Monday, February 8, 2021

What we're writing: Hallie unearths a personal essay

HALLIE EPHRON: I was still working a day job, evaluating programs and writing marketing copy for high tech companies, when I set my sights on becoming a writer. Storytelling doesn't come naturally to me, so I began (as so many of us do) writing personal essays. By then my parents were both dead so I could write about them with impunity, and a number of my early essays were about my mother who was... complicated.

Here's a revision of one of the first pieces I wrote about her. I submitted it to an anthology, and when it was accepted I was overjoyed. Revisiting it today, of course all I can see are flaws. I wrote it as if it really happened but the details are mostly made up. Backfilled, as it were, fit into place. Is that cheating? Can a piece purporting to be memoir be filled with details that the author makes up to suit some sense of what really happened?

The other problem with the piece, according to my much more critical brain today, is the ending.

And so I invite you please to weigh in. Am I right that this ending isn't working, and if you have any brilliant ideas for alternate finishes, please chime in.

NICE ENOUGH FOR ALL NORMAL PURPOSES

My mother grew up in the Bronx and didn’t learn to drive until she moved to Los Angeles in her thirties. Transplanted to an endless suburb defined by the automobile, the only place she drove to regularly was a nearby beauty salon. She drove slowly, intently, clutching the wheel like a life preserver and peering over it, as if afraid that if her attention flagged for an instant, the car would take off without her. She kept one foot planted on the brake pedal while she pumped the gas with the other.

Like her car--a white Thunderbird, a two-seater with bucket seats and a portholed roof--her style of mothering precluded carpooling. She prided herself on having little in common with my friends’ mothers, or with women in general for that matter. She once told a New York Times reporter, “I’ll kill you if you describe me coming out of the kitchen with flour on my hands and sitting down and writing funny lines I don’t go in the kitchen very often except for ice cubes for a drink. We have a cook for the cooking and a nurse for the children. I’ve been a full-time screenwriter since 1943 and put in a full day in the office.”

She wasn’t big on hugs or cuddles, or even pats on the back. If I asked her if I was pretty or smart, for example, her stock response would have been: “Enough for all normal purposes.”

I traveled with her once, and although my three sisters and father must have been there, in my memory it’s just her and me. I’m about twelve years old we’re at LAX waiting for our flight to New York. I’m dragging a wool coat, bought specially for the trip. My mother carries a coat too--a mid-calf length swirl of black cashmere.

Her legs hiss against each other each time she crosses or uncrosses her legs. She snaps open a black leather handbag and pulls out a compact. Peering into the mirror, she quickly runs the powder puff over her nose. Then she brushes her fingers through her hair on one side, pushing the short dark curls up and away from her face. She puts away the compact and applies red lipstick. I’m fascinated that she can paint her lips entirely by feel. She seems completely self-absorbed, but when I reach down to scratch an itch, she stiffens in disapproval, raises an eyebrow in my direction, clears her throat, and gives her head a tiny shake.

On the plane, I grip the arms of my seat as the plane accelerates down the runway, faster and faster until it lets go and rises. As the plane banks and straightens and we clear a thick layer of amber-tinted smog, my stomach flip-flops. I gingerly touched the edge of my porthole-sized window and watch as everything on the ground turns miniature . My mother is leaning back, eyes closed, her mouth set in a grim line. She hates to fly. During the flight, she picks at her meal, drinks Scotch on the rocks, and tucks two more single-serving bottles into her purse.

We take a cab to the Algonquin Hotel in the heart of the theater district. I fidget in a prickly red chair while my mother checks us in and then drifts through the dark-paneled lobby, lingering in front of framed photographs and clippings on the wall. She pauses at an open doorway near the back and motions to me to join her. I peek into a vast, dark, dining room.

"There," she says in a hushed tone. She gestures toward a large table covered by a dark green cloth with a plaque in the center of it. "That’s the Round Table.” She smiles. “Your father and I once ate there. I sat beside Dorothy Parker."

I have only a vague idea who Dorothy Parker is but I know she’s a writer, like my mother, and my mother must have dined here when the hit play she and my father wrote was running on Broadway. I’ve never met another lady writer. I examine the empty chair, as if it might reveal some secret truth about a woman whom my mother doesn’t dismiss with a snort and a witty aside.

"Does she have children?" I ask before I realize the question has even formed itself.

My mother barks a laugh. "God forbid!"

The next day, we go out to see the city. I tag along feeling unbearably unsophisticated and uncomfortable in my East Coast coat as my mother strides up Fifth Avenue. Her clothes that seem so stiff and off-putting in Los Angeles are exactly right in New York. Disencumbered of a car, she moves with agility through the crowds, oblivious to the car horns and bus exhaust. I cling to her as we race across intersections against the traffic lights, terrified that we’ll be arrested for jaywalking.

We stroll through Saks Fifth Avenue, FAO Schwartz, and Tiffany’s. In Delman’s, I perch on a white brocade-covered chair while she tries on pumps. We walk through the lobby of the Plaza Hotel, past arched doorways framed by potted palms. I check out the Oak Room where Eloise hung out. I inhale the perfumed wake of fur-coated ladies and watch uniformed porters soundlessly push piles of luggage across plush carpet.

Then we head across 59th street to Rumplemeyers, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor opposite Central Park. I follow her, pushing through the revolving door and into a cool, malt-scented interior. I tuck into a hot fudge sundae while my mother sips coffee, light and sweet. She lights a cigarette and takes a deep inhale, tilts her head back and shoots a stream of smoke towards the ceiling.

"You like New York a lot, don’t you?" I say.

She’s quiet for a moment. "I do," she replies, taking another quick drag and exhaling. "It’s home."

I hunker down over my ice cream as the words sting. If home is here, then what’s the place I call home?

"And what’s your opinion, Madam?" she asks with mock formality. "Do you think it's nice?"

I can't remember my mother ever posing a question like this, asking how I feel about something that matters to her. I wonder if I could ever feel as comfortable as she obviously does in this place where everyone seems so smart, chic, and impatient. I want to prolong the moment, savor the intimacy as I try to imagine myself here without her pulling me in tow.

Twenty years later, long after my mother's death, I take my daughter to New York. We stroll through Saks Fifth Avenue, FAO Schwartz, and Tiffany’s. We eat hot fudge sundaes at Rumplemeyers, and I show her the Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel where my mother dined beside Dorothy Parker. I think of New York as a legacy, something I can pass on to the granddaughter my mother never met. To me, it was what she had to give.

75 comments:

  1. Goodness, I enjoyed reading that, Hallie, but, to be honest, it also makes me feel rather sad . . . .
    I like the idea of passing it on to the granddaughter and don’t think there’s anything particularly “wrong” with the ending; I think it just feels sort of abrupt . . . .

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  2. I think this is a lovely and beautifully written piece of reminiscing. I am hesitant to change or advise on writing done by someone as talented as you, Hallie. However, starting with “I think of New York as a legacy,” skip the “I think,” as that sounds a little more tentative than what your feelings are. Go ahead and say, “New York is the legacy that my mother left me, the truest part of her that she shared with me. It is the essence of my mother that I can pass on to the granddaughter my mother never met. And, to my mother, I whisper across the years, it is more than nice enough. It is the stuff of hearts passing on the love.” Or, of course, that last needs some playing with.

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    1. Wow! That’s so terrific!! ESP “it is more than nice enough”

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    2. I really like Kathy's suggestions, too.

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    3. I'm responding late. So sorry, Hallie. I've gotten caught up with some stuff today. I'm glad you like what I wrote, and Edith and Liz, too. I am so far out of your league that it was hard for me to suggest anything.

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    4. Hallie, I agree with your friend Kathy. I too had a Mom take me around her NYC. We were 14. Crazy cab rides, the LIncoln Ctr but not to the Bronx , her childhood. Now I go annually to visit my daughter living there, share about the grandmother she never knew. Mom died when we were 33! Many similarities in our childhood, we never knew!

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  3. Hallie, I love it. It is impossible to tell that parts were made up. Your mother may have shared stories of NYC that made you feel like you'd done those things.

    My mother was also a New Yorker. She loved the city and it truly was home to her. She was too ill to really show it to me but we spent almost every school vacation there. My grandmother and my aunt took me lots of places but I never felt like it was my home.

    Kathy suggests an ending that expands on yours. Is that where you think this essay should go.

    I enjoyed meeting you in The Back Room. It was a very interesting group of authors.

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    1. The events are genuine but what she actually said or wore precisely ... and of course it’s unlikely that we were alone together

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  4. I liked it very much......I wonder though, what would have happened if you had closed on the image of the ice cream cold like your mother? and wondering what your best answer would be.

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    1. That actually feels possible- I’m going to try it... thanks

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  5. Don't change a word.
    Love you

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  6. I love this, too. The details evoke the emotions. I also felt sad for little Hallie.

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  7. Wonderful piece. Memoirs are complicated and difficult, because, as you point out so honestly, our memories are not simple. Or complete. In this case, you've filled in the gaps brilliantly. I thought it was interesting (telling?) that you chose not to tell the reader how you responded to your (fascinating) mother's question.

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    1. Ha! Good observation!! I’ve written it six ways to Sunday - responding and not trying to find the sweet spot

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    2. Reading your answer now, Amy. Yes, that's what I said below, too! xxx

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    3. Agree. I've met you at a writer's conference and I know how warm you are and how generous with your time. I'm yearning for more of you in the story.

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    4. Agree. I've met you at a writer's conference and I know how warm you are and how generous with your time. I'm yearning for more of you in the story.

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  8. Hallie, it is full of raw emotion. I think that’s what the ending needs ❤️

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  9. It's fine. Maybe an image of you and your daughter and granddaughter in NYC? Mary McCarthy expanded and contracted the "truth" in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (remember Tin Butterfly?) Memoir isn't a factual reiteration. Your emotions are front and center, the details precise.

    And your essay provoked memories of taking my older daughter to NYC when she was about eight--Eloise's portrait at the Plaza, FAO Schwartz, and the Monet paintings at MOMA. Guess what? She and her husband visit NYC at least once a year because she fell in love with the place as an eight year old.

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  10. It's a lovely piece and very evocative of the time and place. You've gotten some wonderful suggestions to massage the ending. Work with them and see what works best for your essay.

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  11. I was there with you and felt very sad for you. Well done.

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  12. And my daughter lives there now - in Brooklyn where my husband grew up... it’s so different now. Rumplemyers and fao schwartz and delmans all gone

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  13. This was so engaging!

    I am hesitant to state an opinion, as I am clearly unqualified. I feel even more so after seeing Kathy Reel's insights. But my reaction was that the very last paragraph wasn't where there was an issue-- it was the one before that. It just didn't flow well after all that came before. I'd like to see that paragraph tightened up and end in a way that makes it a more natural break to jump ahead 20 years.

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  14. I think it is just fine as it is. Of course you could do it (end it) several other ways and they would be fine too!

    I'm thinking about your mother - do you know if she ever got to the point where she was happy she had children? That may be too intrusive a question so don't feel you have to answer.

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    1. I’m sure she was glad she had daughters - no doubt at all about that - and she would have known even less what to do with a boy

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  15. I like it, Hallie. And I can't tell what parts are made up.

    I also see what you mean about the ending. It needs...something. As is, it's a little flat. I can't think of what that something is (at least not at the moment), though.

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  17. Before I lose my train of thought, Hallie, in this pandemic fog--the last sentence of the next to last paragraph--you want to prolong the moment, your mother asking you for your opinion--so the end of that sentence doesn't seem to fit. And the last paragraph--I would just omit the twenty years later beginning. It breaks up the flow for me. "Long after my mother's death"--you're older, you have a child, you're in a sense recreating that moment with your daughter. As a demonstration of that legacy, would you turn to your daughter and ask her "Isn't this nice?"

    I love the essay and its melancholic tone fits this gray cold morning perfectly.

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  18. Hallie, this is amazing, and I think compiling events or moments of your mother into one piece makes for a greater truth than just an account of "what we did on our trip to New York."

    Readers are saying they feel sad for little Hallie, but this also makes me feel sad for your mother. This makes me feel the terrible strain of trying to have a genuine, consuming career in an age when the cultural pressure for women to stop any serious work and be wives and mothers was enormous and inescapable. And then her career requires her to leave home and move to an alien city. I remember the first times I visited southern California. To an East Coast girl of 24, it seemed like a different country, something only tangentially connected to the US I knew. I felt that all over again, reading this.

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    1. How fortunate we are today that most of us don't have to make those choices. Though in the time of Covid it's the mothers who are usually the ones who have had to step off the career elevator.

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  19. Hallie, I was riveted from the very first sentence. You do not give yourself enough credit for the wordsmithing you've done. Your prose makes the memories come to life - the red lipstick applied by feel, walking in the draft of perfumed fur-coated ladies, the desire to prolong the moment you have your mother's full attention - brilliant! Your mother comes across as the force of nature that she clearly was, and the complexity of your relationship with her is the lens through which we see her. You did come to love New York, too, though, didn't you? Is that the piece that is missing? I think the direction Kathy pointed you in was on point.

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    1. Maybe that's exactly what's missing. Yes, I ended up going to college in Manhattan and lived on 98th st and West End Ave for a number of years before moving to New England. I'd have stayed if... lots of things if.

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  20. I think it's a lovely essay, and I think the conclusion works just fine--sad, understanding, making lemonade out of a complicated relationship. Your mother really comes to life in my mind as I read it: an intelligent woman fighting to be recognized for her talents in a world she finds hostile. Let it be. It's fine.

    I had to laugh at the part about her driving. My mother got her first drivers license by paying a quarter at the DMV. No test. It was mostly an ID for her. She didn't learn to drive for another 25 years. Then she spent months just driving down the driveway and backing in again. Never turned the car around in the back yard by the detached garage (there was room) or taking it around the block to practice stops and turns. She eventually did get out and drive, but always kept to the back roads and residential streets. So funny.

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    1. Gigi, my mother never drove until my father died. I was 13 at the time and we lived in the midwest, so she pretty much had to then. She never liked driving and was so grateful when I turned 16 so she wouldn't have to drive me around anymore. Other parents tried to delay their children's driving -- my mom couldn't get me licensed fast enough!

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    2. I was still in grade school when my mother got a teaching job in a small town and realized she would have to actually learn to drive. It was years before I could take over the driving chores, but once I got my license, I was the long-haul driver when we had to take highways to visit my grandparents.

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    3. Theee make me laugh! My mother hated making a left turn. She'd drive right, right, right around teh block to avoid making a left. Good thing she was living in a city ruled off into rectangular blocks.

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  21. Hallie, what a lovely piece of writing. I think it's perfectly fine that not everything is perfectly "true"--I suspect essayists often pick and choose the details that will bring a story or character to life, and you have done that beautifully. I think the ending is fine, too. I think if you expand on it, you'll lose some of the emotional force. The only tiny thing I might suggest is to cut the "twenty years later", as Flora suggested. I think the sentence has more impact without it.

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    2. Thank you, Hank! I was wondering the same thing...how did you answer her?

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    3. Yes, because the answer could be incorporated into the ending "present" paragraph. ANd there would be the theme!

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    4. Honestly, I can't remember. I've tried to imagine different responses.
      Great idea, Hank. That's what it needs is a wrap-up.

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    5. May I make one other suggestion? Would your mother have used the word "nice" to describe New York? If she did -- never mind! But somehow it seems to me she'd ask something crisper and a little more freighted, along the lines of "So, how do you like my New York?"

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  23. I like this essay. The image and feeling of the child being tugged across the street against the light - I still hesitate crossing in the middle of the block, where there is no crosswalk so I understand young Hallie's thoughts, fears.

    I am so not the person to critique but you did ask. What if the last two sentences were put together. New York being being the legacy your mother have to you to share with your daughter, the granddaughter she would never know. Or something like that. Maybe.

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  24. I liked your essay very much. Your mom was a fish out of water in L.A. And let's face it, a successful career woman/mom was not the norm anywhere in those times. I'd like to know your answer to her question. I think you could tighten up the last paragraph while posing the same question to your daughter.

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  25. HALLIE, Oh, my goodness, “Enough for all normal purposes.” , what I would call damming with faint praise. I too have some of those remarks at the back of my memories. However I loved your essay. Who among us doesn't polish up the truth? Your memory is yours, not your sisters, not your mother. Reading your essay in bed this morning with the Maine winter tapping at my window you gave me great encouragement in my own memoir writing. Though I do not think that it will be for publication. The fact that your mother knew that Manhattan was home probably gave her comfort uprooted to LA, and all that was Hollywood at that time. Yes, one has to watch what the NYT prints about you. I was interviewed by them eons ago when working as a professional organizer. She was friendly, chatty and asking me questions about how the biz worked, how did I work with clients etc. Then the only quote she chose to use, print was, "Well, it's really not rocket science!" I was not popular with the other NY organizers for quite a time. I say publish and be dammed, but I don't think I am quoting correctly. And I'm so sorry to miss you on the Back Room last night.

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    1. Oh, Celia! " Reading your essay in bed this morning with the Maine winter tapping at my window you gave me great encouragement in my own memoir writing. " - That makes me SO HAPPY!

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  26. Hallie, your mother was clearly a complicated woman, pulled in two different directions: the one she wanted to take, and the one society expected her to take. I'm familiar with being raised by a woman in that predicament, so it resonated loudly with me.

    My own mother's stock answer to the question was "Pretty ugly and pretty apt to stay that way." Which was cruel, and patently unfair. And I think she realizes that now.

    I agree with Kathy Reel, and with expanding on the penultimate paragraph. That would polish it to a sheen.

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    1. KAREN! That is horrible. And not one bit funny, although I suppose she thought it was.

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    2. Hank, I think you're right. But at what expense? Geez.

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    3. Wow. Ksren, that was so withholding - mean really. You have to wonder what they were thinking. My mother died so young she never got a chance to have second thoughts or do-overs.

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  27. I thought this was perfect,Hallie. I wouldn’t change anything and I think you should take this time as a gift to write the memoir.

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  28. That was Rhys by the way. I don’t know how I became JRW

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  29. Hallie, I thought your essay was well written.

    Did you start writing before or after your sisters started writing?

    Diana

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    1. WAY after! They came out of the chute writing and I waited until I was about 40 to start. (Thanks for asking!)

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  30. Hallie - This essay completely broke my heart. And this might seem like a weird comment, but it felt to me that you couldn't quite face writing the paragraph that came between "pulling me in tow," and "Twenty years later," like you had to look away. So maybe if you can figure out what that missing paragraph is, whether it's your answer or not, that might be the bridge that makes the last paragraph feel less abrupt. Very brave of you to share this - you are, as ever, a goddess. xxx

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  31. I have so little creative writing in me, but all I wondered was, "If Hallie wrote the story of this day from her presumed perspective of her mother, what would she uncover?"

    Thank you for sharing this!

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  32. Wendell read my mind, and phrased it so elegantly--I want to know how young Hallie thinks/feels between those graphs. There's an epiphany or life lesson; tell me, please.
    Lovely, lovely essay. So many of us recall the moment of bewilderment/betrayal, when we discover mommy thinks of somewhere else as home. Brilliant.

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  33. So poignantly written...and so sad. It's hard for me to believe that I grew up one block away from you, we were in each other's classes, and yet I never knew any of this about your family. I wish I had known and been able to make you happier than you must have felt.

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  34. I loved this! I wouldn’t change a word, my only thought is that New York was not all she had to give you, she gave you writing, too.

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