Darla McKendrick is nine when she first hears her mother and her aunt Didi secretly discussing their younger sister, Rebecca, speculating about her life in squalor. From the moment Darla asks to know more about her mysterious aunt, she is offered nothing but half-truths, distortions, and evasions. As Darla grows into her teen years, her life is oddly yet profoundly affected by this woman she has never known. She can't help but notice that Rebecca seems to exist only in dark corners of conversations and that no one ever wants to talk about her-with Darla. SQUALOR, NEW MEXICO is a coming-of-age story shrouded in family mystery. As the plot takes twists and turns, secrets are revealed not only to Darla but to the "secret keepers" as well. Darla learns that families are only as strong as the truths they hold and as weak as the secrets they keep.
"...a coming-of-age story that’s peripherally about squalor and not at all about New Mexico. It takes place in the not-too-distant-past, somewhere in the comfort of East Coast suburbia. It is a first-person story told by Darla McKendrick, 16, a narrator often sparked by the panicky immediacy of adolescent angst. Yet Darla as a storyteller is blessed with ironic humor, and her tale, packed with well-drawn characters, is overflowing with twists and turns. It is a young adult novel but there’s nothing childish about it: quite the contrary. It’s a gripper for either age and either sex..." Chestnut Hill Local, Philadelphia, PA
My aunt Rebecca lived in Squalor. I first heard my mother and my aunt Didi discussing this one day when I was nine. I was supposed to be in my bedroom doing homework, but I snuck down the back stairs into the kitchen for a McIntosh apple and an Oreo cookie. Mom and Aunt Didi were close by in the dining room, huddled together at the corner of the table, as they often were, and they were talking about Aunt Rebecca. To me, the most curious thing about Aunt Rebecca, whom I had never met, was that Mom and Aunt Didi only brought her up when they thought no one was listening.
“I’m sure she’s still living in squalor,” Aunt Didi told Mom authoritatively. “Unless she’s screwed her way out!”
I had no idea what all that meant, but it seemed like such an odd thing to say that I was willing to take the risk of letting my presence be known and ask. “What’s squalor, Mom?” I said, walking into the dining room.
“Goodness, Darla!” Mom said putting her hand to her throat. “How long have you been listening?”
“Not long. I just came down for an apple.” (I thought it best not to mention the cookie.) “What’s squalor, Mom?” I repeated.
Aunt Didi, knowing Mom would be loath to answer my question, took hold of the reins for her. “It’s a town in New Mexico, Darla. It’s an Indian name.”
Mom looked at Aunt Didi in amazement. I figured she hadn’t known what it meant, either.
“Oh,” I said. And then I took a bite out of my apple.
“You have a book report due tomorrow,” Mom said.
“I know,” I said, taking another bite.
“Well, you’re not going to get it done standing here, are you?”
“I guess not,” I replied reluctantly. “All right, I’m going. Mom?”
“Yes, Darla?” she asked impatiently.
“What did Aunt Didi mean about—”
“Please dear,” Mom pleaded softly. “Go upstairs and finish your—”
“But Mom, I really want to know what—”
“Darla!” Aunt Didi screamed. “Listen to your mother. Go upstairs, now, and finish your book report!”
“All right. Forget it!” I said indignantly. “How am I supposed to learn stuff if I don’t ask?”
I walked back through the kitchen to make my way upstairs, mumbling about how I had been treated. I knew that Mom hated being angry and having to raise her voice, but from where I stood that was no reason to slink into passivity and to allow Aunt Didi to do her yelling for her—especially when it was directed at me.
But Mom wasn’t the only passive one in the family. Dad very seldom got angry either, and even when he found himself in passionate discord with the rest of the world, he did little or nothing to argue his contrariety. Instead, he just seemed to “go with the flow”—always following someone else’s footsteps rather than blazing his own trail. Naturally, he had plenty of opinions to express, but the things he griped about—like dishonest mechanics, rainy weekends, and bad restaurant service—never seemed to hold much importance. Once, I asked him why he didn’t scream and yell like other fathers, and he told me that when you yell you lose control, and losing control is a very bad thing to do. Of course, the older I got, the more adept I became at recognizing his anger, as well as his oft-times Herculean efforts to keep it under wraps.
Dad had a penchant for speaking in clichés, which I suppose was a convenient way of acquiescing to “the flow.” For him, quoting something that had been said before, meant that he didn’t have to worry about holding unpopular or radical opinions. Clichés solved everything for my father. “Well, Darla, to coin an old phrase, you only go around once in life, you know,” or “You never have a second chance to make a first impression,” and “Well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.” I found it strangely fascinating that you only go around once in life, yet what goes around comes around, and that absence makes the heart grow fonder, yet out of sight means out of mind.
Today, with my youth far behind me, I realize that my childhood perceptions, though surprisingly accurate at times, were also severely hampered by my limited time on earth. Observing my father’s quintessentially dad-like behavior back then (because of the profound effect it had on me), I assumed that God had repeatedly pressed his dad mold into a giant slab of dough, thus creating an abundance of men just like my father and dispersing them at random throughout the world. Like a baker who has baked too many cookies, God had made too many dads just like mine. They were everywhere: my friends had them for fathers, they appeared on television sitcoms, and they modeled men’s clothing in Spiegel catalogs.
My father was a complex man who hid behind a stereotype well into his forties. And even after that, he never really let go of it. For a long time, I was too young to understand the pain that he carried in his baggage. Deathly afraid of confronting his past, he clung tightly to society’s perceived notions of fatherhood and husbandhood, obfuscating reality as if doing so would somehow ensure an error-free existence. He seemed content to exclude spontaneity and risk-taking from his life, thereby eliminating a great deal of the reward that can come from living each day like a new adventure. Don’t misunderstand me: our home was not without mirth or joy, but most of it was like prescribed medicine, safe if taken in controlled doses. And sadly, my father’s fears and regrets were echoed by my mother, only she had the added burden of trying to keep all of our lives free of malice and discontent: as if anyone, no matter how smart or skilled, could really accomplish that.
A real dilemma for Mom was when someone unwittingly asked her a question (especially when Dad was around) that required her to take a stand. No matter how Mom chose to handle the situation, her answers were always very calculated and clichéd, leaving little room for spontaneity or originality. Often afraid of expressing herself, or of discussing matters with me that Dad might not approve of, Mom would preface her remarks with “Between you, me, and the lamppost, Darla,” a temporary absolution that would then allow her to proceed with whatever “secret” was on her mind.
Aunt Didi, on the other hand, didn’t mind being outspoken or controversial at all, but like Mom and Dad, she didn’t reveal a lot about herself or the family.
Also by Lisette Brodey
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