Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter 11

The weekend is here, and thank God for that. I’ve been going crazy, padding around in the blue hush of the Tanners. It’s like living in a school library, the way we all tiptoe around, keeping conversation to a minimum. All week, I kept thinking of my brothers barreling through the back door, finding my mom and me in silence at the kitchen table, and saying, “Whoa, who died?”

At the pub, everyone’s talking about Euro Disney, which opened this week.

“I reckon that’s America’s biggest export—the big mouse,” our bartender says, tilting a pint glass under the tap. A guy with a shabby goatee drops the line that everyone’s quoting, that Euro Disney is “a cultural Chernobyl,” and I can tell by his tone that he thinks Americans are common philistines. “It’s basically intellectual pollution,” Goatee Boy says, looking at Tracy and me, waiting for a response.

A jolt of patriotism kicks in, and I can’t let it lie, as my mother would advise. “I read in the paper that they hired like twelve thousand people,” I say. “And, seriously, how evil can it be? It’s roller coasters and cotton candy.”

“Like Australia’s Wonderland!” the bartender jumps in, guiding us back to conviviality. Tracy orders two more beers—Budweisers this time—and we move to a communal table where we can roll our eyes and meet better people.

“To Donald Duck,” I say, raising my glass to hers.


In no time, we meet some boys, better boys, boys who agree that America and Australia are basically in-laws now that Tom Cruise married Nicole Kidman. We teach them to play Thumper, our favorite drinking game from college. People love making up signs and doing the motions and having to drain their beer every time they screw up. There’s a lot of flirting, all harmless. Around one A.M., Tracy and I peel off and head back to the Tanners’.

Inching our way up the hill, we share the last cigarette, declaring it a Mega Night. In the unlit driveway, we walk quietly past Pop’s window and into a mesh of fresh spiderwebs. We’re covered in threads. We reach around for branches to break up the elaborate, invisible screen that secures the Tanner driveway at night. It’s been years since I went to a Haunted House but the correlation is immediate.

While we brush our teeth, Tracy says, “Don’t you hate it when people take digs at America?”

“Bugs the crap out of me,” I say through a mouthful of toothpaste. “I don’t even care if some of it’s true.” I spit toothpaste foam into the running water.

Before this year, I’d barely considered what it meant to be an American, other than my mother’s dictate that good Americans buy U.S. products made on U.S. soil by U.S. workers. (For the bulk of my childhood, she piloted a wood-paneled Chevy wagon, flinging dirty looks at anyone behind the wheel of a Toyota or a Honda. Honestly, who do they think gets their money and what do they think they’re doing with it?)

Around Main Line Philadelphia, my association with my mother felt unfavorable, unbearable, and, considering she was as beyond my control as American foreign policy, unfair. But when I was in middle school, the very zenith of self-consciousness, a nervy boy named Harry Morrison who liked to hang around my brothers but didn’t like my mother’s house rules (and wasn’t afraid to give her the finger behind her back) took a potshot at her, and a dormant allegiance rose in me.

One night when no one was around, Harry Morrison took a can of black spray paint to the concrete underpass leading to our street and wrote in giant letters:




I read the announcement twice before I understood what it meant. “Oh my God, Mom.”

“That’s nice,” she said coolly as we drove past it.

“That’s YOU.”

“Sticks and stones, Kelly. We don’t worry about that sort of thing.”

I worried about that sort of thing. I was thirteen; that was pretty much all I worried about. What did people think about me? What did they think of my mother—her nylon sweatsuit, her frosted hair, the way she cracked her gum? Last and most important, did what they thought of my mother make them think less or more of me?

“What are you going to do about it?” I asked, my voice shrill with panic.

“Absolutely nothing.”

Some foul-mouthed kid who didn’t like to be told to clean up his language or go home? Who wasn’t invited to stay for dinner after rolling his eyes at her? That kid and his graffiti tantrum didn’t bother my mother one iota.

In a matter of days, the message was covered by a sloppy black rectangle, but when the sun angled in, you could still see our address. On bad days, when I’d had a blowup with my mother over cutting my hair in her bathroom and clogging her sink, or using a certain dismissive tone with her that she wouldn’t use to talk to a criminal, I’d think maybe Harry Morrison had it right. More often, I felt a strange, powerful mix of pity and chemical anger. It was my first taste of protective wrath, the kind that only mothers are said to possess.

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