power. Dad’s business took him for months to places like Brazil, Amsterdam and South Africa, and when he was gone, my mother, sisters, brothers and I were left to fend on our own. Once in a while, dad took our mother with him on a trip, leaving us with Ana, who was mild-tempered and easy to be around. She didn’t know how to cook much more than rice and beans, hamburgers and hot dogs, but she did all the other chores our mother couldn’t handle, and we considered her part of our family.
Once, when I was 12, and Ana, visiting her aunt in Peru, our parents decided to take off for two weeks to Europe. Grandma Jenkins agreed to fly east to sit for us, but swore afterwards never to do it again. It was a time she would not soon forget.
Jake put a ladder up against the house and disappeared out the window of his third-story room almost every night to party with his friends. We smoked whenever and wherever we felt like it. I got drunk with a friend on sherry from my dad’s bar. We got so out of hand, our grandmother locked us out of the house, so we broke into the freezers in the garage, stole ice cream and pies and set meats that had been stored there out in the sun, where they rotted. We got our grandmother so riled she couldn’t speak, just chase us around the house with a broom. Nights, she dragged us into Mara’s and Jane’s bedroom, and kneeling before Jane’s bed, her clasped hands stretched across the mattress quilt, prayed aloud, “May God bless your poor, poor parents and all they have to endure with you kids.”
* * *
Before our whole family devolved into madness, during a season of hope when my mother was studying to be a writer, I met my first love, Jim, who was my age, 13. He was the son of my mother’s first writing teacher, Jean Cushing, and had what was for me the enviable position of being the only child of two intellectuals – his father was a publisher. During one of her inspired moments, my mother asked Jean bring her son along one afternoon when they were scheduled to discuss writing over tea.
Jim was like no one my age I had ever met, well versed in music and literature, quick-witted, conversant and shy, all at once. I remember us sitting together in the basement den of the house, listening to Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” Jim was wearing loafers, shorts, a long sleeved, khaki shirt and red, white and blue tie. He had blond hair with thick curls, and as he began riffing on what he knew of music, which was considerable, and well beyond me, he kept fidgeting with his tie, stuttering slightly, a characteristic that endeared me even more to him.
Soon after our first meeting, Jim and his parents moved away to California, and for two years Jim wrote me long, extraordinary letters, his take on what was happening in our time and in the world. From him, I learned about Jim Morrison and the Doors, Frank Zappa, the peace movement and McGovern, and the tragic mess of Vietnam. By the time Jim had saved up money to see me again, we had all rounded the bend toward chaos in New Canaan and he found himself visiting a disaster in the making.
Jim was the sort of boy who demanded attention and quiet time together and I couldn’t give him enough of either. Besides, the eyes and ears of my siblings and parents were on us. The sensitivity I so treasured in Jim was viewed as fey by my sisters and brothers, who made no effort to mask their derision, and their negative attention threatened to strip away what had been both private and sacred to me. So, in a fashion that would become characteristic for me, I severed the tie with him rather than see it spoiled. He threatened to cut his wrists in the basement room of our house where he was sleeping, muttering under his breath that we’d have “a bloody genius on our hands,” but after a couple of days he quieted down. In the end, he simply shook my hand and went away. There were no more letters after that. Years later, I would seek him out and not be surprised that he’d become a poet and teacher. It seemed fitting that he’d taken the gifts I’d spurned, honing them exquisitely, and offered them to others.
* * * *
At 15, I was the kid our mother called a Mexican Jumping Bean, skipping around the house, singing popular tunes, trying to make everybody happy. But at night, I holed up in my room to write poetry – usually about death. It was everywhere after all. I wrote about kids overdosing, about soldiers dying in Vietnam and about someone who felt old inside, like she’s dying.
Mara was almost as tall as my dad, her blond hair darkening, although she still wore it in braids. She was a jock and rebel and liked sounding off to authorities, parents and teachers alike, which got her suspended then expelled from the private school we both attended. She became part of a doper crowd at the public high school, then, at 14, ran away. Wearing her favorite Converse high top sneakers and our dad’s trench coat, she disappeared among pimps, prostitutes and drug addicts in New York’s East Village for two weeks that were a lifetime.
My father searched for her with a young man from his office and handed Jane and I each a wad of tens and twenties so we could corral people on the street to help find her. Jane and I flashed Mara’s passport-sized photo to shop owners and hippies, handing over bills for clues that might lead us to her. We were led down rickety stairs to decrepit basements, where there were grimy, stained mattresses, discarded needles and foreign debris. Once, we waded in dirty basement water up to our knees, only to have our guide disappear somewhere ahead in the darkness. The filth was unbearable, frightening, strange, and nowhere was our sister. We couldn’t fathom she was spending time in such places. In pieces, Jane and I heard a story too outrageous to believe from a blond hippie who informed us she’s “whoring for a black pimp, selling dope and doing all right on the streets. She’s cool.” We didn’t believe him, of course.
Eventually, our dad found Mara smoking dope in a circle of hippies at a corner of MacDougal Street. Her hair, out of her braids, was in an Afro and she was wearing striped pants, boots and a vest, clothes that didn’t belong to her. She wouldn’t come home, and afterwards, Mara told us she refused even though our dad begged. “Please come home. Please,” he said to her, teeth gritted, teary-eyed, fists clenched at his sides. Mara finally did come home on her own after the party had run out, after she’d been assaulted and taken for too many rides and gotten tired of the price of being a tough girl on a long night out.
Habits being the only pull toward intimacy we follow, one dull, fall day, Mara and I find ourselves both straying from the house at the same time for some tugs on a joint and a cigarette. Mara’s wearing a smart tan jacket, new tan corduroy pants and desert boots bought by my parents — as if a brand new outfit might erase her internal fray and return her to how she used to be. I don’t remember how she used to be. I only know the stranger she is now.
Her hair’s in a loose ponytail and she’s wearing a peculiar scent I later recognize as patchouli. We crouch at the periphery of some woods as she reaches into her jacket pocket and pulls out a plastic bag with stringy dope that she deftly rolls into a joint. Her hands are long and graceful like our mother’s, so I fix on them, the only point of familiarity. I still feel like I’m walking on glass shards around her, still raw from all the feelings the search for her with Jane dredged up.
“What was it like, Mara?” I want to know. She keeps turning toward the street, taking short fast tugs, holding them in for a long time. She frowns, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” It’s her way of telling me it was bad, whatever happened was bad. She doesn’t feel like anyone I know, and this makes me desperate. “Are you back? You won’t go away again, will you?”
“I don’t know,” she tells me. “I’m still thinking of it,” like “it” is a form of suicide. Her response cuts through me, but I don’t say anything, just nod, the cool nod that people give that means everything and nothing at all.
It’s in part to keep Mara from getting bored and leaving home again after she returns that Jane, Jake and I embark on a routine of intense partying that rivals that of just about everyone we know. Our parents send Mara to a shrink and we carry on together – Mara, Jane and Jake and I — rather than let her go off into bedlam alone.
Jane, the pretender, acts like she’s fucked up when she really is somewhere above it all, gauging her footsteps into the future, a bright future where adult responsibilities clearly await her, and she is not afraid. She is the one who comes in-between all our disagreements. Brave, stalwart, she stretches her athletic arms between warring parties and yells, “stop,” and for a moment makes us. She is the one who is respected back, even if only silently, mentally, who never asks for anything and never gets what she wants, which is everything.
Jake’s presence like our father’s becomes ephemeral soon as he starts learning to be a man. At age six or seven, he’s the boy who runs crying into the house after accidentally stepping on a mole alongside the swimming pool fence. Inconsolable for the small thing he killed, his tears don’t let up, even after he is teased and taunted. Exposing vulnerability, he has broken an unspoken rule. Somebody’s voice in our household always rings out in the wake of somebody’s failure or flaw. The voice belongs to all of us, and to our parents too, and never lets up, pricking at weakness until it is gone.
Jake, the first-born son, was expected to learn men’s games early on. When he started playing Pop Warner, he exercised, decked out in his uniform and helmet, running up and down the steps of our house for what seemed hours — even after our mother nagged him about wearing down the rugs. It was a kind of meditation preparing for football season and Jake was a finely tuned athlete, the quarterback of his team. The local newspaper published photographs of him tossing the ball, and our father became obsessed with that one who seemed most destined to become like him. The love took the form of attending Jake’s games and pushing him with constant man-to-man chats, intimidating stares, visceral expectations that could be felt in the very air. I can still see Jake, stationed on the footstool in front of my father’s leather chair, his elbows propped on his knees, long hair dangling over his face in an attempt to keep his gaze from meeting our father’s intense glare. I remember overhearing an attempt to bribe Jake to run as president of his sixth grade class. But the attempt, like all others failed, serving only to drive Jake away. He ran away twice himself, overnight disappearances, mischievous larks, nothing on the scale Mara had pulled.
All summer long through our teen years we hold an open air den that anybody who contributes anything illicit to can join. We keep brews cold in a small refrigerator in the one-car garage that has been converted into a shed at the end of the back drive, and drink, smoke dope and hang by the pool, until we get so fidgety we have to take off somewhere, anywhere. There’s a round white table and blue umbrella in one corner, and I sit there, my bare feet propped on the table as I nurse g & t’s in a tumbler. Drinking is easy, and dope everywhere. If someone brings hits of mescaline or acid, we pop that.
People come and go. Sometimes we know them, sometimes not; either way, it doesn’t matter. When we get bored, we hop into somebody’s car and go some place else, somebody else’s house, anywhere, to smoke somebody else’s stash and drink somebody else’s brew. Our friends live in sections of houses rarely if ever visited by their parents, with their own television, film screens and sound systems that allow them to blast sound to the moon. Eventually, we come back to our place and party some more. People often pass out by the pool, but no parents ever call, and no one ever comes to pick anybody up who can’t make it home on their own. New Canaan is that place, after all that while affluent and trendy, is missing something crucial. Nowhere can you find its heart. Perhaps the disease of heartlessness that affects us here affects the culture at large, but I don’t know about this, only where I live.
I remember always longing for conversation with somebody, something truthful exchanged. But there were lies everywhere. The lies of silence, yelling and nobody there. My boyfriends came and went. I let their pale, cool bodies sidle up to my warm hips under the sun during the day in exchange for the free tokes they provided at night that were as intimate as anything we shared, hovering close, lingering over the scent and the smoke, touching each other’s fingertips when we passed a joint.
I remember Jay with wild hair like a jangled sun, and riding behind him so fast on his motorcycle, his narrow hips disintegrated in the wind beneath my touch. We rode to see A Clockwork Orange, and I got up during the movie to get something to drink, and reached for money, but the two Quaaludes and one g & t Jay had fed me, had screwed me up so much, I couldn’t find my pants’ pockets. All I could think was how great it was that you could get this high on just the calories of one drink. And I thought too watching the screen – the actor with the huge painted eye, the plastic penises cavorting, the whipping in the rain — that everything was meaningless, including the empty ticket beside me dissolving into laughter.
My mother’s voice interrupts the night. I can still hear her hollering her mother’s credentials into the dark. She knew we were smoking weed and partying, but there was nothing she could do, although there was a while when, just as we as we came in the back door, she peered into our eyeballs, checking for redness, as if that was the only telltale sign of being high. We carried around bottles of Murine to stump her. Our mother’s voice rang hollow when she sang our names as if into an empty well. It was just the night, and we each fed it with our small hopes and empty prayers, but there were words missing for me – they slept somewhere, and I missed them as much as care.
* * * *
Our mother did what ever it took to reel us in, and our father too. Shards of humor always mixed with desperation. She thought nothing of driving up to the Lake Club to yank our father off the courts if she felt he’d played too long and risked compromising his health in the heat. Wearing one of her signature wide-brimmed straw hats as if to alert everyone she was coming, she’d start calling, “John! John!” while descending the steps to the courts. “John!” “John” she’d holler from behind the wire mesh of the court where he played. “Please, in the name of God, stop!” She lifted the door latch if necessary, and entered, waving her arms hysterically until there was no option for him but to stop. Wiping sweat off his brow with one arm, grimacing maniacally, full of resentment, dad had to comply. Like a dutiful child who’d been punished and forced to return home early from play, my father followed his wife up the steps, shaking his head with annoyance, thwacking the air vigorously with his racket to fend off her disturbance.
My parents played and partied as hard as they worked. Between the club scene and gallery jaunts and my mother’s writers’ conferences and New York trips to see plays, they amassed an impressive collection of friends that included Broadway producers, actors, artists and writers like Anatole Broyard, the New York Times Book Review editor, and his wife Sandy, who was a dancer. Long before it became the subject of a book by his daughter, Anatole confided to my mother, who liked to fancy herself part Black, that he had African-American roots.
Dressed to the nines, wearing impressive jewelry my father brought back from his trips to South Africa and Latin America, my mother flourished her hands with many rings, her short cropped handsome head turning from side to side as she played the role of diva raconteur. My balding father stood on the sidelines, looking the part of the mogul in his navy jacket and bow tie, grinning confidently, with the props of his martini and cigar – our mother was his, after all.
Among our parents’ friends were the Steins. She was a musician, a descendant of the suffragette Susan B. Anthony, and her husband, a world-class sculptor whose egoism was legendary. Their son Jacob was always trying to make things, and his father, always telling him he didn’t have talent and should give up trying to be creative because what he was doing wouldn’t amount to much. His mother often complained to our mother about how oppressed she felt in her marriage and how helpless to defend her son against his father’s wicked nagging. It took years after Jacob left home for her to get up the courage to leave her husband.
Jacob fell into drugs and never got out. In my 20s, I would glance out the window of the AA room I frequented in a church in Westport and watch him running shirtless around the parking lot, dragging stacks of truck tires attached to his bare torso by chains. Later, I heard he was evicted from an apartment in Black Rock, where he lived alone, collecting rats for an experiment of some sort.
But in the 60s, when we were just kids, hanging out together while our parents got drunk and high on their accomplishments, Jacob was a sweet boy, always in a corner alone, tinkering with a toy or bunch of sticks or incongruous things. Shaggy haired and wide-eyed, he was like one of those popular painted gamins on black velvet that were considered tacky, cliché.
While we drank and ran away, our mother just kept writing. It helped alleviate her sense of alienation and gloom, bringing her back to what mattered most to her. Her memory percolated with dramatic stories from her past that couldn’t compare to the daily drudgery of being a housewife in New Canaan. Yet, tragedy did erupt out of the doldrums, unexpectedly as fire. People lived in mansions set so far from the road you couldn’t see them when you drove by, and led invisible lives no one noticed until something broke or someone died.
In my early teens, I babysat for our next door neighbors’ one-year old, Charlie. Mrs. Parker paid me with gifts instead of money. I remember a pastel-colored ceramic clown that I used as a pen holder, and also a biography of Queen Marie Antoinette, which I read. The Parkers’ house was always dark, and Charlie, a beautiful, curly-haired Gerber baby, slept angelically, curled up in his crib, his eyelashes quivering over the boat of his kid dreams.
Whenever the Parkers returned home from an outing, Mr. Parker, who was an attorney, went swiftly to his den to work on papers, and Mrs. Parker joined me in Charlie’s room. Sitting quietly on a chair, still in the dark, she’d ask me how I was, what my parents were up to, always commenting, “It’s so quiet here. Isn’t this house big?”
The Parkers had moved to New Canaan from the Midwest, like us, and I thought it odd that even on dusky afternoons when I babysat for them, even when he was not home, she would silently navigate the house in the dark, wine glass in hand, touching objects delicately, the tops of dining room chairs and tabletops, as if she’d finally found friends in whom she could confide and that understood her, wordlessly.
When Charlie was around two, Mrs. Parker got it into her head that it would be a good idea to clip a pimple that had appeared on Charlie’s butt with a pair of scissors. Her husband promptly had her committed for that. A month or so later, she hung herself with a bra strap in a mental institution down the road. A year or so after that, Charlie and his father moved away.
The idea of suicide like a malevolent ghost drifted up and down Mariomi Street, just missing our own street. We should have dubbed that ghost the Mariomi Killer. The ghost found women who’d been abandoned by their husbands and had somehow failed to fend off the demands of the culture at large – To be attached, to thrive as an appendage, a woman cushioned by her husband in what was still a world of men.
The Mariomi ghost took the Sterling’s mother too. A widow, she had raised three boys alone. Cocktail and cigarette in hand, wearing a short black dress and net stockings, her red lipstick smeared so that it made her mouth look raw is how I always remember her. I’d come over to baby sit her boys and she’d be manic, going on and on about the men coming to pick her up that never returned. Do you think he’ll like me? How do I look? She would repeat this strutting around the house, calling her boys, who never came or did as told. One day, after school, her youngest, a third grader at the time, found her in the garage, the engine switched on. Car exhaust, and pills mixed with booze had got her. That’s what we heard.
Ingrid Decker, an artist friend of my mother’s, who suffered from depression related to her art, my mother said, killed herself too, all these women, all in the space of about three years. She painted watercolors, pale landscapes that hung in large plain wooden frames in her house. Tall, thin and reserved, Mrs. Decker was a New Englander who knew how to speak Spanish because she and her husband traveled a great deal to Mexico and Spain. His business was exporting or importing, and he spent most of his time abroad. Even after his wife’s death, I never saw him home.
Although I hardly remember Mrs. Decker, Mara and I knew her sons well. The older one, James, wore a thin beard and was a junior when I was a freshman, and Mara and Jane, still in grammar school. The other son, Andy, blond and frail, was Mara’s age. An artist too, he sketched wild psychedelic creatures in pen and ink. It was Andy who found his mother stretched out on her bed after she’d put a bullet through her brain, and Andy who seemed to suffer most in the aftermath of her suicide. For a while he hid from everybody, starving himself, taking only sips of water and morsels of rice. One day, in this state, he ran into my mother at the local library.
“What is the matter with you,” she said to him in her characteristically direct fashion.
“I want to be like Gandhi,” he told her.
“You are going to kill yourself. Please, in the name of God, you have to eat!” Soon after that, Ana, who my parents had sent to the Decker’s to help out after Mrs. Decker’s suicide, reported to us that Andy had returned to eating arroz con pollo and was drinking leche, not just water. Our mother said when she ran into him at the library, his pants “looked like sacks and his arms like sticks. He was disappearing.”
Our mother disappeared into her writing and we disappeared into our respective routines of school and after-school life and rarely convened to share anything personal, not even what was happening in our daily lives, except over dinner when our father was home. It was the only time we found ourselves together, and we chatted so much that our dad imposed the rule of not talking at all except to answer his structured questions. He’d grab a radish from the bowl of them that always accompanied his main meal, brandishing the radish in the air as if for emphasis as he contemplated a current events question. Our eyes would roll and our hands fidget under the table. Our mother, who abhorred authoritarianism, couldn’t resist interrupting, and launch into a colorful tale. And we’d follow suit, each one of us trying to outwit the other, doing what we could to stretch out the laughter.
Over the years, no matter how far away each of us got, we always found our way home, to search out what was there, to pretend to be a part of a whole. Blaine became a tennis pro, and went out to live in the Midwest, and Mara became, of all things, a librarian, and jazz critic. During the first Gulf War, Jake took off for Patagonia, hoping to re-create the idyllic life of his youth, fishing, and writing about his adventures like the literary son of Hemingway he was. Like a true son, he followed in his father’s footsteps and drank himself to death, leaving two children, a boy and a girl, who were only five and seven when he passed away. Only Jane married, and with her husband, raised three splendid kids while maintaining a job as top financial executive. It still strikes me as both odd and fitting that the middle one among us, the one who always got left out growing up, would turn out to be such a bright star in the end.
Mara’s free-spirited impulse to see the world appeared to condemn us. In truth, it should have been viewed as a wake-up call. After all, it wasn’t up to us children to come up with answers, even if a child like Mara could, with one willful stroke of brilliant clarity, point out to our parents that all they had assumed was right for us was not.
Blaine informed me recently that Ang Lee, the director of Ice Storm, a film set in New Canaan in the late 70s, interviewed hundreds of people in our town while making the film, and used him as a model for the young, messed up kid with the bull whip who liked blowing things up in the backyard. Jake and Blaine both had a fixation with a bull whip and unfortunately, it was small animals they usually blew up in the woods.
Things really were far worse than Lee depicted in his movie, far more cruel and alienating. How it is that Jake could have gone from being a tender boy who wept over dead animals to one who would blow them up, I don’t know. I don’t know what triggered the switch for him or what trick in his brain led him to believe it would be wise to turn alcoholic either, although I could relate more to that plan. For everyone I knew for many years, the best choice was to obliterate, not to think, to find comfort somewhere behind the numbness of being. Of being what, I wonder – Forgotten children? Americans? Not quite of one world or another? It is true, I think, that not one of us knew who we were, and it is the pretense I am remembering, our terrible pretense of being. From that place, how could we have seen one another?