Tuesday, May 28, 2013

My Cousin Died

It was 10:50 p.m. and I peddled my exercise bike in front of the TV. House Hunters International occupied my brain so I could peddle for the full forty minutes. The phone rang. The black box announcing caller ID blinked onto the TV screen. Private number.
“It’s late,” I said out loud. “Who’s calling?” I jumped off my seat, ran to the phone, and grabbed the handset just before it went to voice mail.
“It’s Paul,” the voice said.
I was confused. Paul?  Who?
“My mother, you know, she talked to you on the phone. She died. She had medical problems.”
His mother died? Was it someone from the neighborhood, letting me, the HOA president, know of someone’s death? Was it someone from work or someone I had known in Syracuse? Was it the wrong number? Then I knew. My cousin Maria died.
I said, “I’m so very sorry.” Then I repeated it three more times. Shock rendered me verbally challenged. I could tell he wanted to get off the phone. He wasn’t comfortable. “Will you promise to call me with the details of the funeral? We can’t make it out, but I’d like to know.”
“Yes, uh, good-bye,” he said as he hung up.
I went upstairs, knocked on the man room door, pushed it open, and looked at Ronald sitting in the dark at his computer with his headphones on.
“Maria is dead,” I said.
When his sister Sylvia died, I said the same thing. “Sylvia is dead.” I repeated it when his nephew Yancy committed suicide. “Yancy is dead.” I can’t think of any other way to deliver such a message. He delivered the passing of his grandmother, cousin, sister-in-law, and uncle in much softer words.
The day after Maria died, we each had messages on our cell phones when we got out of the movie. Ronald’s father was at the hospital. I felt a surge of fear. “What else?” I asked myself. “Doesn’t all bad news happen in threes?” I tiptoed through the next few hours waiting for more bad news but my father-in-law was sent home with instructions to call his doctor.
I always knew I had two cousins in California, but I didn’t KNOW them. My family has a legacy of estrangement, and my father’s brother Danny was estranged from the family just as my father was estranged on and off in his life, just as I’ve been estranged from my family and Ronald has been estranged from his family.
My father and his brother committed the ultimate sin, but I was never sure what the sin was exactly. Either it was that they had each married non-Italians or it was simply that they had married at all, as none of the other siblings did. Well, Lenny did. He got a woman pregnant and married her, but the marriage was annulled shortly after it began, and no one spoke of the woman or the son she bore ever again.
My father stayed physically close by the family, remaining in Albany, and taking his lashes as they were handed out. Danny moved across the country and left no forwarding address. When my grandfather died, Aunt Josephine called directory assistance to locate Danny to let him know.
After her father died, Aunt Josephine took a trip to California to meet Danny and his family. She came back with stories. She lambasted Danny’s wife and said she was a spender and she vacuumed in the nude. She was a terrible person, she emphasized over and over, and as I listened, a young teen with waist-length hair, wire rimmed glasses, hip-hugger bell bottoms, and midriff tops, I added a parentheses at the conclusion of the sentence each time she said it: (like your mother). She lambasted my mother, too, carrying on the family legacy of insularity.
Estrangement hung like heavy, dusty drapes around our lives. No one ever thought to take the damn things down, toss them out, and replace them with something that let the light in.
First my father died, then another brother Jimmy died just three months later, then my mother (read about my mother’s passing in Shadesof Blue), and then Danny’s wife. After Danny’s wife died, Aunt Josephine stayed in touch with Danny more regularly.  Danny flew to Albany each July, the only month he considered the place warm enough, to visit for a week. One year I suggested Ronald, Cara, Mackenzie, and I drive to Albany and spend the day so we could meet Uncle Danny, but Aunt Josephine didn't think it would be a good idea.
I wondered if she thought our interracial relationship might be too shocking. Yet Danny’s grandchildren were half Mexican.
Two more brothers died, Rocco and Lenny. I attended Rocco’s funeral, but Ronald didn’t come. Lenny was loud and brash just prior to the funeral Mass. He suggested my brother Rocco, named the same as the uncle who had just passed, was not dressed appropriately to be a pallbearer. It had to do with his beard and his hat and his faded corduroy jacket with the patches on the elbows. But there were only three pallbearers as it was, so Lenny had to relent. At a lunch after the graveside service, he looked at me across the table and demanded, “Which one are you?”
“I’m Dianne,” I answered. He didn’t know us by name because he referred to us as “the retards” when we were growing up, as in “if you didn’t have that wife and all the retards, you’d be doing fine.” He was the uncle who married but had the marriage annulled, and I am certain he did not keep tabs on his son or pay any support.
Some years later I attended Lenny’s funeral, too. The only attendees were my biker brother Andy dressed in his leather Harley Davidson vest, Andy’s second wife, two of his biker friends, dressed much the same as my brother and recruited to be pallbearers, Aunt Josephine, my black husband Ronald, dressed “appropriately” in a suit to be pallbearer number four, and me.
I leaned over and quietly said to Ronald, “See? God has a sense of humor.”
I met my cousin Maria by phone when Aunt Josephine died. I was the executor of Aunt Josephine’s estate, which was ironic because many years before my mother had told me that Aunt Josephine had cut me out of her will. It was during my first estrangement from my family and had to do with the fact that Ronald was black.
I had begun speaking to Uncle Danny a couple of months earlier to let him know that Aunt Josephine had a stroke and had lain on her floor for four days before I called her and then called 911 when she didn’t answer. After my initial call, I called him about once a week to update him on her progress.
Danny and I had some nice conversations. But one time he told me he had cancer, something he had not told Aunt Josephine because he didn’t want to upset her. His voice was mellow, each word chosen carefully. He was nothing like Lenny who had demanded to know which one I was years before at Uncle Rocco’s funeral. My brother Andy recently told me that Danny, whom he met during one of those July visits to Albany, looked like Lenny but acted more like Rocco, quiet and reserved.
One day I called Danny to check on him, and Maria answered the phone. I was on my way home from work, and we talked the whole way, and then some more as I sat in the driveway. She complained about taking care of her father, and how tired she was. I told her I wished there was something I could do, and she told me to come out and spend a few weeks taking care of him so she could have a break.
“I work,” I said. She didn’t. I don’t think she ever did. Aunt Josephine was good at character assassination, and she had assassinated Maria’s character many times over. Her character flaws included drugs, obesity, theft, and older Mexican men.
In the year or so before her stroke, Aunt Josephine brought up her will on occasion during our weekly calls, and I never wanted to talk about it.  Years before when she claimed to have cut me out of it if I didn’t break up with Ronald, I chose him over inheritance so I really didn’t have much interest. Rather I liked speaking to her about some of everything like bad drivers and criminals and how no one had respect any more. I didn’t want to think about her dying. I’d already seen too many people die, and I have abandonment issues, so every time someone dies I take it personally.
Besides I told her the Church was the right and good heir of her money, but she was having none of it. She wanted to know what I thought about setting up a trust fund for Maria. She didn’t think she could handle getting so much money at once. After all, she reminded me, she had stolen credit cards and jewelry from her father’s apartment. I still didn’t want to talk about it, and I had no concern with what Maria might do with her inheritance, so I changed the subject and told her how some stupid guy had cut me off on the way to work.
After I talked to Maria about her father that time she began to call me regularly.
“She’s not high functioning,” I told my sister when my sister and I were still speaking to one another.
Then Danny died just as my aunt’s will went into probate. Aunt Josephine thought she had fixed Maria’s problem about money by naming Danny as the heir to her portion, but she didn’t account for family dynamics and legacies. When my father died, my Uncle Jimmy, his brother, died just three months later. My mother passed eighteen months after my father’s death. Uncle Danny copied his brother Jimmy and died three months after Aunt Josephine died. There are some strong emotions roiling around in estranged families and dramatic events cause other equally dramatic events to occur.
Maria was her father’s sole heir. Her brother Danny had died in the ‘80s of AIDS. Aunt Josephine had been sure to tell me that his “girlfriend” took care of him at the end of his life.
“I don’t think he was a homosexual,” she said, using the girlfriend as proof. Maybe she forgot that she told me how his mother gushed over him that first time Aunt Josephine went out there to visit, how mother and son stood at the closet together picking out dresses to wear, and how his mother had more in common with him than she did with Maria.
“Maybe,” I said.
There were legal issues to resolve since Uncle Danny died while the will was in probate. Maria had trouble understanding the paperwork.  I encouraged her to hire an attorney out there. She went to a legal aid establishment instead, not like a non-profit legal aid, but a for profit that was purposely established in a poor neighborhood. I tried to call the woman assisting her a couple of times, and I found out she was not an attorney and did not know what she was doing.
“I can’t pay more money than I’m getting to get this done,” Maria said. She was ready to give up.
I asked my attorney to find and hire an attorney to help her. He said he would take the cost out of her portion of the inheritance. She got the letter from the hired attorney that stated his fee. She blew up. She yelled at me on the phone. She wanted to just return any money coming to her. I started laughing.
“Calm down,” I said. “You misread the letter. You aren’t getting two thousand. That’s what the attorney is getting. You are getting almost forty thousand.”
She laughed, too. Later, when I paid out the estate and sent her the check, she called to tell me she used some of the money to purchase a plot at Forest Lawn and a pre-paid funeral. I didn’t want to talk about that either. It let me know she was thinking about dying.
Instead we talked about a lot other things, like movies and our kids and my husband Ronald. She called Ronald “Whiney” but she never judged him for suffering from depression, like a lot of family members did. She would tell me to hand him the phone and she’d talk to him for an hour or more about stuff, anything that popped into their heads. Ronald always felt better after the phone calls, especially when she threatened to come to North Carolina and kick his ass.
She started sending us stuff, too. I discovered Maria had made one of the afghans I had taken from Aunt Josephine’s house when I was clearing it out to sell it. I told her how much Ronald loved it; how he wrapped it around him when he was on his computer in the man room. She asked me what my favorite color is, and soon a beautiful red afghan was delivered to my doorstep.
Then other boxes arrived. One was filled with toys for my dog Ru. After that he recognized the pre-paid USPS boxes addressed to “The Haggins” (she never spelled our name correctly), and he would run around them and bark, because he was sure they were for him.
Once two boxes arrived, and when I pushed them into the house from the porch, I heard the contents knocking around. I opened the boxes and found piles of broken Hallmark kitsch.  They had been holiday decorations like pumpkins and Santa Claus statues, but she had not used any excelsior. She had just piled them into the boxes. Cara claimed some of the pieces to use as props in a play she had written and was just about to perform. It was about found pieces in a junkyard and the stories they told. The rest went in the trash, but I made sure to call Maria and thank her.
She sent knitted, fingerless gloves in black for Ronald and red for me. Each time I return to Syracuse in the fall or winter, I throw one or two pairs into my suitcase. There were six in each color, and I wonder what I will do when I have gone through all of them. Maybe I will have to use the many pairs of knitted slippers she sent.
Another day a box of sixty knitted squares arrived. They were all different colors and patterns. Mackenzie sewed them together, with the patience she has for such activities, and she and Cara used the resulting quilt in one of their performances titled Eve at the River.
There were handmade rugs of Easter Lilies and Cardinals, the backs rubberized in thick, swirled patterns as if someone had used a palm to spread the goop on them. She mailed five boxes of DVDs. She sent baby blankets for future grandchildren, stuffed animals for every holiday, and a scary, blond, and blue-eyed doll.  The stuffed animals line the dresser top in the guest room. I had hopes she would visit one day.
I let Mackenzie pick through the DVDs and take what she wanted, and I kept the rest for a while; then threw them out. The doll sat on the kitchen island for a few days. I couldn’t bring myself to throw it out. Ru was convinced it was for him. He tried his best to reach the counter so he could abscond it. When I moved it to the shelf in the coat closet, he sat vigil for a week, plotting and planning his way to stealing it. He was sure it contained a squeaker like his other toys, and he was in search and destroy mode. Every once in a while the doll catches his eye when I am in the closet to grab a coat or take out the vacuum, and he still has plans for it.
My siblings, Andy and Peggy, and I helped Aunt Josephine clean out Uncle Lenny’s house, then we and Ronald cleaned out Aunt Josephine’s house. At Uncle Lenny’s house, every time I thought Aunt Josephine wasn’t looking, I told Andy to take as much stuff as possible to the trash pile. We knew that everything she kept would someday have to be sorted through again. And so it was.
Not only did she have Uncle Lenny’s stuff, she also had sixty years worth of kitsch in her house. We threw a lot of it out. I gave all the religious statues – the Infants of Prague, Mary Mother of Jesus, and some other saints – to a friend. I gave the set of Italian record albums from the 1940s to the healing priest who visited my aunt at the nursing home. I let the attorney take a set of pots that his daughter-in-law wanted to use in her classroom.  Some of Andy’s friends helped, and I let them choose things to take. I only kept a few things for memory including a pale green glass dish circa 1930s. It probably cost a dime when it was new.
I sent Maria a package with a pair of diamond earrings that belonged to her mother. The receipt for the resetting of the diamonds was folded into the tiny box I found them in, and it had her mother’s name and address on it. I’m not sure how they came into Aunt Josephine’s possession. Maybe Danny wanted to make sure they were safe since Maria allegedly stole and sold some other pieces of her mother’s jewelry.
Another time I sent her photographs of Ronald, Cara, Mackenzie and me. Then I sent her some knitting books. I also mailed her a photo album with the pictures Aunt Josephine took on her first visit to California. Maria was about fourteen at the time.
“I look like our grandmother,” she said as we discussed the photographs. I tried to picture her as a woman in her fifties. Neither one of us knew our grandmother. She had died several years before we were born. I had seen photographs of her. I called her the Queen of Hearts, the character from Alice in Wonderland. She looked mean even if she was only 4’10”.
She and my mother didn’t get along. She cursed my mother in Italian every time she saw her.  My mother asked an Italian friend what the curse meant, and her friend told her it translated as “I hope you burst.” The next time my grandmother leveled it at her, my mother looked right into her eyes (a definite downward stare) and said in English, “And I hope you burst, too, all over your goddamned new carpet.”
I found my grandmother’s death certificate as I cleaned out Aunt Josephine’s house. It stated cause of death as a brain aneurysm.
Maria had cataracts and knitting became difficult for her, so the packages stopped coming a few years ago. She was nearly blind. I wondered what was happening when things arrived with dropped stitches and messy backings. It took almost two years for Medicaid to approve the surgery for just one eye. She waited and waited for her other eye to be approved, but she would die before the surgery was ever scheduled.
Maria had two boys, now grown men, named Peter and Paul. I guess the old Mexican was their father, and he had died long before she and I began talking. I don’t know if Maria went to Church, but she was religious. I imagined if she had more boys, she would have continued to name them after the Apostles. Matthew, Luke, Mark and John, maybe Judas, though I can’t imagine the fate awaiting that child.  I can’t remember the rest. I am estranged from the Catholic Church, too.
I arranged to give confession before Aunt Josephine’s funeral Mass. I knew how much she wanted me back in the Church, and I loved the times when I was visiting and we walked down her block together to the Church she had attended for sixty years to go to Mass. Organized religion scares me in the way it attempts to control, but I’ve always found Mass very comforting.
In the room where the priest put on his vestments, I gave my confession. We did not sit in booths with our vision obstructed by screens and darkness. We sat in chairs facing one another out in the open. I started crying as soon as I uttered, “Bless me Father for I have sinned.”
I was embarrassed that I hadn’t given confession in thirty-five years, and that he could look into my eyes and know if I were lying or telling the truth. And I was angry that Aunt Josephine had abandoned me.
I partook of the Body of Christ during Holy Communion but refused the Blood of Christ. They didn’t let parishioners partake of the wine back when I went to Church as a child, and I was shocked they allowed it in 2005, especially for an estranged Catholic like me.
The priest and the attorney convinced me to try St. Lucy’s Church in Syracuse. They were hoping I’d wander back into the fold. I went one Sunday with a friend. The Church, situated right in the middle of the housing projects Ronald grew up in, was a progressive Church. Everyone was welcome to partake in Holy Communion. I didn’t go up, and I never went back.
For the next few years I donated money at Christmas to the school at Aunt Josephine’s Church in memoriam.
Maria stopped calling me sometime late in 2010. I didn’t receive a Christmas card from her. I started calling her instead of her calling me. I left increasingly urgent voice messages wondering what happened to her. I beseeched her sons that if they were checking her messages would they please call me and let me know if she was okay.
Finally, just as I began searching the Los Angeles obits, she called me from the hospital, her voice weak, her spirit deflated. She had sepsis, at least that is what I surmised, as she had not the words to describe her illness, and had almost died. I asked to speak directly to her son Paul (I’ve never spoken to Peter; never heard him in the background as I had heard Paul countless times) because he had told her I wouldn’t know who he was if he called me, so he didn’t. I asked him to please call me in the future anytime his mother couldn’t. He promised he would.
I remembered that as I ran names through my head trying to think who was telling me his mother was dead. I blamed it on the “private number” caller ID. I was furious at myself for not recognizing him immediately. I decided I was not high functioning.
The next day I wondered if I had been as good a friend as Maria had been to me. I burned with regret. I cried. Ronald assured me that she would not have received her inheritance without my determined effort. Cara thought I had been a very good friend indeed. Mackenzie felt sorry I had lost my cousin.
I’m still wondering if I even know how to be a good friend.
Paul called to tell me the details of the funeral. It sounds small and simple. I asked him how he was doing, and he said he was okay. I asked him his last name. I didn’t know it. He spelled it for me. Then I asked him if he planned to keep his mother’s PO box and he said, yes.
I don’t know if I can be a friend to Paul, but I know I’m going to try to be a good second cousin. All else gets lost in the kitsch of our lives, and that’s how estrangement happens.
Paul called me again today, hours before I was going to post this on my blog page. He was confused and angry with the cemetery staff. He wasn’t sure what he needed to do to get everything straightened out.  I asked him if his brother was helping him, and he said he had spoken to him once since Maria’s death, but he didn’t want to rely on him or call him again. I surmised they are estranged.
He asked if I would help him. I said, yes.

 Me in my First Holy Communion attire

 (Left to right): Jimmy, Carmella (who passed away shortly after this photo was taken), my grandmother The Queen of Hearts, Danny, my grandfather, my father Frank, and Lenny. Aunt Josephine and Uncle Rocco were not born yet.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Funny Vibe

No, I'm not gonna rob you
No, I'm not gonna beat you
No, I'm not gonna rape you
So why you want to give me that
Funny Vibe!

No, I'm not gonna hurt you
No, I'm not gonna harm you
And I try not to hate you
So why you want to give me that
Funny Vibe!
~ Funny Vibe, Living Colour, 1988

Sometimes I wish I could remember what it was like before I was race conscious. Blissfully ignorant, I believed racism had been outlawed with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
I can’t claim ignorance anymore. The more I witness and experience, the more I realize that in our current collective frame of mind, racism is insurmountable and true change and true equality are a cruel fantasy.
I am not cynical, just weary.  I see the same weariness in my husband Ronald (for new readers, I am white and Ronald is black. We’ve been together for nearly 40 years.).
Ronald says, “Why do you write about this? It won’t change anything. It will only upset you.”
I’m already upset by it, though. Writing helps me to process it. As weary as I am over the whole thing, as hopeless as it feels, I want to make it better. I’d rather try to make change than tacitly perpetuate racism through inaction.
When Ronald is at his saddest he says, “I’ve seen too much.”
He is referring to when he was growing up in the projects on the Westside of Syracuse and then, later, when he served the community as a firefighter for 25 years and assisted people in crisis. The images are burned into his soul, and they live alongside me. I can’t turn them out. They are valid and real. They have a right to be here.
Watching media stories about the very white institution known as the PGA attacking Tiger Woods for “the drop” and Vijay Singh for “deer antler spray use,” Ronald recalled how certain officers on the fire department wanted to ruin his reputation and bring him shame just because they didn’t want him there. Their hatred, judgments, and actions against him had nothing to do with Ronald’s performance or abilities, but everything to do with the color of his skin. As a witness I felt immense sadness, helplessness, and anger. The same story is played out over and over, and it doesn’t matter if one is rich or famous or the best in the world at something or even the President of the United States. Skin color makes it so.
Everyone will remember that Tiger Woods took “the drop” at the 2013 Masters in Augusta, but they won’t remember that it was found to be a legal drop and that he did not have an unfair advantage.  They won’t remember that it was the PGA committee who determined the drop was legal and failed to let him know prior to signing his scorecard that a television spectator had called in a report of unfair play precipitating an investigation. They won’t remember how uncanny it was for the PGA committee to reverse its decision the next morning. They won’t remember that Tiger Woods is the number one golfer in the world because of his work ethic, drive, focus, and ability. They’ll only remember the commentators, Nick Faldo and Brandel Chamblee, calling for him to disqualify himself in a manner that suggested to me they might as well have worn white hoods and carried torches.  They’ll remember that deep down inside, they don’t think Tiger Woods deserves the title of the number one golfer in the world. Skin color makes it so.
I cringe when I hear about the kinds of attacks waged against President Obama. For a certain percentage of Americans, there is nothing he can do that is right. Hear them tell it, he doesn’t represent them. He is a tyrannical monster who orchestrated the Boston Marathon bombing and who plans to take America away from the very people who most deserve it – white people. Skin color makes it so.
It’s the mundane things, too. Like when we went out to eat the other night and the very nice, young, white waitress did not look or speak directly to Ronald the whole evening. She asked if we wanted separate checks and separate plates for our shared dessert, not just once, but several times, as if she wondered about my sanity, as if she could not imagine why we were seated at the same table, let alone sharing the same food and knocking spoons.
Her final attempt at figuring out the situation resulted in her handing Ronald’s credit card back to me instead of him. The scenario did not compute in her world. It ruined our evening. Skin color makes it so.
Then there are the events that change one’s life and one’s sense of self. They are specters that haunt continually and cast gray shadows that snuff out one’s spark.
I saw such a specter this past week as it hovered over my father-in-law. He has dementia, which is sad enough as we struggle with the loss of knowing him and of him knowing us.
“Who are you?” he asked me several times over the week.
Each time I patiently answered, “I’m Dianne, your number one daughter-in-law.” Sometimes he was fine and knew exactly who I was and minutes later, he didn’t.
One evening we piled into the car, with Ronald driving, to go to the carpet store to order new carpet for my in-laws’ bedroom. When we got inside the store, the salesman who approached us must have reminded my father-in-law of one of his supervisors from over 60 years ago.
“I’ve got something I need to say to him,” he said after I had led him to a chair so he could sit and his legs wouldn’t hurt so much. “I didn’t steal that loaf of bread.”
“He knows that now,” I said. “It’s been straightened out.”
“I want to tell him myself,” he said.
I know he didn’t steal that bread 60 years ago when he was a young father who moved his family up North so they could have a better life. One of his first jobs was at the Millbrook Bread Company. Like my father, he would not pick up a dime off the street if it didn’t belong to him. The truth doesn’t matter because that supervisor believed my father-in-law must have been the one that took that bread, and 60 years later the humiliation and anger are clear while other more dear memories are lost. Skin color makes it so.
When people are judged by the color of their skin, the scars go deeper than memory and time and space. They don’t fade. They embody pain, humiliation, depression, and anger. Skin color makes it so.
I’m sensitive to this, but that’s because racism is a chameleon, manifesting itself in different guises. My blissful ignorance is long gone, and I cannot recall how it felt. I am frequently offended, especially living down in the South where the attitudes seem infinitesimally different from the attitudes of the Jim Crow era. I am offended when people tell me not to take it seriously or to consider the source or that not everyone thinks that way or that I should just get over it. I can’t. I won’t. I’ve seen too much.
Instead I get that funny vibe like at the restaurant the other night or when white people stop and stare at us like we are engaged in something so unbelievable and abhorrent that they are going to post it on Facebook later and talk about it for the next year. Skin color makes it so.

The scars on this escaped slave’s back are painfully visible. This photo of Gordon was taken in 1862.

This is just one of the many subliminally racist images flooding the Internet. This is a target that bleeds when shot.  It eerily resembles President Obama. Looking at it gives me that funny vibe.