I Am Alex Locus

I Am Alex Locus


On 3:18 p.m. on August 8, 2008, a New York City 911 dispatcher processed a call. A woman in her late 30s collapsed in apartment 3F at 38 West 94th Street in Manhattan. Within fifteen minutes, the patient was on the way to St. Luke’s Hospital, never regaining consciousness. Upon arrival, she was placed in a medically-induced coma as doctors attempted to agree upon a course of treatment. The damage from the woman’s stroke, however, was beyond repair and at 2:22 p.m. on August 11, 2008, she was removed from life support and she died, surrounded by her husband Steven, her fourteen-year-old-daughter Alex, and her parents. Her name was Emily Locus. She was thirty-eight-years-old.


It is a small college in New Hampshire but there are those who love it. Karen Adams was one. A western Massachusetts native, in 2006 she was a sophomore majoring in economics who dabbled in story-writing. A piece she wrote about losing a friend—”Lonesome”—was published in the college’s literary magazine. It was well received and she was excited when she received a call from the magazine’s editor-in-chief.

An hour later Karen was sitting in a comfortable chair in a lounge in the English Department next to Nancy Penchant. Nancy is a novelist who won a National Book Award for her novel “Scream,” which told the story of a woman whose husband dies at thirty-five after suffering a stroke while they were having sex. That woman was Catholic and her dead husband was Jewish and after the funeral she was left completely outside her husband’s family and was left, childless, to wander. The scream was a reference both to her reaction to his collapsing and to the frustration she felt every day because he left her alone. The story covered four years and one never learned whether the wife got past it.

Karen was introduced to Nancy by Michael Davers, the editor-in-chief, who promptly left them alone. Nancy was about forty-five and pretty, perhaps 5’ 4” or 5’ 5”, about Karen’s own height. They both had the same figure and the same light-brown hair, kept long.

Nancy told Karen that she enjoyed “Lonesome” and that it had been selected for the Emily Locus Award. Karen had no idea what the Emily Locus Award or who Emily Locus was. She was told that it was a $2,000 stipend and that “Lonesome” would be published in a national fiction-magazine. Karen thanked Nancy. When she rose, the older woman gave the student a hug, said “it was very nice to get the chance to meet you,” and started to leave. She turned and handed a card to Karen and whispered, “if you get to New York, please call me. I can tell you who Emily Locus was” and then she was gone for good.


Karen was enjoying dinner with her parents in a new restaurant in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. A family friend stopped by to congratulate her on graduating with honors. In two weeks she’d be heading to New York to begin work as an analyst at an investment house in midtown Manhattan. She’d be living in an apartment in Woodlawn, the Bronx, a heavily-Irish enclave near a train into the City.

As the friend was about to leave, Karen’s mother said that her daughter had won a writing award in college, the Emily Locus Prize, and the friend congratulated her again and was gone. “Mother. Stop doing that. It was just a little thing.” But this admonition never did any good with her mom and they both knew it.

Two weeks later, Karen was going through orientation with four or five other new analysts at her firm. She’d been in her apartment for a week and was getting comfortable there and in the City (and the Bronx) at large. The Bronx, although part of New York City, was never referred to as the “City.” That was Manhattan.

In her second week at the bank, Karen went out to lunch in one of those pocket parks that dot midtown with Denise Elms, the only other woman among the new analysts. About halfway through their salads Karen looked at Denise and said, “Just spit it out.”

Denise, after assuring Karen that Karen was not her “type” and getting a promise of secrecy, told Karen that she was gay and wanted to visit a lesbian bar but did not want to go alone. She had found one in the West Village and asked Karen to be her “wingwoman.” “You don’t have to do anything. I’ll be forever grateful if you’re just there. My treat.”

So on Friday night, Denise and Karen entered Ethel’s, a lesbian bar off Hudson Street. They sat at a small table. After ordering beers and finger food, Karen asked “what happens now?” and Denise said, “I have no idea.” Denise had been to gay bars before but only with three or four others up in Boston where she’d gone to school. That was toe-tipping. This was body-diving.

Two women, maybe twenty-five, approached and asked them to dance. After Karen said, “I’m just helping my friend out,” the shorter of the two said, “we’re going to dance not get married,” and Karen hopped up and forgot where she was and enjoyed herself. She saw Denise was enjoying herself even more. They were both glad to have come.

About forty-five minutes later, though, Karen said “Oh shit.” Walking in with two other women was Nancy Penchant. She recalled her hair, a little longer than normal for a woman her age. Karen was in New York and hadn’t called. But the older woman would have forgotten her and Karen relaxed as Nancy went to a larger table to the side and held court for her guests and several others who stopped by to say hello. 

After Karen danced again, this time with a tall Asian, and sat with another beer Nancy walked up to her table.

“May I sit?” Denise was dancing. Karen nodded.

“Karen Adams isn’t it? Small world, but I’m not surprised to see you here.”

After Karen said she was helping a friend out, Nancy smiled and nodded.

“Have you ever wondered about Emily Locus,” and Karen admitted she hadn’t so Nancy told her, ending with “and ‘Scream’ was about her.”

When Denise returned, Nancy held Karen’s hand for a moment and said, “Please, please call me.” And Karen promised she would. Nancy gone, Denise asked who it was and Karen told her, that she was an author who she met when she got a writing award in college.

The cover of the April 27, 2017, issue of The New Yorker had a drawing of the Flatiron Building on its cover, the landmark with a laundry line draped from an upper floor across Fifth Avenue. The winner of the Cartoon-Caption-Contest was, “I missed the last part.” On pages 56-63 was a piece of fiction by Karen Adams entitled “Drowning.” It told the story of two women. Set in the 1950s, they were in a boat in Saranac Lake in Upstate New York. Each was married but their husbands were in New York City working to pay for the houses they rented each August on the Lake. A sudden squall hit. Most of the boats made it safely to shore. One did not. The one containing the two women. One went overboard. The other could not swim. She stared in horror as the first went down into the water. Once. Twice. A third and final time. She could not bear to look at the widower at the funeral. He moved to Massachusetts and she was relieved from ever having to look at him again. Except in her dreams. That is how the story ended.

Karen had regular hours but as she got promoted they were regularly longer than when she started. In her third year at the firm, she was in at 8:30 and rarely out before 7:30. Lunch at her desk. The work had interesting moments and the prospect of the next one kept her at it. But on weekends she found her relief. She was writing and after her success with “Drowning” more and more of her stories were published. Enough that a small literary-house assembled twelve of them into a collection entitled, “Drowning and Other Tales.” Neither she nor her agent nor her publisher thought it would sell many copies but they hoped it would get her name out there for the first of the two novels she agreed to as part of her contract with the house.

At about 8:05 on a mid-September Thursday in 2017, she stood at a lectern at the Barnes and Noble on Broadway and 82nd Street. After being introduced as “a fine new storyteller from Massachusetts,” she sipped her water and began with the first paragraph of “Drowning”: “The Lake was its usual calm on the late-July afternoon. Michelle and Audrey rowed onto it as they had each day since their arrival while their husbands were in the City. Except for the two days when it rained and the one on which Audrey’s daughter Shirley fell off her bike and was taken to the hospital for some stitches.”

She continued with her description of the boat and its occupants and their on-shore children. How the sky was blue with speckles of clouds across the western horizon. And when she got to the point where a pair of other wives on their own daily row reminded them of the dinner the four couples were due to have on the weekend Karen stopped. Then the lowering sky appeared to the west. And the wind. How the wind just came up, rushing over the treetops and dropping to skim the surface of the Lake.

She closed the book, told the crowd of twenty or thirty that they’d have to buy the book to find out what happens—”which I’ll be happy to sign and which will become very valuable when I win the Nobel”—she opened herself up to questions. When Nancy was the first to rise, Karen interrupted her to introduce her as a National Book Award winner and “the woman who granted me the Emily Locus Award, which is one major reason why I am here.” In the applause neither Karen nor Nancy heard the gasp. Karen noticed a woman getting up from the next-to-the-last row and rushing off.

Asked the source of “Drowning,” Karen still was without an answer. It was the question asked of her most often, but she was never able to tell anyone whence it came. “My folks told stories of summer trips to the lake with their parents and how the mothers and kids would spend a month while the fathers went to work. I heard about Saranac Lake and Googled it and the story flowed.”

It was the answer she always gave and it always satisfied those who heard it.

After three or four more questions, Karen set to sign copies of the book. Nearly everyone who sat through the reading bought one, some two, and it was a good night. After she and Nancy helped the B&N staffer load the unsold copies into a box the two headed to the escalator for dinner. Just before they reached it the woman who had jumped up, about Karen’s age and size, whispered, “excuse me.” The two women stopped and turned to her. She was shaking.

“I am Alex Locus.”

I Am Alex Locus

I was 14 when my Mom, Emily Locus, died on August 11, 2008. I was with my Dad by her bedside when she was removed from life-support. I stood there when her heart stopped. I watched her die. My Dad beside me. Her parents a little off to the side. She’d had a stroke while visiting a friend in the City. That’s all I was told. She had a stroke while visiting a never-identified friend in the City.

I miss her every day. I think of her every day. My Dad seems to have gotten over it. In part. I didn’t blame him. A few years after my Mom’s death, my Dad married Maggie Daniels. Maggie became my stepmom and my early, adolescent disdain turned into genuine affection turned into love. She made my Dad happy. She made me happy.

Other than losing my Mom young, I lived pretty much like any New York kid. I lived and went to public school in an affluent southern Westchester village. My sport was field hockey and my grades were good. Four years at Williams College in northwestern Massachusetts. Pretty much in the middle of nowhere. But I worked at restaurants during summer breaks close to home. Frequent train-trips or drives into the City.

After graduating from Williams in 2016, I started working in marketing for a small firm providing ISP service in and around the City. I got a small one-bedroom apartment on West 85th Street, just off Central Park. It’s where my story begins.

I get updates from Barnes and Noble about readings at its store not far from me, on Broadway. It’s a nice way to get out of the apartment and mingle with other people. Sometimes the book is interesting and I buy a copy. Sometimes I get an autograph. I favor modern fiction.

Next Thursday’s reading is contemporary fiction. The author seems about my age, judging by her photo. It starts at 8, but I want a seat so I go in at about 7:50. Plenty of seats. I sit towards the back, on the right side. I like it there. It’s easy to get out if I don’t like what I hear. Although I generally do.

The author, I see from the circular, is Karen Adams. She has a day job in the City and is from Western Massachusetts, not so far from Williams College. She started writing fiction in college in New Hampshire and was promoting a collection of stories. She writes well and I enjoy her reading quite a bit. When she ends, she thanks us for coming. I see an older woman, perhaps the age my Mom would be, stand when Karen asks her to. The woman, who I later learn is Nancy Penchant, a National Book Award winner, “who when I was in college granted me the Emily Locus Award, which is a major reason why I am here tonight.” I gasp. There can only be one Emily Locus. I jump and head to the ladies’ room.

I stare at myself in the mirror, wondering what I was going to do. What could my Mom, My normal, suburban Mom, have to do with this writing award? With a last breath, I leave. The group around the author and the NBA-winner is breaking up. The two are heading for the escalator. I reach to touch the author’s shoulder. She turns at the interruption.

“I am Alex Locus.”

The crowd’s momentum carries them to the escalator and they descend, both looking up at me. The older woman waves to me to follow and I do. They wait at the bottom. I see them look at one another as they do.

I turn to them when I reach the ground floor.

“I loved your mother.” It is the older woman and it is the first thing she says to me. “I loved your mother.” Then, “You look so much like her when she was your age.” She reaches into her bag and pulls out her wallet. We are now off to the side so as not to block traffic in the store. From her wallet, she lightly touches and then removes a small photo. It is a picture of my Mom and her. It is a picture I never saw before. I never saw a picture of this woman.

She asks me to come with the author—Karen Adams, who is standing quietly to the side—for dinner. And of course I agree.

I do not know how I am able to walk. I am next to a woman who says she loved my Mom and who has a picture of my Mom with her taken when they must have been about thirty. I feel an arm encircle me. It is the author. “You’ll understand,” she whispers.

Nancy holds the door for us. It’s a very nice restaurant. Too expensive for my budget although I live only a few blocks away. She asks for a quiet table for three, and the hostess leads us to one along the right side, by the front window. We each spend a moment watching the passersby on Broadway before our waiter asks us what we’d like to drink. I am nervous. A glass of Merlot would be fine. I ate before heading to the bookstore so I don’t think I’ll eat much. Nancy suggests we share a bottle, and we do.

After our water glasses are filled and we have bread, Nancy, who is sitting between me and Karen, facing the window, asks, “What do you know about your mother?”

It is a strange question, heavy with suggestion. I pause, thinking. I never thought about it.

“I was her angel. She was never good at disciplining me, not that I was particularly in need of disciplining. I was the good girl. My dad was the enforcer, but he wasn’t really good at it either.

“More than anything I recall episodes with her.”

The wine arrives and, after Nancy approves, our glasses are filled. I’m glad for the break.

“There was one thing we did together every year. In January she’d take me to the Met. We’d wander from gallery to gallery and sit in front of our favorites.”

“Which was your favorite?” Nancy asks.

“I think. . . . Yeah. It was one of those Monet Lily paintings. A bridge over a pond.” I hadn’t thought of that in years. It is less than a mile from where I lived. I’d never visited it and I try not to but I cry. I feel Nancy’s hand.

“She once told me that was your favorite.”

I stop crying immediately and look at the older woman, through damp eyes. I don’t understand.

“Alex. I know who you are. I’ve kept track.” She leans in. “Your mother was the love of my life.” She pauses and leans more. Karen tries to be discrete, but she leans in too so she can hear. “I was the love of her life.”

She backs away, letting me process. I look at Karen. She has a very serious expression.

“Unlike Nancy, I don’t know anything about you Alex. I didn’t know who your mother was until after I got the award from Nancy. Since then, she’s told me bits and pieces. But she never told me about you.”

“I didn’t know whether to speak to you,” Nancy says. Our salads arrive, and we turn to them. The intensity of what was just said dissipates as we do. My mind is racing and I realize that my Mom was gay. I immediately think of my Dad of course. Did he know? How did they handle it? Then I get angry at him. Why was I not told? Why did everyone say she died of a stroke on the street?

“Were you at the funeral?” I ask Nancy.

“I was well in the back at St. Joseph’s. I’m sure your father recognized me. I was a spectator. Nothing more. That’s when I first saw you. I know all about you.

“You were the light of your mother’s life. She never shut up about you. Alex this and Alex that. I even came up and watched one of your field-hockey games after she died. Standing off to the side, away from the parents. You scored in the second half.”

I am stunned by this. I wonder if my stepmom was there too. Sitting with the parents. Maybe even my dad.

To be clear, we were a “good” Catholic family. My Dad grew up in the village where I was raised. He did well enough as a lawyer to be able to afford to move back when I was seven. Before that, we lived on the Upper West Side. It’s where my dad went to law school. He was now a partner at a big law-firm in midtown. Corporate work.

My Mom came from a small town in upstate New York, about one-hundred miles due north of Manhattan. She met my dad in college. Cornell. She worked for an insurance company in the City. She stopped when we moved to the suburbs and slipped into the universe of the parents—mostly mothers—who ran parts of the village. We were Catholics, but we were close enough to WASPs to be accepted.

Growing up, I spent a week each summer with my Mom at her parents’ house. A small house without much to do, and my Dad came up to spend a few days with us before we headed home. They, my grandparents, drove down for Thanksgiving, joined by my Dad’s folks. They lived in town and so I saw them all the time.

That’s what I understood about my family. But apparently my Mom didn’t go to all those parents’ lunches she told us she attended. But the notion, even in 2008 in New York, that a suburban wife and mother had a woman lover in the City was too much.

Suddenly the tension is gone. There’s much to get into. But not now.

I decide to get Karen in the loop. She tells me of her background, of almost stumbling into writing.

“I was serious. If Nancy hadn’t shown up one day unannounced giving me a prize named after someone I never heard of I wouldn’t have pursued it.”

“Your mother loved fiction, especially current stuff.” Nancy interrupting. “And stories in The New Yorker. She read its Fiction piece every week. I told her she should write something, but she never thought she was up to it. I think she would have been. . . .” Now her eyes are watering. “She would have been so good at it. She really understood people. Much better than I ever will.”

Karen touches her wrist and she sniffs and apologizes to me.

I say, “There were some boxes in the house.”

The other two look at me.

“Dad put them in the attic. A couple of bankers boxes. She’d steal legal pads from him and fill them margin-to-margin. There are a bunch of typed things in it too. I never thought much of it.”

After I promise to try to retrieve them, we move back to reminiscences of my Mom. Nancy met her at a party held by a mutually but since-forgotten friend. It happened quickly, she says. One of those across-the-room things. Awkward introductions before they were chatting like long-lost school friends. The occasional touching.

“I slipped her my number before she left. She called a few days later, in the middle of the day. I work at home so I simply asked if she wanted to go to lunch. She drove, we had lunch, and . . .”

I don’t want to know. She suddenly realizes she didn’t want to tell.

“Anyway, we met every other week. Often just wandering around like friends. That’s when she insisted on taking me to see your Monet. How you and she would sit where we sat and get lost in it. We sort of did too.”

She quietly told of the sometimes rushed, sometimes leisurely sex in Nancy’s apartment.

“In sex, she was as she was in everything else. Always passionate. Sometimes rabid. Sometimes calm. Always incredible. She loved you. She loved me. She loved life. I’ll never recover from how she was taken from us.”

I have nothing to say in response to this. I’m 23. How am I to respond to a woman describing my dead mother’s sex life? I’m not offended though. Nancy is almost speaking to herself, her fondness, her love, obvious.

“Sorry. That was probably, what ‘TMI’?” Our salads are gone and our entrees are in front of us. It gives us all an excuse to ratchet things back down. We all know we’ll meet again. Lots for me to digest.

As we leave, I promise I’ll keep in touch. My Mom is a new person to me. As I walk home, I try to think. Did she give me a hint? I had no idea. She was having an affair. With a woman. How could I look at my Dad the same way again?

I try to sleep but can’t. I get my laptop and bring it to my bed. On opening it, I see an email from Karen. Nice-to-have-met-you/keep-in-touch. I put it aside. I pull out my tablet. I didn’t get the chance to buy her book at the reading. I get it from Amazon. I am lost in her first story and drift off half-way into the second.

The Legal Pads

I have to know. About the boxes with the legal pads filled with my Mom’s handwriting and the typed pages. On Friday I call my Dad and ask him about the boxes. He wants to know why I care.

“I just remember them. They’re Mom’s. I’d just like to see what’s there.” He says fine, and I tell him I’ll see him for lunch on Saturday.

I can’t sleep. What is in the attic? I hadn’t thought of those papers in years. Now I can’t wait to see and read them. To touch her. What Nancy said made her so different from the sweet suburban mom I thought raised me.

I’m up a little after seven. Normally I sleep in on Saturdays. Not today. After puttering around the apartment for a while, I can’t wait. I text my Dad.

{Alex:} Dad. Can I come up earlier?

I get no response for about twenty minutes.

{Dad:} Of course. Tell me what train and I’ll meet it.

{Alex:} I’ll text you with when it gets in. Love you.

{Dad:} See you then. Love you too.

That calms me a bit. At about 8:45 I’m on the uptown platform at Harlem-125th Street for the train to Bronxville. I wait to its southern end so I’ll get off at that end in town. That’s where Dad will be. Saturday morning and the train is pretty empty.

{Alex:} It gets in at 9:22. Last car.

{Dad:} See you then.

His response was quick. He was waiting for my text.

As I sit on the train I think. As I had since the dinner with Nancy and Karen. As the train approaches Bronxville I put my bag over my arm and walk to the door. The train is short so it passes where my Dad is standing. He is walking towards it as I get out and meet him with a hug. That is unusual—normally it’s “hey Dad.”

It’s about half-a-mile to the house and we walk. After we’ve cross through town towards the hill on which we live, he says, “I loved your Mom very much. She loved you to bits. There were things, though, that you probably don’t know about her and us.”

I’m quiet, giving him time to collect himself. But he can’t say anything more until we’re through the front door and I follow him into the living room. He sits on a chair and I sit on the end of the sofa near him.

He tells me my stepmom is out until the afternoon.

 “No one made me as happy as your Mom did. . . . But I never made her as happy. I tried and early on I thought I did. I was kidding myself. After you were born, she withdrew. I thought it was because she’d just had a baby.”

We’ve never spoken like this about Mom before. My wanting to see the boxes triggered it. I know the story of how they met at Cornell and ran into each other a year later and after a whirlwind romance married. I was born about a year later. This was apparently not the whole truth.

“Your Mom was under a lot of pressure from your grandparents about settling down. I went to their house on Thanksgiving as proof of her marital intentions and they latched onto me. ‘How’s Steve? How serious are you with Steve?’ Stuff like that.

“I was in law school when you were born so she had to keep working. Your grandmother came down to take care of you during the day. It was tough on everyone. But when I finished school and got a job when you were about 1, we could afford for her to quit her job. I’d never seen her so happy as she was each morning as she said goodbye to me, with her holding you or, when you got too big, you standing next to her. I loved your little wave.”

He stops. I vaguely recall our morning ritual. Mom and I would walk down the stairs to the steps outside and wave and watch him head for the subway. Then either we’d go back up or for a walk. I don’t remember doing it when I was 1. But it’s something we did until I was 4 or 5.

Suddenly I remember something. After lunch, she often took me for a walk in the Park. This was before I started pre-school. There was a small playground by the West 81st Street entrance. Mom often sat with another woman. They’d sit and watch me play. About her age. Could that have been Nancy?

While this is shooting through my brain, my Dad continues.

“A few years after you were born she sat me down in the living room. We were still in the apartment. She was in love with someone else. It was like I was hit with a bat. We hadn’t had . . . relations in a while and now I know why. She was with someone else. I could never be ready for what followed. She said she was in love with another woman. I don’t know how I would handle it today, but back then, you were about 4 I guess, it was 1998 or 1999, it was so outside my awareness.”

He struggles for words now, as I reach for his hand and hold it.

“I love you Dad no matter what.”

“Thanks, honey. I know.”

He explains that he stormed out and went for a long walk in the Park. I don’t remember any of this. I must have been in bed or with friends. Probably the latter. That’s what Mom would do. Make sure I was out of the apartment.

My Dad says when he got back she was exactly where he’d left her. Sitting on the sofa. That when he returned she said she couldn’t go on the way things were. If he wanted a divorce or an annulment she’d do whatever she could to help him. Her one condition was that she would never surrender me. He could leave her with no money. But she would not surrender me.

“I really loved her. Even then. I understood that it was who she was. I asked her why she married me if that’s who she was. She said, ‘I fell in love with you insofar as I could fall in love with a man. I thought it would be enough.’ She said after she had you she couldn’t lie to herself anymore and that she finally realized that she couldn’t lie to me either.”

Dad is not an emotional guy. He is now. I sit next to him and put my arm around him. “You know how much I love both of you.” He taps my hand and says, “I know.”

He recovers in a minute and says that he wanted me to know this years ago but was always afraid to tell me. Now, he says, I’ll learn a lot in the boxes. He looked at some of it years ago but not since. He long thought they were his secret with his wife but knew they were for me as well. He says he hadn’t thought of them for a while till I called. He brought them down shortly after we spoke, but he did not open them.

There are, of course, photos of Mom around the house, and Maggie has never been anything but supportive of her and of my memories.

I ask Dad whether Maggie knows about this part of Mom.

“I felt she should know so I told her shortly before we married. She said it filled a gap that she knew I had in my past. She’s never said an unkind thing about Mom. It’s one reason I love her.”

“I love her too you know.”

“I know.”

With that, we get up and walk to the two bankers’ boxes in a corner. He pauses.

“Honey, this is you and your Mom right now. I’m meeting Maggie in town and we’ll probably go for a drive. I have my phone. Let me know when you want me to come back. Maybe we can have dinner, the three of us?”

I thank him, and he goes.

The Boxes

I look at them. There are no labels saying what’s inside. I open the first one. They are a jumble of sheets of paper and legal pads. There are a few volumes held together by binders. They are strewn about, in no order. At some point, they were thrown into the box. I’ll need to ask Dad whether that was before or after she died.

I pour them on the floor. Some are yellowed with age. All are dusty. I first grab the single page that is closest to me. It is numbered “3.” It looks like a story. Some kind of young-adult thing. I search for the other pages but can’t find them. I need to put things in some kind of order. I gather all the loose pages and stack them, right-side-up in a pile, hand-written pages next to typed ones. I do the same with the stapled and bound works. The easiest to examine are the middle ones. Not loose but not long.

I pull out the top one. It, too, is a story. But not Young Adult. “‘Starless Nights,’ by Emily Locus.” I begin to read. It’s about a young wife living in an unnamed city that is obviously New York. The couple had a child, a little boy. The boy races between parked cars chasing a ball, and he is struck by a cab. Dead. His blue eyes open and staring.

I cannot put it down. My only hope is that she, Mom, did not feel the pain of that mother. I pull out another one. Much lighter. A holiday in the country for three generations of a family living in Chicago. How she knew about Chicago I’ll never know. It was a joyful outing, for the participants and the reader. I loved it.

I continue going through the short stories. Some very short. Some a bit long. All speak in a different voice yet I begin to read her coming through. The stories run the gamut. From the tragedy of “Starless Nights” to the joy of the family-outing and things in between. I find some erotica. Man-woman. Man-man. Woman-woman. This is a side of Mom I could not imagine.

With each word, I discover something unexpected and unknown yet familiar about Mom. No matter who the narrator, what the subject, I begin to hear her voice. I find myself hearing her. So long after the last time I did. I find myself hearing her.

I have no idea what time it is when my phone rings. Dad. He’s checking to make sure I’m OK. It’s after three. I say he and Maggie should come home. By the time they arrive, I can’t go on. I say I need to take a breath before continuing and ask if they can give me a ride into the City with them.

After Dad and Maggie exchange glances, he says sure and the three of us drive in. Maggie stays in the double-parked car as Dad and I each carry a box to my apartment.

“Thanks, Dad. It’s OK that I took them, right?”

He says it is, that probably more for me than for anyone. He kisses me on the forehead as he always does and we exchange I-love-yous and he is gone.

Maggie made a Care package for me. It’s about five and I gulp the sandwich down with some milk before heading back to the living room. By now I know that the stories are a mix of hand-written scrawls, quarter-expressed thoughts, and early and late drafts of thought-out stories of varying lengths. Many printed pages have Mom’s hand-written comments. Most were printed on an old-school printer and some words are difficult to make out. The hand-written pages are full to the edges as if they were too small to hold what she had to say.

I reach for one of the three bound works. “The Love Of My Life.” Still a draft but polished. Printed on an inkjet so the characters are clear. I decide to take it to the Park to read. I take a bottle of water and head out, finding a spot on my usual bench around a small field between 87th and 89th Streets.

By the fifth page I realize that if this is fiction it is lightly-veiled fiction. My Mom’s life. It’s her therapy. Written in the first person, we never learn her name. I’ll call her “she” and “her.” Seven-months pregnant when it starts, she is leaning against a light post on the path around the Great Lawn. It’s a big space about a quarter-mile from where I sit, used for softball games and Philharmonic concerts. Simon and Garfunkel. A woman stops to make sure she’s OK and leads her to a bench. They talk. The other woman is an author. Natalie Prior. Lives somewhere in the West Nineties. Single. There’s a comfort level between the two and Natalie walks her to and into her apartment. She tells of her job and her husband and how excited she is about the baby she is carrying. They don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl. They don’t want to know. It won’t matter to either.

And the story proceeds. A daughter is born. Always referred to simply as “my baby.” Over time—years—the two women become intimate. She is riddled with guilt. She loves her husband and he loves her. But she needs more and Natalie Prior provides the “more.” Again and again slipping out for meetings. Often in the Park with “my baby” in her stroller or in the playground. How Natalie began to love the baby, who she always calls “Sweetie.” On and on, ending with her relief when her husband, now in the unnamed town to which they moved, tells her he will stay with her no matter what and with the couple sitting in a restaurant in their small town awaiting the arrival of Natalie Prior.

That is where the typed pages end. I will search among the other contents to see if there is anything more. I need to know more.

That was the plot but each page drew me deeper and deeper into Mom. More than anything her love for me (“baby”) and for Nancy (“Natalie”). I walk slowly back to my apartment. I have no idea what to do or who to tell. I rifle through the boxes but find no continuation of the story. I’m exhausted and I fall asleep on the bed as soon as I lie down.

It’s very early when I get up. Sun barely up, but I’ve slept for maybe ten hours. I go out for a walk in the Park. Early morning cyclists and runners. Some dog walkers. I’m carrying “The Love” as it becomes known to me. I want to keep it with me, carry it with me. Every once in a while I find a bench. I re-read pages. I don’t dare mark any; this is the only copy, and I tell myself to get it scanned. To preserve the copy Mom held.

A little after nine I watch a running road-race go through the Park Drive for a few minutes before heading to Central Park West, the street that runs along the western side of the Park. Getting out at 90th Street, I call Nancy. She sounds groggy when she answers and wakes when I say “I need to see you.” This wasn’t planned. It felt like what needed to be done. She gave me directions to her apartment. 3F, 38 West 94th Street.

Nancy buzzes me in and her door is open when I get to her apartment on the third floor. I close it behind me. She asks if I’d like some coffee and I desperately do. When she brings me a cup, and one for herself, she looks at me. All I can do is hand her Mom’s book. She’s stunned.

“Oh my God.”

She looks up at me.

“I found it among her papers. She has a ton of short stories of all sorts of things. You’re right. She really could write. Unbelievable stuff. . . . Then I found this.” I nod to the manuscript in her hand. “I don’t know if it was complete. I can’t find any more of it.”

I tell her that it’s Mom story about her and Nancy and me. “I’m always ‘Baby’ and you’re always ‘Natalie,’ and you’re always calling me ‘honey.’”

Nancy is shaking before I finish that.

“That’s what she sometimes called you. The day she died she mentioned ‘baby’ doing something. I’d forgotten that.”

She doesn’t notice that I am staring.

“You were the friend with her when she died.”

Nancy didn’t realize what she said. “Honey.” She reaches towards me, and I recoil from her.


She nods.

My Mom’s Death

There’s a long pause. Nancy finally stands. She takes her mug and walks to the window and stops for a moment. Then she turns.

“We were in bed. It was a Friday. You had a game or a practice. She planned on getting home by six. We met every few weeks. Like it was when she lived in the City. She’d drive down and we’d have lunch. Sometimes we walked around the Met. That’s where she told me about the two of you sitting in front of Monet’s Lilies.” She pauses. “Sometimes we just walked around the Park and she’d head home. But usually we ended up here and we . . . made love. It was the highlight of my week. Other than her spending time with you I think it was the highlight of her week.”

I interrupt. “Dad told me about when she told him about another woman. I assume it was about you.”

It was. “Your Mom may have had some flings with girls before she got married. In college. But after that, I was the only woman with whom she slept. I had a bit more experience than she did, but once we were intimate, she was the only woman I was with. Until well after she died.”

I don’t know how to react to that so I keep silent. She probably will want to know what my Dad said, but that is secondary now.

“I know. She told me she told your Father and how wonderful he was about it. He may have understood her better than anyone. More than me. Maybe more than herself.”

“I don’t know. When you see what she wrote you’ll see how well she understood herself.”

“Well he understood her and I’m glad he told you he knew. I met him a few times, you know. The three of us were always proper and, yes, your parents deeply loved each other. And, of course, you.”

“That’s where her story ends. She and he are waiting in a restaurant for you.”

She looks at me for a moment.

“It was a place up by you. They must have gotten a babysitter. You were eight or nine I think.”

She tells me of that awkward dinner. How in the end the three came to an “understanding.” The most important component was that I was never to know anything about it. Ever. That Nancy would never come to town. Once-a-week in the City. No holidays.

“Your father was very nice but he was a tough negotiator. He set the terms and your Mother had no choice to accept them and thus I had no choice but to accept them.

“Was it enough? Four or five hours a week with her? It wasn’t but it was all I could get and I was thankful for it. We never talked about it, but we both knew that things would change when you turned eighteen. We both knew that she would insist on sitting down with you to talk about it. That she hoped he would agree to it. And I think he would have. He loved her, and you, too much to make her pay for her love for me forever. Even if that’s what he said at the restaurant.”

She says she only came to our town twice, although once or twice the three met in the City. Once for the funeral mass. Once for my field-hockey game. She says she thought of going to my high-school graduation but realized it would be too conspicuous and would ruin his day.

So, she says, she was grateful for social media. Somewhere along the line I friended her on Facebook—I have no recollection of that but am afraid to admit I was non-discriminant in my Facebook friending while at Williams. She only used it to see what I did. Same with Twitter and Instagram.

“This stuff is beyond me.”

She knew around where I lived and wondered how often she came close to me on the streets. Subway. Zabar’s. The Met. Whether she’d recognize me if she did.

It is exhausting. But I know what we have to talk about the day Mom died.

“But back to that horrible day. The worst of my life. Your Mom and I weren’t doing anything we hadn’t done a million times.”

“Don’t worry. She was explicit about what you did in the book.” I pointed to it. “I was shocked at some of the things she wrote simply because I can’t believe my sweet Mom would write them. And you should see some of the short stories. She probably took a cold shower after writing them.”

Nancy smiles. “She drove down as usual. Called when she found a place to park, and I met her on Central Park West. She said she wanted to go around the Reservoir, and so we circled it on the bridle path. I remember stopping for water at East 90th and getting water from the fountain there. We left the Park and passed the Guggenheim before coming back in by the Met—she may have mentioned your annual trips then but I don’t remember—and we walked across to my place. We were both hungry, but I always had things for lunch and we ate. Out in the living room. And then we came in here and got into bed. . . . She was so beautiful.”

Again she stops. I don’t want her to continue but she insists, holding her hand up so I’ll give her a moment. I don’t think she’s told this to anyone.

“We were making love. I was above her and suddenly she started shaking. Honey I did all I could. They were here within minutes. It seemed like hours but by the time they got here she was almost gone. Your Dad camped out at the hospital. You and your grandparents came by regularly. I saw you leave a few times. He once called me after you left and allowed me to see her. When I got to her room he offered to leave. I didn’t want him to. He just backed away slightly. I was there for only a few minutes, but it was enough. She was, even then, so beautiful. I ran a hand across her cheek and gave her one last kiss, on the lips and turned. It’s the last I saw of her. Your Dad touched my shoulder as I left and I’ve never forgotten his kindness to me that day.”

She is deep in tears. Shaking. The last things she says coming out in spurts. I get up and lead her to the sofa as she cries. “He is such a good man.” Again and again she says that. And then, “I loved her so much, Honey. I loved her so much.”

I get her water. I’m barely up to that simple task. Hearing a description of Mom’s death. I recall when life-support was removed and her heartbeat stopped. Being led away by my Dad, who was crying. My grandparents somehow holding themselves together until we left the hospital. They just lost their daughter in her prime.

“I was in the lobby. He called and told me she was being taken off life-support. He could barely get it out. I saw him leave with you and your grandparents. I cried for a week.

“I asked if I could come to the funeral. He said it was important for me to be there. We both knew I would stay to the periphery, and I did.”

We sit quietly.

“Show me.” She wasn’t going to offer. I had to ask.

Nancy reaches for and holds my hand as we walk down the short hallway to her bedroom. I see a picture of her and Mom. Both smiling.

“It’s the only photo of her I display. I don’t want to share her with anyone else.”

Another pause. “She’s the only woman I’ve made love to in this room and I don’t know if I’ve let anyone else in here until you today.”

She is holding things together, but I know she’s breaking up inside. I see the queen-sized bed in its mahogany four-poster frame. A dresser, night-table. Also mahogany. There’s a small desk in the corner with a desktop computer. I reach the bed and touch it. The last happy moment for Mom. Now I’m breaking up inside.

Nancy suggests that a walk would be in order. I nod and follow her out and down the stairs. We head over to Columbus Avenue. It’s still early and she takes me to brunch at a small place on 94th Street, where we can sit in one of the tables on the sidewalk.

She starts telling me about Mom. Little things. She put ketchup on her scrambled eggs. If she could get straight champagne instead of a mimosa she did. These first two were pointed out when I did the same. Which Nancy says is kind of charming.

Mom, Nancy continues, needed reading glasses but was too vain to use them in a restaurant and ended up holding the menu nearly to her nose. On city streets, she insisted on walking to the building side of Nancy when they walked. Little things, some of which I knew, some of which I didn’t.

The most significant thing she says was that Mom once said, when Nancy grazed her wedding band, that she wished it was Nancy’s. She says they talked about the future all the time. Things were changing in the world. Talk of gay marriage was afoot. But Mom said she would never leave my Dad unless he asked her to. That wasn’t just for me. It had nothing to do with what the “neighbors would think.” It was that Mom loved being part of the three of us and did not want to lose that. That tension was always tough on her.

What would have happened? The thought hung over the table. She’d be only 47 that day.

It is about one. Nancy offers to walk me home, and I accept. I saw she had a scanner in her room, and I ask her to scan “The Love.” We head back to her place. I suddenly need her to have a copy. After scanning the precious pages, Nancy hands them back to me and tells me she’ll email a copy too, so it can be safe. Realizing she doesn’t have my address I give it to her, and then the two of us walk quietly to my apartment. She walks me to my door and declines my offer to come in. In the small hallway, she hugs me and I hug her and she leaves.

I am back where I started the day but it seems like a different place. Like one of those time-travel stories where nothing is changed except for the entirety of the protagonist. Who has seen worlds and wonders that no one else can understand. Knowing things that filled in gaps in me that I never knew existed.

For some reason, I call Maggie. I don’t think about doing it. I just do it. When she answers I start to cry and ask if she can come see me.


Maggie saved me. After Mom died, I fell apart. Everyone was sympathetic. Everyone tried to help. But if a day went by in which I didn’t say—or scream—”you can’t understand” I can’t think of it. No one abandoned me. But I pushed away friends I’d had since kindergarten. My grades were bad, although I was smart enough to pass what needed to be passed. I was suspended from and ultimately dropped by the Freshman Field-Hockey team for being overly aggressive. Including an incident when I high-sticked a teammate who didn’t pass the ball to me when I thought she should have passed the ball to me.

Dad suffered, perhaps more than me, but I didn’t care. I was suffering. That is where everything began and ended. I refused grief-counseling until I was told I would be suspended from school—I got into a few fights in the girls’ room and cafeteria and bullied some of the grammar-school kids—if I didn’t.

That started about three months after Mom died. I left school early on Thursdays and a car took me to someone in New Rochelle. She was the first person I thought could begin to understand. And gradually I got off the high-wire and off my high-horse and had friends again. Some of the kids I’d bullied shook as I approached, but relaxed when I told them how sorry I was for what I did to them. That person was not me, and I had the benefit of having people who know me knowing it was not me.

Therapy alone might have been enough. But I never found out. Because of Maggie.

Maggie is a few years younger than Mom would be. When Dad met her, she was a real-estate agent in town. She knew Mom though the Women’s Club. They were acquaintances and not friends. In a place like Bronxville, there’s a gap between those who work in the City and those who work in town. Because of how expensive the place is—my folks couldn’t afford to move back until Dad was established as a lawyer—most of the latter live in nearby, and more-affordable, towns.

Maggie was single. She lived just across the border in a small apartment building in Yonkers. She was a good real-estate broker and while she didn’t have the long-term connections that got the top brokers the crème de la crème of listings, the houses that went for more than three million dollars, she had a reputation for moving houses in the lower-price ranges. She was smart and quick and quite pretty.

I had no idea who she was till Dad introduced me at the Field Club. We were members, and it’s where I learned to play tennis and where we’d swim over the summer. They, Dan and Maggie, had become serious by then, and Dad had told me about her. This was about nine months after Mom’s death. Certain of the Village’s tongues wagged about it, but I did not doubt my parents’ love for one another. By that time I also appreciated how hard losing Mom was to Dad and how selfish I was in the months after the death. And how hard, indeed, it was for my grandparents on Mom’s side, who lost their daughter.

About a week before meeting Maggie at the Field Club, Dad sat me down for one of our “talks.” It was early 2010. I’d never seen him so nervous. “Baby.”

He explained how much he loved and missed Mom. I told him I know and I did know. He said that he “quite by accident” met someone. He didn’t know if it would lead anywhere, but he wanted to tell me early on. I was young but old enough to understand he needed someone. He was so devoted to Mom. She would never be a memory. For him, as for me, she was always there. But I understood he needed someone.

I did not, of course, then know the things I just learned over this weekend. But it was enough then to know that he felt a gaping hole after losing Mom.

So he told me about meeting the woman he said was Maggie Daniels. He was embarrassed. “A blind date set up by Adam and Rose.” Adam and Rose Stanton were close friends to us. They had a son a year ahead of me and a daughter two years behind me at school. Mom always thought Rose was a bit of a busy-body. Even by Village standards. But the Stantons arranged for a dinner at a tavern in Tuckahoe, the neighboring town unlikely to have inquiring Bronxville eyes, and the two—Dad and Maggie—hit it off. She had just the right mix of sympathy and getting-on-with-life to grab Dad’s interest.

They had dinner a few more times—never in the Village—and they agreed it was time for the debut. I was the critic. Just fifteen and I would decide the fate of my Dad. Heady stuff.

He needn’t have worried. I don’t know which of the three of us was more nervous. Dad and I sat at a table. He wore one of his dark-blue suits with a light blue shirt and red tie. I was in one of my better, light blue dresses.

We were a little early, and she was due at seven. She walked in precisely when the clock in the hall struck the hour. She was very pretty. Different from Mom. Taller for one. Beautiful, knowing eyes.

Dad stood as she approached. It was chilly outside. She’d checked her coat but had a white shawl over her shoulders. More than anything was her hair. It was a wonderful lassie’s hair. More red than auburn. It flowed just below her shoulders. She dressed carefully for this. Her dress was patterned in a mix of greens and reds and that hair cascaded just over her shoulders.

I immediately saw that she was far more nervous than us. I stood and stepped around the table.

“You must be Alex?” and I couldn’t not hug her. I didn’t then nor have for a moment thought that what I did with this woman was in any way a betrayal of Mom. And I immediately understood that it was not a betrayal by my Dad of her either. I’m sure a number of other members made note of her appearance and her sitting with us and that word would zip around the Village before we got home.

That’s how I met Maggie.

I need to explain. When I say Maggie “saved me,” it was for a few reasons. First, her being with Dad felt natural. Moving forward did not mean forgetting Mom. Maggie always respects that. A few weeks after the dinner at the Field Club she took me to lunch. We went to the place nearby where she and Dad had their first “date.” Away from everyone. We were there for two hours. The staff staring at us until their hints became overwhelming and we got out of their hair.

In those two hours I shared more about Mom than I ever did. Even with my therapist. Just little things. The types of things I’d remember to Nancy years later. The trips to the Met each year. The shopping that she and I did. Her attendance at my games and picking me up after practice. The day she finally accepted that I was never going to be a concert pianist and the other day when she finally accepted that I was never going to play soccer for the United States.

The timing is a little complicated. Dad and Maggie got married in a small ceremony at St. Joseph’s six months after I met her. They could have filled the church, but kept it simple, largely at Maggie’s insistence that it not purport to be a substitute for the simple family-only ceremony that Dad and Mom had when they got married.

When I talk about Maggie, then, it was a process that occurred over time, and into when she became my Stepmom. At that point she moved from her small apartment to our house.

So when Nancy leaves, I call Maggie. She is at my apartment within the hour.

We sit in the living room. She knows it’s about the boxes. I don’t think she’s seen what’s in them and I don’t know what Dad told her about them. They are sitting on the floor, some of their contents strewn about the floor.

“Maggie. I don’t know what Dad said and I don’t know what you know. I don’t know what I should or shouldn’t tell you. So I’m going to tell you everything.”

She nods and I tell her. Everything. The meeting Nancy. The stories in the boxes. “The Love.” The here’s-where-she-had-the-stroke. Everything. I go on for twenty minutes. Maggie just listens. When I’m done she speaks.

“I didn’t know Emily well.” Maggie usually calls her Emily. “I thought she was just another mother in town. Then I met your Dad. After she was gone. I realized she had to be more than just another mother in town. He’s told me a lot about her. He’s never told me anything bad about her. Yes, I knew about Nancy.”

I interject that Dad told me.

“I’m glad he did. I’m so sorry she could not have as much happiness as she deserved. I can’t imagine what it was like for her. The conflict. The desires.”

She pauses. She’s nearing territory very particular to my pre-Maggie family. She turns to face me, her hands reaching for mine, and I hold them out to her. We’ve touched, of course. This seems more intimate.

“I’m glad you’ve learned more about who your Mom was. And that I’ve learned it too. She’s part of you and you’re a wonderful young woman. I’ll always be here for you. You know I’m not her. I’m me. And I’ll always be here for you. It’s that simple.”

With that, she checks her watch. “I have to get home.” She gives me a hug when we stand and a kiss on the cheek and is gone.

I have a bottle of Pinot Noir. I open it and pour myself a glass. I ignore my phone when it rings and when texts come in. Tonight I am alone with Mom. I order Chinese food for delivery and when it’s time to go to bed and I fall into bed in my clothes and for the first time in my life I am drunk.

I am dreaming and somewhat sick when the alarm wakes me. “7:00.” I struggle to the bathroom, stopping to steady myself halfway, and take care of things, not daring to look into the mirror, before heading into the kitchen from some cereal and coffee. Somehow I am showered and out of the apartment and on the subway by 8:30 and at my office just before 9:00. The day goes by quickly, denying me the chance to dwell on the past days. I have no idea why but instead of going to my apartment I head to Nancy’s on 94th Street. She doesn’t answer her buzzer. I’m not going anywhere. The building has a flight of stairs to its front door, and I plop down on the fourth or fifth. I pull out another of the binders Mom wrote. I took it to work without looking at it and now was reading it. It was the story about a soldier returning from her second tour in Afghanistan. A horrible story of seeing comrades die when their vehicle was hit by an IED. The hero returns to Queens and everyone wants to buy her dinner and boys from high school who wouldn’t give her the time of day want to, well, fuck her. She is standing on the roof of the apartment building where she lives and is with her brother.

Nancy arrives right at that point and I’ll have to wait to see what happens. She, Nancy, is carrying a couple of grocery bags. She stops when she sees me.

“Let’s go on up,” and I take one of the bags and follow her after she opens the door and gets her mail. We’re in her apartment before she says anything and what she says is “sit.”

I sit.

When she asks if I want something to drink I say, “I had enough for a couple of months yesterday so I’ll pass.” She turns and then turns back. She brings me a glass of water and one for herself.

“Talk to me.”

I talk to her. I tell her fucked up I am.

It takes me three weeks just to organize my Mother’s papers. At times it is a puzzle, figuring or sometimes guessing what pages went with which story. It’s early afternoon on Sunday and I see five stacks. To the left are loose papers that were orphans, many with three or four siblings but no parent. Next to them were the loose pages I was able to put together. There are seventeen separate stories.

To the right of that pile are the legal pads. I haven’t decided what’s to be done with them. Some contain just one story and in a few cases parts of a single story. Others just seem to be ramblings, clever or insightful lines that may turn up in some more-complete piece.

Finally, to the far right, are the bound items. Including “The Life.” The two empty boxes are stacked in a corner and I bring them into the middle of the room. After carefully putting the papers in the boxes, I call Nancy. I’d kept her updated on what I was doing, and she was keeping away to let me do it alone. It made me feel closer to my Mother. Just she and me.

“This is Alex. I have two boxes of the papers, all organized. What should I do with them?”

She tells me the first order of business is getting them scanned and volunteers her scanner for the task.

“Do you trust it with some guy at Staples?”

I don’t so I ask her to come down. We’ll get a cab to take us from my place to hers. I buzz her up and when she comes in and sees the boxes she gives me a quick hug and then a “Let’s go” and we go. The cabbie’s not happy about the short trip, but we give him a good tip and carry the boxes to Nancy’s place.

It still unnerves me, since it was where my Mother essentially died, but her presence is not so onerous and is at times inviting. I’ve stopped by two or three times since that first one, and it gets less painful each time.

Now I feel her watching over me and Nancy and I take turns scanning. The legal pads are the toughest. I place a page down and hold it, press “Scan,” wait for the light to finish its back-and-forth movement, turn the page, and repeat. Not to mention that the pages are 14 inches and the scanner only accommodates 11.

I keep having to stop Nancy from reading what she’s supposed to be scanning. “You’ll have time for that later.”

I’ve not read the papers beyond what I needed to do to organize them. I have been tempted, but the first thing to do was get them secured. So I’ll have time later too.


I am having difficulty keeping my mind on work since I saw my Mom’s papers. Work seems somewhat irrelevant to the secrets those papers reveal, and will reveal, to me. No one’s noticed, or at least said anything, but I have to get my head out of my ass and compartmentalize. But it’s too soon.

As I near my building after picking up some groceries, I see someone is on my stoop. As I approach I recognize Maggie. She is somewhat hunched over, very unlike her.

“Maggie?” I say it from a couple of buildings away and her head turns to me. She gets up and hugs me.

“What’s up?”

“I just came down to see you. . . . There’s something I need to show you.”

She follows me as I get my mail and open the building door, and we troop up the three flights to my one-bedroom. When we’re inside, I ask if I can get her anything.

“Water’d be good.”

I bring out two glasses. Feigning nonchalance, I ask, “What do you have?”

She reaches into her bag and pulls out a large manila envelope and hands it to me.

She sips her water.

“Alex. I think you need to see this. I think you should open it alone. I have my phone and I’m going to go for a walk. I’ll be back in an hour.”

“Why all the cloak-and—”

“You’ll understand.”

She leans over and kisses my forehead and whispers “I love you” before picking up her bag, checking to make sure she has her phone, and leaving.

The envelope is plain and has no writing on it. It’s been taped shut, I assume by Maggie, and I weigh it in my hands, holding it like something delicate. Giving Maggie time to get out to the street, I open it. It’s a manuscript. Bound. But not like “The Love of My Life.” It is a copy. I think the original must have been in the boxes, but I don’t recall it. It has a title page: “My Prison.”

I place it on the coffee table. Just staring at it. Everything about it, the title, the way Maggie gave it to me and immediately left, bodes ill. If Maggie thought I should have it, I think my Mom would too.

I walk to get more water and after sitting back down on the sofa I lift it.

The first twenty pages are worse than I could imagine. I know some of the things my Mom wrote were made up out of whole-clothe. But just as I know “The Love Of My Life” was autobiographical, I know “My Prison” is too. It is the dark side of her story.

I dial Maggie. She’s been gone for about forty minutes, but I need her. She is not far away; her walk didn’t take her more than two blocks from me and she buzzes my apartment four or five minutes after I tell her to return.

I open the door when she knocks and sit down. She is across from me, but then gets up to sit by my side.

“How much did you read?” I wanted to know.

“I read it all?”

“I got through twenty pages. Does it get better?”


That’s it: “No.”

I start to get up, but she puts her hand on my thigh to stop me.

“I’m sure he still loved her.”

I’m not.

“Where did you find it?”

“I noticed in the room on Saturday. Your Dad must have taken it out of the boxes. After a minute of reading, I know why he took it out. I’ve not told him that I’ve given it to you. Perhaps I should have, but after I read it I was afraid he wouldn’t let me and I was sure you needed to see it. Like you saw the other things in the boxes. While he was out I scanned it. I printed it and that’s what’s in the envelope. I put the original back in the hiding place where he’d put it.”

She explains that she’d read most of the longer pieces in the boxes. She came upon them about ten months ago and wanted to know Mom. She loved everything she read. She knew what “The Love Of My Life” and she wondered who “Natalie” was. She, of course, knew who “Baby” was. She smiled when she said this.

I interrupt. “I’ve met Natalie.”

Maggie’s eyes freeze.

I explain about Karen Adams’s reading and meeting Nancy and our dinner. How I mentioned the boxes and suddenly knew I had to see what was inside them.

“She said after Mom died she was at one of my games and I wondered whether you were there too.”

“She might have been. I went to most of your home games, but I wouldn’t remember.”

“She’s a sweet woman. She was with Mom when she died. Or at least when she had the stroke. I don’t think she’s recovered from her loss any more than I have. I’ll introduce you.”

We return to “My Prison.” Maggie tells me she read it in one sitting.

“When I saw it on Saturday night and not in the boxes you took, I know why he’d removed it. It’s a good thing I read ‘The Love’ first because if I didn’t know that side of your mother I never would have gotten through this.”

“How did you know it was about her?”

“I quickly knew that there was no way she could make it up without having lived through it. I cried when I was done.”

It went far better than I could have hoped. He was sweet and kind. He assured us both that he “understood” and that he was willing to permit us to have our “fling”—it was an insulting word but I let it slide—as long as it did not otherwise affect him, his reputation, and “his”—again an insult—daughter. She must never know. It was the price I had to pay. To lie to my Baby.

He never slept with me again. We told Baby that he snored and needed to sleep in another room or I wouldn’t sleep. Some nights when he was drunk he came into my room after Baby was asleep and demand I do things for him. To him. It was vile, but I knew I had to do it. He was never again inside me except in my mouth and each time it was like I ate rancid meat. More often than not I retched after he had gone, insisting that I “swallow.”

Thank God those nights were infrequent. He was afraid of awakening Baby. On those mornings after, he was sickly sweet, displaying his “love for me” like a performance piece for Baby. She never suspected anything was wrong. We were old to her and if she knew about sex she did not think that people our age engaged in it. The fact that she never caught us doing it—because we never did it—seemed not to concern her. And I was happy for that. For the fact that she thought she lived in a perfect house in a perfect village with a perfect mother and a perfect father.

But she was the only thing in the world that was perfect and the biggest price he made me pay is preventing me from being honest with Baby. It was his hold over me, and he knew and used it. I could not chance being separated from Baby and I knew that he had the wherewithal and the fancy lawyers that could make it happen. I could not chance being separated from Baby.

I can read no more.

“Alex. I don’t know what to do.” She cries, and I put the papers down and place my arms around her.

She tells me broadly what the rest of the story is about, but it’s all along the same lines. How unhappy she was, living the lie and keeping her secret. How she suspected he’d taken a lover; she did not blame him since, after all, so had she, but he should have told her.

Worse, though, was the way he treated her on a daily basis. And in his infrequent desires for her to take care of him in the bedroom.

Your Mother Was Lying

“Alex. Will you listen to me? It’s just not true. I don’t know why she wrote what she did but it wasn’t true. I loved her. I regretted that she felt a need to be with someone else, a woman, but I never stopped loving her.”

“Why did you hide it?”

“Because I knew that this is exactly what would happen.”

“Did you have a lover?”

“I had needs, Alex. But I never forced myself on your mother. What kind of animal do you think I am? I admit that I had some lovers but nothing serious. I always loved her and no one else until Maggie.”

There isn’t more to be said. I end it with “I have to get home.”

I want to believe him.

Meeting with Karen

I’m glad she’s not late. I didn’t know where else to turn, but Karen was supportive when I saw her. I need someone neutral. She’s coming to my table at a restaurant on the East Side. We’re meeting there because there’s little chance that Nancy or anyone else I know will see us.

After I fill her in, Karen is quiet.

“You think everything is nice and tidy and everyone is happy and then it all goes to hell. What do you want from me?”

“I need to know the truth. About my father, my mother. Nancy. “

“I understand. But what do you want me to do?”

I don’t know.

There were several poems among the papers. Some were free verse, wonderful invocations of her emotions. Love. Fear. Sadness. Elation.

Other of her poems are more structured. Many were in her neat hand, never committed to print, with markings as she struggled with lines. Among them was “My Baby.” It began:


The poem has a hand-written date on the upper right-hand corner of its first page, and it is two months after I was born. It frightened me that these were my mother’s thoughts so shortly after I was born. I remembered glancing at a story that barely registered with me. I found it in the second pile that I went through. Now I read it. It is a simple story set in east London in the winter of 1940. The story is entitled “Alice,” after its protagonist. Alice is a nurse and her husband, Richard, is in the Royal Navy, on convoy duty in the North Atlantic. She worked in a hospital and has a five-year-old daughter. The story itself takes place on a single day. Tuesday, February 18, 1941.

Richard has been on patrol in his destroyer for four months, and his letters arrive sporadically. Their daughter, who is not named, was evacuated about a month earlier. Alice is called in by a doctor to help calm a screaming woman, about her age, who’s gotten word that her husband was killed. He was an RAF fighter pilot and was shot down over the Channel. His body was not recovered.

Alice had seen it dozens of times. The sudden widow, likely to receive her husband’s last letter after he was dead. The sudden fatherless children. Alice, like almost everyone on staff, could just as easily be that woman. Alice sat by the window, holding her hand. Listening. Again it was a story much like her own. Young love. Marriage. A baby. War. Only this one had the addition of Death.

Alice left the widow, she hoped, a little better than she’d been when she was brought into the hospital. She would be sure to visit her on Wednesday.

It was a sad story, about the randomness of the pain that war inflicts on the innocent. It was what came next that increased my understanding of my mother.

Alice went through the door of their small house a little after four. She’d ensured that the black-out curtains were in place before she left so she could turn on a light in the foyer when she’d closed the front door behind her. After removing her coat and hat and scarf and hanging them on the hat rack by the door, she carried her purse into the sitting room. She put on a single lamp by the couch and sat.

It had been a long day, as all the ones before had been and as would all the ones that followed. Her gaze wandered to the mantel and to the pictures on it. One of her, one of Richard, and one of their only child, a daughter. Their wedding photo. And one of the three of them sitting on a bench in Hyde Park on Easter 1939.

Mostly she took in her daughter’s photo. She rose to pick it up and returned with it to the couch. Her daughter was four in the photo. This one replaced one of her baby pictures that had pride-of-place for many years. Her daughter insisted that she was old enough to have a photo that was not her as a baby, and this one was taken when she posed on London Bridge about a week after her fourth birthday.

Her daughter was a tall, somewhat lanky English girl with dark hair. She wore a dress—Alice recalled it was blue and knew that it sat in a box in the attic, saved although her daughter had outgrown it. Suddenly Alice feared she would not come home. That somehow the Luftwaffe would be able to reach the small town in the Midlands where she was and she would be killed. A random statistic.

She had no control over this emotion. It struck her every few months. She knew the Luftwaffe could not reach her daughter. That she was safe. But she was not with Alice and that was enough for Alice to fear that she would never again be with Alice.

Alice had worked hard for her daughter. Her birth was difficult. The pain was indescribable, but when Alice heard her daughter’s first cry, that pain was forgotten. But the euphoria wore off. Alice convinced herself that she could not be the mother her daughter deserved. That her daughter would be better off were she motherless. That Richard would find someone worthy of raising the child. Richard would marry that woman, but could only do so if Alice was dead.

Day after day, while her daughter was suckling on her teat, Alice thought of how she could help Richard find a new wife and her daughter a new mother. She knew that once she figured that out, she would kill herself to allow her daughter to have the mother she deserved.

I have to stop reading. I cannot bear to see what more my mother said about “Alice.” What I read is enough. I started grabbing other stories. If a character was a mother, I read it. Sometimes they were the smallest of items, sketches of a story she might tell. Again and again, I saw my mother describing emotional turmoil coursing through the veins of the mothers she wrote about. All tortured by a realization that they were inadequate to the job of being a mother.

Was Alice’s an isolated story, I would have credited my mother’s imagination. But it is not isolated. The thread of a mother’s belief in her inadequacies is echoed again and again. I began systematically reading all of her stories. Many that seemed innocent when I first quickly went through them were revealed in light of a closer reading to tell a story of despair and doubt and depression. A story worlds apart from what I understood my mother was.

I call Karen and ask to meet her. She is free the next afternoon, and we meet in a tavern on Columbus Avenue not far from our apartments. She knows the place, and is sitting at a small, round table in a far corner when I arrived a little past the scheduled 12:30. I caught her wave as I passed the bar. I brought a backpack with me in which I had put a cross-section of my mother’s stories. We could look out across the room with a bar at the far end. When I got there, perhaps three-quarters of the tables were occupied.

We order coffee first, and then each decide to have omelets. I suggest, too, that we each get a glass of wine.

After we have our coffees and our wines, I say, “I need your help.”

I explain as best I could my discoveries about my mother. I had enough pieces of a puzzle that its form is beginning to take shape.

I will never know why Karen took an interest in my mother. Maybe it was the Emily Locus ________.

 But she threw herself into our venture and I was thankful for it.

We spend the following weekend in my apartment organizing my mother’s works. We decide not to tell Nancy what we are doing. She is too close and we quickly realized that we might discover truths about my mother that might make her uncomfortable. If, and the extent to which, we told her what we found would wait for a later date.

In the end, we assemble three novel-length works—“The Love of my Life” and “My Prison” plus a third fantasy tale—thirty-five short stories, twenty-eight character sketches, and thirty-two poems, mostly free verse. Some of the sketches graduated to stories and several of the stories ended up in the novels. To Karen’s eye, they are publishable with an editor’s help. That prospect is kept in the back of our minds. The immediate task is more personal.

At times the stories contradict one another. I realize, though, that they can be broken up into three stages of my mother’s life, which provides us guidance in getting started.

It is clear that something traumatic happened to my mother when she was a girl. And something else when she was a teenager. Finally, “The Love” and “My Prison” made clear that my parents’ perfect marriage is not what I thought it was. Indeed, the import of these materials is that my mother was not who I thought she was.

So we had the roadmap. It is clear what our first stop would be.

My Mother’s Background

My mother grew up in a small town in New York Hudson Valley. It is about 120 miles north of New York City. Even then it only had a few stores and the homes were all “modest” except for the three or four that had been built by the town’s bankers and lawyers and especially by the families that owned the wool factories that were long gone before my mother was born.

We had to start there. I called my grandpa and asked if I could come up the following weekend with a friend. I wanted to talk about my mother. I didn’t tell him why I had this sudden interest; she passed over ____ years before. He said “I guess so.” It wasn’t until later that we realized how surprised he is but how they’d long expected my visit.

Over the years I drove up to see them every few months. They were both retired—grandpa worked in a local bank and grandma was a nurse in the hospital in Hudson, the county’s only city about fifteen miles from town—and I’d take the train to Bronxville and borrow my dad’s car for the two-hour drive. They had a spare bedroom where I’d spend the night.

They were my link to my mother. It is a time for me to get to know and understand her by learning about and understanding her parents. I usually drove grandma into Hudson and we had lunch and walked the galleries and the stores that had eccentric pieces of furniture that we couldn’t afford but transplants from the City seemed ready, willing, and able to. It is one of those places that The New York Times labels the “next Brooklyn” and there is some evidence in the form of boutiques and galleries but not much had changed since I first visited with my mother decades before.

I always treated them to dinner at the town’s one restaurant, a place they would never go to on their own apart from the occasional group party.

So my call about wanting to come up is not unusual. But my references to bringing a friend and wanting to talk about my mother were. Karen and I arrive at about noon on Saturday after we rented a Zipcar. I do not want my father to know what I am doing though I am not sure why. It somehow feels I am sleuthing and that there are secrets about him, perhaps, better kept unknown. And in my at-least-weekly conversations with him, I’d not mentioned what Karen and I discovered.

For her part, Karen grew up only about twenty-five miles from where my mother did, although in far-more-upscale Berkshire County in Massachusetts, on the other side of the “mountain.”

Grandma and grandpa immediately know this trip is different. I think they expected that the someone I am bringing is a boyfriend I wanted to show off. I’d never had a boyfriend serious enough to bring to meet them, including at events at my father’s house, so they probably figured that if I am bringing someone it is “the one.” But I simply introduced her as a friend “who is helping me look into some things about my mother.”

I describe Karen as a writer who’d been awarded the “Emily Lucas Award” for writing in college. My grandparents, of course, had no idea that such a thing existed.

The house itself is small, a three-bedroom stucco with a wide, covered porch in front. In the Dutch style.

As we drove up the Taconic Parkway, Karen and I spoke further about where we were and what we hoped to find. Each of us had read all of my mother’s works and the whole is a mishmash of sometimes randomly seeming realities.

But, as I said, the pieces somehow were merging into something coherent.

I told Karen what I could tell her about me and about what I knew about my mother.

It was a typical suburban childhood. The village—it’s was hardly some version of the type of place one sees in British crime shows with thatched roofs and a central green with far too many sunny days for a true English village.

Instead, it was very affluent. Its train took less than thirty minutes to get to Grand Central on weekdays, and those trains carried a host of bankers and lawyers and executives into Manhattan each day. Bankers more than anything, and the Village is among the most affluent in the country. It is small, barely a square mile. The children started in kindergarten together and graduated from high school together.

In the end, it is an insular community with perhaps five blocks of stores and restaurants. A movie theater. A small hospital—where I am born—and a tacit hierarchy of where families and individuals stood vis-à-vis one another.

My family, as recent arrivistes, is accepted but little more. At least by the “grown-ups.” I am fully integrated into the high school and with my classmates.

Even after I had my difficulties after my mother’s death.

We lived on the “Hill,” an area of winding streets barely able to have cars pass going in opposite directions. In spots, the Village maintained paving stones as the surface, some severely bowed. It is part of the charm. The houses are large, but the lots are small and mine is close to its neighbors.

In school, I had three or four girls I was close to, and I still met with one or more of them every few weeks. We all lived in the city after college. The frequency of our meetings, though, decreased as we all moved on. Several were married, in grand weddings that began at one or another of the churches in the Village and ended in one or another of the County’s lavish country clubs. I was in the wedding parties of them all.

As for my mother, she fit in perfectly with this model family.

As we stepped up to my grandparents’ porch, the front door opened and my grandma came out, followed by my grandpa. They each hugged and kissed me. I introduced Karen as a “friend,” and they welcomed her. They asked if we wanted something, and we were both happy to get waters.

As we followed them into the house, my grandma went to get waters and my grandpa led us into the living room.

They’d placed several boxes on the coffee table.

“You may want to bring these into the dining room,” my grandpa suggested. He waited for my grandma.

When she arrived, he continued, “we thought that someday you would be here with questions about your mom. Over the years, we’ve been putting things aside and boxing them for you.”

He looked at my grandma. She said, “they’re not really organized. We went through some of them last night, after you called, but for the most part they’re somewhat random things from her. If you want, we’ll go into Hudson for a few hours to give you the chance to go through them.”

I looked at Karen and back to them. We were all standing next to one another.

“I moved to take the top off one of the boxes and nodded to Karen. She moved next to me, and we saw the box is full of little knick-knacks, the things one accumulates growing up. I lifted the lid of a second box, and it contained haphazardly placed documents. I recognized the types of legal pads that I found in my mother’s own box. And loose pieces of papers, all with hand-writing.

There were two more boxes, but we saw enough that we thanked my grandparents for their offer to leave us alone.

They said they’d be back in a couple of hours and that we should make ourselves at home. They’d left things for us to make sandwiches. When we heard the front door close behind them, Karen and I again looked at one another. I wondered whether she wondered what she had gotten herself into.

I sat on the sofa and she sat beside me.

“How do you want to handle this?” She is the analyst, and I deferred to her.

Before I could answer, she grabbed the box we’d opened that had the papers and swooped it to bring into the dining room. She left me to the box of memorabilia.

I stood and started exploring. I didn’t know what, if any, clues I could gather from the mix of trophies and photos and scraps of paper. Menus and invitations.

All I could do is try to catalog in my brain what I am seeing and return to the bits and pieces of this physical trove when I saw more of the documents.

I looked and saw Karen had unloaded all of the documents in her box and placed them in piles on the dining table. She is deep in her project so I put the first box aside and lifted the top of one of the other two boxes. It, too, had papers, and I’d have to integrate them with the piles that Karen is building in the dining room.

After replacing the top, I opened the final box. It is filled with diaries and photos. Their sight is stunning. This is my mother’s thoughts, unfiltered by converting them into lightly-disguised stories. I called into Karen.

“I found her diaries.”

She rushed in. I turned the box over and dumped its contents on the floor and she and I sat cross-legged on either side of the pile. I pulled the diaries to me and she did the same with the photos. After the diaries were in chronological order, I moved them aside and got closer to Karen, who is trying to make some order out of the photos.

Some had dates on them, and she chronologized them. Others had no dates but as we passed them between each other, we began to sense the timeline, from my mother’s apparent age and what she wore.

When we had placed them in some semblance of order, it seemed that they started when she is about seven. Pictures in front of my grandparents’ house and in its small back yard. Mostly posed pictures of a happy little girl. There were pictures of her at what seemed to be each Christmas until she is in her teens, all taken in the living room where we sat. My grandparents always had a well-decorated tree, and plenty of presents beneath it. Each year showed my mother in a new dress, which we knew she would have worn to Christmas Mass. The random picture of her opening one or more presents when she was in her pajamas and always of her giving one of her parents a kiss.

There were other photos. Again almost random pictures of a little girl. Playing softball. In a bathing suit by a pool. Graduations.

Karen stopped.

“What don’t we see?”

I looked at several. All looked perfectly normal, if dated. Each year a flight of similar pictures, the only variable being her growth. They continued until she must have been fifteen or sixteen.

“Friends. She doesn’t seem to have any friends.”

I rifled through them again. Karen is right. All of my mother and my grandparents but other than the group shots when she was, say, playing softball, there were no pictures of her friends. If she had any.

It is sad, really. Were one to look at my own pictures at my mother’s age, there were always girls with me. My mother insisted that I meet people. That I play sports. That I go to parties. We had a party every April for my birthday at the house, and she insisted that I invite virtually everyone I knew in the Village.

“Did they have a prom in this town?”

I didn’t know, but I understood Karen’s point. There no prom pictures.

There were fewer photos once my mother graduated high school.

Everyone is more serious in the later photos.

We turned to the diaries. Karen said they were too personal and that I should read them first. She carried the other box with her into the dining room, to organize them as she had the first one and left me to explore my mother’s diaries.

I went into the kitchen. It is after one, and I needed a breather before diving into the diaries. Karen joined me and we made ham-and-cheese sandwiches and coffee. The kitchen had recently been updated. It is far different from the one I remembered visiting when my mother was still alive. It is brighter and the appliances were steel-faced. In the corner is a small, round table with four chairs. There were windows on both walls, and we sat, looking into the backyard and a neighbor’s house while we ate.

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

I paused.

“I started this because I wanted to learn about my mother. I can’t not learn about my mother. Wherever it leads.”

At that point, of course, I already knew that my mother’s life is far more complicated than I could have imagined. Starting with her affair with Nancy. And I couldn’t not find where it ended. But Karen is right. I didn’t know how personal it would be. That I would be reading my mother’s words written in her own hand when she is even younger than me. But I understood that she kept them, and my grandparents kept them, because there would come a day when I needed to read them. And that day is the one when I came to visit them all those years after my mother had died.

The diaries were harder to read than I expected. It is clear that my mother was a very, very frightened girl. More than any emotion she wrote was the fear of being “abandoned again.” It is a phrase that stood out more than any other. “Abandoned again.” Every other word she wrote is colored by that phrase. Yet there is no indication of how she’d been abandoned. It is something she apparently could not bear to talk about. Just the fear, the petrification that it not happen again.

I realized that the answer would not be in her diaries or even in some code within her stories. It would be from my grandparents. I’m sure they knew it. I don’t know if they had read her diaries—although I think they must have for them, too, to understand her after she is gone. It is clear that they made no effort to hide anything. I knew that they would not hide anything I asked them about.

The living and dining rooms were a mess when they returned. The latter had piles of papers, all organized systematically by Karen. Neither of us had actually read the stories. Karen is simply trying to organize them and I am delving into the diaries when we heard the front door open. Our heads shot up, and my grandparents looked very sad, sadder perhaps than I’d ever seen them, even at my mother’s funeral.

Karen came into the hall and waited.

“We know you haven’t gone through it all.” My grandma looked at me, still sitting on the sofa, with the pile of different-colored diaries to my right with a light blue one in my lap. “But we’re sure you’ve seen enough to have many, many questions.”

I nodded. Karen came into the living room as I put the pile of diaries to my side so she could sit next to me.

My grandpa went into the kitchen while my grandma sat in one of the living room’s armchairs. She waited until he returned with two coffees.

The first one, of course, is what they can tell her about my mother. Not only when she was with them. But also before.

“We don’t really know much about her before we adopted her. [EXPLAIN] Her name was Emily McNab. We only found that out because she was nearly five when got her. She’d been in foster care in Hudson for about a year. Her mother was into drugs and . . . prostitution and they had to take Emily from her. I don’t know what happened to her mother. We might have run into her in Hudson for all we knew. It scared us sometimes. That she’d be recognized. In fact, we didn’t go to Hudson as much as we used to because of that.”

My grandma, who is telling this to us, rises and opens a drawer. There are several pictures of my mother on the mantel, but she hands me one I’d not seen before.

“This is the only photo they gave us from before she was taken from her mother.”

It shows a sweet but serious-looking girl. What I can see of the dress, which has a red pattern and is trimmed in pink with a pink bow in the center, shows that it is a little frayed, but clean, as is the face. She is smiling, missing a few teeth on her right side. She has a round face, and her hair is reddish and long, not at all untidy. She stands in some type of park or garden. I guess she is about four and my grandmother says she thinks that’s about right. I ask to keep the photo, and they say it’s fine. I tell them I’ll make a copy and send it to them.

I ask what they can tell about her mother. Just that she was unmarried and grew up somewhere in the County. She’d run away when she was in high school and got into trouble when she was in New York or Philadelphia. She’d returned and had the baby—my mother—and her parents took care of her. Her parents died and she was alone and things just got worse and worse until the County had to step in. That is pretty much all they were told. And that no one knew who the father. He’d been living with her until she got pregnant and then he disappeared out west somewhere.

My grandparents always wanted kids, but couldn’t have them. They don’t say why, but their hands squeeze when my grandma says this.

“She’d been in foster care for about a year. They said she hadn’t caused trouble but cried herself to sleep most nights. We met with her at the Social Services office in Hudson and then interviewed with social workers there. We saw her a few more times, and they inspected our house and ran criminal checks on us. We must have passed, because on ____________ we got a call that we were accepted and would get possession of Emily in anticipation of our formally adopting her.

“It was one of the happiest days of our lives. Gradually she came to feel safe with us and she didn’t cry so much at night. It was better when she went to school, of course, but she didn’t mingle that much with the other kids. She didn’t have friends she played with after school. Stuff like that. She’d be invited to birthday parties, but would only go if we made her.”

My grandpa interrupts. “And she always called us early to pick her up or she’d show up at the door having walked home about an hour before the party ended.”

“We spoke to the other parents about it.” My grandma is picking up where she’d left off. “They did what they could to make her comfortable. And it went like this for a few years. She was in fourth or fifth grade, though, and she came out of her shell. She didn’t mention her mother anymore. She was playing softball and spent weekdays over the summer with friends. We really thought she’d turned the corner. For the first time she seemed happy.”

My grandpa got up and took our glasses for a refill. When he returns and Karen and I take sips, my grandma resumes.

“Emily was suddenly just a normal ten year old. She kept hounding us for a dog, and we finally got a shepherd mix at the shelter. Ronnie. She promised to take care of him and she did. She loved that dog.”

My grandma stops.

“I think that’s enough for now.” My grandfather moves to her and rubs her shoulder.

“I think we all need a little break. What are your plans for dinner.”

We plan to head home by four and it’s already three-thirty. I look at Karen. I think we both know that we need more time. Both to get more of the story from my grandparents—and it is clear that my grandmother stopped right before she is going to tell us something bad—and to fill in some of the information with my mother’s diaries.

“You should spend the night. You can sleep in your room, Alex, and—”

“Karen” I interject.

“And Karen can sleep in the other bedroom. Or with you. Whatever you prefer.”

After I look at my friend, I say, “We’ll stay in separate rooms.”

Karen and I walk into town. I’ve always found it a somewhat depressing place, much as I loved visiting my grandparents. It’s glory days, however brief they were, were long past. The houses and buildings were old, although except for a few everyone took pride in keeping them in good shape, with green lawns and bright gardens throughout.

Upon reaching Main Street, we go into Maggie’s restaurant. I’ve been going there for years, and Maggie, who still sits behind the cash register always asks, as she does today, how I’m doing. It’s been a while since she said she is sorry about my mom.

I sometimes went there to have soup and a coffee at the counter. Much as the town remains a mystery to me, the stools along Maggie’s counter are a comfort to me, almost a time warp.

Today, Karen—who I of course introduce as we enter—and I sit in a booth. It’s about five and early for dinner, although some of the old-timers are already on their chicken-noodle soups. I don’t know the waitress, who introduces herself as Astrid, but she smiles and takes our orders for chicken-noodle soup and water. We’ll have dinner with my grandparents. But Karen should get a taste of Columbia County cuisine.

When we have our waters and out bread, we talk.

“This is far more complicated than I thought,” Karen begins. “I have a dread about what they’ll tell us next.”

“You noticed that too. Their hesitancy. And I don’t just think it is something that happened to the dog.”

I look over and realize that Maggie probably knows the whole story. If it happens in town, she knows about it. I don’t know whether she’d tell me. But she knows.

I mention this to Karen, and she agrees. “One step at a time,” I say. “Let’s head back and I’ll finish going through the diaries. I’ll tell them that we can resume talking tomorrow.”

Karen nods.

“By the way, you will be going to Mass tomorrow.”

I pointed out Sacred Heart Church as we’d come into town, but had not expected we’d be paying it a visit. I realized I am wrong. If I were in town on Sunday, I went to the 10:30 Mass. It is always thus and thus it would always be.

Karen takes it well. Religion is, in fact and somewhat strangely, a chance to divert our conversation from the treacherous ground it entered. She tells me she grew up Episcopalian and she’d only been in a Catholic Church for weddings and funerals. I confess to never having been in one of her churches. My village is super WASPy. The joke is that it integrated when Catholics were permitted to move in.

My mother was Catholic—although how far back is now a mystery given the disclosures I’ve had so far about her—and she took me to Mass until I was in high school. My father, also raised Catholic, never went except on Christmas and Easter. For my part, I went with her now and then. But she always went. Including the holidays of obligation, such as ___________. She went to confession—what I understand they now call the sacrament of reconciliation—once a month and was active in some of the Church’s activities and charities.

She’d gotten it from the two people who I assumed were her parents. Although, of course, they were. She was five when she moved in with them, and my grandparents did not indicate that she was treated in a way that was different from how she’d have been treated if they were her birth parents.

And as with Maggie, parishioners came to me whenever I went to Mass with my grandparents and I know they will tomorrow. I tell to be ready for it.

After our soups, we head back to the house. Things are as we left them. My grandparents were leaving us to do what we had to do. They are both in the kitchen when we arrive, sitting at the small, breakfast table that sits next to the back door. It’s nearing six, and my grandmother is getting dinner ready.

“I hope you like meatloaf and mashed potatoes, Karen.”

She says she does, that her mother made it regularly. I don’t know if that’s true or she’s trying to be nice to my grandmother. I don’t know that my grandmother cares. Karen then returns to the dining room and I resume my reading of the diaries. I jump ahead to _____. That would be when whatever is about to happen in my grandparents’ telling will have happened.

Before I get far, though, my grandmother says dinner is ready. I look at Karen. The papers are well enough organized that she can put them on the floor so we can use the dining table, and in a moment that’s what she and I are doing. I put my head in the kitchen and tell my grandparents and in a minute my grandfather is bringing out a platter with the meatloaf and a bowl filled with mashed potatoes. He returns to the kitchen and then comes back with a bowl with string beans in his right hand and four dinner plates in his left.

As Karen puts placemats on the table, I rush into the kitchen to get utensils. My grandmother is filling four glasses with water, and I hurry back to carry two of them in after I put the knives, forks, and spoons on the table. When I get back, Karen has distributed them, and I put the two glasses I have in front of Karen’s seat and mine and my grandmother follows with glasses for her and for my grandfather.

Karen is about to dive in when she sees me glare. Oops. My mother says grace—”bless us our Lord and these thy gifts for which we are about to receive”—and then we are ready to eat.

During dinner, my mother is not mentioned. Instead, my grandfather wants to know more about where Karen grew up. Again, it is not far from where we are in some respects but a world apart in others. The conversation turns to her college days and what she does in the City. It seems a danger point, but my mother asks whether she has a boyfriend, and Karen handles it with a “not at the moment.” I don’t know if my grandparents are satisfied so I tell them, “Just so it’s clear, Karen is not, never has been, and never will be my girlfriend. We are just friends,” and my grandparents fall over themselves protesting that they hadn’t give the alternative the slightest thought.

I doubt my grandparents know about Nancy. Why would they? Why would anyone who did know tell them? Surely not my father. I know I have to be diplomatic when I delve deeper into who my mother was. If I can avoid popping the bubble about her having an affair and her having an affair with a woman, I will. I just don’t know how they would react. They would hate the she-had-an-affair part. I’m not sure about the with-a-woman part. The light way they suggested Karen and I were girlfriends gives me reason to hope. But maybe it will never come up.

After dinner, I sit on the sofa with the diary for ____. It seems perfectly normal until about two months after Ronnie, the dog, makes an appearance. It’s then that he disappeared. Every day my mother reports searching for him. Walking the streets calling his name. Calling the shelter. But Ronnie is gone. She blames herself. She forgot to close the gate in the backyard and before she knew it he was gone.

The diary never says what happened to Ronnie. Its last entry is

_____________: No sign of Ronnie. I’m scared he won’t come home. It’s all my fault. It’s all my fault.

That is also the last entry in my mother’s diary. There are several for the following years: [LIST]. But they are empty except for her name neatly written in script on the first page.

I walk into the dining room. Karen is on the floor reading from a stack of long, yellow legal-pads. She looks up when I arrive, apologizing that she had gotten lost in the stories. Her back is to the wall next to the window that looks out onto the porch, and I slowly drop next to her.

She looks at me.

“How’s it going?”

I hand her the ____ diary. “This is the last entry. She didn’t even start with later ones, though she had them and wrote her name. Something happened.”

“We’ll have to wait for your grandparents to tell us.”

I lean my head onto her right shoulder.

“Did you find anything?”

“She writes . . . wrote well. Nancy is right. She could have been a writer. Some of these were from when she was in high school. They’re rough around the edges but she had an instinct for telling a good story.”

“Any insights into her?”

“I’ve just gone through first drafts of short pieces, plus what we read before we got here. But more than anything. Her heroines are always either fighting for something or looking for something. It’s funny. I know she was still young, but they don’t seem to be searching for someone. They’re not romances. If anything, they’re adventure stories. Almost old school fairytales.”

She reaches and lifts a pad and then another till she finds what she wants. She flips through pages. About halfway through, she lifts the pages over the top and hands it to me.

“This is one that stood out, but it’s not much different from a lot of others.”

I look at the neat hand to which I’ve grown accustomed. My mom’s hand moving across the page in a dark blue ink though sometimes the color changes mid-sentence, when there are signs that the pen has run empty. You can see ghost letters that she tried to do before giving up and getting a new pen. A ballpoint pen.

She always dated her stories in the upper righthand corner. The one Karen wants me to read is dated ____________. It is entitled “_________________.”

Sometimes the rain frightens me. Not the thunder or lightning. I’m used to those. I know they’re far away and won’t hurt me. But the rain sometimes frightens me. I don’t know why. I’ve never been caught in a flood or a mudslide. The river where I live, along which I stroll, rarely overflows and when it does it never floods any houses past Mr. and Mrs. Ogden’s and there are four houses between theirs and ours.

No. I’m afraid because of a story I once heard when I was in camp when I was a little girl. Sleepaway camp. One of the girls, who I did not know before, told the story of ___. She swore it was true. I don’t think many of the other girls believed it was true. But I did.

According to the story, the little girl, now grown-up, feared that if she were caught in the rain without an umbrella, her mask would be washed away and she would be exposed. In some respects, the story is a teen’s rendition of Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray.”

“She’s always hiding,” Karen says when I finish. “Afraid she’ll be exposed. How could she have something so bad that she was obsessed with people not discovering it?”

I have no idea. Again and again, we see inside her head. But we understand the trees and will need facts to see the forest. And at this stage, it’s clear that we’ll need to get those from my grandparents. Continuing to pore over the stories won’t do it. We put the piles back in the order that Karen managed to get them in and I again stack the diaries in the living room by date. It’s all we can do for now.

My grandmother comes down to check on us. We tell her we’re done for the night. She tells us to join her in the kitchen. She reaches up and gets two large glasses and fills them with 2% milk. There are lots of dairy farms in Columbia County, but it’s been years since she drank the whole stuff.

She puts the glasses on the table, and Karen and I sit next to one another. My grandmother opens a cabinet and takes out a box of Fig Newtons, placing six or seven onto a small plate that joins the glasses. She gets nothing for herself.

“What happened with Ronnie?”

“Ronnie? The dog? Oh. He ran away. We never found out what happened to him. He’d run away before. It was his nature.”

“But my mother stopped her diary after it happened.”

My grandmother pauses. “I didn’t know that. I knew she was upset. I didn’t know how upset. She really stopped—?”

“Nothing after that.”

“Well. Ronnie wasn’t—”

She rises and goes into the small den on the other side of the kitchen. We hear her looking for something in a drawer. She comes back and hands me a picture of an infant. She can’t be more than a few days old.

“This is your sister.”

I’m stunned yet again. I feel Karen’s hand on mine as she looks over to see the image. A baby in a pink blanket with a pink hat, her arms seeming to flail about.

“She was born on ________________. It was a party and there was drinking and your mother had sex and got pregnant. The father didn’t want to have anything to do with your mother or their baby. She was seventeen. Before she showed, we found a Catholic charity to take care of her and she gave up the baby right after she was born. All we had, for the longest time, was this little picture.”

I ask “‘For the longest time’?” and she hands me an envelope. It’s postmark is _________, five years ago. It’s addressed, in hand, to my mother at my grandparents’ house.

My grandmother nods, and Karen follows her out of the room.

“Dear Ms. McNab,

“My name is Jessica Albert. I was able to identify you as my birth-mother through New York State records. I do not mean to upset you. But if you are interested in meeting me, I would like that. I do not need anything from you financially. I am doing well professionally and my adopted-parents are still alive. But I would like the opportunity to meet you.

“Jessica Albert”

I notice the small paper is shaking. The letter has an address in Brooklyn. After a moment, my grandmother comes back. Karen remains in the living room.

“We didn’t know what to do. Your mother was dead. And we weren’t even her birth parents. I wanted to write to her, but we decided there wouldn’t be a point. So we didn’t.”

“But what about me? Why didn’t you tell me I had a sister?”

I don’t mean my voice to rise, but it does. I see that it hurts her. I reach over and apologize.

“You were going through so much we didn’t want to throw this in. And then the letter sat in a drawer, gathering dust. When you called about coming up, your grandfather and I knew we had to tell you. I’m sorry we waited so long.”

“Because I didn’t want you to know your mother was knocked up in high school.”


The internet is very efficient. Karen and I went to 10:30 Mass with my grandparents and then ate breakfast at the diner. They knew, though, why we had to leave promptly. We loaded the four boxes in the Zipcar and headed back and at three I sit in my apartment searching for “Jessica Albert.” It doesn’t take long to find her. Or at least I think it’s her. “Jessica Alpert,” I learn—or at least “a” Jessica Alpert—is a partner at a big law firm. I see her photo in her firm biography. She could be my sister. We share a similar nose and mouth. Her hair is a bit curly. I can’t tell how tall she was.

Sitting with Nancy

Before I do anything more, though, I need to speak with Nancy. As Karen and I drove back to the City, she agreed to let me handle it. I call at about seven, and Nancy tells me to come up to her place. I often do that on Sunday nights. Mostly we talk about my mother.

I learned to call first after I stopped by spontaneously one Sunday afternoon and found myself introduced to a woman, not much older than me, who was “just leaving” and was not entirely dressed as she did. Nancy confessed to me that she liked to “bed”—her word—younger woman because she didn’t think they competed with her memories of my mother. “And,” she added, “it’s not just boys who fantasize about older women.”

And there were more than a few times when I visited her after calling when I found two half-full wine glasses on the counter when I arrived. I like, even love, Nancy, and I wish she understood that finding love again would not diminish what she felt for my mother. But I am in my twenties and never in love and couldn’t presume to give her advice.

But this visit is different from the light ones we enjoy. When we sit in her living room, on her sofa, I turn to her, reaching for her hands.

“Did you know about my sister?”

Nancy is stunned. It seems she is afraid of this.

She looks into me.

“It ate away at your mother. It didn’t take away from what she felt for you. It was a hole, another hole in her life.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I don’t know. I guess I didn’t think you’d ever find out. I didn’t think you should spend your life trying to find her. I don’t know.”

“What did my mother say?”

Nancy is having difficulty. She must know that this might happen. She isn’t prepared.

“She told me about your sister one day while we sat in the Park. Something like, ‘Only my parents know, but I had a baby when I was in high school.’ You can imagine my shock. Your mother was the perfect suburban mom. She’d told me about growing up in that little town.”


“Did she tell you she was adopted?”

“What? She was adopted?”

I nod.

“That she never told me. Oh my God. Why didn’t she tell me?”

I explain my conversation with my grandparents. Or who I thought were my grandparents. I tell Nancy that they don’t know much about her birth mother. Only that my mother was taken away from her when she was about four and they adopted her when she was five.

“They gave me a picture taken before she was taken from her mom.”

Nancy gets up and paces the room.

“I thought I knew her. Why didn’t she tell me? She must have known it made no difference to what I felt for her.”

“I think it embarrassed her.”

“Yeah, but she told me about her other child. Do you know her name?”

I tell her and explain how I came to learn it. About the letter she sent to my dead mother.

I turn the conversation to what I should do with Jessica Albert. I tell her that I have no choice. If the woman I tracked down online is my sister, I need to know it and I need to meet her.

Nancy asks if I’ve thought about its effect on her. I have, and I tell her so.

“It’s not like I’m coming out of the blue. She was searching for her birth-mother. She is looking for something about herself. I can give her something.”

Nancy agrees. She asks me to tell her more about what else I’ve learned, including from the documents Karen and went through. I tell her about the diary. How it suddenly stopped after being so meticulously kept over so many years. That what I learned will have me read her stories in a new light.

Finally, I tell her I have to find her birth mother. She understands and walks me back to my place. I promise to report on what happens with the “Jessica Albert.”

Meeting Jessica Albert

Monday, the morning after speaking with Nancy, is clear, and I reach 875 Third Avenue, on the corner of Fifty-Third Street, at about noon. The building, a tall modern one, has several entrances and I hope I am at the right one. It’s not far from my office, and I try to be inconspicuous near the curb as I eye every woman who leaves. At about 12:20, I see a woman who could be her. She is alone, staring at her phone as she comes through the door as I approach.

“Jessica Albert?”

She stops and looks at me. I’m not threatening or anything. Just another woman working in a Manhattan office.

She pauses. “Yes. And you are?”

Now I pause.

“I think I’m your sister.”

She looks at me like I have two or maybe three heads.


We move toward the curb, next to a street vendor’s cart to keep the entrance clear. I reach into my handbag and hand her the letter my grandparents gave me two days earlier.

Her hand goes to her mouth, and I see a spectrum of emotion cross her face. She looks at me.

“So my mother is your mother?”


This hits her and I lean closer to her. Suddenly someone comes up to us.

“Jess. Are you OK?”

It looks to be another lawyer from her firm. She raises her hand. “Thanks. I’m good. . . . This is a long-lost friend of mine.”

He looks at me and I smile and nod. He nods back and says, “just checking” as he backs away.

“Can we go somewhere?” It is her, using the break to collect at least a few of her thoughts.

I lead her to a small place I go to that serves soups and salads. It’s loud and crowded, but no one pays attention to anyone so we can talk with some intimacy.

She’s in shock more than anything, and we don’t speak much. When we’ve finish our salads, we walk along Madison Avenue.

“Emily—that’s her name, right?—”and I tell her it is. “She’d only be, what?, mid-or late-forties or something. When did she die.”

I think for a moment before telling her it’s “complicated.”

“I do complicated. How? And When?”

“She had a stroke when she was in the bed of her lesbian lover. She never regained consciousness. She died on August 11, 2008.”

She stops and we move to the side.

“I don’t understand.”

I tell her in broad strokes about Nancy and my father and the understanding they all had. I say I knew nothing of it until I happened to run into Nancy at the Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. I say it’s not far from my apartment and suggest we go there to talk. We both call our offices to say we won’t be back for “personal reasons.”

We get to my apartment at about two. I called Karen on the way to update her. Jessie asks who Karen is, and I tell her. When we walk in, she sees the bankers’ boxes piled up against a wall in my living room. I’d told her in the cab in rough terms what I’ve been doing in researching our mother. I notice a wedding band and she asks if she can call Peter Johnson, her husband, and then her parents. He works in midtown, and they live in the suburbs. She and her husband still live in Brooklyn but not at the address on the letter. While she’s in the bedroom making her calls, I call my grandparents to update them on meeting Jessica.

She lifts the top of one of the boxes. It’s filled with legal pads, and she takes one out and stares. She runs her fingers along the page, to touch the ink.

“Do you have pictures?”

I go into my bedroom and bring out a shoebox. My photos from growing up. My photos of our mother.

Jessie sits on the sofa with the box on her lap. She begins to go through them, asking me occasionally to explain what she’s seeing. I see that she is barely holding on. As she goes from one photo to the next she says, “I knew I was adopted when I was eight or nine. My parents sat me down and told me. I didn’t quite register. My parents were my parents and I had nothing to do with my birth-mother.

“They never discouraged me searching, but I didn’t start thinking about it until I was in college. I started doing some research and I got her name and the address in her town. Or what I assumed was her town. I searched and found what I guess were her parents’ house at the address so I sent the letter there.”

She reaches for it, and I hand it to her.

“I remember putting it in the mailbox. I carried it with me for a while before I just did it. You know? Just put it in and see what happens. I was excited for a while about getting a reply but then nothing came. I searched online now and then and I think it said they still lived there but I never found anything about my mother. Our mother.”

“I only found out on Saturday.” I tell her how my grandmother told me in her little kitchen. How she got the photo and the letter.

“As soon as I knew you existed I had to find you. I didn’t mean to ambush you. But I stared at your photo on your firm’s site for a while. I thought we might have the same nose. I don’t know. But I couldn’t wait. If you hadn’t come out, I probably would have gone to the Brooklyn address.”

“That wouldn’t work. We moved out of there about three years ago.”

“Good thing I found you then.”

I pause.

“There’s more isn’t there?”

“There’s more. . . . She was adopted too.”

Her eyes again get large. I tell her the story, or what I know of it.

“We have to find her.”

“I only found that out on Saturday, too.”

“That must have been a hell of a day-in-the-country.”

“I’m still recovering.” I add, smiling, “Plus they dragged me to Mass on Sunday.”

“Wait. So is everyone Catholic on your side?”

My dad and my grandparents. As far as I can tell my . . . our mother was Catholic. You were born in a Catholic facility for unwed mothers somewhere up near Ithaca.”

“This all puts a different spin on abortion. Neither of us would be there if her mom aborted her. And I wouldn’t if she’d aborted me.”

“It does make you think. But what mattered was that she got to decide for herself.”

“I guess. But . . . I don’t know. It’s there.”

“It’s there.”

I get up to get more water for us.

“Let’s take a break. I want to call my father and let him know what’s happening.” I go into the bedroom to make the call and I hear her talking, I think with her husband. When I return, she asks what we do next.

“Again, it’s coming at me at like a million miles-an-hour. I’m trying to catch my breath, suddenly with an older sister in the room.”

She tells me that she has two younger brothers, both out of college. They were not adopted.

“We are one of those families in which an adoption opens the floodgates to natural childbirth.”

I laugh. We decide that she’ll head home to think about things. We’ll talk and try to get together again on Saturday, game plan in hand.

I keep Karen up to speed on what is going on. She, too, is overwhelmed. And it wasn’t even her family. We spoke about Nancy, and I ask her to let Nancy know and I call Nancy on Thursday night, asking if I can come by. When I get there, I can tell she’s nervous.

“You knew, didn’t you?”

I say this as soon as I’m in the apartment and she asks me to sit.

“I knew she’d had a baby. It is a hole in her. She told me how she’d gotten pregnant one stupid night in high school and was sent off to a Catholic place to have the baby and give her up. She held her only a few times before she was gone. She always wondered what became of her girl. They gave her the one photo—”

“The one in the pink blanket and pink hat?”

“The one with the pink blanket and hat. She couldn’t find her. She just prayed that her daughter was somehow alright and that when she grew up she’d try to track her down.”

Nancy gets up and her shoulders shake. I rise to put my arms around her.

“I’d like to meet her. Do you think I can—?”

“I’m sure you can.”

I tell her about Jessie. The biographical stuff. Married. Lives in Brooklyn. No kids. Lawyer at a big firm. Two younger brothers. But also the personal. How she felt like a sister when I am with her and when I spoke to her.

Dot McNab

My “grandparents” were not my grandparents. They were not my mother’s parents.

My mother’s birth name was Emily McNab. She was born in Philadelphia. Her mother, Dorothy, was unmarried and worked as a waitress until she had to stop to give birth to my mother. She was eighteen and had come from Hudson, New York. It’s a city that has seen better days. Dorothy had run away from home when she was sixteen and her parents didn’t hear from her for nearly two years.

She lived on the streets of New York City for about a year, as best as my grandparents could tell, before following someone to Philly. She was seventeen and found a cheap apartment in a run-down part of the city with my mother’s father. She got pregnant shortly after they moved in together. By all accounts the father was the man she’d followed to Philadelphia. He was three years older than her and had a job in a bank’s back office. When she told him she was pregnant he told her to get an abortion.

She went to the door of an abortion clinic. He’d given her money but refused to come with her. She stood outside. She had no moral objections to abortion and knew two or three girls in New York and then in Philly who’d had one. For her, though, she couldn’t. Even if it meant sacrificing her life with her boyfriend, she wanted a baby. Her baby.

When she got back to the apartment and he came in after work, she told him. She was keeping the baby. He flew into a rage. He left her the next morning and she never saw him again. He was—is—my grandfather.

My mother had no money beyond the pittance she made as a waitress in a local diner and she couldn’t afford the rent. When she’d squirreled away enough, she took a bus to New York City and then the train to Hudson. When she arrived one night in February, she called her parents. She heard her father and mother shouting at one another, but her mother came to get her.

When she got to the house, though, it was clear that her situation was temporary. Even after she said she was four-months pregnant. Her father wanted to throw her out. He wanted to do that simply because she ran away. Now it was made worse by the fact that she’d gotten herself pregnant.

“Do you love him?” he kept asking and she kept saying she did and her father said that it was clear he did not love her since he left her to go someplace other than where she was.

Her mother protected her. She heard her parents fighting constantly about whether she should have an abortion. She was just over eighteen. Her mother insisted that it was her decision and ultimately her decision ruled. But her father kept his dealings with his daughter to a minimum, and he did what he did grudgingly.

My grandmother found a job as a clerk in a local K-mart until she left about a week before my mother was born. They stayed with her parents for another two years, my grandmother working odd jobs when her mother could watch the baby. She got her own place, something of a dive in downtown Hudson, when my mother was just over two. She’d gotten a job as a check-out woman at the local grocery store with regular hours and a friend who’d watch over my mother while she worked.


The house is very much like my grandparents’. It is few miles north of Hudson and on a small lot with houses close to it on both sides. It, too, has a wide, covered porch. There is a Subaru wagon, five or six years old, in the driveway. The sidewalk and the path leading to the front door can use some repairs, but they are passable. It looks like the house was painted a few years before we show up, and firewood is neatly stacked on the porch not far from the door.

I hit the doorbell, and Karen and I step back. It is not long before the door is opened. The woman is elderly but doesn’t appear frail. She asks what we wanted.

“Are you Dorothy Davis?” I ask and after she says she is, but “it’s ‘Dot,’” she asks what she could do for us.

“May we come in. There’s something important we need to speak to you about.”

She hesitates for a moment, and we heard a man call out, “Who is it and what do they want?”

She looks to us. “Pay him no mind. He thinks you’re trying to sell us something. Are you?”

“No, Mrs. Davis” I assure her, and she seems to believe me as she opens the door and invites us in.

The inside of the house is very much like my grandparents although the living room is to the left. It has a sofa that is a little long in the tooth and two newer armchairs. The coffee table has books scattered unorderly on it. The rug is an oriental, also showing its age, and there is a _________. The mantel is lined with photos. To me, though, one stood out.

Before I could do anything, Dot Davis asks if she could get us tea. Karen and I thank her.

“Please. Sit down. I’ll be right out.”

As we wait on the sofa, the man, who we rightly thought is Mr. Davis, Edgar, enters the room. He introduces himself and asks why we were there.

Karen responded, “there are some things we’d like to speak to your wife about.”

Edgar is suspicious. Here are two women obviously from New York City wanting to speak to his wife alone. He sits in one of the armchairs, plainly deciding what to do.

His wife returns with a tray. She’d poured three teas and there are a creamer and sugar cup as well as several biscuits.

“They say they want to speak to you. I get the sense that it’s about you and not us.” He turns to us, “Is that right?”

I nod. He gets up and says, “We don’t have a secret, but we think we should speak to her first.”

Unconvinced, he looks at his wife.

“Go ahead. Let them speak to me. Go out back. I’ll call you when it’s time to come in.”

He gets up and nods, “I’ll be right out back if you—”

“I think I’m safe. They’ve told me they’re not trying to sell me anything.”

He laughs. “That’s what all good salesmen, . . . and saleswomen, say. Just don’t sign anything.”

He again nods as he heads into the kitchen and we hear the back door open and then close.


I got up. I walk to the mantel. Karen and I discussed how I would do this, but seeing the photo changes things. I reach for the picture as the other two watch me. I turn.

“This is my mother.”

I am looking straight at Dot Davis, my grandmother. I don’t think anyone is prepared for such news. She’d last set eyes on my mother over sixty years earlier. Except for the photo she saw every day.

Her grip tightens on the arms of her chair. From the side, I see Karen gauging her reaction.

She is silent.

“You are my grandmother.”

“I can’t be. No. I can’t be.” Her hand reaches for her face, and she bows into it. “I can’t be.”

I hurry to her, squatting before her.

“I promise you, you are. My mother had the same photo when she died.”

Her head shot up.


“I’m so sorry. She died about nine years ago. She was only thirty-eight. She had a stroke and we couldn’t save her.”

Her hands are back on the chair’s arms.

“Every day I thought she’d come through my door. Every day. No matter where I was.”

She can’t continue. I reach for her knees. My right hand lifts her chin so she can look at me.

“I think that every day since she died,” I tell her. “All I can offer is me walking through your door today. Please say it’s enough.”

She is shaking slightly. She bids me to get up and sit on the sofa.

“I was at rock bottom. My parents were killed in a car crash when my Emily was three. My dad was drunk and it was icy and they just ran off the road. The car turned over. No seatbelts. I had no one. No one could take care of her. I was in such a bad place. Everyone in town hated me as the runaway who’d gotten pregnant by some stranger, a stranger who ran off at the first sign of trouble. When my parents were alive, they gave me some protection, but once they were gone, I got no support. People wouldn’t even come up to me at the funeral. I stood there with my Emily by my side and people ignored us both. I asked people to come to the house afterward, but not a single person came.

“I had nothing. I had no one. I started going places I shouldn’t have gone. Carrying my Emily with me. I was snorting coke when I could find it. I couldn’t get a job and was on welfare. I’d pick up spare change by . . . by sucking dicks and letting truckers fuck me. I’d leave my Emily home and pray she’d be safe when I got back after I scored.

“Then one day in February I didn’t come back. I was lying in a staircase, my puke all over me and they brought me to the hospital and asked where my Emily was and they asked who Emily was and they saved her and took her from me. She was four. They let me see her a few more times before I was sent to the County Jail for ninety days. I never saw my Emily again.”

She had fallen completely inside her memory. The torture of that last day she’d ever see her daughter mixes with the realization that her dream of somehow, someday seeing her again dashed when I told her her daughter and my mother was dead.

I couldn’t imagine what it would like to see another human being collapse and lose all hope in ten minutes and now I knew I would never forget it. She heaves in agony as I hold her, whispering to her, “you will always have me, you will always have me.”

Karen too is overwhelmed by what she hears and sees. She tries to disappear so my grandmother and I can hold each other, sitting well back on the sofa. I hear the back door open, and Karen rushes into the kitchen. A minute or so later, Edgar comes through with her. She must have told him what I said, who I was. That Emily was forever gone.

I feel his hand on my shoulder.

“She’s been living in the hope that her Emily would be back. She sometimes just sits and stares at the front door. Been doing that since I knew her.”

I am still rocking with her, but back away so her husband can approach. Her tears start anew. He kisses her on the forehead, punctuated with “I know”s as he does. He helps her stand and leads her upstairs. To their bed, I assume. I look at Karen. She is shellshocked. We might have anticipated this reaction but we didn’t. We didn’t understand what it meant to be a mother. Perhaps my mother’s stories should have told us, but if they did we’d missed it.

I sit next to Karen. I am shaking.

“We shouldn’t have come. I shouldn’t have told her.”

Karen pulls me to her and her lips touch my head.

“Now she can think of you coming through her door. Your mom was never going to. It’d be like that ‘Waiting for Godot’ play, always waiting for a part of her that was gone.”

She backs away from me.

“Thank God for Mr. Davis. Let’s talk to him about it.”

We hear his steps on the stairs. Karen and I stand but he waves us down as he enters the living room.

“She’s gone through so much. But she’s come very far. But we’re both going to need you.”

This is directed at me, and I feel Karen’s hand tighten her grip on mine.

She speaks for me. “Where do we start?,” and I nod.

Edgar tells us their story. They met about twenty years earlier. Alice had almost a standing reservation in the County Jail. Mostly drugs. Sometimes prostitution. He was a cook at a diner on Route 9 just north of Hudson.

“Dot’d come by the back now and then, trying to scrounge something. She knew I was a soft-touch. Not just with her. The owner didn’t like it, but it wasn’t like I was making anything special for her, or the others. Just stuff that we’d throw out anyway. ‘Yeah, but they’ll be like raccoons if you keep doing it,’ and he threatened to fire me. I wasn’t worried. Who else could he get to do the job?

“And I got to speaking to her when she came by and she got to waiting for me when I got off at three. She didn’t have a job. Tried, but couldn’t hold one down. On welfare, but that was harder than it had been. Food stamps. At least she had a place to stay. Her clothes were old, but she kept them tidy and clean.

“Dot’d walk the mile or so from town, and I started looking forward to her coming. And we walked down Route 9 together. Finally, I took her to dinner at the diner in town. Our first quote-unquote date.”

Edgar told of how he started to like her and how she was starting to like him.

“Then she didn’t show up for a few days. I called someone I knew at Hudson PD, and he told me she’d been nabbed for shoplifting. It was ladies’ underwear mostly but also a man’s belt. I went to the DA’s office and spoke to some young lawyer on staff. He knew her pretty well, having prosecuted her a couple of times, and was no more happy of sending her away for six months than I was. For some underwear and a man’s belt.

“The belt was for me, of course. He told me that if I got the store to drop the charges and promised a thousand ways to Sunday that I’d take care of Dot, she’d get one chance. He said he’d hold the paperwork for a few days, while she was sitting in the County Jail, to see if I could pull it off.

“I mean, the store didn’t want to press charges much either. It knew she was fucked up but saw no reason to help her out since she’d just come back and shoplift something else. Now I didn’t go see her. I didn’t want her to know I knew or to say anything about helping her out unless it worked.”

In the end, he says, he got the store to drop the charges and made my grandmother promise to stay with him until they could work something out. He could get her a job washing dishes in his diner so she could keep his six-to-three hours. “She’s been straight ever since, swear to God.”

He asked her to marry him a month or so later. She sat him down and told about her Emily and what she’d been through. Her family dying and losing her girl. He didn’t care. They got married and have been together ever since. That was _____ years ago.

Life settled down for them. They still worked at the diner, but she was a waitress. They’d been able to save and get their little house. They were regular church-goers.

The Davises had an equilibrium that held them together. Did I ruin it for them? By showing up?

He asked how I found her.

It had not been easy.


It was the first time my mother’s family was in one place. It began when ____ and I visited the priest in Hudson. In these times, parish priests spend time in several parishes, but he was helpful. ______, my mother’s mother, was active in the church, as was her husband. She found strength there, never more so than when she learned of her daughter’s death and of my, and my sister’s, life.

Things that had evolved over many years were being revealed rapidly.

After I met my sister, I call Edgar Davis. I did not want to pop my sister’s—her granddaughter’s—existence on Dot as I had my own. He tells me he would speak to her about it and the next day he calls back. He assures me that while initially shocked she wanted to meet her.

I told my sister what I planned to do, and when I hang up with Edgar, I call her. Yes, our grandmother was pleased to know of her existence and, yes, she wanted to meet her. I speak to Karen about it and Jessica speaks to Peter Johnson, her husband, and we decide that Jessica and I should go alone to Hudson to see our grandmother.

By this point, of course, the circle was continuing to expand. Jessica told her parents. She was raised outside of Albany. Her parents adopted her through a Catholic charity there. Jessica knows she was adopted. Her parents told her when she was seven. Of course, she was adopted when she was a newborn so she knew no other parents than them. She’d gone to SUNY Albany and then Boston College Law School. She told me she always wondered about her birth mother. Her parents encouraged her. When she was ____ she was ready to seek her out. Hence the letter to her, which is the one that was received by the McNabs in Philmont.

At every step of the way, I know, Jessica is speaking to her parents, making sure they’re alright with what she’s done, that they don’t feel threatened by what she is doing.

They still live in Saratoga Springs, north of Albany. I discuss with Jessica meeting them. Things were moving very, very fast, and I tell her that depending on how things went with [GRANDMOTHER] we could head up to Saratoga Springs to meet them.

Jessica gets a Zipcar near her place in Brooklyn. Peter is staying home for this. She picks me up at my place. This is a woman I’ve known for five days yet I know she will be in my life forever. And I know she understands that too. As we drive north, first leaving the City and then for the long stretch up parkways that will get us to Hudson, we talk. It is odd. I am not good with strangers. At parties, I’m the one who thinks everyone else knows everyone else and no one knows me. I stand on the outskirts and watch people enjoy themselves in the company of friends.

While it took a little time for me to develop a relationship with Karen that allowed me to relax, It takes none for me to enjoy being with Jessica. She’s five years older than me, who long thought she was an only child, and her background and situation are far different from mine. Yet I am comfortable with her, and was almost immediately upon meeting her.

Now we are proving that, as we drive north. She tells me her life story. LIFE STORY.

It seems far more impressive than mine. HISTORY

When we’re about ten minutes from Hudson, I call Edgar. He tells me everything is OK. I spoke briefly to my Dot about Jessica on Thursday night, making sure she was alright with what was going on. And she was.

We pull up to their house. Our grandmother immediately opens the front door and screen and is down the steps to greet us. Edgar remains on the porch. She nods at me but runs to reach her newly-discovered granddaughter. They meet on the street and they hug. I’d warned Jessica that this might happen. For God’s sake, it was something that Dot couldn’t have imagined only a week earlier. Now her two grandchildren were with her. I know we wouldn’t make up for the loss of her daughter completely. But we could help her and she could help us.

When the introduction is complete, she ran back to hug me. And me her. She whispers “thank you” and I am embarrassed. I’ve done nothing except reveal a granddaughter to my own grandmother. But things calm when Edgar  calls from the porch that “you both must be starving. We have things for you inside.”

As we are about to turn to head into the house, a woman, a woman about the Davises’ age, runs over. Marcie Harris lives across the street from the Davises. She is obviously privy to what is going on with her neighbors and I later learn that she is my grandmother’s closest friend. She is fully aware of the turmoil that her friend has been going through. She is also aware of when Jessica and I were due to arrive.

My grandmother introduces Jessica and me tells us that Marcie is joining us for lunch. I think she wants this because Marcie will help to keep her calm.

We follow Edgar into the house. I lead Jessica, with my grandmother and Marcie following.

There’s a spread in the dining room. Cold cuts and bread with coleslaw and potato salad. Some bottled water. Edgar says he can get us sodas or coffee, and we say tap water is fine. I know they’d never have bought bottled water except for special guests.

Things are remarkably relaxed since we crossed the threshold. I’d told Jessica what to expect from the house, and she assured me that she was used to non-Brooklyn chic.

“I grew up outside of Albany remember” is how she put it during the drive.

When lunch is finished and the plates are cleared, Marcie excuses herself. Edgar says he has some work to do “out back,” and I join him. My grandmother protests me leaving, but Jessica needs alone-time with her, as I had just a week before.

I like Edgar. He was so good to my grandmother, though he won’t hear of my thanks.

“I liked her from the start. You like someone, you do what you can for them. And I did what I could. No more. No less.”

I know better than to mention it again. But we have an understanding.

After maybe thirty minutes, I hear the back door open. I am in a chair, watching Edgar do a bit of pruning and cutting of some shrubs. We both look at the house.

“Do you guys want to come in?”

We do and we go in.


It is normal, as I understand it in these readings, for the author to explain a bit about who she is and how she came to write the book she is trying to sell. She’ll then read an excerpt, and the excerpt will be just enough to get you interested enough to want to buy her book.

But I am not this book’s author. I am her daughter. One of her daughters. And I was ____ when she died. Were you to ask me then about my mother, I’d only be able to say, as I guess most suburban teenagers would say, that she was good to me and she drove me to soccer practice and took care of me when I was sick and I loved her and she loved me.

That’s what all, or at least most I assume, a teenager would say about their mothers. Over time I would grow to know her as an adult and, perhaps, as a friend. And she would be with me as I too became an adult and had my own family. Perhaps my own children.

But, as I say, my mother died when I was fourteen. And I did not know her at all.

This book is her story. It is not an autobiography or a biography. It is a collection of her stories that I discovered some ____years after she died. With the help of many, many people—I will not burden the proceedings by naming them all, we don’t have time for that, but I talk about each of them in the introduction and explain why my mother meant so much to them and why they mean so much to me—some of whom are here today.

It was my fortuitous discovery of documents of these documents that led me to discover who she was. Her loves. Her lies. Her strengths and her weaknesses. Most of all, with the help of several people, the project that led to the book led me to discover a sister I never knew I had and a grandmother I never knew I had. Families I never knew I had.

Most of it, it led me to discover a mother I never knew. And with this collection, I hope others will get a glimpse of that woman. Faults and all. A woman who was, is, my mother.

The story I’ve selected is not one of her best I’m afraid. But it is, I think, the one that bests tells me, at least, who she was. It’s historical. Set in 1863 New York. To set the stage, the hero, Mary McNeil, is twenty-five. She came to New York with her parents when she was eleven, part of those who abandoned Ireland during the Famine years.

Her husband is away, a private with the 69th Infantry Regiment. She doesn’t know where he is. He sends letters every few weeks, but they take a while to reach her. He worked on the docks before being drafted. She works as a domestic in a house of one of the nouveau riche Irish. It is there, in that house, that I’ll begin.

I know before I enter the room that Mrs. O’Rorke will be dismissing me. I did not blame her. I could no longer hide my condition, and seeing as my husband had been away for over a year there was no doubt that there was a bastard in my womb. Whose it was was of no concern to Mrs. O’Rorke. Much as she liked me in the sixteen months I worked for her, I could not remain.

Nor could she give me a proper reference. A proper reference, we both knew, would be of no good given the condition of my belly. The room was darker than usual. It was the master’s den. I entered it each morning to tidy it and to clean it. It is where the master had taken me five months before. That was a fact of no relevance so I did not mention it to Mrs. O’Rorke.

The room was dark because she had closed the curtains as if the light would allow her words to be heard throughout the neighborhood and bring shame upon the premises. It was bad enough that over time people who see my belly and talk about where I had worked when what happened happened. There could be no suggestion that Mrs. O’Rorke or any member of the O’Rorke clan were anything but victims of the loose woman they had the misfortune to employ.

Mrs. O’Rorke was, as always in the morning, wearing a morning gown. She sat in her husband’s chair and she directed me to sit opposite her, on the other side of the large, mahogany desk. What she said did not matter. The words she used were irrelevant. I was to leave immediately and never to return. Neither she nor anyone in the O’Rorke clan knew me from that moment forward. I received one-week’s pay, and was grateful.

Without pay except for the slight portion of my husband’s pay I received and without prospects, I did not last long in the tenement apartment I shared with five other girls, all of them domestic servants, while my husband was at war. They tried to help since we all try to help each other, but they had too little to make a difference and I found myself returning to the slightly larger flat of my parents, now empty except for them and my youngest brother. He was fifteen and worked on the docks as my husband did. My parents prayed the war would not last so long that he, too, would be drafted.

My parents had been good to me when I lost our first baby three years earlier. She—my child was a girl—came early and was small and sickly when she arrived. They let me hold her just once before taking her forever from me, telling me that she died in the night. They said it was best that I not see her frail, lifeless body.

This child, this bastard, would not be small and sickly. He or she would arrive and will hold my second child and I promise I will never let go.

I could make some money scrubbing floors in some of the office buildings off Washington Square and I did. It was not much and the work was hard. But it was work, and I was not afraid of hard work. My mother, bless her, had lost two babies before we left Ireland and one after we arrived.

I began my confinement in a dank apartment on ____________. I was confined to bed, surviving only by the kindness of my mother and Mrs. Ellison. Mrs. Ellison was a widow with four children. Her husband was lost at Shiloh and she eked by working as a scullery maid. It, too, was hard work—all work was hard work, even for those in domestic service for kind families, as the O’Rorkes were—but it kept body and soul together.

It was rainy when he came. The room smelled of my piss. There was less light than the little there normally was, seeing as the sky was lowered and the winds were pushing the rain against the sides of the building. No, it was rainy, but he came. He found a clean spot to sit. A gentleman. I feared that people would know why he was here and I knew that he feared that. But he was not deterred.

“My mother has sent me. She regrets that I could not come sooner. But I am here now. She asks that I inquire into your condition and the condition of your child.”

I won’t read what happens next and will just say that she has a very difficult time of it but the baby, a girl is healthy. The story discusses how her mother and Mrs. Ellison get her through. She writes to her husband as they both hope the War will finally be over and how she is able to again get domestic work in a house a bit off the beaten path, where among her jobs is ensuring the house’s children are kept occupied.

She continues.

It was a fine enough day for me to take the children to PARK in the morning. It is about eleven when we reach the gates. Mr. Aston, the caretaker, gives me a nod as we enter, as he always does. He is carrying a spade and smoking a pipe, as he always did.

The children and I completed our first lap when I sense someone approaching me from behind. The Park is crowded with nannies and family so I am not afraid. The person behind me, a coachman, taps me on the shoulder.

“Excuse me, Miss. When you pass the gate again could you spare my mistress a moment?”

I looked towards the gate and see the O’Rorke carriage. It is distinctive, what with its neat, green trim against its ebony paint. She is not letting me see her face, but I know she must be watching me, wondering what I will do.

I turned to the coachman.

“Tell your mistress that I would be pleased to see her. But I cannot abandon these children. Ask her to meet me at the gate and she and I can do a lap.”

I knew it was forward of me but I could not leave the children unattended. It would be a test of her. Whether she would be willing to chance being seen with me.

Her coachman nods. “Thank you, Miss.” He walks to the carriage, and I continue the lap with the children. When we are at the far end I take a glance toward the gate. The carriage is still there, and the footman is standing by the door. As I near the end of the lap, I see him open the door and pull down the steps. He helps Mrs. O’Rorke descend and closes the door as she walks to the gate.

She does not look well. It had been over a year since I have seen her. She is not old—surely not older than her early 50s—but she seems to have suffered since I last saw her. She uses a cane but brushes off the coachman’s offer to assist her.

When I reach the gate, she was standing in the middle of the path awaiting me. I do not know if she planned it, and I rather think that she has not, but she reaches her arms to encircle me. I tell the children that it is proper, that she is an “old, dear friend.”

She asks if she can accompany us on our third lap, and we continue, slower than before. Now she willingly puts her arm through mine as we resume.

“He confessed. What he did with you. To you.”

I remain silent. He was a good man, and I expected no less. He had taken advantage of me in a moment of weakness, for both of us. From the moment I knew I had another chance, I was glad of that weakness, however wrong it was. To God. To my husband. To his wife. I knew I would be shut out, as I was, but I was glad, especially now that Alexandria Edwina was alive and that I had the hope of being able to provide for her, especially after my husband forgave me and would be coming home finally when the infernal War ended.

I could provide, if barely, for my child. My daughter. My second and only daughter.

She had a good heart, did Mrs. O’Rorke. Whether she truly forgave her husband I would never know. On that day, though, as we were in our third lap of the Park and after she told me that her children were well and healthy and that her youngest son, the one who visited me during my confinement, was recently wed, she brought up what she’d come to see me about.

“I know it is difficult for you, my dear. I made inquiries and learned that you have safely given birth to a girl.”

“Yes. Alexandria Edwina.”

“I didn’t know the name. So you named her after her father.”

“Her father is part of her. I thought she should—”

Her tone chilled.

“Do you intend on . . . telling her about her father? Who her father is?”

She was frightened and so she became rigid and pulled her arm from mine and halted. She turned to face me as the children looked confused.

“If you plan on trying to get—”

I stopped her.

“Mrs. O’Rorke. She is my baby. She will be raised my baby. The child of my husband and me. There may come a time when she will ask me about her real father. That can’t be helped. She’ll understand that my husband cannot be her father.”

My tone was perhaps icier than I intended. But Mrs. O’Rorke had turned it into a question of money. That I would want her money.

“I will tell her the truth. She is entitled to know. I cannot say what she will do with that information.”

I reached for the children and resumed the walk, with Mrs. O’Rorke standing in place. I knew she could not catch us and I did not look back. Till I heard her plea.

“Mary. Please wait.”

Without looking back, the children and I stopped. I turned.

“I did not come here to do that, to accuse you of planning to blackmail us.”

“Why would asking for a father’s help in raising a daughter be blackmail? And before you ask. He is the father. He is the only man I have laid with since my husband went away.”

“Mary, I don’t doubt it. But I came to try to help you, not to accuse you. I am sorry that it went the way that it did. I came to offer you something. For your daughter—”

“Alexandria Edwina.”

“Alexandria Edwina. We would be willing to take her from you. To raise her in a way that you could not possibly raise her. To give her things you could not—”

“Stop. You make it sound like a simple transaction. You will ‘take’ my child. You will raise my child.”

I tried to control my anger. I knew, or hoped, that she meant well. That she’d spoken to Alexandria Edwina’s father about it. I knew she was a good woman, at heart, and that she would provide more than I possibly could. That my daughter might rise in society, as a member of the O’Rorke clan. That my daughter might become a lady.

I close the book and reach for a legal pad.

“It is a conventional story. I would like to be able to tell you that you can find out how it ends by buying the book. But I can’t.”

I lift the pad and flip its pages to the audience. They see that about half-way through the pages become blank.

“What I read is what my mother wrote in this pad. It’s the seventh pad she filled with the story of Mary and Emelia Edwina. It ends where I stopped. We don’t know when my mother wrote this. We don’t know why she stopped. How long it sat around. Whether she looked at it at times and thought about what would happen to Alexandria Edwina. Was this Dickens’s ‘Edwin Drood’? Her Austen’s ‘Sanditon’?”

I took a long drink of water. I’d asked my family whether I should or could do what I was about to. They all said that I should. Jessica said I had to.

Things are spinning out of control. Tuesday passes in a blur, and I call Jessie that night and she tells me she’s trying to understand things as well. She says her husband, Peter, was incredibly supportive. He knew of her efforts to locate and contact our mother, and did what he could to help her. 

She said that her parents and brothers, too, had always encouraged her.

“My mom wants to meet you. I told her that I feel that I already know you and have known you all my life.”

It’s been one day, but she echoed my own feelings. And it’s an easy conversation. 

“I hate to say it,” Jessie says, “but I think in some ways she was relieved to learn that my birth mother was dead. I know that sounds terrible, but she’s my mother and always has been. That would never change, and she knew that in her head. But still, I didn’t appreciate her heart.

“You’ll meet her. You’ll see. She’s a great, wonderful woman. Just there are things you can’t control. Not that she said anything. I just got a sense. It was the shock of it too. She’ll be good and I think in time she’ll miss the chance to having met our mom.”

I called my father as soon as Jessie left on Monday night. He sounded thrilled. I told him, though, that I needed to sit down with him and that it was important.

I’d taken Monday afternoon off for my time with Jessie. So I couldn’t miss work on Tuesday. He suggested we meet for lunch–we don’t work too far from one another and meet for lunch every month or so–but I told him I would need more time. 

On Tuesday at about six-thirty, I text him that I am on my way to his office, and he is waiting in the lobby of his building when I go through the doors. We share a cab to my apartment, making small talk. I warn him as we climb the stairs to my apartment that it’s cluttered “with some of mom’s stuff.”

I unlock the top lock and pause after opening the bottom.


He nods, and I swing the door open.

It is as it was when Jessie was here. A row of ten bankers’ boxes taking too much space in my already cluttered apartment. 

“You can look at whatever you want. About half are things are got from grandma and grandpa over the weekend. The rest are the ones you gave me.”

He walks to them, and opens the top of one of the new boxes.

“She kept diaries?”

“They’re important, but it’s complicated. Let me get us something to drink.”

He sits on the sofa as I bring out two glasses and a bottle of Pinot Grigio. Nothing fancy, but a comfort drink. I know he drinks Scotch, but I don’t have any. He says the wine will do.

“Let me talk about what I’ve found out and then you can ask me anything.”

He nods as I sit in an armchair I’ve moved so it is at an angle to him.

I tell him the story. What Karen and I learned over the weekend. I end by reciting my conversation with Jessie.

“That’s all I got.”

He’d been holding his glass through this, and taking a sip occasionally. My glass was on a side table, and I reach for it, and he lets me take a deep swallow before speaking.

“The first thing I need to do is tell you what I know. I didn’t know some . . . a lot of what you found out. But I knew some of it.

He tells me of how they met at Cornell. All I knew was that they’d “met” there. He got a fair amount of help from his folks for tuition and room and board. She didn’t. She worked three nights a week in one of the food halls. I’d assumed they’d met in class.

“No. We never had a class together. We didn’t live in the same dorm. I was a junior and she was a sophomore. It was late in the fall semester when I noticed her. She didn’t notice me. She was working cleaning table in the hall and just going about her business. Some of those who worked were townies, and some were students with a minimum-wage job gotten through the financial-aid office. It was later that I found out how big her loans were, but she got a fair amount as grants too.

“Once I’d figured out her schedule, I made sure I ate at that hall when she was there. I was afraid things would change in the spring semester, but they didn’t. There she was. 

“I know how ridiculous it sounds, but I saw her and was afraid to introduce myself. I’d been going out with fellow students, but nothing lasted. I wasn’t . . .  ‘lonely’–I can’t believe I just said that to my daughter. Anyway, I figured she was a student and saw her a few times on campus outside the dining hall. 

“In the end it wasn’t even me who introduced myself. By March it was pretty clear I was smitten, and the guys I ate with noticed. They teased me. ‘Just go up to her,’ Stuff like that.

“Finally, Jimmy Olds–he was from outside Boston–simply got up and walked up to her and said he wondered if she could do him a favor and she said yes and she followed him to our table, which I was trying to crawl under, and said, ‘This moron wants to marry you but is too afraid to ask.’ And she wanted to crawl under the table.”

He pauses. He’s began We  in that Ithaca dining hall embarrassed and thrill about what was happening.

“_____ Locus meet–I’m sorry, what’s your name?’ And she said she was Emily McNab and all the others grabbed their trays and left and she stood until she said she had to get back to work and I said something stupid like, “Yeah, I guess I’ll see you around” and she was gone and we were introduced.

He said that he noticed her looking at him once in a while during the rest of her shift. As he was leaving, she walked to him my mother handed him a note and told him to call. “She said she’d like for me to call, and then went back to work.

“I wish I could say it was a fairy-tale courtship. Your mom was sweet and kind. She was very pretty. You know all of that. Now you know she was troubled. She didn’t tell me for the longest time. We began to date. I think I was the first man she was with at Cornell. By the end of the semester she was my girlfriend and I was her boyfriend. 

“We kept in touch over the summer, speaking all the time. She worked near where she lived in an office. I worked in the City as a clerk in a law firm. By that time, I knew I was going to law school and was getting ready for the LSATs.
“In late July I borrowed my parents’ car and drove up to her town on a Sunday. I hadn’t seen her for a couple of months and, well, we did some things in an isolated part of a parking lot. It was then that I met her parents.”

I need to break his thread, so I mention how kind they were to me and Karen.
“I liked them. I think they liked me. She told me I’d gotten their seal of approval. 

“When we got back to school, things picked up pretty much where they’d been when we left. I was completely lost to her. It was somewhat spontaneous. I didn’t have a ring or anything. But in October of my senior year, her junior, I asked her to marry me. She didn’t say yes. She didn’t say ‘no.’ She said she’d think about it.

“What does that mean? ‘I need to think about it.’ I hate to say it, but I lost my temper with her. I said something like, ‘what’s there to think about? You either love me and want to marry me or you don’t.’ She was quiet. ‘It’s not that easy. I wish it was.’ We were in my room. She got up and walked out. I just stared at the door after it closed behind her.

“She knocked on it about an hour later. ‘There’s something you need to know.’ That’s when she told me about her baby. I don’t think she’d told anyone else, except of course her parents. I’m sure some kids she grew up with suspected. But she told me.

“As she left me, speechless, she said, ‘now you have something to think about’ and she left again.”

‘This sweet, chaste girl had gotten pregnant in high school and had a baby. That’s what I mean about it not being some fairytale. It should have been, but I wouldn’t let it. 

“I didn’t sleep well that night. I had my own room as a senior. I’ve always hated myself for not chasing after her that second time she walked away that night, but I did not. She was right. I had to ‘think about it.’

I walked to her dorm first thing the next morning. I knocked at her door. She opened it. I don’t think she got much sleep. She looked horrible. Before she let me in, she stood there, holding the open door, and said, ‘Well?’

“It was like a knife. That I hadn’t said ‘yes’ the night before. All I could do, though, was say ‘yes’ now and that’s what I did.”

He says that they decided to get married in his town. She simply did not have many friends where she grew up, and those she had as well as her parents spent the weekend in town for the wedding.

They agreed on a small ceremony and a small reception at the Field Club. They honeymooned in San Francisco. It was the first time my mother flew.

The wedding was in the early spring of my father’s senior and my mother’s junior year. It was a complicated decision. He went to law school in New York City and she went back to Ithaca for her senior year, spending time with him in his apartment in Manhattan during her breaks. 

They decided to defer trying to have a child until after she graduated. 

“I knew how much giving up her baby ate at her and how much she wanted a second chance. But I think she was afraid too. That she wouldn’t cut it as a mother. It was all because of the first baby. Everything else pointed to her being a great mother. And, as you know, she was.”

I realize that my glass is empty, as is his. I get up to get refills. He looks at his watch. It is getting late, though, and he says we both have a lot to digest. He asks if we can continue tomorrow. He’ll take me to dinner and we can resume and shortly after saying that he leaves.

I am alone again. I stare at the boxes. I wonder if I will hear her voice if I stare hard enough and listen closely enough. But they remain silent. I decide not to have a second glass of wine. Instead I call Jessie and report what I was told by my father. And I try to sleep.

“Can I meet her?” 

My father and I are sitting in a restaurant on East 47th Street. 

The twenty-four hours have been good for us both. The rush of revelations have somehow made us more comfortable about my mother, the casting away of some of the secrets she carried.

“Can I ask her and her husband to come up to town on Saturday? It’d give them a chance to see a bit more of what Mom was.”

That settled, I text Jessie to see if that works for her.

We order our drinks, Scotch for him, vodka tonic for me, and decide what to eat. As he folds his menu and places it on the table, he resumes.

At first it’s mostly bland biographical and geographical items. Living in the City while he was in law school and for the first years of his practice. My mother working ________. Visiting town for some Thanksgivings and Christmases and Easters, and heading to Philmont for others. 

I am born and it is the perfect family.

He pauses, our orders in and our salads in front of us.

“Except, of course, for Nancy,” I say.

His poking at his salad and puts his fork down.

“It wasn’t . . . just Nancy.”

I hold my fork midway between the plate and my mouth.

He explains that my mother was subject to periods of depression. Things got particularly bad after I was born. It wasn’t just post-partum. It was a mix with what had happened to her with who turned out to be Jessie.

“So I had an affair. And she found out about it.” He explains that it was when he was a fourth-year associate at the firm. On a trip to Chicago. He and a partner of the firm were there for three nights. Everything was fine for the first night but that went for drinks the second and enjoyed each other’s company and she seemed to listen to him when he told her about his wife.

“On the last night, she offered to come to my room and, well, we made love.”

He quiets as he finishes his salad, as I was trying to make sense of what I’d just been told. He waits until the salads—mine half-eaten—are cleared and our entrees are in front of us.

“It wasn’t making love, of course. And it wasn’t just that night. She was single, so it was no issue for her. Except, you know, morally. She was about six years older than me and I think she thought she was helping me through a bad patch.”

I poke at my food.

“Did Mom know?”

He explains that it was a very hard period for my mother. That it would have killed her to find out, so he made sure she didn’t.

“It lasted about six months. I couldn’t handle the guilt. I don’t think she could either.”

“Who do you mean, ‘she’?”

“The one with whom I had the affair.”

“So you ended it and that was it.”

He pauses as he tries to eat some of his chicken to give himself time to think.

“We hooked up again once or twice about a year later but then she got married and that was that.”

“‘Once or twice’? You don’t even remember?”

“OK. It was three times, alright? Three times when we both stayed late at the office and had sex in her office with the door locked.”

“And you told Mom you were just working late?”

“I told your mother I was just working late.”

He drops his fork. I, at least, am angry enough that I can chew my food, the initial shock have diminished. When my plate’s empty and his is not, he waves the waitress over and asks for the check.

There isn’t a lot more to be said, so as he waits for the check, and get up and leave, telling him I’ll call him. As the cab heads uptown, I decide to go to Nancy. I need to speak to someone and she might help.

When I sit on her sofa, she pours me a wine.

“You look like you could use this,” as she hands it to me. I take a gulp.

“Did my mother know my father had an affair shortly after I was born?”

Nancy puts her glass down. She pauses.

“Yes. She told me about it shortly before she passed. Out of the blue.