Dysfunctional families unite! Have you ever heard of a family that does not have quirks and foibles in their past? If so, they must be a very boring group of people. Or, they’re lying.
My father held a high profile job for years but on weekends he’d don an outfit that was part homeless man and part Captain Hook. He also wouldn’t shave. It was his yard cleaning outfit that he’d designed himself. A paisley kerchief on his head, cut off jeans, a denim shirt with torn out sleeves, and black dress socks. Most people thought he was a yard man and asked for his number.
My aunt walked on people’s backs. She was quite good at it. She offered people relief when nothing else did. She had unusually large hands and feet for a woman, and had learned to massage people’s backs by walking over the lumbar area. Her toes would dig into flesh and clean out offending toxins. In her years before children, she worked as a hand model in New York City. She was Italian and had giant lips that left lipstick stains on everyone’s faces.
My mother had chutzpah. She would constantly interject her opinion in conversations, and if you were lucky enough, you could get a word in edgewise. Often she’d put her foot in her mouth, but she was so convincing and funny that it was easy to overlook her foibles. She had a dry sense of humor, and if you walked away mad from that conversation, she’d spear your back with one final, humor filled comment. My mother had plenty of doubters, but no enemies. Sometimes at the dinner table, while my dad talked endlessly about business, she’d stick straws up her nose.
At my 3rd birthday party, I got bored with my guests and grabbed a full bottle of Sherry and hid behind the sofa to drink it all. I remember terrible sweetness. Our then dog Jamie gave me away.
My father could not only wiggle his ears, he could read the lines in your hands to predict your future. He was never wrong. Having left home in Canada at the age of 18 to join the Royal Canadian Air Force, his homesickness was palpable. He met a couple one day while traveling through England, who through the 70’s were his second parents. From Gloucestershire, the Nichols family treated him like their own son. When their grandchildren traveled to America, we housed them for months. My father’s mother died at age 40, and when my father married an American, his Canadian family disowned him. When I got married, in 1978, his sister and he were reunited at my wedding.
My mother couldn’t find her way out of a paper bag, and yet she travelled all over the world as a photo journalist. One time, on the way to BWI airport, she got confused and made 3 round trips through the Baltimore Tunnel before a toll taker rescued her and turned her in the right direction.
She didn’t want to be a grandma, which I took to mean she wanted nothing to do with what would be her only grandchild. But what she really meant was she didn’t want to admit time was passing, and she was going to be a grandmother, like it or not. Love it, she did, taking 1,000s of photographs of my son via slides.
My father, whose second home was our house, and first home was his office, was instantly besotted by his grandson. Every chance he could leave work early, my son and father were best buddies for three sweet years. They’d take long walks, trips to the zoo, and occasionally Ford would help at the switchboard at Gampa’s office. And then my father rented two villas, side by side, in Duck, NC. Not feeling well, regardless, my father turned this vacation into all about Ford. On the last day there, we woke to high seas and fog. Ford and Gampa went off for a walk. My mother took a photo using a long zoom lens. Ford, on the left is wearing striped bathing shorts, while “Gampa” on the right, protects his grandson from out of control surf. The fog had no break in it, all around was white, even froth from the ocean painted a blank canvas in swirls towards the sky. Three weeks later, my father was dead. I can’t help but look at the photo and wonder if Ford had walked my father into Heaven’s front gate for a quick peak.
I once asked a black person if he scrubbed really hard could he become white. I was only 4, and he was the first black person I’d ever seen.
My uncle, Bud Brennan, lost a kneecap while showing off his terrible skiing prowess to catch a woman he thought he loved. He skied into a tree, shattering his whole leg. While recovering in the hospital he contracted osteomyelitis and lost his kneecap to the disease. Doctors said he’d never walk again. Rejected for service in WWII, he joined the American a Legionnaires instead and was shipped to Africa. He never won a medal, but he told voracious stories about his histrionics serving abroad, and won the woman of his dreams, a voluptuous Italian who believed every “story” he ever told. Except the ones about his romantic quests before she came along.
Defying doctors predictions that he’d never walk again, he became a champion one man sculler. He lived in Connecticut with a patch of Long Island Sound in his back yard. Every day that he could, no matter the weather, he’d start and end his day by rowing far out into the water, tucking one leg under him, and leaving the shortened leg minus the knee under the oar lock. He died after a morning row, of a heart attack, at the age of 62. Bud Brennan. To this day, like an iconic legend, people in Westport, CT still remember him.
His children, my cousins, were born close in age, starting with Mark and ending with one girl, Patrice. My aunt said her boys were fairly stupid, but her daughter would go places. My uncle had no more business bringing 4 children into the world than he did rowing in the Sound by himself on a stormy day. But he loved his children more than life itself, especially his daughter, born Christmas Eve.
Mark struggled through school, raising havoc on weekends, out after curfew, and having violent verbal arguments with his father. It was my uncle’s idea to send Mark to VietNam to leash that anger in a disciplined way, rather than see his eldest end up in jail. behind jail bars. Three months after signing up, Mark was in VietNam, and at the end of the war, came home as a Green Beret.
Bruce wanted to be an artist but first his father insisted he finish school, and maybe attend college. While Mark was abroad, Bruce became his siblings’ mentor, smoked a little weed when the old man wasn’t home, and cruised through life.
Patrice and Scott, Bud’s middle and last child, were walking their bikes home from their friend’s house in broad daylight August 8 when a drunk driver hit them from behind and silenced their voices forever. The friend heard gravel pinging underneath a car’s tires, and managed to save his own life. Patrice was 13, as was I. In summers, when I visited, we were best friends.
Mark was deep in the DNZ zone when word got to him that someone died. Get home ASAP, his orders told him. Who’d died? His mom, dad? Certainly not any of his siblings. Get home ASAP. He tried, he really tried. Meanwhile, his family, in shock, tried to hold up the funeral for him. The Army said he was deep in enemy territory. And where was Bud’s sister and family? We were in hiding. For the first time in my father’s life, he’d taken a vacation and left our number with someone who could keep a secret. Two State Troopers came to our ocean home at 2:00 am, and by 3:00, we were speeding to Connecticut to be with family. It had already been 5 days since the accident.
On the town green outside the church, an area had been cleared and roped off. We didn’t understand, but we didn’t have time to question anything, and before I knew it, my father, whom I’d never seen in tears before, was in my aunts’ arms, the two of them trying to console the other. At the altar, two closed caskets sat side by side, strewn with flowers. Our entire pew shook with anguish. A minister walked up the aisle of the packed church and as he raised his hands for us to stand, a loud noise “woop, woop, woop” could be heard outside. My cousin Bruce turned towards the back of the church, and as if by magic, the doors flew open and a fatigue clad soldier, eyes darkened by camouflage, ran down the aisle. He pointed to the two coffins, then swung around and searched for members of his family. His loud sobs echoed round the church and silenced everyone else in their sorrow.
My uncle sued the drunk driver, who, a family man himself with numerous violations of drunk driving, got nothing more than a slap on the wrist. For the first ten years after my cousins died, my uncle paid out hundreds of dollars to bring back his children through seance. Mark was damaged by Agent Orange and lives in his own world, thereby denying his children a father. Bruce became pseudo dad to Mark’s kids as well as his own. He is a magnificent watercolorist who had a showing in NYC in 2012.
My parents threw a lot of parties, all politically related to my father’s job, so to relax, we’d take month long trips to exotic places. Jamaica, just before a military coup, Greece, just before a military coup, and South America, during a military coup. Switzerland, where I rode a cable car up a mountain I saw soldiers hiding in the bushes. They were doing war drills. To date, Switzerland gas never engaged in war, has it? To Cancun, before it was a tourist haven, when the natives walked around naked. To Hawaii, where after two glorious weeks, I was trapped there by an airline strike. I ended up traveling for 22 hours on a mail plane. We stopped in CA, TX, KS, CO, WY, IL, NY and finally, MD.
My sister took great pride in bossing people around. She was kind of like a Border Collie on two legs, unable to allow me or my parents to do things for her, instead she felt compelled to lead the flock. As a kindergartner, she was in charge of handing out toilet paper at potty time. When she grew tired of this task, she became door opener. She turned out to be an excellent student eventually graduating with an MBA and working at what is now called AT&T. She likes to say she married her handyman, but in reality, she married a co-worker. She still herds flocks of people at our church, doling out communion wine and wafers.
My niece married a Brit she met online while in college. I enjoy her posh accent and substitutions of American words for British. “Bollocks, bum, mashers, and bloody hell.”
Our dogs always found the worst times to vomit, smear poop on the living room carpet, and fight to the death under dining room tables. Even they were unscathed of human foibles.
I was terrible at Math. I am not being humble. I was tutored in Math all my life until high school, where the headmistress begged me to stop trying to learn if she promised to give me a passing grade. I agreed. Now that I’ve lived so long, Math, all around me, and I have declared a truce.
I wish I’d learned to walk on backs, and wiggle my ears, and scull too. Families can drive you insane. After all you didn’t get a chance to try them on for size, or return some parts you didn’t like. But family is with you for life, so sit down, listen hard, and in some cases, prepare yourself for the funnies, because before you know it, you’ll be laughing until the pee runs down your legs.