Category: Childhood

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, O G#dm $on!@B%!tch (revisited)

Instructions: Click the “Play” arrow above. Please follow along silently, as I read aloud.

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Christmas as I’d always known it changed radically when my Dad died in late summer 1990. Although their marriage was quite the rocky one, my mother had stuck by him through fifty-four turbulent years and he by her. In hindsight, I don’t know which of them was the worst instigator. Truth be told, they both could be pains in the ass. Now for the first time in her adult life, Mom had found herself alone. I remember a phone conversation about two months after he was gone where I asked her  “so how are you really doing now?” to which she responded without missing a beat:

“Oh, it’s soooo lonely. There’s no one to fight with.” She’d said it with pure sincerity.

As the holidays approached, she was getting sadder, not better. I never expected this from her, because she’d always been such a free-spirited woman. Many times during her life she was held back because my father didn’t want her doing something she would have loved to do. She explained she dreaded sitting around the Thanksgiving table with her sister and brother and their families all by herself. I suggested she come out to Massachusetts and spend it with me and my then partner Alejandro. She leapt at the chance. We took her to a lovely two-hundred-year-old inn for a hearth-side turkey dinner. She adored it, but commented several times during the meal that she felt like a whore (that’s how she pronounced it), because only whores ate Thanksgiving dinner at restaurants. Each time she repeated the word, she’d grin a little more broadly.

So Mom went back to Ohio, and now whenever we spoke on the phone her conversation turned to dreading Christmas. She wondered how she could ever make it to New Year’s without my father. Mind you, the two of them hadn’t partied on New Year’s Eve since the birth of my older brother in 1942. I suggested she find a bereavement support group to help ease her way through the holidays. She did attend several sessions. But those phone conversations were not getting any better and her calls were coming closer together. The topic was still the same and growing more maudlin each time.

Finally, out of desperation, I tried another tactic. With a giggle in my voice I offhandedly joked “Mom, maybe you should think back to all those Christmases that Dad ruined by screaming and fighting over the Christmas tree”. There was a long pause as I waited for her reply. Then it came like a volley:

“Well…I’m sorry that your childhood Christmases were ruined”, and she hung up with a bang.

But it was true. Just as I remember looking back on fun hours baking Christmas cookies, I recall the angst and torture that came with merely the mention of the words Christmas and tree combined. My parents certainly never needed a real reason to have an argument. They could start a rip-snorter over the most insignificant thing imaginable. Like the thermostat on the wall. On one trip back to West Buttfok, I found the two of  them hadn’t spoken to each other for three days, because each insisted that neither of them had touched the bloody thermostat and yet it somehow was set at 70 instead of 68 degrees. Is that the universally acceptable winter setting, I’d wondered?

So one can see how a relationship as explosive as theirs would certainly crumble under the pressure of dealing with the burden of a Christmas tree. And it often times began at home simply discussing the fact that it was nearing time to go out and buy a tree. Dad would say it was way too early to go looking, and my mother insisted that if we waited even an hour longer all the good ones would surely be gone. They would scream and curse and name call and insult the hell out of each other until one of them would end up grumbling “then fine-we just won’t have a tree this year”.

Once the two of them agreed it was the appropriate time, we all of us piled into the car and round two began-where to buy the tree. In the 50s and 60s there weren’t a lot of places that sold trees in our area of greater Cleveland, yet our folks claimed they could never remember where we got the tree the year before. I always remembered, but they didn’t trust one another, so why would they even consider trusting a kid? We were hardly down the driveway before the screaming began again, this time about which direction to head in. If Mom persisted in going to the tree seller she thought we’d gone to the year before, my father would threaten: “Stop tellin’ me where ta’ drive or I’ll turn the god-damn car around right now and you won’t have yer’ tree.”

It’s not my tree”, she would counter, it’s our tree.”

“Yeah, right”, he’d grumble under his breath, demanding to have the last word. I would sit in the back seat cowering, just wishing the ordeal would be over rather than only beginning. There were also years when she’d call his bluff and he did turn around to go home. Then usually my brother or I started crying. This caused Dad to scream at us and reach around with his right hand blindly smacking at our legs while he continued driving, one-handed, refocusing his anger on his sons rather than his wife the shrew. We never did suffer a Christmas without a tree though, but came pretty damn close a couple of years.

Invariably we ended up at a place near my elementary school which always had the best selection. My older brother and I started running down the rows of cut trees propped up on stakes. Our parents screaching at us to “act civilized, fer’ chrissakes”-ironic coming from the two of them. All of us were hoping to be first to spot the perfect tree for our tiny living room, which barely had space for the manger scene on the TV set and the four of us at the same time. Of course my mother always fell in love with the twelve footers, which was a total impossibility in our bungalow. My dad typically chose the shortest, bushiest, shrub-like arbor because his main criteria was fitting “the god-damn thing” into his car trunk. He never would be so cavalier to allow even one inch of pine to stick out of the car. He was far too lazy to expend the energy tying the thing to his roof. “It might scratch the paint” was his excuse against doing any extra work. This concern for a car he washed with Spic-n-Span once a summer-whether it needed it or not.

The one and only thing they did agree on was it had to be a Scotch Pine. Why, I’ve no idea, but every year it had to be our tree of choice. Short needle, long needle, bushy or spindly, my brother and I just wanted a tree to take home to decorate, and our parents to stop fighting and shut the hell up. They had no shame; they’d fight in front of the tree man. They weren’t the least bit bothered by each other’s behavior but I could have died right then and there. I bore their shame for them.

Round three was bringing the tree into the living room, setting it up and putting on the lights. This was something that only Dad could do, no matter how old we sons were. It was one of his few expressions of machismo, but of course, it came with a price. We were expected to help him if he struggled, while at the same time staying out of his way. So, if the tree began to lean dangerously close to falling, (as Mom hollered “towards the window!” and he queried “which window, fer’ chrissakes?”) unless he called for help we were NOT to attempt assisting. And when he did ask for our aid, we were, of course, told we were useless, because it was our fault that whatever had happened, happened.

He shouted and swore and G-D’d his way through the job. Once it was up in its stand and encircled in lights he parked his ass in his recliner and watched us hanging the years of accumulated ornaments and tinsel and candy canes. Intermittently supervising our work, chewing on a smelly cheap cigar, he would bellow instructions from his throne. He’d critique our decorating with helpful comments like: “Yer’ makin’ the damn thing look cockeyed now” or the ever-popular “Can’t you do anything right?”. Then when people came to visit over the holidays my father was the first to remark “isn’t our tree beautiful?”. We all wanted to wring his neck, leaving him dead-right there in his chair.

At the end of the joyous season came the final round…that being dismantling the dead pine and taking it out to the street to be carted away by the trash man. I won’t even bore you with that ordeal. I think you might guess that those memories are not half as pleasant as the ones putting the tree up had been.

I still love Christmas trees, despite my parents’ damaged sense of holiday cheer. I’ll admit that taking down dessicated live trees is nothing but ugliness and hell, and I often channel most of my father’s rage to assist me in the task. But still for seventeen years, David and I went out shopping for a live tree. It is a happy/sad time for us both, decorating and remembering Christmases past and family and friends no longer with us to celebrate the season.

This Christmas is our first foray into the world of the fake tree-and is it ever. A fantasy of mine for decades-inspired, no doubt by some uber queer department store window designer in the late 1950s-a six-foot tall PINK Christmas tree. It’s so gay it’s almost embarrassing. But it’s beginning to grow on us. Have a fabulous holiday! (whatever you celebrate).

A Cavalcade of Birthday Memories

Scan10009I’ve had many, many birthdays since my earliest recollected fifth, and even many that I don’t remember at all. Like thirty. I know I was living in New York City, yet there is not a glimmer of recall at how I spent it and thirty is such a nice round number you would think there should have been some memory. And yet I see vividly my seventh, because I had my first “kid” birthday party with boys and girls from both school and the neighborhood. There was my mother, hosting over a dozen rowdy rugrats in our rec room, while being nine months morbidly pregnant, carrying my soon-to-be-baby brother.

The theme was circus, so of course it was clown everything: plates, cups, napkins, tablecloth, party favors and matching cake. The only thing NOT clown was the Pin the Tail on the Donkey game which I hated playing, because already at age seven I understood the meaning of passe. Mom’s ankles were swollen like the balloons hanging from the ceiling and she was feeling miserable, (she was only months away from being forty years old), but she was smiling and cordial to all those rambunctious little bastards who were my guests.

About half-way through the fete, after traveling up and down the basement steps schlepping for the umpteenth time, I caught a glimpse of the angst and discomfort show through her own painted smile. She resembled the clown faces that surrounded us everywhere we looked, pretending to be happy for my birthday while these rotten kids were making a mess of everything and creating still more work than her poor, expectant body could ever handle. On top of all this, my father was on the verge of his first ‘nervous breakdown’, a concept we were all learning to comprehend and work into the daily routine of our simple lives. I can never look back at seven and not first flash to that seminal period of our family history when crazy took over the reins.

At sixteen a friend from high school named Gemma attempted to throw a surprise party for me. She was supposedly cooking a birthday dinner at her parents’ house at 8:00 p.m. which was tres chic for West Buttfok, Ohio where by 5:30 most everybody had already finished doing the dishes even on Saturdays. We were super-close pals and had been hanging out together for a year or so. I’d gotten ready way ahead of schedule so I decided to walk over a little early. Maybe I could help her out with the cooking. I showed up at her door a bit before 7:00. I still remember her little sister’s face at the door, totally shocked which seemed odd as she adored me and enjoyed when I  visited because I fussed over her.  Gemma came up from behind her with shower wet hair, clutching her bathrobe to her chin. She looked really pissed and before I could say a thing she announced something to the effect of “So surprise, asshole”, (she definitely used that particular term of endearment), “you just blew your own surprise party by being the first one here!”.

Twenty-five was one of those birthdays that I judged as a traumatic mile marker. I was aggravating myself for several weeks before, announcing to anyone who would listen that I would soon be celebrating my Silver Birthday. It sounded like such a pivotal number. You could be in your early twenties and still be considered just a crazy college kid. That had long been my excuse to family elders my first few years in NYC trying to land an acting job. They viewed it as having no career and absolutely no direction in life. (Forget about the fact that I was unmarried with no sign of a girlfriend.) Twenty-five I was somehow interpreting as a serious signal that my frivolous years were behind me. I took the day off from work. I spent my entire birthday alone going out for breakfast, lunch and dinner and in between meals traveled from one cinema to another, taking in three different movies. I was home in bed and asleep by nine o’clock that night, over-fed, filmed-out and now seemingly devoid of my youth.

My fortieth birthday was spent in NYC even though I was living in an eight-room Victorian on the common of a sleepy New England town with my partner Alejandro. We went into The City for the weekend to celebrate. My good friend Giuseppe took me to lunch at Le Cirque and spent a fortune on a simply amazing afternoon of food, wine and conversation. To this day I don’t believe I’ve ever enjoyed a more magnificent luncheon! Then it was off to the theatre to watch a college friend play Mother Superior in NUNSENSE. She was incredibly funny in the role and just seeing her ultra-Protestant self in her nun’s habit was a scream to this forty-year-old lapsed Catholic/lapsed thespian.

Turning fifty looked to be an inexorable milestone. The year was 1999. My mother had died that June, so it was official – I was now an orphan. Everywhere we turned we were being bombarded with Y2K hysteria. I refused to stuff my mattress with my meager life savings and my retirement package likewise was going to stay put, doomsday advocates be damned. Certain unnamed relatives of mine in Michigan were stockpiling dried beans and rice in the cellar to no doubt observe their End of Days final meal. What sort of last hurrah style celebration would be appropriate for my golden birthday with all these factors considered? I settled upon a trip for David and me to see our dear friends Mickey and Minnie in Orlando. My younger brother and his family flew down to meet us, as we had vowed after Mom’s funeral that we would get together before the end of the millenium to do something together that was actually fun. It was a childishly wonderful fifty we all celebrated that year.

Once you have tallied these many years, birthdays seem to take on another meaning all together. You truly miss those friends and family who aren’t around any more to mail a card, make that phone call to sing an off-key version of the birthday song, or send an email. Now your refrigerator’s face is peppered with those ubiquitous little doctor’s appointment cards reminding you (sometimes seemingly into the next millenium) that you are mortal, slowly falling apart piece by piece. Yet even though I begin each new morning with an aspirin and three different pills for my blood pressure, I am still that foolish twenty-five-year old. When I pull on a pair of jeans I wonder why the tag reads W34 when I am certain my waist is the same 29 inches it has always been. Passing the medicine cabinet mirror as I stagger into the shower each a.m. without my glasses on, why do I catch a glimpse of my grandmother? The woman has been gone since 1990. I have always adored her, so why should she haunt me?

I think for my seventieth, if I am still around and still possessing all my marbles, I shall throw for myself a surprise party with a clown theme. I am betting I can pull it off without a hitch. And by then, so much time might have elapsed that Pin the Tail might have come round full circle again.

Gramma’s Journey

This is a great story, but it is not my story. My maternal grandmother shared it with me when I was very young, in hopes of explaining what and where The Old Country was that she and Grampa always talked about. With time and more often my own persistent cajoling, she retold her story, each rendition focusing more on a different portion, giving up remembered new details decades later. Gramma was a quiet lady, not a flamboyant or theatrical personality like my mother. Whenever we were alone, always a treasured time for me, I would work her into a story-telling mood. Her heartfelt delivery was even and deliberate, as though she were reciting from memory a history text she had studied for a class long before.

The place where they lived, Slovenia, had been erased from the maps (and the globe in my older brother’s bedroom) after the First World War, reduced to just the northern most part of Yugoslavia. This was a confusing concept for even a precocious six-year-old to fathom. For me it existed in the handful of photographs carefully mailed in letters Gramma would receive a few times each year in those pale blue tissue paper envelopes covered with airplanes and pretty stamps. It was a place we had sent some of my clothes I’d outgrown for cousins of distant cousins I had never met, poorer even than we were. The Old Country was where Gramma and Grampa grew up without cars or refrigerators, sidewalks or radios – an almost make-believe place which utterly fascinated me.

She was born in a town called Krska Vas, second child of tenant farmers who raised pigs and chickens and grew beets, cabbage and potatoes. Her mother was responsible for running and working the farm with her children’s aid, as Gramma’s father was a cobbler who traveled from village to village, making boots and shoes and training apprentices. When Gramma was twelve she was apprenticed to a seamstress in the next village, learning to sew and in return, caring for the woman’s children as payment. She had a real aptitude for the trade and soon was able to tackle complicated dressmaking for the master craftswoman. What she dreamed about while she sewed, away from her home and family, was becoming a nun. Her father’s uncle was a priest and her mother had been raised in a convent. The only thing Gramma loved more than going to church was receiving Holy Communion, so she attended daily Mass regularly.

Within a year’s time, everything in her world would change. Her father left for America with her older sister. They would find jobs and save to send enough money to bring them all to Cleveland. Gramma returned home to help her mother with the farm and to care for her four younger brothers. Franck required special help because he had always been sickly. An already difficult life became more burdensome for Gramma and her mother without her father and big sister. They struggled day-to-day, working outside to keep the farm going and inside raising four boys under the age of twelve.

The year 1915 proves to be momentous. In January, brother Franck dies at age nine and is buried in the church cemetery with only a tiny wooden cross to mark his grave. The fighting that had begun when Emperor Franz Josef declared war on Serbia the year before, is now being waged all across Europe. Life is not only hard, life is now dangerous as well. After more than three years of working in Cleveland, the money has arrived to book passage for America. A passport for a 16-year-old Gramma and another for her mother which includes the names of her three sons aged 14, 6 and 4 are issued in October. They are scheduled to leave from Rotterdam on November 27th. Because they will be traveling steerage, they question what they should bring with them. My Great Grandfather instructs them to wear all the clothes they can and to bring the pots and pans and household goods wrapped within the feather beds.

Gramma always described the journey as over three weeks long, which as a child I interpreted to be spent entirely onboard the ship. As I grew older, it seemed she might be embellishing the time frame. We family members who have since researched the trip nearly one hundred years later realize it was no exaggeration whatsoever. They left their village by ox cart for the capital city, fifty miles away, at some point switching to a faster horse-drawn version. These were people who knew only a near-Medieval existence of muddy, narrow paths and day long journeys on foot to a neighboring village. They boarded a train in Ljubljana for Vienna, a distance of some two hundred fifty miles. Along the way they ate bread and soup once a day – the cheapest and most nourishing they could afford. And everywhere they went, each dragged a round-ball bundle of possessions. Gramma had a satchel as well which contained comb and hair brush, scissors, the family’s rosaries and prayer books and a very few precious  photographs.

While changing trains in Vienna for Rotterdam, they were awed by the size of the city and the number of churches and huge buildings her brothers could count from the train’s windows. It was another seven hundred miles to the port where their ship would be waiting and three more days. They were guests of the Red Cross the night before the ship sailed and had to climb many stone steps to enter the building – something that none of them had ever done before. Red Cross provided breakfast the following morning consisting of huge bowls of hot cereal with cream and raisins. They were elated as raisins were a treat reserved only for holidays and special occasions.

Once on board the ship, deep within its bowels, they were relieved of dragging their bundles, but the compartment was dark and confining with no privacy for anyone. In this space Gramma and her mother would pass the next twelve days with three rambunctious little boys. The North Atlantic can be very rough, especially in late November and when there is a war raging in it, the crossing is even more daunting. Each time the ship neared a passing vessel whether it be military or otherwise, they stopped and sent up their flags, denoting they were a neutral ship carrying passengers. It added time to their trip, yet kept them safe.

But one day, about midway in the voyage, a German U-boat surfaced alongside them. Their flags raised, the Germans still signaled they were coming aboard. Once on the ship they grilled the crew and demanded everyone leave their cabins, easily intimidating the already nervous crowd. They took bags of the mail bound for the U.S. and dumped them overboard. At this point in her story, my Gramma would tearfully reflect how frightened they were as they watched thousands of envelopes floating in the waves. She sobbed at how cruel the sailors were – so destructive, hurting innocent families by destroying precious news from home. Once the U-boat disappeared below the sea, her mother instructed them to go back to their compartment where they knelt and prayed the rosary together. She begged God out loud for protection, questioning what had her husband been thinking when he decided she should be responsible for putting her own children in so much danger.

The final morning on the S.S. Nieuw Amsterdam, Gramma remembers seeing bits of debris, branches and leaves floating in the ship’s wake and then gulls and seabirds flying above. Soon they could make out something other than sea and sky in the horizon. By the afternoon they passed the Statue of Liberty and they retreated below the last time to pray and gather their things. She told me about entering Ellis Island and the enormous staircase they had to descend. Tired of lugging their feather bed loads, the boys got the idea to roll them down the stairs. Of course the weight of the bundles found their own momentum and they bounced and bowled through the crowd, pushing and knocking over people in their way. My Gramma would smile and recall that her mother’s first duty in the USA was to slap the living hell out of those three boys, reprimanding them mid-staircase, even before they had been officially welcomed into the country.

Boarding the train to Cleveland she could finally allow herself to become excited about this new home and the thought of seeing again, after nearly four years, her beloved father and older sister. As they got off the train, Gramma saw a strange man standing with them. Once she’d kissed her father, he nervously introduced her to his co-worker from the foundry, a man he had somewhat promised her to, sight unseen – the man who would, in less than a year’s time, become her husband.

After their three children were grown and married and most of us grandchildren were born, Gramma and Grampa sailed to Europe, visiting their homeland in 1957. Even all those years later they had to travel by oxen to arrive at Grampa’s village. I remember the picture of them in the primitive wooden-wheeled cart, taken in front of his family home, still standing after two world wars. They stayed for three weeks and although her village was less than two days journey, Grampa did not want to visit, since none of her family had remained there. It was not until years after he died, in 1980, that Gramma flew to Slovenia and returned to Krska Vas, an eighty-year-old woman. She was driven into town by car. There were highways now and electricity and telephones and color television. She was amazed at the modernity, but also at how much of her little village was recognizably still the same.

The morning of her arrival there was much activity centered around her precious parish church. It seemed as though there was some sort of celebration beginning. There was a television crew from Ljubljana and visitors from everywhere. They learned it was the 75th anniversary of the blessing of the bells in the church tower.  Gramma remembered the day as a small but impressionable five-year-old, recalling with clarity the huge cart rolling into town carrying the massive bronze bells. Even the Bishop had visited their town to bless them before they were installed. In minutes a reporter was holding a microphone to her mouth, recording her recollections for State TV. It was only a small moment in a month-long visit that warmed her often throughout her final years of life.

She visited the church cemetery, hoping to locate the grave of her little brother Franck who she had lost years before. She contacted the pastor and while he searched old parish records inside the church office, she wandered through the church yard, walking and trying to remember the spot where he had been laid to rest. The priest came out with the old record book and confirmed she was standing only a few feet from the actual gravesite. She placed flowers on the spot and knelt and prayed over him. It had taken her sixty-four years, but she was back home.

On June 25, 1991, nearly a year after we buried Gramma, Slovenia declared its independence from Yugoslavia. I celebrated for my grandparents, that their homeland once again had its own identity. I was proud for its people but more so for the memory of my Gramma. I began this by saying it was not my story, but rather her story. Actually this is the story of us all, unless your family name happens to be Eagle or Bear or Cloud. And it doesn’t matter if your family came here as steerage, in a wagon from Canada, a truck from Mexico, on the Mayflower or  a 747. Each had its own hardships. Most trips were difficult and made at a high cost one way or another. Every voyage held a certain danger, a little trepidation, some perhaps, even intrigue. Tears were surely shed before, during or after the journey. There were those who did not stay, returning to the safety of the world they had known from birth. But the ones who did – the Grammas and Grampas of this country – gave us the gift that came of their great sacrifice.

Everything I Know About ESL—- I Learned From My Grampa

For both my father and mother, English was their second language and so my generation is the first to speak it as our mother tongue. This is a fact I’d known since childhood, but never really understood until I began teaching English as a Second Language at a private university in Central Massachusetts. Like any job, it has its humdrum days and times when I wish I were anywhere else but in front of a classroom, yet the experience is still most days personally gratifying with a sense that I am doing something that actually affects people’s lives for the better. One cannot ask for more than that from an occupation.

All four of my grandparents individually emigrated from Slovenia, then a part of Austria-Hungary, just prior to or during the First World War. Both grandfathers served in the army of Emperor Franz Joseph I. My paternal grandfather apparently spent his mandatory two-year military gig trying to find ways to get out of his conscription and failed woefully. My mother’s dad, “Ata” (father in Slovenian-which even Gramma called him) found his army experience to be some of the best years of his life. His huge repertoire of stories was replete with anecdotes of his time as a young soldier just prior to the outbreak of war in Europe. It was my Grampa, (what we kids called him), who hooked me with his art for storytelling, captivating my childhood and silently mantling me with the task of family chronicler with his passing.

Gramma began to learn English from my mom once she started school. She insisted my six-year-old mother bring her text books home each night and teach Gramma what the nuns had taught her earlier that day. As my mother often recounted, it was an incredible learning system because while Gramma gained the basics of the language, my mother was reviewing what she was just beginning to absorb herself. Grampa, on the other hand, had no time for such games. He was working in a malleable iron factory ten-plus hours a day. He learned English from his foreman, his supervisor and coworkers, the bus driver and the factory cafeteria workers. In Cleveland in the 1920s that meant Germans, Russians, Poles, Italians, Serbs, Croats and Hungarians and all the other Eastern Europeans who had flocked to this thriving industrial city for work and a new life.  His new language skills were hardly skills at all, but rather basic survival language that served him well till the end of his days at eighty-six. He spoke what language teachers term fossilized English.

He conjugated the verb to be as follows:

I be guud/You be guud/She be guud/We be guud/Dey be guud.

As an example, his present tense would be structured “Today I be verry guud” (the “r” is rolled in Slovenian). The past tense he formed “Yesterrday I no be so guud”. For the future, however, he did adopt the use of gonna’ “Tomorrrow we gonna’ be verry guud”. Even as a youngster, I didn’t find Grampa’s English peculiar or unintelligible. I understood him perfectly, convoluted grammar and heavy Slavic accent included. His unique form of English seemed perfectly logical to me. It was his heartfelt stories about the old country that captivated me and I hung onto his every imperfect syllable to hear him recount each and every one of them.

My mother didn’t drive until well into her forties, so my father chauffeured her to all the evening Adult Ed classes she taught for years, dragging my little brother and me around with him. Two nights a week she had classes on the east side, so we waited for her at Gramma and Grampa’s house. My dad adored his father-in-law, admitting he was closer to him than his own father. I am certain the feeling was mutual. I loved spending time with Gramma because she was Earth Mother to me, the most loving and generous-with-her-affection woman ever to come into my life.

Time around the kitchen table listening to Grampa, however, was the ultimate treat and I never tired of his colorful tales. His props were the Raleigh Plain End cigarettes he smoked, punctuating his sentences with long, dramatic drags and very vocal exhales and P.O.C. Beer (Pride Of Cleveland) guzzling the last third of a bottle in transition from one story to the next. He chain-smoked those Raleighs for years, amassing tons of coupons until, in the early 1960s, suddenly switching to Kents (with the micronite filters). I remember they cost 21 cents because often, mid-story, he would send me to the corner store with a quarter for another pack and with the four cents change I bought a small bag of loose penny candy, running back quickly so as not to miss his all-important ending. There were dozens and dozens of stories over my lifetime with Grampa, seemingly never repeating himself. Yet some were my special favorites that I would beg to be retold and he performed those requests with extra vitality, not wanting to disappoint.

One of those treasured tales was the day a four-year-old Grampa was told by his father that he had to say goodbye to his dying mother. There were two older brothers as well, but the central character was Grampa. His mother had been ailing for days and now the end was in sight. He was old enough to understand what illness was, but certainly had no idea about the concept of death. He was instructed to kiss her goodbye. His father and brothers were crying, fully grasping what was coming to pass. Grampa was only fixated on his mother’s head lying against her pillow. He knew that underneath that pillow lay a box of chocolates she kept hidden, given only as the most special of treats – doled out sparingly. They were incredibly poor tenant farmers struggling to produce enough to fill their own stomachs once they had provided the required compensation to the landlord from whom they leased their tiny farm.

After leaving his kiss on her cheek, he waited for the others, taking his cues from them. When they saw that she had passed, his father and brothers consoled each other. Grampa took the moment to quickly slide the chocolate box from under the pillow and hurry outside where he could hide and gorge himself on every one of the remaining candies in his mother’s carefully guarded arsenal. He remembered knowing it was very wrong to eat them all himself, but the temptation was too great to pass up. He spent the entire night sick to his stomach. The others thought his vomiting was due to anxiety and fear, after all, the little boy had lost his mom. He always ended the story by saying: “Becoz my mooderr, she die, my fahderr, he merrry agen and den I haf mooderr-een-lauw. I be shem for wat I do to my poorr mooderr, dead een herr bed, steeling da kendee frram underr dee peelow. I steel be shem forr myself – eben too-day”. He would lift his eyeglasses to dry the fresh tears from underneath his eyes. Each time he told that story, I would tear up myself for the poor little four-year-old Grampa I saw there before me.

But the all-time favorite story for me, I came to realize as an adult, was what must have been purely Slovenian folklore. Grampa explained that this had happened to his father, Michael, years before my Grampa was born, when his father was a single young man. It was harvest time for the wheat and the neighboring farmers would help each other in the difficult and painstaking task. Normally they traveled by oxen, but because of the distance, their neighbor picked them up before dawn with a horse cart. My Great Grampa was excited about this job because of the large village they would pass through, but more so because of the speed of the horses.

The farm was enormous compared to other neighbors and the job of the wheat harvest even greater. Many men worked the entire day in the sun, cutting and baling to finish before the rain. It was well after sundown when they were done, stopping because it had grown too dark to see in the fields anymore. Exhausted, Michael and his father climbed back into the horse cart for the journey home. There was only a lantern next to the driver to light their way, so they had to travel more slowly than they had that morning. They passed through the large village, but could see very little in the heavy darkness.

As they entered into the open road in the direction of their farm, they soon came upon a crossroads where they would have to continue straight ahead towards home. The horses began to slow as they neared this rural intersection – something was in the middle of the road. The driver said it was a large black cat that was frightening the two horses. They began to buck and as they did, the cart lurched back and forth so that Great Grampa Michael and Great-Great Grampa had to hold on tightly to not be thrown out and trampled to death by the spooked horses. To gain control the driver used his whip on the oversized feline that refused to budge from her spot. According to Grampa, he did so by hitting underhanded with the whip in an upward motion. As the whip struck, “dee somma-nah-beetch cot, she grow up eento a ‘supernitza’ (Slovenian for witch).

At this point in the tale, I was peeing myself in fearful anticipation, as I watched him mime the whipping technique with his sinewy, strong-arm. His face grimaced in terror as he dramatically over enunciated the word for witch and he was frightened all over again as he terrorized me with the story his father had handed down to him. Usually my own father would interject here, his doubt concerning the veracity of the tale. Grampa always confirmed, shaking a crooked, arthritic finger near my father’s face “Frrank, wat I be telling you ees wat my fahderr, he tell me. End my fahderr, he nay-berr say no ting wat ees not dee trroot”. Then he would turn to me, still sitting mesmerized in total awe, wanting so to believe this really had happened. Cautioning me with that same gnarled finger “Wain you arre trraveling in dee rroad at night and you git to dee crross – eef you see bleck cot – nay-berr heet dee cot up. All-ways heet de cot down. Adderrwise, you gonna hef dee supernitza and she gonna’ try git YOU too!”.

The odd part of the story was, he never did explain how they dealt with the midnight witch in the road, yet that never was much of a concern to me. And I knew from his face and the implicit tone of his voice, he truly believed every word his father had imparted to him. Grampa had left his father, oldest brother and step mother in Slovenia when he came to ‘Amerrika’ at twenty-four and never saw them again. He took a trip back only once, in 1956 when he was sixty-eight years old and they were all long gone. As much as he loved this country and all the benefits he gained from immigrating here, he could never let go or tire of his beloved Slovenia. He spoke passionately about it every time we were together around his kitchen table where he held court. Although he was sort of a tough, man’s man, misogynistic, shot -and -a-beer kind of a guy, he openly wept when the family gathered together and my mom led the singing of old folk songs, his booming basso voice occasionally joining in on a particular favorite of his.

Once I left for college, those evenings of tales became few and far between. He didn’t often take to story-telling when we were all together with the entire extended family to celebrate the holidays. I marvel today at his ability to hold an audience in the palm of his hand, especially having to do it with a language always foreign to him. I mourn all that I missed by never understanding his mother tongue and how much richer and more enthralling his tales must have been in the original. And I measure my own ability, even with the obvious language edge over him, and I pale in his shadow.

Show Me Yer’ Dick

“Show me yer’ dick”. If delivered in just the right way, that phrase can still get a rise out of me.  As mundane as those four words may sound, for years they have served as my Viagra. I was once a member of a very exclusive sex club. No, it was not during my Manhattan heyday, but rather in West Buttfok, the summer between Kindergarten and first grade after my mother lifted the travel embargo she’d imposed on me.  I could now locomote the entire block on our side of the street. This covered an area from “the school bus corner” to the bottom of the hill that ended in the main thoroughfare in town. There were exactly twenty houses and two vacant lots, which we termed fields, even though the frontage could not have been more than forty feet and they were entirely overgrown. And because I was allowed to manuever two corners, I met kids from the streets that flanked ours on either side.

Most of us had stuff in our backyards to keep us occupied: swing sets, sandboxes, pools and outdoor toys. Regardless, we gravitated to those empty lots, most probably because they were postage stamp sized microcosms for jungle warfare, cowboy and indian massacres or whatever backdrop was required for our own particular brand of pretending. Of the two places, my favorite was the more popular one near the school bus corner. It had a large tree (perfect for climbing) almost dead-center, a few boulder sized rocks for crawling on and hiding behind, over grown scrub bordering the lot all around and ankle high grasses covering everywhere else. As long as it wasn’t raining, you could count on finding somebody to play with from early morning to supper time.  Enjoying my new-found freedom, I typically spent a good part of my day there. I confess that most of these new friends from the neighboring streets are now both nameless and faceless.

On one particular summer’s day several of us were engrossed in play. Even though the place was closely sandwiched between two houses, we were protected by the over-growth so we couldn’t see out, and being so small, we were hidden from the street. We weren’t able to see anyone coming until they were inside our private world, unless they were bigger kids, and none of them were interested in hanging around with us babies. Suddenly, into our field appeared Donald Bianchi, my older brother’s best friend. His family lived near the bottom of the hill. He came over our house all the time to hang out with my brother and they usually went to the railroad tracks on their bikes a mile or so away to smoke cigarettes. I knew about it, but helped keep the secret for them so my brother wouldn’t give me a harder time than he already did. Donald was a bit older than my brother, probably around fourteen. He was a good-looking kid, with beautiful brown hair combed back into a duck’s ass just like Elvis and full pouty lips like Ricky Nelson. Even at six years old, I could notice such things and find them most appealing.

Donald went over to the tree and climbed into its Y-shaped crook, putting himself several feet above our heads. He looked down at our group as the five or so of us congregated in front of him. He started to give us orders to do silly things – his own version of Simon Says. He told us told to hop on our right foot, then maybe on both, or turn around quickly in circles. We did as he instructed, having a great time being silly at the direction of a big kid who was actually being nice to us. Very soon the commands changed and it became “girls show me your butts” and “boys pull down your pants”. We giggled. Maybe a few blushed or hesitated, but Donald’s orders were dutifully met and we were laughing like crazy. He smiled warmly, as though he was letting us in on the usual game that big kids played when they were together.

Before we left, he swore us to not tell anyone about our special play, because now we had our own club and he was our leader. As the kids began heading for home, he jumped down from the tree to talk to me alone. He told me not to tell my brother about our club, that this would be our secret – his and mine – that we would keep like the cigarette smoking one. He was paying attention to me and I was totally enthralled. I would do anything this handsome older boy asked me to do.

The next time Donald came to the house, I wondered if he would treat me differently. He made no sign that we shared our unique confidence. In time, he wandered back into our field and took his place in the tree again. Some kids left right away and I remember it being only me and one other boy and girl. It began the same way and soon after the boys pull down your pants routine, it came down to only the girl and me. In almost no time, we ended up totally bare assed, standing there waiting for Donald’s next command. Then he announced he wanted to see the girl pee. I don’t remember now whether it was that she couldn’t pee or just didn’t want to, but in minutes she got dressed and ran home.

I pulled my pants back on and he jumped down from his tree. Now he was standing in front of me. I was ready to leave, assuming our club meeting had adjourned. Donald looked into my eyes and murmured “Show me yer’ dick”. I had no idea what a dick was; I had never heard the word used as anything but a guy’s name before. I only knew wiener, which most of my peers called it, or peeney, what my mother insisted I call it. I always hated her word because it sounded like something tiny or totally insignificant. “My what?” I questioned. “Yer’ dick” he pronounced more seductively, – ” yer’ wiener”, and he grabbed at his own through his jeans for clarification. I thought it was the coolest sounding word for that heretofore very private part of my body. My dick.

I had only glimpsed a few of my contemporary’s wieners. I had never seen my father naked, only in his boxers which he slept in. Nor had I seen my older brother, because his white briefs never came off anywhere except behind a locked bathroom door. I responded to Donald’s request by saying something to the effect that he’d already seen mine. He told me he wanted to look at it up close. How I ever found the courage I’ll never know, but I countered with “Show me yer’ dick first”. He looked around cautiously, then knelt down at my feet, leaning back on his haunches against a rock. He opened his jeans, exposing his white boxers. My eyes were riveted on his crotch. I remember him nonchalantly pulling down the elastic waistband and all at once seeing a crop of dark curly pubes, something I never even knew existed before Donald’s tantalizing unveiling. I was mesmerized as though I were viewing some alien creature. “You have hair down there?” just tumbled out of my mouth. He laughed, realizing from my face and reaction, that he possessed something I had never seen before and he was enjoying all of this so very much. Then he reached down into his shorts and pulled out his meat and flopped it over his boxers. The image is still retrievable from my memory as sharp and clear as my young eyes had recorded it that very day.  His fat, hairy dick.

I did take mine out, only because he insisted I do it. Even though I had already grown very fond of my own penis, it paled in comparison to Donald’s and I had not taken my eyes off his from the instant he’d exposed it. I remember liking this feeling that came from the two of us showing off what we had to each other, and he studied mine with a genuine interest that bonded us for that moment. He never touched mine, but I am almost certain that I had to stop myself from reaching out to fondle his tempting surprise. He never visited our field again, although I continued to play there until school started in September, praying each time he would return. He still came to our house regularly to hangout with my brother throughout high school. Every once in a while he would leave our bathroom door open when he knew I was near and could see, and he would show off a bit for my private delectation. It was Donald who made those four words come alive and his image that I substituted on many nights for many years to come.

Sissy Boy

It’s taken six decades to accomplish, but in that time, I have been called: fag, faggot, fairy, fruit, homo, nellie, pansy, and queer. But by far, the most painful pejorative of them all has to be sissy and it was the very first I remember ever having been called at a very tender age. It was my older brother who often called me sissy boy whenever he was forced to have to include me in his play, or look after me while my mother had to do something that required her full attention. Being seven years younger, I was always a burden to him, something he was forced to put up with and he made it quite clear that it was with great detestation that he had to recognize my existence in his world at all. I didn’t expect him to like me, just not demean me by name calling. But that he did and with great gusto and he knew just how to zero in and make it hurt deeply. It was bad enough to have the cruel world of West Buttfok, Ohio hurl abusive epithets, but when it came from your own flesh and blood it was almost too much for me to bear. I even heard sissy from my father and mother, discussing me when they thought I couldn’t hear. And it all started very early in my life.

My mother saved most of my elementary school report cards, along with my childhood photos. I especially enjoy the one from Kindergarten. Miss Pete was my teacher, and we were evaluated at four separate times in the school year. Each of the evaluations was a typed paragraph which summed up our progress throughout the school year. In the first, she detects “a slight lisp which might be outgrown”  It wasn’t.  I had speech therapy in the third grade for a sibilant “s” (how appropriate for a gay-to-be). But more concerning “he does not seem to join in the play with the other boys in his class” and she was right. I naturally chose to hang out with the girls because they were a lot more well-behaved and played wonderful make-believe games while all the boys wanted to do was build forts with the huge wooden blocks, then proceed to knock them down and rough-house. What kind of fun is that? She comments in the following two paragraphs that “he enjoys story time” and that “he is a perfect gentlemen”. In the final paragraph she is “happy to report that he now enjoys the company of both his boy and girl classmates” which I think was actually bullshit, because I didn’t like them anymore than I did the first day and I had always identified more as one of the Kindergarten girls.

Elementary school got much better, and so did the boys. I enjoyed being one of the top students and each year, one of the teachers’ favorites and popular in the class as well. I always had one boy “best friend” each year; I guess I have always been a monogamous kind of guy. But none that I could play doctor with until fifth grade and that was a kid named Jim, who must have been held back twice, because he was already a few years older than me. To clarify, we didn’t play doctor in the classic sense (we were far too old for that-especially him) but he did teach me about masturbation, and demonstrated his technique for me and a few others in our class after school in his garage on several different occasions. I found it fascinating and couldn’t wait until it was physically possible for me to accomplish.

Then came junior high. It was a disastrous period for me. The whole socialization process had changed and it became boys against girls, yet at the same time our foes were also supposed to be our focus of sexual interest. It was all too confusing for me, perhaps because I was getting very different signals about who I was really attracted to in the first place. The only positive thing that came out of seventh and eighth grade was the locker room before and after Phys Ed class; I absolutely hated gym and anything connected with sports, but did I love getting naked with all those boy-men! Unfortunately, I had to endure all the awfulness of what junior high was daily, weekly, for only a few minutes of nakedness with about forty guys three times a week. Similarly, I had to brave a ton of name calling throughout each week as well. Junior high is where I learned, quite surprisingly, (and when it was far too late), that if you wore green on Thursdays you were a “fairy”. Up until this point, the only fairies I knew about were Tinkerbell and friends. Imagine my chagrin that first Thursday I chose to wear an outfit of olive corduroys and multi-shaded green sweater, that I would, for the balance of my West Buttfokian education, be forever branded “fairy” by some of my fellow students.

I need to interject here, that at this time I was thirteen, just under five feet tall and weighed not yet one hundred pounds. In other words, a typical skinny, scrawny  geek who would later that year be fitted with eyeglasses. Early on in the school year I made friends in study hall with a heavy-set girl named Connie. She wasn’t very pretty, over-teased and peroxided her hair and dressed like trailer-trash, but she had a filthy mouth and got into trouble a lot and for some reason this appealed to me. Maybe I felt she was “safe” because I knew she’d never expect to have a boyfriend , or maybe I was just attracted to her bad-girl image. She danced incredibly well and loved music and always had cigarettes for us to smoke. We walked home from school together, often with some of her friends. She wasn’t popular among the regular girls, but maintained her own pack of cohorts by shoplifting items according to their requests. It was limited only to what she could steal from a local store similar to K-Mart. This was totally out of my comprehension; I never knew anyone like this before. Finally, after several weeks of hanging out after school, I asked her if she could “crook me” a 45 of YOU CAN’T HURRY LOVE . Sure enough, a few days later she slipped it into my notebook as she entered study hall. I was amazed. But no good deed goes unpunished, and I was going to pay big time for Connie’s gift.

Shortly after the delivery of my hot 45, I began receiving a series of anonymous phone calls. They were from a guy, who referred to me alternately as either sissy-boy or queer-boy. He said I didn’t know him, but he knew me and he was going to beat me up one day after school. I asked him why he would want to beat me up if I didn’t even know him, and how could he know me and I not know him. That wasn’t important, he would quasi-explain, the only important thing was he was going to be waiting for me at my corner bus stop soon and “would beat the shit out of my queer face”. It was amazing how he was able to fill each of his short sentences with those stinging words sissy or queer. I always received these calls soon after coming in the door from school and he would make two or three brief, threatening calls each week. I was scared to death. I had, up to this point, avoided physical confrontation of any kind. I knew I would never be able to defend myself from even an elementary school kid. I now was the sissy-boy he accused me of being because all the years of name calling had instilled it in me.Who was this person, and why was he so angry with me? The only one I could speak to about it was Connie, because she was always threatening to beat everybody up, so certainly she would understand. I figured as a last resort, maybe she would help me beat him up. I know I would have been afraid of her in a fight because she was one tough broad. With each phone call and every passing week, I grew more and more paranoid. I developed eagle eyes whenever walking, especially to or from school. I was leery of any strange guys I saw anywhere, any time of day. This was crazy. I was being stalked long before I knew the word existed.

After nearly a month of these calls, my anonymous caller made a slip-up. As I attempted to reason with this insane teen terrorist, I asked him what school he went to. He had admitted earlier he didn’t go to West B. He gave me the name of a high school in the next town over. I knew no one there, but I remembered instantly that Connie had a cousin she often spoke about in that school who she was very close to. I paused, took a deep breath, and said “so then you must be Connie’s cousin”. There was silence on the line. Then he shot back with something to the effect of yeah but it didn’t matter because he was still gonna’ kick my queer ass. I don’t know what possessed me to say it, but knowing that he wasn’t totally anonymous anymore gave me a tiny morsel of courage, so I turned the tables on him. “OK, so when are we going to get this thing over with? When do you want to meet? Tomorrow?” Another longer pause. “I’m busy tomorrow”, he says. “Maybe next week. Don’t worry sissy boy, I’m still gonna’ get you”. He hung up.

The next day I didn’t even wait for study hall. I met Connie outside her homeroom. I told her we had to talk before study hall. We arranged to get hall passes at the same time from our first period classes. She knew what was up, because I’m sure her cousin must have called her after he hung up with me. I asked her point-blank why he was harassing me and the only answer she gave was a shrug of her shoulders and “he’s just a crazy asshole”.  I never did find out why this guy started calling me. Maybe she needed to intimidate me and couldn’t do it face to face so he was her surrogate. Or maybe he was jealous of Connie’s and my relationship (whatever the hell that was) and wanted me to leave her alone. I only know that he never called again. And Connie and I were civil to each other but never buddies again.

But it didn’t matter that his phone calls stopped. The ordeal made me so frightened, so unsure of myself and so afraid of even my own shadow, that I was haunted by the thought that sissy-boy-me would forever be taunted and jeered at and threatened with physical harm for the rest of my days. And for many, many years afterwards I was. Anywhere I walked, any time of the day or night, I lived in constant fear of being beaten up for being queer-just being me. If I saw a teenage guy coming my way, I hurriedly crossed to the opposite of the street. If, God forbid, a group of older boys was walking in my direction I would duck into the first open door or safe place and wait until they passed before continuing on my way. Even in my twenties, and my first few years living in Manhattan, I was intimidated by the mere sight of teenage boys, certain they would beat me up because I had “sissy” tattooed in invisible ink across my forehead. It literally took years to get over my phobia. It’s been uncomfortable for me just to write this paragraph nearly fifty years later.

Did any good come out of this? We always want to feel that overcoming obstacles in life makes us better people. It usually does. It toughened me up, certainly. Did I learn anything from it? Yes, that it was really difficult growing up gay back in the old days. And today with television shows like GLEE, and all the “out” pop icons, and Gay/Straight Alliances in high schools, and Pride Parades in cities all over this world, it’s still really difficult growing up gay.