The Chosen One
I began eavesdropping early in life, fascinated by the information adults reserve only for one another. Throughout my childhood I always felt I lacked that one significant piece of information that would help me make sense of the many things
I didn't understand. So I remedied my ignorance as best I could, either by asking for information directlywhich always yielded incomplete and useless responsesor by stealing it. Mine was a good neighborhood for eavesdropping. In the late afternoons, four or five mothers gathered around a backyard picnic table, downing cocktails, relating the trials of the day, and talking about their "real" livesthe lives that were somehow separate from us, their children.
It was the only time we got to see them in anything other than their roles as "Mom." Even though we would inevitably interrupt them in midsentence, forcing at least one mother to glare in the direction of trouble and scream, "Jimmy, I told you, no rocks in your mouth!" or "I don't care who started it. Work it out or we're going home!" their conversations slipped effortlessly from one subject to another. They were old friends, women united by the location of their houses, the colleges they had attended, their husbands' occupations, or the sheer numbers of children in their care. I always wondered what mothers talked about with such animation. What doubled them over with so much laughter that it could carry my mother into a great mood for the rest of the evening? What was happening when the mothers leaned across the picnic table and focused on the tears of another, their arms around her shoulders, their hands over hers? Whatmade mothers cry?
The best place to eavesdrop was in my own house, hidden by a wall thick enough to conceal me but thin enough to carry sound. It was better than television.
The best time for eavesdropping was at the many parties and spontaneous get-togethers my parents had with their close circle of friends. There was always a nucleus that outlasted everyone else, staying up all night, drinking, smoking, and talking. My mother and three or four other women were regulars. Fortunately for me, alcohol had a certain disinhibiting effect on the content of the conversations, as well as the volume.
We older kids in the neighborhood loved those nights because if we got up early enough the next morning, we could accompany our mothers to 6:00 a.m. Sunday mass. They would still be in their party clothes, smelling of alcohol, smoke, and perfume, sometimes even a little silly, which always made the service much more interesting. Our mothers, usually the paragons of upright worship, often struggled in those early mornings to suppress giggles that I thought only children had to manage. These were the only times our mothers ever agreed to stop for doughnuts on the way home. Then, as they registered the sight of the rest of their waking children, and the prospect of a new day on no sleep, our mothers drowned themselves in coffee and regret. And we prepared to stay out of their way.
It was in these late-night conversations that I began to learn what it was really like to be a grown-up. By the time I was twelve, I knew that Mr. Hardy's cheerful exterior was due, almost entirely, to alcohol. I learned which husbands kept their wives on tight leashes, always demanding more than they gave. I discovered that even grown-ups felt and said bad things about their parentsoften the same things kids said: they weren't fair, they didn't listen, they were overly critical and demanding. I heard about Mr. McNulty's reasons for leaving home and the "whisperings" of divorce, which made me reevaluate my notion of marriage as an absolutely immutable state with no variation. I thought you were either married or you weren't. Happiness had nothing to do with it. Over the years in those conversations, I learned about the many gradations of the grown-up brand of happy. I learned who was happy, who wasn't, and why. Eavesdropping on those people in the night made them forever different to me in the day.
One night, as the conversation loosened by the hour, I heard the hard-core night owls discussing their children. My ears really perked up, because even though I believed that mothers were put on this earth for the sole purpose of caring for children, I never heard them talk about us very much in their free time. As the only one with a bedroom on the first floor, I was situated perfectly to crack my door, lie in the dark, and hear every single word they said.
My mother and her friends started talking about potential problems with the people their children might marry. Of course, the first and most likely hurdle was a child marrying a "non-Catholic," which, for all intents and purposes, meant Protestant. They all felt that they could handle it, although some worried about the reactions of their parents. Then they progressed to the possibility of their children meeting, dating, and marrying Jews, a fairly high likelihood where we lived on Long Island. There was a definite split on this issue, with the majority agreeing that dating Jewish boys and girls would be fine, but marriage would be too complicated, especially when it came to the question of "the children." Then for some reason, they started talking about who would most likely marry a black person and why. Mrs. Burns bet that her oldest daughter would do it out of spite and that the marriage would never last. My mother volunteered that I would be the most likely of her daughters to marry a black man and that my marriage would last. I found this whole line of discussion puzzling since, to my knowledge, I had never met a black man, and I wasn't aware that my mother had either.