This entry is part 4 of 19 in the series Memoir

After I wrote about my grandmother and the sewing basket, it occurred to me that I had never told anyone that story. Not the Mathematician, not a therapist, nobody. Which means I am the only person who could tell it, because my parents and my grandmother are dead. Does this make it somehow worthy of telling? Ah yes, I’m looking for a way out.

Maybe I should tell you something neutral. Something not-so-awful. Thus my query to the keeper of memories, my subconscious: do I have to start with the really, really bad stuff?

It’s odd the way the subconscious seems to make decisions behind the scenes and then suddenly, without any apparent warning, opens a door and shoves something into the forefront. Because after I asked this question, I got a flash memory of my first communion dress.

Anybody who grows up Catholic — especially those who go to Catholic school — knows what a big deal the first communion is. For the kids there’s a whole week of preparation (or at least there was when I was seven) — including first confession, after which the sisters threw us a party with cake and icecream to celebrate our newly scrubbed and squeaky clean souls. And then the first communion itself. After that there’s supposed to be another party, this one at home. Hosted by your family.

I lived in fear of people coming to our door, people I knew, who would see all. But in this case, I didn’t have to worry much, because it would only be family, who were well aware of my mother’s habits. But there was still the matter of the dress.

Second grade girls like to play bride, and here was an opportunity to dress up in white, and make everybody watch. I was a kid who hid in the corner for the most part, so that had no appeal to me. I’d walk up the aisle in my white dress, because it was expected of me. The issue of how I’d get the dress was more complicated. I could ask my older sister, who had a couple years as a novitiate under her belt, but no money. My father wasn’t cheap with us, but the idea of him going shopping for a fancy dress, that was almost funny.

Chicago, 1963In this period of my life I have very few concrete memories of my mother, but my first communion dress outing is one of them. The day before the ceremony she emerged from the bedroom wearing makeup and heels, her hair a perfect helmet and announced we were going shopping. This is the only time I ever shopped with my mother, as far as I remember, and it was an experience so odd that I dreamed about it for years.

We ended up in a small storefront on Lincoln Avenue which seemed to be filled with round racks of nothing but communion dresses. One of those opportunistic shops that come up like mushrooms and fade away again.  There were maybe six mothers in that store with kids in tow but for some reason I remember the noise most of all: the squeak of the hangers as they were pushed back and forth, and the Lincoln Avenue traffic. — it was May and the door was propped open. But I don’t remember any conversation at all.

My mother started riffling through the dresses  with ruthless efficiency, her scarlet red lips pursed as she turned over labels and examined hems. Then she pulled out a dress and announced it to be The One.

What I remember about it is this: it cost thirty-five dollars, an amount that shocked and frightened me. I knew more about household finances than most seven year olds. I knew, for instance, that we paid a hundred dollars a month rent on the three bedroom flat above Byron’s Photography Studio (just around the corner from the first apartment, on Larchmont). I knew that the telephone bill came to about eight dollars a month. And here was my mother, spending thirty five dollars on a dress made in Italy, satin and lace, that I would wear only once.

It made no sense to me then, but as an adult I finally figured it out. My cousin Mary, the eldest daughter of my mother’s sister, said something that made it all fall into place.

“You know we thought you were rich,” she said. “You were always dressed like little princesses. Drove my mother nuts.”

Aunt Nancy had six kids, a rocky marriage, and a drinking habit somewhat less destructive than my mother’s.  She also had a deep and abiding hatred for her sister.  Sibling rivalry is not the right word for what went on between them. My mother was the elder, prettier of the two, and she tortured her sister for all their childhoods.  I understand aunt Nancy’s anger toward my mother because we experienced her in much the same way.  And there’s also the simple fact that Nancy, despite some very rough times, despite her dependence on alcohol, remained generous and loving, even toward the daughters of her despised sister.

My first communion was another way for my mother to sneer at her sister and twist the knife, this time by means of imported lace and satin.  We were strictly working class and I imagine my father was not happy about the cost of that dress, but to my mother it was worth making him mad to see her sister’s face. My guess is that only another drink could get the taste of bile out of aunt Nancy’s mouth. 

But none of that made an impression on me. My six cousins were there, wild and unruly and truly thrilling, the perfect buffer. The adults sat together eating and drinking in the other room  where children were not welcome. We ran around the neighborhood until  Uncle Jim loaded us all into his car and took us off to the Lincoln Park Zoo. By the time we got home again, my mother was passed out in the bedroom.

Aunt Nancy has been gone about five years now, but I think about her quite often and with great affection. I wish I could have talked to her as an adult, one woman to another, about my mother.  I think the sister she knew and the mother I knew were actually the same person, something that happens very rarely.

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12 Replies to “neutrality”

  1. An odd experience indeed. It’s both dark and bright.

    I’m glad that day turned out well for you, Rosina. I take it that you like your cousins, and they made your childhood slightly less awful?

  2. Can you trace the drinking problem up further along your mother’s family? Or was it situational with both her and her sister drinking? Or maybe both?

    My mother’s family drank. I could smell it in their sweat. I hated it. I still hate it, although I have an occasional gin and tonic. I also get a ferocious hangover with the 3rd drink. While I’m drinking it.

    1. asdfg » My mother’s maternal grandfather drank, and there were others in his and her generations with the same problem to differing degrees. Also in my mother’s paternal line, some history. There might be — and this is purely conjecture — some connection to the fact that my maternal grandfather’s line had a dose of Native American in the late 1700s. That genetic sugar-metabolism thing.

  3. It is odd what the subconscious will bring up. I can get a whole slew of memories just from hearing the thwack of a baseball bat (but they are good memories, involving my father, summertime, freshly mowed grass and the Atlanta Braves). Apparently, nowadays, they don’t use wooden bats anymore — they are aluminum and they only ping. That won’t cut it. Anyway, all of this makes me think of my mother’s alcoholic father — who I never knew — but who still colors my world today, through my mother’s behavior.

  4. Aside from my mom using a bottle of white-out to cover the black scuffs marks I made on my white Mary Janes just before we left for church, the thing I remember most about my First Communion was my First Confession. The nuns in communion class told us that if we didn’t confess *all* our sins that the communion wafer would choke us. I was so afraid of being the one to asphixiate on the big day that I confessed to every sin I could remember, and copped to another dozen I hadn’t committed, just in case I’d forgotten something. That Saturday I spent a good hour on my knees saying all the Hail Marys I got for penance.

    1. Lynn » oh wow, now that’s a memory — whiteout as an all purpose shoe saver. We used it on our gymshoes at school because Miss Muller was a stickler for details.

  5. Funny how the mind works, eh? Like when you command it to deliver ‘not-so-bad’ it delivers ‘the single best memory’ of your mother.

    I thought about the clicking of the hangers and the traffic outside with a door propped open – what about smells? What about imagining yourself at the height you were then, what did you see?

    I do see neutrality in the sense that the other witnesses/family members neutralizing the acidic mother/daughter dynamic for a brief spell.

    My daughter will make her first communion in a couple of months. This made me think I’d better get off my duff and figure out what she’s going to wear. She is the first grandaughter to my mother, and there is definitely that sibling rivalry between her and her brothers and sisters. It’s important to her that her family is something to brag about. “We were well turned out, weren’t we?” was a loaded rhetorical in our family car. I don’t have that with my siblings (yet?) but we feel like we’re just kids ourselves, despite noone being in their teens anymore. Maybe we never want to behave like grown-ups if it’s all going to make us resent each other. Easier to stay indefinite children.

  6. Pam »

    Good suggestions, thanks. I do remember looking up. I’ll have to think about smells, if not at the store, then certainly at other points during those two days.

    1. Re-reading your story, I think it was the “emerged from her bedroom” and the “pop up like mushrooms then fade away” that gave me a strong sense of light emerging from a dark place for a moment. And maybe it was the mushroom reference that made me think of smells – and for sure, as it’s the cusp of spring here up north, we have the street dust smells mingled with crisp cold air still. And I was thinking how I wish we could leave our doors open, but it’s still too cold yet.

      And I am curious about the dreams this experience evoked for you. Not looking for details, keep them private if you must, but would snippets from the dreams enlighten the memory? Depending on how the dreams evolved over time – is that a unifying motif for the memoir? Just interesting. Thanks for the writing!

  7. I’ve been reading your memories with a strange assortment of feelings. I’m awed by the storytelling and numbed by story. I can’t single out a prevailing feeling. The reel playing in my head is too disjointed.

    My parents weren’t alcoholics, nor were my grandparents, but my mother was sexually abused as a child by an uncle and it colored her life. There was sibling rivalry between her and her sister. My mother was jealous of her sister because when their mother was sick with scarlet fever, her sister lived with an aunt and uncle who wanted to adopt her. They brought Sister some very nice presents, but not my mother.

    Sister resented my mother. The abuse led to a nervous breakdown. My mother was always treated by the adults in the family as if she were too fragile to do anything and Sister got twice the workload. And my mother thought it her duty to have an illness for every job that needed to be done. All the adults in the family at the time of the abuse died without ever knowing what had happened. They only knew about the breakdown.

    My paternal grandfather had alcoholic brothers. My grandfather and his four sons, including my father, dealt with it by never drinking at all. My maternal grandfather drank, but I have no reason to think he was an alcoholic. Still, alcoholism found my family, passed down through genetic hopscotch, I guess. It’s not me. I admire you, Rosina, for talking about this. I can’t. I can’t. I’d rather it had been me.

    In fact, I’m going to remove my name from the heading. Not because I’m ashamed, but because I wouldn’t shame the person. You’ll know who I am by my email. I’m sorry. Thank you for writing your memories. I’m digesting it all and looking for my own clarity.

  8. I’m curious if you were to write your memoirs would you tackle it like you write your fiction or would you take a different approach? If so is it easier/harder?

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