An Interview with Kathy Curto
Author of NOT FOR NOTHING: Glimpses Into a Jersey Girlhood
There are some pretty personal insights in the pages of Not For Nothing. Did you seek your siblings’ permission to tell some of these stories? Did you feel you needed their approval before publishing the book?
A few days after Bordighera Press contacted me to say they wanted to publish my collection, I sent the manuscript, along with a letter, to my sisters and my brother. It was my hope that they’d read it and then we’d have some time to digest any pieces that warranted more discussion. I wasn’t really asking for approval but more for open dialogue and a chance to recollect together. And we’ve done that. And we’ve laughed and cried a lot, too. I do think that step has opened some doors that may have been closed a little too tight. Family dynamics are ever-changing and filled with lots of idiosyncrasies, aren’t they? And sometimes we’re all not ready at the same time for doors to open. But, at least for me, what matters is that we hold the door or carry the person we love through it or just stand on the other side when and if it closes again and wait for the knock when it comes. And sure, there’s always the option of kicking the door down. Patience. Forgiveness. Acceptance. A nice trifecta but one that takes lots of hard work.
Do you think you could’ve written and published this book while your parents were still alive?
I can’t really answer that definitively, but I can say that if they were alive my life would be very different. So, if I did write this book or any other one and they were still here with us, that would be different, too. Losing my mother, quite suddenly back in 1998, rocked my whole world. I remember thinking at the time: Everything is different now. Everything. Like the plates of the Earth shifting. And then when my dad passed away a few years after that, the change intensified because it was weird feeling like I was nobody’s child anymore. And my husband and I were raising small kids at the time so that magnified everything, too. That said, these recollections, these glimpses, offered a chance to go back and see my parents, to hear them and touch them. The memories are not always pretty pictures but sometimes they are and, either way, they were with me the whole time I wrote the book. And still are.
As you set out to work on this book, did you end up remembering more than you thought you might about your childhood? Did additional memories make themselves known the more you reflected on your past?
Absolutely. And getting a little more in touch with the senses helped with this.
Your dad was a classic blue-collar guy who owned a local gas station and body shop. How did the work he did for a living shape your life and perceptions?
I think a lot about what the “color of one’s collar” means on a macro and micro level—in society and in our personal lives. Growing up blue-collar definitely influenced my values and my approach to things. But I also think this question poses another one, too: How do we define blue-collar anymore? What does it mean? I also think this writing has made me consider the great value of undervalued work, particularly when the work is dirty in nature. And the stigma attached to it sometimes.
How did your parents’ stormy marriage shape your consciousness as a child?
It’s made me consider the significance of self-awareness, forgiveness, change, and the fact that sometimes in life, no matter how hard we may try to look for logic in circumstances and relationships, what rises to the surface is confusion and love. But, at least for me and on the good days, mostly love.
Did writing about your brother’s addiction help you come to terms with that experience? How did it influence you in your formative years?
It still does. I don’t mean that to suggest that I’m deserving of or expecting any pity or allowances because of it. And I didn’t write the book to confess this part of our family life. My brother is in recovery and has been for many years. We talk openly about this. In different ways, every day, he and my sisters still teach me about life, perseverance and faith. And again, the pictures are not always pretty, but they are real.
Why did you choose to write these essays from the point of view of yourself as a child rather than as your adult self, looking back?
It’s just what felt right. I tried other ways but always landed back there, to that voice and the present tense. I wanted the feel of the book to be immediate. Also, having children of my own did influence this. I recall thinking when they were little, “I remember being the age they are right now.” And that prompted a creative impulse. It prompted memory.
Music is mentioned quite a bit in this book and you’ve even developed your own playlist to accompany Not For Nothing. How has music affected your worldview and informed your memories?
In writing the book, I was reminded, in the fiercest of ways, how strong the senses are and also how strong of a hold music has on me, on my memories and on my everyday life. I include songs in the stories because they were part of the texture of those remembered glimpses. And working on the playlist was fun, emotional and just a wild, wild ride. I drive a lot and cars are part of my personal history. So, music and motion…these things are in my bones. Music is a big part of my family life now, too. My husband and my children are music lovers, too, and there’s almost always background music playing in our home or on our back patio when it’s nice outside. Food and music. Music and food.
The question “who do you think you are” is a thread in this book. Do you feel you’ve come around to an answer of sorts over the course of your life and through writing this book?
Some days the answer is crystal clear and other days it’s not. It’s funny because I love coming-of-age stories, but I am realizing more and more that we really never stop coming of age. So, maybe it’s not such a bad thing, if we don’t stop asking ourselves some of these bigger questions along the way. Keeps us on our toes, right?
Your mother constantly reminded you and your siblings to “stay together.” How have you honored her request and what has honoring it meant to you over the years?
I suppose we honor it by working hard to make it happen. And staying together may look differently along the way, as we grow older, as families change, and life evolves. It’s not really that complicated, I think staying together is more about what we believe inside of us, rather than knowing we are all sitting around at the same table every week, or month or holiday. (That said, the crazy Italian American Christmas Eve experience is pretty hilarious and wonderful and not to be missed!)
This book is filled with the true characters of all stripes. How much is the Jersey Shore setting a character of its own? How did growing up at the Shore shape your understanding of the world?
I’ll answer with the lyrics of two songs:
I’m from New Jersey
I don’t expect too much
If the world ended today
I would adjust
Tonight I’m gonna take that ride
Across the river to the Jersey side
Talk about leaving the Jersey Shore. How did you come to the decision to move away? How did your big, tightknit family respond to your leaving? Do you go back often? Is it still “home?”
I left NJ in 1986 when I went to college. It was certainly not the norm, but we adjusted. My children also teach me about this now, the hard work and faith of staying close. My heart stretches with each new decision they make, each new place they long to discover. And it’s made me think a lot about when I said my goodbyes in ’86 and how scary that probably was for my parents, even though I was only two hours away. I go back to Jersey all the time and speak to this in the very last section of the book. I guess it’s kind of like what I said before about my parents being with me now, still, just in a different form. I don’t have a Jersey driver’s license anymore, but I’ll tell you a secret: At the end of the summer, after the countless trips to one of my favorite shorelines in the world, I deliberately pass on vacuuming out my car. (My husband is a very patient man!) I just let the sand linger there until it fades out and gets brushed away on its own. That’s home.
Pork roll or Taylor ham?
Hands down, it’s 82.