It is one thing to be a man’s wife—quite another to be the mother of his children. In fact, once you become a mother, being a wife seems like a game you once played or a self-help book you were overly impressed with as a teenager that on second reading is puffy with common ideas. This was one of many things I had learned since crossing over into the middle place—that sliver of time when childhood and parenthood overlap. One day you’re cheering your daughter through a swimming lesson or giving her a pat for crossing the monkey bars or reminding her to say “please,” and the next, you’re bragging to your parents about your newest trick—a sweet potato recipe, a raise at work, a fix for your ant problem. It’s a giant Venn diagram where you are the only member of both sets.
The middle place is also hallmarked by endless, irresistible, often exasperating comparisons between your family of origin and the family you’ve made. “My parents would never let us talk to them like that.” “My mom always insisted that we eat dinner together.” “My dad spanked us with a wooden spoon all the time and we’re fine.” Thanks to these filial imprints, Edward and I have caught ourselves fighting over such minutia as how to cook pasta—set a timer or do a taste test.
By the time I was old enough to bother noticing, my mom and dad had settled into a marriage that was high functioning but not especially romantic.
It had all the characteristics of a healthy, established corporation. My mother held the power positions: finance and operations. Her realm covered allowance, dress code, and chores. My dad took care of sales, like convincing us that snurfing (the precurser to snowboarding) down the eight-foot drop into the backyard was as good—better!—than a weekend in Vermont. He also defined our corporate culture. Corrigans, my dad conveyed, were scrappy corner-cutters who could always find a way into any place. They knew how to shake hands and make eye contact and tell a joke. They had reason to be proud. Under his leadership, employee satisfaction was high. My parents’ partnership hummed, except on those occasions when Greenie hinted at some elasticity in a standing policy—like, say, curfew—tempting us to push our limit by suggesting that if we were a little late, he’d handle it with Mom.
But that never worked. You’d be there, at the party, boldly lingering past midnight, maybe even lining up at the keg for one more refill. You’d be ha-ha-ing it and acting like you were a regular kid like all the others, a kid whose parents were home in bed. And then you’d hear his voice.
“Wrap it up, kid. Your mother can’t sleep,” he’d say, standing in the door in his Indiana Jones hat and his overcoat, with his oxford cloth pajama pants peeking out the bottom. As you’d put down your beer and poke around for your coat, he’d glad-hand some of the guys and maybe even take a sip of somebody’s beer. “See ya, gang!” he’d say, escorting you out.
As far as taking care of himself, my dad’s pattern was general compliance punctuated by brief interludes of opportunism.
In other words, if, on a Saturday morning, he mowed the lawn and folded the laundry, then he might decide to play an extra set of tennis or swing by a lacrosse game on the way home. He was always “swinging by” places. He had an uncanny knack for showing up within minutes of my mother looking at the kitchen clock and saying, “If your father doesn’t walk through that door in the next five minutes...” My mom rolled her eyes a lot, but every so often, she would look at him while he was telling a story and smile in such a way that I knew she loved him.
Maybe because they seemed so practical, I often made up stories about my parents’ passionate early days, how eager my dad was to have her, how irresistible my mom found his pleas. The facts emerged with the decades. He proposed the night he met her. He had another fiancée. He was unworthy in the eyes of her parents. He vomited on their lawn one night when he was, as they say in Dublin, “well jarred.” I gathered up those scraps and stitched together a love story that kept me warm enough.
Then, one rainy day when I was a teenager stranded at home without a car, I started rearranging the furniture in my room. This was a fairly regular event, and I had nearly run out of configurations when I noticed an old trunk in GT’s room that might look just right at the foot of my bed. It was much too heavy to move, so I began to empty it.
There, underneath several heavy wool blankets, were a hundred letters, maybe more.
A hundred envelopes to my mother, Mary Dwyer on Newland Road in Baltimore, written in my father’s outrageous handwriting. (He prints, usually in all caps, but he never lifts his pen off the page, so every letter is connected to every other letter. Decoding his penmanship is like finishing a crossword puzzle.)
I picked up an envelope like you might a feather. The house was silent around me. I had a little buzz, like I had been drinking.
The letter was from 1963, when Kennedy was in the White House and Neil Sedaka was fighting for airtime with Frankie Valli.
It’s 30 degrees here. There are piles of snow everywhere. I spent the day slogging it out for the “big guys” at TV Guide. My old friend Ray Tomar at Oldsmobile bought some pages, but all the while, I was thinking of you. I am looking forward to seeing you again at the Burch’s luncheon in Philadelphia on Feb 1. Cousin Nancy tells me she will be there. I’m sure she’ll drive you down if you want.
Wear that red sweater for the Corri—I love a blonde in red.
Which brings us to my mother’s “blonde hair,” which we take on faith, since it has been forty years since her hair went untreated. Now, it’s more frosted than anything, sort of a snowy color, and always in the same cut, short, lifted off her forehead in a roll, like Martha Washington, or, for that matter, George Washington. Anyway, where you might see white, my dad sees blonde, Grace Kelly blonde.
The letters were out of order, so I just opened the next one to touch my fingers. It was from the previous fall, the fall of 1962.
You might think that Bob Grady is quite a catch, but I know better! Hopkins guys are stiffs! I can outscore him and outromance him! It’d be a long boring life as Mrs. Grady.
Will you come to the lacrosse game against Mt. Washington next Sunday? I’ll put one in the net just for you. My sister Peggy can drive you over.
Bob Grady and my mom? My mom dated other people? My mom was a girl in demand? My mom was a girl? I believe these moments are now called paradigm shifts. At the time, I wouldn’t have been able to put it into words. Revolutionary, staggering, gross—all inadequate.
I kept going, letter after letter, until my mother found me there, surrounded by unfolded pages. It might have been an hour, maybe two.
“Mom, these are incredible! Did you know these were here?”
“Of course I knew they were here, Kelly. They’re mine. Now put them away and apologize for snooping,” she said as she left the room, wearing her standard black work pants, the ones from a sale at Macy’s six years ago, the ones with the elastic waist. I dug around in the mothballs for one letter that stood out. It had a poem in it. I brought it downstairs. She was at the kitchen table with a glass of Inglenook over crushed ice.
“Okay, Mom, just listen to this one,” I said, atwitter. “It’s a love poem! He wrote you love poems!”
I was so gratified to see a real sliver of the romance I’d always imagined. I sat down across from her, and I read it to her against her will, my head down, lost in the verse. When I looked up victoriously at the end, her face was flush with tears.
“Your father—he’s something else,” she said, thrilling me by choosing the present tense. Then she stood up, shook her head, wiped her face, and walked to the sink to start dinner.
“Put those back where you found them,” she said as she filled a pot with water. I stared at her. She had never looked like this to me before, like a woman who would collect all her love letters and pack them away with mothballs so they would last forever.
This story is from The Middle Place. Kelly’s new book, Glitter and Glue (which is essentially the other half of the story) comes out Feb. 4 and can be pre-ordered now at a steep discount. Kelly will talking about Glitter and Glue on The Today Show on Feb. 6.