It was 1972. Eighteen and newly a commuter student at Fordham University, a twenty minute walk from home, I walked the dark autumn streets with shoulders slumped, hands clenched deep in the pockets of my navy blue maxicoat with all the dark buttons marching militarily downward from my throat to my shins. I had bought the coat earlier that fall on sale at Alexander’s Department Store on Fordham Road. It made me feel beautiful and maybe a little bit sexy, covering the homemade grey wool minidress with the deep pockets that I had inexpertly sewn for myself.
As I trudged homeward, my long dark hair blew around my face, tangling into a knotty mass. I decided that I would roll my hair up in the giant pink rollers before I went to bed, if none of my sisters had swiped them while I was working my late shift at Loehmann’s. I toiled there as a stock girl, folding clothes and eyeing shoplifters. I was learning about the allure of designer labels, and the sense of entitlement that wafts around women who wear them. Loehmann’s was a discount store, but even with my employee discount, I seldom could afford to buy anything, although I did spend $25 on a lovely strand of Majorca pearls as a Christmas gift for Mom. Like Mom, I appreciated beautiful objects. Like Mom, I owned none. I was not very good at the job, the wages were minimal, but I had friends there, so I stayed.
There was another reason I stayed. I was avoiding becoming a thief. Since my sixteenth birthday, Mom had campaigned for me to work as a cashier at the A & P, so that I could liberate groceries and sundries on the sly. I stalled for months, hoping for an opening at Loehmann’s, leaping at an offer of part-time work, twenty hours per week, minimum wage, no benefits. Mom was outraged at my resistance, seeing it clearly as a rejection of her pirate code. Which it was, although I wasn’t brave enough to call her a thief to her face.
I was rapidly confirming my parents’ trepidation about how going to college would ruin me, that I would be corrupted by those crazy liberal Fordham Jesuits, by the wild debauchery of campus life. I worked part-time to cover my personal expenses, my tuition and school fees. I had argued them away from garnishing half of my paycheck, providing hours of unpaid housekeeping and childcare labor instead.
I was tired almost all the time. My parents fretted needlessly about my virginity, not knowing that particular ship had sailed months before. My heart had recently been broken by a boy, but I kept that to myself. I planned to never marry. I carried loneliness in my pocket wherever I was -- at home, school, work, out with friends.
My parents were right, though. College had changed me. I learned to drink wine and nibble cheese in French class on Friday afternoons, murdering syntax and accent with merriment as the wine loosened my inhibitions. I studied psychology and sociology, disappointed that both were more boring and shocking that I had expected. I learned a bit, but not enough, about social class, about the conceptual and lived distinctions that, for example, delineated middle class worldviews and aspirations. At school I read The New York Times in the library. I made a few new friends and chastely practiced flirting, although I didn’t date or go to parties that first semester. I grew less lonely. The world had shown itself to me, and I treacherously wondered how I had survived so long living with savages, my family. Everything I knew about them had shifted as if they were brightly colored bits of tissue paper captured within a kaleidoscope. I saw my parents with newly critical eyes. I found them embarrassing. I had become ashamed of them.
In November of that year, I cast my first ballot, cementing my new status as an adult. I queued with my parents, thrilled to vote, proudly wearing my McGovern button on my coat’s lapel. Pulling those levers brought me to patriotic tears, quickly wiped away inside the curtained booth before anyone could see. It was never wise to look vulnerable around my parents.
My father cast his vote right behind mine, exiting the booth with a swagger and a smirk. “I just cancelled out your vote,” he chortled. I wondered if he knew that he was cruel, or if he simply found his comment to be funny. He really enjoys the passive aggressive put-down, I realized, summoning up my new knowledge from psychology class. But I hadn’t yet thought of him as a jerk, so I just felt sad and embarrassed, an inversion of my annoyance turned loyally inward. I was never yet reckless enough to criticize my parents, not even in my secret thoughts.
My slow trudge that dark autumn evening was heavier than most, because a few weeks after voting with my parents, I exploded with frustration, my usual restraint eroded by exhaustion. “You have no class!” I shouted at my mother on Saturday morning in the kitchen. She stood stock still, her late-morning coffee cup tilting, her mouth agape. I had never once before let loose at her, had never deliberately ripped away her thin robe of respectability. I was immediately ashamed, but I did not take it back. I don’t know who witnessed my outburst, other than Mom. It didn’t matter, really. I didn’t have any class either.
I cannot remember if there was a legitimate trigger, but if there was, it might have been something as innocuous as being faced with a sink full of dirty dishes, my disheveled mother standing dazed in the kitchen, with her lit cigarette leaning precariously on the edge of an overflowing ashtray on the littered table. I wonder now if she was disappointed about how and why her own life was lived at that time, when she dreamed of wearing good leather shoes and a tailored red dress instead of her shabby housedress, of briskly managing a well-run office rather than this shambles of home and family.
My accusation was vicious -- for class, even only the illusion of classiness, meant a lot to Mom. I was too naïve, too angry to consider how far toward this elusive class she had travelled in her life, but there had been clues. She had told me, more than once, how, waiting for a date to arrive, she would patrol the apartment she lived in with her parents and younger siblings, tidying away any hint of shameful shanty Irish. She, in her aspirations, was lace-curtain, all the way, which included actual starched white lace curtains on our apartment windows. But when my mom was eighteen, Nana would find a way to strategically sling her girdle over a doorknob, making sure that Mom’s date could see it flapping from the vista at the apartment’s front door. With those four irritated syllables, I had confirmed the lie to her imagined escape from that dangling girdle, as if I were screaming “shanty, low-class girl.”
After I said it, I felt ashamed, but allowed my irritation to be the dominant emotion. I slammed the door, stomping down the dark winding staircase in a purple cloud of pique. Stalked the six blocks to Loehman’s, reviewing all my dissatisfactions. Punched in and began to work, surrounded by penurious workers and affluent customers. Tried to tune out the Muzak. Convinced myself that I was superior to my mother, and that I deserved a more gracious home.
By 9:30, I was exhausted, and by 10 pm I started walking slowly homeward. I was ready for a long night of recriminations. I was not penitent, but I dreaded the inevitable payback. I half expected to be ejected from the family, put out on the street to fend for my haughty high-class self. Maybe that was what I wanted to happen. I didn’t really know what I wanted, not yet.
When I slowly pushed open the apartment door, I tensed, expecting anything but what greeted me. My sister AnneMarie, 13 years old, her large green eyes lit with merriment, her nascent beauty peeking through her rambunctious blond curls, was buzzing around, clearly happy to see me. She was clad in her pajamas and fuzzy bathrobe, still more child than young woman, thrilled to be included on whatever it was that was about to occur. She was giggling. I allowed her to parade me into the living room. Passing the kitchen on that short trip, I noted that it gleamed, entirely tidy. No overflowing bags of garbage, no dishes in the sink. The living room smelled of Pledge, and the lamps cast a soft warm glow. This was not the flophouse I left ten hours before. AnneMarie was the only one of my seven siblings in the room that evening. The three youngest children were in their beds, asleep, the other teenagers out with friends.
“Sit down”, said my father, who, for some unknown reason was grinning, as he pointed to the sofa. I sat, wordless. I spotted my small tape recorder on the coffee table and became momentarily annoyed. I need that for school, I silently fumed, ready to complain. But I was not given the opportunity. Mom, looking stern but composed, leaned over me. I noticed that she had showered and put on her favorite red lipstick and a clean housedress. She put down her cigarette, and began a prelude to the show. “So, you think that we have no class. Listen to this.” I had no idea what would be coming next. AnneMarie pushed the play button.
“Ribbet. Ribbet. Ribbet,” AnneMarie’s voice chanted. I was confused, which apparently was exactly the right response. All three were now wriggling with suppressed hysteria. Then AnneMarie’s alto wafted outward from the machine, narrating a tale of froggy love in a swampy patch of a far-away forest. Mom’s glorious soprano sang out, “When I’m calling you-oo-o” in her best Jeanette McDonald tribute, and I struggled to hold a stiff, angry posture. Dad joined in, echoing Nelson Eddy, his baritone deeper and less tuneful than that operetta star. I struggled to find a stiff dignity as they warbled their duet, a comic love song sung with utmost sincerity. Is this supposed to humble me, or is it a peace offering?” I wondered. The fifteen-minute opus croaked to its finale, a happy one in which lovers unite and frogs rejoice.
I was chagrined that this operetta was so perfect in its send-up of imagined high-brow entertainment, aware that it had bested me. I readied to let loose a barrage of harrumphs and “You never take me seriously.” But what burst out of my mouth was laughter.
I laughed with relief that this was the consequence of my pique. I laughed because I was spared from an angry harangue. We didn’t speak of shame -- neither my mother’s nor my own. We didn’t speak of the chaos now tamed. I laughed because they were so proud that they not only had class, but also brains and stealth and talent. Unworthy of their efforts, I might also have laughed because I allowed myself to believe that they were lowly bumpkins, showing off for the true college-girl sophisticate in the family.
Patricia Calderwood is a Professor Emerita of Educational Studies and Teacher Preparation at Fairfield University. Now retired from faculty, she is pursuing an MFA in creative non-fiction writing at Fairfield University. If accepted, The Frog Opera would be her first published creative essay.