Posts Tagged ‘Grandma’

It was one of those months – which was basically every month, at least to me – we were either short on cash or Mom was worried we would be. We would have a roof over our heads – Grandma made sure of that. She paid the electric, water, cable, and mortgage herself. Mom paid a pittance in “rent” – due whenever, and usually in the amount of whatever she could afford. As a kid, I just knew I had to work harder – book more things, bigger things – because, as Mom would lecture me repeatedly, “Everything is so expensive”. There were years I made $100,000 (and this was in 90’s money, which went quite a bit further). There were years I made more. And still, we scraped the bottom of the barrel by the time the end of the month came. As a kid, I did not question this – it was a fact of life. Money was finite and fleeting. As an adult, I understand that mistakes were made. The money wasn’t handled improperly; it wasn’t handled at all. Hundred dollar bills slipped through my Mother’s open fist like sand in the hand of a small child. I don’t blame her for this – I blame her mental illness. I have learned that shopping sprees (of which hers were frequent) and the inability to handle and understand money can be indicators that something is seriously wrong. I didn’t know that then, and didn’t much care. I was doing what I wanted to do – acting, music, etc. I understood (vaguely) that money made all this possible. I didn’t much care where it went beyond that it afforded me the opportunities I sought.

Mom would often spend hundreds at the grocery store, and she’d be in there for hours (or what felt to my brother and I like hours). We would wander off to amuse ourselves while she agonized over which brand of peanut butter to buy. We’d wander back some time later, only to find her staring into space – either still agonizing or zoning out completely, we couldn’t tell. Grocery lists were not an option. She could not explain to us exactly what it was she needed most of the time – we offered, in hopes that it would make the grueling trip go faster.

Mom: I don’t know. I need stuff.

Me: But what? Like, eggs? Milk? I can run and get it.

Mom: Just stuff, Danny. Let me think.

And she would wander the grocery store hunched over the cart and think. We’d pass through the same aisles several times before she’d decide she needed something there or abandon the aisle completely. She’d buy whatever was on sale – and way too much of it. By the end of the week, it either went bad or had to be frozen, and she’d have spent several hundred dollars. She would make a return trip the following week, regardless.

When she wasn’t horribly depressed – sleeping or writing letters to the various Russes – she would be extremely energetic and insist on taking us clothes shopping. She’d run out to the store and buy herself (and us) lots of clothes. It didn’t matter what the style was, or if it looked good, or even if it fit properly – if it was on sale, she bought it. I remember her holding up a sweater for me to try on. It was beige, relatively shapeless and had multicolor squiggles and triangles on it. It sort of looked like a Cosby sweater. She decided that it was “only $5” and thus I should get it. I didn’t question her, though I despised the sweater. When she asked me to wear it, I’d tell her I couldn’t find it, even though I knew right where it was. She eventually forgot about it, and other “sale clothes” replaced it. They weren’t all awful, exactly, but they didn’t look right. Let me put it this way: In my teens, I was wearing acid wash black jeans (on sale), a giant blue FUBU sweater (another killer deal) and cowboy boots (she popped for expensive ones, because she thought they made me look tall). From a fashion standpoint, I was a horrific mess. Not that I knew any different. There was also this one shirt that she insisted was “hip and cool” and it made me look like a deep sea diver. It was short sleeve and had sort of a turtle neck and was made of meshy stuff. But it was on sale! My point in all this being, even though she shopped “cheap”, she shopped a lot and bought awful clothes in bulk. So, yes, a sweater might be $5, but if you buy 10 and then some shoes and then a few blouses and then something for Tim…it’s not $5 anymore. I don’t think she ever got that concept.

When things were tight, she’d still go to sales and the grocery store. Grandma would offer to buy groceries, and Mom would get angry. If she was feeling particularly surly, Grandma would also point out we had stuff in the freezer. Fights would ensue, ending with Mom hopping into the car and going to the store. Often, she’d try to take us with her.

Mom: Let’s go, Tim. Let’s go, Danny.

Me: Where are you going?

Mom: Out.

Tim: Out where?

Mom: The store.

Me: Which store?

If it wasn’t a store I was interested in, I would be reluctant to go. Some clothing stores had SNES games or SEGA games in the kid’s department – you could hang out and play the games while the parents shopped. I would happily go to those stores. But I couldn’t endure the long and agonizing bargain hunting as a general rule. Sometimes we’d stay home with Grandma, who would make us a sympathetic sandwich while Mom huffed away, slamming doors as she went. Sometimes we’d go with Mom while she brooded and shopped in utter silence. Tim and I would amuse ourselves, talking about games or comics or whatever.

Despite spending big on groceries and clothes, she got panicked and tight-fisted when the money squeeze was on. In other words, we needed to watch what we ordered at McDonald’s.

Mom: Get it without cheese.

Me: …but I like it with the cheese.

Mom: But if you get it without cheese, it’s forty cents cheaper.

I scowled.

Me: Alright, I guess.

To put a fine point on it, a friend told me once that my Mother was penny wise and pound foolish. That about sums it up.

Regardless, one of those times she was in a total panic – this was nothing unusual in and of itself, but she was actually talking about selling stuff to get through the month. Finally, she turned to Grandma.

Mom: What do you have that we could sell?

Grandma: I don’t know, Donna…

Mom: What about jewelry? Do you have any jewelry?

Grandma sighed.

Mom: We need this. We’re short.

Me: What’s going on?

Mom: Your Grandmother needs to find some jewelry we can sell fast. If she doesn’t, you’ll have to stop going to New York. I’ll have to put you in regular school or send you to be with your father. I can’t afford this. We’re out of money!

Her eyes were bugging out, and spittle was forming at the corners of her mouth. She was in a full on, panicked frenzy.

Mom: What about your diamond?

Grandma: I’m not selling my engagement ring.

Mom: No, the one you got when you were 16!

According to family lore, Grandma had been given a blue chip diamond for her 16th birthday by her uncle. Even then, it was worth a bit of money. Knowing this, Grandma wore it only rarely – she was afraid to lose it. Nevertheless, Mom was able to convince her that my ENTIRE FUTURE was at stake! We couldn’t afford GAS for the CAR! The diamond manifested itself, and we piled into the car.

We drove an hour to a jewelry store that was only a little better than a pawn shop. They promised quick cash for gold on the spot. Mom and Grandma marched up to the counter and offered up Grandma’s ring.

Mom: What’s it worth?

The clerk eyed the ring for a moment.

Clerk: Let me check.

He disappeared into the back where, ostensibly, he was to examine it. When he emerged, he shook his head.

Clerk: I’m sorry, this is not worth anything. It is costume jewelry.

He plopped the ring unceremoniously back into Grandma’s waiting palm. She examined it.

Grandma: This isn’t my ring.

Mom looked over at it.

Mom: No, it’s not. That’s a ring from a fifty cent machine.

The clerk blanched. Grandma got angry.

Grandma: You took my ring in the back and swapped it out!

The Clerk stammered. Even to me, he looked guilty as hell. I took one glance at the ring and could see it was cheap – it was even bent. Mom roared at the clerk.

Mom: YOU DON’T KNOW WHO YOU’RE DEALING WITH!

Clerk: I swear…I didn’t…

Mom: I COULD HAVE YOU KILLED! I KNOW PEOPLE.

Mom seemed to turn down her wrath from a rolling boil.

Mom: You don’t even have to worry about the police. Because sometimes…you don’t even know who you’re messing with.

If I had been so inclined, I could have tapped the clerk and he would have fallen over. That’s how he looked. We stormed outside, made a big show about making a phone call from a nearby payphone, and debated what to do.

Grandma: Call the police!

Mom: We shouldn’t.

Me: What!? Call the cops, Mom.

Mom: We can’t. It’s just his word against ours.

Me: Yeah, but there’s three of us…

In the end, for whatever reason, it was determined that we should drop the matter, get back into the car, and go home. Grandma mourned her ring for years. And I always felt incredibly angry and bad about what happened. Mom handled it poorly, and I should have taken the reins from her…somehow. I feel like we could have gotten the ring back if we tried – maybe there would have been footage on one of the store cameras. I also felt like it was all my fault, somehow – if I hadn’t been acting and songwriting, Mom wouldn’t have needed the money or had to sell the ring. I mean, ultimately, the ring was being sold for me (at least in theory). But then logic kicks in, and I realize the truth: Mom would have needed money regardless. She would have found a way to twist arms to get what she wanted. And when the money from whatever she sold was gone, she’d try to move on to another pile of cash to blow. That was the problem, I think, that she got used to having money. And in my line of work, there was always more money.

 

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There’s a recently acquired Polaroid on my fridge these days. It’s was taken some time ago – maybe in ’90 or ’91 – and it’s my first audition with what would turn out to be my longtime agent. We reconnected recently (or, more specifically, Mom reconnected with her) and she passed along this Polaroid. It’s just a basic shot of me, at 8 or whatever, at the agent’s office. They wrote notes on the back: Cute kid, good reader. I see that kid, shoulders straight, starry eyed, and marching toward what can only be a glorious future. Every morning, we stare at each other across time and space – me, the depressed 30 year old and him the idealistic Wunderkind. I am not anything like he would have wanted to turn out, I’m sure. And he’s so very young, and has no idea what’s ahead – the soaring highs and the crippling lows. I would tell him about it – warn him, prepare him, comfort him. I wouldn’t tell him everything will be okay, because it won’t. Not terrible, I suppose – it could be much, much worse – but certainly not what he imagines. But the past is the past, and as they say, it is another country. I have a passport, but I am no longer a resident. I’ve often wondered how the two of us would interact – Past Me, and Future Me. I don’t expect we’d get along very well – Future Me would think Past Me was naive, full of himself, and wound way, way too tight. Past Me would think Future Me was a mopey underachiever who somehow ruined (or allowed to be ruined) Past Me’s plans. I think they’d strangle each other in all of 2 seconds.

Past Me: Get off your ass and do it! You know you can! Why are you being so freaking lazy?

Future Me: You don’t have any idea what I’ve been through! Just wait and see. You’re in for some real surprises, kid.

Is that normal, to feel like past you/future you wouldn’t get along at all? Hm.

When I was about 10, Mom started seriously researching family history – she was insistent that Grandpa told us we were related to Arthur Freed – a famous composer and film producer from the golden age of Hollywood. And when I say that she did research, I mean I did research – she’d take me to the library and grab a book and tell me to read it (which I did) and tell her about it (which I also did). While I didn’t remember Grandpa saying anything specifically about that, he did die when I was 7. Although I have vivid memories of him, it’s entirely possible he related such stories to the family. I didn’t exactly doubt Mom’s testimony, but I was hesitant to get behind it 100%. I’m still not sure what’s the truth – so much of my past is bullshit mixed with delusion mixed with reality – it’s hard to sort it all out sometimes. In the end, I guess it doesn’t matter. In researching, for whatever reason, she came across an cousin of Grandpa’s who was still kicking. Her name was Leah, and she didn’t live terribly far from us – maybe 20 minutes down the road. We hadn’t spoken to each other in quite some time – at least since I was born, so that would be 10 years minimum. But Mom suddenly decided to reconnect, talking about how family was important and we shouldn’t forget about people. I knew it was bullshit, of course, because I knew she had an ulterior motive – Mom often did. She wanted to get into Leah’s scrapbooks to find pictures of the Freed family, and maybe get some sort of testimonial from her that we were indeed related (she got both, for whatever good it did her). Leah was a strange lady, at best, and by all accounts not a terribly good person. Back in the day, she and her husband had impersonated Grandma and Grandpa in order to get a large loan (I think it was for a car, if I remember my family lore correctly). I imagine such things were easier to do back in the 50’s and 60’s – no computers or anything. So I guess they were basically identity thieves before such a thing existed in the public consciousness. Anyway, I suspect that little stunt at the bank was the reason our families didn’t speak. Grandma wasn’t real happy about it, but Mom did her best to smooth things out and Grandma went along (she usually did this in things that involved Mom). Long story short, bygones were bygones. Leah had a small house with a trashy front yard – lots of lawn gnomes, globes, and ceramic squirrels. You know the type. Mom pulled me aside before we got in.

Mom: Leah has a…funny hand. Don’t ask her about it.

Me: Funny how?

Mom: Just…don’t ask about it. You either Timmy.

My mind was already spinning with possibilities – was it a stump (I had seen such things before)? Was it some kind of horrific tentacle? Did her arm terminate in a hook? It wasn’t long before I found out. It turned out “funny hand” was as apt a description as “pretty hot” is to a heat wave. Regardless, it wasn’t her hand, it was her forearm – it grew pretty much straight for a ways, then seemed to have decided to make a full on U-Turn. It didn’t get quite all the way back around, but it looked like it had given it the old college try. I’m not going to lie, it freaked me the hell out. I hadn’t been around many people with disabilities (or deformities for that matter) and it always made me feel funny – a little alarmed and nauseous at the same time. I didn’t make fun of them or anything – I felt really bad for them – but I certainly didn’t want to be around them. Add to the fact that Leah’s house wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of cleanliness (and the fact that I basically was all about clean and tidy) and you had one uncomfortable 10 year old. Her house smelled like must, sweat, and old dogs – lots of dogs. She only had one ancient golden retriever but I swear to God it smelled like a herd of maybe 10 or 15. Everything either looked moldy and dilapidated or smelled disgusting. After that one time of going to her house, Mom decided that it would be better if she came to ours (I breathed a giant sigh of relief when this decision manifested itself). Even though she still smelled like her house (a special brand of cologne I thought of as Old Sweat and Million Dogs), it was at least tolerable. She seemed nice enough, I suppose, though I didn’t talk to her much. We had dinner a lot, and I had a hard time eating when she was around (mostly the smell, honestly, but the sight of the hand was upsetting enough to turn my appetite). I’d be cutting into a big slice of ham steak, and get a whiff of must and dog and just put my fork down. After Mom got what she wanted (which took several months), we were pretty much done with Leah. Mom stopped inviting her around, and started making excuses when she called up. I felt an odd mixture of relief and pity – I felt kind of bad that Mom had used her and was basically dropping her, but thanking God I didn’t have to endure torturous dinners with that smell hanging over me like a cloud. I can still remember it today, even years later – it makes me think of rotting bricks. It still makes me wrinkle my nose.

When she died, she didn’t have any direct relatives except for Mom. Basically, Mom went through the house and sold what was valuable and tossed what wasn’t. Most of it was junk, so 95% of the stuff was stuffed into contractor garbage bags and tossed on the curb. What wasn’t junk smelled awful, or had mold, or was under about 3 inches of dust. Nobody wanted anything. At Mom’s repeated insistence that we take something – anything we wanted, she said – Tim selected some sort of turtle knick-knack, and I picked up a clear paperweight with pennies suspended in it. I couldn’t tell if it smelled – I’m sure it did, just by virtue of being in the house – but it didn’t look nasty like a lot of the other things.

The last thing to go were the papers, which Mom and Grandma went through. Most was of no consequence, at least that I remember, except for a pile of her personal writings. I tried to catch glimpses, but I couldn’t quite make it out – and Mom and Grandma did not want to let me see it. Since it was a secret, I was curious and pestered. Still, they didn’t give in. I overheard a conversation between Mom and a family friend who was helping her go over the papers.

Friend: …horse shot…?

Mom: Yeah. You know. Like, semen.

The friend laughed.

Friend: hooooly shit.

I did manage to catch glimpses of Leah’s scrawling script – I had no idea what I was reading at the time, but I understood enough to be revolted. With the benefit of hindsight, I now see Leah had written about 100 pages of sex stories. With horses. Not like, having sex with a guy on a horse. Her. Having sex. With a horse. Sometimes horses in the plural sense. I’m sorry if you were eating just now – it was pretty foul and explicit. Like I said, Leah was weird.

But back to what I was talking about earlier. This blog has been my passport to another country – the past in general and my past specifically. I feel a little like a paleontologist who is digging for dinosaur bones. I don’t know what I’m looking for, exactly, just that I’m playing around in the dust of a dead world, hoping to exhume something interesting and useful. Except what I’m digging up is liable to still be alive.

 

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.

 

From my Grandmother‘s days as a mover and shaker in the courthouse, she learned a lot of things about how to “get ahead”. One of the things that stuck with me the most is one of her pet phrases:

Grandma: Always be nice to the secretary.

The big boss may be who you want in to see, but the secretary can make that a lot easier – or a lot more difficult. I remember watching an episode of a show (I think it might have been Mad Men, but I’m not sure) where the ladies in the phone room didn’t patch through calls of people they didn’t like. I remember thinking to myself “If only he had thought to drop off chocolates.

But, basically, that was her big secret – be nice to everybody. Chat with them. Bring them a home made pie or cake or chocolate or something. It worked wonders for her, because everyone adored her – from the secretaries on up. I remember her telling me a story once where a convict walked into her office and started getting vulgar. He sang her a dirty song about Dr. Pepper (for the record, she couldn’t remember it but I would have given a great deal to hear it – it sounds hilarious), and a judge threw the guy up against the wall and made him apologize. Such is the power of confectionery sugar and a winning personality.

Anyway, I try to apply Grandma’s philosophy in my own life and have had some success. Long story short, it pays to be nice to everyone – not just “important” people. But I tell you the story about secretaries to tell you about one secretary in particular. Russ had a lady named Nancy working for him. She was nice enough, I suppose, but her and Mom did not get along whatsoever. I’m not sure how it started, exactly, but Mom started insisting that Nancy wasn’t putting her through to Russ when she called his studio. She probably directly confronted Nancy about this, and Nancy (not surprisingly) took umbrage at this slur on her character. Whatever the cause, bad blood roiled between them. Mom insisted Nancy said stuff (and let’s be real – there’s a good chance Nancy didn’t actually say it since Mom heard things), Nancy got pissed, Mom complained to Russ, Russ would get irritated. As a kid, I didn’t doubt for one second that Nancy was a snake in the grass – Mom thought she was, and that was the end of it. Mom would insist she would threaten us on a regular basis.

Nancy: I’ll put a stop to you. You’ll never be successful as long as I can help it.

Truly, why would she care? And even if she did, who says she had any power to carry out her threats? Nonetheless, Mom believed Nancy was the fox in the proverbial hen house. If we needed a last minute appointment for a lesson, and we called Nancy, Russ “didn’t have any openings” (a claim which may or may not have been legitimate). Sometimes he wouldn’t show up for lessons, and Mom would insist Nancy had told him we cancelled and didn’t tell us so we would get mad at Russ and stop taking lessons (yes, that was her exact wording). Truthfully, he probably went to the race track and forgot. Although I suppose it is possible Nancy maliciously forgot to tell us when he cancelled.

Although she may not have been the master manipulator Mom insisted she was, she wasn’t exactly someone I was prone to like. She wore very tight (and very short) skirts, lots and lots of makeup, bleached her hair, chewed gum, and was very very snarky. Add in the fact that she was about 15 years too old to dress like she did…and you have a pretty complete picture of her. Mom used to complain to Russ that she dressed like a hooker. Russ didn’t seem to mind very much.

Russ once told us directly that Nancy doesn’t do anything but what she’s told to do.

Russ: She schedules who I tell her to and doesn’t schedule who I tell her not to. You know?

Assuming he could be taken at his word (which is a rather large assumption – Russ ran his mouth pretty much all the time and often said conflicting things), one can see that it’s possible that none of this was Nancy’s fault. Russ may have been telling her that he had this nut whose son was taking lessons and he needed her to never put her messages through or never schedule us for a lesson. Regardless, difficult secretaries are no match for the willpower of a crazy person (I’m convinced that not much is, actually) – Mom got the lessons by hook or by crook. She would call Russ directly, and if he didn’t get back to us she would drop by unannounced and extract a lesson time from him. These trips usually involved getting to Russ’s studio long before he was there and waiting outside for hours. I was quite annoyed with Nancy for the fact that we had to do this. Sometimes, she’d come driving up and see us already there waiting for Russ. She’d roll her eyes, walk in, and sit behind her desk (as an adult, I completely understand this reaction. As a kid, it pissed me off). Mom would inevitably follow her in, and Nancy would tell her that Russ wasn’t coming in today. Mom would not believe her, of course, and we would leave – usually just to go around the block until Nancy left.

It didn’t take long for Nancy to be involved in a wider conspiracy. There were certain other students that Russ had that Mom insisted were “competition”. She picked them apart, analyzed everything about them, and usually decided they were out to get us. She usually determined Nancy was involved with them somehow and they were getting our lesson slots because Nancy favored them. No doubt she was filling Russ’s ears with venom about us and telling him that I wasn’t talented, and that these other students were more worthy of his time (and, ostensibly, his “mafia” connections). Although such situations are few and far between, some things can’t be solved with a box of donuts.

I’ve thought for years that the rift between Mom and myself started when I was a teenager – now I see it was actually quite a bit earlier. Right around the time Tim and I started to bond and create our own little world, we started taking her threats and hysteria a bit less seriously. I don’t remember what happened, exactly, but Tim and I were talking in the car – I think about alternate universes and whether or not they existed (we determined that they probably did, in some form) and Mom decided to go off about something. I think she felt I had done badly at an audition.

Mom: Show me what you did in the audition again.

I knew this was foolishness – it’s very difficult to replicate exactly what you did, especially for me. With music, acting, or anything else, each time I do it is slightly different – it’s kind of a one time shot. Still, I tried my best to approximate.

Mom: NO! That was terrible. You just bombed that audition.

I reflected back to the audition itself – I didn’t think I did such a bad job.

Me: Well, the casting person seemed to think I did okay.

Mom: This was a big one. This was the one that was going to make you. And you flushed it down the toilet!

I looked at her mildly. I had gotten so used to these outbursts I was barely responding anymore. I sighed, turned, and resumed my conversation with Tim.

Me: So, bro…when people time travel, do you think they end up creating alternate universes?

We tuned out Mom ranting and raving with our discussion. I glanced over, and saw that her eyes were literally bugging out of her head. She was clenching the steering while with a white knuckled fervor. I had a suspicions an unscheduled stop at Russ’s was in the offing. No doubt she would apologize to him about how badly I did on the audition, and ask for a second chance (aside from the fact that he had exactly zero to do with my acting career, this all seemed rather silly. Still, I bit my tongue).

Tim got fed up with her ranting, and with a shrug and a glance that said Sorry, bro he popped on his Walkman and disappeared. I grabbed a book and instantly buried myself in it. The problem with reading a book – especially when Mom was hyped up – was that I did not quite have as good a cloaking mechanism as Tim. He could ignore her with near impunity, considering his headphones were blasting. I could only attempt to be so absorbed and distracted with what I was reading that she didn’t even bother to disturb me. It didn’t always work. I got to hear about how awful I did, how I didn’t prepare well enough for the audition (even though I did), how I was going to be a failure and blow my chances. It was up to her to fix everything now and I better pray really hard that Russ would be understanding.

When I say that I was able to let her explosions roll of my back a bit more, that doesn’t mean I was unaffected. It’s just that her explosions stopped making me outwardly cry or yell – I did my best to keep a relatively calm demeanor. Inside, though, I alternated between worrying that everything she said was was true and trying to calm myself. Usually it was too much to deal with and I did my best not to think about it much. Still, I was usually inwardly roiling.

Looking back, I think that a lot of what she did was basically wage psychological warfare on her kids – Tim agrees. The thing is, I’m not sure she was even aware of any of this. Even if she was, she had (in her mind, anyway) a “good reason”. Like I said before, she’s basically a good person…just mentally sick.

Once home, Tim and I would hop on the Nintendo to play Super Mario or whatever. This was actually a really good method for drowning out the chaos, because there was a visual element as well as an audible element. Grandma didn’t understand it – she was suspicious of video games to begin with – and she didn’t like how engrossed we became. She could throw fits too – even more epic fits than Mom – but hers usually had a reason behind them. She was a little old Italian lady, so she was prone to fits of high drama and loud speeches. Either she had taken a sleeping pill and we woke her up by being too loud, or we didn’t come to dinner right away, or we didn’t clean our rooms, or whatever. We were so sensitive to outbursts that we shut off anything even remotely resembling them – and sometimes, that included Grandma.

Grandma: You kids aren’t even listening to me! It’s That Damn Nitenda.

Tim: NinTENDO, Grandma.

Grandma: Nitenda. Whatever.

For as long as she lived, it was not a Nintendo – it was That Damn Nitenda. All video games systems – and games themselves – were “Nitenda”. Tim and I laughed our asses off thinking about her trying to buy stuff from our Christmas list. We could just imagine her walking into Toys R Us or whatever and asking for a “Nitenda” (meaning a game, not the system), and the worker being horribly confused. Somehow, she managed to get it right most of the time – probably because we wrote stuff down for her.

I got a callback for that audition, by the way. I felt extremely validated – I knew, after all, that I had done a good job. I had prepared well, and gave a great read on the script. Mom had just been bugging out. She looked over at me with a very calm, almost beatific smile on her face.

Mom: You better call Russ and thank him for getting you that callback.

 

 

When I was 8, my Dad killed my dog. I don’t have any proof of this, but I believe it in my heart. I guess that makes it true. I had been away doing a play in New Jersey (long time readers may remember some earlier posts about it), but we came home on the weekends. Things were bad between Mom and Dad – I remember them going away to have dinner or lunch and try to patch things up. From my point of view, it wasn’t working. I was rather glad of that, frankly. He issued an ultimatum – that I quit acting or he’d leave. The ultimatum wasn’t to me, mind you, but to Mom. I grant you that she had the power to decide, but it was my career after all. Regardless, this caused something of an impasse between my parents and drove even more of a wedge between my Dad and I. When I was home, we barely spoke, which was fine. Sometimes we never even saw each other, which was better. When we did see each other, and he tried to talk to me, communication was difficult. I had grown a lot during the play – I had gained a certain level of confidence and independence, I think. If he didn’t know how to relate to me before, he certainly didn’t now. He spoke to me as if I was 2 or 3, and in a high falsetto several pitches above his normal speaking voice.

Dad: Hello, Dan-dan! How are you today, little buddy?

I looked at him like he was an idiot. I couldn’t help myself. For what it’s worth, he more or less talked to Tim that way as well – the high falsetto, calling him Tim-tim, etc. Granted, Tim was about 4, and it was slightly more appropriate (but still rather stupid). It’s clear to me now looking back that he had no idea whatsoever on how to relate to children in general.

Anyway, when I was home, I’d hang out with Rocky. I didn’t see him half as much as usual since I was gone most of the week, and I missed him terribly. One weekend before I went back to the play, I got a terrible sinking in the pit of my stomach. Something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. I assumed at the time that I was just sad to be leaving home for the next few days, and missing Grandma and Rocky. I knelt down and put both my arms around Rocky’s gargantuan neck. I kissed his nose, and he licked mine, and I left. I never saw my dog again.

When I got home the next weekend, I didn’t see Rocky. Dad didn’t tell me what had happened right away – I think I was home for quite some time before he told me his tale. According to him, Rocky had supposedly gotten loose and ran out into the road. Right about the time he was hit, Dad was coming home from work. He saw the whole thing, the people were apologetic and Dad and them took Rocky to the vet. Supposedly, the vet tried to save him and couldn’t and he died in the vet’s office. He told me all this rather matter of factly – no real intonation to his voice. I was crushed and inconsolable for days.

Within seconds after hearing his story, even through my grief, I had doubts about the whole thing. I asked a lot of questions – when did this happen, where is he buried, can I go visit his grave. For perhaps the only time in my entire life, Dad wasn’t irritated that I peppered him with query after query. He answered quickly and smoothly, with no emotion I could detect – certainly no regret or empathy. I could not, it turns out, go visit Rocky’s grave – he was buried “somewhere in the woods” and Dad couldn’t remember exactly where. He promised to take me out there and said we could look, but he sounded doubtful of ever finding it again – not that he appeared to care much either way.

I was suspicious of his story at the time – still am – because I knew he hated Rocky. Rocky was my dog – not the family dog, but my dog. I believe animals choose people sometimes, and I was who he picked. He protected me – made sure I didn’t wander down stairs or near dangerous areas as a toddler, herded me back into the yard whenever I strayed, and was especially intolerant of Dad’s beatings. If Rocky saw Dad coming at me with something, he would get between us. He wouldn’t attack him – wouldn’t growl or anything either – just stand there and move between us. He even took the hits for me sometimes. When Dad couldn’t get to me for whatever reason, he wailed on Rocky – we were the only two in that house that he physically abused. I remember clearly him literally chasing Rocky around the house waving his belt in the air and screaming invectives. When Rocky hid behind a couch, Dad litterally tipped the couch over, cornered him, and wailed on him until he was pulled off. I couldn’t imagine any version of reality in which my father – who despised this dog almost as much as he despised me – would stop at the scene of the accident (which was conveniently timed and conveniently happened right on his route home, where he saw the whole thing), and rush Rocky to the vet for lifesaving measures. Do I doubt this? Hell yes, I do. Added to my calculations were his disgusting and malicious treatment of squirrels and other manner of woodland creatures, and I decided he didn’t have very great respect for animal life – most animals, at least. If he would swerve in the road to hit a squirrel or a woodchuck, would he swerve to hit a dog? I thought so. Add this to the fact that Rocky wasn’t exactly prone to escape per se. He was a smart dog, and he did like to chase rabbits and such, but he never strayed terribly far. Even when he did, he knew to go for the fields rather than the roads. My Grandfather had trained him to be careful of roads – at least, as much as you can train any dog in such a thing. I concede the possibility that he did wander too close to the road, but in my heart of hearts I know Dad’s story isn’t very likely. I give it a 5% chance of being true.

What I think happened, and I’ve had 20 years (give or take) to think about it, is that Rocky was crossing the road (or near to the road), Dad saw him, and ran him down. Or Dad got mad and in a fit of rage went a little too far and beat Rocky a little too long. Or maybe he just took him to the vet and had him put to sleep – no reason, really, other than that Rocky was an extension of me that he could more easily get away with hurting. And bonus: It would hurt me like hell, at least emotionally.

I wasn’t the only one that thought this – Grandma, who was well known for being unable to keep her opinions to herself, seemed to concur with my basic premise; Dad killed Rocky, probably deliberately, and timed it in such a way that it would happen while I was home.

Later, during the divorce, I had other animals that met grisly ends – I had an outside rabbit that was killed with what appeared to be a hammer, for example. Was it Dad? I think so. I know he skulked around our property quite a bit after he left. Besides, killing someone’s pet – particularly with a hammer – is a rather personal thing. No one else would have reason to do such a thing.

Thus, he was tried and convicted in the heart of an 8 year old boy. As an adult, and with a couple years of therapy under my belt, I am able to concede the possibility – no matter how slight – that Dad’s story is in any way true. At that point in my life, if you had told me that my father was Satan incarnate, I would have likely believed you. Now I see that he was just a very disturbed man, and perhaps had reasoning behind what he did – however twisted it may have been. Surely he wasn’t just an evil bastard just for the sake of being an evil bastard. Right?

The thing with Rocky helped heap hot coals on my already burning resentment and anger. I started slamming doors a lot. And believe it or not, I thought about suicide – I remember looking just a little too long at some of the sharp knives in the utensil drawer, and picking one of them up thoughtfully. I had a pretty good idea of what to do, and I have no idea if I actually would have gone through with it, but Grandma came in and asked what I was doing. Just like that, the bubble that encapsulated that moment popped. The deep, aching anger was back – like a churning in my chest. I decided in that moment that I didn’t want to kill myself – I wanted to kill that son of a bitch that killed my dog. I really, honest to God hated that man. It was that hate – the anger, the resentment, the fury of the injustice of it all – that brought out my belligerence and set Dad and I on a collision course.