I bought a book to read because it was a story of secrets told by a young woman who’d been kept in the dark. The secrets were darker than her blissful ignorance. I am writing a novel that plays with the difference between secrets and privacy, and how a young woman who has only one parent as her family could be disrupted by revelations about him. I have been rewriting the story and wondering whether I was portraying the character’s realizations well, or if she could be so removed. I grew up in a family that gave many details in their stories, questioned motives, and delved. I needed to read a first-hand account of isolation and disruption.
Never Tell Our Business to Strangers, by Jennifer Mascia, is a memoir by a journalist who works at the Metro Desk of The New York Times, and has appeared on NY1 commenting on city news. Even though the book description does not pinpoint the criminal affiliation of the author’s father, the combination of the phrasing in the title, country origin of the author’s last name, and the cover with two guns back to back in profile could give away the story. But it doesn’t. The mafia affiliation is part of the many layered, scattered set of answers Mascia receives to questions she poses to her mother starting when she’s a teenager and continuing into her mid-twenties. The story that is being told is about the difference between protection and lies, and how the people who raised her could be two loving and devoted parents while also dealing cocaine and committing fraud, larceny, and murder.
My novel has a crime in the background that has shaped the destiny of one of the characters, and is too personal a detail to share with most people, especially his own child. But the domino effect of the act is destructive, and after a long dormancy, produces new actions that shatter the perceptions the daughter has for her father. She is stranded in both the new knowledge of him and the secrets held from her, and he appears completely different than the man she knew. The kind of secret is nothing like the secret at the heart of Never Tell Our Business to Strangers, which is another reason I read it. I didn’t want something too similar or I’d be stalled in my journey. I needed a story that could nurture my writing with its themes and the age of its storyteller.
It is an enjoyable read about a family who lived on the lam in California until the FBI came knocking, broke apart a little with a short prison stay, and then rode the waves of flush and broke until heart attacks and cancer claimed the author’s father and mother. Jennifer Mascia may have been clueless about the majority of what went on behind her childhood scenes, but she had a good memory and curious mind, and these served her well as she questioned and delved into her father’s past, her mother’s collusion, and her own accounts. The revelations are staggering and yet, she perseveres. In the end, the life she experienced was the life she had, much loved and adored, uncorrupted by the criminal actions of her family.
Since caring for my mother at the end of her life two years ago, I have largely avoided reading about cancer, usually giving up, breathless and rattled. I persevered when Mascia ventured into this territory in her memoir, even though I didn’t want the details. Her storytelling style relieved me of most of the pitfalls of such sharing. She writes deeply and lightly at the same time, giving scenes on the same page that take place at different times, a weaving of threads that portray her field of vision, her mind set, conversations and thoughts accumulated around the point she wants to make. It is a good representation of how memory works. But on Friday when I got through the memoir parts that were reminiscent of my mother’s end of life behavior and read the messages Mascia’s mother Eleanor wrote to her in two versions of her Will, I broke down. It was a message she got that I didn’t, I suppose. It was also part of a journey I had to take with Mascia, reviewing the hard parts that I dealt with largely on my own as my mother’s medical power of attorney. Although I am older than Mascia when I hire caregivers, demand painkillers, and choose hospice care, I, too, am making the kind of decisions that would normally involve my mother’s input. She was already absent and fading before she died. I traveled with this young woman who was not ready to lose her mother, and at the end I accepted her mother’s words.
Mascia makes an observation in her book: “Live in New York long enough and you end up running into your past on every corner, where a memory lies in wait.” Three weeks ago I essentially bade goodbye to a neighbor up the street who had returned home for hospice care for her incurable, rare form of liver cancer. She was sitting in a wheelchair outside her house with brightly manicured toes and fingers talking with her sister when I walked by with my dog. I had only learned of her illness back in March just after I’d moved down the block and when she was in remission, and since learned of its return in conversations with her husband. Mary and I had two deep, long, interesting talks, first on President Street a few years ago, and then on 3rd in front of her house, and she later read an essay I wrote. We met when I was mourning my golden retriever and she was walking her new golden she had trouble bonding with because she was mourning one hit by a car. When I told her about how my old dog used to lie down all over the neighborhood she knew exactly who I was, having seen me before we ever met. (Harley and I were a spectacle in the neighborhood. I have since met others who recognize me if I share that detail.) Mary later told me she used to live in the building I lived in on Carroll Street, which became the third synchronistic story concerning that address. While I talked with the once exuberant and still attentive Mary three weeks ago, tears welled in my eyes and dropped. I tried not to cry. I held her hand. She was not ready to die and she was dying. That was too familiar.
I can’t watch anymore of Scorcese’s movies after Casino’s scene of Joe Pesci putting a guy’s head in a vise and squeezing, but I did watch The Sopranos on HBO because it was about the New Jersey mob, and very particular to an area around where I grew up. It was funny and horrible at the same time, had a superbly nuanced relationship between father and daughter that contrasted with everything else, as well as alarming references to very localized familiar places such as the Turtle Back Zoo and King’s Supermarket. I read Mascia’s book because it was a woman’s point of view on that kind of scene. I wrote on We Who Are About To Die about my good luck in missing an old school knife fight on Smith Street in the Spring, and on Saturday on my way out to the grocery store, just after I walked past the scene of that crime, I walked past one of the guys on Court. I had just been thinking about that whole mess and how I had never seen either of the guys before. Only one of them was linked to organized crime, but he worked at Bagels on the Square, and the other owned Lucali, a famous pizza place. The pizza guy is the one I walked past, portrayed as a peacemaker in his own family, the one who started the fight. I recognized him from the tabloids, and because he smirked when a guy cheered him as he walked past a funeral home. For a moment, he looked both handsome and scary, but that’s because I knew what happened. The fight was over a woman. Neither guy died, and because neither would talk, neither was convicted of a crime, although the other one is in prison for violating his parole by carrying a knife. On my walk back home, I took the route past Mary’s house and saw two bouquets out front, and felt the prickly wash of sadness.
On Facebook, Mary’s Wall is a memoriam. She died a week ago Sunday. On that unseasonably warm day when I held her hand and tears fell, she told me she’d been checking in on my Facebook page, and although she was too tired to post, she was there. Mary was someone I met walking around my neighborhood, and rarely saw, but who I truly met. We shared personal things about ourselves and carried that knowledge around safely. Always tell your business to strangers. Make friends. That was another message of Mascia’s memoir, and part of how she has survived all that she has learned.