Archive for the ‘Uncle Richard’ Category

As I think I said before, I used to sit by myself and practice obsessively. Piano, songwriting…whatever.

Mom: When the answer comes back “yes”, you need to be ready. If you’re not ready and they say yes, you will fail. And it will all be on you.

Such thoughts did their job, I suppose, in that they spurred me along. While she was crazy in the specifics, in general it’s not a bad principle: Be ready when opportunity knocks. I’ve had to water down some of her kookier stuff and put it in a normal framework. I’ve kept what I could, and threw out (or tried to…it’s easier said than done) what wasn’t any good. If I were to ever write a book on it, I’d call it The Tao of Crazy. It would be some eye opening shit.

Anyway, I kind of got a big head. I thought I was the baddest, biggest, best musician. Best actor. Best…whatever. I was making a ton of money (I had gotten booked on quite a few accounts – that means that whenever they did a commercial for a given product, I was called. I had Kool-Aid for a while and all of General Mills, among other things). I got to sing on a record with Micheal Jackson. This was like…I dunno…’93 or maybe ’94. He recorded a Christmas song…don’t recall the name of it, but I think it had something to do with a star. It was at the Hit Factory in New York – this was a big, big studio…they had a special freight elevator that celebrities who were recording would come in and use. It was sort of a back entrance to get away from the press and whatnot. Anyway, it was me and maybe a dozen kids, singing background on this song. Micheal was pretty cool…gave us all signed copies of Dangerous (which I still have) and Game Boys. This one kid, who I knew was a piano player, kept trying to chat me up. He was way into jazz, and he was pretty good. I was so self centered at that point, I didn’t have time in my world for anyone else. Anyway, he asked Micheal if he could play for him. He went over to the grand piano and starts playing – like I said…he was good. Nice kid, too. The more I watched, the more irritated I became. I had a competitive streak about a mile wide, and to watch someone else doing something that I considered my “thing” was like slapping me in the face with a dead mackerel. After the kid was done, I jumped right in. I played Micheal an original song. It was a quasi Rockabilly number (I was also into Jerry Lee Lewis at the time). I had to be better than this kid. He was nice, but I had to blow him out of the water, for the sake of my own ego. My hours of honing my skills, the “games” I played with myself to get better, payed off. Micheal really enjoyed it, but had to be rushed away by his bodyguards. We shook hands. I relaxed a bit…I had re-attained my place (in my mind, at least) as top dog. The kid came up to me…he was stoked.

Kid: That was amazing! You’re really good.

Me: …thanks.

I didn’t give a shit what this kid thought, but it was nice to be recognized. Since I had affirmed my belief that he wasn’t better than me, I had no time for him.

Kid: Let’s jam sometime.

Me: Maybe.

I was the king, he was a peasant.

Uncle Richard noted my shift in attitude, I think, and I think he realized I didn’t have anybody to give me a real lay of the land. Mom was constantly pumping my head full of fantasies. Not that Uncle Richard didn’t believe in me, but he didn’t want me getting an unhealthy outlook or anything. My ego was just the outward manifestation of a flawed worldview.

Uncle Richard: There’s nothing wrong with having an ego. Every artist needs one…it’s what keeps him going. But don’t feed it too much. You understand?

I told him I did, even though I didn’t.

Uncle Richard: Shakespeare was one of the most humble people. Have you ever read his letters?

I shook my head.

Uncle Richard: Read them. He wrote plays that were lauded the entire continent over. Royalty came to see him. Yet he was never proud. If the Bard could be humble, you can too.

I got the point – I was no Shakespeare. I might have had reasons to have an ego, but no reason it should be overinflated. I’m surprised this got through to me, but Uncle Richard had a way with words.

Russ put it differently.

Russ: There’s always someone out there better than you. Doesn’t matter. Keep your head down and do your own work. Don’t look over your shoulder, don’t look at them. Look at your work.

I sat down a bit later with a group of kids my age – we were doing some sort of improv class together. For some reason, probably because I was (over)confident my peers took me very seriously and paid attention when I talked. If my head wouldn’t fit through the door before, it certainly didn’t now. I don’t remember what prompted it, but I decided to play some stuff on the piano. I played a bunch of songs from memory, ending with “Piano Man”. Sort of iconic, sort of cliche, but every piano guy ought to know it. This kid who had been quiet for most of the time, gets up after me.

Kid: You’re playing it wrong.

I probably made a noise.

Kid: Mind if I drive for a while?

I smirked, and scooted off the bench. He played the hell out of the piano, and – though it took me weeks to admit it – he was right. I was making some mistakes in playing the song. There is nothing quite like getting kicked in the balls in so personal a way just when you think you’re bigger than anything else in the world. I licked my wounds for a long time on that one, but I didn’t need to be shown twice. I got the message – Russ, Uncle Richard, and the Universe were trying to tell me the same thing: Take it down a notch or two, kid.

And I did. I realized there would always be somebody better, no matter how hard I worked. There was no finish line, there was no “ultimate” anything. At least not when it came to artistic endeavors. Someone always has a different spin, a better technique, or whatever. I contented myself with mastering my own abilities, not worrying about comparing myself. It was a lot more pleasant of an experience.

Now I look back at how I was, and I can’t help but wince. I truly was full of myself. I carried myself in such a way as to say “Do you even know who I am?” but the truth is, I wasn’t anybody. Not really. My competitive streak – which was way more than just a streak – I whittled down bit by bit. I watered the embers and tamped them down. Competition is a driving force, I suppose, but it makes me an ugly person. I try not to open that door. At the same time, I have to wonder if I haven’t thrown out the baby with the bathwater (as I’ve done with so many things). Maybe being a little competitive is good. Maybe I ought to crack that door just a bit. And a little ego really never hurt anybody – emphasis on the little. Sometimes I miss it. It can be a great cure for depression.

 

 

I never grew up with a particular religion…as in, I was not an adherent to anything other than believing in God. My parents both were lapsed Christians. My grandparents were pretty big on church, but not necessarily in a way that they shook their finger in your face and said “God said…” More like they went to church and believed in being good people, and had faith. In my voluminous amounts of reading, it was pretty much inevitable that religion would enter my sphere. There was the Bible, of course, but I was interested in other texts. I read up on Buddhism with great interest…Islam and Judaism. Hinduism. The myriad takes on “what’s out there” (or what isn’t out there) fascinated me, and I became preoccupied with the hereafter. If I had been allowed, I probably would have gone on pilgrimages – not necessarily out of any deep rooted belief, but just as a seeker. But, Mom was not into “weird stuff” and besides…our down time was rather limited. I queried my adopted uncles on their religious views.

Me: Do you believe in an afterlife?

Uncle Richard: Maybe. Maybe we come back as ghosts. Maybe we rot in the ground and that’s it. 

I nodded. I don’t remember my exact question, but I asked something about God. It really riled him.

Uncle Richard: God!? God has a lot of apologies to make.

I was a bit surprised…I had not heard such negative opinions on a (presumably) benevolent God stated so starkly.

Uncle Richard: He lets people die every day. He lets horrible, terrible things happen to people. At any given minute, someone is dying or getting raped or tortured or losing someone. Or starving to death. What kind of God allows that? I don’t need God. He doesn’t believe in us, so I don’t believe in Him. He and I are going to have a talk, if I ever get to meet Him.

I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for that discussion.

Russ was simpler…he believed in the Muse, or Creativity…or whatever you want to call it.

Russ: It’s out there. I think the Muse whispers in everybody’s ear. She might give the same song to 10 people, and only 1 person listens and gets it right. Ya know? The same Muse that whispered in the ear of the great ones whispers in your ear and my ear.

That’s what it amounted to…listening for the Muse. I agree with that too, though there would be a time in my life where I would desert her altar almost completely. There is something that feels right about that, though…almost elemental. Something that came before the conventions of man and will live long after we are extinct from the planet.

Still, I read. I read about a culture where they believed everything – from an elephant to a micro organism – has a life as important as our own. They didn’t bathe, they didn’t wash their hands, they barely did anything for fear of disturbing these organisms. You’ve heard the time travel axiom, I’m sure, where if you kill a butterfly when you go back in time the entire course of history could be altered. Well, it was kind of like that (minus the time travel bit) but taken to an extreme. For months, I stressed about killing bugs…disturbing the natural order of things. I worried when I washed my hands or took a bath. I dabbled in Wicca for a while…bought several books and practiced it. I felt a bit silly when I did, though, and I mentioned it to Uncle Richard.

Uncle Richard: Don’t get involved in the occult.

Me: Um. Okay. You mean like…what, casting spells and whatnot?

Uncle Richard: Yes. It’s…not for everyone.

I shrugged. It was one of the few things I didn’t listen to him seriously about. I admit, I felt a bit silly doing the rituals and whatnot, but what appealed to me was the power (or perceived power) over my own destiny. After practicing somewhat halfheartedly for months – trying to see into the future, trying to influence life events – I became a bit disillusioned. The only thing I ever got out of it was a very real sense of the spiritual realm. I began to see things – black shadows, flitting across a room. Sometimes partially formed apparitions. I worried that I was going nuts…seeing things like my mother did. But people who are crazy tend not to doubt themselves – they believe wholeheartedly that the CIA is tapping their phones or they’re the subject of an alien experiment – you can never convince them otherwise. Somewhat distressed at this turn of events, I turned to Uncle Richard again. I braced myself for an “I told you so”, but it never came. He wasn’t like that.

Uncle Richard: Some doors are difficult to close once you open them.

Me: So…what are they? Ghosts?

Uncle Richard: Probably. And since most people can’t see them, they’re attracted to you.

I shivered. I had no interest in talking to ghosts. Truly, the gild was off the lily – I was no longer interested in harnessing the power of the supernatural. I just wanted it to leave me the hell alone.

Uncle Richard: Maybe they want something. Try asking them.

I didn’t like the concept…whatever they were, they scared the shit out of me. And the fact that they could possibly be totally in my own mind scared me even worse.

Me: Have you ever seen ghosts? Like this?

Uncle Richard: Many times.

Me: And they look like…that? Like shadows?

Uncle Richard: Sometimes, yes. Sometimes they look just like us, but a little more transparent. Sometimes just white figures.

He showed me some Polaroids he snapped around his house – at least one showed some sort of semi-transparent mist that looked vaguely like it had a hat on. He told me another story, about how he and some friends were staying over at this house (I guess they were sleeping on the floor) and he looked over and saw an Indian messing with a blanket. The Indian looked right at him, made some sort of hang gesture that Uncle Richard took to mean “Everything’s fine…lay back down.” The Indian rolled out his own blanket (in an honest-to-God Indian design) and then completely disappeared. The story gave me chills.

I pumped him some more on the subject, and he pointed out that there are different kinds of ghosts – some are intelligent and trying to communicate, and some are just trapped in some sort of repeating cycle. They’ll show up and do their thing whether you’re there or not – they just don’t know they’re dead. I decided to take his advice and try to communicate. I waited until the apartment was empty and stood in what I judged to be the middle of it.

Me: Hello?

Nothing.

Me: Um. Do you want anything? Why are you here?

Silence. I felt silly. I saw a shadow – looked like maybe the legs of a man in a suit – rush across the room.

Me: Knock that shit off. Tell me what you want!

I waited. Nothing else.

Me: Just…leave me alone. I’m sorry if I bothered you.

My attempts to communicate ending in failure, I just did my best to pretend they didn’t exist. If I saw them, I just tried not to freak out. I certainly told no one about them, besides Uncle Richard. I think he was the only person that would have taken it seriously anyway, and not suggested I be heavily medicated for my own safety.

Freaked out from my adventures in other cultures, I craved normalcy. I turned to what I knew – the Bible – and decided that it answered most of my questions. It was something I knew, and something I could get behind philosophically (in the sense of treating others how you’d want to be treated, being a good person and all that). There were no ghosts, there were no shades of grey, or reincarnation or anything like that. It was simple and neat. With relief, I collapsed into it. Perhaps as a result of seeking refuge for my spinning mind and my nagging questions, I became a bit of a zealot. I embraced cultural Christianity in a big bear hug – a hug, by the way, that it never really returned.

Still. There were questions. And there were ghosts.

 

 

 

I realized a couple days ago that I’ve been focusing a lot on negative things in regards to my Mom. Part of what makes the story so interesting (and cathartic for me) is writing about all the crazy, off the wall shit she did. A lot of that ends up being negative, because the things she did were either negative in and of themselves or had negative ramifications (my upbringing is probably the root of some of my more serious problems with depression, anxiety, and OCD for instance). But I don’t want to give the wrong impression – I don’t hate my Mom. I don’t even blame her for most of the stuff she did. Her actions stemmed from an illness (albeit a mental one) – and one she is no more responsible for than someone who comes down with the flu. Some in my life think it’s strange that I don’t blame her more or carry a grudge. For one, carrying a grudge isn’t my thing – besides, I have enough other things to worry about in my life. Secondly, at the heart of it all she’s a good person – more messed up than most, perhaps, but still a good person. I have no doubt she would take a bullet for me in an instant (she said as much multiple times when I was growing up and the Mafia was supposedly stalking us). I don’t doubt, too, that she would give me her last dollar, or do anything she could to otherwise help me. Perhaps this wouldn’t come about in a conventional way – likely, it wouldn’t. She would get it into her head I desperately needed something I didn’t ask for (and didn’t actually need) and get it for me. I learned a long time ago not to question this, and just accept it as generosity even if the gift itself isn’t particularly on the mark. Most of what she does, however misguided, is out of a sense of love. A friend told me a few days ago that my Mom is drowning in good intentions. I think that’s pretty accurate.

In short, this is one of the reasons this blog has been so hard for me to write. Obviously, a lot of the stuff (I speak mainly of her delusions) had to be kept “secret” and never talked about, but it’s more than that. It’s sort of pulling back the curtain on my family, and that feels weird. Almost like a betrayal sometimes. That’s one reason, I think, that I don’t write even more often (though I’m sure twice a week is plenty for you guys to read). To illustrate the importance of what I’m talking about, maybe I should give you a peek into my family dynamic a little more. Grandma knew, I think – or at least strongly suspected – that something was wrong with Mom. For all I know, something had been wrong all her life. The subject of her temper (and especially any delusions) was carefully sidestepped, at least by Grandma. Granted, she came from a different generation – one where mentally ill family members were hauled away to the nut hatch by the state. I don’t doubt that some part of her feared that outcome. Whenever Mom would yell or throw fits, Grandma would either stay silent or take Mom’s side. Whatever the issue was – let’s say I wasn’t practicing often enough – Grandma would come up to me after the storm was over and talk to me about it.


Grandma: Come on. Let’s practice your piano.

Me: Why? She’s just being ridiculous.

Grandma: We better do it. I don’t want your mother to yell.
And we’d practice, or clean my room, or do my homework or whatever it was that Mom was bent out of shape about. Sometimes – usually – it had little basis in actual reality. But when it did, it made things a little easier to manage. My point is, we went on like that. Heavy rains would come, the dam would creak and groan, and Grandma would come along with sandbags and shore it up. The dam never actually broke, in that the underlying issues were never addressed – Mom wasn’t told she ought to get help, or that she was nuts, or that she was being unreasonable. That dam didn’t break largely because of Grandma. She loved Mom. She loved Tim and I. She wanted the family to stay together no matter what, and I wanted the same. Love covers a multitude of sins. Grandma was empathetic about everything – even sympathetic – without acknowledging it directly. Mom didn’t act like a nut – she “got upset”. Mom didn’t threaten suicide or think the Mafia was tapping our phones – that subject was simply not brought up. I suspect those with a similar upbringing will know exactly what I’m talking about. I remember one time, towards the end of her life, I had a long talk with Grandma about Mom. I was an adult by then, and had come to some difficult conclusions – mainly that the things Mom said happened didn’t happen, and I had come to accept that the majority of my childhood was based around delusions. Anyway, I started talking about the past – hers specifically and ours as a family – just to get her warmed up and maybe prime her for some answers.


Me: Grandmom…why is Mom the way she is?

She thought a long time before sighing.

Grandma: I don’t know. I don’t know why your Mother is the way she is.

Me: She is crazy, right? It’s not just me.

Nothing from Grandma. She averted her gaze and ran her fingers through her brown hair.

Me: Has she always been like that?

Silence for a while.

Grandma: Family is all you have. Your Mom and Timmy, they’ll be with you for your whole life. You have to hang on to family.

I told her I would.

More silence.

Grandma: Did I ever tell you how your Grandfather and I met?
She had, many times. I asked her to tell me again, though. My point is she knew perfectly well – maybe all too well – that Mom had deeper issues than just having a “temper” or “getting upset”. But you didn’t talk about it, because to talk about it would be to expose your daughter’s nakedness. And you don’t do that, you cover it up.

My Grandmother wasn’t the only one who felt family loyalty should be above all else. I remember being at Uncle Richard’s one time, and seeing a headshot of a girl I recognized in the trashcan by his chair.


Me: Isn’t that Alison?

Uncle Richard gazed down at the garbage can. Alison gazed back up. I had seen her a few times – she had the lesson before me on occasion.

Uncle Richard: Yes. And do you know why it’s in there?

I shook my head.

Uncle Richard: She left her family. You don’t do that. You never do that.
I looked down into the trash. I thought Uncle Richard might be being a bit harsh on Alison, but I got the message. Family is family. It doesn’t matter how fucked up it is.

So I found out a couple days ago that my old friend Gasper died. Ironically, he’d been on my mind for quite some time – a couple years, in fact – and I had been intending to call him. Turns out he died in 2009, and I never even knew. The guy was a close friend and confidant of Uncle Carlo – he was his driver, his butler, and even his barber. Uncle Carlo didn’t have a lot of hair, so it was a fairly easy job. Gasper and his wife Carmella were always very sweet. He had these giant old man glasses and she had a beehive hairdo – they were very New York Italian, if you know what I mean. Of course, his real name wasn’t Gasper – I don’t even remember if I knew his proper name – but it was a nickname that Uncle Carlo always called him by. Gasper would tell you a story about anything – didn’t matter what it was. Uncle Carlo told me once that if a peanut fell on the floor, Gasper would tell a 3 hour epic about the peanut falling on the floor. That wasn’t too far off the mark. I think that’s where he got his nickname – he talked so much he needed to gasp for air (at least, that was one of Uncle Carlo’s jokes about him). Gasper and Carmella were often around when we were with Uncle Carlo. After Uncle Carlo died, they really reached out and tried to maintain a connection. It was hard, though, because my life was constantly in motion. It wasn’t easy to run up to Brooklyn and visit, especially when we had put in a full day of driving to New York City. They invited us over to their house a couple times for dinner – Carmella made a great eggplant parmigiana (first time I’d ever tried eggplant, since Grandma didn’t like to make it). Gasper even took us to Little Italy once and showed us all the old places. It was certainly a singular experience to be showed around Little Italy by an old, dyed in the wool New York Italian.

After Uncle Carlo had died, Gasper took care of everything. Uncle Carlo had no immediate family any of us were ever aware of – he had no kids, and his wife had died years before. Really, the only family he had were Gasper, Carmella, along with myself, Mom and Tim. Another close friend insisted that Uncle Carlo would have left us all some money – he was certainly well off and he was an old school immigrant. It’s entirely possible he hid money in the walls of his apartment (he didn’t trust banks – in light of the recent financial crisis, I can’t say I do either). But, supposedly, he didn’t have a will – some people were very suspicious of the fact that Gasper took over everything. I thought it kind of made sense, though, all things considered. Gasper pooled all of Uncle Carlo’s stuff at his house and invited us over one day.

Gasper: You wan annating, you take it eh?

There wasn’t a whole lot that was meaningful to me – maybe a few pictures. He did give me all of Uncle Carlo’s sheet music (a gigantic treasure trove of it that 20 years later I have yet to fully explore) as well as his writings (he was the author of at least 2 books on singing) and some vocal exercises he had personally created. I remember him looking at Uncle Carlo’s full size grand piano – a piano that had been played by legends, and on which I had been taught by Uncle Carlo himself.

Gasper: You wanna piano?

I would have loved it. I remember thinking, at 10, that even though I had a piano that meant the world to me I would have loved to have this particular instrument. There was so much to it. I told him I’d love it, but Mom intervened.

Mom: Where are we going to put it, Danny? It’s huge.

Me: I dunno. We could find a space…

Gasper scratched his well oiled gray head.

Gasper: Well, I dunno what to do wit’ it.

I remember him being so angry with some of Uncle Carlo’s students – the famous ones, anyway – for not thanking him when they got awards or publicly commenting on his death.

Gasper: Who are dey? Dey ain’t nobody. HE was somebody. He was the Maestro!

As far as I know, that piano sat there for 20 years. I’ve thought of it – and him – often. I don’t think Gasper would have gotten rid of it – he had too much reverence for Uncle Carlo to do that. Had he kept it, I could have simply called at any time and asked for it. I would have gladly paid a fortune to piano movers to get it here. Regardless of whether or not he kept it, it’s likely gone now though – along with the rest of his stuff. I have to admit feeling some pangs of loss regarding that, too.

He called us once, a few years back. Evidently Carmella had recently passed away. He was really upset and lonely and looking for someone to talk to. Mom totally blew him off – she talked little (but politely) – and never called him back. I remember being a bit down hearing about Carmella – she was a sweet lady. And I feel bad that he reached out and we never really did anything with it.

It’s times like this I feel old, even though I’m 30. Another strand from the life I had – and the people I knew and loved – has come permanently unstrung. I grant you that many of my friends were older – some even in their 70’s when I was just a kid – but as I grew older and the losses piled up I feel old. I remember one of Grandma’s friend dying – someone she grew up with and knew well. This lady came to our house practically twice a week. We broke the news delicately to Grandma, expecting an outpouring of emotion. Instead, she just sat on the couch in the den. She sighed.

Grandma: Yeah. Well.

One might think her reaction was callous. I don’t. There was so much emotion packed into those two words. She threw up her hands and raised her eyebrows. I knew what she was saying. Another string had come unstrung. It can’t be replaced, it can’t be retied. There’s nothing to do about it.

Uncle Richard, too, knew the feeling – perhaps better even than I do. I remember walking into his studio, just after he got news a friend had passed away. He was – understandably – brooding.

Uncle Richard: I can’t do this.

I raised my eyebrows and listened.

Uncle Richard: I can’t miss anybody else. This is selfish as hell, but I want to be missed. Not miss more people.

I got it. I understood. When I get up in the morning feeling depressed, and I roll my bones out of bed, and I shuffle to the bathroom to take a piss and a shower, I look in the mirror. I feel much, much older than the reflection that stares back at me. I remember coming to the shocking realization not too long ago (which culminated in another round of therapy for me) that all my friends were dead.

I sigh. I look in the mirror and I shrug.

Yeah. Well.

 

I had a dream last night about Uncle Richard, as I often do these days. It put me in a mood to talk about him, but also reminded me of a conversation we had once.

Uncle Richard: If you ever tell people about me, tell them everything.

I looked at him curiously.

Uncle Richard: Oliver Cromwell said it to a painter. The idea at the time was for painters to flatter their subjects…making large kings look thin and so forth. He asked the man doing his portrait to paint him warts and all. So, that’s what I’m saying. Tell them the good things, and the bad things. I don’t need to be lionized.
So here goes.

Sometime early in my time with him, he introduced me to Sharon. Initially, he put her forth as one of his students (which she probably was, at least to a degree), but she was around a lot. And as I grew older, I began to see more and more of her. Uncle Richard had a wife, Mary, who I didn’t know very well. She was a sweetheart though, and was always offering tea or cookies or something, or inviting us up to the house (the studio was separate from the house, but you could see it from the windows). Anyway, I remember Uncle Richard calling Mom into his studio at one point and them having a very serious discussion while I waited outside. I was fairly curious and tired of waiting outside, so I wandered to the door and tried the knob. It was unlocked and I cautiously opened the door. Uncle Richard and Mom stopped their conversation. Mom looked kinda pissed, but Uncle Richard waved me in.

Uncle Richard: Come on in. Can you keep a secret?

Me: I guess so.

And he told me. He didn’t sugar coat it or tell me that Sharon was a “special friend” or anything, he straight up told me he was having an affair – he knew I’d know what that meant. He asked me to keep it secret and not tell anyone – especially Mary. I agreed. Sharon was a bit younger than Uncle Richard, at least by my estimation. She didn’t have silver hair like he did, and her skin was much more youthful. I couldn’t put an age to it, because I’m terrible at guessing people’s ages, but I’d guess she was a little more than have his age. She was pretty, I guess, but I found her to be much more austere than anything else. I took piano lessons from her for a while (Uncle Richard thought we should get to know her) and didn’t really care for it. She was strict, and hated anything but classical music. For fun, I rearranged classical songs into rock songs – I showed her what I had done, and she wasn’t terribly impressed.

Sharon: That is not Beethoven’s 5th.

She complained my “rock and roll” was giving her a headache, and I was bored with classical. I quit only a few lessons in. Plus, her place smelled like cats – she had about half a dozen milling around. Not that I don’t like cats – I do, I even have two myself – but there comes a point where you just have too many.

Nobody – myself included – understood why Uncle Richard even bothered with her. The only thing I can say is that possibly she spoke to a youthful side of him that Mary couldn’t. He was old and wise, but also vibrant and young at the same time. He admitted to me later – much later – that he was afraid of his own mortality. I think that seeing his wife age reminded him that he, too, was getting old. And he, too, would have to walk the same mysterious path that many others did before him – the one that meant the end of his life.

Anyway. I kept his secrets, and never told a soul. Over the years, it became more and more of an “open secret” – he’d go out with Sharon and his friends would ask where Mary was. I remember once he had a birthday party – his parties were always very nice. He usually held them at a country club, and we’d have to dress in khakis and sport coats (which annoyed me, because I hated dressing up – but I did it for Uncle Richard). He’d have sing alongs or read from plays or read poetry. It was actually pretty cool. Anyway, almost always, Sharon was at these things. After a few times of her being there instead of Mary, everyone knew what was going on. It was just too obvious. She got up to make a toast to Uncle Richard, among some of his oldest friends. I don’t remember everything she said, but one key phrase sticks out.

Sharon: …and as the man in my life…

A dozen people immediately got up and left. Mary was a sweet woman, and those that knew her were deeply offended on her behalf. For my part, I kept my mouth shut. It wasn’t my place to judge – particularly when it came to a man I respected so greatly. The only thing I wasn’t terribly thrilled about is that Sharon was in the studio increasingly often, making her and Uncle Richard sort of a package deal. I began to think of her like those nasty strawberry nougat chocolates you get in those boxes of candy. The rest is fine – great even – but you endured the ones that didn’t taste as good because the box overall was pretty damn great. And that’s about the worst thing I can tell you about Uncle Richard.

I realize this whole thing with Dad has me backtracking a bit, but it kind of makes sense in a way. This is called A Brief History of Time Travel, after all, and if I’ve learned anything from the sci-fi movies I love is that time isn’t linear anyway. At least, that’s what The Doctor would tell me.

The divorce itself wasn’t terribly acrimonious – mostly because Mom didn’t contest very much. In the initial stages, Dad insisted – wanted it in the divorce agreement, in fact – that I would stop acting and so forth. That’s about the only thing Mom flipped her lid on. Once that was settled, there was the matter of custody. I wanted absolutely nothing to do with Dad, of course, let alone being forced to see him on weekends or holidays. I was concerned about this, and did what I always did when I was concerned – talked to Uncle Richard about it.

Me: What if I’m forced to see him?

Uncle Richard stroked his chin thoughtfully.

Uncle Richard: I bet you’re old enough to just talk to the judge.

Me: Really?

Uncle Richard: Sure. You’re intelligent enough to convey your feelings. If he’s willing to listen, I’m sure he’ll respect them.

Me: Okay. Well, what do I say?

And Uncle Richard walked me through my first court date – interestingly, we did a lot of improv where he pretended to be the judge and asked me questions. He guided my answers – what he thought would hold weight with a judge and what wouldn’t – and helped me come off the best I could. To this day, I think improv is an excellent tool for things like this – evidently some in the business community have used it to loosen themselves up for presentations and public speaking.

Uncle Richard advised me not to talk directly about the abuse – at least, not to make it a central issue. Proof was scant (Dad was a bastard, but he wasn’t a dumb bastard) – he suggested I frame it in such a way as to be not so full of anger and vitriol.

Uncle Richard: Anger, hatred, yelling…these are how a fool communicates. A gentleman uses words. He’s persuasive. He doesn’t use his fists unless he has to. 

The judge ended up being a fan – watched me on Al Alberts Showcase and had seen some of my commericals. He asked for an autograph, even. Almost everything I said, he listened attentively and nodded. He even laughed and rocked back in his chair at some of my answers. Long story short, it was a slam dunk – I didn’t have to see Dad at all unless I wanted to. Thank God.

The upshot of the divorce was that Dad would pay a pittance in child support – something like $120 a month – ridiculously low, even by the standards of the early 90’s. He stipulated, though, that the child support was for Tim – not for me.

Dad: Dan makes his own money. He doesn’t need help from me.

Dickhead.

Anyway…Mom agreed readily to this – particularly since Dad dropped the stipulation that I quit acting (which frankly, I don’t know of any judge who would have realistically taken his side). She and I (and Grandma) just wanted him out of our lives – we would have agreed to nearly anything to get that to happen.

After that day, he was out of our lives – at least from a legal standpoint. He insisted on seeing Tim – I don’t think visitation was strictly set up, or if it was he didn’t follow through that often. Tim quickly got to a point where he lost interest, and so did Dad. What started out as once a month ended up as once every two months. Then once every two months became a couple times a year. The phone calls dripped and drabbed in – they had no real consistency. I remember looking at the caller ID and seeing his number come up. Pretty much whenever he called us, there was an awkward silence in the house. Nobody picked up the phone (except, occasionally for Tim). When the two of them talked, he sometimes asked for me – I always made sure I wasn’t around.

For the first year or two after the divorce, he made something of an effort – we got Christmas cards and birthday cards. Sometimes they had a 5 dollar bill in them. He never wrote anything – no personal message. Not even “Love you” or “miss you”. Didn’t even address the card as people usually do. Just scrawled “DAD” somewhere near the bottom. These cards too, eventually stopped.

He’d sometimes show up at the house unannounced. He’d bang on the door and just beat on the doorbell. We would all hit the deck when this happened – we’d kill the lights and sit in the dark. We’d try to be as quiet as possible.

Dad: I KNOW YOU’RE IN THERE. I WANT TO SEE MY GODDAM KIDS.

We never answered the door, and he usually left – only after yelling at Mom through the door.

Dad: WAY TO ACT LIKE A LITTLE FUCKING CHILD, DONNA.

Of course, he was around – skulking in the yard, or sitting at the end of the street in his rusted out Bronco. Once, somebody kicked in the door of our house while we were out at breakfast. Didn’t take a thing – didn’t move a thing, really – just rifled through some tax records and overturned some chairs. I’m pretty sure I know who it was (and if you can add, I’m pretty sure you can figure it out too).

He would fall off the face of the earth and we’d never hear anything for years. Then he’d suddenly remember he had kids and call furiously. Even if Tim did see him or talk to him on the phone, he’d lose interest in maybe a month and he was back to being a disappeared Dad. Curiously, he usually only called when one of us -Tim or myself – did something to land us in the papers, or he saw a commercial we were in or something.

As a kid, and even a teenager, I used to think about him a lot. I thought about what meeting him would be like – if I’d be able to keep my fists still, or if I’d try to punch him out. Sometimes, in my darker moments, I used to plot his death – usually something painful and humiliating. But that was a childish anger, even if it was righteous. I even stopped calling him Dad (I did this even before the divorce was final) and called him Bob. I just had to separate myself from him as much as possible.

When I think about it now, as an adult, I don’t feel much. It’s like having a rotten tooth pulled. Your tongue still finds the place where the tooth was, but it doesn’t hurt anymore. You know you’re supposed to have a tooth there – at least, you did at one time – but you don’t. The scabs have healed over and although there’s a little dip in your gums where the tooth used to be there isn’t any pain. It’s like that.

Last I heard, he got remarried and redivorced (no more kids, thank God). He drinks in bed, and spills wine and beer all over the sheets (so his now-ex-wife told Tim). He’s as strange as ever, and probably just as angry. I suspect he’ll die alone.

When he does die – assuming I hear about it – I’m sure it will be a strange experience for me. People are supposed to feel grief at the death of their parents, aren’t they? I don’t think I’ll feel anything.

I was sitting in Uncle Richard’s studio one night, smelling the kerosene that came from the heater. There is nothing quite like the smell of kerosene and books – I have never smelled it elsewhere, and to this day when I smell something similar I am immediately transported to his little studio surrounded by oak trees. We had been discussing some project or another – he and I were always working on something. It might have been a musical (I started several, which I never finished) or a book (I have 1st, 2nd, and 3rd chapters of hundreds), or who knows what. We even worked on comic books. He was always encouraging me to stretch myself farther, to push the limits of my creativity.

Uncle Richard: You are a multifaceted individual. Do you know what that means?

Me: Like, a lot of interests?

Uncle Richard: Yes. A lot of abilities in different areas. You have a responsibility to each of those areas, to cultivate them. I don’t want to ever see you give up on yourself.

I nodded, and he settled further into his chair.

Uncle Richard: Do you know why I come here, to my studio?

I shook my head, but whether I answered or not would have made no difference – he was deep in thought. Ruminating.

Uncle Richard: I come here to get away from myself. And I can’t. I take me with me everywhere I go.

I chuckled, but his eyes flashed.

Uncle Richard: I’m quite serious.

Me: You don’t like yourself?

He thoughtfully shook his head. I could not believe it. This was the coolest person I knew – comfortable in any situation. If I ever had to be an adult, I wanted to grow up like him. Hell, he could have been introduced at Buckingham Palace and charmed the pants off the Royal Family. A guy who came up from nothing – literally – and had that amount of class and charisma remains impressive to me. I think he must have seen some of this on my face, because he looked dismayed.

Uncle Richard: Don’t look up to me.

But I did. I do. I can’t help it.

Me: Why shouldn’t I?

Uncle Richard: Because I am a coward.

He was growing morose – when he turned his eyes inward and started boxing with himself it was somewhat upsetting to watch. It was like Muhammad Ali vs Muhammad Ali – nobody won, but there was a lot of blood. I wasn’t sure what to say – he was smarter than I was, and anything I said he could counteract with an intellectual left hook. Besides, something was clearly bothering him. I was a skilled field surgeon in the area of the psyche by then – I was constantly picking out shrapnel from my Mom, myself, or my brother. This was one person I never expected to need my help – and in fact he probably didn’t. He was just licking old wounds. Every part of me wanted to help him, to say something as wise and witty as he always did, but I didn’t know how. I just sat there. He finally looked up.

Uncle Richard: You, though. You I admire.

I blinked.

Uncle Richard: You are fearless.

He put a hand on my head, a weary fighter taking a break in the corner of the ring.

Uncle Richard: Fearless. And don’t you forget it.

If only he knew.