Trying to Avoid Despair

A Letter to My Grandson, December 3, 2015

Yesterday your mother called me, and we talked about how terrible this mass shooting in San Bernardino made her feel—almost hopeless and despairing, much because of her love for you. Then she said she remembered her father talking about how people have persisted through the terrible history of tragedies wrought on humans by other humans.

I was born in June, 1943. That month, three major race riots occurred, two were white against black and one was white against hispanic. The Allies made major advances in Europe and the Pacific arena, while Nazis continued to wipe out whole populations by sending them to death camps. That war ended in 1945.

When I was 7, the Korean War began in 1950, and “ended” when I was 10, with more than 4 million dead and missing on both sides (give or take a few thousand here and there).

In elementary school, we practiced hiding under our desks to protect ourselves if a nuclear bomb struck during the Cold War. In high school, we learned that would be useless and we should just pray. In college, I watched John Kennedy on TV bring us to the brink of nuclear destruction with his ultimatum over the “Cuban Crisis.”

Pop and I have lived through the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, as well as race riots and police dropping an actual bomb on a house in Philadelphia.

When I became pregnant with your mother, the Viet Nam war was still going on, ending in 1975 with 3 million people dead from 7 million tons of bombs and 2 billion bucks spent for everything. I know many people whose lives were impacted terribly by that war, including my brother Joe’s.

So while we have not been physically injured by violence, we have seen it again and again and were scared. Scared we would be hurt, or our kids, or you. Scared by all the angry people who believe there is only one way to live or one kind of people who should be allowed to live. Scared by people who believe that even more guns are the solution to violence. And especially scared for people who want to give up, who think life is worthless because they think the violence will never stop.

As a species, we have prevailed despite this violence against ourselves. We took a long time to evolve into a species that can think beyond the simple imperative of “fight or flight” to survive, a species that can imagine a future beyond terror. John Steinbeck in his novel, The Grapes of Wrath, wrote:

“Man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, and emerges ahead of his accomplishments.”

So believe, Odin, in yourself, and in the power of compassion.


All my love to you.

Captain Starn’s Restaurant

I just found an old, old picture of my family at dinner at Captain Starn’s restaurant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, circa 1949. A roving photographer went from table to table, offering packages of black and white prints in various sizes, even on packs of matches. This must have been a special occasion, because my parents did not spend money on such frivolities. And, remarkably, everyone is smiling, except for Mom Mom Boyle, who never did.

I am, at six years old, the winsome urchin at the bottom right, wearing a plaid wool dress that I can still remember 70 years later for its malignant itch. The boy on the left wearing the captain’s hat is my brother Joe, the handsomest, most knowledgeable young man of ten on the face of the earth. My mother (who closed her eyes whenever a flash picture was taken) sits next to him, and the young woman next to her is my sister Barbara, just turned 12, already bosomed and beaming. Dad, with rare contentment on his face, sits between her and Mom Mom.

I cannot remember why we are all there, smiling and happy. Perhaps we had just gotten that funny green Chevy coup with black running boards that I vaguely recall, because we did not often go out to dinner, much less as far from Philly as Atlantic City. Mom loved to take car rides, so the acquisition of an automobile might have been the cause of this celebration. If so, the presence of Mom Mom would be a plus, giving her evidence our growing wealth.

The restaurant opened in 1940 by Clarence Starn. Built on an inlet at the end of a boardwalk, the Starn emporium included boats for hire, deep-sea fishing boats, a sailboat, and excursion boats for sightseeing. Behind the restaurant were open fish and lobster tanks, an enclosure where for 15 cents one could feed the seals, a fish market, and a shell shop.

I loved the shore and the ocean smell, but not the restaurant much. I had to sit still for a very long time, and Mom always ordered for me, usually something less expensive. A Starn’s menu from that time shows prices for full dinners (potatoes, mashed or fried; lettuce and tomato; coleslaw; and hot rolls included) ranging from $2.25 for baked crabmeat to $3.75 for lobster tail. I probably got the baked crabmeat for $2.25, lots of filler, and maybe a tough slip of membrane, like cellophane, that I have to mouth out with my tongue and lips.

The room is loud with conversations and the chink of dishes and plates levered up and down by the waitresses (all women here, the maître de a middle-aged man of good posture and manners, but never snooty nor swishy, and the bus boys all working after school). Everyone is white. Sudden quiet after the loud crash of a slipped platter, but talk quickly resumes.

The ocean-side windows are cranked open for the breeze, but not the shore-side, to avoid blusters of sand, though when Dad orders oysters and the three of us make yucky noises, he might crunch a little grit. Mom snorts, and he gets a little pissed, because after all it’s good food, and what are we all making fun of?

* * *

            Starn’s closed in ’79, during the heyday of casino-building in Atlantic City. Tourists sought the ka-ching of slots and the bargain meals offered to Philly bus tourists by the marketing people of Resorts and Ceasar’s. People not interested in glam went to Cape May for its newly renovated Victorian charm, quaint boutiques, and quiet, or to Wildwood for its amusement piers, wide beach, and adolescent activities. The Starn heirs took the offer of a casino developer and gutted the building; the project fell through, nothing was built nor anything paid to them.

Now Starn’s is a desolate lot, everything gone, even the boardwalk and all the supporting structures. Not unlike my family in that picture, which might be considered the height of our happiness: Dad pleased with his promotion, not yet restricted by his lack of a college degree; Barbara looking forward to adulthood, not yet shunned by her peers for her cerebral palsy spasticity; Joey proud of his talent in the church choir, his voice not cracked and himself not yet ostracized by his homosexuality; and Mom with her home, her white neighborhood, not yet panicked by changing demographics to move to a suburban neighborhood they can ill-afford or compete socially in. Mom Mom with her scathing tongue and ancient rage hasn’t moved in with us yet. And me, believing for a very long time—too long, actually—that we loved each other unconditionally, would treat each other gently, without jealousy, and never, ever, lie to each other, because that’s what the “Baltimore Catechism” and the nuns taught. Because that’s how a family was meant to be.

Then it all dissolved, like Starn’s, in a swirl of time, an eddy of tears, and hurricanes of dashed ambition.