Mother’s Day is a yearly obligation, like taxes, that sneaks up on me, fills me with dread and guilt, and forces me to tell a short series of little and white, only moderately willful–though potentially disastrous (at least if I get caught)–lies.

I know people who live for these things–these holidays and way-markers on the calendar.  I’ve felt and done it myself–even tried to do it on purpose in the manner of a deliberate outward-turning “lifestyle change.” I know that these things parse the metronomic passage of time into a reliable series of meaningful events, thereby turning the calendar into digestible avocational cycles of preparation, payoff, clean-up, and recovery.  The next life goal and feeling of accomplishment need only ever be as far away as the next major or minor holiday, birthday, or anniversary, and you can set your own cycle period by choosing to observe more or fewer of them, significantly reducing–if not eliminating completely–awareness of mortality and the indifferent siege of time.

Your most recent book, Missing Lucile, is about your grandmother, who died long before you were born and, in your own words, was no one very significant. Surely you must realize that grandmothers, especially insignificant ones, are unusual subjects. Not exactly bestseller material. Did you expect only grandmothers to read your book?

I would be delighted to know that grandmothers were reading my book, but believe it or not, I wrote it for a general audience. Missing Lucile is about my father’s mother, who died when he was a little boy. All his life he missed having a mother—that loss colored his relationships with his wives, his children, his friends, even the choices he made professionally. It was the first thing I think I ever really knew about him: that he didn’t have a mother, had never had a mother as far as he was concerned. And when, at the end of his life, he was talking about obsessively about his childhood, and his missing mother, I decided that I would try to find out about her for him.


That’s very generous. But let’s be frank, why would anyone else want to read a book about your father’s mother?

My goal was somewhat more audacious than finding information about my father’s mother. I decided I would try to find her. The woman herself who had been missing for 75 years. Lucile. So you could say this book began as a pair of impossible tasks: 1) that I would “find” a person I had never met, and who had been dead for decades, and who had left little behind in terms of a personal record. And 2) that I would give another person something he’d been missing nearly all his life.


What a presumptuous idea!

The presumptuousness of this project was almost as startling as its possibilities for sentimentality, but writers are presumptuous. We presume that what we know, or think we know, or want to know, is something other people will want to hear about. We have to be presumptuous, or we would never write anything. But with that presumptuousness comes the terrible responsibility to be worth listening to, to have something to say that is, actually, worth hearing.


It sounds like you had a real battle on your hands in this case.

Well, yes. Because not only was I proposing to write about my grandmother, about whom I knew next to nothing, but I was proposing to write about a woman who, in the eyes of the world, did not “matter.” She was not famous. She was not historic. She had done nothing spectacularly horrible—had not murdered anyone, or been a drug addict, or a child abuser. Nothing spectacularly horrible had been done to her: she was not murdered herself, or maimed by an accident, or the victim of a monstrous crime. Nor had she saved anyone, discovered a cure for anything, painted pictures or been on stage. She had not even married twice. She was a woman from Cincinnati, Ohio, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, a woman of her times, maybe somewhat ahead of her times, because she had gone to college in 1907, had been for a while a businesswoman, and had gone to France after WWI to help with the reconstruction.

She came back to Cincinnati, married, had children. Got cancer. Died.

She was, as Virginia Woolf would have described her, a person to whom things had happened. And this is exactly what I found so monumentally challenging about her. As Woolf puts it in a “Sketch of the Past”: “Here I come to one of the memoir writer’s difficulties—one of the reasons why, though I read so many, so many are failures. They leave out the person to whom things have happened. The reason is that it is so difficult to describe any human being. So they say: ‘This is what happened’; but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened. And the events mean very little unless we know first to whom they happened.”

And that was exactly what I was proposing to do–to discover this woman, my grandmother, Lucile, to whom things had happened.


Did your reasons for writing this book—by the way, what should we call it, since it’s not exactly a biography, or a memoir, or fiction?

Let’s call it an uncertain book.


Did your reasons for writing this uncertain book change as you were working on it?

I certainly had my personal reasons for searching for my grandmother—I wanted to try to make my unhappy elderly father happy, to give him what he had been missing for 75 years, and by doing so give myself some of what I had been missing as his daughter. But I had my own pressing artistic reasons as well. And to be honest, these artistic reasons were my real motivation for writing this book.

What I wanted to address is the presumption that lies at the very heart of memoir and biography: That by telling the story of another person’s life you are capturing the person herself.

As Virginia Woolf also said, and this is from Orlando: “A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have many thousands.”

How on earth can you capture the many thousand selves of another person?

I managed to find a lot of facts about the things that had happened to my grandmother Lucile. I had a box of small objects that had belonged to her, which I tried to use as a kind of historical DNA to reconstitute her. I had photographs. I had a letter she had written, a few pages of diaries, statements other people had made about her. I had her college transcript. I had her wedding ring. I had my own genetic relation to her, and the shadow of her that had hung over my childhood. But I did not have her. I never had her. Even for an instant. And I knew it.


So is that what this book is about, not knowing someone?

Yes and no. Because once I accepted that the subject of a biography—the person to whom things had happened–is always going to be missing, I had another question: So what? Does that mean you have to give up writing about her? Can you write about someone anyway—even someone who doesn’t “matter”–and do it honestly, even when what you don’t know vastly overshadows what you do, like a magic mountain looming behind a boulder in a meadow?


You could have written this book as fiction, that seems a fairly obvious answer to your question. You could have made up what you didn’t know. Why didn’t you just call the book Missing Lucile: a Novel?

That’s true. I could have written this book as fiction—but had I done so, I would not have directly addressed another question, which began to seem more and more pressing to me: What if you really do want to find the person herself, what you can find of her, that person to whom things have happened? And what if you want to claim that this person, this ordinary, unimportant person, did matter, if only because she was once alive, as alive as you yourself are now?


So what can you do? Is there an alternative?

That is what I wrote this book to find out. And though it is highly debatable that I succeeded in writing a book that would satisfy a reader looking for a biography, or a reader looking for fiction, I did put right at the center my own uncertainty about who my grandmother was. And right beside that uncertainty I put my desire to try to know her anyway. And in the end, this is what I found out: That it is in the act of wondering about another human being that we may come to know her best. Wondering about someone else, looking for clues based on the things that happened to her, and a few things she said, or did—that she liked the word “ribald,” for instance, and read the poems of Heine, and raised chickens, and didn’t wear jewelry—musing about patterns and inconsistencies, that’s what you can do. If you want to find another person, that’s where she is—present within the act of being wondered about. Because as soon as you start wondering about someone, she’s not altogether missing anymore, whether she’s been gone for 75 years or just since yesterday afternoon.


But it seems there must be catch here somewhere.

The catch—and it’s a big catch—is to stay honest about what you don’t know, about what you wish you knew, and about what you imagine you know about another person. The danger of any biography is losing sight of how much fiction is going on when you try to write about someone else. It’s fiction we can’t help—we are always going to project ourselves onto other people when we try to understand them. But it’s fiction we should stay clear about.

If we can stay clear about our own uncertainties, then we have a chance at a three-dimensional image of that person we’re trying to understand. Or at least a more nuanced image.


Are you saying that focusing on what you don’t know about someone else may be the best way of trying to understand her? That’s a rather radical claim, don’t you think?

A book isn’t worth writing unless it’s radical in some way, though it can be quietly radical. And who’s to say that writing about your grandmother can’t be as radical as writing from the point of view of a cockroach or writing a novel in pieces that a reader can arrange in whatever order she likes? There’s nothing more boring, in a book as well as in life, than something that proves to be just what you think it is. If I have devoted my writing life to anything, it’s to writing books that appear to be one thing and are not really that thing at all.


But back to being radical—and perhaps we should point out here that you are a suburban middle-aged woman with a husband, two children and a dog, who votes in every election and believes, more or less, in a two-party democratic system—how are you defining radical, at least in terms of your book?

I am talking about changing the way we think about biography. I am advocating uncertainty as a way to write about someone else. When I see a book described as “the definitive biography of so-and-so” I feel faint. Given the multiplicity of informational sources we have nowadays, most of them contradictory–from blogs and Facebook and Twitter to CNN and Google and Wikipedia to self-interviews–one might be forgiven for thinking that the conventional, unilateral idea of biography would be falling out of favor. But most of us still expect a single product when we read a biography; we are expecting “the life” of the subject. And we want a story “worth reading,” which often means survivor stories, celebrity tell-alls, exposes, confessions. Stories, frankly, that we already know. Those stories have their place, of course, but there is room for a more questioning attitude when it comes to biography.


Questioning how?

In the act of wondering about someone else, we take a step out of ourselves for a moment, we step forward to encounter another person. What a radical thing to do! Especially when we acknowledge that it is not the person herself standing there, but a kind of shadow based on who we want to know. A ghost. A silhouette. Our idea of that person.

That idea, that shadow person, has its own dimension, its own vitality, its own ability to shift and change based on how well we’re able to question our perceptions. That idea is animated by our desire to know the person it’s based upon, and that idea is equally animated by our frustration and despair when we’re forced to admit that we cannot, ultimately, succeed.


Why despair?

Despair because if we can’t fully know another person, it stands to reason that we cannot fully be known ourselves. We are all mysteries. And perhaps that, finally, is the real job of biography–to acknowledge the mystery of being human, again and again and again.



By Joe Daly


The Happy Time Page was a kick in the balls for a kid like me.

On any given Sunday afternoon, 10 year old Joe Daly would have enjoyed building a Lego fortress and defending it against Cold War adversaries, watching the Boston Red Sox find a new and eye-watering way to lose, or listening to KISS albums on the little turntable in his bedroom.

Tragically, that was not how 10 year old Joe Daly spent his Sundays.

No, in those formative years, Sunday afternoons were reserved for the soul-whipping agony of writing for The Happy Time Page.

It was my mother’s idea.

The Happy Time Page was a feature in our local Sunday paper, wherein kids were encouraged to submit essays or poems on a generic subject that changed each week.  The front page featured winning essays and poems, as well as the results of the weekly drawing competition that would make a guy like Ted McCagg head straight for the bourbon. Think of it as a print-version of The Nervous Breakdown, but without all the drugs, sex, travel, and introspection.

The best works were displayed on the front page of the section, with the author’s name prominently displayed beneath each piece.  This is what everyone was shooting for- publication.

The only requirements for the essays were that they be on topic and at least fifty words.  Fifty words.  That’s where I hit the wall.

With a gun to my head (or the threat of television privileges being revoked), I could probably come up with twenty five words about baseball, spring, or some other subject like that.  But fifty words?  That was a whole afternoon, shot all to hell.

See, I had zero ambition to write.  I was as motivated to write fifty words as a heroin addict would be to take a spinning class.  I could speak relatively well for my age, but transcribing my thoughts with pencil and paper (I made too many mistakes for a pen) was a Herculean challenge for both my young mind and my tired hands.

Nonetheless, at my mother’s insistence, I would spend Sunday afternoons slogging through fifty word essays with the speed of climate change.  It would take me upwards of two to three hours to churn out one of those pieces, with my mother requiring me to sit at the dining room table and write until I had a finished product.

During those two hours, after finishing each sentence, I would count the words on the entire page, praying that I had just completed the sentence that brought me past fifty words.  On the odd occasion when I would allow myself to finish a thought even after reaching the fifty word minimum, I would expect the type of recognition generally reserved for Nobel Prize recipients, and would be baffled and resentful when such accolades were not received.

My mother would proofread each essay and returning each to me with several suggestions, all of which I would adopt without debate, simply to see the exercise come to a close.  Although my mother’s own schooling ended at the age of sixteen, she had a great sense of the written word and she would coach me on finding concise and at times, even elegant ways of re-stating my thoughts.

Most of the time she would just ask me what I meant when I wrote a particular sentence.  I didn’t realize it then, but the way we would discuss each sentence and the different ways of expressing a single idea gave me a new approach to writing.  I’m not saying that I enjoyed it, but as the process evolved, churning out fifty words became a less odious task.

When the essay was finished, she would proofread it a final time and direct me to write out a new copy in pen, which she would then drop in the mail the following morning.

I stopped submitting pieces for The Happy Time Page as soon as I reached the maximum age requirement.  I think my mother was bummed.


I ignored writing as a form of anything other than homework for the next twenty years.  My first real publication came in law school, when I wrote an article for my law school’s IT Journal.  If my article was approved by the editorial board, I would not only receive academic credit, but more importantly I could add the distinction of “Law Review” to my transcript and resume.

Articles were either accepted or rejected, with a select two or three being published in the school’s law journal, alongside the works of prominent judges, scholars, and attorneys.

To my surprise, I enjoyed the hell out of the process of writing my paper.  Weighing in at a couple hundred pages, the format required that I submit two pages of footnotes for every single page of original thought.  I had an editor who, unlike my mother, received quite a bit of resistance in matters of style and tone.  It was exhilarating to feel passionate about something I wrote.

My friend Michelle also wrote for the Law Review and we agreed that if one of us were published, the other would have to buy a pair of cowboy boots for the lucky writer.  More than anything, we both just wanted our papers to be accepted so we could collect the credit and graduate on time.

When the articles were reviewed by the editorial staff, we were stunned to discover that we were both nominated for publication.   A week later, on a sunny Saturday afternoon on Chicago’s west side, we went boot shopping together.

Here’s how I earned those cowboy boots.


The first true labor of love that I published was an article about a band from San Diego called The Rugburns.

I spent colossal chunks of free time on AOL’s music message boards in the mid-nineties, becoming a regular on the boards for The Rugburns after hearing their anthem, “Me and Eddie Vedder.”  Ironically, one of the people whom I met on those discussion boards would, years later, draw my attention to Brad Listi’s blog, and eventually to The Nervous Breakdown.

I found immense pleasure in writing about music on those discussion boards- especially where I would write a lengthy essay on an interpretation of a song or how certain music made me feel.  My posts were pompous and at times self-important, but gradually I learned to discuss music in a way that allowed me to express my point of view without insisting that others agree.  Writing about songs and artists flowed very easily for me, and the writing skills that I acquired in law school helped me present those ideas with clarity and in some cases, persuasion.  I loved the challenge of finding creative ways to express my feelings about music.  Talking about music was a passion, but writing about it was a rush.

One day a girl contacted me about The Rugburns.  She had read some of my posts about the band and wondered if I would be interested in submitting an article for a zine she had just launched called “Lunatic Fringe.”

I agreed and a couple months later, I published my first piece about music.


Even after I began practicing law in 1994, music was always my number one passion.  I would much rather be listening to Soundgarden bootlegs than working weekends to impress my bosses.  In 1996, I spent a week touring around the midwest with The Rurburns.  It was one of the most significant experiences of my life.  So much so that when I returned to Chicago, I quit my job as a lawyer and began immersing myself in all aspects of music.  I took up guitar, I expanded my musical tastes into new genres, and at the suggestion of an entertainment attorney, I began studying how the music industry worked.  I had amassed a number of contacts in the music business- artists, managers, and quite a few contacts at some pretty big record labels, and I soon found myself writing promotional biographies for bands.  When a band was in the final stages of preparing to release a new album, their label or management would pay me to write a short biography of the band that would be included with the CD and press kit that was sent out to radio stations all over the country.

The pay was lousy, but money mattered little to me in that regard.  I did it for the sheer enjoyment, although at times it was a character-building experience.  I received a request to do a bio for a solo artist, and without much guidance, submitted a first draft to the artist and label.   The artist’s PR agent ripped the draft apart so ferociously and so personally, that I took almost a year off from writing any other music bios.

Another time a label hired me to do a biography on a band whose music I could not relate to at all.  It was a hard rock band and I’m a hard rock guy, but I just could not get there from here.  Still, I had to sit down with the band and find out what made them tick.  The following exchange actually happened:

I asked, “So what are you guys trying to convey when you play live?”

“Dewd, we just like, want to like, try to you know, like, get people with jobs and shit to like totally forget their day, you know?  It’s like, some guy works like forty hours, you know, and we just want him to come to our show and like, forget about his week.  If we can make just one person forget about their week, then it’s all worth it, dewd, you know?”

“But they could just stay at home and get drunk to forget about their week.  We need to highlight what makes you guys different.  They should forget their week not because they’re drunk, but because your music is memorable.  Does that make sense?”

“Exactly, dude!  See, you get it.  Alcohol only makes our music sound better!”

On the other hand, I had the privilege of writing biographies for some fascinating artists who were releasing jaw-droppingly good music.

To this day, I still take on the odd band bio, although an inflexible requirement is that I actually like the music.


SPIN Magazine is, depending on the reader, either a pretentious conclave of indier-than-thou hipsters, or a vital alternative to the commercially-savvy and creatively bankrupt Rolling Stone.  While SPIN can sometimes trip over its own emo-ness, overall it gives exposure to bands and music that other mainstream publications might ignore.

Other than reading the magazine occasionally, my first real connection to SPIN was sleeping on the floor of their suite at the Driskill Hotel during the South By Southwest music festival in 1997.  My college roommate Dan was interning for SPIN, doing a lot of hustling for the magazine for little or no pay.  In return, we received a place to crash, a great view of the main stage, and we got to smoke pot in the suite with The Supersuckers.

Dan went on to secure the best job in the world- making mix tapes to send to college radio stations for the magazine.  He spent his days listening to new (and free) CDs and making mix tapes of his favorite songs. Thirteen years later, I have yet to hear anyone describe a better job.

As Dan became more plugged in at SPIN, he made many connections, one of whom oversaw the magazine’s online column, “It Happened Last Night.”  IHLN featured reviews of notable concerts and events across the country.  They kept a list of writers and photographers in major cities across the country so that when a cool show was happening that they wanted to feature, they would reach out to the local writer and get him or her to the gig.

One day, while literally stepping onto a plane in Cabo San Lucas after an entirely undeserved vacation, I received a text from Dan.  SPIN needed a San Diego writer.  Black Francis (The Pixies, Frank Black) was playing a solo show there that they wanted to review.  They had seen one of my artist bios and wondered if I might cover the event for the magazine.

A couple weeks later, I published my first music article for a major publication.  I remember sitting backstage with Black Francis and Warren Zanes (The Del Fuegos), talking about our favorite pizza joints in Cambridge, MA (where I used to live), and thinking how awesome it would be if this were my actual job.


My friend Dana had been a Brad Listi junkie for quite some time.  After hearing her incessantly raving about his writing, I began following his blog, and eventually The Nervous Breakdown.  I instantly fell in love with TNB.  The authors were talented, down-to-earth, and they wrote about subjects to which I could easily relate.  Also, the comment culture was fun and people seemed to actually support each other, with fascinating conversations occurring along with the featured articles.  I chose to lurk rather than participate in any of the conversations.

Dana would pepper me with entreaties to apply to write for TNB, which I resisted for a number of reasons.  Mainly, as someone who had neither published a book, nor had any sort of platform, I was worried that I would have nothing to offer the site.  I am grateful that she persisted because sometime at the end of 2009, I submitted an application.  A month later I received a welcome letter from TNB with instructions on how to get started.  The only thing left to do was write.

I agonized over my first article for two weeks, starting and scrapping ideas for three or four different columns.  Finally I chose to write about my first band back in Chicago, and on a Saturday morning in February, 2009, I began writing.  I finished that evening and spent the next 48 hours proofreading the piece ad nauseam.  Each time I started to publish it, I chickened out and proofread it again.

Finally I threw caution to the wind and hit the “Publish button.”  J.M. Blaine left me my first comment.  As the day wore on,  I began receiving and replying to comments from the very people I had always read and admired.  Nine months later, I have met many of these authors in person and I am in contact with several on a regular basis.  TNB is my online home.


As I published articles on TNB, I would post links to each piece on Facebook, asking my friends to take a look if they were interested.  One day after posting a link, I received a note from a college friend whom I had not seen or heard from in close to twenty years.  He had read some of my work on TNB and said he enjoyed them- especially the pieces about music.  He wondered if I might be interested in talking about book ideas.  As fate would have it, he was a literary agent.


In July, 2010, I was laid off from my job.  Instead of jumping right into a job search, I decided to see what it would feel like to write for awhile.

I am now in the process of completing a proposal for my first book.  It might never see the light of day, but in the course of the past month, it has been the most fulfilling work I have ever done.  I sit at my laptop in my kitchen or at a local coffee shop, and with the sounds of Sigur Ros, Dead Confederate, or The Stone Roses wafting from my headphones, I write about things that matter to me.  I laugh out loud, I research obscure details about bands and music, and I occasionally run upstairs to sift through papers and photographs to jog my memory as I write.

When people now ask what I do, I really have no answer.  I clumsily say something like, “Well, I’m out of work now, and just writing to make use of the time…”

But once in awhile I boldly answer, “I’m a writer.”

It feels fucking awesome.


My mother would have been 77 years old next week had she not succumbed to cancer in 1989.  The older I get, the greater the clarity I have with my past, and especially my time with my mother.  As I look back on those Sunday afternoons in the dining room, wishing I were doing anything but writing for The Happy Time Page, I now see the gift that she has left me.

I am both humbled and grateful.

Thanks, Mom.

My mom’s on Facebook, and I’ve accepted her friend request. (Hi, Mom!) She doesn’t own a computer, she doesn’t own a cell phone, she still deposits checks and withdraws cash by walking up to the bank counter, but she’s been on Facebook for a few months now, which is long enough, as she informed me (actually, when she was just a few weeks in), to learn more about me by clicking links than she’s learned from me in person. She found one mention of herself in my online writing—it was on this site, in my self interview—and she took issue with it. She wants you to know: That hummingbird that got into her bedroom? She tried every other way to get it out, she tried for hours, before she killed it with bug spray. It was horrible and it was late at night and she needed to go to bed.

It’s not that pre-Facebook I hid my writing from my mother, or from anyone, exactly. In the nineties, I co-published a zine called Maxine, and I included in it writing of mine that was sometimes sexy, sometimes weird, and almost always personal—for example, I collaborated on a comic loosely based on my best friend and I that involved cunnilingus. And I sent the copies to my parents. I sold copies to co-workers. Devil may care! I liked the feeling, actually. I liked the combination of accepting ownership but relinquishing the fantasy that I could control others’ perceptions. It felt very different than finding someone listening at the door or rustling through my stash of journals and love letters. (You know you did that, Mom!)

In fact, publishing personal writing on paper felt like an anecdote to privacy invasion. I’m not sure why online writing feels like something in between. Is it just because it’s more likely that something online can worm its way anywhere, easily? That it wouldn’t be a magical, fate-ridden thing for someone I knew to stumble onto a blog post the way it would be to stumble onto a zine? All it takes is being bored at 2 AM. What’s that old girlfriend doing. What about that cousin who I played doctor with once. What about that daughter. She always kept the room to her door closed. She always had her nose in some book or up in the air. She’d always give me this look, like. . . . And now, when she finally does call, she’s too busy to talk.

My mom knows her own inclinations. She says that’s one reason why she doesn’t want a computer: she’s a voyeur; it’d be too tempting. She did her Facebook sleuthing this summer, when she was living with my sister-in-law, whom my brother has been divorcing for years. They’re still fighting over money and visitation and blame. I told my mother that it was a bad idea, that things would get awkward. And they did. She was on the phone complaining about it one day, perhaps commenting about the quality of my sister-in-law’s mothering—and her appearance and her eating habits and her housekeeping—without realizing that her hostess was sitting on the porch just outside the open window. When my mom walked out there, Stephanie told her, “If you don’t like it here, you can leave.”

When my husband and I found my mother snooping around our windows the summer before, when she was house-sitting down the street, we choose not to say anything. We just pretended it had never happened.

My mother, who when I told her I had quit smoking, said, “That’s not very sociable, is it?”

My mother, who when I told her as a new parent that I didn’t have time to go shopping for sales said, “If you’d get off your high-horse and go to McDonalds once a week you’d have one night a week to go shopping.”

My mother, who was actually very concerned about nutrition when I was growing up, and who insisted for awhile that I eat cubes of cheese in the morning, for fat and protein. I did not want to eat cubes of cheese in the morning; they disgusted me. So I did what any self-respecting kid would do: I palmed them and later slipped them into a drawer in the playroom.

And my mother, upon discovering the colony of cheese cubes—by this time with edges turned a waxy blood orange and sides coated in powdery mold— became enraged and made me eat them as punishment. It was a Mommy Dearest moment, her towering over me and brandishing the plastic spatula with which she sometimes spanked us, me choking down a cube or two before pushing past her to go retch into the toilet. I can still see the hunter-orange curdles floating in the shining white bowl—my mother kept a very clean house. But she is no Joan Crawford. She didn’t make me eat any more after that, and cheese was taken off the breakfast menu. So I think I won that round.

Yes, when it comes to my mother, I am a perpetual adolescent who will—obviously—air old and dirty linen in public to score a point.

Although this is the first time I am doing so. In a piece that I am posting to the internet.

As a kid, I was the kind of good girl who was secretly, sneakily bad.

In first or second grade, I went to the bathroom and locked all the stalls from the inside before crawling out of the last one and going back to the teacher with a report: I couldn’t use the bathroom; someone locked all the doors. “Probably some sixth grader,” the teacher said, “who thinks she’s being smart.”

When I was in sixth grade—an impeccable student—I had already developed a taste for bad boys, and I befriended the grottiest trouble-maker in class, Scott Bilow. He was actually a pretty nice kid who had a rough lot. His dad was a drunk, and a good day for Scott was when he was sent to the bar to get his dad and was invited in and given a Coke instead of a back-hand. Scott had stories to tell, and dirty poetry to recite, and I was all ears. One ditty ended with the memorable line: “Sister’s on the corner yelling pussy for sale.” I thought on that a lot. The pieces were just starting to add up for me. Sometimes, if we had indoor recess or whatever, I’d play a game he taught us where I’d hold a pencil and follow directions that resulted in the spelling of fuck or shit or mother fucker on the lined, grey paper of his writing tablet.

When the teacher found these pages in his notebook, she took him out in the hall and hollered at him. The rest of the class couldn’t hear his side of the conversation, but we didn’t need to:

“What did you say?”

“You’re trying to tell me Zoe Zolbrod wrote those awful words in that awful handwriting?”

“Zoe Zolbrod has beautiful handwriting and she would never write those dirty words!”

Thirty years later, I’m still proud that I accepted the blame. The teacher was so dumbstruck at the dissolution of her categories that I don’t think either Scott or I was ever punished. Or maybe the punishment was just a note home to my parents, still married then. They wouldn’t have given me a hard time for something like that. They might have congratulated me on taking responsibility when I could have skirted it. Honesty was their big thing. As a teenager, especiallywhen some of my friends physically feared their parents or were routinely denied freedoms—my mom and dad let me get away with a lot, as long as I told the truth.

So, my mom’s on Facebook  (welcome, Mom!) and that’s what’s inspiring me to trash talk her to you all and to post this up on TNB. But I’m not sure whether I’ll link to it. And my mom’s back home now, no longer living with my sister-in-law’s laptop and internet connection. She uses the computer at the library sometimes, but it’s not open at 2 AM, and during business hours, well—she still works part-time as a care-taker for elderly people, and she plays tennis, and volunteers, and shops the sales. (She basically clothes my children with her findings, saving me needed time and money. She’s the only person who has ever watched the kids overnight or over two. She . . . but I digress.) So she might not see this. And if she does, I’ll own up to it. These are some facts. Shrug. Nose in air. Laid out just so. That’s all I’m saying.


I met James (Jim) Magruder in a café in my neighborhood where I write. His book SUGARLESS was days away from coming out. He was so charming in person that I bought his book immediately and devoured it in hours. It is hilarious, touching, elegantly written, and wonderfully shameless. Not surprisingly, SUGARLESS was shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Award, the VCU Cabell First Novelists Award and the 2010 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Jim wrote the book for the Broadway musical Triumph of Love, has been a resident at MacDowell, a fellow at Sewanee and has had numerous short stories published as well as anthologized. Currently he is teaching at Swarthmore College and the Yale School of Drama. But we’re not going to talk about any of that here because this is The James Magruder Sex Interview.

On Faith

By James B. Frost


My mother is the most appropriate religious person I know. She prays daily, goes to church whenever she can, volunteers at a local homeless shelter, gives money to charity, reads book after book about religion, and never once talks about it to the faithless, unless of course they ask. It hurts her, deeply, that of her seven children only one remains religious, and yet as she’s aged, she’s learned to keep her hurt to herself as best she can. Every once in a while she slips up and mails me a news clipping—something about the evils of the latest Harry Potter book—but I’ve reached an age where, given the depth of her beliefs, I see this as restraint rather than proselytizing.

We were supposed to move into our new house that summer. Our old house was already sold, but then we found out construction had fallen behind. September, they told us.

I was six and didn’t really understand what was happening. All I knew was my mother was suddenly packing all the time, and we were getting on a plane to stay with relatives in California, my father left behind.

This upset me more than anything. “Why can’t Baba come with us?” I’d ask.

“He has to work,” my mother would tell me in her gruff way: Stop fussing.

To save money, we stayed with my uncle in his two-bedroom apartment in Berkeley. It was a tight squeeze. My grandparents were already living there, which meant my aunt and uncle in one room, my younger brother and I in the other with my grandmother, and my grandfather and mother in the living room.

There wasn’t much to do there. My uncle would take us to the playground, and we’d always come home with our shoes full of sand, which we once dumped in the middle of the living room till finally the adults got smart and told us to de-shod at the door.

In the evenings we’d watch Chinese soap operas with my grandmother. That summer’s was set during imperial times – everyone decked out in colorful silk robes, the men’s hair as long as the women’s – and focused on a brother and sister with a fierce rivalry for their father’s kingdom.

In the final episode, the sister kills herself on her father’s grave. One moment she’s muttering something in Mandarin, the next she’s plunging a knife in her gut, blood trickling artfully from the corner of her mouth. Her two faithful followers promptly follow suit.

This scene both repulsed and fascinated me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and felt the compulsion to act it out, over and over. I’d kneel at my grandmother’s bed, comb in hand, mutter some gibberish, then stab myself with the comb. I’d let a bit of drool run out of the mouth before keeling over.

Our relatives knew my brother and I were bored. One brought us a plastic bowling set, which we happily played with till the downstairs neighbor complained. The downstairs neighbor was always complaining about how noisy we were. Once he appeared at the top of the back steps, rumpled-looking in pajamas very much like my father’s. I thought it was strange that he was still in his PJs during the day. Maybe he worked nights.

* * *

My aunt’s house in San Jose was bigger and nicer, but also more dangerous in a way. My mother scolded me more often at my aunt’s. I’m not sure why. She and my aunt, who was older, didn’t have a rivalry, but my mother cared very much about Big Auntie’s opinions, and Big Auntie had a lot of them, like surely I touched the cake box because I was greedy and wanted cake before it was served, when really I just wanted the red string that tied the box together.

I always cried when my mother scolded me, which prompted another scolding, which made me cry more. So when, upon spotting my teary eyes and red nose, an aunt or uncle asked, “Aw, do you miss your baba?” I seized the opportunity: Yes, I was crying because I missed my father, not because I was a crybaby.

I really did miss him. At our old house in New Jersey, I’d wait outside for him to come home from work. Sometimes it seemed to take forever. Once I was staring at some ants on a tree, thinking, Wouldn’t it be nice if Baba called my name right now? And at that moment I heard it: “Little Gem! Little Gem!” That’s just my imagination, I told myself, but then suddenly it was real. There was my dad, walking his long loping walk from the bus stop.

I talked on the phone with him sometimes, which wasn’t like talking in person. I’d get shy and clam up. Much later I’d find a card I had made him: “I miss you, Baba!” half English, half Chinese. It disturbs me that I have absolutely no memory of making that card.

I also cried when Big Auntie made fun of my feet, which were apparently so wide and strange-looking, she had to do so daily. Finally, she promised not to tease me anymore. But one day she couldn’t resist.

The waterworks promptly started. My aunt laughed.

“Big Auntie’s sorry!” she said in a mocking tone. “Big Auntie’s bad!” She slapped her own arm.

Her husband had had it up to HERE. Silently seething, he picked me up and brought me into the bathroom. He sat me on the counter, and with a warm damp towel, cleaned the tears off my face. He never said a word, but I knew from then on he was on my side.

While Big Auntie teased me mercilessly, my uncle in Berkeley was too indulgent, or so my mother thought. He and my aunt always let me into their room, even the time my aunt got drunk accidentally on some kind of soup and lay in bed with a splitting headache.

I was very interested in the idea of my aunt being drunk. The only drunks I had seen were on TV.

“Did you walk funny?” I asked her when she was feeling better. “Did someone have to carry you?”

No, she had walked fine on her own. I was disappointed.

Once on a trip to an amusement park, my uncle said I could have one toy from the store.

“Any toy?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “But just one.”

He thought he was being strict. Little did he know, my parents never bought me toys for no reason. My head swam. Of everything in the store, what did I want? Not a yo-yo, not another stuffed animal. No: I made a beeline towards the dolls. A beautiful bride doll in an enormous white dress.

“Can I have this?” I asked. I held my breath. It would be okay if he said no. I was used to hearing no.

“Sure,” he said.

My mother was furious. How could I rope my uncle into spending so much on something I didn’t need?

“Don’t worry about it,” he told her.

I did. Somehow, some way, I knew I’d have to pay for that doll.

* * *

When we finally went home that September, my father met us at the airport. I was so happy to see him. “Baba, baba!” I cried, running across baggage claim. My brother followed me, as he followed me everywhere back then, though it turned out he didn’t recognize who we were running to.

Our house still wasn’t done.

We divided our time between two families. I already knew Glenn and Yvonne, one and two years younger than I was. I loved playing with them. They were both good-natured, though Yvonne cried more than I did, and liked to tell the story of how their hamster made a great escape and chased Yvonne to the top of the leather arm chair in the living room.

At the other house, the girl’s name was Blossom, which to me even then was strange. She was older than I was and played the violin terribly.

We waited and waited for our house to be done. My mother spent most of her time yelling at Reggie, the guy in charge of construction. He had red hair, wore the sleeves of his dress shirt rolled up, and always looked put upon, at least by mother.

“Reggie!” she yelled at him on the phone. “Reggie!” when we went visited the site. “Reggie!” when September came and went, and the house still wasn’t done. “Reggie!” when the leaves changed. “Reggie!” when the weather got colder and condensation collected on the long windows in the living room at Glenn’s house, when it was dark by the time my mother drove me home from school.

That November we finally moved in.

* * *

My mother spent a long time decorating. She was a genius, really, in furnishing our house on a budget. She found some clear plexiglass display cases for dirt cheap, which she used for her plants and flowers in the sun-drenched living room. She found on sale figurines and knickknacks that looked weird on their own, but worked placed together on the mantlepiece.

For months my room had just a bed, rug, and desk. I didn’t care. At least I had my own room. Then one day that spring, I came home to find it completely decorated.

I had new white dressers, a tall one and short one, plus two bookcases my father had made, one large and one small, rather rough-looking, but they worked and were painted white too. My stuffed animals sat on the lower dresser while on the taller one were a few ceramic figurines and, behold, the bride doll.

I had almost forgotten about her, but there she was, resplendent in her faux satin white ballroom gown, her sleeves as puffy as ever, her train halfway down her back. There was her long brown curling hair, her huge eyes with specks of pink and gold, her cloth hands folded demurely around a pink and white bouquet.

For several minutes, I stood in the middle of my room, agog.

“Little Gem!” my mother called from downstairs. “Start your homework!”

I sighed. At the time I didn’t realize the effort my mother had made, that, despite her protests, she had kept the doll, lovingly packed it for our trip from California, then displayed it for me.

The doll is still around now, more than thirty years later, in the room of yet another house. While everything around her changes, she stays the same – still beautiful, still braced on what will surely be the best day of her life.

“Fact check, Tyler! Was gorgonzola even invented in 1970? It (gorgonzola) seems like a more recent development (You should really check this out yourself, but I’ll ask your mother—you know how she loves cheese.).”

“Have you considered the implications your bank heist might have had if placed in the historical context of the Taiping Rebellion [1850-1864] rather than gangland Chicago?”

“I think you’d like to reconsider the line ‘The derelict howls that issued from under the subway platform brought his thoughts inexorably back to Vietnam.’ Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon, and before that Prey Nokor before being annexed by the Vietnamese from the Khmer in the 17th century) doesn’t have a subway and won’t have one until 2014, I think. Or is your narrator in New York now? Are we supposed to believe he was also in Vietnam? I thought that was another character with the same name…What’s going on here, son? Are you on pot?”

“Once again, I’m afraid, you confuse correlation with causation (didn’t I suggest a reading of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature some time ago?) when your narrator says, ‘My father, I saw as if through a kind of gauze. He was there, but ephemeral, his head always in some arcane history book and his temper—if interrupted from his study—was legion.’ What a shit thing to say about one’s father, eh? Your narrator is an ingrate. Did you know that in China, if a child didn’t show sufficient filial piety he could be EXECUTED? Your narrator should think about that. Just saying.”

“Have you considered writing under a pseudonym? I know there are a lot of Smiths out there, and Tyler is not a common name. But it’s not an uncommon one either, and when you throw in your middle name (pretentious), people are going to know who you are and, more importantly, who I am. And that will embarrass the hell out of your mother. Which is not to say that this book will ever be published. Most books aren’t. I mean, the ones that are published obviously are, but works like this are tough, almost impossible, to get into print. Especially if you’re going to stick with the three names thing (pretentious).”

“Here’s a bit of something, son: Your narrator is a maudlin inebriate (like Churchill—but you didn’t hear that from me), so I naturally wouldn’t expect him to give great speeches on love. But Jesucristo: “We never knew if we were falling in love or just getting scared.” I mean REALLY. Have you forgotten my casual remarks at the dinner table on Plato’s Symposium when Aristophanes speaks so eloquently on the subject of love, and where Socrates gives one of the most compelling explanations of love’s origin ever recorded?  The Symposium did have a variety of dilettante drunks hanging about to enjoy the conversation, though, a role your narrator could conceivably fill, as he is both drunk and unskilled. Socrates’ speeches in the Symposium and in the dialogue of the Phaedrus are sublime, and infinitely more resonant than your generation’s post-modern formulas for love—you know, the ones that spring forth from our endless stream of capitalist infomercials and pseudo-intellectual brain candy, like “Men Are From It’s Okay To Cry/ Women Are From Attend My Seminar And Pay Me Money.” 

“Socrates on a scooter, Ty. It seems someone isn’t familiar with the expression “Barba non facit philosophum. Just because you spent some time doing acid and looking at Monarch butterflies at Esalen with your African-American girlfriend, doesn’t mean you’re Franz fucking Fanon. Then again, nothing ventured, nothing gained, I suppose. Speaking of ventures, how did you manage to spend $10,000 living in a “tent” in Palo Alto for three months? Were you building a superconductor? I guess when you were small and we’d say to you, “Son, you can do anything you want in life,” we didn’t really anticipate that you’d interpret “anything” as synonymous with “nothing.” I’m not trying to browbeat you, you understand. I just want you to recognize that a.) We love you very much no matter what and no your mother didn’t make me say that; b.) If you don’t tear up that credit card, I’ll tear you a new one (and I don’t mean another card), and c.) I think we’re doomed. How are the Rockets supposed to make the playoffs with this bunch of assholes? I have to question Tracy McGrady’s dedication. Call to discuss.”

“Fact-checked gorgonzola for you. It seems you’re off the hook, as my junior colleague Dr. Munz, who teaches HIST 351, Europe 4th Century C.E to The Crusades, says that gorgonzola was invented sometime after the sack of Argentia by the Huns, but before the wars between the Guelphs and Ghibelines. (I know, I know. There’s a 500 year window of opportunity between those dates. Pretty damned imprecise. That’s why Dr. Munz isn’t getting tenure, but you didn’t hear that from me).”

“Your mother says you should write a children’s book.”







My Lacunae

By J.E. Fishman


Thirty-five years ago, when I was twelve years old, my mother died.

There was a service, of course, people crammed into funeral parlor rooms, embracing one another, sharing sorrow, then filing into the big cold chapel to hear the eulogy.  I think I feel those things in my memory more than see them.

Of the funeral I remember only two things specifically.  One: through tears exchanging embarrassed uncomfortable grins with a neighborhood friend, Gerry, who’d arrived with his family to pay respects.  Two: my oldest cousin, Alan, clutching the edge of the curtain that half-hid my mother’s polished walnut coffin and weeping quietly into his knuckles until someone pulled him away.

That’s all I can retrieve today, and nothing comes to mind from the burial, though I’m sure I accompanied my father to the cemetery.

At the house, afterwards, I recall but a few things: the visitors striding in and out; the torn black ribbons we were made to wear, representing the rending of clothing; and the sturdy cardboard boxes with their tacky faux wood grain that the more observant in the immediate family chose to sit on, another of those ancient Jewish rituals made slightly ridiculous by modernity.

My most specific recollection is of my mother’s mother, Grandma Bella, crying endlessly and beating her thigh so raw with grief that someone had to put a pillow there.  Esther, my mother, had been her youngest child.

The fragmentation of these memories seems explicable, there being no telling how a young mind will respond to immediate emotional trauma.  But what’s more puzzling is that I have always seemed to possess many fewer childhood memories in general than other people I know.  It didn’t help, I’m sure, that I fell out of touch with all of my boyhood friends — no one around to remind me regularly of that time we did this or that.  And the age difference with my sister (who was a toddler when my mother died) is so severe that we were practically born in separate generations, didn’t really travel through life together until much later.  So some memory aids were absent for me.  But, still: not to recall more than a few experiences with a mother who took me nearly to the teenage years?  To be unable to recollect more than a couple dozen events from my first decade of life?

Then, three years ago, I picked up Barron’s magazine and saw a profile of a man who had been my best friend growing up.  So many years had passed — more than two decades, by my reckoning — that I had to read deep to confirm that it was indeed the same Michael, despite a half-page picture accompanying the article.  I called him and we chatted for a long time.  The reminiscences were not equally evoked, however.  He did most of the talking about our shared past, reminding me of things we’d done and people we’d known, the majority of whom had faded to thin shadows in the recesses of my mind.

When I signed up for Facebook a couple of years later, I tapped Michael as my institutional memory.  Someone who sounded vaguely familiar would offer to “friend” me, and I’d email Michael: How did I know this person?  Were we ever close?

You don’t remember? — he’d write back sometimes.  You played touch football with that kid every week for five years!

I wish I could say that prompts of this nature brought it all forth, but most of my recollections remained barely perceptible ghosts.  Then, one day, I received a Facebook email from a guy named Bob who sounded familiar, though I couldn’t locate his story in my memory file.  He attached a one-word note to his “friend” request: “Scribbler?”

I thought: I’m not famous.  How the hell does he know I’m a writer? I called Michael.  He had no idea what “scribbler” referred to, but he reminded me that I’d known Bob in elementary school, before he transferred to a private high school in the next town.

So I accepted Bob’s friendship request, and he immediately sent a follow-up that startled me.  It said, “When I think back on my early years, you are foremost in my memories” — yet I could scarcely attach his image, now seen in a photo album or two online, to any of my recollections!  He went on to remind me that we’d played a pair of mice on stage in the fourth grade.  Bob was Nibbler and I was…Scribbler.

That’s when it flooded back: the little spiral-bound pad I’d held, pretending to jot notes as a mouse reporter; the big pink cardboard ears; the sweatshirt and sweatpants that made me gray; and the tail — the tail!  I sat in front of the computer with my eyes closed and saw my mother like it was yesterday, bending the wire hangers that gave the tail body, sitting in our den and meticulously, lovingly wrapping that wire with electrical tape.

Maybe she reached up and tugged on my hood and said, “Let me look at you.”  Or was that my brain playing tricks?  No matter.  I felt the tears welling.

Fourth grade — the two of us, I now conclude, alive in innocence.  Not both equally innocent, of course, she being then in her mid thirties, but equally oblivious of what was to come.  For scarcely two years later she would depart this world and leave her family behind.  And, in so doing, she would create inadvertently not only a sense of loss but a loss of memory in her son, my mind apparently having blocked out the pain with great inefficiency, blotting away whole swaths of my childhood, as if they never happened, though I know that of course they must have.

There is a word, now used mostly academically, for gaps that we know must once have been filled.  They call them lacunae, which shares the same Latin root as lake.  It’s an association that made little sense to me before, but now it does.  Having reeled in Scribbler, perhaps I’ll go fishing in the lake of lost recollections, see what else I can bring to the surface.

It’s December, 1988, a few days before Christmas. The Lower East Side is undecided between becoming an ocean of slush or a frozen plain of icy glass. It settles on cold and damp and stays that way into the new year. The invention of Prozac is still years away but if we had any we would be tossing them back like M & Ms.

I’m en route from NYC to Ohio to visit my ailing father. My mother had died the year before, followed by a sixty day stint I did in rehab to mend a massive predilection for alcohol. I was back in NYC now, not drinking, healthy and properly feeling the delayed grief my boozing had bottled up.

It had been more than a month of sitting by her bedside during the day and sleeping in a chair next to her in the nighttime. My mom was purposely starving herself to death. I was surprised just how long it takes to starve your self to death. My brother lived in France and in England and in Hawaii. He had visited a few months before. He told me that he wasn’t busy at the time and could stay and help, if I wanted. I jumped at his offer. I asked him to please stay because my mom really loved my brother to bits and didn’t like me at all. He stayed silent for a few moments and then he told me that he thought that it would actually be better for Mom if she had his next visit to look forward to. Then he went back to England or Hawaii or France.

My brother finally returned to Champaign in the nick of time to see my mom. He took my place at the bedside. I went home for a shower. My brother called and told me to hurry back. I hurried back and my mom was dead. Still warm, so I was close, but no cigar. My mom actually waited for my brother to arrive and for me to leave to finally die. She left me out of it entirely. Go, Mom!

When my mom was still coherent as she ever was, she had spoken to a minister and had him plan a eulogy. I paid for her funeral ahead of time and paid the donations to the church that had been expected. Also the wake was planned and paid for. No one was caught unawares with this particular death.

The wake was held right away in Champaign, IL, where my mom had lived with us for ten years. I picked out a casket. My brother hated it and picked out another. I didn’t care. My brother wanted an open coffin. I put my foot down. Closed coffin, I said, end of story. The compromise we reached is that he got to see her in the open coffin by himself and then the funeral guys closed the coffin and no one else had to look at her dead body, especially my kids.

After my brother went in to see my mom in the open coffin, he came back and told me that I made the right decision. He said that the funeral guys had put someone else’s glasses on her. She was going to be near-sighted for all of eternity. I had no problem with that, and I certainly was not going to go checking out all the other dead bodies in the funeral home and see who got her glasses and switch them.

The wake began. I had told Sara and Lonny just to stay at school and not to come to the wake or the funeral. She wouldn’t know they were there, and they had been with her when it counted. All my friends came. People I worked with when I taught school came. Teachers of my children came. Not one of the people my mom knew from her ritzy retirement home came. Want to know why? The people in retirement homes know that they are just a step away from the grave. They are as close as close can be to each other while they are healthy. As soon as one gets sick though, it is as if they never knew you. They never visit when you’re sick. They don’t attend the funerals. Too. Close. To. Home. I saw this before my mother got sick. Her very best friend ever in the world got sick, and nothing I did or said would move her to visit her. She no longer existed in my mom’s eyes.

Tim, Lenore and Ben came to the wake. The three of them sat on a divan together, giggling. I went over to speak to them several times and asked them to please maintain decorum. We were at their grandmother’s wake and they were attracting attention. They just kept on giggling. For over an hour I alternated shaking people’s hands and thanking them for coming and running over to the kids and begging them to behave. Finally, I just gave up and sent them home. Of course, years later I found out that Tim and Lenore were stoned out of their minds, and poor little Ben just got caught up in the giggling.

The next day it was on to the funeral. All my friends came. None of my mom’s friends came. Tim, Lenore and Ben were not invited. The minister gave a lovely eulogy. The only problem with it was that all of the facts my mother had given the minister were entirely fictional. She had invented a lovely life with lots of motherly love and family time. She had invented friends with fictitious names. She had invented adventures and hobbies she never had. She had invented a life full of good deeds done simply for the good feeling it gave her. The minister said she had been especially proud of her famous pot roast. A surprising number of people asked me for the recipe after the funeral. Unfortunately, I cannot remember my mom ever cooking a pot roast.

My brother wasn’t satisfied with the funeral. He felt there had to be a second funeral in Brooklyn. I told him that I had made my funeral and I was finished. If he wanted to fly her body to Brooklyn and have a second funeral, it was completely his choice. I would not be there.

My brother made the second funeral in Brooklyn. There were flowers galore at the second funeral. There were only a few roses on the coffin at mine. Jews don’t send flowers to funerals. My brother took rolls of pictures of the second funeral. There was virtually no one there. I believe it was just my brother and his wife, our Brooklyn cousin, and yet another minister who had never met my mom. My brother took pictures of all the flowers.

There were two limousines. My mom had one all to herself. She would have liked that. The mourners were in the other. They traveled from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to Greenwood Cemetery near Prospect Park in Brooklyn. My parents had a plot there. Brooklyn is a very crowded place. Each plot is designated for three dead people, stacked like cordwood. (Think of a sandwich.) My father’s father was at the bottom. My father was in the center and my mom was slated to be at the top. My brother took lots of pictures of the burial and the headstone and the flowers, oh, the flowers. My brother never misses a funeral, and this time he had one of his own to plan. He was in his element.


This is one of the photos of my brother’s funeral for my mom. You can see the headstone did not yet have my mom’s name engraved on it.



Comment by Keiko |Edit This
2009-07-10 15:16:42

I never knew people were stacked in threes in Brooklyn. I like driving by the cemetaries on my Cab rides to the airport and seeing all the crowded stones. It’s like a maze of dead people.

Comment by Aaron Dietz |Edit This
2009-07-10 15:31:32

They’re short on space in Taiwan as well – I was amazed at the number of stones and shrines they could pack into one hillside. I’m also not sure how you can even hike up to some of them. Wow.

(Also, great post, Irene. I keep cringing when I try to write the 1000-word bit….)

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-10 15:29:26


Now you know it is more than a maze it is a maze in three dimensions!

Comment by Kate |Edit This
2009-07-10 15:40:04

In Sweden, you don’t own your grave plot, you only rent it. If your descendants don’t continue to pay for it, your headstone is removed, and a new person is put on top of you.

Comment by Kate |Edit This
2009-07-10 15:41:06

Actually, I have no idea how common this practice is in Sweden, but the graveyard where my relatives are buried use it. Maybe its only old graveyards, wherein the bodies in wooden caskets actually decay.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-10 15:44:55

Don’t they all decay?
Why would someone want their shriveled up rotten body in a casket that is impervious to the elements? Kind of unseemly, eh, Kate?

(Comments wont nest below this level)

Comment by Kate |Edit This
2009-07-11 09:08:20

All that metal stuff on the modern ones doesn’t decay. It’s kind of creepy, the idea of not disintegrating. That’s why I’ll be cremated.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 11:36:00

Just so you know, you who are reading the comments, the comments are totally out of order here and that is why they don’t make any sense.
Think of it as a puzzle.
Which answer goes with which comment.
They say puzzles are good for your brain.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-10 15:42:27

Whoa, Kate, that’s cold!
On the other hand, if there’s no one left to give a shit, why not use the spot? You and your coffin are all rotted out to ashes anyhow. It’s pretty sensible, when you think about it.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-10 15:40:42

I understand in some places that they bury people vertically! I don’t see how that would work unless the bodies are all secured inside and tied up. Otherwise, wouldn’t they all fall to the bottom in a heap?
Lenore almost lost it with me last time she was home. I was busily trying to count every word and couldn’t get the same number twice. She showed me that you just click on tools and there is a word count button. Honestly, I’m so the last century!
I think that they cremate the bodies in Taiwan and China and Japan. This would call for much less space and make a small space able to accommodate many more former people.

Comment by Aaron Dietz |Edit This
2009-07-10 16:55:11

Oh, right – I think the sweetheart did tell me about cremation being more of a thing there, probably mostly because of the cost of a plot – they really do them up nice and most are like shrines.

I don’t know how they manage to keep hills from just crumbling into a mess of caskets at the bottom, but the Taiwanese can apparently do just about anything on a hillside. There just isn’t any flat land left.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 04:47:41

The Chinese and Taiwanese and Japanese have a great reverence for old people. Also their ancestors are very important to them and they are treated with reverence. Back here in the USA we too often just dump our old people in nursing homes and after a quick funeral we never visit the grave. It’s pretty sad, actually.

We’ve paid for perpetual care at my Grandfather’s/Father’s/Mother’s grave. My brother visits at least once a year. I’ve never been there. Those people are with me all the time, I don’t need to see where their bodies were placed. My psyche is fragile enough as it is.

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Comment by Phat B |Edit This
2009-07-10 15:51:50

I wanna get buried in New Orleans. The cemeteries there are unreal. That or shot into space, but that’s gonna cost my poor family, and who wants that?

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-10 16:10:14

Phat B,

I think the above ground vaults in the cemeteries In New Orleans probably cost more than to send your ashes on a rocket into outer space. Those are some substantial, expensive structures.

They can’t hold a candle to the glorious structures in La Recoleta, in Buenos Aires. That cemetery is worth flying all the way to Argentina to see. If I could, I’d bury myself there for sure! You should Google it or something just to see what it is like!

Comment by Phat B |Edit This
2009-07-10 16:31:50

You weren’t lying. That place is beautiful. A bit far south for a Parris though. Never go further south than Paraguay. It’s been the family motto for generations.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-10 16:35:01

I could spend a week in that place. It has actual streets and everything. It’s still a working cemetery too. Several years ago, our friends couldn’t get in because Eva Peron’s sister was being buried. Most beautiful statuary on earth all mushed together in one spot.

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Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-07-10 16:20:54

The writing-her-own eulogy thing is priceless. Three generations of funny, talented ladies, this means. That I know of. There were almost certainly more.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-10 16:25:10

May have been, Greg, but they may not have been in English, so what do I know?

Now that I’m aware of the fact that you can totally fabricate your life for your eulogy, I’m going to start writing it right now. Gotta get some sort of clergy person to write it verbatim. Of course, it can’t be anyone who actually KNOWS me….

Comment by Phat B |Edit This
2009-07-10 16:35:29

I never thought of that! I’m gonna proposition the Coen Brothers to write mine.

Best. Funeral. Ever.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-10 16:37:44

You were such a GREAT man, Phat B!
Who knew how great before?

Comment by oksana marafioti |Edit This
2009-07-10 17:23:02

Parents just don’t realize the impact they leave on their kids…or do they?

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 04:52:57

Hi Oksana!

Parenting is really a difficult thing to do well. I think most people try their best. It’s just that sometimes their best really sucks and can warp their kids into shadows of what they could have been.

Comment by Ben Loory |Edit This
2009-07-10 17:54:46

when i die, i want my body cremated. IMMEDIATELY, right there and then on the spot. burn down the building, too, what the hell. burn the world, who gives a fuck.

pot roast always sounds so delicious. doesn’t it? pot… roast. and yet i can’t remember the last time i had it. maybe never.

i think my dad’s grandparents are buried in greenwood cemetery. it sounds familiar. definitely somewhere in brooklyn. i remember going to it a couple of times when i was little. we stood there and then left them some stones.

stories about your mom always make me laugh. even as i’m shaking my head and saying “oh god, oh god.” where do people like that come from? the world is a very strange place.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 05:05:41

Hi Ben,

I used to think I wanted to be buried as a whole body, you know. But I’ve changed my mind. I’d like to be cremated in a paper bag or something that doesn’t cost money after the docs take everything off of me that they can use on a living person. Then I want someone to put me in a baggie in a safe deposit box and wait for Victor to die. Then I want them to do the same thing with him and then mix up our ashes and bury them somewhere pretty. They could put a nice rock down, if they wanted.

Did it look like a city of the dead? You actually need directions to get to the plot you’re looking for. You get them at the gate, when you tell them the plot number or the person’s name, if your lucky.

A beat/hippy poet named Lawrence Ferlinghetti (you probably already know this.) has a poem that starts:
“The world is a wonderful place to be born into
If you don’t mind happiness not always being so very much fun.”
It’s been years, that may well be a paraphrasing.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 11:07:10

If you cook, I could send you a recipe too. Zara wanted one. I got it from Cook’s Magazine though, not my Mother, obviously.

Comment by Elizabeth Collins |Edit This
2009-07-10 18:04:04

interesting story of your always-fascinating family dynamics!

I especially like your insight into the retirement home fair-weather friend syndrome. I saw some of that with my older relatives.

The funeral home also put glasses on my grandmother when she was lying in the coffin…I didn’t understand that. Who wears glasses when the eyes are closed? Plus, she rarely wore glasses. But I don’t think they were the wrong pair.

Your mother’s fictional eulogy (and I didn’t know people even could write their own–what a concept!) is priceless.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 05:10:49

All of my relatives wore glasses and all of them that have died were buried wearing glasses. My Mom’s was the first time it wasn’t an open-coffin funeral.

I think the theory behind it is that people look different without their glasses. They look different enough being dead and all, so the funeral guys put the glasses on so they look more familiar.

I was so appalled at the way they shunned the sick that they used to eat dinner with and play bridge with. I think it was fear, though. Fear of looking into their own futures and not being strong enough to do it.

My Mom only got away with that because the minister who sat and talked with her for hours didn’t know her from Adam. She got to totally concoct the life she wished she had. It was quite a surprise to hear, I’ll tell you that!

Comment by sara k |Edit This
2009-07-10 18:18:46

interesting. i’ve never understood why caskets are so expensive and fancy. kate’s comment reminded me of that recent story in chicago. did you hear about what happened?

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 05:14:50

I have no idea! You can’t leave me hanging like this. Please comment again and tell me what happened?

I just saw “Departures” yesterday. It’s the movie I wanted to see when Lenore and Victor dragged me to “Drag Me to Hell.” In it they talk about the beauty of the carving and the smell of the fine wood that go into an expensive coffin. Then they say, but the cheap coffins and the expensive ones all make the same ash after they are burned.

(Great movie, by the way. Victor went to Bruno at the same time. Victor isn’t the sensitive type.)

Comment by Kate |Edit This
2009-07-11 09:10:50

I didn’t realize that was getting national coverage!


Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 10:37:34

Jesus, Kate,
Thanks for letting us know what Sara K. was referring to.
That is so beyond horrible!
The same kind of thing happened here in Miami a few years ago, but it was Jews who were supposed to be buried, but they weren’t in their plots and apparently they were warehoused somewhere just rotting away.
I also believe something like that involving an old Black cemetery happened here a couple of weeks ago.
What is going on? eh?

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Comment by sara k |Edit This
2009-07-15 10:47:23

oh yea thats a link about what i was talking about. sry for the delayed response. yea apparently a manager and three employee (who were all afr amer) were scheming to try to make hundreds of thousands of $s.

Comment by Zara Potts |Edit This
2009-07-10 20:44:57

Good god! She made up her own life? Complete with fictional friends?? Your mother was a piece of work, Irene. What the hell is pot roast anyway?? I don’t think we have it down here…

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 05:41:45

Hey Zara!

Now that you know you can, isn’t it tempting?
Pot Roast is a way to cook meat that would be ordinarily tough and make it tender and delicious. There are lots of root vegetables involved and wine and broth.
I e mailed you a good recipe.

Comment by D.R. Haney |Edit This
2009-07-10 20:54:03

“She was going to be nearsighted for all of eternity.”

I don’t know how you Zions did it. I laughed out loud at the above line, and I laughed out loud at your mother’s fictitious eulogy, and I laughed out loud (for quite some time) at Lenore and Tim and Ben giggling at the wake.

I’m glad now that I didn’t write about death, as I’d been planning, for my thousand words. You, and a few others, including Lenore, did it so much better than I would have managed. My pitiful punk-rock thing is going to be especially pitiful in the book, should it become one, alongside the likes of this.

Comment by D.R. Haney |Edit This
2009-07-10 21:17:22

Um, my first line was supposed to read: “I don’t know how you Zions DO it.” Just wanted to clear that up.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 05:48:42


I just started “Banned for Life” and I find it comical to think that you wouldn’t write a better death story any day! But I thank you for the fabulous compliment!
And double thanks for laughing!

(Glad you cleared that up, I was afraid we were done for!)

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Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2009-07-10 21:09:43

i’m glad you didn’t go to the second funeral. you were there for the whole damn death song. you didn’t need to be there for both encores.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 05:49:32

Well said, my lovely one, well said.

Comment by Jude |Edit This
2009-07-10 22:23:42

Hi Irene
I have heard it said that the dying wait for the one they are emotionally connected with, to leave the room (or house… or wherever) before they die… so they can die. Maybe she loved you more than you knew…

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 05:52:14


Thank you for that. It would be great to think that she actually did appreciate my being with her and caring for her for her last 10 years. It would also feel sort of great in a creepy mean way to think she died on his two second watch to get back at him for never being there.
(Sorry. That was creepy and mean of me.)

2009-07-11 00:48:10

The story of the falsified eulogy is so strangely endearing. And I never knew that about Brooklyn cemeteries, either. As sad as the story and the circumstances were, I love that you wrote this, Irene.

My grandmother died about four years back; due to some inter-familial conflicts and arrangements made by people who shall remain nameless, the service was a bit left of centre. At the point when the minister cracked out his ukelele, things began to border on the absurd.

Unfortunately, this happened to me:


It wasn’t out of a lack of respect, or anything like that. It was just the combination of everything that was happening. So I just put my face in my hands and rode it out, feeling like an awful human being all the way.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 06:01:08

A UKELELE! Holy Shit, Simon! You HAVE to tell us about this. Heck, I named names and, BOYS, am I going to pay for it. In the end I hope it’s worth it. (HA! in the END!)

I cannot imagine how you could have NOT have been caught up in the giggle loop in this situation!

Everyone has to watch that video. It’s really wonderful. Thanks, Simon.

2009-07-11 13:57:18

Now that’s a long, long story – family conflict, strange beliefs, manipulation, deceit, death, lies, senility… Good times, good times. I’ll have to put it on my list of things to blog about.

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2009-07-11 14:01:41

Oh, and Robin – they actually made a US version of Coupling, but I don’t think it lasted more than a couple of episodes.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 15:09:17

Get started on it, Simon!
I want to know ALL of it!
TNB requests it formally.

Comment by Robin Slick |Edit This
2009-07-11 03:48:49

Oh God to all of this…

The fake eulogy is brilliant — if I believed in funerals, and I don’t, I’d begin writing mine now.

“New York Times best selling author Robin Slick…”

He he – I love that Lenore was stoned – there really is no other way to attend something as barbaric as a funeral so good on her.

Awesome essay, Irene! I really was laughing out loud.

And Simon, every time BBC America runs the Coupling series, I watch it…so much better than its American counterpart, Friends. I was in the giggle loop every year at family holiday dinners and was forced to sit at the kiddie table until I was 18. And in the beginning, I wasn’t even stoned.


Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 06:06:51

Thanks, Robin,

Now that I know it’s name I’ll have to buy the “Coupling” series. I want to see more of these people.

I would remind you that Tim was 17 and Lenore was a mere 15 when they decided it was a good idea to be stoned for their grandmother’s Wake. Seriously, isn’t that a bit young and a bit irresponsible to be stoned at that age and at that function?

Ben was only 12. Now I know he was caught up in the giggle loop!

Comment by Robin Slick |Edit This
2009-07-11 06:14:58

Nope, sad to say, I was even younger and I personally think it’s highly appropriate since funerals are always such circuses.

I meant to comment on one very moving part of your piece — where the elderly ignore their friends in sickness and death. That was actually very true and resonating…and very sad. It also brought up one of my demons which is sort of similar. When I was 30, I had a close friend, age 40, who was prematurely going through menopause. She felt compelled to share every detail with me, and she freaked me out and made me so scared to age I ended the friendship…I just didn’t want to know what awaited me in the future.

I should have just told her to shut the hell up, huh.

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 06:23:03


I think it’s just being human. Give yourself a break. No one wants to look into the eyes of illness or death and see himself reflected back. It’s horrible. It seems to be inexcusable, but there you are–it’s human.

I think all we can do is try hard to remember and overcome the fear the next time it comes around.

Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
2009-07-11 05:11:58

“A surprising number of people asked me for the recipe after the funeral. Unfortunately, my mom never cooked pot roast once in her entire life.”

This isn’t sort of funny — it is funny! At a time like this, you just gotta love death. What else can you do?

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 06:07:41

Right on the head, Sung. You hit that one right on the head!

Comment by mary |Edit This
2009-07-11 07:41:43

so, i have wondered, why don’t jews send flowers to funerals and why did a minister give your mom’s service and not a rabbi?

where do you think your mom’s soul is now?


Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 11:11:56

Okay, No one who can answer the phone on Saturday seems to know for sure. I will try again on Sunday to find out. Basically what everyone who can answer the phone on Saturday thinks is that Jew think a person who dies should live on in people’s memories. One way to achieve this is to send donations in their name to charities, or to plant a tree in their honor. it’s not that flowers are bad. it’s just sort of a waste of money which could go to a cause that is worthy and which would make people think of the deceased loved one.

My Mom was nominally Protestant. But not so good a one as to actually know a minister herself.

I think that G-d fixed her crazy and she is up in heaven with my father and she got to take her foot along, just like in the painting.

Comment by Sara Zion |Edit This
2009-07-17 02:01:34

When Nana was in the hospital for her amputation, she told them she was Episcopalian, so the *astonishingly kind* minister from the local Episcopalian church tended to her during and after the hospitalization. Pastor Phil? Maybe not; it was so long ago. He was about 40, as I remember, white with tidy light brown hair. He was peaceful and warm and welcoming and altogether calming in a ridiculous and awful situation.

Even though he only knew Nana when she was demented and delirious (as if being just plain wacko isn’t enough), there’s no one else who thought of her the same paternalistic way and it had to be comforting to her to believe that someone else was “in charge.” I can’t think of a better person to do the funeral, even if she scripted it herself.

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Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-21 13:41:45

Yup, Sara, that was the Saint! She had never even attended his church. He and his church were complete strangers to her. Yet she said “Episcopal’” and there he was.
He really was the person you would want in such a situation.
I can’t imagine the stress the job entails.
Not for me. Oh, no. Not for me.

Comment by Ursula |Edit This
2009-07-11 08:09:07

Another story well written and you definitely should not have gone to the second funeral, you needed closure after all you went through not prolonging the agony. As to people being buried on top of each other to safe space I have heard about.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 10:43:17

Thanks, Ursula,
I really could not have taken it.
I simply couldn’t do it again, especially my brother’s way.
I was on my last shredded nerve.
Have you heard of the vertical burials? I only recently heard or read of it and I can’t for the life of me remember where.

Comment by Ursula |Edit This
2009-07-11 17:11:24

I think I mentioned vertical burials to you when I saw you recently. My understanding is that at the VA cemetery in Santa Fe, N.M. they practice this because of the space issue.

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Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-12 07:51:19

Thank you Ursula! I was going nuts trying to remember where I heard this.

I did some research on this but I can’t come up with the way the burials are arranged in the ground. Vertical is certainly another way to save space. Weird, though, eh?

Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
2009-07-11 09:04:32

Excellent call on the closed coffin.

(You’ve forgiven me haven’t you?)

When my grandpa died, it was awful seeing him there. It just wasn’t him. And now that’s the last memory I have of him.

(I swear I TRIED to tell you.)

And then when Dad died – oof. I hate open coffins. They didn’t get his hair right – and that sort of pissed me off. And his regular sized suit didn’t fit him anymore, as he had died a cancer victim.

(It’s all there in the comments. Truly. It was a birth in real TNB time!)

And what’s worse, we forgot to send underwear with his suit. So he’s buried in that starchy suit without any underpants.

(Baby boy sends love! And he really is cute. Really.)

No underpants forever and ever.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 10:55:56

I really can’t understand why anyone would want an open coffin.

(I’ve forgiven you, but the next time you have a baby you better tell me before you tell your own mother!)

That’s the point! The person does NOT look like they used to when they are dead. Why make that your last memory of him? You can never get it out of your head!

(I know you tried, it’s probably my own fault cause I missed something VITAL in the comments. Actually, I think I DID see it, but I thought you were kidding!)

They never get the hair right. Also they stuff their mouths up for some reason so that the very shape of their faces is off! The funeral guys should have tucked his suit in the back so it didn’t appear so loose!

(It just never occurred to me that you would keep writing your post while in labor and delivery. What, did you carry your laptop with you while delivering? Therefore, I thought you were kidding.)

Oh your poor Dad getting all chafed for all eternity. That is just not right!

(I would love to see a picture of baby boy. Please tell him I love him back bigger than the humpback whale!)

Maybe you could get some underpants and go to his grave and dig a hole and put them above his coffin and cover them up so he can potentially get them whenever he wants.

Comment by Reno |Edit This
2009-07-11 10:40:28


you tell great stories. i love you! i get some many laughs (and this is a sad story!) but you…you…i dunno. it’s a style. it’s a tone. it’s so you.

there were too many great lines in this one. but the passage about your mom making up her “life” killed me and i will tell you right now that i will be stealing the “idea” of this. life, people have always been crazier than any writer could muster up in his head. i believe people say: stranger than fiction.

in this case funnier.

i adore you. and your family. and to know that you had to keep going back to your kids to tell them to pipe down floors me. heh. stoned out of their minds. shit. love it. i read this twice.

“She was going to be nearsighted for all of eternity.”

oh, effin, no!

i’m gonna walk around all day with that one in my head.

bye, irene. you and victor have a great weekend.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 11:18:30

Hi Reno!

I love you back!
You’re pretty famous for writing great stories, so I take that as a high compliment!

I sure wish I could be at the TNB reading in LA to see you and Lenore and the rest! I’ll expect a full accounting. (a REAL one!)

Remember, Ben wasn’t stoned. He was just caught up in the giggle loop!

Can you just imagine me in the dead people room, lifting up coffin lid after coffin lid looking for my Mom’s glasses on other dead people’s faces? I would have done it for my father. Seriously. But not my mother. Let her be nearsighted. Not my worry anymore.

Comment by George |Edit This
2009-07-11 11:20:27

After we die, we all go to the undiscovered country, from where we never return. The funeral is really for the living, not the dead, who have better things to do.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 11:32:58


You believe such beautiful things. If only I could just get injected with that! What a comfort it would be.

Comment by Ben |Edit This
2009-07-11 12:07:19


Just be glad you didn’t have to do any of this in Chicago, Mom. We can’t even get those right in this Goddamn city.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 13:21:52


I’m glad too. When it comes to me and Dad, do what I said above. You don’t need to buy a bogus burial plot, There’s not much left as ashes, Just dig a little hole in a pretty park that can’t be changed into high rises and shake the ashes in and cover them up. Simple. No money involved. Put a pretty rock there. Probably won’t stay, but that’s okay too.

Besides, who wants to spend eternity in Chicago? Too hot in the Summer and too cold in the Winter!

Comment by jmblaine |Edit This
2009-07-11 12:29:21

Sturdy are the gates of Zion.

Are you an absurdist like me?
You seem to be at times.

I’m hoping my the time I expire the US
has the Sweden freezing thing.
Freeze me, shatter me.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-07-11 13:25:30

That’s a great idea, jmb!

They could lower us into liquid nitrogen, or liquid oxygen or liquid helium and we’d freeze in an instant. Then the designated hammerer could give us a good whack! There we’d be in a zillion pieces to blow over the universe!

Comment by Marni Grossman |Edit This
2009-07-11 18:26:55

Like Reno, I have decided to adopt your mother’s practice of making up a fictitious life in death. This is sort of an extension of my idea to start exciting rumors about myself.

It must have been awful that your mother’s death came as such a relief, though.

Much love-

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-12 07:55:36


It really was a shame that her death was a relief to me. But I have no guilt. I did everything that could be expected of a daughter and more. It just was never enough for her.

You see this is all a great idea in principle, but in reality most of us will actually have friends and family who know the truth about us. It really doesn’t work unless you have cut yourself off from society and you don’t even give a thought to what family you have left.

Fun idea, but hard to pull off.

Comment by ksw |Edit This
2009-07-12 07:51:23

I hate stories about death.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-12 07:56:51

Okay, ksw, give me a topic.
You are a tough cookie to please.
But I’m game.
Tell me what you DO like to read about.

Comment by ksw |Edit This
2009-07-12 11:49:34

people usually get religion as they get closer to death. As you know when I was little I had lots of death in the family, and my grandfather used to say about death..” it’s a release, it’s an adventure,everyone is doing it” caw ( Being the baby i soo will object to your fictional history}

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-12 14:21:40


I’m sorry, but I could totally get away with a fictional history with you. You’d go along with it because you love me.

“It’s a release, it’s an adventure, everyone is doing it?” Damn, you had one screwed up abnormal childhood, kiddo!

Besides being the “baby” gives you NO points with me. It just makes me envious.

Comment by Tim |Edit This
2009-07-12 15:35:42

Jesus, Ma.

Always lifting spirits.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-12 16:11:33

That’s always been your problem, Tim.
You just can’t look on the bright side of death.
Lighten up.

2009-07-12 20:09:11

Hey Irene:

Sorry I’m so late in posting here. I was out of town for a few days.

Wonderful post…

My hat thinks so, too.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-13 05:37:00

Thanks, Rich!
Thanks, Rich’s hat!

Comment by cecile lebenson |Edit This
2009-07-13 04:15:45

Thank goodness you finally told me about Jews and flowers. That is one ritual I never understood except I did have a clue. My Mom hated receiving flowers from my Dad or anyone; thought it was a total waste of money since they died so soon after given. What is the message there??? Anyway, I was at your Mom’s funeral in Champaign and my recollection was that it was quite dignified. No rowdy kids in my memory (but who can count on that??)

Comment by christine w. |Edit This
2009-07-23 13:41:20

I love to send a plant, preferrably a flowering one, to funerals just so the family psycho will snatch it and plant it in their yard, thus pissing off everyone else who wanted it. It then forms a bone of contention for future family meltdowns and serves as a living monument. I’m the electron of doom in a family fission moment. No flowers, just plants.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-13 05:42:11


There were no giggling kids at the funeral because they were not there.
They were banned from the funeral because of their unseemly behavior at the Wake!

I agree with you about the flowers. I don’t like getting them. I hear the same message you do.
“Here’s something beautiful and sweet-smelling which will slowly die and stink, just like you will.”

It was a dignified sham. If you’re going to run a sham, you should really run a dignified one.

Comment by Amy |Edit This
2009-07-13 08:44:07

I don’t like open caskets either. My grandmother didn’t look like my grandmother. They did a horrible job. I too want to be cremated. Don’t understand why you’d want to rot slowly in the ground when you could be instant fertilizer. Spread my ashes and just remember me, I don’t need a stone to tell people I was alive.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-13 10:03:57

I’m with you there, Amy!

All the funerals I’ve been to also have one person after another talking about how GOOD the dead person looks.
Not only are they DEAD, but they don’t even resemble the person they were when they were alive.

I just don’t get it.

I’ve changed camps to the cremation method, myself. That surprised me. It just has never been done in either of our families.

Breaking new ground. Always breaking new ground, we Zions!

Comment by Marcia (former next-door neighbor in Illinois and frequent visitor to Florida) |Edit This
2009-07-13 10:38:31

It’s a good idea to hang onto your old friends, no matter how old you get. When my mother was dying in the ICU, her best friend from first grade came and sat with her every day and didn’t seem to find it depressing– just sad. She’s still alive at 94, and I don’t think she’s at all scared of dying. She’s been able to live in her own home, though, which might be the key. I think retirement homes make people crazy. It’s not right to be sitting around waiting to see who will die next. I had 3 elderly cats, and two of them died in the past year or so. It freaked me out to be sitting around waiting for the last one (Patrick is the one left in case the Zion siblings are wondering) to die so I got another, younger cat, and now I don’t feel weird at all even though I know Patrick won’t last much more than another year or two at most. It’s funny how that changed my perspective. It’s not a replacement cat but a reminder not to get obsessed by the inevitability of death.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-13 12:58:40

I think it must have helped that your mom stayed in the same general area her whole life. Most people nowadays are moving from place to place so that old friends don’t stick. Your mother was lucky to have such a friend and to have such a daughter.
I agree that living in your own home makes a huge difference.
Ben and Kate just did what you said so eloquently in your last sentence. Wrigley died at five unexpecetedly and they just got a kitty, not as a replacement of Wrigley, but as a reminder not to get obsessed by the inevitability of death.

2009-07-13 19:20:48

Wow. This is sort of a comedy that I wasn’t expecting.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-14 02:52:18

WEll, Nick,
I DID warn you in the title….

2009-07-15 08:56:32

God Irene, the stories about your mother never cease to amaze me. She made up a life for herself? From afar it’s really funny to read, but good lord, how you survived her so well is one of the great testaments to “that which doesn’t kill you” thinking.

Really wonderful and I’m sorry all at once.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-16 03:16:10

Thanks for reading, Colleen,

Some of us survive better than others. Turns out I was the lucky one.

2009-07-20 08:54:25


Lovely stuff. Beautiful details. Human and hilarious, and, and, and. A wake in Champaign: can things be more depressing? At least there was the option of the Custard Cup afterward– that seasonal pumpkin pie smoothie…

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-21 13:45:55

Matthew Gavin!

If only I had had my wits about me! Everyone would have been invited to the Custard Cup!
Lord, but they have good stuff there!
My brother was busy carting away my mother’s corpse at the time, hurrying to get to the airport. Had plans for her corpse in Brooklyn, he did.
Sort of diverted my wits, so to speak.

Comment by christine w. |Edit This
2009-07-23 13:47:15

I plan to be cremated. I want a Japanese style family ash crypt. I think it’s kinda cool how if someone dies in Japan, everyone in your family congregates on the “family meeting home” and all the ashes go to the same place. I have pictures of my mother on the very same porch of the FMH that I went to when SHE died. I stood in her footsteps to celebrate her life and she actually DID make some delicious pot roast.

Irene, you may have had the most jacked up mother of all time and space, but you have made up for it tenfold with these hilarious stories. Thanks for sharing your life with us.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-26 08:14:42


Unknowingly, we have a Japanese style ash crypt for our pets. My dog, Lenore’s cat, Lonny’s cat and perhaps soon Ben and Kate will decide to bring their cat’s ashes to be with the family of beloved pets.

I like that idea. I sort of told the kids to save my ashes somewhere in the closet or something and then bury them with those of Victor when he kicks. I want to be together forever.

Hehehe, “Jacked-up mother.” I like that term!


By Zsofia McMullin


We have the ritual down pat: My Mom gives me an old t-shirt to wear and she takes her clothes off to her underwear. I mix the hair dye in the bathroom, wearing those plastic gloves that come in the package. I squeeze the dye into a little one-cup Tupperware dish and use a small brush from another hair dying kit to apply the color.

She sits on a little office chair we pull into the bathroom, with a specially designated towel around her shoulders.  I have to start the application at her temples, because that’s where most of the white hairs are. My Mom has tons of hair. It’s thick, curly, and unruly. And going gray. Rapidly.

Once I am done with the temples, I move on to the front of her heard, carefully applying the dye right along her hairline where the surgeon cut her head during her brain surgery a couple of years ago. There is a small hole right in the middle of her forehead where they took out some tumor-ravaged bone.

When I glance in the mirror, I see myself 20 years from now in my Mom’s face. My nose, my cheeks, my curly hair – all like hers. Our laughs are the same and so are the looks we give when someone is bullshitting us: Just a small squint of the eyes, a downward tilt of the head, an almost unnoticeable turn of the lips. It’s a killer look and I am glad I inherited it from her.

By the time I am done with the entire bottle of color, her head looks like a giant radish, dark red from the dye and all of her hair is piled on top of her head. I wipe down her ears and her forehead – I am messy – and we move into the bedroom where we sit for 25 minutes.

We chat. Sometimes about nothing. Sometimes about everything. We have one of those great, complicated, incomprehensible, emotional, wacky, mother-daughter relationships. She knows me better than anyone. I love her for that. I hate her for that. It’s painful and revealing when someone knows you so well.

I know her now too. I know her as an adult – understand her so much better than when I was a rebellious teenager, eager to break free, eager to do anything to not become like her.

I now know that it’s impossible and have given up on pretending that it’s not happening. I cry during commercials. I cry when I say good bye to people who are dear to me. I lavish love on my friends – even if it’s never reciprocated. I yell at my husband to put his hat on when it’s cold. I can’t sleep at night.  I am bull-headed. I always cook way too much food. I always think I know what’s best. I don’t dwell on the past. I plan ahead. I am a fatalist.

We fight. Never about anything that matters; there is never any doubt that we fight out of love.  But even that is rare these days. The long, drawn-out, tearful screaming matches of my teenage years are gone, when all the male members of our family quietly retreated to some distant corner of the apartment while we went at it.  I don’t even remember what those fights were about. Curfew? School? Boys? Who knows?

Now when we fight, it’s more of a quiet, subdued fight. She tells me what’s what. I get defensive. Our eyes well up. We move on. She is always right – but not in that annoying “I told you so” way. She just is – quietly, confidently.

When the 25 minutes are up, she sits back on the office chair and leans above the bathtub so I can rinse her hair. The dye runs in dark streams down her curls and into the drain. I shampoo her hair then massage in a handful of conditioner.  I tickle her ear and neck as I massage and she giggles. I hand her a towel to wipe her eyes. I try to be careful so that I don’t spray her face too much with the shower head, but it’s impossible. We are both soaked by the time I am done.

I clean up.

She dries her hair.


By Zoe Brock


The greatest gift my mother ever gave me was the gift of knowing I was loved.
In a cruel and often scary world this one fact gives me peace.

Perhaps I am biased, but I think my mama is beautiful, even in a plastic garbage bag.


My family was not dysfunctional in the most literal sense of the word, but we were never “normal” either. Instead we were an artistic, eccentric lot. My mother was glamorous and beautiful, and my father was… an interesting and rebellious cat. I used to dream of a mother who stayed home and baked scones instead of being in the pages of magazines, and a father who did just about anything rather than wear pigtails and glitter nail polish.


But they are what I got, and I am grateful for them.


Such funny creatures.

There was a time when they must have been happy, for they were together seven years before I was born.


In those early days they looked wonderful together.

But times change, and so do we.

By the time I came along things were different.

There was divorce, physical separation, financial worries and solutions, arguments between adults, forced smiles, dashed dreams, survival and the ever present over-imaginative childish fears of sinister Bogeymen such as “The Goat Man”, a skull headed, cloven-footed half-man who roamed the hills behind my house eating the heads of little children who stayed out after dark; a ghoul known only to me as “Ronald Reagan” and his nuclear-face-melting-button-of-destruction;”The Terrible Terrifying Toilet Monster“, a creature so sinister and stealthy that I was forced to come up with something I refer to as “the flush and run” (I suppose it was less a “run” than a sprint for dear life, but that’s just nitpicking).

Oh the horrors.

In my fantastical and often fearsome world there was one absolute constant, the love of my mum.

There was never a morning before I turned five and went off to school that I didn’t wake up to a special note left beside my bed, in cryptic code or abstract silliness, a poem, a song, a scribble. Small expressions of love and humor and creativity that doubled as a bribe to keep myself occupied and allow her an extra hour or two of precious sleep.

There was never a birthday party thrown that wasn’t ludicrous, over the top, mad and explosive.


Yet somehow, sometimes, I doubted being loved.

When I was very little I frequently ran away to the cherry tree at the bottom of the driveway. I packed a tiny suitcase and filled it with essentials.


Inside the case went Owlie, some clean undies and a book, which I would march down the pathway with curious focus and hoist up into the gnarled, misshapen tree, where I would perch my strange, stubborn self and eat it’s cherries, pouting, acting all the while like a miniature diva in purple overalls and red rubber boots. After a few hours I would stomp back to the house and demand to know if the reason why my mum hadn’t called the police was because she didn’t love me. My mother would suppress a smile and very seriously tell me that she was about to call the police but that she had seen me in the tree and figured I was just playing.

Ah, the wicked, weird and wily ways of an only child.

And still, there was never a time when my mama traveled, and she traveled often,
that I did not receive a postcard, letter or parcel on every day that
she was gone, including the day she left and those shortly thereafter.

For years I thought postboxes were magical things for which rational scientific theories did not apply – if a human put a postcard in a mailbox in Tokyo it simply popped out five minutes later in Christchurch, New Zealand. Easy. Did my mother know how to circumvent time and space? Was her mailbox the Tardis? Of course not. She simply mailed her missives before she left so that I would never imagine that I wasn’t being thought of or missed.

When I think of the care and love that went into that sort of planning I cry.

I cry because I am lucky. I cry because I wish that every child could feel so special. I cry because I took it for granted. I cry because for many years I showed my mother a sub-par love. I cry because I think I have made her unhappy and pushed her away. I cry because my mother deserves the world. I cry because today is her birthday and I cannot wrap my arms around her. I cry because I inherited her damn emo gene and it makes me fucking cry at everything. Even this, although perhaps in this case the tears are a bit different. I cry because I wish I was little again and that we could do it all over and I could really appreciate how beautiful my childhood was, while it was happening, and how very much I was loved.


I cry because I’m not sure if my mother knows how grateful I am for all the ways she has saved me, adored me and inspired me, in my childhood and as a woman.

Perhaps this little blog will help her understand.

Thank you mama. I love you.


Happy Birthday.

As I was saying, I’ve been catching flashes of you today, curlers in hair, pushing that ancient lawn mower over our ancestral land (an acre of swamp), when there was nobody else to do it, so that I might muddy myself in it–playing football, groping neighbor girls, and whatnot. I’ve been catching sour whiffs of your dreaded stuffed bellpeppers today, your inedible spaghetti sauce—oh, and that other gruel, the one with the lima beans—and it actually smells good all these years later. Okay, better, it smells better.