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Expressway: From Mom, a lesson that words can hurt

Writer Dan Sarluca reflects on lessons his mother

Writer Dan Sarluca reflects on lessons his mother taught him. Credit: iStock

My mother shoved the manuscript into my hands soon after I put my bag away. I was out from the city for the weekend to visit my parents in Holbrook, and she insisted that I critique a short story she told me a co-worker had written.

My mother, Kitty Sarluca, trusted my judgment because I’d been a reporter for Suffolk Life newspapers and, for the previous 10 years, I’d worked as a managing editor at one of the big New York City publishing houses.

I planted myself in a living room chair near the door that led to the patio and read the piece while my parents drank coffee in the kitchen. The five-page story had been typed single-spaced on cream colored paper, with wide margins on all sides.

“Tell them not to quit their day job,” I called out to my mother when I was done, confident in my ability to judge good writing. Certainly I felt superior to some dowdy, middle-aged woman who worked with my mother at the Smith Haven Mall Macy’s.

“What’s the matter with it?” my mother asked, poking her head into the living room.

“There are too many characters to keep track of, the pacing is off, and the way the people reacted seems a little far-fetched to me.”

“But it’s all true,” my mother said, her voice rising. “It really happened that way!”

She stormed back into the kitchen.

Oh no, I realized. She wrote it.

How could I be so stupid? Why did I even say that to her? I’d read worse pieces in some of the writing workshops I’d taken over the years and had never said anything as glib and mean to a classmate. But in a workshop you had to face the author. Dismissing someone’s effort with a sarcastic comment was much easier under the cloak of anonymity.

Like most children, I had a self-involved myopia when it came to my mother. To me she wasn’t a fully formed person with unfulfilled hopes and dreams, she was just Mom. It seemed natural that her universe revolved around our family. Deep down I must have known she aspired to more in life than being a parent and a shipping clerk, but it wasn’t something she ever talked about.

Many things were left unspoken in our house. My brother, my sister and I felt safe and knew we were loved even though my family didn’t talk a lot about our feelings. My mother wasn’t cold or uninterested in our lives. But she came from a damaged family, with an alcoholic father and a distant mother, and armor-clad emotions were her birthright.

I almost followed my mother into the kitchen to apologize for being such a jerk, but decided that would make it worse. Pretending that I still thought the story was written by a friend might spare both of us additional hurt and humiliation. I’d been taught that uncomfortable feelings were easier to deal with when kept to myself. That these feelings eventually escape at twice the intensity was something I’d yet to learn.

Several years later, after my mother’s death, I helped my father go through her things. Not only had she saved all the birthday, anniversary, and Mother’s Day cards I’d ever given her, tucked into a box in a closet were copies of everything I’d published since high school. There was no sign that my mother had ever tried to write again.

Writer Dan Sarluca lives in Manhattan.