I just had my 68th birthday and have been looking back at my life and family history. The things we inherit are unpredictable. We often inherit health issues, as I have. But we also inherit behaviors and beliefs. Sometimes we can overcome those, but some of us get caught up in it all. I found the only way for me to avoid the disfunction and abuse in my own family was to leave home and physically distance myself from my already emotionally distanced family.
Now that my original online memoir project is finished, I'm working on putting the book together and realized that I needed to start looking at my early years. I'm glad I put it off for last. It was too difficult to start there, but I think I have a different perspective now and can write it fairly. At least I hope so.
My parents were madly in love with each other. They were always physically affectionate with each other. Sometimes Mom sat on Dad’s lap, they danced around the kitchen, and you could just feel their love. I used to see the look in my dad’s eyes as he gazed at Mom and knew I wanted that for myself. However, I soon learned to not look anyone in the eye lest they notice you. To this day, I have to make myself look into your eyes and even then, I’m sometimes looking through you. I have very few memories about my childhood. Most of them are memories of stories told to me. I do have a few, though. Some of them are very unpleasant, others are of places we visited or of times I did things without my family, but most of my early life is a blank. I think that may be a good thing.
Mom was born to an Irish immigrant mother and an American melting pot father. The story I was told was that Nannie came from Ireland to Ellis Island when she was eighteen where she could then meet up with family. I can’t imagine how a difficult journey that must have been. She left her immediate family behind to start fresh, not knowing when or even if she would see them again. It wasn’t like she could hop on a plane back then. There has been a rumor in the family that she may have been pregnant, but no one ever talked about the past. I know absolutely nothing about my grandmother’s life, but I’m pretty sure I inherited her courage and restless spirit. Although she died when I was around 3, I have vague memories of being around her and of loving her dearly. When I think of her, I feel loved and at peace. Even Mom didn’t know anything about her own mother. It seems that her life in Ireland must have been very unpleasant.
I know only a few things about my grandfather on my mother’s side. Mom referred to him as “Pops.” I know that he loved gardening and had what could almost have been a small farm right in a vacant lot in Hempstead, Long Island. I don’t know what he did for a living or if he had any hobbies. The only thing that my mother ever told me was that he became an alcoholic, or maybe he just stopped hiding it, when she was in high school. She said he would come home most nights in the middle of the night and wake her up crying about what a bum he was and telling her he was sorry. She was always worried that she would run into him when out with her friends and never had any friends over to the house. I have a photo of him at Mom and Dad’s wedding, but that’s the only one. I guess Dad insisted on having him in the wedding, but he did get drunk and cause a scene at the reception.
Mom had four brothers. Three of them were older, and there was one younger. They all drank and were wild each in their own way. Uncle George was like a bulldog, short and stocky, muscular and strong as a bull. He inherited his dad’s alcoholism and also became addicted to drugs but sobered up eventually and managed to save his family. I had very little contact with him, but he later became one of my fiercest allies. Uncle John was the youngest and married a German woman he met in the war. Uncle Harry was the oldest and was quite a character. He had a different father, and we never heard anything about his dad. Uncle Joe was my favorite. He was a gentle giant and loved me as much as I loved him. After he married Aunt Gloria, I didn’t see as much of him, but he was always in my heart. We didn’t visit Mom’s side of the family as much as Dad’s, and I never understood why. Joe and Gloria lived in Hempstead, Long Island, New York, within walking distance of my dad’s brother and my cousins. So, my cousins and I would often walk over to visit him when we were in town. This usually caused trouble between my parents though, because Mom was resentful of not seeing her brothers often enough and felt guilty about not reaching out when we were on Long Island.
I know quite a lot about Dad’s side of the family. They were all French-Canadians who had settled in Fall River, Massachusetts. My grandmother’s family were quite well to do. They all had good well-paying jobs or owned their own businesses. They were also the musical side of the family. Grandma played piano beautifully. One of her brothers played piano and organ for silent movies. Another brother was in vaudeville. She and her siblings were all expected to have music lessons, and they excelled at them. Grandpa’s family were mostly tradesmen. Some of the women worked in the Granite Mill, where there had previously been a fire similar to the one at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. One of their brothers lost so many fingers from working at a factory that he could no longer do that work and became a teamster back when they actually ran a team of horses.
We visited with those grandparents often. They lived in Niantic, Connecticut, near New London. Grandma had been repressed by her family and by the nuns who schooled her, and she was mostly unpleasant to be around. She rearranged Mom’s kitchen cabinets when she came to visit because her way was more efficient. She often suffered from severe headaches and needed to take it easy when visiting. We later found out that Grandpa, who was a pharmacist, supplied her with all kinds of remedies for her headaches. A cousin and I found a hidden compartment in the back of her medicine cabinet that had a wide variety of schedule 2 drugs. I guess Grandpa wanted to keep her mellowed out.
Grandpa was wonderful. He laughed a lot, wasn’t afraid of playing and getting dirty and was a bit of a joker. He smoked a pipe, and I can still smell that aroma. I found out later that he drank heavily. I guess that might have explained the devil may care attitude, but I adored him. Every morning for breakfast at their house, we would have soft boiled eggs in egg cups. The toast was cut into fingers so that we could dip them in the egg yolk before carefully scooping out the cooked white that was left at the end. My brother and I got very good at scooping it out without damaging the outer shell. Every morning, we would turn the empty shell upside down and offer them to Grandpa as second helpings. Every morning, he would fall for the joke, laughing uproariously when he cracked into that hollow egg.
I have so many memories about visits there. Dad’s two sisters also lived nearby, but we only regularly visited with one of them. Aunt Yvette was the outcast of the family. She had married a sailor who was a pretty sleazy guy. He cheated on her and beat her. Dad got into a fist fight with him over it once well before I was born. Aunt Yvette was now divorced, smoked cigarettes, swore and took lovers eventually having three children. I liked her. We even exchanged letters when I was in junior high and high school. I admired her free spirit. She didn’t seem to care what anyone thought. She was living her life on her own terms. Unfortunately, she was abandoned by the men in her life, left to fend for herself, so she was also poverty stricken. She and Dad had never gotten along as kids, so it was easy for him to ignore her. She lived for a while in the apartment that my grandparents rented out. I did see her then for brief visits. As soon as Mom and Dad realized where I was, they carted me away.
Aunt Nickie and Dad were very close. Aunt Nickie was a Registered Nurse. She was always playing her guitar and singing. She wrote parodies and other songs as well. She recited poetry and was fun-loving like her dad. But she and her husband Hap fought constantly. I never understood why they were together. They had separate bedrooms and were vicious with each other. In all fairness, most of Dad’s family had inherited a mean streak from my grandmother. They were always demeaning each other. Nobody and nothing were ever good enough. But Nickie also laughed a lot and made us laugh as well. Uncle Hap was a large, loud man. He was a volunteer firefighter and immersed in Little League. The thing I remember most about visiting them, other than the music and having cousins, was Aunt Nickie’s strawberry patch. I don’t know why that’s so vivid, but I can picture it in my mind as I write and can almost taste the sweet flavor of a fresh picked berry.
Dad’s younger brother Eddie lived in Missouri, so we rarely saw him. He would come visit Grandma and Grandpa once or twice a year. He was a high school counselor. He was kind of cocky and definitely a know-it-all. He always had some kind of criticism and was full of advice for ways to do things better. He was a bachelor but was an expert on relationships and raising children. He also knew all about housekeeping, cooking, and everything you could possibly think of. I always dreaded his visits and tried to avoid him as much as possible. The visits to that area of Connecticut were often filled with drama. Eddie didn’t get along with Nickie and Hap’s oldest son, who was not that much younger than him, and they often got into a fist fight at family gatherings. There was always at least one fight at family events, sometimes involving Eddie or my older cousins Harold or Raymond. Sometimes it would be with a friend of the family. Even my Uncle Hap would throw a punch or two at times. I quickly learned to see it coming and manage to stay out of the arena. My cousin Sandra always fainted, bringing the fight to a conclusion.
Dad was also close to his older brother Lou. He and his wife Marty lived in Hempstead on Long Island where Mom grew up. Lou worked as an engineer at Grumman Aircraft. Marty was an academic, teaching on a college level. They ended up having three children with ages that matched my brother’s and mine. We spent most of our family time with them. We were only an hour’s drive apart. Because it wasn’t a far drive, we’d often go visit on a Saturday and spend the whole day. Then we would convince our parents to let us stay the night if the other set of parents agreed to make the return trip. I was allowed to go by myself for a few weeks in the summer or part of other school vacations. My brother and I, along with our three cousins, formed a pack. As I grew older, I started noticing how much alcohol my parents’ siblings drank when they got together. Every one of them was either an alcoholic or a recovering alcoholic. Mom and Dad mostly drank socially, though they did like to have one cocktail before dinner.
Lou and Marty were responsible for my parents meeting. They met at an American Legion meeting. Mom had become a registered nurse and worked in the local hospital. Her friend encouraged her to come to a dance at the Legion Hall. Dad had gone to a two-year college before enlisting in the Navy during World War Two. Upon returning home, he joined the Reserves and went back to school to become a journalist. He got called up and sent to Korea just before he finished his final year. He often stayed with Lou and Marty and went to that same dance. They didn’t really get along very well at first, Mom saying that she hated the Navy, and dad insisting he hated nurses. But Mom gave him her phone number and when he called, due to a lot of encouragement from Lou and Marty, agreed to go with him to Jones Beach where they fell in love. They got married soon after and Dad got a job in Little Falls, New York, where I was conceived, and started his job as a cub reporter and part-time photographer. He eventually landed a better job as a full-time reporter at The Stamford Advocate in Stamford, Connecticut, and Mom got a job at Stamford Hospital. I was born nine months after they were married.
I’ve been told that I wouldn’t eat at first. They had to force feed me, and I most often vomited everything back up. But Dad came home religiously every day at lunch to give me my noontime bottle. He would be draped head to toe in sheets but apparently, I always managed to find a spot that wasn't covered, and he would go back to work smelling like a sick baby. I had a few intravenous feedings and eventually figured out how to survive. I think I’ve always been a fighter. Maybe that early time taught me not to give up.
Although Mom and Dad had pretty good jobs, the cost of living was more than they could handle, especially with a child. We lived in a tiny apartment at first. The kitchen was so small, they put the refrigerator in a closet. When I came along, my crib went into that closet, too. I was also told that I was found by a neighbor wandering down the busy city sidewalk stark naked when I could barely walk, scooped up and returned to my mom. I guess I was born to be an explorer. After a little while they rented one half of a house in a residential neighborhood.