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Miss Aluminum: Susanna Moore’s New Memoir

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In her new memoir, novelist SUSANNA MOORE recalls her uneasy relationship with her father and how, when her mother died, she went to live with her Irish grandmother …

Moore’s memoir, Miss Aluminum, published this month, tells how in 1963, after the death of her mother, she left her home in Hawaii with no money, no belongings, and no prospects, to live with her Irish grandmother in Philadelphia. From Philadelphia she went to New York, from New York to Los Angeles where she became a model and worked as a script reader for Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. Beneath Miss Aluminum’s fairytale surface lies the story of a girl’s anguished determination to understand the circumstances of her mother’s death: “At a certain point, usually after a writer’s third or fourth book, and somewhat to her surprise, her own life catches up with her. A writer is fortunate if lost anecdotes, forgotten stories, memories idly stored rise mysteriously to the surface. When I finished my last novel, I began to cast about anxiously for a subject. It one day became clear: I could write a memoir, and a memoir of a particular time and place. The writing of it would compel me to look harder at the past. And even more compelling, I could no longer make up things. Miss Aluminum recalls the ten years I spent in Los Angeles in the 1970s. After leaving Hawaii, I lived with my grandmother in Philadelphia before moving to New York, then Los Angeles, where I worked, married, and had a baby daughter, Lulu. At the end of the memoir, when I leave LA, there is the faint hope that someday I will become a writer. While it is possible to do absolutely anything with a novel – it is one of its charms (and terrors), it was in my interest with this memoir to be without an opinion at all. The writer’s work is to render the world, not to alter it.”

When I was twelve years old, my mother, then 35 years old, died in her sleep. My Aunt Mary immediately took leave of her job as head nurse in the emergency room of Pennsylvania Hospital and made the long trip to Honolulu.

My aunt was tall and slender. Her black hair, already turning grey, was kept in a neat bob that reached her chin. As she was from that mysterious place called the mainland, she wore short white kid gloves to Mass on Sunday. She used a dusting powder from Elizabeth Arden called “Blue Grass.” There was a prancing horse on the lid of its round box, and its scent mingled with the strong smell of her Chesterfield cigarettes. My mother had been spirited and funny, even a bit mischievous, and I was surprised to discover that despite my aunt’s appreciation of wit, she was a bit prudish. She would turn away when I changed my clothes in her presence, which was fine with me, but not a gesture to which I was accustomed. I noticed, too, that she was a wary and fretful driver, refusing to make a left-hand turn in an intersection, a habit that added 15 minutes to any drive, and which lasted for all of the years that I knew her.

There was immediate tension between my aunt and my father, evident in her expression when he appeared to take things too lightly, and in his refusal to acknowledge her disapproval. Her role as caretaker to her dead sister’s children was not clearly defined and must have at times caused her to feel like a servant, a role that held a certain shame, given her mother’s former employment. My aunt’s displeasure increased when my father soon began to behave as if he were a bachelor, content to leave his five children, the youngest only two years old, in her dutiful care. He went out to dinner most nights and sometimes returned late, which naturally offended my aunt, who, like me, must have been listening for him.

His name was Richard Dixon Moore, a radiologist, 40 years old, good-looking and charming, with the distinction and social position conferred on doctors in small cities and towns. I knew that my father was fond of women, and his recent bereavement did not appear to have lessened his interest. That he had many children at home seemed not to bother anyone but Mary. A neighbour once hinted to me that my aunt was jealous, but my aunt was so unlike my father, who was pleasure-loving and weak, that even as a child I understood that something as seemingly simple as friendship between them was impossible. It is also likely she blamed him for my mother’s death.

Susanna Moore with her father in Hawaii

He would sometimes take me to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on a Sunday night. I would order decorously, a little shyly, even when he encouraged me to try things unknown to me like chicken Kiev or peach melba. In anticipation of these evenings, I found a tube of Tangee lipstick at Woolworth, soft orange wax in a flimsy metal tube. It had a very cheap, sweet smell and I don’t know how my elegant father tolerated it, but he never said a word, certainly not the compliment I hoped I would receive. I wore one of my full-skirted, tight-waisted dresses, with a stiff crinoline that scratched pleasantly against my legs. My father’s attention, which had been amiable but distracted before my mother’s death, could not have come at a more precarious moment in my life, but I did not know that. There I was in my lovely dress, happy in my prettiness and eager to please my father, yet all the while thinking in a vague, flitting way, Be careful, don’t like this too much. You are here because your mother is dead.

After one of our Sunday night suppers, my father gave me my mother’s pearls, and an amethyst ring, large and rectangular, set in gold, known, rather glamorously I thought, as a cocktail ring, with the admonition that I was not to wear it or the necklace until I was older. I once wore the pearls to bed, but I was so afraid that the strands would break that I couldn’t sleep, and I never did it again. I was able to wear the ring on my middle finger if I wrapped a Band-Aid around the back of it, but only in my room and at night, my hand heavy with the weight of it. The necklace and the ring were my only souvenirs of my mother, other than a shoebox of photographs that I had taken from my father’s desk and kept hidden under my bed.

One day, however, as I left the house, I pushed the ring onto my finger, and then my hand into a pocket of my shorts so that no one would see it. I boarded the bus waiting at the roundabout for a trip to the beach at Waikiki. The ride was a pleasant one, the bus plump and jolly like a bus in a cartoon, with open windows and leather seats. My hand was no longer in my pocket, but rested, somewhat awkwardly, wherever I thought someone might notice it, and admire it.

I left the bus and crossed the street to the Outrigger Canoe Club for my weekly surfing lesson with the beach boy, Rabbit Kekai. I changed into my new white sharkskin two-piece bathing suit and went to meet Rabbit. As I was afraid that I would lose the ring in the water, I asked the man on duty at Beach Services if I could leave it with him. He handed me one of the small brown envelopes people used to hold their keys and money and wristwatches when they were on the beach, and I put the ring in the envelope, sealed it and wrote my name on it.

After my lesson, I went to Beach Services to collect my envelope. The beach boy looked in the drawers of the desk, and ran his hand across the cubbies in the shelf behind him, where there were a few envelopes, but nothing with my name on it. He shook his head and asked some of the other beach boys if they had seen it, but none of them could remember such an envelope. I looked for Rabbit, but he was no longer on the beach. I asked the man to look once again, and he made a quick search among the furled umbrellas and a pile of used beach towels, lest it had been dropped there, but there was nothing. I walked to the locker room and vomited into a waste bin. This is the end, I thought to myself. Not only had I disobeyed my father, I had lost my mother’s ring. I could not tell him, and I could not tell my aunt, who disapproved of my father’s gift to me.

That night and for many nights, I slept with the pearls in their black velvet bag clutched in my hand. I prayed that my father would forget about the ring and that my shame would remain a secret. Then one afternoon, he asked to see the ring. He thought it could be made smaller with a ring guard. For a moment, I stopped breathing. He asked if something was wrong, and I covered my face with my hands. When he asked again, I told him that I had lost the ring. I had not yet allowed myself to believe that the beach boys, men whom I not only trusted but admired, had stolen it. My father was very angry. To my relief, he did not ask how I had lost it. I hadn’t lied, and yet I hadn’t told the truth, either. “I will never give you another piece of jewellery,” he said. And he never did.

Susanna Moore with her surfing instructor Rabbit

My father married again and when I was 17, I went to live with my grandmother and Aunt Mary in Philadelphia, leaving my four siblings behind to live with my father and stepmother.

I loved my grandmother with a passion. I loved my Aunt Mary, too, but she was less forgiving than my grandmother, and I was sometimes afraid of her. My grandmother and aunt had little money to spare, and I knew that I would have to find a job, an idea that was appealing to me, as it signified independence and even maturity. The thought that I might make things hard for them was distressing. My father had not given me any money when I left Hawaii, and had not since troubled himself to send money to my grandmother. (Two years later, my brother Rick wrote to tell me that he and our 15-year-old sister, Tina, had run away and had been taken in by a kindly spinster who lived with her aged mother. They too were without sustenance, other than that provided by the loving Frieda, who fed them peas and creamed chicken and got them to school each morning, and even found them a little pocket money.)

My grandmother took me to Rowell’s department store, where she used some of her monthly pension to buy me a dress, a wool plaid kilt with a big kilt pin, two white blouses, some sensible underwear, including a girdle that extended from my waist to my knees, two nightgowns, a pair of navy flats, and a navy tweed coat, which suggested she believed I would at least live with her through the winter.

My grandmother, whose people came from Clare, used language from her Irish past, words which thrilled me with their reminder of my mother. She too had heard these strange words and expressions. A balsa wood basket of berries was a “punnet”. When my grandmother was angry, she was “vexed”. I understood that she was about to speak ill of someone, often with cause, when she began a sentence, “May God forgive me.” When in a bad temper, she was “in the briar”. She and my aunt both called a woman’s private parts “the Black Gethern,” and when I asked my grandmother what it meant in Gaelic, she said she didn’t know; Black Gethern had always been its name. When I was too brazen for her liking, as when I said that I would never use the term “Black Gethern” as a name for my vagina, she threatened to sell me to the tinkers.

My grandmother had taught me to dance an Irish jig when I was a child, and she would ask me of an evening, after my aunt, exhausted after her tumultuous day in the emergency room, had gone upstairs to bed, to dance for her. She sang “Marie’s Wedding,” keeping time with her slipper while I leapt awkwardly about the room, singing along with her, “Step ye gladly as ye go,” hands on my hips, legs flailing wildly.
But most of all, she liked me to tell her stories about my mother. Fortunately, she did not mind hearing the same stories over and over again. My mother had been her favourite child. Because we had been forbidden by our stepmother to mention our mother’s name, and all of her books and photographs, even essential household objects like her monogrammed forks and spoons, had disappeared from the house, the younger children began to forget her. There were very few things, maternal or otherwise, that we could hold on to with any assurance. When secretly looking at the boxes of old photographs that my stepmother had yet to find, even my own memories began to fall into doubt. Who is the solemn man holding me in the air? Where is the house with the bamboo shutters? There was no one to tell me. No longer any bedtime stories, no more jokes or games. It was then that I began to tell stories to my brothers and sisters, stories that I later told my grandmother, using the scraps and hints that I remembered or had heard along the way, whispering in the dark to soothe them to sleep.

Miss Aluminum is published in the US by Farrar, Straus Giroux. It will be published in Ireland and the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. See www.weidenfeldandnicolson.co.uk.

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