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What’s in a name?

By Joanne Mulcahy

Recently, I found a faded blue construction-paper book called The Eagle buried in my mother’s desk. A crayon sketch of our national bird adorned the cover. I assumed it was a school assignment created by one of her six children. But my mother had shed possessions when she moved from Philadelphia back to her native Vermont when my father retired. Gone were most of our magazine collages and the “spiritual bouquets” from Catholic school that listed our Hail Marys to save her soul. Why had she kept this project?

My jaw slackened when I opened the book. The Eagle had been produced by my mother’s fifth-grade class in Fair Haven, Vermont. Even more surprising: she had been editor-in-chief. My siblings and I are all writers, editors, or teachers, sometimes all three. We’d grown up assuming that my storytelling father, a fanatic about the beauty of short declarative sentences, had been the single force behind our love of words. My mother, irrepressibly active and social, had been a gym teacher and a physical therapy assistant at a West Philadelphia clinic. But here was evidence of another side. Was she the person I thought I knew? Do we ever really know our parents?

Two assistant editors of The Eagle had written a few lines welcoming the spring of 1937. My mother’s lead editorial nearly shrieked its cosmopolitan difference. Her piece commented on the Spanish Civil War, ending with a plea for peace “because war does not help any country.” Next came the fifth graders’ dreams of their futures. Most boys listed “farmer” or “pilot”; the girls, “nurse” or “teacher.” My mother set her sights on designing women’s clothes and houses. Really? Though naturally beautiful, with thick, curly, black hair, high cheekbones, and flashing brown eyes, my mother had spent her whole adulthood unadorned. She never wore a lick of makeup, except for red lipstick on a rare night out. Her standard uniform was shorts and tennis shoes—this, well before the advent of hip athletic wear. And designing houses? I’d grown up in a brick box in the suburb of Drexel Hill, where eight of us fought for the bathroom and our lawn was a bare patch trampled by dozens of neighborhood children. I saw no evidence of design, anywhere.

Lists of favorite books followed. Most have long faded from any reading list (Hoosier School Boy, The Nurnberg Stove). But there were a few classics, among them my mother’s lodestar, Little Women. I knew she’d loved the story, and that I was named for Jo.

I, too, loved Little Women. I probably read it at the same age that she edited The Eagle. But I was confused as to which March sister I resembled. I could hardly live up to Jo’s spirit: independent, fearless, and uninterested in her looks. In fact, as a child I was afraid—of the dark, of the men who lurked in an empty lot near our house—and homesick at Girl Scouts Camp. I was quiet and eager to soothe family tensions—more like Beth than Jo.

Other times I thought that I resembled Meg, the oldest March sister. Though I was the second daughter, I loved caring for my four younger siblings. And like Meg, how I worried over hair and loved clothes! Even now, I remember the maroon velvet dress I found at the Bryn Mawr Hospital thrift shop in seventh grade. I wish I’d saved the red patent boots from Roses discount shoes in West Philadelphia.

But no, I was named for Jo, the athletic tomboy whom I, alas, would never become. It wasn’t for lack of trying on my mother’s part. She urged me to join the girls’ hockey and lacrosse teams when we transferred from Catholic to public school. She came to my first hockey game, stealing time from her busy life as a mother, teacher, and member of the local school board, PTA, and Girl Scouts. She stood on the sidelines in her tennies, shouting support. I ignored her, more focused on arranging my hair than on the action swirling around me. Today, she does a spot-on imitation of my indifference, dramatically sweeping her hand across her forehead: Sarah Bernhardt, leaning on her hockey stick.

Then there is the bookishness. Jo knows that she’ll be a writer, sneaking off to read and jot down stories. Like her creator, Louisa May Alcott, Jo would achieve recognition after a tumultuous path. There was initial triumph ($100 prize for a story), then rejection. She experimented with genres as diverse as newswriting, religious tales, serious as well as sensationalized fiction, and children’s books. In the end, like Alcott, she found her greatest success in writing about women’s lives.

I remember the longing I felt as I watched my sisters, Susan and Pat, sneak away with their books. As peacemaker, I was likely busy resolving an argument. But one day, as punishment for some transgression, my mother banished me to a room alone. In a small bookcase was a green leather-bound book I’d never noticed. Mesmerized by the story of The Secret Garden, I wondered at the sweetness of solitude parading as punishment. I remember the feeling of possibility and discovery of a secret my sisters already knew.

By high school, my life descended into a train wreck of truancy, drugs, drinking, and too many accidents with the family car—a distorted version of Jo’s rebellion. I had waited tables at the Mari Nay Diner and other restaurants on Philadelphia’s Main Line all through high school for college money. But after one term, I dropped out of the University of New Hampshire. What a disappointment I must have been, so unlike the determined and courageous Jo. Perhaps my mother regretted her choice of names. My youngest sister, Chris, who took on the family role of caretaker and moderator, is both bookish and athletic. I wondered if my mother considered her the real Jo.

In the mid-70s, I returned to college, this time to Penn. Each term I struggled between the dictates of my Beth-like bent toward social work and the literary Jo yearning to emerge. The latter would triumph as I chose comparative literature, a love ignited by the extraordinary professors I encountered at Penn.

Caught up in feminism, a movement Alcott had anticipated in her writing and her life, I worked through my college years at the Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center in Philadelphia. After graduating I crisscrossed the country, eventually starting a new life in Oregon, a committed feminist looking for adventure and finally beginning to write. Like Jo, I valued freedom. I also vowed never to work in any role as traditional or gender-bound as teacher.

What appears to be chance often taps into our unconscious desires. When the funding for my job as director of a traditional arts program collapsed, I started teaching writing workshops. I loved the process immediately. With the support of a community of writers, I began publishing essays, and then books, most of them about women’s lives.

My mother, after more than 50 years of marriage, lost my father to a stroke nearly 10 years ago. When she moved from Vermont back to the Philadelphia area, she also mourned the death of the life she had anticipated with my father, enjoying their grandchildren together. How far back did her relinquished dreams go? What had she, the girl-editor commenting on the politics of her day, given up to raise us? What had she sacrificed in never claiming some space in the family’s literary story? Perhaps she had been nurturing her inner Jo for all those years—independent, athletic, but also intellectual in ways we never gave her credit for.

When I visit my mother now, we talk about books. Even in her 90s, plagued by problems with her eyesight, she tries to read and stay up on the literary trends her children discuss. She still rails against inequality and injustice, as politically engaged as that fifth grader denouncing the folly of war. She accepts and loves her six children and five grandchildren with a big-heartedness that has never wavered. If she’s disappointed in us, she doesn’t directly say so, ever the circumspect Vermonter. Of the three books I’ve written, she’s extended genuine excitement and congratulations, but I wondered what she really thought of the work. 

Several times a week, I call my mother, the distance between Oregon and Philadelphia temporarily erased. Recently, as we denounced the latest political scandal, she suddenly referenced an essay I’d written some years before. “Jo, I was rereading that piece you wrote the other day. It’s so good. I don’t know what I expected of you but …” She trailed off. I imagine she pondered the years when I was always in trouble, the long path I’d taken to becoming a writer and teacher. But I didn’t ask her to clarify. I wanted to think that she was simply affirming my name.

Joanne Mulcahy C’77 Gr’88 is the author of Remedios: The Healing Life of Eva Castellanoz and Writing Abroad: A Guide for Travelers (with Peter Chilson).

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