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.

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