Authors: Liz Pryor
In 1979, Liz Pryor, a good girl from a privileged Chicago family, discovered that she was pregnant. At only 17 years old, her parents were determined to keep this shameful event secret from everyone, even her siblings. One snowy January day, after driving across three states, her mother dropped her off at what Liz believed was a Catholic home for unwed mothers, but was in fact a locked state facility for delinquent pregnant girls.
Over the next six months, alone and isolated from everyone she knew, Liz developed a surprising bond of friendship with the other girls, which led her to question everything she once held true. Told with tenderness, humour and candour,
Look at You Now
is a deeply moving coming-of-age story that pays tribute to the triumph of the human spirit in times of adversity, and the transcendent power of friendship in the toughest of times.
To Peter, thank you for convincing me to be brave
No legacy is so rich as honesty.
his work is a memoir. It reflects my experiences and memories as accurately as possible. Aside from references to members of my family, names, locations, and identifying details have been changed, and some individuals portrayed are composites. For narrative purposes, the timeline of certain events has been altered or compressed.
look at you now
y mom hadn't uttered a single word in the two hours we'd been driving. Clearly, nothing in the world feels as quiet as the silence of a mother. There were no other cars on the Indiana interstate that day. Snow was pouring out of the sky and the road was slick. I thought about offering to drive but when I looked over, I dared not speak.
It was early January 1979. “Baby, I Love Your Way” was playing on the car radio. I had just turned seventeen and was a very young senior in high school. Young, not because I was smart and skipped a grade, but probably because my parents wanted to get me off to kindergarten as soon as possible. There were a lot of kids in our house: I was born number five out of seven children in nine years. My brothers were the oldest and then came the five girls. Our mom called us her army and sometimes her crowd, and maybe most fitting, her herd. Being a part of an army, crowd, herd, had great value as a little kid. There's a sort of mob identity thing that goes on in big families, a free pass that you can take advantage of.
Other parents, older siblings, neighbors, teachers, coaches,
, give a nod when you're one of so many. A nod that says, “Oh yeah, you're okay, you're one of them.” It's like having a little something extra inside that reminds you you belong somewhere in the world, and it never goes away. I'd grown up my whole life knowing I was loved. Knowing I would always have a place I belonged.
I didn't think much about the way we grew up; it was just my life, and up to that point almost all of it had been spent in our hometown of Winnetka, Illinois, a small community thirty minutes north of Chicago, perched like a Norman Rockwell painting on the edge of Lake Michigan. We lived in a gigantic house with three stories, eleven bedrooms, four fireplaces, and a killer basement. In the winters we made snow forts in our backyard, and our tree-lined driveway covered with snow looked like a fairy-tale wonderland. But the best thing about that great house was how perfectly it fit our army of family: seven kids and two parents.
My dad grew up the son of a naval captain and went to boarding school in Connecticut before heading off to college. He worked for IBM after graduation, and then came the Pryor Corporation, a business he started on his own in our garage before I was born. Our mom, well, she was the president of
. She did everything that had anything to do with the seven of us and our home. She drove, fed, nursed, looked after, scolded, praised, and kept the ship running, every day. Our mom spent her entire life within the protected walls of the North Shore. Her parents still lived just a mile or two away from us. After Catholic high school, she went down the street to college at Northwestern University, where she majored in theater and starred in most of their musical theater productions. She met and fell in love with my dad at Northwestern and married him soon after graduation. They settled in the area, and quickly we kids arrived, one after another.
Northwestern University was a beautiful sight. Every time we drove past the ivy-covered brick buildings, set back on the edge of Lake Michigan, our mom pointed out the sorority where she'd
lived and the fraternity where my dad had lived. I'd watch the college kids walking with their backpacks, holding hands and being young, and found it near impossible to imagine that could ever have been our mom and dadâthat they could have ever been young, ever been anything other than our parents.
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We finally pulled off the interstate to get gas. It was late morning, the sky was dark, and the snow still hadn't let up. My mom uttered her first words in hours.
“Are you hungry?”
“No, thank you, Mom.”
She stepped out of the car and closed the door hard. I leaned over to change the radio station. Frank Sinatra came on singing, “I've got a crush on you.” This was the music my mom loved and had been singing my whole life. My grandfather, her dad, was our mother's most cherished confidant. We called him Papa and he was the quietest, kindest man I'd ever know. He and my aunt and my mom sang and played music in our living room after family dinners sometimes. I'd hide behind the drapes, when we were all supposed to be sleeping, and watch my grandfather play the tiple; it sang straight through my heart the first time I heard it. It had ten strings and looked like a baby guitar. As Papa played, my mother would sit on the couch, her big brown eyes wide and alive. She'd tap her high heel on the living room carpet, stand up, arms stretched in the air like she was talking to God, and belt with a voice that thundered through the house. Her beautiful face lit up the room, but it was her verve that was so impossible to ignore.
On one of those nights when I was about six years old, I found the courage to come out of the drapes and ask my grandfather if he would teach me to play that tiple. He answered with a bent little smile, “No, this is a useless instrument. It won't exist by the time you grow up. You need to learn to play the guitar.”
“Okay, where's a guitar?”
“We don't have one, and you're too young, Liz. I'll teach you when you're eight or nine.”
What? That was a hundred years away. I committed the rest of that year to campaigning for a guitar, declaring on a daily basis that I could not live without it. I put notes all over the house; in drawers, in the fridge, in the bathrooms, in their cars. All of them read, Please, please, please get Liz a guitar, any guitar will do! And then the following Christmas, under the tree, like magic, there sat a guitar bigger than me with a note that read, Here you go, Love, Papa.
The guitar became like an appendage. It gave me the greatest access to myself I would ever discover. It was like finding a key to the place inside that could help me understand what mattered most in life. The music helped me through and around the things that lived inside me. Once I began, I didn't stop. I wrote, played, and sang for everyone and anyone who would listen. And ultimately, I got a seat with the grown-ups in our living room. Singing along just like my mom did.
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I watched as my mom crunched her way back through the snow and ice from inside the gas station, carrying a small bag and a cup of coffee. Our mom didn't go anywhere without her high heels. She had heels for every occasion. On that day, she wore her three-inch-heeled, fur-lined, zip-up black leather boots. She navigated the winter ground like a seasoned professionalâa lifetime of Chicago winters gave her the practice. She handed me a small carton of milk and a travel box of Ritz crackers. She carefully placed her hot coffee on the floor and then leaned over and flipped off the radio. I knew things were bad, I mean radically bad; that was the first time she'd ever, ever turned off Frank Sinatra.
She made her way back on to the toll road. The quiet was killing me. I wasn't used to
kind of quiet. My mom had been a consummate communicator my entire life; you always knew where
you stood because she couldn't stop herself from telling you how she felt. I watched the sad, beaten-looking farmhouses outside the car window along the interstate. I watched the cold-looking farmers and their kids bundled up, walking in the fields. For the first time in my life it dawned on me how lucky I was. How incredibly fortunate our family was. We were the people who didn't need or want for things. I had an extraordinary life. I was watching the snow fall in sheets onto the farmhouses when I noticed a little boy riding a snowplow with his dad. I thought back to the time my dad first taught me to ski. I was a tiny kid. We were in Aspen, Colorado, just after Christmas on a perfect, crisp, sunny day. I was gliding along the snow in my new red skis, between my dad's legs. I remember hanging on to his knees for dear life, trying not to fall, listening over and over again to his strong, knowing voice, “Bend your knees, Lizzie, and lean forward.” With my dad around, I felt like I could do anything. I glanced over at Dorothy, driving in silence, and realized, life wasn't mostly a struggle for our family; it was mostly a ride, a really good ride, actually. But that day in the car, life was doing what it does: It was changing, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I wanted all of this to be a horrible dream. I prayed for that, but I kept opening my eyes to find myself still sitting in the passenger seat as Indiana passed us by.
The seat was uncomfortable. I reached over to move something nudging me in the sideâmy mother's black patent leather purse. She'd had it ever since I could remember. It was packed full to the brim. Her initials,
, were monogrammed in shiny gold thread on the outside flap. Dorothy Bennigsen Pryor. No one said her first name quite like our mom. It was as though there were three syllables when she said it, and only two when anyone else said it. “Dorr-o-tthy,” she'd say, long and slow. She said a lot of words long and slow. Her hello, particularly on the phone, was the longest hello in the history of the world. “Hhhheeeellllooooo?”
She insisted that I answer the phone, “Hello, Pryor residence, this is Liz speaking.” It's just good manners, she'd say, but I couldn't
do it. I usually answered with a benign “Hello?” Dorothy would quickly correct me. “Lizzie, do you realize, when you say hello you sound as though you are grunting, or ill? That sound you make isn't a word; the person on the other end couldn't possibly understand you. The word is pronounced
; say it as it is supposed to be said, please.” This was the stuff that moved her. I never tested it, but I'd guess using the word
would have elicited less conflict with our mother than ending a sentence with a preposition, or using a word incorrectly, or failing to enunciate the “beaaauuuuttiifffuulll” words of the English language. Dorothy didn't just have certain rules or thoughts about life. She
them, passionately, and acted as though we couldn't exist without truly understanding and living them ourselves. She was unlike any other mother I'd ever met, and everyone noticed. It wasn't just her curiously dramatic manner and expression. It was the fact that you could feel when she spoke how much she believed what she was saying. That was the powerful part. There was a sense of plea behind everything she said. A plea you couldn't ignore, because her belief was so potent. Find the good in people; go to church; laugh; be kind; read books; say thank you; look your best; kill them with kindness; you only have
shot to make your first impressionâthose were the front-running lessons in our mom's book on life. But none of them were expressed or taught in the usual way. Everything came at us in a
way, a way that forced itself inside and became a part of us forever.
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The heat in the car was blasting hard, but Dorothy was always cold, and I wasn't about to ask to turn it down. I leaned my cheek against the glass window. Indiana looked like a winter paradise outside now, white and gray and strangely beautiful. The silence in the car was intermittently broken by the clanking sound of my mom's forgotten coffee mugs rolling beneath our seats. I leaned over and looked underneath the seat. Everything in the car reminded me of
what I was about to leave behind: my life, my mother, my family, our home, my friends; everything that made me feel like me. The worn, musty carpet smell brought back all the times I'd hidden on that same car floor many, many years earlier.
“If a policeman comes, smile and tell him your mom will be right back.”
“Mom, no, we can't park here.”
“Mom, you have to find a spot like everyone else.”
“Mom, come back!”
Inevitably a policeman would approach the car
“Hello, kids. Wow, how many of you are there?”
“Our mom will be right back.”
“Okay, but where is she?”
“She'll be right back.”
“Well, she can't park in the middle of the street and leave you kids in the car.”
“We told her that.”
“Is that a real gun?”
Every time a policeman came to the window of our car while our mom was double-parked doing errands, I'd grab my stuffed dog Henry. My aunt Bev had sent me Henry for Christmas when I was seven years old. The instant I saw Henry, I loved him. I'd dive to the floor, Henry under my arm, and hide. I'd cover myself with my coat, hoping to look like a blob on a messy car floor instead of a kid with a stuffed dog. But mostly I wondered if they put little kids in jail for being left in a car without a mom. I was glad I threw Henry in the side of my suitcase that morning. He'd been everywhere with me since I could remember. Maybe he would help remind me of all the things I would need to remember.
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I glanced over at my mom and cleared my throat. “Could we pull over so I can use the restroom, Mom?”
She lifted her eyebrows, but didn't say a word. We pulled over a few minutes later. The roadside diner we found was called the Roadside Diner. I wanted to laughâit was something Dorothy would think was funny and stupidâbut that wasn't going to happen. Not today. I hopped out and ran to the restroom. As I made my way back to the car, I could feel my mom watching me. As soon as I got in, she turned the car around and pulled up next to a funky-looking man standing by a truck. She rolled down her window and asked, “Sir, how much longer until the Greenfield exit?”
My mother had a very strange habit of arbitrarily acquiring a mid-Atlantic accent that somehow sounded British, in the same way Katharine Hepburn did. It drove us all batty. It was so completely randomâyou never knew when it would emerge. Really? You're from Chicago, and two seconds ago you sounded like you're from Chicago, but now suddenly you're Katharine Hepburn?
The trucker guy responded, confused, “What?”
She lost the Katharine Hepburn accent and said, “Forget it!”