Summer Reading Issue

Real Life

(Matthew Donaldson - Gallery Stock)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Julia Glass
Sunday, July 20, 2008

MY MOTHER GREW UP ON A WISCONSIN DAIRY FARM, through the Depression and World War II. It was a place both picturesque and prosperous -- an idyll at the core of my own childhood, when we'd venture west from suburban Boston every summer -- but to my mother, it was also the place that taught her the meaning of hard work, sacrifice and moral discipline. She learned to drive a tractor the minute her feet could reach the pedals. Which meant, decades later, that whenever my younger sister or I would whine about doing homework or setting the table or needing a ride to the school dance, we would hear in no uncertain terms what a soft and privileged life we led. Would we like to hear (again) how cows cannot wait to be milked (and do not take weekends off); what it's like to walk a mile to a one-room schoolhouse where the teacher wields a mighty ruler; or how, on the Fourth of July, fireworks are a luxury for people who don't have hay to bring in?

The stories were riveting, but they also impressed upon me (daydreamy, creative, bookish little me) that I didn't know squat about Real Work or even Real Life ... whatever that might be in 1960s terms when you lived in a woodsy, liberal Massachusetts suburb; when your dad was a scholar of ancient history and your mom a fine cocktail party hostess and a master of foxhounds.

Yes: a master of foxhounds. Because once she had settled with my grad-student father far away, in every respect, from her diligent, agrarian youth (they began their life together in a tiny apartment near Harvard Square), my mother contracted a delayed-onset case of husbandry nostalgia. By the time I was in high school, we lived with four cats, two horses and assorted foxhounds (on hiatus from their working lives). My mother had recalibrated her farm-girl skills to become a confident horsewoman and a gifted dog trainer, one who could charm a throng of large hounds into doing her every bidding -- not the least of which was to chase a trail of artificial fox scent through the countryside, all for the entertainment of several dozen people gussied up like extras in the movie "Tom Jones."

Mom rose early every day, devoted herself to the many animals under her guiding hand, and lived life large. Our phone rang day and night with the questions and dilemmas of numerous people dependent on my mother for her know-how. Eagerly, my younger sister followed in her footsteps -- on horseback, that is -- while I continued to immerse myself in reading, drawing and writing fanciful stories. If I ventured into the woods, it was to deliver a solo performance of Ionesco or Shakespeare to the squirrels. I was a nerd, and I knew it. But I was in good company: Back then, my father worked at a desk in my parents' bedroom, combing through antique hieroglyphic codices. "You and your father are quite the pair," my mother would comment tersely as she went from one practical task to the next, always on her feet, rarely indoors, while we did not budge from our books.

From fifth grade on, I worked at our public library. The pay, a pittance, was almost superfluous. All through high school, I looked forward to summer as the time when I could work at the library four or five days a week. I was never a camp counselor, a lifeguard, a scooper of ice cream. I recognized such jobs as more "normal" than mine -- jobs where you worked up a sweat -- and I worried, just a little, about my future in a world of people who, like my mother, knew the meaning of Real Work.

IN 1974, I WENT AWAY TO COLLEGE -- TO YALE, a school proud of its "weenie" reputation. My brain was designed to thrive at a place like this. By Christmas, I realized that I could write an A term paper in just about any subject -- blindfolded, both hands tied behind my back, Mick Jagger yowling from my roommate's speakers. This did not make me feel smug or even secure, for here I was coming up on my third decade, and I had yet to encounter Real Life. The longer I managed to avoid it, surely the more traumatic it would be. Because Real Life, I figured, was something you couldn't put off forever without the proverbial trust fund. Even my dad hadn't escaped. To help pay my tuition, he'd taken a 9-to-5 job in Boston.

To my scant, antiquated record collection -- Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, madrigals and folk songs -- I added Stevie Wonder and Billie Holiday. I went to campus rallies in support of various trendy causes, but I dressed like a monk (hopsack jeans, dark turtlenecks, and those Clark shoes that look like they're stitched by Bavarian gnomes). No wonder I had yet to be kissed. Then, as winter waned, two things happened ...

One night, I was eating dinner with a girlfriend when a guy we'd never seen before marched up with his tray and said, "The two of you remind me of Ursula and Gudrun in Women in Love. May I join you?" Wow. What could we say? (And he was cute!) At the end of the meal, he took my phone number. (My girlfriend was spoken for.) For our first date, I dug through my cassockwear and found a silk blouse my mother had bought for me and a pink scarf I'd never worn. When I met the cute guy, he said: "That scarf! It's the color Michelangelo painted God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel."

Another night, my mother called. "I have some great news. I have a summer job for you," she said. One of those "Tom Jones" extras at the foxhunt -- a guy named Bevin -- owned a small high-tech company and was happy to offer me full-time work "helping out with publications." I could use my writing skills, and I'd make a lot more money than I did at the town library. "It's a real job," said Mom.

That spring, I went around in a daze. I had my first Real Boyfriend and was about to tackle my first Real Job. The boyfriend had a few eccentricities. He liked to dress in Gatsby-esque outfits he dug up at thrift shops, and he espoused macrobiotic eating habits. He informed me that my occasional hysterics -- generally when he stood me up -- were caused by an excess of yin foods. But how could I resist a guy who gave me my first honest kiss -- dramatically, under scalding glares -- in a Gothic reading room decked out with gargoyles? He spoke fluent French, played on the tennis team, went to church, had a brown belt in judo and had grown up in Manhattan. So I pretended it didn't matter that he made me cry a little too often. I'd be happier, I knew, if only I could learn to eat more brown rice.

IT TOOK ME 15 MINUTES, cautiously driving my parent's VW Bug, to get from our house to work. Bevin's company occupied a squat glass rectangle on the crest of a hill beside Route 128 (nicknamed, back then, America's Technology Highway).

Once I'd parked in the company lot, I was greeted by Bevin. As a sometime spectator at the foxhunt, I had seen him from a distance, astride his huge gray horse, and was startled to discover that on foot he looked just as tall. He was a middle-aged guy built like a Hobart refrigerator. His VP and sidekick, Ernie, had the relative stature and style of a Milanese toaster. After shaking hands with Ernie, I was handed over to their secretary. Mary was a skinny, big-haired woman old enough to be their mother, a doppelganger for Lily Tomlin in any number of spinsterly roles.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company