This is from “Run to the Roundhouse, Nellie” an online journal about memoir. Melissa Shook is the editor.
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965-67)
Interview by Melissa Shook
I’ve read Mary-Ann Tirone Smith’s ambitious and skillfully crafted memoir, Girls of Tender Age, three times. Forty-seven chapters of varying lengths, 275 pages, crammed with divergent, interweaving stories located in a neighborhood where “you eat guinea food, drink harp beer, ostracize the frogs (since, as the most recent immigrants, they are at the bottom of the pecking order)” in a city, Hartford, Connecticut, where each Catholic church serves a distinctly separate ethnic group.
Undoubtedly different readers will find specific threads of particular interest. Mine is in the family, with emphasis on the daughter/author capable of transmitting so much information, including the foibles of her mother, who is given to assigning blame and on the verge of a nervous breakdown until she starts working and discovers golf, and the father, kind and long suffering, who self-identifies as a working stiff and receives the assigned blame. And there’s her brother, Tyler, five years older, frantically reactive and incorrectly labeled retarded, who had read 500 books about WW II by the time he was nine. (Just wait until you read the hilarious scene when Tyler commandeers the department store elevator, saying, “You’re a fine soldier, Sergeant. Where did you train? Hickham?” to his four-year-old sister, standing at attention by his side.)
In this gracefully written book, you will note Mary-Ann’s empathy after she’s asked what it feels like when her brother hears someone crying (or laughing or sneezing) and he’s said, “A cloud of needles flies into my face and it takes me a long time to pull them out because they have barbs at the end,” to which she responds by allowing him to eat half the cookie batter she was mixing.
There are many pleasures in these pages (including a rich description of eating bagna cauda) before you reach the pivot of the book, the evening of December 9, 1963, when a shy Polish girl, Irene, a classmate of Mary-Ann’s, was tragically intercepted and murdered while running an errand for her mother.
Irene becomes “GIRL, 11, STRANGLED WITH HER OWN SCARF FOUND BY POLICEMAN IN COOLIDGE ST. YARD” in the Hartford Times that Mary-Ann starts reading while her father cooks dinner. Before he notices what she’s doing. Before the desk is moved out of the classroom and everyone is told “There will be no speaking of Irene. Of Irene. Not about. The difference in the two words is big to me.” And Mary-Ann obeys, even to the extent of repressing almost all memory of what happened during the next two years.
“In the fifties, charging a man with a sexual offense against a teenager was rare – too difficult to prove that the teenager didn’t victimize the rapist with her wiles,” is indicative of fascinating material about the judicial system then. And there’s much more about the prosecution of Robert Nelson Malm, the murderer whose story Tirone Smith introduced in one-page, chapter two, when we learn that his mother died after his birth. In chapter forty-three, he is executed.
And there’s more, much more in this fascinating book, including eventually meeting Irene’s brother, who casually asks Do you remember pineapple cream pie? The book ends with the recipe – 13 oz. can of crushed pineapple, a box of pineapple Jell-O, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. Terrific.
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith:
Before our interview begins, I want to say that I wrote a memoir for this reason: though as a novelist I didn’t want to fictionalize a story I’ve always felt compelled to tell. But at the same time, I was wary because even though the truth is stranger than fiction, it isn’t truer than fiction. A good novel is meant to give us a look at the workings of human nature so that we walk away from the story and say: I know! I’ve been there! I understand! So I decided that if the true story of my remembered life couldn’t achieve that, I’d throw the whole thing away and go back to what I do-fiction.
I started with this: In writing a memoir, I needed to tell three stories: first, the tale of a huge extended family relating to each other in the same way people relate when they’re having a food fight. Not dysfunctional, but definitely outré. Second, what life was life with an autistic brother when autism had not yet been identified-we just figured my brother Tyler for a lunatic and loved him for it. Third, I wanted to pay tribute to a little girl who was my friend, classmate and neighbor-Irene-who was murdered, and try and find out what happened, who killed her and how it could have happened. Having been brought up in the fifties, I was not allowed to know those things at the time: don’t think about it, don’t talk about it, and it will go away.
In the process of doing all that, I also wanted to show how my neighborhood, even though it was in a city-Hartford, CT, was really small-town America where within one square mile was my school, church, little branch library, the 5 & 10, the drugstore, grocery and tavern where the dads stopped on the way home from work for a beer.
And so, I wrote my memoir, Girls of Tender Age, knew it met the goals I’d set out with because when it was published it struck a chord with so many people both here and in the UK, where it was also published, and now seven years later, I am still getting letters and emails from readers who tried on my story and then felt it necessary for me to try on theirs. It has a terrific book club guide, and I have thoroughly enjoyed climbing down from my crow’s nest to speak with book groups. How gratifying.
After reading Girls, you ask me how I could possibly be strong, creative, and able to raise emotionally healthy children. Well, I once knew a nun who was often asked, “What’s it like to be a nun?” Same as asking a twin what it’s like to be a twin, she said. Children, like nuns and twins, have no idea what a different life than the one they lived would have meant for them. And so, I can’t really say how I came to be what I am based on my childhood. I only remember that despite my unorthodox childhood, I remember being happy. When I look back and try to understand how I could have been, I think of my friend Judy who lost her father at four years old and she and her baby brother were raised by her mother, who worked the night shift, and her aunt, who worked a day shift. Her baby brother was the favorite and when it was time to consider college, she was told there was only enough money to send her brother to college. My friend Cookie’s parents were divorced, something unheard of in the fifties unless you were a movie star, and her father was given custody as her mother was an alcoholic, usually homeless. She was raised by her father’s sister and brother-in-law brought over from Sweden to help with the motherless child. They were strict and they spoke no English. My friend Joanne’s father was a bookie and his house was often raided-once while I was there, a scene described in my memoir-and he was in the headlines and in jail. But guess what? We were all happy, and as Joanne later told me, her parents told her to say, My father is in business for himself, when people asked her what he did for a living.
We played hopscotch, we laughed, we did fairly well in school, we went trick-or-treating.
All I can think is that Judy, Cookie, Joanne and I had a lot of people who loved us. I believe love is required for a child to emerge into adulthood in one piece. My mother didn’t love me, but even though a child needs love to thrive, I know it doesn’t have to come from Mom. My mother had no “maternal instinct” as we know the term. My father had enough for them both. And my extended family of 32 aunts and uncles and more than 60 cousins loved me and I loved them. Yes, my brother loved me too. His way of showing love ‘in his fashion” was, for example, to become frantic when my cat got run over by a car and he frantically warned my parents that if I got my hands on a howitzer I would kill myself. An autistic person without any possibility of empathy still knew that if I killed myself it wouldn’t be a good thing. (In his fantasy world-the one that allowed him to cope-howitzers were easily available.)
Although my family could certainly be thought of as dysfunctional, we were highly functional. We were instead, as I pointed out, outré. I coped by spending every minute I could at my childhood refuge-the library-and all summer outside. We rented a cottage (shack) on Long Island Sound every summer. I read and read and read. I loved books. I coped by intending to write books and hoped to one day find my books on the shelves of the Goodwin Branch of the Hartford Public Library. (They’re there!!!)
With all of the above, was being a Catholic useful? I did like to think that the Blessed Virgin would appear to me in our lilac bush and I’d be like the children of Fatima, hopefully the one who lived past childhood. But no, it was not useful. Hey, there’s a good question: how could any child told by nuns that if she committed a sin and got hit by a Mack truck on the way to confession, she would go to hell (mortal sin) or purgatory (venial sin), but if the truck hit her after she’d been to confession, she’d go straight to Heaven. Where there were No Jews Allowed, by the way. Talk about dysfunction. I believe the greatest gift I had to offer my children keeping them out of the church, not have them go cuckoo with: here are the rules; if you don’t keep them you’ll go to hell; but they’re impossible to keep so ha-ha on you.
I was interviewed for a terrific book-the name escapes me because like the late and wondrous Nora Ephron said, I Remember Nothing-but the author’s last name was Kennedy and she wrote for the Globe. Her book was a series of interviews with people, who as children lived with a family member with a mental illness. Here is what she learned from us: we’re all dependable in a crisis because as children life was one crisis after another. So if you’re about to get hit by a Mack truck hopefully I’ll be there because I will see it coming and push you out of the way and it won’t matter if you’ve been to confession or not.
What a fun question to consider-what did I want for myself as a child. I already mentioned one-the Virgin appearing in the lilac bush-but I really wanted to play second base for the Red Sox after watching my father play second for the Hartford Industrial League and having him teach me how to throw hard, swing hard, run hard, and catch a liner. Then he took me to Fenway Park and I noticed there were no ladies playing.
But I wanted to write books from the time I read my first work of long fiction, The Young Aunts. When my brother was born, my mother wanted him to be a Jesuit and made many novenas to make it happen. She had learned that Jesuits were scholars and wrote a lot of books so she paid a traveling salesman to send Tyler one book a month for a year, all the books guaranteed to be children’s classics. The novenas didn’t cut it and I got to read the great work he had no interest in-Robinson Crusoe, the first. (The Young Aunts was not a great work I quickly learned.)
Since my father wanted me to go to college I did, and for no other reason. My mother wanted me to get a job at data processing at Connecticut General now known as CIGNA. (That was when data was processed with a pencil not a computer.) Two of my English teachers, Arlene Dippe Manchester and C. Duncan Yetman told me I was a writer (I dedicated my fourth novel to them), and Paul Brodeur, who taught the one writing course I ever took, told me I had the real estate to write novels (I was a former Peace Corps volunteer). That combination plus my mother’s shelf of children’s classics and my father’s bedtime stories which he made up is why I’m a writer.
I had one obstacle on the road to becoming a published writer, my former husband. He told me that to be a writer was a pipe dream and that I should take on honest labor. His suggestion? I should get a job at McDonald’s. Fortunately, I knew he was wrong and since writing is actually a vocation, I couldn’t be stopped as any priest will tell you even though I had to earn a living teaching correspondence courses, writing press releases for a lecherous idiot, and writing and selling confession stories to various magazines of the genre. (Are they still around?)
As with many people who read my memoir, you have a need to understand how I weathered my childhood storms, but you answer the question when you quote to me the two quotes at the end of the memoir: Graham Greene, “All writing is therapy”; and Bette Midler, “Better to have a miserable childhood than a miserable adulthood,” the latter using the word “miserable” to get the greater laugh. Let me conclude by saying that humor was a great coping mechanism for me, still is, just as it has been for Bette Midler. I wish she’d write a memoir.
Finally, two memoirs I especially loved: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller, endearing and devastating, utterly honest in a depiction of a drastic life in Rhodesia with remarkably flawed English parents; and Love, Loss and What I Wore, by Ilene Beckerman, a most charming yet heart-wrenching, short in length story (“This magical gem of a book is worthy of a Tiffany box.”-The New York Times Book Review) is lyrical, powerful and stunning.
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith: In addition to my memoir, Girls of Tender Age, I have written nine novels: The Book of Phoebe, Lament for a Silver-Eyed Woman, The Port of Missing Men, Masters of Illusion, An American Killing, the Poppy Rice mysteries, Love Her Madly, She’s Not There, She Smiled Sweetly, and collaborated with my son Jere Smith on a mystery: Dirty Water, a mystery centered on the 2007 Red Sox. My work is included in short story and essay collections including, Going Up Country, From the Center of the Earth, and Dirty Words: a Literary Encyclopedia of Sex. I have been published in seven foreign languages, and stage rights for Girls of Tender Age are with the Canadian playwright, Rick Whelan.
In the loving aura of my husband Charlie and my dog, Saltalamacchia, I am working on a novel of the six months leading up to the Civil War and the first battle: Sumter.
I believe there are three aspects to life: the personal life, the business life and the geographical life. I believe the last is the most important. I am at peace with the slice of Long Island Sound I see through my office window.
For further biographical information: https://www.pen.org/mary-ann-smith