october 1988–march 1995
Whe alice was Five years old, Julia said, “I think you’re old enough to know the truth. Your father died in a car accident last
For the rest of her life, Alice would remember this moment, down to the smallest detail. They were sitting at their square kitchen table in their apartment on East 86th Street. Alice’s hair was in braids, because her mother said she didn’t keep it tidy enough when it was down. She was wearing her favorite mustard-colored corduroy skirt and eating cereal. Julia bought Cheerios because they were healthy, but Alice always added a tablespoon of sugar to her bowl.
Alice put down her spoon and said, “Oh.” Her hands felt tingly, so she tucked them underneath her legs. She noticed that her mother didn’t look sad.
“Does Grandma Rose know?”
Her mother raised her eyebrows. She was wearing a suit—this one was pale lavender with a small gold chain across the breast pocket—and her Monday-to-Friday makeup. Alice’s mother was very beautiful; everyone said so. Mrs. Laven, who was friends with her grandmother and lived down the hall, called Julia Gorgeous as if it were her name. Alice also knew that her mother was skeptical about her own beauty. Julia’s hair always upset her; whenever she passed a mirror, she tried to reshape it with her hands. “You’re so lucky you don’t have these curls, Alice,” she would say, at least three times a
week. Alice had long, straight, pale hair that was neither quite blond nor brown. She thought her hair was boring compared to her mother’s, which moved around as if it had its own plans for the day. Julia wore her hair up at work so it couldn’t embarrass her.
“Of course Grandma Rose knows.” Julia took a sip of her coffee. She didn’t eat breakfast but drank three coffees before lunch. “Don’t mention it to her on the phone, though. She won’t want to talk about it, and you know what she’s like when she’s upset.”
Alice nodded, even though this confused her. She didn’t think of Grandma Rose getting upset, certainly not in a way that was scary or to be avoided. Alice and her mother visited Grandma Rose once a year at her condo in Florida. Her grandmother raised her voice and threw her arms around while telling stories about grown-ups Alice didn’t know, but Grandma Rose seemed to enjoy that. Getting worked up was part of Grandma Rose’s day, like brushing her teeth or sitting on her tiny balcony. Alice had always found her grandmother’s agitation comforting. It made her feel safe, because she knew if someone was ever mean to her, Grandma Rose would let them have it.
Alice became aware that her mother was watching her carefully, so she straightened in her chair.
“I know that you never knew your father,” Julia said, “but I didn’t want to keep this from you. This doesn’t affect us, though, right? It’s always been just you and me, baby girl. We don’t need anyone else.” Alice nodded again. Every night when her mother tucked her in, the last thing Julia said before switching off the light was: “It’s you
and me forever, baby.”
Alice finished her cereal, then she and her mother walked around the corner to Alice’s school, and her mother continued on to work. The news swirled through Alice all day. It felt important, even though she couldn’t have said why. In a way, it was like her mother had handed her a father and then taken him away in one sentence. Before this, Alice had been vaguely aware that she had a father, but
he was almost never mentioned. Her mother had told Alice once that he hadn’t wanted a family, and that was all she’d known until now. Perhaps Alice had been unconsciously waiting for news about her father this whole time. It was like a question inside her had been answered. At the age of five, she didn’t carry around many questions, so that made this a big day.
In the schoolyard, she told her best friend, Carrie, “My father died.”
Her friend’s mouth opened in surprise. Carrie made this face a lot, because she was surprised a lot. Alice would keep track, while she and Carrie grew up, of the life events that didn’t surprise her friend, because this was a much shorter list.
“I didn’t know you had a dad,” Carrie said. “He lived in Chicago.”
“Chicago.” Carrie said the name like it was its own surprise. “I didn’t know that. You never met him?”
“Not since I was a baby.” “Do you need a hug?”
Alice nodded, and she and Carrie hugged until the bell rang and they filed into their kindergarten classroom.
After that, Alice took an interest in fathers. She wondered what distinguished them from mothers and if a child actually needed one. There were mostly mothers and nannies at drop-off and pickup from school, but there would be an occasional dad, and Alice would study him closely. A few dressed like the fathers on television, in neat suits, holding briefcases. Sometimes a dad picked up his child and swung him or her around in a circle, and Alice had never seen a mother do that. Julia certainly never wrestled with her the way Alice watched a dad play-wrestle with his son by the jungle gym one afternoon. Carrie’s dad was the only father Alice knew personally, though he rarely remembered Alice’s name. He called every child, other than his daughter, kiddo. He wore thick glasses and flannel shirts and generally didn’t seem to notice the little girls when they
were in the apartment, as if they were too short to enter his field of vision. He was in charge of breakfast—he wore a deadly serious expression while he flipped pancakes—and he was responsible for taking out the garbage, but those were his only specific roles as far as Alice could tell.
Alice felt no need for a father, personally; her life was peaceful and happy. Julia came into Alice’s room every morning and woke her up by whispering, “Good morning, baby girl,” and in the evenings they made dinner together while watching Jeopardy! on the small television in their kitchen. Alice’s job was to make the salad, and she did so while standing on a stool by the counter. Julia took off her heels, suit jacket, and earrings before she entered the kitchen, and this softened version of her mother—all the buttons and sharp points gone—made Alice act like the silliest version of herself. The game show questions were usually too difficult for Alice to understand, but she would say a nonsense answer in such a confident voice that Julia would double over with laughter. Fridays were always “girls’ nights,” and the mother and daughter spent the whole week discussing which movie they would rent from the Blockbuster store on the corner. They watched the film while wearing fuzzy robes and painting their nails. If Julia had a date on Saturday night, Mrs. Laven and Alice would order Chinese food and then play Chutes and Ladders, which was their favorite board game. Most Sundays, Julia and Alice went for a walk in Central Park and bought giant pretzels from their favorite vendor, a Nigerian man named Bou who knew that Julia liked extra mustard on hers. Every day of their week had a regular cadence and routine, and Alice liked them all.
o e Friday i third grade, Alice’s teacher, an older woman named Mrs. Salisbury—who frowned at the class all day as if it were an integral part of her pedagogy—told Alice to stay in the classroom
after the final bell. Mrs. Salisbury left the room, and then returned with Alice’s mother. Julia, in her elegant business suit and high heels, looked out of place and uncomfortable amid the sea of tiny desks. She and Mrs. Salisbury seemed like an unlikely pair of adults. Mrs. Salisbury had a headful of giant gray curls that she had set once a week at the hair salon. They looked like waves that would never crash; you could see through the center of them, and they didn’t move.
The teacher said, “Mrs. Padavano, I’m sure you’re wondering why I called you.”
“Ms. Padavano, if you don’t mind,” Julia said. “Not Mrs.”
Alice tilted her head, wondering if her mother would go further. She had heard Julia describe herself as a divorcée recently, but only because a nosy mother had made it impossible to deflect the question. Her mother clearly didn’t like saying the word. She normally said she was a single mother. “I say that,” she’d told Alice, “because the most important part of my life is being your mom.”
“Ms. Padavano, I wonder if you were aware of Alice’s report, which she presented to the class today?”
“No…I try to give her independence with her work,” Julia said. “She asks me when she needs help.”
Alice was seated at her small desk. She scuffed her feet against the linoleum floor. “I didn’t talk to my mom about the report. I worked on it in the library during after-school.”
“I figured,” the teacher said in a dry voice. “Ms. Padavano, I’ve been teaching in this school for thirty-two years, and I have never seen a child come up with a presentation like this one. The students are allowed to choose any subject they like—this helps them feel invested in their work—and then they have to do some very basic research and talk about the subject to the class. Your daughter gave a presentation on automobile accidents. She told us about all the celebrities who’ve died in car accidents, including details on how Jayne Mansfield was decapitated in a crash—”
“Oh my,” Julia murmured.
“Alice gave the class statistics on how many people die in car accidents every year. She made it sound like if a person sets foot in a car, they are risking death. And then she finished by showing us photos of wrecked cars.”
Julia looked at her daughter, her eyes wide.
“Several of the children in the class started to cry, Ms. Padavano. I can guarantee you that I will receive many phone calls from upset parents this weekend.”
“I’m so sorry,” Julia said. “I will speak to Alice.”
“I won’t be allowing her to speak to the class without running her ideas by me first.”
“Of course not. And I’ll make sure nothing like this happens again.” Julia had Alice by the hand and was walking her out of the classroom. On the sidewalk outside the school, she stopped. “What in the world?” Julia’s face was pale. “Why would you do that?”
Alice shrugged, even though her mother had told her that a shrug was an unacceptable response to a question. “I want your words,” Julia had said to her since she was small.
“Wait,” Julia said, “is this why you’ve been refusing to take taxis for the past year? Because you’re scared of cars?”
“I’m sorry you had to leave work,” Alice said. She normally stayed late and either attended an after-school program or read books in the school library. She was picked up by a babysitter or Julia, depending on the day. “I’m sorry I did something wrong.” She didn’t like to inconvenience her mother; Alice prided herself on not causing Julia difficulties. She got good report cards and often signed her own permission slips for field trips so Julia would have one less thing to do. Alice felt like school was her job, and she was disappointed in herself for screwing up.
Julia’s expression changed, as if an idea had just occurred to her. “Is this because of what…Is this because of your father?”
Alice shrugged again, but it was a weary one this time. “He would still be alive if he hadn’t gotten in that accident.”
After a moment, Julia said, “I see.”
“I didn’t think the kids were going to cry, Mama. I thought they’d find it interesting, and I wanted them to know that cars are very dangerous.”
“It sounds like you were successful, baby girl.”
That evening, they didn’t have their usual girls’ night, because Julia had a headache and needed to lie down. Alice ate popcorn with extra butter and used the remote to flip from one channel to the next. She put herself to bed, because her mother’s door was closed and she thought Julia might be asleep.
A half hour later, though, Alice’s mother opened the door to her room. “Are you awake?” she whispered from the doorway. Julia was wearing her nightgown, and her hair was down.
“Yes,” Alice said. “It always takes me at least nineteen minutes to fall asleep.” She kept track of this, out of curiosity. She had to think all the thoughts in her head before her body allowed her to sleep.
“I need to know…Are you feeling all right?” Julia said. “Are you sad about car accidents? Or”—she paused—“about anything? I need you to tell me if you’re sad.”
Her mother’s voice sounded so anxious that Alice thought, Am I supposed to be sad? She considered the question. “No,” she said, having made an internal inventory. “I don’t feel sad.”
“Wonderful,” her mother said, in her normal voice. “That’s wonderful. You go to sleep now, okay? I love you, baby girl.” And the door closed, and Julia was gone.
i middle school, alice hit a relentless growth spurt. It felt like she and her body had been on the same path and then, one random day, her body headed in a different direction at full speed, and Alice was
left wondering what was going on. She was always hungry, and Julia had to stock boxes of granola bars to get Alice from one meal to the next. Alice’s stomach would grumble so loudly in class that the kids around her would laugh, and she was mortified. She had stabbing aches in her thighs and lower back, which the pediatrician diagnosed as normal growing pains, but Alice, incredulous, thought, How can this be normal? The only thing that eased her discomfort was lying on the floor with her legs up against the wall, so that’s the position Alice was in most of the time when she was home from school. To her horror, bright-red streaks appeared on her back and upper arms
—stretch marks—which the doctor said would fade but never completely disappear.
By the middle of sixth grade, Alice had passed her mother’s height: five feet four inches. Alice felt a new kind of sadness when this happened. Her body was galloping her away from childhood and away from her mother. Quickly, Alice was one inch taller than her mother, then three. She found she could reach items on the top shelf in their kitchen. She looked down at the top of her mother’s head and understood, for the first time, that her mother was just a woman. Julia wasn’t more special or stronger than anyone else, and clearly she would no longer be able to save Alice if she needed saving. If the house was on fire, Alice would have to pick up her mother and run, not the other way around. This reality made Alice feel panicked, and she had trouble sleeping for the first time in her life. She didn’t know what to do.
Alice was aware that her growing height discomfited her mother too. Julia often looked startled when Alice stood up out of a chair or entered the room. They shared a look that said, What is happening? The balance between them had been disrupted; now Julia had to look up at her middle-schooler when she spoke, and Alice looked down at her mother and thought, Can I trust you?
It was at this stage that Alice shifted her investigations from outside their apartment to inside. With this new awareness that her
mother was flawed—because all people were flawed—Alice needed to learn Julia’s specific issues so that she could compensate for them when the time came. It occurred to her that maybe this was why a kid needed two parents and siblings. Brothers and sisters were helpful because they could check in with one another to confirm that a parental bad mood or overreaction wasn’t their fault. And in a two-parent home, if one parent’s frailties were revealed, the child could lean on the other parent. It was a backup system, and there was no backup system in Alice’s home. If something happened to Julia, Alice would be on her own. She made sure her mother went for a checkup with the doctor and suggested that they eat heart-healthy dinners, a comment that made Julia laugh, until she realized her daughter wasn’t joking.
When Julia was at the supermarket one day, Alice went through her mother’s closet and drawers. She felt no guilt about this activity. In her mind, this was important research, with life-or-death consequences. If Julia had a secret problem, Alice needed to know about it. She shuffled through items she expected to find: clothes, jewelry, makeup, and toiletries. Alice did find one interesting thing, during her search through Julia’s bedside table: an envelope with a few photographs inside.
The photographs were all at least fifteen years old, and they were of Julia and her sisters. There was a photo of the four sisters with their arms around one another’s shoulders; Julia and Sylvie looked like they were in their late teens. Alice was able to identify the different sisters because, on every visit to Florida, she pored through her grandmother’s photo albums, trying to commit the contents to memory. There was no space between the sisters in this picture; they were pressed together as if they were as comfortable with one another’s bodies as they were with their own. Sylvie’s head rested on Julia’s shoulder, and Emeline and Cecelia were pointing identical smiles at the camera. The sisters looked deeply similar, like they
were four different versions of the same person. Alice had never seen her mother look that happy.
There was also a photo of an older Sylvie sitting on a couch holding a baby—Alice wondered if the baby was her. But perhaps Sylvie had a baby of her own; Alice didn’t know. And the final photo must have been from a party—perhaps thirty people were turned toward the camera. Grandpa Charlie was in the photo, his arms outstretched, his face beaming at his daughters. Rose must have been shaking her head, because her face was slightly blurred. A younger Julia was in the photo, wearing blue jeans, with her hair down. Her sisters were so close she could reach out and touch them. Someone must have just told a joke, because the people in the photo looked both startled and mid-laugh. Alice scanned the photo, looking for a man who resembled her; she’d never seen a photograph of her father, but she knew she had his hair color and blue eyes. Everyone in the photo, though, looked like a Padavano.
After she put the photos back in the envelope and in the drawer, Alice stayed on the floor next to her mother’s bed. The discovery of the photographs had somehow confirmed Alice’s sense that there was something she needed to find or, in this case, remember. She rarely thought about the fact that she had aunts, living in another city. Grandma Rose told Alice stories about her four daughters when they were young, about Grandpa Charlie, and about their house on 18th Place, but her mother behaved as if her life had started when she and Alice moved to New York City. Why were the only photos from that before-time hidden and not up on their walls? If she had more family in her life, Alice would be safer. This tactile proof that she had family but no connection to them made the fuzz of panic rise inside her, and she had to press down on her legs to stop them aching.
That night, while she and her mother were making dinner, Alice said, “Why don’t you speak to your sisters?”
Julia had already taken out all the ingredients for the meatloaf, but she opened the refrigerator door and looked inside anyway.
There were a few beats of silence, and Alice knew, for the first time, in her tall body, that her mother was wielding that quiet at her intentionally. It was designed to make Alice stop asking these kinds of questions. Alice could see these pockets of heavy quiet scattered back through her childhood, whenever she brought up topics her mother didn’t want to discuss. Alice’s father and his death, Julia’s childhood, her sisters.
Julia said, “I’m in touch with Emeline and Cecelia sometimes, but we live in different cities. And we have busy lives. When you have siblings, you’re close when you’re young, because you live in the same house. But when you grow up, you go your separate ways.”
In the past, Alice had obeyed her mother’s hints and changed the subject. But now she needed to know what was behind the quiet. This was why she had gone through her mother’s drawers, in case there was knowledge she might need to take care of herself. “Are the other three—Sylvie, Emeline, and Cecelia—still close?”
Julia looked at her, her face expressionless. “I don’t know. They live in the same city, so maybe.” She paused, and then said, “I’m a self-sufficient adult, Alice. That’s rare for a woman, and I’m proud of that fact. If I raise you right, you won’t need anyone either.”
Alice pictured her mother on one small deserted island and herself on a different island, within waving distance.
Julia said, “Why are you asking me these questions now?”
Alice wanted to say, Because I think it’s strange that the only family photos we have are in an envelope in a drawer, and I think it’s strange that the only family we ever see is Grandma Rose and we spend holidays alone or down the hall with Mrs. Laven and her relatives. And because you have three sisters and I wish I had a sister to share a bedroom with and to talk to in the dark at night.
“We have a wonderful life,” Julia said. “Don’t we?”
“Yes,” Alice said, because her mother clearly expected an answer, and because it was true. For now, she thought. But what if something goes wrong?
The next time Julia left the apartment to run errands, Alice phoned Grandma Rose. She said, “Did my mom have a fight with her sisters?”
She knew the question would surprise her grandmother, but she also thought there was a good chance Rose would answer. Traces of her mother’s pre–New York life existed all over Grandma Rose’s condo: Four framed photos of Rose’s daughters hung over the couch, and portraits of female saints from their Chicago home— which her mother always rolled her eyes at—sat on the wall above her kitchen table. And Rose was a talker; there were no pockets of quiet in her company.
“Of course Julia had fights with them. All sisters fight, you know.
It’s part of being in a family.”
“My mom and I never fight,” Alice said. “And I’ve never fought with you.”
“Well,” Rose said, “that’s true. Maybe each generation is better than the one before. But what happened between your mom and her sisters is their business—do you think they told me anything? I’m their mother.”
“It just seems odd that I’ve never even spoken to any of my aunts. I know Emeline visited us, but I was too little to remember. My friend Carrie sees her aunts and uncles all the time. I feel like”— Alice hesitated—“something’s missing. My mom never talks about anything she doesn’t want to.”
“That is the ever-loving truth,” Rose said. “And I’m not going to get in trouble by telling you anything without her approval.”
“I don’t know my father’s last name. Can you tell me that?” “Ask your mother,” Rose said, and hung up.
Alice tried to get information about her mother from Mrs. Laven, but the older woman was indignant to be asked. “Your mother is gorgeous and brilliant, and she’s worked her derrière off to run her own business,” Mrs. Laven said. “You are, bar none, the luckiest little girl in the world.” Alice sighed and changed the subject. She knew
that her mother had given an internship to Mrs. Laven’s troubled nephew one summer and that Julia gave Mrs. Laven an expensive purse from a fancy store every Christmas; it was clear that if this was the last road Alice had access to, it was closed. She considered, as a final resort, writing a letter to one of her aunts, but she didn’t know their addresses or what to say. Hi, I’m your niece. How are you? She knew it was possible that her mother was right, that sisters grew apart when they hit adulthood and no longer had a home in common. How would Alice know? Perhaps they barely thought of one another anymore.
She stopped asking her mother questions. There seemed to be no point, and the practice agitated Julia, which Alice couldn’t risk. Stress could contribute to high blood pressure, which could lead to a heart attack or a stroke, and Julia’s health needed to be prioritized. Alice told herself: If I stop asking questions, I’ll stop growing. She’d been making these kinds of bets with herself since the growth spurt began. If I stop chewing my nails, I’ll stop growing. If I give up candy. If I put my hand up in class when the teacher wants me to. None of these trade-offs had panned out, though, and this one didn’t either. Alice went quiet on the subject of her mother’s past, and yet she continued to rise.