Aunts and Uncles

Uncle Oakley

Uncle Oakley

 

 

Johnny is a joker (he’s a bird)

A very funny joker (he’s a bird)

But when he jokes my honey (he’s a dog)

His jokin’ ain’t so funny (what a dog)

Johnny is a joker that’s a tryin’ to steal my baby (he’s a bird dog)

Hey bird dog, keep away from my quail.

Hey bird dog, you’re on the wrong trail.

Bird dog, you better find a chicken little of your own.

(The Everly Brothers)

 

 

My mother’s sister Pauline was also addicted to weekly hair frying rituals at the beauty shop, consequently suffering the same chronic results wreaked on my mother’s follicles. At some ill-defined point in their lives, with the single exception of a considerable weight differential, they began to look like the fried-hair twins.

Pauline, or Polly, who lived in Richmond, Virginia, was married to a man named Oakley Oran. He was born in West Virginia and had become a Pharmacist. Oakley had moved to Virginia, but in his heart and soul was still a good old West Virginia boy, while in his yet bigger heart and soul, was a good old true blue son of the South. I never knew why none of the adults ever called him Oakley or Oak but always referred to him rather as ‘Vaughan’, which in fact was his last name.

He met Polly at the same military base where my parents met and because they double dated the sisters, my father and Vaughan became good friends. This kinship was helped considerably by the fact that the two men shared the same passion for the game of golf that they could enjoy while the women stayed home and gossiped.

When I was a child I could not pronounce his name after which my adulterated moniker, “Uncle Oaps,” then became an identity that stuck to him for the rest of his life. The adults called him Vaughan and the children called him “Oaps.” Oak and Polly eventually had two children, Shirley and Byron.

Oakley was one of the most naturally funny men I have ever met and I always eagerly anticipated our annual visits to see him. He saw humor in everything, joked constantly and hardly ever lost his temper, which was in sharp contrast to his puritanically humorless wife. He had a passion for hunting and fishing, owned and trained his own bird dogs, as well as a thirty-six foot cabin cruiser, which he kept at a dock in Norfolk. Also being a great history buff, he specialized in the history of the Civil War, or at least his version of it, with his favorite General being P.G.T. Beauregard.

Beauregard was the man who had helped defend Richmond in the early days of the contest and when he spoke of him, Oakley would drag out the pronunciation of the name, which resulted in a lengthy drawling:

  • The great General Pee Tee Gee Beau—Ree—Guard.

Whenever we visited in Richmond, Uncle Oak would take Byron, me and my brother down to the boat for a weekend of fishing. These trips were my first ever bachelor adventures which allowed the three of us to delight in leaving our mothers behind along with their numerous house rules and my cousin Shirley with her numerous dolls and her all too numerous Cootie bugs.

Oakley too, was one of those die hard southerners who believed the South would have been a lot better off without the North and still regretted the tragic loss of the Civil War. On the hundred mile trip down to the boat from Richmond to Norfolk we would get a running commentary about the battles or battlefields of Virginia always with just a little pinch of Southern bias thrown in for good measure along with a few good curses about’ them damn Yankees.’ He did say, however, that my brother and I were an exception to that rule because we were only “half Yankees.”

The fishing trips were great, including the added feature of simply loitering around the docks along with other ‘boat people’, then to live and sleep on the boat. The atmosphere was peacefully laid back with the best part being that we did not have to be neat, we did not have to take baths, and we did not have to follow the ordinary and every day rules of maternally expected behavior. In fact Oakley said that if anyone had ever wanted to spend a weekend on the boat, he had better expect everyone else who came with him to be on the best of “fartin’ terms.”

For us, we were just little boys being big men doing big men’s stuff.

However there was a small price to pay for it every now and then. For example if we asked for pancakes, Uncle Oak would just drop the entire batch of batter into the frying pan, literally making one giant cake, which he then hacked into four pieces before he served it. Flipping this giant wad of batter always presented a problem, which usually made the concoction come out like it had been thrown around the room or scraped off the floor. Dismissively ignoring any and all complaints, the chef said we were lucky to have anything to eat at all, and who cared what it looked like because it still tasted like it should.

Then every morning as we set off in search of fish, Oakley would sit in the flying bridge atop his yacht, and every time as we put out to sea while simply being happy to be away from the grinding drudge of the pharmacy, without fail would then turn around, look down on the deck below to bark out:

  • Well boys. I wonder what the poor people are doin’ today.

We would then spend the day on long excursions cruising around the Chesapeake Bay in search of fish. Although I do not remember ever being too successful at it, the day would frequently be punctuated with screams of “Birds, birds” or “Blues, blues” or “Fish, fish,” coming from the top deck as Ahab Vaughan plied the waves chasing both real and imaginary pelagic species while periodically making us set out our trolling lines in areas he thought to be promising. Most of the time; however we never even caught a single fish.

On occasion he would change tactics for a try at catching a Cobia near a partially sunk wreck that the Air Force was using for bombing and strafing practice. As he pulled the boat near the wreck, he would always tell us about what a great fighting fish the Cobia was or about the proverbial big one that got away when no one else was there as an eye witness. While he put the boat near the wreck to idle the engine, he would direct us to be on the lookout for Air Force fighter jets. If we then saw anything potentially menacing, we would shout out so he could properly ‘skedaddle’ while always being cajoled not to ever tell our mothers we were fishing in restricted military live fire zones.

On any particularly bad fishing day, we would reel in the lines and motor over to the Maryland side of the Chesapeake to get some fresh crabs at a local dockside restaurant. Because he craved fresh Maryland crabs, and no matter that it took the entire day to get there and back, the culinary reward usually made up for the lack of a fresh catch making it well worth the time.

While cruising back to the dock late in the day he would never fail to look at the flagpole to predictably announce cocktail hour by asking the pre-prompted query:

  • Hey boys. The sun is just going down over the yardarm. And you know what that means
  • Yes sir, Captain Oak. It must be time to splice the main brace. How many fingers of rum should we pour?
  • Make it bourbon today, boys. Some good old fashioned Tennessee bourbon whiskey. Have a shot yourselves and grow some hair on your balls.

Since we were away from our mothers, we could regress to levels of vulgarity that would ordinarily be punished at home. We took particular delight in trying to make loud farts, because we knew that every time he heard one, Uncle Oak would shout out: ”Twenty-twenty. English Bummy,” which would make all of us laugh hysterically at its absurd predictability.

He explained that he had learned this phrase in the war from the British soldiers and that it was applied as the appropriate response one man makes to another when the latter creates an absolutely perfect noise with his flapping butt cheeks: A twenty-twenty perfect fart.

Addressing another vulgar habit we had of peeing outside or peeing overboard, Oak never tired of telling us the potential hazard of exposing ourselves in public by repeatedly recounting one of his favorite jokes. His method of scolding was infinitely more entertaining than what we would potentially get at home.

  • Boys, did I ever tell you about the man who had to pee while he was driving down the highway so he pulled over to a roadside billboard and tryin’ to hide what he was doing, stuck his tally-whacker through a hole in the sign. A Hobo, sleeping on the other side of the sign was shocked awake by the shower and screamed, “Snake. Snake;” just before he jumped up and whacked the man’s pud with a baseball bat. “Hit him again. Hit him again” the peeing man said. “I think he just bit me.”

Wherever we went or whatever we did, Oakley was enormously generous about buying us things. This was particularly true when we visited his Pharmacy, which was the old-fashioned style drug store that stocked toys, nick-knacks, and model airplanes; while also featuring a soda fountain with a short order hamburger grill. We would load up on Cokes and burgers, and then head out the door carrying a new model to build while he yelled out after us from behind the pharmacy window:

  • I don’t know why I let y’all boys come in here anyway. Y’all eat faster than Grant went though Richmond, then all you do is pluck me like a goose and watch my feathers fly.

He always said it with a big grin on his face as we happily scampered, guilt free, to the car with the loot. I never did go bird hunting with him, because I was too young, but did come to learn a lot from him about dogs and how to love and care for animals. He usually had at least two bird dogs at any one time, which he kept in pens behind his house. He trained them, exercised them, loved them to death such that by osmosis that I came to learn something about the fine art and sport of bird hunting.

These dogs fall into the three categories of Pointer, Setter, or Retriever obviously being named after the job they perform in the field. Most people forget that thousands of years of breeding and training are the result of what one sees in the modern day finished product known as the “show-dog,” but not that the original purpose of the dog breeding exercise was to put the animals through a beauty contest to win medals, but was rather intended to actually expedite and to assist human survival.

More importantly is the fact that the dogs are bred to do these jobs and solely exist for the days they can get out into the field and work. At one time Oakley had a beautiful setter named Bonnie, a sweet, gentle animal, and a real favorite who broke his heart when she died. He was so fond of her he had her portrait done which he hung it over his fireplace mantle: a painting that was a far more palatably genteel living room decoration than was the roving, judgmental, and all seeing eyes of the spy-cam portrait of my father’s sister Rose.

There was only one dog he ever really gave up on; a pointer named Lucky. Excessive in-breeding made the dog un-trainable, uncontrollable, and refractory to education to the point that Oakley eventually had to give him away. Every time Oak would go in the back of the house to hose down Lucky’s pen he would predictably carbon copy state:

  • That Lucky dog is just plain crazy. All he’s good for is eatin’ and poopin’. And I ain’t never seen a damn dog like him that ever’ damn day of his life can eat a quart then poop a peck.

He kept his bird rifles around the house, was a great advocate of gun care, gun safety and wild life conservation, never killing a bird he did not clean or dress out in the field, and then bring home to eat. Of course, Aunt Polly would certainly rather fry a chicken than to bake wild Quail which subsequently subjected everyone to the risk of losing a filling or cracking a tooth on a crunchy bite of buck shot left inside the bird.  She also deplored the gamy rangy taste of the birds and the fact that by the time one was actually cooked it was nothing but skin and bones.

Nevertheless Uncle Oakley loved to take his hunting expeditions to the great conclusive finish line of the stove-pot, the oven and then to the dining room table. 

One Sunday afternoon when he’d had perhaps one too many Wild Turkey Bourbons and fell asleep by himself in front of the T.V.; his war instincts got the better of him when they unexpectedly took over in a reflexive knee jerk reaction. My Aunt and cousins were out of the house while Oakley had fallen asleep in the den in his favorite easy chair.

He was startled by a commotion in the fireplace that awakened him to the noise of the window blinds being rattled and shaken by some unseen entity. Thinking he was under assault by a robber, or an enemy Japanese platoon or some other unknown alien force, he jumped up, quick-loaded a shotgun, then peppered his den with two blasts of buckshot.

Polly came home to see the mess in the foxhole along with Oakley running around the house swatting at something with a broom.

It seems that a squirrel had come down the chimney and tried to escape through a shut window while the old soldier was off dreaming of some battle. Then because it had taken a trifle too long time to shake off the reverie and become re-oriented to reality, his instincts simply dictated that he should blast the squeaking little furry enemy into oblivion.

After that the gun racks were removed from the den and the weapons were put a little further out of immediate reach.

Later in life he developed atrial fibrillation that required a cardiac pacemaker implant. But he was a terrible patient and never had the device checked to even assess if it had any current left in it, much less to know if it was even working properly. Nor would he take blood thinners to treat the same heart rhythm problem and to abort the same risk of stroke that had killed my paternal grandfather.  In not liking the idea of the concurrent risk of bleeding associated with the drugs while similar to the ladies under the dryer at the hair salon, he probably suffered from the syndrome of knowing just enough to qualify him as really knowing a bit too little.

The first sign of trouble came when he was in his early eighties. While playing golf with his son in law, Bob he suddenly began to behave in a relatively nonspecific, but at the same time a very peculiar manner. Bob told him he was acting funny and when he asked him if anything was wrong, Oakley turned to Bob and said:

  • Where are my car keys?
  • Bob asked why he needed them in the middle of a round of golf, at which point Oakley apparently having thought he found them, held up an invisible set of keys in front of his face, then started shaking his hand up and down while repeating over and over and over again:
  • Jingle, jingle, jingle. Jingle, jingle, jingle.

Bob took him off the course, but he refused hospital care. After several hours the little brain clot that had caused his echolalia broke up and Oakley was miraculously back to normal again.

Not too long after that, again while playing golf with my father in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, my father watched him go up to the Seventeenth tee only to fall down several times on his left side as he tried to lean over to get the ball teed up. He stood up three times, bent over three times and fell down three times because he had partially lost motor strength in his left side. He was in the midst of having a transient or warning stroke but by ignoring the whole episode, and fighting through it or more likely just ignoring the paralysis, he was still determined to play on. Taking it a few minutes for him to realize something was drastically wrong with his brother in law, my father said Oak just kept flopping down like a wounded bird

Being a man who usually suffers from terminal constipation, my father rushed Oakley back to their motel, stating that he was so frightened by the incident he had crapped his pants while driving them back together in the golf cart. Then when he finally did get Oakley situated in bed, he said that he was going to call the ambulance.

Once again Oakley steadfastly refused hospitalization, asked for a large glass of Wild Turkey Bourbon, drank it, went to sleep, and woke up the next day fully recovered ready to play golf again. He eventually capitulated by agreeing to take blood thinners, after which time the stuttering stroke syndrome was successfully arrested.

One night when he mistakenly telephoned my house looking for my parents, I asked him how it felt to be the world’s best golfer. Wanting to know what I meant by that, I replied that he had played two all time record low-scoring rounds of golf. He said:

  • What exactly is that supposed to mean?

I said:

  • Well, the first round you managed to play with only one stroke, but the next day you bettered that score by playing it with no strokes at all.

It was probably the only time in my life I ever had the opportunity to joke him before he joked me.

At exactly the time of this writing, I received a phone call from my cousin Byron to let me know his father had just passed away. Apparently Oakley had developed a rapidly progressive lung tumor, which literally killed him in a matter of weeks. At the end game, being the man’s man that he always had been, he reluctantly agreed to take just enough morphine to dull the terminal pain; but not enough to put him to sleep.  He was eighty-nine years old.

uncle oak

 

 “I wonder what the poor people are doing today.” 

(Uncle Oakley: Every kid should know one)

 

 

Happy Holidays 3 (Easter:1960s)

The Best Easter on Record 

On Easter Sunday the family came to our house and my mother always made Lasagna.

While it was derived from the same recipe my grandmother had given to Aunt Kay, it did not quite taste the same as hers. Aunt Kay’s sauce always had tomato pits in it, creating unwanted little crunchies that always seemed to get stuck between my back molars. My mother’s sauce was far better than Kay’s and not bad for a woman who had never even heard the word Lasagna when she was a child. She usually subscribed instead to The Bible of Southern Cuisine, whose first commandment reads:

And if thee findeth that it can be fried, so then shall ye fry it.

The family debate on this day would then center on the various merits of the potentially numerous methods of making Lasagna, what does or what does not go in it or it and then whose recipe was better or best. It was just another circular, no-win conversation: Is sausage the best? Or is it hamburger? Should it be a mixture of both and if so how much of each? Do you use whole milk or part-skim mozzarella? Should the Ricotta cheese go on separate layers? What is the best way to enhance the Ricotta taste? What’s the best baking temperature? Do you cover it all the way through the cooking or just at the end? Do you put Mozzarella on the top? Do you braise the top or just let it rest?

After that they got onto the noodle nuance debate; followed once again by the argument about sauce versus gravy.

It would be foolish of anyone to think that chicken and salad did not come next.

However on this date we actually got a real dessert when the Southern tradition finally broke through the Mediterranean shield. No stale cookies fruit or nuts . And beside plain delicious Hershey’s chocolate Easter Bunnies instead of mystery center-filled generic Whitman’s samples, my mother always made a lemon chiffon pie and a southern pecan pie, both served with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Nothing could be finer.

Then predictably every year when Uncle Jimmy had a piece of the pecan he would remark that it was unbelievable anyone could make a pie from a nut. He called them Pee-cans, the proper pronunciation being Pee-cahn; which generated yet another round of debates over pronunciation.

Every time he said this, my mother would defuse the issue by asking him:

  • So Jim. Then do you know exactly where you have to store your Pee-cans?”

He would say:

  • No.

Then she would say:

  • Under your bed.

The response being:

  • Huh?

They had the same conversation for over a decade and for over a decade Uncle Jimmy fell for it every time, never getting it right because in truth it was unlikely he really got the joke in the first place.

  • So Ruth? I still don’t get exactly why you would keep a can of nuts under your bed.

 

On this day there were no special songs to commemorate the risen Christ or any child prodigy music recitals. Perhaps instead we should have just rolled a giant rock around the house to commemorate the opening of Jesus’ tomb, as that exercise could not have been any more ludicrous than the Festival of the Coconut Cake on Christmas. As a child the concepts were difficult for me to grasp. Jesus: First he is born, then four month later he rides into town on a donkey, within a week the Romans kill this holy man instead of a thief; and then after three days of funereal mourning, he comes back to life again on Sunday. Black dresses and veils for Friday. White dresses and bonnets for Sunday.

However on one particular Easter, Uncle Jimmy had a car trunk load of brand new, never before played 78-speed recordings of classical, jazz, and operatic music pieces. By that time 33-speed recording was in vogue and I suppose they were not marketable, so he just gave them to us boys. Nobody seemed to even remotely think anything of their potential future value to a collector.

So while our oblivious parents sat around the table gassing, gossiping and quibbling after dinner, my cousin Jimmy, my brother, and I spent the better part of the afternoon heaving the vinyls by the hundreds from the bank in front of our house into the woods across the street. We watched in glee as they sailed like a fleet of invading flying saucers that one by one smashed into thousands of pieces against the trees: The original Frisbee festival.

Years later when the building lot where we had thrown them was developed, our neighbor came over one day to ask my father if he had any idea why his new lawn had begun to repeatedly spit what appeared to be hundreds of broken record fragments.

My father said he didn’t know.

He was telling the truth. 

 

Columbia recordsFly me to the moon

And let me sing among the stars

Let me see what spring is like

On Jupiter and mars

(Frank Sinatra)

Photo source: Wikipedia

Uncle Jimmy

 

 

Uncle Jimmy

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.

I thought.

  • 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.

She said:

  • And what does that mean?

I replied

  • 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.

Uncle Jim

 

Uncle Jimmy

Every kid should have one

 

 

Happy Holidays 2: New Years Day

 

New Years Day (1950s) 

New Years Day was spent at Aunt Kay and Uncle Jimmy’s house.

This time the lead course was home- made Lasagna, instead of Ravioli, because this time Grandma did not participate.

Aunt Rose, who had apparently won grandma every single year in the Christmas lottery said that grandma was tired, could not possibly cook and needed a break from the stress of Christmas; meaning that Kay then slaved alone in the kitchen.

Uncle Jimmy started off the festivities by making Martinis. Only he could make them, because according to him only he could make them correctly and truthfully only he could drink them because everyone else eventually had to drive home. So Jim got sloshed by himself, which only led to ever escalating personal pontifications as the day wore on. Since he used onions instead of olives it also led to the annual debate about weather a Martini with onions could really be called a Martini. My mother said it should be called a Gibson but Uncle Jim said that was too confusing; leaving the issue to remain on the table year after year, never being really laid to rest; except to finally compromise by affirming that the drink was in fact a Martini with onions.

Once again, after the lasagna, chicken and salad were served; then topped off by a dessert scenario similar to the one at Christmas: soggy half-rotted fruit, nuts, cookies and candy in the same genre as those at Rose’s house. In fact, some of it might have been recycled from Rose’s house. However this time at least, we did not sing Happy Birthday to the Gregorian calendar.

We did, in fact sing, but it took me a very long time to figure out that Auld Lang Syne was not some aging Norseman that everyone was trying to forget.

It was also here that instead of debating the merits of pricking the meat, the customary lengthy annual debate would shift to the subject of sauce versus gravy. Or if not that it would be the concept of spaghetti versus macaroni. There was a faction in the family that insisted on calling spaghetti sauce, “gravy.” One person would say: “Pass the sauce.” Then another person would immediately say: “It’s not sauce. It’s gravy.” God forbid then if anyone doubly compounded the issue by more or less innocently asking someone to “Pass the spaghetti sauce.”

That statement usually called for an attack on the jugular vein.

  • Every year we tell him its macaroni and its gravy. And every year he asks for spaghetti with sauce.

Then all hell would break loose.

The debate raged on and on but no one ever changed their minds because no one ever took the time to research the technical definitions between sauce and gravy. At the same time even remotely trying to define macaroni as being any dried pasta product over the diameter of 3 mm and shorter than 1.5 inches, would have been asking too much in the way of a compromise. Thank god indeed that in their telescoped myopic thinking they had also failed to realize that there are over 150 names for various kinds of pastas, or we never would have gotten to the dessert.

More likely than not, these arguments were never destined to be resolved in the first place, because if they had been, then no one would have had anything to say to each other. It would have been just seven terminally bored adults sitting around the table again, silently passing and re-passing the “sauce” around in a “gravy” boat to pour on the “pasta” while the master of the house drank Martinis with onions.

The only time the conversation would shift gears would be when Uncle Tony and Aunt Francis might occasionally stop in for a brief visit. Uncle Tony’s first wife had died prematurely, which left him alone with two small children. Since he had a full time job and could not handle the domestic side of life by himself, he immediately went back to Italy where he found the first woman who would take on both himself as well as his children.

The process was about one step shy of having ordered her by mail, and then sent over by Fed Ex in a packing crate.

But his new bride, Francis, who was barely out of her late teens at the time, not only embraced the prospect of becoming an instant mother, but also embraced the chance to move to America and become an instant United States citizen. It turned out that Uncle Tony’s intuition about this woman was correct because she not only became a wonderfully devoted wife and companion but also raised Tony’s children as if they were her own. She was a sweet woman with a big heart and a pleasant, happy, optimistic disposition. For some reason, she either did not or could not have children of her own.

Since Tony and Francis had other family obligations on this holiday, they usually came after dinner and always left before dessert. The good old holiday drive-by being a mixed blessing. If you don’t show up, they castigate you, and when you do come over, but then leave, they gossip. So predictably, as soon as the front door closed behind them, the same pathetically tedious conversation would begin, as the rest of the clan would then project their own emotions.

  • Poor Aunt Francis. Isn’t it a shame that she doesn’t have any children of her own?
  • Yes, isn’t it a shame she will never know the joys and blessings that having and raising your own children can bring.

As though Aunt Francis might be living a life devoid of any satisfaction or fulfillment by raising not real, but surrogate step children or as though these pin-headed experts on other people’s psyches were embarked on the road of raising their own perfect and life fulfilling natural children themselves.

The only scenario that topped this one was when my office manger would bring her daughter to the in-laws on whatever holiday they were obligated to go. Her mother-in-law would immediately hand her the camera asking that she take a picture of the “family,” as if she herself was nothing better than a breeding pod for her husband’s side of the gene pool. This resulted in the in-law family archives only containing annual pictures of a poor little motherless child.

Beside a slowly emerging insight into my relatives narrow minded thought processes, I was also slowly but surely beginning to appreciate the fact that Italian desserts are a culturally anticlimactic afterthought to the point I am now confident that it is only in the category of the dessert in which Italians can out-Deli the Jews. The real gluttony goes with the main meal and as such, most Italians never actually make dessert or pay it much mind. On the off chance that someone had brought Canolies for example, the shells were usually a day old and spongy-soft instead of being crunchy-crisp, while the filling tasted like old unused unwrapped butter after it has picked up every odor in the refrigerator. Or even if there was something more conventional such as Italian cookies, they were usually store bought, tasteless, made out of lard and stale in a way suggesting they were Neolithic. If they were sufficiently old, they could actually crumble to dust when touched making me positively sure they are probably responsible for causing at least one clogged artery in some member of the family.

There must be a large government surplus warehouse where these cookies are stockpiled; and probably a subsidiary branch of the U.S. Department of Surplus Fruitcakes. To this day I wish people would not send any of these culinary horrors to my office on the holidays so I do not have to re-re-gift them or suffer the guilt that holiday gift recycling brings. Or worse, forget that you are really giving the same present back to the person who gave it to you last year.

But at least at Cousin Jimmy’s house there were some boy’s toys and some boy things to do, not to mention twelve hours of College Football Bowl games on T.V. to distract the men. Also at this locale, for unknown reasons, even Rosemary seemed to fare a little better, occasionally spoke a few words but still pouted over dinner and never ate very much.

In fact, we all fared a little better as long as Uncle Jimmy happened to be in a good Martini mood. It was also a very good day indeed if we children were not required to perform any sort of music recitals in front of half drunk, tone deaf pseudo-aficionado relatives. It didn’t matter anyway because after Little Jimmy’s accomplished rousing virtuoso rendition of the “Clarinet Polka,” followed by my equally accomplished Cousin Laura’s annual refusal to play the flute; that was basically “all she wrote.” Nobody else’s talent was even close to being on par with Little Jimmy’s, while Uncle Jimmy’s predictably bi-polar sour mood after badgering Laura to play when she would not, made all three of these acts equally hard to follow.

 

 Auld Lang Syne          gibson

Should old acquaintance be forgot

And never brought to mind?

Should old acquaintance be forgot

And days of Auld Lang Syne

Photo: Gibson cocktail  © manolobig.com

 

Cousins 1

Cousins 1 

Aunt Rose and Uncle Ed had two children, Linda and Rosemary. Linda was about two years older than I was, a different gender with an altogether separate agenda; so I never really bonded with her. Uncle Jim and Aunt Kay had two children, Laura and Jimmy, otherwise wise known as “Little Jimmy.” Laura was Linda’s age, so naturally the two of them usually aggregated and then segregated themselves from the other children. Laura had a great sense of humor, being very sarcastic in a jocular way that made her fun. Linda, on the other hand, was a straight laced, humorless clone of her mother.

“Rosemary” must have been a matronymic derivative combining both her mother and the Virgin mother’s names. Perhaps this binary legacy was too much to live up to, as she reflected neither persona; usually being relatively non-verbal, sullen and withdrawn. She was about four years younger than Linda and never seemed to be included in the older sister’s holiday activities. She ate almost nothing at any of the family gatherings. But I was too naïve to ask her if it was because she was equally nauseated as I was by this Holy Day of Obligation, or if it was because there was something else going on in her life.

Because the children were consigned to their own table in the kitchen to keep them ferreted away from the adults; Rose would periodically come in from the dining room to check on, to coddle and to perseverate as she prodded her daughter. She called her “Poodgie”

  • What’s the matter Poodgie. Aren’t you hungry? Don’t you want to eat some of this nice food? Grandma made it just for you. It’s your favorite. Raviolis. You know you love raviolis. Come on, Poodgie. Eat. Eat. You’ll feel better. Eat. Eat. If you don’t eat you’ll just waste away.

No wonder she never ate. Rosemary would just sit with her arms crossed, frowning, pouting, and then eventually escaped to her room. She was not in any way emaciated, so I knew she had to be eating something, somewhere, at some point in time; but there also was little doubt that some hidden social or eating disorder was still darkly lurking; secreted somewhere in the background. In retrospect I occasionally wonder what may have gone on behind closed doors to possibly make Rosemary the way she was, while heavily discounting in my own mind that it was anything but fawning, coddling and gentle prodding. Although it then became another one of those predictable annual discussions for everyone to ask ‘what’s the matter with Rosemary?’ everyone then just went about the usual business of Christmas leaving the question of “what’s the matter with Rosemary or why she never ate dinner?” to go perpetually unanswered.

One particularity vivid holiday memory occurred when Laura and Linda were excitedly squealing about getting some 45-speed recordings of a new musical phenomenon named Elvis Presley, then playing them repetitiously in the bedroom. At first I thought they were crazy because the music was so strange, but that opinion quickly reversed as I too soon embraced the new musical ideology of Rock and Roll.

Meanwhile, although Uncle Jimmy was a wholesale dealer for Columbia records, and could have supplied me with plenty of free vinyls over the years, he somehow never seemed to have any of the good contemporary Rock performers.  He would periodically show up at our house to give my parents piles of LP albums with a big red ink “DEMONSTRATION: Not for Sale” stamped on the front or the back.

None of them were recognizable as famous contemporary artists or headlining songs but instead was just all the junk that could not be sold anywhere, as they moldered away in his dead inventory pile. When he needed some room for more junk, he just “generously” purged the trunk of his car in our driveway. My father said it was a thoughtful gesture whereas my mother suggested it was an oblique insulting innuendo about our lack of sophisticated musical taste.

For example although I never did get any of Bob Dylan’s albums, I still have a copy of the ever-popular and ever generic, so-not Tito Puente,  bottom of the five thousand hit parade album: “The Calypso Carnival.”

 

Calypso Carnival

 

Cause it’s the chicken gumbo

And the Okra water

Makes you do the things you out to

(Calypso aphrodisiac song)

 

 

 

Dining in

Dining In

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.
  • What?
  • 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.

Adam and Eve

Therefore a man  shall leave his father and his  mother,

And shall cleave unto his wife : and they shall be one flesh.

(The Bible)

 

 

Adam and Eve Portrait by Hans Memling: Universitee Libre de Bruxelles