Saturday, September 23, 2006

Evening in Paris

The corner store on Henry and Dixwell sold wigs, toiletries, cheap perfume (for those of you a certain age- “Evening In Paris” perfume was a dollar a gallon). It was run by Ben and Rose, an older couple living in the wealthier part of New Haven near St Brendan’s Church. Always being sent to the store on a regular basis for my mother’s cigarettes, I came to know Ben and Rose. They ran this family business with their only son, Adam.
Adam was a nice kid who tried to emulate his parents in any way he could. Charming, willing to sell you anything and everything and convince you at the same time that you really needed it. He was old enough to be out of high school and was being groomed to take over the family business one day.

During the summer on slow days, Adam would play “catch” with me in the back parking lot. Hanging around with Adam would occupy me on the days I wasn’t taking the bus into downtown New Haven to spend the day playing with the “downtown people”.

One particular evening around dinnertime Ben and Rose suggested that Adam take me to their house for supper and show me around. I had heard stories of this "mansion type” home they owned.
At least that’s what we were always told. We always trick or treated on this street because the people were rich and had the best treats. Compared to the 3 rooms I lived in, this seemed like an adventure I couldn’t pass up.

I remember leaving the store walking hand in hand with Adam down Henry Street, across Beaver Pond Park, up the Goffe Street hill and over to Elsworth Avenue.
I felt safe, happy and protected. Adam never treated me like my brother or his friends. He was kind and paid attention to me.

As we neared his house, I couldn’t believe that someone I knew not only lived in a house like this, but that I was actually going inside. As Adam opened the front door visuals came to me that I only saw on TV. I saw huge ceilings,a winding staircase, and rooms, oh so many rooms, with lots of furniture that I didn’t even recognize. The rooms were bright with lots of windows and open spaces.
Our three room apartment was always dark.
Venetian blinds were drawn either keeping the light out or the darkness in.

They must have had 2 or 3 couches. We had none.

After supper Adam took me for a tour of the upstairs. His room, his parents room which seemed bigger than my entire apartment, was full of family photos framed, art work and what I thought at that time, were rugs hanging on the wall. We had linoleum on the floor.

Adam then asked me if I wanted to see his special room in the basement. He was learning how to develop pictures. Not everyone was allowed in this room he said. The liquids in this room were very dangerous and you had to be very careful.

He explained that the room had special lights, yellow ones to protect the film and paper he was using and asked if I was afraid of the dark. Trying to be brave, I said no. I had to lie. I could never tell him that my punishment for “being bad” was to sit in the hallway in the dark for hours until “I learned how to behave.”

With Adam holding my hand we walked into this “dark room”. I was a little scared, but I was sure having Adam by my side would make everything ok. Adam turned on the yellow lights and things began to come into view. A large machine sat on a long table with a bunch of trays next to it. Adam explained that this is where the pictures were made and the trays was where the chemicals went.

He then asked if I wanted to see how a picture was made. I was excited. This was something that no one I knew ever saw this.

As Adam took a big jug of liquid from the bottom of the bench and opened it, he accidentially tipped it over and spilled it all over me. Adam said in a very soft but scary voice, “Don’t move an inch, this is very bad and you could be really burned.” I was frozen. I was scared. I didn’t move.
Adam then explained that everything would be alright as long as “we” washed it off.
Even with his assurances I was crying.

He carried me upstairs so I wouldn’t drip any of the liquids over the house and took me into one of the bathrooms on the 2d floor.
He explained that he would wash my clothes and dry them so no one would know what had happened. He undressed me slowly and carefully telling me that if we were lucky the clothes wouldn’t stick to my skin. He said the liquids could burn me.

I remember being placed in the bathtub but the perspective suddenly changes in my recall, and it was as if I were standing next to Adam watching myself being cleansed. Adam’s tall lanky frame would bend over the low set tub and slowly but gently rub the wash cloth over my chest, over my back, up my legs and between my legs, over and over, all the while Adam assuring me that I would be okay if we “got all the liquid” off my body.
After we finished, Adam picked me up out of the tub and held me while I cried for what seemed the longest of times.
He carried me to where my clothes were drying, dressed me, took my hand and walked me home in silence. As he left me in front of my house, the last words he said to me were, “Don’t tell anyone, this is our secret because we could both get in really big trouble.”

I never played with Adam again, never told anyone what happened out of fear.

How ironic it is that come 20 odd years later, I would become a professional photographer and spend the next 20 years in a darkroom at Yale developing black and white photographs.

But the “dark room” phase is gone. No more for me.

Maybe it was my way of conquering the dark, the scary, and my fears.
How ironic is it today that in my late 50’s I think I just may be coming out of the dark.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

It's all relative

Compassion for my mother and her problems has been haunting me lately. I really had to stop and ask myself some tough core questions. Why can’t I remember any of the good times? Have they actually all been bad? What am I missing? True, she had some tough issues and decisions to make regarding men, her husbands, my father and most importantly for me, my birth. Did she try and do her best, no matter if she failed or not?
Am I being fair blaming her for her lack of love or attention? So many questions seeking answers that I alone could not answer. Intense therapy sessions would only seem to bring more confusion and more questions to the forefront. My shrink would listen and then together we would hash over words like narcissistic, evil, crazy, self serving, etc. She would painstakingly explain each one. Still I looked for answers, anything to define my mother’s behavior.

My brother had a different experience with her than I did. I tried talking to him at one point and he shrugged it off with, “ I don’t have any of the memories of Mommy that you do.” Then half jokingly would add, “but she always liked me better anyway.” Not funny. Not even a joke, but my life or happiness was never a part of his concern.

A few weeks ago I decided to try and solicit any information I could from 2 family members who knew my mother from a different perspective. I thought if I asked them both the same questions, I could pinpoint specific events in her life before I was born, maybe, just maybe there would be that one ah-ha moment when things became a little clearer.

My first cousins from my mother’s two sisters were closer in age to my mother than they are to my age. They are both in their late 70’s, and unmarried. They chose to stay home and take care of their mothers until my aunts died. I had long since fallen out of favor for not following in their footsteps.

I started off with Cousin #1 by telling her that I was doing some writing and trying to figure out some things about my life, namely some my mother’s issues. She immediately became suspicious and asked 2 things- was she being taped- I assured her she wasn’t and was I going to write mean things about my mother. I told her I was writing the truth from my perspective. She began by telling me that my mother was a “change of life baby”, that she wasn’t supposed to be born and wasn't supposed to live. Her birth brought about her hard life.
She went on to tell me that her mother lived with them when she was younger because no one liked her.” She explained that the White Tower saved my mother’s life when they hired her and gave her self esteem and that whatever she did, she did for “the kids.”
Because of difficult times her mother was ready to adopt my brother. When I asked about my adoption, she glossed over it by explaining that “someone would have stepped in”.

Cousin # 2 had a different take on things. She said that my mother was an “unhappy soul” and she had cut herself off from everyone. She added that everyone was aware of how she treated my brother vs how I was treated, but couldn’t say anything. What she did say next caught me off guard. She mentioned that my mother’s life became even worse after “the movie theatre incident.” I pressed her further to explain.
It seems when while mother was married to Frankie’s father, he was arrested for exposing his “private parts” in a movie theatre to men and children.

The sordid circle became a little clearer. It didn’t even end with my brother’s father succumbing to syphilis. The cycle of abuse had continued from my brother’s father to my brother. This must have been what happened.
But it never stopped. Why not? Weren’t the red flags up?

I brought back these two packets of information to the only person I’ve been able to totally trust, my shrink Dr Lubin. I have faith this unbiased woman would point me in the direction of the truth, at any cost, whether I possessed some sort of inability to see the entire picture of my mother’s life, or if indeed my mother did lead such a wretched life.
I was always left with the same gnawing feeling. She didn’t have to be that unhappy.

As before, the words were the same.

Same diagnosis, same woman, same mother.

Narcissistic, evil, crazy, self serving.

What an incredibly sad way to describe a person’s life.

What an incredibly sad way to describe my mother's life.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Spectator

Catching part of the Sunday afternoon football games today snagged me back to a childhood memory of my brother.
Frankie was too "precious" to lend himself to football, or so my mother decided. She was saving him for baseball. She knew he was a gifted athlete even at an early age.
Frankie loved football so my mother, to keep her only child happy, bought him one of the very first "electric" football games by Tudor.
He would play this insipid little game for hours.

The game came with 2 sets of football players with their color coded teams. The little men were all set to go. All you had to do was plug the aluminum "stadium" in and watch the little tiny football players shake across the playing field.

Instead my brother with my mother's help, bought a set of tiny bottles of oil paint along with a pack of the littlest paint brushes I can ever remember seeing. Tiny bottles of red, green , blue, black, gray were lined up on a shelf made especially for the paints and brushes.
My mother would spread a white sheet out on the kitchen table where my brother performed his cosmetic surgery on these little men.
Frankie would sit there hour after hour painstakingly painting each and every one of those teeny football men.

First he would paint their helmets, then their shoulders, then their jerseys, then the number on top of that. One by one these little miniature football players took on a coat of shiny new paint displaying the team colors my brother had chosen.

He couldn't be interrupted during this process. You couldn't stand near him, couldn't talk to him and certainly couldn't touch these little men.

This just wasn't a toy. It was too serious. My mother's reaction was just as profound as my brother's. It was as if she were watching him play football without the fear of injury. They somehow had created life, or so it seemed. My mother and brother at times seemed like a couple. You know the type, knowing glances at each other, inside jokes only they understood. They were in synch to the exclusion of everyone and everything around them. How I envied this bond.

When the little men were painted he would line them up on opposing sides and announce the teams, their names, and their rankings.

He would then line them up on the field of scrimmage, complete with a mini quarterback with the brown painted football under his arm, turn on the black switch and watch the little men gyrate across the aluminum football field. They didn't move very fast. The vibrator under the green table was probably equivalent to 3 electric toothbrush vibrations.

It was an amazing thing to watch although watching was all I was ever allowed to do. I was never allowed to touch these figures in or out of the box. They were Frankie's.

He just didn't paint these figures once, he would paint them over and over again. This became a ritual, an obsession.

If I longed for a mother in my life, longing for a brother to share things with and play with was right up there with it. The distance between my brother and myself was always there, not only because of the abuse. Having a brother that could have helped decipher my childhood, instead of contributing to the mystery of it, will always hold a void.

In his defense, he reacted to me the way my mother did. He took his cues from her. You can't really blame him, then anyway. He was a child misled by my mother. Present day is a different story.

Memories like this bring me to the present.

Some people wonder why I don't hate men because of the incidents of abuse. Yes my sexual preference is for women, but I do love men.

These days I am blessed to have the greatest male friends who have taken my brother's role above and beyond my wildest dreams.

Men like Richard and Gilles transcend male or female. It is their souls that speak to me and bond with me.

My friend John, Jill's husband, who shares his "toys" with me, his cars, his dog, his truck, his love of baseball, his time, his friendship.

Sid, Karen's husband, who to me is the epitome of maleness. He is the consummate father, husband and gentle-man and has been a role model for husband, father and friend.

I am reminded of the great line by a hero of mine, Carrie Link who says, " Not enough has been made"......
I say, "Not enough has been made of the men in my life."

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Stanley Burdette Pafka

My mother Mary slept with Stanley Pafka one night after finding out that my brother’s father, Frank Kafka, had cheated on her and caught syphilis. Her retaliation was to screw some guy she hardly knew, and then find out that he made up last name, “Pafka” as a joke to rhyme with Kafka. Although this seemed to be a family joke it was never once funny to me.

I was told that my father Stanley was a bum, a drunkard, a liar, an indigent, a wanderlust, and just plain crazy and that he was dead. I was told he abandoned me and didn’t want anything to do with me and he couldn’t take the pressure of having a child which is why he made up the last name “Pafka”.

On a weekly basis my brother was given money to light candles in church for his father and trips to the cemetery where Frankie's father was buried occurred monthly.

When I dared to ask about my father, my mother's fervent prayers were that she hoped the “bastard suffered.”

I lived with the pathetic images my mother painted and was continually reminded by Mary of my father’s shortcomings and how I was just like him. I’m not sure what the similarities were, not being any of the things in her descriptions of him, but she seemed confident that I was a mirror image and would disappoint her in the same sweeping manner that he did.

I dreaded every Father’s Day. I would fantasize what park bench he was sleeping on with beer cans strewn all around him, or living in some homeless shelter or in a cardboard box on the street. There was no other image I could conjure up. Any and every bum on the street would be a focal point. I would drive by a bum and mutter to myself, or anyone else who happened to be in the car, “Hi dad.” Ludicrous I know, but I could never let it go. No amount of therapy in the world could convince me that a person like this would be better off NOT to partake in my life.

That was until I was in my 40’s. I was working at the Yale Computer Center and out of the blue I decided to “Google” my last name Pafka, just for laughs. Having lived with the theory of the “made up last name” I was curious as to whom indeed, would have the last name Pafka.

Imagine my surprise when I found 6 living Pafka’s in the New York state area. My curiosity was peaked. Who could these people be? Could it be possible that my mother had been lying? HA! When wasn’t she self serving? But to lie about something so essential, so important was beyond even her, or so I thought.

I called each and every Pafka I found and said the same exact line to each and everyone. “Hi, you don’t know me, but my name is Suzy Pafka. Can you please tell me if you’re related to Stanley Pafka”? I received the same response from everyone. Yes they replied, “Stanley is my cousin/uncle/brother in law.”
As the conversation continued these long lost relatives filled me in on what they knew to be true. Stanley had left New York, joined the army, lived in Connecticut for a while then moved on to Boston where he died.
To say I was on a roller coaster of emotions would be to put it mildly.

A few weeks later I went to Boston and spent 5 hours in the Hall of Records researching the Vital Statistics stacks for father’s death certificate. But when I found it, it was like hitting pay dirt.

There it was, in black and white- no grays about it. Stanley Burdette Pafka, the same name that was on my birth certificate.

It took me a few days later to digest what had happened. My father did exist. He did have a real last name and so did I and it most certainly was and is Pafka.
His name wasn’t made up as my mother said. At least I had uncovered one piece of a puzzle that over shadowed my life.

So on to the next. I noticed at the bottom of the death certificate a woman’s name, Loretta Reynolds. The box was checked next to her name as the “Next of Kin.”

As I searched Directory information for this woman it occurred to me that I spent the last 40+ some odd years hating this man, my father who I never knew.

The possibility of finding the truth, any truth terrified me. As my friend Richard pointed out, to be rejected by your mother each and every day while she was still living was difficult enough. Why would I want to possibly make matters worse and find out once and for all that my father didn’t want me either? The overwhelming sense of rejection was outdone by all my questions as to “why” he would choose to leave. There had to be a concrete answer that would finally make me understand this issue of abandonment and let me go on.

I phoned Loretta with a new greeting, “Hi, I’m Suzy Pafka, Stanley Pafka’s daughter.”
I’m sure I threw Loretta for a loop, although she was kind and helpful, she was of course cautious. Who could blame her? I told her of the saga and search I had been on. She told me that she was a friend of my father’s at the hospital where they both worked and that yes, that was her signature on the death certificate.

She agreed to meet me at a restaurant in Buzzards Bay, Cape Cod. I brought all the identification I had, birth certificate with my father’s name on it, my license and University ID, not wanting her to think I was some looney tune claiming to be someone I wasn’t.
As we sat and talked, my father’s life became real and clear for the first time. He had died in 1982 from a brain hemorrhage. Loretta had found him. My father had lived with Loretta and her family for 15 years. He raised her 5 children after her husband had left her for a younger woman. She was very much in love with my father and her kids considered my father to be theirs.
After a few hours, Loretta excused herself to make a phone call. When she came back, she inivited me to her house to meet her children. They were expecting us she said.
I hesitated. The emotions were mixed. I found him, yes, but too late.
They knew him better than I did, but he was my father. This wasn’t fair.
Loretta would not take no for an answer. I agreed and was met with friendship, love and acceptance, from this “extended family.” They were wonderful. The house was full of photos of my father. Up until this time, I had never even seen him. Photos of him with Loretta, her children, her grandchildren lined the end tables and bookcases. Stories of my father, his likes, his dislikes, came pouring out from this family that truly loved him. They wanted to share the memories of this man. This was all bittersweet to me. I was jealous of this family that knew him and lived with him. The only thing I could contribute to his memory was the insane story of my mother, fearing all the while the insanity would be associated with me.
Loretta gave me his favorite blanket, his key chain and his photo, took me to the hospital where he worked as a cook, and told me what an avid reader he was and how much he loved baseball and driving cars. It seemed I had so many things in common with this man, but was I just grasping at straws? How could I have anything in common with a father I was never allowed to know.
My father it seems was in the Army, spent time in the Panama Canal and then spent a short amount of time in Connecticut before settling in Buzzards Bay- 2 hours away from me..... only 2 hours.
Loretta said my father never knew about me and that if they did, they would have come to get me. She said he always wanted children.
I later found out that my mother "confessed" to my father that I wasn't "his" to get rid of him. She did just that.

He had a military funeral when he died and is buried in a National Cemetery 10 minutes from her house. She took me to his grave.

This is where for some reason, it all came together. Seeing his name on the grave stone didn't accomplish closure. It opened up a world to my father that I had been searching and longing for.

I wrote to the Army and requested his medals and honors.
I now own those medals, a piece of my father.

And I finally pieced together probably the biggest mystery in my life.

So much for the father that never existed.

So much for the “made up name Pafka.”

My mother died in 1989 and I still have not gotten a grave stone for her, and I won't. Let my brother do it. She never liked any of the gifts I picked out for her anyway.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Gunning for trouble

After my mother systematically went through 3 men via her insanity- married to 2-both dying, one of syphilis, the other from just plain neglect of his health, and not married to one (my father) by telling him I wasn’t his child, you think she might have just been a little more careful about getting involved again.
But this time was different. She had worked her way up to Manager of the White Tower. She was respected in the White Tower chain as a trusted and loyal employee, forsaking family for the good of the company. She was an icon, a legend. If they only knew the truth. Actually, it probably wouldn't have mattered anyway.

Mr. Breman was a big shot at the home office of White Tower in Stamford CT. He was charming, good looking, younger and very kind to my brother and me often stopping by the house and bringing us presents. He was married a couple of times and he and my mother would commiserate over the failure of their spouses to live up to their marriage vows.
We knew Mr. Breman adored my mother and vice versa. But this ended one day with the announcement of his upcoming 3rd marriage to a beautiful waitress he met at the White Tower. Once again my mother’s dreams crashed. Not only was this woman younger and better looking, but she was a mere waitress, not a “white collar” worker that my mother had become. How could he love someone who wasn’t in management? She consoled herself with the fact that Mr. Breman’s intended was pregnant and they had to get married, shotgun wedding as my mother called it.
My mother took it as well as she did anything else. She refused to talk to Mr. Breman about anything but White Tower business and she refused to let us ever see him again.
A woman scorned one more time.

One day, while reading the paper, I heard my mother yell out. I walked into the kitchen and was handed the startling newspaper article. It read:

Carl Breman Arrested in Deadly Shooting of Wife
The sad story told of an “accidental shooting” which had occurred at the house of Mr. & Mrs. Breman. It seems Mr. Breman had come down to breakfast with his wife and new 2 month old baby girl. Mrs. Breman at this time informed Mr. Breman that the baby which was lying on the bassinet was indeed not his. It belonged to another man.
At this point, according to Mr. Breman, he was so distraught, he went upstairs to find his antique gun, brought it downstairs and told Mrs. Breman he wanted to take his life, because he couldn’t stand the pain.

BUT the gun fell, went off, and shot Mrs. Breman right between the eyes.

Fast forward six years. Mr. Breman is placed in a half way house in New Haven 8 blocks from the White Tower. It seems he only had to serve 6 years for this heinous crime. No political maneuvering here from the honchos at White Tower.
Mr. Breman was allowed to “reenter” society and work at White Tower on a part time basis.

During his incarceration, Mr. Bremen had “hair plugs” installed in a testing program for inmates and hair loss. He had taken several more college courses to educate himself and had become closer to God.

He also became closer to my mother at this time. Jokes were passed between my brother and myself using the oh so obvious code name “Six Gun Carl,” “Hop Along Carl,” “Pecos Carl.” and my personal favorite, Wild Carl Hickock”. Yes the hits just kept on comin’. We were sure she would take the big leap and marry this lone gun slinger.

Not only did she believe this "story" of accidentially shooting his wife between her eyes, it amazed me that she would even consider this madman living in our house.

But, once again the fates would be unkind to Mary Martino. Seems Mr. Breman had met another waitress in yet another town and rode off into the sunset without Mary once again.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Mr. Nick & Louie the Mole

Mr. Nick was an infamous New Haven downtown hairdresser. His beauty parlor was on Chapel Street overlooking the New Haven Green. He dressed in black pants, creased ever so perfectly, white and black small checked sport coat with a white v- shaped silk shirt, usually stained, and open to display his hairy chest. On the pinky fingers of both hands Mr. Nick sported huge fake diamond rings. His hair, was dyed black and sat in waves on his head in a huge pompadour resembling a cross between Elvis Presley and Liberace. The hair spray was poured on so much, you could see the stains on the collar of his white shirts.
Women were crazy about him. As Mr. Nick designed their coiffure, the women swooned when he flirted, kissed their hands, and promised many an older woman, “Ahh, If I were only 30 years younger……”. Flamboyant movements with the hairbrush were synchronized to whatever Italian love song he would randomly sing to his lady clients.
At one time Mr Nick had been “quite the guy,” people said. The years hadn’t been extremely kind to Mr. Nick as was witnessed by watching him color his sideburns with black shoe polish in one of his many mirrors. Seems the sideburns were the first to give up the ghost to gray before the sprawling mane on his head.
Mr. Nick’s sidekick was Louie the Mole. He looked exactly like it sounds; short, thin, bald headed, cab door ears, long pointy nose and beady little eyes. He wore brown pants, with a short brown jacket always zippered, whatever the season was. Louie was Mr. Nick’s gopher and all around Man Friday. Louie the Mole appeared each and every time, like magic whenever Mr. Nick needed anything done. It was almost as if Louie read Mr. Nick’s thoughts.
Louie would appear at the White Tower getting coffee and hamburgers for the both of them. Louie kept a vigilant eye on the order to make sure it was cooked precisely per Mr. Nick’s dietary requirements. The amount of the order was carefully calculated by Louie so as not to cheat Mr. Nick of one penny. People felt sorry for Louie the Mole. My mother would grumble,“poor bastard,” after Louie left. Louie’s only lot in life seemed to be serving Mr. Nick.
On his days off Mr. Nick and Louie would ride around in Mr. Nick’s shiny red Cadillac convertible. You could barely see Louie over the dashboard. Mr. Nick’s hairdo was like a brick in the wind, giving way to nothing.
On summer nights they would cruise the streets of downtown New Haven. Many said that Mr. Nick was trying to find Louie the Mole a girl. If anyone could help Louie, it would be Mr. Nick. He was every woman’s idol.

I came to be involved with this twosome thanks to my mother. As a much younger child on Henry Street I was sent to the local barber for haircuts for many years. Johnny the Barber was his name. If you just said, “Johnny,” no one know who you were talking about. You had to say his full name, “Johnny the Barber.”

Nice enough guy, Johnny the Barber only charged 25 cents for the haircut and it loooked it. I looked like someone had cut my hair with a # 10 rice bowl. “Nice shiny hair kid,” Johnny the Barber would say,"nice shiny hair." I’m sure he said that because of the 5 cent tip.
For some unknown reason my mother decided that maybe it was time for me to have my hair done at a beauty parlor. No, she didn’t spend the money. She bartered with Mr. Nick. I was given a haircut every few weeks for the price of a “coffee to go” every day.
It almost worked. I have a photo of that haircut. I’ve only shown it to 2 people, Richard and Jill. Richard shares an honesty with me bordering on brutality. Jill oen of my best friends, is probably the loveliest person I know. She's a gem.
Richard’s comment of my “hairdo” was, “Shit, your mother really hated you.” Jill’s comments a bit more thoughtful, “Gee, you had really nice wallpaper on Henry Street.”

I often wonder if having a best friend today who is a famous haridresser is a throwback to my childhood and as karma goes, something to "right a wrong".
Richard and Mr. Nick are light years apart, still there have been a few times, when that theory was tested, like the night we were too lazy to go to Richard’s shop to color my hair and Richard and Gilles decided we could do it at their house. They had some “stuff” they could use for the color. Two hours later after we realized that I still had the color on my head and we just forgot to take it off, my hair turned purple, the color of Barney.
There was also the time Richard was giving a class on “special” hair, or hair that was difficult to manage and was “pokey”. I was the model.

Ah, irony.

You’ll be happy to know that Louie the Mole did find his one true love. On a late summer afternoon as I slipped into the back of the Paramount Movie theatre from my step father’s parking lot on Crown Street, I saw a familiar figure in the back row locked in a loving embrace with his lover, or should I say two familiar figures…..

Louie the Mole had finally struck pay dirt.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Presents of Mind

Receiving presents is sometimes a tricky and sensitive issue. It’s nothing as grandiose as my not wanting to accept them because it’s better to give than receive. Nothing as selfless as that I assure you. It’s what it conjures up. It’s what it represents.
Getting presents as a child ran the gamut from ambiguous to painful. In my case it was better to not give and not receive. Nothing was good enough to give and it seemed the receiving part lacked a little something.
My mother attempted to celebrate the holidays, but couldn’t quite make it through. One particular Christmas Eve on Henry Street, my brother and I had been “acting up.” I don’t remember my step father being around, so I imagine it was a time when my mother was “between” men.
My brother and I were counting the presents that he had gotten and then comparing the numbers to what I had gotten. I had long stopped believing in Santa Claus. I guess my mother couldn’t stand the chatter, the noise, or whatever her flavor of annoyance for the day was. The excitement of Christmas was building along with the expectations of presents. Not being able to stand it any longer, my mother started to yell and pulled out a belt which meant beatings for both of us. I of course dive under the bed, he throws himself on top of the bunk bed to get away. But she didn’t pursue the beatings this time. She just stopped. Had she changed her mind? Was Christmas Eve good enough reason not to beat us?
Nope. As I looked out from under the bed, I saw her pick up the presents underneath the 3’ white artificial Christmas tree and walk out the back door, making two trips to collect both sets, Frankie’s and mine.
I went to the kitchen window, looked out the back and she had thrown all the wrapped presents into the incinerator dug into the ground, ceremoniously lit a match and stood back and watched the presents burn. I went to bed. There weren’t that many presents anyway.

We moved to another town when I was 12, which was considered to be upscale from Henry Street. I had my own room at this time, chosen for me. Frankie got the big bedroom with 2 windows, I got the sun porch with a wall of windows that didn’t open, which might be fine for the spring and fall, but in summer you baked and in winter you could actually see your breadth. In the winter I was constantly being screamed at by anyone sitting in the living room which was off my bedroom. The issue was that having my bedroom door open into the living room would let the cold air in.

During this time, the clock radio had just come out. This was the precursor to the digital clock radio. It had an analog clock and an AM radio, no FM, but this didn’t matter.
This clock, for some reason was all I thought and dreamed about. For my birthday I requested to anybody and everybody that all I wanted was a clock radio.

On the day of my birthday my mother was working. It was a Saturday. My mother called and told me to take the bus downtown to the White Tower. She had something for me.
The expectation grew. I really wanted that clock radio. Maybe, just maybe it would happen.

I arrived at the White Tower and waited until my mother finished serving her customers. Without a word she went into the back room where her coat and pocketbook were kept. When she came out she was carrying the largest Pink Clock Radio I had ever seen. The face of the clock was cracked and the electric cord was dirty and frayed. She handed it to me and said, “Here, now you can stop complaining about not having a clock radio, Happy Birthday."

I took the bus home, went into my room and plugged the radio in. The radio came on with nothing but static on all stations and then the cord sparked.
The radio was dead.

I never mentioned the clock radio again and she never asked.
To this very day I have never had an alarm clock or clock radio in my room.
Someone or something wakes me up every single morning no matter what time I need to get up.

Who needs a stupid clock radio anyway?

Monday, September 04, 2006

Tiny Bubbles

As I sat in the restaurant being toasted by my good friends, I was finally proud of an accomplishment we were celebrating. I had just closed on the purchase of my first house, thanks to my friend’s Karen and Sid. We had invested in a 3 family house across from the water in New Haven. I would be living there and maintaining the rents. Sid and Karen had their house with their 2 boys about a mile away. I was in my 40’s, always on my own and working at Yale University. Never in my wildest imagination had I dreamed I would be owning my own home.
At the table were the friends of my life, Richard, Gilles, Margo from England and a few others. During the evening I had gotten up from the table several times to call my mother and tell her that the closing had gone well. Not that she would care, but I was the dutiful daughter.
At one point Richard questioned me as to why I kept calling. My mother had this game where I would call and she either wouldn’t answer or the phone would be off the hook.
The bait was that I should worry about either scenario and think that something had happened to her. To her satisfaction, I always took the bait. It was a way for me to worry, stop what I was doing and go over there to check.
This nonsense had been going on for years. I would get there and she’d just be sitting, staring out the window. I’d ask her why she didn’t answer the phone and her answers were things like, “who cares if I live or die,” “why bother, you have your own life and never worry about me,” to “I wasn’t in the mood.” True she did have a heart condition and did have a mild stroke at one point, but I did manage to talk to her just about every day. If I didn’t, she would call my apartment late at night and just hang up. Once when I was angry at her for playing these games and didn’t call her for 2 days, she called Yale where I worked and asked to speak with my boss and then asked him if I was still working there. Yep, that’s my mom. I then lied to her and told her I couldn’t accept personal phone calls at work.
She was also a hypochondriac. That was fun.

True conversation
I’m at work and she calls.
Mary: Call Dr. Cruz (heart doctor)
Me: What’s wrong?
Mary: Something’s not right.
Mary: There are bubbles in my urine and I can smell the rug.

Yes, you read this correctly, bubbles in her urine and she could smell the rug. I swear on my dog’s eyeballs this happened.
It turned out that she peed in the toilet and saw “bubbles”, then went into the living room and the rug had some odor. Apparently the combination of these two incidents sent her into a tailspin.
I did some quick calculating and basically told her that she probably “peed” really fast and caused the water to bubble (yes I am my mother’s daughter and sometimes find myself using the same logic). She argued a bit over this explanation, but finally accepted it. The rug odor explanation didn’t take as much creativity. It was summer and I explained that it probably was the humidity.
Well, back to the house closing dinner. After the 5th attempt at trying to reach her I sat back down. Richard turned to me and said, “Listen, she’s either breaking your balls or she’s dead. Let it go.”

Ok- she hadn’t been talking to me for 2 weeks because I was buying this house. She was angry because I wouldn’t let her live with me. She said it was a daughter’s duty to take care of her mother. Her famous line was, “A son is a son ‘til he takes a wife, but a daughter is a daughter for the rest of her life.” I hated this fucking jingle. She wore it out.

So I followed Richard’s advice and gave up calling. Later that night, 3:30am, I get a call from the hospital. Yep, Mary had been taken to the hospital the night before with a heart attack. Her neighbor had found her on the floor and of course I couldn't be found. No one called my brother. I had to call him.
I went to the hospital first thing. As I walked in her room, the nurse was giving her a sponge bath. The nurse said that they had basically ruled out a heart attack and that it probably was pneumonia. I tried to speak to my mother and ask her how she was feeling.
Without giving me an answer, she asked me if I went through with the closing. I said yes, and she began to sob. The nurse asked me not to upset her, so I told her I would see her the next day because I was moving that very day.
That afternoon as I was moving a couch up to a 2nd floor, Sid and Karen stopped by to tell me that “she was dead.” At first I didn't know who they were talking about. It seems that after I left she had a heart attack. My brother had just gotten to the hospital minutes before she died.

I met my brother at my mother’s apartment to pick out clothes for the funeral. My mother lived in a one room apartment and owned nothing. She lived on social security and her pension from the White Tower. She had ~ $200 in her checking account, and no savings. I bought her groceries every week and made sure she had enough money for her medications. My brother was convinced there was cash somewhere in the house. There wasn’t. I knew my mother like a book. But my brother insisted we look. We went through her cedar chest and found 2 letters, one addressed to me and one to Frankie from my mother. I knew the drama would continue.
The letter to Frankie simply stated that he was a son she was proud of and to “please take care of Suzy, she doesn’t have much.” Yeh, I would almost let that happen. My letter of course was filled with the inconsistency of our relationship. She stated that all her life, all she ever needed or wanted was for me to love her, and that I fell short of that. With that she wished me the best of luck with my life and the hope that someday, someone would not hurt me the way I had hurt her. My brother, the ever pompous arrogant ass that he was, simply stated that if I had agreed to let “Mommy” live with me in my new house, she would still be alive and he didn’t judge me for this, but this is what he felt. He may have been right. But this was her choice indeed.
As my brother was going through her closet, he noticed about 30 or so packages wrapped in Christmas paper. Assuming she had been Christmas shopping (this was December 1st). I watched him remove the packages one by one. As he glanced at the name tags, he then realized what I had known for years. They were presents for her from myself and my brother that we had given her over the years. She had never unwrapped them. She was never happy, no matter what anyone did. His reply was, “but she asked for these,” and “this is what she said she wanted.” He just didn’t get it. She wanted everything and nothing.
We ended up exchanging the presents with each other. I ended up throwing each and everything away. I wanted nothing more to do with her. I wanted to be finished with her.
Easier said than done.