Hanging Around With Randy

“Talk in everlasting words
And dedicate them all to me
And I will give you all my life
I’m here if you should call to me

You think that I don’t even mean
A single word I say

It’s only words, and words are all I have
To take your heart away”–The Bee Gees

If we could wipe away words as we wipe away tears life would be easier. Tears are easy. They fall from us and a small piece of paper, once a mighty tree, clears them forever. But words, those, my friends, are a different story. Therapy can heal words spoken, soften them and even change their composition, perhaps…but they remain, because they’ve been heard.

The call came in the middle of the night that my brother, Randy, was ill. It was his abdomen and his wife, Maria, was away on vacation.

“Hey, can you come stay with me?” The fact was he, like Dennis and me, was a hypochondriac. Some siblings play ball, some musical instruments, we compare CT Scans. Just a year earlier he was struggling with some form of cardiac disease. In his defense my brothers and I are all wired the same.

“Do I have to? It’s so late…what if I come down in the morning?” I was not only tired but afraid I’d veer off the road in their rural town of Weston.

“Yeah, its okay…I’ll be all right…unless I pass out or something from the pain…but don’t worry…”

Annoyed was the word to describe my feelings. “I’ll be there soon.” Had our mother taught the art of guilt well? Indeed she had.

Driving south, the Merritt Parkway seemed endless. Each bend prompted me to widen my eyes for sleep was not far away. The melodic ring of the cell phone broke the monotony.

“Are you all right?” Worry, our second familial trait. “I don’t want you to get hit by a deer or something. Maybe you shouldn’t be coming.” Was he kidding? Where was that sentiment before I’d left my bed?

The level of annoyance was growing exponentially, my voice terse. “I’m fine. I’ll be there soon.” We’d been through much together, the good, bad and indifferent. I remembered the days of our youth. No one could have predicted the future, but I certainly held the past.

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With a little luck you could have an older brother, several if very lucky.  My parents hadn’t chronologically planned our family well. Having three boys, our mother fancied us a television family, most likely “My Three Sons”.  Aside from the number, there was little resemblance. A tremendous age difference between Dennis and me sent him to college when I began first grade. We could have been closer if the age limit on drinking were lowered to six. Perhaps he could have brought me to college dorm parties and concocted some  inventive cocktail using Nestle’s Quik or Yoo-Hoo, but it was not to be.

Two and a half years separated Randy and me, so mischief and bonding was a natural occurrence.  My mother would coddle me which annoyed my older sibling. When he wanted to leave me behind, excluded from his group of friends, she’d cross her arms, reference the saying, “He ain’t heavy Father, he’s my brother” and force an inclusion.  It felt good to be the object of her affection, not to mention the ease with which it made getting away with just about anything.

Phrases such as, “You know the rules” and “Not as long as you’re living in this house” were thrown about, but for the most part, as the youngest, punishment was deferred onto Randy. His revenge was taken when our parents weren’t looking.  As older brothers do, he’d lock me in the closet, wedging a chair under the door handle so it couldn’t be opened, or lock me in the basement, my small, soprano voice crying for help. Basically he thought of me not so much as a brother but a pain in the ass.  The potential dorm parties with Dennis looked better and better. On the other hand, Randy was my protector and mentor, where this story begins.

He was always much bigger than me in many ways.  His hair was brown, tinged with auburn and his eyes shone hazel. There ran through his veins a different blood than Dennis and me, more of a risk taker, or least he used to be.  If a subject interested him he would speak at great length and his intellect would never retreat, traits he shared with Dennis.  If uninterested his mind went to a private place that challenged him. I never knew where he was but always know how to bring him back– change the subject to one of his great passions– business, home renovation or his greatest joy, his son, Christopher.

Randy was always precocious.  A living encyclopedia, he seemed to know everything about, well, just about everything.  As an adult, I found myself drawn to the telephone when an answer was needed to even the most obscure question or to “bounce” a thought off someone with innate intuitiveness. My mentor and I could, at times, go for extended periods without speaking, not for any reason other than life consuming time, but we were only a press of a button away. The relationship was easy, as it always had been.

My sense of humor? Randy thought it witty.  He’d listen to me, enjoy my stories, and always worry about his “little brother.”  His home, one of his greatest passions, was always open, large, a metaphor for his heart.  He thought me brave, a title bestowed during a private conversation and one returned upon him. When my journey of writing began, a short story of a childhood memory caused him to look at me over his glasses. He jokingly threatened a lawsuit, at least I think he was joking.  I love it and think you will too. It’s about two little boys doing what comes naturally. The motto in our house was, “Where there’s smoke there’s fire and where there’s fire, there’s Randy.”

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I was not more than eight years old or so. Rather than wasting his time teaching me about history, science or math, my older brother was solely responsible for teaching me about art. The art of awareness.  Our three bedroom house afforded my parents the largest, our oldest brother, Dennis the next largest and Randy and me the smallest bedroom. In thinking of it we were strangers really, two souls thrown together, like dorm-mates, for an extended period of our lives. The room was sufficient for two young boys and made for intimate awareness of one another,  lifelong confidants and flowing, sometimes exasperating conversation. Secrecy was an impossibility, privacy unheard of.  From the bunk bed above, in the cool darkness of an autumn night, Randy softly whispered.

“Hey, dick weed, are you sleeping?” I stirred. “You want to do something really fun?”

Lifting my head off the pillow, half asleep, I responded. “What is it?” Logic should have dissuaded me but trust abounded. The printed cowboy pajamas made their way down the ladder. Lying at the foot of my bed he slipped them down and covered himself with the blue crocheted coverlet. Holding up his finger, as an instructor would, he pointed below the blanket as his hand began to move back and forth. By virtue of his non-verbalization this screamed, “Off-limits”. Then, hushed, he spoke.

“Do this to your koots…but be really, really quiet.” (Koots was our “child’s-word” for penis)

Puzzled, my hand followed, touching that spot on myself, the place the Bible forbids, and began copying his movement.  There was no discernible sensation other than being in the bathtub washing myself.  Continuing on, slowly and methodically, that all changed.   Something was very different.  My brain disengaged, floating, detaching itself from my body, my soul lingering above looking down as if from the heavens.  Euphoria began to envelop me and the point of no return was at hand, literally.  For a split second I worried death was imminent, that perhaps this was the reason God commanded us not to touch ourselves. My senses heightened and my body, excluding my hand, seemed paralyzed. My brain lost all capability of rational thoughts, sensing only electrical impulses. My small body was sinking into the the sheets and mattress as the world and my breath left me. I had died… and clearly gone to heaven.

“ I’ve never felt like that before.”

“Unbelievable, right?” Randy nodded with cocksure approval and climbed back up the ladder.

Easily addictive, Pandora’s Box had been opened. This, an act so frowned upon, so irreverent and unspeakable, had the potential to decimate my Catholicism. This could easily escalate me to Gold medal status were it an Olympic event. Why wasn’t it an Olympic event?  I stood on the platform my neck laden with thirty gold medals.  As the American flag was hoisted, the Star Spangled Banner played in the background. I smiled gleefully as a grateful nation cheered my prowess, acknowledging my parents proudly seated in the audience. My parents. My parents?  After much thought we decided secrecy was best.

“We need a code word or something,” Randy said, “How about ‘hanging around’? Its easy.”

“Hanging around” was perfect. No one would be the wiser and with  “hanging around” added to life it seemed complete. We’d “hang around” the basement, our Clubhouse and even in my tree fort in the old Weeping Willow in the backyard. I’d spread the word to friends, some already knew, and the older kids in the neighborhood, Randy’s friends, of course were light years ahead. At the top of our street, the woods, a virtual barracks built by rows of pines, boulders and bushy shrubs, served as a perfect naturalized “jack-shack”. No one wanted this parade to end.

Christmas was nearing, and the snow, seemingly endless, was piling up. At school, our  teacher, Mrs. McRae, helped my class coil together red and green construction paper, creating garlands to decorate our Christmas trees at home.  I presented mine to my mother, who was hard at work making the preliminary dishes for Christmas Eve.

“Well,” she said, “We’re going to put this right on the tree. We can’t just leave it hanging around.”  She was appeasing me. My mother wasn’t one to hang our homemade school projects. Suddenly, out of nowhere, came the words. Perhaps it was the impending holiday, the birth of Christ, performing an Exorcism. Perhaps it was the guilt. Perhaps it was her use of  the term “hanging around”. Or perhaps I simply had a big mouth. My guess is the latter.

“Randy and I hang around with our kootses.” To this day I haven’t a clue why I said it. Why did those words come out of my mouth? There are times, in my life, when being possessed is the only answer.

Slowly she turned to face me, her eyes wrapping me like Wonder Woman with her truth telling lasso.  Unsure of what I meant, yet quite sure, she approached.

“Excuse me…what did you say?” The wooden spoon, wet with sauce, was off-putting. Like the poinsettias adorning the fireplace, my complexion turned red as I tried to skirt the issue. Surely something big was on the verge of surfacing.

“I don’t know.” That’s it? That’s all I could say? I was eight and my current skills at “spin” weren’t yet perfected. “I wasn’t really saying anything…just making stuff up.” I winced, a dead giveaway.

My legs were paralyzed as the blue braided rug in our dining room seemed to be made of wet cement.  Pulling one foot from its hold, I built enough momentum to escape the impending doom. The maple trestle dining table offered sanctuary below.  My mother leaned down, her index finger, manicured in a soft pink frosted polish, motioned back and forth beckoning me. How could one finger, narrow and small, house such power? She lured me from my safe room demanding an explanation.

“If it was nothing you wouldn’t be running away.  Come out from under there and tell me what you said…I’m not asking again.”

My mind was pensive. Could I make it through the living room, down the hall and lock myself in the bathroom? It was a long-shot but worth a try. Sensing my thoughts she blocked that exit. Perhaps I could use my soulful brown eyes for exoneration. The years had taught me to use them as a means for a purpose. I was a master at the art of  ocular expression.

“Chip, this is it. I’m not asking again.” Her hand gestured with finality. “No Christmas presents. I’m getting a message to Santa. The end.”

There was no choice, it was over. Leaving the confines of my sanctuary city I faced the Special Counsel. As the interrogation continued there was but one choice, plea bargaining.  Yes, I would sing like a “song bird” potentially throwing my brother under the bus and saving my own ass…and gifts. Or perhaps the truth would set him free as well. It was a long shot and a justification of my actions.

“Sometimes, at night, Randy… well… once he showed me how to play with my koots.  It felt good.” There was no turning back. I was a stool pigeon.

“Play with it?  You mean shake it?” My mother was getting the picture and it wasn’t a pretty one.

“Well, sort of.  You go like this…”  I demonstrated the motion with my small hand, “It gets kind of hard and warm and feels all good.” She put her hand on mine stopping the movement.

“ I get the idea. I’ll kill him.”  I think she meant it.

**********************************

Ignorance is bliss.  From behind the eyelet curtains in our living room Randy, his blue snow suit, covered with crystallized water, was playing with his friends in the newly fallen snow. Inside the warmth of our house, his life was unraveling. Looking up and down the street I searched for cars.  Perhaps his sled would slide across Orchard Road in front of one and he’d be killed instantly, a much less painful death than facing our mother. More to the point he could not kill me. The back door opened and the sound of his boots being tossed meant he was very much alive.

“Ma, can you make me some hot chocolate? I can’t feel the tip of my nose. My face is numb.” If only his ass were numb he’d be all set.

“Hey Rand, come here a minute and help me. Leave your wet clothes on the breezeway.”

Edith was cunning, perversely living for the element of surprise. Opening the refrigerator, she took the glass bottle, poured the milk into a small, silver pan and mixed in the cocoa and sugar. As they blended together over the heat, Christmas carols played in the background. Bolting from my fortress, I shot by Randy and hid under the bunk bed until the fireworks were over.  My unsuspecting, soon to be late brother, his face still red from the cold, wondered how he could share my DNA. He didn’t even know the half of it. Yet.

“What’s up with the dick weed.? He’s such a dope.”

“Stop calling him that. Where did you learn that anyway?” Then, as “O Come All Ye Faithful” began she said, “He’s probably in the bedroom just hanging around…why don’t you go join him? That is if your koots isn’t numb from the cold.”  My sense was the shit that hit the fan was all over the kitchen. I hoped it hadn’t landed in his cocoa but feared it had.

Morbid curiosity abounded having never witnessed an execution.  Quietly I made my way toward the battle zone, keeping my distance from the kitchen but able to see Randy’s somewhat ashen face. His eyes, like daggers, caught me and penetrated my very core, sending chills down my spine. Death would come that night, it was evident–he would most certainly bludgeon me in my sleep.

Amazingly he didn’t flinch. Even at a young age he kept his composure, like James Bond. It was impressive. Both sets of eyes locked in a stare down as he sipped his hot chocolate. There would be many more such scenes in the years to come.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he said sipping the hot chocolate, “This is good.” My mentor was convincing but not to our mother. Sweat was pouring from my brow as the climax approached.

“Then let’s call your father and Dennis and see if they know what I mean.”  She’d played a trump card which had our family’s face on it. He didn’t want everyone in on this. “Chip, get in here.” Me? Why me? Hadn’t I said enough?

Shifting slightly to the edge of his seat my brother stood. It was a Marlon Brando moment.  I backed away. He was holding a hot drink which could potentially be used as a weapon. And then, surprisingly, he caved.

“Okay, it’s like this,” Randy gave up the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth as our mother turned and went to her stove victoriously.

Surprisingly and disappointingly there were no fireworks. The executioner drew no ax and the preacher gave no fire and brimstone sermon.  God didn’t seek revenge nor was there any throwing of hot chocolate in our mother’s face so we could escape to a far off land. She simply stirred the pot of sauce after my brother confessed his sin.  Was her collected behavior pacifying or terrifying?  The greater question was, did her initial look of disbelief stem from the fact my older brother had taught me to masturbate, a sin in our Catholic upbringing, or had she raised a stool pigeon, a snitch, a sin in our Italian culture? She herded us to the dining room where we sat around my former fortress.

“You’ll go blind you know, if you keep doing that. It’s a sin to masturbate.” Rising, she walked to the living room and pulled two books from the shelves, setting them before us. “Look it up in the bible. Then look it up in the encyclopedia. And go wash your hands, twice, no, three times.” It was, after all, the 1960’s, progressive parenting and social liberalism hadn’t yet taken hold, in our house anyway. To me she said, “And you, little man, have a big mouth.” Randy wore a look of vindication.  Turning on heel she made her way to the kitchen where important business was transacting. As she stood behind the open refrigerator door, her shoulders began bouncing, as if chuckling, her head shaking back and forth.

As he passed me on his way to the bedroom I noted, “That wasn’t so bad.”

Leaning in, my once trusting brother warned, “I wouldn’t fall asleep if I were you… dick weed.”

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As I pulled onto Singing Oaks Drive the night seemed darker than usual. My body was exhausted and my demeanor, truth be told, somewhat dark as well. We’d all been through his hypochondria and like the days of our youth his lessons taught me well. The car negotiated the long, winding driveway and from the window, the large chandelier was ablaze, as if company was expected for a celebration. Parking in the circular portion of the drive, I grabbed my duffel as the front door opened. There, in the doorway stood my brother. For some reason I noted he still wore pajamas. I walked into the massive foyer.

“Thanks for coming.” He looked relieved. Somewhere in my head was our mother reminding me, “He ain’t heavy…” I’d have never turned away from a cry for help yet my irritation got the better of me. And then, that loose lipped little boy came out and I said it.

“You’d better be really sick this time or I’ll kill you.”

At that moment those words, the ones I wish could be erased, those words that I’ve lived with every day since his death, came from my overzealous mouth. It was as if speaking to my mother on that winter day. None of us could have foreseen the future. Though said in jest they foreshadowed the saddest year of being a sibling…and the untold guilt for ever having uttered them.

My brother scoffed, in a child-like voice, as he often did when we mocked his over active mind. “No one cares about me…”

But the days to come would prove him wrong. Time would become precious. Would those of us who loved him still look for answers to our questions and advice from our brother, husband, father, uncle and friend? We would. In the expanse of his bedroom, a far cry from that of two little boys on Orchard Road, nestled among his obsession with pillows and flowing bed linens we’d lay, sometimes not uttering a word, sometimes talking incessantly.

“I wish we could go back,” he once said, his body surrounded by down feathers. “I want to go back to Orchard Road, to mom and dad.” How does one reply? I too wished we could go back, but not that far, so I could “un-say” what I had and change his course, but couldn’t.  And, anyway, my hope was simply a heartbreaking wish.

Nodding in agreement I promised. “Yep, life was easy then…but I take us back…in my writing.” He flashed back to this particular story and many others over his life.

“Great…just don’t make me look bad.” He sounded like our mother.

“I won’t…well…maybe, just a little…” then, “Dick weed.” The brotherly tables had turned and the opportunity to call him that felt good. Ah, justice. “You’re a windfall of material for me you know.” Our thoughts reflected the most private moments of our lives, those requiring a “pinky-swear” or pin prick of blood with a promise of eternal secrecy. Now, thankfully, there were no demonstrations given under the covers and my status had long since been elevated from pain in the ass.

We said, “I love you”, words not spoken from one bunk bed to another, perhaps never, though near the end they were said often. It was in fact true, he was was not heavy, he was my brother. Our mother’s use of that quote had been validated. During that year, the visits, the talks and texts, the shopping excursions, and even the hospital visits, the art of awareness came knocking. While not in the same way, nor with fiery Biblical implications, I was, once again, just  “hanging around” with Randy.

 

*On August 12, 2013 my brother Randy passed away from Pancreatic Cancer. To Dennis and me he was a brother and friend. To his wife, Maria and son, Christopher, he was the world. Randy was 55 years old…

“She Was…”

 

Shortly after the book “Mommie Dearest” came out, my mother, legs crossed, sat across from me on our breezeway, her perpetual cup of Lipton tea, with milk, in hand. She was an avid reader but this genre was not typical to her taste.

“What a piece of trash,” she ruled, “It’s so easy for a child to write about their mother after she’s gone. What a way to get even.”

Our mother clung to a core belief, defendable at any cost, that unconditional, unyielding, and unquestioned loyalty belongs to one’s mother.  If I’d begun writing during her lifetime it would make sense that she’d be wary. However I hadn’t. As a matter of fact I have no need to “get even” with her. Both of us had always been “even” with one another and it worked.

Some stories are readily told. They are easily written and words flow naturally. There is one perspective and one tale to be told. When writing about a parent the ease recedes much like a tide. A parent is human. There are triumphs and failures and each child remembers and clings to what those may be, shaping their opinion and creating the story of their life with family. Randy’s and Dennis’s relationships might share a common thread of resemblance to mine, yet there would be vast differences. And none would be wrong. As a matter of fact, anyone who knew Edith would have their own version of her. Each would be the remembrance told through memories, good, bad or indifferent. This one is mine. And it did in fact flow easily…until I realized just how complicated she was.

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She was. She was beautiful. She was complex. She was opinionated though not college educated. She was the “pretty” sister. She was the one who married, bore three children and moved to the suburbs. She was tinged with vanity though the lady would protest it. She was the Empress of her domain.  There was no pomp and circumstance to the life she led though she’d longed for it. Her lineage was not traced to Counts and Countesses nor the upper class. She was the daughter of an immigrant father and simplistic mother. She was outwardly strong, though an internal fracture created imperfection, a flaw she would never allow to be seen especially by her enemies, or perceived enemies. She was Eda to her parents and my father, Edith to the world and Edie to close friends. The Argentine had Evita and in our house, the house on Orchard Road, we had, “Edita”.

She loved. She nurtured. She put aside her own desires, if for no other reason than to appear to be the “mother of the year”. But she was, flaws and failures, triumphs and tribulations, the “Mother of the Year” to me. Edith Proto defined her role as a parent by the standards and regulatory statutes she created.  “Our country is a Democracy,” she told me early on, “You have rights and freedom and should appreciate it at all costs.” It was my first lesson in civics. “However,” she noted, smirking, “This house is a Dictatorship. You have no rights except those I give you.”  It was my first lesson in politics. She squiggled her nose, pinched my cheek, patted my small, unworldly head and went off to fry eggplant in the kitchen. “Mommy loves you little man.”

My mother was a dominatrix.  A leather bustier, scantily fitted skirt and fishnet stockings was her attire when cooking dinner and all the while she donned a black, braided leather whip.   Of course I jest, she’d never wear a skirt to cook, let alone leather. To her that would be tasteless and more importantly much too warm while frying chicken or eggplant. The only whip was in her words, most often used for protection but at times cutting, even lethal, though she’d protest that statement as well.

“You know Chip, you don’t have to money but you always have to have class. Most people with money have none.” You see, there was a dream.  It may not have been ours but it was hers. East of Edith was the life she’d imagined but never quite achieved.  When we veered off course she’d draw back her whip, bringing her boys back in line.  Yes, my mother was a dominatrix.  Still, admittedly, I found love and comfort in her omnipotent actions.

Not only was she the parent who visibly nurtured, she was the disciplinarian, more poignantly the “authoritarian” in the lives of my two brothers and myself. This was a woman who insisted our father play the male role in our lives yet unwittingly kept him in the abstract, the shadow which trailed behind her, and if not behind then to the east of Edith, everyone traveled either behind or east of Edith. Putting her three offspring above all else, including herself, she was accessible, making time to listen, offering advice and on most occasions lending advice without ever being asked for it. Edith ruled her sphere of influence with an iron hand. Still, it was that very hand which would sweep away hurtful tears inflicted on us and soothe bruises when someone was hurting. And God help the person who’d bruised us.

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I remember the first memory of my mother nurturing my creativity. We were in our dining room, her ironing board set up and a pile of my father’s work shirts waiting a finishing touch. Winter had moved to spring and I was in kindergarten. A few days away the Mary L. Tracy Elementary School Easter parade would take place. Each student was delegated the task of making Easter bonnets. Mine was lacking any “joie de vivre”, the fake eggs rolling off the sides and plastic tulips lying limp along the edges.

“Well that will never do,” she said taking charge. “We can’t have you marching and your eggs falling off.”  Little did she know, in years to come, having my eggs “fall off” would become a lifestyle rather than an incident. “Here’s what we have to do…”

The pressed, white styrofoam hat did in fact need help. We made our way to Kresge’s, a “five and dime” store at the Connecticut Post mall. She bought bright, colorful ribbon, sparkled eggs and many more false tulips, lifelike lilacs, a fluffy toy duckling and chick. “Now you’ll see.” Her excitement was overwhelming as the creation came together. In my mother’s mind she had crafted the most beautiful bonnet anyone could every want.

“Anyone going to church on a Sunday would love this,” she said, showing off her creation to my dad.  Anyone in the south and female that is.

“Ede, you’re not serious…He can’t wear that.” The trepidation in my father’s voice was desperate . “Where’s the styrofoam part and the part resembling a man’s hat?” She found his comments unjustified.

“Henry please, you’ll make him self-conscious.” Apparently neither realized I could hear them although I was in the room. “It’s perfect,” she insisted.

The next day I went to school. In my bag, wrapped as if from Saks Fifth Avenue, was what essentially may be the campiest hat any drag queen would be proud to sport on “Ru Paul’s Drag Race”.

“I’ll see you at the parade little man!”

“Not if I can help it…” I thought, wondering if I should “forget” it on the bus. No, that would only draw more attention.  Miss Tracy, the principal, would parade it down the corridor looking for its owner. I had no choice.

I donned the bonnet and ignored the “fem” comments from the kids. As we marched around the floor of the gymnasium, the song “Easter Parade” coming from our juvenile soprano voices, our parents applauded. “Don’t look anyone in the eye” I thought fearing they’d mistake me for the infamous girl with the much too cropped haircut. And then there they were– Henry and Edith, on aisle seats, my mother holding a Kodak Instamatic camera, her smile brimming over. My father pointed at me, loudly whistled and shouted as I passed, “That a boy!” His proclamation was  two fold, both to encourage me and to make known my sex. The intention was good, and his attempt valiant, but I’m sure many mistook his enthusiastic remark as, “That’s a boy??”

My mother once asked, “Did I make you gay?” It was a question which preyed on her mind for years. “Nonsense,” I said assuaging her self-indictment, “But you were certainly an accessory to the crime.”

*********************************

“You get five minutes of loving up time, then you go to school” It was not unordinary to hear those words flow from my parents’ bedroom to my brother Randy and me, as matter of fact it was highly ordinary. Dennis, distanced by a decade in age, was far too old to join our mother in her bed, although given the choice she would have insisted. Their room, papered in a whimsical floral print and housing maple Early American furniture, was comfortable.

The bed, a full-size, seemed enormous, fitting four of us at one time for special moments such as this. On her dressing table was a gold, tufted jewelry case, disorganized inside, and a lamp crowned with a frilly shade and  in the shape of a pitcher and bowl, like Martha Washington would have had there been electricity during her lifetime. On the corner of the table stood a tall transparent bottle, yellow in color by virtue of the liquid inside with a large, round black top sealing it. Inscribed on the side in black was the name, “Jean Nate” and it was, for as many years as I can remember, the only scent she used.

“Come on, ‘boys et moi’, squeeze in here.” For some reason unknown to anyone, when my mother spoke to us in plural she used both English and French. It was curious because the only French she knew were “French” fries. Randy and I would climb into the bed, he alongside her on the right and me on the left. She’d rub our backs and tell us stories of when she was young or when our grandparents were young. It was timed with precision and when five minutes was up we were on our way.

As our mother grew weaker, day by day, from her cancer, my brother Randy would travel from Florida to visit her. He’d move back into the small bedroom that was Dennis’ then his, a far cry from the luxury of his own home. Still, as an adult, he would sleep in her room on an upholstered chair set in the corner.

“Listen,” he said as if on the witness stand, “She’s so weak that if something happens in the middle of the night I might not hear her.” We all share a common strand of DNA. Worry.

“You don’t have to explain to me, it’s cool. But I did watch a “made for TV movie” once about a son who was in love with his mother.”

“Dickweed…leave me alone,” he said,  his voice filled with disdain.

One morning, on my way to work, I dropped by the house on Orchard Road. Shortly after my mother returned home from a hospital stay  Randy flew to Connecticut. His arrival gave me a reprieve, allowing me to return to my own home and catch up on life.

“Mom?… Rand?… Hey, where are you guys?” I wandered down the hall and found them both sleeping, at least he was. Randy was curled up on her right, her now frail hand running through his hair. She gave me “the look”, indicating if I were to ridicule or wake him my ass would be on the line. Then her head, now with only wisps of hair left on it, nodded toward her left. I snuck into the bed, curled up next to her and for a moment, a fleeting yet very important moment, life for us was very, very good.

************************************

“The look”.  How does one begin to describe “the look”? “The look” was simply what it was. It asked the question, “Do you think I’m an idiot?” It also was the precursor to punishment, the prelude to a symphony of retribution for having either embarrassed or humiliated one, or both, of our parents publicly. It’s inconsequential how many times I found a connection between my mothers’ swiftly moving hand and my ass. Once, twice? There was the time I was thirty-five years old and she slapped me in the salon, in front of witnesses, for disrespecting her with verbal sarcasm. Still, that did not encompass the truthful heart of “the look”…that was an exercise in authority and respect as she put it.

After a weekend away in Provincetown, I arrived home and was staring in the mirror. My friends had convinced me, in the moment induced by alcohol, to pierce my ear. In those days there was the distinction between left piercing (straight) and right (gay).  Cautiously, and untruthfully, I pierced the left.

“How was your trip, Chip?” I wondered how long it would be before she noticed. “Did you guys do anything fun?” We did but nothing she need know about.

“Good, lots of fun…the ride home is killer though.”

“Well, it’s a long waaa…” She’d stopped in the middle. Like the hunter she focused on her prey. Oh God, here it comes. “What in the hell have you done?” Her tiny feet and body slowly moved, predatory toward me. My body shifted to defense mode. This could go only one of two ways. She asked again, “What have you done?”

“Well,” submissively said, “I pierced my ear.” My mother was “alpha-dogging” me.

“I see…and are you a boy or a girl? Because I gave birth to a boy. A beautiful boy, with perfect ears. How could you ruin your ears that way?” She began to speed up. Was she actually beginning to close in? Her feet sped up and I moved rapidly out to and around the dining room table. It was lunacy as my mother, I believe seriously, was trying to catch me and return my ears to normal before the damage was permanent. Luckily, I grabbed my car keys and left before she had the chance. My father, ever in the background just shook his head. I was twenty six years old. She didn’t care. To my mother I was the property she labored to own…and was reminded of that every day.

For the first twelve years of my life my father and I would get our haircut by “John the Barber”. John Longo was an old family friend and we were expected to behave respectfully and well behaved. Anything less was punishable by death and death was welcome..

Shortly after the movie “Mary Poppins” was released, I found the utensil of my dreams. General Mills was cashing in on the Walt Disney fervor.  With fifty cents, and five box tops of any of their cereals, an official “Mary Poppins” spoon was yours. Upon opening the final box of Frosted Flakes, I cut off the cardboard top, dipped into my sock filled with coin and sent off my order. Minutes turned to hours, hours to days and days to weeks. Then, before the following month, my dream came to fulfillment.

I waited, practically salivating, each day moment the mail arrived. I saw the box leave the mail truck in the hands of Mr. Serfilipi the mailman. And there, at our kitchen table I tore open the package and stared at the silver, or stainless, spoon. It was a teaspoon with Mary Poppins, umbrella open, attached at the end. For a little boy, at least this one, it was the stuff that dreams are made of.

“Come on Chip,” my mother called, “You have to get a haircut.” Apparently my mood was less enthusiastic this summer day for my friends were all meeting to play—this haircut was interfering in my social life.

“I don’t want to. I want to play with Mike and Mark.” My voice bore the single characteristic that set my mother’s teeth on edge, whining. Edita had little to no tolerance for whining.

“Well here’s a news flash kiddo…you’re getting a haircut.” I hated when she held the leash. In my young mind was a plan. She’d have no choice but to have John stop, or hurry, to complete his work if I acted miserably and the neighborhood kids would welcome me readily. We plan and God laughs.

At the barber shop I was the child who, over the course of my career, I have grown to dislike. I sat, teeth clenched and pouting, not acknowledging any adult as my mother coaxed me into saying “hello”. In the barber chair my body squirmed and twisted. My hand pushed at my hair and I ripped the “Sanek strip” from my neck. Looking over my shoulder I watched as my mother, calm and collected, read a magazine. She wasn’t distracted by my insolence. Had my plan backfired? Was she immune to the tricks of her sons? Then, to any other eye, I saw “the look”. To any other eye it would go unnoticed. Once completed, my hair was slicked down with pomade and the bill was paid. Our car, parked directly in front awaited us. The ride home was eerily uneventful. I positioned myself in the backseat, on the floor behind the passenger sea where her hand couldn’t reach me. In those days seat belts were rarely used and the idea of car seats hadn’t been born.

“Are you itchy,” she asked.

“Nope.” I tersely replied.

“Well that’s good. I wouldn’t want you to be itchy.”

What was happening? Had something shifted in the dictates of our mother? Had Edita softened to the point of being unrecognizable? It was a question that had no answer. We arrived home and exited the car.

“You go play… I have to get dinner ready…Oh, and Chip,” she said as her hand moved toward me, “Brush yourself off…there’s hair on your shirt.” Something was off.

By this time the others had gone home and I was left to my own devices. My body scurried up the small Weeping Willow on our front lawn. I heard the screen door open and my mother walked toward me. “Are you having fun? Come down for second, I need to show you something.”

My body descended, limb by limb, until my small feet stepped onto the grass simultaneously. From behind, in her right hand was a spoon, my Mary Poppins spoon. I looked puzzled. She held it out in front of her.

“Do you know how badly you behaved today?” Shit, this wasn’t over, clearly it was just beginning. She was a sniper. “Well, do you?” I had to answer.

“I know. I didn’t want my haircut. I told you that.” I chose defiance. I chose wrong. Shit.

The next thirty seconds seemed to last a lifetime. The camera had slowed the motion to almost stop as the audience, me, watched in horror. Her hands took the spoon, one on one end, one on the other. Slowly the words left her mouth as she, with superhuman strength, bent the little spoon in half. “This… this little man is the consequence of that.”

I passed out, at least I think I did. I heard myself scream “Nooo!!!” as the ghastly murder unfolded. I’m sure I passed out. The murderess let go as the now bent piece of metal dropped to the ground. Scooping it up, I pressed it to my chest. I looked at her. She was stone cold.

“The next time think before you act.”  My eyes wept. My heart broke. My stomach remembered all of the cereal I’d eaten.

My father bent the spoon back into some form of its original shape and I ate, using it every day as a reminder to my mother of her injustice. Six weeks passed, after the unmentionable incident and my hair had grown. It was time to pay John another visit. My mother, like a parole officer, watched my every move. Like a stone statue, or sculpture by Michelangelo, I sat through the entire haircut. There would be nothing left to chance this time. She paid the bill and drove me home.

“You go play,” she said and it was all too reminiscent of a bad dream.

At dinner my family sat around the table. My mother, as usual, served us and when she put down my plate she lay a box alongside. Through the clear portion, in all its glory, was a new Mary Poppins spoon. There is a saying parent’s use frequently, “This is going to hurt me more than you.” Years later my mother, in one of our many conversations, admitted she hated every minute of what she’d done. It was a choice, like mine to misbehave, that was spontaneous and not well thought out. I never held it against her nor judged her for it. I learned to respect others, especially at their workplace. My mother told me she’d learned valuable lessons as well. She learned five boxes of Frosted Flakes is a hell of a lot of cereal to eat and bending a spoon can destroy a good manicure.

***************************************

There’d been four siblings in her early childhood but now she was left with one sister, Gloria.  At best they had a strained relationship, not always at the hand nor words of my mother. When my Aunt decided to marry she was much older, in her forties. “There were a few men she could have had,” my mother told me, “Why she settled for this one is beyond me.” Lou was uneducated, had one divorce behind him and a child he never saw. We knew little about how, when or why, but something led my mother to believe this a pact with the devil and time would prove her instinct right. “It just doesn’t add up.”

Shortly after their marriage, while at my grandparent’s house, I was a peripheral spectator to an argument between my aunt and her husband.

“Lou, be quiet, the kid will hear us and he’ll tell Eda.” Gloria was trying to quell the escalating volatility.

“I don’t give a shit if the kid hears me. And as far as your sister, fuck her.” His voice was unfamiliar to me and I recoiled, looking away pretending it never happened.

“How was you stay?” my mother asked. “Fine.”  I couldn’t bring myself to tell the story… until….

The ring of the phone was seemingly urgent. My mother replaced the receiver, took hold of her car keys and handbag and called to me, “Chip, come on, we have to go to Aunt Gloria’s.”

Now sixteen I was less protected from reality. On the other side of the door on the tiny ranch style house my uncle sat on one end of the sofa, his legs spread and his hands dangling between. Periodically he’d tug at his fingers. In the tiny, pale yellow kitchen my aunt sat, her hands holding her head, crying.

“Go sit with Lou, I need to sort this out,” my mother said.

I had nothing to say to him. He was frazzled, almost as though he’d run a marathon and was coming off an adrenaline high, hitting bottom, in the world of athletics I believe it’s called “bonking”. In the kitchen my aunt held an ice pack against her cheek. From her eyebrow to her lip she was swollen. He’d beaten her. My stomach turned.

“Edie, you know how she gets…She just…” Did he believe he’d have an ally in my mother?

“Gloria go pack some things, I’m getting you out of here.”

Aunt Gloria packed a small tote, a pair of pajamas, some toiletries, underwear, a shirt and pants. As we left the house my mother stood face to face and eye to eye with her brother in law. “You touch her one more time and they’ll never find your body you son of a bitch.”

It was the first of many such incidents and my mother, of course, never committed murder. My aunt refused to leave both him and the situation. We would, instead, periodically collect Gloria, bring her to safety, which would last one or two days, and loan her money. After, she’d say, “All is fine. He apologized.” I couldn’t help but ponder my mother’s position.

“Mom, what if Dad did that to you,’ I asked, “What if he hit you? What would you do?”  Driving, she looked straight ahead toward the horizon, as if asked what kind of music she preferred. It took less than five seconds for her response.

“You’d be doing two things kiddo–visiting me in prison and him in the cemetery. He wouldn’t live to see the next day.”  I had a definitive answer to my question.

**************************************

Preparing me for marriage was an all-encompassing task.  On the off chance that was not in the cards my mother wanted to know I could be self-sufficient.  Driving, she watched the road as she spoke. “I want you to be independent.  In case you don’t get married, or it doesn’t work out, you should be able to care for yourself.”  I looked across the car at her. I was after all only twelve.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.  What makes you think I won’t get married?”  I was not in touch with my homosexuality yet.

“I’m not saying you won’t, I just want you to be able to take care of yourself when I’m gone. Listen, your father is a great guy but look at him.  He can’t do anything for himself.  That’s because he didn’t have a mother. People walk all over him and he lets them.  I just don’t want that to happen to you and your brothers.”  I couldn’t help wonder if she in fact left tread marks on our father herself.

“I want you boys to always marry the right girl.”  It was a pity we did not live in India or some far off foreign country where arranged marriages are completely accepted.

“I’ve decided Randy should marry Caroline Kennedy. What do you think Chip?”

“Are you kidding?” Puzzled is the only word that came to mind.

“Don’t you think Randy should at least try to meet Caroline?  I saw her today on the news, she’s so pretty.” Those words, while washing the dinner plates, were spoken as if the Kennedys were long time family friends.  I surmised Jackie did not wash her own dishware and how exactly would their conversation go?

“Jackie, did you know Macy’s is having a one day sale? You can get an extra 20% off with this coupon.  Here, you take it.” Or “How about we go ‘divs’ on a hot dog and fries at Glenwood?”

“Mom, they’re rich.  How would he ever get to meet her?  Plus he’s only fifteen.”

“Listen kiddo, it’s just as easy to fall for someone rich as it to fall for someone poor, so go for the rich one.”  Apparently she was speaking from experience.  I simply raised my eyes and sighed, shaking my head in disbelief.

Independence. That’s what she wanted for us. Independence. What was the definition according to Edita? To go where we chose, buy what we like and make our own decision, provided she approved of or at least consulted in the decision. Independence. This was a difficult task and if heartfelt wouldn’t she have cut the umbilical cord before I turned forty?

New Haven was less than happening but we did have two gay bars that serviced a need. In the 1980s and 1990s I was seeking my independence and adjusting to the fact I was gay. I hadn’t come out yet and to my mother I was still a catch for some young woman with whom I could settle down. We would have 2 children and visit my parents’ home every Sunday and at least twice more during the week- a reading from the Gospel according to Edith.  As we know, that was not the trajectory. Still, a mother can dream.

One night, I met a very handsome and slightly younger man. While the music played we sat making small talk and eventually took the conversation outside. Walking, we made our way up and down the streets of New Haven knowing the night would end in a hotel room. I was living at home, as was he, and I’d never been one to have sex in the backseat of a car. Besides, my mother would think it unsanitary. On Chapel Street we checked into the Colony Inn, a mediocre space but it was just for the night or perhaps a few hours.

In the elevator we began the process. Hand to hand, body to body and mouth to mouth. The ride to the third floor seemed endless as my heart raced as if running to catch a train. At twenty four my hormones worked overtime and the fire was hard to put out. The room was less than I’d imagined. For a moment I thought the back seat of the car was indeed more sanitary but this had to happen and soon. As we kissed he began to undress. I noticed the phone on the nightstand and went to it. Picking up the receiver I began to dial.

“What are you doing,” he asked, “Calling room service?” I had to think for a moment, room service hadn’t entered my mind. On the other end someone said, “Hello?”

“Hey  mom, it’s me. Listen, I had a little too much to drink so I’m not coming home…No, no, dad doesn’t have to get me…I rented a room and I’ll see you in the morning…ok? Sure, waffles will be fine.” He stared at me.

What the hell was that?”

“Uh, well, uh, it was my mother…I live home so you see…she, um, she would have been worried, waiting up and if I never got home…” I didn’t have to go any farther. I had “Italian Mama’s boy” written all over my face. A little bit of the fire went out…along with it so too did the word “independence.”

***************************************

It didn’t have to happen but like so many others it did. She was negligent. She put duty ahead of herself, caring for our father, and in the end it crept in and did its dirty deed. Cancer. Kidney. Metastatic. In the earliest moments of diagnosis we spied a thin ray of hope. “I’m a fighter. The doctor said they may have gotten it,” she said with conviction and for several months she felt “almost” normal. The scan told a different tale.

“It’s metastasizing rapidly,” the oncologist said, “She needs to be told.” In the end she wasn’t tough enough to fight this. The lesions in her spine and brain were winning, using the tactical ploy of “divide and conquer”.

We gathered at the house on Orchard Road, Randy, Dennis, Maria, Marsha and Robert B, to deliver the news of the advancement. This would be the time she needed us most, the time we could repay those years of strength when nothing else mattered but her sons. My brothers and I went into her room and sat, each one taking position on her bed. “Mom, we need to talk.” I suppose, like anyone might, I filed this moment far away. The three of us talked, she in her soft yellow cotton lounge wear and flowered top and we, holding back tears, except mine were uncontrolled. I wept.

“Don’t cry,” she said, then turning to my brothers asked, “Who’s going to take care of the little guy? Who?” I was thirty-nine.

After, the three of us went to the living room as our mother lagged behind, perhaps to shed an unseen tear or simply to brush her hair.

“I’m going to be okay… I don’t want you all to worry about me.”  In this moment, when her children, during the worst possible situation of her life, tried to support her, she overrode the effort. It was always, and would always be, her job to protect us, even at her own emotional cost.

“Mom, you have to stop driving.” There, on the table, were the words she dreaded more than her diagnosis. In her eyes was a defeated look, a rarity and seldom seen on the face of Edith Proto.

“Get me a pen and paper” I was unsure why. A suicide note perhaps?  No, she would never leave us by choice—in her mind we’d never survive. “I’m giving you my car. If I can’t use it you can. Your lease is coming up and this way you’ll have time to shop without rushing.” How typical of her. “And get my jewelry…while I’m writing I may as well write it all.” Alas, Edita to the end.

Oddly enough, after all we’d been through, it was our final conversation that was the most poignant. After learning her cancer had spread and the hope of remission was no longer possible, I sat alone in my room while my mother, my friend, slept soundly in her bed.  Time was becoming more precious, she only had a matter of days left to live.

As I stared beyond the opening of my door, which was opposite her bedroom, I took note of the woman sleeping peacefully in her bed.  My mind recalled the troubled times we’d been through together as well as the support and love we’d shared as mother and son.  I took hold of my pen and began to write a letter of thanks. The next day, as I sat on her bed, we engaged in a very private conversation. I handed over my note.

“What have you got there, little man?” her voice was clearly one of an exhausted soul.

“I wrote something for you to read tonight before you fall asleep.” I handed the envelope to her.

“No, read it to me now,” her wispy, breathy voice ordered.  Her fragile, boney hand turned the letter over to its author.

“I’m afraid I’ll cry,” I said, the words barely audible.

“Don’t be a sap kiddo, go on, I’ve taught you to be strong haven’t I?”

Opening the envelope I removed the pale grey notepaper, “Dear Mom, how does a son begin to thank a mother…”  I read my script in its entirety and she sat, listening carefully to every word. I spoke of my admiration for her, of the sacrifices both she and my father made for us, their children. I let her know how even when it hurt, the discipline made us better and when we’d disagreed I always loved her because I knew that she knew better, as statement which made her smile. Then, gazing into the distance, away from her eyes, I trembled, my lips quivering as tears pelted along my cheeks. My voice cracked as I said, “Though we may not have a physical presence between us any longer, nothing can separate the very special bond of love we have.”

After a long, contemplative stare into the void of space she spoke, “I never knew I was loved so much. I didn’t think anyone even liked me.” I was speechless.

“How could you not know?”

“I suppose I just didn’t have enough confidence to feel it. I’ve never had much confidence. I just wanted you boys to be stronger.” My brain literally ached from those words.

“You have beautiful big brown eyes.” “Hello handsome Dan Magee.” “You were the most beautiful baby.” “You have a beautiful body.”  I’d heard those and numerous other compliments throughout my life but tapped into low self-esteem on a subconscious level.  I must have heard the unspoken early on from my mother, it wasn’t about my father at all. Through all the words she’d spoken, with all the bravado in an attempt to give me confidence, it was that which she’d kept hushed which taught me to be whom I am. But there was so much more.

******************************

Strength. So over used and so underappreciated. It wasn’t until I began writing that I realized the extent of my mother’s complexity. Suddenly I was befuddled. The woman I knew was loving. Without question there was enough love to last a lifetime. I found, through the words, my greatest attraction to my mother was her strength. Her story began humbly and ended better. Awe drew me to her capability and tenacity, fear had no place in her public life, and if it did she never showed it. But it was there.

As my mother lay in a hospital bed, her brain recovering from a grand mal seizure, the result of metastases of her kidney cancer, my telephone rang. On the other end a nurse, her voice soft and monotone, delivered the news my father had died during the night. As difficult as it was to hear the words, it would be all the more difficult to deliver this to our mother. I called my brothers and they rushed to the hospital. The woman who’d raised us and fastidiously cared for her husband would now need our strength.

When Dennis and Randy arrived she already knew. None of us could foresee her calling me at work and having the new receptionist inform her I was taking the day off because my father had just died. She was alone in her room, tubes attached, trying to comprehend what she’d heard. For the first time in my life Edita looked beaten. Her body was frail, her hair undone and frizzy from the aftermath of her seizure, and her soul seemed to be taken from her. Silly me. I should have known better. When the smoke cleared a day later she dictated.

“Chip, I need you do me a favor.” What could she possibly need? “I need you to go to Filenes. Buy me a dress, none of mine will fit me, black of course. Then get me a new pair of shoes and a scarf, pretty, to hide these things in my neck.” Was she insane? She was planning to attend his funeral. “And call the doctor. I need to talk to him.”

With determination she told the doctor he needed to “undo” her intravenous and remove the meds going into her.  “I need to bury my husband. He just died. How long can I go without it?” The doctor empathetically told her about four hours. “Good. We can do that.”

As the coffin entered the church behind it was our family. My mother, in a wheel chair, looked fabulous. She positioned herself next to the coffin and at precisely the right moment touch the polished wood lightly, caressing her husband as she caressed our heads when we were young.

Post funeral we returned to Orchard Road. My mother made her way to her bedroom and held court for mourners who’d come to their respects. Her allotted time away from Dilantin, her anti-seizure medication, was drawing near.

“Ok boys, get me back so I can get better.” With minimal assistance, she rose, assisted by a walker, and shuffled to the car. After returning to her hospital bed I couldn’t help but be mindful of the day. My mother, with strength and personal expectation, showed the world, her world,  she was more than Edita– she was, on her own terms, Jackie Kennedy, the woman she’d longed to be.

***************************************

Oddly enough it was my turn to stare into space.  For all the conversations and verbiage about being independent and strong it was the one conversation never spoken which was the most powerful.  Throughout my life I’d suffered the curse of low self-esteem.  I too thought people really didn’t like me. My mentor had apparently taught me well, subliminally, though not as she’d intended. Two weeks later the sun was setting in the November sky. We sat at her bedside, her beloved boys, as each breath became shallower.

Hospice was soothing yet she was only aware for the first days of her admittance. The room was large, housing multiple beds and many family members. It seemed we all were sailing the same vessel, the Titanic, knowing we’d be losing someone we loved. The sun set through the large paned window and the music echoed softly from the strings of the volunteer’s guitar. With every breath we waited, the intervals  empty and then an inhale. We’d exhale. I don’t know why. Did we think that breath would be her saving grace? That we were grateful was foolishness, the end was obviously at hand.

As the sun was setting the colors warmed the room. The vibrant golden tones turned  crimson over the barren trees. November can be  a month of conundrums. The  beauty and warmth of the sky, juxtaposed against the dismal grey of the sleeping tree limbs, mirrored the emotion of watching a loved one exit this world. Her breathing, now negligible, caused my own to slow. Looking into my mother’s eyes, the eyes that kept watch over her children, husband and world, I saw distance. A single tear fell along her cheek. Was it happiness that her battle was over or was it sadness the she was leaving the family she loved behind? Leaning in, the Hospice aide whispered, “It’s about to happen” and it did. A single tear fell from my mother’s eye, her lips paled and she was gone.

************************************

She was. She was the greatest and most complex woman I knew. I focus on her strengths and solid ability to rule because that, in fact, is what attracted me most. I have only a fraction of her trait in me. I am more my father’s son. She was. She was generous, and her generosity knew no bounds. Any one of us could call upon her at any time, for anything, and she would make it happen, no matter how far or how inconvenient. She was. She was love, not always demonstrative but genuine, it was action that spoke the  loudest. She was. She was nurturing, wiping our tears and protecting our feelings even to the end. It was her burden to hurt. She was. She was honest and if it hurt it was to strengthen you because strength of heart helped get you through this world. She was. She was flawed and we all knew it. But she gave us the best of herself. She was. She was the woman who gave us life and enriched it. She was. She was, quite simply, my mom. Indeed, she was.

Along Came a Sick Day

 

The cough. The pain. Plural, in terms of companionship, is a good thing. Pleural, in terms of pain, is not. It rarely happens that I call out sick from work but today there was no choice.  Cough and respiratory pain led the doctor to the assumption of pneumonia, not at all the way I’d intended to start my work week. “Rest,” he said, “And be sure to take care of yourself, I know how you are.” It’s true. To the dismay of my co-workers I trudge on, even when plagued with illness. The culprit responsible for my heroics? My mother. “It’s nothing you can’t get through. Now get up and get dressed, there’s no staying in bed.”

Oh the  heroics, as though the world is dependent on my skills. The supposition is we all give ourselves far more importance than what is in fact the reality. Two days later the condition is worsened and the recovery far longer. So now what? I open the pantry cabinet and sort through the wide assortment of goods. And then it speaks.  One box, a small blue and yellow bit of cardboard with tiny bits of pasta within. “Ronzoni Pastina”.  Suddenly the world, my lungs and my heart, felt that much better.

**************

The summer of 1973 started as any summer would. Sunday, June 24, was less than extraordinary–an early breakfast and ten o’clock mass. After, my mother left to visit my maternal grandmother who was hospitalized from a heart attack, a common occurrence, and returned home to finish errands. My parents had taken Randy and me to see Grammy the Saturday before. In those days children’s visits to hospitals were frowned upon by the rule makers.

“Be sure you kiss her…and hand out some extra love today.” Did our mother think we were heartless? “And so help me God, if the two of you pull any shenanigans it’ll kill Grammy and  I’ll kill you.” Recourse– it was always attached to our mother’s directives. “Shenanigans”…I didn’t know for certain what a “shenanigan”’ was but wasn’t about to spend my life with the knowledge I’d killed my grandmother.

Sitting upright in bed, the hospital gown reminiscent of her normal shift-like dresses, Grammy appeared no different than she had two weeks prior. The room appeared large and sterile and an occupied bed faced hers. Downtown New Haven was just outside the windows and the sun shone through the closed sheer curtains softly.  Attached to her seventy four year old body were wires, multiples of colored wires leading to machines that seemed to play in staccato. The constant “beep, beep” of the heart monitor sounded like a flat xylophone, while the oxygen hissing into her nostrils played accompaniment.

Grammy smiled widely when she saw us, her small hands reaching out. “Bello mio…Keithy…and Randy,” she whispered, as her dry lips slathered us with kisses, her breath scented with her last spoonful of mashed potatoes and gravy. I just stared, apprehensive to touch the frail woman. The more I observed, the more the room unnerved me, as did the way she looked. Heart attacks had come and gone but this time seemed different. Perhaps it was her skin, with its off-tone of grey and its notable sallowness. She spoke in a breathy voice. “One time, me and Lizzy went downtown…” Her words were based in an all too familiar story about how the pigeons shit on her head and coat one day in New Haven. Of course we laughed as if hearing it for the first time, looking at our mother for approval. She smiled and we knew we’d done well.

But this Sunday, the green grass, freshly cut, felt soft beneath my small bare feet. Under the sugar maple next to our driveway I sat, the shade giving a respite from the curiously hot sun, and read.  Glancing over the book, I saw my mother, frantic and unnerved, hurry to her car. “I’ve got to go…Mrs. Galligan is home if you need anything.” She threw her handbag onto the front seat and pulled away, the forest green Oldsmobile reversing from our driveway and peeling off down the street. There was no time to comprehend the haste as Mrs. Galligan walked from her house to ours.

“Your mother went to the hospital…why don’t you come and play with Michael?” Her voice was calm as if it were any other offer on any other day, but it wasn’t any other offer nor any other day. It was an offer of security and protection from the unknown soon to be known. I took her up on the invitation, walked home with her and played games with Michael until the phone rang. Mrs. Galligan spoke softly into the receiver, “I’ll send him home,” and I was on my way.

As usual, my mother prepared my lunch. Her body flowed as though nothing was wrong but her face showed sadness, her eyes puffy, as if she’d lost her best friend. She laid the Oscar Mayer bologna between two slices of white Wonder bread, spread spicy brown mustard on it and placed the sandwich on a plate with some chips. Then, pouring a glass of Lipton iced tea, sweetened, she set it in front of me and sat, resting her chin on her hand as she stared out the window. My mother never sat, especially when I was having lunch. It was nice to have her across from me–had she been wearing a tidy dress and strand of  pearls rather than her printed shorts and cotton top she could have passed for June Cleaver.

“Did you have a nice time at the Galligans?” The art of the deal—she was buying time. “What did you and Michael do?” Between bites I was able to communicate.

“Well,” I began, while chomping on the white bread, bologna and an occasional potato chip, “We played outside and tossed the baseball for a while and then we played Monopoly. Mom, I can never miss going to jail. I land on it every time…” My words, enthusiastic, seemed important and then proud.  “But, I won. It was Boardwalk…you always need Boardwalk…” My lunch was complete and my mother stood clearing the dishes. From the kitchen sink, as the water rinsed dish soap from the plate, she spoke to the double windows but it was directed at me.

“Chip, you know Grammy has been sick.” Of course I knew it, my grandmother had been sick since she was born with a heart related illness and now with Type 1 Diabetes. More often than not we would visit her at “The Home”.  Sometimes I wondered if she didn’t put herself there purposefully to gain new friends. Pop had become a handful to care for after his stroke but who in their right mind would choose such a vacation? Suddenly my mother’s hands were on my shoulders. “Well…Grammy died today…that’s where I was…Auntie Gloria called and said she wasn’t doing well. When I got there she was gone.”

My heart hurt. It hurt for my mother and my grandmother. It hurt for me because I’d lost one of my best friends. My twelve-year-old heart hurt for Pop, not knowing if he would survive losing the woman who’d loved and cared for him all these years. No longer could I fake illness and go to her house for “special time” with the woman standing before the stove, cooking, laughing and cooking some more. We would never collect “S&H Green Stamps’ from the farthest drawer of the peninsula  in her kitchen and paste them into little books– a task so she could buy new TV tray tables or amber-colored glasses to drink from.

I struggled to comprehend that my grandmother would no longer be at our house for Sunday dinner, her handbag clutched close by her waist, the tiny pearl necklace clasped around her neck and her bosom drooping because of an ill-fitting bra.  Her frail hands, aged from years of housework, would never squeeze our faces, like a tourniquet stopping the flow of blood, because she loved us so much.  I went outside and sat on the grass. Michael came down from his house and sat with me. My mother watched from the window, keeping an eye on her youngest, ready to intervene with consolation of necessary. My father, out shopping, was now home.  He pulled me against his stomach, patted me on the head and went inside to my mother. The world seemed a strange place. My grandmother was dead and my tears failed to erupt…yet.

**************

My grandmother Christine, or “Christie”, was cute. She was neither a beauty nor did she impress but to her credit she never tried to. A child of a working class Newark Italian family, my grandmother was not well-educated nor well spoken.  She was loving, as loving and nurturing as they came. From life’s lessons she was wise, the type of wisdom used to survive moments and make sense from nonsense. She was filled with overwhelming humor and it spilled over onto those who listened. There was no makeup on her face, except a light coating of pink lipstick, nor exquisite jewelry around her neck.  She did not wear fine clothing or any semblance of an “au-courant” hairstyle. As a matter of fact I rarely saw her in anything but a “shift”, a loose-fitting dress that slipped over her head, unless going shopping or coming to our house.

At home, Grammy’s hair, both fine and frizz, was always twisted into tight pin-curls, or rollers, and held together with hair pins. It would be covered with some type of scarf or a “babushka”. Even when done, her hair was somewhat disheveled because of its texture. On her chin, random hair always popped out of a little mole driving my mother crazy. Every week she’d lean Grammy back, shake her head and tweeze the hairs asking, “Mama, you don’t see these?”  And, every week her mother, without much care, simply shrugged and said, “It keeps you busy.”

Over the shift would be an apron, usually blue with little flowers, while peeking from its pocket, a small hand towel or “mopine”.  It goes without saying, from beneath the cotton dress, her bra straps, nude, never white nor black, were visible. Hers was a generation that would never have owned Chanel nor Ferragamo shoes. When she dressed, a sturdy, utilitarian shoe purchased at The Edward Malley Company, in either brown or black and a heel no higher than two inches, protected her feet.  On most days my grandmother warmed her toes with house slippers, pink or blue, the type that resemble shag carpet, from the “Five and Dime” down the street.

My grandfather, Louis, or “Louie”, put a dose of fear in you.  Pop was large and loud with a gruffness that was off-putting. Born in Italy and by culture “Marchigiana”, my grandfather held a fierce loyalty to his heritage. Every week, sometimes several times a week, you’d find him gathered with the other men at the “Marchigiana Club” where they’d cook and socialize. It was a source of honoring, and holding dear, who he was and where he’d come from and at one point was named the President, a highly touted position which filled the family with pride.

“He wasn’t always this way, you know, gruff,” my mother would say, “He used to be much gentler.” Pop spoke with a thick Italian accent, having immigrated to the United States in 1911 when he was eighteen years old. With fifty dollars in his pocket, he joined his distant cousin, Fortunato, in New Haven and began work, like so many others, as a mason. But Pop went on to become an auto body specialist, well-known and highly respected and was able to sustain his family even through the Great Depression. With a solid body and huge hands, he looked every bit as he was–masculine.

There was never a moment when Pop wasn’t wearing suspenders (I swear he slept with them) and a wool, though sometimes straw, Fedora upon his head.  His tie, perfectly knotted and always full length, adorned his neck when he came to our house.  It wasn’t about elegance or fashion, it was just how it was done in his day. The deep, baritone voice that boomed beyond his ever-present cigar, spoke loudly. “Eda…these goddamn kids is in my way, get ‘em outta here!” Randy and I were unsure of our grandfather while Dennis had him in his prime. He never struck us, not even close, but his voice caused you to stand at attention.

My grandfather, in my lifetime, was never warm and fuzzy. The huge Italian man was never the kind who’d scoop you up on their lap and tell a story of their youth, and he had so many. One afternoon in the garden at their home we had “a moment”. Pop smiled at me and I smiled back, hesitantly, as we picked vegetables from his garden. Bending over, he picked two ripe, bright red tomatoes and handing one to me said, “Eat her, she’s good.” I didn’t have the heart nor the courage to say I hated raw tomatoes.  For me to dislike a spherical, homegrown, sweet tomato was sacrilege. For my Italian grandfather it would be inconceivable, perhaps more so than his grandson being gay. To appease him and keep our moment I bit into it and chewed desperately trying to avoid the taste. Then, when he wasn’t looking I spit it out. Yes, Louie’s grandson was a closeted “tomater-hater”. Our encounter was far from earth shattering, but, if for only a moment, it was  memorable in that Pop’s generosity and gentleness evoked the man he once was.

**************

When I was in sixth grade my mother took a part-time job to earn extra money. Dennis had graduated from The University of Notre Dame and Randy was at Fairfield Prep so the extra income was welcome. I was less than thrilled at school that year.

“Maaa…I don’t….feel well.” Frequently I would fain illness so my mother would keep me out of school and deliver me to my grandmother. “I think I have a fever…” Coming from the kitchen she felt my forehead. “You don’t feel like you have a temp—I’ll get the thermometer.” I lit the lamp next to the sofa. I’d perfected the plan. It worked before and it would work again. “Open up Chip and hold this in…three minutes. I’ll be back.”

As she rounded the corner into our dining room I tapped the small glass cylinder against the now warm light bulb. “One…two…three…four…” it usually took eight seconds for a  reading of 99.8, just enough to give credence to my illness but not enough to call Dr. Michel.  “Okay, let’s have a look…99.8….well, that’s that, no school today…I’ll call Grammy…” My plan, as always, had worked like a charm.

My mother would drive me to my grandparent’s house along with a little duffel carrying anything I may need–comic books, crayons, a sweater and of course St. Joseph Children’s aspirin. Grammy would greet us, her hair in the babushka and the smell of food wafting from the stove and embedded on her hands.  As always, she’d reach out, take my cheeks into her palms and squeeze. Hopefully she hadn’t been cleaning a fish. “Quando sei bello,” she’d say, her voice full of love. “How’d you feel?” The answer would depend on the proximity of my mother. If she was close by, “Eh, so-so,” I’d say, wavering my hand. “What’s for breakfast Gram?” For someone not well I was anxious to eat.

Pop, already eating at the table spoke up, “Eh, Eda, the kid, Skeezix, he look aw-right to me.” They say you can’t con a con-artist and Pop may well have been one. He could never, or would never, use my English name, or any of my brother’s names for that matter so he just renamed us all. Mine was “Skeezix” after his favorite cartoon character.

“I’m a-have peppers and eggs.” He’d motion with his thick hand and point to the chair. “Skeezix, Come.”

“No thanks, Pop, I just want cereal.” He was a man of few words and this would go no further. The truth was I really wanted Frosted Flakes.

“Louie, the kid wants cereal, leave him alone,” My grandmother’s defense was unnecessary but it made her feel good. She opened a new box of Post “Shredded Wheat” put it in a bowl and poured milk over it. Shredded Wheat?

“Gram, I really want Fruit Loops or Frosted Flakes.” I hurt her. I know it. She looked like she’d disappointed me. My mother had disappointed me by not packing cereal in my duffel. Note to self.

“It’s all we got, the wheats.” I stared down. The large, rectangular piece of cereal bore a strong resemblance to a Brillo pad, but I put it in my mouth. The shredded wheat broke apart and little bits of hard, wiry strands got caught in every part of my teeth. My face told the truth. Pop put forkfuls of eggs in his mouth and chewed slowly. He stared at me over his brown plastic eye glasses wondering what would come next.

“You like,” he asked knowing full well I didn’t. He turned the page of the newspaper, looking at his wife. When Grammy wasn’t looking he tore off two pieces of bread and buttered them. Between he fit a forkful of peppers and eggs. His massive hands squeezed the slices into a tightly fitted bread and butter breakfast sandwich and he passed it to me, nodding. “Eh, dun starve you self.” Maybe Pop did love me. Clearly actions speak louder than his accented words.

**************

This couldn’t be happening, she couldn’t be dead. Just two months ago Grammy had stayed with us for a week recuperating after a heart problem. Pop had a stroke several years earlier causing his temperament to change aggressively making him a handful to care for. I’d given up my room and “doubled up” with Randy for sleeping purposes. Dennis was married and out of the house so there was no issue, although knowing Grammy she’d have slept on the sofa. “Oh great, I always wanted a dick weed in my room,” Randy lamented. “You know what you’re going to get in your room?” my mother asked and he walked away. Somewhere in his heart my brother loved me, somewhere.

“Hen, we need to redecorate Keith’s room before my mother gets here. I want to paint and buy new curtains and a bedspread. It has to be nice and fresh.” This was the most exciting part of having my grandmother with us– the redecorating.

Mine was the smallest of all the bedrooms. When Dennis lived home it was even smaller because Randy and I shared it. Bunk beds, a desk and dresser comprised our domain. There was a set of windows at the farthest point which looked out to the backyard and a single closet which housed our shirts and long pants. Though intimate or perhaps for that reason, this was the room where my brother and I talked endlessly about neighborhood kids, dreams, girls, television shows and where, in another story, he answered all of my questions about being a boy, a curious young boy. Those four small walls on Orchard Road housed a wealth of knowledge, much like the Library of Congress.

“I want the room painted, something cheerful and soft,” she said. It had been “Corn silk”, a muted combination of pale yellow and green, but now was now being updated to “Lemon Chiffon”, a delicate but uplifting yellow.

The name alone was exciting. “I’m going to be sleeping in a “Chiffon” room.” It sounded so elegant but when I said it to my friends it sounded effeminate. When I said it to Randy he told me I’d better shut up or he’d have to kill me and dispose of my body in the backyard. “Can’t you paint his room blue,” he begged my mother. “Nonsense, I’m not painting it for him…it’s for Grammy. I just let him pick out the color.” I smirked. “You play her like a fiddle,” my brother whispered.

And so, with the impending arrival of Grammy it was done. The room was “Lemon Chiffon” and the curtains, once a depiction of colonial scenes, were replaced with frilly, white lace curtains drawn back with lace ties. The former matching bedspread found a home in the basement linen cabinets and the new spread was chenille, soft, snugly, creamy Chenille. I was in heaven and began counting the days until the room would be mine once again. And with that the task of convincing my mother to let the newly decorated room remain was up to me. There would be time to fiddle.

**************

Grammy, Pop and Aunt Gloria, my mother’s unmarried sister, moved from New Haven when the “tide turned” and their neighborhood began to deteriorate. New Haven was witnessing riots as the racial disparity of the country was climaxing. The Black Panthers were showing muscle to protest racial struggles and my grandparents felt safety was becoming an issue. It was time to leave city life behind and move to quieter existence. The sale of my grandparent’s houses meant the entire family, my mother’s aunts and uncles, would all move within a few miles, if not blocks, of one another in West Haven. Of all the houses though, for me, Grammy and Pop’s was the most special.

Eleven Bellevue Avenue was nothing more than a small, deep red brick Cape Cod style home. It had a peaked front entry with leaded windows on either side. There was no garage but a long, narrow driveway running from the street alongside the house and ending at the backyard. We always used the side door which opened directly into the kitchen. Below the brick and concrete stoop was the most fantastic wine cellar. It was actually a “hatch-a-hutch”, compact, with a rickety wooden door that pushed open and Pop stored his homemade wine there. I can still feel the coolness and smell the damp, mustiness  of that small space.  We knew there must have been spiders and probably other unmentionable life taking up residence but if it didn’t bother Pop it didn’t bother us.

From stem to stern, the house on Bellevue offered a more contemporary life. A new house, new furniture, a big yard and above all else a Stereophonic cabinet style Hi-fi equated the good life.  Early American decor filled the small Cape and a vast collection of Hummel figurines adorned an entire wall of the living room. The kitchen was well stocked behind the knotty pine cabinets with speckled Formica counter-tops. The open area off the dining room allowed for telephone seating, complete with a bench and compartments for phone books and note pads. The main bath was small but a masterpiece. Ours was black and pink, one of those odd 1950’s combinations, but theirs was stark white, black and lavender. Grammy would put bath soaps and lavender-scented sachet out along with purple towels and wash cloths. Periodically I would fake having to do a “number 2” just so I could spend time in the pretty, prissy room and then flush the toilet for good measure. In contrast to my love of the room Pop installed an open toilet in the basement– his choice was more rugged and old world.

Aunt Gloria lived upstairs on the second floor. The staircase brought you to a ladies boudoir, laced and flouncy, with a golden-colored Chenille coverlet and frilly lampshades on the lighting. This space was every bit a 1940s movie scene. A smaller sitting area opened to the side of the large room where my favorite piece of furniture could be found. Against the wall, nestled near a small but useful window, sat a dressing table and chair. The oval table was flounced, like a southern Belle’s oversized ball gown, draped in mounds of crisp cream eyelet lace. Before it was a small, round chair draped from just below the creamy satin seat to the floor in the same eyelet material.

On the table was a vast array of perfumes, their bottles pieces of art. Her collection of lipsticks lay on a small mirrored tray, white handles on either end, and edged with white enamel all around. The perfume bottles, most atomizer style, were in multiple sizes, impeccably crafted and always half full. I would seat myself before the table, the mirror before me, and pretend I was a grand lady going off to an elegant social event.  I’d pick up the ornate metal hairbrush and pretend to caress my flowing hair, then sweep it into an imagined French twist. Carefully, without disorganizing the pristine table, I’d stare at my lips and pick up one of the cases pretending to fill them in with a deep Merlot colored lipstick. Finally, lifting one of the many perfume bottles, usually her “No.5”– I’d pretend to perfume myself as my final moment of preparedness.

Chip, come on, say goodbye….we’re going home..Now!” My mother startled me and I squeezed the atomizer spraying myself with No.5.  As I passed her downstairs she looked at me. “Did you spray yourself with perfume?” I shrugged my shoulders. “Boys will be boys,” she said, shaking her head and motioned for me to kiss my grandparents goodbye. “Boys will be boys.” My mother claimed to be stunned when I came out as gay.

**************

The preparations were made by my mom and Aunt Gloria for Grammy’s funeral. It’s a verified fact that the art of the funeral was elevated by the Italians. Mourners were imported if need be, hair must be done and fainting is optional but food is imperative. My grandmother chose, or rather, was summoned, to leave this earth just beyond the fervor of the movie, “The Godfather”.  The Mafioso around the world had a brilliant spotlight shown on them through the eyes of Hollywood and Mario Puzo.  Now, on a bright Sunday afternoon in June, in the year 1973, the cameras rolled in our home.

My grandmother had been born in Newark, New Jersey where clusters of Italian immigrants huddled and made their life. Her parents left Newark and migrated to New York when she was a small child and then moved north, her family ultimately settling in the Fair Haven section of the small city of New Haven. Much of her extended family remained in  Newark where they grew and prospered. During their youth, my mother and Aunt Gloria were sent for two weeks each year to visit relatives, primarily their cousin Mike and his extended family.

“Mike would take us everywhere but we never told Grammy and Pop we’d go on runs with him delivering boot legged alcohol around the city.” Prohibition made Michael’s business both dangerous and lucrative. The escapades made the girls realize the monotony of life in New Haven. “They’d put us in the front of a pickup truck and stop all over selling the liquor.” Later, when Mike grew into adulthood, his business grew to encompass several Pizza Parlors. The picture was there.  Call Brando. “Cut and print!”

I wasn’t allowed to participate in the funeral.  “You’re just too young, Chip, you don’t need to see any of this.” The protection of my mother was well intended but did not make for a resilient young man as life moved forward.  For me, the youngest, there was no last viewing of my beloved grandmother lying in the coffin. I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to walk through “Parlor A”, smell the pervasive scent of embalming fluid mixed with the scent of the flowers and watch as Aunt Gloria dramatically acted bereaved. The youngest hadn’t the privilege of witnessing the pomp inherent to the intricate Catholic service. No, I didn’t get to see Grammy that last viewing, wax-like and sleeping.

After Mass, friends and family gathered at our house for a luncheon. The dining room table was set as a buffet with an array of sandwich meats, salads, rolls and lasagna. There were meatballs and sausage off to one side and the smell of coffee brewing wafted from the kitchen.  Perhaps it was indeed more appropriate to be exposed to “homey” odors rather than “funeral-homey” odors. At the end of the room,  Italian pastries and cakes lined the wall with a massive tray of cookies Aunt Carmel had baked. With each pass a pignoli or anginette would disappear– I’d started before anyone had arrived.

First through the door was my mother, followed by my father and brothers. She found me and pulled me close, though in truth I was longing for a full “cheek squeezing’ from Grammy. When Sara, my grandmother’s sister, arrived with her husband, Anthony, they came right to me. Uncle Anthony, small in stature and incredibly soft in demeanor, took my face in his hands and kissed me, proclaiming, “So beautiful, this boy…so beautiful…an angel.”  I’m sure my mother was thinking, “Take the angel on a bad day, I dare you…” I squirmed with modest discomfort for none of the men in my life had kissed me and it felt oddly correct.

Aunt Sara, with precision, came at my face, her hands all too familiar, latching on to my cheeks and clasping with all her might. “Quando sei bello!” she exclaimed and I stepped back. The resemblance to her sister was undeniable. Could it be that God knew my longing and delivered Aunt Sara right to me? The simple answer must be that a family “squeeze” gene runs through the Perugino women. The power of those two tiny hands was instantaneous. They made a miracle, as though Lourdes had come to Orchard Rd.  How could a woman, with tiny palms and fingers, make everything right again, even the pain of having someone departed? On some level, from some abstract plane, my grandmother had made herself known. And without warning, though a bit late, my tears finally arrived.

As the guests gathered in the living room and conversation flowed, I gazed out the front window.  My mother was engaged with my Proto aunts when I interrupted. “Mom, I’m sad.” She drew me in, massaging my head. “I know Chip, we all are. But no one liked to laugh more than Grammy. Think about that.”  Digging deep inside I thought about some random story she may have told, or any of the three jokes she repeated, but nothing was working.

Then, two long, black Cadillac El Dorados arrived. Out stepped two men dressed impeccably in suits, one pinstriped, the other deep charcoal grey. They entered our house with two women in tow and a third, younger man following. Like Pop, they wore Fedoras, and on their thick stubby fingers were chunky pinky rings. On some level there was an elegance about them, though their speech told a different story.

“Michael,” my mother said as the first man kissed her, “Thank you for coming.” I’d never met “the cousins” from Newark and here was Michael, the most revered. Before me was the man whom I’d heard so much about.  The cousin who’d taken my mother and aunt on what today may be considered “drug runs” stood within an arm’s reach. “This is my little guy, Keith.” The seemingly huge, though in fact rather short, man reached out his hands and headed toward my face. Seeing the massive palms I thought, “I’m going to suffocate.” My mother nudged me. I took the facial squeeze and pretended to love it. “Quando sei bello,” Mike said, “He so beautiful.” Indeed there was a gene and it was not simply the women who carried it. That was the only answer.  As Michael and the rest made their way to the dining room table I suddenly had a revelation.

Though never good at math, the numbers were adding up.  My mother, holding me to her hip, stood with Aunt Gloria. “Mommy, are they part of …” It was like a gunshot. A speeding bullet. She and my aunt exchanged rapid-fire glances while hushing me by putting her hand over my mouth.  “Shut up,” she said, “Don’t talk about it.” As always, her wisdom shone through with a well thought out answer to my question.

Before leaving and offering kisses all around, my cousin Michael made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. “ Keet, you gotta come to Newark…I give you all the pizza you could eat, eh?” I nodded appreciatively as his hands caressed my face once again. In the days to follow I thought of Michael and smiled. My imagination took over and I created a colorful scenario in my head. It was true, we’d lost my grandmother and that was sad, but our family, with little to no excitement, became far more interesting that day.

**************

Grammy’s and Pop’s basement was fundamentally a grocery store. Along the concrete walls were numerous shelves stretching from front to back. On each shelf were groceries and paper goods, not simply an “extra” for the moment you forgot an item, but stockpiles. In cases were cans of tomatoes, perhaps ten to twenty, olive oil in clusters of six and dried pasta in packs of twelve. Paper goods, napkins, plates, tableware and cups were multiplied by tens. To the naked eye my grandmother simply hoarded. “You never know when you need something or someone runs out.  I can help.” But the river of her obsession ran far deeper.

“I had two younger brothers,” my mother once told me, “The baby and Joseph. The baby died as an infant and Joseph died when he was four. The flu killed him.”It was difficult to imagine Pop losing his two sons and the finality that meant for his family name in America.

“Grammy got so depressed she went on a spending spree, trying to hide her pain. She would go out and buy clothes, groceries, even toys for Aunt Gloria and me. Pop couldn’t stop her. He had to hire a woman to take care of the house because she couldn’t. As fast as he made money she blew it.” It was unfathomable to think of my grandmother in such a state. “Finally, Pop told her she had to stop. He cut off her money. It almost broke them.”

Among the clutter and groceries in the basement was a box. It was neatly stored on a table in the center of the room, as if regularly viewed or held in high esteem. Opening the four cardboard flaps I began to investigate. Inside, lying across the top was a shirt box, tattered and smelling lightly musty. I put it aside. Below were several photo albums and some old, yellowing children’s clothing. There were note cards and ribbons and quite frankly nothing purposeful. Curious, I rifled through, removing the musty little shorts and shirt and sorted through the goods unimpressed.  Lifting the top off the shirt box, I discovered a black and white photo within an off-white, now aged, cardboard protector. Opening it I was stupefied. There, in a small white casket, lay the body of a young boy, silent and sleeping.  He looked like a cherub, innocent and wax like. The coffin was surrounded by two torchieres and multitudes of flowers– roses and lilies.  The banner across the tufted satin lid read, “Our Baby”.  It was the first time I’d seen death in person. I ran. I ran upstairs. I leapt onto the sofa in the living room. My mother came to me.

“What’s the matter with you? You look like you saw a ghost.” I wouldn’t speak. I couldn’t for there were no words. “Come on, what’s the matter?” My head shook from side to side.  For a moment in time, and for once in my life, my voice was crippled, and then, “I saw something. Downstairs.” She waited. “Okay, I give up…was it a mouse?” I felt like this was an interrogation and I was the criminal. It was far easier to simply stand and lead her downstairs. Opening the door I descended, step by step and led my mother to the table with the opened box.  Next to the now disheveled items lay the portrait. As my mother took hold of it her face showed instant recognition.  Opening the protective cover, her expression tightened as she stared off toward the corner of the room.

“This was my brother Joseph, you know, the little boy I told you died. Grammy was very, very sad. She had a photographer come to the house and take his picture. It wasn’t really strange, Chip, lots of people did that.” She returned the photo to the shirt box.  “But she was so, so sad.”

Opening the larger box she placed the photos, with the utmost tenderness and respect, on top of the clothing, touching the tiny pair of pants lightly. “But you don’t have to worry about this, okay?”  She closed the box top, secured it and we left the past behind. Years later I realized Grammy or Pop or both must have stared at the photo, keeping even the saddest moment of their past close to them. Nodding toward the overstocked shelves my mother said, “She never got over it.” I understood, a parent never would.

**************

So what would happen on those “sick” days at my grandparents’ home that made me want to visit so frequently? Love, pure and simple from very simple folks. Soup  or sauce was always on the stove and an apron always on my grandmother. My own mother never wore one, except when frying food. There could be a whole fish being cleaned by the sink, and as matter of fact as common as combing her hair, Grammy’s small fingers would “pop” the eyes out and giggle as I cringed.

“What kind a sandwich you want?” From the refrigerator an assortment of cold cuts, never the type my mother stocked, would appear.  There would be “head cheese”, a gelatinous creation of pork scalp with no cheese anywhere in sight, liverwurst, or “liverwish” as she called it, P&P loaf, a combination of ground meats , pickles and pimento and of course the standard Genoa salami and Bologna. Pop would pull out chunks of Provolone or Italian table cheese, unwrap a loaf of Marchigiana Bakery bread and make a meal.

“You wanna soup,” she’d ask but there was no point to the question because you would get it whether or not you wanted it.  She would dish out, always in colorful ceramic bowls, homemade chicken soup with “alphabets” or pastina with an egg and cheese swirled through. Pop’s favorite was “Shkadol and beans” as he called it, and no matter the food he’d make it snow blankets of Pecorino cheese until anything discernible vanished from sight.

Once lunch was finished we’d retreat to the living room, Grammy with her collection of S&H Green Stamps, Pop with a newspaper and me simply with them. He’d sit in his upholstered rocking chair in the corner of the room. The adjustable brass floor lamp next to him, its printed shade tilted in his direction shone light on his newspaper.  I’d sprawl out on the sofa, shoes off, and rest against my grandmother’s  thigh. Grammy would set up tray tables and place the cigar boxes filled with the little green stamps on the metal scenes of rural America. As she pasted the little stamps on their respective spaces in the books I’d glance over at Pop and then back, wondering what life was like when my mother was my age.

“Turn up the Hi-fi,” Grammy would say.  I’d shuffle over to the elaborate, Early American maple console, flip through Aunt Gloria’s collection of LPs and choose either Vicki Carr, Dean Martin or someone who’d recently made a name on the Ed Sullivan Show. Sometimes the choice would be a live recording, such as Joey Bishop, Milton Berle, or The Smothers Brothers. The comedians would “do their shtick” for people such as my grandparents, who enjoyed pasting “S&H Green Stamps’  or smoking a cigar as they listened.

I’d mosey over to the gilded wall cabinet or curio which housed the Hummel figurines and stare at them, sometimes wondering what the little girl and boy sitting together on a tuft of grass would be like if they came to life. She with a polka dot sweater and little scarf around her head and he with a blue jacket and cap.  And then I’d step back and look at my grandparents. Grammy in her shift, with her babushka around her head and Pop with his tan sweater, suspenders and ever-present cigar in his mouth. Through their combined loss and respective illnesses I wondered if they thought life had been good to them.

**************

I know now how wonderful my life was for having had my grandparents in it, if even for just twelve short years. I don’t think of Grammy and Pop as often as I used to. I haven’t “visited” them at the cemetery and rarely mention their names in conversation. Many years have passed since their deaths and many changes have occurred, other deaths and illnesses and of course, day-to-day living. Recently I opened the pantry door in search of comfort.  There it was, the blue and yellow box. “Pastina”.  As I swirled the egg and cheese into the hot pasta I smiled. Savoring each spoonful, the dish transported me through time. I didn’t have to tap the thermometer against the light bulb or travel very far.  Along came a sick day and with it Grammy and Pop. And they helped me through my day off, yes they did, as they always had.

Fourth Down and Goal to Go

 

Say it isn’t so. They say that truth is stranger than fiction and perhaps it is, but on what night had I come so far from the essence of my being? Where was the world I’d become a welcome part of?  Was fate, a mere hologram of my past, leading me down a road less traveled? And hadn’t I written that path off eons ago? In 2007, as the new year approached, I gazed across a vast ocean of men and women. From my vantage point it seemed there was no hope of rescuing the existence I’d come to call “my own”.

In the days of my youth I’d come to realize there was something different within me. I clung to my mother and followed her footsteps. If she cooked, I stood on a chair next to her pretending to be a great chef. If she sewed, I took a needle and thread and learned to darn. When she decided to become “crafty” I took ceramics and crochet classes. I wanted nothing more than to be just like her–it felt right. But when my mother tidied the house, well, I was in heaven. “Let me vacuum, please mommy…” Like “Stomp”, the sound of the particles flying through the vacuum hose was musical.   Christmas was quickly approaching and my wish list written for Santa was long. My mother, with spirited intent, had taken me from my kindergarten classroom to Alexander’s Department Store, at the open air Connecticut Post Shopping Center. There, wrapped in red velvet, on a gilded chair, nestled in mounds of plastic, artificial snow, with crystal white tinsel trees surrounding him,  was Santa Claus.  Behind him the small cardboard sign read, “Breck Shampoo $1.99/gal.”

“Go on, Chipper, tell Santa what you want.” She would vacillate between my two nicknames, “Chip” and “Chipper”. Her hands prodded me to sit on this stranger’s lap, an act I never felt comfortable doing, and ask for something on my list.  My greatest wish  was an enormous stretch, but, if anyone could accomplish this Santa could.

“Well,” he rumbled, “Whadda ya want sonny?” My ear, less than experienced, knew the timbre of  this voice seemed less than sincere. My eyes honed in on his beard. Was this Santa or an elf? “I want a Regina upright vacuum cleaner. Pink please.” Santa lowered his eyes, looked beyond his fake bifocals and blurted, “Little boys don’t play with vacuum cleaners. They play with footballs.” I was crushed and humiliated, like the time the bully in Stop& Shop had taken my gum balls. I was a boy but suddenly felt like a girl. Patting my shoulders, in a “buck up kiddo” kind of way, my mother scurried me off fluttering her fingers.

“Chipper, go look at the candy counter. Pick something out and have the lady put it in a bag.” I pulled my now limp, unenthusiastic body away and went to the counter. The wide range of candies, gum drops, caramel turtles, fireballs and coconut nests should have made me feel better, but they did not. Inspecting the white dots resembling snow on a mountain top, I stared at the Nonpareil.  I saw my mother talking to Santa, hand in reprimand motion, her index finger pointed my way. As she walked away, I thought Santa mouthed the word “bitch”, but could not be sure. Knowing my mother, she’d said everything she’d had to except “Merry Christmas”.

My brother, Dennis, had graduated from The University of Notre Dame, one of the most, if not the most, hallowed of American football institutions. Consequently, I was raised with the expression, “Win one for The Gipper”. Yes, when our mother wanted us to see anything through to fruition she would become Knute Rockne. “Now come on Chip, finish going potty…You need to win one for the ‘Gipper’…”  Really? Even on the toilet? Having visited the campus multiple times, and knowing the history of the university itself, the words stirred pride and spirit. No one can deny the fact the passionate speech from the legendary Knute Rockne to the ‘Fighting Irish’ rallied the hearts of Americans from sea to shining sea.

Dennis’ son, Matt, played football at Yale as an offensive lineman.  I never quite grasped how his father, who worried if his son bit into a hot dog too hard, (random cartilage you know), would allow him to head into such an arena. Driving to New Haven my mother and I spied a man leaning against the large wrought iron fencing that protects the Yale sports fields. Approaching and ultimately passing, we realized it was Dennis, peering through, with binoculars, as Matt’s team practiced. “Turn around,” my mother said.

“What in the hell are you doing?”she asked, “People are going to call the police.” My brother fumbled, nervously laughing. “I’m watching Matt practice…in case he gets hurt…Don’t tell Marsha.”  As we pulled away my mother, smirking, said, “And he used to tell me I was overprotective of you…that kid should have gone to Harvard.” I just giggled. You couldn’t blame Dennis, after all, he is tied to our mothers genetics.

Whenever the opportunity arose, I’d proudly say, to whoever was listening,  “My nephew plays college ball,” then add, “For Yale.”  Each time the reaction was as if I’d said he was the “Gipper” himself.  Matt had a phenomenal run playing in college.  And though he was involved in a relationship with my self-procalimed nemesis, I never felt toward him the way I did the game or the NFL, perhaps because I knew the man behind the uniform. He never cared his uncle was gay, I was just “Uncle Keith”. Matt, even as a child, was a step ahead of society. Football and I had a love/hate relationship, but my nephew, well, that was another story.  It was love, unconditional love, all the way and still is. Matthew Thomas Proto holds, for me, the often misundertood and misguided gift of ‘true’ masculinity.

So how did football fit into my life? Frankly it didn’t.  In 1972, Roger, classmate of mine at Mary L. Tracy Elementary School, posed a question. “Who do you want to win the Super Bowl?” The question was simple, and clearly part of his routine day, but I had no answer.

“Who’s playing again?” I’d asked in an attempt to buy some time and hope for name recognition. “The Cowboys and The Dolphins.” I had little experience with Dolphins other than “Flipper” but Cowboys, well, that’s another story. I was a fan of the show “Bonanza” so a cowboy seemed a safe choice.

“Cowboys,” I said resolutely as Roger marked my vote. Shaking his head a little, I knew I’d made the wrong choice. “Wait, I think the Dolphins.” Hadn’t I the right to change my mind or was that restricted to a woman and once again I’d blurred the lines. With his Number 2 pencil he started to erase my vote when a rapid thought came to mind. What if I choose both? Then I won’t be a loser. I told Roger, who ticked off both little boxes. Suddenly, as with Santa, I felt like a girl, except the girls knew which team they wanted to win. My choice, to me, screamed, “Sissy!” Had I just bet against myself? It seemed I’d done that all my life.

A pacifist, if my cheek is slapped, I turn the other, a learned behavior from my Catholicism.  Slap the other and I want to kick the shit out of you but know that’s unacceptable.  So how could adult men, held in high esteem for  aggression, be paid millions of dollars to do it?  To me it seemed, at best, socially irresponsible.  But at the end of the day what do I know? The stadiums are packed, the economy depends on it and men become “real” men. And beside all that, what’s one more concussion in the world?

On occasion I’d make valiant but unsuccessful attempts at seeking the same enjoyment as my family during Sunday afternoon football games. I’d “crack open” an ice-cold beer with my brother Randy and my dad, pour it into an iced, cold glass and watch the foam create the perfect, thick head. Touching the cool smooth glass to my lips, I’d pour it back and take that first swig, hating every moment. The taste of fermented yeast flowing along my tongue and tastebuds was repugnant.

“God this tastes like pee! Ugh!” It was eveident I hated beer. Holding the glass up, turning it, I examined its color palette.  “You know… the amber and creamy colors are so pretty. Mom, you should have dra..peries…made…” The conversation slowed to a halt as I looked at them looking at me. As usual Randy shook his head. Was this not “manly” conversation for Sunday football?

“You know, Chip, I think you’re right. That would go well with the sofa but what about a rug?” She propagated my inner being, though years later, when my homosexuality was formally aknowledged,  would ask, “Was it me? Did I play a part in this?”  I’d giggle, assure her she did nothing “wrong” and say, “No mom, it was always there, you just watered it a little bit.”

The game droned on endlessly. “With only thirty seconds left it’s a long-shot to win.” Long-shot? That thirty seconds lasted twenty-five minutes at least. If only we had the capability of “football time” on vacation. “Come on Keith, we only have three minutes before we have to leave.” That would equate to two extra days of beach and sun, not to mention shopping for new, cute swim trunks.

I was ever ashamed of my very “Non-American”, non-masculine behavior.  I detested a game…a game… and what it symbolized–the emasculation of people like me. In some way, on some unspoken level, perhaps there is some excitement found in intimate contact with others while being watched by millions of adoring fans.  I’m just exploring the notion that sports, primarily contact sports, might elicit a bit of sensuality even among men. For shame!  The very terms “wide receiver” and “tight end”– who thought of such titles?

“Chip, just watch, it’s exciting. It’s what a lot of boys dream about.” Only not this boy, not that way. How could I have told her I did dream about it, just in a different setting? How could I admit that the best part of the game, for me, was the way the players asses were so well-defined by their uniforms. High, tight, and round, like the perfect orb set in the perfect Charleston garden, and, with the heightened art of “manscaping”, not a stray weed in sight. How could I tell my father that watching these men get into position, knees bent, back neutral and buttocks pointing toward heaven was my favorite moment of the game?

Perhaps in sports there is an unspoken, accepted slice of my own life, a life less accepted. Admittedly I feel an overwhelming sense of excitement during the games, but it is vastly different from the rush of adrenaline pulsing through everyone else’s veins. Though not a fan, the homo-eroticism of the players does speak to me– and millions of others. Must it always be about simply performance and statistical averages? I think not.

The finger of guilt was pointed directly at me and by me. I feared hushed voices would use  adjectives such as “abnormal” or “deviant” to define my life, words I cared not to acknowledge. Curiously, when I came out, my homosexuality and the idea of two men touching one another was difficult, actually, “sickening” for my mother to envision. But the game was on every Sunday and or Monday.  I supposed watching men position their hands, between another man’s legs, from behind, on national television is more widely accepted than if done in privacy. After all, what substantiates the definition of ‘real man’ more than having a “real” man’s hand on your ‘real’ man’s ass after a good play?

My dad explained. “It’s a congratulatory thing with guys, it’s okay if someone does something good. You see what I’m saying?”  Dating David Beckham on the down-low would be a “congratulatory” thing–congratulations to me. When I congratulated my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Moran, for a job well done on our elementary school play, as “real” men do, was I sent home with a note.

“Why mommy? I just did it the way dad said men do after a good thing.  I patted his hiney.”  I was confused. Mr. Moran was even more confused when my little hand innocently molested him. Years later, meeting my former teacher in a gay bar, he tipped his head left and proclaimed, “I always knew I’d see you in a place like this.”

At what point does “manly”‘ behavior imitate gay behavior and exactly how are those grey areas delineated?  I always distanced myself from the hypocrisy and ask the really important questions as my family, watched the game.  “What does everyone want for dinner, rib roast or pork chops? Any ideas for a side dish? How about dessert?” My mother taught me to cook and bake at an early age and Sunday football was the perfect time hone my skills.  Football had become the symbol of society’s interpretation for “true masculinity” and I found it contemptible. And then, all in one evening, in the year 2007, my world view turned around.

When combined with close friends and my partner, Rob, Provincetown is a lively location to usher in a New Year. Everyone had left Connecticut ahead of me so I was on my own. Before making the pilgrimage my attire must be selected so there is no time wasted in getting to P-town, heading to dinner and then out for the evening. Clothing is my football game. From the closet, a rich burgundy silk chemise by Dolce and Gabbana, is hiked to me. I take it, run to the right, and score.  People’s addictions come in many forms. Mine comes in the form of fabric and is, I am sure, no surprise to anyone. I collect, or rather obsess, over shirts. Carrie Bradshaw lovingly nurtured her shoes–my shirts are my signature. The luscious silk, seamlessly and lovingly draping the shoulders I’ve broadened, justifies me. To the naked eye my choice holds no deep meaning other than it is a shirt. To a man such as me, it is heaven on earth, my identity and my spectator sport.

In the car, traveling the straightforward yet endless journey to Cape Cod, I listened attentively to “The Supremes”, paying careful attention to every note their voices toll.  In my mind I visualize the elaborate gowns and adoring fans. As I drove, I held my right arm outward, as Diana, the ultimate diva, would, wrist engaged, and snapped my thumb and forefinger ever so “Supremely” to the song,“In and Out of Love”.  Arriving, I found my friends sipping cocktails and reveling in laughter. After dinner we walked Commercial Street to  ‘Wave Bar’ with its tremendous cinema screen and multiple smaller screens surrounding the dance floor. Inside there is a formidable pulse. The community comes alive to music videos and clips from campy, cult movies such as “Mommie Dearest” or “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”.   Whitney, Cher, J-Lo and Madonna play to a crowd of men and women, and are considered more iconic than the Empire State Building, which after one visit has limited appeal. Entering the club, an unfamiliar rabble rousing echoes.  Wait, what’s going on here? As unfamiliar as this was it was just as familiar. The falsetto baritone voices of the crowd, both men and women, were chanting as arms up, fists clenched, pumped the air.  “Woo! Woo! Woo!”  The excitement was not directed at the usual iconic ladies but the New England Patriots.  Tom Brady, the 6’4” quarterback, sweaty and in all his glory, stood facing the camera, the telltale black lines beneath his prowling eyes appearing like his make up was on upside down.  There, upon the king sized screen, his body,  those buttocks and stunning face, validate he was now elevated to the coveted position of  “Wave Bar Diva”.

My friends and I were minuscule pieces of an overcrowded puzzle with one corner piece missing.  Nowhere in sight was the normal couture one might hope to find. Neither a D&G tee shirt, Prada loafer, nor anything Armani Collezioni is evident and if they were they eluded me.  Hugo Boss and Tom Ford must be on vacation.   I make my way to the upper platform where someone of my stature, a mere 5’7″ can gain a better vantage point.   Quizzically I perused the crowd.  Nothing.   I saw waves of men with beer bottles in hand and Old Navy and American Eagle tops and sweatshirts on their backs as well as the women.   Baseball caps topped the normally coiffed or shaved heads of the men like whitecaps topping the waves of the sea. Can it be?  My God, has the Gay world lost all sense of self? Off in the corner, standing alone was a young man in A&F. It was a faint glimmer of hope on the body of someone who, like me, was simply searching this testosterone filled universe for an ounce of what once was.  I had fallen, perhaps through a void in the heterosexual atmosphere, into a parallel universe, one with no rhyme or reason. When had it become suitable for gay men to gather in multiple numbers and cheer on the NFL?  I’d somehow landed on the outside of my comfort zone. Through the surrealism my brain had a wistful thought. Who to ask?  Tapping the man next to me on the shoulder, I motioned him to lean in. Prepared for a poignant query about the nail-biting quarter of the game, which could leave the Patriots undefeated for a full season, he gives me his ear.

“Hey, who do I write to about the team’s uniforms? Don’t you think the game would be more interesting if Ted Baker designed them?” This stranger was not amused. The recoiling of his body answered the question without a word ever being spoken.  Though a valid thought to me, my inquiry was unappreciated and met with great disdain.  Apparently I had sullied the game, his attention, and all that is sacred as a spectator. I retreated into my head to hear “The Supremes” sing “In and Out of Love” once again, while sheepishly snapping my fingers to the internal beat.

The clock was counting down to the end of the game.  Joy filled the room. The rush was palpable, permeating everyone’s being, including mine, as the Patriots positioned to take their place in history. Exhilarated, the announcer declared,  “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one… the Patriots are undefeated for one solid season!” History has been made. “Woo! Yes! Tom I love you…Woohoo!” The crowd was shouting out in unison with hands clapping and fists pounding toward the heavens in joy.  “Now get those boys to the showers and keep the cameras rolling,” one spirited fan screamed excitedly.  I never remembered my father shouting that in our living room.  At last, some semblance of rational behavior had returned to “The Wave”.   But the celebratory feeling in the room was intoxicating.  Looking back over the evening, I too felt the shock of electricity as Tom Brady got into position, caught the hike and threw the ball far and wide while rocketing his team to glory.  And this time it had nothing to do with “the position”. For a few shining moments I understood the passion and the glory of football.  Could it be that I, Keith Proto, the sissy boy from his childhood, actually enjoyed this? I was more puzzled at the thought than I had been when I walked into the bar and witnessed the multitude of flannel. Had I misjudged the game and been prejudiced in my thinking? And had I been that politico, who’d erected a wall to prove a point and what might that point actually be?

Without warning, on the screen was a video compilation of Cher, Madonna and Whitney singing in unison their most prized musical hits. Fantasy hairstyles, theatrical makeup and intricately choreographed moves swept over the crowd.  The fluidity of their bodies and ease of style swiftly captured us and once again, thankfully, came the shrill cries of glee for our divas. These men and women, who had dressed as they should for an evening with the Patriots, readily flounce back to where nature intended. You can outfit my people in fluffy fleece, but thankfully you cannot take the fleecy fluff from them. Fate knocked not a moment too soon. In swished a Prada ‘Pea’ coat, perfectly fitted, well-proportioned and accented with ebony buttons.  Under it a pair of ‘7 for all Mankind’ jeans and a ‘Boss Orange’ slim fit sweater clung to a svelte body.  My very own Tom Brady had arrived.  He hiked his couture to the dance floor and began going for the goal, a replication of our divas, with exact precision.  Pinching myself to ensure I was not dreaming, I caught his pass and ran the distance. Touchdown! I actually existed in the parallel universe of this night and enjoyed it.  My parents would be so proud.

Days later, Adam, a young, gay man of twenty something, came in for a haircut. Adam is fresh and full of forthright, direct opinions about life He is never shy and never retiring. He surprised me with his youthful insight on my night.  Having played high school football he shared my disdain, not for the sport but the single-minded illusion which comes with it.

“They, (the fans, parents, players), have only one voice; it’s a one-sided ideal,” he said, “Football equals masculinity and masculinity equals football. It’s fucking bullshit.”  I knew it. With the help of my young friend I’d patched an old wound.

You can be a fan of  couture or bake brownies on a Sunday afternoon while the game goes on.  You can even be an avid enthusiast or modest spectator of, dare I say it, football and still be gay, it’s okay. There is more than one voice and whether masculine or feminine, booming or soft, it can be heard. Most importantly, after years of feeling an outsider in American society, I surprised myself in learning I’d misjudged a truth. I’d become that person, the Erector of the wall of segregation, thinking it offered protection, only to realize it caused more harm than good.  It wasn’t the sport I found contemptible but the reflection of me, in the mirror of societal expectation, during the years of my youth.  I chose not to embrace myself because of the fear of rejection, and sadly, at the time, that included my family. I’d misjudged them and their love for me.  My father and brothers, playing defense, would never have let that happen, and my mother, though a tough sell, had proved it when she rushed and tackled Santa for me. The feelings of self-imposed exile had been hiked to me, caught and then fumbled as I stood in the vast stadium of life, unable to run with the ball.

Couldn’t December 29th have come sooner?  When I’d looked across the vast body of men and women at “The Wave”, indulging in sport spectatorship, I saw what lay before me. Doctors, lawyers, waiters and waitresses, sons, daughters, accountants, realtors, teachers and car salesmen and many others, including myself, felt a fevered energy.  We were all in one room, in one town, with one common denominator—we were gay.  This is what Keith, the little boy, dreamed of. There was no shame and certainly no emasculation. There was an abundance of testosterone, which may or may not have been imported, and we were living.  One minute the Patriots (well, Tom Brady) had all eyes on them, the next minute Whitney did. It was quite the balance. Of course the odds of me sitting before a screen watching a football game are slight, though I’ve discovered Rob is an avid fan so by default… There still exists a wound, and neither tight end, wide receiver, nor quarterback hold any real interest for me. Well, perhaps the tight end.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the energy of others when during a game. The position I’d chosen to play was defensive end. It came from being exiled by the incongruous standards of society.  And, at the end of the day,  doesn’t it feel good to get a pat on the ass, like “real” men do, after a good play?

At last my mother, if she were alive, could say, “Win one for the Gipper,” and I would understand.  My young nephew Christopher approached and asked me to throw the football with him. He isn’t a “sports kid”, going out for the team, and never has to be. But Chris understands the joy of fun, and knows how to have it. I had a moment of hesitation. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, or that those old feelings were invading me, but I wasn’t sure if I was talented enough to throw properly. I drew back the little oblong blimp, once my nemesis, and threw. Chris caught it, time and again. We talked and threw, talked and threw and had a “man” to “little man” moment.  Keith had come along way from the little boy on Orchard Road. And being the “real” man I am, did it with the “Supremes” still playing in my head, arm extended and fingers snapping. “Woo! Woo! Woo!”  I’d finally caught the ball and made the run, all with a fourth down and goal to go.

 

“Livingston Manor, I presume”

 

Recently Rob and I had the opportunity to travel to a small Catskills hamlet called Livingston Manor. Our good friend, Tom Casey, was celebrating his “**th” birthday. I was skeptical. My usual home bodied self simply wanted to stay in Connecticut relaxing in familiar surroundings. I believe there is no relaxation anywhere but my own backyard. You may ask,”Why?” and the answer is , “It’s beyond me.” Perhaps Dorothy is to blame, with her mantra, “there’s no place like home”. 

Inspecting our property creates anxiety. The worn garden mulch is in need of refreshing and a stray weed (or ten) pops through causing disruption. The pool, never very messy, is always in need of a minor touch up.  Relaxation is hijacked by chores, tedious landowner chores. I must never be the neighbor who “lets their place go”, heaven forbid. With a self-imposed, slightly imperious Connecticut attitude I was off to the Catskills. To my surprise this may have been one of the most mind altering trips I’ve taken.  Livingston Manor, New York, has had it’s share of contemporary issues. In the spring of 2015 two teens overdosed on heroin. That single incident led law enforcement to the Bronx where they apprehended a major drug ring.  The small, sleepy towns of yesterday have targets on their heads–such a pity. However, as I discovered, they hold much, much more. And so, I present, my personal relationship with Livingston Manor.

 

“Tom is renting a house for his birthday weekend and we’re invited.” I’m always caught off guard when Rob blurts out an invitation. “I’ll have to see. When is it?” I stared at my IPad surfing Facebook. “Memorial Day weekend…I’d really like to go.”  It isn’t every day he asks things of me so this must be important. But Memorial Day weekend?  My hope was to plant the flower pots around the deck and pool, establish my small but productive vegetable garden and keep myself on track at the gym. “Let me see if we can get someone to watch the dogs. Where did he rent?” The logical assumption was Provincetown, no easy journey for a two-day stint but readily done. “The Catskills–a place called ‘Livingston Manor’–it’s where he grew up.”  I felt my stomach roll. Was this my acid reflux or was it that Tom had not painted an enviable picture of his hometown? “They’ll know you’re not from there because you still have teeth in your mouth.”  This was most likely an exaggeration on his part but would we find a nest of craggy looking  ‘folks’ sitting on their front porch? Would they be drinking home-brewed moonshine? Will they be on the front porch armed with a handmade shot-gun (or assault rifle)?   And the “Gay” thing, exactly how does that play out in the woods?  “His whole family will be there and on Sunday there’s a party at his rental house,” Leave it to Tom Casey to throw his own birthday party but that’s just Tom. “Okay, I’ll try to take care of it.”  How about a miracle? No, not the type that saves lives or turns water to wine, but a simple “Sorry, Keith, I have weekend plans” from our dog sitter.  As luck would have it the sitter was available and there it was. I was on my way.

What to wear? The toothless comment led me to surmise the weekend would be casual–very, very casual. I pulled out one dress shirt, not designer, but with enough style to pass. “Hmm, no.” Loafers? “No.” Khakis? “No.”  Okay, a pair of summer shorts, flip-flops, tees, jeans and a preppy little sneaker would be more than enough.  I wasn’t sure if more than one pair of underwear was even necessary, after all, who’d ever notice?  All that was needed for a weekend away, including a celebration, in Livingston Manor, fit into one gym bag. Who says it can’t be done and who knew it could be? Every day is a new lesson.  “Go over everyone who will be there.” Putting together names and faces of people I’ve only met once is a task.  “Well,” Rob said, “There’s his sister-in-law Patty, his sister Leenie (Eileen), her husband, Ted, no…wait, Fred, the nieces, Emily, Maureen and Colleen, his nephews, Brian and Josh and oh yes, Joshs’ girlfriend, Jamie and Maureen’s husband…um…Herbie.” I would need another run down on the whole lot.  As we passed through Derby, one town from ours, both Rob and I noted the demolition of all but a select few buildings along the Housatonic River. The landscape of the downtown area has changed. The small, defunct manufacturing town, once a garden of decayed brick buildings like Dickens’ London, has been weeded. At best Derby, like so many small communities, has been left behind. Years ago a local business, ‘The River Restaurant’, tragically exploded when a gas main leak and the lighting of an oven collided. Several well-loved townspeople tragically died and for a few moments the blast put Derby on the map. Shortly thereafter the small town returned to normalcy and it’s sleepy, unremarkable self.

I think we turn here,” Rob said as we kept to the left of the traffic circle.  “Yes, this is it…Liberty.” We were in New York and had entered what was once known as ‘The Borscht Belt’. Liberty is a small town, once filled with throngs of tourists, primarily Jewish families, who frequented the ‘all-inclusive’ vacation venues such as Grossinger’s, The Nevele, and The Concord. Robs’ family, like all good Jews of their day, visited the “Borscht Belt” and all of the above .  When asked about it he’ll say, “It wasn’t my thing,” and leave it at that.  Over time, the families going to “adult” camp went by the wayside with the expanse and ease of air travel and the growth of a new, more adventuresome generation. Approaching the second traffic circle in Liberty we made the subtle right turn onto the main road that bisects the small town. “I think I know where the other part of Derby went”  and Rob concurred, saying he’d had the exact same thought. The buildings are worn, some vacant, and the occupied stores offer little intrigue. My suspicions were rising.  We were conspicuous, not because of our Connecticut plates but because of Rob’s car. Jaguar. XJL. The biggest vehicle Jaguar produces. In black it wreaks of importance though in truth we have little, actually none. Stopped at traffic lights, the car was afforded “thumbs ups” and nods from passersby. I felt dirty. For a moment I was ashamed and wished we’d taken a pickup; unwashed and pimped out. The looks might have been flooded with approval rather than the judgement I was feeling. Perhaps it was all in my mind, perhaps.

The British voice on the navigation system directed, “In 500 feet turn right. Turn right.”  We turned right. Right onto what seemed to be the path to “Where-The-Hell-Are -We”.  My convoluted imagination pictured white men nestled in these houses, slamming back ‘Buds’ while extolling the misunderstood virtues of Donald Trump. Rob passed a glance my way knowing exactly what I was thinking.  “Isn’t this interesting?” He was referring to the homes, some of which had long since passed any remnant of glory or civilization for that matter. “Yes…interesting…do you think there’s a Four Seasons close by?”  He looked at me disapprovingly. “Stop it.”  At the top of the hill, just after the bend dividing lower from upper Menges Road, the panoramic view exploded as the properties became lovelier and better maintained. What lay beyond the houses was a masterpiece. Rolling hills, awash in the richest shades of green, are the backdrop of this spectacular image. To go through them was to swim through waves in the ocean. They seemed to ebb and flow, take you under then push you to the top, all the while causing you to catch your breath and say, “My God, I’ve gotten this place all wrong.” Just beyond Tom stood in the driveway of the rental.  I thought, “My God, I haven’t gotten this wrong at all.”

I always felt sympathy for Lisa Douglas, Eva Gabor’s character on “Green Acres”.  I now know why. Lisa had been swept from her lavish penthouse apartment by her husband, Oliver, on a whim.  He longed to escape the rat race of Manhattan to seek the joy and accomplishment of farming. He whisked her off to the small town of Hooterville, populated by corn-fed citizens and comedic rules of society. They end up in a ramshackle house in the middle of nowhere attempting to fit a square peg into a round hole. If that square peg wasn’t me and this wasn’t Hooterville I didn’t know what was.

Tom, with his mop of dark hair, tinged with grey at the temples, shouted, “I’m so glad you’re here boys!”  Though cliché, he has Irish eyes. They smile even when he may not, causing a happy reaction. There’s a certain pride he holds in his Irish heritage and a certain amount of alcohol his heritage holds in him–it’s a match made in heaven.  I was silent as Rob took over. “This is great…the scenery is unbelievable!” I studied the property wondering where the concierge and bellman were.  The house, a typical ranch style, had a low roof, picture window to the right and two separate windows to the left. The exterior was vinyl and stone, certainly not trendy as you might find on Martha’s Vineyard but it served an aesthetic purpose nonetheless. There was nothing wrong with it but nothing inspired either.  Inside, the floor plan was open concept–kitchen flowing to dining, flowing to living, flowing to bedrooms. What was not flowing, on one of the most humid weekends of the year, was air conditioning. The damp, musty smell of moisture permeated my senses. Tom sensed a note of judgement in my expression. ”Patty has an air conditioner. We can put it in the bedroom window.”  I breathed a sigh of relief as my asthma kicked in. “Don’t go to any bother, we’ll be fine.” I caught what little breath was in my body and stared at Rob. He was trying, as always, to be the easy one. Had he lost his mind? I could’ve killed him. Better yet I’d give it a few minutes– with a little luck the humidity would kill him. “We can rough it,” he said. I choked, literally.

Our bedroom door was curious. All of the doors were curious. Each had a vent, an air entry of sorts, so if you were trapped you could receive oxygen. Or perhaps they were simply re-purposed from an insane asylum.  It was anyone’s guess. When opened, the door creaked loudly and what lay behind was no surprise. Our room was a scene from the play “Annie”. I felt the urge to break into “The Sun Will Come out Tomorrow.” The problem? I was unconvinced it would. The furnishings were sparse– a bed, dresser and mirror that didn’t match, though not in an eclectic, “I shop for antiques” kind of way, but in an “I shop at the Salvation Army” kind of way. The room also had a window and a half, yes, a half. The main bathroom, thankfully, had been somewhat updated and was large. Behind the multicolored cloth shower curtain was a pink enamel bathtub and the walls were lined with gray 1950’s tile. The cabinets, most likely replaced in the 1970’s, had been painted a vibrant red, perhaps “American Beauty Rose”, as was the window trim.  Eclectic should come with parameters and a tutorial. From the window was a clear view of the pond which was home to two Canadian geese and their three goslings. Suddenly the aesthetic seemed more appealing.

“I found the perfect restaurant for lunch, are you guys hungry?” We were but I didn’t trust the flatware, dishes or glasses in the house yet. It was unclear exactly when the last time they were washed. “It’s a great place in downtown Livingston Manor, ‘Main Street Farm Market and Café’…I know you’ll love it.” And so, three Connecticut boys headed to town.  As we traveled the rolling hills, over winding roads, I couldn’t help noting the wide range of properties and structures. Ahead was a long, white building resembling a camp or lodge of some sort, as if several houses had been sewn together. The driveway, parking area and street were at full capacity with cars while the yard was brimming with men and women, some in flowing robes and exercise apparel and some in much less clothing.  The scripted wooden sign read, “Shalom Mountain Retreat”. The name alone caused me to Google. Apparently it is a safe location for “deep personal transformation work in the context of an intentional, loving community”. Upon closer inspection of the seminars and classes, I learned this meant you may experience your sexuality in any number of ways with no restraint or judgement. We’d just come upon what may well have been the first gem tucked away on our Catskill adventure.

Passing several contemporary houses I wondered when they’d been built and by whom. Some were large, others small, most quite charming. A few miles further were trailers, not in a clustered park but on property like any other house would be. These were more shanty-like structures converted to appear as ranches. Without a doubt most were home to hoarders, over packed with scores of worn out clutter and looking like a salvage yard. Rusted gates. Fencing and old lampposts, tables with mismatched seats, torn and tattered furniture from a bygone era. Gas grills, charcoal grills and even plows, the kind used in the days of Laura Ingalls Wilder, had a home here. The scene reminded me of how fortunate I have been in my lifetime though for any number of reasons this could have been my life.

Downtown Livingston Manor is Americana at its best. The main street is lined with small businesses, retail shops, a firehouse, car wash, convenience store and gas station, several restaurants and even a contemporary art gallery. There is Brandenburg Bakery with its’ vast array of pastries, cookies and homemade breads, Peck’s Grocery store and to my astonishment more than a few hair salons.  Down the street, behind a nondescript glass entry, is “Willow and Brown” with fine clothing for men and women, jewelry and household items of quality.  Tom received an engaging welcome for he was, after all, a home town boy, well, at least partially. I was actually impressed. “Main Street Farm Market and Café” doubles as a miniature version of Whole Foods and a ‘farm to table’ restaurant. One side holds a plethora of organic and locally produced foods, meats, vegetables, confections and honey. Through a large arched opening we passed into the compact restaurant with either take out or dine in meals. The open, refrigerated case housed homemade teas, beers and even soda, many of which I’d never heard of.  The restaurant was bustling with curiously “artsy” looking patrons, seated reading their papers and conversing with one another from table to table. Tom had lied–everyone had a full set of teeth. I wasn’t sure but was sensing there was much more to this small hamlet than meets the eye. Could it be I’d been a bit of a snob in my initial assessment?

Ordering at the café counter, we decided the day was tailor-made to eat by the river.  Along the rear of the retail buildings on Main Street, a wide, rocky swath of crystal water bisects the town. Taking seats on the deck  we reveled in the sight. To the right stood a magnificent brick and columned building with pristine landscape. I thought surely it was the Town Hall but Tom explained it is the school, grades K-12. The building had been constructed through the WPA and seems monumental for such a small community. We lunched while watching young townspeople swing across the rippling water on tires suspended from huge oak trees lining the riverbank. There was bellowing and laughter, wading and swimming. All that was needed was Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. A small waterfall was hypnotic as the rushing water cartwheels over the rocks. People walked the banks in swimwear, skipping rocks, and one young woman even sported a bikini, stepping from stone to stone with her boyfriend.  All the while, on the street, in the cafe and on the deck, there was not a cell phone, IPad nor video game in sight. Could it be we’d traveled back in time? This was Sunday as Sunday used to be.  But where were Andy, Barney, Aunt Bea and Opie? I expected them to meander down Main Street, fetch a soda pop from Goober’s service station and head over to a pie baking contest at the church.  I couldn’t help but smile. Livingston Manor seemed a contemporary 1950’s. My body warmed as my memory was nudged back to my childhood, which of course is one of my favorite places to be.

Within walking distance is Tom’s family home. Pat Casey, his brother, passed away several years ago but his wife Patty still lives in the house– a colonial–brown, cozy and inviting. Patty seemed the matriarch of the family, knowing what’s best for who and why. I instantly liked her.  The property has a barn and Patty’s children, adults in their twenties, along with her new grandchild, were gathered, enjoying each other on a Sunday afternoon. Ghastly as it may seem, there were no cell phones in hand and no texting, just conversation– whatever happened to conversation anyway?  “You’ll see,” my mother once said while reading about the opening of retail stores on Sundays, “This is the end of the family.” I think she may have been right. But here, in Livingston Manor, or at least in the Patty  Casey household, family time is alive in the present. Midway, down the winding dirt road, sits an abandoned house abutting Patty’s property. Once owned by a prosperous Polish family it must have been magnificent in its’ day, but now it’s dismal. If you look hard enough you can see the home crying, bones broken, abandoned, calling for someone to nurture and heal it. In the distance an old barn is crumbling. Alongside it a Cadillac, from the 1970’s, is decaying, lying out as if being paid its’ last respects at the world’s longest wake. The descendants have abandoned the property leaving nothing but memories behind. Beyond the decay sit those lush mountains. You can’t help but feel the need to fill your lungs with as much fresh air as possible.

At the very end of a pristine private road, with pastures on either side, is Leenies’ house . She is a runner, well toned and disciplined. There is a calm about her and if Tom has Irish eyes, Leenie has an Irish smile–it welcomes with open arms.  A vast expanse of well maintained property abounds in every direction. Fred, lean and well-worn is a man’s man. Nodding, while drawing his hand across the horizon, he says, “We own it all.” The house, for me, is reminiscent of Vermont, with weathered brown siding and stacks of cut wood to nurse a perpetual winter fire. To the right lies a built-in swimming pool which Fred pridefully takes ownership of.  “I got my backhoe, excavated and put that pool in myself.”  I was impressed. Truth be told I’d kill for a backhoe but don’t have quite the right outfit for one. To our  left was a vegetable garden, freshly planted and well executed.  “What’s in the garden?” I was curious to speak to a “real gardener” since my three little raised beds back home were recently planted. Fred was all too happy to walk me through and regale me with the intricacies of planting, weather related diseases and crop rotation. As we spoke Gertie, their little Beagle puppy, bounced like a ball.  Leenie leads us to the other side of the road where a small barn houses a magnificent brunette horse. This was the tidiest barn I’d ever seen, with farm equipment lined up neatly and wall to wall hay, laid out perfectly, as if the finest carpet. My eyes stared into the huge black eyes of the horse and held it. If this were a television show now would be the moment the horse, in perfect English, told me all about life in Livingston Manor–the types of things only a horse would be privy to.  Was she truly happy in her digs? I actually believed she was.

As the weekend went on my heart, like the Grinch, grew larger. Tom’s birthday celebration went off in our now less unappealing house. Could it be I was growing fond of this little place?  Moreover, could it be I grew accustomed to the now subsided mustiness? I have no idea why my heart was softening but it was. I’d begun looking at things differently, especially when Tom’s family arrived and extolled the virtues of the rental property. “It has a dishwasher!” There was a tinge of envy in the ladies. Patty admitted she neither owned a dishwasher nor knew how to load one.  I chuckled thinking, “How could anyone not?” There was my mother’s voice speaking in my ear, “Being a snob with wealth is unattractive, but being a snob without reason is unforgivable.” Damn that woman, sadly I was the latter. I recalled the days my family did not have a dishwasher while my friends and family did. Somehow we survived. Watching Patty wash and dry each dish was artistry. Her hands moved like a skilled sculptress adept at her craft with prowess and clearly no need for mechanics. The defense rested, winning it’s case. Quite frankly the dishes were done in a fraction of the time and to her own standard. My entitlement was now exiled in shame– I felt nothing but disdain for my Connecticut haughtiness.

Homemade. Every aspect of Tom’s birthday celebration was homemade. Most importantly the family, warm, fun-loving and above all else close-knit, was homemade. Freshly prepared food, freshly picked flowers and Leenie’s freshly baked, superbly soft white rolls brought the feasting table to life. We even opened a jar of her infamous and wildly delicious pickles as an accoutrement.  This was country living at its finest. Beyond all that, she baked the birthday cake–homemade white cake with white frosting. “We like white around here,” someone proudly proclaimed. I kept my initial thoughts of Menges Road to myself. I am a chocoholic and was slightly disappointed to hear we’d be having my least favorite cake. I ate two pieces. How is it possible anyone can bake a white cake that would cause a devout chocolate lover to give up both his addiction and diet for? It made no sense. Nothing seemed to make sense. It made no sense my falling in love with this family in a matter of six hours yet I did. Nor did it make any sense I fell in love with their hometown. Was something in the water? Impossible–I was afraid to drink it–potential rust in the pipes you know.

“Did you put the air conditioners in?” Patty asked, “We never use them because it never gets hot here but you may want them.” Really? It never gets hot? Where does it get hotter, the Mojave? Once again Rob, the little Boy Scout, feigned acceptance of the temperature and humidity. “We don’t need them, really.” She called to her boys who leap at her command like Navy Seals. Within moments the units were installed and the moisture retreated. My lungs breathed a sigh of relief. If they could have left my body they would have hugged Patty Casey. “Thank God,” Rob whispered, “I thought we were going to die in there.” If memory served, wasn’t he the one who claimed we could “rough it”?  Apparently his privileged upbringing and doting Jewish mother did not a Boy Scout make.

In the morning all was quiet.  I stood before the toilet and began the day. From the open window I could see the geese and their goslings playing follow the leader around the pond, occasionally dipping their bills and enjoying some form of breakfast. It was heartwarming. Can it be the geese have a great life here too? In truth the serenity and scenery was enticing. By the end of the weekend another “Keith” was uncovered. I slept soundly, probably my best sleep  in months, hell, maybe years. The bullfrog croaked out a lullaby in B flat as the crickets accompanied. Tom has decided to purchase a second home in the Catskills to be near his family and for investment. I was crossing over but was not fully there yet about the credibility of his idea. We scheduled some houses for inspection and began the search. Each was situated on plentiful land, some settings outweighing the others. A main home, expansive lawn, guest house and garages were standard and to my surprise came with a price tag of what we could pay for a home renovation back in Connecticut. My personal favorite had flowing yards of lawn, a carriage house and traditional main house that for whatever reason reminded me of ‘The Waltons’.  I could visualize fields of sunflowers at the entry in the lower ground and Tom could too. I wasn’t sure– could I could take the leap and purchase a place here? It would be a wonderful, tranquil setting for writing but what else would I do? And the “gay” thing? Not so prevalent. In all probability the answer is no. On the other hand, I can’t wait for Tom to buy property and expect a standing invitation every weekend.

It’s still a mystery what happened that weekend. Perhaps the musty, somewhat mildewed smell of the house stirred a memory. As children and young adults my parents would cart us to Cape Cod for summer vacations. The motels lacked impression, as a matter of fact they were unimpressive except for the 25 cent vibrating beds and kitchenette. I loved the kitchenette.  My brother Randy detested those motels and I accepted them for what they were.  Today you couldn’t pay me to stay in one. I’ve discovered on some level they bothered me too and as a result, upon entering the weekend house, my imperious resignation took over. I suspect the memory of those lackluster lodgings makes me feel less than I hope to be.  The house my parents eventually rented in Eastham with my Uncle Andy and Aunt Edna, while head and shoulders above the motels, also carried that “musty smell”.  So, the conundrum–I loved our vacations and adored the house in Eastham.  Though the mustiness permeated the furniture, mattresses and books it was the scent of many wonderful moments of my life. Those moments played out on the sandy shores of the Cape with some of my favorite family members. I wouldn’t trade any of that for the world. Perhaps “that” smell was the key ingredient I’d subconsciously allowed to soften, or rather realign, me.

As we said our goodbyes Tom thanked us time and again for making the trip. My heart and mind was content. As I pulled out of the driveway and down Menges Road, I looked back at the tattered house and smiled.  I was missing the mustiness just a bit. Navigating the winding roads I saw things in a different light. And I no longer simply saw white, I saw a multitude of colors. It wasn’t so bad on the way out– as a matter of fact it was damn good. My body was rested and my mind calm. There was no intensity about the perfect garden or the pristine landscape. Everything was a little undone, a little relaxed and ultimately created relaxation. I don’t think weeds will ever look the same again, well, a few weeds. Maybe, just maybe, they add rather than subtract.

It’s been a few weeks since our weekend away and I already miss Sunday in Livingston Manor. As a matter of fact I miss Livingston Manor all together. Like the days of my childhood, when our family would gather for breakfast and my grandparents and aunts and uncles would drop in, that weekend caressed me. I remember walking from our house to Miller’s Market and Cadweell’s drugstore on errands for my mother. Along the way I’d stop and look at the koi in the stream that ran by Orange Center Road.  There is little difference in the world I grew up in and Tom’s world. Oh, wait, in Livingston Manor they still live it daily while mine is protected by memory. They still have slow Sundays and family dropping by for lunch, the lucky bastards. They have the river and tire swings and most importantly still have their teeth.  I ask myself, “Exactly what was it that caused me serenity, nostalgia, awareness and contentment?” Of course–Livingston Manor, I presume.

“S-st-stop In the Name of Love”

 

Time goes by. In the summer of 2006 I met my current partner, Rob. After dating several months I wrote a story about the acceptance of our perceived flaws. I found my inspiration in him and while unsure about the emotional reaction he may have from the subject matter he loved it. As a matter of fact, he shared it with his Jewish mother Arlene and with her approval I exhaled. We recently celebrated our 10 year “partnership” anniversary and I thought, “What does that number mean in ‘Gay years’? Is there a mathematical equivalent, like our dogs, to determine the actual value?”  Ten, fifteen or even fifty, it makes no difference because life has been good to us…And what could be better than sharing his story with everyone? So, my dear partner, here it is. “Happy Anniversary” and thank you for being in my life for the past  ten years supporting me through the happy and sad times and everything in between…

 

It was a long, long time since I’d been on a date.  Oh sure, the occasional meeting with “Stripper”, a former dancer, or “The Tooth Fairy”, an oral surgeon who I’d seen for a few weeks, but tonight may well be a date with staying power.  My friend Shawn gave painstaking thought to who should inherit me when he left New Haven in an upward career move. Shawn and I had grown from the seedlings of acquaintance to close friends.  We cherished one another immensely and  a multitude of stories were born from our dinners and humor.  He helps unearth the good in me and shares my journey with great support.  In a few short weeks however, I shall be left on my own, a foundling.

Apparently I’d made an impression on Shawn’s friend Robert at our “watering hole”, 168 York Street Cafe. A few steps below ground level, York Street is one of those places that feels comfortable and familiar, like your favorite pair of boxers. Exposed brick adds a hint of  “New York Pre-war” except we are in New Haven essentially in a basement. With it’s outdoor patio and fire escape seating, it’s an easy place to be. I’d been introduced to Robert Nathman on multiple occasions. Not once did he remember me.  He’d extend his slender hand cordially and offer a perfunctory, simple, “Hi.”  With no insult taken I chalked it up to my innate talent for being invisible in a crowd. Better still, perhaps he had some type of memory challenge. Fascinated, I turned meeting him into a game of sorts. Perhaps this was a new version of  “The Dating Game”. With the exclusion of questions or answers, you simply offer a straightforward “hi”  until some event causes the potential couple to engage. I’d introduce myself, receive the uncertain “hi” and count the number of times this happened. The light never quite went on…until meeting #11…

Shawn called with a game changer. “Guess who’s very interested in you…” I couldn’t imagine but suspected only one person. “Don’t tell me, the guy wearing the pony hair shoes? The dancer friend of Madonna?”  Psychopaths, they do favor me. Although handsome, the man seated on the rickety bar stool next to me was somewhat self absorbed, actually more than somewhat. With dark brown hair, tipped on the ends, he was dressed in what I’m sure he considered ‘haute couture’ though in truth it was TJ Maxx  circa 1994. He rolled his words into one sentence with no punctuation.  You know the type. “Well I was in an ad campaign for the Gap a few years ago do you remember the guy on a bike wearing plaid madras shorts…that was me and then I danced with Madonna on her ‘Like a Virgin Tour’ and she and I are  tight…My life is special.”  I looked for someone to throw me a rope, not to swing from this cliff to safety but to tighten around his neck. I noticed Rob Nathman standing at the door but he would be no help. The prospect of dating the “talker” was not enticing but he was, in a schizophrenic way, interesting. If nothing else he offered material for my writing.

“No, silly, it’s Rob Nathman. He was asking a lot of questions about you.” I was puzzled.  Here, a man I’d met on several occasions (actually 11) who didn’t exude any interest was asking questions about me? Beyond that he holds the same first name as my  ex-partner, although, that could be an asset- never an accidental slip up.  At any rate I was unsure about the situation. “Really? He never knows who I am.” My skepticism abounded. “I know, I told him that, but something about you made an impression.” I could visualize the shrug of Shawn’s shoulders while raising his hands, “Who knew?” I thought for a moment. “What the hell, give him my number.” Days passed without a call and apparently the impression left on Rob was not as powerful as Shawn had led me to believe. With low self esteem in place I wasn’t up for any of this. And truth be told I couldn’t help wondering what getting to know someone else equated. Would it mean my former relationship was indeed over? It was far too much to process.

I found myself in the “new” Rob’s company while Shawn and I were having cocktails at York Street. As he approached  I realized this was not a chance meeting, it had Shawn Anderson’s signature on it.  The next few seconds were my opportunity to size things up. He was tall with very long legs and a slender frame. His face was attractive and he was nicely dressed, though conservative in black. I later learned that maroon would be a stretch, that he considered it “shockingly bright” for his taste. This man wasn’t particularly my “type”. Keith, the hairstylist, took note of his closely cropped, not yet grey, hair and dark goatee. Okay,  I do have a “thing” for facial hair.  His eyes were green and expressive but his looks vaguely reminded me of a former love which frightened me. There was no great salutation other than ‘hi’. Time has allowed me to understand this is Rob’s signature greeting with nothing more nor anything less, although what could be less?  I sensed he was shy, or some version of shy, but couldn’t put my finger on the reason. “Do you think I can take you to dinner?” He spoke slowly and directly as if scripted and practiced.  “Yes,” I said wondering if he was so proper he may ask my parents for their blessing.  With great consideration he made a point of reserving a table, allowing time for relaxation post work and prior to dressing.  There was a strong positive in this man’s actions and a strong positive in me, but we could discuss that later.

“What to wear?” I stared blankly at my closet. Not wanting to appear too trendy but knowing conservative is not my middle name there was only one thing to do. I called my ‘life line’.  “Shawn, jeans or dress pants?”  Honesty was what I needed. “Honey, jeans of course…and make them the new ones you bought, you know, the ones that make your ass look so good.” Dear Shawn, always giving a lift, even a butt lift. Packing myself into the jeans I left open just enough shirt buttons to say, “Here you go, a little man cleavage.” Hell, I’ve worked hard for whatever I have and to his credit, so did my plastic surgeon.

The timing of my  arrival must be exact. It was imperative that tardiness, which can be my middle name, not be an issue. Rob arrived promptly, impressed with my punctuality–a flaw that would become a bone of contention in our future.  We spoke of everything from childhood to bad dates, parents to siblings,  and the words flowed fluidly revealing we had much in common. Our humor, tinged with a perverse sarcasm, was in simpatico. This was deliciously refreshing. I noticed after two sentences that Rob spoke with a stutter. Perhaps the question of the simple “hi” was now answered.  It was difficult to not notice when the stutter captured his words and more so not to feel his struggle. As I listened the syllables begin multiple times, his eyes widening as he took in breath, I wanted to reach across, comfort and speak for him. Rather, I smiled and curiously, to my surprise, found the stutter enchanting.  Here was a man with an imperfection and as a result held a major attractiveness. How did this make any sense?

“I wa- ww-was the Jewish kid with the big curly hair, the ‘Jew-fro’, had bucked teeth and stuttered in school.  It was so h-ha-hard.” I loved that he felt he could confide in me about situations that shaped his life and insecurities.” I guess you n-ne-never lose what you grow up with.” Without hesitation I said, “I think your stutter is cute.” This man, with his deep honesty, warmth and kindness, was completely genuine .  He was the kid picked on in school like me. But now came the moment of truth. “So what exactly made you notice me?”  I had to ask the question knowing our vacant history of former meetings. “You w-we-were talking to that asshole guy.  It made me notice you.” Allow yourself a moment of reflection to ponder the depth of the reason the light went on for him…

As a result of Rob’s stutter I began to think of my own imperfections. Isn’t it funny that what we see as imperfections in ourselves others can find attractive?  In an effort to strive for perfection we overlook the simplest point that perfection is in the eye of the beholder. I stumble with social anxiety, primarily around unfamiliar people and situations. For me that is a huge imperfection.  Maybe to someone looking for a quiet, less obtrusive man, my shyness may be an attractive quality. I don’t wear pony hair shoes and talk incessantly. Can it be my imperfection is indeed a quality and shouldn’t this apply to everyone? At the end of the day, like any other job, perfection can be full time and all consuming. My former relationship had been steeped in perfection, admittedly we both strove for it, but in the end, perfection helped bring us to our knees.

There is no doubt I don’t want to spend my life going to bars or hooking up, it isn’t who I am.  I simply want to share my life, the highs and lows, with someone loving. I want to navigate my days with mutual respect, accepting imperfection as an asset rather than a deficit. Externally my words flow without hesitation but internally I stutter. When I feel my heart race, when my  palms get sweaty and think I’m about to pass out, I want someone to catch me as I fall. And I think Robert Nathman may be the one to do that. You see Rob, it makes no difference if you stammer, are shy or carry whatever you may consider a flaw–someone will find your imperfection attractive, as a matter of fact someone already has.  When you are about to speak and become self-conscious, take a deep breath and “S-st-stop in the name of love”… you’ll be delighted to know your imperfection just may be the reason you got a second date.