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Saturday, June 11, 2011

I (wish I didn’t) Remember Mama: Meet Mama (It's her birthday)

NOT my mother.
My mother was not the most evil, witchiest, cruelest woman on the face of the earth. As a child, I  had a schizoid view of the world: I didn’t think my family was any different than other families (some of my friends had very nutty mothers, too), but I also thought that Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show were true representations of typical American families—something my family was not.

My mother was born in 1920 to an Italian immigrant family in New York City—Hell’s Kitchen. She was the baby of the family, and from all reports, she was her father’s favorite. She had two brothers and a sister, and they were born in 1914, 1916, and 1918. These were my uncles and aunt. The strangest one is the younger uncle who somehow managed to grow up to be a sane, responsible, loving, intelligent, fun person (as opposed to his three nutty, social misfit siblings); in order to fit in with the rest of the family, he married a nut. He is also the only one of the four that did not develop Alzheimer’s. Hmmmm…

One evening in 1941, my mother was sitting in Central Park with a friend or two. My father, a Midwesterner, was also with a friend or two—they were in the Navy and taking a stroll through the park. My younger brother tells me that our dad approached her and asked her if she’d like to go for a beer, and she said “yes.”  They  married in December 1941.

It wasn’t just a fondness for beer that fueled their relationship; my father was deeply in love with my mother all through the 60+ years they were married (that’s right, I never got my childhood wish). A strong man who suffered a dreadful childhood, my father treated my mother like a princess. She treated him like shit.

I never really knew my parents; strange since we lived in the same houses for 18 years. I know almost nothing about their lives before I was born. What I do know, I’ve learned from my younger brother who bonded with my father over scotch and football (actually, my father was not a scotch drinker; he favored cocktails like Manhattans, martinis, whiskey sours, Tom Collins, and old fashioneds; they—more likely—bonded over beer and sports), and stories I picked up from extended family.

Friday, June 10, 2011

I (wish I didn’t) Remember Mama: That First Glass of Beer

(Note: I had originally planned to introduce Mama today, but tomorrow's her birthday, so let's celebrate together then.)

I don’t remember the first time I drank beer; I was probably five or six years old. I didn’t have a can or bottle of Rheingold, I sipped from my father’s. By the time I was seven, I accompanied my father on his weekly Saturday afternoon visit to the Cozy Tavern, a neighborhood landmark. Women were not allowed to sit at the Cozy’s bar, they had to sit at small tables scattered throughout the premises—but women didn’t frequent the Cozy on Saturday afternoons. I, however, not only sat at the bar, I sat on the bar.

At seven years old, it doesn’t seem odd to be the only kid in a bar with a bunch of beer drinkers and cigar smokers; it feels good. For that hour, I was the star—the center of attention. The barkeeper would allow me to pick out any flavor of soda I wanted from his big cooler, and that seemed like a very special privilege. I don’t remember any of the men at the Cozy; none of them were members of my parents social circle.

After entering adulthood, I was surprised to learn that none of my friends hung out at bars with their fathers when they were little kids. None of my friends mixed alcohol with their milk in the high school cafeteria, either. Weird, huh?

Images shamelessly ripped from:

Thursday, June 9, 2011

I (wish I didn’t) Remember Mama: The Nuclear-Imploded Family

I don’t remember ever wishing for a pony when I was a child, but I do remember wishing my parents would split up. In my naiveté, I thought that if my parents divorced, I would live with my father. Back in the fifties and sixties, that was unlikely. Surely my mother would retain custody since no one outside of our family knew she was nuts—or would say it.

We had a very important rule in our house, one that I know I never broke, and doubt my younger brother did. It was absolutely forbidden to discuss things that happened at home with “outsiders,” outsiders being anyone who didn’t live with the five of us (two boys, a girl, a mother, a father). I don’t know what would have happened if we told a teacher or guidance counselor that our mother was a little nutty. Probably nothing—it wasn’t a very enlightened age. Therefore if we wanted to discuss something that was happening in the house, we had to discuss it among ourselves. If such a discussion were to take place, it wouldn’t be with either of our parents. I can’t imagine what the repercussions of telling either one of them that we thought their actions were unfair. Thanks to this wonderful rule, anyone could do anything at all to us, and we couldn’t speak about it.

There were other very important rules, although I’m not sure if any of them were as important as the “gag rule,” or if they were all equally important. No phone calls before noon. No going outside the house before noon on days school wasn’t in session. The reason I am reasonably conversant on ancient television sitcoms is that I spent every summer morning watching reruns of The Gale Storm Show and I Love Lucy. I’ve seen nearly every cartoon in which Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck (more on them later) appeared, I heard Clarabelle speak, and I was pretty darn good at game shows.

One evening my two brothers (one six years older than I, the other six years younger) were having dinner with my parents; we were adults. In the course of the conversation my mother said the most flabbergasting thing I’d ever heard: “At least I never hit you kids.” Really? Who was that woman who used to beat the crap out of my younger brother with a wooden spoon? Who was that woman who knocked on my bedroom door, slapped me in the face when I opened it (and why did she knock? It was unlocked. Drama, maybe?), then turned on her heel and walked away?

My father died about seven or eight years ago, and I travelled across country with my husband for the funeral. We flew from Baton Rouge to Denver, then drove six hours to the little town in which my father had lived. Although the funeral was sparsely attended, the women of the church provided a buffet meal afterwards. As my brothers, my husband, and I sat together eating (my mother was in a nursing home), my older brother said the most amazing thing: “At least they didn’t beat us.” I didn’t see Kool-Aid on the table, so I don’t know what he was drinking. He’s always been an alien creature to me—although I bonded with my younger brother, I didn’t really know my older brother (and the things I knew, well…). I envy him in a way; I’m sure I would’ve been a lot happier if I didn’t carry around the memories I have. On the other hand, maybe they never did beat him…

People have always treated me as a sort of “font of knowledge”; when some little bit of unrecoverable trivia was stuck in their heads they’d call me and I’d supply the answer. I never set out to know anything (after all, I was one of the “stupid kids”); perhaps it was all those mornings (and many afternoons) I spent with the game shows.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

I (wish I didn’t) Remember Mama: Introduction

A little girl would be beaten with a belt whenever she was kept after school. It was 1956 and she was in second grade. She spent many an afternoon doing punishment lessons for her failure to do her homework properly—infractions such as not employing the correct method of folding the paper. The child was punished so often that she became paranoid, and every night before she started her homework she would check on the porch adjoining the dining room to see if Mrs. Wright was spying on her.

Her punishments were not administered as soon as she returned home from school because she had to wait until her father got home from work. She was not punished as soon as Dad got home because supper would soon be ready, and her mother would often say, “Spank her after dinner…I don’t want my appetite ruined.”
And so, the little girl would go through the meal dreading what was to follow. Do you think her appetite was spoiled?

Reflecting back on this drama, I remember that my parents often complained that Mrs. Wright was not certified or qualified to teach (it was a private school) and yet…

 I also wonder how Mrs. Wright arrived at her appraisal of my paper-folding. The paper was to be folded in half lengthwise, which it was. What would make the miserable woman suspect or accuse otherwise?

Another thing I remember from second grade is that I wouldn’t eat. My father, in  his wisdom, would take me to the library and find books about children who wouldn’t eat, all of which had a moral and hearty meal at the end. It never occurred to me until today—55 years later—that I had developed an eating disorder of sorts. If I didn’t eat, I wouldn’t get beat. At least that’s what my seven-year-old self must have been thinking.
I was a skinny kid, but a few years later I was a chubby kid. Then I was skinny, then fat, then thin, then…oh well, you get the picture. As long as I can remember, eating has been an issue for me.

After half a century, I’m left with a question. Did my dysfunctional relationship with food begin with, “Spank her after dinner…I don’t want my appetite ruined”?