from The Southampton Review, literary magazine of Stony Brook University Southampton
We were a lower middle class family in Queens—neither of my parents finished high school. They had to work and help support their parents. But they were readers, both of them, of the daily newspapers and magazines. I learned by example to look through the newspapers, first at the photos and cartoons, and, as soon as I was able, at the words. This was pre-television, so I also learned to listen to words via the radio, which was invariably tuned to a news program or to comedy—Gracie Allen and George Burns or Jack Benny, say.
When I was five, I got my very own library card. There was a remarkable, soft-spoken librarian, Miss Ross, at the Glendale Public Library, who held a weekly story hour. “A whole new world is opening for you, my dears,” she told me and my cousin, Buddy. “Come, let’s pick out some books that I just know you’ll love.” We followed her around the shelves, and I would leave the library with five or more books every week. Buddy, two years older, was allowed to help me cross streets to get to the library, so we always went together.
In a busy household of nine children—my three brothers and me upstairs, and five cousins in the downstairs apartment, we were left on our own as far as reading was concerned. In addition to my library books, there were the ladies’ magazines that my mother subscribed to or brought home from the store: Family Circle, Woman’s Day, Ladies’ Home Journal, Redbook. I read them all, anything that was in sight.
My father was a printer, coming home with inky fingers that I’ve always associated with hard work, but work that gave him pleasure as he printed colorful advertisements for one company, art reproductions for another. When I was about 10, he started working for J. J. Little and Ives Company, book printers. As I write this, I’m looking at a first edition of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, which my father brought home from work. When I first read Mailer, I felt bold and naughty because of that title and read in secret, even though I didn’t understand many parts of it.
My father loved humor, so our book collection included Esar’s Joke Dictionary, a 500-page tome published in 1945, and Of All Fool Things: A Book of Nonsensical Americana by Dick Hyman (1948), with an introduction by Jimmy Durante. I still page through these, as well as Getting the Most Out of Life: An Anthology from The Reader’s Digest (1946), which should be required reading for pessimists everywhere.
Dad was also a punster and, as I grew older, and my vocabulary grew, too, I became a match for him. “What’s the matter?” he’d say. “Is your herring bad?” “No,” I’d reply. “I’m just floundering around.” “Holy mackerel! Don’t get crabby on me.” “No, Dad, I’d better clam up.” He’d laugh out loud and say, “Now, young lady, that was just a fluke.” Silly banter that gave us great pleasure throughout his life.
My mother was my first role model when it came to careful writing and the art of putting sentences together. She was a letter writer with beautiful, delicately slanted handwriting. My father, too, had an easy-to-read style of writing and a good vocabulary, peppered with “ain’ts” and “erl” (oil) and “sperl” (you know). My father was also a crossword puzzle fan; I learned how to do puzzles because of his example and, in my teens, could actually complete those in The Daily News and The Long Island Press. At the age of 19 I started working in The New York Times Information Bureau. Employees got the Sunday puzzle on Wednesdays, and there were a few Times staffers in my department and in the morgue who could actually finish the puzzle that same day.
When I was about 10 I wrote my first novel. It was some 15 pages long, scrawled in a short, lined school notebook, and was a horror piece inspired by movies I’d seen on Saturday afternoons at the local movie theater. Those movies terrified me. My book, The Mummy’s Hand, was about walking through the cemetery at night—we lived one block from the cemetery—when a mummy reached up to grab me. He (or she?) was a composite of all those monsters I’d seen on the big screen. I was proud to be a real writer, but fear prevented me from keeping The Mummy’s Hand in my bedroom during the night. I read it to Buddy who seemed impressed. Being a good cousin and friend, he agreed to keep it in his room for a while. Finally one afternoon he and I had a ceremony to get rid of the book—another idea we took from the Saturday matinees. We wrapped it in newspaper and carried it to the vacant lot by the railroad tracks, not far from the cemetery. We lit matches we’d sneaked from home to burn the manuscript and thus save ourselves.
As an adult I’ve retained my passions for reading and writing. I love words. I love reading, being read to, hearing words from the stage or screen, from the radio or the TV. Aside from newspapers, magazines, the computer, I love seeing words written on just about anything—labels, cereal boxes, billboards, t-shirts, bumper stickers. Any word, anywhere will immediately draw my attention. Words in verse, dialogue, headlines – whatever. This love doesn’t always make me the best companion. In a restaurant or at a party, I will often look away to read words or listen to other people’s conversations. “Are you paying attention?” I’m frequently asked.
I am. Oh, yes, I am. To every word.