Post 4: "Sweet Life"
“Love begins by taking care of the closest ones-the ones at home” Mother Teresa
Mom’s name was “Madonna,” nicknamed “mad-Donna” or “Barracuda” at work. If a sexist pig male coworker decided to tug on a bra strap of a secretary, mom would go over and return the favor and pull down his fly. Yet I also watched my mother pull over and help out a homeless woman who lived under the bridge and she always remembered to bring food for her dog as well. One day she accepted a moldy slice of pizza, dragged out from the depths of a garbage bag, as payment for her kindness. I asked her why she would take such a nasty thing. She looked at me and said, “Why not?”
Raising five boys and a girl as a single mom back in the 1960s was no mean feat. She was tough: she made sure my brothers shoveled the driveways of the old widows for free, gave up their seats on the bus and opened doors for the ladies. She wanted her boys to be gentlemen. At the same time she advocated for women’s rights in the workplace. She helped found a working women’s group called “9-5: Cleveland Women Working.” When interviewed, she responded to a reporter; “I do this so my daughter won’t face the same discrimination I faced.” That was her way of saying “I love you.” She wasn’t a huggy mom, but if you messed with one of her cubs she would take you out in a heartbeat.
This I remember.
Of the larger ongoing family activities I have no memory. A summer picnic here. The tartness of her homemade lemonade. A Thanksgiving dinner there; up at 7 am setting an elaborate table and filling water glasses to overflowing. I remember clearing the table and washing dishes with my aunts. Meanwhile my uncle, brothers, and male cousins, the louts, got to watch football games all night long. Even then I thought this division of labor sexist and unfair. This fueled a lifelong decision to boycott football. The rest is just splintered memory fragments. Thank you, milk of amnesia.
My father reappeared in 1966 when I entered school. To make up for lost time he would pick me up from school almost every day, sometimes for lunch too. He would always have a candy bar or two. I think he was bribing me. It worked. Dad practiced consistent parenting. Every afternoon we visited the Village Gate, a bar for middle-aged men who had no better place to be, like a job, on a weekday afternoon.
I thought going to a bar after school was normal childhood activity. My dad drank while I spun on the bar stools until I was ready to pass out. I played the dime jukebox and got introduced to the Top 40. There was snack time, coke and chips, and then the pinball machine. I vividly remember the bar and the laughter of the drunks but have no memories of my family eating together, talking together, reading together or doing normal family routines that our neighbors followed. I discovered this because I was invited to dinner at a friend’s home on occasion. What the hell was this? What do you mean stop and pray before eating? Are you actually talking to each other? Why? It seemed to me we only did these things on holidays. In all fairness, maybe it did exist in our household. However, on regular days, from 5:30 pm on, there is a huge blank in my mind. It is just all gone.
There is one huge exception to this rule. For a period of time, dad picked me up on Saturdays and kept me overnight. Every weekend, like clockwork. I was like a puppy dog straining at a window, little paws trying to scratch their way through – I was so eager to leave. Next to the bar, dad loved ice cream, so we’d get a cone, stop at the comic book store and load up. He never said no to a beer or anything in print, so he got me whatever I wanted to read.
Unfortunately this led us down Madison Avenue, past a whole slew of churches. I was taught in religion class to say a “Hail Mary” every time you passed a church. I didn’t realize you could leave out the Protestant ones. I wanted to get to the adventures of Archie and Jughead. Like an auctioneer, I would dutifully proclaim, “hailMaryfullofgracethelordiswithyou” and Christ, here comes the Lutheran Church, and I’d have to squeeze another one in. I didn’t learn until later that at that time the Protestant churches could be excluded from that practice. I think the Politburo liked playing its little tricks. Maybe that’s why in the long run, I would end up Protestant.
Dad lived in an efficiency apartment of a friend on Wyandotte Avenue in Lakewood. So we’d settle in with our loot, watch the Saturday night sitcom lineup while I played with my Barbies with the arms chewed off by the dogs and read my stash of comics. Archies. Richie Rich. Casper the Friendly Ghost. There was an occasional fair, circus or park to go to or another drinking buddy to call on, like Doc, who lived near the stockyards where the odor of decayed flesh hung heavy in the air. He’d ply me with riddles, tickles and candy while he and dad kept close watch on the latest baseball standings. In the morning Dad always took me to mass at St. Rose’s. We’d stop and buy sausages and eggs, and go and have breakfast with Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Frank. Uncle Frank was also a connoisseur of jokes, riddles and puns:
Q: How do you make a tissue dance? A: You put a little boogie in it.
Q: What time is it when an elephant sits on the fence? A: Time to fix the fence!
Q: Where do pencils go for vacation? A: Pencil-vania
These jokes were precious. Each riddle was a shot of immunization against an insult that was sure to come later that week. Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Frank and Doc weren’t blood family, but I saw them more frequently than my real extended family. They also took dad in during his bouts of homelessness.
I’d read the comics and then Dad would take me home. Now how utterly boring and mundane is this? Yet when does the mundane become heroic, even lifesaving? How long it lasted I can’t recall. Maybe a year? Maybe it lasted just a number of months? Eventually dad became homeless again and moved around frequently. However, he never again disappeared. I just always had an unsettling feeling of not knowing where he would be. His presence though made its impact. Those visits have a lot to do with keeping me anchored to the saner end of the spectrum when the chips were down and all things were tallied up.
Give the gift of music to the next generation through donations to:
The Manilow Music Project
8295 South La Cienega Boulevard
Inglewood, CA 90301
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