As there never seemed to be any family historians or story tellers, my story beings only as far back as my maternal grandparents.
Descended from “good Irish stock,” my grandparents married sometime in the early 1930s. By the standards of the time, my grandmother was already an “old maid,” as she was well past her teen years when she married.
My grandfather always seemed to have a “gruff” air about him. Even when he was speaking softly he sounded gruff. Most of the grandkids were always just a bit leery of him.
Three years her husband’s junior, my grandmother was short, dark-haired and dark-eyed. She was 22 when she had her first child in 1934 – my mother. Being devout Catholics, my grandparents incorporated the church into their daily lives and, for the most part, the church was the biggest influence in their lives. Through a total of at least seven pregnancies, six children were raised by my grandparents. The church guided them in the raising of their children, and their children had strict Catholic values ingrained in them.
Once, in a fit of anger, my mother told me that my grandparents had a fondness for drinking in their younger years and that her childhood was full of drunken fights and arguments between her parents. She recounted a story where my grandfather, after having been out drinking, came home and put his youngest daughter (Kathy) in bed with him and fell asleep. In a fit of jealous rage, my grandmother lit a newspaper on fire and threw it in bed with them. My mother, eight or nine at the time, rescued her baby sister and her father. I never saw this side of my grandparents. During all of our holiday gatherings, they drank. So, it’s not like they were “recovering alcoholics” that found God and straightened their lives out. I remember my grandmother as being a warm, loving, soft woman with a lot of class.
Mom was a shy, dark haired girl, with a slender build and penetrating dark eyes that always gave away her mood. By all accounts she was studious by nature, and well-behaved. She had played a primary role in the rearing of her younger siblings.
In the Fall of 1951, my mother entered her senior year of high school. That was the year she met and fell in love with Dick H. (my father) who had transferred into the school from the eastern part of the state. He was a handsome boy, with a bad boy type of image, and was larger than life. My grandparents frowned on this relationship – I don’t know exactly why, but I know that part of it was that he wasn’t Catholic. The other part, I’m sure, was that they saw in my father something dark and troublesome. In 1952 they graduated – my mother was class salutatorian. Life was full of promise that day.
After high school, my father joined the Marine Corps. It’s unclear what my mother did for that first year after graduation. However, in 1953, while home on leave, Dick and my mother got married. My grandparents completely “disowned” my mother, turning their backs completely. On what should have been the happiest day of her life to that point, they were not present at the wedding ceremony and, from the pictures I’ve seen, there was an obvious sadness about my mother on that day.
Without a home to go back to, my mother moved in with my paternal grandmother. They were very close and I’m not sure how and why my mother ended up leaving there, but she ended up moving in with my Aunt Wanda – my father’s sister.
I should mention a bit about my father, Wanda, their sister, and parents. The two oldest (Dick and Wanda) were yanked from home to home, never really having any security. Their mother would show up in the middle of the night and take one or both of them, and they’d find themselves in new surroundings, a new school, and with new people around. Pearl (my father’s mother) apparently had a lot of men in her life over the years. Often they found themselves living with their Aunt Shirley who, for all intents and purposes, was more mother to them than their own mother. Their father was a no-show for most of their lives, having disappeared shortly after the third was born.
So, back in the early to mid-1950s, Wanda and my mother became roommates. They were good friends, sharing everything – bills, food, clothes, whatever they needed. Dick was stationed in Ohio on recruiting duty for the Marines, and Wanda’s husband, Bob, was stationed somewhere else in the Navy. The two servicemen hitchhiked home quite frequently on weekends. As my Aunt Wanda tells it, her husband came home way more frequently than my mother’s did.
In late 1953, my mother became pregnant. My father began coming home on weekends more and more infrequently. The night my mother went into labor, Wanda called my father’s commanding officer and told him that “Dick H.’s wife is in labor and he needs to get his ass home!” That was the first that the unit knew my father was even married. They sent my father home but he arrived too late for the arrival of his son, Steve.
Shortly after Steve was born,my father’s family pooled their resources together and paid to have my mother and brother sent out to Ohio to live with my father, where he was stationed. It was a complete shock and surprise for my father. It wasn’t unusual for my father to not come home on any given night. He told my mother to expect him when he got there and not before. To help with the bills, my mother took on babysitting for a Marine who happened to be Hispanic. As the weeks went by, my parents’ marriage became more and more turbulent. If you’ve ever seen The Color Purple, you’ll remember the part where “Albert” brought his girlfriend home to recuperate from an illness and expected “Celie” to tend to her. It was similar with my father. He brought his girlfriend home for dinner one night and expected my mother to cook for her. He spent less and less time at home.
On one of the rare nights that my father came home, Steve was about 4 months old and was sick. It was the kind of night where, as soon as the baby finally settles down and goes to sleep, you slide into bed only to hear the baby begin to cry again. She’d walked him and rocked him and patted his little behind while he was in the crib and he finally fell asleep. She slid into bed beside my father and he put his arm around her. She recounted how good it felt, to have his arms around her and to just be held. One thing led to another and…well, you know.
The next morning, my mother awoke with a renewed sense of hope for her marriage. She was standing at the stove fixing breakfast when he came out of the bedroom and, when she asked him if he wanted coffee, the look she got from him turned her blood to ice. She said it was the most hateful expression she’d ever seen on a human being. He coldly told her that his girlfriend (Rachel) was pregnant and that he didn’t want to leave her to raise a child alone, so he was leaving my mother (of course, with a child). Unbeknownst to either of them, a seed had been planted the previous night.
As time went by, my father and mother saw each other occasionally. When my mother told him about her pregnancy, he swore uphill and down that it wasn’t his kid, that she’d probably gotten herself knocked up by that Mexican guy she’d been babysitting for. Shortly after I was born, my father showed up at my mother’s apartment one day, claiming he needed to use the phone. My mother saw him surreptitiously peering into the bassinet where I lay sleeping. He asked nothing about me. His girlfriend had delivered her baby 3 months earlier – my half-sister Marj.
The divorce became final and my mother packed her two little ones up and moved back to New York. With a family that had nothing to do with her, no husband, and no friends, she was alone except for Bob and Wanda, who lived nearby. A year or so after her return from Ohio, as she was walking down the street pushing me in my carriage and holding a toddling Steve’s hand beside her, a car pulled up. It was my grandmother, who wept at the thought of grandchildren she’d known nothing about. From that point on, my maternal grandparents were one of the largest forces in my life. I ADORED my grandmother.
I was 2½ the last time Wanda invited us to her home for Christmas dinner. Wanda and my mother had maintained a very close relationship through the years so it was completely natural to include us in their Christmas celebration. After dinner, Steve and I wanted to go outside to play in the snow, so Wanda and my mother began bundling us up to go outside. It was at that moment that my father, and his wife (Rachel) and daughter (Marj) showed up. It was an awkward moment and my father bent down to help my brother into his boots. Once his boots were on, my brother went to my mother and said “Mommy, that man helped me put my boots on.” That man. It was the last my paternal relatives saw of us for more than a decade. I suppose to protect herself from the hurt and anger, my mother had to sever ties. It was wrong, but certainly understandable.