Saddest of Smiles

Scroll down or click on “home” to read subsequent chapters in the history of my family – the story of where I came from.

This is chapter 1.

I don’t write this as a tell-all.  I don’t intend this as an indictment.  I certainly don’t want to put another “wah-wah my family screwed me up” tale of woe out there.  My history and that of my immediate and extended family is, of course, of great importance to me and I wondered if it might be entertaining to anyone else.  It’s a long story and it’s taken me a lifetime to make sense of it and to understand its effects.  The tale needs to be presented in chapters and this post will be the first.

I’ve been told who you are depends on where you’re from and who was your family to a greater extent than we realize and the American mythology of hard work and self-made individuals is still hostage to our history.  This tale is the tapestry of what makes me me.  It’s not always a happy history.  I’ll only speak about myself as it relates to the yesteryear of my family.  I have changed the names of family members to protect their memories and to protect myself from claims of libel or slander from any of my remaining cousins. The names of my family members are meaningless to anyone outside the family, anyway.  What’s important is what those family members did and said and what it meant to me.   Everyone has their own unique family quilt which produced them.  This is mine and I hope it’s a good story.

Chapter 1: Maternal Beginnings

My parents lived what I consider a pretty hard life before I came along.  While life became more comfortable, starting with their suburban migration, I don’t think it got any easier right up till the day they died.

My mother was one of about 13 children in a fractious family.  I’ll call her Elvira which was, actually, her real name although she never used it.  She was born in 1910.  I’m not absolutely certain about the number of her siblings.  That information wasn’t forthcoming when I was a kid, as were many other topics which were taboo except in whispers and gossip.  There were passing mentions of still births and deaths, but nothing more detailed than that.  Her family migrated out of New York City, where she was born, as did legions of other Italian immigrant families, and settled in an equally urban area of Hudson County, New Jersey. Her parents were Neapolitan immigrants, as were my father’s parents, no doubt economic escapees from the old country. There was absolutely no discussion of the European or immigration history of her family which is telling in itself.  The running joke was that my mother’s Italian ancestors were thieves.  Given the behavior of their American progeny, that gene pool was showing.  My only recollection of a mention of anyone else in my grandparents’ generation was during a visit to a cemetery in Bergen County when I was an older child where, supposedly, some of them were buried.  Those phantom relatives, I was told, worked in the infant east coast motion picture business as some sort of film stock handlers.  I seem to remember talk of one of them being injured or killed in a silver nitrate fire which was common in early film stock.  Given the modest ambitions of the rest of my mother’s family, as we’ll talk about in another chapter, these film industry professionals were regarded as having an exalted place in the working history of the family.

I don’t know my maternal grandfather’s name – I never met him.  He was alive, I think, when I was young but was not a member of the family and did not live with them.  I was told he was a shoe maker with a shop in the same city where his family lived and it was rumored he lived in that shop.  I don’t know the circumstances of this estrangement, nor if his marriage to my grandmother was legally dissolved or just left to expire on its own nor if he contributed to the financial welfare of his family.  I don’t know the chronology or circumstances of his death, or anything else about him for that matter.  He was not spoken of with any affection. This kind of detail was left unspoken in my mother’s family and these kind of specifics were of no great importance to me growing up.  I never pursued this kind of information later as the circumstances of my own life became more important.  I don’t regret this lack of knowledge.  The fact that my grandfather was absent and poorly regarded is, in itself, what’s important.  In fact, what I do know about both my families was more the result of my observations and the overhearing of conversations and less about a comprehensive narrative provided by my parents.  What bits and pieces my parents did tell me, I realized later, were not anywhere near an objective truth but, rather, colored by their likes, dislikes and prejudices.

I never had the desire to research my family using tools like  The gaps in my knowledge of my family’s history are an integral part of my feelings toward my people.  The blanks, secrets, absences, feuds, gossip and lies were an essential part of the fabric of where I came from.  Learning whatever facts are available online won’t change or amplify that.  I understand that what was “common knowledge” among those people wasn’t always the truth and learning the online facts won’t make any difference.  My acceptance of my family’s half-truths shaped my younger self until I reached an age where I began to perceive glimpses of reality. Only then was I able to start to put these people and my history in perspective and to begin to understand how it affected me.  Eventually understanding that the family stories spun to me as a child were, at best, partly fabricated, gives me more insight than any bland data filling in the blanks.

My maternal grandmother, let’s call her Philomena, was an old lady by the time I came along and she died when I was 5 or 6. I’m pretty sure of that chronology because I remember going to the cemetery when she was buried and wondering why my aunts and uncles didn’t seem glad to see me that day, the way a non-logical child would wonder.  That makes me think I was younger than 7, when children become more  attuned to reality.

I remember going to her walk up apartment to visit her with my parents. It was in a large, nondescript apartment building on a busy street in an large, Husdon County town, hemmed in by other structures with an unremarkable street entrance close to the curb.  When you reached the apartment, up the stairs from the street, the top of the staircase was right in the apartment rather than in an outside hallway which strikes me as odd but I remember that distinctly.  The place always smelled of gas – natural gas – although the cooking stove was fired by wood.  It was a big, black, cast iron stove and oven with a wood burning chamber and a smooth cook-top with round metal cut-outs you could remove with a handle to expose the flame below.  The whole thing dominated the small kitchen with a huge vent pipe sunk into the wall behind it.  The kitchen was dwarfed by the huge adjacent dining room, with enormous, intricately carved dining room furniture.  The living room, in the front of the unit, overlooked the avenue which I remember being boulevard size with the hustle and bustle to match.  The apartment was of the “railroad” design with all the rooms connecting to a long, dark, common hallway that ran front to back eventually terminating in the front living room.  I remember the kitchen was in the rear of the apartment, then working forward was the dining room, then the bedrooms, then the living room.  It must have been a large apartment with many bedrooms since my many aunts and uncles lived there at one time or another.  This rental – I’m guessing they didn’t own it – was the dominant abode for family visits while my mother’s mother was alive.  We didn’t have the same connection with my father’s family, as will be explained in another chapter.

Grandma was a small, thin, quiet, unsmiling woman. She may have been sickly and I don’t remember her ever being jolly. I suppose if I had that many children and no husband to speak of I’d be dour as well.  She probably wondered if her trip across the ocean had actually bettered her life. The common American dream is of doting grandparents who spoil you rotten as a kid.  No such luck here.  I have no recollection of any interaction with her at all beyond being presented to her on these family visits.  She would sit, all but motionless, and would manage a tiny smile, more a sad smirk, and pat me on the head or something like that. I was one of a fair amount of grandchildren, given the number of her children and I don’t remember ever feeling special in her presence.

There was none of that gregarious Italian family atmosphere in that apartment.  That came later, with a twist, among my many aunts and uncles.  In that matriarchal abode there was a feeling that I, even as a small child, recall of a situation being kept going on life support with the quiet of impending bad news in the air.  The visits to her seemed more mandatory than by loving choice.  I don’t ever recall witnessing any warmth or connection between my mother and her mother.  Maybe I was too young to see it but I suspect not.  That kind of connection is obvious even to the youngest of children.  There may have been big, noisy family dinners there with lots of people gathered around that outsized dining room set but I really can’t recall any.  Again, maybe I was too young to remember or maybe there wasn’t anything like that at all.

I don’t know what became of that apartment after my grandmother died, whether it stayed in the family or not.  I’m guessing there was never any sentimental attachment to that real estate.  There was no sign of it while she was alive that I could sense. That Philomena died when I was very young is confirmed because I don’t ever remember being in her apartment when I could see the top of the dining room table.  I vividly remember ever being only eye level to the overly carved dining room table legs.

I remember the cemetery when she was buried.  It’s so huge it straddles 2 towns.  The westerly entrance to the cemetery is on the main street of a small, pleasant suburban town.  By the time you reach the eastern-most part of the park, you’re closer to the coastal, urban, seaport sprawl of northern New Jersey with cat-tails and wetlands up close and bridges, highways and New York City on the horizon. Many of my family members from both sides are buried there and my parents are in the newer mausoleum. The day of Grandma’s burial was sunny but the cemetery was muddy with construction vehicles all around.  I remember thinking we were close to the little store where we bought Italian cheesecake.  The street that housed that store was just beyond the eastern cemetery gate and other cemetery visits usually ended with a cheesecake purchase.  I never liked Italian ricotta cheesecake – despite my parents’ obvious passion for it.  Whenever we bought cheesecake we couldn’t just go to the supermarket or a local bakery – and cream cheese based cheesecake was out of the question.  No, we had to make this God-awful trek to this crummy store in the middle of nowhere.  It always seemed to take forever to get there and the store itself was a pathetic, little, cement facade specialty store – the kind Italians swear by.  It looked to me to be on the edge of civilization because the corner where it stood gave way to a swamp and the entrance to a highway.  You had to get there early in the day because, even though it was the only thing they sold, they’d run out of their precious ricotta slabs presented in a plain cardboard box and tied with red and white string.  Italians love the idea that you have to get it before it’s gone.  It smacks of authenticity and exclusivity.  As a child I couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t make enough when you know lots of people wanted it – I still don’t.

But, sure enough, we bought a cheesecake after the funeral – I guess it was early enough in the day – and everyone gathered, one last time, at Grandma’s place.   Then, after that, all at once, we were no longer making the obligatory pilgrimage to the apartment and my grandmother’s chapter closed with hardly a sound.

Next time: The Sanest One – My mother’s place among the aunts and uncles and their stories.


The Sanest One

Scroll up or click on “home” to see Chapter 1 of my family’s history. Scroll down or click on “home” to see subsequent chapters.

The history of my family continues, here, with this:

Chapter 2: Maternal Aunts and Uncles

My mother was in the middle of her family’s age pack.  I had a lot of contact with her brothers and sisters growing up.  The obligatory Sunday get-togethers continued after my grandmother’s death at our house in the suburbs or at a sibling’s house.

Only my mother, 1 sister and 2 of her brothers had moved out of Hudson County.  My mother and father moved to a small Bergen County suburb when I was very young. My mother did not want to leave her home turf.  My father, let’s call him Francisco, insisted in response to some family pressures on his side which we’ll talk about later.  I don’t think my mother ever got over the move.  She felt isolated and alone and her marriage was never much of a partnership.  She never made any friends to speak of in the 40 years she lived in the suburbs.  What friends they had were on my father’s side and, in the suburban social swim, my mother was just along for the ride.

Her family remained her major social connection, hence the Sunday soirees.  I got to know her brothers and sisters and their spouses and children through these events.  I guess the best way to describe this scene is to start with a brief run down on the family members I can remember. I’m not going to identify these people any further with regard to their relative ages and I may leave some names out altogether.

One sibling, a brother, Jonas – for our purposes, was a chef and restaurant owner and motel clerk, in that order and not at the same time.  He lived at one time in a walk-up, almost identical to his mother’s, in Essex County.  He lorded over the events held there as the best cook – in his mind at least.  He took great delight in serving his sisters exotic dishes without revealing their contents before they were consumed.  He’d then spring the information dramatically and would seem very pleased at their, sometimes, horrified response.  He and his first wife divorced – under circumstances that were the stuff of whispers and gossip – and he married again to a woman my father called “fish eyes” because of her bulging peepers.  My father had not-so-nice nicknames for a lot of people.  Jonas and wife number 2 settled in a trailer park near Rahway Prison.  I won’t indulge in any symbolism in that.  Once, as wife number 2 lay on the couch in the trailer’s living room, very ill, I recall she clutched my hand – I was, maybe, 10 – her eyes bulging, and wailed “Pray for me!”.  Truly, one of the creepiest moment of my childhood.  She died soon after.  I remember their trailer was on the periphery of the park and Jonas’ “back yard” was a swamp which he described as a great example of nature in the suburbs. He had a very twitchy daughter from marriage number 1 and she had a daughter – about my age – who I remember as being rather morose.  There was a divorced son-in-law, of course.  Jonas was a great collector of printed porn which made for some tension during our visits to his homes since my father was the chairman of our local Decent Literature campaign. Jonas would have died somewhere in my teens and I vaguely remember the funeral.  His sisters, for some reason, idolized him.

Another brother – Archie, let’s say, married a realtor and moved down toward the Jersey shore.  He was a dapper man – they seemed quite well off – but I have no clear recollection of what he did for a living.  I remember he had some sort of sales job but his wife was the breadwinner and a successful one at that, although he lorded their success over the rest of the family as if it was his own.  He and Jonas “lorded” a lot at the expense of their sisters. His wife, the realtor, was always nice to me and my only observation is that she seemed like so many of the successful lady realtors I have come to know – slim, overly tanned, smartly dressed and capable of devouring you in one bite in a fight.  There was no doubt in my mind that Archie towed the line around her.

Continuing down the brother list, next comes Andre.  He stayed in Hudson County and when his first wife died – again the whispers – he married his mistress who had the same first name as his dead spouse.  He had a very smart, grown daughter from wife number 1 who was in the sciences. Wife number 2 was always polite and gracious, even in the face of some sneering from the sisters. She was a very formal woman with a frozen smile.  Andre always seemed to be the guy who’s got a great scam all lined up and never seems to be able to pull the trigger.  He was skinny and tightly wrapped and gregarious.  Our visits to his house were punctuated by his fevered recitation of whatever deal he had cooking.  My only distinct recollection from him was his pride in his tomato sauce which he attributed to the addition of Thyme.  I add it to my marinara to this day.

Rounding out the brothers was Greg.  He was a driving instructor who lived with one of his sisters. He never married and seemed utterly helpless and dependent on everyone else.  When he visited us he would bring all his neckties with him so my father could tie them for him for the week.  His lack of individual stature is the only thing I remember about him.  What I do remember is that the family gatherings were always more civil when the brothers were present.  When it was just the sisters the nitty-gritty of the family began to show in a big way.  You’ll see why as we proceed down the family tree.

The dominant sister was Belle – her nickname. She was never referred to by her non-nickname.  Built like a truck, she was the Machiavelli of the family, instigating feuds, playing on hurt feelings and conniving for her own benefit.  Whatever it was she gained by her skullduggery, she was a master of manipulation.   One of her other sisters, Frances, was her sworn enemy for years and they had a vicious blood feud.  I remember once when Belle was at our house and it was rumored that Frances was on her way, Belle made a dramatic exit and other sisters left to try to head off Frances.  However, when Frances’ health deteriorated in later years, Belle was her housekeeper, nurse and advocate. She had a fetish for being the savior of family members in need. It was a power thing. Helpless Greg lived with her, in a smallish apartment and she never married.  Everyone said she looked like Sophia Loren but I never saw it.  She worked in some sort of clerical job and at one time owned a specialty food shop in downtown New York City.  It was forced out of business when they built the World Trade Center on the same spot.

Her rival, then charge, Frances, was a fragile woman and one of the more elegant among a brood not possessing that quality.  Always pleasant to me, she seemed perennially distracted.  I don’t ever remember visiting her home.  She hooked up with a man who was nice but a doofus who thought he was the coolest.  I remember he had an external speaker installed on his car and he would announce himself over this contraption when they pulled into our driveway.  My father would then call to my mother, “Hey, the ass#$! is here!”  He and Belle became very close at the end of Frances’ life.  Draw your own conclusions. I have nothing more to say about that.

Mariah was one of the older sisters.  She was a very proper woman and seemed to be easily shocked by what she saw as bad behavior. Later in my life I compared her to the character Hyacinth Bucket in the British sitcom “Keeping Up Appearances”, always trying to be grand and of a higher station.  In hilarious contrast was her husband Fernando who was the loudest, most vulgar and funniest of the brothers-in-law.  He and my father got along famously – birds of a feather.  Fernando liked his Scotch and, after a few, would launch into a diatribe of who in the family was older and more frail than whom and who could not bend down without squatting. He would then act out various members of the family attempting to pick something up off the ground.  He would also hilariously accuse opponents of cheating at horseshoes – a favorite family pastime.  I laughed so hard I couldn’t breath.  He was that rare animal – a funny drunk – very funny.  Mariah would purse her lips and pretend she didn’t know him.  The furniture in her immaculate and very upscale Italianate Hudson County home was covered in plastic.

Naomi was dumb.  I don’t mean to be cruel but it’s the only adjective that springs to mind – nice but 2+2=5 dumb. She had a short marriage which produced a daughter who was even dumber than her.  They got along famously and were more like sisters than mother/daughter. Even as a kid, talking to either of them was frustrating by their non-comprehension of the subject being discussed.  I was an early teen and not discussing anything too complicated, so you get how dense they were.

Crystal was an old, loud, shriveled, unmarried woman rumored to be gay.  She lived in the tiniest apartment I have ever seen – a kitchen and a bedroom – that’s it. This was in a Hudson County tenement walk-up next to an empty, disheveled urban lot.  Visits to her home were cozy, to say the least.  She had a daughter who was smokin’ hot.  I know – she was my cousin but a fact is a fact.  This girl was also something of a bad girl.  She came to stay with us one summer and managed, to my parents’ dismay, to hook up with the worst boys on the block.  My father had to intervene, once, when he discovered her undressing in front of a window in our house for the benefit of those boys.

The Staten Island contingent of the family was headed by Tallulah and her husband who was a small man with the biggest nose of any human I ever saw.  They lived on a double lot where their house was the rear structure. Common on Staten Island and, basically, nowhere else.  Their  daughter was a pleasant but rather bovine young woman who married a creepy young man who I’m sure owned the Bates Motel at one time.  Tallulah had 2 sons who I vaguely remember, only distinguished by their brushes with the law.  Visits to this bunch seemed to take forever to get to – Staten Island is at the edge of the world, after all, and there weren’t half the highways and bridges there are today.

I honestly don’t remember anyone else. I think there were some deaths in the family before I came along.

So, where did my mother fit in among this rogue’s gallery of siblings?  She was often the peace-maker, the confidant, the soother of hurt feelings. There were a lot of hurt feelings among the siblings.  My father said my mother was the sanest of the bunch.  Given their behavior that’s faint praise.  Mom would often gather a kitchen table full of sisters at our house to hash out some crisis or another.  These meetings would be punctuated by shrieks and hollering and arguments.  My father would stand in the doorway and shake his head in amazement.

I will describe my mother in more detail when we discuss my parents’ relationship. That defined her more distinctly and she was very different with her siblings – more confident and assertive than with my father.

This was one of the wildest, weirdest, most compelling bunch of people I have ever seen concentrated in one family.  Many big families have their eccentricities, but these folks distinguished themselves in that category. I try to forget that I am from the same gene pool.  I don’t resent them or remember them with dread.  They were never mean or nasty to me, only to each other.  At this point I am amused in a macabre way at their consistent madness and mania.  I don’t look on this re-telling as catharsis.  They were, merely, another example of the all-too-common human dysfunction.  I can only hope they, individually and collectively, found some peace but I doubt it.

Next time: Chapter 3 – No Real Connection: My father’s side of the family.

No Real Connection

Scroll up or click on “home” to see Chapters 1 and 2 of my family’s history.

The history of my family continues, here, with this:

Chapter 3: Paterno Familia

 My father’s family was smaller than my mother’s. Four brothers and one sister were the whole tribe and one son died during World War II.  Despite their size they were no less compelling than the other side of my family but in a very different way.

My grandfather, Victoriano seems like a nice name, was a Neapolitan immigrant to this country in the early 20th century.  He arrived at Ellis Island with his mother and brother.  The brother was found to have smallpox.  Unlike the quarantine and eventual acceptance Vito Andolini was granted in The Godfather, the US told Victoriano’s brother to go back to Italy and denied him entry into this country.  V’s mother told him she had to return to Italy with her sick son and that he, Victoriano, should stay in America.  He was about 17, I am told, and he entered a new country alone, never seeing his mother again.

I have no details on how he survived his younger years in America.  He must have been smart and driven because by the time the 1920’s arrived he had moved out of New York City and owned textile factories in New England, had married and sired his entire family.  I know what you’re thinking – maybe he was another Vito Corleone – but if you spent 5 minutes with this man you’d see that could not be so.  He was the kindest, most pleasant, gentlest, saddest man I ever met when I knew him in his later years.  He was drop-dead gorgeous, also.  He looked like a shorter version of Marcello Mastroianni, the Italian film star.

My father didn’t respect him – said he was a weakling.  I suspect there was some resentment there because Victoriano re-married after my grandmother died of an abscessed tooth.  My father was 14 at the time and this hit him hard.  His mother was a huge woman and the driving force in the family, by all accounts.  I have an antique photo of her on my stairway and she glowers down on me everyday as I embark down the stairs.  She was, according to my father, a force to be reckoned with and the glue that held the family together. He was devastated that such a substantial and vibrant person could be felled by a puny tooth.  When she died her husband retreated into himself, another brother lay on the couch weeping for 2 weeks and my father, not the oldest, assumed the head of the household duties, by default, with responsibilities for all of them, including an infant sister who never knew her mother.  I’m sure my father resented his father’s inability to be a strong patriarch when his wife died.  Whenever my father waxed nostalgic about his childhood his fondest memories seemed to be for his mother.

As if this weren’t enough trauma for one family, my grandfather lost everything in The Crash of 1929.  They had to leave their, by all accounts, lovely home in New England and migrated to Hudson County, NJ.  These children were not city kids.  They had grown up in civilized New England and were unprepared for the rough and tumble ways of urban New Jersey.  The brothers, it was said, got beat up by the English and Irish kids on the block almost every day until they wised up and learned to fight – and fight dirty.  I can empathize with any Americans who feel they are at the bottom of society’s scale by remembering how low in the barrel Italians were in the early 20th century.

My grandfather became a tailor and his children were not encouraged to excel or even continue in school.  My father boasted he only had a grammar school education.  By all accounts there wasn’t much parental guidance at all.  Whatever leadership was needed in the family came from my father, even as a boy, according to him.  The second marriage did not last and I know my father was worried his step mother was taking advantage of his father.  In his later years, Victoriano was frail and in poor health and it was my father, more than any of the other siblings, who saw to his daily needs.  I remember going to my grandfather’s apartment with my father.  V always seemed really glad to see me and would converse with me, sitting at his kitchen table in his broken English.  This was another trait my father sneered at – all these years in this country and he still couldn’t speak the language.  I don’t remember the circumstances of his death.  He was a nice man and I don’t believe he deserved the scorn my father felt for him.

My father always seemed to be in charge when it came to his family.  His surviving brothers and kid sister were deferential to him and weren’t invited into the decision-making loop.  Dad was a man of  some charisma, very bright, with a very grand disposition and was the self-appointed center of attention.  This trait loomed again as I began to achieve some success in later life only to discover my father had co-opted some of the spotlight for himself, even at my expense.

This is not an indictment of the man although, later, I realized he was not my hero.  He had a hard life and it shaped him as did the times he grew up in.  After surviving The Depression, he was drafted into the Army in World War II and saw 107 non-contiguous days of combat during his years of service. Anyone who has served will tell you that’s a lot.  He was with Patton racing through France chasing the Germans out of town after town and he was in The Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. Finally, after being wounded multiple times, the Army made him a Provost Marshall, that is, the military mayor of the towns they liberated, rather than sending him back to the front lines.  Dad supervised multiple French towns in that country’s wine and champagne producing districts.  He enjoyed this duty, by all accounts, supervising the remaining gendarmerie, making sure the prostitutes’ identity cards were in order, discovering underground wine cellars the length of entire towns and acting as judge and jury in local disputes.  Can you imagine a job more perfect for this grandiose personality?

He had some ripping combat stories and I’ll recount a couple only because of their entertainment value.  Assigned to reconnaissance in the 11th Armored Division of Patton’s army, my father was the navigator and gunner in, what was then called, an armored car – half tank, half truck, 2 big guns, a machine gun and always on point.  It was their job to go ahead of the main fighting force, find the enemy, radio the position and then run like hell.  Their life expectancy in combat was measured in minutes.  My father instructed the driver of the vehicle by stomping his foot on the man’s shoulders, left shoulder, go left, etc.  The driver was all but blind in his position in the car under my father.  The crew was 4 soldiers, the driver, the navigator/gunner, a second gunner and the machine gun operator.  My father was crew chief, of course.

They were always way out there alone, for days, and, once time, according to my father, they were scouting on point and they heard commotion just over the crest of an oncoming hill.  They parked the armored car and crawled up to the hill to peek over to the valley below.  They discovered a large German encampment.  They also saw a mess tent and smelled hot food – something they had not seen in days.  In a fit of inspiration, they removed all insignia from their coveralls, sidled down the hill and joined the mess line, only smiling and grunting if addressed.  Once they ate, and he said it was one of the better meals he had in Europe, they disappeared back up the hill, re-joined their vehicle, and called in an air strike which obliterated the German camp.  It’s one of those stories that, even if made-up, is a pretty good yarn.

My father also remembered being in snow up to his hips in the Bulge, knowing the Germans were shooting at him by seeing the flicks their bullets made nearby in the snow and laying on the hood of a jeep for warmth as he was driven off the field when wounded.  He was 28 when he was drafted and was called “Pops” by the other soldiers, not even in their 20’s.  He remained a corporal for his entire tour of duty.  His commanding officers were all younger than him and he remembers his Company Commander in the Ardennes, a 20-something captain, hysterically losing his mind in the heat of the moment.  My father never admitted to any fear, regret or depression related to his war-time duty.  On the contrary, he said it was the most exciting time of his life and, his words, the most fun.  I take this with a grain of salt.  Unlike many veterans of combat who don’t like to remember their time in uniform and won’t talk about it, my father cheerfully recounted his exploits all over Europe.  He remembered taking Italian prisoners of war back to the rear and railing at them for being on the wrong side and accepting their disinterested shrugs as a typical Italian response.  He made German prisoners his servants and cooks as his unit moved across France and took great pleasure in ordering them around.  Then there was the time Russian soldiers encamped near him poisoned themselves with home made vodka.  He would never admit to anything else which would imply weakness except, once, he said he looked through his firing scope and saw what his 50mm gun had done to a German soldier.  He said it made him sick.  That was the only time I saw his narcissistic bravado crack.

He married my mother after he was drafted and before he went to Europe.  I suppose he wanted something to be worth staying alive for and to come home to.  However, his war-time tales included detailed accounts of trysts with ladies in Europe.  This never sat right with me.  I didn’t want to know this in the first place, and it didn’t help my overall estimation of his character.  He always praised my mother for keeping their apartment so beautifully while he was in the Army.  That didn’t seem to matter to him when, in one of his stories, he had a fling with a Hungarian countess.  Italians use the words goomah or goomara to describe a mistress. It’s an accepted thing in Italian Old World thinking that a married man will have a little on the side.  In fact, Pasta Puttanesca gets it name from the tradition in Italy of mistresses only visiting the grocer once a week so as to not run into the wives.  They had to buy items that would keep for the week and capers, olives and anchovies, the main ingredients in that dish were among those type of foods. Puttanesca is a derivative of a very rude Italian word for a part of the female anatomy.  My father’s behavior in Europe was, evidently, in keeping with this Old World tradition.  I never respected that tradition.  I believe it cheapens everyone involved.

My father was the only one of his family to see combat. His brother Aaron was also in the Army but died while in service of an illness.  His brother Mark was in the Army, but, according to my father, guarded a coal pile for 3 years in the war.  Mark was a nice man but a bit simple.  He didn’t move out of Hudson County until he was mugged 3 times and then only at the insistence of his children.  Later on, my father used him as an assistant in his window-trimming business and the two of them seemed like the main characters in Of Mice and Men, Mark being Lenny.

Antonio, another brother, had the same sad smile as my grandfather.  He was also a very pleasant bear of a man who was always very sweet to me.  He died of cancer when I was out of college.  He married into a family – and I’m going to tread very carefully here – of questionable integrity.  He drove a truck for them for his entire working life.  His father-in-law, the family Patriarch, was said to be a very powerful man in Hudson County.  One of my cousins from that family was the deputy mayor of the county’s largest city.  His Honor would show up at weddings and funerals, flanked by bodyguards and hand out $10 bills to the kids saying, “This is for you. Don’t tell your mother!”  Once, I showed my mother the money and she took it away from me – I should have taken his advice and not told her.  That cousin disappeared one day and no-one in the family had anything to say about it.  I remember the Patriarch having his hand kissed by other people at these gatherings and I vividly remember him and a circle of men surrounding my father, newly back from the war with a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and numerous theatre of war ribbons.  My father would be in the center of this circle, looking down at his shoes and shaking his head, no.  I later found out these men wanted my dad to join the family business, he was a bit of a hero after all.  After he died the Department of Defense sent me a re-issue of all his ribbons and medals in a beautiful case.  It was quite a collection.  My father resisted the Patriarch’s offer and it’s why he dragged my mother to the suburbs in order to get away from that environment.  He later told me “If I had said yes they would have owned me for the rest of my life”.  Of course, it was a smart move but I wonder if he resisted because he disapproved of them or if it was because, if he said yes, he would never be in charge again.

Finally, my Aunt Irma was everyone’s kid sister and all the brothers felt responsible for her and parented her since she never knew her mother.  She always struck me, in later life, as the smartest one of the whole bunch, even if her choice of spouse was unwise.  He was a drunk and smacked her around until all the brothers showed up at his door and set him straight.  I remember their home in Bergen County.  I visited there often, which was unusual because my mother resisted contact with my father’s family.  But there I was, in my youth, on summer days playing with my 2 cousins.  Their boy, Billy, was born only a few weeks before me.  He died recently of cancer, only months after his mother passed.  On one occasion, relatives from the New England branch of the family came to visit.  My great-uncle – my grandfather’s brother – emigrated later than my grandfather and established a brood near Bean Town.  3 generations came to visit including a girl cousin about my age – we were middle schoolers at the time.  This set off a weird and frantic competition between Billy and me for this girl’s approval.  I don’t remember winning.

Later in my life when I was beginning my theatrical career, I was directing a musical in New Jersey and, lo and behold, Irma’s husband was the scenery builder.  I had to reject his sets because he built them from construction grade materials with construction techniques and they were way too heavy and unwieldy for theatrical use.  Theatre sets are built to last for a short time – these were built to last forever.  The poor, drunken sod died of COPD and my aunt went on to become one of the leaders of an organization dedicated to eradicating that disease.  She was a tireless, selfless advocate and a favorite among my memories.

My father’s family was not close in the usual sense.  There was no regular communication.  They weren’t feuding or anything like that, they just didn’t seem to have much of a connection.  One day we learned that Antonio had lived in the same town as us for 20 years and we didn’t know it.  My father didn’t have a lot of nice things to say about them – nothing nasty either – he just seemed neutral, sort of like how a general feels about his troops.  There’s a phrase in Italian, si tira avanti, which means, roughly, when things get tough you just pull ahead.  My father’s family all seemed like exhausted survivors who could only summon energy enough to keep going without the frills of family feelings.

Next time: “Damon Runyon Redux” – The Childhood Neighborhood

Damon Runyon Redux

Scroll up or click on “home”to see Chapters 1,2 and 3 of my family’s history

The history of my family continues, here, with:

Chapter 4:  The Childhood Neighborhood

The best way to introduce my immediate family is to introduce the neighborhood where I grew up.

I was born in Hudson County, New Jersey.  My parents had tripped the light fantastic for a time after my father returned from World War II and had their fun before starting a family – me.  They traveled, took in the east coast nightlife and got re-acquainted after a long period apart.

In the last chapter I described how Dad resisted becoming a typical urban goomba, the vassal of a family enterprise, and decided to move his new family to the Bergen County, NJ suburbs, which at the time was way out there with more orchards and pig farms than anything else.  My mother was more than willing to be a part of the urban family business in order to stay near her own family who were mostly still in Hudson County.  She also didn’t want to leave their Hudson County apartment which was quite large and beautifully detailed and which she had maintained throughout my father’s time in Europe.  My father insisted and, not surprisingly, prevailed.  They bought a new, small Cape Cod brick house in a 2 square mile, south Bergen County town.  They had a small 3% mortgage on an $11,500 purchase. Don’t forget my parents were children of The Depression and this affected my mother most of all.  She was terrified of this debt and eventually made my father pay it off early.

Theirs was one of three identical new houses on the street, built by the same developer.  Mostly the whole town was a GI town – developed post war with many returning soldiers purchasing the newly built real estate.  To this day, you will be hard pressed to find many examples of traditional Victorian or early Colonial architecture in this little burb.  The post war Split Levels, Ranches and Capes dominated until the next wave of immigrants – from Asia – started knocking them down in the last 20-30 years and replacing them with McMansions.  The people who bought my father’s house (not Asians but Italians from Italy!) knocked it down – and bought the house next door and demolished that, too – and built 2 McMansions.  Much of the existing architecture was, also, what I call Old World Slum – that is, boxy, undistinguished structures, cheaply built and just as ugly.  I have sold a bunch of these in various towns in my real estate career and I marvel that anyone wants them.

Our house, originally, had a small cement front porch, a living room, 2 bedrooms on the first floor, no dining room, a small full bath, an eat-in kitchen and nothing on the second floor but an unfinished attic.  No garage graced the backyard.  There was no basement, just a dirt floor crawl space.  This would all change over time.  My father, by himself with just a couple of helpers, built a cinderblock and brick garage.  He wasn’t a builder – he was a retail window trimmer (more about that later).  When I sold the family home in 2004 the garage was crumbling, its brick façade cracking and sagging.  The cinder blocks comprising the garage walls were filled with beer cans and vodka bottles – a result of my father’s work ethic.  He also built a rear porch bigger than the house itself on two levels, separately heated and cooled as well.  Again, when I was selling the house and I had contractors inspecting it, one stood in a corner of this massive back room and said he couldn’t see a right angle anywhere – another testament to my father’s skill as a builder.  I’m not discounting my father’s effort.  It’s no mean feat to build what he built on his own as an amateur – even if it wasn’t level and didn’t last forever.  The second floor became 2 finished bedrooms and a half  bath. The floors upstairs were asbestos composite tiles – who knew then? – and the walls were covered with what was known as “donkey board”, a wood flake composite.  When I was in high school I was the helper charged with some building tasks while my father was at work.  This didn’t work out too well.  I was not an inspired builder and my mother – always at home – would provide many breaks with snacks and meals and Dad was usually unimpressed – sometimes furiously so – with my progress when he returned.

My father delighted in comparing his building efforts to the additions put on the other 2 identical houses next to ours.  He maintained that, even those other homeowners admitted that his work was superior.  He wasn’t satisfied with his accomplishments on their own.  He needed to feel they were a cut above the rest.

The first neighborhood character I was exposed to was Pippi who lived up the street.  I’m not going to make up names here.  It’s too much trouble and – who cares, anyway?  I don’t owe anything to these people’s memories.  Pippi was some sort of contractor – a very pickled one – who was my father’s teacher, mentor, muse and drinking buddy in his building career.  Between the two of them it’s no wonder everything they built was leaning – just like they were from time to time.  I visited Pippi’s  property often and would marvel at the incredible collection of junk in his large backyard and garage.  Don’t forget, this was a residential area and he was running a junkyard and contracting business in the middle of it.

He wasn’t the weirdest.  The Vendolas down the other side of the street were carnival people and had carnival rides and portable concession stands parked on their property.

The Vokaturas further down the street were excavators with dump trucks and earth moving vehicles on their properties and lived in an Old World Slum style house that would have made Tobacco Road proud.

I should pause to mention the ethnic makeup of this town at the time – and, no, I’m not going to name the town.  I don’t want angry letters from their town council.  It was pretty equally made up of Italians, the Irish and the Polish.  There were 3 Catholic churches – the Italian cathedral, Sacred Heart, was a typical medieval, scary, old stone pile which would have been happy in Palermo, Sicily or Naples.  Mount Carmel, the Irish church, started life as a small Sacred Heart branch office and was eventually conceded to the Irish population.  It looked like something you’d find among the corn fields of Iowa – small, wooden, simple.  The Polish church was St. Michael’s, much newer, big and more modern than the others and very pleasant.  My parents would attend Sunday Mass there from time to time just for a treat and to get away from the somber, incense filled ceremonies of Sacred Heart.  There were a number of Protestant churches, all pretty modern, and I’m told there was a synagogue but I don’t remember ever seeing it.  The population was dominated by white, ethnic Catholics.

I never saw any local African-Americans growing up.  I overheard adults saying there were none allowed and the local realtors were enforcing the ban.  I have no proof of this but it’s a pretty good bet that in mid 20th century small town New Jersey this was the case, especially with a blue-collar, immigrant, ethnic population in place.  As a matter of fact, in my Catholic high school, the one Caribbean black girl enrolled had to quit the school in the face of torment from her white, female peers.  Oddly enough, my mother would make the distinction between us and “the white people” which gives you some insight on how the Italians were not looked on as mainstream Americans at that time.

The town had 2 named neighborhoods – The Hook and The Hill.  The Hill was on the eastern tip of town near The Meadowlands and was – as the name implied – on a hill.  The Hook was on the western edge of town near the river.  Back in the day, murder victims were hung by hooks from the streetlights.  I won’t speculate on the perpetrators but I’ll bet you can guess.  My neighborhood was in The Hook.  The adjacent Meadowlands were another favorite criminal dumping ground.  In later years, the part of town in these wetlands was developed into a powerful business, corporate and financial area known as Wall Street West.

The main street was dotted with Italian restaurants and bakeries and specialty stores.  I held my father’s funeral lunch at Angelo’s Restaurant – one of his favorites – and right out of The Godfather.  It was small, family owned and operated with just a few tables and good, solid, Old World Italian food.  I must have had 25 people at that lunch and the bill came to only $300, including drinks.

When I was a kid, most occasions resolved with some kind of edible purchase.  After church, there was the Italian bakery across the street, after work at the parish center – I sold coffee and food at the bingo games – there was a trip to Rutt’s Hut for a deep-fried hot dog.  After a visit to the cemetery we purchased one of those cardboard tasting Italian cheesecakes.  Whenever we visited anyone or entertained guests there was always a delicacy brought as a gift.  You didn’t just visit with coffee and cake – there was a large, complicated meal, always.  Whenever I played Little League on the ball fields down by the river, the team would go to the local diner and eat afterwards. There were espresso bars in the town before it was hip.  We attended regular barbecues at the town parks which I remember as huge affairs.  These were the ultimate expression of suburban living for the ethnic urbanite refugees.  The Knights of Columbus where my father belonged had a bar where the drinks were 50 cents and a full kitchen causing every event to dissolve into a feast afterward.  The Knights or the church sponsored Saturday night events – themed galas – which were just an excuse for more eating.   I worked the coat check and the clean up jobs at these affairs and, of course, would go out to eat afterward – even though they also fed us at the event.  In grammar school I always detoured to the candy store across the street from the school as I walked home.  As a matter of fact, my mother used to give me money to pick her up a pack of smokes at that store on my way home and gave me money for a little treat for myself.  If a parent did that today they’d be arrested (along with the store owner) and be on the nightly news.  In those days, no one thought anything about it.  In 7th and 8th grade we took shop class at another school and walked back to our school afterward.  We were under strict orders not to stop anywhere but to come straight back to school.  We would stop at 2 delis and a candy store every time.  In high school I dated the daughter of the Chief of Police.  We would get a snack somewhere and she would quote Supreme Court cases to me and I’d pretend to understand what she was talking about.

Don’t ask me what attracted my parents to this odd, little municipality.  Maybe it was because it was pretty remote from Hudson County.  Maybe my father felt safe on the other side of The Meadowlands – despite the gruesome hangings down by the river. Maybe it was because it was cheap with old-school touches. Around the corner from our house was a small A&P, the size of a modern convenience store and next door to that was an Italian butcher.  At our favorite barber shop you could get a haircut for a quarter and a shoe shine from the mentally challenged kid who worked there whose concoctions would rip the shine right off your shoes.  In this town and our neighborhood, in addition to the ice cream truck that regularly visited in the afternoon, there was a portable carnival ride called “The Whip” on a truck that plied the streets. 2 people sat in small gondolas which were propelled in an oval track on the back of the caged truck and “whipped” around the corners.  From time to time you’d also hear a bell ringing from a patrolling truck where you could get your knives sharpened..Maybe my parents recognized there was an entrenched Italian population.  I’m guessing that urban Italians considered this “the country” and Shangri-La.  Whatever the reason, there we were, surrounded by neighbors right out of Damon Runyon who I will continue to describe.

On the eastern corner of our street was the San Carlo Restaurant and catering hall.  It was the upscale palace of the town and visits there were very special occasions.  The family who ran it lived there also.  I don’t remember their names but their daughters were very pretty and the young, female aristocrats of the neighborhood.  On the opposite corner was an apartment building and this corner was a favorite haunt for the a capella doo-wop kids who would gather around a barrel fire in winter and sing.  A scene right out of Rocky, Goodfellas – or Jersey Boys.

Next door to the restaurant parking lot, starting up my street, lived the Carbones.  Gary, their son, my peer and playmate was on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour on television as an Elvis-type lip synch artist when he was in grammar school  His father, owner of the worst hair-piece ever, was grooming him to become a singer and performer.  His father reminded me of my Uncle Andre – remember him? the one with Thyme in his tomato sauce? – always ready to explode with the next big idea.  Gary was a miserable playmate and always stole whatever hat I was wearing.  They moved to California, I suppose to seal the deal on Gary’s performance career.

Next to them were the DeLullises.  The nickname of my classmate from this family was Doop – Doop Delullis and he was just as dumb as that sounds.  He had a few brothers – big, tightly wrapped monosyllabic and very scary.  I was always afraid to go into their house and was never absolutely sure how many people lived there – it seemed like a lot.

The Abates continued the population down the street.  The father ran a candy store near my school and my playmate Joey became the town’s School Superintendent in later life.  Their house was the epitome of the modern Ranch Style house.  A bunch of my pals from grammar school stayed in the town and sought their fortunes there.  When I was selling my father’s house I went to the Building Department to arrange a C of O inspection.  The inspector was a grammar school acquaintance and I thought that would help me.  Quite the opposite.  This putz made me remediate a large punch list of things just to show me what a big shot he was.  So much for old friend loyalty.

Skipping down the street, opposite our house was the Patti family.  They occupied the whole house but only, really, lived in the basement – not uncommon in those days.  My father always said if you see a bouquet on the stove in the kitchen you know the family lives in the basement.  Many houses had what are called “summer kitchens” – basement kitchens, very popular among ethnic groups for cooking when the house is too hot or when the occasion calls for a gigantic meal and an extra stove.  The Pattis had 3 enormous daughters my age – I think they were my age – who could tell?  There were cherry trees flanking their driveway and my playmates and I used to climb those trees and eat so many cherries we’d be nauseous and couldn’t eat dinner when called.  Those were the days when you left the house in the morning – if there was no school – you stayed out and played and your parents would call you for meals and that would be the extent of their supervision.  And, speaking of being on your own, I attended grammar school around the corner from our house from kindergarten to the 8th grade.  I walked, alone, there and back, every morning, lunchtime and after school.

Next to the Patti house was another Abate house, relatives of Joey, the future Superintendent.  My contemporary there was Bobby who was as bad a kid as Joey was good.  Bobby was always in trouble and would try to entice the local kids to join him in his nefarious schemes.  Somehow I resisted.

Moving right along down the street lived the Barberas – I called them the Barbarians.  Dumber, more troubled kids you’d be hard pressed to find.  These were the boys my smokin’ hot bad girl cousin – from my mother’s family chapter – decided to strip for in our window.  There were a lot of choices of bad boys on the block and she picked the dumbest.

Jumping to the other side of the street, our side, was the home of the Nazaires – my contemporaries were Vinny and Raymond.  Vinny was shot dead through his open front door one summer night while lying on his living room couch.  So much for the safe, boring suburbs.  Raymond was the local Fonzi – too cool for school, as my daughter would say.  When we were in the sixth grade our teacher took us on a camping trip to Stokes Forest for a week.  I was not great camper and had never been away from home.  I was very homesick.  Raymond was a hilarious fish out of water in the woods with only the trees to be cool for.  Their mother had the same sad, defeated air my mother’s mother had.

Next to Pippi, moving down our side of the street were the Veluzzis.  They started renovating their home when I was a kid and when I returned in 2004 to settle my father’s estate they had not finished.

Next to them, in an identical house to ours, were the Deckers.  Mrs. Decker would take me and her 2 grandsons to Palisades Amusement Park.  She was a nice woman.  Mr. Decker was tall and thin and old and taciturn.

Our next door neighbors on the east side – also in an identical house – were the Hodsons, Tag and Helen.  He was a rather secretive man and she was a busy-body and the neighborhood gossip.  She would pump me for information – about my family or anyone else – right up until the day she died when I was an adult.

Our westerly next door neighbors were the Trotters.  Their house was what has been described as a “barracks style” home – simple and wooden.  My mother had a blood feud with the Trotter woman who she called “The Nooge” (soft G) – a nooge is someone with shady behavior or a pest who nooges you.   I never knew the genesis of this dislike and I always thought it was too bad our closest neighbors were our enemies.  They had a daughter my age who had the haunted look of an escapee from a horror movie and her father was a little man who I could find no fault with.  I never saw The Nooge woman out of the house so I’m not sure what she looked like.  My mother made my father install hedge bushes between our properties that eventually grew to about 10 feet tall.  In later years after my mom died and the Trotters moved, their house was demolished and another McMansion took its place.  My father complained it blocked the sun and his view – of what, he didn’t say.

Amid all these colorful people there were 2 annual Italian feasts on our street.  If you’ve never been, a feast, or festa, as the Italians call them, is a religious celebration and block party centered around some saint or holy person.  These yearly events go on for days and have rides, music, games of chance, processions, and food, food, food.  The Feast of San Gennaro in New York City’s Little Italy is probably the most famous.  In our neighborhood, the feast of Saint Anthony was on my side of the street and was the smaller of the 2 local events.  The other, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel took up the entire other side of the block, all the way down to the river.  For a kid these were magical events full of lights, fun, noise, crowds and chaos.  I remember them vividly and fondly. Once, during the feast of Saint Anthony a girl I knew told me she loved me – I was, maybe, 11.  I don’t remember my response.  Probably a mix of awkwardness and terror.

If where you come from largely determines your path in life, I must have made a Herculean effort to negate this neighborhood’s influence in order to realize any bigger ambitions in the world outside – a world not quite as absurd.

Next time:  “A Half Century” – Mom and Dad.


A Half Century

Scroll up or click on “home” to see Chapters 1,2, 3 and 4 of my family’s history

The history of my family continues, here, with:

Chapter 5:  Mom and Dad

My parents were married for 47 years and it was, literally, till death did them part.  They met in a simpler time, when right and wrong was clear and America faced the world with unblinking resolve.

My father was a window trimmer – a lost skill today.  He decorated store windows to entice passing shoppers inside.  In his day there was no, no Apple Store, in fact, no internet at all so “foot traffic” was key to success in retail.  After a career as an usher in the Stanley Theatre on Journal Square in Jersey City – one of the last movie palaces – he worked as a tourist picture taker in Times Square, NYC, a soda jerk, busboy and then graduated into what he, grandly, described as “retail display”  or “visual merchandising” in the 1940’s.  Eventually he was promoted out of the kitchen to window trimmer for F. W. Woolworth’s in downtown New York City, their flagship store.  For those of you who never heard of Woolworth’s or the concept of the “five and dime store”, these were emporiums where everything was for sale from comic books to clothes to birds – kind of  a proto-Costco – but everything was relatively cheap and the stores were compact.  We had one in the next town to ours as I was growing up.  It had unfinished wooden floors and I used to read the comic books while my mother shopped.  Stores like it are called “Dollar Stores” today (a sign of inflation – no more “five and dime”).  Today, these kind of stores are usually stand-alone stores whereas Woolworth’s was a huge chain of stores.

My father had some imagination and an impish streak in his Woolworth’s display career.  He did a window arrangement for nuts from around the world – Brazil nuts, macadamias, almonds, walnuts  – and had a sign made for the layout which read “Nuts to you from Woolworth!”  In the 1940’s “nuts to you” was the equivalent of the F bomb today.  It got him fired, but not before he met a bookkeeper at the Woolworth home office – my mother.

My mother was smart, a high school graduate, as opposed to Dad who never graduated from anything except short pants.  Her commute each day was from Hudson County, NJ to downtown New York City.  She was a valued employee and some sort of department head at Woolworth’s accounting office.  I will try to guess the attraction my father held for her.  He was brash, confident and, probably, a bit of a charmer – I saw echoes of this in his later life.  Given the chaos and intrigue of my mother’s family, my father must have seemed a breath of fresh air, what you see is what you get – a certainty in her life which was very uncertain to that point.

Before long they were married, but even before the ceremony there were hints of what was to come.  My father liked to tell the story of the discord in Mom’s family regarding their wedding.  According to him, he dealt with it by saying, the night before the event, that my mother was going to look strange walking down the aisle by herself unless his way prevailed – whatever that was.  I came to know that attitude of “my way or the highway” throughout our lives.

As I’ve written in another chapter, they were married after Dad was drafted and before he was sent to basic training.  My mother accompanied him to his training in the Mojave Desert out west.  Dad did not describe himself as a hero or a patriot.  He knew he’d wind up in the army – it was wartime, after all – but he waited to be drafted.  He took commando training and was quite proud that he could outlast the other recruits who were 10 years younger than him.  He was then shipped overseas and Mom concentrated on her work and maintaining their apartment in the Italian section of Jersey City. This rental was very grand with high ceilings, large rooms and lots of molding details.  My mother took great pride in keeping the place updated and spotless when my father was in Europe.

When the war ended and Dad was returned home they took up their life again in that palatial apartment.  He got a job at an electronics store and, to hear him tell it, he was the top salesman selling state of the art high fidelity equipment.  The store was downtown New York City and it was bought and closed as the 1950’s approached by the developers of the World Trade Center.

With the loss of the retail job, my father decided to hark back to his display skills and become a freelance window trimmer.  I make the distinction of “freelance” because a lot of products, from liquor to soap, etc. had window trimmers on staff who they sent to stores to hawk their products in the windows.  Today, the only places you may see someone setting up a display are in stores like Banana Republic where a sales associate also trims the windows facing the mall. The other big difference is the store windows themselves.  Back in the day, the windows were self-contained display cases, removed from the store interior. Today most window displays are, mostly, merely in the glass front of a store, designed to be a part of the interior.  Today, you’ll only find professional trimmers in liquor stores.  These people are employed by the liquor companies and are sent to the stores to set up window displays with product related display materials so the store owners don’t have to bother.  Years ago I struck up a conversation with a trimmer I saw working as I was buying a bottle of wine.  He was amazed that anyone could make a living doing that work freelance as my father had done for 35 years.  Dad decorated everything from candy stores to car showrooms to trade shows.  He even decorated an exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing, Queens, NY.  He worked into his 70’s. I would be his “assistant” on his jobs sometimes when I was a kid.  The work held no particular interest for me and he was a very stern taskmaster.  As a result these outings were not among my favorites. Except for one occasion in Newark.  We were decorating the Igo Brothers appliance company trade show at the Military Park Hotel. I must have been about 10. I noticed the lavish buffet tables set up for the show, laden with all manner of delicious entrees and desserts.  I knew I had a meat loaf sandwich waiting for me that my mother had given me before we left home that day. Dad said we could stop for lunch in a little while and he noticed I was looking sad. When asked. I replied that all those other people were eating all that great food and we would be crouched behind the displays eating what Mom had packed out of paper bags.  He said nothing until it was time for lunch and he then took me to an area where he had finagled an entire mini buffet just for us from the show’s food, complete with white tablecloths and china and silver.  I’ve written that this man was not my hero – but he was that day.

My father didn’t exactly retire, he just stopped working when my mother died.  You don’t retire from a career as an independent contractor.  There’s no ceremony, no gold watch, no severance pay, no pension.  It just ends.

Dad’s  change in career in the early 50’s coincided with the pressure he was getting from his own family which I’ve written about in another chapter.  He had to get away from Hudson County and the inevitable street existence it held and moved me and my mother, kicking and screaming, to the suburbs.

I don’t think my mother ever forgave my father for taking her out of her family’s comfort zone.  As I’ve said before, she felt isolated and friendless away from Hudson County.  When she had a miscarriage soon after the move she had something else to blame my father for and that began to fester into the resentment that fueled the war that was to follow between them.

I’m not blaming my mother. exclusively,  for the tension that existed in our family throughout my childhood.  Dad was not a partner, he was the commanding general – as he had always been in his family.  He did not react with sympathy or compassion to my mother’s distress, her isolation, her dismay at the loss of the child.  Dad had no capacity for empathy.  His life was too hardscrabble for those niceties.  You got through it – that’s all you could hope for in his estimation.  That attitude may get you through a tough life but it’s not going to help your marriage.  His favorite saying was “Even when things are going well you’ll wake up with a pimple on your ass.”  A depressing paradigm which I have rejected.

My mother was, also, a relentless needler – no shrinking violet when it came to her husband.  Baiting him was her passive/aggressive way of attacking her husband.  She would provoke him until he would blow.  As a child I could see the signs of the impending explosion and I could perceive the timeline of the provocation as it developed into out-and-out battle.  I can trace many anxieties I have felt in adulthood to the dread I felt when these two people stepped into the ring.  These were not isolated incidents but, rather, their ongoing, day-to-day relationship.  When the dust cleared after one of their bouts my mother would retreat to the living room sofa, sometimes sobbing and babbling. Sadly, that is my most vivid recollection of their relationship.  I cannot recall any display of affection between them.

They weren’t monsters.  They didn’t physically abuse me – just each other.  They provided me with all the necessities of life: food, shelter, education.  I never felt deprived in those areas.  My mother, for example, made me lunch, which I ate at home,  every grammar-school day.  My father could be very funny and was generous with me about money.  He didn’t exhibit any signs of PTSD from his Army career.  On the contrary, I think the war was a blessing for him.  He knew where his next meal was coming from and exactly what he had to do.  He was thousands of miles from his family for whom he had no great regard and didn’t have to be the “daddy” and the solver of all problems for them.  Alone, across an ocean from family duties he had the opportunity to indulge all his instincts, including some of his baser ones.  In the Army he also had the opportunity to be the big cheese from time to time, as he had been with his family, but without all the responsibility and all the back-talk.  In France his word was law when he was the military mayor of Rambouillet and Eparney.  He told me the story of his first encounter with the gendarmes of those towns.  He would tell them how things were going to happen from then on under his watch and, one day, a French officer asked, “but Monsieur, what if we disagree with you?”  My father’s response was, “Then I will shoot you.”  Back home, he did have a temper which I learned to respect and not arouse.  My mother provoked it.  The sense of doom their struggles impressed on me was the major failure of their parenthood.  They didn’t do it to me on purpose.  I was simply there, terrified, caught in the crossfire.  They had no capacity to see beyond their medieval upbringings and understand the damage they were doing to all of us.

In the midst of this simmering struggle we lived a pretty typical suburban life.  Church, social events, Boy Scouts, Little League, Knights of Columbus, Columbian Squires (junior Knights of Columbus) – I was the Chief Squire for the State of New Jersey!  I was very religious and a commentator in the Catholic Mass and active in church activities.  My parents were also very observant.  Somewhere around high school – and don’t forget I was enrolled in a Catholic high school where we went to mass every day – I lost the fervor for organized religion.  Mom and Dad dropped out as well which showed me they were just going through the motions for my sake.  Their local social life was more my father’s doing and my mother relied more and more on her family for company.

My mother did become active in the PTA of my grammar school which was around the corner from our house.  She was always involved in my early school career, unlike my father, who I can never remember ever asking me about school.  In kindergarten she was called in to talk to my teachers who were disturbed that I fancied black construction paper exclusively.  In second grade my old crow of a teacher, Mrs.Caro, took a dislike to me and I remember my mother meeting with her to try to smooth things out.  These were not the days of enlightened early childhood education. My grammar school was like a dungeon, dark and cavernous and not at all child friendly.  I remember all of my teachers in that school from kindergarten to 8th grade.  Their attitudes toward the students ranged from bare tolerance to overt dislike and I certainly felt the brunt of these feelings .  Only my 6th grade teacher – Miss Renahan – was different, a harbinger of what is now the modern early childhood professional.  She was accessible, friendly, imaginative and fun.  She’s the one who took us to Stokes Forest for a week.  We would gather at her apartment for musical jam sessions.  She organized and rehearsed us in a play “The Loco Burrito” which we performed on the high school stage.  That was like making it to Broadway for us.  I remember being so excited after our one and only performance that all I could say was “How about that!”  The other teachers hated her.  They were entrenched in their strict Depression Era “children should be seen and not heard”, attitudes and she must have been very scary for them.

I was proud of Mom who was the PTA secretary. The significant thing about that, looking back, was it was her own effort – it had nothing to do with and was not dependent on my father.  However, like most of my mother’s forays into the world, it didn’t last.  She went to a PTA convention in Atlantic City and turned her ankle on the boardwalk and had to come home early.  That was the end of her school career.

At one point she decided to get a job.  The move to the suburbs had ended her career at Woolworth’s – another motive for resentment against my father – and being home all day must have only heightened her feelings of isolation.  She applied for and got an accounting job in a suburban office.  This also didn’t last long.  She was convinced the other employees disliked her and it became impossible for her to stay.

As you may have guessed by now, my mother was clinically depressed.  My most vivid memory of her is sleeping on the living room couch during the day – a classic symptom.  She was also convinced people were against her.  There was also a chain smoking habit.  The floor near her kitchen chair was pocked with cigarette burn marks.  She was, in spite of it all, a good cook.  Nothing fancy but good, solid food.  Meal preparation, however, eventually morphed into a competition between her and my Dad who fancied himself a gourmet.  They turned out, not meals, but feasts.  They competed for stove and oven space in the same meal and turned out so much food the table groaned under its weight.  These were delicious events but for all the wrong reasons which is typical of their expectations and support for me.  I went to a Catholic high school because they thought I was smart enough to get in (they were right – I was in the 97th percentile of my entrance exam) and excel.  They wanted that for me because the local public high school was a joke.  I went to college because it was a given – they expected it of me.  Their ambitions for me were correct and supportive and helped me immeasurably in the long run.  My high school teachers, Christian Brothers, had doctorates and masters degrees and my college career set me on a road to my future success.  My parents thought I could do all this because I was their son – especially my father.  Not because I was special or brilliant or, even, an individual.  Their ambitions for me were right for all the wrong reasons.  My being the first in our family to go to college was more about their prestige than about my ability and potential.

I don’t look back on this with anger or remorse.  Whatever their motives, they saved me by insisting I go to that Catholic high school.  It was a place of wondrous learning and intellect and a fantastic, fertile field for a young mind.  I firmly believe that any higher intelligence and ambition I may possess was begun and nurtured at that school.

Even so, my relation to that school was not without its bumps and bruises.  The Brothers were very strict and believed, wholeheartedly, in corporeal punishment.  I’ll tell one story since it was at the culmination of my high school career:  At the end of my senior year I grew a beard. They were quite fashionable in a rebellious way back then as the Hippie movement blossomed.  I was called into the Assistant Principal’s office (he was in charge of “security”). “Mr. Stefanile, you can’t graduate with that beard.  Shave it off.”  I don’t know how, but I summoned the gumption to say, “Brother, are you saying that even though I’m 3rd in my class you’re going to deny me graduation over this?”  (I really was 3rd in the class out of close to 100 graduating seniors), to which he replied, “Shave it off.  Now get out!”  With that I beat a hasty retreat from his office.  A couple of days went by and the more I thought about it the more I didn’t want to shave that beard.  The Assistant Principal gave me the evil eye if he saw me in the hallway and, once, said, “No shave, no diploma.”  Now I was getting mad and more determined than ever to hang on to my fabulous fuzz.  I related this tale to my father one night, including the threat of not graduating.  He comforted me by saying, “Don’t be a f*#%ing idiot, shave it off.”  His parenting skills were blunt at best.  I was more resolute than ever, after that, to retain my brave bristles.  Finally, soon after, I was called in to the office again. “Are you determined to keep that beard?” asked the Assistant Principal. “I really don’t see the problem with it,” I managed. “In that case, you can graduate but you can’t carry the school flag in the procession if you don’t shave,” he said. The top 3 students led the graduation procession and carried the school, state flag and the stars and stripes.  “I can live with that, Brother,” I replied, to which he said “Get out!” and I left the office, victorious.

When in college, I had less contact with my parents.  I was, by then, branching out into the arts.  I was an actor and a pretty good one at that. I suspected my father was baffled at the profession because he didn’t try to “coach” me as he had insisted on doing during my high school competitive public speaking career. That didn’t stop him, however, from grabbing a bit of the limelight for himself.  He would come to every performance of every play I was in and hold court in the auditorium during intermissions and after the show.  He would show up at my rehearsals, especially when I started directing, and would develop his own group of admirers from the ensemble.  This was a pattern throughout my life.  He was the Scoutmaster, the Little League coach and on and on.  You may think it was great of him to be so involved in my life.  Sure, it was, but his support was motivated by a need for attention for himself more than a desire to be helping me. He was the self-proclaimed greatest scoutmaster and first base coach.  It was always, first and foremost, about him as he set about co-opting some of the attention.  I didn’t mind sharing the spotlight.  That does not negate the fact that he was wrong to try to piggyback on my success.  My successes were validating him, not me.

Growing up I remember my father always worked and always made a good living.  Like I’ve said before, I wanted for nothing when it came to the necessities.  When he built that room on the back of the house that I described in another chapter, he designed part of it to be his office and installed a second phone there.  My mother ridiculed him mercilessly for his presumed hubris at the addition of that telephone.  He asked her, since she was home all day, to answer the business phone and take messages.  She complied when she felt like it and, then, not so professionally.  Reading her incoherent messages upon his return and his customers’ complaints about the person answering his business phone were further sources of friction between them.  Another was Dad’s habit of buying multiple used cars at a time, one, presumably, for my mother who never drove it.  These purchases were more grist for her mocking mill.  He taught me to drive and how to curse at the other drivers and I started driving on my own, with no license or permit, at age 13. I would usually inherit the car my mother rejected (another way of rejecting him as well) which was great for me but, again, for all the wrong reasons.

Later in life Dad learned how to make the same money and work a little less.  This didn’t mean he was hanging around the house.  What attraction did that hold?  If he had a free afternoon, he’d spend it wining and dining his customers or just hanging out at his favorite restaurant.  Sometimes, when I was in college, he’d call me from that place if I was home and I’d swing by and join him for lunch and some drinks.  He would stay out as long as he could, I believe, to minimize his time with my mother.  He’d roll in around dinner time.  She’d have made a meal but he had already eaten out and that would hatch another battle.  Sometimes I’d see him sit at the dinner table and eat when I knew he was full already just to get her off his back.

Why these people stayed together may seem a mystery but consider the time and the attitudes toward divorce among old-time Italians – it didn’t happen.  Even if a man had a mistress he would never leave his wife for the other woman.  I think my mother felt her options were very limited without my father, as unpleasant as the marriage may have been. Where would she go?  Back to the bosom of her family?  That held no attraction and she was far too depressed to make it on her own.  My father wouldn’t think of divorce because it would signal a failure on his part – and it would have been the only one in his family.  My mother threatened to leave any number of times and my father’s response was always “Go ahead – see how far you get without me.”  I think it was only posturing on my mother’s part but it terrified me.  At one point, I think my mother actually visited an attorney but nothing came of it.  My father told me the attorney had told her she had no cause to seek a divorce – his version of events, no doubt.  In those days there were no “no-fault” divorces.  You had to have grounds for the separation.

In any event, the rage cooled with age, toward the end of their half century together, into just a tolerating disregard for each other.  They still functioned as a couple but my mother had her ways – like making my father wait in the car for hours when he took her shopping for what was to be just a “quick in and out” or greeting my father’s return from work with stony silence or some crack about what bar he’d rolled in from.  My father maintained an uncaring attitude toward these gibes and daggers.  He wasn’t, he said, going to let this get him down and prevent him from having his fun.  This was his way of striking back.  My mother wasn’t important enough to him to get upset about.  Their 47 years together culminated in this non-relationship.

As my own, independent life developed I paid less attention to their feud and spent less and less time in that house – a trick I learned from my father.  Then, as time went on and they approached old age, I became their parent.

Next time:  Chapter 6:  “Just One Year”

Just One Year

Scroll up to read chapters 1 through 5 or scroll down or click on “home” to read earlier or subsequent chapters in history of my family – the story of where I came from.

This is chapter 6:,

“She Is Not Gone”

The birth of my daughter seemed to breathe new life into my parents.  They functioned more as a couple and the thrill they felt at the arrival of their granddaughter took the edge off their bad blood.  They volunteered, together, for babysitting duty on a regular basis.  My mother was absolutely smitten by my daughter.  My father’s grandiose act seemed to evaporate whenever he saw her.  He even wrote poetry to her.

This is not to say my father’s vainglory disappeared completely.  The poetry was a perfect example.  He had a few imaginative moments on paper and he was prolific but it wasn’t very good for the most part.  There were some good ideas in his verses but with no regard for grammar, spelling, punctuation or penmanship.  He would hand me sheets and sheets of poems, some written on cocktail napkins and the back of menus, and task me with the job of typing these works.  I cleaned up the spelling and re-wrote some of it so it would be, at least, coherent – he never noticed.  I didn’t relish the task and did not take any satisfaction in improving the writing.  Sometimes it was so incomprehensible I had to guess what his scribbles meant and make something up that I thought he had in mind.  He always deferred to my opinions if I consulted him.  There was a semi-famous Italian-American poet, Felix Stefanile, so if you Google “poetry” and “Stefanile” that’s who you will find.  That wasn’t my Dad.

The best works of my father were the poems he wrote about my daughter.  There was real feeling there, stripped of pretension and posturing.  I confess I don’t know what became of those poems.  They were on one of my hard drives a few computers ago and I haven’t really thought about them until now.  There is also a book of his poems which he self-published and called himself a published poet from then on.  He also, later in life, organized what he called a “writers’ room”.  Another conceit where he claimed to be hosting regular salons with like-minded writers.  There were meetings but the people I saw were merely his bar buddies and fellow Knights of Columbus.

My mother seemed to gain some relational insight toward me in her later years.  She was more loving, more responsive to me and more communicative.  Growing up I was constantly frustrated by her stubborn dissatisfaction which could not be assuaged.  One of my childhood roles was peace maker and I could never get through to her.  She clutched her resentment toward my father tightly around her and would entertain no discussion or compromise.  I gave up trying to get through to her when I began to emerge from childhood.  Their difficulty didn’t seem so scary anymore.  She seemed to loosen up in her later years to the point where our conversations were not laced with vitriol toward her husband and we could interact simply as mother and son. I’m sure that her feelings for her granddaughter softened her up.  Like my father, she was a different person when she was with my daughter or talking about her.  Smiles did not come easily to either of my parents but they seemed to lose their inhibitions when it came to that baby.

This truce, of sorts, between mother and father lasted for a year – the first year of my daughter’s life.  It was a good thing, in that it was the last chapter of their relationship but it also blinded my father to what had gone before in reacting to the events that were to follow.

My mother loved to shop at Alexander’s department store in Paramus.  It was an enormous store on the intersection of Routes 17 and 4 in Bergen County – a huge shopping area.  My mother shopped there for years after Klein’s department store went out of business in Newark.  I remember the excursions to both places.  Klein’s was on Broad Street in downtown Newark and was the poor man’s Bamberger’s, also downtown and soon to become Macy’s.  She bought everything in these stores including wool boys’ suits for me which itched like crazy.  If you listened carefully wearing these clothes you could still hear the sheep bleating.  Mom would emerge from these stores with bags full of clothes and sundries for the whole family.  My father, quite out of character, relied on her for his fashion collection.  She bought his clothes and chose his ties.  She also balanced the family checkbook and kept track of finances.  He never had any capacity for financial planning or budgeting.  That was my mother’s department and she relied on her accounting skills to accomplish this for him.  She also cooked and kept the house spotlessly.

They could never work out an amicable relationship based on mutual respect or, even, forgiveness, but they did establish a modus vivendi for practical matters.  He made the money, bought the cars, improved the house. She maintained it, ran the family finances and kept everyone fed and clothed.

As I’ve mentioned, one of her favorite ploys was to convince my father to take her on a “quick trip” to the department store.  He never went in with her but would wait in the car – for hours – as she leisurely shopped and left him to stew.  It was her favorite passive/aggressive revenge, made even worse when she would require another trip to bring back most of what she had bought.

One winter day, however, she emerged from Alexander’s within the first half hour and my father knew something was wrong.

I got a call from Dad that day saying Mom was in the hospital and the doctor said it was quite serious.  He sounded very shaken on the phone and I headed for the hospital immediately.

She had emerged from the store saying she was dizzy and light-headed and had a pain in her back.  It was actually her idea to go to the emergency room so you know she was hurting because doctors were never her thing.

She had, however, just a month before, had a basal cell removed from her nose at that same hospital and just prior to that had given up smoking.  She said she figured it was a good time to quit.  She was 79.

The doctors informed us that she had gone into shock as she was being wheeled into the x-ray room where it was revealed she had a ruptured aortal aneurism.  The aorta is one of the main arteries, supplying blood from the heart.  There is a membrane surrounding the aorta and when there is a tear or rupture in the artery, blood seeps out into that membrane little by little until it hemorrhages catastrophically.  That’s when shock occurs.

Mom was a big woman and the doctors could not palpate, or feel, to diagnose the problem and that’s why she was on the way to x-ray.  By the time they figured out what was happening they had to call a “code blue” which, in medical terms is the mobilizing of every available doctor on the premises for emergency cardiac surgery.

She was in surgery for 12 hours as the medical team replaced the damaged part of her aorta with a synthetic tube.  It was a, truly, heroic effort.

When she emerged, the next day, from the operation she was on life support and her prognosis was not good.  I visited her in the ICU where she regained consciousness briefly.  I thought it must be awful to wake up with life support in place.  I stood over her, held her hand and told her not to be afraid and held up pictures of my daughter for her to see.  My father was in the background and a total mess.  His ability to process this situation was fatally compromised and he had no choice but to stand aside as I spoke to specialist after specialist – the cardiologist, the anesthesiologist, the nephrologist, the hematologist, the surgeon.  None was encouraging.  The damage was too severe, despite their best surgical efforts, she was too old, the heavy smoking had taken its toll and she wasn’t responding. Please understand, also, there was no medical power of attorney, no living will, no planning at all for this event so we were all flying blind.

Mom died the next day.  It had only been 48 hours from the time she complained of feeling dizzy.

When your experience a death of someone close to you for the first time it’s very unreal.  When I saw her next the life support had been removed and she was lying, lifeless, on the ICU table.  I was having trouble taking this in as reality and, of course, I was upset but my father was dissolved in grief.  He kept posing me next to her so he could see us both for the last time.

When we returned home my father kept weeping and telling me how much he loved me.  Even then, I thought it strange and I even said to him I’d have preferred to hear this at an earlier time and not just at this time of stress and loss.  He also went on and on about how much he missed Mom and how wonderful she was.  Maybe he had always thought those things but you’d have never known it and I thought it was a great shame that it took her death to bring this out in him.

Of course, I was the only one coherent enough to contact the undertaker, arrange the flowers, call the family, purchase the casket, obtain the crypt and arrange the funeral luncheon.  I’ll risk seeming petty by reporting that I paid for most of this myself.  Dad came along on these errands but he didn’t put his hand in his pocket and he had no great input on the decisions.  He did come out of his grief-stricken shell long enough to tell me that the $6,000 Mom had in the bank and which she had left to me in her will was his and he was keeping it.  How do you respond to something as non-relational, almost sociopathic, as that?  I decided it was not worth controversy and let it go, but, as you can see, I didn’t forget.  That and another financial decision of his would play a part in my thinking years down the road.  I was a grown man, a father myself, and his behavior at my mother’s death triggered in me a re-evaluation of him which had consequences for our future.

I had the presence of mind to buy two side-by-side crypts, actually shelves in a mausoleum wall.  Mom had expressed a desire not to be buried in dirt but rather in the wall of this new structure in the enormous cemetery where most of the rest of her family was buried.  The space for her was on the second floor of the mausoleum and you had to take an elevator to get there.  To me, burials have a forever quality about them and I wondered if this building and its elevator was going to be there a hundred years from now.  I even posed this question to the person showing us around who had no good answer.  My father tried to save me by telling our guide that I was only joking.  I wasn’t.

There was a full-blown wake and viewing over numerous days, days spent doing nothing but hanging around that funeral parlor, greeting relatives and looking at my mother lying in that casket.  It was very unreal and I was having a lot of trouble handling the situation emotionally.  Not surprising, you may think, but it had everything to do with the new reality of the mortality of my parents and my emotional situation at the time which was not as good as, I hope, it is now.  When my father died I felt not at all the same.  I have learned that when you don’t have a strong, loving connection to a parent, their death is an emotional double whammy – you grieve their loss and also have no loving memories to console yourself with.  That compounds the loss.  My memories were laced with conflict and anxiety.  I had seen my mother suffer by her own actions, that of her family and, certainly, at the hands of my father.  I should mention he was never violent with her although he did, once, throw some food across the room.  There was a small gash in the kitchen door as a result and I noticed it every time I passed by that door.

The funeral mass was in Queen of Peace Church in North Arlington, the church attached to my high school.  We held it there because grim, old-world Sacred Heart Church, where they had worshipped for years, was undergoing a renovation, or maybe an exorcism – I don’t remember – and Mom had always liked Queen of Peace – she thought it was a cheerful church, which it was.  It was kind of a shame, though, because none of the clergy who participated knew my mother at all – it wasn’t her church.

My father set to work on a poem – an elegy to my mother.  The clergyman read it at the burial chapel in the mausoleum. It went, partly, like this:

With a wave of her hand and a look behind, she smiles and leaves today.   

 She is not gone, she’s just away.

As I said, he had some pretty good ideas in his poems and this was very sweet, if also a bit deluded.  That smiling, gentle creature he conjured in this poem was not my mother but his idealized vision of her, maybe a vision he always wished for and never saw in the flesh and blood person he lived with for all those years. Maybe a vision of a younger woman I never knew and a relationship that, when newer, wasn’t toxic.  It would be natural to think there’s no way anyone but the couple involved would ever understand a relationship completely – not even the children of that couple.  Maybe so.  Maybe there was a depth of feeling, even if it was in the past, that was not apparent to me.  I saw no sign of it, however, for the 47 years I had to observe my parents.  Can you imagine never seeing your parents laughing together or smiling at each other or exhibiting any sign of affection?  You can’t?  Good.  I’m glad for you.

The funeral luncheon was in the enormous addition my father had built on their house.  I picked up the cold cuts on the way to the funeral and the cashier asked me where the party was.  I probably should have let her off the hook by answering innocuously but I was in no state to have that presence of mind and I told her it was not a happy occasion.  I still remember her reaction, a mix of confusion and apology and embarrassment.  I wish I could find her again and apologize.

I was also in no mood during that luncheon for my mother’s family’s shenanigans.  They had no discretion, no sense of occasion and the appropriate behavior necessary.  I could see the representatives of my father’s family looking a bit shocked as I had to tamp down some explosions among my mother’s tribe from time to time.  These two groups had not really been exposed to one another very much and the difference in their demeanor was in stark contrast.  I had assumed the role my father had played all those years – shutting up these indecorous maternal relatives.  Dad was in no shape to do it and it was the beginning of a role reversal between us that grew more obvious with time.  The eruptions in familia maternal happened more than once that day and enough was enough. My last intervention was quite stern and that seemed to tame them.  I never saw them again or had any contact with them after that day, to this day.  Oddly enough, I didn’t miss them.

What did follow, from that day forward, was the steady decline of my father and my assumption of the role of his parent and manager of his life.

Next time: Chapter 7 “Orphaned”


Scroll up to read chapters 1-6 or scroll down or click on “home” to read previous and subsequent chapters in history of my family – the story of where I came from.

This is chapter 7:

“That’s Your Problem”

My father lived for sixteen years after my mother passed.  He lived alone in the house where I grew up in a neighborhood that was, at the same time, improving and deteriorating.  Their little town had an aging population and very few, new, younger citizens.  The main shift in demographic was the appearance of many Asians and Asian-Americans with some money who began to physically re-shape the town.  That town became the tear-down capital of northern New Jersey.  There seemed to be no municipal brake on the construction of McMansions over the ruins of the old post-war housing stock.

In my old neighborhood some of the original families hung on, the houses occupied by the children of the past owners. Some McMansions sprung up and some of the housing stock was the same and not improved with age.  Just recently I drove down the block where I grew up. One our side of the street mostly all the familiar properties are gone, replaced by McMansions.  The opposite side of the street, in weird contrast, looks exactly the same as it did when I was a kid.

Dad lived alone and the absence of my mother began to show immediately.  She was the home-maker in every sense of the word – she kept the house together.  He had no such capacity and their little brick Cape Cod began to deteriorate.  He didn’t clean, he didn’t maintain the property’s landscaping.  In fact, at one point the town cited him for neglect of his grounds and I had to hire a contractor to clear-cut the overgrowth which resembled a primeval jungle in the back yard.

I hired him a housekeeper at one point and he fired her soon after.  He said she was telling him what to do and he didn’t need another wife nagging him.  He desperately needed someone to supervise his day-to-day life but his grandiosity wouldn’t allow it.

He stopped working.  He was in his 70’s and it was probably time to retire.  His work was fairly physical with ladders and tools and he was not exactly feeble but not a young man.  He was not living in poverty.  He didn’t have a lot of expenses, no debt and he had my money as a buffer if he needed it.  He had saved a good amount over the years, had Social Security and a veteran’s pension and he found government programs to assist him financially.  He seemed to be very good at sniffing out help “on the dole”.  I discovered one such example quite by accident.  I began to do his grocery shopping for him and one day he handed me his food-stamp card so I could use it for him at the Shop Rite.  I had no idea he had applied and gotten this assistance.  That program would be an issue later in his life.

As I have stated, he was not my hero.  As I got older and gained more emotional insight I saw him in a non-idealized light for the flawed individual he was.  I also began to appreciate his effect on me.  This unflattering assessment didn’t cause me to end my support for him and that was a decision I made for my benefit as much as for his.  I didn’t want to look back with any guilt in the future when he was gone and reproach myself for not taking care of him as he became unable to do it for himself.  I did what I considered the right thing with regard to him, an approach beyond reproach.

I was not completely, emotionally detached.  He was my father, after all, warts and all.  I would be a good son, even if he wasn’t the ideal parent.  I had a responsibility to him but it was not going to be at my expense.  It would be on my terms and I expected courtesy, at a bare minimum, from him.  If this seems a bit harsh you’ll have to take my word that this was the only way to deal with my father so as not to be sucked into his narcissistic orbit – he regarded me as just another soldier sent to serve and validate him, as he had done with everyone else, all his life. It wasn’t done maliciously.  It was his learned, knee-jerk way of dealing with his world.

We settled into yet another Sunday ritual of visits to him with my daughter who he continued to idolize.  I’m glad she had this time with him and felt the love he obviously felt for her.  The. more approval a child has growing up the better for her.  As I have said, my father was more human when he was with her.  She had a transformative effect on him which wiped away his grandiose defenses so a semblance of a good man could emerge.  Even his physical demeanor changed around her.  He was more relaxed and the tension in his face was replaced with a smile that was, un-characteristically un-cynical.

His house continued to deteriorate and he became more feeble with time.  He still visited the Knights of Columbus. He sang amateur barbershop with some of his cronies, there, every Friday night for years.   As he aged these nights led to a couple of late calls to me from the hospital.  On one occasion St. Mary’s Hospital ER called me to tell me my father was there – he had fallen while at the Knights.  Expecting the worse – broken hips, etc. – I rushed to the emergency room and introduced myself to the doctor on duty who began to giggle and informed me that my father’s blood alcohol level was quite high.  Dad was alright – just some bumps and bruises.  When I went to his bedside he greeted me merrily and said we should get out of there so he could drive his car home.  Of course, none of that happened.  I waited until the medical staff was satisfied with his condition and then drove him home and put him to bed, but not before he told me where his car was so I could pick it up the next day.

He had a Chevy station wagon which, by this time, was about 16 years old.  He didn’t need a new one – he never went anywhere and when he did he never went above 10 miles an hour.  Of course, this hunk of junk was always failing through sheer age and I, of course, was in charge of getting it inspected and fixed.  I once drove it all the way to the inspection station only to have it start sputtering and smoking just as I was at the head of the line.  It eventually became just a place for him to sit outside.  He’d pull it up sideways on his front lawn so he could just teeter down the front steps of the house and sit in the driver’s seat and read, write poems, listen to the radio and, mostly, fall asleep.  This went on until the town cited him for “littering”, in other words, “don’t park your car on your front lawn.”

I began to be in charge of more and more of his life.  I paid his bills, balanced his checkbook, did his grocery shopping, administered his Medicare and supplemental health insurance, cooked meals to bring to him, brought him to the doctor and gave him the pleasure of my daughter’s company. I intervened when a neighbor lady who did some small chores for him started taking advantage of him by conning him into giving her some things from his house.  She and her knuckle-dragger of a husband got the message that I was watching them and that put an end to that series of scams.  I also cleaned up a few of his financial messes.  Remember his food stamps?  The issuing authority in Bergen County did some research and determined he was not, after all, eligible for food stamps and accused him of falsifying his application after they had paid out almost $5,000 to him.  They were quite upset and making legal threats.  I worked out a small monthly repayment plan with them instead.  After he died they wanted the balance from his estate and I told them if they could find any money they were welcome to it.  I never heard from them again. I will say again that I regarded this responsibility as the right thing to do.  I didn’t relish the duty but I didn’t hate it either.  Besides, what was the alternative?  Abandon him?  Neither of us could afford live-in care even if he would have consented to it – which he would not.  I was the archetype of the “sandwich” generation – taking care of my father and my daughter.

I am not applying for sainthood by the telling of this part of my relationship with him.  I am not portraying myself as the selfless, loving caregiver. I felt more an obligation to myself than to my father. I did not enjoy the responsibilities my duty to my father mandated.  I endured them more for selfish reasons than out of concern for him.  With every action taken on his behalf, another potential, future self-accusation of guilt was avoided.

I sorted through his mail and acted on the issues it contained.  One day I read a letter from the Veteran’s Administration telling him his VA life insurance policy had lapsed from non-payment and had been cancelled.  He had been paying a small amount each month into this policy since his Army discharge in 1946.  He was, obviously, heavily invested in this plan and had now abandoned it and all the money he had sunk into it.  When I confronted him he said he just got tired of paying every month and, as far as burying him was concerned, he told me, quote, “That’s your problem.”  This statement had another transformative effect on me, just as when he appropriated my mother’s $6,000.  Again, I let it go.  I saw no need to be acrimonious over something that couldn’t be undone.  But I resolved, then and there, that, if his funeral was my problem it was going to be done my way – as a no-frills affair, worthy of the miserly, uncaring attitude it deserved.

Then, the final chapter began.  I visited him, without my daughter, one day to find him on the floor in his bedroom of the darkened house.  He said he had fallen while getting into bed and that he had been on the floor for 3 days.  I had seen him sooner than that but I wasn’t doing the math – I was calling 911.  The paramedics managed to get him, stiffly, onto a stretcher and into the ambulance and on his way to the hospital.

He was in the ICU for quite a while.  He was suffering dehydration, pressure wounds from laying on the floor for an extended period and from being just banged up, but, again, miraculously, had no broken bones or concussions. During one of my daily visits he said he didn’t want to go home again.  He was obviously afraid and had, finally, accepted his age and inability to care for himself.

I spoke to the hospital’s social worker and she gave me some names of nursing homes which I visited.  I picked one in Bloomfield, close to my office, a smallish facility with 50 beds and a good attitude.

Thus began the process of hiring an elder law/estate attorney, procuring his general power of attorney, his health care power of attorney, selling his house and establishing him in the nursing facility.  Once that was all accomplished I felt like I had arrived, exhausted, at a finish line – but, no.

The second day he was in the facility they called me and said I should come over, that my father was very upset.  When I asked him what was wrong he said, “They took my picture!”  They had then made the mistake of showing it to him.  He wailed, “I’m an old fart!”  It took a little doing but I talked him down from his shock and told him that if he was going to be an old fart this nursing home was the best place to do it in.  It was full of old farts.  He seemed mollified by this thought.  The emergency subsided.

He didn’t adjust well, however, early on.  How could so grand a man reconcile himself easily to being in a population of very old, feeble and, sometimes, semi-conscious people?  I consulted with the staff social worker, physician and psychologist and we embarked on a regimen of talk therapy, social integration and some pharmaceuticals just to take the edge off his anxiety.  He had a roommate, Mickey, a cheerful old pug and they began to bond over baseball on tv and by giving the nurses a hard time.  We all felt a private room would have only amplified his isolation.  There was a visiting clergy-woman and Dad entertained himself by challenging her ideas of faith.  She was a lovely woman and seemed to genuinely enjoy the give and take.  My father was not an incoherent, illiterate raver, either.  His challenges were actually quite erudite and she appeared to relished the provocation.

He went to what seemed like an army of specialists, all off-site, which necessitated private ambulance rides to and from.  He was walking with a walker by then and needed the professional care the ambulance service could provide.  We visited urologists, dermatologists, orthopedic practitioners, skin cancer surgeons and there was a smattering of hospital admissions for one thing or another.  The smallest ailment can be magnified and threatening to someone pushing 90.  He hated the ambulances and complained bitterly. I hated the cost of these rides which weren’t covered by any insurance.  He hated sitting in waiting rooms and got very mad if I spoke to the doctors without him feeling he was being consulted as well.

I had gotten very good at bullying physicians who are not used to being ordered around.  I insisted, for example, that my father no longer be admitted to a certain hospital in Newark which I considered sub standard.  Once when he was admitted there I discovered him dazed and dehydrated with a tray of food at his bedside which no one had bothered to help him eat or even check to see if he had eaten at all.  After that I told the nursing home physician to use his privileges at Clara Maas Hospital in Belleville only.  It’s a modern and well run facility.  The doctor resisted being told what hospital to use.  He told me, “I’m accustomed to making those kind of decisions.”  My response was, “Not any more.”  There also was an orthopedic surgeon who examined my father’s pressure wounds and determined they would not heal because of an underlying bone infection.  He suggested a hip replacement.  I may have actually said, “Are you kidding?”  My father was 91 and the bone infection wouldn’t kill him but the operation might have.  I brought Dad to an internist who treated the infection non-invasively.   When the company that supplied the drugs to the nursing home sent me a bill for about $3,000 I pointed out that Dad was enrolled in a pharmaceutical assistance program in New Jersey where no medication was more than $2.  They replied that this didn’t apply to them because they were out-of-state.  I told them they could kiss my you-know-what for their exorbitant charges.  I never heard from them again.

Back in the nursing facility after the ambulance rides and the hospital admissions, nestled back into his routine he was pleasant enough during my visits, for the most part.  Every now and then, though, he would revert to his generalissimo routine and be quite rude to me. This was not a symptom of neurological deterioration – he had no hint of Alzheimer’s Disease – this was merely his personality disorder – he grew impatient easily and his temper got the best of him.  I warned him that, the next time this occurred, I would put on my hat and coat and leave and come back when I damn well felt like it.  This would calm him down until, one day, he did it again and I got up and left and didn’t return for a few days.  When I did come back the nurses and Mickey told me Dad had been very upset.  He apologized.  I told him I wasn’t fooling – I would not be treated that way.  It never happened again.

He gradually accepted his residency at the facility and integrated himself more and more into its social world.  He lived there for 2 years and was something of a favorite among the nurses.  After all, he was sharp, still a charmer and conscious as opposed to a lot of their charges who were not.  Eventually he even seemed happy there and had actually made friends.  When the money from the sale of his house ran out I couldn’t bring myself to transfer him to a Medicaid certified facility – his nursing home didn’t accept Medicaid.  I felt the transfer, just when he seemed to be adjusting, would have crushed him.  Instead, I footed the bill myself until the end. Mercifully for me, it was not a long time coming. I continued to consult with the specialists on staff and we tweaked his emotional therapy from time to time.  I also continually engaged with the staff physician who warned me that people of that age are like ticking health bombs.  The smallest thing can have disastrous consequences.  I was about to find out just how right he was.

Just after Easter in 2006 Dad fell ill. Just a cold or a virus.  It didn’t seem serious.  The staff monitored him but didn’t seem overly concerned.  I noticed, over the course of a couple of visits that he was getting less responsive and I told the staff physician to admit him to the hospital.  Dad was admitted to Clara Maas and, all of a sudden, was sinking fast.  He didn’t recognize me at one point. When my daughter visited him early in this particular hospital stay he wasn’t that far gone yet and they had a sweet but final visit.  The next time she saw him he was completely unresponsive.  I’ll talk more about my daughter in the next chapter but, that day, watching her saying goodbye to her somnolent grandfather, I realized, once again, how special she is.

I went to visit him one day at 6:45 pm.  The hospital nurses had my cell number and would actually text me from time to time with updates.  As I was getting off the elevator on his floor I got a text that I should come right away.  Approaching the nurses’ station I could tell by their faces that I was too late.

Dad had died minutes before. He succumbed to sepsis, when the body initiates a powerful immune response against an infection, which may not have been fatal to a younger man.  The nursing home doctor had warned me that old age brings added risk to, otherwise, recoverable ailments.

I stood by his lifeless bedside and the first thing I heard myself saying out loud to him was that he didn’t have to be afraid anymore.  He had spent so much time and effort defending himself from the world and now he didn’t have to.

I went back to the nursing home, one last time, to collect his few, small mementos.  His roommate and the nurses were very upset by the news of his death – even more upset than I was feeling.  Their reaction confirmed to me that I had picked the right facility.

Very soon after he died I received a package from the U.S. Department of Defense.  It contained a plaque expressing condolences from the military and the nation’s gratitude for his service, signed by the President.  I was very moved, not just from my loss but from the sense of fraternity, the long memory and quick response, that this gesture represented.  In the weeks to come I received the re-issue of his World War II medals I have mentioned in another chapter.  Again, I was struck by the care and feeling that had survived the 60 years since his discharge.  The military really does not leave anyone behind.

Once again, I had to call a funeral home and arrange all the other details of a death.  When I visited the undertaker I outlined my wishes for an inexpensive burial with no wake or visitation or Mass – only a ceremony at the burial mausoleum.  I was solving what I had been told was my problem.  Funeral parlors are businesses like any other and their objective, like all businesses, is profit.  I had to be quite firm with the undertaker who did try to lay a little guilt trip on me for my frugality.  After years of being my father’s advocate with all the battles that entailed, this had no effect on me whatsoever and the event unfolded according to my wishes.

I won’t attempt to justify my position on my father’s final arrangements.  It could seem spiteful or heartless but the decision has to be viewed in the context of an entire life.  To have a lavish funeral in the face of my father’s uncaring attitude would have been an empty gesture devoid of feeling from me.  He obviously hadn’t cared about this.  If he did he would have planned for it. And if he did care about his last hurrah he shouldn’t have left it to me to decide by way of an uncaring gesture that completely ignored my feelings.  I’ve never bought in to all the rigmarole around death events, anyway.  They are for the benefit of the living, not the deceased.  I did not need to be coddled and I, frankly, didn’t care if any of his remaining family needed this process.  I did not feel the devastation I had experienced when my mother died.  Being older helped but, more than that, I was more in control of my own life when my father passed and, heaven knows, I was completely in control of his life to the end.  And, finally, I was paying for this event out of my own pocket – his estate was empty – and I did it without blinking.  So, you see, in the end it really was my problem, just as Dad had predicted.  Even toned down, the funeral was not that cheap.

There was nothing to feel cheap about, as it turned out, as the funeral events unfolded. There was a brief viewing for only me, my daughter and Dad’s surviving sister at the funeral home before the burial. The mausoleum has a lovely chapel and I hired that same clergy-woman who had visited my father in the nursing home to officiate at the ceremony in the chapel before the entombment.  She, at least, knew my father and liked him.  She constructed a wonderful, caring, gracious event which was very well received by everyone.  A number of his siblings’ children, my cousins, attended.  A couple of the old folks from his family came.  His sister was there (his other siblings were long gone).  Some people from my office attended as well as some of his friends from the Knights and the neighborhood.  I had a chance to offer some last words, as did my daughter and a few other people.  Then it was over.  No one complained that it was too little.  I think most people were moved.  I was as well.  For all the travail that my father’s life entailed, for all of his crippled parenting, he was still my father.  In my eulogy I said he had never stopped trying.  That’s true enough.  His efforts may have been misguided on many fronts, even damaging and skewed by his world view but he never gave up.

I had sold his house well before, so that was not an option for a funeral luncheon.  Instead we all went to Angelo’s Restaurant just down the road from the cemetery. The old world Italian family who owned the restaurant took very good care of us and the event was in stark contrast to my mother’s funeral luncheon with its controversies and outbursts.  Did I mention none of my mother’s family showed up at Dad’s funeral?  I probably didn’t call any of them (which, given their paper-thin skin, I’m sure offended them) but I’m sure they knew – it was in all the Hudson County newspapers and I knew they were still in touch with some of my father’s Hudson County cronies and his ancient Jersey City relatives who I did contact.  I’m not complaining.  It was much more civil without them and I was glad not to have to feed them lunch.

The luncheon was a fond goodbye with some reminiscing.  When it was over I thanked everyone for their good wishes and then I went back to work that afternoon.  I didn’t see any reason not to.  I didn’t have the same feeling of inertia I had experienced after Mom died.  I was an orphan now – and quite relieved to be.

Next time: Chapter 8: “Collateral Damage”

Collateral Damage

Scroll up or click on “home” to read previous chapters in the history of my family – the story of where I came from.

This is chapter 8, the final chapter:

“So, What About Me?”

They still flit through my dreams.  The parents, the relatives, other assorted past significants.  I confess I awaken glad that they’re gone.  My immediate family really is gone.  Every vestige of their existence (their home, business, vehicles, possessions) has disappeared save a few sticks of furniture and some boxes of papers in my basement.  I’ve come to terms with that void and my empty place where parental love and acceptance should have been.  It’s taken me my whole life up to this point but it’s finally clear how I am who I am because of who they were.

I don’t regard my family history as particularly unusual.  I’ve heard much worse from a lot of people. I also realize my situation pales in comparison to the dreadful childhoods which we hear about all too often. I didn’t write this narrative as an accusation or a catharsis.  Thinking back on all these events it just seemed like a pretty good story.  Colorful characters, conflict, emotion, loss – the works.  I understand that my elders had no nurturing, supportive model to inform their actions.  It would have been difficult for them to behave much differently than they did.  The effect on me was, merely, collateral damage.  Forgiveness, in this case, is a big word given that damage.  We forgive children and pets when they screw up.  Maybe adults should be held to a higher standard.  Maybe people should be able to, somehow, reach beyond their automatic thinking and realize the mayhem they are inflicting.  With an anger built on pain and dulled by time, I will reserve judgment on forgiveness.  More importantly, the question I must resolve is – how will I behave, now, given how family life was modeled for me?

I’ve had my relationship failures.  I’ve made poor choices.  My life before I developed some insight was headed for the same train-wreck model I had come to know from my youth.  But I’ve changed, unlike my elders.  The insight I’ve achieved is a genuine perception, gathered through long and hard examination of the past and all its complex, scary, sad echoes – it’s  not the slogan-driven, psycho-babble psuedo-insight so popular today, especially on Facebook.  Armed with this awareness, I’ve been able to begin to break the cycle of generational accidental behavior.  I’ve been fortunate to have had a lot of emotional support and I can see more clearly where the bad example ends and I begin.

Then there’s my daughter.  I was, somehow, able to see beyond all my learned bad behavior and appreciate the unfettered love coming from her and respond to it.  I was a very angry person in her early life, for which I am deeply sorry as it affected my daughter.  She has told me that, sometimes, she would look at me and wonder “Why is he always so angry?”  Anger is pain and that was welling up straight from my early life.  In many ways I think my daughter saved my life.  If she hadn’t been around I may have continued down the same path as those who came before me.  I had no other true example of giving and receiving love before my relationship with her.  Without her unflagging concern, love and support I would have had no reason to question everything and try to understand the effect of my early environment.  I still have my blind spots and my empty places but I hope I’m more clear-eyed about how my family’s behavior has shaped me.  I also hope I can continue to forge a life that’s not dependent – not slaved – to the unthinking, angry, fearful model I was presented with as a child.

Probably the most important thing any of us can hope for is to leave behind a strong, loving bond with those who come after us. It’s the only part of us that will live on. Other achievements will fade, leaving money behind is nice but it won’t heal the hurts when you’re gone.  The only thing that will survive is a true, warm memory in the mind of a loved one.  I have few such memories and it’s sad.  That dirth of fond recollection really does erase my family permanently.  I can only hope to end the dismal spiral of acrimony I was exposed to and replace it, going forward, with another model of family feeling.  It’s no easy task and it also informs every other aspect of my life – every other relationship, no matter how superficial or casual.  Otherwise, eventually, I will be erased, forever, as well.

Understanding my past, however, has never made me feel hopeless.  I have come to terms with sadness and wear it with all the other components of my character.  It’s not the controlling emotion.  It just exists alongside everything else.  Without it I would be blind to the hand I was dealt.  Sadness informs the truth of who I am and makes me more resolved about who I strive to be.

It’s tempting to think “what if?”  What if I had had more support, come from a more enlightened environment, had a better financial model?  It’s pointless.  I believe emotional healing is based on accepting what is and what was.  Striving to model a different paradigm is all the sweeter when your achievement is in spite of the bumps, bruises and travails of the past.  It would have been nice if my parents were able to stop and understand the needs of a child, as I have tried to do with my daughter, but they didn’t.  In spite of that, I have had some success in the arts, theatre, television and real estate.  I have a strong, close relationship with my daughter.  I will take sole credit for those achievements – my childhood never prepared me for them.  I am fortunate that my intellect has emerged intact and that I was able to expand it well beyond anything my family exhibited, despite my early environment.  Early history will continue to influence and inform some of my behavior but now I can recognize when it’s harming me and prevent it from leading to disaster.

There’s a movie that always circles me back on my childhood and what it has wrought from me in the present. In “Disney’s The Kid”, Russ Duritz (Bruce Willis) is confused by the sudden appearance of his 8 year-old self, Rusty, (a wonderful Spencer Breslin). The two of them embark on a journey of discovery into his childhood past and its echoes into the future. The movie always makes me very emotional as the younger Rusty prods memory from his older self and the older Russ helps his little self through a significant episode in the past.  The image of Willis embracing and re-assuring little Breslin is the quintessential image of a grown up self comforting the “inner child”, a frightened, confused, innocent, vulnerable child who deserves love, acceptance and care and gets something less.  What Rusty teaches his elder self is that the past will control the future only if we are afraid to confront it and change.  It’s a struggle that goes on in me every day.

I hope the angry, colorful, funny, fearful, profane and very sad people from my past, whose blood I share, have found some peace in life and in whatever lies beyond.  I continue to make my own peace – with them – with memory – and with myself.

Who Are These People?

Yesterday the Supreme Court of The United States heard oral arguments in King v. Burwell regarding the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare”.

The Court is hearing this case because so-called “conservative legal scholars” maintain the when the law says the newly insured are entitled to subsidies to pay health insurance premiums when they buy insurance from exchanges “established by the state”.  They maintain this means only states which have established their own exchanges, not the Federal Government’s exchange.  More than 30 states only have the Federal Exchange and, if these plaintiffs are successful, people who bought insurance through that exchange would lose their subsidies.  This amounts to more than 7 million people.

Who are these people bringing this case as plaintiffs?  Four individuals — David King, Douglas Hurst, Brenda Levy and Rose Luck — are suing to challenge the federal government’s offer of subsidies to them. All four live in Virginia, a state that did not set up its own exchange. The plaintiffs object to a provision of the law that requires everyone who can afford insurance to obtain it or pay a tax penalty (a provision of the law – known as the mandate – which has already been affirmed by the Supreme Court). If subsidies in Virginia were cut off, the plaintiffs would no longer be required to buy coverage because it would no longer be considered affordable under the law.  In other words – and this is fact, not opinion – the conservative forces behind this challenge cherry-picked these people who volunteered to sue.

Who are the people behind these “straw man” plaintiffs?  The conservative think tank sponsoring and funding this lawsuit is the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Libertarian research group funded by huge corporations and the billionaire Koch brothers.  Until now it was only known as a strident critic of what it calls “global warming alarmism”.  It has, in the past, teamed up with other right-wing forces to challenge Obama Administration regulations on finance, air quality and other issues.  In 2010 its then-chairman Michael S. Greve referred to Obamacare by saying, “This bastard has to be killed as a matter of political hygiene.  I do not care how this is done, whether it’s dismembered, whether we drive a stake through its heart, whether we tar and feather it and drive it out-of-town, whether we strangle it.”  Obviously, a model of mature political discourse.  Also, obviously, an implacable foe of President Obama with sights set on his failure.

Who are these people so hell-bent on destroying the Affordable Care Act?  Conservatives, Republicans, Libertarians and anyone else who opposes strong central government Federalism.  These opponents also include anyone who simply wishes to erase any shred of an Obama legacy.  They are the idealogues who would shoot the country in the foot in order to prove their purist points.  They are the forces so determined to undermine this President that they will take no notice of the disastrous consequences of their actions.

The language of this law was examined and constructed over thousands of hours of congressional scrutiny and hundreds of hearings prior to the law’s passage.  Subsidies were clearly intended for everyone, regardless of whose exchange they purchased from.  The plaintiff’s contention that Congress worded the law in order to hold a hammer over the states is disingenuous at best. For the Federal Government to coerce the states in that way would be unconstitutional.  Their claim that the law says the states must establish their own exchanges or lose the Federal subsidies is ridiculous.  This would imply Congress was passing an unconstitutional law it knew would fail.

It’s been said that the loss of the Federal subsidies would crash the health insurance market.  And if you think this will only affect those with Federal subsidies – think again.  Everyone is in the actuarial pool, whether your health insurance comes from the state exchanges, the Federal exchange, your employer, your union or if you are so well off that you can afford individual coverage on your own dime.  Premiums are estimated to rise three-fold with healthy people dropping their coverage and only the sickest remaining.

Who are these people who wish this on this country?  I take this very personally since my coverage comes from the Federal exchange and so does my daughter’s.  She has already had a near-catastrophic injury with an emergency room visit, an operation and months of physical therapy which would have cost almost $100,000 if not for her insurance.  This would have bankrupted her and our entire extended family.  Who are these people who wish for this just to prove a point?

The Republicans and conservative forces have been trying (and failing) to repeal The Affordable Care Act since it was passed in 2010 and have suggested nothing to replace it.  They claim this law is doing more harm than good and the American people are against it.  How do they justify that position?  It’s been proven time and again that this law has, indeed, put us on the path to health care and health insurance reform.  Costs to consumers are down, better quality of care is available to more people and there is a semblance of stability in the insurance marketplace.  Should we go back to the situation prior to the law’s passage with rising costs and more and more uninsured Americans costing the economy billions of dollars in lost productivity from illness and injury?  Should we go back to the days when the uninsured could die from untreated illness and injury?

The forces on the right are being wagged by the small fringe elements who are committed to winning at any cost, determined to undermine the President and are even willing to shut down the Federal Government and de-fund the Department of Homeland Security just to prove a point.  When you undercut the Democratic President at any cost you undercut the forward progress of the country and its many unresolved issues.  Now that Republicans have a majority in both houses of Congress they must seem to be able to govern but all they seem to be able to do is obstruct and oppose resulting in a legislature which produces nothing but overheated rhetoric.

Who are these people who are so fixated on winning that they are willing to do so over the ashes of any semblance of progress for the country?  And who are the people who sent them into government?  The un-informed, paranoid, angry and ignorant among the electorate who send these clinically dysfunctional people to Congress (and to state legislatures) are the people who, evidently, will cut off the nose of the country to spite its face, as the saying goes.  They need a bad guy to explain the failure of their own lives and a president on the other side of the aisle will do nicely.  These people would be clinical no matter who was president.

Then there’s the out-and-out ignorant.  I saw an interview of a 26-year-old young lady who said that she objects to Obamacare because it forces her to buy health insurance and she doesn’t see what she’s getting for her money.  It’s not, she says, like Netflix where you’re getting something for the cost.  I hope she doesn’t feel the same about car insurance and I hope she’s not driving toward me on the same road.  I don’t use ignorance, in this example, as a pejorative.  This young lady just doesn’t know what she’s talking about.  Her young life has not yet impressed on her the reality of the world she inhabits.  My daughter, also 26, knows, first hand, the value of health insurance.  I don’t wish a medical emergency on anyone and I understand how good health can make you feel invulnerable.  You are one bad luck episode away from being very vulnerable.

There must be a clinical name for the irrational behavior surrounding health insurance.  Maybe it’s a jumble of many behaviors including narcissism, paranoia, delusion, depression, the aforementioned ignorance and anxiety.  It’s also the only possible explanation for the overall political polarization in The United States today.  I don’t confine my clinical doubts to only those right-of-center.  There’s plenty of blood sport on the left as well.

That’s exactly what we have in American politics today – a giant cock-fight.  I was going to use dog fighting but dogs are too intelligent.  We don’t discuss or debate – we villianize.  We don’t have adult discourse and mature consensus – we have posturing.

Who are these people who don’t give a damn about the consequences of their ideological purity on the rest of us?  I am saddened to conclude it’s everyone on both sides of any political issue.  If there was an issue that would undercut the Republican Party or a Republican president I have no doubt the left would have their teeth in it raw and bloody also.

Who are these people?  It’s us.  It’s our unresolved issues at play in an arena too important to be held hostage to our emotional dysfunction.  Let’s hope there are at least 5 people in this country, functional adults who can still maintain rational thought and understand the consequences of their actions – at lease 5 Justices of The Supreme Court.