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.

I knew that she wasn’t beautiful, but I adored her. I trusted her as I trusted no other adult.

I told her I was taking a typing class, which I assumed she knew.

My mother had insisted upon it; her contempt for men contributed to her insistence. She had told me that because I was smart, I would never marry, because men didn’t like smart women. My father’s early death had given her respectable cover for her insistence that I be self-supporting. She had worked happily for forty years as a legal secretary and saw no other path to security than office work.

Abashed by what I perceived as Lisa’s stylishness, I desperately wished I had something better to offer as a summer’s occupation, that I were a little older and could say that I was working as an assistant at a magazine or an intern at a fashion house. Even a chain gang would have been preferable to the humiliating typing class.

Lisa sat on the couch, opened her pocketbook, and took out a pack of Parliament cigarettes.

“Would you have an ashtray?” she said.

I jumped up and ran to the china cabinet. I was appalled at the ashtrays on offer: they were all perks given out by some liquor company (my uncle owned a liquor store), except for the one in the shape of a foot, which was a gift from my mother’s podiatrist. I chose the least offensive of the group: a clear glass advertising some brand of vodka.

I was surprised to see Kay take out a package of cigarettes: hers were Kool.

Lisa watched Kay light up.

“You don’t know how to smoke. You don’t even inhale. I don’t know why you even do it. Or maybe I do—it’s so everyone won’t think you’re such a goody two-shoes. But they always will, so you shouldn’t even bother, you’re so bad at it. Or maybe you just do it because your mother would be so upset if she knew. I’m telling you: you are very bad at smoking.”

“How can anyone be bad at smoking? Or good at it?” Kay asked.

“I happen to be very good at smoking,” Lisa said.


She lit a cigarette, closed her eyes, took a deep inhale and blew the smoke out of her nostrils. Then she coughed, but the cough seemed theatrical, just something to mark the end of something, the transition to something new. She took another deep inhale and then blew one, two, three perfect smoke rings. And then she patted her stiff hair, stood up, straightened her skirt, and made a deep curtsy.

Kay laughed in a way that embarrassed me, because it seemed excessive, and I had never seen her excessive in anything. I could see how hard she was working to please Lisa, and I didn’t want her to work that hard; I didn’t think Lisa deserved it. I didn’t like that she called Kay goody two-shoes, that she uncovered the dark side of Kay’s relationship to her mother. But I knew I was the child in the room, and that the power in the room belonged to Lisa. I did know I was supposed to laugh, and I faked it, and disliked us all for what Lisa had made us do.

“So, Miss Kay Costello, you can just get off your high horse about my having no marketable skills. I could join the circus any time I want. I could become the Smoking Princess.”

Something in the air had changed, something untamed and not benign charged it now and I was frightened, as if some powerful machine had descended from the ceiling, sucking up any good possibilities. Lisa’s eyes were very hard. I had never seen such hardness in anyone’s eyes, and I was no stranger to familial cruelty directed at me and my mother by her brothers and sisters. But this was something else, something more dangerous, and yet exciting as family quarrels and insults could not possibly have been.

I didn’t know what I wanted to happen. What I thought should happen.

I saw that Kay hadn’t even the slightest impulse to defend herself or censure Lisa. Her face was relaxed and yet ungiving. I saw that she was in command, impenetrable, in charge.

“You’re getting into one of your states,” she said. Smoking deliberately as a way of pausing. “Remember you haven’t been out long.”

Lisa turned towards me with an unnecessary velocity.

“Out. You want to know where I’m out from. Well, I’ll tell you, you’re old enough. Kay says you’re really smart, she said you were wise beyond your years, so I’ll tell you. I just got out of a hospital. A hospital for drug addicts. Junkies. It’s supposed to be the best one in the world. It’s in Kentucky. Lexington, Kentucky. It’s very famous.”

I had no idea what to say. “I’m glad you got out,” I said, feeling the inadequacy of my response.

“The only good thing about it was that there were a lot of really great jazz musicians there, so there was terrific music all the time. I’m crazy about jazz. What kind of music do you like?”

She didn’t know that the question of what music I liked was a very vexed one. I knew that people my age liked rock’n’roll, were supposed to like rock’n’roll, but I did not. I had only one friend and part of our bond was that she didn’t like rock’n’roll either; like me, she was law abiding and comfortable with parents. We both adored musicals. It took all my moral fiber not to lord it over her that I had actually seen West Side Story. Every year Kay took my mother and me to see a Broadway show. Sylvia Greenburg, Kay’s colleague at the bank, had advised her to try to get tickets on one of the Jewish holy days: that way you had a chance at the best seats.

I never actually told my friend; I couldn’t afford to lose her. For a year, every time we were together, we would play the album of West Side Story; we had long ago memorized the songs and we would flip coins to see whose turn it was to be Maria and who would have to be Anita this go around. We got a transgressive pleasure from singing Anita’s songs but what we really craved was being able to belt out, “I Feel Pretty.”

I was relieved to be able to tell Lisa, truthfully, and with a certain pride, that I loved West Side Story.

West Side Story, that’s good, that’s good,” Lisa said, tapping the end of a cigarette on the dining room table. “It’s good. It’s real. It’s about life. Not all that moon June spoon crap like most musicals.”

I was terrified that Kay would let slip that I had loved The Music Man.

“Have you ever heard of Billie Holiday?”

I was ashamed that I hadn’t, but I knew better than to try to pretend with someone like Lisa.

“Of course you haven’t. I don’t know why I thought you would. But I want you to.”

She took a record out of the plastic bag. Sam Goody was the name on the bag.

“It was my reward for coming out here, or for something. Kay bought me these records at Sam Goody in Green Acres. She said we should come out here to Long Island because everything was cheaper…the sales tax or something.”

I can’t be sure what record or records Lisa took out of the bag, but in my memory, the picture on the cover shows Billie Holiday with slicked back hair, in profile. I was fascinated by the care with which Lisa handled the record. She held its outside rim with the palms of her hands, making sure that her fingers didn’t touch the inside.

We had recently bought a HiFi and I was proud of its size. I would have been mortified if Lisa had to play her record on our old Victrola, which looked like a cardboard suitcase.

The susurrating sound of the record lasted a few seconds, and then there were strings.

“You’re my thrill…. You do something to me.”

Something in the air had changed, something untamed and not benign charged it now and I was frightened, as if some powerful machine had descended from the ceiling, sucking up any good possibilities.

I hadn’t been sure from the picture on the cover of the record whether Billie Holiday was black or an American Indian, but from the first notes she sang, I knew. She was what we then called, thinking ourselves enlightened, a Negro.

Despite the reality of my having no real contact with black people, they had a vivid and constant presence in my imagination. Perhaps it was because I knew them only as images on television or in magazines, particularly Life. The only black person I had ever encountered was Jim, the school janitor, who never spoke, and I was always embarrassed when I passed him in the hall because he had had to clean up my vomit when I got sick in class, sprinkling it with a dark green powder that smelt as bad as the vomit.

But only a few months earlier, in the fall of 1960, I became obsessed with an image in Life magazine: a little girl, Ruby Bridges, walking alone into an elementary school in Little Rock, integrating it in the face of the mass desertion by whites, walking past the jeering, threatening white crowds. I began to fantasize about her. In my fantasy, I walk beside her; I hold her hand; I sit with her all day in school, helping her with her lessons. It is decided (I don’t bother filling in the details) that she will come home and live with me. Another bed is put beside mine, and one night, we take a knife, slit the skin of our index fingers, put them together, and swear each other blood sisters.

My other fantasy is that Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole invite me to dinner in the room where they sing on Nat’s TV show: it has a couch, a fireplace, a piano, and a painting of flowers. The dinner is my reward for having won an essay contest naming them the best singers in America. How I loved the two of them on that show…Ella so relaxed and good humored, Nat so elegant and suave, his cigarette smoke circling in the air in a perfect arabesque. They made me feel safe and comfortable, and yet exalted by being allowed in their company.

But on the Ed Sullivan Show, I see two black people who do not make me feel comfortable. Louis Armstrong embarrasses me; I want to tell him there’s no need to make a clown of himself, as he does when he sings “Old Rockin’ Chair’s Got Me” with Jack Teagarden, pretending to cower in fear when Teagarden sings, “or I’ll tan your hide,” because it is clear to me as soon as he plays that he is great, and I don’t know why that isn’t enough for him, and I want him to stop clowning.

And I am truly frightened by Eartha Kitt, who sings a song called “Monotonous.” I am convinced that she would like to use her long nails to scratch me, just because she can, because it is clear to me that she does not like anybody.

Billie Holliday is not plain scary like Eartha Kitt, but she’s not comforting like Ella Fitzgerald. “You’re my thrill…” and I am thrilled, but also disturbed and anxious because although the song was in English, I found it difficult to determine what the words really meant. “You’re my thrill,” so that must be a good thing, but what was that mocking tone behind it, as if whoever was being sung to was a fool to believe it? And then “where’s my will…” didn’t sound good, “strange desire” sounded dangerous, and anything like simple happiness was obviously out of the question.


Lisa closed her eyes and started dancing when the next song began. This time only a guitar accompanies Billie; her soulful voice sounds exhausted, reluctant. And when she says she longs, it’s hard to believe she has the energy for longing for anyone body and soul.

Lisa stands in front of Kay, too close, and she shakes her finger too close in front of Kay’s face. “Now I bet Father Dan and Sister Suzy Q or whoever gave you an A on all your report cards wouldn’t like that song because you’re supposed to save your soul for God. You think I don’t know that kind of stuff, but I do…I went to Catholic school don’t forget. And those sadist nuns and their rulers. The guards at the House of D were nothing compared to them.”

I feel like I’m learning something I need to know, but I don’t know what to do with the knowledge.

The next words Lisa says make me think she heard what I was saying in my mind, what I was saying about knowing, and I am thrilled because Lisa and I have shared a thought.

“So, the reason I love her so much, Billie, is that she knows, she knows everything, she knows about love, and she knows about hate, and she sees everything, which is why she was a junkie, because it was just too much, everything she knew, everything she saw. You don’t know about heroin, why should you, but I’ll tell you, it’s a killer, it killed Billie it will probably kill me.”

“No,” Kay said. “No, you’re going to kick it. I know girls that have…you know them, too.”

“Yeah, they kick it and they don’t. That’s how I met Kay, you know that, I mean you probably know that, you have to. She’d come into the prison, with those other ones with their toothpaste and their talcum powder, but she was different, we all knew that. She got it, she got something the others didn’t. What was that powder they were always bringing? Cashmere Bouquet? What a piece of crap that was.”

“I probably brought Cashmere Bouquet too. It was what everybody brought.”

“No, you brought Yardley’s lavender. There was a picture on the can of, like, people from long ago, women in long dresses and little girls in bonnets and pinafores. I loved the smell of it: it wasn’t too sweet. It was better than anything the others had. Much better. You must have known that.”

She turned so she was looking straight at me, fixing me with her hard eyes. “The others, they’d bring you talcum powder and toothpaste, but Kay was there when I got out. She met me; she helped me find an apartment, she helped me find a job. It’s a crap job but don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful. Do you know what my job is?”

“No,” I said, wondering if it was some kind of test, if it was something I was supposed to know.

“My boss is somebody Kay knows from the bank, somebody’s sister, she has this little store on the Lower East Side, crappiest neighborhood in the city, but who am I to talk, some of the places I’ve lived. She sells underwear and stockings. So, all day long I’m putting my hand in stockings so these women can tell what shade they want. I’m not allowed to wear rings or nail polish. But I’m not complaining. It’s better than working in an office. Anything’s better than typing some moron’s letters all day long.”

I wondered whether she’d remembered that I was taking typing that summer.

She looked at me as no one had ever looked at me before: and I felt proud of that look, proud to be on the receiving end of it.

“You need to know this, and you need not to forget it. Kay’s good. I mean she’s really good, not fake good, and not goody two-shoes like I said before. I just said that as a joke. I mean good. The only trouble with good people is they think they know what’s good for you, and she doesn’t necessarily, but she doesn’t believe that. She mixes up what’s good for her with what would be good for me. But I sound—well, I don’t want to sound like that—ungrateful, I mean. Because I am grateful. But I’ll probably let her down…she doesn’t know it, but I probably will. Because at the end of the day, I’m not worth much.”

I could see her becoming overwrought. Kay took her hands and held them. Lisa pulled them away with an unnecessary roughness.

“You don’t get it. You don’t get it. I’ll let you down. I always do. I’m not worth what you do for me.”

“God loves you, Lisa, and you are precious in His sight.”

“Was Billie precious in His sight? She was worth a lot more than I am.”

“God’s ways are mysterious. She had a priest at the end, he gave her the last rites and a funeral Mass. The church was full, there were lines outside all the way to the sidewalk.”

“Too little and too late,” Lisa said, lighting another cigarette.

My mother came in and said we should come into the kitchen for lunch,

“No, I think we’d better be going,” Kay said. “Lisa’s tired. She’s had a rough week.”

My mother didn’t try to talk her out of leaving. Not for a second, not the slightest little gesture of conciliation or regret. I was ashamed for her, and because I was her daughter, for both of us.


Kay never talked about lisa after that day, and I knew better than to ask. I don’t know when I learned that Lisa had died, but I must have been in high school because my mother used the word lesbian, knowing that I understood this meaning.

“Some girl she was living with—they were involved—I mean lesbian involved—she stabbed her to death with a kitchen knife. Kay hadn’t seen her for a while. She went back on drugs pretty soon. I think Kay learned a lesson from that, and a good thing in my opinion. I never liked her getting involved with that type. I was scared for her, and I’m sure they took her for a lot of money. And it was hard on her mother—she had a heart condition. I was glad when she quit the Legion.”

I was too involved in my own unfolding life to think much about Lisa. But I think of her now, of all of them: Lisa, Kay, my mother, all among the dead, Lisa dying violently, my mother lingering on in a fog of dementia for five miserable years before her heart stopped, Kay dying alone with my name in the drawer of her night table, indicating that I should be called in case of emergency, although for a decade at least I rarely saw her. I had moved three hours north of New York, married, and had children. With age, she grew increasingly garrulous, her long phone calls a trial and a bore. Sometimes I would tell my husband to say I wasn’t home when she called, and he—kinder, more patient than I—would listen to her with one ear as he paid bills or washed dishes.

My husband and I were the only people at Kay’s funeral except for the priest who said the Mass and the nun in the parish who was a pastoral counselor, part of whose work was visiting the old and sick. She asked if there was anything of Kay’s I wanted, and, looking through her apartment, there was not one thing I would have thought of bringing home. She had stripped her life to an anonymous bareness—I suppose I could have taken the crucifix that hung over her bed, but I asked the nun if she would like it and she said yes.

“I wish she’d been able to get more comfort from her faith in her last years,” the nun said. “She was a sad old woman. Bitter. Very much alone.”

I learned that Kay had left all her money to the Church.

It is another beautiful summer day. Today I am wondering why Kay brought Lisa to see us. Nothing about us—me, my mother, our house—would have been of the slightest interest to her.

I think Kay did it for me. I think she wanted me to see something, something that she knew was real and central to the truth of things, something she didn’t want for herself, but that she thought might contain possibilities for me, something she could only approach wearing the gilded armor of a Legionnaire. 

Published in the July/August 2023 issue: View Contents

Mary Gordon is the author of eighteen books, including Final Payments, Joan of Arc: A Life, Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels, and most recently the novel Payback.

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