At his house Uncle Jimmy was in charge and there was no doubt that in his castle, he wore the pants. In fact he wore the pants in everyone else’s house too. The man was such a perfectionist control freak that he never realized how totally out of control he really was.
His general persona as a slick dresser was suave, debonair and unctuous. He had to be slick, dressy and most of all unctuous to move those Columbia record sales, with the debonair part of it making him a legend only in his own mind.
However if he did not supervise it, touch it, tweak it, correct it or lay hands on it, it was just not any good, whatever “it” might happen to be. His abuse was entirely verbal, his moods controlled every interactive environment, and his dominating persistence somehow eked its way into anyone’s psyche that happened to be in his vicinity. There was also the peculiar way he looked at people with a sidelong squinty leer and subtle sneer, which would usually presage some subtle critique soon to follow.
Poor Aunt Kay, my father’s sister, was a sweet, obsequious, docile woman who must have endured something unimaginable under his control, until she finally cracked. I think she was in reality no better than a house slave, held little or no opinion on any subject, and probably never opened her mouth because of a consistent fear of corrective criticism. When she did open it, little unintelligible mousy noises emerged, requiring everyone to ask her to please repeat herself.
Then there were the numerous times that my father would come home from golf, having had bitter arguments with Jim on some aspect of the game, the scoring or its rules, to the point that finally my father had to stop playing with him. Jim was always right about everything, no matter the subject.
As an adult I only played golf with him once, which was enough for a lifetime. He was that unique type of gamesman who pouted when he lost, then gloated when he won, so I do give my father credit for throwing In-law loyalty to the wind and finally walking away.
My parents eventually stopped going out to dinner with him too. They said he mercilessly picked on the waiters, always complained about the food, the service or arbitrarily everything else in the restaurant, which completely embarrassed them.
Not only did he direct a Big Band as a sideline occupation, but he also directed every one else in his life as though they too were playing the music for him. My parents tried to cheap out on music lessons, and since my father was doing the cousins braces for cost, they sent me to Uncle Jim for a few complimentary clarinet lessons. He would set up the metronome, which began a Goose Stepping cadence, and then would start to yell when I could not keep up with the time:
- You’ll never be any good. You don’t practice. You don’t practice. I don’t even know why I’m wasting my time with you.
- Me neither. Maybe I should just have dad rip out little Jimmy’s braces then and we’ll be all square.
Excessive errors were unforgivable to the music Nazi.
I eventually quit anyway when I tired of creating the equivalent of clarinet burps as I tried to play while keeping step in the High School marching band. It was double task that made it akin to not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time. I knew I sucked, because it was true that I never practiced, so I did the band a great favor by taking myself out. But by the same token, Uncle Jim had done nothing to further my love or appreciation for music, which ultimately resurfaced later on its own.
In the summer months we were trans-located to the cottage in the Hamptons, while my father who stayed behind to work came out from Westchester only for the weekends. In those early days we also had frequent weekend houseguests, with Uncle Jimmy being among the ones who had repeat invitations. As examples of his OCD behavior, he once showed up on a Saturday, walked through the back door, and promptly polished a stainless steel light switch plate with his handkerchief. He then proceeded to tell my mother that the toaster had finger smudges on it, which should also be cleaned. After that he looked inside the toaster, only to then declare that it required a total crumb purge as well. As f that weren’t enough he then did a white glove walk through of the place as his cumulatively additive critique of the domestic condition began to imply that my mother was a horrible housewife. I am surprised that he survived both a potential personal contamination by the squalid filth as well as my mother’s unspoken desire to murder him by a garrote with the dirty toaster’s electrical cord.
But he could not stop himself even if he had wanted to. For example, he once he came up behind me at the stove when I was making instant soup and criticized my technique for boiling water, stating that I was actually boiling it too hard. I should have done the entire family a great favor by just pouring it on his head.
Then when I was about fifteen or so my father had the bright idea that I could learn the meaning of entrepreneurial enterprise by making some motorboat gas money by digging clams, which he would then transport back to Westchester to the relatives. I charged one dollar per dozen. The only person who was never satisfied was Uncle Jim. He always complained that the clams were never small enough for his Marinara sauce, while for some reason known only to his epicurean cuisine that larger but minced clams were not acceptable. He also could not understand why I did not give him a baker’s dozen for the dollar because after all, I had received some free music lessons from him.
It did not even faze him in the least that the sized clams he wanted were being illegally poached, which would be solely at my own personal risk. So after I had enough of my father’s badgering me to satisfy his brother-in-laws weekly glutinous complaints, I fixed the situation by bringing the fresh clam business to a precipitous halt.
My father mused:
- So what am I supposed to tell your Uncle now that he’s counting on you to get him his clams?
- Tell him he already ate all the babies and that’s why there aren’t any adults left.
This behavior was so pernicious that I eventually found myself recoiling at the sound of his name and became nauseated by the sound of his voice.
If this was a hint of daily life, it was no wonder that Aunt Kay decided to escape from him one day by attempting suicide. This was the beginning of a long string of suicide attempts, which started when she was in her forties. The poor woman was in and out of hospitals, having multiple electric shock treatments. As a result of the piled on multiple medications and the brain frying electricity she seemed to eventually become a vapid vacant eyed vegetable. Now even the little mousy squeaks never escaped her lips.
One interesting thing about suicide is that there is a peculiar gender difference. Statistically, women usually verbalize it and threaten it, but never do it. Men never verbalize it. They just do it, and after the fact everyone seems shocked that there were no advance clues. Women seem more inclined to make the threat to gain attention. Men seem dedicated to its finality.
I have no doubt Kay was depressed. She had good reasons. But I always wondered if there a small part of her that wanted to get back at Jim in the only manner she could. When she was fed up enough she would simply blurt out that she was going down to the basement to drink Clorox again which would subsequently throw Jim and the rest of the family into full-blown crisis mode. My take on it was that she had swallowed so much Clorox that she had probably built up immunity to it.
Jim however was so self-centered; I do not believe he ever thought he had actually played a role in her problem, whereas all the family members would sympathize over the terrible burden his wife had imposed on his life.
- Poor Jim. Kay tried to do it again and now she’s back in the hospital.
To which I replied:
- With all that practice, you would think she’d get it right at least one of these times.
I lost track of the number of suicide attempts and she eventually died naturally in her mid eighties, lasting just long enough to see Jim worn down by the stress of never knowing when she would try to off herself again. Because she became so progressively incapacitated, which required continuous watching, he eventually had to stay home to do all the housework and at the same time to monitor her behavior. A truly pathetic but at the same time gratifying scene for me was seeing him in an armchair wrapped up in a shawl doing crochet, which he had taken up to pass the time. He was not even playing his saxophone anymore but at least now the knitting and the housework was being done correctly; meaning he was now wearing both the pants and the skirts of the household
Occasionally he would go on an excursion, once for example taking Kay upstate to see the fall leaves. When he got home he called my mother to tell her how beautiful the “foiliage” was. I told my mother that the two of them together had literally become a tossed salad.
- And what does that mean?
- He’s the Creamy Italian and she’s the Vegetable.
The whole scenario was pathetic.
After my father permanently relocated to the Hamptons, he would occasionally drive the hundred miles to visit, but the visits became fewer and fewer as my aunt progressively dwindled. I am sure it was difficult for him to see her like this, and when she finally died he did not even attend the funeral. He said that for all intents and purposes she had really died decades before. He also did not even go to the nursing home to visit his old friend Jim, who was there wasting away from the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, until Jim finally died too. It would not have mattered anyway, as it is unlikely that Jim would have even recognized him.
My mother had a special uncanny knack for psychic mind reading and always seemed to have a sixth sense when evil thoughts were afoot in her children. I think that most mothers posses this skill as though it were some sort of brain-stealth mind-policing radar.
One day at about age fourteen, I was extremely upset with my tyrannical parents. Who knows what it was all about, but they had decided to take the train to Manhattan to see a Broadway play, leaving me to think how nice it would be if they would die in a train wreck. I would be free of them forever.
Just before they left, my mother said:
- Now don’t forget, if anything ever happens to us, it’s in our Will that you kids will have to go and live with your Uncle Jimmy.
I reversed course; said a Novena for their survival, and then prayed until I became emancipated that they would forever enjoy good health.
Every kid should have one