THE LITTLEST GOSSIP GIRL
Have you ever looked at the online photos of Britney's peesh?
I probably shouldn't start my book with that question, but I just I can't get enough of those photos. I find it nearly impossible to turn away from an online snapshot of any celebrity's peesh. All right, Kath. Focus. This is the story of your life.
Wait! Have you seen that TV commercial with Wynonna Judd where she hawks diet pills? Look, I don't mean to be rude, but maybe a gal with a big voice and a bigger . . . um . . . talent, shouldn't be hawking diet pills. Come on, you know those pills are just tiny donuts. Teeny, tiny powdered donuts.
All right, that wasn't very nice. In fact, it was inappropriate, and nothing short of cheap gossip. But let's face it, that's why you bought this book. That's right, I'm bringing it: gays, women, and the occasional DL (down-low) husband. The pages you are about to read have a lot of gossip, but guess what? Most of it's about me. I'm going to try to make this book a recipe (shout out to Paula Deen!) of equal parts shit-talking about myself and others. Yeah, I go down pretty hard on myself in this book. Not as hard as Steve Martin does, or my drunken Irish Catholic relatives do, perhaps. But I've had some heartaches and bumpy passages on this road to notoriety. Basically, I take great pride in the fact that I'm a professional. You're in good hands. This is a job I've been training for my entire life.
How did I get here, then?
I'll start with a statement so shocking you might have to burn this book immediately:
I was a kid who needed to talk. All the time.
I mean, what's a beleaguered Mary Margaret Griffin to do when her mouthy little daughter won't shut the fuck up? Breathe a sigh of relief, for one thing, whenever I would bolt out the front door of our house on Home Avenue in suburban Oak Park, Illinois.
But Mom was really of two minds about my exit. While part of her was thinking, Thank God, get her out of my earshot, the other part surely thought, Uh-oh. That's because I'd just go next door to the Bowens' house, where I first learned the power of juicy material.
The Bowens were an older couple, and they lived with Mrs. Bowen's mother, Mrs. Tyres. The Bowens, Mrs. Tyres, and I had a mutual understanding. They would bribe me with Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies, and I'd freely spill our family secrets, all to my mom's horror, of course. She knew exactly what was going on because she could see it all through our kitchen window, which had a perfect view into the Bowens' formal dining room. Mom would be doing dishes, occasionally nursing a nice highball—boxed wine innovations hadn't arrived yet—then look up, see my mouth moving, and then see the Bowens shaking their heads.
It was good stuff I was slinging, too. I'd reveal how one of my older siblings would have had a kegger the night before, and I'd run right over with the latest. "Yeah, Joyce had a party and one guy just fell asleep right on the lawn!" I'd excitedly report. "He was real drunk and everything! There was puke everywhere! My mom made me promise not to tell anybody! I don't think she meant you, Mrs. Tyres! Boy, these cookies sure are good!"
From my perch at the Bowens' table, I could see my poor mom waving me over, mouthing "Get back here! Get back here!" If either Mrs. Bowen or Mrs. Tyres looked over, too, my mom could turn on her party face instantaneously and be all smiles: "Oh hell-o-o-o-o-o-o, Mrs. Bowen!"
Everything was so prim and proper at the Bowens', with doilies on the table, and cookies neatly laid out on a plate. It was like high tea. At our packed house, it was a bag of cookies thrown out and all of us diving for them like animals, with no Kate Gosselin there to spank some sense into us. So naturally I thought it was my job to go next door to these fancy people and try to tell the most graphic, shocking, and horrible stories I could. I mean, haven't you sold your soul for a good slice of cake? (More on that later.)
Mr. Bowen, of course, wanted nothing to do with me. Typical straight- guy audience. He would come home in his suit, grab the newspaper, and sit in his Barcalounger, tolerating the freckly, red-headed, seven- year-old spinning top who came over and just talked constantly. Poor Mr. Bowen. The ladies, however, knew what was important, egging me on with widened eyes and a gently prodding "What?"
"My dad swore FOUR TIMES last night!"
"Joyce got kicked out of school again!"
"Keith Norman let me watch him pee in his yard today!"
"My brother had a party where everybody was drunk and my dad had this antique sword and it was stolen and my mom is FURIOUS!" (By the way, my family is still talking about that damn sword.)
This arrangement with the Bowens went on for years. It started when we moved into that Home Avenue house and continued till I was in high school. If the Bowens had had Flip cam technology, they could probably sell it on eBay for tens of dollars. Today, the story of my trips next door is one of my mother's favorites, but I guarantee you it caused her no end of grief back then.
"What are you airin' our GAHDDAMN dirty laundry for?" she'd always unload on me, her Chicago accent in full flight. "Mrs. Bowen and Mrs. Tyres, they don't want to hear your GAHDDAMN mouth, for CHR-EYE-SSAKE. JEEZ-us CHR-EYE-ST."
Sorry, Mom. You and everyone else in the family might call it tattling. But to me, they were my first live shows. From the Bowens to Madison Square Garden, it's been quite a ride.
Growing Up Griffin
With all the craziness this past year surrounding the Octomom and her fourteen kids—I'm on suicide watch for her, by the way—it's worth noting that my mother was herself the youngest of sixteen. Suck it, Octomom. Before fertility drugs let Nadya Suleman set some kind of land speed record in childbirth, there was good old-fashioned Irish Catholicism.
Of course, I've told Jesus to suck it, too, which earned me a certain measure of notoriety, because you have to make fun of any religion that would let you have sixteen kids and say it's God's will. I mean, bless my grandparents. They seem like they were wonderful people. I didn't know them, really, because most of them had passed away before I was born. But that amount of children is clearly insane. They were big believers in the rhythm method, and you can see how well that worked out for them. I don't even know my grandmother's first name, because my mother only refers to her as "The Saint." For instance, I would say, "Mom, don't you think it might not have been the best choice to keep on having children, one a year, like she was punching a clock?"
She'd reply, "NO, don't say that! The woman's a SAINT!"
My mother's father was just called "The Governor," or "Himself." Which, if you have sixteen kids, probably isn't as crazy as it sounds. "Himself is comin' home!" Grandma would supposedly announce in her Old Country brogue. I had to clarify with my mom who exactly she was talking about when she'd use this term. I would say, "Mom, do you mean your dad?" And she'd say "Of course. Himself."
Apparently, "Himself" liked to get into fistfights with his sons, well into their twenties. That's right. My mother would talk about this as if it were cute and adorable. Um, no. There isn't supposed to be any fisticuffs as a matter of everyday parenting.
I know I'm making fun of my family—mostly because I love teasing my mom —but there was also real tragedy in that situation. For one thing, you can't keep track of that many kids, and the likelihood of something horrible happening because of that just increases. This is a true Irish Catholic story: One young child in my mom's family died when he pulled a pot of boiling water off the stove and was scalded to death. Her sister Angeline died of tuberculosis when she was twenty-one. This was a time when scurvy and polio were real dangers, when a family member would go into a veterans' hospital and never come back.
My mother's family came over on a ship in steerage class from Ireland, but she and her four siblings nearest in age were born in America, so I'm second generation. They settled in the west side of Chicago, and life became all about the parish, or church community. Presentation was the name of the Catholic church they attended, and this is what I love about the Irish: My mother became known as the second prettiest girl at Presentation parish.
"Why was that okay?" I once asked her.
"Oh, because everybody knew Mary Griffin was the most beautiful girl at Presentation," she replied.
My mom was happy to be on the D-list! Just like I'm not trying to be Brooke Shields, she wasn't trying to be Mary Griffin. Now, she did go and marry the prettiest girl's brother, my father, John Patrick Griffin. That probably helps you accept the mantle of second prettiest girl at Presentation.
My dad's family, on the other hand, was something of an embarrassment at Presentation, because—get ready—my dad was the youngest of only five kids. You can imagine trying to be happy with only five children in the family. I'm sure you're dampening this page already with tears of pity.
We don't know if Mr. Griffin the elder was shooting blanks, or somebody was partially barren, which is apparently the worst thing you could call a woman in those days, but it gets crazier. After my grandmother had five children—six, really, since one baby sadly died after a week—she said, "I don't want any more kids." To which Grandpa said, "Well, the only way to not have kids is to not have sex, because we're not going to use condoms or anything."
"Yeah, that's the deal," my grandma agreed. "No more sex."
"No sex? I'm out of here."
I love that this was apparently a very religious man, too. What, a "bad" Catholic uses birth control, but a "good" Catholic leaves his wife over it? So-o-o-o religious. Anyway, Mr. Griffin moved out and relocated one parish over, where he checked tickets on streetcars for a living. But here's the kicker: Because it was such a shame to have a man leave you or get divorced, for years my dad had to tell the whole parish that his father had died. Mrs. Griffin would say, "Yeah, my husband passed away."
I just want to reiterate: He was one parish away. We're talking two miles. It was such a small-town culture that no one knew. How could they not just run into him?
It gets better. As my grandpa on my dad's side got older, he took ill. So the woman he abandoned, my grandmother, actually took him back, and took care of him! Then they had to tell the town, "Oh, right, he's . . . actually . . . not dead." But the best part is, when my grandparents reunited, they vowed never to speak to each other until the day they died. She nursed him in silence all the way to his deathbed. How sweet a deal did he get?
When his dad returned, my father was still living at home, and he had begun dating my mom. According to my mom, their first date, which took place at the blindingly romantic setting of his family's home, went something like this:
"Tell your mother to pass the butter."
"Tell your father to get his OWN butter!"
"Tell your mother I want some more soda bread."
"Tell your father he can have the soda bread when I'm good and ready!"
Maggie just looked over at the son of these two, and ten minutes later realized, "So this is the gig." But when she tells the story now, Mom makes it sound as if it were par for the course. So freakin' Irish Catholic.
Before they started dating my parents first met at the Formfit bra factory. Dad was a stock boy, and Mom was a secretary. Somebody introduced them, and as the story goes, that somebody said, "John, you know Maggie, the second prettiest girl at Presentation?" And he said, "No, I don't know her."
My mother was incensed. "What do you mean you don't know me? I'm the second prettiest girl at Presentation! And by the way, you're not that hot, anyway. How can you be related to a beautiful sister like Mary, the prettiest girl at Presentation?"
Well, the sparks flew. Mom was very intrigued that Dad wasn't just following her around drooling. But he really got her with his sense of humor. He did the smart thing in the beginning: He would go out on a "date" with her and a few of her girlfriends or sisters. It wasn't heavy dating. They didn't have any money, so a night out was a bottle of booze and a trip to the park with plastic cups in the middle of winter. Now, this is Chicago. That's a fucking cold night out. It was usually Dad, my mom, her friend Rae and her sister Irene, and they'd all just get hammered. Then, it would be too cold to walk home so they'd go from building to building, and Dad would ring the doorbell of each one. Then they'd be let into the foyer, warm up some, and then he would ring the bell of every apartment as a joke, and the girls would be mad at Dad but they'd laugh anyway. "Johnny, stop it!" they'd say, and he'd promise not to do it, and then do it again. Just so you know the level of entertainment we're dealing with here. This was a hot Saturday night for them.
According to my mom, she and dad dated almost two years before getting married. Dad was home on furlough from the war for just a few days, right before Pearl Harbor, after which he had to get back to his base right away. Mom went to meet him in Denver, hoping they could get married on St. Patrick's Day, but due to some army regulations, they had to wait until March 20 (at that time, soldiers kinda had to get approval, or so Maggie says)—lucky for them the army approved! They had their first child, Kenny, nine months and four days after they got married. We kids like to tease Mom: Perhaps she was a naughty girl? But she's very proud that that four-day window proved Kenny wasn't an "accident baby." The rest of us came afterward in four- or five-year increments: Joyce, Gary, John, and then me, on November 4, 1960. Right next to Election Day! (I then went on to retroactively elect my mother the prettiest girl at Presentation.) I'm the baby, just like my mother and father were in their families, and I never heard the end of it. I got away with everything, according to my siblings. But Mom doesn't think I was spoiled. Precocious, okay. Annoying, yes. But not spoiled. She will also happily admit that I was an accident baby, and that by the time I came along—eighteen years after their first child was born— Mom and Dad were too tired to worry about me.
But get this: When my mother was pregnant with me, it turns out she was on amphetamines. That's right, speed. This was a time when doctors thought a woman shouldn't gain more than fifteen pounds during a pregnancy—and when doctors spoke back then, mothers listened—so to keep her weight down they gave my mom amphetamines! She took them while she was pregnant, and after she had me to lose the few pounds she had gained. Plus—I love this—she's actually guilt-ridden about it. She thinks that's what made me crazy, or shall we say, the accomplished person I am today. Let's just take this in for a moment, shall we? In 1960 there were two doctors in Forest Park, Illinois, who were just doling out methamphetamines to pregnant Irish Catholic women with part-time jobs. Where's my Dateline episode? I like to picture my mom with a baby on the way, bouncing off the walls, scratching her neck, and fiddling with the rabbit ears on the TV set in a frenzied manner. This, by the way, is how I write my act: I get an idea in my head and I run with it. So granted, I was a fetus at the time, but I was there. You can't deny that. Also, the way I tell it is probably funnier than the way it actually happened. But in any case, she now believes I'm her crack baby.