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Pull Me Up: A Memoir by Dan Barry


Rating: (Recommended)


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Some of the finest memoirs touch the nerves of our lives, trigger laughter and tears, and lead us to take a breath and prepare for whatever life hits us with next. Dan Barry’s Pull Me Up is such a book. The title refers to Dan’s Irish immigrant mother asking for his help when she was dying of lung cancer. Barry presents glimpses of her life, his father who suffered 20 years of debilitating cluster migraines, and his own passage from a childhood on Long Island through his writing for The New York Times, culminating in his own battle with cancer. The struggles of any life are recognized in the Barry family, and under Dan’s fine writing skill, the pages turn quickly, generating smiles and tears. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 2, pp. 31-39:


         This is how it was: My father, a tall, good-looking ringer for Nelson Eddy, hustling out at 6:30 every morning to catch the Long Island Rail Road, known in our house as the “goddam train’ and often coming home later than other fathers, his noose of a tie loosened, his suit a cloth wipe for smoke and sweat. Many times his rum­pled appearance was caused by the drudgery of it all, commuting two hours to work in an unreliable, rolling sardine can, hawking stocks and bonds all day on Wall Street, returning two hours back squeezed between strangers. But sometimes he looked the way he did because he had had a few too many, the result being a succession of train connections missed. This required my mother to pack her four young children into the sta­tion wagon and drive a mile to the Wyandanch train station every half hour or so. Together we would hunt for my father among the men disgorged into the night by the 6:38, the 7:08, or the 7:38 bound for Ronkonkoma. Kids, kids, pay attention. Keep an eye out for your father. Is that him? Coming down the stairs? No? Some nights we just sat at the train station in silence, listening for the clanging of crossing signals, wait­ing for a tiny dot of white to appear at the distant end of the track line. Now and then my mother would quiz us to pass the time. What is the capital of South Dakota? Of North Dakota? Of Oregon? But there are only fifty states; if it got too late, we would return home and wait for the call.

Gene? What do you mean you fell sleep?

Our mother’s words cuffed our ears, sounded a warning.

And where are you now? Ronkonkoma?


That meant my mother had to bundle her brood into the family’s one car once again and drive forty minutes east to the last stop on the line. Tension, like the smoke from my mother’s cigarettes, filled our station wagon on those Ronkonkoma rescues. So much depended on his mood. If he climbed into the car with the latest edition of Mad magazine, or some Mexican dancing beans that he had picked up at a novelty store, then we knew everything was all right. Soon we would be eating in peace: invariably Swedish meatballs and noodles, followed by bowls of ShopRite-brand artificial vanilla ice cream, as we watched The Merv Grif­fin Show together, a family after all. But if the car’s interior light revealed a certain wild look, and if his peppermint Lifesavers were not enough to mask the smell of alcohol, and if he slammed the passenger door shut, then we knew that the night, if not the next several days, was lost to shouting and slamming of doors and contrived reasons for sending us to our rooms. Our father was clearly not always at peace.

He infused our house with a defiant city atmosphere, idiosyncratically shaped by a harsh childhood and an insatiable thirst for the printed word—everything from the Mad magazines of the Harvey Kurtzman era to the Encyclopedia Americana volumes that he had bought at my birth. He sometimes explained himself by quoting Rafael Sabatini’s description of his swashbuckling character, Scaramouche: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad?’ He rejected most of what our neighbors in the 1960s bought into—the American value sys­tem. He refused to let Brian and me join the Boy Scouts—”a little army’ as he called it. He refused to let us play football—a blood sport and a risk to developing bone structures. But he also refused to let us listen to the Beatles, who he felt advocated drug use.

Gradually, our value judgments were shaped by what he hated, and loved.

He hated Bob Hope; he loved Bob and Ray.

He hated Nixon; he loved Kennedy.

He hated opera; he loved A Night at the Opera.

He hated “Strangers in the Night”; he loved “Wimoweh.”

He hated Liberace; he loved W. C. Fields.

He hated red beets, which tasted of the depression, night after night, cheap red beets. But he loved red cabbage.

He hated John Wayne. The only battles that sonofabitch fought were on movie lots, while kids were dying in Normandy and Guadalcanal. And now he’s got the goddamned gall to wrap himself in the flag and mouth off about Vietnam? Like he’s some war hero? Like he actually went to Bataan?

My father seethed at the thought, his hands gripping the frayed arms of his living room chair, his eyes slits of contempt. Sonofabitch was too good a term for John Wayne. He was worse; he was a motherless bastard.

It seemed at times that my father hated more than he loved. But there was one thing he loved above all else, including his children. That was his wife, and everybody knew it; she was the final piece to the Gene Barry puzzle, the piece in the center of his chest. An attractive brunette, still slim after four children and two miscarriages, his Galway beauty worked as a clerk in some cellblock office on Route 110 in Farmingdale. At home she was the one who mowed the lawn, trimmed the hedges, painted the rooms, hung the wallpaper, did the laundry, bought and cooked the food. Maybe this was because my father couldn’t have been bothered, or maybe because she was squeezing what she could from a way of life that she never could have imagined just fifteen years before, when she was living on a farm in Ireland, with few amenities and no mother.

My mother had her own distinct tastes, of course. She preferred Schmidt’s beer to Budweiser, Scrabble to Monopoly. She hated the movie Shane because she thought the kid was a whiner, but loved to cry over the plight of the kids in The Sound of Music. She became furious with me one Easter night for cheering when the quisling boyfriend tells the Nazis where they might find the fleeing von Trapp family. She loved to play a silly game in which two people standing several feet apart tried to flip a quarter with carefully placed bounces of a Spalding; we would not know until years later that these contests, which had no name, were a variation of an old Irish street game called Pitch and Toss.

Generally, though, my mother did not define her world in terms of likes and dislikes. Her upbringing on a farm, it seemed, had taught her early on that life is not meant to be all bountiful harvest. The rain some­times falls too much, or not enough; cows die in calving. This closeness to the ground, this acceptance of the impersonal natural order, endowed her with quiet command. My father would rail from his armchair, issu­ing edicts and delivering rants. But none carried the weight of law until my mother had separated the wisdom from his bombast, as though culling wheat from chaff.

A carefully maintained detachment from everything outside her fam­ily’s walls further enhanced my mother’s authority. The neighbors knew, for example, that she had been in the United States since 1953 but still refused to become a naturalized citizen. She preferred crossword puzzles to soap operas, yard work to getting her nails done. The resulting ques­tion of gossips—Who does she think she is?—really did not need to be answered, because it was obvious. By keeping her distance, albeit politely, from the suburban humdrum and hubbub, my mother made it clear that if you wanted a job done or a decision made at 140 West 23rd Street, she was the one to see, and the one who saw. She saw it all.

We could be driving to the Food Fair supermarket in the Sunset City shopping center, or maybe to the ShopRite, if they had a better sale on milk. Or we could be going to Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church, up on Deer Park Avenue. Wherever we went, whether to feed our stomachs or nourish our souls, my mother was always the one behind the wheel, eyes alert, taking it all in. And every five seconds, or so it seemed, she looked into the rearview mirror of the 1968 Chevy Impala station wagon to check on her gang of four, pen marks on their hands, peanut butter on their breath, reading books, teasing one another, staring out the window, waiting for what came next.

There was Brian, born in the Cold War year of 1959. Lanky and blond, he was so smart that the family transposed the vowels in his name to give him the nickname “The Brain.” He played the guitar, the trumpet, the harmonica, and any other musical instrument placed before him, and he could do a dead-on imitation of Rex Harrison’s solos on the original Broadway cast recording of My Fair Lady. Brian was the fearless one, the one who jumped from the ten-foot diving board at the town pooi, the one who let garden snakes coil around his arms, the one who would strike a match just for the danger of holding a dancing blue flame. He played endless games of catch with me; he was my best friend.

There was Brenda, born in 1961, the year the country witnessed the inauguration of its first Roman Catholic president. Brenda was blond and cute and determined to collect stray animals the way her brothers amassed baseball cards. Her First Holy Communion portrait, with her mouth closed to conceal the tooth knocked out by an errant playground swing, was so beatific that our parents framed it in silver and set it in a place of honor—on top of the television. She worshiped Humphrey Bogart.

There was Elizabeth, born in 1964, the year after the assassination of that Roman Catholic president. Elizabeth was blond and cute as well, but with the toughness that comes from being the youngest of four. She was nicknamed “Lizbat’ and she was the baby, and when she was very young she sang herself to sleep to the “yeah yeah” lyrics of “She Loves You.” What could our father say about Beatles lyrics so innocuous? If Brenda loved Bogart, Elizabeth loved Cagney, and he was better because at least he was still alive.

And there, face pressed against the far window like a Labrador retriever out for a Sunday drive, her oldest, Daniel Francis. Born in 1958, he was named after a maternal grandfather who died years before Danny was born and a paternal grandfather who died three months after. Look at him there, she must have wondered. What’s to become of him?

I was tall for my age, gawky, with a concave chest in which pools of water formed when I took a bath. I had straight brown hair with a cowlick in the back. I had the first tiny marks of acne flecking my chin, harbingers of roaring facial battles to come.

I had an overbite so pronounced that I could fit three fingers between my upper and lower teeth; it seemed that I needed two spoonfuls of oat­meal to consume just one. My parents had no choice but to take me to an orthodontist who shoved bits of metal, swabs of cement, some rubber bands, and anything else he could find around the office into my gaping mouth. When he finished, my lips became the gates to Erector Set City. I obviously needed the braces, but they limited my facial movements. A simple yawn might snap a rubber band and send it rocketing out of my mouth to clip the ear of the student in front of me.

My poor coordination as a young boy marked me for life. I had once fallen off my bicycle and banged my head hard on the pavement, imbed­ding a stone the size of a Rice Krispie into my forehead, about an inch above my eyebrows. My mother’s Old World solution: dab the wound with hydrogen peroxide and leave the stone protruding from my head for about two weeks. It was there when I went to school, when I went to church, when I sat in the living room watching Bugs Bunny cartoons. Then, one day, my mother gently picked the stone out, leaving a much smaller mark than if she had pried it loose on the first day.

I loved reading about gangsters: Dillinger, Capone, Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll. I loved the Dead End Kids, the Marx Brothers, the Little Ras­cals, and all the horror films produced by Universal Pictures. I reveled in knowing that L.S.M.ET. stood for “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco”; that W. C. Fields used to threaten to sic a woodpecker on Charlie McCarthy; that Bing Crosby won an Academy Award for Going My Way. I loved all these things because they evoked the 1930s and 1940s, the period of my father’s mysterious childhood, and I could run to him and say, Daddy, Daddy, come to the living room, Billy Gilbert just showed up in a Laurel and Hardy short. And he and I would smile because we were probably the only father and son who knew who Billy Gilbert was—a character actor known for his magnificent sneezing fits—or at least were the only ones talking about him at that very moment.

Like my father, I came to crave Entenmann’s: the chocolate layer cakes, the cupcakes, those raspberry pastries with white “drizzle” frosting. That’s how he would describe them as my mother left for Food Fair— and get an Entenmann’s, the raspberry drizzle. The white Entenmann’s boxes, adorned with that elegant blue script, were as essential as the oven to a Long Island kitchen. They were removed from their places of honor, usually on top of the refrigerator, and presented for every occasion: weddings, wakes, mah-jongg, breakfast, midmorning coffee breaks, lunch, dessert, and that late-night something that goes so well with The Honeymooners. For us, Entenmann’s was the bread of life.

I shared a bunk bed of Western, wagon-wheel design in a room with Brian, who was eighteen months younger but already stronger than me. This was our haven. We decorated the walls with the covers of Mad mag­azine. We collected the blue-covered Hardy Boy books—The Tower Trea­sure, The Missing Chums, The Mystery of the Chinese Junk—and secretly wished for some dastardly crime to be committed in our neighborhood so that, like Frank and Joe Hardy, we too could do some brotherly sleuthing. At night, we turned on a transistor radio and listened to the cackles and confidences of Jean Shepherd on his nightly broadcast. He would begin spinning a yarn about his childhood in the Midwest, pause to rant against some obnoxious television commercial or to sing a cho­rus of “The Sheik of Araby’ and then return seamlessly to complete that wondrous and wistful tale.

Sometimes we fought in our sanctum. During one brawl, one of us kicked a heel through the wall. It was hardly the last hole to be punched through the walls and doors of that house, but this particular hole became the heilgate of nightmares. More than once I awakened in a sweat from having dreamed that trolls were crawling out of it to take me away, like those child-snatching fairies of my mother’s Ireland.

Most of the time, though, my brother and I comforted each other. When our father barreled out of the house and sped away, pressing the gas pedal so that the engine roared in final exclamation to his last furi­ous point. When there was nothing for us to do except wait, sometimes for hours, until we heard the reluctant grumble of tire upon gravel, meaning that he had returned; he always returned. Or just when there was something a boy could not even articulate to his brother: the embar­rassment of wearing braces, or the hurt of a parent’s unwarranted cuff to the back of the head. That was when we climbed together into the bot­tom bunk and took turns caressing each other’s back in a gentle tickle.

First came the argument over who would tickle whose back first, for it was always best to be tickled last; that way you could drift toward sleep with the sensation of fingers sliding across your back and the knowledge that all your obligations had been met. Then came the argument over the length of tickle time, which was measured by the one doing the tickling:


You’re counting too fast! Go slower, like I did.

Then came the argument over technique:

You’re doing it too hard! Do it softer.

You’re a real jerk, you know that?

Silence came next, with two tired young bodies taut with the anger of the wronged. Then the anger faded, and the desire to reassure—and be reassured—returned:

Okay, let’s tickle in words. What word am I writing on your back now?



What’s the first letter?



A snort turned into a giggle, which turned into two giggles, which encouraged outright laughter that shook the bed despite the shooshes from one brother and then the other, and the two young bodies were now shaking in silliness, and— Go to sleep goddammit!

Our father’s command seemed to fly up the stairs, as we knew he would at the sound of the next peep. We knew that things could quickly escalate, so we traded shooshes and composed ourselves. Then one boy’s forefinger returned to his brother’s back, looping figure-eights until, finally, it skated off the map of consciousness.

Pull Me Up will have special appeal to cancer survivors, those of us with immigrant parents, and those who came of age in the booming 1960s. The messages about life will resonate for all readers, and Barry’s fine writing will be appreciated for its lyrical qualities, and his ability to tell a story so well.

Steve Hopkins, August 26, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the September 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Me Up.htm


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