Um, Those Are Your Underpants

t ivy day ;70On a lighter note today, my pal Mary just sent me this video, made eons before MTV, of Nancy Sinatra and her own 60s-era fly girls, dancing to These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.

Did women really dress like this?

They sure did. My mom was 63 years old the summer my sister Nan and I got married and wore two mother-of the-bride dresses so comically brief above the knee they looked like paper doll outfits.

And as for the hemlines on the really young women?

Well here was our rule: if your fingertips didn’t brush skin when you let your hands drop down by your sides, your skirt was too long.

Nan and I would come downstairs set to go out for the evening and our mother would rattle her teacup in its saucer and tremble so hard her cigarette ashed all down onto her clothes. We both remember the time she yelled “Oh the bust! Oh the hem!” (Luckily we married at 21 and 23, young enough so there were no consequences to be paid for going about all tarted up like that.)


Anyway this is me before the Ivy Day Parade at Smith College.

I dressed this way for a ceremony! On Commencement weekend!  

We even dressed our babies with leg showing it seems.

This is from the Christmas of ’78. The shy one looking down is my firstborn Carrie. The leggy lass beside her is Nan’s one-an-only Gracie, as we called her then whose marriage I told about here.

70s babies xmas of '78

But on to the video, seven women in their underpants doing the pony and the swim and sort of a timid shimmy. Mary’s one wry sentence appended to the message she sent it with: “I still dance like this!” Haha, she does not (but boy did I laugh…)


Big Deal

Newspapers are sure aiming for the lowest common denominator these days. boy. In the condensed headlines-only online version of the Boston Globe that appeared in my inbox yesterday it read, “This Day in History: Ally Sheedy turns 50.”

Really? News about that little fox-faced waif from The Breakfast Club tops the list of all the things that happened on July 13 over the centuries?

I clicked on that link and saw that all kinds of other things happened too, far sweeter things and more evocative things:

  • Like the fact that on that date in 1842, Queen Victoria became the first British monarch to ride on a train, traveling from Slough Railway Station to Paddington in 25 minutes. (Paddington! Like the bear! Queen Victoria, who missed her dead Prince Albert so much after his death at 42 that forever after she had the servants bring fresh water to his dressing room, the same as when he was alive!)

  • Or the fact that on that date in 1886, King Ludwig II of Bavaria drowned in Lake Starnberg. (A king drowns? Was there even an investigation? Was it like Fredo’s death in Godfather Two – or wait, that wasn’t exactly a drowning was it?)

  • Or what about on July 13, 1927 when Charles Lindbergh was honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York City? Lindbergh, that hero who turned into a pariah for saying nice things about the Nazis! I always felt like I knew the guy: my mom was in college with Anne Morrow, his future wife, who went on to live through so much, her husband’s ostracism, the kidnapping of their dear first baby, the many burdens of fame… Mom heard her once in the college book store, talking about how she had just met the famous young aviator…

So yes, my initial reaction was “Ally Sheedy? Pfffffft!” but in truth I have always identified with her, I think because she has that jaw-chin arrangement. We have that in in my family, too. I have it. See? That’s me on the right.

My girl Carrie has it too. And my mom sure had it. When she was mad she could extend that jaw of hers so far forward she looked just like a witch.

I can that do that witch trick too but I never do on account of how I’m all the time trying to frame myself as the new Mother Teresa ha ha. As for Carrie, when she sticks her chin out at work grown men run for shelter under their desks.

I read where Ally was a ballet dancer before she turned to acting. And she wrote a children’s book that made her famous before she was even old enough to vote. Her folks were these hooked-up artsy New York types so that that sure didn’t hurt.

Me I had to make it on my own (sob!) but look at what I can do now: yoga poses that make Salvador Dali’s meting watches look stiff. Or wait, is this really me or is it secretly Ally? Place yoru bets – then watch this clip from that signature high school film. Ah, Anthony Michael Hall! Ah Molly Ringwald! Emilio Estevez! Judd Nelson! Ah the lost 80s!

Still Our Baby

Today I’m taking some time away from the usual weighty drivel since it’s the birthday of our girl Annie, seen here (as a baby on the day of her christening) in the arms of my old pal Kathy, one of a small group of women with whom I wouldn’t have survived those early parenting years.

Annie was the second-born so we didn’t teach the daylights out of her like I had done with her poor big sister. We just enjoyed her.

Like any second-born, she had the sense not to take parental expectation too seriously: She told us  about the big Fourth Grade project on Native American Myths just hours before it was due, choosing as ‘her’ myth “Why the Buffalo Fears the Chipmunk,” and drawing for her buffalo a wobbly picture of a seeming mammal that bore an eerie resemblance to Herbert Hoover and using for her chipmunk our hamster-of-the-moment, decked out with tiny Indian props.

The next morning at school the hamster ate the box, Herbert and all, and escaped its shoebox to make mayhem in the classroom. Everyone loved it.

Annie knew even then how to take things in stride.

She also had amazing powers of observation. Such amazing powers of observation I decided to try apprenticing myself to her so I could notice more in life. She could ‘sketch’ for you any person in her class, not by pouring the whole dictionary n them as I tend to do but by naming just one feature and then, eerily ‘showing’ the person to you by making her face look like that person’s face. You know how that Saturday Night Live’s Darrell Hammond ‘did’ Bill Clinton mostly by biting his lower lip? It was like that. I thought even then that Annie could get a job doing impressions.

Add to that the fact that she’s funny; was funny, right out of the gate. She was only 15 when one of her big brothers said of her that no party really started until Annie got there.

Here she is one last time on the day of her graduation from that awesome school in Northampton, together with her godmother Sheila and that her big brother Dodson. Happy Birthday Annie Marotta! May you get three times the number of years you have now!


Commencement Was Yesterday

I left home for keeps at 17, when I packed up my poetry books and my dorky bike and headed for college. We drove west on old Route 2 in that car that smelled like dog no matter how often we  tried to clean it. ‘Who will ever accept me the way my family did?’ I worried on that trip, ‘me with my obsessive list-making and my line of meaningless chatter like a monkey’s?’

Then we arrived and here was my roommate from Aspen Colorado, blond and blunt and athletic. “Man, you’re Catholic?” was the first thing she said to me with high amusement. “I never met a real Catholic before!”

I felt awkward for…. oh, at least an hour on that long dark hallway our rooms lay along. But then other freshmen began opening the doors to their rooms, all our families having left gone by then and didn’t we all have our favorite pillows and our homely slippers, even the same nature posters with that legend “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World” printed along the bottom. By the end of that first day freshman year I had six new friends. And by the first day of sophomore year I couldn’t wait to get back to campus, a feeling that kept multiplying exponentially with each passing year.

Then, almost overnight it seemed, we graduated and joined the long line of alums.

I missed our 5th reunion but went back for my 10th, and for every reunion thereafter and loved every one.  I kept meeting these wonderful open people I had not known as an undergraduate and it was all utterly great. What was even greater was coming  back on ordinary days, when I was passing through Northampton MA on a business trip, say, or coming to attend a lecture or two-day symposium, or, best times of all, coming to see Annie Marotta and Susan De Young, our two daughters, one ‘real’ and one honorary, who graduated the last year the amazing Ruth Simmons was President there at Smith. I remember how Ruth – we all called her just ‘Ruth’, the way Moses is just called Moses – left the podium and came to the front of the stage at Commencement exercises and held out her arms in this cherishing gesture while the whole class of 2001 clapped and hollered and stamped for her.

I adored my time at Smith and I adored every inch of its beautiful campus. The love of my life and I decided we would marry while standing on this red bridge by the athletic fields.

Then, two whole decades later, I brought four of our kids back to see the place, little thinking that Annie and Susan would one day go to school here; little thinking that Carrie, in the background, would do a Summer Science program here. Michael our youngest would have gone to school here himself if he weren’t a boy.

Anyway, this is all of us at that red bridge. Susie was the one taking the picture so she isn’t in it. And this below is a short video that to me shows why the school is still so great. Commencement was yesterday and all day my thoughts were travelling westward along old Route 2, just as I had done that first time long ago.


When Your Friend’s Parent Dies

My heart leaped when I heard her voice on my answering machine. It was Judy, who we teased so in college for her youth: she was just 16 for most of our freshman year. Judy my roommate and bridesmaid from the days when young women had hair down to their elbows and dressed in gowns as flowing in gossamer as you’d see on a host of angels.

But glad as I was to hear her voice, I was that sad to learn why she called: Her mother was hospitalized near here and she had dropped everything back in Manhattan to come sit by her for her final weeks.

I don’t know how many times I saw Judy during this period.

Once was for perhaps the saddest New Year’s Eve dinner she will ever spend, with her mother going and her dad having gone just last June.  Once it was to meet at my dry cleaners, where she left off the clothes in which her mother would be buried.  Once I brought her straight from the hospital to the movies, where the two of us sat in the theater’s garage, downing the chicken cassoulet I had thrown together so she could eat before the show.

Naturally, I saw her at the funeral, where she rose and spoke so movingly  of her mom’s life, beginning in 1920s Brooklyn and going on through the marriage and parenthood, right up to her final years when, even with growing dementia, she could still beat the pants off her husband in Scrabble. This is the lady above.

And this is Judy on the piano bench at 12.

She spoke of her childhood and family life in Brooklyn, then Cincinnati, then Dayton. She told what her mother had loved: Her children. Music on the stereo.  Things of beauty, like the high-end jewelry she sold for years in her career.

I took in every word.

And afterward, as I stood studying the gorgeous photo of her mom as a young woman, Judy came and stood beside me.

“YOU love pictures!” she said. “I have literally hundreds of them back in my hotel room. Would you like to come see them the tomorrow night as I pack everything up, maybe even keep some for yourself?”

I said I would relish having one last visit with her and this time I brought chili and a Waldorf salad. “Why are you always feeding me?!” she laughed when she opened her door.

As we ate, she told me the story of her family, who had come here in the early 1900s from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. She spoke too of the ones who did not come, on her dad’s side; whose letters had abruptly and heartbreakingly stopped – just stopped – as Hitler’s dark shadow stretched over Europe.

I heard about Brooklyn grandmothers in funny old grandmother shoes.

I heard about her family’s migration to suburban Cincinnati where grandmothers drove actual cars and wore sleek Jackie-style pumps.

We spoke of all this and then turned to the hundreds of photos, from jocular candids to formal studio groupings and beyond.

“Take some!” she urged.

She also gave me a brooch, a single gold ‘S’ for her mother’s name.

“Your LAST name begins with ‘S’” she said. “At least it did when I met you. And I have no family member with this initial.”

“But you might someday,” I said. “I will keep it for you until then.” And so I will.

I took a lot of photos too and in the days following scanned them and saved them on my computer, where I go and look at them often.

I look at them very often, in fact, struck as I am by my good fortune in being near her during this passage; struck as I remain by the generosity of spirit that takes a mere friend from the old days and turns her into family.

And this is the Judy I met at 16, here seen at 20 the day before our Smith graduation:

No friends like the old friends

The Much Dreaded College Essay

What’s the most important task for you high school seniors hoping to get into college – after you earning the grades and doing OK on the SATs that is? The writing of a good essay, in which the scratchy voice of the 17-year-old comes through.

That phrase belongs to the Director of Admission at Yale who uttered it some ten years ago when my kid was looking at colleges.

What he meant, I believe, is that you should write the essay yourself. 

Don’t let your parents write it, much less some college “coach” your parents might have hired.

Don’t let them dream up your topic either. Dream up your own topic.

Also, try not to bore your reader to death by stringing together sentences that bore even you as you tap them out on your keyboard.

These readers are only human after all, and chances are they’re very weary given the number of folders they must go through in order to assemble this next college Class of 2016. I picture them with eye strain. I picture them with feet that have gone to sleep from curling one and then another under themselves as they try to get comfortable during these marathon reading sessions. They probably need more water than they’re drinking and their minds doubtless keep wandering toward thoughts of dinner.

Show them the courtesy of speaking to them in your own voice about something that interests you. Don’t try writing like a C.E.O or a department head at the Internal Revenue Service or some solemnly intoning guy in an infomercial for cholesterol medication. You’re a high school student! Relax and let yourself be what you are right now, even if your secret hope is to one day find fame and have paparazzi trailing you in pursuit of those stolen-moment candids of you sleeping with your mouth open or yelling at your dog.

I had the chance to read two great college essays in the last month. One has in it time travel and 16th century horses straining at their reins; the other, a peach tree, a bright blue door slapping open and Sunday dinner with Grandma.

They’re both terrific and they’re nothing like the college essay I once wrote telling how I routinely skipped meals and stayed up all night fashioning flash cards and making teensy notes on all my class notes.

This was when I applied Early Decision to that fine women’s college called Wellesley.

Six weeks later they flat-out rejected me.

Thus, when I applied to that other fine women’s college known as Smith I wrote a very different essay, telling what it was like to be charged with the protection and emotional well-being of half-dozen Seventh Graders at summer camp the year a bear with an eerie resemblance to Babe Ruth kept appearing at the clothesline behind the cabins to sniff at all our swimsuits.

Smith did accept me, welcomed me in September and got right to work teaching me that study is much more than rote memorization, that balance in life is crucial and that it’s pretty much never a good idea to skip a meal.

I still think I got into one college and not the other because I wrote that second essay with pleasure and fondness and even excitement. Therefore, young applicant, speak in your own voice about what has moved or surprised, delighted or terrified you, and let the chips fall where they may – as indeed they always do.

Therefore, young person, speak in your own voice about what has moved or surprised, delighted or terrified you, and let the chips fall where they may – as indeed they always do.

The Man is a Prince: He Does the Dog

The phrase ‘the second shift’ refers to that whole second workday most women put in after they get home from their real jobs. I read a recently that nowadays  men are doing just as much around the house as their wives.  I certainly hope this is true.

They sure weren’t when Arlie Hochschild spent eight straight years conducting the research for her book The Second Shift. Observing daily life in the homes of 50 working couples with children, she found that only 20% of American men shared the extra work of chores and childcare while women put in an average of 15 hours a week on those tasks,  which add up to an entire month of 24-hour days. 

You could resent the heck out of your spouse living this way, but what many women do is create a ‘story’  that allows them to keep resentment at bay. One woman named Nancy explained that her husband Evan ‘did’ the downstairs while she did  the upstairs – only in their house doing the upstairs meant doing all the work relating to the kitchen, living room, dining room, bedrooms and bathrooms, while Evan, for his part, handled the garage.

Oh, and the dog. He did the dog.

But this  way of framing things allowed Nancy to think of Evan as pulling his weight. When asked by Hochschild to reflect on this, Evan said, “We don’t keep count of who does what,” quickly adding, “Whoever gets home first starts the dinner,” a statement which did not in any way line up with what Hochschild saw as a frequent visitor.

This was just their ‘story’, the ‘family myth’ as she calls it that they had devised to cover up the imbalance. “The truth was, Nancy made the dinner.”

Other husbands in her survey had stories of their own. One said, with a perfectly straight face, that he made all the pies.

“But I was brought up to do housework,” explained poor Nancy, in charge of every room in the house. “Evan wasn’t.”

And there’s the crux of it right there. As Hochschild puts it, “the female culture has shifted more rapidly than the male culture, and the image of the go-get-‘em woman has yet to be matched by the image of the let’s-take-care-of-the-kids-together man.”  

Or as Gloria Steinem said a while ago to a standingroom-only crowd of fellow Smith College graduates, “The problem is that when I go around and speak on campuses, I still don’t get young men standing up and saying, “How can I combine career and family?”

The day will come though, I feel sure – provided we work hard on raising up strong  and fair- minded little girls  – AND  get them the heck away from all that appalling sex-kitten apparel they’re showing these days in the stores.

Tomorrow I won’t be so crotchety, I promise. 🙂

Who’da Thunk It?

I’m giving a talk this coming Thursday at the Theological Opportunities Program in Harvard Square. I know I’m doing this because I saw notice of it in the Boston Globe yesterday. Not that I forgot or anything. In fact I’m excited to deliver this speech, which is about that Who’d-a-Thunk-It place you end up in when you dread a thing that then  turns out to have more secret compartments than the lining of a pickpocket’s jacket and each one full of happy surprises.

Take this weekend for example. I went to a college reunion not my own for people just barely 30 and I’ll be honest: I dreaded it. I dreaded sleeping under a thin blanket in a chilly dorm room with a glaring overhead light that looked designed for conducting interrogations.

It took me two trips to drag  all my stuff from my car into that dorm at 3pm on Friday. Then, at 5pm, I dragged it all back out and stuffed it in my car.  “You’re leaving at 6am tomorrow, ” I told myself. “Why not just sleep in your clothes?”  I see now that I was ready for the whole experience to be pretty awful.

In fact it was pretty great.

It was great because I got to see the nice people who work in the Alumnae House. AND I got to play with that infant I was in charge of while his parents went out to dinner. PLUS  got to walk around the campus whose grand old trees still appear in my dreams from the long-ago years when I went to this school myself.

I also got to spend time with my two girls, Ms. A . Marotta and Ms. S. DeYoung,  both of the Class of ’01 , and also with the latter’s husband Kevin who is daddy to that pink-cheeked infant.

I did have a moment of panic at the look of horror on Annie’s face when she arrived on campus Friday morning and I sidled  up to her: “I’ve been to our dorm,” I told her. “They gave you a  roommate.” They did WHAT?” she exploded. I was almost afraid to tell her that the roommate was me in case she would still be mad.

She wasn’t, thank God, and that was the final silver lining in an experience I thought would be so stressful: For the first time in 30 years, I had the privilege of watching all night long over the peaceful sleep of my onetime Baby Annie. 

Daughters’ Reunion

Last night found me back in a dorm room; it’s like I never left. I even felt a little bit the way I felt then: as if everyone else in the place was out having crazy weekend fun and I was stuck in my room, fantasizing about Peanut Butter Cups and trying to get my bangs to lie down flat.

No really it’s not like that at all. Really I’m sort of crashing my girls’ 10th reunion and doing a little babysitting while they go out on the town. This is at Smith, which has been a women’s college since its founding in 1875, just a couple of years before I was a student here ha ha.

When I was here we thought we couldn’t  get through the weekend unless there was a scheduled “mixer” to bring in guys from the guys’ schools. (Dartmouth, Amherst, Williams: all the schools you could get to in a reasonable amount of time were for men only.) When I first arrived on campus as a freshman I remember being surprised by the way some of the upperclassmen worked to get invited for the weekend to one of those ‘guy’ schools,  there to witness all the foolish behaviors associated with alcohol and male hormones. 

It’s sad the way we all seemed to be full of such yearning back then. The students here nowadays  aren’t like that at all. When my two girls  were here at Smith and I would come visit them I couldn’t believe how simultaneously focused AND jaunty the students all were. They were studying their brains out AND they were chalking saucy sentiments on the footpaths; aspiring highly like we did but also having such fun doing it. And, as far as I can tell it’s been years since anyone was  dying to get away on the weekends. 

Having been back on campus a lot when these two were here from ’97 to ’01 I can tell you that their class seemed utterly happy and fulfilled. And having come back here this weekend I can tell you they sure still seem that way. Take a look at the faces of these three, who let me take their picture last night. It just makes me thank God for the steady progress of the Women’s Movement; and thank God too for women’s education wherever in the world it’s going forward.

Baby I’m Amazed

Pretty soon I’ll be sleeping on the roof, this place is getting so crowded: Besides the two who moved in back in March we now also have Susan her husband Kevin and their wide-eyed baby Peter. (Does he even HAVE eyelids? His dad says he keeps wanting to narrate his movements as he struggles to pick up his own toes let’s say. He has him  saying to himself “I know I can do this if I can just open my eyes a little wider!” ) 

Susie, or Sooz, as her pals call her, did some of her growing up right in this house. She was in Sixth Grade when she became another honorary kid around here, coming here most days after school, starting her homework, sometimes having a little pre-supper meal.

And every Thursday night she slept over, right next to my girl Annie in Annie’s big queen-size bed. They fit just fine, though I do remember the morning Annie appeared in the kitchen ahead of Susie. She came in smiling and shaking her head and finally told me why: “She keeps finding MY hair in her sleep and tucking it behind HER ear! I’m out cold and suddenly my head gets yanked over to one side!”

This was an easy mistake for Susie to make since Annie’s hair was pretty long then,

The two were best friends right on through senior year and even went to the very same college together, where one tore up the Rugby field and the other practically scoured the very language right off the Amendments to the Constitution so hard did she study them and all their thorny implications. They graduated from Smith College together ten years ago and are going back today for their reunion.

Last May, when I was on that same campus for my own reunion, I am recalling that the Commencement Day speaker was Rachel Maddow with that mind of hers as sharp as a deli-meat guillotine. I love going back to that campus, where I will be before 9 am tomorrow. MY job besides walking around in in my usual haze of general admiration for my school? To look after this little guy tonight, while Kevin and Sooz and Sooz’s best pal Annie join some old pals and kick up their heels on the campus where my long-gone mom, and then I myself, and then the two of them learned so much and had such dandy fun.

It’s enough to make anyone smile. 🙂