Julia MacDonnell’s fiction has been published in many literary magazines, and her story “Soy Paco” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her journalism has appeared in The Boston Globe, the New York Daily News, and the Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. A tenured professor at Rowan University, she is the nonfiction editor of Philadelphia Stories. Mimi Malloy, At Last! is her first novel in twenty years. It serves as a a poignant reminder that it’s never too late to fall in love and that one can always come of age a second time.
My childhood was an immersion course in the lives of girls and women. I grew up with eleven aunts and twenty-five girl cousins, all living within a hop, skip, or a jump of one another on the South Shore of Boston. I also had a paternal grandmother and a maternal great-grandmother close by. Sure, I had an uncle for almost every aunt, as well as a paternal grandfather and a bunch of rowdy boy cousins, but it was the women who schooled me, and their teaching tool was the Yik Yak Club: its members, the curators of their family’s oral history.
Not that I had a name for it back when I was a kid, sneaking around to eavesdrop on Ma and my aunts as they gathered at our kitchen table, drinking cup after cup of percolated Eight O’Clock coffee. The name came to me when I was writing my second novel, Mimi Malloy, At Last!. The narrator, Mimi, has no use for ancient history, declaring early on, “I’m not one to dwell on the past.” By contrast, my mother, Norma, loved nothing better than a good gab session with her sisters and sisters-in-law. She’d be the one to call the meetings, almost always around our kitchen table. A cirrostratus of cigarette smoke would signal that a gab fest was in session. Worried about their figures, these women smoked instead of snacking, Ma cadging butts from her sisters because she’d never dare light up in front of my father.
What could be so riveting, I wondered as a child, that it transformed these women from familiar aunts and mothers into luminous creatures whose voices, laughter and, at times, sobs floated around on smoky air?
Only while I was writing Mimi did I figure out the answer. I figured out that the Yik Yak Club was a place of comfort and support for its members, a place where they could confide in each other, sharing words they couldn’t say to anybody else. Yes, serious family business was sometimes negotiated and resolved during its sessions, but the most important thing seemed to be that they were together, a small, bright gathering of women, mothers in their twenties and thirties — in my mind’s eye, all of them are beautiful — their cheeks flushed, their eyes bright. These weren’t women with time on their hands, but women who squeezed out of the endless hours of mothering and housewifery a bit of time to be together.
The post-World War II years, the 50s and 60s, are portrayed as decades of oppression when women stuck at home in subservient roles, an epoch before our collective consciousness had been raised. In my family, most women had worked at the Fore River Shipyard during the War. Their subsequent ability to stay home and raise their children was experienced as a gift. As little as they had, they gloried in their homes and families, and in their role in making the arduous ascent from the working to the middle class. I’m convinced that the Yik Yak Club eased their way, giving them not just a forum for venting, though that mattered, but a place for listening, which they did in awe and wonder, each of them shaping herself into who she would become. The Yik Yak Club I witnessed growing up was the school in which I learned about the perils and joys of mothering, sistering, wifing, and housekeeping; where I absorbed my most important lessons about how to be a woman alive in the world.