Authors: Mary McCarthy
Tags: #Biographies & Memoirs, #Memoirs, #Professionals & Academics, #Journalists, #Specific Groups, #Women
Mary McCarthy’s Collected Memoirs
Memories of a Catholic Girlhood
How I Grew
Memories of a Catholic Girlhood
TO THE READER
HESE MEMORIES OF MINE
have been collected slowly, over a period of years. Some readers, finding them in a magazine, have taken them for stories. The assumption that I have “made them up” is surprisingly prevalent, even among people who know me. “That Jewish grandmother of yours ... !” Jewish friends have chided me, skeptically, as though to say, “Come now, you don’t expect us to believe that your grandmother was really Jewish.” Indeed she was, and indeed I really had a wicked uncle who used to beat me, though more than once, after some public appearance, I have had a smiling stranger invite me to confess that “Uncle Myers” was a hoax. I do not understand the reason for these doubts; I have read about far worse men than my cruel uncle in the newspapers, and many Gentile families possess a Jewish ancestor. Can it be that the public takes for granted that anything written by a professional writer is
untrue? The professional writer is looked on perhaps as a “storyteller,” like a child who has fallen into that habit and is mechanically chidden by his parents even when he protests that this time he is telling the truth.
Many a time, in the course of doing these memoirs, I have wished that I were writing fiction. The temptation to invent has been very strong, particularly where recollection is hazy and I remember the substance of an event but not the details—the color of a dress, the pattern of a carpet, the placing of a picture. Sometimes I have yielded, as in the case of the conversations. My memory is good, but obviously I cannot recall whole passages of dialogue that took place years ago. Only a few single sentences stand out: “They’d make you toe the chalk line,” “Perseverance wins the crown,” “My child, you must have faith.” The conversations, as given, are mostly fictional. Quotation marks indicate that a conversation to this general effect took place, but I do not vouch for the exact words or the exact order of the speeches.
Then there are cases where I am not sure myself whether I am making something up. I think I remember but I am not positive. I wonder, for instance, whether the Mesdames of the Sacred Heart convent really talked as much about Voltaire as I have represented them as doing; all I am sure of is that I first heard of Voltaire from the nuns in the convent. And did they really speak to us of Baudelaire? It seems to me now extremely doubtful, and yet I wrote that they did. I think I must have thrown Baudelaire in for good measure, to give the reader an idea of the kind of poet they exalted while deploring his way of life. The rumor in the convent was that our nuns had a special dispensation to read works on the Index, and that was how we liked to think of them, cool and learned, with their noses in heretical books. When I say “we,” however, perhaps I mean only myself and a few other “original” spirits.
I have not given the right names of my teachers or of my fellow students, in the convent and later in boarding school. But all these people are real; they are not composite portraits. In the case of my near relations, I have given real names, and, wherever possible, I have done this with neighbors, servants, and friends of the family, for, to me, this record lays a claim to being historical—that is, much of it can be checked. If there is more fiction in it than I know, I should like to be set right, in some instances, which I shall call attention to later, my memory has already been corrected.
One great handicap to this task of recalling has been the fact of being an orphan. The chain of recollection—the collective memory of a family—has been broken. It is our parents, normally, who not only teach us our family history but who set us straight on our own childhood recollections, telling us that this cannot have happened the way we think it did and that that, on the other hand, did occur, just as we remember it, in such and such a summer when So-and-So was our nurse. My own son, Reuel, for instance, used to be convinced that Mussolini had been thrown off a bus in North Truro, on Cape Cod, during the war. This memory goes back to one morning in 1943 when, as a young child, he was waiting with his father and me beside the road in Wellfleet to put a departing guest on the bus to Hyannis. The bus came through, and the bus driver leaned down to shout the latest piece of news:“They’ve thrown Mussolini out.” Today, Reuel knows that Mussolini was never ejected from a Massachusetts bus, and he also knows how he got that impression. But if his father and I had died the following year, he would have been left with a clear recollection of something that everyone would have assured him was an historical impossibility, and with no way of reconciling his stubborn memory to the stubborn facts on record.
As an orphan, I was brought up between two sets of grandparents, all of whom are now dead, beyond questioning, and who knew very little, in any case, of the daily facts of our childhood, either before or after the death of our parents. My aunts and uncles, too, were remote from our family life and took small interest in it, my brother Kevin, whose memory corroborates mine for the period of our stay in Minneapolis, was too young when my parents died to remember much about them. For events of my early childhood, I have had to depend on my own sometimes blurry recollections, on the vague and contradictory testimony of uncles and aunts, on a few idle remarks of my grandmother’s, made before she became senile, and on some letters written me by a girlhood friend of my mother’s. For the Minneapolis period, I have had the help of Kevin, but for later events, in Seattle, when my brothers and I were separated, I am reduced, again, chiefly to my own memory. What more ancient family history I know has been pieced together from hearsay, from newspaper clippings, old photographs, and a sort of scrapbook journal kept by my great-grandfather, who lived to be ninety-nine. This old man seems to have been the only member of the family who was alive to the interest of history. The grandmother I was closest to, his daughter-in-law (as I will show later), disliked talking about the past.
Yet the very difficulties in the way have provided an incentive. As orphans, my brother Kevin and I have a burning interest in our past, which we try to reconstruct together, like two amateur archaeologists, falling on any new scrap of evidence, trying to fit it in, questioning our relations, belaboring our own memories. It has been a kind of quest, in which Kevin’s wife and my husband and even friends have joined, poring over albums with us, offering conjectures: “Do you think your grandmother could have been jealous of you?” “Could your grandfather have had a nervous breakdown?”
How odd this might seem to an outsider never struck any of us until a week ago. It was a Sunday, and my brother Preston, whom I had not seen for many years, had come up from Wilmington to lunch at Kevin’s house in the country, bringing with him his wife and children. There were seven of us, seven adults (for we had brought a friend), having cocktails, when someone—my husband, I think—mentioned Uncle Myers. Did Preston have a snapshot of him? “Who was Uncle Myers?” came the voice of Preston’s wife, clear and innocent. All motion ceased, the room was frozen in incredulity. The cocktail shaker in Kevin’s hand halted in midair, like one of the spits turned by the cook in the story of the Sleeping Beauty. “‘
WHO WAS UNCLE MYERS
?’” Kevin’s wife, Augusta, finally echoed, falling back on her chair in a fit of helpless laughter. “‘
WHO WAS UNCLE MYERS
?’” cried Kevin, mock-indignant. We laughed so hard and long that the children came running in to find out what had happened. “Ann wanted to know who Uncle Myers was,” Augusta explained to her little boy, James Kevin. He nodded and ran out again; it was not necessary to explain to him why it was funny; he knew. The idea that anybody could have entered the McCarthy orbit and failed to take notice of Uncle Myers was clearly fantastic.
It was ourselves, of course, we were laughing at—not Ann, though she did not think so. Uncle Myers was our White Whale. Anyone who came near us found they had shipped for the voyage. But it is not Uncle Myers alone; it is our whole family history that exercises a fascination on most people who hear even a little of it. They want to know more, which is precisely our situation; we want to know more than we shall ever find out. But why? What inspires this curiosity, beyond sheer contagion? Our family was not remarkable. There was no special genius, on either side, not even eccentricity. The mentality was probably somewhat above average for several generations, if success is a criterion, but most of my relations were and are today quite typical of their class and kind. It is the conjunction of them that is so curious and that produced such curious results. They were ordinary people who behaved quite oddly, to each other and to us four children, that, I think, is the source of the fascination. One wants to have this explained to learn either that they were not ordinary or that their behavior was not so odd as it looked. They, certainly, did not think themselves unusual, in their own eyes, they were like everyone else, and their conduct seemed to them, so far as I can judge, highly natural, just what anyone else would do under the circumstances. It puzzles them—the ones who survive—that anyone else should puzzle over them, and this, surely, is a mark of mediocrity. And it is just this mediocrity, this lack of self-awareness, that leaves one pounding at a closed door.
I was born in Seattle in 1912, the first of four children. My parents had met at a summer resort in Oregon, while my mother was a coed at the University of Washington and my father, a graduate of the University of Minnesota, was in the Washington Law School. His father, J. H. McCarthy, had made a fortune in the grain-elevator business in Duluth and Minneapolis, before that, the family had been farmers in North Dakota and, before that, in Illinois. Originally, some generations back, the McCarthys had settled in Nova Scotia; the story is that they had emigrated for religious reasons and not because of the potato famine. In any case, according to legend, they became “wreckers,” a common species of land pirate, off the Nova Scotia coast, tying lanterns at night to their sheep on the rocky cliffs to simulate a beaconing port and lure ships to their destruction, for the sake of plunder, or, as it is sometimes told, for the sake of the salvage contract. Plunder would be more romantic, and I hope that was it. By the time I knew them, the McCarthys had become respectable. Nevertheless, there was a wild strain in the family. The men were extraordinarily good-looking, dark and black-browed as pirates, with very fair skin and queer lit-up grey-green eyes, fringed by the “McCarthy eyelashes,” long, black, and thick. There was an oddity in the hair pigmentation: my grandfather McCarthy was white by the time he was twenty, and my father was grey at the same age. The women were pious and plain. My grandmother, Elizabeth Sheridan, looked like a bulldog. Her family, too, had originally settled in Canada, whence they had come down to Chicago.