Excerpts from “Formative: The Years That Changed Everything”
Graduations, weddings, children, new careers: life’s grand scale begins to shift and change in your twenties. Decisions that are seemingly small ripple in echoes across decades, imprinting on a life.
In this story, we’re all in our twenties. It’s the first question I asked each of my grandparents: “What was life like for you in your twenties? What did you think about, what excited you?” The following is a representation of my four grandparents and their lives, based on interviews, research, and the retelling of stories that have been told many times before. The integrity of their personalities is the most unquestionable aspect of this piece, and many of the stories while unbelievable, are true.
At first it felt invasive. At first, it felt like I was inserting myself in a history that was not my own, one that had thrashed and flowered by itself for many years before I had come around. As I sat down to write, I felt myself creating a world with those I know the most that I also felt entirely foreign in. But then, I reminded myself of how familiar these four people are to me, and how much of what I told was already second nature to me.
Their twenties changed everything. It brought my parents into their lives, sent them on moves across the country, tested their relationships, and brought them through struggles they didn’t know they could endure. And now, they share it with me, as I work to infuse feeling, emotion, and authenticity into the tidbits and half-stories of our family’s history.
And so, I give to you the digital version of this goliath piece, something that has demanded my complete creative capacity for over a year. “Formative” is highly personal, heavily researched, and illustrated best as a conversation with four people I believe have remarkable stories to share. I’ve created the New York Series to illustrate Part I of my piece, taking my favorite moments and throwing them into the Emma In Print world. Special thanks to my writing mentor and thesis advisor, Inara Verzemnieks, (read her new book, she is wonderful) who has guided me through this intimidating work.
To leave you with a quote that has inspired this work:
“We needed time to consider ourselves, to come up with a theory about who we were and set it to music.” -Miranda July
The New York Series, Part I
“Emma, I’ll tell you the same thing I told your aunts and uncles when I went they went off to college — don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. And trust me, I’ve done it all.”
I roll my eyes at my grandfather, sure he has never grazed the surface of trouble kids can possibly get into these days.
“And don’t think I don’t know what all you can get into nowadays. I am a professor that teaches kids just a few years older than you — I’ve seen it all.”
Every year we hear a new batch of stories about the outrageous excuses and wild things that his students pull at the Hamline University. He’s a no-bullshit professor, and prides himself on a twenty-page syllabus and killer tests. I often wonder what it would be like to be one of his business students.
My grandpa Tom gives me advice, my grandma Kathleen gives me jellybeans. A seven pound jar of Jelly Bellies that was on sale at Costco, to be exact. Of their eighteen grandchildren, my cousin Rhea and I are the only two that are not only the same age, but also attending the same school in a few weeks. The advice and the jellybeans is our sendoff into this new world. We move in to the dorms soon and have already counted how many doors apart we are from each other down the halls of Burge.
In the humidity of August, we shed the blanket of our families and quaint communities and join a freshman class of five thousand — “The Largest To Date,” as printed on the front cover of the Daily Iowan with our class picture taking up most of the page.
We are curious about everything. We talk to anyone that might buy us a drink, sneaking in and out of bars, making friends we aren’t sure we will keep. We are wild and changing and sometimes we both hurt deeply. We question everything and laugh in our bunk beds. We covertly laugh to each other at family gatherings, knowing we have so many secret stories we wouldn’t dare to tell in front of so many relatives. It’s a year that rushes by, but punctuates itself in tiny moments and stories retold years later.
We wear crop tops and short skirts, hiding the lanyards with our dorm room keys as we walk with a giddy buzz to the bar.
I read Jennifer Egan, Maggie Nelson, learn the word “prose.” The world shifts.
We turn the music down when we hear the RA walk by, hiding the alcohol in pillowcases.
I wander home from a frat party alone while my friends make out with boys, crying and not sure why.
I submit my first piece for workshop. A horribly personal breakup letter. I cringe as they discuss it so distantly. One boy critiques, “I think the speaker in the letter should just get over it.”
I ask so many questions. One of our friends sits on my bed and explains what the room now looks like in the middle of an acid trip. I sip out of my mug of boxed wine and let him talk.
We draw names for whose turn it is to lug the dorm vacuum up five flights of stairs in the few times that year we cleaned our room.
I buy a Moleskin notebook as I sit alone at a Barnes and Noble on Valentine’s Day, feeling deep and sappy like a writer.
I wander sidewalks in snow that covers the city white after a night that happened too fast.
I discover the joy that is black coffee. I sit for hours in coffee shops staring out the window.
We steal bar wristbands and hold them together with chewed gum.
I smush an ice cream cone on my face as I hold down the futon in the back of Rhea’s van. We drive away from our dorm and watch the year fade. I take stock of which boys from home I can talk to over the summer to entertain myself.
I wonder if any of it is something my grandfather has ever done, if we’ve even come close to following his advice.
Tommy, October 1959
Tommy slammed his door in frustration. He reached into the closet, pulling out a backpack. Quickly, he shoved in any clothes he could find strewn across the floor, checking his watch to see when the next subway would leave for Manhattan. He needed to get out of that damn apartment. With Margaret breathing down his neck, constantly nagging him about one thing or another, he’d had enough. It didn’t help that his father’s spine had disappeared the moment they’d gotten hitched.
He finished the hurried packing and slammed the door on the way out of his room. Margaret was in the kitchen, steeping her tea. She heard his movement and called out to him, “Tommy, don’t forget to pick up your cap and gown tomorrow! Your father and I are not going to pay that late fee because you’re being careless. Now get out of here before you miss your bus, and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!”
Her voice rang out confidently in their home with a sense of belonging, even trying to make a joke as he left the house. He was seventeen, not seven, too old to need reminders about catching a bus. It was almost like she couldn’t see the stack of boxes in the dining room piled high with his mother’s things, hardly there long enough to accumulate dust.
He didn’t respond, just walked right out the door and started down the sidewalk. It was early and the streets were quiet before the morning commute. The white noise of delivery trucks outside the delis, bakeries, and convenience stores sounded like the prelude to New York City coming to life. A chill gained momentum as it blew through the narrow street. Bennie the Jew wasn’t even out on the front step, yelling about whatever was bothering him that day. Tommy poked into the corner store and took a small plastic bottle of vodka, shoving it quickly into his backpack before Mr. DeMaggio noticed. He grabbed a Coke and a few candy bars too, which he had learned made him seem less suspicious instead of wandering the aisles and leaving without buying anything. He had a predetermined look of trouble on his face — adults could always sense that he was up to no good.
He went up to the counter and fished through his wallet.
“I don’t need to look through that bag, do I?”
Mr. DeMaggio looked tired and unamused, eyeing the backpack slung around Tommy’s shoulder. Hopefully since it was so early on a Friday morning, he wouldn’t suspect him of snagging booze again.
“No sir. I’ve been straight since…” His voice trailed.
He didn’t have to finish the sentence. The DeMaggios knew, the Abrams knew, the entire neighborhood had been at his mother’s funeral just a few months ago. These blocks were tight-knit, and he knew Mr. DeMaggio was taking it easy on him because of the mess with Margaret. He could tell there had been talk, but he didn’t have the effort to care.
Not many families in the neighborhood knew what to say after learning that only months after his mother’s death, his father remarried his mother’s sister, Margaret. It was the plot twist in his family’s grief that sent the neighborhood chattering. She was once the fun auntie who worked as an executive secretary at a high-rise in Manhattan, slipping him an extra $5 bill at Christmas. Now, she’d lived in their home for almost three months, entering like a dog with muddy paws traipsing through the house. Like the rest of the neighborhood, Tommy didn’t know how to react. The single auntie with many stories was doing her very best to mother him — something he’d never asked for.
Since his senior year had begun, Tommy had developed a routine. Every time Margaret’s nagging became unbearable, they would fight spectacularly until he was too exhausted to think. Underneath was a deep, tattered hurt at the thought of how quickly she’d jumped into the family after his mother’s death, but he knew if he began using it as leverage, his father would add another dent to the wall. Eventually, he became so burnt out with the arguments over useless things like signing up for the SAT and picking up his clothes that he went silent. The next time he and Margaret fought, he didn’t know if he would be able to ignore her nagging and keep hurtful insults out of it.
These days, he’d pack his things and simply leave. Teachers knew what a mess his family had become, and usually didn’t ask follow-up questions when he’d disappear every few weeks. It was better to pass him through since he was already a senior. May of 1960 could not come soon enough.
Tommy could see that Mr. DeMaggio noticed the chronic exhaustion in his face, and felt sympathy for a kid trying to snag vodka from him so early in the morning. Tommy left the change on the counter and went down to the subway station. He inserted his token and popped off the Coke’s bottle cap on a railing while he waited on the platform, sipping it down to make room for the vodka. Though the schoolwork felt heavy in his backpack, a reminder of where he should have been, he ignored it and thought about which of his graduated friends were in the city today. It was Friday, so maybe if he tried to show up at one of their places they’d be willing to sneak out of work early.
The subway screeched through the small tunnel. He shuffled into the very last car with only traces of the morning commute. In the corner, he found a spot quiet enough to pour more vodka into the Coke bottle.…
Ready for more? Click here to read Part II in the New York Series!