How We Came to be the DOR Girls: Chapter 2 — Spies Among Us

A reasonable facsimile. 7th floor, Saltonstall Building, 1989.

(Chapter 1 of this blog was posted December 14)

You can write, my writer friends said. I’d love a job where I had to do nothing, other people said. But they had never tried it: filling eight hours a day with nothing to do and people checking up on you to make sure you were busy. Busy doing what, no one ever specified.

Each morning, I took my time hanging up my coat. I sipped my tea and ate a muffin at my desk with some random papers scattered about in case someone should greet me. Only my boss ever did and he seemed relieved I had arranged some plausible charade. The women around me disappeared for hours at a time, often together. They were project managers and architects presumably engrossed in the business of organizing space for people like me to bang around in. My attempts at entertainment tested my creativity more than my year in a graduate writing workshop had.

Bill Barry’s Boys (they were furniture movers and all-around handymen) were worth a few minutes’ musings per day, especially Michael of the Huge Biceps. He stopped by my pristine cube to say hello, striking a Rocky-Balboa-Over-the-Door-Frame-Poster pose. I can’t imagine now what we talked about. Maybe he just hung around while I stared, and then, when he finally got dragged away to do some heavy lifting, I wasted a few more minutes cooling off. Some guy named Ben roamed around the office in sled-like white shoes that reflected the overhead fluorescents and took Polaroids of us. My most popular pose was hunched over my immaculate desk. I have no idea what Ben’s real job was, but his work hung in all of our cubicles except mine because Michael of the Huge Biceps unpinned them and put them in his own workspace. Wherever that was. The Other Hot Michael, an office intern, read me the names of all the players on his team roster (he played football for UMass Boston) who cheated on their girlfriends. Between the two Michaels and an occasional candid photo shoot from Ben, the mornings passed.

Another guy returned from an extended sick leave (Jeanne Something Wicked Italian (whose real name was Indrisano) pointed her index finger at her temple and whirled it around whenever anyone asked what he’d been sick with). He fidgeted in his cube and occasionally poked his head over the divider to insist I read Heart of Darkness. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “An English major who’s never read the greatest novel of all time?” Had I been an English major? Had I ever done anything beyond this mind-numbing ruse of putting in a day’s work?

Walter, whose job was related to whatever mine was supposed to be, seemed busiest of all. He was constantly grabbing his coat and dashing out of the office to stem some emergency. Since he was responsible for all telecommunications (read: telephones) already in place, and I would, possibly? improbably? someday be responsible for new phone systems, I thought maybe I could help him out until I was actually needed. When I asked him he said, “Sure. You can tell anyone who asks that I’m in Cambridge.”

We had a brand new Deadbeat Dads office there, and people did ask, regularly, where Walter was. I felt my most productive when I could tell them.

To avoid eating with Steve and Security Bob, I had begun bringing my lunch and stowing myself on a bench on the Common for my lunch hour. Unfortunately, the weather was starting to turn much colder so I hatched another plan. Let Steve and Bob go to lunch. Spend that hour reading and eating at my desk with no danger of my manager stopping by, then, when Steve returned, take my lunch hour and spend it inside someplace warm, Fanueil Hall, Filene’s Basement. Two hours down. Two lonely hours.

One day, as I contemplated where to stash myself from 1 to 2, Cathy Lange invited me to lunch. “A bunch of us are going,” she said. Cathy wore shoes a little like Ben’s. “Oh these?” she said when I asked her where she got them. “These are my boyfriend’s.” Still, I was flattered by the attention. Maybe they like me, I thought. Maybe they haven’t judged me just because my only friends here are muscley boys and my disgusting boss and his friend. So, at noontime, I filed out, full of hope, behind Cathy, the other new girl, Melissa, both Jeannes, and Robin. When I passed my boss and Security Bob, they looked hurt.

“Thought you brought your lunch now,” they said.

I shrugged. The women exchanged just-in-the-nick-of-time glances.

“Come on,” Jeanne Indrisano said. “We only got an hour. We can’t disappear to Cambridge for two days like some people.”

Just as the elevator door closed, Jeanne I. muttered, “Assholes.”

I tried walking beside Melissa, thinking we new, friendless girls could bond. Instead, I discovered she and Cathy had already worked together somewhere else. “I introduced her to her boyfriend,” Melissa said.

“His name’s Frank,” Cathy told me. “And he’s the cutest boy in the Cosmos.”

Jeanne Kelly chose the restaurant: authentic Chinese in the basement of a place in Downtown Crossing.

As soon as we sat down, Robin said, “Listen. This is for your own benefit. You can’t hang out with your boss and Bob anymore.”

Deeply ashamed, I said, “I know –, “ but before I could finish, Cathy Lange said, “They’re spies.”

Jeanne Kelly added: “Anything you say to them gets right back to Sammye and Ray.”

Sammye and Ray were the big honcho managers whose new offices were set apart from us. No cubicles for them. Instead, they got real, glassed in spaces and were solely responsible for  the weekly updating of the memo headings that we all received memos about.

Spies? I thought. Of what?

“Take it from me,” Jeanne Indrisano said, “keep your mouth shut.”

So thrilled was I to be their company, I nodded as if they’d just given me the best advice I’d ever received. As if it all made perfect sense. Maybe no one had a job beyond saying something incriminating or reporting that someone said something incriminating. As for me,

I wondered what the hell I could ever say that would get me into any trouble in this place?

Happy Birthday To You, Too, Mom

EPSON MFP image

In the bitter cold of January, 1963, the pipes in the barn froze. My uncles built a fire outside and kept it stoked to thaw the ground in hopes this would help things. My brother, Billy, and sister, Barbara Ann, watered the cows by hand, a futile task that required them to carry buckets of water from the house to the barn only to have the animals, in their frenzy to drink, tip the rubber buckets into the trough, wasting the load.

Seemed as if everyone had plenty of work, right? If you said yes to this, you didn’t know my father. He had a cow in heat and, per usual, a behemoth bull in the corner pen that he intended to breed her with. You might also not know that, even in 1963, most farms had artificial semen (we had a tank a few feet away in the milkhouse) and very few kept full grown bulls around for obvious reasons. A vial of fluorescent green semen, for example, never pinned anyone to the wall and gored him to death. But my dad preferred real bulls. Real bulls with horns he refused to remove.

Barbara Ann drove the forage truck behind the barn. Billy’s job was to tie the cow to the back of the truck once it was parked. My father would lead the bull to her. For those of you keeping score, it’s Bull — 1500 pounds: Aldo Panciera — 138.

Some combination of thirst, lust, a radical change in scenery, and the crackling bonfire, rattled the bull so much that as soon as he got into the fresh air, he bolted. My sister climbed back into the truck cab and locked the door, my brother pounded uselessly on the window to be let in. Most people would have let go of the animal, but that would have earned nothing but scorn from my father. Forward he went over the frozen ruts of the barnyard, clinging to that rope. Even when he lost his footing, he kept his grip.

My brother insists the cow got bred and the bull got put back in his pen and I have no reason to doubt him. A little thing like a near trampling never meant the chores didn’t get done or, god forbid, that the workday ended early.  But suddenly, my father couldn’t breathe. An asthmatic prone to muscle spasms, he leaned against the wall, shaking his head when my siblings offered to help him to the house. Finally, my brother ran for my mother. “Tum’s dying,” he said. “I think the bull killed him.”

My father was fine. My mother went into labor and ended up in the hospital.

That was not the story of my birth. Those contractions were false. But a few days later, early on during the morning milking, my mother knew the real labor was beginning.

“I think this is it,” she said.

My father said, “Do you think we can finish up here first?”

We had a stanchion barn, a dumping station where, once the milk pails were filled, they had to be hung on the scale to be weighed and then emptied into the tank, jobs my mother did, impending birth and all, while my father switched machines from cow to cow. Then, she took a bath, went to her doctor who confirmed this was the real deal, picked up her other kids at school and fixed them supper. They found my father and his brother, Fat, trying to unjam the augurs in the Harvestore. My siblings made three trips out to say, “Mom needs a ride to the hospital,” until he finally got in the car.

“He dropped me off out front,” my mother told me. “The grass silage from that silo smelled so bad, he wouldn’t come in.”

I was born at 7:30 that night, mid-milking time at home, but my father didn’t think you could visit except during visiting hours so he waited until the next day to meet me.

Every year on her own birthday, Barbara Ann buys our mother a dozen roses. We tease her for the annual attempt at brownie points, but I’ve given birth myself now so the gesture seems more than warranted, and I can’t celebrate my birthday without acknowledging what it cost my mother.

Today, a day nearly as cold as that one 52 years ago must have been, I am inside by the woodstove waiting for my tea to steep, thinking of what the farm asked of all of us, my mother most of all. Her first job was working the soda fountain downtown. She was fourteen. Two years later, she had to quit school to work full time at the dime store. When she was left alone to raise her four children, she waitressed several shifts a week, ran a lunch counter. But she never imagined being a farm wife and the work that would entail.

While my family is at Market Basket now deciding what kind of cake to buy and I am writing this in the quiet, my mother is learning how to download books onto her IPad, tucking away the $1.50 she made this week playing cards with her cousins, and dreaming, maybe, of all that used to be required of her. Maybe dreaming, too, of how happy, despite the pain of labor, she must have been to get off her feet for a few hours that day in January, to set down her load.

Football Orphans, Football Fans

Dennis and I were newly married when we were invited to a brunch.  He hesitated before he told me the date and time. Sunday afternoon, an hour before kickoff. I opened my mouth to howl. This was 1997, and the lowly New England Patriots had made the playoffs. When might we ever get another chance to see our team go this far? Besides, we never missed a game. Sundays in our house were sacred. No one visited except equally rabid Tony. We ignored ringing phones, doorbells, air raid sirens.

“I promise,” Dennis said, “the game will be on. No one wants to miss this.”

We were still newlyweds. What choice did I have but to believe him?  When I told Tony, he shook his head sadly.  “Another reason why I will never get married,” he said.

We arrived early, handed the hostess our potluck contribution and headed immediately towards the den. “Oh, and one more thing,” she called after us. “Absolutely no television. This is a social occasion, a time to mingle.”

Before I could retrieve my coat, Dennis shoved me forward into the dining room where new friends and strangers congregated in uncomfortable groups, making small talk and balancing plates of couscous and falafel. I ate nothing, impossible as it was to swallow when I was choking back sobs.

After several attempts at getting me to speak to him and a few more of getting me to look his way, Dennis sighed. “Okay,” he said. “You win.”

He marched into the den, flicked on the television and plopped on the couch. I tore after him. Only after he had found the station and adjusted the volume did I look up and notice we were not alone. Almost every other man at the party had joined us. The talk became animated, as, strangers no more, we reveled in our fandom.

A few plays into the first quarter, the hostess poked her head around the corner and glared not at Dennis who had commandeered the room and the remote, not at the men who leaned forward in their chairs and slapped one another’s backs as the defense held, but at me, the lone woman in the pack.

“I had a feeling YOU would be in here,” she said, and then she stomped off to refill the cranberry juice pitcher.

What could I say?  I watched Monday Night Football with my father in the 1970’s and competed with him on the You Make the Call tutorials. As my players vibrated around the magnetic field in my cousin Rob’s basement, I figured out how the whole downs thing worked. In the hard-packed dirt ring at Newport County Fair I tackled boys twice my size and learned how to block without holding. September Sundays meant sitting alone for hours weeping with joy that the season was, at last, upon me. Boyfriends before Dennis had done one of two things: taught me the intricacies of West Coast offenses and cover two’s or branded themselves football widows. I like football. Love football. But for many years, I was that lonely woman, sandwiched on the couch between men who had had the opportunity to participate in the one glorious pastime off limits to female-ol’-me.  And it didn’t bother me one bit.

The problem came, of course, when other women realized my fervor.  At family gatherings with my new in-laws, at off-season cook-outs with Dennis’s friends, women drew near and peered into my face as if they would be able to detect that off-kilter something that would alert them to my idiosyncrasy. I still had no answer to any of these women when they asked me why I loved the game. If they had me asked, instead, to name back-up quarterbacks or to recite the updated version of the NFL’s coaching carousel, I would have had answers for them, but how to describe a passion as innate as my love of a great book, my affection for my dog, the peace derived from watching a glorious sunset on a salt water bay?  All I could manage was a shrug and a glance towards wherever it was the men had gathered.

Even after our daughters were born, Tony and I would hunker down behind a wall of nacho chips and micro brews and await kick off.  From a miraculously early age, the girls rolled their eyes, grabbed a handful of snacks and headed upstairs to amuse themselves.

“You guys are amazing parents,” Tony marveled.

Sometimes, to aid the cause, he brought coloring books and boxes of new crayons with their irresistibly sharp tips. These kept the children satisfied for the requisite three hours.  Meanwhile, the adults had our rituals: We stood and held hands for potential game-breaking plays, we high-fived for scores and did not miss a hand; we did not interfere with anyone who needed to leave the room to pace. We shouted, we clapped, we shook our fists at the officials, but we did not do one thing absolutely anathema to real fans anywhere:  we did NOT ask questions.

All it takes to turn an otherwise orgasmic Sunday afternoon into several hours of barely suppressed and socially unacceptable rudeness, it turns out, is a sports dynasty.  Watching the Pats when no one would place a bet on them unless they were twenty point underdogs, was blissful. The problems arrived on the day they made it to another Super Bowl, this time after an unlikely winning streak behind an unknown quarterback named Tom Brady and an improbable field goal in the middle of a snow storm.  Several of Dennis’s women friends called looking for a place to watch.

“We know you guys never miss a game,” they said. Even when they offered to bring Chinese food, I shook my head, but Dennis had answered the phone.

“Sure, come on over!” he said. I made him call them back and tell them very clearly: If they wanted a drink, they would get it themselves. Ditto with food and no one, repeat no one, should ask questions.

The next call was from his parents.

“What can I say?” he said when he’d hung up issuing yet another invite.  “These are the people who gave me life.”

To give everyone credit, they sat as still as if they were at mass.  Meanwhile, at one point, I was standing on the back of my mother-in-law’s chair clinging to the ceiling when Adam Vinatieri’s field goal went through the uprights. Tony collapsed in a chair and bowed his head, Dennis invented his own version of an end zone dance, I leapt off the chair, put my head on the carpet and sobbed. My mother-in-law said, “JesusMaryandJoseph, she’s the mother of our grandchildren!” (but she has watched every Pats game ever since!!  A true convert of whom I am very proud). Our guests immediately assembled coats and hats and departed. Which was fine with us because we had hours of post-game analysis ahead.

Remember the Merv Griffin show? How when his guests were introduced, the band would strike up their theme song? Well mine would have to be some version of the pre-game music where the network logos spin. Game days, the girls still disappear as soundlessly as the cat. These days, of course, it isn’t easy to balance my passion for the game with my disappointment in, and my anger towards, in the NFL (it’s also fodder for another story). The organization itself is a suspect tribe that sacrifices young men and that continues, despite its timely ad campaign, to condone the actions of the abusive men in its ranks.

But football long ago formed bonds between me and some really fine men: my father, my favorite cousin, my first real boy (strictly platonic) friends, my husband and his bestie. What can I say? I love this game: its strategies and athleticism, the drama, and the way I am compelled, for 19 glorious weekends, to watch it all unfold one more time before me.

To This New Year and to the Old Ones

My father was fifty when I was born. His family had given up hope that he’d ever marry, the bachelor farmer who took most of his meals at the local diner and returned home to his cows. By the time he married my mother (who, coincidentally, worked at the diner he frequented so much) and had me, most of my Panciera cousins were already in high school. I spent my childhood, instead, with the cousins from my mother’s side of the family. We shared a history of family picnics where our fathers and uncles competed loudly at horseshoes, of Christmas Eves sitting at the foot of Nonnie’s bed and balancing our plates on our laps because it was the only room left in the tiny apartment, of the food our mothers were famous for: my mother’s meatballs, Aunt Rita’s hotdogs and peppers, Aunt Lee’s eggplant, Aunt Sandra’s baked beans, Aunt Nanny’s coleslaw, Aunt Laura’s Portuguese sweet bread. We knew that our grandmother always had flat orange soda that she called sodie in her refrigerator, that she was desperate for one of her granddaughters to marry one of the undertakers’ sons who were so nice to her when she went to every wake in town. We knew our grandfather drank too much, but that he also doled out the  Juicy Fruit gum he kept in the top drawer of his dresser.

My father’s parents, however, died before I was born. My knowledge of them and of the farm before I lived on it, was limited to what my father offered. Stupidly, I didn’t ask as many questions as I should have in part because I assumed I would never live anywhere else. But recently, my Panciera cousins have begun to fill me in in ways that I could never have anticipated.

Linda’s father was raised on the farm. His nickname, Boat, was written in the cement wall outside the milking parlor. My father had told me once, a long time ago, that his father had carved lions out of granite and that they kept guard at a cemetery tomb, but no experts on the history of Westerly granite had any record of them. I was told that Angelo Panciera had been a stonecutter not a stone carver. But Linda knew different and she showed me those lions in Riverbend Cemetery. I had passed them a hundred times before on my walks there but now when I do, I imagine my grandfather’s hands, the artistry he was capable of versus the nameless work he did to feed his family.

Marie’s grandparents bought our farm in 1911 with my grandparents. Two brothers had married two sisters and the families lived and worked together. Marie herself lived in her grandparents’ former apartment when her husband served in Vietnam. These days she lives in the house her father built, and when I saw her on Thanksgiving she said, “I have a mirror that used to hang on the farm. I’d really like you to have it.” I love this mirror, not for the reflection it tosses back at me as I stare into it, but for the idea that my father might have checked his young face in it, that my grandmother might have paused before it to pin up her hair before starting the day’s work. As I left Marie’s house, mirror under my arm, she asked if I would also like some of the nuts from the nut tree. I assumed she meant the tree in the back yard of my mother’s new house, but she meant the black walnut that had stood sentinel in one of our pastures. In a small plastic bag, there were the same nuts squirrels hoarded beneath the eaves in the attic. “I like to hear the mice in my own attic rolling them around every winter,” Marie said, and I knew, as perhaps only a cousin would, exactly what she meant.

My father died in 1991. Since then, I have run my fingers across the images that remain of him, more familiar to me now that the real lines of his face.

dad with his bike dad with airplane

But it turns out, he wrote to his only (and adored) sister, Dolly, when he was stationed in England during World War II, and recently my cousin Carol brought us photographs he had sent, too. In one he stands beside one of the airplanes whose propellers he serviced; in another, he is astride a bicycle. A bicycle! It would not have surprised me more to see him waving from a hot air balloon or riding a camel through the Scottish highlands. On the back of the photos, in his crimped penmanship: A P38 with me in front of it; My bike and me. Just when you give up hope of having no more stories to smooth like stones in your memory’s pocket.

These things that I can touch — the tousled manes of the lions on guard, the oak frame of a real looking glass, my father’s young face so far away from the family he loved, are my favorite gifts of any season. I wish you all the same in this new year, that somewhere you have a loved one who has kept part of your history safe for you.