Toby Lived Hereby Hilma Wolitzer
When Toby’s father dies in a car accident, her mother gets a new job and a cheaper apartment. At first it seems as if everything might be all right, but soon the pressure gets to be too much. Toby’s mother stops cooking, stops talking, and starts crying or/b>
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While in foster care, Toby and her sister learn what “family” really means
When Toby’s father dies in a car accident, her mother gets a new job and a cheaper apartment. At first it seems as if everything might be all right, but soon the pressure gets to be too much. Toby’s mother stops cooking, stops talking, and starts crying or laughing at random times. When she is committed to a rest home, Toby and her sister, Anne, are placed in foster care against their will.. The Selwyns are a kind couple, but nothing about their house feels like home. The artwork is tacky, the music is lame, and the kitchen table is depressing yellow Formica. But in her simple little bedroom, Toby finds a haven. As she and her sister struggle to adjust to their scary new life, she learns that family is what you make it, and home can be anywhere you feel at peace. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Hilma Wolitzer, including rare photos and never-before-seen documents from the author’s personal collection.
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Read an Excerpt
Toby Lived Here
By Hilma Wolitzer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Hilma Wolitzer
All rights reserved.
"Emotionally disturbed," the social worker murmured, writing in her book.
"Unstable," Uncle Ralph said, and Toby thought of wild horses, un-stabled, their manes flying in the wind. But she knew her mother was crazy, had gone crazy, no matter what anyone called it. And that she was in a state hospital, where all the patients were like that, and where there were bars on the windows.
Summoned by neighbors, Toby and Anne's grandmother had come to their apartment, her battered brown valise banging up the stairs at her side. And when the old woman stood in the doorway, breathless from climbing, enraged at this final duty for a dead son, Anne burst into tears. "What's the matter with her?" the grandmother asked.
Later, in their bedroom, the sisters whispered together, conspiring in the dark. "I want Mommy," Anne said, but Toby knew she wanted their old mommy, that known person they could trust, not the one who moaned and raved and woke them before morning to tell them terrible stories from her imagination. Not the mother who had crouched in the bathroom the night before and would not speak at all.
"Me too," Toby said. She was twice as old as Anne, but that didn't seem to matter now.
Their grandmother snored in their mother's bed.
"And I'm not going to live with her," Anne said. "She's mad all the time, and she smells."
Anne meant anger, not madness, and Toby felt the same way, although she hadn't noticed a bad smell.
Before she went to sleep, their grandmother had emptied her suitcase onto the bed, dumping everything at once, the straps and strings of her undergarments snaking like live things. She opened drawers and closets, slamming them shut on the evidence of her daughter-in-law's sickness. "Look at this mess!" she cried. "I told him and I told him."
Dirty laundry lay in collapsed piles in the bedroom. The refrigerator was filled with inedibles: furred fruit and milk that was clotted and ivory-yellow.
Their mother liked to invent exotic dishes, main courses with bananas or peanuts in them. But she had hardly cooked anything lately, and for a few days had eaten almost nothing herself. The girls emptied cereal boxes and boxes of cookies whenever they were hungry. Once Toby tried to cook eggs, but she forgot about them until the water boiled out and the eggs exploded against the walls. Their mother had laughed and laughed as if it were truly funny, while Toby wiped the walls with a damp sponge. There were still bits of dried yolk and shell on the tiles.
For supper that night, their grandmother had slathered peanut butter on borrowed bread and placed the sandwiches on paper napkins in front of the sisters. She wasn't going to take on dirty dishes, too.
Peanut butter, without jelly to ease it down, was difficult to swallow at any time, and impossible to get past the thickness of sorrow in their throats. Anne choked and whimpered.
When the grandmother went out of the room, Toby grabbed the sandwiches and threw them into the oven. "Shhh," she said. "Don't tell." And for once Anne cooperated.
"We won't have to live with her," Toby said later in the bedroom, but she wasn't sure and her voice quavered. They might have to do all sorts of things they didn't want to. Without their mother there, she felt unprotected and uncertain. But she wasn't going to give in to those feelings. She hadn't even cried once since everything happened. Her mother was like that, used to be like that, and Toby wanted to be the same way—strong and able to bear trouble without complaining. Everyone said she looked like her mother, too, with her heavy dark hair and deep-blue eyes.
"We won't go," Toby said in a louder and harder voice, as much to herself as to Anne. She thought of stories she'd read about children who had run away from home. Then she thought of Anne's favorite, Hansel and Gretel, and how they were lost in the woods and tried so desperately to find their way back again. Growing sleepy at last, she imagined a long, white path of bread crumbs that would lead her and Anne back safely, far back in memory, to a time when they had been happy.
She was right about their grandmother, at least. The next day there was a conference. Their mother's Uncle Ralph came from Riverdale, and Miss Vernon, a social worker from the agency the doctor had called, arrived a few minutes later. She looked at the children with such open sympathy that Toby found it uncomfortable to meet her gaze. Sympathy was somehow as painful as their grandmother's rage.
But Anne sat on the social worker's roomy lap, apparently eager for the consolation of an embrace. She sucked her thumb, that baby habit revived whenever she was unhappy.
"Now!" Miss Vernon said, like someone calling a meeting to order. "Let's see what arrangements we can make for these young ladies until we've weathered our crisis."
"Well, I can't take care of them with these legs," the grandmother announced, as if she possibly had another pair at home more suitable for the job. They all looked down at her short, thick legs in their elastic stockings, and nobody said anything. "I warned him twelve years ago about this," she added, and Toby knew she was referring to their father.
Uncle Ralph cleared his throat and mumbled something about water under the bridge, and then: "My wife and I aren't prepared for additional responsibility at this time. Our own children ... Business commitments ..." His voice faded and he looked miserable, smaller somehow than he had seemed a moment ago.
Miss Vernon hugged Anne, determinedly cheerful. "Well! Some of Mrs. Goodwin's friends have offered financial aid, but none of them is in a position to assume custody of both girls. Given the circumstances, we didn't want to separate them. And it's always best, we think, if the family can absorb the children in cases like this. But, if not, we'll have to make other plans."
With some difficulty, she convinced the grandmother to stay a few more days, until a foster home could be found. "Otherwise," Miss Vernon explained, "the girls will have to be placed in a county shelter."
Toby had never heard of a shelter for children before, just one for animals, for homeless cats and dogs.
Anne shifted in Miss Vernon's arms. "I want Mommy," she said, so plaintively that Toby felt as if she had said the words herself.
"Of course you do," the social worker said, and their Uncle Ralph jingled the change and keys in his pocket, anxious to be away. "And you'll have her, as soon as she's well again."
At this, the grandmother snorted, drawing fury from the social worker's eyes, although her mouth still smiled.
"C-r-a-z-y," the grandmother spelled. "And you don't get better from that."
Toby could see Anne trying to shape the word phonetically, the way she had learned in school, but the c-r sound was too much for her. Toby shuddered. What if their grandmother was right? But wasn't there medicine to make you better when this happened, the way there was for sore throats and stomach aches? She knew there were all kinds of wonder drugs, but was there something like penicillin that could change her mother back to the way she had been? She thought of Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre, a book her mother had read aloud to her because she liked it so much she wanted to hear it again herself. Mrs. Rochester, wild-eyed and clawing, a crazy woman kept in the attic like some terrible, untamable beast. Would Toby's mother have to be locked in a dark room somewhere forever? She remembered that awful night with such clarity her chest ached. Their mother lying naked in the bathroom, curled up, even her fists tight, the way Anne had slept as a baby, and making those harsh, anguished sounds that weren't words, without a stop. They had spoken to her and touched her, and finally Toby shouted as if her mother were only deeply asleep or suddenly deaf. Anne screamed and begged, "Don't do that, Mommy. I'm scared!" And then she repeated, "Mommy Mommy Mommy"—a needle caught in the groove of a broken record.
Neighbors came in their bathrobes, looking frightened themselves, and one of them called the police and an ambulance. Little children stared at Anne and Toby from doorways and through the banister rails as they went downstairs behind the stretcher. There was a small crowd in the street and their faces seemed to glow with excitement in the turning red light of the ambulance.
Now Toby felt a wail like the siren's beginning deep in her throat and she forced it back with an effort that was physical, and said, "What's going to happen to us?"CHAPTER 2
Anne thought their name was Foster, and that was why they were called foster parents. She called the man Mr. Foster the first night at dinner, making them laugh. Even Toby smiled briefly, although she was feeling wretched with homesickness. Except for summer vacations and a few slumber parties, she had never slept anywhere else before. And thoughts of the friends in whose homes she had slept made her feel worse. When would she see them again? It was almost as if they had never been her friends at all.
That morning, Miss Vernon and their grandmother had helped the sisters to pack their clothing. All Toby's bedtime fantasies of running away had vanished, and she left, as docile as Anne, without looking back at the brownstone face of the house. Then Miss Vernon drove the girls to their schools so they could remove other belongings from lockers and desks.
In the first-grade classroom, the children were busy cutting and pasting and coloring. There were scraps of construction paper all over the floor. The teacher kissed and hugged Anne and said she hadn't expected them so early. The art project the children were working on so earnestly turned out to be twenty-two farewell cards for Anne. The teacher asked Miss Vernon if they could wait a few more minutes until everyone was finished.
Then Toby helped Anne to carry the cards and they were heavy and damp with wet lumps of paste. GODBY DEER ANNE, the top one said, each letter carefully colored with a different crayon. Underneath, a house was drawn, and someone whose arm was almost as big as the window it came through was waving an American flag. In the sky there were stars, a moon, the sun, airplanes, kites, and birds.
At the junior high school office, the secretary gave Miss Vernon a copy of Toby's scholastic records. Then they went down the corridor to the lockers. Toby took her gym suit and sneakers and some books, and the locker clanged shut when she closed it, like the door of a prison cell. Now she had to return The Wonder Book of Earth and Its Minerals to Miss Jacobs, whose class met a few doors away in the seventh-grade wing.
In the science room, everyone stared at them, and a whisper began and rustled louder and louder until Miss Jacobs banged on her desk with a ruler for silence. "Let's zip our lips, everybody," she said.
Even good friends looked at Toby with the sly curiosity of strangers at the scene of an accident. Only Rita, her best friend, waved shyly, her hand almost on her desk top, as Toby took one last look around. The class was in the middle of an experiment to see under what conditions lima beans would best take root and grow. Some of the students had planted them in earth, others in dry sand. A row of coffee cans and jars stood in sunlight on the window sill. Toby had put her beans in wet cotton and left them in the darkest corner of the room. She looked there now and saw that they had already put out long, pale-green roots in their jar. It had been a mayonnaise jar and Toby remembered her mother washing the label off with hot water and soap.
Miss Jacobs, following her glance, insisted that Toby take the plant with her. She didn't want to, but Miss Jacobs kept saying it was hers, that its progress was something Toby could write to the class about from her new home. Someone giggled in the back of the classroom.
"That will be enough, people," Miss Jacobs said sharply, and then she turned to Toby again, smiling.
Her kindness was intolerable. She was usually such a crabby teacher, threatening extra homework and angry letters home at the slightest infringement of the rules. Now she patted Toby's shoulder in their first physical contact ever, and Toby said goodbye without looking up.
Outside, in the hall, they passed a large waste-basket. As Miss Vernon and Anne went through the door, Toby turned back. She dropped the lima-bean plant into the basket and heard a clunk as it landed on other trash. Then she ran and caught up with the others.
The Fosters' real name was Selwyn, and they had no children of their own. On the way to their house, Miss Vernon explained that they truly loved children and had cared for at least a dozen, even raised a few from babyhood. After they went out into the world, they still came to visit the Selwyns, because they had been so happy there.
When Miss Vernon said this, it became quiet in the car. The story of those children worried Toby. It was as if Miss Vernon were trying to tell them not to be hopeful, that their mother wasn't expected to get well after all. Toby looked at Anne, who was sitting in the back seat next to the shopping bags bulging with their things. Anne was sucking her thumb again, the habit their grandmother had scolded her about that morning, warning that she'd end up with teeth like Bugs Bunny's. She seemed so little and helpless now, and Toby wished that Anne were older, closer to her own age, someone she could really talk to. "Don't do that," she said.
Anne glared at her, taking her thumb out only long enough to stick out her tongue.
The Selwyns looked old. He had thin gray hair and she had a boxy figure. Their own mother was slim and small and looked even younger than she was. And she was only thirty, had had Toby when she was eighteen.
Their mother loved to tell the story of her marriage and how both families had carried on at the news. She acted out each part, doing a wonderfully accurate imitation of their grandmother sputtering and predicting a miserable future. "Go ahead, Will, if you want to ruin your whole life. Hardly out of diapers yourself. Go ahead, just don't come running to me when you're sorry."
But she'd been wrong, he had never been sorry, and he'd loved his wife and children very much. He wasn't lucky, that's all.
Their maternal grandmother hadn't approved, either. Toby's mother was pregnant before she was married, had been what they called a wild girl in those days. Was their father considered a wild boy? Toby never asked.
He died when she was ten. She came home from school one day and he was dead. Knowing better, she looked for him everywhere, every day, waited for footsteps, for the announcement of a bad mistake. It didn't come.
She'd go into the bathroom at night and lock the door behind her and say his name aloud. Your name made you real. It was the first thing you got after you were born. "William Goodwin," she said, that name printed on his driver's license, scrawled on the bottom of all of Toby's report cards.
"Willie." Whispered, her mother's name for him.
Then, finally, her eyes squeezed shut for magic, "Daddy." But he never came. And the bathroom became a secret place for mourning, instead of a stage for miracles.
Sometimes she wanted to talk about him, to remember together the happier times, but her mother always changed the subject. Now Toby could hardly conjure up his face, not clearly anyway, even with the help of photographs. It was no use. He seemed only vaguely familiar in those flat pictures, like a movie star she admired but had never met.
She retained other clues to him inside her head, though: his particular smell, like the smell of wood shavings; the roughness of his coat and beard against her skin; and the resonance of his voice, if not its actual sound.
Toby thought Anne didn't remember him at all. But Anne claimed she did; she said that he was a tall man and that he was a sculptor and a teacher. But those were the things Toby kept telling her about him so she wouldn't forget.
The apartment was bereft of him in a few weeks. Toby's mother, in a mad frenzy of energy, went through drawers and closets and gave everything away: his suits, his ties, even the large watch that had ticked so calmly in the soft hairs of his wrist. Sometimes Toby thought about strange men in other parts of the city walking in her father's shoes, knotting his ties under their strangers' faces, and putting their hands into the linty pockets of his coat. The things from his studio on Furman Street, the tools and wood and clay and stone, and the portrait heads he had done of his family, were stored in boxes in the basement of a friend's house.
Everyone said that poor Ellen Goodwin made a remarkable recovery, even holding up well six months later, when her own mother, the children's "good" grandmother, died, too, leaving Ellen orphaned and widowed at once.
"You just have to live," she said, when anyone remarked that she had hardly cried, that she was unusually courageous.
The other grandmother hadn't been much help then, either. She came grudgingly on the bus from another part of Brooklyn and did a few things. She ironed scorch burns into the girls' clothes, braided their long, dark hair so tightly that it pulled at the roots, and managed to blame her daughter-in-law for her son's early death, although he had died in an automobile accident when Ellen wasn't even with him.
Still, Ellen had held up very well indeed, getting a full-time job as an editorial assistant in a publishing house, moving into a smaller apartment to save money, acting cheerful, almost-manic, in the face of sorrow, like the heroine in a book. She was always reading books and had named both her children for fictional characters she wished she had known: Toby after Toby Tyler, a boy who joined the circus, and Anne for Anne of Green Gables.
But she had been very restless lately, putting books aside on tables and chairs all over the apartment, half read and with their spines bent, as if she couldn't concentrate any more. She laughed too hard and too easily about things that weren't really funny, like the exploded eggs or a wrong number on the telephone. And a few times she had come into Toby's bed late at night, shivering, her hands and feet icy cold, explaining that she knew Toby was lonely and needed company.
Excerpted from Toby Lived Here by Hilma Wolitzer. Copyright © 1978 Hilma Wolitzer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Hilma Wolitzer (b. 1930) is a critically hailed author of literary fiction. She is a recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, and a Barnes & Noble Writer for Writers Award. She has taught writing at the University of Iowa, New York University, and Columbia University. Born in Brooklyn, she began writing as a child, and published her first poem at age nine. Her first published short story, “Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket,” appeared in print when she was thirty-six. Eight years later, she published Ending (1974), a novel about a young man succumbing to a terminal illness and his wife’s struggle to go on. Since then, her novels have dealt mostly with domestic themes, and she has drawn praise for illuminating the dark interiors of the American home. After publishing her tenth novel, Tunnel of Love (1994), Wolitzer confronted a crippling writer’s block. She worked with a therapist to understand and overcome the block, and completed the first draft of a new novel in just a few months. Upon its release, The Doctor’s Daughter (2006) was touted as a “triumphant comeback” by the New York Times Book Review.Since then, Wolitzer has published two more books—Summer Reading (2007) and An Available Man (2012). She has two daughters—an editor and a novelist—and lives with her husband in New York City, where she continues to write.
Hilma Wolitzer (b. 1930) is a critically hailed author of literary fiction. She is a recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, and a Barnes & Noble Writer for Writers Award. She has taught writing at the University of Iowa, New York University, and Columbia University. Born in Brooklyn, she began writing as a child, and published her first poem at age nine. Her first published short story, “Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket,” appeared in print when she was thirty-six. Eight years later, she published Ending (1974), a novel about a young man succumbing to a terminal illness and his wife’s struggle to go on. Since then, her novels have dealt mostly with domestic themes, and she has drawn praise for illuminating the dark interiors of the American home. After publishing her tenth novel, Tunnel of Love (1994), Wolitzer confronted a crippling writer’s block. She worked with a therapist to understand and overcome the block, and completed the first draft of a new novel in just a few months. Upon its release, The Doctor’s Daughter (2006) was touted as a “triumphant comeback” by the New York Times Book Review. Since then, Wolitzer has published two more books—Summer Reading (2007) and An Available Man (2012). She has two daughters—an editor and a novelist—and lives with her husband in New York City, where she continues to write.
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