My nine-year-old best friends and I engaged in infinite, intimate deliberations about which Beatle we’d marry. In 1968 it seemed obvious to us that after playing at relatively-close-but-forbidden-by-all-parents Suffolk Downs Racetrack two years ago and the Boston Garden in ’64, the Beatles would surely have to perform within walking distance to where we lived, in hip Cambridge, MA. And our utterly unhip parents—by the divine intervention of St. Jude, Patron Saint of the Impossible, to whom we prayed every afternoon, sometimes with “Hey Jude” in the background—would buy us front-row seats, and each of the Fab Four would fall desperately in love with the four of us: Agnes, Lucy, Anne, and me. I’d be chosen by George. Paul was a little too good-looking for my tastes. No one really wanted Ringo, and John came across as a bit too angsty. But, of course, it was the Beatles, so we’d do whatever they wanted and marry them as they saw fit. That song of theirs, “We Can Work It Out,” reassured us.
George intrigued me for sort of becoming a Hindu, which appeared massively more relaxed and guilt-free than being Catholic, which I was as a child. When I married George, I knew I’d convert immediately, even though he’d never pressure me because the Beatles understood all about personal boundaries, as anyone could tell from “Within You Without You.” I was also big on becoming a vegetarian since it would have allowed me to stop gagging on and throwing up the disgusting beef Father required we eat most nights. My best friend Agnes thought it was so romantic that George and I anticipated dreamily eating only foods mentioned in Beatles songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Biting into a juicy strawberry, I’d definitely outshine Pattie Boyd because I’d be wearing one of my many Mary Quant outfits. (Mary Quant was my absolutely top female idol. She was nice enough to let Simplicity have patterns of her dresses so Mother could make me some, and I could be totally London cool, even if no one but Mother and the Beatles recognized it.) I have no recollection of understanding that George and Pattie were married. Or else I could have been really in denial, which, as a Catholic and the only child in my tense Irish/Italian family, I’d become an expert at just to survive.
Perhaps I fantasized so much and memorized every word sung by George and all the Beatles because Father had never shown much interest in me. So probably displacement as well as denial. Not that Father was particularly wild about Mother, but at least they fought passionately. So passionately that they kept a huge bottle of Librium—a pill that apparently prevented people from having quarrels—right in the middle of the kitchen table, at the ready, since most of their arguments happened or at least started there. They’d thrust that bottle back and forth—narrowly missing water glasses, the salt and pepper shakers, and various side plates—yelling to each other, “For Christ’s sake take one.” Sometimes one of them would, but it never made much difference, and dinner usually felt like I was trapped in “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” Still, those Librium remained on the table for years, being regularly shoved to and fro and occasionally thrown.
Father had always made it clear that as both an only child and a female, I’d succeeded in being a double disappointment. The Beatles, in contrast, loved young girls. I pretended not to mind about Father or even notice, but I secretly prayed first to George, then to all the Beatles—having given up on God with his complete moratorium on responding to me—that I might become what Agnes and, to some extent, all my friends seemed to be: a “Daddy’s girl.” Walking to the corner store to pick up something Mother needed for dinner, I’d imagine Father worrying that I might not come back and singing “I Need You” from the porch. He wouldn’t have to fawn over me or give me presents or anything, like Agnes always seemed to be getting. And of course I didn’t want him to behave flirtatiously, like Lucy’s somewhat creepy father. To be fair, Father sometimes tried enlisting my interest in Red Sox games—I could just about hear him singing “Don’t Let Me Down”—though since I’d been taught nothing about baseball, our interactions were mutually disappointing and, ultimately, further proof of my female defectiveness. A boy would have just known.
Then we experienced a family shock. National testing found me to be exceptional. “Possibly a genius,” said Sister Mary Joyce, not totally approvingly, to my parents and me. And, at long last, Father showed me some attention. He began by inquiring about school during dinner. His directly addressing me was so surprising that for weeks my answers were brief, which he found annoying, and Mother would have to push the Librium at him. Then, one night, I relaxed enough to give them a rather full disquisition on Kateri Tekakwitha, Lily of the Mohawks. She was the first female we’d ever studied. Plus the Jesuits baptized her in honor of Saint Catherine of Siena. At nine I was still an avid coloring-book enthusiast and, upon learning St. Catherine’s full name, felt she must have been really important because she was the only saint I knew of who had a Crayola crayon named after her, “burnt sienna.” I didn’t notice the different spelling, but a few months later, when I asked Sister Mary Joyce if Saint Catherine had been “burnt” at the stake and if the crayon honored the memory of her charred flesh, I had to sit in the corner with the dunce cap on for half an hour.
But what most interested me about Kateri were her smallpox scars, which, at the moment of her untimely death at twenty-four, instantly vanished from her face as God took her up to heaven in what I imagined to be his version of the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour.” I recognized the importance of a good complexion because it was a source of constant controversy between my parents. Mother had acne scars and was forever buying creams meant to diminish them, much to the annoyance of Father because of the unnecessary expense. I recall suggesting that God’s dermatological miracle for Kateri gave historical evidence that he’d approve of Mother buying those special face creams (even though they hadn’t done a thing for her yet). Father turned bright red during my complex complexion discussion and glared at Mother. “Don’t you get any ideas,” he yelled, spitting some of his cucumber onto the table, but just before she could throw him the Librium, he got up, put his hand on my shoulder, and asked me to come into the living room to talk more about Kateri.
The Beatles sang out “Good Day Sunshine” because Father had never asked me to talk with him in the living room before. In those days the Beatles always seemed to have just the right song for everything that was happening. I showed him my Kateri homework, even though the assignment sheet was rather idiotic. It asked us questions with one-word answers, and the first letter was already printed in by Sister. She’d marked out the rest of the letters individually with broken lines. Suddenly Father began to chuckle, something he didn’t usually do. The particular question he focused on was: “Kateri Tekakwitha spent most of her time in p __ __ __ __ __.” I’d filled in the r-a-y-e-r correctly and didn’t see what was so funny. He called in Mother and read the sentence again. We were silent. “Take your heads out of the clouds, you two! Don’t you get it?” Obviously we didn’t. Then he recited it really slowly: “Kateri Tekakwitha spent most of her time in PEE.” And he sniggered some more. Mother and I giggled too.
But once we were laughing, Father abruptly stopped and turned his joke against me. “You better watch it, missy, that you don’t start the class cackling about this tomorrow.” And with sudden annoyance he dismissed me to the kitchen, as if I’d been guilty of all he’d been imagining. I tried not to cry as I did the rest of my homework, tried not to hate myself for my disease of being a girl, tried not to think how love, like Kateri’s scars, could just vanish. When the Beatles switched to “Hello Goodbye,” I sensed that they were the only people on this earth who understood the pain Father could inflict on me.
Then, in the cold winter of 1968, Father put new rules into place. “She requires discipline. Those test scores won’t last without hard work,” he proclaimed. “Someone in this house has to look after her mind,” and it was understood only he was up to the task. I was momentarily buoyant at what sounded like a possible entry into the world of “Daddy’s girl.”
Though soon enough I discovered the dizzying, insurmountable problems that existed in Father’s plan. He’d devised a two-part, directly-after-dinner schedule whereby he’d first review all my homework in every subject and then come up with questions on his own to test me. The rigors of this review, according to Father, would ensure that my performance was “always the best in the class.” But it was already, as Sister had explained. And it was without any help from Father. While I possessed no words or capacity to challenge him, the idea of his reviewing my work made me feel uncomfortable, intruded upon in some disturbing way.
In addition to feeling slightly creeped out by the review in general, there was another, more immediate difficulty. Father didn’t—couldn’t!—know what we’d done in school each day, yet neither I nor Mother was allowed to acknowledge there could possibly be something Father might not understand. So having nothing to do with homework mastery, I discovered that I needed to quickly devise stories that would surreptitiously instruct Father in our daily lessons. The weirder the stories were, the better, so they distracted him from what I was actually doing.
Nuns pitched erasers at naughty boys. Sisters tripped on their habits. Fire drills occurred at inopportune moments. Gary smelled of corned beef and cabbage, as usual. Father took a perverse delight in silly stories, particularly about children of parents he looked down on, anything to disguise that I was explaining Baltimore Catechism questions 20 to 25. So Tommy fell out of his chair and Marybeth threw up at exactly the instant I laid out my Catechism book with the binding broken to hold the page open (sort of sinful to break binding but a necessity). Then Father, as I’d suspected he might, feigned total recall. He read questions 20 to 25 as if simply reciting them from memory.
Even though I normally would never lie, especially to my parents, all this duplicity—on his part as well as mine—for a while seemed worth it if Father might just love me. But the Beatles refused to sing “Love Me Do.” As deceptions multiplied and reviews taught me nothing about schoolwork, it all began to drag me down. Genius girl was acting increasingly mindless. I was becoming less and less me. Was Father’s love worth it on these terms if I felt myself evaporating with every joke?
As my homework assignments grew more complicated, agonizingly imbecilic stories became tougher to invent if they were to guarantee that Father both understood the actual homework tasks and still thought I was loveable and interesting. “And then Sister’s chalk broke when she pounded too hard on the blackboard at the subtraction symbol when Bobby Pease added the numbers instead of subtracting them. Boys!” I’d say with pretend annoyance. Though Father wanted a son, why did he enjoy it so when I spoke disparagingly of boys? And how did I intuit that he would?
Every night, without fail, after I’d tried so hard to please and cajole and win him over, to be the girl he’d laugh with even if I couldn’t be the boy he’d wanted, Father would check my homework, quiz me, and find me wanting. My work was riddled with alleged spelling errors. My memory deficient. My handwriting illegible. My mind slow. My answers too detailed or too superficial. Eventually he reached a point of such despair, head shaking in disgust, he wondered at length how I’d ever succeeded in national testing, hoodwinking the nuns, pridefully conning everyone—ah, everyone but him!—into thinking I was something I was not. Something that may not even have existed: an intelligent girl.
I began to wonder why I bothered persisting in the whole charade. George sang “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” to reassure me that there was so much more to life than Father, who was only teaching me how to close in upon myself. He understood how Father had me under his thumb but promised that my problems with Father would soon cease. Still, one night when I felt particularly broken-hearted by him, I screamed at George that maybe I was the problem.
I stared at the bottle of Librium on the kitchen table and asked George if I should take those pills, give up, and just accept that Father’s love was gone. If it was ever really there in the first place. George looked a little nervous and decided things were bad enough that I needed all the Beatles. So there they were—John, Paul, Ringo—all set up with George in my bedroom, singing “Tomorrow Never Knows,” telling me to choose life, not death, and to be sure I chose a really great life, filled with joy and bliss and depth and significance. And to remember to embrace everyone. Well, maybe everyone except Father.
I never got to go to a Beatles concert, but a few years later, just in time for Agnes’s thirteenth birthday, there was a huge, six-hour event in the Arts Cinema where they showed extracts from Hard Day’s Night, Yellow Submarine, and Help! interwoven with footage from every different concert, The Ed Sullivan Show, Top of the Pops, and newsreels of girls screaming and fainting, traffic stopping, and cameras flashing. My favorite parts were when they did whole songs, not just cuts, where we could see all the Beatles singing and playing their hearts out. While Lucy, Anne, and of course the birthday girl, Agnes, danced in the aisles as if the Beatles were right there and we were those girls with bouffant hairdos seeing them for the first time, I sat still, just letting the loud music bang against my chest and enter it, filling me with the hope and the faith and all the love the Fab Four had been giving me for all those years.
I sobbed during George’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” remembering when he helped me understand I wasn’t the problem. That the real problem was my wanting Father’s love and approval when he simply wasn’t a person who possessed love to give. Maybe he wouldn’t have even been able to love a son. As one song played after another, I realized how the Beatles had given me words and ways of thinking I couldn’t have worked out on my own, at least not at that age, no matter how smart I was. They’d helped me choose life and made me believe it could be good, great even. And staring at all four of them singing on the screen, I had to admit it was, as their song said, “Getting Better.” Yes, it was. I stood up and danced with my friends, and together we sang out every word of “Getting Better.” Then every word of “Let It Be.” And though our voices were kind of crap, you couldn’t really hear them with all the singing and screaming. And our rhythm was perfect.
As everyone poured out of the Cinema, a wall of girls compared their favorite songs, the best footage, which Beatle they were in love with most. I stepped away from the crowd to quietly give praise to and thank the Beatles for having songs that had spoken to me personally for so long. I also told George that he was off the hook about the marriage proposal.
Kathleen Zamboni McCormick has been published in Green Hills Literary Lantern, South Carolina Review, Witness, phoebe, Kestrel, Superstition Review, Italian Americana, Northwest Review, Willow Review, Zone 3, Paterson Literary Review, and many others. I have received numerous awards for my writing, including the 2016 Foreword Reviews Gold Medal in Humor, for my novel Dodging Satan. I have participated in many writing conferences and served as keynote speaker at a number of meetings, including the 2009 International Conference on Reading and Writing in Malmö, Sweden, and the 2015 University of Florida Writing Program Conference.