A Literary Life
I liked the fact that Mrs. March from Little Women served tea every afternoon. But my mother, a school-crossing guard, was usually rushing in with the groceries at about 5 p. m. -- tea time -- still wearing her blue uniform with the white straps that wrapped over her shoulder, across her chest, then around her waist. I remember suggesting to her that our family have tea. We didn't have a parlor and we rarely used the living room, but the kitchen would do. My mother didn't even wonder where I got such an idea; she never suspected that it wasn't the tea I was after; it was the ritual, the ceremony, the "refinement" of it all, though at ten I didn't even know that such a word existed.
"Your father likes Coca Cola, " my mother said. "Who wants hot tea?"
I cannot remember where I even got a copy of Little Women. We subscribed to Life magazine, and every afternoon after I was old enough to cross the street, I would buy the news paper The Journal American for my mother, but there were few if any books in our house.
My family thought I was a weird kid, always reading. My Uncle Joe had a theory. Although we were Italian-American and lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, my mother's obstetrician was affiliated with Maimonides Medical Center in Flatbush, so that's where I was born. My mother complained for years about the Kosher food she was served.
"The food ain't the only thing they stuck you with," my uncle told my mother one day. "They stuck you with the wrong kid. You got a Jewish kid. She don't like to eat and she's always reading. She can't be Italian." This joke expanded each time it was repeated. My other Italian aunts and uncles began to speculate about the whereabouts of my mother's real daughter.
"I can just see it now," my Uncle Victor declared. "There's this kid in Flatbush begging her Jewish parents for lasagna, saying she won't read one more word of the big fat encyclopedias they got lying all over the house until they give her second helpings of sausage and peppers."
I liked being different. I got along with my sisters and my cousins, but I secretly felt superior to them. I remember playing Monopoly with my cousin Michael one Christmas. He could barely read the Chance cards, and he was a year older than I was. By then, my family had nicknamed me Einstein, and everyone in our apartment building said that I was a girl with "a brain in her head." Gert, our next-door neighbor, praised my intelligence. She thought I was an intellectual like Dorothy Kilgallen, the one who guessed who the celebrity was on What's My Line even more often than Bennett Serf.
I must have read other things in grammar school, but I can only remember, in addition to some poems we were made to recite in unison, the monthly Maryknoll Missionary magazines and The Lives of the Saints. We all delighted over the gory accounts of missionaries having their fingernails pulled out for Christ or having their eyelids held open with toothpicks for refusing to renounce their faith. The Lives of the Saints was a thick old book with a faded maroon cover which my fourth-grade teacher always kept on her desk. She'd read from it whenever there was extra time between math and the 3 o'clock dismissal bell.
I will never forget the story of a pious man who should have been canonized but who would forever remain only blessed He had led a devout life; he had always suffered and been kind turning the other cheek and giving all he had to the poor, even risking starvation. He had, however, had the misfortune of being buried alive; medical procedures for determining death were unreliable in those days, Sister explained. When they dug up his body to see if it had not decomposed (a message from God himself to attest to one's saintliness), they discovered that the ma had scratched the inside cover of his coffin to splinters. He had blood and hair under his fingernails and a very black look on his face. The saint makers had no choice but to wonder whether or not he had renounced God, so back into the ground he went; he would remain forever only beatified -- no sainthood for him.
This story affected me so deeply that in addition to doing good deeds, I practiced being buried alive. I would be found with a smile on my face. Each night, for almost a year, clenched my fists and stuck them between my legs and said Hail Mary's while I held my breath and wondered how long it would take to suffocate. My mother would find me in this position when she came to kiss me and my sisters good night. She often looked disgusted with me; and it wasn't until about five years ago, almost thirty years later, that I realized why she had looked that way -- she must have thought I was masturbating.
No one in my life knew anything about literature. The closest anyone came was my Aunt Nancy, who frequently bragged that she had read Gone With the Wind from cover to cover.
When I read childhood accounts of writers like Eudora Welty, whose parents read to each other every evening, I almost laugh at the contrast. My parents went bowling or to the race track, except when my father, a fireman, was working the night shift. When I got to my British novel stage during the four years that I attended a Catholic high school, I became fascinated by the descriptions of libraries and of the characters who had access to them. I'm not talking about the Brooklyn Public Library here. I'm talking about those quiet, high-ceilinged rooms with shelves and shelves of leather-bound books where the characters didn't walk, they glided, and where they had servants to dust and polish.
This knowledge separated me from my family. When I was ten, I thought that we could have tea just like the Marches. But by the time I turned seventeen, I no longer wanted to have tea with my parents. I was ashamed of them, angry that they were who they were: not rich, not well-educated, not well-spoken or well-read. What an unpleasant kid I must have been! But I don't think my parents even noticed. They had bought a house and were struggling to fix it up and to pay the mortgage. They worked constantly, saving for furniture, for appliances; the cost of a new heating system almost ruined them. They saved Plaid Stamps from the A & P and redeemed them for tools. I helped my father rip down walls, mix cement, put up sheet rock. When we'd finish, he'd go off to one of his three jobs; I'd go back to my novel.
My uncles and aunts said I was book smart. They said I had no respect for people who worked for a living. But they would ask me, with sincerity, what I learned from all those books. One of my aunts wanted a traffic light installed on her street; for years she'd say that she was going to get me to write a letter to the mayor about it because I would know the fancy words to use.
I got married soon after I graduated from high school to someone as unlike my family as I could find: an Irish college graduate who worked on Wall Street. And soon after that, I enrolled in the College of Staten Island, part-time, evenings. At first, I took all literature courses -- l couldn't get enough of it: Modern British Lit and James Joyce the semester after my first daughter was born; A Survey of World Literature and British Poetry the semester my second daughter was born. I did all of George Eliot, most of Edith Wharton, and as much of Henry James and Virginia Woolf as I could understand on my own on the breaks between semesters. My professors loved me. In a classroom filled with students exhausted from working all day, I was often the only one who could distinguish between a metaphor and a simile; in fact, I was often the only one who stayed awake to try. God knows what wonderful things those grateful professors wrote in my letters of recommendation to Columbia University graduate school.
But graduate school was hard; I often didn't know what anyone was talking about, and it made me begin to regret the way I had felt and behaved with my family. I began to like them again, especially the women, especially at Sunday dinners. They never complained about housework; they had a way of folding up their sleeves and pitching in to get things done. They were comfortable and quick as they washed the huge sauce and macaroni pots. When they sponged the counters clean, the fat under their arms swayed to and fro, yet they were not encumbered by their weight. They worked briskly and efficiently; I started housecleaning jobs then left them unfinished for days, even weeks. My aunts had no need for rubber gloves or hand lotions, and they were the last generation of women on whom Weight Watchers had absolutely no effect. They expected to get fat; after each baby they had gained thirty pounds. They never lied that they were going on diets. They fried everything in deep olive oil, testing, tasting, and sampling shamelessly. They wore huge dresses that were still too tight, and they wore their stockings rolled just above their knees.
I began to realize that they had wisdom, gained, not from school and books, but from one another. They had their own community -- a community of kitchens -- in which they worked, sat, talked, advised, and most of all, laughed together. I started to write about them. I called it fiction, but I didn't fool the editor at The Hudson Review. "We love your family," she wrote, "and we'd like to publish your short story in our Spring issue."
"I hear they're putting your story in the Hudson River where it belongs," my father said, his way of showing that he was proud of me.
He died soon after, so he never knew that I became an English professor and that I continued to write. But I'm not sure what my writing would have meant to him even if he had lived. My mother certainly didn't know what to make of it. I stopped writing fiction, and soon after I became fascinated with the younger brothers of Henry and William James. I spent years researching their lives, particularly their valiant Civil War service, so that I could write a biography. My mother had never even heard of Henry or William James, much less their younger siblings, but she had heard of Patrick Henry, so at some point she made the transposition in her mind. I corrected her a few times, but then stopped when my old frustration returned. My family was ignorant; they didn't -- couldn't -- understand what I was doing, what was important to me. I didn't realize that my mother was telling all her friends in the retirement community where she had moved that her daughter was writing a book about Patrick Henry.
My mother was terribly confused and flustered at the book-signing party. She came up to me during a quiet moment and asked if maybe I had written two books.
"Who are these guys?" she asked incredulously, looking at the never-before-published photographs I had found of the younger James brothers Even Leon Edel had been impressed with these pictures, discovered in an attic in Bryn Mawr, but they meant nothing to my mother.
"What about Patrick Henry?"
I began to realize what was going on in her mind. How could she face her friends with this book when she had promised Patrick Henry? The irony of it all hit me then. I had spent an enormous part of my life being ashamed of my parents, being embarrassed by them, feeling intellectually superior to them. Now, it was my mother's turn to be mortified. Her daughter had written a book about the wrong person.
But a book with your daughter's name on the cover isn't such a bad thing, so my mother keeps her copy on the coffee table in her living room for everyone to see. I think she even tried to read it; once when I visited, I noticed that page 6 was folded down in the corner.
And now that my father is dead, my mother does read a lot more. She often reads the things that I send her, short stories mostly. Two years ago, when she had a cataract removed, I spent four days with her: caring for her, cooking for her, reading stories to her, stories that I had chosen carefully, eliminating the ones I knew would confuse and annoy her, the ones that she described as having "no real endings." When I finished reading Tillie Olsen's "Tell Me a Riddle," to her she said, "Now that's a story, Janie. That's a real life story. I can understand that story. It doesn't make me feel stupid. It makes me feel more human."
I walked into the kitchen quickly so that she wouldn't know I was crying. I took a long time to make some tea for us. Then went back into the living room and brought the tea to the couch where my mom was resting, and I served it to her. It was very peaceful and dignified and comfortable. In fact, if you didn't know us, you would have thought we were just like the characters in Little Women.
JANE MAHER is an Assistant Professor of English in the Basic Education Program at Nassau Community College, Garden City, New York. She has just completed a biography of William Stokoe, and she is the author of Biography of Broken Fortunes, the story of the lives of Wilky and Robertson James.
Copyright 1995, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly (WILLA) of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is granted to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.