During senior year of college, at a career symposium for all of us first-time job-seekers, a counselor from our Office of Career Services introduced us to The Philadelphia Airport Test. It was, he said, the tool our future interviewers would use to determine, in 10 minutes or less, whether or not we should be granted a second interview. The idea was simple: When a potential employer first meets a potential employee, he asks himself one question—If I were stranded in the Philadelphia airport, in a blizzard, with this person, would I enjoy his or her company, or would I want to shoot myself?
Less than 10 minutes into Dorothy Gallagher’s memoir How I Came Into My Inheritance, and other true stories, you’ll have your answer: Come typhoons or tornadoes or security lines two-hours long, you want this woman’s company. Gallagher’s stories feel less like a book than a razor-sharp conversation in which you, luckily, don’t have to keep up your end of the banter. Against Gallagher’s spare, unflinching wit, you wouldn’t have much chance. She tells stories the way 10-year-old boys use slingshots: with a fierce eye, enviable abandon, and a knack for finding ammo—and targets—at every turn.
Even when she turns her weapon on her twenty-something self, recalling that she “had a distinct lack of ideas” for her future, “negative ideas if you like,” still you have confidence in her. Though she writes that she “couldn’t do anything, could hardly type, could not take shorthand,” you’re not surprised that she had “lots of jobs, dozens of jobs, one right after the other. I’d been a salesgirl at Macy’s, been in the typing pool of an insurance company, file clerk in an advertising agency, assistant to an assistant of a television producer.
Receptionist was one of my frequent occupations.” She summarizes her early career-hunting problem as “how to reconcile the high seriousness of ‘accomplishment’…with my evidently selfish and frivolous nature.”
Gallagher plunks heart and humor into all of her stories, and she understands the boundaries of storytelling—“Dreams are boring, I know,” she writes. “I always skip them in books.” But if she said to you, “Hey, let’s go watch the grass grow,” you’d trust that you were in for a rollicking day. If she walked into your office looking for a job, any job (add pulp magazine writer and Career Blazers receptionist to Gallagher’s list), you’d hire her.
And yet the heart of Gallagher’s memoir has little to do with landing the next day job. Raised in New York City as the only child of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Gallagher grounds the bulk of her stories in richer subject matter: her extended family. Beginning with the end of her parents’ lives, she weaves back through time, recounting a cousin’s distressing return to the Ukraine; an aunt’s failed relationships; a family friend’s murder; her own experiences as a teenager at a Workers’ Childrens’ camp and as a member of the Labor Youth League. She slaps down these episodes like a pile of photos—out of chronological order, each a story unto itself, but seamlessly related. And as Gallagher’s stories accumulate, you see the truth they share: In families, the sources of the biggest laughs, the deepest hurts, the sharpest memories, are one and the same—love.
“Wasn’t my very existence proof of their love?” a young Gallagher asks about her parents in a chapter titled, “No One in My Family Has Ever Died of Love.” Eyeing her parents for signs of intimacy, Gallagher nails a child’s need to believe that mom loves dad, dad loves mom, and the world is as it should be, when she writes: “So what I decided was that even though there were no obvious signs of it—no kisses, no banter, no complicit looks between them…that was just their way. There were things I was too young to understand. Men and women, love and marriage: What a mystery at the center of life!”
In the course of her memoir, Gallagher sets out to crack this mystery’s code. She looks at an elderly couple and tries to imagine the passion that first brought them together. “Would I ever manage to get in on this business?” she asks. “On buses and subways, I looked for the girls who wore engagement and wedding rings,” she goes on. “They were only nine, ten years older than I was, but they were in on it…They looked so…ordinary, and yet their initiation was publicly proclaimed…” Working at an insurance company, Gallagher slips into the work-a-day grind in which the guys are bosses and the “girls were always going to lunch to celebrate someone’s engagement…I’d never seen such pure, unclouded happiness. I knew it wasn’t for me, but I was envious.”
Free of clichés and sentimentality, Gallagher mines generations of her family’s history to discover that the real mystery of love is not how to find it, but how to maintain independence in the midst of it. “Did I think I could keep my options open forever?” she chides herself as she wavers about her own pregnancy and marriage. “Did I think I could still decide to be a ballerina?” Whether as child, wife or mother-to-be, Gallagher spins stories that question whether each of us is inextricably bound to our loved ones, or fundamentally alone. Recalling her nursing-home visits to her mother, Gallagher relays an exchange that suggests the answer is a little bit of both. “But, darling, how did you find me?” her failing mom asks every time Gallagher makes the “pain in the neck” schlep to the home. Looking at her mom’s smile, Gallagher loads her words into that slingshot, slaps a bulls-eye on your heart, and answers, “I’ll always find you, Mama.”
Dorothy Gallagher reads on Friday, Sept. 26, at 8:00 p.m., in UM’s Gallagher Business Building, Room 122.