Amanda, Liz, Dan and Diana Welch grew up in the wealthy community of Bedford, N.Y., born to glamorous, successful parents. Then, a series of devastating losses upended their lives as kids: In 1983, their oil executive father was killed in a car accident, leaving a large debt behind, and their mother died of cancer 3½ years later.
In "The Kids Are All Right: A Memoir," each describes, with humility, candor and humor, what happened next. Dan became a hellion, and was eventually kicked out of boarding school. Amanda got into drugs and dropped out of New York University. A neighbor reconsidered adopting Diana after she reached her teens. Meanwhile, Liz traveled to free herself of all of it.
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a note on the textThis book is a true story. Or rather it is several true stories. Really, it is a collection of memories, and in the process of writing them down, and comparing them, we have learned that memory is a tricky thing. It's like returning to the house in which you lived as a child. The staircase you remembered as that monumental thing you crawled up slowly on your hands and knees is now something you can run up, hands free, two steps at a time. Well, you weren't wrong then, and you aren't wrong now. Perception may have changed, but the facts remain. Those stairs were big. Now they're small. Go figure. In the following pages, you'll see that we disagree about certain things, as most siblings do. Over the last few years of writing, researching, and interviewing lots of people, we have learned that truth is subjective, always. That goes for every character in the book. Our interpretations of other people's actions are locked in a time and a place. An eight- year- old who has lost her parents sees the world in a much different way than that same girl twenty- five years later. The same is true for a sixteen- or twenty- year- old- girl and for a fourteen- year- old boy. Some people in these pages insisted on using their real names, but other names have been changed, along with identifying characteristics, to protect people's privacy. Other than that, we have each told the truth, and each truth is our own.
Does it feel that your life's become a catastrophe? Oh, it has to be for your to grow, boy. -"Take the Long Way Home," SUPERTRAMP
introduction Our mother died three times. We have the first death on tape, recorded the day it aired in 1976: Morgan Fairchild, wearing a trench coat and pale pink lip- gloss, shot her in the back. Over the past thirty years, we've each watched the tape several times, pulling it from dusty cardboard moving boxes and crossing our fingers it doesn't get eaten by the VCR. It's our only copy.
The scene opens with Morgan, as Jennifer Pace, hiding in a darkened hallway. Our mother, playing Eunice Wyatt on the soap opera Search for Tomorrow, is kissing actor Val Dufour good- bye at their apartment door. His square jaw and dimpled chin are powdered an orangey tan. As John Wyatt, Eunice's cheating husband, Val is dressed conservatively in a suit and tie, but we know him as the guy who once wore a kilt and a feather boa to our parents' annual Christmas party.
The music swells. Commercial break.
Back at the apartment, our mother turns away from the camera, and there is a loud bang. A tiny circle of dark red appears on the back of her pink satin robe. The next shot is a close- up. Our mother's face fills the screen in a death snarl revealing upper teeth.
And so our mother's decade- long run as Eunice Gardner Twining Martin Wyatt came to an end. It was her third soap gig, and her longest. She started out in 1962 as Erica Brandt on Young Doctor Malone before making her name in 1964 as the original Dr. Maggie Fielding on The Doctors. Born in 1965, Amanda is the eldest of the four Welch children. She was introduced to soap fans in a splashy Dialing the Daytime Stars magazine spread as "The Baby Who Took Ann Williams off TV." We still have the article, now yellowed with age, tucked away in the same manila folder where Mom stuck it more than forty years ago. When Liz was born, in 1969, Mom had been playing Eunice for three years. Instead of getting written off entirely, Eunice had a breakdown and was temporarily sent to a mental institution. By Dan's birth in 1971, Eunice was so popular that the pregnancy was written into the show. But Mom wasn't pregnant when Jennifer shot Eunice; rumor had it that Mary Stuart, the show's diva and Dan's godmother, was jealous of Mom's fan mail. That's what Mom told us, anyway.
Diana was born in 1977, a year before Mom landed the role of the villainous Margo Huntington on The Edge of Night. Which brings us to our mother's second death: Margo was bludgeoned with a fire poker off- camera in a whodunit story line that continued for weeks after her body was discovered. Margo had a lot of enemies; she was a successful businesswoman who owned the only TV station in Monticello. Her story line involved an illegitimate child, a sham marriage to an ex- cult leader, and pornography.
During the Margo years, as part of their after- school chores, Mom enlisted Amanda and Liz to record her episodes on our VCR, one of the first, which was the size of a stuffed suitcase. At night, when she came home from her day of shooting, Mom labeled each tape with the date, show name, and episode number and placed it chronologically on a bookshelf in her study.
Today, only five tapes remain, the labels peeling off from the dust that has weakened their glue, their images scratchy and worn. Amanda is the reason we have any tapes at all: After our mother's third and actual death, the one that followed our father's by three and a half years, Amanda carted those tapes around in boxes, stored them in a friend's garage, and drove them across state lines. They have been packed up, unpacked, sent parcel post, and popped into VCRs in New York, Virginia, and Texas. They're our family heirlooms, a fuzzy, dusty connection to the person whom waitresses at Chock full o'Nuts recognized as Eunice or Margo but whom we knew as Mom. Watching them now, we see bits of our lives on the screen. The diamond ring Eunice wears is really the one Dad gave Mom when he proposed in the early sixties, just a few months after meeting her. The red mug ringed with fat white hearts that Margo drinks out of spent the eighties stained with coffee in our kitchen sink at home in Bedford, New York. The yellow organza dress that she wore to announce her engagement to the cult leader is the one that Diana wore, fifteen years later and tripping on acid, to the junior prom. Though the ring was stolen years ago, and the mug is long gone, Amanda saved the dress, as she did the tapes, and the grandfather clocks, and the Etruscan trunk. Like Mom, she keeps the clocks wound to chime on the hour, and she fills the trunk with sheets and blankets. And, like Mom, she saved the manila folder that holds magazine clippings documenting the highlights of our mother's career.
"Ann Williams: 'I Relate to Children and Animals Better Than to Adults!' " shouts a bold headline across the opening spread of a 1976 article from Day TV Gossip. It chronicles life at Twin Meadows, the fourteen- acre estate where we grew up. In it, Mom describes Amanda, then ten, as a "serious human being" who likes to ride her pony and wants to be an animal trainer someday. "Lizzie," six, is a "backgammon whiz, you can't beat her!" and also the "most giving of people," one who would gladly give up her dessert so that another child wouldn't be left wanting. Daniel, four, is a "lover" who "practices his best Clark Gable moods" on Mom. He also has a "vivid imagination" and likes to go "elephant hunting in the backyard with his Daddy," she says. "They shoot them out of the trees." Diana wasn't born yet.
In one of the photos accompanying the article, Amanda, Liz, and Dan are all piled on Mom's lap. In another, Amanda and Dan pose with their stuffed animals. There's one of Dad, his salt- and- pepper hair elegantly parted on the side and slicked back, like a Kennedy. He has a kind Irish face, freckled and dimpled, and smiling eyes. They described him as an investment banker. He was on TV with Mom only once, for a Newlywedstyled show called Tattletales that Amanda, Liz, and Dan remember watching when they were kids. Every time Dad got an answer wrong, Mom would swat the air, smile big, and shrug her shoulders. Diana has seen the photo someone took of the black- and- white television set the day the show aired. Mom is sitting on Dad's lap, biting her bottom lip. He looks nervous and serious, though in real life he was neither.
Amanda has that picture in one of many family albums, glued beneath a thin plastic sheet alongside other images, proof of where we come from, of who we were before everything changed: our parents at fox hunts, regal in their red coats and top hats; childhood birthday parties with frosted cakes, lit candles, and paper hats; horse shows with ribbons and trophies; beach picnics and Thanksgiving dinners. Amanda also has several grainy 16- millimeter home movies that Mom and Dad made, the sounds of which have gone wobbly and deep.
One year, as a Christmas present, Dan edited the films together and layered sad- but- funny songs like Motley Crue's "Home Sweet Home" and Elvis's "Don't Cry Daddy" on top of their slow, distorted narration. After five long years apart, it was the eighth Christmas we had spent together as a family; our separation and subsequent reunion had reinforced the importance of childhood rituals. That Christmas Eve was spent the same as the ones before it: We prepared a dinner of Yorkshire pudding and roast beef, hung the four patchwork stockings that our mother had made, our names hand- stitched in white rickrack on each cuff. We dressed the tree with old family ornaments and placed the gold papier- mâché crèche at its base. Then, in keeping with another Welch tradition, we each opened one small present. Amanda opened one from Dan— our new home movie.
On that Christmas Eve in 1998, we watched our father hold Amanda up in the window of their apartment in New York City so she could see the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade drift down Central Park West, and we watched him hold her at her christening at St. Patrick's Cathedral, and as she sat in his lap on her first birthday and tried to eat her card. We watched our mother, puffy from giving birth, wave to the camera and smile, holding a fat newborn Liz in her arms. We watched a determined Liz tromp up a grassy hill in tights and fancy shoes, struggling to hold an Easter basket nearly as big as she was. We watched Amanda wave at the camera and pat Dan's back as he lay belly- down in his bassinet, her mouth forming the words "Hi, Mom." We watched Liz help Dan take off his tiny terrycloth robe at the beach in Cape Cod before she left him sitting in the sand and ran to catch up with Amanda in the waves. We watched the three of them splash around in our pool, held up either by Styrofoam floaties or by Mom in a bikini and a big sunhat. It wasn't until the tape finished that we realized Diana wasn't in any of those warm, sun- splattered scenes that our parents recorded and Amanda saved and Dan edited and scored. It made sense. Those home movies recorded the idyllic times, and Diana doesn't remember much of those.
part one spring 1982 – summer 1983
LIZ I wanted to be an actress just like Mom. In the fall of 1981, I came close to getting the part of Jon Voight's daughter in the movie Table for Five, but then Ricky Schroeder was cast as the son. We were both blond, and the director wanted the daughter to be a brunette, so I was out. At least, that's how Mom explained it to me.
The following spring, I had another audition. This time, I was up for the part of Mariel Hemingway's younger sister in Star 80. Mariel was playing Dorothy Stratten, the Playboy playmate killed by her jealous husband. Mom thought I had a good chance because I looked like Mariel, same blond hair and blue eyes, dark eyebrows, and square jaw. Even strangers told me so. Some said I looked like Brooke Shields, but she had brown hair and brown eyes so that never made any sense to me.
Mom picked me up early from school to take me into Manhattan. Usually, her coming to get me would be an endless source of embarrassment. She'd barge into volleyball practice dressed in too- tight velour sweatpants tucked into gardening boots, her big dip sunglasses perched on top of the silk scarf she'd wrap around her hair instead of brushing it. Worse, she'd holler "Yoo- hoo" in a falsetto across the court, waving her arms at me as if I didn't know she was there. She was impossible to miss. During the winter months she wore a floor- length coat that looked like a skinned dead collie turned inside out. It was mortifying.
But that afternoon, waiting in the parking lot, she looked glamorous. Her brown hair was curled under and combed into a chic bob, her gardening outfit replaced by a silk shirtdress and burgundy knee- high boots. This was her city outfit.
Usually Mom liked to help me prepare for my scenes during the hour long drive into the city, but this afternoon, she had other things on her mind. "Lizzie Bits, you'll be the decoy," she said as we pulled out of Fox Lane Middle School's driveway. "You'll distract your father as I set up."
She was planning a surprise party for Dad's fiftieth birthday that weekend, and she had invited old college friends from Johns Hopkins, business associates from Houston, Dad's brothers and sisters, as well as friends from the Bedford Golf and Tennis Club and the Goldens Bridge Hounds. More than fifty people had RSVPed, but Dad had no idea. "I'll make eggnog," she said excitedly as we drove down Bedford's packed dirt roads lined with stone walls and ancient oaks. "We'll use the big punch bowl," she added. "We'll use all the good crystal."
Mom started her cut- glass collection when she married Dad in 1964, and over the last eighteen years, she had managed to fill the shelves of the butler pantry that lined the narrow hallway between our dining room and kitchen. She had cake plates and platters and champagne glasses, too, plus a dish designed specifically for celery and another for deviled eggs.
"I'll make lamb stew and Irish soda bread," she continued, turning onto Interstate 684, her diamond engagement ring catching and releasing the mid afternoon sun. "And an angel food cake for dessert."
Angel food cake was Dad's favorite, and mine too. For my thirteenth birthday, only one month earlier, Mom made me an angel food cake with strawberries and whipped cream.
She wanted me to keep Dad away from the house for three hours that Saturday afternoon. I gazed out the window at the messy paintbrush stroke of pine trees. I needed to come up with a good plan. Dad was smart. He paid attention to detail. He wore pressed shirts and pants, even on weekends. Duping him would be hard.
After several minutes of silence, I asked, "What if I ask him to take me shopping?"
"Ehhh," Mom made a sound like a game show buzzer. "Wrong answer. Try again."
Typical. Mom never wanted to take me shopping, and when she did, she'd let me buy things only if they were on sale. Dad, on the other hand, would deposit me at the Stamford Bloomingdale's and tell me to meet him at the cash register in twenty minutes. It's because of him that I was the first girl at Fox Lane Middle School to own Jordache jeans. On our last spree, I got the kelly- green Ralph Lauren cable- knit sweater I was wearing that day for my audition.
"How about tennis?" I offered. "I'll ask him to play a set." I had been taking lessons that winter at Chestnut Ridge, an indoor tennis club in town. I could show off my new and improved overhead serve. It was the perfect ploy, Mom agreed.
Soon we reached the outskirts of the city. Dingy buildings replaced trees along the parkway, which had doubled from two lanes to four. Suddenly, the buttery sweet scent of vanilla biscuits penetrated the diesel and gas fumes; then, minutes later, the Stella d'Oro factory whirred by.
"Lock the doors, Lizzie," Mom instructed as we approached the Third Avenue Bridge. She always said this here— not back in Bedford or anywhere in Westchester County, but here, as we were about to enter Manhattan through Spanish Harlem.
After we parked the car, we passed a blind man selling pencils. "Can we buy one?" I asked.
She shook her head and then said under her breath, "He makes more money than you do." I wondered if that was true. Other than the fivedollar weekly allowance I got for feeding the dogs and loading the dishwasher, the only money I had ever made was one hundred twenty- five dollars in seventh grade to model for a Macy's catalogue, and five hundred dollars for a Jell- O pudding commercial I did when I was eight. I'd had to eat so many bowls of chocolate pudding that I got a stomachache. After the twelfth take, when the director said, "Action," I looked into the camera and instead of saying, "It's delicious!" I said, "I think I'm going to throw up." And then I did.
For the Star 80 audition, I had to do a sad scene. The waiting room was chaos: Young girls dabbed their lips with gloss and brushed and sprayed their hair into place while their mothers filled out call cards and handed in head shots. Mom and I found a quiet corner in the back stairwell to go over lines. She was more interested in craft than in cosmetics.
"Never rely on your looks, Elizabeth," she warned. "They'll only get you to thirty."
People always said Mom was beautiful, and in her cast photos and head shots pinned on the wall of her study at home I could see she once was. My favorite photo was of Burt Reynolds, signed, "To the prettiest girl in all of New York, love, Burt." Mom had guest- starred on his cop show Hawk. This was before Smokey and the Bandit made him famous, before Loni Anderson. There was the cast shot of Pajama Game, Mom in a silk nightshirt that just barely covered her tushy, and a close- up of her where she looks like a young Ingrid Bergman, the curl of her chestnut bob kissing her full lips, her big brown eyes hypnotizing the camera. In another photo, she's in Lauren Bacall's dressing room in Applause. Lauren is wearing a caftan and holding Mom's hand, and they're both laughing. But those photos were taken in Mom's twenties— when her skin was taut, her hair a natural dark brown, her eyes sparkling and bright. Now, at forty- six, her hair had turned brittle, a lighter, unnatural shade from two de cades of perms and dye jobs, her skin was puffier, like unbaked bread. Once a size six, Mom now struggled to get into a twelve and blamed her bad luck with booking jobs on being middle- aged. "I'm too young to be a grandmother and too old to be a mother," she'd often lament. Still, it didn't stop her from working on her craft. She went to the Actors Studio weekly to workshop scenes and often asked me to read lines with her back home. She had studied with Lee Strasberg, and she taught me what she knew. It was called Method acting. For this audition, my character had just learned that her sister had been killed. Mom asked me to imagine the most terrible thing ever.
"Like when we found Frodo?" I asked. Frodo was my cat. He was black and purred when you looked at him. He had gone missing for several days that winter, and we finally found him on West Patent Road, roughly fifty yards from our driveway, his skull smashed against the pavement, his fur crusted with dried blood.
"Even sadder," Mom urged. "You have to inhabit the character, Bitsy. Imagine if Frodo were somebody you loved."
I closed my eyes and replaced Frodo's smashed skull with Dad's, and real tears began to simmer deep inside me. They slowly began to bubble up as I read the lines.
"Good, stay there," Mom said as the casting director popped her head into the hallway.
"Annie?" she said. All the casting agents in New York knew Mom. "He's ready for her."
I walked into the audition room and sat on a couch facing Bob Fosse. He had intense eyes and a full beard that made up for his thinning hair. No one else was in the room. "Whenever you're ready," he said kindly. As I read, hot tears streamed down my face. I looked up at the end and saw that Mr. Fosse's eyes were glistening, too. "Very good," he said. "Very, very good."
I left the audition feeling, for the first time, like a real actress. Maybe duping Dad wouldn't be so hard after all.
Several days later, on the morning of the party, I trotted downstairs to ask Dad if he wanted to go play tennis. He was sitting at the breakfast table, scanning the Wall Street Journal, his reading glasses perched halfway down his nose. He kept his head bent toward the paper but moved his eyes so they looked over the glasses and at me.
"So, you think you can beat your old man?" he said with a wink.
Dad didn't look old. The biggest difference between him at fifty and him in his wedding photos at thirty- two was that now his hair went from black to salt- and- pepper, though with the same reddish- brown highlights. His body may have thickened up a bit, but it was still athletic— cut calves, broad chest, and not an ounce of excess fat. He was only five- feet- eight inches, yet he had been captain of both the football and the basketball teams in high school. And he watched his weight carefully, priding himself on always leaving a bite of food on his plate at the end of every meal. "Self- restraint is a virtue," he liked to say.
That afternoon, we both dressed in our tennis whites— Dad in shorts and a polo shirt, his arms and legs a spotty tan from freckles grown together with age. I had Mom's skin— a spotless pale that turned golden brown in the sun. I wore a sweatband on my wrist, and as I got into the front seat of the Mercedes, I saw Dad was wearing one, too.
"Like father like daughter," he said with a smile, and off we went.
We hit back and forth for two hours. I won the first set, and Dad won the second. Even though I was leading the third, midway through I started to worry about time. As much fun as it was to have Dad all to myself, I knew I had to get him back home by six o'clock. That was the whole point. "Should we call it quits, Dad?" I shouted over the net. The score was two to one, and it was Dad's turn to serve. "I'm pooped."
Dad had one ball in the front pocket of his white tennis shorts and one in his hand, which he bounced several times before saying, in a disappointed tone, "Elizabeth Morgan Welch, what's my motto?"
"If you're not going to do it right, don't do it at all?" I said meekly, embarrassed that I hadn't thought that through. Of course, we'd finish the set. Bob Welch's kids were not quitters! That was another one of his favorite sayings. So was "The only things you have to do in life are die and pay taxes," which I never quite understood.
"Right," he said. "Ready?"
He aced the serve. And the next one. I returned the third, and we had a good rally hitting back and forth, hard. I won that point and the third set and still wonder to this day if he let me.
By then, it was six and we were late. I kept a cool facade, but by the time we turned into our driveway, the butterflies in my stomach had morphed into slam- dancing frogs. Dad was still talking about tennis, and about how I should consider joining the Bedford Golf and Tennis Club's junior team that summer, as we began the ascent up the narrow, quartermile- long strip of tired pavement that had cracked in the middle like a messy part. Dad didn't see the cars until we drove through the opening of the privet hedge that set our house, with its gray shingles and hunter- green shutters, apart from the rest of the property. They were parked not only on the gravel circle in the front of the house but also to the right, beside the garage, and even on the lawn out toward the pool and down near the swing set. He pulled up to an empty spot by the front door, turned to me, and said, "Elizabeth, what is going on?" not in a serious way but with a smile as though he had a hunch.
I shrugged and said, "Let's go find out." I had practiced that moment in my head and was impressed by how coolly I pulled it off.
As we got out of the car, I could hear the hushed silence of the people waiting inside. Several silhouettes flickered across the drawn window shades in the living room. One shadow was hunched over, perhaps a person crouching down, another was walking toward the front door, and another looked like a four- headed blob. I walked ahead and flung open the front door. The lights flicked on, and "Surprise!" resounded throughout the house.
Mom rushed toward us wearing a floor-length chiffon gown the color of lemon meringue pie and pale peach high- heel sandals, the ones I always wore to play dress- up. Her hair was swept back off her face with two tortoiseshell combs. "Happy birthday, my darling," she said as she threw her arms around my stunned and smiling father.
Everyone who was important to Dad was there— his sisters and brothers and old college friends. My siblings stood in a line in front. Diana was dressed in green velvet. Her unruly red curls had been coaxed into two ponytails that bounced off her tiny shoulders as she shouted "Surprise!" in her sweet four- year- old voice that sounded more like a Sesame Street puppet than a human being. Dan stood next to her, and they looked like twins, despite the six years between them, with their red hair, freckles, and dimples that pierced their cheeks whenever they smiled. Everyone in the packed room was smiling, even Amanda, who usually wore her scowl like a badge of honor. A chubby sixteen- year- old with a Pat Benatar shag haircut, she hated dressing up, preferring her ripped jeans and concert T-shirts. To night, she was wearing a skirt.
I turned and looked up at Dad, who was beaming. "Nice job, toots," he winked, before being swallowed whole by the crowd of outstretched arms. I went upstairs to change, and when I came back down, the party was in full swing but Dad was gone. He then reappeared dressed in tartan slacks and a crisp white button- down shirt, a bow tie, and navy- blue blazer. Mom burst out into "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow," and the whole crowd joined in.
An hour or so later, Mom clinked a champagne glass to get everyone's attention. It was time for presents, she said, Amanda and Dan's cue. They entered the living room holding a large rectangular gift between them, which they handed to Dad. He was seated on our gold brocade couch, and the whole party gathered around to watch as he neatly untied the bow and then slid a finger beneath the taped corners, careful not to rip the paper. It was a family tree. Ever since she saw Roots on TV, Mom was obsessed with genealogy. She had spent the past six months in the New York Public Library working on our family history, unbeknownst to Dad, who thought she was going on auditions. She used gold and silver pens to painstakingly mark each name, birth date, and place.
At the top of the two- by- four- foot sheet of thick ivory paper, Mom had written "Ann Morgan Williams married Robert Daniel Peter Welch on September 19, 1964," in her near- perfect curly cursive. Our names and birth dates: "Amanda Gordon Welch, August 15, 1965," "Elizabeth Morgan Welch, February 3, 1969," "Daniel Merryman Welch, March 24, 1971," and "Diana Rebecca Welch, September 30, 1977," floated above our parents' names like tethered balloons. Dad beamed. On the bottom right, you could see that his family came to Boston from Ireland in the early 1900s. On the left, in a longer entanglement of roots, you saw that Mom's family came to Mary land from Scotland and Wales in the 1600s. One ancestor, Mary Ball, married Augustine Washington. They had a son named George.
"Bob, your children are descendants of the first president of the United States," Mom boasted as Dad studied the tree.
"Not from your side, Bob," Aunt Barbara shouted out above the crowd. She was Dad's older sister, and she pronounced his name with a thick Boston accent so it sounded like "Bab."
"You got that right," Uncle Russ, Dad's brother, chimed in, and all his siblings laughed their distinct Welch laugh that sounded like a drunken, jolly Dracula.
Aunt Gail, Dad's youngest sister, gave her gift next. It was a potato that she had written a poem on with a calligraphy pen, decorated with small green shamrocks and shellacked.
"To keep you connected to your roots, Bobby," she said.
The room grew quiet, someone murmured "How sweet," and then Barbara gave him her gift. It was a book called Sex After 50. All the pages were blank. The room filled with laughter again.
AMANDA I have our family tree hanging on my wall in my house in Virginia, where I have most of our family heirlooms— the two grandfather clocks, the hand- carved wooden Etruscan trunk, even the unfinished oil painting of some cows on the beach that our great- aunt did when she was at the Corcoran Gallery of Arts in Washington, D.C. It's funny, because back then, when I was sixteen, I couldn't have cared less about our genealogy. I didn't even like the family I had. Why would I care who came before them?
That was around the time I stopped going on family trips. A month after Dad's birthday everyone went to Myrtle Beach for spring break, except me. I used the animals as an excuse. Mom was a sucker for strays. In addition to the three dogs, two cats, and a litter of kittens, we had a stable full of horses. "Who's gonna feed the horses and muck out their stalls?" I argued.
But really, I just didn't want to do any of that family bullshit. I was a ju - nior in high school, a fat misfit who wanted to ride my horses, listen to my records, and smoke pot with my friends. I certainly didn't want to go on a family vacation. To do what? Play miniature golf and go to the beach? I hated the beach. What do you do at the beach? Get sand in your bathing suit and up your crack?
So Mom and Dad agreed to let me stay home alone. It was great. I had a party. We drank gin and tonics and did shots. It was the first time I ever blacked out.
LIZ Mom and Dad may have been sad Amanda wasn't coming to Myrtle Beach, but I was relieved. Amanda hated me. She called me Big Shot and a dumb blond and tattled on me for talking on the phone with my friends, which I would do for hours on end. A week in Myrtle Beach without her meant I could work on my tan in peace and quiet, and put lemon juice in my hair without her sneering at me or putting her finger in her mouth and pretending to throw up. Or singing that Carly Simon song "You're So Vain."
Auntie Eve was coming instead. We all adored Auntie Eve. She used to be our live- in nanny, but when Diana turned two, she moved to Yorktown Heights, twenty minutes from Bedford, to live with her son and his family. She still came twice a week to clean the house and do the laundry since Mom wasn't keen on house work. "It's not my forte," she'd say. Auntie Eve was in her seventies, I think, but if you asked her how old she was, she'd always answer, "Old enough!" Dad joked that between Auntie Eve and Mom he had the perfect wife.
"Why aren't we flying?" I asked Dad as he strategically stacked Mom's golf clubs on top of a cooler in the back of our Jeep Wagoneer. "Isn't it far?"
"Road trips are fun!" he bellowed, rearranging two suitcases to fit the last duffel bag, this one full of beach toys. "Plus, we'll get to see a bit of the East Coast."
Dad hopped in the driver's seat, and I sat directly behind him. Mom took her place in the front seat, and Auntie Eve took hers, behind Mom. Dan was squished in the middle, and Diana bounced from my lap to Eve's to Mom's before crawling in the back and making a nest on top of the luggage, where she fell asleep, her pale cheek smashed against Mom's leather golf bag, forcing her lips into a pucker. By the time we crossed the George Washington Bridge and entered New Jersey, I was bored stiff. We'd only been driving one hour and had thirteen more to go. Dad started a game of punch buggy, and then Mom suggested the capital game and we all moaned. Then Mom started singing, "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be," and everyone sang the part that sounds like human horns, "eh eh eh eh eh," before she finished the line, "a bumpy night." It was the song she had a one- line solo in when she did Applause on Broadway with Lauren Bacall. The solo went, "She's laughing a bit too loudly, that's how the last one began."
After that song, Mom tried to get me to sing "Tomorrow" with her, but I refused, having sworn never to sing that song ever again, not after auditioning for Annie on Broadway the year before. The casting director asked me to do the part that goes, "When I'm stuck with a daaay that's graaay and lo- onelyyy, I just stick out my chiiiiin and griiiin and saaay . . . !" They were the highest, hardest notes in the whole song. My voice strained to reach them and then cracked when I got there. The director yelled "Cut!" before I could even sing the refrain. "I'm sick of that song," I said, rolling my eyes.
Mom caught me doing it out of the corner of her eye and frowned. "Don't be a bad sport, Bitsy," she said. "It's unbecoming."
DAN Myrtle Beach was like a carnival, with all these rides along the boardwalk in town. After standing in line forever to ride a roller- coaster, I stood on my tippy- toes to pass the height requirement. I was so excited until I got in the seat and realized I was going to fall out for sure. As the ride started, I held on for dear life, and when it turned upside down, I closed my eyes and fought hard not to cry. When it was over, I felt sick, like I was going to puke. I had eaten an ice cream right before and told Mom I had a stomachache from that, but really I just didn't want to go on any more rides.
So Mom took me to the Ripley's Believe It . . . Or Not! museum. I loved that kind of stuff: my favorite TV show was In Search Of . . . with Leonard Nimoy. I loved seeing all these photographs of impossible- to believe things that actually existed in the world, like those African tribes that wore rings to elongate their necks. I also liked all the gory stuff, but it scared Mom. She couldn't even look at it. But she did like this grain of rice that someone had written a poem on so tiny you had to use a magnifying glass to read it. And her favorite thing was a matchbook that a man had taken and cut into a long, one- hundred- foot strip without breaking it.
We stayed at a condo right on the beach, and Dad taught me how to throw a perfect spiral football there on the sand. He told me to use my left hand to point to the sky in the direction I wanted to throw the ball. With my right hand, I was to keep my fingertips on the laces at all times, breaking my wrist just as the ball passed my face and then letting go. I tried really hard, but I couldn't do it. My hands were too small. Dad didn't make me feel bad about it, but I never wanted to disappoint him. I wanted to grow up to be his carbon copy.
The next day we all got into the Jeep to go to this sculpture garden. As we pulled up to the entrance to the parking lot, there were these two giant statues of fighting stallions. They were up on their hind legs, lashing at one another with their front hooves and biting each other's necks. I was the only one in the family who didn't like horses. I'd been terrified of them ever since Rascal, my Shetland pony, rolled over with me on top of him when I was eight. He nearly crushed me to death. It was awful, but Dad made me get back on him right away. I did what he asked because I wanted to please him. Still, I've hated those beasts ever since. As we drove beneath the statues, I looked up and saw their huge marble testicles, and I just knew: This was not going to be fun.
LIZ After spending four hours looking at boring statues, I was desperate to get back to the beach to work on my tan. We got back into the car— Mom in the passenger seat, Dan and I in back with Diana strapped in the middle. Auntie Eve had stayed at the condo, claiming statues were "not her thing." Dad started the ignition without any cause for concern, but as soon as he put the car into drive, it lurched forward, then groaned, and then we all heard a gigantic thud. Then the car let out a big sigh and went completely silent.
Dad quickly got out of the car and down on his knees to look beneath it. We heard him mutter, "God damn it."
"What is it, Bob?" Mom called from the passenger seat.
"It's the drive shaft," he shouted back, still under the car.
Mom turned in her seat and looked at us quizzically, "The what?" she asked, unsnapping her seat belt and opening the door.
"The thing that holds the car together," Dad said quietly as he got up off the ground and brushed gravel from his hands and knees.
As he went in search of a pay phone, I climbed out of the car and sat on the pavement, determined to get some sun before it set. I pulled the bottom of my T-shirt up through its neck to make a bikini top, rolled the sleeves up on top of my shoulders, and leaned back on my arms with my face and body lined up with the sun. Eventually, the cab came, taking Mom, Dan, Diana, and me back to the condo while Dad waited for the tow truck. The following day, while our car was still at the shop, Aunt Barbara called Dad to say Grampy was in the hospital. He had pneumonia; his lungs were filling with liquid. His doctor gave him only a few more days to live.
Dad flew to Boston the next day to see his father one last time, leaving us three kids behind with Mom. Suddenly, the vacation was less fun. Mom didn't know how to throw a perfect spiral football with Dan, and she kept telling me I was spending too much time in the sun. Worse, I had given up the chance to be in Star 80. Three days into our vacation, my agent had called to say that Bob Fosse was considering making the sister older for me and would I fly back for another audition. I had told Mom that I didn't want to, that I was having too much fun. Now I wasn't so sure.
The Jeep got fixed, and the ride home seemed twice as long without Dad. He liked to play punch buggy, and he let us eat at Burger King. Mom only liked word games and made us eat soggy tuna fish sandwiches on Bran - ola bread that Auntie Eve made the night before. Plus, we were all worried about Grampy. Mom said she wasn't sure we'd ever see him again.
We made it back to Bedford by nightfall. I was happy to be home, happy to see Max, our German shepherd, who jumped up to look inside the car as soon as Mom parked. We had dropped Auntie Eve off at her son's house in Yorktown Heights, so I helped Mom unload. I already knew that I wanted to wear my white button- down shirt to school the next day, since it would best show off my tan, so I emptied all of the suitcases and started a load of whites. An hour or two later, just as I was ironing my shirt, the phone rang. It was Dad.
"Hiya, toots," his voice boomed through the receiver.
"How's Grampy?" I asked.
"He's a fighter," Dad replied. "He's going to make it."
We chatted a bit more, and then he said, "Tell Amanda not to pick me up at the airport. And tell your mother I'm renting a car and driving home."
And then, "Kiddo, don't worry about a thing. I have everything all figured out."
And with that, he hung up.
Amanda's room was on the third floor. I walked up the two flights of stairs and knocked gently on her door. It had a sign on it that read, do not enter under penalty of death in chunky block letters. Supertramp was blasting on the stereo. "Take a look at my girlfriend / She's the only one I got" wafted through the closed door.
I pounded harder, and then heard the scratch of the record needle and a gruff "What?"
She wasn't going to let me in, so I shouted through the door, "Dad says don't pick him up. He's renting a car."
Instead of answering, she put the record needle back down.
DAN I woke up to Mom sitting on my bed, crying, her hands covering her face.
It was a clear night. I remember the blue glow of the moon reflecting off the wallpaper and the silhouettes of my hobby toy cars and planes and my battery collection.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
She told me Dad died. She said that Dad was never coming back, and that God wanted him. And I started crying. We hugged and stuff like that. And that was that.
LIZ amanda decided to go to school the next morning, but the rest of us stayed home. Every time the doorbell rang, I'd shout, "I'll get it!" I was grateful to have something to do besides wander aimlessly through our suddenly huge and foreign house. Even Max sensed something was wrong. He accompanied me to the front door each time growling softly, his hair on end. It was either a deliveryman with another arrangement— lilies, tulips, roses, and carnations, all in muted shades— or a concerned neighbor dropping off a tuna casserole or a pineapple upside- down cake.
Mom remained in her bedroom all day, mostly on the phone. I eavesdropped, standing in her doorway or sitting outside on the steps going up to the third floor, and listened to her tell the story over and over again: "It was a car accident . . . He was on his way back home from Boston . . . He fell asleep at the wheel . . . He was only two exits from home."
No matter how many times I heard the words, the reality of what she was saying never sank in. I kept waiting for him to pull up the driveway, tooting the horn, laughing, "Ha! Ha! Ha! I really had you all going!" Dad was a joker. He loved a good prank. When the phone rang and he was home, he'd answer by saying "Ku- Ni- Chi- Wa" in a ridiculous Saturday Night Live Japanese accent. Or "Vinnie's Pizzeria," winking at whoever was nearby to include that person in on his joke.
Plus, he was still everywhere. His brown leather slippers were sitting at the foot of the green corduroy ottoman in his bedroom where he had last kicked them off, and his blanket- soft baby- blue cardigan was hanging on a hook in the mudroom. I couldn't resist grabbing it, burying my face in its soft folds. It still smelled of pipe tobacco and Colgate toothpaste, Dad's scent. If his scent was still alive, how could he be dead? In the fridge there were three cans of Ballantine ale and a half- eaten wedge of Stilton cheese wrapped in cellophane, which would stay there for weeks until someone realized, I'm not sure who, that Dad was the only person in our house who drank ale or liked Stilton cheese. And then there was the note, written in his choppy, left- leaning scrawl, all sharp angles and straight lines, pinned to the bulletin board near the phone: "Annie, I'm out in the barn."
I floated and fumbled through the day, lurking in hallways and listening to conversations, hunting for clues that would prove my hunch right. Dad was in the barn! That was what the note said! Or perhaps he actually took the plane and was waiting at the airport! We need to send someone to JFK! Or maybe to Newark? Or maybe the man who had died in the car crash was someone who looked like Dad. Uncle Harry, Auntie Eve's boyfriend, identified the body. He told Mom that Dad was unrecognizable. I overheard him say that Dad's head was so badly smashed that the only reason he knew it was Dad was because of the red, brown, black, and silver mustache smeared across his lip. I thought, lots of men have mustaches! And Uncle Harry said he was unrecognizable. So maybe it wasn't him. It couldn't be him. How could it be him?
Later that afternoon, after Amanda came home from school, I sat midway up the stairs that led to her bedroom, listening to the conversation she was having with Mom. The do not enter under penalty of death sign had been ripped down from her door, but the sentiment remained, as did two paper corners beneath pieces of stubborn tape.
"You cannot wear leather pants to your father's funeral," Mom pleaded. She sounded exhausted. I crawled silently to the top of the stairs and peeked through the crack where the door was ajar. Mom was sitting on Amanda's bed, just beneath the poster of a half- naked Jim Morrison, his arms outstretched in a slacker crucifixion pose.
I loved Amanda's leather pants. She bought them with money she got for her sixteenth birthday, and said she was going to wear them to concerts. She was so proud of them, she even invited me into her room one afternoon to show them off. She had ripped out the lining to get them to fit, and still she had to lie down on her bed, suck in, and tuck her stomach to one side, then the other, in order to zip them up without catching any flesh. Once she was in them, she looked amazing.
"They're black," Amanda said, scowling.
She was slumped in her desk chair, arms crossed.
"We'll go shopping tomorrow," Mom suggested.
"I hate shopping," Amanda said without moving. She was staring out the window, with her back to Mom.
That's when panic first struck me— I had nothing black to wear to the funeral. I ran down to my room and ransacked my closet. Dad had just bought me a cotton sundress for the eighth- grade spring dance, but that was white with purple and turquoise stripes. I also had a Gunne Sax dress, a Christmas gift, but it was pale gray calico with a white lace collar, not remotely somber, not close to black. Dad prided himself on his attire. He always dressed appropriately. Even though he didn't like to ride horses all that much, he had a dashing red coat with a black velvet collar and a matching top hat he wore to go fox hunting with Mom. I needed a black dress.
I ran to tell Mom, now back in her bedroom, her eyes raw but still leaking tears.
"You're too young to wear black, Elizabeth," she said quietly.
A lightning bolt of anger shot up from somewhere deep inside me. "If Dad were alive, he'd buy me a black dress," I said through clenched teeth, my bottom lip stuck out at her instead of my tongue, my top lip clamped down holding back the tears whirling in my chest.
Mom looked as if I had slapped her in the face.
"Well, I'm sorry," she said. "Your father is not . . ."
I don't know how she finished the sentence because I was already running, my hand covering my mouth as my lips were parting against the howling pressure now in my throat. I slammed my bedroom door and flung myself on my bed. For the first time that day, I cried.
AMANDA Yeah, I went to school the next day. I had to get out of that fucking house. Everybody was all crying and weird. And Mom was driving me crazy; she cried nonstop from the time Dad died until after the funeral. It's like, you cry, and then you stop. You don't cry, cry, cry, cry, cry. Don't get me wrong; I cried. I just didn't sit around all day doing it in front of everybody. Also, when Dad died, Mom and I didn't have a very good relationship. I was in the middle of my sixteen- year- old angst, and she was . . . well, she was really annoying. That morning, I just couldn't deal with her, so I drove Dad's Mercedes to school.
Up until that day, I had been trying to lose weight by walking the four miles to school and eating only every other day. I wasn't obese, but I was fat compared to other kids. I mean: I had to rip the lining out of those leather pants because I couldn't get my fat thighs in them otherwise. It was Mom who taught me to make up my own hare-brained diet schemes. I was seven when she first brought me to Weight Watchers. By the time I was a high school junior, we were doing the Shaklee diet together because Mom was out of work and started selling the disgusting meal- replacement shakes. I flavored mine with maple syrup extract and ended up smelling like pancakes for the entire semester.
Then, the day Dad died, food was dropped off on the hour, like, whole baked hams and ziti, just casserole dish after casserole dish. There was food everywhere. And I thought that was so funny, like, what, our dad died so we're not going to eat? Nobody's going to open the refrigerator? But I guess they just wanted to do something. Anyway, when I came home from school that afternoon, I ate an entire pineapple upside- down cake. It was the best thing I had ever eaten in my life.
DAN I didn't go to school for the longest out of everybody; I just hung around the house for about a week. It felt big and lonely even though there were all these people coming over to say they were sorry. Then my friends Curtis and Jeremy came over after school one day. We stood in the driveway, right in front of the house. It was awkward. We were only eleven and we didn't really know what to say to each other, so we just hung out. But it was really nice of them to come.
When I did go back to school, some kid made a joke about my father being dead and I started crying in class. Curtis stood up and hit the kid. And that felt good, seeing him do that for me. It made me feel less alone.
LIZ Amanda wound up wearing her leather pants to the wake. I wore my gray Gunne Sax dress and sat in a folding chair, cocooned by seven or eight girlfriends who had pulled their chairs around me. Their eyes were fixed on me, but mine were set on the coffin, only ten feet away. Mom thought I was too young to wear black, but I guess she figured I was old enough to help her pick out Dad's coffin.
Just the day before, I sat in the undertaker's wood- paneled office listening as Mom answered a series of questions. A man in a dark suit and white starched shirt sat behind a large desk and wrote her answers on a clipboard.
"Do you want him cremated?" the man asked.
"Do you have a funeral plot?"
"Will it be a religious wake?"
"How many people do you expect?"
"Do you want an open or a closed casket?"
Mom sat straight up in her seat and cocked her head to one side, confused. Now I understood why she brought me along. This man might as well have been speaking Cantonese. This was a new role for her: Dad was the one who handled practical things. He paid all the bills, filled out all the forms, hired the handymen. So she answered each question hesitantly, with a shaky voice, her bottom lip quivering.
It hadn't stopped quivering since Dad died. I had seen this expression before, but mostly on TV. It was her trademark: She'd bite her bottom lip and wrinkle her forehead, and then her chin would shake. It always irritated me, and I never once thought it was sincere, until now. I wanted to reach over and hold her face between my hands to steady her chin, to wipe away her tears. Instead, I just sat there, feeling useless. I was no help at all. Then this man asked, "What type of coffin?"
Mom stared at him and shrugged, prompting him to pull out a three- ring binder filled with glossy photos, which he placed in front of us. I flipped through until I saw a shiny, deep purple- y red mahogany casket with a royal blue velvet lining.
"This is it, Mom," I said. "This is what Dad would want."
In a way, it felt as though we were shopping for a celestial car, one that would zoom Dad to Heaven. He had only ever driven a Mercedes- Benz as long as I could remember, so mahogany with brass hardware and a royal blue velvet lining seemed fitting. It was the Mercedes- Benz of coffins.
Nodding his head, the undertaker agreed and said, "Your daughter has excellent taste."
Mom sighed and said, "She gets that from her father." Then she asked for the price, and I felt instantly ashamed. How could she be thinking of money at a time like this?
The figure he quoted was high enough to shock Mom out of her sad stupor. "That's ridiculous," she said, then softened. "It's more than we can afford."
She continued flipping through the book, her hands shaking along with her lower lip, tears splashing onto the laminated pages, and I wondered if that was why they were laminated. She finally settled on an oak casket with no lining— a waste of money as, even the undertaker agreed, Dad's face and body were so badly smashed up that a closed coffin was the only way to go.
Sitting in the funeral home staring at the casket, I wished it were mahogany. But then I saw Mom, standing an arm's length from her husband's body, thanking people for coming, nodding her head as they told her how sorry they were, and agreeing with others about how awful it was. I realized it simply didn't matter.
I spent most of that night comforting my friends, especially Adrianna, the girl who addressed all notes to me throughout seventh grade as "MBF," short for My Best Friend, and signed them "YBF." We were no longer close friends, but Adrianna was crying so hard that her face was slick with tears and snot, her wailing mouth webbed with saliva. "It's going to be okay," I told her, over and over. I didn't mind, though. It gave me something to do.
My siblings were like zombies. Dan stood with two friends, kicking at a spot on the floor, his hands shoved in the pockets of his gray flannel slacks. Amanda sat with her best friend Anna in one corner, stony- faced. And Diana stayed home. Mom thought she was too young for such sadness and instead brought a photograph of her and Dad to place on the casket. It had been taken the summer before: Dad standing in the shallow end of our pool, waist deep in water, with Diana on his hip, her pale arms wrapped tightly around his neck, her freckled face smashed against his as if she wished she were clay and wanted to mold into him. They were both smiling so hard, it was surprising the frame could contain the happiness of that moment, surprising that it didn't shatter into a million pieces, floating all over the funeral home like dust.
DIANA I remember when that picture was taken, the one that took the place of both Dad and me at his funeral. It was a sunny day, and we were by the pool. I was wearing a hand- me- down bathing suit that I had inherited from a cousin, a brown calico number with large circular cutouts that left one vertical strip of material to cover my belly button and one to cover my spine. I had put it on that morning, all by myself, in the bathroom I shared with Liz. All those holes made the suit difficult to negotiate. Bare ass on the cool tile, I stuck my feet through the wrong holes and yanked the suit up my thighs. I had to get up and sit down three times before I got it right. I thought it was the coolest thing until my sisters told me it was hideous. This was after Dad, towel slung over his shoulder, had scooped me up for the camera that Mom held beneath the wide brim of her straw hat. I squeezed his neck, smushing my cheek to his. He laughed and said I was getting big. Then he threw me up in the air and into the pool.
DAN Dad never cri ed. I cried a lot when I was little. I was a momma's boy, always hiding behind Mom's legs because I was scared of a bunch of things: cats, horses, geese— you name it. This one time, Dad and I were walking down the driveway, and I was crying and acting spoiled. Finally he said to me: "Stop crying, or I'll give you something to really cry about." He never told me that men shouldn't cry, but it was implied.
Like in the movie The Great Santini, there's a moment where Santini's wife has died. He and his son are in the hospital, and he says to his son, "Okay, you have fifteen minutes to go cry. And that is it." The son went into the hospital room and cried for fifteen minutes and that was it. The mourning was over. That stuck out in my mind. I thought, "That's what I should do. That's what men do."
When the pallbearers walked down the aisle, each holding a corner of Dad's coffin, I saw a tear roll down one man's face. For the first time, I thought it was okay for men to cry.
DIANA I don't remember much else about the four years I spent with Dad. I now know he was one of seven, born in Quincy, Massachusetts, three girls and four boys, raised by a widower. He was the quarterback for North Quincy High, making the local paper a couple of times for his handling of the pigskin. He worked, got fair marks in school, and teased his sisters mercilessly. My grandfather, known to us as Grampy, was a drinking man born to a long line of drinkers, and after school, our father and his brothers were often greeted in the kitchen by their surly and slouching dad, his bottle half empty on the table in front of him. The unlucky son who was ordered to the basement for a bout with his old man would glumly descend the wooden stairs, strapping on some gloves. Uncle Russ, an artist and interior decorator who died of liver failure in 2003, got it the worst.
It was Russ who held me the day Dad's coffin was lowered into the blazing green earth of the cemetery grounds. I hadn't been at the wake or the funeral, but Mom brought all of us up to Massachusetts for the burial. There were people crying all around, looking at the coffin, the hole, the grass, their shoes, the sky. Russ looked at the grass. My hands gripped the back of his neck and patted his puffy, prickly cheeks. I looked at his eyes, red and wet. They looked as if they hurt. I looked at his big ear and at the hairs that curled from the waxy hole.
"Is my daddy in there?" I whispered to him in the silence. He ignored me, so I leaned in closer, my lips touching the hairs, and asked him again. Then I saw his eyes spilling and shut my mouth so hard I bit my tongue. I could taste the blood, metallic like the water from the fountain at school, licking its way to my teeth. I started to cry and put my hands to his cheeks once more, just like the cheeks I had touched in the sunshine by the pool, in the dimly lit hallways of our house, in my bed before I fell asleep.
"You look just like my daddy," I whispered. "You look just like my daddy." My uncle turned his head and began to sob as some gray- haired lady took me from his arms, my hands scraping his stubble as I was carried away.