Today is a difficult day. I found out last night that I lost one of my cousins. I hadn't seen or heard from him in years but was just thinking about him and his siblings that morning. I often have premonitions about people that I am close to. I even lit a candle in the late afternoon which is unusual for me. I always try to light a candle for those who have passed on but hadn't gotten the word yet. I guess I just knew without actually knowing.
Although I have been writing memoirs for a few years now, I haven't been writing about my early life. Those years were extremely difficult on many levels, and too hard to face in my writing. As a result of those tough days, I tend to isolate myself from family. There are many reasons for this that I won't go into here. Suffice it to say, I have always been the black sheep and usually felt ignored and criticized for my choices. I’ve never gotten any encouragement for being an artist. I was often chastised and told to “get a real job.” So, it’s been easier and healthier for me to just turn away from the family. Unfortunately, that meant distancing myself from my cousins as well, and I wasn’t alone in that.
I was born in August of 1953. My cousin Kenny was born in July of that same year. Our fathers were brothers and had a close relationship. They had spent a lot of time together before we were born and even more now that they were both new parents. They lived in Hempstead, Long Island, and we lived in Stamford, Connecticut, just across the Sound from each other. It was an easy hour-long trip. We would go spend the weekend or they would come to us. A couple of years later, Kenny’s brother Jimmy was born then his sister Nancy. My brother was born a month after Nancy. We were inseparable. I can’t even recount all of the good times we had together. There are too many to name.
We all had our trials within our families. Their father drank too much, like many members of the family. Our father believed in corporal punishment and frequently took the belt to us. Our mother was an “adult child of an alcoholic” which made her a control-freak to the extreme. I believe that she also might have been bi-polar, though she was never diagnosed. She was unpredictable and often created her own reality. It was not unusual for an innocent after school card game with her and my brother to suddenly turn bad because of some minor accident like a spilled drink. It always seemed to be my fault, and I would be sent to my room to await punishment from my dad hours later. By the time he came home, Mom had created a scenario in which I had caused some injury out of spite because I was losing the game. I never knew what was real and was convinced that I was crazy. After all, Mom couldn't be crazy. She was our mom.
My aunt and uncle’s house was my retreat. My brother didn’t like to leave home, but I was ready to go anywhere but home. Home always felt unsafe, but at their house I could be myself without worrying about “the belt.” So, as soon as I was old enough for sleepovers, I went by myself for weekends, vacations and often for a few weeks in the summer. Another favorite uncle lived nearby, also in Hempstead, and the cousins and I would walk to his house to visit. I have such vivid memories of playing in their finished basement watching my uncle’s train set under the stairs, of collecting and comparing Beatles trading cards and War of the World’s trading cards, of playing in the woods adjacent to our house and of enjoying the current music together. Both families even went together a few times to The New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York.
As we grew older, the families spent less time together. My surviving cousin surmised that this could have been because of an ongoing investigation my father was involved in looking into corruption within the local police department. At that time, there were death threats, vandalism, even a call to my mom that my sister had been kidnapped that turned out to be a hoax but was terrifying, nonetheless. Jimmy thought that perhaps my dad had discouraged their visits out of concern for their safety. In spite of this, Kenny and I still saw each other.
I met Paul Cavanaugh in 1974, fell in love and soon got an apartment together. This horrified my family. People didn’t really do that then unless they were amoral. In order to get a rental, we had to live in a grungy part of town with a terrible landlord who threatened regularly to throw us out when we complained about the leaking roof and more. When I brought Paul to meet my beloved uncle and aunt, Uncle Lou slammed the door in my face. I was devastated. However, Kenny came to visit us often. He would hop on his motorcycle, usually with his current girlfriend on the back and come down to party with us. Unfortunately, we both ended up partying too much, crashing and burning and eventually Paul and I moved away. We both went our separate ways and drifted apart.
You know how it is with old friends that you are out of touch with but when you get together, it’s like no time has passed? That’s how it was with us. I loved all three of these cousins, but there was something extra special about Kenny. We had a bond that was forged at my birth that couldn’t be broken. He even came to Connecticut once when I was in high school, being bullied mercilessly in school, encased in a steel and leather brace with no friends. He was a very handsome young man and took me to a school dance pretending to be my boyfriend, so that we could snub our noses at all the jealous girls.
The last time I saw him was after his sister Nancy died. I had recently reconnected with her when she moved to Red Hook, New York, both of us visiting back and forth like when we were younger. Nancy and Kenny both died of heart attacks way too young. Hopefully, they both went peacefully. Now Jimmy is the only one left in his family. As I said, it’s a sad time. There may not be a funeral that we can attend this time. Our families have not been particularly good at staying in touch, and that may not change. That leaves me with my memories, which are rich and full. I hope they knew how much I loved and treasured them.
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