where the writers are
A Favorite Old Photo
Me, Barbara, Ma, Aunt Judy

In this photo showing three generations of Conforti women on a boat, I am the one on the far left. See that girl in the large, dark sunglasses that are supposed to make her look like Jackie Onassis? That’s me. It was the early ‘90s, and I was a desperate, needy, insecure college student who had deep fears and paralyzing issues. The three other women on that boat loved me anyway. Instead of seeing me as fat, inadequate, and neurotic, they thought I was smart, funny, and talented. No wonder I was so eager to hang out with them.

                On the far right of the picture is my Aunt Judy, matriarch of the Conforti women. She is the eldest of six children who grew up in a world that I do not know much about, except that they were a large family in a small house. Various versions of the childhood float around, vague stories told in cryptic phrases by my mother and her sisters. They will not talk about anything negative, ever. While my generation prefers to pick apart and overanalyze every look, every comment, and every slight that has ever been made by anyone in the family, the women before us are more stoic and secretive. Their times were different.

                Aunt Judy is my godmother, and we are very much alike. We both like control, traveling, and entertaining. Our lives hum along compatibly, and we understand the need to go away and refresh ourselves once in a while. We also get the importance of olive trays and mimosas at brunch. Because I am also an eldest child, I have always felt a fierce solidarity with her. I often want to take her aside and whisper that I understand, perfectly, what it is like.

                That curly white-haired dream is my grandmother. We called her Ma, and she passed away almost 11 years ago. I was in Italy, and unable to come home for her funeral. I felt her pass through this world to the next while I was abroad, though. It happened during a walk in the countryside, where I liked to gaze at the frozen winter landscape painted in amber and wheat and caramel.  A deep breeze came out of nowhere and took my breath away. I felt her, smelled her, and remembered how she grabbed my hand before I left the country, and told me how very, very glad she was that my sister and I were going off to explore the world. You have my permission to think I am insane. But I was there. I know what I felt.

                Standing next to me is my cousin Barbara. Any young girl who did not have a cousin Barbara while growing up is an unfortunate girl indeed. My sisters and I saw Barbara not only as a cousin, but as a friend and a living example of how to go from girl to woman. She babysat us often, and talked about exotic things such as high school and boys and rock music. As an awkward 9-year-old, all I ever wanted to do was feather my hair the way Barbara did, and carry a Trapper Keeper like hers. The very fact that she had her own locker made her cool. I remember her patiently explaining to me how combination locks worked, when I had thrown myself into a frenzy before junior high at the terrifying idea that I would not be able to get into my own locker. I was a high strung, adolescent train wreck, and Barbara was there to tell me that nothing was ever going to be as bad as I thought.   

                This picture was taken on a day cruise we took from Connecticut to Sag Harbor, in Long Island. I remember it as a good day. I do not know what was on our minds in the moment of this snapshot, but I know what is on my mind today, when I look at it. I am a woman who comes from strong women. From my grandmother to my mother and her sisters and their daughters, as well as my own incredible sisters, I am blessed to know how to live. Even when I feel like I don’t have a clue.