By GWEN OREL
Not for Nothing
Reading with Kathy Curto
As part of Halfway There Reading Series, also including Steph Auteri, Jennifer Baker, Crystal Hana Kim
In one way, Kathy Curto has been working on “Not for Nothing: Glimpses into a Jersey Childhood” since she wrote her first glimpse, “Mary Janes,” back in 2005.
But in another way, one could say she’s been working on it her whole life.
A prompt (a writing suggestIon) in a workshop sparked it, Curto said, over breakfast at Red Eye Café last week.
The prompt was to write about earliest memories. That led to the image of her dancing at her father’s garage, and the song “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” by B.J. Thomas.
“I didn’t know I was starting a book,” she said. “But I felt like I tapped into something.”
The book is a series of related vignettes, glimpses, of growing up in an Italian-American family in Southern New Jersey.
They are written in the point of view of the child she was, with as much and no more insight into what was actually happening with the adults than she had at the time.
For anyone who’s ever struggled to reconcile happy and unsettling childhood memories, the book will feel familiar, whether or not you grew up in the 1970s, or in Southern New Jersey.
Her father had a violent temper, and at one point the family moves out. Yet in other memories, Kathy goes to the supermarket with him, or witnesses how patient he is playing checkers with a mentally impaired child.
Family is complicated.
This is the first book for Curto, who now teaches writing at Montclair State University and at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. Her pieces have been published in The New York Times, The Asbury Park Press, VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, and others, as well as in the collection “Listen to Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now.”
That she recalled a song in that first memory is not surprising: to the point where Curto has even created a Spotify playlist to accompany the book. It includes Helen Reddy, Dean Martin, Cher, Englebert Humperdinck, and of course, Bruce Springsteen.
One of the reasons she took so long to finish the book was that she was raising children, publishing short pieces along the way, working as a social worker, then working as a teacher. As she raised her own children, her own memories of childhood at that age “created an energy, that did bring me to the page,” she said.
As the youngest of four, she experienced some of the events very differently from her older siblings.
Both of her parents are deceased, but she shared chapters and then the final manuscript with her siblings prior to publication.
“I sent it to them not to say, ‘let me know what is a problem and we’ll fix it,’ but more to say ‘this is the way I’ve pulled this together now, this is a tiny piece of my story. How do you feel about this?’” she said. It was a way of opening conversations.
Her siblings and nieces and nephews came to a reading that took place at an open mic night in her hometown, Toms River. “It offered an opportunity to think about why it’s important to tell a story,” she said.
Writing the book, she learned about her family too, and how love and fear are connected. “Fear often sometimes because you’re afraid of losing somebody. I’ve thought about that a lot. My father, for a period of time it was his way or no way. He seemingly had no problem pushing people away. But I’ve come to realize, maybe because he’s no longer here, or because I’m learning through my experience as a parent, sometimes when we’re afraid, we do things that aren’t very pretty. When we’re afraid of losing people, sometimes our reactions are the opposite of what they really should be.”
She created some composite characters, but otherwise changed little. Her siblings sometimes didn’t remember something at all, or remembered something that happened as being even worse than the way she wrote it, she said.
The book is published by Bordighera Press, which publishes Italian-American writing. The Italian-Americanness comes through in some of the language, some of the references, she said. Curto teaches a workshop in Italy in the summer, and while Italian culture is different from Italian-American culture, there are things she recognizes instantly. Just as music brings her back to her childhood, Italy with its mix of familiarity and difference causes her to reflect.
“The smells,” she said with a smile. When she opened the door to the apartment rented for her she recognized it instantly: the starchy smell of pasta water. “It’s a very distinct smell. I recognized it instantly.”
All the lovey-dovey stuff that went on when we first moved here to 21st Street from the apartment, that’s over. My mother is back to telling my father Simmer down! All the time and my father is back to telling her You can go kiss my ass! And to all of us he just says, Yous are all alike. Or he says, Yous are all Celebres which makes no sense since Celebre is my mother’s family name and we’re not allowed to see them anyway. Forget the shrimp marinara, the Shirley Temples and The Causeway. Now we’re just back to messes and preparing ourselves all the time.