To give a full account of myself, the story has to go way back, to when my big sister Nan, our single-parent mom and I lived, together with a sheltering layer of three old folks, in a place where an actual lamplighter made his nightly rounds, and a tiny old man in a cap pushed a wagon crying, “Ra-a-a-a-gs! Bring out your rags!” It felt more like the 1920s than the 1950s, honestly, a feeling intensified by the fact that these elders were all born within a decade of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox courthouse. (And what a thing that was, to listen to the musings of people who remembered the 1870s!)
When these dear old ones died, as they did within a year of one another, the house was sold, and we needed a new place to live. Lucky for us, our sweet Aunt Grace and her husband Jack invited us to come live with them in the new town they were just then moving to. There, for the first time, Nan and I lived a real Leave-it-to-Beaver-style life, replete with bike parades and ice-skating on the flooded vegetable patch in the Talbots’ backyard. It felt like heaven for four great years – until old demons returned to claim this uncle who, on the morning after my junior high graduation, cleared out the bank accounts and left us for keeps.
We were four females alone then, with creditors calling the house day and night in the wake of his manic spending. Mom and Aunt Grace seemed as upbeat as funny as ever at the kitchen table, maybe moreso with Uncle Jack gone, but I could sense that they were scared. That’s when I got the notion that I could save us all by getting a scholarship to a top school.
It was the first flash of insight I had ever experienced and it came with the realization that I had agency; I could make things happen.
A thousand high school all-nighters later, it did happen. I arrived on the Smith College campus where I was encouraged by most of my profs though not all, notably the one who covered my virgin effort for her with stinging comments. “Whence this gratuitous observation?” she scribbled on my second page; I still have the paper.) Her angry vehemence came as a shock to me since I’d always figured God liked it when we made observations of any kind, because it showed we were paying attention. How I got from that low point to a magna cum laude I do not know. I remember being so fearful of the sciences that when it came time for an oral presentation in my intro-level Geology course, I pretended to be so suddenly taken sick that kindly, no-longer-young Professor Schalk offered to give me a ride to the Infirmary on the handlebars of his bicycle. (I still tingle with shame at that example of my low nature!)
And then finally, there was Daniel Aaron, a giant in the field of American Studies, who just plain taught me how to write.
I cherished the friends I made there, and the way we gathered nights in the comically sloping hallways of dorm – an old frame house built 150 years before – to compare childhoods in a semi-serious but-mostly-jokey sort of way. I cherished them too for not minding when I fell in love the summer before junior year and began taking off on weekends to be with the person I would marry three weeks after Commencement, the person with whom I have made a life.
That was when I decided to postpone further education for the sake of the really big bucks: the ‘princely’ $6900 a year I would earn as a high school English teacher in the Cambridge-adjacent city of Somerville. We rented a fifth-floor walk-up in Allston and David worked toward the MBA. But a year later, when, having been accepted into the Masters of English program at BU, I found I couldn’t bear to leave the classroom, and there came a second flash of understanding: I realized that nothing had ever felt more important to me than spending time with young people, who ever and always are doing the crucial work of growing a self that feels authentic to them. This remains true for me still and I continue to work with teens, principally through my town’s residential chapter of A Better Chance. Since 1982, I have driven to plays and movies and nights on the town with generation after generation of these young scholars in a vehicle with seven seatbelts. Now, for their sake, I am shortly to buy a vehicle with eight.
I adored having children of my, own with their art projects and their Strawberry Shortcake dolls and that Cabbage Patch Kid I stood in line so long for and who, come to think of it, I’m starting to look like. I loved the long talks we got to have, sitting on the stairs or perched on the edge of their beds nights.
Still, I missed the wider communication and one day at naptime I opened my high school yearbook and saw a reference to my old dream of being a writer. I whipped up a quick 700-word bouquet of gratuitous observation and brought it to my local paper. “Can you do this every week?” The editor asked. I could and I did. I produced, marketed and sold this light personal observation column every single week for the next 36 years, and there came another insight: I loved comforting people and making them smile. I even worked in six years as a massage therapist to bring comfort and healing without using words at all.
In 1986, before the space shuttle Challenger exploded before all our eyes, I learned I had made it clear to the finals in the Journalist-in-Space competition. I remember the morning my name went out over the wire. It was just before a local news crew arrived and I was in the bathroom watching David shave. “Do I really want to go up there?” I asked him. “It depends,” he said. “Do you want to see your name in the history books?”
I didn’t give a hoot about seeing my name in the history books and there was another insight: I didn’t care about accolades. and I never did go to grad school.
In my early years I craved attention; talked and wrote my head off; did all these magazine shows, ostensibly to promote my books but really just because it was such fun to improvise on live TV and radio.
I don’t do any of that now. Now I’d much rather listen than talk.
So here I am beginning upon this eighth decade of life. It can scare me to dwell on that that.
But my big sister Nan, who has been in Hospice since March of 2019 is still here and still the funniest person around: “Have you SEEN these diapers they put on me? They’re sized for Man ‘o War!” she said during one of my early visits.
Oh Nan, what will I do without you, you who earnestly told me, back in that first house, that girls got their periods at 12, and boys got theirs at 15? What will any of us do but keep loving whoever is ours to love?