The Anne C. Barnhill Prize for Creative Nonfiction
Suburbs Plagued by Foraging Deer
On Long Island, in the sixties, racism was rampant in our white, Catholic suburb. It stopped my mother from becoming, as she would say, “too involved” with the church community.
“Hypocrites,” she’d say. And she was right.
We involved ourselves with the church itself. We went to mass at 9:45am every Sunday, ran the coatroom for the St. Patrick’s Day party, saved rosary beads and scapular in top dresser drawers. Eventually, my parents taught religious education, willingly but only once, to stay in good stead with the parish office. They were moderately devout, had a wood crucifix on the wall of their bedroom facing their bed. It had been a wedding present. The cross had a compartment in back that stored emergency holy water and last rites candles. I loved that cross, a wedding gift so pleasingly Catholic, somberly preparing newlyweds for death.
We made holy communions and confirmations. We donated cakes for fundraisers and shoes for charity drives. We gave money to the parish’s special collections when it was time for a new church roof, or time to buy more statues, even though my mother preferred a sparer church interior.
“We need only one thing in addition to the altar, and that is the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” she said. “She’s the only one who answers my prayers,” referring to her prayers that her fourth child Tim, born with a birth defect, would walk. When he did, she felt heard. So she kept on praying to Mary.
My mother’s faith was comprised of sacraments and ceremonies, like going to mass on Sundays and holy days, assuring the progression of her children from baptism to holy communion to confirmation, for which there was always a party, and for which relatives gave us money and simple gold crosses. For my confirmation, I had hoped for a gold Christ head pendant, the forlorn looking one where he’s wearing a thorn crown, the one where blood dribbles down his forehead. For as much as my mother’s faith was all business, mine was all desolation. The page in our Illustrated Children’s Bible where the head of John the Baptist lay on a platter was dog-eared. Poor John the Baptist, beheaded. Poor Christ on the cross, my bleeding martyr. And woeful me, upon my confirmation, no one gave me the gold pendant of His holy despair.
The farming towns due east of Deer Park were largely populated with Fundamentalist Christians who fought against the new suburban phenomenon. They populated Suffolk County for many generations, old Long Island towns with big farmhouses, ducks and roadside stands selling eggs. The fight against suburbia was less about the new suburban living than it was intolerance, a willful xenophobia, a profound dislike for newcomers like us, Catholics, whose roots were urban. We were not among the chosen. We were hell-bound. Tainted. And we lived amazingly ignorant of all of this. In 1964, my parents left New York City in a station wagon, without anything but a dream, debt, and a work ethic. Old Long Island was elsewhere, a backdrop that we assumed to be benign and charming. How nice to drive by the potato and duck farms. How hospitable to wave to the farmers in their fields.
Deer Park awaited us. History-less.
Brooklyn, on the other hand, was familiar to us. Brooklyn came to Long Island with us. There we were with large lawns and borough accents and persistent borough habits. Our fathers rolled cigarette boxes in their white tee sleeves and played stickball in the street. Our fathers gambled and drank beer from the can. Our fathers repented on Sundays though only ceremonially; they were never truly sorry for their sins. Our fathers taught us how to play handball against the front stoop and how to play poker for keeps. We were the new Long Islanders. Heretical and profane.
Summer nights, my parents sat in webbed lawn chairs at the top of the driveway as their parents had done in Brooklyn. There our father drank Schlitz and listened to a transistor radio. There our mother told us stories about going out on dates with our father, dates in the city, dates where they took a bus to the movies and then walked to the automat where vending machines served hot dinners and desserts by the portion. When my brothers and sisters and I were a little older, in the seventies, when the suburban life was wholly ingrained in us, this story became a hilarious oxymoron: what is a date without a car?
“You walked everywhere?” my sister Corrine said.
“You took a bus to an automat?” I said shaking my head, unable to fathom the desire to do this.
“We took a bus to the movies and went to the automat afterward,” my mother corrected.
“You liked food from vending machines?” Corrine asked.
“Yes,” she explained, “they had the best baked beans.” This image of our parents as young, carless, overdressed teens on a date eating baked beans was just too far out there. This story became an explicit confirmation of our parents’ weirdness. Yet, in the turmoil of political assassinations, with the mod ways of The Beatles on television, with civil unrest, bellbottoms, belly shirts, and Nixon winning the presidency, these stories kept life simple, kept us grounded.
My father loved to ride the lawn tractor. Early Saturday morning, there he was in a white shirt, khaki shorts and crew socks, cutting the lawn. There he was Saturday evening, pulling a few of us around in the red metal wagon attached by a rope to the hitch of the tractor.
In no time, the seventies were dawning. If the summer evenings spent going on mower rides in the red wagon were waning, I still chased fireflies, still made diamond rings out of their glow. Tim and I still collected ants in glass mayonnaise jars sealed with a lid made from pantyhose and rubber bands.
As we got older, outdoor play got bigger and better. Any kid from the neighborhood might show up. Banana bikes were everywhere. We hid in trees until tagged by a beam of light. We played war wearing M1 Army helmets, with guns made from tree branches, dug tunnels in the dirt to hide in. My sisters and I played “secretary.” One of us would be the mean boss, smoking pretzel sticks. The other two would pretend to be good workers, the three of us in nylon nightgowns, quilted robes and slippers. We’d type duplicate documents using carbon paper. The boss would yell at us. Sometimes the yelling was inspired.
“Gretchen you will not get paid,” Flora hollered at me, waving unacceptable typing in the air.
“Bob, I don’t need your money,” I squinted back. “I am going to astronaut school. I quit!”
My sisters and I trusted fully that workplaces were rife with exploitation. Every impromptu skit of ours ended in one of us righting an injustice having something to do with our secretaries being women. We were budding women’s advocates. Even as a little girl, I had fire in my belly about a true story my mother told me. When she was pregnant with her first child, her boss fired her, a man who was a mediocre accountant who drank bourbon at his desk. This was legal. No wonder Flora would become a bulldog of a mother to her two girls, fighting like hell for them as necessary, which seemed to be daily. Flora took no prisoners. Corrine was more subdued. She would get a degree in accounting, work at a large corporate office of an investment bank, model compassionate management, and get raise after raise, surpassing multitudes with her competency, joining the all-male vice presidents for martini lunches by the time she was thirty.
I would not go to astronaut school.
Inside the house, we were Brooklyn-Irish stock. My practical mother cooked get-it-over-with kind of meals. But Grandma lived with us, and this was a blessing and a curse when it came to meals. She made liver on Fridays, to our great dismay, codfish during Lent, to our great dismay, and a fatty stew full of lamb bones. We liked that. Her desserts were starchy: rice pudding, bread pudding, and lemon meringue pie. We liked that too. She cooked corned beef and cabbage in March. She cooked in the kitchen among five grandchildren and a dog that piddled when happy. Nothing flustered her. We ate together at five-thirty every night, every one of us but for my father who was not yet home from work. Even the dog loved mashed potatoes. We were typically Irish.
We were wooden about feelings.
After dinner, if Grandma needed peace, she would go downstairs to her room, the only bedroom on the lower level, where quiet reigned. She would sit in her rocking chair and read. She would mend our pants. She would smoke Pall Mall Golds and watch television. Yet, of all the quiet things Grandma loved to do, she loved to crochet, even though she wrestled with it. We had crocheted snow hats that were the same design as the toilet roll covers. We had crocheted mittens twice the length of our hands. The afghan in the den was longer than the couch but barely as wide as an average child’s width. In order to stay beneath it, one had to lay straight and be still. (Was this done surreptitiously? Was it possible that Grandma had been brilliant? Did she have agendas we never caught on to, schemes that her grandchildren could not have fathomed?)
All of this, I knew (even then) was our happiness.
What was by design was the location of our house to the train. Our house was a mile from the farthest commuter station to New York. My father commuted to and from his job in the city by diesel train. At six-forty in the morning, my father and a multitude of other men in their thirties boarded the smoking-car of the Ronkonkoma Line in polyester business suits. They returned by way of the bar car at seven-ten in the evening. My father did this for almost thirty years. He soldiered for us. No matter what, he always got on the train. Sometimes, come hell or high water, my mother made sure he did. Even if she was still in her bathrobe, she drove him to the train. Even if they were not speaking, she drove him to the train. Even if they were screaming at each other, she drove him to the goddamn train.
Sometimes, years later, one of the older kids would do evening duty. Ten minutes before the train was due, two dozen cars arrived and idled in the streets nearest the station. When the train sounded and stopped, men walked from it in long overcoats, felt hats, and rubber shoe covers. They carried hard briefcases. It took a little effort to find our father among so many other men just like him. Then, just like that, all the cars left.
He soldiered for a dream.
It didn’t take long for him to feel the weight of this. Some evenings when he pulled a few of us around in the red metal wagon tied to the lawn tractor, if he had been drinking, he drove us to the horsepower limit. On the sharp curves, the wagon would tip, spatter us onto the lawn, all elbows, wrists, knees, ankles landing like tossed jacks. We forced giddiness, though in truth we were uncertain what to think. We could feel this tractor ride was not about us. Even in the early years, my father had something closed off about him. We couldn’t really figure him out. Now, it was like he had a score to settle.
He didn’t beat us, or anything. He stuck his finger in the soft triangle of my shoulder, for entertainment purposes, until I winced. He made me take drives with him when he was ready to rage, and I had no idea where we were going, and I was alone, without a witness, without our mother who would under similar circumstances step in and say, “Ed, stop it” and just like that, like a trained dog, he would stop scaring me to death and go away. Alone in the car, I didn’t have that.
On weekends, we ate supper in silence.
Summers, he played horseshoes in the yard. When the game was over, he would walk to gather up the shoes, and his pride would be clear. He had an acre of land. It was enough yard that he and his brothers could underhand horseshoes as far as they wanted and still maintain safe range from the boys playing tackle football. The clothesline served as the end zone and yard lines were limed in the grass. The boys played hard. They played for real. No pinnie vests. No flags. No touch. Long runs. Interceptions. Dirt. Blood. Broken bones.
My father would play inexplicable mind games. He wanted us to call him His Highness. We wouldn’t because it was only funny to him. Our father who was as closed as a bank safe pressed us for acknowledgement of his royalty. King. The King. His highness. Quake, children, quake. He forced this on us, found pleasure in these charades, as if the world was watching, as if the world would be impressed. He believed he impressed people. This was his failing. He could not let go of his grandeur long enough to see that others saw him like we did, that he was ritualistically mean because he was a lonely man.
Though, all in all, with what was happening in the neighborhood, we were far from unusual. The Quinlins chained their dog to a tree, which I attributed to some dark problem having to do with Mr. Quinlin. More than once, from my bedroom window, I saw Mr. Quinlin standing in his yard in his boxer shorts snapping a bullwhip at his three sons who stood at attention side by side in white cotton underpants. This spoke of far deeper trouble than our pain, though perhaps it is from the same animal within a man.
My father soldiered for a utopia romping with deer. Contrary to the lore, the headlines, the name of our town, we never saw any deer in our yard. Deer roamed Robert Moses State Park where we went to the beach. Does, fawns and occasionally bucks stood in the brush of the dunes. Deer at the beach were glorious to behold, the ocean rustling behind them. These were my favorite days, summer days when my mother, newly licensed, would drive the gold station wagon fearsomely, gracelessly, anxiously on the causeway, a Chevy full of kids without seatbelts, without sunblock, to swim in the ocean, with deer in the dunes at the state park named for yet another complicated man, Robert Moses, who built the roads heading here.
I remember my father, that impassable man, standing in his yard waiting patiently for deer. He was not existential with thoughts like why am I here. He stood on the lawn facing the woods, pine barrens on the eastern edge of the yard that were protected land. He stood waiting on bullish principle that as he is here so too would be the deer.
Like Godot, they never came.
Suburbs Plagued by Foraging Deer. Crops and Automobiles and Airplanes are Menaced as Size of Herds Grow. Christmas Eve, 1963 – the New York Times.
Mary J. Mahoney earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston. She is an associate professor of English in New York. Her work has been published in many literary venues, including The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, and more. She is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities. Follow her on Twitter: @mjmahoneywriter