It is July 4, 1961. In three months, I will be twelve years old. John Kennedy is in the White House, and we Catholics are very, very proud. My mother says that since Kennedy has been president, she has, for the first time as a Catholic, felt like a complete American.
Before her marriage, my mother was part of a circle of working women, pious, serious, almost professional in their devoutness, who centered their religious lives (and who knows what other imaginings) around a particularly charismatic priest, with whom they made regular retreats. Her best friend among these women was Kay Costello, who had worked her way up to the position of vice president in a small New York bank, unusual for a woman of that time.
My mother had invited Kay for Fourth of July lunch and Kay asked if it would be all right if she brought one of her “Legion girls” along. She was very active in the Legion of Mary, an organization that had originated in Ireland, devoted to rescuing women who were on the wrong side of respectability, who were popularly referred to as “wayward girls.” Kay’s activities with the Legion were centered on women who were imprisoned on drug charges, or just getting out and trying to keep away from drugs.
One of Kay’s vanities was her certainty that my mother, all of her friends, in fact, wouldn’t have been able to “handle” any of the “Legion girls.” With what skirted quite near condescension, she assured my mother that she knew my mother wouldn’t be interested in doing the active work of the Legion, but she enrolled her as an “auxiliary member.” My mother took this seriously, which meant we were committed to saying the daily Rosary and other Legion prayers, especially the Magnificat, the words Mary, pregnant with Jesus, speaks when she greets her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. She expresses her joy at the presence of the child in her womb: “My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.”
To music lovers, the word “Magnificat” will probably invoke Bach or Palestrina or one of the many composers who have used the text. But to me, the immediate association is sore knees, the discomfort of kneeling on a bare wooden floor for the duration of the Rosary and the additional “Legion prayers.”
My mother considered it a religious duty, one that she had no choice but to accept, to entertain one of Kay’s “Legion girls.”
Only now does the military suggestion of “the Legion,” occur to me. Not just soldiers, but Roman soldiers, bristling with weapons, aggression, a united, violent force. I have learned from a quick Google search that the choice of names was a deliberate invocation of the Roman Legion, with its model of efficiency, the Roman association freeing the group of a local, or Irish, tinge. The local governing councils, usually housed in a parish, were called presidiums. Presidium: from the Latin meaning garrison. The name was also adopted by Russian Communists for their governing bodies.
Kay was the president of her local presidium, which met not in her own parish in Brooklyn, but in the more elegant St. Vincent Ferrer on the east side of Manhattan, which was nearer her work than the chapter connected to her Brooklyn parish. I now think it might have been an excuse for her to be away from her mother in the evenings. She lived with her mother in Park Slope, which then was heavily Irish. All the time I knew her, Kay’s mother sat in a wheelchair. She prided herself on keeping alive old standards; linen napkins were used at every meal, and she made a point of telling me that she wore real—by which she meant handmade—lace at all times. She was disappointed that her claim seemed to mean very little to me, and when we visited, she paid me no attention.
It was a beautiful summer afternoon—I remember now that Henry James said “summer afternoon” was the most beautiful phrase in the English language. But our house did nothing to contribute to any beauty. When my father died, my mother decided to make the house more modern, eviscerating in the process whatever small charm it had once offered. The dim, airy side porch, providing a gradual and graceful entrance, had been demolished. Replacing it: three cement steps and a black iron rail that led straight into a narrow hall abutting a bathroom with a shower and washing machine, the tiles grey, the paint above them stark white.
When we heard Kay’s car drive up—the driveway was gravel and you could hear the gravel chips spin whenever tires pressed down on them—my mother sent me out to the side steps to greet our guests.
I wanted to rush out to the car and hug Kay, as I would have without thinking the year before, but I was nearly twelve, anticipating with an anxious delight the onset of puberty (I had a box of sanitary napkins in my closet just in case and I would take it out and hold it, like a jewel that had been willed to me but which I could not access until the moment of my majority). And so I just stayed at the steps, watching as Kay got out of the car.
Kay opened the door and came toward the steps; I was sad, as I had recently become whenever I saw Kay, that she was not good looking. Even the consolation-prize words—handsome, striking, would not apply. She was not ugly, but she had no feature that the eye would choose to fall on, although no single feature would have been thought of as “bad,” except perhaps for her “complexion”—a word that seems to have disappeared from the beauty lexicon but was paramount in the fifties, as was the condition that rendered hers a problem: “enlarged pores.” Her nose was a perfectly unforgettable size and shape; her mouth presented no problems; her teeth were perfectly straight and her lips neither too full nor too narrow. I have no memory of the color of her eyes; they were small and occluded by thick glasses. Her hair lacked luster; she wore it in a style that required no attention, having been cut in a generic way that suggested the hairdresser gave it no thought. I don’t remember her wearing any colors but grey, white, and beige. Her hands were lovely and well cared for—her nails, short but shapely, were polished with a clear varnish. She embodied a hyper-legible virginity that, in its clarity, was only just not aggressive.
She never wore makeup; my mother at least wore lipstick and “powdered her nose,” but in the seriously religious circle of my mother and her friends, attention to looks was frowned on, seen as a sign of superficiality, or worse, vanity, which among the scrupulous might be considered a venial sin. My incipient rebellion was an interest in hair and makeup; I smuggled Seventeen magazine and Mademoiselle into the house and hid them under my mattress as my male classmates might have hidden Playboy. I looked to them as a sailor in a fogged boat might have searched out a lighthouse. But nothing in my secret trove of magazines suggested anything that would have been any help to Kay in what was called “the looks department.”
I knew that she wasn’t beautiful, but I adored her. I trusted her as I trusted no other adult. She never spoke down to me and let me talk about my mother’s temper (at the first sign of a flare-up, she would intervene on my behalf, and if she thought I had transgressed, she mediated the severity of the punishment). She constantly urged my mother to provide me with outings, luxuries, access to things my mother considered me too young to enjoy. Unlike Kay, my mother hadn’t been to college, and she donned a humility otherwise unlike her, relying on her friend for anything that might have an impact on the life of my mind, which my mother, in a deeply touching inchoate way, respected, sharing my ambition for a larger life but knowing she had no skills to point me toward it.
I held the dog by the collar; he barked in a misleadingly menacing way when strangers approached, and we never knew who might be intimidated—perhaps the “Legion girl” might be.
“Hello, kiddo,” she said, and we kissed each other on the cheek: equals. There was a pause that seemed important before the passenger door opened and “the Legion girl” got out.
But she could not have been less of a girl. There was not one single girlish thing about her. She was tall and ideally thin. Her hair was black, her dress was black, her skin was olive, her eyes were outlined in dark pencil, her eyebrows thicker than what I had, until then, believed to be correct.
The pointed toe of her stiletto pumps pierced the gravel; she straightened herself up and shook herself like a horse getting out of a stream. She straightened the skirt of her black sheath dress. She took off her sunglasses. She patted her stiff high hair, which no breeze could have disarranged.
And the atmosphere was changed, changed drastically, as if she lived inside a smoky envelope, alluring and unclear, the unclarity rendering the clean lines of the house, the fences, and the trees inadequate, designed by someone who had been allowed primary colors only, and had never heard of shadows. She opened the envelope, inviting us to come inside, but it would be our choice and it didn’t matter much to her whether or not we joined her atmosphere.
Kay laid her hand on the woman’s shoulder and introduced her simply as Lisa.
I could see that my mother was frightened, and I had never before seen my mother frightened. “Take everyone into the living room,” she said, as though there were a crowd, not just Kay and her friend. “I’ll get lunch ready.”
It was another first: my mother loathed cooking, spent as little time in the kitchen as possible, and passed on to me any duties she could that related to her grudging preparation of meals. And besides, there was nothing really to get ready. Everything had been bought at our local deli: cold cuts, potato salad, coleslaw. There would be ice cream for dessert.
When I walked in the direction of the kitchen to take up my usual role of doing most of the mealtime work, my mother said, “No. No, just talk to the guests,” as if there had been a clutch of them, rather than just Kay and Lisa.
“How’s your summer going, kiddo?” Kay asked.