I'm very much enjoying the Meetup I created for people who want to practice telling stories. I am a crummy story teller, as I'm too impatient. Most stories in my renditions skip right from the set up to the punch line. I'm trying to do better.
Our prompt for the evening was "Crime and Punishment." Either I've been pretty law abiding or my poor memory is shielding me from guilt, but few events surfaced. This is one of them, from many decades back.
The main characters are me, my mother, and my mother's twin sister MJ. My family lived in a bedroom suburb of New York City; my mother's twin sister Mary Jane lived in a studio apartment on 51st street in Manhattan.
My mother disliked her life and blamed me for it, my birth had taken her away from her glamorous job as researcher at Time Life Inc., where she drank and joked and flirted with important writers and publishers. My father had said the city was no place to raise a child, so because of me she was marooned in the suburbs, where she'd instantly alienated the neighbors by informing them their lives were boring. The adults of our suburban world were bored, unhappy hard-drinking stay at home mothers and tired, unhappy, hard-drinking fathers who every morning put on fedoras and great coats and picked up briefcases and drove to the train station and commuted to Manhattan.
I worshipped MJ, my mother's twin sister. She was feisty, funny, and independent, she was a painter and an art director, she'd been a reporter for Sports Illustrated and traveled all over the world. She'd been thrown out of Bryn Mawr for scaling the walls at night after curfew and for other reasons not shared with children in those days. She and her girlfriend fled to Italy and went to art school there and MJ would never have come back, but her mom got on a boat and sailed over the Atlantic and fetched her back, without the girlfriend.
MJ and her sister, my mom, never got along, so MJ visited rarely and it was always possible she'd blow up suddenly and leaving in a fury without saying goodbye, sometimes even walking the three miles to the train station to escape back to her own life.
MJ loved me just the way I was, which was irascible, independent, full of questions, always involved in messy projects. When my mother said "nobody will ever love you because you are so selfish," my aunt laughed and hugged me. She was the only member of my team, it was her love that kept me from a life in the loony bin.
My birthday is December 29, between Christmas and New Year's, depressing time for a birthday, cold and dark, nobody's in the mood, one birthday morning I called up the stairs, "aren't you going to wish me happy birthday?" and heard my mother say to my dad, "Oh damn, Willy, it's her birthday, go get her a present."
However in December 1962, for my ninth birthday, Mary Jane, who was visiting us, had promised an unimaginably special birthday treat: she and I would go into Manhattan together, just the two of us. I was beside myself with excitement and laid out my outfit days before, a red turtleneck the color of Target superstore and a blue jumper the color of Walmart.
At our house kids ate early, grownups ate late. The bill of fare the night before my birthday featured Mrs. Pauls' fish sticks, one of the three foods I hated most in the world, the other two being canned tomatoes and hot dogs. This time those fish sticks disgusted me so intensely, and here comes my CRIME, I threw them away. And here comes my brothers' walk-on roles, they ratted on me yelling: "JANIE THREW HER FISH STICKS AWAY."
My mother hustled into the kitchen, yup, there were the fish sticks in the trash, right on top in a row, I hadn't even thought to bury them, already you can see I am not a good sneak. I was the most incompetent liar in the family, too, I volunteered: "No, I did not throw away my fish sticks." "Of course you did, there they are in the trash." "No, I didn't."
This inane exchange went on for a while and then my aunt came in and, unaccountably to me, threw in with my mother, saying: "Janie, if you don't tell the truth, I'm not taking you to the city tomorrow."
That was a fearsome threat, so fearsome I didn't believe it. And besides, I was backed into a corner. After you've told the same lie a few times, it's hard to recant, as Lance Armstrong and numerous politicians have discovered. So I refused to confess and was sent to bed in disgrace.
The next morning, my birthday, a new day, I was so excited, cautiously optimistic I put on my outfit. Then my aunt came in the room and goes, "What are you dressed up for? I told you I wouldn't take you to the city if you didn't tell the truth."
The world came crashing down, I was speechless, she left for New York alone, without saying goodbye. I sat on my bed all morning in my special outfit, crying. I've hated those colors ever since, the Target red of that turtleneck and the Walmart blue of that jumper.
I shared this story with a friend and he said the lesson I learned from this event was the wrong one, but regardless, this is what it taught me: that there is no reprieve; even your favorite person, the only person on your team, can abandon you without saying goodbye. We never did take that special trip to the city.