Donna Martin Graduates


congrats tori!

Photo Credit: Dad


On Monday, my sister Tori graduated from Yale University. My family celebrated her four years of hard academic work, athletic achievement and partying for three days in New Haven.

I joined them one day into the festivities, after having been heartily overserved on Saturday night. I drove to the Yale Class Day ceremony on I-95 in the pouring rain, which is literally my worst nightmare as I’ve become terrified of driving on the highway since I stopped getting behind the wheel regularly. When I finally arrived in New Haven after a three-hour journey – it should have been about ninety minutes – I parked near campus and started on my way to the ceremony, to which I was already late. I asked my brother Aidan where I should meet them. He gave me the wrong location. I ended up walking around a deserted part of the Yale campus in the rain for about 30 minutes – this includes a stop at a cafe to go to the bathroom since I actually was worried that I was going to pee my pants after drinking about a gallon of coffee and a large, blue Gatorade in the car –  before my mom called me to tell me where they were.


100% Incorrect Information

100% Incorrect Information


I joined my mom and my grandma to watch a bunch of graduating seniors in crazy headgear – my sister was wearing a white pillbox hat with plastic flowers all over it – give short(ish) speeches to the crowd. I had missed the first half of the ceremony, including Cory Booker’s speech.  (My family spent the rest of the weekend talking about it. One of my brothers said he would remember it for the rest of his life. Ugh.) I sat for about an hour in the pouring rain, an umbrella hovering just above my head, occasionally glancing to my grandmother on my left, who was wearing three sweaters and a plastic bag over her hair.

Finally, my mom dispatched me to get the car I had driven so that I could drive my grandma back to my sister’s apartment. I met my family there, where everyone gorged themselves on snacks and took naps until it was time to go to my sister’s get-together with her track team at a pizza restaurant called BAR. (I’d been there before and I highly recommend it if you find yourself hanging in New Haven.) Of course, my family was late and we each got like one sliver of pizza.


My grandma, Kay, and me, chilling at BAR

My grandma, Kay, and me, chilling at BAR


Afterward, we went across the street to Geronimo’s, where we enjoyed some food and drink and so many laughs that I was crying at times with our great family friends, the Hudsons, whose daughter Caitlin was graduating along with Tori. The re-telling of the story of how several of our (collective) brothers were swarmed by a hive of bees when we were kids up at our lake house was a highlight, but there were many, many great moments that night.


Flannerys & Hudsons Hanging Together

Flannerys & Hudsons Hanging Together


I drove back to our hotel with my mother, who was liking every Instagram photo ever in the passenger seat. Again, I was terrified while driving on the highway, even more so at that time, because it was dark and rainy and I couldn’t see any of the lines on the road. We got back to the hotel safely though and I slept cozily in a bed with my grandma, who kept me awake most of the night with her snoring.

My alarm went off at 6:30 but I snoozed until 7, when my mom knocked on our door, already full dressed and ready to head back to campus to save seats for the official commencement ceremony. My brothers, my grandma and I all rushed to get ready. About 30 minutes later, we were all packed up and ready to go.


In our seats on Old Campus. Dayton gives the name "Peter" at Starbucks to avoid confusion.

In our seats on Old Campus. Dayton gives the name “Peter” at Starbucks to avoid confusion.


We arrived at Yale’s very muddy Old Campus to sit in the cold and wait for over an hour before the ceremony began. It took the students like one hundred years – really, close to forty-five minutes – to process into the area. We were able to spot Tori on her way in from our seats as her residential college, Morse, was waving foam battle axes in the air. When it was announced that the undergraduates had officially been given their degrees, my sister and her friends shot off confetti cannons, which was maybe my favorite part of the ceremony. Well, other than the announcements of this year’s honorary degrees, as the recipients were super impressive. (Examples: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and very talented writer Edwidge Danticat.)

After that, we went to Morse College for Tori’s diploma ceremony. I obviously misread the program and thought the ceremony was at some church and my family listened to me so we ended up really far from where the ceremony actually was and before we realized I had made a mistake. And then on our way there, two of my brothers fell behind us as they were walking with my grandma, so I stood on a corner to wait for them and ended up waiting for ten minutes before realizing they must have gone another way. It turned out some woman had given my grandma a ride in a wheelchair. Anyway, I got to Morse just before the ceremony started and scarfed down a pain au chocolat while standing under a tree. By then, it was hot and sunny so this ceremony was just as uncomfortable as the other were, but for opposite reasons. We heard some speeches from the master and dean of the college before the diplomas got handed out. Finally, Tori got hers and could move her tassel or whatever!


The Scene at Morse College

The Scene at Morse College


Our whole family took some pictures in the Morse courtyard before we headed to Yorkside Pizza for lunch. Then, we all said goodbye to Tori and headed back to New York! (I am happy to say that, two days later, I think I’ve fully recovered from the weekend except for a mysterious bruise all over my left foot and also, a mysterious series of pulled muscles on the left side of my body.)


All of the Kids Post-Graduation

All of the Kids Post-Graduation


Anyway…CONGRATULATIONS, TORI! I couldn’t be prouder of you.

Team: Look out for my interview with Tori, which I hope to post sometime in the next week. (If she still lets me interview her. She hasn’t answered my email yet.)

On Edge at the Cliffs of Moher


“I can’t wait for you to see the Cliffs of Moher!” my mother shouted at me over the phone. I was at work, a Google document of Irish landmarks I had made open before me on my computer screen.

I had been charged months earlier with the near-Sisyphean task of “planning” our family of eight’s seven-day tour of Ireland in June of 2011. In my initial research phase, I had asked each member of my family to send me a list of things that they would like to see and do while we traveled through the land of our ancestors. The responses I got ranged from “Are there any nude beaches in Ireland? if so we should hit those up” to “If anybody think they seen the leprechaun say YEAH!” to “I was interested in seeing the Giant’s Causeway, but that’s in Northern Ireland. Then I wanted to see Belfast, but that’s also in Northern Ireland.”

The only person who provided any actual input was my mother. She gave me a few of the obvious suggestions: Blarney Castle, the Ring of Kerry, etc. But during the course of our conversations, it became clear that what she really wanted us to see was the Cliffs of Moher. She had been there once before, when she visited Ireland with her mother and her brother. It was one of the most beautiful places she had ever seen. But she made me promise her that I would do one thing when we went there. It was possible, she said, to fall off the Cliffs and I had to promise not to let anyone go over the edge. As the oldest child of six, I’ve been tasked with many responsibilities when it came to my younger siblings. This, however, was the first time one of my parents had asked me to literally make sure that none of my siblings fell off of a cliff.

I carefully planned out the first half of our trip, from Dublin to Cork. The second half, in which we’d drive through County Kerry and up the western coast, was less mapped out, but I had penciled in the Cliffs of Moher for the last day of the trip since it was closest to Galway, where we’d spend our last night. My father and my five siblings became acquainted with this rough itinerary on our first morning in Dublin over a gloomy Irish breakfast in our equally gloomy hotel. (Our accommodations were not my responsibility, but that of a travel agent, and were, for the most part, the sole reason our family will never use a travel agent again.) When it came up that we would visit the Cliffs of Moher during the latter half of the trip, my brother Aidan, who was 11 at the time, asked what they were.

“They’re really big cliffs,” I said. “They were in one of the Harry Potter movies.”

“Which Harry Potter?” he asked. And then, “How big?”

I said I didn’t know and left it at that, mostly because my smartphone was tucked away in my suitcase upstairs. My mom tried to explain their immenseness and their beauty, but Aidan wasn’t buying it. All he wanted to know was exactly how big they were. This was the genesis of a game that I like to call “Bigger or Smaller Than the Cliffs of Moher”.

Our trusty VW Transporter

Our trusty VW Transporter

From that point forward – well, really, after we left Dublin – Aidan asked if  any landmark we encountered – natural or manmade, it didn’t matter – was bigger or smaller than the Cliffs of Moher. Aidan is the youngest, so anything he repeats automatically becomes annoying, until it becomes a point of ridicule, until it becomes a source of glee for the older five of us. As we drove around the Irish countryside in our nine-passenger Volkswagen van and played this little game, we ended up discussing the Cliffs of Moher as much or more than anything else we visited. Who cared about the history of Blarney Castle? All we wanted to talk about was if it was bigger or smaller than the Cliffs of Moher! Sure, the cliffs all around the Dingle Peninsula were beautiful, but wasn’t it hilarious when, as we were taking a family photo with some wild Western Irish scenery in the background, Aidan exclaimed, “It’s like the Cliffs of Moher!” (He said this almost every time we saw any cliff and immediately cracked up at himself.)

Mom and Me at Blarney Castle

Mom and Me at Blarney Castle

And while our anticipation built, our mother’s worry was reaching drastically new heights. (I knew it was bad when we climbed all the way to the top of Blarney Castle and my mother spent the entire, wearisome climb up warning us all to let the guards hold on to us when leaned back to kiss the Blarney Stone, as if they regularly let people refuse their protection and tumble to their deaths. She refused to kiss the Blarney Stone herself.) To my siblings, the only thing more hilarious than Aidan’s fixations is my mother’s anxiety. Every time the Cliffs of Moher came up, she plead with us not to go near the edge when we got there.

“If one of you falls off, it won’t be because I didn’t warn you!” she would cry among the riotous laughter that rang through our van as it hurtled down country roads barely wide enough for a Fiat to pass through without suffering a few scratch marks.

As our final day approached, she pulled me aside more than once to remind me of the promise I’d made. I assured her that nobody would fall off the Cliffs. However, by this point I wasn’t so sure. If she was this worried, then shouldn’t I be worried as well? And if someone went near the edge and started to fall, what was I going to do? Four out of five of my younger siblings were bigger than me.


All of Us

When we finally arrived at the Cliffs of Moher, my mother was practically convulsing. That morning, her entreaties for my siblings to stay away from the edge had been met with promises to the contrary. In fact, my brothers were still baiting her. As we were taking a series of family photos with the Cliffs in the background, my brothers intermittently stated that they were going to go up to the edge. By this point, we knew it was possible to do so by climbing over the dinky fences that run around most of the accessible parts of the Cliffs. And I’m sure her fears were not allayed by the plaque dedicated to those who had lost their lives on the Cliffs. Eventually, she had had enough of everyone and walked far away from the edge to a point of safety. The rest of us – the six kids and my dad – were free to roam.


I explored the Cliffs on my own – well, along with hundreds of other people – taking photos and watching my family members from afar. I discovered that the Cliffs of Moher are neither bigger nor smaller than themselves and that they are exactly like the Cliffs of Moher. And that my mother was right, they are breathtakingly beautiful.


Johnny and Dad

At one point, two of my brothers and my dad called to me. They were going to climb over the fence and wanted me to take a picture of them near the edge. I looked around nervously for my mother, but didn’t see her. I took a bunch of pictures and when they were satisfied, they hopped back over the fence, no worse for the wear.

Johnny and Dayton, On the Edge

Johnny and Dayton, On the Edge

Once we were back at home in New York, my mother saw those pictures. I don’t remember her being angry that my brothers had gone near the edge. I think she was happy that we’d all made it out of Ireland alive. I was too.* And now, with almost two years between us and that trip, we’ve forgotten all of the things that put us on edge – the anxiety and fear and mental and physical exhaustion that can creep up on you no matter where you’re traveling – and remember everything rather fondly. Mention the Cliffs of Moher to any one of us now, including my mother, and you’ll be sure to get a smile.

*Not only was I happy that no one had been blown off of a cliff, but also I was thrilled that we hadn’t perished when our van went airborne on a winding country road and scraped the side of an old stone wall. How my father got the courage to drive us around in that thing – on the wrong side of the road – I will never know.

Bonus Photo: Aidan Staring Pensively From the Top of the Cliffs of Moher

Bonus Photo: Aidan Staring Pensively From the Top of the Cliffs of Moher

An Evening with Aidan

Aidan at dinner

Aidan at dinner

My youngest brother, Aidan, was born twelve years after me, almost to the day.  It’s well-known, at least within our family, that Aidan never “liked” me when he was younger. It’s hard not to dote on an adorable little brother, but he just wouldn’t let me. As a baby, he would bite and scratch me if I tried to hug him. When I was a senior in high school – all six of us were in the same school building for one year – I would visit his kindergarten classroom and he would go to the corner and turn his back, refusing to look at me while all of the other five year olds wondered aloud how he had such an old sister and sometimes, if I would let them touch my hair. He was six when I left for college.

We lived under the same roof again for one year, after I had graduated. I started working full-time as soon as I returned home and was more interested in lamenting being a 22 year-old office drone who didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life living with her parents  than figuring out what made my then 10 year-old brother tick.

So, what I’m really saying is, I never got to know Aidan all that well. But I think I’m starting to get to know him better. I had the opportunity to spend some time with him this past weekend when I stayed overnight with him while my parents were away. While we were eating dinner out, it hit me all of the sudden that he’s pretty much a young adult. And that was weird but, I guess, kind of delightful at the same time.

As an older sister, I’ve always felt obligated to ask my younger, school-aged siblings the boring questions that kids always get asked. All about sports, their classes, etc. Conversation has gotten easier with my younger three siblings as they’ve gotten older and on Friday night, I finally felt like Aidan and I were having a discussion rather than a Q&A session. We talked about the Oscar movies we’d seen and the books we’d been reading. His English class is doing a unit on the Holocaust and I guess I was something of a YA Holocaust literature connoisseur when I was his age, so we had a good discussion about Night and its sequel and some other non-Elie Weisel books. (Aidan, if you’re reading this, read After the War by Carol Matas! That was one of my favorites.) And he tolerated my talking at him about pre-WWII Eastern Europe for longer than was necessary, which I think shows real maturity.

After dinner we watched The Grey, which I had been meaning to see for a while and it was only made better by Aidan’s commentary – ‘Do you really think you’re gonna get cell phone service in the middle of Alaska?’ – and the fact that my dog actually climbed up in the chair next to me and watched along with us. Aidan fell asleep with like ten minutes left in the movie so I had to tell him the ending, though I don’t think he really cared. Then I got back into big sister mode and made him get all of his stuff ready for his swim meet the next morning so, we were done being friends for the night. I left the next morning after he’d gone to his meet.

A part of me feels like the above might seem boring and sentimental to anyone who doesn’t know me as an oldest sister or know me at all. But I guess the night felt like a turning point to me? Like maybe it marked the beginning of the end of me acting like a third parent. Like now I can be more of a friend to all of my siblings because the distance that’s caused by age is really starting to disappear in my family. I don’t know. If anything, I had fun and I was glad for the opportunity to spend some time with Aidan and am also glad that he doesn’t scratch me anymore.