Cousin Byron 2

Byron 2

As an adult I lost contact with Byron, just seeing him once when my brother got married in the late 1980s. In general, he only held itinerant jobs and never got a steady career off the ground. Similar to my cousin Jimmy, the only thing he seemed to succeed at was failure. Truthfully speaking, I never really knew what he ever did for a living. He did get married and had stepchildren, but seemed to drift in and out of a serious depressive disorder that did not contribute to the overall stability of his life.

In about 2005 he called me to let me know that his depression had relapsed which explained why he had not returned any personal phone calls for the past two years. Apparently his wife could not even stimulate enough interest for him to return calls from friends who only wanted to go fishing. The point of the call was to let me know that he was on a new series of anti-depressant medications that seemed to be lifting him out of that twenty-four month funk. He also wanted me to be sure to know that he was OK and if I had happened to call him in that period of time, he was simply trying to catch up on the vacuum this non-interactive time lag had created in his social life.

That part I could certainly understand. Even without being depressed I have a peculiarly bad habit of avoiding phone calls, but my aversion is career related and due to the fact that the telephone is the worst enemy of the physician’s privacy and peace of mind.

This was different however; as endogenous depression is a serious medical disorder that can truly incapacitate or destroy a person’s ability to lead any kind of normal life, much less sometimes even preserve the will to live.

Both sides of my family have been victimized by this disorder, including my great grandfather and “Aunt” Margaret; both of whom committed suicide; while Aunt Kay, as well as Cousins Jimmy and Byron, were just left withering on the vine of wasted lives because of its devastating effects.

No one knows the biochemistry of depression and most treatments never really seem to offer a resurrection of one’s real persona or even a permanent cure.

However the part I could not understand about Byron was his allusion in another phone call, just after his father had died, that all his problems stemmed from the fact that my brother and me made him play The Poot Catcher when we were children. I was shocked to think that for decades Byron felt as though his psyche had suffered irreparable damage by being forced into that particular role or that this thought was forever smoldering in his subconscious like a small lump of burning coal.

I thought, “OK Byron, when in doubt, always lay the blame on some scapegoat for your own shortcomings in life. No, it couldn’t have been more the case that the rod was spared and the child was spoiled.” Conversely for him, it was by not sparing the hot-rod, which ended up being his spoiler. But instead feeling a bit of compassion for his immediate grief and also not wanting to suggest it was because his father had bought off his childhood with material goods, what I said instead was:

  • Don’t be ridiculous. That was only a child’s game, and it seemed to me we were just having fun.

Although he undoubtedly thought that an overdose of human methane was the culprit for his mood disorder, I was more of the opinion that as children, we all probably had shit for brains anyway.I was forced to hang up on him because the conversation had become too obliquely absurd to continue; and never heard from him again.


Potiac GTO


(Byron’s first toy: The GM Pontiac GTO)


She’s got a competition clutch with four on the floor.

And she purrs like a kitten when the lake pipes roar.

And if that ain’t enough to make you flip your lid

There’s one more thing, I go the pink slip daddy.

And comin’ off the line when the light turns green,

You know she blows ‘em outta the water like you never seen.

I get pushed out of shape, and it’s hard to steer

When I hit rubber in all four gears.

She’ my little deuce coop

You don’t know what I got.

(Little Deuce Coop: The Beach Boys)



Photo source

Aunt Margaret (1960s)

Aunt Margaret


Don’t commit suicide; because you might change your mind two weeks later.

(Art Buchwald)

My pseudo-cousin Skippy’s mother, Margaret, was my mother’s best friend and my sister’s Godmother, although to this day I never found out how Margaret and my mother met. My sister was named Margaret Jean after both her and my Aunt Thelma Jean, making my sister the only sibling in my family with a truly traceable name.

“Aunt” Margaret, on the surface, was a jocular, upbeat, jovial woman whose smile, laugh or giggle made her a pleasure to be around. Whenever we visited her house she had the natural ability to make us all feel welcome, wanted and special while any potential adversity seemed to roll off her back like castigation rolled off her son’s.

Skippy had both an older sister and a younger brother who were perfect children: quiet, obedient and studious whereas Skippy on the other hand was loud, boisterous, uncontrollable, and hated school. I do not believe that Margaret or his father Nick knew how to handle or to control him from the beginning, a fact that over time only made these behavioral issues spiral geometrically out of control.

After beginning to run with a bad crowd, Skippy eventually became a heroin addict. This was the 1960’s when Scarsdale and Bronxville were relatively upscale bedroom communities making many of Skippy’s friends children of the wealthier families. These were kids who had too much money and too much free time on their hands. Skippy, having less cash, sold his coin collection to pay for drugs then got into serious trouble when he enabled or coaxed the daughter of a high profile Corporate Executive to get hooked on heroin.

At one point when it seemed as though he might turn things around, his parents sent him to school in Florida at the Dade County Community College. He was lucky by this time not to be in the Dade County Jail. The only problem was that after several months, when his parents called to see how he was doing, Skippy could not be located because although the tuition had arrived, apparently Skippy had not. He did not register for class but had set off instead for the Haight-Ashbury section in San Francisco to join the flower people.

It was probably a combination of the stress, the disappointment, and the personal embarrassment that made Margaret stop calling my mother or to socialize with her; but this sudden silence from a former best friend was more than a trivial bother. My mother was deeply hurt by what she perceived to be a snub, had no explanation as to why, only to become progressively bitter about it.

After not hearing from Margaret for quite some time however, one afternoon my mother decided to proactively take matters into her own hands by making an unannounced visit. She took me along for the ride because she thought I might like to see Skippy.

We found Margaret in the living room in the middle of the day with the shades pulled down, sitting in a chair vacantly staring off into space. The atmosphere was dreary yet at the same time tense, there was very little personal interaction, the conversation was tersely impersonal, and being unable to reach out to her or to have any meaningful communication, we left.

Skippy was not in the house, Margaret never even mentioned his name or his whereabouts and when I asked her if he might be coming home soon, she said she didn’t know.

The medical community in those days had a shallow understanding of depressive disorders, how to fully recognize them or how to effectively treat them. Aunt Kay, my father’s sister, was a good example of treatment failure by the barbaric intervention of electro-shock therapy, while my mother naively thought that Margaret was simply down in the dumps and would prefer to be left alone.

My father called Nick to see what was going on, but Nick did not have a handle on it either. He said he knew his wife was having a problem but didn’t know what the problem really was.

Then just a few weeks later, Nick called my father to tell him that Margaret went into the garage one morning after he had gone to work, sat in the front seat of the car, rolled up the windows, locked herself in, turned the engine on and killed herself with the exhaust fumes.

Everyone was devastated and more than one person suggested it might have been, at least in part, because Skippy had plain and simply worn her out and simultaneously slowly broke her heart.

In fact, it was too bad that Margaret did not stick around, because when he finally grew up, Skippy got clean, kicked his heroin habit, married, got a job and then had children of his own.

Margaret’s suicide was also an exception to the rule that women usually do not take their own lives, except for the fact that her behavioral change was a real clue to the fact that she was sick, and desperately needed help. Unfortunately, none of the people who cared about her knew how to recognize or to deal with the issue.

The last I heard from Skippy was in the 1990s about a house he lived in somewhere in the woods of New England or Upstate New York that burned to the ground from an electrical fire.

He told me:

  • Gee Ado. I was asleep and I saw all these flashing lights, colors and sparks, so I said to myself, ’Boy what a cool dream.’ I thought for a minute I was flashing back on LSD and rolled over to go back to sleep, but I guess it’s a good thing I smelled the smoke, woke up and got everyone out of the house.

It was typical for Skippy. He had just lost his house, but never even mentioned it as being a devastating experience. The fact that everyone was safe was most important and the entire incident rolled off his back once again like beaded water off smooth tarpaulin.

He added:

  •  Who cares about a house anyway? I can always get another one. In fact maybe now I’ll just build a better one.

Margaret had three children. One of each. A boy, a girl and a Skippy.

Having children is a genetic crapshoot in a game of chance that can never predict how the DNA will twist and combine its braids. But unlike the YMCA day camp, when you create a missed braid and then unravel it to start all over again, these molecular braids are immutably locked together at the moment of conception with genetic crazy glue.

Children are all about genetics and environment.

How they come out of the box is highly unpredictable.

How they actually turn out may or may not be somewhat modifiable.

Que sera, sera.


Devil or Angel

Dear, which ever you are.

I miss you, I need you, I love you. 

(Bobby Vee)



A Midlife Crisis

My Father Changes His Personality


My father thought there was a curse on the men in his family because they all got get sick or died young.

When he was in his forties he started to keep his weight controlled by eating a slice of toast for breakfast, yogurt for lunch, and a light dinner accompanied by several glasses of wine. Remarkably, this avant-garde behavior started in the 1950s when yogurt was sour, plain, unflavored, and without fruit. It was also at a time when no one was consumed with health fads, much less interested in a low fat or Mediterranean type diet. We all made fun of him behind his back; calling him ”Yogurt Man.” But the last laugh is currently being enjoyed by a 100 year old who walked 14 golf holes until just last year.

He drank two glasses of wine daily, and the more it tasted like cheap Italian homemade fermented grape juice or vinegar the better he liked it. If a bad tasting bottle was opened, as long as it was red, or especially if it was home made he would still drink it because if it was homemade or it was made by an Italian “it was good.” To this day if I open a bottle of wine which does not suit my taste, I bring it over to his house knowing that he will not at all be insulted and it will never go to waste.

He was temperate in his drinking, only drank with dinner, and I never saw him drunk. But the alcohol did seem to have an anesthetic effect that would put him to sleep shortly after he ate. My mother said that one reason she stopped entertaining at home was because of his penchant to fall asleep in front of his company. He countered by saying that he had narcolepsy and actually had to use amphetamines while he was studying for exams in dental school. He did finish school in three years so perhaps he was only making up for the lost sleep that occurred during his “speed” accelerated education.

When his sister Kay became morbidly and chronically depressed he arbitrarily decided that the etiology of this devastating medical condition was only because she did not have a sense of humor; when more likely it was related to Uncle Jimmy’s incessant browbeating. Simultaneously he became obsessed with the idea that depression might also run in the entire family to the point that one day; out of nowhere he came home and announced to my mother that he was going to change his personality. From then on, he said, he was going to become the “Life of the Party,” then set out to memorize as many jokes as he possibly could.

However, his timing was bad, the circumstances for telling the jokes were inappropriate or forced, his delivery was poor and he either told the punch line first or could not remember it correctly when it was time to deliver it.

He never did become depressed, but everyone else did when he decided to tell one of these jokes that were usually insipid, overly retold or worn out to begin with. Fortunately but only after a long period of time and for reasons known only to himself, he stopped. Perhaps it was due to the lack of positive audience feedback. No applause. Not even a chuckle. Just skeptical blank stares.

Horse face


“Hey, did you hear the one about the horse with a long face?”

(Dad’s version)

A  horse walked into a bar. The bartender said: “So why the long face?”

(The real joke)

Horse photo: © 2004 Oast Farms



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