Read Come to the Edge: A Memoir Online

Authors: Christina Haag

Tags: #Social Science, #Popular Culture, #Motion Picture Actors and Actresses, #Entertainment & Performing Arts, #General, #United States, #Personal Memoirs, #Biography, #Television actors and actresses, #Biography & Autobiography, #Rich & Famous

Come to the Edge: A Memoir (2 page)

BOOK: Come to the Edge: A Memoir
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Within you, your years are growing.



n the cool of a June evening long ago, a man holds a child in his arms. Across the field, light is falling behind a bank of trees and resting on a water tower, a dome of red and white checks. She’s in a cotton nightgown and her legs dangle. He is wearing tennis whites, but they’re rumpled. They always are. No socks, his shirt untucked. Behind them, a shingled summerhouse rambles down to a dock and a muddy bay. Near the kitchen door, a painted trellis is heavy with the heads of pale roses bowing.

Every night they do this. He sings her made-up songs and tells her stories. Some are silly, and she laughs.
, she says. Some are of women in long dresses. Some of a princess with her name and a knight who slays dragons. But on summer nights, as he does on this one, he points to the tower and tells her it is hers. Her very own. He tells her, and she believes him. His eyes, sharp like the blue of a bird’s wing, gaze into hers. She lays her head against him, hair damp from the bath, and breathes the salty warmth of his skin. She wraps her legs at his waist and curls into him as the story ends and the light dies.


y parents were married under a pink and white tent on the East End of Long Island on a July night in 1959. The tent, sheer and billowing and filled with stephanotis and daylilies, was propped for the night on the grounds of a robber baron’s estate in Quogue, New York, a resort community some eighty miles from Manhattan. The estate was not on the ocean; most of the grander homes there were set back across the canal from the spit of barrier beach that ran from the Moriches Inlet in the west to the Shinnecock Inlet in the east. There, on the eastern end—standing on the jetty past Ponquogue Bridge, looking at that wide, ancient bay and the cut where the Atlantic rushed in—you could see across to another sandy spit, and miles later, there was Southampton, where lavish shingled cottages were indeed built by the sea, on Gin Lane, on Meadow Lane, on Dune Road.

The rented house where they were married, with its diamond-mullioned windows and its graceful veranda, was close enough to the water so that when the wind changed—when dinner ended and the dancing began—the scent of the sea would have mixed with the music and laughter and the heady perfume of the sweet, high-hedged privet.

The bride’s organdy gown was from Bergdorf Goodman, her portrait by Bachrach, and the engraved invitations by Cartier, and if you thumbed through the glossy black-and-white proofs of cake cutting and veil straightening, you might think children of privilege, society wedding. But you would be wrong. My parents’ story was different.

They were both Catholic, both of German and Irish descent. They came from small towns in Pennsylvania and Nebraska. My father was the son of a railroad foreman, my mother the daughter of a rancher, farmer, wanderer, and occasional Prohibition bootlegger. They had come to New York to find their fortunes, and on a winter day, seventeen months before the wedding by the sea and twenty-six months before I was born, they found each other.

After graduating from St. Mary College in Xavier, Kansas, my mother took a monthlong TWA flight attendant’s course. When asked to put in for their home base, she and her best friend swore they’d stick together. My mother wanted Kansas City, but her friend pushed for New York. “Aim for the top,” she said. “You can always come back.” They tossed a coin, and my mother lost.

By the time she met my father, she had been in the city for almost four years and was living in a one-bedroom apartment behind the Waldorf-Astoria with two roommates. No longer a stewardess, she was a Foster-Ferguson model with dreams of becoming an opera singer. She did commercial and editorial print, but not high fashion. She was the girl next door with the winning smile—Miss O’Neill Lyons Club, the Dial soap girl, and the second runner-up in the Miss New York Summer Festival of 1958. And in every snapshot from my childhood, no matter who was crying at the time, she looks perfect—her face catching the light, her ankle turned just so.

My father was thirteen years older. He’d been in New York longer and was in his element, as though he’d been born rushing somewhere in a single-breasted charcoal suit, a topcoat easy on his arm. He’d been a pilot during World War II and had flown a Martin B-26 Marauder over Utah Beach. In the winter of 1945, on R & R in Miami, he met a girl at the Delano Hotel and scrapped his plans to join the Flying Tigers and fly the Hump to China. He married her three months later—the daughter of a showgirl and a Chicago industrialist—and they settled in her city, where he went to Northwestern Law on the GI Bill. But the marriage was unhappy, and when I was ten and allowed to know such things, my aunt whispered that when it ended, my father was crushed. For him, New York was a fresh start. At thirty-one, he became publisher and president of
magazine (later
Family Circle
), before moving on to run a thriving boutique advertising agency. He had no intention of remarrying. There hadn’t been children with his first wife, and although he wanted them, he believed it wasn’t possible.

My father ran with a fast crowd, mostly Madison Avenue types like himself, and twice a month they held “scrambles.” To all appearances, these were martini Sunday brunches at someone’s Midtown apartment. But the point was women, and the rule was that each bachelor had to bring three “recruits,” preferably models and no repeats. My mother went with her friend Tex, and although she was impressed by my father’s Tudor City aerie, she recognized the situation for what it was and left quickly. She also found him annoying. He didn’t like
The Music Man
, and she did. He, however, was smitten. Richer men, kinder men pursued my mother then, but my father was fun, and after a date or two, she decided that was what she wanted.

On May 4, 1960, six days before Senator John Kennedy won the pivotal West Virginia primary, I was born, the child my father hadn’t thought possible. He filled the room in the old wing of Lenox Hill Hospital with balloons and flowers, and smoked Partagas downstairs with his best friend, Lloyd. That summer, as they did for many summers to come, my parents rented an old farmhouse with nine bedrooms, a potbelly stove, two fireplaces, and a rickety old dock on Quantuck Bay, not far from the gabled house where they had married the year before.

When I was small, my mother read the story of Cinderella to me every night, at my insistence, and when she tried to skip a page out of boredom, I knew. I didn’t want the Disney version, although we had that, too. It stayed on the shelf by my ballerina music box, and she would alternate between the Perrault and the Grimm—the one with the talking doves, the wishing tree, and the blood in the shoe. And when I could read, I devoured every color of Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books.

I would ask my mother then to tell me the story of how my father had proposed. Her answer was always the same.
One day we just started talking about it. One day we just knew
. This horrified me. There was no kneeling, no meaningful locale, no diamond slipped into a champagne flute or buried in chocolate mousse. No glass slipper. I kept thinking she was hiding the truth from me and if I just bothered her enough, she’d tell. Despite my badgering, that never happened, and I vowed, as seven-year-olds do, that it would be different, far different, for me.

Still—in the wedding pictures that filled the cream and gold binder, separate from the albums of my brothers and me and our birthdays and our bikes, there was a small crown in her hair that held the short veil in place, and her impossibly small waist was made smaller still by the starched crinoline of the dress.

The dress stayed in a long, plaid cardboard box tied with twine on the top shelf of her closet at 142 East Seventy-first Street, the prewar building off Lexington Avenue that we moved to when I was three. It sat next to a portable green sewing machine and the hard case that held my father’s letters home from the war. I’d look up at the box sometimes and wonder, even though I already knew that the puffed sleeves, sweetheart neck, and fluffy, girlish lines were not for me. I wanted satin—a dress that looked like the nightgown of a 1930s movie star—and an ivory mantilla that trailed the floor. During the Depression, my Nebraska grandmother had eloped a month shy of her seventeenth birthday in a red traveling suit with a cloche hat, and this fascinated me—along with the fact that she was one of the only divorced people I knew.

When she was twenty-nine, my grandfather took whatever he could sell and left her with two kids and 320 acres of family homestead on South Pasture Creek. It was 1943. The land was worthless from drought and crop failure, the farmhouse would burn the next year, and she was a woman alone. But she worked hard and saved her money, and eventually she had a dress shop in town and a slew of admirers: the auctioneer for the county, the town solicitor, and the one she loved—a married man who took her dancing when the big bands came to town.

She held on to the land until she died, and by the time my brothers and I visited in the summers, she lived in town, leasing it to ranchers and alfalfa farmers. We always drove out there in her gold Oldsmobile, and when we reached the cottonwoods by the creek, she’d direct one of us to run and take down the barbed wire gate, hold it open as the car passed through, and then hook it back on the fence post so the cattle didn’t get out.

My grandmother walked with a pronounced limp, the result of a near-fatal car accident the year before I was born, but she’d point out the milkweed and the musk thistle or the face of a particularly forlorn calf she’d fallen for that spring. My grandfather had been dead for years, and she never mentioned him. My mother rarely did. Although a cousin might say something, it was always hush-hush, and no matter how much I prodded, she remained silent.

I became obsessed with old family pictures. Afternoon farm picnics, with straw boaters and white dresses, and slicked-haired men, stiff in their studio portraits with the hard paper frames. It was my mission; I didn’t want the faces to be lost. I’d cart the photos to the kitchen table, and while my grandmother smoked her Pall Malls, I’d scribble dates and names, whatever she remembered, in pencil on the back.

I found one picture—small and insignificant, with white matte borders—of a man on a big paint horse with a lasso in one hand and a bottle in the other. Even though it was blurry, I could make out the jaunty grin. “Is this him? Is this him, Grandma?” I was like a miner hitting pay dirt. She stared at the image for a long time, and although it wasn’t exactly a smile that crossed her face, it was enough. As I held my breath, she lowered her chin and made a small clicking sound at the side of her mouth, the way you do when you urge a horse to go faster. “Son of a bitch,” she said softly before returning to her cigarette.

My mother’s dress was brought down from the shelf three times—twice for cleaning and once, five years after my father died, when she moved out of the apartment that had been her home for thirty-five years and where she had raised us. The dress was the last thing packed. I stood on a piano stool and handed her the box. It was lighter than I remembered. She took it to the bed, careful of the broken edges, and when she opened it, she wept.

The Otto Kahn mansion stands at the corner of Ninety-first Street and Fifth Avenue, on the far reaches of Millionaires’ Row on New York’s Upper East Side. The five-story rusticated limestone façade is softened by simple pilasters and corniced windows, and an inner courtyard fills the many rooms with light, even on cloudy days. Inspired by the sixteenth-century Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome, it was completed in 1918 as the primary dwelling of the Wall Street financier and arts patron. The mansion wasn’t the only tony building on the block. The Burden and Hammond residences stood next door, and Andrew Carnegie’s spacious Georgian-style home with brick-terraced gardens, now the Cooper-Hewitt museum, was across the street.

In 1934, shortly before Kahn’s death, the building was sold to a French order of cloistered Catholic nuns and became the Convent of the Sacred Heart, the school I went to from kindergarten through eighth grade. In 1940, the convent acquired the Burden mansion, and the two buildings were joined by narrow passageways.

When we visited the school in the fall of 1964, there was no doubt in my mother’s mind that I would go there. After the tour, I was sent off with a novice, a slim girl not yet in full habit, to play on the silver slide on the roof deck by the kindergarten rooms. My mother stayed behind with the small woman in the dark robes. When the inevitable question came—was there divorce in the family?—she didn’t lie. She listened as the Reverend Mother explained what she already knew. In the eyes of the Church, marriage was indissoluble without an annulment. Sacraments could not be received. And although I was blameless—still, they could not in good conscience accept me for the next fall. My mother, however, remained determined. After all, that same year, Mrs. Kennedy, newly arrived in New York, had enrolled her daughter, Caroline, in second grade, and this had made an impression on all Upper East Side Catholic matrons. Having been educated by nuns herself, my mother knew exactly what to do. She crossed her ankles firmly under the chair, raised her head, and, without shame for what she was about to do, began to cry.

The school is still there, but the world I entered in 1965 when I passed through the heavy oak doors on Ninety-first Street no longer exists. Now there is a small plaque on the corner of the building that says
. After years of scaffolding, the stone, once sepia with dirt, is bone white. Balustrades have been repaired, murals have been restored, and the threadbare velvet railing I once ached to touch has been replaced. The courtyard and coffered-ceilinged foyer by the chapel, the banquet hall, and the mirror-paneled ballroom where we danced barefoot in miniature Isadora Duncan garb can be rented for photo shoots, weddings, galas, and the occasional memorial service.

The nuns no longer teach. They are, in fact, gone. They no longer swish down the halls in long robes, no longer live in the fifth-floor wing that was forbidden to us and, because it was forbidden, fantasized over endlessly. By a blocked-off stairwell, two burly older girls once cornered me and my friend Diane. The larger one rapped on a hollow oak panel and convinced us that
was where the nuns hid the bodies and we’d better watch it.

Times were changing even then. The Second Vatican Council concluded at the end of 1965, and by 1967 there was an opening of cloistered life. In the years that followed, the Religious of the Sacred Heart heeded the call from Rome to adapt to the modern world. They began to venture outside the convent walls and were free to find vocations in areas other than teaching. But with renewal came an unraveling, and the eventual dwindling of their numbers.

Halfway through first grade, the order’s habit was modified—the fluted bonnet became a veil—and those we knew as “Mother” were now to be called “Sister.” Soon we saw their hairlines—a revelation. And by the time we entered middle school in 1970, most of them wore street clothes just like our lay teachers’, only plainer, and formal traditions had given way to folk Masses and felt banners with cheery New Testament sayings.

BOOK: Come to the Edge: A Memoir
12.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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