As my therapist kept digging into my emotional past every Wednesday, helping me unpack the baggage I’d been carting around for so long, I kept writing whatever came to me the other six days of the week.
POST-OP WEEK 23
week of July 6
My oldest sister, Susan, is my cousin, too…
I used to say, “she’s really my cousin,” but when I thought about it, I realized she’s both.
Her mother was my mother’s youngest sister. The story goes like this: when my mom’s youngest sister (let’s call her “Aunt Sis”) was 19 or 20, she married a guy named Walter (yeah, go figure) and they had baby #1. The marriage was kind of rocky and they got divorced.
Aunt Sis met this other guy who really liked her, he was really nice to her. He’d drive over, pick her up with the baby, then drop the baby off his mother’s house on the other side of town to babysit, and they’d go out on a date, a picnic, whatever. This was during WWII when gas was rationed, but this guy did all that driving anyway.
But then Walter started calling on Aunt Sis again, trying to get back with her, weaseling his way back into her life. They got re-married and had daughter #2 (Sue). It seems as though Walter was a mean drunk or at least had a temper--- one night, when Sue was 6 months old and #1 was about 2, Walter came home at 3, 4 in the morning, angry, yelling. Aunt Sis locked him out of the house. He banged on the kitchen door to let him in. She refused. He broke in and, furious, grabbed a big kitchen knife and stabbed her multiple times. She died and he went to prison. (This part was in all the papers. I went to the Chicago Public Library and looked up the newspaper reports on microfiche. It’s all in there.)
They split up the two sisters: My mom and dad adopted Sue, while #1 went with other relatives (an aunt and uncle from her dad’s side of the family, I guess. Maybe. We visited them once or twice; they owned a bar and lived in a small house attached to it, in the back. I always thought that was cool.)
The funny thing was about my family--- as weird as aunts and uncles adopting cousins seems like a thing a family would only do once, this wasn’t the first time it’d happened in ours.
Sue and her sister didn’t talk much, growing up, I don’t know why. They’ve gotten together later, though. We’d visit #1 and her husband, sometimes. She looked like an older version of my sister. Her husband was tall and thin, looked like Charlie Callas, the old comedian. He was always a “howya doin’,” kind of guy.
Years later Walter got out of prison. My mom saw him at a department store. She said it really freaked her out (not in those words), she just froze not speaking to him. Later she said he died of TB or some other sort of lung problem.
The way my parents told it, my two older sisters didn’t get along as children. And they pretty much always blamed it on Sue. Sadly, I think they didn’t care much for her. Maybe they blamed my mom’s sister’s death on Sue, somehow, or “her father killed my sister, therefore I hate her.” It never made a lot of sense, but Sue was labeled the trouble child. Now, don’t get me wrong, Sue probably had issues. Being adopted under those circumstances would probably color your whole life, but I don’t know if they did much to temper that. I don’t know if they knew how.
We were (and my sisters still are) a “mean” family. They’ll single siblings out and pick at them. And no one thinks twice. The banter at our forced, twice-a-year gatherings is pretty rough and mean-spirited. For example: we’d be driving up to the house in Wisconsin and we’d see cows grazing in a field. One of us would say: “Hey, look, it’s Sue!” We’d laugh, but no one, not even my parents would say, “Wally, stop that. That’s not nice.” Nothing. They just let it pile up.
Sue is 12 years older than me; my 2nd oldest sister, Jayne, is 10 years older so a lot of this dynamic started well before I was born. But my mom would tell us stories about how Jayne was “good with her possessions.” I guess that was an important personality trait for my mom. She’d tell us all how Jayne would keep her Barbie dolls all perfect and nice, combing their hair and straitening their clothes. Sue, of course, cut the hair off her Barbies.
Even now, Jayne has trouble letting go of stuff. When her husband finally forced her to move out of the house next door to us, they made sure to “up-size” to a place that could better hold all the crap she’s saved--- she has her dresser from her childhood bedroom with all the stuff still in the drawers: jewelry, etc. She still has her Barbies. But she has no kids to give them to; she never had kids. And she’s not about to sell anything on E-bay. So, should my parents have seen Jayne as “good with her possessions” or “anal retentive?” Should they have seen Sue as “expressive and creative” or “destructive?”
Maybe it was too much to ask 20-something parents who came from harsh backgrounds of their own.
Sue didn’t go to college, she went to secretarial school. My parents always said Sue didn’t want to learn and that she was no good at homework, etc. Of course Jayne, oh--- you know…
Sue moved out early and got a job as a secretary for Sunbeam. We still must’ve talked, because we’d always get tons of stuff from Sunbeam back then— hair dryers and blenders because Sue at got a discount. She went on a vacation with girlfriends one summer to Florida and met a “towel boy” named Fred. She was, like 24 and he was 30 or 32— so he was a “Towel Man”, really. They were together for all of 8 days when she had to fly home. When she got back up here, she said she had fallen madly in love with him, sell my stuff, I’m moving to Florida and getting married!
And that’s what she did. She told my parents to stuff what they could in her car and my cousin volunteered to drive it down there. Sell the rest, she said. And they did, TVs, whatever. Gave away some stuff to her roommates as payment for chumping out on the rent. My mom chastised Sue for doing a stupid, impetuous thing. She gave it a year. “It’ll never last,” she told anyone who’d listen. She’s making a big mistake. Etc Etc Etc
This year, I pretty sure Sue and Fred are celebrating their 40th anniversary!!!
They lived down in Miami for a while. I remember my mom and my little sister and I visiting them in their little trailer. I don’t know how my mom felt, but I had fun; I had never been in a trailer before! (They had this one, long air vent in the floor that went from one end of the trailer to the other. I took the cover off the last one and curved a piece of cardboard in it like a ramp. Then I went to the other end, took the cover off and dropped in these foil candy wrappers I had. They’d scoot along inside the vent then shot up out of the other end when got to the ramp. Hours of geeky fun!)
They moved up to a house in my hometown they got real cheap because the lady who owned it before had died in the living room and no one discovered the body for 3 months. Because of the smell, they got a real good deal on the place. Fred started working for my dad at his factory but that didn’t last long. I think that’s when “the feud” started between them where they didn’t speak to each other for years.
Fred started working for one of his friends’ curtain company as an installer. When the friend decided to sell, Fred decided to buy and went into the curtain business, going to people house’s showing them swatches, ordering the material cut to the right length, then installing it. It was always funny, because Fred’s colorblind, so when he’s showing ladies little pieces of blue and red cloth, all he’s seeing is gray. He’s reading the name off the book: “Yes, what a lovely shade of… wait… green for your kitchen Mrs. Johnson.” He expanded by making deals with rug guys and interior decorators so eventually he was like a décor contractor.
When they moved back down to Florida, he sold that business and started one down there, this time expanding into the rich people up east who just bought a condo and they need to furnish it--- now. Fred and Sue would do it all, down to the candlesticks on the dining room table.
He sold that business and started a sandwich shop, I think, then an asphalt company…
I always thought it was weird and flighty, all these different businesses, but the common thread was always Fred starting a business from scratch, building up and selling it, then moving on to another business.
Eventually they settled in a town in the middle of horse-breeding territory. Rich, semi-famous people had breeding ranches down there. He decided what they needed was a company that made custom horse trailers to take their prize horses to all those horse shows. He did very well. Sue started breeding horses herself--- those tiny ones you see at carnivals pulling city kids around in a circle. She stopped breeding them the first time she sold one and couldn’t stand parting with it.
They have no kids, but they’re happy with their dogs. He’s just sold that company but they’re keeping him on as a consultant for a few years. He ought to retire, he’s somewhere close to 70.
They’ve done okay for a Pool Boy and someone who’s not good with her possessions…
I didn’t adjust well to my first year a college, IIT. I didn’t like the school, really, and I didn’t “take” to electrical engineering like my parents had hoped. Met a couple of kids my first semester, one of them a sort of girlfriend (in a school with a 100 to 1 male/female ratio, I guess I should’ve been happy that, but it didn’t last long.)
I went to the local junior college the next year to bring my dismal grades up. That’s when I started hanging out with local kids back in my hometown. Some of them were other junior college students bringing their grades up, too. Some of them, unfortunately, were high school kids I’d meet at the local Youth Center. It was a mix at the youth center, some “kids” were older…
Anyway, I met this high school girl. You couldn’t call what we did dating, we never went anywhere, a little kissy-face, nothing serious. One day, near the end of the school year, I came by my old school to pick her up. I was having some trouble with my wisdom teeth, I remember, they were abscessed, I think, and over-due to come out. I parked the car in front of the school on the street and walked in to look for her. I didn’t find her, so I went back to my car, putting on the seat belt and reaching for my keys.
A car screeched to a stop next to me, blocking me in. Two guys jumped out and ran toward me carrying baseball bats. One guy started working on the front while his buddy went to work on the back. The guy in front swung his bat, hitting the front windshield but it bounced off with a huge WHACK! I tried to move away, crawl across the front seat to the passenger side door but the belt held me in. He took a second whack and broke through, sending glass pellets all over the inside of my car.
Front guy then took a swing at the side window, breaking through and hitting me in the hand I had up, protecting my face. He took another swing and hit me in the shoulder.
The guy in the back was banging on the rear window this whole time, I guess, but he did his damage, too.
I vaguely remember another guy, still in the car, in the back seat. He stayed there; he didn’t move, didn’t get out.
Then, just as suddenly, they finished, ran around, and jumped back their car and sped off.
I crawled the rest of the way out the passenger side and went back into the school. I started looking for the school nurse, for some reason--- my hand was bleeding and my shoulder ached. A paramedic came out of nowhere and started dabbing my eyelids with a cotton ball to get the flakes of windshield glass off. He tended to my bleeding hand. We went into the bathroom and I pulled my pants down so he could get the glass out of there, too.
They towed my car to my house and a policeman drove me home. My parents were mad at me for letting this happen, like somehow I disgraced them and the family name.
There were a zillion witnesses to what happened out in front of the school, so catching the driver of the car was pretty easy. They didn’t arrest the other guy with a bat or the shadowy guy in the back seat. When the case came to trial I was up in front of the judge with my dad who said we weren’t pressing changes. That was news to me. I was letting him handle everything even though I was over 18, but this came out of nowhere. We didn’t talk much about anything so it was just one more thing we didn’t talk about.
The cops and the judge were pretty pissed at my dad for not pressing changes. They had this guy and wanted to prosecute. But my dad said (I don’t remember if it was in court or just to me, later) that he wanted to withdraw charges because he felt this guy was “put up to it,” that there was someone else behind it and this guy was sort of innocent somehow because of that. They quickly ordered a continuation before this guy got off the hook. Later, a couple of cops showed up at my back door with a subpoena for me to show up as a witness to the state’s trial against him.
By the time we got to court again, the driver had gotten into a head-on collision with an elderly couple while in a high-speed chase from the police. The couple was in the hospital and they were waiting to see if the charges would be upgraded to murder. Because of this, I guess, they let him make some kind of deal where he only got probation for what he did to me.
I didn’t find out why the incident happened for a long time. Apparently, a lot of my friends at the time knew who was behind it, who was most likely the shadowy guy in the backseat. They finally told me it was someone from our circle of friends, not a close friend of mine from the group, but someone from the group, a weird little guy a couple of years younger than me who wanted to go out with that girl and got shot down— the girl I came to pick up that day.
She was cute, but not get-smacked-in-the-head-with-a-baseball-bat cute.
My first year of college was a terrible experience. Neither engineering or I.I.T. were things I wanted to be doing. I commuted to school, so I’d drag myself out of bed and slog down the Eisenhower expressway every morning. It was math and science, chemistry. I was okay at the math, but I fell hopelessly behind in all of the sciences.
I didn’t like the subjects. I didn’t like the classes. I didn’t like the other kids. I met one or two people that I’d hang with, fellow future engineers. One was a girl named Ilene or Irene, I forget. Girls were at a premium at I.I.T., it was something like a 110 to 1 ratio. I had finally broken up with my high school girlfriend, who was a grade younger, so still there. That’s when Ilene or Irene and I started doing whatever is you’d call what we did. We’d hang out at school and maybe I’d drive her home. We’d do a little kissing, but she initiated it, because I didn’t really like her. Every time we’d stop at a red light, she’d lean over and want to kiss.
But I didn’t know how to say no. It was weird.
That didn’t go on for very long and eventually I stopped hanging out with anybody there. I flunked out of just about every class— they gave out N/Gs, actually, so I wasn’t loaded down with a bunch of Fs. I’d get negative scores on tests. (You were allowed to put down more than one answer for a chemistry problem, for instance. You’d get 4 points for the right answer and -1 for a wrong one. The thought was that if you narrowed it down between two possible answers, and at least one of them was right, you’d net out at a +3. Of course, a negative score meant that I was narrowing it down to between two wrong answers time and time again.
There was all that fighting with my parents, switching to their design school and flunked out there, too. I’d “over-sleep” classes so much that I just stopped going. I don’t know how much of that was frustration and apathy and misery and how much was all the drugs I was taking for the cyst in my lung (all three of the drugs, I found out later, can cause lethargy and liver damage— and I was taking, like, six, eight pills a day!)
It was almost constant arguing with my parents. The shouting matches were fairly constant. At one point, they yelled, it was my mom, I think, actually yelled: “You owe us!”
That struck me weird. I wasn’t sure what she meant by that. Something like: I need to dedicate my life to their dream, I guess. Or: “we’ve raised you so that you can do our bidding.” I, of course, decided to go at it the literal way. The next morning I went to the local bank and took out two semesters worth of tuition money from my own personal bank account, $2,700. in fifties and hundreds and slammed it down on the table the next evening.
[Imagine that! First of all that I had saved two semesters worth of money all on my own. (I actually had more… I was a good little saver, started my bank account when I was about ten or so, with $10 of birthday money, followed the next day with $25 more. I just kept socking away birthday and Christmas money— and not spending it. By the time I got out of college, in 1980, I had over $8000 which, back then, was quite a lot!) And secondly, that a year’s worth of tuition for a private college was only $2,700!]
So, not only did it get to me that my mom said this, you owe us, I kept thinking about it over night and into the next day and it got to me so much that I went to the bank and took out money. They gave me a strange look, too, at the bank— a college freshman taking $2,700 out all at once. Of course, I put it all back again the next day after I slammed it on the table in front of my parents and they said something like: that’s not what we meant. I was going for the drama, I guess.
POST-OP WEEK 24
week of July 13
I used to have this hat.
It was my Mike Nesmith hat. The Monkees were big for a while when I was a kid. One of the Monkees, Mike Nesmith, use to wear this knit hat with buttons sewed down the front. So I asked my aunt Natasha to knit me one in green, just like Mike, with a big pompom on the top. She was always looking for something to knit so this was like a little project for her. My mom sewed two rows of buttons down the front and I was all set, just like on TV.
So for a while there (more than a couple of months, but less than a year, I think) I wore it all the time. I’m trying to think how old I was: it might’ve been eighth grade, I could’ve been a freshman in high school. Girls would take it off my head and run away with it, play keep away. I thought it was pretty cool, I guess, at the time. I don’t know what everyone else thought; I certainly marched to a different drummer, one wearing a goofy hat.
My mom used to tell me I had a birthmark on the back of my head. I found out later that it was probably what they call a hemangioma: a raised purple thing that sticks out of your skin. Back in the late ‘50s, when I was a baby, they handled things like raised birthmarks with radium. Not radiation, radium. They did a lot with radium back in the day. Watchdials that gave you cancer. Foot scans in shoe stores that gave you cancer. Tonsil treatments that gave you cancer. So they gave me a birthmark treatment that they stopped doing five years later because it was found to give you cancer.
Her story went on:
She told me she’d bundle me up in the dead of winter and take me to Billings hospital on the south side (I thought she said by street car, but we lived in the suburbs by then and she was probably driving?? So I don’t know.) She had already given me a tranquilizer of some sort in suppository form so I was out. They’d wrap my head in gauze and do their thing.
The first pharmaceutical ad agency I worked in used this woman, a freelancer to do their research for them on any subject they needed to know about. I got to know her a little and asked her one day if she’d do some research on my birthmark procedure. I had to pay her some, but she came back with a stack of articles on the subject. The medical community had been using radium on birthmarks, mostly on children, for some time, from the 20s and 30s until the mid-60s when studies (done mostly in Sweden) showed that these kids were getting cancer wherever they were dosing them. Lips, head, chest…
Her research said they probably injected the radium into my head with needles but I couldn’t tell you. All I know is, it never totally went away, this blotch on the back of my head, it went down, wasn’t purple anymore, but it’s still a pinkish scar the size of a quarter. I think. I’ve never actually seen it.
My mom gave me these short, buzzcuts growing up that really showed it off well, too. Crewcuts really help other kids see your flaws. They used to observe that it looked to them like the blunt end of a carrot sticking out of the ground so they called me Carrothead.
I showed my doctor all the research I’d gotten and he ordered an MRI of my skull. They didn’t find anything in the head, but did find a few nodules on my thyroid. These could be from the radium, I guess, but my sister Jayne has them, too, and my dad had trouble with his thyroid. This was in ’02, this scan, when my doctor called and left a message on my voice mail telling me he thought I had cancer and I needed to have them checked.
A really nice Endo gave my wife and me a nice long talk about cancer. She said that if it was cancer, I’d probably be dead already. Then she stuck a needle in my neck to find out. She said the biopsy was negative but I should keep getting it checked every couple of years or so. I kind of let the time slip by and didn’t get it checked for seven. Now they’ve found it’s doubled in size and my doc’s ordered another needle in my neck. Fun.
They’ve done the biopsy, it hurt like hell. The doctor doing it kept saying: “Hm, that’s unusual. It shouldn’t hurt that much. You must be sensitive to it.” I actually wouldn’t call it pain, exactly, it was more like extreme discomfort. Anyway, it came out benign, even though it’s a liquid-filled cyst. So, no cancer.
I got a chemistry set for Christmas one year. It was a mid-sized one. Not huge, but it still had some pretty good chemicals in it. I loved the test tubes and the little clamps you could use to hold them. It had an alcohol lamp and racks to hold the sulfur and magnesium and all the other compounds I didn’t really know what to do with. But I knew there was potential. I figured I could do great things with these simple elements. I did one experiment, with sulfur. I heated some and poured it on a penny. Once it cooled, I could pop it off the penny and there was Lincoln’s head in the hardened sulfur, backwards. Taa-Daa!!
I stuffed all the little jars into a paper bag one day and took them over to Jim’s house to experiment there. I don’t remember what we did with them but when we were done, I put them back in the bag and brought them home. I didn’t put them back in their nifty racks right away, I just left them in the bag on the kitchen floor.
When I finally came looking for them, they were gone. I can’t remember if days had gone by or only hours. But in that time, my mom thought it was a bag of garbage so she put more garbage on top of them and threw it all away…
I don’t remember going outside and going through the trashcans, it must’ve been too late, I guess, because you’d figure I would’ve done that much. But that was that.
I had the racks and the alcohol lamp and the test tubes. But no chemicals for my chemistry set.
But that didn’t stop me form experimenting… Like: does wax melt if you put it in a test tube and heat it over a burner on the stove? Well, let’s find out. When no one’s around, gone to bed. Late at night.
So… I’m holding the test tube over the flame with the little clamps. It’s melting nicely, hm, yes interesting. But there’s something else in the bottom, a few droplets of water from when I had just washed it. That was heating too, separating itself, flowing to the bottom and getting real hot, boiling maybe, in a nice two-layer effect. But then the water erupted, sending the hot wax upward, high enough to hit the ceiling. Crap!
I put the test tube down somewhere safe and got on a chair to see if I could get the wax off. The ceiling was made of fiber tiles, 8” x 8”, that interlocked. Not the drop ceilings office buildings have, the kind where you can take out a tile and replace it before anyone saw what you did with hot wax in a test tube.
I scraped it off the best I could, getting most of it, but it had left a stain, little discolored circles in the shape of the wax. I got off the chair, went down in the basement and found some white paint and a brush. It covered the spots nicely. I got down off the chair to admire my work and saw that the paint was a much whiter white than the tile that had absorbed so much cooking grease from being over the stove for so many years. It was this bright, white blotch in an otherwise “off-white” ceiling.
At the time, I felt I was stuck. I put everything away and went to bed. The next morning, I came right out and confessed, before anyone said anything. Not that they would have, no one really looked up much. My parents weren’t mad, I remember, I got an “Aw, Wally, stop playing with wax” kind of scolding.
(Thinking back, I probably should’ve painted that one tile all the way to the edges, making the whole tile a different shade. Then crossed my fingers. But honesty is the best policy.)
POST-OP WEEK 25
week of July 20
Like I said: my sisters and I are really spread out in age. There’s Sue, then 22 months later, there’s Jayne. Ten years later then me. Then five and half years later and Ellen. 17 or so years from one end to the other.
The way I heard the story, my parents got married but “couldn’t” have children for 4 or 5 years (although there was WWII in the middle of that). They adopted Sue and sixth months later, my mom got pregnant with Jayne. In that span of ten years before me, I had always heard (from someone, I don’t know who) that my parents were, maybe, going to get a divorce. And I remember talk of a hysterectomy; that doctors told my mom that she ought to get one, but my dad demanded that she didn’t, so she didn’t. He wanted a son, he said. So ten looooong years go by and there I am. (I steal from Groucho Marx and say: “Imagine his disappointment when I arrived…”)
My dad used to say that he and my uncle Joey were having some kind of “get our wives pregnant” contest during that time and that’s why my cousin Irene and I are so close in age. My dad would talk about conceiving me after some kind of drunken party— New Years or Christmas, the timing’s right. So alcohol was a part of my life right from the beginning.
The story goes: that when I was born, my dad had a three-day, drunken christening party, I thought, at his factory. Just going and going, loud music and dancing. They say they brought me to the party and as loud as it was, I’d just sleep and sleep.
So my mom kept her “waterworks” as my dad called it, at least long enough to have Ellen. I always thought she was an oops baby. Mom got the hysterectomy some time later, maybe five or so years…
Having such a spread-out family must’ve been weird.
I know there were a few times when my mom would be carrying Ellen in a store or carrying Ellen and walking with Sue, and people would come up and congratulate my mom for such a cute “grandchild.”
When Ellen was learning to walk, I was in first grade, Jayne was a junior or senior in high school and Sue was in secretarial school, just about moved out of the house all together.
We had a tiny house really, especially by today’s standards. Three bedrooms, none bigger than ten by ten (twelve by twelve, maybe). One bathroom. A kitchen the size of most people’s foyers these days. No counter tops! It was like the kind of kitchen they have on boats or in RVs. A fridge, four-burner stove, and a table with only three chairs… The extra chair that normal people had at their table, we kept in the corner on the other side of the room. It never dawned on me until just now, but even when my two older sisters had moved out and we were just a family of four, we couldn’t all sit down at the same time and eat a meal.
Not that we ever really did. My mom would feed us, whenever. 5 o’clock. 4, if we said we were hungry. A lot of times we got separate meals than my dad— she’d make us French toast for dinner —and sometimes she’d leave whatever was leftover from our dinner for my dad to eat when he got home. On “drinking nights,” say Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, it’d be six or seven. Other nights, when he wouldn’t drink (or maybe not drink as much, I can’t say that he was completely dry), he’d come home, eat alone at the table, then go upstairs and soak in the bathtub for an hour or so, reading a book: Mickey Spillane or Louis L’Amour. It was a little routine he had.
We’d have Sunday lunch together for a while at the dining room table, that seated six. My dad prepared it while my mom took Ellen and me to the Lutheran church in the next town over. He’d usually make some kind of beef with a lettuce and tomato salad, oil and vinegar “dressing.” Sometimes he’d make shrimp cocktails: a leaf of lettuce in a cut glass goblet, four or five shrimp covered in cocktail sauce from a jar.
The deal was: if you went to church with mom until your confirmation, you’d have the “choice” to go or not to go. I suffered through confirmation, memorizing commandments and the extra explanations Martin Luther added (I always thought “Thou Shall Not Kill” was pretty self-explanatory, but not Martin came up with more) then “chose” to stay home Sundays. I’d watch Flash Gordon re-runs on channel 9, sponsored by Burt Weinman Ford, while my dad cooked beef.
Jayne and Sue were probably there, too, on and off, depending on the year.
By the time Sue eloped (I want to say 1969) Jayne, I think, was out of college or just getting out, and planning her beautiful winter wedding!! I was twelve, this shrimpy 7th or 8th grader, 5’ 1” with dark brown glasses. Ellen would’ve been 7. My dad would’ve been about my age now: 53. Hm.
I was sort of a middle child, third, but the only boy so that would’ve changed the dynamic a bit. And with the spread so wide, I was also kind of an only child or at least left alone a lot.
My dad’s factory was doing well in the mid-70s. There was a year or two where it made ¼ of a million: profit, I think. This was 1974 dollars. And the factory had all of 20 or so employees at its peak. I don’t know how much he was paying them, but he always squashed their attempts at unionizing or getting health insurance. A lot of them barely spoke English. Whenever I’d go there during working hours, they’d smile big smiles and nod at me.
My dad used his company like an ATM. He’d give his actual paycheck to my mom every week, he drew one, officially on the books. But everything else he bought, booze, Christmas presents, cars, refrigerators… he paid for somehow, a petty cash fund or the company bought it. There was a time that he had me signing paychecks and handing them over to him, but I never worked there a day in my life, so I was a ghost on his payroll. I seem to remember him telling me he had a few “other guys” doing the same thing, signing over paychecks for a job they never did. I don’t know if they were city workers who needed to show an income, or they were more than likely mobsters of some kind.
My dad would bring home TVs and stereos that he got somehow. Sometimes he’d say they “fell off the back of a truck,” the euphemism for I bought it off a guy who stole it. We had big color TVs in just about every room. We had a Betamax video recorder the year they came out. We had a Quad sound system: the “next big thing” after stereo--- this was four speakers!!! They produced maybe ten records in Quad before the fad died out and we had two or three of them. We had 8-track recorders (not players, we had those, too. We had recorders). Reel-to-reel recorders. We had a riding lawn mower for our tiny Cook County lot. I had a couple of 35mm cameras with huge, honkin’ telescopic zoom lenses. He was always bringing home stuff. He’d bring home twenty or thirty ceramic aliens with springs for feet, complete crap, but there were 20 or 30 of them!!! That was around the time he’d hand my brother-in-law a thousand dollars for his mortgage while they were tossing back shots of Crown Royal.
Around this same time, just after maybe, the country had a recession: 75, 76. My dad’s partner decided he wanted out and asked for his 1/3 share of the business so he could go out and start his own, competing coil and transformer factory. His partner’s name was Peter and my dad had known him since college. Peter was the businessman while my dad designed everything. The way I heard it (and not just from my dad) was that my dad was pretty good designer, could do a lot of it in his head and created some stuff no one had before. I don’t know if he had a head for business, though and I wonder if Peter leaving hurt him. I think emotionally he was hurt, but I don’t know how much of a salesman/business man my dad was.
Peter started his new company with his son, who, I’m pretty sure still runs it to this day. My dad’s place slowly crumbled with my sister Jayne running it. My dad had his first stroke in ‘77, Washington’s birthday, I think. He bounced back from that fairly quickly, almost unscathed. My mom died two years later. By the time Jayne finally sold the place, in ’97 or so, it really wasn’t producing anything, no one worked there.
The weekend before it was sold, Jayne let me go there and take whatever I wanted. I got a friend with a truck and we both went over. The place smelled like feces of some sort, rats maybe. By the second day I could barely breathe I was wheezing so much and I felt really sick. I go past it every day on the train (I can see it from the tracks, if I look real fast between the trees) and the outside is all fixed up. I don’t know what they do inside, but I bet it’s not coils and transformers.
There were a lot of bad feelings during my dad’s illness and after his death, at least from me toward my family. They get together once in a while. Sue lives in Florida and refuses to come up north anymore, so they all fly down to visit her. I did it once, I think, but it got real expensive so I haven’t seen her or her husband of 40 years for maybe 14, 15 years now. Jayne and her husband, Ellen and her husband come over to our house at Christmas and we go over to hers at Easter but only because my wife insisted. They’re forced events, for me anyway. I used to drink a lot to help me through it, but don’t anymore. I just try and think of a reason to leave.
On a lighter note, my mom used to tell this story about me when I was just a toddler:
There was a time, at least once, when I pretended I had a dog. I’d drag a string around with me, imagining there was a dog on the other end. Like I said, I don’t know how many times I actually did this, but at least this one time I was walking my “dog” through a store and I needed a break. I handed the string to my mom, who absentmindedly took it. After my mom had been browsing a bit, a store clerk saw the string and stopped her: “Excuse me, ma’am… But you have a string hanging from your—” she politely informed her. “Oh, no,” my mom replied. “That’s my son’s dog.”
I was home with my dad one summer evening when I was 15. My brother-in-law was over and they were both sitting at the kitchen table, drinking beer. No one else was home; I couldn’t tell you where they went. It was dinnertime and I suggested Burger King. They thought it was an excellent idea, too.
I didn’t have my driver’s license yet, I was still driving on a permit. Dad and bro-in-law would have to be my legal adult supervision for the trip. I would be their designated driver. (They really didn’t have designated drivers back then, everyone was just sort of on their own.) They handed me the keys and we piled in my dad’s bright yellow Ford LTD sedan.
Bro-in-law rode up front with me--- he was less drunk. My dad poured himself into the back seat, a Hamm’s beer in his hand. I backed the boat out of the driveway, slowly, without any trouble and into the street, shifted into DRIVE and headed for the Burger King. Down to the corner and take a right across the railroad tracks. I made it through the short patch of town I had to get through, safely past the kids playing baseball in the park and pulled up to the stop sign at the edge of Jackson Boulevard. Jackson is four lanes of incessant traffic, two in each direction, with parking lanes on each side, too. The speed limit was 35 or 40, but everyone got it up to 45 or 50 on a regular basis. I inched my way past the sign to get a look at the cars crisscrossing in front of us.
I found my opening and darted across, no problem, and into the Burger King parking lot. We cruised into the drive-thru; I ordered my dinner. The other two got a little something for themselves. Then it was time to cross Jackson again. I crept down the apron, watching for my moment, a gap in the traffic to the left, waiting, waiting. A space suddenly opened up and I stepped on the gas, across one, two lanes and across the double yellow lines when I finally looked right and saw the huge flank of cars coming at us. And they weren’t slowing down.
In that split second, I figured I couldn’t shoot through the pack so I swerved left and hit the gas to try and go WITH them, get ahead of them somehow. I pulled the giant LTD hard to the left, threading it through that one lane and the cars now filling in from the left. Luckily, the car that was coming at me, swerved into the next lane and the car that was in that lane swerved into the parking lane or we would’ve had a major, multiple-car pileup.
Bro-in-law bounced around in the passenger seat, my dad laughing in the back. He was enjoying the roller coaster ride. We made it home okay with our dinner. I don’t believe we told my mom anything about it.
The diary continues in August 2009...