I’ve been writing this story for months, or years, depending on how you define “write.” I write and delete, write and delete, until the story’s in tatters. There’s so little left. But it took all that unwriting to figure out that this story is about the telling. And this is how it begins:
When my grandfather died, nearly 30 years ago, my father received a box of newspaper clippings, college diplomas, and curling black and white photographs that never found their way into an album. In these photos my father is not my father: he’s just another little boy made to smile for the camera.
In this box there is a yellowed letter, written just after the 1960 Presidential election, as my father was finishing up his first semester of law school. The letter details his experiences working as a poll watcher in Philadelphia’s 16th ward:
In this letter my father laments how sections of the 16th ward were “herded into the polls” by various political bosses, and as a result, my father writes “Jack took the state.” Even though Nixon lost to “Jack,” my father didn’t see the day as a complete waste. His sharp eye for misconduct and willingness to scrap with Philly’s political machine caught the eye of the aforementioned Ossen, whom my father describes as a “real live political boss”:
The letter is signed this way:
But before my father takes Ossen’s advice and runs (and loses) in his bid for political office — before all that it was 1961. Jack was sworn into office and, soon after that, my grandmother died of cancer. My grandfather’s grief was so unmanageable, my Mom tells me, that my father took a year off from law school in order to tend to him. This story — of my father caring for his own father — surprises me: he was never very good with sick things. When I had the flu, it was my mother putting cool hands on my forehead and rinsing the puke buckets with Lysol. It was my mother who brought me flat ginger ale and made a fuss, not my father. Except for once.
When my brother and I were 13 and 8 respectively, my parents brought us to New York City to see Starlight Express (that’s right, Starlight Express) capped off with an extravagant post-show meal at Tavern on the Green, because if children love one thing, it’s fine dining. The wait for our food was interminable and my fancy dress, last worn at my brother’s bar mitzvah a few months back, was scratchy in the summer heat. Realizing their folly, my parents didn’t fuss when I ate all of the bread on the table — anything to keep me quiet. I even ate the day-old fruit bread, sticky and sweet, and the culprit, according to the white-suited doctor who came to our hotel room later that night, of my violent food poisoning. By the time my meal arrived, the toxins had already started their work. I pushed my plate aside, cooling my cheek on the glass dinner table.
“What’s wrong with you?” my mother scolded, “We’re in a nice restaurant!” I got up from the table and dashed to the bathroom but halfway there I lost control and vomited all over the slate dance floor. Kitten-heels and leather Florsheims parted like the Red Sea. I also threw up outside the hastily-hailed taxi cab and again in the tall ashtrays in the lobby of the Milford Hotel. I was sick all the next day, too, but I remember one thing made me feel better: my father holding me tight on the train platform in Penn Station. It’s the only time I can recall having my father care for me when I was sick. But, still, he did a good job.
After one year of caring for my mourning grandfather, my mourning father returned to his law studies with a renewed desire to make something of himself, or at least to make something more of himself than his father had. My grandfather was a civil servant in the Navy Depot, and proud of it, as evidenced by the many photographs he saved and labeled with names and dates: Louis shaking hands with the 2nd Lieutenant at the William Penn Hotel, Louis smiling as the Admiral presents a check of $570.00 to the local USO affiliate, Louis at the Civilian Personnel Division Picnic, giving Miss Emma Lambing lessons in how to pose for the bathing beauty contest.
My mother tells me my father was always a little ashamed of his modest upbringing — that he could never understand why his college-educated father wasn’t more ambitious with his career, so happy to work for a small government salary, back pats from Admirals, and pool parties with Miss Emma Lambing . He also resented that my grandparents took in boarders for extra cash, renting out one of the twin beds in my father’s room to down-on-their-luck men. Once my father sassed off to one of these men and the enraged man chased my father around and when he finally caught him? My father spit in his face.
I try to imagine what my father was thinking as he lay in his bed at night, a strange man breathing there in the dark with him, and how frightened he must have been. I wanted to ask him about it, but my Mom said, “He doesn’t like to talk about it.” We did not talk about it.
What my father did talk about, though, was the day my mother, a tall, blonde shiksa from Pottsville, went for an after-work drink with her teacher friends. He saw her from across the room and smiled in his sharp, navy-blue suit. “Who’s the blonde?” he asked. “Sally Shellhammer,” they said. Everything before that, though, is spotty. The transmission doesn’t come through.
We never asked my father about his past but it existed, stubbornly, anyway. Of the few stories I have, there is one I like best of all, maybe because it involves me and maybe because it involves murder: it’s the story of Marla  and it’s a doozy. In the early 70s, in the city where I was born, there weren’t enough Public Defenders to go around, so private lawyers were often asked to do pro bono work. This is why my father was appointed as Marla’s defense attorney, by the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas, after she was charged with murdering her husband’s mistress.
Here’s what happened: one summer night, Marla was sitting at home, sewing (this detail is important), when she was informed that her husband was at the bar around the corner with another woman. Marla grabbed her purse (also important), ran to the bar, and found the couple seated on some barstools. As she argued with her husband, Marla reached into her purse and was surprised to discover that her sewing scissors were inside. As Marla stood there, sewing scissors in hand (and confused as to how they had gotten there), the mistress stood up from her barstool, tripped, and fell forward.
According to my mother, my father told the jury that Marla had not intended to stab anyone: when the mistress fell, she just happened to land on Marla’s scissors. Thirteen times. He pointed out that the wounds were unintentional and shallow. But, unfortunately, one of those shallow wounds was in her lungs. Had the ambulance arrived sooner, my father argued, the victim might have lived. Instead her lungs filled with blood and the mistress asphyxiated on the barroom floor, surrounded by the Saturday night crowd. This defense seems hard to believe but Marla was charged with manslaughter — not murder — and served just 4 years in the women’s prison. But this is not the amazing part of the story.
Prison agreed with Marla. During her brief incarceration she became a devout Seventh Day Adventist and spent her days making small dolls out of clothespins, which my father would bring home to my mother. It’s hard for me to imagine my father, younger than I am now and still thin, going to visit Marla in jail. But he did. Stranger still: the image of my parents eating dinner, discussing Marla, and her case, and her dolls. This image is a yellowed photograph in my mind: the two of them sitting at the red picnic table in the yellow kitchen in the house where I grew up, even though they wouldn’t buy that house for another few years. But still, I see them sitting there. I think they’re holding hands.
My father was so taken with Marla that he offered her a housecleaning job after she served her sentence. Soon after that he and my mother agreed that Marla would make a fine baby nurse for their new little girl. Marla took the job: she slept on a cot in my nursery for the first two weeks of my life, changing my diapers and feeding me formula.
The first time my parents told me the truth about Marla, I was incredulous: “You hired a murderess to take care of your infant daughter?” My father’s reply was always: “It was manslaughter, not murder,” or, “You really are prejudiced, you know. Against murderesses.” I think he deflected my questions with humor because this story — concrete evidence of a momentary lapse  in his “staunchly GOP” ideology — embarrassed him, like getting too drunk at a party and saying something that’s true and painful at the same time.
I don’t actually remember Marla since she took another job when I was very young. I can’t even conjure up an image of her face, just her soft calves, which I would sometimes hug on the waxy kitchen floor. At least I think I used to do that. In college I wrote a poem about Marla and her soft calves — it was a sestina — and maybe now the writing’s created its own memory ? One memory I’m certain is true is of the telephone ringing in that same yellow kitchen, one day, when I was around 5 years old. My mother beckoned:
“Come here, Marla wants to talk to you. She saw your picture in the newspaper!”
“Marla. You know, Marla. She took care of you when you were a baby?”
I took the receiver:
“Amanda,” she cried, “you’re in the newspaper! I said ‘My baby’s in the newspaper!’ and I had to call.”
This conversation with Marla made me feel loved and important. I did not yet know that she was a murderess.
If you haven’t already noticed, I’m also a character in the story I’m telling right now. I play the part of the good Republican daughter raised by Republicans. I said that my father tried — and failed — in his political ambitions. My mother, on the other hand, tried — and succeeded — in her bid for Register of Wills, then County Commissioner, then Chairman of the Board of Commissioners. My father enjoyed my mother’s success as if it were his own. He encouraged her and pushed her. “Klein, get into politics like me and go places,” he must have said to her. They were good Republicans.
Throughout those early days of my mother’s political career, I was a good Republican too. I posed for family photos and attended county fairs in places with names like Gratz and Berrysburg. I hung back and was dragged forward again to smile in the outfit my mother picked out for me the night before. I played my part well until the age of 16, when I became a vegetarian. This was their first clue. The second clue came when I turned 18 and I registered as an Independent.
“But you can’t even vote in the primary!” my parents protested.
“So I should be a Democrat then?”
“And break your mother’s heart?” my father asked, genuinely, because the word itself was an affront.
From that time forward there were many lengthy and uncomfortable political debates with my family. The irony of these battles is that my “political” choices and acts were so minimal: I wasn’t changing shit. I was just a Democrat who didn’t eat meat and listened to Ani DiFranco. But in my home, with my family, I was Jane Fonda on the tank.
My father, especially, could not understand how I had ended up so different from him, and from the rest of our family. He found my decision to go to graduate school especially confounding. Why, when I could easily go to law school, just as he did and my brother did (and my brother’s wife too), would I choose academia? He expected an upward trajectory: his parents took in boarders, he took his kids to Tavern on the Green, and I go to law school. “Or at least a job that, you know, helps people ,” my mother liked to/continues to say. I remember visiting my parents during the fall break of my senior year of college and assembling graduate school applications—for a PhD in English—on the dining room table. It was my life’s work condensed into twelve piles of black and white. My father assessed the scene before him and asked, quite seriously, “So when are you scheduling your LSATs?”
This story began with my grandfather’s box of mementos, which I’m looking through now, for stories about my father. It’s filled with photographs of friends and relatives whom I’ll never meet when they were young and smiling on the Atlantic City boardwalk, but my grandfather’s sloping script tells me their names: Goldye, Utie, Julius. I repeat them in my head like a mantra: Goldye, Utie, Julius.
Digging through the box, I find a picture of my Dad and his grandmother. I learn her name is Minerva. “I think they called her ‘Minnie,’” Mom tells me, but she doesn’t look like a Minnie. We’re both surprised by how much my Dad looks like my son, though that shouldn’t be surprising. We’re doing the same work, my mother and I, snapping the pieces together before they float away. I show her the pictures I find in the box, of her mother, my Nana — so lovely in pin curls — and she tells me another story. I add it to the pile, I’ll use it.
My mom only knows so much. These aren’t her stories — they’re my father’s and now they’ll stay untold. So I’m crafting my own story out of scraps of paper so old and thin I can feel them disintegrating in my fingers. I write faster. Then I delete, revise, rearrange. The story’s still not right. But when I put them all together, I’ve built something. My own precious artifact. I hold it in my hands, press its smoothness against my cheek — like my mother’s hands during a fever, like the cool glass at Tavern on the Green, like Marla’s warm calves on the kitchen floor — and I put it in the box.
 My mother tells me “I was the best shiksa in town.”
 Marla’s name and certain other personal details have been changed for this story.
 Of breastfeeding in the mid-1970s, my mother assures me “It just wasn’t done”.
 Why does this story represent a lapse in my father’s worldview? Because my father was a Goldwater Republican from way back who opposed the concept of second chances; his favorite refrain was “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
 Ben Dolnik writes in “My Crush with Celebrity”: “Because one of the strangest things I’ve learned about being a fiction writer — particularly one who has been known to write autobiographically — is how the things you write begin to blend with, and then replace, the things you experienced.”
 My mother insisted that they call her “Chairman,” never “Chairwoman” and never “Chairperson” because, she tells me, “That’s just stupid.”
 These professions include: lawyers, medical doctors, and politicians.
I’ve liked all the stories that you all have done this summer (and I like to see PhDs doing creative non-fiction), but this is by far my favorite.
Thanks KS! It’s a little unnerving writing creative nonfiction when I am accustomed to mostly academic writing. So thanks for the kind words!
I love this story so much and was struck by how much the 3 yo looks like your dad. I love this line: “I wasn’t changing shit. I was just a Democrat who didn’t eat meat and listened to Ani DiFranco. But in my home, with my family, I was Jane Fonda on the tank.” I love the images…just everything.
There’s lots to love here. Like, my mom breastfed me in the 70s, and from what I hear, that was indeed considered strange. And realizing you are now older than your parents were whenever they did such and such. I had that thought looking at a photo of my mother with four children, realizing I am now older than she was then. But most lovely is the bit about trying to put pieces together to understand someone but never quite grasping it. My father is still with me, yet I feel like I can’t quite crack the code of his childhood. Course, our family has its own stories that no one will discuss–isn’t it funny how they do that? Do you have any stories you won’t tell your children? Must be generational… you could develop a whole series on being the children of boomers, and trying to understand their secrets.
Great story Amanda. You looked so cute as a baby and already kicking ass!
Thanks Karen, for the thoughtful comment. Yes, seeing photos of them as “adults” and then knowing they were younger than I am now is always mind blowing. My father’s side of my family history is quite spotty since he was an only child and then loads of people died, and there was a falling out between some members of his family. I remember visiting my father’s aunt Rose (his mom’s sister) in the nursing home one time and we wheel her past this other old woman and I see that they both scowl at each other. So then I ask my Mom “What was that?” My Mom says “Oh that’s Rose’s sister. They hate each other.” I said “You mean they’re both about to die and they still won’t speak to each other?” It was also odd because this was my other great aunt, who I never knew, because the aunt we did talk to didn’t like her. Ah family.
My favorite so far!
Amanda, I loved your story and I know I would have loved your folks. You write beautifully. Keep it up. This is the day that Dutch Leonard died. Lots of memories for all of us from him.
I finally read it! Loved it! My mom said the same thing about breastfeeding in the mid-1970s! And yes, I see J in your dad. Wow. Great story.