Terror in Aruba, Or: Another Maloney Family Vacation

use-aruba-posterIn the summer of 1969, my father decided that we needed a family vacation, and chose Aruba as our destination. Aruba was such an obscure place at that time that most people had never even heard of it, much less traveled there. About three hotels had been built, with more to come, because gambling was legal in Aruba.  This vacation meant that all four of us Maloney children were going to leave the country for the first time (my sister Marbeth was married by then, and off on adventures of her own), which was exciting. We had to get vaccinated for smallpox, which was also exciting. My father had to get new passports for himself and for my mother, which was more exciting than it probably should have been. When he asked the clerks of Cook County, Illinois, for a copy of her Birth Certificate, they calmly informed him that my mother didn’t exist. Since he was really sure that she did exist, my father was disgusted with the obviously incompetent clerks in the Cook County Records Office, and he let them know that in some very colorful language.  Despite my father’s best efforts, Cook County was implacable.  There did not exist a birth certificate for anyone named Mercedes Lynch. Frustrated by this Typical Government Incompetence, he stomped home one afternoon complaining loudly (and colorfully) about this situation. My grandmother, Mommy Mayme, was visiting us and she asked my dad what on earth he was going on about. “According to the %^&^ clerks at Cook County,” he said, “Mercedes doesn’t exist!”

“Oh,” my grandmother said serenely. “That’s because her name is Loraine.” My father was not an easily surprised man, but this was a surprise. He had been married to my mother for twenty four years, which was a lot of time to be in the dark about her actual name. Mommy Mayme and Grandpa George had a somewhat unusual marriage in that they often operated in separate orbits that occasionally intersected. Grandpa George was out with his friends celebrating the birth of his daughter when the people in charge of birth certificates made their rounds in the hospital where Mommy Mayme gave birth. They asked my grandmother what her baby’s name was and she told them it was Loraine. From that day forward, Cook County knew her as Loraine Lynch.

Either no one told Grandpa George, or he heard the name and rejected it. When my mother was born, my grandfather was reading The Count of Monte Cristo and liked the name of one of the characters: Mercedes. My mother was baptized Mercedes Marie Lynch. All of this was news to my father. (Years later, we found out that my mother’s sister Bernadette was—according to Cook County—actually named Virginia Alice. My grandparents really did need to work on their communication skills).Once my father knew my mother’s actual name, he obtained a passport for her and we were off on our Aruba Adventure.

I was thrilled to be on this trip. The first thrill was flying in an airplane. We flew KLM and they were very nice to children; I was provided with a free toy (a small toy like a Lite Brite without lights) and as much pop as I wanted. Always interested in food, I was eager to be served a whole meal right there on the airplane. My disappointment was deep when our food came and it turned out to be eggs with some sort of foul smelling red sauce splashed all over them. My father told me that this was a dish called Huevos Rancheros, but to my eight year old self it looked like a crime scene. I stuck to pop.

I am not sure what time we were scheduled to arrive in Aruba, but we touched down very late at night. The late flight was no doubt cheaper, and my father was on the lookout to cut every corner he could: bringing his wife and four children to a Caribbean Paradise must

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I was promised a licorice drink.

have cost a good bit of money. Even though we arrived at our seaside hotel in the deep of the night, I was wide awake. I needed to stay alert, because there was going to be a special licorice drink waiting for me at the hotel, and I didn’t want to miss it. I knew about this special licorice drink because my Dad had shown me the brochure for the hotel when he was planning our trip. The brochure portrayed beautiful men and women strolling along white beaches sipping cocktails. “Come to Aruba!” it said. “When you arrive, we will greet you with our special licorice drink!”

To my considerable dismay, when we walked into the lobby—six exhausted Maloneys and a great deal of luggage—there no drinks of any kind in evidence. There wasn’t even any licorice. There were no beautiful people strolling the beach, or even lolling around in chairs in the lobby. I tugged on my mother’s sleeve as we headed to the elevator and whispered, “Mom! What about our special licorice drink?” Bleary-eyed and pale with exhaustion, my mother said, “What? What are you talking about? Get in the elevator.”  My Aruba vacation began in bitter disappointment and I muttered something under my breath about false advertising. For the duration of our stay, I never stopped looking around for some hotel staff to offer me that licorice drink that was mine by right.

My dad had reserved two rooms: one for my brothers and himself, another for my mother, my sister Susan and me. The rooms were very nice and the beds inviting; after a long trip, we all went to bed. That first night was by far the most comfortable night we spend in our hotel, through no fault of the hotel. Whenever we stayed in hotels, my dad was always resolute that we would squeeze every ounce of value out of his investment. That meant that from the moment we walked into a hotel room until the moment we left, the thermostat was set to temperatures so cold that we would ache with it; in Aruba, we had a balcony attached to our room and every morning as soon as I woke up I scurried out to that balcony to warm up enough to move my arms and legs without pain. We also kept all the lights on until we went to sleep and we always had the television on. Electricity came free with the room, so we made sure to get our money’s worth and more.

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My father took this picture of me from his balcony next door.

The balcony we used for thawing out was lovely; it looked out over the Caribbean Sea and the hotel swimming pool. The moment I saw the Olympic-sized pool and high dive, I knew where I would be spending most of my time. I loved pools of all sorts, and usually had to be called out of the water whenever I was around one, my fingers and toes wrinkled as raisins. To my surprise, the pool in Aruba was filled with salt water. After the first shocking mouthful of salt, I adjusted and then I couldn’t get enough of that pool. The high dive that would no doubt cause night terrors for anyone writing an insurance policy for a hotel today, but we kids adored it, and had a great deal of fun jumping off. We eagerly reprised our stunt from the Three Coins Motel in Las Vegas; (here) we did have the good sense, at least, to confine our “jumping off the diving board while seated on lawn chairs” activities to the low dive. Aruba was a very laid-back place, and the Hotel’s philosophy was apparently “Be Stupid At Your Own Risk.” We certainly took them up on that offer.

My father not only brought us to this Island Paradise; he laid out some serious money so that we could have some Authentic Island Adventures. On our second day there, he announced that he and my brothers would be going scuba-diving and my mother, my sister and I would be renting Sea Jeeps. Since I wasn’t at the Scuba-Diving Event, I cannot tell the story of what happened there. I remember only that my father’s oxygen tank somehow ended up on the bottom of the Caribbean Sea and my brothers are still amazed, fifty years later, that he lived.

I do, of course, remember the Sea Jeeps. My father, finished defying death in Scuba Gear, was there to see us enjoy our motorized frolic in the Caribbean Sea. My mother went first, and she seemed to enjoy zipping around the water at the speed of about twenty miles per hour. Once she was ashore, I think my sister Susan must have gone next, although I have no memory of her on the Sea Jeep. It’s possible that I was so panicked about my turn on the Sea Jeep that I didn’t register what was going on immediately beforehand. I had zero desire to ride a Sea Jeep. From what I could see, they went very fast and needed some serious steering. I was clumsy enough in gym class at home to kill myself engaging in such pedestrian activities as riding a scooter across the gym floor or jumping over “the horse.” (here) I shuddered to think what the risks were here, with an actual motor and a Sea in the mix.

Adding to my considerable anxiety was the fact that the minimum age to ride a Sea Jeep was fourteen. I was nine. My father didn’t want me to miss this Fun Experience, and so he lied to the young man in charge of renting the Sea Jeeps and told him I was fourteen. As with the lounge-chair-off-the-diving-board caper, Aruba was very relaxed about enforcing this rule. They were also lassez-faire about life jackets. I knew I was taking my life into my own hands; emerging from this experience alive was my only goal.

The fellow in charge told me to sit down on my Sea Jeep and put my belt on while he told me how to work it. I sat there listening as intently as I could to his fast patter of instructions: once he started the motor, he said, I should head about fifty feet out or so (how far is fifty feet, I wondered), then gently start to turn left and motor around for a while, enjoying the sea breezes and salty air. When my minutes were up and it was time to come in, he continued, he would signal me and I would then turn the Sea Jeep around and head back to shore. It was important, he warned, that I not turn off the engine until I was about ten feet from shore, because the Sea Jeep would stop abruptly as soon as I turned it off. Too far out, and he would have to wade in to get me, and he did not want to have to do that. My head swimming with questions, I nodded dumbly when he asked if I was ready, and he started my Sea Jeep.

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The people on the boat were watching me with horror.

My first discovery was that Sea Jeeps are very speedy. In mere seconds, I was out plenty far, certainly fifty feet if not more. It was definitely time for me to gently turn left as instructed. In my panic, I didn’t have a clue which way left actually was, so I turned the wheel and hoped for the best. To my horror, I was still heading out to what looked to be the middle of the Caribbean Sea, so I tried again to turn. I was successful the second time, but I was pretty sure I hadn’t gone left because now I was headed directly toward a huge glass-bottomed boat filled with tourists who were looking at me with their mouths open like “O’s.”

Vaguely hearing a lot of screaming from the shore, I turned the Sea Jeep again and missed the Glass Bottomed Boat, though not by much. Thankfully, I was now headed back to shore; there were several people waiting for me who were still yelling and waving their arms frantically. Reminding myself that I was to turn the Sea Jeep off when I was ten feet from shore, I held on for dear life and plowed home to safety. My ability to gauge speed and distance was no better in this direction; I turned the key to “off” about one and half feet from shore. White faced and none too pleased with my father, the fellow in charge barked at me to “Exit the Sea Jeep!” and I gladly complied, grateful to have survived another Maloney Fun Experience.

Our family vacation was divided into two segments: daytime fun and nighttime fun. Once the sun went down in Aruba, my parents and my brothers enjoyed the nighttime fun: gambling in the hotel casino. Unlike the swimming pool and the Sea Jeep Concession, the people in charge of the Casino enforced the Adults Only Rule strictly. Whether because my parents didn’t want my sister Susan to miss the Fun Experience of Losing All Her Money, or because they just didn’t like being told what to do, they decided to dress Susan up one night (she was fourteen) in a dress and my mother’s pearls and high heels, in the hope that she would fool the bouncers and be admitted to the Casino. She was, and so I was alone for one night in Aruba. I missed Susan, and was happy to hear that she had no desire to go back the next night.

Other than the “Let’s Pretend Susan is an Adult” night, I had my sister for company during the long evenings of Adult Gambling. It wasn’t a great deal of fun to be in our hotel room for hours on end, and the Dutch Antilles were not known for their marvelous television programs. Several nights into our enforced room stay, Susan decided that it was time to take matters into our own hands. It was 9:30 at night and we were children in a foreign land, but Susan announced (to my utter joy) that we were going to the beach. Earlier in the afternoon, when we had left the water to come back to the hotel for dinner, Susan thought the surf was just starting to get wavy. We both adore wavy days, and hated to lose what might be our one chance to play in waves, since the Caribbean Sea was almost always as still as glass.

We threw on our bathing suits and grabbed some towels and made our way down to the beach. Once we ran past the pool area and onto the actual sand, the night was as black as ink, and even though we were only feet away from the water, we could only hear it. And we heard waves. Joy! We ran straight ahead toward that siren sound and right into them. These were not small waves, and it was so dark that we could not see each other, our own hands, or the next wave. I remember seeing a sky filled with stars and nothing else. The water and the air were black, and it was easy to lose track of which was which.

Susan, being older and marginally wiser, realized fairly quickly that this escapade was turning very dangerous very fast. Using her most assertive, grownup voice, she shouted at me to head into shore. While things like Sea Jeeps terrified me, I was never afraid of water, even when I should have been. I didn’t want to go in; being in the Caribbean Sea at 10 p.m. in a high surf could was exciting and fun. Certainly mere water couldn’t be hazardous—or, maybe hazardous for other people, certainly not us. It was only when Susan’s voice moved from stern to outright panicked that I reluctantly started paddling toward what I hoped was the shore. It was so dark that we really couldn’t see where we were going.

The only reason we are both alive today is that Susan has a much better internal compass than I do, and she guessed correctly which way we had to go. Even paddling in the right direction, it was an ordeal to get back to sand, because the waves by then were truly impressive. We did make it back, and scampered back to our room to dry off and get back into our pajamas, Susan still trembling. Some sixth sense told us not to mention our late night caper to anyone, and it was years before we told our parents about that night.

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Deep Sea Fishing: The Dream

My father wanted to make sure that we had a lot of Fun Experiences while in Aruba; the Sea Jeep/Scuba Diving Caper wasn’t the end of our Caribbean fun. He decided that we should all have the experience of Deep Sea Fishing. This entailed making arrangements to hire a local fisherman and his boat; our Captain would take us all out into the Deep Sea and provide fishing lines and bait for us. Until I was in Aruba, I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as Deep Sea Fishing, so this did indeed sound like an adventure. We were to meet our Captain at the docks at 5:00 in the morning. Anything that entailed getting up at 5:00 in the morning sounded exciting to me, so when dawn was breaking and my dad woke us up, I bounded right out of my cot and onto the balcony to get the feeling back in my arms and legs and greet the day. My teenaged brothers were less enthusiastic about this awakening.

My dad had directions to the proper dock and knew the name of our boat for the day, so off we went. We found the place and the boat, but there was a man passed out cold on the dock, which was not a sight I had ever seen. My father woke him up, which I thought was a rude if not dangerous thing to do, especially because when the man opened his eyes he looked pretty ill and disheveled. My dad knew something we didn’t know; this man was our Captain for the day. The man pulled himself up, adjusted his pants, and gestured for us to get onto the boat. We were off.

The Caribbean Sea was beautiful, and the early morning air was salty and mild. We all sat in the boat and basked in this loveliness and peace for at least ten minutes. Then my brother Johnnie lurched up, turned around, and vomited over the side. My mother had a fragile stomach, and the sight of Johnnie throwing up, in concert with her own mounting queasiness, had her up and around in no time, also heaving over the side of the boat. My dad, Jamie, Susan and I were grimly holding our own, trying to enjoy the beauty of nature and ignore the hot saliva rushing up into our mouths, when our Captain starting cooking our complimentary breakfast. To our noses, breakfast smelled like fried offal with a side of rotten fish. That was it for us. Only my dad managed not to lose his previous three meals to the Caribbean Sea. The rest of us enjoyed a close-up view of the water directly beneath our streams of vomit.

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Deep Sea Fishing: The Reality

After my dad and our Captain enjoyed their breakfast, accompanied by the soundtrack of Five Heaving Maloneys, it was time to fish. My mother, my siblings and I were in no shape for any activity other than praying for death, but my dad had paid a great deal of money so that we could have this Fun Experience, and we couldn’t bear to let him down. We somehow pulled ourselves away from the sides of our boat and our Captain handed each of us a fishing line, which he had helpfully baited for us. Our bait came out of a big bucket of dead fish under our feet, the sight of which sent my brother Johnnie back to the side of the boat. So far our biggest discovery was just how much a human being could vomit without throwing up his own stomach. Our lines properly baited, we threw them into the Deep Sea and started to fish.

Unluckily for us, the fish in our corner of the Caribbean Sea had extremely high fish I.Q.’s, because every single fish we nearly caught simply ate our bait up to the dead fish head and them swam merrily away, no doubt taunting us as they departed. My brother thought he really had one at one point, and he enthusiastically pulled his line in; our collective thinking was that if we could only each catch a fish, my dad would be satisfied that we had had a Fun Experience and we could get back to what we really longed to do, which was vomit some more and hopefully pass out. When my brother pulled his line, though, once again he had only a dead fish head on the end of it, which swung wildly toward the boat and slapped me square in the face. That was the end of Deep Sea Fishing for me. I thought I had been close to foul smelling fish before, but having one directly applied to my face was enough to finish me off.

Having lost his best shot at catching a fish, my brother was forced back to the side of the boat for the vomiting, but while he had been struggling with his fish, apparently the wind changed direction. We realized this because he vomited into the wind this time. His vomit blew right back in his face and shoulders instead of falling into the Caribbean Sea. He was officially finished with fishing at that moment as well. Along the way, my mother and other siblings had given up and were cradling their heads and moaning softly. My sister Susan started singing under her breath; I heard snatches of The Beach Boys song, “I Wanna Go Home.” We still had a few more hours on the boat, and my dad had paid for the full day of fishing, but even he could see that he was not going to get his money’s worth on this adventure, and that if he insisted we stay the full time out at sea, several of us just might die of dehydration. He told our Captain it was time to go in.

After our day of Deep Sea Fishing, we took a few days to just relax at the hotel and not attempt any Fun Activities whatsoever, which was just fine with me. I loved that pool and the Caribbean Sea was kind of fun, too, even during the day. It wasn’t long  before our last night in Aruba had arrived.  My parents and brothers went to the Casino, and Susan and I were left to entertain ourselves in our room. As on the night of our Wave Adventure, we were bored very quickly. Knowing better now than to go down to the pitch-dark beach, we decided that it couldn’t hurt anyone if we just went down to the pool area. The pool was open but empty, and we didn’t have our bathing suits on, but it was very pretty there with the pool lit up and the Divi-Divi trees swaying in the breeze. My brother Johnnie wandered over and saw us there, and Susan asked him how things were going in the Casino. Not well—not for Johnnie, anyway. He had lost money, and he was feeling downcast. I figured he must be really sad, because his disappointment seemed to have robbed him of the power of speech. He was slurring a lot of his words and stumbling over easy words like “blackjack” and “bankrupt.” Eventually he wandered back off, and Susan told me that no, Johnnie had not suffered a sudden stroke as I feared; he had been drinking. Ah. I knew all about that. I just hadn’t recognized that as something Johnnie did. Lots of things were just different in Aruba.

Susan and I went back to our room, and decided to sit on our lovely balcony and enjoy those sea breezes for the last time. For some reason, my dad came back up to the room, probably to get something he needed down at the Casino, like more money. I did know how my dad seemed when he had been drinking, and I could tell that he had been drinking. Even stone cold sober, my father had a habit of tempting fate in ridiculous and dangerous ways, thus terrifying his children, and a few cocktails only made this side of his personality stronger. My dad started leaning out over the balcony rail, commenting on our lovely view and this lovely trip that was ending the next day. Foolishly, I said, “Daddy, please step back from the railing. You aren’t steady on your feet.”

Of course, that was the worst thing I could have said, because my dad heard it as a fun sort of challenge. He promptly climbed over the balcony rail and stood on the ledge that jutted out about two feet from the rail. There was nothing between my father and the pavement 17 stories below except air. Now I was frankly terrified, and I whispered, as if the very breath of my voice might blow him over, “PLEASE, Daddy, come back over the railing.” His blue eyes twinkling with mischief, he started to bounce softly, up and down, on the two feet of cement. I saw no way he was going to live through this, and I didn’t know what to do. I froze. I don’t know where Susan was, but I don’t think she was there. I couldn’t move or speak—it was, I think, my first moment of utter terror. Seeing no escalation of my challenge—what he took to be a challenge, anyway–he climbed back over the rail, told me to get to bed, and went back downstairs. I didn’t tell anyone about those ten minutes on the balcony, and I am not sure my dad even remembered it. I am very glad that he didn’t die in Aruba in 1969, but I am still amazed that he didn’t fall. Perhaps God didn’t want my poor mother to have to figure out how to transport a dead body and four children back to the United States, and He had mercy on her. As our mother and the wife of Jack Maloney, she had certainly earned a few favors.

Our flight out of Aruba was the following morning, and we were late getting out of bed. The “Farewell to Aruba Tour” had taken a toll on both of my brothers and my father, and they were not feeling so hot. By the time we actually got ourselves to the airport, we had missed the final boarding call. Out of the plate glass window, we could see our plane taxiing away from the gate and gliding toward the runway. My mother gasped, stunned at the sight of her ticket home leaving her behind with all of us and no money.  I have no idea to this day what my father said to the ticket agents at the gate, but they called the plane and the plane stopped. All six Maloneys, suitcases and all, hurried through the gate and out the door of the airport. A portable set of steps was wheeled out from somewhere, the plane door opened, and we climbed aboard. That was fifty years ago, and I have never since seen a plane stopped and reopened for tardy passengers. Say what you will about my father, but he was a heck of a salesman.

poster-arubaMy father wanted us to have an unforgettable and Fun Experience in Aruba. That we certainly did. In fact, certain parts of that vacation are seared into my brain, and I can be heard talking about some of those moments in my sleep even to this day. I think of our Aruba adventure whenever I see a Glass Bottomed boat, a Sea Jeep, a fish head or a man jumping up and down on two feet of cement suspended seventeen stories in the air. Oh wait; I never saw that sight again. Thank God. Satisfied that he had done his fatherly duty and given us a great vacation, my father headed back to home and ordinary time with his lovely wife Mercedes. I mean Loraine.

 

My Love of Barbie Leads to a Criminal Act (and a Vision of my Future).

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Me with Mimi and my Grandpa Din Shortly Before He Died

From the age of four onward, I was an ardent Barbie fan. My first Barbie doll was a gift from my grandmother Mimi and my Grandpa Din on my fourth birthday. Actually, it was my sister Susan’s ninth birthday, but we celebrated both birthdays on the same day. Moving a birthday to the nearest convenient date was never a thing in my family; my parents reasoned that a birthday is a chance every year to say to the celebrant, “You matter deeply to us and so we are stepping out of ordinary time and celebrating the day you were born.” Such sentiment lost considerable steam, they thought, if the postscript was, “So let’s find a convenient date for us to tell you that.”

So it had not been the plan back in 1963 to combine our birthdays. The original plan had been to celebrate my birthday on November 11 with a family trip to the Milwaukee Athletic Club for “Family Swim.” I loved the MAC and adored Family Swim, because it was the only time that women and girls were allowed to use the Men’s Pool, which was huge and had a high dive. As if that weren’t spectacular enough, there was a snack bar right next to the pool that sold things like hot dogs and pop. I could not imagine a better birthday. We never got to go, however, because on November 10, my Grandpa Din suddenly died. His death was a profound shock to my parents and siblings, but I was four years old, so my reaction was deep disappointment at the loss of my birthday party.

The next few days were taken up with Grandpa Din’s wake and funeral in Chicago, so by the time everyone was ready to celebrate my fourth birthday, it was Susan’s ninth birthday and we celebrated both. I was thrilled when I opened my present from Mimi—my first Barbie doll, “Bubble Cut Barbie.” I was also confused, because the card was signed, “Mimi and Grandpa Din.” I knew Grandpa Din was dead. My theology was a bit fuzzy, as is true, I think, for most four year olds. Still, I was pretty sure that the people in heaven did not purchase Bubble Cut Barbies and sign birthday cards. I remember looking at the card and saying, “But Grandpa Din is dead,” and Mimi telling me that he had sent my gift from heaven. So apparently heaven was a place that gave eternal happiness and provided Bubble Cut Barbies. It was years before I sorted all of this out.

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Grandma Barbie

I loved that first doll because she was mine, but she was odd. Unlike any Barbie I had ever seen, my Barbie’s Bubble Cut was silver. When I played with my friends, they snickered at my “Grandma Barbie,” and I didn’t blame them. I envied Susan, whose Bubble Cut Barbie had orange-ish hair. Looking back, I am not sure why orange hair was more appealing than gray, but it was. A recurring story line in those years was one in which my silver haired Barbie snagged a boyfriend and brought him home, only to have him stolen away by the more beautiful and alluring orange haired

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Susan’s Barbie

Barbie.

Right from the start, I loved to play Barbie; it was a way to make up stories in my head without the nasty repercussions that often followed when I did that in my real life. These stories were limited, however, by the fact that I had just the one doll. I needed a cast of characters. I filled the void by imagining an entire world for my Barbie; this entailed some awkward moments. Susan and I, for example, had to pretend to be our Kens, which wasn’t always easy, especially when it came to kissing. Kissing our own Barbie dolls while pretending to be their boyfriends was just weird.  I was really happy on my fifth birthday when I unwrapped my first Ken doll. About six weeks later, I received Skipper, Barbie’s little sister, for Christmas. Things were looking up.

skipperSkipper was a big hit in Barbie World, and so it wasn’t long before Mattel introduced  yet another sister, this one named Tutti.  Tutti was adorable, and of course I wanted her very badly. My mother thought that Barbie, Ken and Skipper were more than sufficient for my needs, and I despaired of receiving a Tutti doll anytime soon. Luckily for me, however, a birthmark on my neck starting to morph into something ominous right around that very time, and I had to go to the hospital to have it removed. That hospital visit turned out to be my ticket to a Tutti doll.

I had been born with the birthmark, and it was impressive. By the time I knew I had it, which coincided with the time when other children started pointing it out, it was the size of a silver dollar pancake. My cousin Kathy, who loved me, called it my “chocolate mark,” but everyone else was considerably less kind. The doctor told my mother that my birthmark, while ugly, was not dangerous unless it began to get bigger, darker, or start growing hair. When I was nine, it started to do all three, and in the summer of fifth grade, he said it had to go.

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Tutti

I was thrilled. That birthmark had been nothing but trouble for me. It was just one more thing that caused other kids to steer clear of me or worse, make fun of me. I couldn’t wait to see it disappear. Its removal required an overnight hospital stay, and while I was convalescing, the wife of one of my father’s clients at Kemper Insurance sent me a present—Tutti. I was thrilled. My Barbie family was complete for several months, and I happily incorporated Tutti into my storylines. I couldn’t imagine needing anything more to enhance my Barbie Universe. Then I saw an ad for Barbie’s cousin Francie.

Whereas Barbie was a bit formidable with her heavily made up eyes, red lips, permanently misshapen feet, narrow waist and huge bosom, Francie seemed younger, sweeter, nicer, and prettier. Francie had longer hair that fell softly to her shoulders, and flirty bangs. My cousin Kathy had a Francie, and I wanted one, too.

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Ever-Stylish Francie

Always on the lookout for an opportunity to inspire me to lose some weight, my mother seized upon my lust for Francie. She promised me that if I lost ten pounds, Francie would be mine. I readily agreed to this plan, and I was determined to lose the pounds as quickly as possible by eating less and exercising more. Uncoordinated and lazy, I had never been a fan of exercise, so I decided to walk a mile or so to Mayfair every day after school, where I could gaze at Francie dolls and deliberate about which one to take home when the weight was gone. Blond? Brunette? I couldn’t decide but it didn’t matter, because all of the Francies were adorable. Even Francie’s clothes were cuter than Barbie’s.

Despite my sincere attempt to cut back on eating and ramp up on exercise, I wasn’t losing any weight. This was a distressing situation, and I railed at the injustice of the universe. My grandmother, Mommy Mayme, was visiting, and one day she found me crying in my bedroom. When she asked me what on earth was wrong, I told her the whole sad tale: my need for Francie, my mother’s bargain, my body’s stubborn unwillingness to do anything I wanted it to do, my general misery. For a moment, Mommy Mayme didn’t say anything. Then, she said, “Maybe you should just dial the scale back before zero; that’s the fastest way to lose weight.” I have no idea why Mommy Mayme thought this was a good suggestion to make to me; for all I know, she was joking. If she was being facetious, however, I was not. This plan actually made sense to me.

My entire weight loss was being done on the “honor system.” No one else was looking on as I weighed myself every morning; my mother trusted me to let her know when the pounds were gone. Despite the fact that no one was checking the numbers on our pink bathroom scale except me, I began to dutifully move the dial incrementally back behind zero so that it looked as if I were losing weight.

I figured it was plausible that I would lose ten pounds in about a month. So I paced my francie1scale-managing system to create this faux ten pound weight loss about thirty days into our agreement. On the appointed day, I turned the scale back to negative ten and announced my ten pound “weight loss.” My mother seemed disappointed that I looked no different, and none of my clothes fit any better, but a deal was a deal and she trusted me. She gave me the money to buy my Francie, and I did; I bought a brunette Francie whom I adored every bit as much as I thought I would. Francie became the ingénue in all my stories, and Bubble Cut Barbie was relegated to the role of wise-cracking older sister. My mother never asked if I was regaining the weight, and she never challenged my claim to have lost it. It was, however, her last attempt to bribe me into going on a diet.

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Twist N Turn Barbie

I was content in my Barbie universe for a while, and then Mattel revolutionized the world for young girls everywhere by coming out with “Twist N Turn” Barbie. Before the advent of Twist N Turn Barbie, all of the dolls were made entirely of rigid plastic. Barbie and Ken always had

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Awkward Hug

strange hugs and kisses, because their arms stuck straight out every time they “embraced.” They also sat in a weird way, because their legs didn’t bend at any point. Twist N Turn Barbie changed all of that.  Her knees bent! Her waist twisted! Her arms were still ramrod straight, but this was major Barbie progress.

I didn’t hold out much hope of receiving a Twist N Turn Barbie, because I already owned more Barbie dolls than my mother deemed necessary, but when I found out that my cousin Kathy had received one for Christmas, I was bereft. I wanted one, too. My mother took pity on me when she saw me gazing at Kathy’s doll, and she relented. My Confirmation gift in March that year was my first Twist N Turn Barbie. I had become a Soldier for Christ, and it was already paying off.

Once I had my Twist N Turn Barbie, my other Barbies seemed more problematic. I still loved Francie, because she was so cool that she could overcome anything, even unbendable legs, but my Bubble Cut Barbie was dated and old; after all, she had always had grey hair. I wanted another Twist N Turn Barbie. I had no means to obtain one, but that didn’t stop my wanting.

Then, one day my mother and I were visiting my sister Marbeth at her apartment building on the south side of town. That building seemed like heaven on earth to me, because it was a high rise on Lake Michigan with its own swimming pool and a little grocery store in the lobby. Whenever Marbeth ran out of something or needed something small, she could just pop down to that little store and buy it, which was a big help to someone who was home all day with two babies under the age of three.

On this particular day, we needed something at the little grocery store. My mother fished a five dollar bill out of her purse and sent me down to get it.  It might have been a loaf of bread; I don’t remember what it was, but I do remember that I handed the clerk the five dollar bill and she gave me change for a ten. I saw immediately what she had done, and I had a very fleeting impulse to say something to her. I said nothing, though. I took the change and made my way upstairs, thinking I would tell my mother and sister about it and go right back downstairs to give back the extra five dollars.  But a Twist N Turn Barbie cost four dollars. I could keep the money and buy myself the new Barbie I coveted.  I kept the money and said nothing to anyone.

The following Monday after school, I took the bus to Mayfair (no walking that day; I was

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Raven-Haired Beauty

flush with cash) and I bought my new Barbie at Gimbel’s Department Store. With the money I had left over, I went to the in-store lunch counter, named Tasty-Town, and ordered myself a plate of French Fries and a chocolate milkshake. I felt very strange, sitting at the counter all by myself, ordering and paying for my own food. I also felt guilty, and worried that the clerk at Marbeth’s store had gotten into trouble when the money came up missing at the end of the day. I wished, sitting there in Tasty Town,  that I could feel happy about my new Barbie; she was the most beautiful Barbie I had ever seen, with waist-length glossy black hair and big blue eyes, but I couldn’t shake my worry and guilt. I decided, by the time I finished my snack, that what was done was done. I had kept the money, bought the doll and consumed the food. Now I had to forget about the clerk and the fact that the money wasn’t mine and move forward.

That wasn’t easily done, especially in my Catholic world of mass, examination of conscience and confession. (For more about my adventures with the sacrament of confessions, click here) I knew I had to confess about the five dollars, and I dreaded it. I was terrified that Father would tell me to come clean with my mother and/or pay back the store. Either possibility terrified me. I was so worried about my potential penance, in fact, that I went to confession a few times without confessing the theft, which only made things exponentially worse. Not only was I still carrying the sin of stealing, but now I was adding on the sin of knowingly concealing a sin in the confessional. I was soaking in sin.

After a few months, the anxiety of all this sinning overtook the anxiety of my sin’s possible ramifications, and I confessed the whole sorry tale—the clerk, the money I kept, the Barbie, the French Fries—I let it all out. Father Stommel, on the other side of the grid in the confessional, asked me how much money it was, and I told him it was five dollars. I held my breath, heart hammering wildly, and Father said, “Well, that’s not a mortal sin. A mortal sin is a theft of more money than that.” Really? This was news to me, but welcome news it was. For my venial sin, I had only to say two Hail Marys and two Our Fathers. Nothing was said about restitution or telling my mother. I think the “kinder, gentler” Vatican II approach was thoroughly in play by then, and I was only too happy to be coddled by the “Spirit of Vatican II.”

Even though I had clearance from On High, I always felt a nagging dissatisfaction with my raven-haired Twist ‘n Turn Barbie. Her most beautiful feature was that long hair, and one day I decided out of the blue that she needed a haircut. I cut off all of her hair, almost certainly a form of self-created penance. I never stopped playing with her, though.

I played Barbie by myself a great deal, but I also I loved playing with my sister Susan and my cousin Kathy. The summer of fifth grade, Kathy and I stayed at Mommy Mayme’s apartment in Chicago for two glorious weeks. It was one of my best vacations ever, and we had a very specific routine for our days. Upon waking, we would amble down to Lake Street and stop at Woolworth’s for lunch. (We slept late.) Kathy would order a hamburger, fries and Coke and I would order a hot dog, fries and Coke. After we polished off lunch, we would stop at the candy counter and buy a pound of Tootsie Rolls each. (My father used to call our time together “The Bobbsey Twins Visit Calorie Farm.” He had reason to do so.) The bag of Tootsie Rolls was our sustenance until dinner, or until we reached the Carriage Trade, an ice cream shop on Lake Street. We loved sitting inside actual carriages and ordering our Junior Hot Fudge Sundaes. On Carriage Trade days, we often had some trouble working up our appetite for dinner. Usually, though, we managed. After dinner, we would set up our entire Barbie universe in my grandmother’s front hall and play for hours and hours; one night we played until dawn, creating story after story together.

I did enjoy playing Barbie with Susan and with Kathy, but as the years went by, first Susan became too busy and grown up to play Barbie; then my cousin Kathy ‘outgrew’ Barbie. I held on much, much longer than anyone else, until my mother finally laid down the law and told me it was time to pack it up. Externally compliant but feeling frustrated and sad inside, I began the task of wrapping Barbie, Ken, Francie, Skipper, and Tutti in tissue paper and boxing up their clothes, shoes, houses and cars. My father happened by my room as I was doing this, and he quoted the Bible to me approvingly: “When I was a child, I had the things of a child, but then I put childish things away and became a man.” Since I was doing this task under protest, however, I scowled at him until he went away.

Putting away my Barbie dolls was not easy. I mourned all the stories I had invented and acted out with them, and I wondered where I would ever again find such an outlet. I was, so much of the time, ill at ease and unhappy in the “real” world. Anxious and clumsy, I felt awkward nearly all the time. I didn’t fit into my own skin, and I felt as if everyone else had been given a playbook at birth with the rules of how to behave and how to live. When I made up imaginary worlds, all of that awkwardness and anxiety disappeared. Those moments of make believe were some of the best moments of my childhood, and I had no idea how I was going to survive without them.

writer-gilrSitting on the floor, surrounded by the dolls I was sending to their final rest, I was suddenly struck by a lightning bolt. “I could be a writer.” I stopped dead in the middle of my sad chore and gazed down at my dolls, now wrapped in their tissue-paper burial clothes. I could, I realized, still make up stories, still imagine alternate worlds. Instead of acting out those tales with my dolls, I could write them down. If I wrote the stories down, they wouldn’t be tall tales any more, or the lies for which I used to get punished on a regular basis. With utter clarity, I saw my future. Barbie had been my Muse for many years, and my love for her caused me to sin and even to enter a life of crime. I could redeem my criminal past—and survive my actual life—by bringing my Barbie stories inside my head and writing them down. I would grow up and become a writer.

Lane Bryant And a White Nightgown: My High School Graduation.

 

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I was a chubby child from the time I was seven years old, always hovering at about twenty-thirty pounds overweight. It was in high school that my weight started to increase exponentially rather than arithmetically; when I received my driver’s license at the age of sixteen, I was able to get to grocery stores and bakeries that were once too far away to walk or bike to. I had a greater variety of “goodies,” and with a car, I had to exercise a great deal less in order to obtain them. When I started high school, I weighed 133 pounds (I was 5’7”) but by my senior year, I weighed about 190 lbs.

Food was my steadiest, most loyal friend, but it was a friend who called far too many of the shots in our relationship. I didn’t want to binge, but I did. I didn’t want to hate how I looked, but I did. I didn’t want my thighs to chafe whenever I wore shorts, but they did. I was consistently miserable in my own flesh.

At Divine Savior-Holy Angels High School, we wore uniforms; for freshmen and sophomores, it was a green plaid skirt with an ugly long green vest and for juniors and seniors, a blue plaid skirt with a more palatable navy sweater. My first uniform was no problem, because I was a size 10 when high school began. When the time came to change uniforms for junior year, however, I was rigid with dread. Size 18 was now a tight squeeze, and I was positive that there would be no uniform skirts that fit me. Of course, I should have known that was a ridiculous fear, since there were plenty of DSHA upperclassmen fatter than I, and none of them came to class naked. Nonetheless, I fretted, and I was hugely relieved when I discovered that the uniform store did indeed stock skirts in my size.

By the time I reached the end of my senior year, even my plus sized uniform skirt no longer fit, and I had to resort to closing it up with a chain of safety pins. Luckily, my blue sweater covered my waistline, so no one was the wiser. I knew it, though, and I hated it. I had to pull my sweater down many times a day in order to cover the open zipper, and I lived in fear that my secret would be exposed. For some reason, closing my skirt with safety pins resulted in one side being shorter than the other, so I was also constantly yanking at the one side to keep it from hiking up any further.

Having a uniform at all was a blessing, because I didn’t have many other clothing options once school ended for the day.  In the 1970’s, regular department stores did not carry any clothes larger than size 18, and I had no idea that there were stores with nice clothes for fat people. This degree of ignorance seems impossible today, or at the very least monumentally stupid, but there was no social media in 1976, and no Google Shopping. We shopped at Marshall Field’s and occasionally at Gimbels, and I had no idea what would happen if I should gain even more weight and no longer fit into size 18. I shuddered at the thought and hoped I would never had to find out.

DSHA was an all-girls’ Catholic high school, and the tradition there was for graduates to wear long white dresses and carry long stemmed red roses. A lovely ritual, but for me just another cause of Great Fat Dread. By the spring of my senior year, I weighed 184 pounds. Other than my safety-pinned uniform and a blue sweater from the Men’s Department at Marshall Field’s, my entire wardrobe consisted of the few size 18 outfits I was able to find.  My shopping trips were never about what I liked or what might look good on me; the only criterion I really had was: did it fit? If yes, I bought it.

Starting in March that year, I started casing the stores in search of a long white dress that would fit me. There were none. I never told anyone that I was going on these reconnaissance trips; I was humiliated enough. As far as I could see, no one made long white dresses in anything approaching my size. What was I going to do? I had no idea. Apparently, I was too fat to graduate from high school, and as May loomed ever closer, I resigned myself to the brutal reality that I was not going to lose enough weight to solve my problem.

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These were going to fool no one.

Finally one day, I hit upon my only solution: I would have to find a white nightgown and pass it off somehow as a dress. This would not be an easy task; I didn’t have to look around Lingerie Departments for long in order to realize that they had no size 18 white nightgowns that even remotely resemble dresses. I was terrified that I would have to choose one of these nightgowns to graduate in, and the other girls would howl with laughter when they saw me. Seeing no other alternative, I pressed on, visiting mall after mall in search of a “graduation dress.”

 

About three weeks before the big day, my mother announced that we were going to Lane Bryant to find a graduation dress and then out to lunch at the Milwaukee Athletic Club. I had heard of Lane Bryant, and seen their ads in the Milwaukee Journal, but I was pretty sure they would have nothing suitable for me. Their newspaper ads convinced me that Lane Bryant was a store for grotesquely lb-uglyobese old women who had a fondness for rayon, polyester and lots of wild prints. (It is much easier now to find cute clothes in plus sizes; in those days, I think the mindset in the fashion world was that fat women either didn’t care how they looked—I mean, there they were, fat—or that fat women did care how they looked but needed to be punished for being fat in the first place.) My nightgown strategy was not working out, so I agreed that yes, lunch and a trip to Lane Bryant was in order.

On the appointed day, my mother and I drove downtown, parked the car and walked over to Lane Bryant. I was rigid with shame as we walked into the store. It was awful enough that I had to walk through those doors; much worse was knowing that my chic and stylish mother had to cross that threshold because of me. As we entered the store, a sales clerk said something to my mother and her whole face lit up. She turned to me and said, “Did you hear that? She just asked if I was looking for the Tall Section! She thinks we are here because of me, not you!” My mother was so happy that she was the assumed shopper, that the clerks didn’t find me fat enough to warrant being in the store for fat people. I loved my mother in that moment with a purity I can still feel. As much as she hated the idea of being fat, of being around fat, of having a fat daughter, she was happy to be mistaken for a Lane Bryant Shopper if it meant I would not be marked as one.

The sales clerk directed us up to the Junior Department on the second floor. As we exited the escalator, I was stunned at what I saw. There were racks and racks of clothes, some of them very cute, all of them in sizes I knew would fit me. I had had no idea. They had an entire rack of white dresses, including several that I had seen in Seventeen Magazine, my book of dreams—just in larger sizes. I was actually in the smallest sizes in this store, and what a feeling that was! I tried on several dresses, and bought one of the dresses I had seen in Seventeen—a long white eyelet dress with a simple bodice and a ruffle at the hem.

I was happier that day than I had been in a very long time. I felt beautiful, and—even more wonderful—I felt normal. My mother was happy, too, and she triumphantly handed her credit card to the sales clerk, who put my new dress in a shopping bag and handed it to me.  We sailed out of Lane Bryant, and I felt positively buoyant, a rare sensation for someone who weighed 184 pounds. The Milwaukee Athletic Club was just a few blocks away, so we walked over there to have lunch together and celebrate.

We took the elevator to the dining room and I sighed happily as I placed my shopping bag on one chair and sat down in another. My mother ordered a martini and I ordered a TAB, and we talked about the upcoming graduation party and who would come. The waiter came over to take our order and I eagerly ordered my favorite thing on the MAC menu: a cheeseburger and french fries.

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Truly wonderful cheeseburger and fries.

Without realizing it, I had broken the spell of our happy day. My mother’s forehead furrowed, and she sighed, “I don’t understand why you would eat that after what we’ve just been through.” I was hungry, and now I felt defensive; for a moment, I considered changing my order to the MAC salad, but I wanted that cheeseburger. I wanted those fries. When our food came, I ate every bite, but the buoyant feeling was gone for both of us.

Even though the mood of the day had changed, I was grateful to have my beautiful white dress and relieved that I could stop shopping for nightgowns. My mother had really come through for me by taking me to Lane Bryant. Thinking about that amazing Junior Department, I asked her why she had never told me they had cute things at Lane Bryant. My mom thought for a moment and said, “I was afraid if you knew that, you would be less likely to lose the weight.” Ah.

I felt beautiful on the night I graduated. I kept my dress for years; I even had it remade to be a smaller size when I lost a lot of weight later on. After taking in the dress, the seamstress gave us the yards of extra fabric she had removed, and my mother used it to have Christmas ornaments made for her grandchildren—little babies with white eyelet Christening gowns.

I no longer have even one picture of myself from my graduation night, although I know that there were a few taken. Years later, when I had lost the weight, my siblings and I were looking through some family pictures. We came across one of our family’s infamous “couch pictures”—we all jam ourselves onto the living room couch for a family portrait—and there was a picture of me in my graduation dress, surrounded by my brothers and sisters.  “Oh God,” my brother Jamie laughed, “Who is that in the big white dress?” We all laughed, but I couldn’t help but sneak a look at that girl in the big white dress and amgelremember how very pretty she felt that night. I don’t know what became of the picture, but after that night I never saw it again. To this day, the only place I can find a memento of my high school graduation is on my family’s Christmas trees, in the form of tiny eyelet-clad baby ornaments.

 

A Frozen Playboy, A Bowl of Ice Cream, and the Wages of Sin

I am not a bit proud to say that I was a snoop as a child, always interested in whatever was going on behind the scenes in other peoples’ lives. I regularly used to read both of my sisters’ diaries. I went through drawers, I felt around on closet shelves. I was ever-intrigued to find out what I wasn’t being told, the story-behind-the-story. My unhealthy curiosity is how I found out a lot of information about my family. It is also how I came to view my first Playboy magazine.

I was snooping around in my brother Johnnie’s closet. He was a college man, and I thought he was the height of adult sophistication. Johnnie had a beer glass with a bottom that lit up when it was empty, a board game called “Pass Out” involving people drinking on passoutcommand until someone—you guessed it—passed out, and even a black market telephone. When I was young, it was against the law to own one’s own telephone, and woe betide to anyone who dared.  The Telephone Company owned all the phones, and that was that. If you wanted a phone or if you moved to a new place, you petitioned the Phone Czar to grace you with one of her telephones, and if fortune smiled upon you, she would let you rent one.

phoneEvery month, you paid rent on every phone in your house and when you moved, you left the phones. They were never yours. Outlaws like Jesse James or Richard Nixon might steal phones, but no upstanding citizen would dare. The Phone Company was the only game in town, and you risked fines, prison, and—scariest of all—loss of phone privileges if you messed with Ma Bell. I used to feel an actual shiver of fear every time I looked at Johnnie’s contraband phone. It was an old fashioned black model and he had boldly plugged it right into the Telephone Company’s jack in his bedroom. It worked fine, but I felt butterflies every time I used it, imagining G-men bursting through the front door and cuffing me for breaking the United States Telephone Act.

The illegal phone was a symbol of everything that was fascinating about Johnnie’s room. I almost always found something of interest in my treasure hunts. One day in particular, I was nosing around in his closet. Johnnie’s bedroom had, for a time, been our family room, and the shelf of his spacious closet was still used for storage of odd things. There was, for instance, a very large statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which I remember vividly because it terrified me.

After the sinMary had a very calm expression on her face, and her arms were sort of reaching out toward me, but she was barefoot and standing on a very large and ugly snake. When I first encountered Mary of the Closet, I was fairly young and hadn’t yet digested the whole “serpent in the garden” story, so I had no idea why God’s mother was serenely squishing an angry snake to death with her bare feet. I was used to hearing Mary referred to in our family prayers as “full of grace,” as a “lovely lady dressed in blue,” as a sweet and pure maiden. I didn’t know how to reconcile those descriptions with this snake-killer who was clearly a force to be reckoned with, and who seemed to look at me with an expression that said, “Don’t even think about crossing me. Ask the snake how that turned for him.”

book-of-knowledgeNext to Scary Mary rested our family’s one and only set of encyclopedias, a set of volumes called The Book of Knowledge. I am not sure when the Book of Knowledge was published, but I do recall that when I tried to use it to write an essay on the Unification of Italy, which happened in the late nineteenth century, the Book of Knowledge did not have the updated information; inside its pages, Italy was still a collection of territories grouped around the Papal States.

Before the Internet, our only way to do research for school papers—or even to learn something out of natural curiosity–was to look it up in an encyclopedia. Libraries were good sources for encyclopedias, but some lucky and/or fortunate families owned a whole set of their own. I envied those families, because they never had to trudge out into the cold and slush of a February night to get to the library to look up information for their homework. We never owned our own set of encyclopedias, but we did have The Book of Knowledge, with its cracked brown bindings and pages musty with mottled green spots of mildew.

My mother’s attitude for years was that knowledge was knowledge; the truth doesn’t change, and The Book of Knowledge was a fine resource. She finally changed her mind in the early 1970’s, when her oldest grandchild had to write an essay for school about Abraham Lincoln. My sister Marbeth, John’s mother, did not own a set of encyclopedias, so she sent him over to our house to consult The Book of Knowledge. This essay was a major part of John’s grade in fourth grade History. As my sister looked over his paper, she told John that she was disappointed in him for making things up instead of doing his research, making vague statements such as “Lincoln’s mother died of ‘a strange sickness.’” Clearly stung, John objected that he did do his research, so Marbeth challenged him to show her this “research.” There it was, in black and white in The Book of Knowledge: “Abraham Lincoln’s mother died of a strange sickness.” The Book of Knowledge was retired as a research tool at that point, but it remained on Johnnie’s closet shelf, because my mother loved books too much to ever throw one out, and no one wanted the Book of Knowledge.

On this particular day of snooping through Johnnie’s closet, my hands brushed against something unfamiliar behind The Book of Knowledge. Intrigued, I dragged a chair over to the closet to get more height and increase my reach, and my hand closed around a thick magazine. I pulled it out and down and there it was: A Playboy Magazine! This was seriously degenerate stuff in our Irish Catholic Household, and of course I was mesmerized.

No one was home that night except my grandmother, and she was sound asleep, so I took the magazine into my room to look it over. I slowly paged through it, fascinated but not sure what to make of what I saw. In those days of Playboy Magazine, there were no naked men, and the women were only naked from the waist up. What confused me was the pictures. There were a lot of women in this magazine, and they were all doing normal things like brushing horses, arranging books, or walking through gardens–but without all of their clothes on. To my preteen self, they just looked silly, and I couldn’t imagine why they would be fun to look at. In addition to the pictures, there was a joke page and some articles about politics. Even in my befuddlement, I could tell that this was all somehow titillating; clearly it was coming from a place of adult sophistication that deeply intrigued me.

Since no one was home except my grandmother, and she was snoring contentedly, I went downstairs and fixed myself a giant bowl of vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s Syrup and brought it upstairs to eat while I studied this magazine. About halfway through my ice cream and a third of the way through the Playboy, I heard noises downstairs. Egads! People were home, much sooner than I had expected. There was no way I could be caught with either the ice cream or the magazine. Thinking fast, I grabbed both and stepped out onto the tiny balcony off the bedroom I shared with my sister Susan. If I stood on the balcony, I could just reach the gutter of the roof of the house, so I rolled up the magazine and shoved it into the gutter, along with the ice cream, still in its bowl.

ice-creamNow of course, I had every intention of retrieving both ice cream and Playboy at the earliest possible date, but as soon as I had secreted the evidence of my crime, I felt weighed down with shame and guilt. I hated thinking about what a terrible person I was: sneaking food I wasn’t supposed to be eating, getting even fatter than I already was, sneaking around in my brother’s room and going through his things, looking at a smutty magazine, which was so awful a deed I couldn’t even imagine confessing it at my next confession (which, I knew, I was now going to have to do) and then hiding the magazine in the gutter.

My guilt was so great, in fact, that I pushed the thoughts of what I had done out of my mind every time they came up. Rather than get the contraband out of the gutter and back to each thing’s rightful place, I procrastinated, not wanting to deal with the visual evidence of what was surely a Big Mortal Sin. This denial went on for weeks. Of course I worried that Johnnie might have at some point gone looking for his magazine, and I worried about how much he would worry if he found it missing. I understood that there was no way Johnnie could casually ask, “Hey, family! Has anyone seen my HUGE MORTAL SIN MAGAZINE?” I really felt for him. Still, I made no moves toward the balcony. I was the perfect example of “Out of sight/Out of mind.” Sadly, the saying isn’t “Out of sight/Out of mind/Gone from Reality.” I understood that fact viscerally one morning at the beginning of the spring thaw in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

On the morning in question, we were eating breakfast in our breakfast nook under the upstairs balcony. My father suddenly looked up from his Chicago Tribune and scowled. Following his eyes, I saw water. A lot of water, and it was sluicing down our kitchen wall. Uttering a few choice words, my father stood up and walked over to the wall to examine the situation. As he poked and prodded, his language got louder and more colorful. There was water all along the wall, behind the paint and up in the ceiling.

Cursing the weather, the walls, and whatever else was ruining his Saturday morning, my father summoned my brothers and donned his old navigator’s jacket to go up on the roof and find out what the problem was. This was the moment when my entire insides turned to liquid. Just as I heard my father swearing and calling for my brothers, I realized exactly what had happened. Spring had started the process of melting the snow on our roof and the water was going into the gutter and down the downspouts….except where there was a frozen Playboy magazine and half eaten bowl of ice cream stuck in its way.

I died a thousand deaths that morning as I watched my father and brothers trudge up the stairs, carrying a bucket and a shovel, then heard them hacking away at something, all of them muttering things like “What the hell?” It was not a surprise to me when my father called down to my mother that some &^&* object was encased in ice and blocking the gutter, causing the water to stream down into the kitchen. At that point, I remembered an urgent errand I had to run right at that moment, and I left the house, trembling with anxiety, guilt, shame and horror.

I do not know which of them first realized that the gutter outside our bedroom was stuffed with a Playboy Magazine and a three month old bowl of ice cream. I can only imagine the scene on that balcony when my father dug the whole sorry mess out of the gutter while both of my brothers watched, one in confusion and the other in consternation. Knowing my family as I do, my best bet is that not one of the three of them said a word; I am betting that they silently cleaned out the gutter, discarded the magazine, and brought the ice cream bowl down to the kitchen.

A few days later, my father called a handyman and he came in to repair the kitchen wall. For weeks after The Incident, I waited in agony for my day of reckoning; the ice cream bowl could only have been my calling card. I don’t know if my father talked to Johnnie, or for that matter if my brother Jamie talked to either of them. Even though my Irish Catholic family’s penchant for Not Talking About Stuff Like This saved me from that conversation, I knew what I had to do; some weeks later I finally summoned what courage I had and slinked off to confession. When I blurted the story out to Fr. Heaney, he paused for a moment and then asked me if I understood about hormones. Unprepared for this question, I replied that I did not. Father then explained hormones to me in a monologue that was kind, patient and excruciatingly awkward. I don’t remember what my penance was, but I remember how awful I felt kneeling in the confessional while Father talked about puberty.

playboy-philosophyFrom that day forward, I was a better, more moral person. I would like to say it was because I saw the light and chose virtue, but the truth is that, after the exquisitely awful experience of discussing hormones with Fr. Heaney, I was a new girl. Whenever I was tempted to do something that I knew was wrong, I thought about how very much I did not want to have to confess it. In the end, then, the one thing I learned from reading Playboy magazine was that sins are really never as exciting in reality as they sound in theory, and they are definitely not worth their cost. Not exactly the “Playboy philosophy,” which in the end is fine with me.

 

“Who Ate All The…?”

vintage-mom-shoppingFor most of my childhood, my mother went to the grocery store once a week, on Friday. My father was the breadwinner, and each week he gave my mother an “allowance” for all household expenses. On Friday morning, my father would tuck a check into the corner of the mirror that rested on top of her dresser and on Friday afternoon, my mother would go grocery shopping. Whatever my mother bought on Friday was our food for the week.

Typically, we ate the same things for dinner from week to week, a steady routine of spaghetti, meat loaf, pot roast, baked chicken, minute steak, porcupines (ground beef rolled in minute rice and cooked in tomato soup), English Muffin pizzas, roast beef or roast pork on Sundays, ham, and hamburger patties with a strip of bacon wrapped around them. Our milk came every day from the milkman (we consumed vast quantities of milk) and my mother bought bread every other day from the bakery across the street (we also ate a great deal of bread.)  When my mother went to Kohl’s Food Store on Fridays, she bought the ingredients for the week’s meals and a few treats for the family: some cookies, a box of Kohl’s Brand potato chips and six cans of pop. That’s six cans of pop for five children—for a week.

My dad had discovered a Great Deal on pop, at a bottling plant called American Beverage amer-sodaCompany; there, he could buy pop by the case—glass bottles of pop in wooden crates that he could then return for the deposit. My father loved nothing better than a bargain. He was known to drive from Wisconsin to Indiana to get a good deal on cigarettes, and until the 1980’s he drove to Chicago to buy alcohol at a place called Twins Liquors; bourbon was the family Drink of Choice and Twins had a house brand that was not as expensive as the pricier brand name bourbons. He also knew of a shoe store in Chicago that had nice shoes for cheap and he went there for years, bringing both of my amer2brothers. He was thrilled by the low price of American Soda; he didn’t drink pop himself, which explains a great deal. Strange as American Soda often tasted, though, it was plentiful and cheap, and much, much better than tap water.

The generic pop supply was steady but the name brand pop disappeared quickly. My eldest sister Marbeth loved Real Coke so much that she started to buy and keep her own supply in her bedroom closet. Woe to anyone who dipped into that private cache of Coke. Marbeth also bought her own lemon drops and artfully displayed them  in a glass jar on her desk; when my sister Susan and I were feeling particularly bold, we would dash into Marbeth’s room (as the eldest, she alone had her own room), snatch two lemon drops from her jar, and run for our lives.

Shortly after we moved from Chicago to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I had my new friend Ellen over to play. Ellen came from a calm family, the sort of family who never fought—or even disagreed, as far as I could tell. Her house always felt like a museum; her mother had an extensive doll collection housed in glass cases, and every room was perfectly organized and arranged, like a slightly dusty model home.

football-3On the first day Ellen came over to my house to play—a Sunday—the Chicago Bears were playing the Green Bay Packers on television. We were all pretty new to Wisconsin and so were collectively experiencing some significant homesickness. (The first time my mother saw downtown Milwaukee, she turned to my father, said “This is IT?” and burst into tears.) My father and brothers still identified with the Bears, of course, and despised Bart Starr, the quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. No doubt feeling festive about the football game, and not all that interested in having an American Soda Company version of “Coke,” my brother Johnnie had “borrowed” one of Marbeth’s Cokes from her closet.

Ellen and I had been playing—calmly–for about fifteen minutes when either the Chicago Bears did something regrettable or Bart Starr did something good. Whatever it was, my father and brothers started screaming wildly at the television set and pounding their fists on the living room floor. I was unfazed, as this was just another Sunday afternoon for me, but Ellen was instantly terrified and wanted to go home. My sister Susan and I managed to calm her down; after some minutes had passed, she was even smiling (albeit a bit tremulously). That was when my sister Marbeth ran past us, a screaming blur of rage wielding a baseball bat; she was hunting down my brother Johnnie and the Purloined Coke. That did it. Ellen was out the door and back at her house well before Marbeth caught up with Johnnie. From that day forward, Ellen always offered her house as our playdate destination, which was fine with me, since her mother was generous with offers of Name Brand Cookies and Choo Choo Cherry drinks.

Food, then, was a bit of an “issue” in our household of seven, and no food item was more controversial than cookies. Every Friday, my mother bought two packages of cookies for the week. Inevitably, one of the two packages would be a complete waste of sugar and salerno-butter-cookiesshelf space. I never understood the reason why Salerno Butter Cookies even existed, much less why they absorbed any part of my mother’s meager Cookie Budget. The butter industry should have sued Salerno for using the name “butter”; at the very least, they should have called them Salerno “Butter” Cookies–And By “Butter” We Mean “The Paper That Butter Comes Wrapped In.”

Another anti-cookie pretending to be an actual cookie was the Nabisco Sugar Wafer These were thin strips of what tasted like very thin balsa wood held together by sawdust and microscopic bits of icing. Just looking at Sugar Wafers was enough to fill my mouth with dust. Then there were the truly execrable Coconut Bars, which could only have been produced and sold by someone who hated cookies, children and the entire Baked Goods Industry. I was a child who would eat just about anything if there was sugar in it, but even I was known to turn my nose up at Coconut Bars, which tasted like someone had collected the hair out of all the combs in the house, mixed it with flour, toasted and baked it. coconut-barsFinally, there were Pecan Sandies, a favorite summer time cookie for my mother. She bought Pecan Sandies so that when we went to the beach we could eat something whose taste wouldn’t be altered by being covered in sand. I am not making this up.

In addition to the Essentially Tasteless Cookies, though, there would always be a package of something wonderful, usually Oreos or Pinwheels. Pinwheels were the Platonic pinwheel-packageForm of cookie; for one thing, they were huge. They were the only cookie I could eat just two of and feel satisfied. Plus, Pinwheels had three delicious elements: a graham cracker base, a good deal of marshmallow, and a covering of chocolate. When they were fresh, I could bite into a Pinwheel and the chocolate would resist for just a moment before collapsing into a pillow pinwheelof fresh marshmallow and graham cracker. Heaven. The only down side of Pinwheels was the fact that they only came twelve to a package. At least Oreos had three rows of multiple cookies, making it harder to keep count of how many were gone.

My family lived under a Cookie Honor System. No one was supposed to eat more than her/his share of the cookies, and it was expected that cookies would be available through Thursday night’s dinner for anyone who fancied one or two. The Oreos and Pinwheels rarely made it to midweek. Even the Tasteless Blond Cookies were always gone by Friday and often before.

I snuck cookies at every opportunity, knowing full well that there would be a Day of Cookie Reckoning in my near future. When no one was around and I was hungry for sweets, I displayed an astonishing lack of ability to weigh short term pleasures against long term consequences, and I would eat a good bit more than my share of the weekly cookie supply.

untitledThe dread would start in my gut right around Wednesday night after dinner, when my brother Jamie would go over to the cabinet where the cookies were kept. I swear that he never wanted a cookie at all until he was sure they were gone. He seemed to enjoy more than any cookie the drama of opening the cabinet and yelling out, “Who ate all the…..?” I would cringe, because it was almost always me and I was almost always in trouble for it, especially when I was on a diet. My mother was never happy to discover that she had been baking halibut for me while I was scarfing down Oreos on the sly.

It was my sister Susan (she sometimes got into trouble over Cookie Consumption, but not nearly as often as I did) who came up with a solution to our problem. One Wednesday night after the weekly Cookie Inquisition—and this time, Susan was the main culprit–she stomped away from the kitchen, taking me with her.  “I have some of my own money,” she whispered to me. “Let’s go to Kohl’s and buy ourselves our own package of Oreos and our own bottle of milk!” Brilliant. My sister is a genius, I thought to myself. The best kind of genius—one with her own money.

Thus began a tradition of buying food in secret and consuming it in secret—unlike a candy bar here or there, we were talking entire packages of cookies, bags of chips, the large size candy bars. We did have the problem of spiriting these contraband goods past the eyes of my mother, but Susan and I solved that problem by inventing a pulley system whereby we snuck out the back door, down our side yard, across the Steins’ front yard and to either Kohl’s, Fessenbecker’s Bakery or Hayward’s Drugstore, depending on how hungry we were and/or how much money we had. Once we had the goods, we placed our contraband goodies in an old bicycle basket and pulled them up onto our little balcony with a jump rope.

For some reason, Susan moved on from this behavior after a few weeks. Perhaps she was weary of funding my prodigious appetite for sweets, or perhaps she was turning into a Normal Person; in any event, my silent partner in crime was pulling out. Not me. I developed a firm and pernicious habit of buying junk food and consuming it alone. Once in a while, Susan would still join me in the Search for the Sugar High; when there were no goodies in the house—or the goodies that did exist were a worrisome “Jamie will get us for this” trap–Susan perfected a recipe for our own “frosting.” She mixed butter with cocoa and powdered sugar and we would eat it straight from the bowl. It was actually pretty good, and just as importantly, we could make it quietly and fast.

When even the ingredients for Fast and Sneaky Frosting weren’t available or I had no money of my own, I was not averse to consuming Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup straight from the can, or—if we had them–poured over graham crackers. One night I was craving the Chex Mix I had tasted at a friend’s house, and I attempted to recreate it by guessing the recipe, limited of course to whatever ingredients were on hand in my mother’s kitchen. I poured Cheerios on a cookie sheet, doused them with soy sauce, and baked them for about thirty minutes. They were not tasty.

m-and-mWhen my brother Johnnie got married in 1971, I was eager to hear from him what marriage was like. My sister Marbeth had married in 1966, but she lived far away, first in North Carolina and then in Texas, so I couldn’t ask her. About a week after coming back from his honeymoon, I asked Johnnie, “What’s the best thing about being married?” Without hesitating, Johnnie said, “I go to Kohl’s and buy the pounder bag of M&M’s. I bring them home, and put them in the cabinet. And then I eat as many as I want.” Made perfect sense to me. I couldn’t wait to get married.

Route 66 and a Secondhand Hearse

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Although my childhood had its odd moments, there were also wonderful moments. I grew up in the era when mothers stayed home with the children and fathers went to work; my parents raised five children on my dad’s salary. As a child, I never really had any clear idea what my father actually did for a living. He did what the dads on television did: every morning, he picked up his briefcase and drove away, and every evening he came home, put down the briefcase, and fixed himself a drink. When I was in kindergarten, Mrs. Eisely started some sort of project that involved knowing what our fathers did for a living, and we were told to find out what our dads did and report back the next day. I dutifully went home that day and asked my mother what my father’s job was, exactly. She told me that he was the President of the Milwaukee office of Kemper Insurance. The only word I recognized in that whole answer was “President,” and so the next day I reported to Mrs. Eisely that my father was the President. She told me to come back the next day with better information.

The second time I asked my mother about my father’s job, I decided to skip the whole “He’s the president of something unclear” and go for something more exciting. I knew that my father had been in World War II and that he had served in Tokyo and Guam; there were pictures of him in uniform, and he still had his navigator’s jacket and binoculars. (Note to the United States Air Force: we know nothing about those binoculars. The statute of limitations has run. My father gave his country several years of his life. The least you can do now is look the other way about those binoculars.) When I pressed my mother for the details of my father’s time in the Air Force, she told me that he had served as a navigator on a B-29, and had been stationed in the Pacific. Now this was more like it; I mentally rubbed my hands together over this exciting vision and asked my mother if my father had killed anyone. To my intense disappointment, my mother said that no, he wasn’t in any actual battles. No battles? What, then, was he doing in that B-29, I wondered? My mother speculated that he might have been dropping supplies on POW camps, and seeing how crestfallen I was that my father had not killed anyone, she offered, “Maybe when he dropped some canned goods on the camps, one of the prisoners got hit with one and died.” That was not the sort of heroic story I wanted to report to Mrs. Eisely. I let the whole matter drop, and I think Mrs. Eisely did, too. I have no memory what the project was, but I think it involved making a bird feeder. How a bird feeder intersected with my father’s career choice is a mystery Mrs. Eisely no doubt took to her grave.

I did know that my father went to work every day, and managed to put five children through Catholic elementary school, high school, and college. He put three of those children through law school. Looking back fifty years after I left Mrs. Eisely’s class, I can see that he was pretty heroic after all. Not only did he support his family, he made sure that we went on several family vacations even though we never had much money.  Those vacations may not have been opulent, but they were certainly memorable.

The summer before I started second grade, my father decided to take the whole family to California. Some of his old buddies from the War lived there, and he thought it would be fun to drive across the country, see the sights along the way, visit his friends, and then drive home. It could not have been cheap to get seven people to California and back, but he found a way.

hearseSeeing the U.S.A. was going to be part of the charm of this trip, so my father needed a car that would seat all seven of us. He bought a secondhand hearse at a used car lot; it had lots of room—a wide bench-type front seat and back seat, plus two jumpseats that opened up between front and back. He piled all seven of us into that car and we headed out on Route 66 to California. Early on, we discovered why the hearse had been sold at a bargain price. The engine overheated regularly; before we crossed our first state line and several times after that, I would find myself sitting in the very warm hearse while my father and brothers stood dolefully at the side of the road, watching steam pour out of the hood of the hearse and dousing the radiator with water.

Cars were rarely air conditioned in those days, and even if the hearse had been air conditioned, I doubt that my dad would have used it, as it would have adversely affected our mileage, a big no-no in Jack Maloney’s universe.  My dad was a big fan of Getting Good Mileage, and in every glove compartment of every car he ever owned he kept a notebook, where he meticulously recorded exactly how many miles per gallon he got on each tank of gas purchased. Air conditioning would have wreaked havoc with Getting Good Mileage, so we kids just rolled down the windows to cool off in the summer heat; of course, there were no “breezes” on Route 66. There was a great deal of hot air blowing into the car, and since both of my parents smoked, their ashes would blow back through the windows of the backseat. For us kids back there, it was Ash Wednesday every day.

Despite the heat and the temperamental hearse, we were excited to be going on this great old-route-662adventure. Every day, my dad would drive for hours and hours, until nighttime when we would stop at a hotel to get some sleep. Simply being in a hotel was a Big Deal for us, and we loved it. To this day, I get a thrill when I walk into a hotel and see an ice machine and a swimming pool. Free Ice! Free Pool! To us, this was heaven.

Staying at a hotel gave us all a chance to rest, eat and clean up; it could be a challenge, though, to accomplish all three things, because my father would drop us at the hotel and go find a grocery store. Rather than feed all seven of us in a restaurant, where the money can add up fast, he would buy baloney, mayonnaise, milk and bread and bring it back to the room. The ice was free, so he would send us on multiple trips to the ice machine so that he could fill the bathtub with ice and keep the food fresh. Anyone who hadn’t showered by the time the bathtub had been turned into a Giant Baloney Cooler was out of luck.

As exciting as staying in hotels was, there were challenges. Every now and then, one of us would have to leave the room and step outside to get the feeling back in our extremities. Air conditioning was free with the price of our room; so were the lights and the television. Since it was a Very Important Maloney Value to get our money’s worth at all times, my dad would turn the air conditioning on full blast the moment we arrived, and leave it there for the duration of our stay. We also kept all the lights on and the television blared until bedtime. (Note to Our Mother the Earth: He didn’t mean to hurt you. He just wanted full value for his dollar.)

We also stopped sometimes on the road to eat a meal, and that was always a very big deal. Because my father was always looking to save money, we would travel long distances between stops to eat, and no one was ever allowed to suggest that we might stop or that we might be hungry. We just waited and waited; as the ribbon of highway unspooled beneath our wheels, we would read signs advertising restaurants and hope against hope that we might stop at one of them. When we eventually did stop to eat, we knew that we were absolutely forbidden to order anything to drink besides water, which was free. We never ordered dessert, of course, or appetizers. I didn’t even know what an appetizer was until I was in college.

We would all scan the restaurant’s menu looking for whatever option included the most food and order that, knowing that it might be a long while before we ate again. At one restaurant we stopped at for breakfast (which would also, we knew, be lunch), the meals came with toast on the side. I ordered French toast and when the waitress brought it I asked about my toast on the side. She glared at me and said, “You want toast with your French toast?” You bet I did.

3-coinsOne of our planned stops enroute to the Golden State was Las Vegas. This was 1964, the era of the “Rat Pack” and the beginning of “The Strip” with its glitz and glamor, not to mention legal gambling. My dad really wanted to be part of this Important Cultural Experience. He never liked to miss anything, and Las Vegas was An Experience for sure. We stayed at The 3 Coins Motel; it was a ramshackle place, but it had the required Ice Machine and Pool, and so we kids adored it. Las Vegas was a more contained city in 1964, and the desert was visible right there on the edge of town. On our first night at the 3 Coins Motel, there was an impressive sand storm, and the next day the pool was carpeted in a good six inches of sand. We shrugged it off and enjoyed ourselves anyway.

No one paid much attention to what we were doing at the 3 Coins Motel. The pool had a diving board, and my siblings, my dad and I enjoyed jumping off the diving board in all manner of different poses. Eventually, we tired of that, so we dragged the lounge chairs that were set up around the pool up onto the diving board and jumped off the board while sitting in the lounge chairs. My mother stood by, watching us and fretting, amazed yet again that none of us broke our necks. (Now that we are adults, our spouses have a theory called The Four Missing Maloneys. Having heard the stories of3-coins-2 our collective childhood and its hazards, they have announced that there were, once upon a time, NINE Maloney children and only the five of us made it to adulthood intact. It’s the only explanation that makes sense to them, because they can’t believe that we all actually survived things like jumping off of diving boards into swimming pools while seated on lawn chairs.) (Note to the 3 Coins Motel: no lounge chair were harmed in the execution of these stunts. Really.)

Eventually, we arrived in California and started visiting all those old war buddies and their families. I was stunned to discover that people had lemon and orange trees right there in their own backyards. California was an exotic place, indeed. Some of my father’s friends even had swimming pools in their backyards. I loved swimming, and would stay in any pool until my skin was blue and my fingers all wrinkly, but my dad’s war buddies apparently viewed a pool more as a party site than a place to swim. I remember quite a few pool parties on that trip. In California, a “pool party” was an event at which the grownups consumed impressive numbers of martinis and forgot to supervise the children. We loved them.

We stayed at hotels enroute to California, but for reasons that are unclear to me, once we arrived in the Golden State, we stayed in a trailer park. This was a huge embarrassment to my mother. I didn’t understand her attitude at all. The trailer itself was fascinating, with its tiny bathroom and kitchen, its tiny bedrooms that somehow managed to fit several beds into a tiny space. Even with its miniature furniture, the trailer wasn’t big enough to sleep seven people, so while my mother, my sisters and I slept in the actual trailer, my dad and my brothers slept on the ground outside. To me, it all seemed a great adventure. To my mom, we were just one small step away from becoming the Joads in the Grapes of Wrath. Being a Joad was never on my mother’s bucket list.

Once we were settled in our trailer park home, we were ready to start visiting the old war-buddy friends. Before we embarked, my parents told us in a stern, no-nonsense way that no one was to know where we were staying. If anyone asked, we were staying at the Edgewood Hotel. I could tell that my parents were mostly worried that I would spill the beans, and I resolved to keep this weird secret even if I didn’t understand why. When one of the other children at a “pool party” asked me where we were staying, I dutifully replied, “The Edgewater Hotel.” To this day, I feel badly about the unfairly maligned Edgewater Hotel, because my dad’s friends complained several times that their front desk was staffed by incompetent ninnies. Every time they called the hotel to talk to my dad, the people at the desk said that no one by the name of Maloney was registered there. This was all very puzzling, but I chalked it up to Weird Things Adults Do For No Discernible Reason. (Note to owners of the Edgewater Hotel: you probably had a first rate staff. Sorry about that.)

1964-gop-national-convention-pin-i-wasOur stay in California happened to coincide with the Republican National Convention, which was held in San Francisco in 1964. We were Democrats from Chicago, but my dad thought that visiting the Republican Convention would be an Important Cultural Experience, so off we went. Not only did we have the chance to rub elbows with politicians—there was also free stuff there, an Important Maloney Value. We scarfed up buttons reading AU-H2O in 1964 and Mom Likes Pepsi. Even better, there were tables where unlimited amounts of Pepsi-Cola were being given away, no questions asked. When confronted with free food or drink of any kind, the Maloney 150406164731-1964-goldwater-girls-super-169Family Philosophy was to eat or drink as much of it as possible.  My brother, sister and I drank impressive amounts of free Pepsi. If I jumped up and down, I could hear my stomach gurgling, a situation I used to great comic effect.

We took Route 66 home, stopping at the Grand Canyon along the way. My father made sure that we saw a lot of the United States from the back seat of that hearse. To this day, I get a warm feeling in my heart every time I hear the song Route 66, see a hearse, get free ice from a machine, or drink a free Pepsi. My dad wanted us to have memorable vacations. He certainly succeeded.

ca-trip

 

The Worst (and also the best) Roommate in the World

 

I have a Ph.D. in philosophy now, but in the early years of my formal education, I was a marginal student at best. As a child, I rarely paid attention in class; in second susan and megrade, I took Get Smart paperbacks to class and read them under my desk while class went on around me. In sixth grade, my teacher nicknamed me “who me” because every time he called on me, I responded, “Who? Me?” Once in history class that same year, I was called on and had no idea what we were even discussing at the time. I had been busy designing a new wardrobe in my mind for my SuperBall. I glanced quickly at the picture in our textbook; it was a shot of some soldierly-looking types in a field. “So?” my teacher said archly, glancing around at the rest of the class. “What is it?”

“Um,” I guessed, “A weapon?” Laughter all around. Mrs. Fitzpatrick said, “Well, I suppose textyou could really hurt someone with it, but no, Anne, a scythe is a farming tool, not a weapon, just as it says in your assigned reading for today.” More laughter. I felt weirdly proud of being the cause of so much merriment in class, and I kind of appreciated the wit of that teacher’s remark. Those sorts of interchanges, though, were steady, and did nothing to help me win good grades.

There was a bit of chaos at my home in those grade school days, and my mom would go to teacher conferences with no idea of how I was doing in school. Intermittently during the term, she would ask me if I had any homework, and I almost always said I had done it already. Then my mother would go to conferences and find out that I simply had not turned in six of ten assignments. She would come home and yell at me, and I would cry. She would lay down a rule such as “no TV on school nights,” but I knew that I had to be just a little bit patient and she would get preoccupied and stop keeping track, so before too long I could be back to my after school TV habit of Star Trek, followed by reruns of I Love Lucy and the Dick Van Dyke Show.

It didn’t help that until eighth grade, I shared a bedroom with my sister Susan. She was five years older than I was, and a chronic night owl. She would be up most nights well past midnight, doing things like her homework and cleaning our room. With all the lights on. Susan would get mad that I was such a slob and pile all my things on my bed. One night when I was in the fourth grade, I got fed up and threw my things off the bed and onto the floor. It was one o’clock in the morning. Susan reacted by taking those things and throwing them off our little balcony and into the snow. I screamed bloody murder about that, which woke up my mother and she ran so quickly toward our room to find out what the trouble was that she ran into the metal banister that girded our stairs and broke her toe. There was hell to pay about that, and I learned never to scream in the middle of the night about my sister again.

imagesAs much Susan tormented me, she was also my best friend and, during those times when my mother was juggling an alcoholic husband, an elderly and failing mother, a rebellious older daughter and two teenaged sons, Susan mothered me. When she was in the fourth grade, her school had an elaborate Spring Fair; it was a big deal, sort of a Parish Fair, and any children who went to Christ King were encouraged to bring their younger siblings for a whole day. I was five years old at the time, and I was over the moon with excitement about going to this fair. I had only just started dressing myself—my mother always dressed me, until HER mother came for a visit and told her that a five year old should be dressing herself—and I picked out a perfect outfit, a yellow dress with little white daisies. I completely forgot about underpants, and no one noticed—at least, no one noticed until I got to the school, where Susan noticed. Immediately. It was a short dress, and it would not be long before everyone saw, as my grandmother used to say, “All the way to Clare.” Susan snuck me into the Girl’s Bathroom and put her underpants on me; her dress was longer and she figured that it would be less likely to be noticed if she “went commando” that day. Her underpants were much too big for me, but she had found a piece of rope somewhere in the classroom and used it to cinch the panties around my waist.

mayfield-lgWe left the bathroom and started in on the Fair. All went well until we had exhausted the indoor activities—a bake sale, fortune-telling, a craft sale—and ventured out to the playground. One of the boys in Susan’s class lifted her dress to show her panties (no one had the slightest concept of sexual harassment in those days) only to find that she wasn’t wearing any. I remember that moment with utter clarity, and everything after that moment is blank. I have no idea what happened after that, and when I asked my sister, years later, what happened when she was “unveiled,” she claimed that she had no
memory of any such event. That was Susan, always—she remembers her childhood as utterly perfect, and if others remembered problems? Didn’t happen. Or, more correctly, she didn’t remember it happening.

soap-heart
Our Vision

Susan genuinely loved me and wanted to help, but she wasn’t very old herself. One day when I was in the sixth grade we had an assignment to carve something out of a large bar of soap. I put the bar of soap into my schoolbag and forgot all about it until the weekend before the project was due. My parents had friends in town that weekend, my dad’s old gang from his one year of college at St. Mary’s of the Lake in Chicago. It was late on a Saturday afternoon, and the party was sounding very merry. I remembered the soap and scooped it out of my schoolbag to show Susan. “I have to make something out of this by Monday,” I whined. “I don’t know what to do with it.” Susan took the soap out of my hands and examined it; it was a straightforward white oblong bar of Ivory soap. “Whittle it into a heart,” she suggested. That’ll be easy, and it

soap-carving2
Reality

will look good.”

I got busy, finding a short bladed knife in the kitchen drawer and starting to carve. What I hadn’t realized was that my pudgy, sweaty hands were going to make the soap get progressively slipperier as I worked. I had no artistic talent whatsoever, and by the time I was finished, the heart was gray from my sweat and dirt, a bit foamy because of all the sweating I did, and grotesquely misshapen. The heart was about two inches across on one surface and about one-half inch across on the other surface. I showed it to Susan and she said, “Well, I think it’s fine. Why don’t you show it to mom and dad and see what they think.”  Dutifully, I trotted off to the living room with my soap heart; as soon as I entered, a woman in a halter sundress saw it and burst out partylaughing. “Oh my God,” she shouted, “What is this?” Everyone looked over and saw my soap heart, and everyone reacted as if it were the funniest thing they had ever seen. Shyly, I looked around and beamed; I wasn’t sure just how I had become the center of attention, but I liked it very much. I loved hearing those adults laugh.

Mrs. Fitzpatrick, of course, did not laugh when I brought my soap heart to school. In fact, she scowled. And when I saw the other projects, I realized why. There on the window ledge sat the other soap sculptures: dinosaurs in precise detail, charming boats (one with its own soap anchor), a bunch of grapes with carved leaves. I put my misshapen grey soap heart next to them and sighed. I knew I would get a D. Again. And I did.

In that same school year, I had to make a collage. I had no idea what a collage was; almost certainly, it had been explained in class, but I never listened to what was going on in class. I came home and told Susan I had to make a collage. “What’s a collage?” Susan asked. “I think it’s a collection of things on a piece of paper,” was my response. So Susan found a piece of green construction paper and we opened the “junk drawer” in our kitchen, methodically removing about 20 random items—a match stick, a piece of gum, a nail—and we glued them to the piece of paper. Voila! A collage. Not only did I get a terrible grade on my collage, but it didn’t even get hung up on the wall with the other collages, which had themes and things.

bunny
Our Vision

I think it was that same year, but might have been a year earlier or later, that I was assigned a homework project involving clay. I was supposed to make clay from a recipe given to me at school and then sculpt something out of the clay. I took it home to Susan and she and I followed the recipe, but our clay refused to be three dimensional. I ended up “sculpting” a bunny rabbit head on a piece of paper out of the clay, so that my project was more like a fresco than a statue. I think it also looked a lot like the profile of the then-ubiquitous Playboy Bunny. Again, my homework was not displayed with the others.

soap-carving2
Reality

In fifth grade, our teacher entered us all in an essay contest. We were given a specific topic and told to write about it. The topic was “Industry’s Role in Pollution Control.” I dutifully brought this assignment home to Susan, but for some reason she misunderstood the sentence, and thought that our topic was “Industries Roll in Pollution Control.” This struck both of us as a very odd image, and we had no idea what we supposed to say about that. An entire Industry can’t roll, and even the vision of such a thing was absurd. And what where these Industries rolling in? Grass? Mud? How could an entire Industry roll in a concept such as Pollution Control? I don’t remember the entirely of the essay I handed in, but I do remember that it began with the sentence, “The little fish could not swim past the red schoolhouse because it was black.” My essay was not a winner. My grade was not good.

scene-1d-17-1Susan did an awful lot to make me feel less alone in the world. We were sisters, and for many years, we shared a room, so we fought viciously, but we also loved each other and counted on each other in hard times. Susan did have a quirky side, and I was often her accomplice in some escapades that, looking back, were ill-advised to say the least. The summer I was going into second grade, we shared a room, a big bedroom over the garage. Marbeth still lived at home, and our brothers shared the other bedroom. The room over the garage had a linoleum floor, which was less than ideal. It had never been designed as a bedroom, especially a girl’s bedroom; when my parents bought the house, it had a grand piano in it, which the previous owners said we could keep for free if we wanted it. We did not want it, and they had to get it out of there. The sellers took the grand piano, but they left the scarlet red walls and the black drapes with red Chinamen imprinted all over them. Interestingly, Susan and I didn’t mind the walls or the drapes as much as we minded the floor. It was cold in the winter, but that wasn’t the main problem. The main problem was that it was brown, and it was linoleum. Our friends on the block had cute pink bedrooms with candy-striped wallpaper and flowered bedspreads; our in-closet working sink just wasn’t compensation for living in a room that looked less like Gidget’s bedroom and more like Lily Munster’s.

Susan was always thinking, always trying to imagine ways to improve our situation. On this particular hot summer day, she approached me with the bursting confidence of a used car salesman. “Anne!” she said. “I was at Mayfair the other day and I found out that Klode Carpet throws out those sample squares of carpet when they get dusty or they stop selling that color. I bet that if we went there and asked, they would let us have those squares of carpet!” Trying to understand why this was such Great News, I slowly said, “And…?”

our-vision
Our Vision

“And, we can bring them home and sew them together and make a carpet for our bedroom!” she crowed. “It will be a patchwork quilt carpet and it will be so cool! We can cover the whole floor with it for free!” We were both pretty sure that our parents would be thrilled to receive a beautiful patchwork carpet free of charge. They would be amazed at our entrepreneurial spirit and grateful for our creative contribution to the household. It was a pure win-win situation. I was in.

Off we went to Mayfair, about a one mile walk from our house. We arrived at Klode Carpet and asked for their rejected carpet squares in our sweetest, most polite voices. The manager of the store was brought in and he and the salesperson looked at the two of us somewhat dubiously. “Are you girls sure that you want these carpet squares?” they said, looking at the two of us with some concern. (I was six years old and still a skinny little kid; I didn’t plump up until second grade. Susan was going into fifth grade, and the two of us could not have looked strong enough to carry home the amount of carpet they had stored in the back of their store.)

Of course, we had no idea how heavy carpet actually was, and so we nodded vigorously that yes, we wanted all the carpet squares that we were willing to give us, that yes, we had a way to get the carpet squares home, that we knew exactly what we were doing, and that we had a Very Important Craft Project which would require all the squares they were willing to

duraceramic-stack
Reality

part with.

Klode Carpet had a lot of carpet squares, and they were willing to part with all of them. They helpfully provided us with a box, and even loaded the carpet squares into the box. The box of carpet squares was roughly twice as tall as I was and three times as wide. It resembled a telephone booth in height and size, at least from our perspective. Wanting to get out of there before the people at Klode Carpet changed their minds and reneged on this gift, Susan and I each heaved up one end of the massive box of carpet and walked out of the store, trying valiantly to look jaunty and in control.

Once we got out to the parking lot, we put the box down and rested. I was starting to have my doubts about this whole enterprise, but Susan’s determination was unflagging. She exhorted me that yes, we could get this box of carpet home together, and then just think! We would have a beautiful, warm checkerboard carpet for our room! For free! We heaved the box back up and started for home.

It was a death march. I don’t know how we did it; I do know that it took all day. We would walk as far as we could without collapsing under the weight of the box, and then rest until the pain in our arms and shoulders was at least bearable. When we were no longer near tears from the pain, we would pick the box up again and walk as far as we could. That box of carpet squares did make it to 2337 Swan Boulevard that day, and we were both sore and stiff for the better part of a week. But we did it! We could just about see that beautiful carpet already!

While the box of carpet squares was still in the garage, before we tried to work out how we were going to carry it upstairs to the bedroom, I asked Susan, “How are we going to turn this into a carpet?” I am not sure why this question hadn’t occurred to either of us earlier, but it had not. Susan thought for a few minutes and said, “We can staple them together!” I brightened up.

“Yes! That will work great, and the staples will hardly show!” By this time, we needed something to remind ourselves of why we were undergoing this pain; also, we still hadn’t figured out how to get the box up the stairs, so I suggested that we start making the carpet right there in the garage, while we waited for someone who could still feel his arms to come home and help us with the box. Susan thought that was a capital idea and went into the house to grab the stapler.

We decided to start with two of the prettiest-colored squares, but realized immediately that carpet is actually a great deal thicker and tougher than the construction paper we usually used the stapler for. Even when we got our father’s heavy duty stapler from the basement, we couldn’t figure out any way to get a staple through even one piece of carpet, much less staple together two. I was distraught. Also, exhausted and hungry and sore. “Well?” I said to Susan. “What now?”

Ever the optimist, Susan said, “No worries! We’ll just get Daddy’s hole puncher, punch holes in the squares, and tie them together with Marshall Field’s gold string (our mother saved all gift cords from Marshall Field boxes, so we had a considerable supply in the Box Closet.) She went back into the house and emerged a few minutes later with a lot of gold Marshall Field string and a hole puncher.

The moment she tried to punch a hole in a carpet square, we both knew. This carpet was never going to happen. The hold puncher didn’t even disturb the pile on the square, much less penetrate any part of it. We couldn’t face the reality of it that day, not given the sweat and hope we had invested in that box of carpet. “We’ll go out tomorrow and buy a bigger hole puncher,” Susan said, and I nodded vigorously. “Sure! Tomorrow we’ll be rested, and we can get right back to this! Can we get something to eat right now?”

We did not go out the next day to get a bigger hole puncher. We pretended the box of carpet squares had never existed. After a week, our mother asked what on earth we intended to do with that giant box of carpet squares in the garage, and Susan sheepishly said she had no idea. My mother set it out with the rest of the trash, and the garbagemen took it away. We lived with the linoleum floors until the day we moved out of that bedroom, and said no more about it.