Not Everyone Carried Marbles
August 25, 1979
It was hot as hell and Sharon Goldstein knew everyone had to be
positively sweltering out back. Her mother was especially intolerant
of humidity and boastful that Los Angeles, the paradise that she and
her husband had been wrested away from to come here, to Washington,
did not make its inhabitants bear such humiliating conditions. ( What
about earthquakes, Nana? Vanessa had said yesterday, but Helen had
waved her away.) It was only six o’clock and already the cicadas were
As Sharon made her way around the kitchen, she pictured each one
piling paper-thin sheets of prosciutto (well, not her father, whose newly
kosher regime she refused to acknowledge) on melon wedges, and
spreading runny Brie on the baguette she’d baked yesterday. Imagining
her family eating in the yard bordered by the lit tiki lights pleased her.
More, she had to admit, than actually sitting there with them.
The neighborhood sounds of skateboards scraping asphalt and
kids playing kick-the-can drifted in through the open doors, and she
could see the Farrell girls across the street waving their thin arms in
the air so the gnats would go to the highest point, far away from their
tanned, freckled faces. As Sharon diced cucumbers and apples for
her gazpacho—what made hers special was a garnish of peeled green
apples and long slivers of tender basil—she wondered if her idea of an
outdoor dinner had been misguided.
“To see Ben off!” she’d told Dennis last month. They’d been lying
in bed watching President Carter talk about the energy crisis, and she’d
opened her night-table drawer, taken out an emery board, and begun
to saw at her nails. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening
to destroy the social and the political fabric of America, Carter had said, and
Sharon had turned to her husband. “Let’s have a family dinner for
Ben,” she’d said. “We’ll have your parents and mine, and we’ll eat in
the backyard. The night before he goes.”
“Shh,” Dennis said. “I’m listening to this.”
Sharon hadn’t been able to focus on the speech, perhaps because
her son’s impending departure had caused alarm, or was it a symptom
of the general malaise of the country that the president was speaking
about ? Apathy was not like her; once Sharon had been a woman who
had cared about politics deeply. Too deeply, perhaps, and this had led
her to flee conservative Los Angeles, her parents’ Los Angeles, the one
with her father’s balding B-movie cronies chewing cigars on the back
deck and discussing the HUAC hearings. I don’t give one goddamn
who goes down, they’d said. Communists? Just ask me. They’d spit
names up at the sky, toward the fuzzy line of the San Gabriels. That
Los Angeles. Sharon had come east to George Washington University,
even though Helen said no one smart went to GW, ever, and at the
end of her junior year Sharon had found herself sitting at a Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee meeting planning the Freedom
Riders’ trip from Washington to New Orleans, to register voters and
fight Jim Crow in each city along the way.
By summer, Sharon and her roommate, Louise Stein, decided they
wanted to accompany the hundreds of other kids, black and white, all
ready to sit together at luncheonettes across the South. The Klan was
rumored to be waiting in Birmingham to beat Riders, but Sharon and
Louise ignored these reports, believing that being together and doing
what was right would somehow arm them against terrible violence.
The night before they were to get on that Trailways bus to Mississippi,
however, Sharon’s father forbade it. Don’t you so much as set
foot on that bus, he’d phoned to tell her. And Sharon had listened.
The next day, she stood at the door gathering her robe at her throat and
watched Louise go out into the foggy Georgetown morning alone. She
returned not a week later, after a night in jail in Jackson, Mississippi.
Sharon had been nearly feral with envy as she’d run her hands along
the white insides of Louise’s wrists, where the handcuffs had been
locked too tight, the blue-black bruises flowering where the metal had
pinched her skin.
But Sharon had listened to her father, and instead of fighting for
civil rights, she’d dated two doctors, a lawyer, and one potter before
settling on Dennis, marrying, and having children.
The night of Carter’s speech, though, she thought instead of
Benjamin throwing his jockstraps and Merriweather Post concert
T-shirts into a green duffel bag and heading north.
“Don’t you think a dinner will be nice, D?” Sharon had asked.
Our people are losing faith, Carter had said. The phrase had momentarily
stopped her menu planning—an elegant barbecue, steak and grilled
corn and cold soup and some kind of a summer cobbler. She looked
up at the screen and wondered if the president had just read her mind.
Lost faith. She had thought then of her father, finding God as if He
were a shiny penny he’d come upon along a crowded city street.
It was 1979; only a decade and a half previously, Sharon had been
pregnant with Vanessa when Louise had come to D.C. to march for jobs
and freedom. As they’d entered the Mall, she handed Sharon a fistful
of marbles. So horses will slip and fall and the pigs will be crushed,
Louise hissed. Things could get violent, she’d said. Dennis had looked
askance as he held Ben high, so he could see just how many people
were standing against inequality, and Sharon remembered fingering
the marbles, the feel of them pinging against one another along her
hips when she moved. They’d given her a sense of reckless power, but
she did not let them fall. Sharon was no revolutionary, she knew that
now, but she had tried and she had cared profoundly, and she had been
so furious at her father that she had fled for the East Coast, but in the
end she had not defied him. Yet, she had thought that glorious day, it
was not every girl who could say she carried marbles.
Now her faith in the power to make changes in the world felt like a
fluid that had been drained from her.
“Okay!” Dennis said. “Please, Sharon.” His hand hovered over her
wrist to stop her from filing her nails, and Sharon settled back and
decided right then: gazpacho.
Now Sharon opened the fridge and lifted the large serving bowl,
hugging it to her chest. As she headed out back, she thought that though
the outdoor dinner may have been a flawed idea, she had known it
would be perfect to have the family sitting together in the backyard,
all along the large communal table, the scuffed wood illuminated by lit
candles and flickering torches, before Ben became a dot on the horizon
and left them all behind.
Benjamin absentmindedly carved at the wooden table with his steak
knife until he saw his mother emerge from the porch with a colossal
glass bowl of red soup, the screen door slapping behind her. She
carried it with the same beaming pride with which she brought out her
impeccably browned turkey at Thanksgiving and her tender brisket at
Passover, with an air that made it impossible—and unnecessary—to
“Borscht!” Tatiana, Dennis’s mother, threw her delicate white hands
up in delight.
Sharon nudged in between Ben and her father to place