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Five sisters play on the cliffs of the Palisades in 1960s Fort Lee, New Jersey. Before them, the glimmering expanse of mythic Manhattan. Behind them, their enchanted world of wind and flower gardens, their home. In this lyrical and moving memoir, eldest sister Carol Ortlip invites us into the realm of their powerful sisterly bond.
As children, each sister seemed essentially placed, becoming the one the rest had been waiting for: Carol (translator and guide), Kate (nurturer and second in command), Sharon (prophet and poet), Danielle (compassionate mediator), and Michele (youngest and the family conscience). Their love for one another permeated their childhood games and sustained them during their mother’s depression and eventual departure, their attempts to fill the hole she left behind, the normal challenges of growing up, and the profound tragedies that threatened to break even the strongest heart.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.72(w) x 8.54(h) x 0.98(d)|
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FADE IN, FADE OUT
It is mid-April in northern New Jersey, magnolia time. Every year Dad cuts a few sprigs of magnolias and paints a portrait of them with the view of the river as background. While he paints and our mother sits, three of my sisters and I spend as much time as we can in the arms of our beloved "Maggie," the graceful, venerable magnolia tree that grows in the middle of what we call the castle woods. Our house adorns the top of the cliff, five hundred yards or so above an actual castle that was built during World War I by a German spy named Knoche. I have many questions about this spy named Knoche: It takes a long time to build a castle; why didn't anyone figure out that he was a spy during the time the castle was being built? How was it finally discovered that he was a spy? What did he look like? Did he live by himself? Did he have friends? Did he have children? The fact that he existed at all and probably walked the very woods where my sisters and I now carry out our adventures gives the castle woods a vibrant sense of foreboding, as if old spy Knoche could materialize at any moment and scare the wits out of us. Maggie, sleek and bright, rises up out of this mythical thicket, urging us to do one thing: climb.
And she is perfect for climbing, each branch placed almost steplike for our experienced climbing legs. I reach one of the top branches quickly. Surrounding me are the freshest blooms, the tasseled centers hurling their scents toward my nose. I shut my eyes and plant my face in the nearest blossom. My arms and legs are totally familiar with Maggie's branches; if they weren't, I would certainly sway from magnolia swooning and fall out of her. I'vealready fallen out of a tree once, and I am determined not to let it happen again. The scent of magnolias enters my bones hypnotically, and I remain in this state for a good five minutes, the scent taking me to past lives, to dreams, out of my body right into the flower. I know my sisters would agree. I peek up over the petals to find Kate, Shari, and Danielle face-first in a blossom, eyes closed, smiles shimmering.
There is a game we play here among the earliest spring blossoms: "the shoe game." Since I am the one perched at the highest point, one of my shoes is designated as "the shoe." I remove my right shoe and get ready to throw it down to Danielle, who remains on the ground for this round. Although barely three years old and not always able to negotiate the knobby and rocky earth of our cliff domain, she is old enough to play the shoe game as the "groundy." Our climbing training starts early here on the cliffs, and usually it begins at the rock slide over in the evil woods below Mr. Thompson's garden, out of which we steal rhubarb every spring. Our rock slide, frequently at the center of our games, becomes a waterfall or a tunnel or a great stream of volcanic lava. Danielle can already scamper up the face of the rock slide without any help from Shari, Kate, or me; she's obviously a natural climber. Michele, only one year old, is still too young for her initiation onto cliff rock. But soon. She's inside today, with Mom. In the back of my mind, I keep track of the position of the sun and the length of the shadows. Dad has been asking me to keep a check-in schedule going for Michele on the days that he goes to work at the university. We can't leave Michele alone for too long with Mom because Mom hasn't shown any interest in taking care of her at all. Mom was so attentive with Danielle when she was a baby, but she isn't the same with Michele. What we'll probably find when we get home is either Michele in the playpen, sucking on a bottle that has been placed on that small rubber bottle holder shaped like a chopped-down tree, or Michele playing quietly with a toy, and Mom watching television alone in the playroom.
I've been very aware of Mom's and Dad's behavior lately. They never talk with each other unless it is about boring scheduling stuff. Dad still takes her into New York City for doctor visits, leaving us with baby-sitters. I've overheard all kinds of phone conversations between Dad and doctors, Mom and doctors, Dad and his friends, Mom and her friends. I've heard words and phrases like "treatments," "divorce," "in the dark," "utter chaos," and "can't take it." All I know is, my sisters and I have got to keep quiet and not upset anyone, especially Mom. She might wind up back in that mental hospital again.
Danielle yells up, "Throw the shoe!" I toss it to her as softly as I can, but she still can't catch it, letting it drop to the ground. After a half-dozen attempts, Danielle gets the shoe to Shari, who is just a little way up a side branch. We cheer and cheer. Danielle stands pigeon-toed, kicking the dirt at her feet and looking down in humble yet proud acknowledgment. Shari then flings the shoe to Kate, who has shimmied up a narrow branch that is on the opposite side of Maggie from where I am. If Kate isn't able to grab it the first time, the whole process will start again. I close my eyes, wishing for a lucky first toss. I hear Kate exclaim, "Got it!" We cheer and cheer. Then, of course, Kate must try to get the shoe back to me. It's a hard maneuver: Kate must throw the shoe at a really awkward angle, above and behind her head. Wrapping both my legs around the branch for stability, I extend both arms to Kate. She winds up and lets the shoe fly. One of the shoelaces gets caught on a small branch and the shoe falls toward the ground. The shoe hangs in the air, shoelace attached to this branch. Kate disengages the lace and tries again, this time tucking the laces inside the shoe. She makes a great throw that is about one inch short of my hands, but I stretch with determination and snatch the shoe out of the air, almost coming dislodged from my spot. My sisters gasp as I reorient myself. We cheer and cheer and cheer.
Because we are successful on our first round of the shoe game, it's agreed that we can have one more adventure before going home. We head for the rope-swing-of-no-return, which is farther down the cliff below the rock slide and within sight of the old Kinstler place. This swing, put up by older cousins during a summer visit, soars out over an impressive abyss. Kate once walked in front of the swing as someone began her initial and powerful descending swoop. She was hit by the swinging body and flung out into the air, landing facedown beside a boulder that was bigger than our station wagon. We sighed in relief as she raised her head and began crying: no broken bones or torn skin. After that, the swing became a legend and even more of a draw to kids from all over the neighborhood. They regularly come down the tricky path just to get a look at it hanging there, almost nooselike.
Standing at the rope swing, looking up at our house sitting atop the Palisades, I always feel a great surge of anticipation and joy because I know there are still at least a hundred million glens, crevices, rocks, springs, wells, bluffs, or trees to explore. There are easily a billion games to play, a zillion characters to become, and we can do it all right here beneath the protective, watchful gaze of our house.
Michele is where we left her, in the playpen. Her bottle long since emptied, her diaper looking uncomfortably soaked, and her face blotched from the tears already wasted, she looks up at us through the wooden slats with the expression of someone abandoned. Mom is in the playroom, watching a soap opera and smoking Salems. She turns her head to watch as Kate and I take care of Michele, changing her diaper and straightening up the playpen. Kate and I are both good at changing diapers now. I ask Mom if we can take Michele out into the yard. "It's a beautiful day, Mom." She shakes her head "yes" as we head to the grassy yard by the small brown shingled playhouse Dad built for us. It can hold all of us if we jam ourselves inside. We spend the next couple of hours here, playing games that incorporate a baby (deftly played by Michele) into the plots. Kate and Danielle pretend they're either mothers or aunts while Shari and I offer ourselves as variations on the male theme: fathers, neighbors, or uncles. This is a natural coupling order that evolved during the first summer Danielle was old enough to understand the game of "house." Kate and I easily became a duo, with Shari and Danielle slipping right behind as the second couple in command. Somewhere during the development of my partnership with Kate, Shari, Danielle, and Michele became "the kids," clumped together for convenience' sake, especially as Kate and I became more responsible for them, talking about them as if they were our children. We have the most well adjusted family ever; everyone, including the mother, is in the best mental condition possible. We are extremely mentally fit and will never need treatments or visits to a mental hospital. We're so mentally fit, our neighbors (played by Shari and Danielle) come over to watch us and ask for advice on how to become healthy and stay that way. Dad arrives home from his job teaching art classes at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Paramus and finds us all observing Kate as she demonstrates the proper techniques for being a healthy mother. (Rule # 1: Never watch soap operas.) I notice Dad's eyes scanning us as he approaches. Turning to view us as Dad might see us, I suddenly realize how filthy Michele has gotten, how bedraggled Danielle is, how grimy we all are. Ashamed that he has come home to find us this way, I start brushing Michele off, which is a waste of time. Dad ignores the fact that we're a mess, though. He kisses each one of us as if he hasn't seen us in weeks, picks Michele up, and heads inside.
"Where's your mother?" he asks, all of us pushing up close after him.
"Watching TV," Kate responds.
After Dad changes Michele's diaper and washes off most of the dirt that is covering practically every inch of her little body, he starts preparing dinner, all the while making animal faces and noises for Michele's entertainment. The rest of us assess Mom's mood (she's definitely in a bad one, we can see from the full ashtray), wash our faces and hands, and then draw with our beloved twenty-four-color Crayola set. Mom eats alone from a tray Dad provides in the playroom while Dad, my sisters, and I eat at the dining room table.
"Whatja do today, girls?"
"We played, Dad," I report.
"Anybody go on the rope swing?"
"No, Dad," I lie, but it's not a total lie. We didn't let Danielle go for a ride on it.
"You girls be careful," he softly instructs.
I'm not sure what Dad would do if he found out that we had lied and gone on the forbidden rope swing. He has only hit me once, and that was when I took Shari down to the Hudson River during a hurricane to show her the rats I had discovered earlier on a walk with some school friends. When Dad discovered (Danielle spilled the beans) our absence, he ran down Old Palisades Road to come get us. Shari and I were already on our way home, and we intersected Dad at the bottom of the hill. Dad's face was the reddest I'd ever seen it. He grabbed my hand and, holding it as hard as he could, whacked my bottom with enough force to lift my feet off the asphalt. I didn't cry or respond in any way, because I knew I deserved this punishment.
My sisters and I have to lie sometimes. We have come to understand that Dad has plenty to worry about and telling him about certain activities would just make life worse for him. Like our climbing skills, learning how to protect our parents from needless worry begins early, so when he asks about the rope swing our faces go blank with just a nip of sincerity: in protective mode, we can convincingly shake our heads with "Oh no, Dad." Somehow we know that it's not really what you would call lying. Of course no one has formally instructed us in the ways of parent protection. We watch and we learn. We protect and we climb.
A few days later, my sisters and I, returning from playing on the cliffs after school, enter the house to find Michele not with Mom but with Mary Octer, the German housekeeper Dad has hired to help out when he can't be around. She seems to be coming over a lot more recently.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In this overly indulgent memoir, Carol Ortlip tries to make sense of the first forty years of her life. The oldest of 5 sisters, with a mentally ill mother who eventually leaves the family, Carol bears a lot of weight on her shoulders. When one sister dies in an accident just before graduating high school, perhaps it is no surprise that Carol finds the weight to hard to bear and abdicates her role as eldest, leaving both physically (at one point she goes to Alaska to work on a crab fishing boat) and mentally (descending into addiction). The last third of the book is the story of her struggles to deal with her own issues and the sisters' struggles to become the unit they once were with one part missing, just in time to come together to watch another sister die of a lingering illness.As satisfying as it is to know that Carol is ultimately able to be there for her sisters, I did not find this book very satisfying overall. The language poetic to the point of being drippy, and I couldn't help but feel that Carol was just indulging herself in writing this memoir. Events and experiences are recording in what I assume is a faithful manner, but very little insight is given as to why various family members act as they do. I hope Carol found some release in writing this story, but I can't help wondering what she expects her readers, at least those outside the Ortlip sisterhood, to find in it.
This book is a stunning and lyrical account of five sisters who grow up living on the cliffs of New Jersey during the 1960's. Their mother's mental illness and ultimate abandonment, along with their father's emotional distance force the five sisters to become a self-sufficent unit. Each child assumes a role and together they manage to raise themselves and provide for each other the things their parents cannot. A must read and a book that cannot be put down until the end.