When I was young—too hopscotch-young to have noticed exactly when—my grandmother made a vow of silence. Growing up, I gave little thought to her muteness. I expected her not to speak, and she did not. When we went out to shop in Journal Square, I knew that neighbors and store clerks would direct their cheery remarks to me, and they did. In our apartment, as she cooked or washed dishes or ironed her uniform, she was in the habit of tapping her foot to the songs on the radio, and I was in the habit of telling her what she was thinking. “Grandma, you like Frank Sinatra because he’s a Jersey City boy.” She would smile and nod. “Grandma, you like Patti Page because we got my dog from a shop with big windows.”

She was forced to break her vow only three times. Twice by people who were in a rush and had no patience for scribbled answers: a nurse about to administer a vaccination, and a census taker standing at our apartment door. Both demanded she tell them my full legal name.

In order to answer, my grandmother’s voice had to rip itself from the soft pink silence of her throat. She’s Kathleen Doyle. What followed was the sharp intake of her breath. Like the reverse of a spoken word.

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