“So, what’s it like?”
“Like anything else. It’s a job. We all have to work for a living, don’t we?”
“But, it must be so glamorous! So exciting!”
“Most of the time it’s pretty dull, actually. What can I say? There are occasional perks. Travel, for one. A reputation that precedes you, making you feel like you’re hot shit. But . . . I don’t know. Mostly boring stuff. Warm, fuzzy, family shit with humdrum work crap on the side—vanilla ice cream and hot apple pie. And . . . . well, I guess you could say there’s a little bit of whipped cream on top, you know what I’m saying? You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t! Do tell.”
“Oh, if I have to spell it out . . . A morsel of masturbation material, that’s all. Just enough to make a girl feel creamy.”
Andover, Massachusetts has been transformed into a winter wonderland. It is early. Dawn has broken but Concord Lane is silent, with only the hushed whispers of long-dead ghosts who once wandered here, perhaps after tossing their tea into the harbor or putting the latest witch on trial. Leila is the first one outside, and she pulls her mother by the hand into the crystalline paradise. The two smile at each other and appear as mirror-images. Both sport long thick dark tresses, Mediterranean skin, and soft pink lips turned up at the corners; they differ only by their 20-year age difference and the color of their eyes. Where her mother has two coffee beans for eyes, warm, soothing, and full of love and comfort, young Leila has inherited her father’s two bright, shiny Irish emeralds that catch the light and reveal a hint of impishness in her.
Right now there is something impish in the eyes of both mother and daughter. “Race you!” calls out Leila’s mother, and begins to run, without letting go of her daughter’s hand. The two dark figures run, hand in hand, up the hill of white that is now their front yard. They fall onto their sides simultaneously and roll down the hill, shouting and laughing and breaking the cold New England silence.
“Mother, I’m freezing!” shouts Leila at the bottom, trying to catch her breath between convulsive giggles. She pulls long strands of black hair out of her eyes, searching for the source of that echoing laugh that meets her own. “Mother? Mother!” She begins to dig in the sparkling white mound before her. “Mother! Mother! Mother! Where are you?” Mother!” Her voice becomes imperious. “Mother, come out of that snow bank right now!” Snow begins to fall, rapidly picking up pace and heading, it seems, directly into Leila’s widespread green eyes. “Mother!” she yells, nervous now. “I hear you, Mother! I hear you!”
But Leila could not see her mother. As the snow fell thicker and harder, Leila struggled and at last slipped into the cold white void, still hearing her mother’s soft, kind laugh ringing in her ears.
And then she awoke. Shivering. Crying.
Why had her mother left her?
I don’t really have these nightmares, and my mother is actually alive, a sturdy-shoed flat-jowled woman who has never been satisfied with her life. But the female literary role models dictate a dead mother—the cute ones like Annie and Anne of Green Gables, the nymphette Lolita, the strong-headed Belle of the Ball, Scarlett, and every last lady of fairytaleland. So “Leila” will have a dead mother, and a dramatic story to go with it.
I am not a nurse, a nanny, or a model, but there is pressure for me to play one. Here is a little of my true tale: Born Marie-Thérèse Charron, I am the granddaughter of Woonsocket, Southbridge, and Lowell millworkers, immigrants from Trois Rivières, Saint-Ours and Chicoutimi, and residents of local Petits Canadas. French-speaking devout Catholics that they were, these blue-collar Quebecois believers raised rebellious sons and daughters who dreamed of an America they didn’t quite live in. Grace Metalious exposed the hypocrisy of their small town lives, and Jack Kerouac channeled his Canuck alienation into a dark, ethnic figure who had to share his road story with an all-American Gene Autry-like modern cowboy. But these rebels settled down and began to breed, too, more devoted to the bottle than the parish, and what more can I say? Little Marie-Thérèse lived a pretty normal life; I can’t complain much. Birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese, new clothes for the first day of school, the afterschool job at Hollywood Video. A father who went on week-long binges and threw plates in anger, and once put his fist through the drywall in the hallway. A brother who got a girl pregnant at fifteen and took off, who knows where. He stays out of the story. A brother who was what people called “simple”; he swept up hair at an old-fashioned barbershop, and collected it in clear plastic bags, daily labeled, nobody knew why. A brother who got high so often he became a weed connoisseur, grower of Jack Herer, White Widow Bio, BubbleGum, Purple Haze; he would one day compete at the Cannabis Cup Competition in Amsterdam with his special breed, Black Velvet. A mother who never approved of her daughter’s choices. Boys with bad acne, back-alley blowjobs, a 12-year-old K car. It was an American life.
On her twenty-second birthday, a radiant Leila Kelly clutched a Harvard degree in her right hand. As her father called out, “One, two . . .,” she quickly smoothed her long dark hair—her mother’s hair—tussled by the cap-toss, and grabbed her two older brothers to be by her side in the picture. It was important that they share this day with her. Neither had gone to college—it hadn’t been an option when they were growing up. After their mother’s death, the Kelly family had suffered greatly. When Leila was four, their family left their pretty colonial neighborhood in Andover for a dark corner of industrial blue-collar Lowell. John Kelly left his law practice to become a factory worker. “I needed to be doing something with my hands,” he told Leila when she was older. “I just didn’t want to think anymore. I wanted something brainless; I wanted something I could throw myself into, so that I wouldn’t have to think of your mother. Of my Maryam. My Persian Princess.” When Patrick and Gerald finished high school—and John certainly made sure his two sons did that much—they both joined their father for long days of hard labor in the factory—and long nights of hard drinking in O’Reilley’s. But no one would let Leila suffer the same fate. “You’re the Persian princess, now,” Patrick explained one day, “for all of us.” And as such, all the money that didn’t go to the foul-smelling whiskey that Leila so despised was deposited into an ever-growing account intended for one purpose only: Leila’s college tuition.
Leila knew the day she marched in Harvard Yard should be the happiest day of her life, but she couldn’t help having mixed feelings. Glancing at her two brothers—both white-skinned carrot-tops like their father—she felt love and gratefulness. They had sacrificed so much for her. But she also felt sadness. Why had it been necessary to “sacrifice” so much for her? Leila often wondered. Patrick and Gerald were older than Leila and had suffered the loss of their mother much harder. Had they, too, felt the need to pour their sadness into their work? Her brothers had been full of potential. Patrick had been a straight-A student throughout his school years and had earned a full scholarship to Boston College. A scholarship he had turned down. And Gerald could play the trumpet like no one but Louis Armstrong could. He couldn’t tell a music note from a Japanese character, but put his instrument in his mouth and the glories and wonders of New Orleans jazz floated out like magic. The trumpet converted the woes of the world into wonders. All his anger and all his anguish went into that trumpet, and the result was sheer heaven.
And then there was Father. There was no one in the world Leila wanted to please more than John. Headstrong and stubborn, yet loving and tender, John was Leila’s hero. Despite his propensity for drink brought on by the death of his loved one, he was a man of values, and he was sure to pass on those values to his most precious possession: his daughter. John taught Leila to work hard, to do good in the world, and to cherish her family. And he taught her something else, not through words, but through his life—that for every person, there is a partner, a soulmate, a “one true love.” It was for this reason that John had never married again. It was for this reason that he had given up his life of law and luxury when his wife died. For at that moment, his life died.