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In a meeting the other day someone says to me, So, you grew up in New York, did you get to Jersey much?, and I started to laugh, which caused confusion around the table, but then the meeting ended, so I did not have time to explain that my family was so New Yorky that we had heard of Jersey, and my grand-uncle the sailor had been there, or so he claimed, although he also made some other hair-raising claims that might or might not have been true, such as that he had once almost married an Iroquois princess in Sheridan Square, and that supposedly another uncle had married a Lutheran woman and moved to Jersey, but this second uncle’s name was never mentioned because of that scandal, although sometimes my grand-aunt would suddenly mutter mysterious lines like It would be one thing to marry an Italian, and What, there were no Greek Orthodox girls available? But these kinds of mysterious remarks were common in my family, and you had to piece together the tribal history for yourself, stitching it from various bright and startling threads offered at the oddest junctures. I remember once when my cousin was entering the convent that one of the elders murmured Just like her mother, which addled us children for weeks; didn’t our aunt and uncle have six kids? Could you have lots of kids in the convent? Is that where altar boys were hatched? Is that why there were such sidelong beings as deacons, to care for the troops of kids in the convents? Is that why all the nuns who taught us were so deft and experienced shepherding and corralling kids, because they were so used to it at home? There were so many riveting questions.

We read about New Jersey in the newspapers, and pored over maps that showed it as an actual United State, on the other side of the Hudson. But if you looked at the map closely you would notice towns with names like Hohokus, and Buttzville, and Ong’s Hat, and clearly those were goof names, which made you suspect that there was actually no such thing as New Jersey, that New Jersey was an idea, an illusion, a conspiracy, a deft jest perpetrated by cartographers in their cups and now accepted as wholly real by all sorts of people. You could see, said my brother Kevin, where real-estate people would totally run with this, because what could be better than selling acreage in a state that doesn’t exist? You would never run out of excellent plots with river and ocean views, and all you would have to do is move your office every few months, or change the name of your realty firm occasionally. It would be easier than eating a pie. Unfortunately our mother heard this speech from two floors away and Kevin paid for his remarks with one of our mother’s eloquent and erudite lectures about morality, ethics, integrity, the subtle and insidious influence on the young of foolish remarks by those who are older and should know better, the history of the Catholic Church’s attitudes and teachings about untruth and its many squirming permutations, and the very real possibility that what you thought was just a careless and lighthearted experiment with the truth was actually a whisper from the deepest nether reaches of Hades, which is, son, as you know, not some legendary place, but all too resident a dark seed in each and every human heart, and every lie encourages those seeds to burst into the most lurid of evil interior flowers. Our mother, in full impassioned oratorical flight, was brilliant at both pacing and timbre, and the rest of us never missed a chance to listen in when she had cornered a perpetrator and was unleashing the full arsenal of her remarkable rhetorical talents in the kitchen. To this day I doubt there were many, if any, other children in America who so enjoyed a brother or a sister being dressed down by such an articulate and stimulating master of the craft. I tell you, it was a thing of beauty, when it wasn’t you in the chair.

Finally our sister, when she was sixteen, skipped school one day and drove to Jersey, or so she said, and took Polaroids of herself at the state line to prove it, but as we all know photographic “evidence” is a sketchy art at best, and the price for her ostensible journey was, of course, one of the greatest kitchen speeches of all time from our mom, who warmed up with a brief history of the concept of individual responsibility, and then covered the Judeo-Christian tradition, the American tradition, the Irish tradition, the primacy of the conscience as final arbiter in matters of morality as affirmed by the Second Vatican Council in 1965, and the sturdy tenets of our own family, which she thought were perfectly clear, and thought had been at the center of each child’s very being and soul, but this did not appear to be so, inasmuch as one of her children seemed to have skipped a day at Sacred Heart Academy, which unexcused absence was not condoned under any circumstance whatsoever without the express agreement of the mother (and the father in select cases), and perhaps she, our mom, was wrong, but she did not recall such an agreement, and by this time our sister was a soggy mess, so our mother wrapped up swiftly and that was the end of that. Some years later I drove with friends through the Holland Tunnel into New Jersey, and affirmed for myself that there was such a place, but I did not send my sister a note, thinking she might still feel bad about the whole Jersey thing.

Brian Doyle is most recently the author of the essay collection So Very Much the Best of Us.

More on: New York, Childhood, Truth

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