My not-so-unhappy childhood

“If you knew I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, the least you could’ve done was give me an unhappy childhood!”


Denver’s my home town, so it was great to do a reading at the Tattered Cover’s new, cavernous Highlands Ranch bookstore, which many of my parents’ friends attended. They appreciated the affectionate part I wrote about my parents, and I was glad that my parents were adventuresome enough to give me something to write about. Mom was sort of notorious among her suburban friends for doing things like hopping a freight train across Colorado (and my dad, appreciating the romance and adventure of it all, drove her to the station). Here’s a little excerpt from All Over the Map:

In 1971, Mom got the idea to take us four daughters to Mexico for the summer. This was before her Outward Bound trip, but she was already on her adventure streak. She wanted us to see something of the world outside of Littleton, a suburb where most dads worked for aerospace companies and almost everyone voted Republican.

But mom could only venture so far outside of Littleton. Since we weren’t going to move out of the suburbs—dad, a pediatrician, had an established practice in town, and they both enjoyed the sprawling lawn and proximity to the mountains–she brought other cultures into our home. Or, as we kids saw it, she brought home strays. Every few months, new people would take up residence in the guest room: Navajo children, a Cuban family, Swiss exchange students, and visiting Greeks. During the Vietnam War, she opened the door to several anti-war students who were participating in a program called “ATSIV,” which is “VISTA” spelled backwards, where instead of going into poor neighborhoods to work, post-college kids went into wealthier homes to “raise the consciousness” of the suburbs, and to have a nice free place to stay and meals to eat between demonstrations. June, my favorite of these ATSIV students, splashed around naked in a fountain in downtown Denver just to see what would happen (she got arrested–then eventually went on to drive a cab, join a cult, adopt a guru-bestowed name, and settle in a communal house in Northern California with both her boyfriend and ex-husband, practicing visualization and taking esoteric workshops in self-improvement).

My father wasn’t exactly thrilled with this parade of visitors, though he’d go along with the invasions cheerfully enough as long as he could occasionally shut the door to his den, light a pipe, and read in peace. Dad sometimes lost his affable composure when a hippie student crashed his motorcycle trying to put it in reverse or played Frank Zappa really loud when he came home from seeing wailing babies and fretting mothers all day long, and then he’d decide his consciousness had been raised quite enough. He was more interested in the foreign students than the political ones, and eager to inflict his Spanish, French, or German on whomever was passing through. Now and then he went off to work on a reservation with the Native American public health services, and is proud to say he’s the only white guy you’ll ever meet who can do a complete physical in Navajo.

When Mom brought up the idea of moving to Mexico for the summer, Dad was initially reluctant. It’s not as if you could trust the hippie students to mow the lawn in perfectly even stripes, the way he does. But as with most things—voting Democrat, getting a toy poodle, hosting radical prison activists for cocktails—he eventually went along with Mom’s idea. She’d heard about San Miguel de Allende from her friend Janet MacKenzie, another of the dozen Democrats in Littleton, whose artistic and worldly tastes far transcended the avocado green, shag-rug ambience of the neighborhood. Jan MacKenzie had recently returned from several weeks in San Miguel de Allende, tanned and resplendent in colorful woven shawls and oversized pieces of silver jewelry, her four children effortlessly chattering in Spanish. The MacKenzies had studied at an art school, the Institute de Allende, and stayed at a boarding house in the center of town.

Mom started planning our trip.

After the reading, though, I got to thinking that for a memoirist, I’m really at a disadvantage. It’s much easier to write a memoir when your parents were savage alcoholics or crazy single mothers who drove you around the country in an Airstream and dressed up on Sundays to go to open houses for places they couldn’t afford.

My parents, on the other hand, had a stable and loving relationship, took us off on wilderness trips and car camping in Canyonlands, signed us up for piano and skating lessons, and went out of their way to take us to Mexico to experience a different culture and language–which is what ended up making me a traveler who loves languages. At least I have my parents to blame for that.

My parents posted a New Yorker cartoon on their fridge for awhile: “If you knew I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, the least you could’ve done was give me an unhappy childhood!”

It was wonderful to see all my parents’ friends at a party that my brother-in-law Roy catered, with beautiful food, Colorado sunny and blooming. Dolores Curran was there, my parents’ friend who is a freelance writer. When I was young, visiting the Currans’ house, it dawned on me that writing stories was actually a career choice, and I never considered another. My parents, perhaps never realizing that they’d have to sit through a reading where I read about my childhood, were supportive all the way, never once mentioning law school. Bless them.

Night of the Taranta in Afar

By Julia Cosgrove June 2nd, 2010 2:13 pm  |  Comments (0)

_MG_2474In the July/August issue of Afar, which hits newsstands later this month, writer Laura Fraser explores an oft-forgotten region of Italy called Salento. The story revolves around the Notte della Taranta, a summer festival that celebrates the mystical—and musical—traditions of the tarantella. In the piece, Laura delves into the Salentine version of tarantella, called pizzica. Here are a few clips of video recordings of pizzica—check out the festival, the powerful singing of Enza Pagliara, and this little how-to for learning the steps yourself.

Photo by Lorenzo Pesce.