Deconstructing Harriet This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.


   Onthe second night of Rosh Hashanah, I journey to Staten Island to begin the NewYear with the family of my girlfriend, Meri. I know four of the two dozen guests,and despite the congeniality of my hosts and confidence in my own social skillsand maturity, I find myself afraid, when offered mushroom barley soup, to admitthat I do not like mushrooms.

I sit swallowing repeatedly in a vain effortto remove the mushroom taste from my mouth. Cousins and sisters and secondhusbands mill about the mahogany table in the cramped dining room, maneuveringbetween walls and chairs. Uncle Jack's Sprite tips over onto Cousin Rita, and heoffers to get her a fresh one while refilling his. He steps through the doorwayto the "bar" - some soda bottles and a bucket of ice on the kitchencounter - and bumps into Aunt Seelie and Cousin Jason and Grandma Martha as theyshuffle between the open refrigerator door and the open oven door, knocking overthree loosely capped soda bottles en route. Jack's English Sheepdog, Max, is theonly winner: He laps up the spilled drinks.

We sit crowded, eleven of usaround a six-person table, and I wonder whether I should give up one of the fewnon-folding chairs to an actual family member. Jack's wife, Aunt Dana, tells meto make myself comfortable, and I exhale into my empty soup bowl. Meri offers toget me a drink, and, rising, inadvertently reveals the energetic young woman of70 who is sitting at the end of the table staring directly at me. Harrietspeaks.

"So! Steve," she says. I look hopefully over myshoulder. "Who are you?"

I've never seen this woman before, butshe apparently knows me, even if she is a few letters off on myname.

"Well, it's Dave, actually ..."

"Dave, Steve,Dave, Steve ... who are you?"

"I'm Dave, Meri's boyfriend,"I manage, and defensively raise my cup to hide my lips, as if the translucentblue plastic will protect me from further interrogation.

"Oh,really," she says, and seems to soften. "I see." I exhale again,relieved, but then she rises on her elbows to peer over my shield. "So, whoare you?"

"Excuse me?"

She throws her head back andbegins to laugh, revealing a wide, white grin. I am not sure whether to laughwith her or sink lower into my seat. It occurs to me that anyone who has heldonto a smile like that for 70 years is not your average old lady, though it doesnot occur to me that she might be related to one of the many dentists inattendance. I continue to hide.

Meri returns shortly with my drink, andover the next several minutes, during every lapse in conversation, fills me in inwhispers. Despite the obvious error in my logic, I assume that Harriet's thickglasses are a signal that all her senses are failing, and since she has no otherapparent weakness, it must be her hearing.

Meri doesn't know everything -her relationship to the lady, for instance - but she informs me that this womanhas been to Tibet and Thailand and the Tigris, to Colombia and Croatia and theCongo. She lives in Greenwich Village and attends the theater every Wednesday,and so I am slightly embarrassed when I admit that I am a high school senior fromLong Island. She asks if I have ever been to Staten Island before - as if askingif I had ever climbed Everest. She shatters my assumption that, after herinternational escapades, she would look down on the fifth borough. Nevertheless,I can only claim to have passed through on the way to New Jersey andPennsylvania. She tells me that she raised her children here, as if looking downHimalayan slopes at my sea-level Long Island childhood, and I am convinced thatshe does not like me.

But she opens up to me, telling me of the son shesent to California to tour colleges, who instead wound up touring with theGrateful Dead. We discuss parent-child relationships: the degree to whichchildren must be open with their parents, and what constitutes lying. We debatethe ethics of parents' removal of children from school for vacation. Eventually Igather up the courage to suggest that I, as a senior, can afford to miss anoccasional day of school.

"No!" she exclaims. "No youcan't! Not even one!"

Unsure whether to laugh or crumble at thisespecially impassioned outburst, I retain my composure and say, "Well, I'verealized, actually, that I really don't miss too much in any given day of school.A couple of classes may have important notes that I need to get, but I can alwayscopy someone else's, and I can make up the home-"

"No! Youcannot miss school! You cannot!"

So, I'm afraid of her. Sowhat?

The conversation progresses and we wind our way, as all myconversations have lately, to college. Unlike those, though, she does not beginby asking my interests or my first choice school, but instead jumps directly intothe essay question.

"So, Steve," she begins, and I do notcorrect her, "what have you done that makes you different?"

Isit silently, contorting my look of surprise into something like a smile. She hascaught me completely off guard - again. With early applications due in less thana month, I am suddenly confronted with the fact that I have not begun to writeany of the necessary essays. As much as I would have loved to be finished withapplications by mid-December, I realize that I have not even chosen a school towhich I would like to apply. I am forced to produce some sound bite that woulddescribe my cumulative efforts over the past four years. And so my mind races.What have I done, anyway?

"A lot, actually," I stammer. "Ikind of think of myself as unique, I think there's a lot that separates me fromeveryone else."

"Oh, yeah?" she says, peering over herthick glasses. "Like what?"

"I'm one of twoeditors-in-chief for my newspaper." She is not impressed.

"Iworked for three months in retail." She sighs.

"I write for mylocal newspaper" produces only a look that says, "What else yagot?"

I begin to get angry. For the rest of the evening I restrainmyself from asking, Who is this woman, and is she actually related to anyonehere? More than that, who is she to dismiss my hard work and belittle myefforts?

I am thankful that my involvement and interest in theatersuccessfully diverts her attention and opens the conversation to the rest of thetable.

"You know, I love the theater, too, Harriet," Rita speaksup.

"Oh, yeah?" Harriet says. "I didn't know that. Whathave you seen lately?" She is much nicer to Rita, and I'm a bitinsulted.

"Well, I just took the boys to see 'Miss Saigon,' and wewere really very imp-"

She doesn't get a chance to finish, becauseHarriet collapses onto the table with a heavy sigh of disgust. As she does so,her elbow swings out and knocks another cup of soda into Rita's lap. Rita forcesa polite smile and again excuses herself. Harriet stifles a laugh and looks overat me. I realize it is not congeniality but condescension she showed to Rita. Shehas been treating me as an equal.

Shortly after midnight, I get home andbegin to go through the resumé I've been developing. On my computer, it'salmost five pages, and lists every club I've ever attended. How much of it,though, is really worthwhile? How much of it counts? Perhaps the greatest gauge:how much is worth mentioning in a conversation with a well-traveled woman likeHarriet?

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation is asking me to fill asmall box with a list of all my activities and awards. As I read and reread myresumé to decide which ones deserve a spot in the box, I realize again howvery few are actually worthy of mention.

I know I've worked hard, and I'vebeen committed to a lot of activities, but down the road, how many of themchanged who I am? How many helped me mature? How many pushed me forward? How manywere of use to others? The more important question, then, is which ones impressme?

And I can't help but wonder - which of these many effort and endeavorswould impress Harriet?

And do I really care?




This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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