To get to downtown Boston from suburban Newton without a car was a real pain in the mid-70s–to get anywhere from Newton without a car was a pain, really–but my father Bernie told my mother Sari that a second car was wasteful and on this point, as on so many others, he would not budge. His disdain for waste was also the reason he initially fought having the second child she was now carrying. Overpopulation was a real problem, he’d told her, and he’d stuck to that policy until he read a bunch of articles arguing for the superior adjustment of children with siblings. Then, he set about impregnating my mother with a zeal that was more clinical than impassioned. Or so she suggested to her best girlfriend Miriam later while I listened, “all big eyes and big ears,” as my mother always said when she realized she’d said something taboo in front of the kid.
Now every morning he zipped off to his assistant professor job in his used Toyota (so fuel-efficient he’d crowed when she’d protested its drabness), and left her high and dry with the kid and her swelling stomach.
Even on her birthday, as it turned out. This morning she’d awoke to his daily note and, of course, no car. He’d left early for work and had “fixed his own breakfast to give her a break,” as he’d written in his spidery block letters. “Happy birthday, sweetie!!” Well. The two exclamation points mollified her until she scanned the day’s list. Every day he gave her a list—go to bank, get groceries, take Lisa to park—and every day she completed it with a plodding resignation. Today she saw he’d scheduled a biannual physical for the kid. Continue Reading →
Growing up, “soft” was an insult. The ultimate one, actually. In my family it was an umbrella term that meant out-of-shape, clueless, indolent, addled, unvigilant, prissy, overly sensitive, entitled. You were soft if you didn’t take it in the chin. Soft if you asked for a ride when you could walk. Soft if you whined “I can’t.” Soft if you couldn’t run a mile or sported a gut. Soft if you cried when you dropped your ice cream. Definitely soft if you were a tattletale.
Every usage of the word was anathema to us, and by “us,” I am referring to my dad and therefore my little sister, my mother, my myself—my father’s subjects, in other words, to whom principles came down by edict.
Soft hands meant you lacked a work ethic, the might or tenacity to do physical labor. A soft voice meant you were namby-pamby, couldn’t assert yourself. Being soft-hearted meant you were a sucker. There was a long list of what was soft, and at the top of it were the rich people in my Greater Boston town, which literally had a “wrong side of the tracks” since the Mass Pike divided the more working-class sections from the wealthier people on the Hill. The rich girls wore rugbys and braids, had sleepover parties with cutesie PJs, whispered about their crushes. The girls in my neighborhood wore tight designer jeans and feathered hair, hung out at the corner store, had boyfriends with whom they did more than hold hands long before they hit puberty.
Though gentle, Charlie Bucket was not soft, which is why he inherited the Chocolate Factory. Harriet the Spy was not soft; all you had to do was look at her work uniform and you knew she was tough as nails. In those slippers and knitted sweaters, Mister Rogers and his braying singsong was ridiculously soft. And the Beatles, oy the Beatles. With their thin voices, those fa-la-la proclamations of love—forget it. So soft. As a matter of fact, all white music was soft, except punk rock and, of course, the Stones. With their big bass lines and bigger tongues, the Rolling Stones were hard in every sense of the word. Before I even understood what sex entailed, I groked that the Beatles were the equivalent of making love and the Stones were all about fucking. Which, by definition, was not soft. Continue Reading →