WE WERE THE MULVANEYS

By Joyce Carol Oates

A WILLIAM ABRAHAMS BOOK
PLUME
Penguin GRoup

Copyright © 1996 The Ontario Review, Inc.. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-525-94223-8



Chapter One


STORYBOOK HOUSE


We were the Mulvaneys, remember us?

    You may have thought our family was larger, oftenI'd meet people who believed we Mulvaneys were a virtualclan, but in fact there were only six of us: my dad who was MichaelJohn Mulvaney, Sr., my mom Corinne, my brothers Mike Jr. andPatrick and my sister Marianne, and me—Judd.

    From summer 1955 to spring 1980 when my dad and momwere forced to sell the property there were Mulvaneys at High PointFarm, on the High Point Road seven miles north and east of thesmall city of Mt. Ephraim in upstate New York, in the ChautauquaValley approximately seventy miles south of Lake Ontario.

    High Point Farm was a well-known property in the Valley, intime to be designated a historical landmark, and "Mulvaney" was awell-known name.

    For a long time you envied us, then you pitied us.

    For a long time you admired us, then you thought Good!—that'swhat they deserve.

    "Too direct, Judd!"—my mother would say, wringing her handsin discomfort. But I believe in uttering the truth, even if it hurts.Particularly if it hurts.

    For all of my childhood as a Mulvaney I was the baby of thefamily. To be the baby of such a family is to know you're the lastlittle caboose of a long roaring train. They loved me so, when theypaid any attention to me at all, I was like a creature dazed andblinded by intense, searing light that might suddenly switch off andleave me in darkness. I couldn't seem to figure out who I was, if Ihad an actual name or many names, all of them affectionate andmany of them teasing, like "Dimple," "Pretty Boy" or, alternately,"Sourpuss," or "Ranger"—my favorite. I was "Baby" or "Baby-face"much of the time while growing up. "Judd" was a name associatedwith a certain measure of sternness, sobriety, though in factwe Mulvaney children were rarely scolded and even more rarelypunished; "Judson Andrew" which is my baptismal name was aname of such dignity and aspiration I never came to feel it could bemine, only something borrowed like a Hallowe'en mask.

    You'd get the impression, at least I did, that "Judd" who was"Baby" almost didn't make it. Getting born, I mean. The train hadpulled out, the caboose was being rushed to the track. Not thatCorinne Mulvaney was so very old when I was born—she was onlythirty-three. Which certainly isn't "old" by today's standards. I wasborn in 1963, that year Dad used to say, with a grim shake of hishead, a sick-at-heart look in his eyes, "tore history in two" forAmericans. What worried me was I'd come along so belatedly,everyone else was here except me! A complete Mulvaney family withoutJudd.

    Always it seemed, hard as I tried I could never hope to catch upwith all their good times, secrets, jokes—their memories. What is afamily, after all, except memories?—haphazard and precious as thecontents of a catchall drawer in the kitchen (called the "junkdrawer" in our household, for good reason). My handicap, I graduallyrealized, was that by the time I got around to being born, mybrother Mike was already ten years old and for children that's equivalentto another generation. Where's Baby?—who's got Baby? the crywould commence, and whoever was nearest would scoop me upand off we'd go. A scramble of dogs barking, their eagerness to betaken along to wherever a mimicry of my own, exaggerated as animalsare often exaggerations of human beings, emotions so rawlyexposed. Who's got Baby? Don't forget Baby!

    The dogs, cats, horses, even the cars and pickups Dad and Momdrove before I was born, those big flashy-sexy Fifties models—allthese I would pore over in Mom's overstuffed snapshot albums, determinedto attach myself to their memories. Sure, I remember! Sure, Iwas there! Mike's first pony Crackerjack who was a sorrel with sand-coloredmarkings. Our setter Foxy as a puppy. The time Dad ranthe tractor into a ditch. The time Mom threw corncobs to scareaway strange dogs she believed were threatening the chickens andthe dogs turned out to be a black bear and two cubs. The time Dadinvited 150 people to Mulvaney's Fourth of July cookout assumingthat only about half would show up, and everyone showed up—anda few more. The time a somewhat disreputable friend of Dad's flewover to High Point Farm from an airport in Marsena in a canary-yellowPiper Cub and landed—"Crash-landed, almost," Momwould say dryly—in one of the pastures, and though the baby in thesnapshots commemorating this occasion would have to have beenmy sister Marianne, in July 1960, I was able to convince myself Yes Iwas there, I remember. I do!

    And when in subsequent years they would speak of the incident,recalling the way the wind buffeted the little plane when WallyParks, my Dad's friend, took Dad up for a brief flight, I was positiveI'd been there, I could recall how excited I was, how excited we allwere, Mike, Patrick, Marianne and me, and of course Mom, watchingas the Piper Cub rose higher and higher shuddering in the wind,grew smaller and smaller with distance until it was no larger than asparrow hawk, high above the Valley, looking as if a single stronggust of wind could bring it down. And Mom prayed aloud, "God,bring those lunatics back alive and I'll never complain about anythingagain, I promise! Amen."

    I'd swear even now, I'd been there.

    For the Mulvaneys were a family in which everything that happenedto them was precious and everything that was precious wasstored in memory and everyone had a history.

    Which is why many of you envied us, I think. Before the eventsof 1976 when everything came apart for us and was never again puttogether in quite the same way.


    We Mulvaneys would have died for one another, but we had secretsfrom one another just the same. We still do.

    I'm an adult telling you these things: Judd Mulvaney, thirtyyears old. Editor in chief of the Chautauqua Falls Journal, a twice-weeklypublication, circulation 25,600. I've been a newspapermanor in any case working for newspapers since the age of sixteen andthough I love my work and am, I suppose, fairly obsessed by it, I'mnot ambitious in any worldly sense. I've been entrusted by the elderlygentleman publisher of the Journal, who happens to be a friendof mine, to put out a "good, decent, truth-telling paper" and that'swhat I've been doing and will continue to do. Moving out and upto better-paying jobs in larger cities evokes only the mildest glimmerof interest in me. I'm not a newspaperman who strives for sensation,controversy. I'd rather be truth-telling and I hope always to bewithout hypocrisy.

    I've constructed a personality that is even and temperate and onthe whole wonderfully civilized. People murmur to Corinne Mulvaney,after they've met me, "What a nice young man!" and, ifthey're women like her, women of her age with grown and far-flungchildren, "Aren't you lucky, to have such a son!" In fact I supposeMom is lucky, not just because she "has" me but because she"has" my brothers and sister too, and we love her as much or nearlyas much as she loves us.

    Mom doesn't know and I hope never will know that two of hersons were involved in a criminal action of extreme seriousness. I'llbe direct with you: I've been an accomplice to two Class-A feloniespunishable by lengthy prison terms in New York State and I cameclose to being an accessory both before and after the fact in an actualcase of murder and very possibly I would not be repentant if thismurder had been committed. Certainly my brother Patrick, whocame close to committing the murder, would not have been repentant.Asked by the judge to speak on his own behalf, at the time ofsentencing, Patrick would have looked the man in the eye and said,"Your Honor, I did what I did and I don't regret it."

    Many times in my imagination I've heard Patrick say thesewords. So many times, I almost think, in that twilight state of consciousnessbetween sleep and wakefulness, which involves a subtle,shifting, mysterious personality few of us have explored, that in factPatrick was arrested, tried, and convicted for murder, kidnapping,auto theft—whatever the numerous charges would have been—andhad stood before a judge and spoke in just this way. Then I forcemyself awake, and relief floods through me like sunshine! It didn'thappen, not in that way.

    But this document isn't a confession. Not at all. I've come tothink of it as a family album. The kind my mom never kept, absolutetruth-telling. The kind no one's mom keeps. But if you'vebeen a child in any family you've been keeping such an album inmemory and conjecture and yearning, and it's a life's work, it maybe the great and only work of your life.


* * *


    I've said there were six in our family but that's misleading. Six issuch a small number! In fact High Point Farm was busy and complicatedand to a child confusing as a stage play in which familiar andunfamiliar faces are ceaselessly coming and going. Friends, relatives,houseguests, Dad's business contacts, hired help—every day and frequentlyevery hour you could count on it that something was happening.Both my parents were sociable, popular people who had littlepatience with quiet, let alone solitude. And we lived on a farm. Weowned horses, dairy cows, goats, a few sheep, chickens and guineafowl and geese and semi-tame mallard ducks. What a barnyardsquawking in the early morning, when the roosters crowed! I grewup with such sounds, and the cries of wild birds (mainly jays whonested close about the house in our giant oaks), I came to believethey were part of the very fabric of morning itself. The very fabric ofmy soul.

    Unlike neighboring farms in the Valley, High Point Farm wasn'tany longer a "real" farm. Dad's income came from Mulvaney Roofing,in Mt. Ephraim. Originally, the farm property had includedthree hundred acres of good, fertile if hilly soil, but by the time Dadand Mom bought it, only twenty-three acres remained; and of these,Dad leased fifteen to neighboring farmers to grow timothy, wheat,soybeans, alfalfa, corn. But we had farm animals we loved, and ofcourse we had dogs, rarely less than four, and cats—cats!—always aselect number of cats allowed inside the house and an ever-shiftingnumber of barn cats. My earliest memories were of animals withpersonalities stronger than my own. A horse has a very defined yetoften unpredictable personality unlike, for instance, a dog; a cat canbe virtually anything. Dad used to complain jokingly that the boss ofthe household was a certain temperamental, supremely self-absorbedand very beautiful Persian cat named Snowball and the second-in-commandwas Mom, of course, and after that he didn't care to speculate,it was too humbling.

    "Oh, yes! We all feel sorry for poor Curly, don't we?"—Momteased affectionately, as Dad made a brooding face. "So neglected inhis own home!"

    Say I counted the animals and fowl of High Point Farm withpersonalities defined enough to have been named—how manymight there have been? Twenty? Twenty-five? Thirty? More? Andof course they were always shifting, changing. A new litter of puppies,a new litter of kittens. Spring lambs, goats. It was rare that a foal wasborn but when a foal was born, after many days and nights of worry(mainly on Mom's part, she'd sometimes sleep in the stable with thepregnant mare) it was quite an occasion. Several families of canarieshad come and gone before I was born and it was a fond householdtale of the time Mom had tried to breed canaries right there in thekitchen, the problem being she'd succeeded only too well, and atthe height of the "canary epidemic" as Dad called it there werethree large cages containing a total of fifteen canaries, trilling, warbling,chirping, scolding, sometimes screeching—"And ceaselesslydefecating," as Dad said dryly. I remember once when I was verysmall, Dad brought home a spindly-legged little gray goat because itsowner, a neighboring farmer, had been going to shoot it—"Comemeet Billy-boy!" Dad announced. Another time, Mom and Mikereturned from a trip to the feed store in Eagleton Corners with alarge flamey-feathered golden-eyed strutting bantam cock—"Everybodycome meet Cap'n Marvel!" Mom announced. My first puppywas a bulldog named Little Boots with whom I would grow up likea brother.

    When I think of us then, when we were the Mulvaneys of HighPoint Farm, I think of the sprawling, overgrown and somewhatjungly farm itself, blurred at the edges as in a dream where our ever-collapsingbarbed wire fences trailed off into scrubby, hilly, uncultivatedland. (On a farm, you have to repair fences continually, orshould.) Getting us into focus requires effort, like getting a dreaminto focus and keeping it there.

    One of those haunting tantalizing dreams that seem so vivid, soreal, until you look closely, try to see—and they begin to fade, likesmoke.


    Let's drive out to High Point Farm!

    Come with me, I'll take you there. From Route 58, theYewville Pike, a good two- and three-lane country highway linkingRochester, Yewville and Mt. Ephraim on a straight north-southaxis, you pass through the crossroads town of Lebanon, continue foreight miles following the Yewville River and crossing the erector-setnew bridge at Mt. Ephraim. (Population 19,500 in 1976.) Continuealong what turns into Meridian Street, passing the agedredbrick mill factories on the river (manufacturers of ladies' handbags,sweaters, footwear) that have the melancholy look of shutdownbusinesses but are in fact operating, to a degree. Take a rightonto Seneca Street past the stately-ugly old Greek Revival buildingthat is the Mt. Ephraim Public Library with the wrought-iron fencein front. Past the Mt. Ephraim Police Headquarters. The Veterans ofForeign Wars. The Odd Fellows. Bear right at the square, wheremost of the tall old elms have been removed, and continue on toFifth Street, where you take a right at Trinity Episcopal Church.

    No—wait. This route is a shortcut to avoid Mt. Ephraim's"downtown" (hardly more than three blocks but the old, narrowstreets can get congested). Let's circle around to the far end of SouthMain Street, another right, and a left, now we're in an area of smallbusinesses and warehouses. There's Mulvaney Roofing—a smallishsingle-storey stucco building, recently painted an attractive darkgreen with white trim. On the roof are state-of-the-art asphalt-and-polyestershingles in a slightly darker shade of green.

    How proud Dad was of Mulvaney Roofing. How hard he'dworked for it, and to build up his reputation as a man you not onlywanted to do business with because his product was so fine but becauseyou liked and respected him as a damned nice guy.

    Now back onto Fifth, and continue for three blocks. Passing onthe left Mt. Ephraim High where we Mulvaney children all went toschool, in turn (factory-style design, flat leaky roof and cheap bargainbricks built in the mid-Sixties and already showing signs ofwear) and the school playing fields and at the corner a town ballpark,nothing spectacular, a few bleachers and a weedy infield andlitter drifting in the wind like tumbleweed. There's Rose &Chubby's Diner, there's the Four Corners Tavern with the cinderparking lot. Past Depot Street. Past Railroad. Down the long hillpast Drummond's Gloves, Inc.—still operating in 1976, skiddingjust ahead of bankruptcy. (Mr. Drummond was an acquaintance ofmy dad's, we'd hear of the poor man's problems at mealtimes.) Bearright at the fork in the road past Apostles of Christ Tabernacle, oneof Mom's first churches in the area but back before Judd was born, asad cinder-block building with a movie house marquee and brightpink letters REJOICE ALL, CHRIST IS RISEN! Continue across the traintracks and past the Chautauqua & Buffalo freight yards. You'll seethe water tower fifty feet above the ground on what I'd always thinkwere "spider legs": MT. EPHRAIM in rainwashed white letters. (Probablythere are Day-Glo scrawls, initials and graffiti on the watertower, too. Probably CLASS OF '76 MT.E.H.S. There's an ongoingstruggle between local officials who want the tower clear of graffitiand local high school kids determined to mark it as their own.)

    Turn now onto Route 119, the Haggartsville Road, a fast-movingstate highway. Gulf station on the left, Eastgate Shopping Center onthe right, the usual fast-food drive-through restaurants like Wendy's,McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken all recently built along this stripin the early 1970's. Spohr's Lumber, Hendrick Motors, Inc. Familiarnames because the owners were friends of my dad's, fellow membersof the Mt. Ephraim Chamber of Commerce, the Odd Fellows, theMt. Ephraim Country Club. The traffic light ahead marks the townlimits. Beyond, on the left, is Country Club Lane that leads back fromthe busy highway for miles in an upscale "exclusive" residential neighborhood;the Mt. Ephraim Country Club itself isn't visible from thehighway but you can see the rolling green golf course, a finger of artificiallake glittering like broken glass. On the right is a similiar prestigehousing development, Hillside Estates. Now you're out of town andthe speed limit is fifty-five miles an hour but everyone is going faster.Heavy trucks, semis. Local pickups. You're passing small farms, openfields as the highway gradually ascends. Railroad tracks run close besidethe road for several miles then veer off through a tunnel that looks as ifit's been drilled through solid rock. Beyond a scattering of shantylikehouses and a sad-looking trailer village there's a narrow blacktop roadforking off to the right: High Point Road.

    Now you're in the foothills of the Chautauqua Mountains andthose are the mountains in the distance ahead: wooded slopes thatlook carved, floating. Mt. Cataract is the highest at 2,300 feet abovesea level, chalky at its peak, visible on clear days though it's thirtymiles away. It looks like a hand doesn't it? Marianne used to say likesomeone waving to us. In winter this is a region of snow vast and deepand drifting as the tundra. In my mind's eye I not only see butcringe at the blinding dazzling white hills stretching for miles, tuftedand puckered with broken cornstalks. Sparrow hawks circling overheadin lazy-looking spirals, wide-winged hawks so sharp of eyethey can spot tiny rodents scurrying from one cornstalk to anotherand drop in a sudden swooping descent like a rocket to seize theirprey in their talons and rise with it again. In warm weather most ofthe fields are tilled, planted. Hilly pastureland broken by brooks andnarrow meandering creeks. Herds of Holsteins grazing; sometimeshorses, sheep. You're in the deep country now, and still ascending.Past the crossroads town of Eagleton Corners—post office and generalstore in the same squat little building, farm supply store, gas station,white clapboard Methodist church. Now the character of HighPoint Road changes: the blacktop becomes gravel and dirt, hardlymore than a single lane, virtually no shoulders and a deep ditch onthe right. The road rides the edge of an ancient glacier ridge, one ofa number of bizarre raised striations in the earth in this part of NewYork State, like giant claws many miles long. And now there's acreek rushing beside the road, Alder Creek that's deep, fast-moving,treacherous as a river. Still you're ascending, there's a steep hill asthe road curves, it's a good idea to shift into second gear. When theroad levels, you pass the Pfenning farm on the right, which bordersthe Mulvaney property—at last! The Pfennings' house is a typicalfarmhouse of the region, economical asphalt siding, a shingled roofexuding slow rot. The barn is in better repair, which is typical too.Lloyd Pfenning is Dad's major renter, leasing twelve acres from himmost years to plant in oats and corn. A half mile farther and you passthe run-down, converted schoolhouse, Chautauqua County District#9, where a succession of families have lived; in this year 1976, thefamily is called Zimmerman.

    Another half mile and you see, on the left, a large handsomeblack mailbox with the silver figure of a rearing horse on its side andthe name MULVANEY in lipstick-red reflector letters.Across from the mailbox there's a driveway nearly obscured fromview by trees and shrubs, and the sign Mom painted herself, soproudly—


HIGH POINT FARM
1849


The gravel drive is lined with tall aging spruces. Around the houseare five enormous oaks and I mean enormous—the tallest is easilythree times the height of the house and the house is three storeys. Insummer everything is overgrown, you have to stare up the drive tosee the house—what a house! In winter, the lavender house seemsto float in midair, buoyant and magical as a house in a child's storybook.And that antique sleigh in the front yard, looking as if thehorse had just trotted away to leave the lone passenger behind—ahuman figure, a tenderly comical scarecrow wearing old clothes ofDad's.

    A storybook house, you're thinking, yes? Must be, storybookpeople live there.


    High Point Farm had been a local landmark long before my parentsbought and partly restored it, of course. Most recently it hadbeen the secluded homestead of an eccentric German-born gentlemanfarmer who'd died in 1951 and left it to young, distant relativesliving in cities far away with little interest in the property except asan occasional summer place or weekend hunting retreat. By 1976,when I was thirteen, High Point Farm was looking almost prosperousand it wasn't unusual for photographers from as far away asRochester and Buffalo to come out to photograph it, "historic"house and outbuildings, horses grazing in pastures, antique sleighand "quaint" little brook winding through the front yard. Each year,High Point Farm was featured on calendars printed by local merchants,the Mt. Ephraim Patriot-Ledger, the Western New York HistoricalSociety.

    On the wall of my office at the newspaper there's a HistoricalSociety calendar for 1975, opened permanently to October—"PumpkinTime at High Point Farm!" A glossy picture of the scarecrowfigure in the sleigh in Dad's old red-plaid jacket, earflap cap,bunchy khaki trousers, surrounded by Day-Glo orange pumpkins ofvarying sizes including, on the ground, an enormous misshapenpumpkin that must have weighed more than one hundred pounds.Beyond the figure in the sleigh is the lavender-and-fieldstone farmhousewith its numerous windows and steep-pitched roofs.

    I've had the page laminated, otherwise it would long be fadedand tattered.

    Our house was a rambling old farmhouse of seven bedrooms, verandasand porches and odd little turrets and towers and three tallfieldstone chimneys. Dad said of the house that it had no style, it wasstyles, a quick history of American architecture. Evidence showedthat as many as six builders had worked on it, renovating, expanding,removing, just since 1930. Dad kept the exterior in Al condition, ofcourse—especially the roofs that were covered in prime-quality slateof a beautiful plum hue, and drained with seamless aluminum guttersand downspouts. The old, central part of the house was fieldstoneand stucco; later sections were made of wood. When I was very little,in the mid-Sixties it must have been, Dad and two of his MulvaneyRoofing men and Mike Jr. and Patrick repainted the wood sections,transforming them from gunmetal gray to lavender with shutters therich dark purple of fresh eggplant. The big front door was paintedcream. (Eighteen gallons of oil-base paint for old, dry wood had beenrequired, and weeks of work. What a team effort! I'd wished I wasbig enough to use a brush, to climb up onto the scaffolding and help.And maybe in my imagination I've come to believe I had been partof the team.)

    Part of the house's historic interest lay in the fact that it had beena "safe house" in the Underground Railroad, which came into operationafter the passage in 1850 of the Fugitive Slave Act, one ofthe most shameful legislative measures in American history. Mymother was thrilled to discover documents in the ChautauquaCounty Historical Society archive pertaining to these activities, andwrote a series of pieces for the Mt. Ephraim Patriot-Ledger on the subject.How innocently vain she was! How captivated, as she said, by"living in a place of history"! She'd been born on a small farm aboutfifteen miles to the south where farm life was work, work, work andthe seasons simply repeated themselves forever, never adding up towhat you'd call "history."

    It was after I started school that Mom became seriously interestedin antiques. She'd furnished much of the house with authenticperiod items, those she could afford, and it became her notion tobuy and sell. She acquired some merchandise, set up shop in a smallconverted barn just behind the house, advertised in one or anotherlocal antique publications and painted a sign to prop up beside thescarecrow in the sleigh—


HIGH POINT ANTIQUES
BARGAINS & BEAUTY!


Not that many customers ever came. High Point Farm was too farfrom town, too difficult to locate. Sunday drivers might drop by, enthralledby the sight of the lavender-and-stone house atop the hill, butmost of Mom's visitors were fellow dealers like herself. If in fact someonewanted to buy an item of which she'd grown especially fond,Mom would seem to panic, and murmur some feeble apology—"Oh,I'm so sorry! I forgot—that item has been requisitioned by a previouscustomer." Blushing and wringing her hands in the very gesture ofguilt.

    Dad observed, "Your mother's weakness as a businesswoman ispretty simple: she's a hopeless amateur."

    Scouring auctions, flea markets, garage and rummage sales in theChautauqua Valley, not above browsing through landfill dumps andoutright trash, about which Dad teased her mercilessly, Mom onlybrought home things she fell in love with; and, naturally, thingsshe'd fallen in love with she couldn't bear to sell to strangers.


    What is truth?—Pontius Pilate's question.

    And how mysteriously Jesus answered him—Every one that is ofthe truth heareth my voice.

    Once I thought I understood this exchange but no longer.

    In setting forth this story of the Mulvaneys, of whom I happen tobe the youngest son, yet, I hope, a neutral observer, at least onewhose emotions have been scoured and exorcised with time, I wantto set down what is truth. Everything recorded here happened and it'smy task to suggest how, and why; why what might seem to be implausibleor inexplicable at a distance—a beloved child's banishmentby a loving father, like something in a Grimm fairy tale—isn't implausibleor inexplicable from within. I will include as many "facts"as I can assemble, and the rest is conjecture, imagined but not invented.Much is based upon memory and conversations with familymembers about things I had not experienced firsthand nor could possiblyknow except in the way of the heart.

    As Dad used to say, in that way of his that embarrassed us, it wasso direct, you had to respond immediately and dared not evenglance away—"We Mulvaneys are joined at the heart."