My mother had no clue as to what she was in for by moving to New York. If she had I am sure she would have stayed in Dixie. One problem was that she already had one child by my father, Michael, who died of hyaline membrane disease shortly after birth and was buried in Texas. Therefore not only did she smoke but also proved the adage that she was already tainted, damaged, unchaste, spoiled, non-virginal goods. You could virtually hear my grandmother think:
- Hah! She probably tricked him and told him it was really his-a baby.
Besides that, ordinary people in the 1940s did not divorce very frequently as divorce carried a serious social and financial stigma; especially for women. However, scandalously practiced more or less as an ad-lib activity by jaded Hollywood movie stars, celebrities didn’t give one iota about what the rest of the world thought about it. They also didn’t care what it cost.
Protestants, Catholics and Jews alike subscribed to the concept of eternal suffering in a bad marriage, a concept whose only benefit is that it can make your life seem that much longer than it really is. In a bad marriage minutes can literally seem like days, weeks or sometimes even years.
My father was a momma’s boy, the perpetual baby of the family who felt compelled to visit his mother several times a day to see how she was doing. This is ironic since nothing ever happened or really changed in her day-to-day existence of staring into space, mourning Grandpa and boiling kale. He was also the youngest, and since his brother Mike had already left, he was the only man left around. This counted a lot for my grandmother.
It seems that there was some sub-Rosa sibling jealousy over his professional career such that both of his sisters, at a minimum harbored ill feelings about never going to college themselves. Having never been impressed by their overall intelligence, I don’t have a clue why they ever thought they would have been college material in the first place.
There is a certain breed of mediocre intelligence middle class, yet still know-it-all Italians, that can best be described as the “dumb guinea.” This is a genre not even smart enough to have the criminal proclivities that make their Mafia cousins wealthy; and tends to epitomize the all too commonplace human breed that lives and dies by uninformed opinion. They also retain an uncanny ability to butcher the English language as they smugly pontificate on partial truths, completely erroneous facts or slaughtered syntax; typified for example by Aunt Rose telling me once to “go oar the row boat.”
One year during Christmas dinner at Aunt Rose’s house she held court over a table of seven other fully grown adults, while directing an hour-long conversation on whether it is better to leave a roasting beef untouched in the oven or to prick it with a fork to see if it is done, the upshot being which method stood a better chance of ruining the holiday joint.
Opinion was sharply divided between the meat-prickers and the non-meat- prickers, after which a very heated debate ensued over whether the juices that escape as a result of the aforesaid jabbing really affected the overall outcome, for better or for worse. Every year it was the same tedious conversation:
- Pricking the meat makes all the juices run out and spoils the tenderness.
- No, no. You have to prick it to actually see if it’s tender.
- No, no, no. You can tell if it’s tender by just pushing on the middle with a fork. You don’t have to prick.
- What? That only tells you if it’s cooked enough. Tender is entirely different than cooked. You must always prick. Always.
See what I mean?
At least no one proposed the traditional method of testing ‘al dente’ pasta by taking the roast out of the oven and then throwing it across the room to see if it sticks to the wall.
After several cousins and I were born, then eventually later ritualized as family custom, all the families were subjected to three obligatory rotating holiday dinners at our house and the two Aunts. But in the pre-child era, it was far worse as my mother had to endure the then mandatory weekly family dinner with all six of her new in-laws, on every Sunday, after Church.
She was not made to feel welcome, always sensing the veiled hostility about her origin, her religion, along with the potential grounds for my father’s excommunication from the Church. Even when she converted to Catholicism, the bias never shifted in her favor.
Another serious problem, beside everything else, was the fact that my mother was absolutely beautiful while also possessing innate intelligence and common sense. Since these were things that none of them seemed to have in their itineraries, the monstrous head of the Great Green Giant: Jealousy, suddenly reared up.
Aunt Rose had a large hairy nevus on her face, an odalisque figure with a disproportionately large ass that was supported by wide stumpy hips and legs that failed to taper into ankles. My brother Larry and my cousin Jimmy used to check her out on every holiday to see if the hairs had been trimmed off the mole and behind her back secretly called her “elephant legs”.
Those memories affected me so deeply that I once asked a fiancé, as a pre-marital stipulation to remove a similar but hairless facial blemish, so I would not have to think of my Aunt when I looked at her.
My mother said that my Grandmother, my Uncle Jimmy who was Kay’s husband, and my Aunt Rose were so unveiled in their hostility to her that she finally convinced my father to move out of the house. After he reluctantly agreed we eventually settled about five miles away. By that time I was already in second grade
Those five miles were a godsend as not only did these two people never exude warmth toward my mother, but I also would occasionally get the strange feeling that they were never too fond of me either.
Once when I walked past Rose’s house, and decided to ring the doorbell, I could not believe that her usual effusively gushing annual welcome at Christmas was replaced by an icy cold “so what are you doing here?” The hypocrite did not even invite me in, so I never repeated my spontaneous attempt to bond with her. Apparently for her, good cheer was only reserved for the Holidays.
This veiled hostility may have been also derived from the fact that my mother had partially redeemed herself by presenting me to my grandmother as the first living-at-home grandson; a blessed big deal in Italian households and something Rose could not provide as she only had daughters.
Uncle Mike already had a son, Albert, who was named after my grandfather, but no one ever saw them except for infrequently rare visits. My grandmother subsequently doted over me: her baby boy’s, baby boy.
It apparently was a regular occurrence at those weekly dinners that my Aunt Rose and Uncle Jimmy would converse in Italian and then snicker or guffaw to themselves in what turned out to be repeated derogatory insults aimed at my mother.
Or on the rare occasion that Grandma did attempt communication in English, my mother would become frustrated at her own inability to understand her pigeon version, which left both parties to walk away in mutual vexation. For example Grandma said:
- If-a no sharp, taka da scissa to da scissa grine.
- Taka da scissa to da scissa grine. You getta sharp.
- Oh. You mean take the scissors to the scissors grinder to get it sharp. Why didn’t you say so?
- What am I say you no wanna hear? Alla time I say so, you no wanna hear nothing I wanna say.
My mother told me issues had become so intolerable that she once came close to casually sneaking up behind Rose at dinner to actually strangle her to death in front of the entire family at the dining room table. She said that life in prison without parole or the electric chair had looked like a far better alternative than the weekly dinners she had to endure at In-Law Purgatory.
Over the years the tension between the two women was often unbearable and would occasionally erupt in bursts of catty chatter; like the time Rose went to have her “gall blotter” checked after which she beamingly announced that:
- Why, the doctor told me that I didn’t even look my age.
My mother countered by asking her how much older he actually thought she was.
The other revenge my mother visited on Grandma was to never let her touch me when I was a baby, then to gloat over Grandma’s disappointed looks while her empty flailing outstretched chubby, grabby, pincer like hands remained empty.
My father’s eternal mistake was that he was always in denial that there were problems. He also heavily discounted my mother’s feelings, defended the in-laws, and made his own mother’s happiness his first priority in life.
This could have all been avoided if he had re-read Genesis; because he paid dearly for this mistake; for virtually the rest of his life.
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother,
And shall cleave unto his wife : and they shall be one flesh.
|Adam and Eve||Portrait by Hans Memling: Universitee Libre de Bruxelles|