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I never found out what had made him so angry, how his life had become so uncontrollable and predictable (qualities that exist side by side when one becomes acclimated to chaos) that he frequently resorted to violence against his own children. But now I know that he woke up one day with eight or ten kids and suddenly and slowly (again side by side) realized that everything yet to occur in his lifetime was already known, accounted for; that there was to be no future for him, only an eternal present; that he was doomed to immobility. But instead of surrendering, as my mother had, he fought back. Paul's guess is that, robbed of both his beautiful young wife and the promise of glamour after two smoky episodes at the Waldorf-Astoria (they'd gone back for their anniversary, to create Louise; a room was still only ten dollars), he began to resent us, the thieves. I would add that when he awoke that day to the eight or ten kids, he snapped not only at the kids but also at the gods. And why not? Many of us, made privy to the sum of events remaining in our lives, would lament and rebel not only against the knowing but also against what we would perceive as the limits of what the gods were going to allow us to experience.
I never had any luck with him. He was not easily impressed, and I had nothing to impress him with anyway. I didn't get the grades he might have admired. I didn't aspire to the priesthood. I didn't excel at sports. He didn't encourage my curiosity, even in his field. When I asked to build a small radio for the science fair, he built it for me. When it was finished, he said, "There," and walked out of the room. I sat staring at the radio, trying to imagine or pretend that I had built it, already living with the lie I was going to have to tell my friends about how much fun it had been. I didn't know then that what hurt most about it was realizing I would never be able to tell my father I had built a radio.
But the fundamental problem was that by the time I left home, he had beaten me with the stick enough times to instill a permanent fear in me. My relationship with him was colored by that fear even in my adulthood: I either avoided him or tried to ingratiate myself with him until the day he died. After that I transferred my fear to his surrogates: policemen, judges, bosses. Even the very last time I spoke to my father, when I was forty, I didn't feel his equal; perhaps my words were gutsier and more self-assured than they once had been, but my voice still contained a fawning and desperate note of pure need. I was the lesser being. He had succeeded in making me not only a coward but also a weakling.
We shared in each other's lives only tentatively, superficially. I would visit on a Saturday, perhaps take him a book. He even came to my house once. (It turned out that my mother had dragged him there; she was afraid I was going to knock myself off. She asked me if I would consider moving back home.) I plotted and schemed to win him over while pretending that I no longer needed his love -- as if being older rendered unnecessary the love I should have had as a kid. I dreamed of talking to Dad on equal terms. I dreamed he'd find me interesting. Sometimes I dreamed of the life I might have led had my childhood been other than what it was. But before those dreams could come true -- and this I didn't understand back then -- I needed him to have loved me as a child. My relationship with him never matured because I went to him without ever recognizing that adults cannot be salvaged by being given things that they required as children.
My parents loved only each other; they remained faithful and devoted to each other for fifty years. They weren't drinkers; they never disagreed in front of us kids; he came home every night right after work and trusted her completely to manage the money. In my interviews not one kid expressed the slightest doubt that our parents had worshipped each other. Some of the kids did suggest, however, that perhaps their love had stopped there, with each other, and that they had little left over for anybody else. They were wrong: when I asked my mother at the very end if she regretted the distance between herself and her kids, she said, "If I had to choose between the love of my children and the love of my God, I would choose that of God."
UR family commenced in Brooklyn, although all I remember of Brooklyn is our church in Williamsburg and the street leading up to it. The Church of the Annunciation was stunning, with its gold-leaf altar and intricate designs and darkly intimidating paint job. The stained glass was so beautiful that I licked the different colors to see if they had any flavor; my curiosity was rewarded with the bitter, coppery taste of ancient church dirt. I remember the pavement out front because it was as smooth as taffy from years of soft tires; bottle caps had been impressed in the surface and made flush by a thousand leather soles. That blacktop was why they invented roller skates. If I discovered an embedded nickel or dime, I'd become annoyed, having no way to excavate it.
A crowd would accumulate outside Annunciation after services -- "old" men and women who were probably younger than I am now. The women seemed solidly built and sophisticated in their shiny 1950s dresses and cat glasses and the hard, slutty red they used for lipstick and nail polish back then. Nobody wore fur except for an occasional fox collar. The men talked through blue clouds of Chesterfield smoke, bought the Tablet, wore hats and brown suits. These were your serious Catholics, pros raised on Latin. They had gangs: the Holy Name Society, the Sodality, the cultish-sounding and males-only Nocturnal Adoration Society, which met to pray the rosary through weekend nights. Some people at Annunciation had crucifixes of woven palm leaves that had hung in their bedrooms for thirty years.
The community was Lithuanian, with names like Skarulas, Shula, Sertyvytis (our mother), Klimas, Gula, Salesky. My mother didn't learn English until she started school. The priest who looked after our family in those days was a pudgy, balding, avuncular, bespectacled Lithuanian named Bruno Kruzas. He presided over my parents' wedding in 1942, remarried them at their anniversary celebration twenty-five years later, and baptized all us kids. Even after we moved to Queens, Mom and Dad would drive each new kid back to Williamsburg so that Father Kruzas could initiate him or her. We all wore the same white-lace baptismal dress, made by our mother's mother. When Mom and Dad died, Father Kruzas buried them. Then he died. We've often debated about how much influence he had in steering Mom and Dad toward the extreme Roman Catholic right. I was too young to know anything about that. I never had a problem with the guy.
The first four kids were conceived in Brooklyn during the war, although they didn't become known as "the four oldest" until much later. I don't know exactly where Dad was at the time. He was twenty when Martha Marie was born, early in 1943, and he was in the Navy, but he wasn't actually in the war. One of the older kids told me that he was on his way across the Atlantic when his ship engaged a whale. The whale was sunk, the battleship incurred some rudder damage, and my father spent the rest of the war dry-docked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. On board, I think, he was a machinist, first class (machinist maybe, first class definitely: he never saw himself as less than that, or expected to meet anyone else as good). I'm not certain of any of this, however, because he never talked about his past. I would bet that he never saw combat, though, because when I applied for conscientious-objector status, he bullied me with the brave and desperate rhetoric of a guy who had escaped being shot at.
Our father saw a lot of his wife during the war. Louise was born in the spring of 1944, and Marty in the spring of 1945, and Jimmy in the summer of 1946. There were many crinkly-edged black-and-white pictures of Dad in the shoeboxes, in a sailor suit, holding a baby or two. He looks like a strong, wiry, handsome, no-nonsense guy, which he was. He was also an angry guy, the kind who could flash into violence like a vapor; you wouldn't want Marty Z to find out you were tapping his wife, even if you were much bigger than he was.
Not that our mother would have had the desire, or the strength, or even the time for anybody else. What she looks like in pictures from those days is another story: just barely pre-haggard, hair tied back in preparation for grief, shapeless drudge-wear, the bulk already accumulating. A new kid arrived almost every year, right on into the Cold War, and before she was twenty-five my mother had her hands full. Dad wouldn't even let his own mother come over to help Mom out. "He told his mother he was perfectly capable of taking care of his own family," Louise remembers. "Nanna was welcome to visit, but she was not to iron or do any laundry or do any work in the house."
I came along in 1952, after they had moved to Queens, which was still pretty white then -- not white in the color sense, although it was that, but white in the apparent simplicity of day-to-day events. The bigger boys on the block whistled out of bedroom windows to stop the ice-cream truck, or rode hanging off the rear of the city bus. They wore wide black belts and hard black shoes (sneakers were for sissies) and really did roll packs of Luckies in their T-shirt sleeves. But they ungaraged the push mower every Saturday, and never missed Mother's Day. The girls wore pedal pushers and bangs and jumped double dutch. The streets were chalked off for war and tops and other games that required broomsticks or marbles but no money. We played self-pitch stickball, one bounce. Some kids gambled with baseball cards, but I didn't have enough to risk losing any of them by playing for keeps.
Thirteen of us kids lived in the little house in Queens, and the crowd began to affect me at an early age. There was no room to be a private person: if you got to a hiding place, you discovered that somebody was already there. That probably would have been okay if I hadn't immediately started to get the problem all wrong. For me, it wasn't that the house was too small -- that would have been easy to rectify. The problem had to be something I couldn't do anything about, and something that would follow me around for the rest of my life: too many people existed.
All five of us boys shared one bedroom. We had our own beds, but that was all. Paul and I were in the middle, sandwiched between Marty and Jimmy, in four parallel beds. Paul was still wetting his bed, because he was afraid to get up at night. Jimmy was laid up with a broken leg for a while, yet I had no sympathy for him -- what little snatches of privacy I might find under my own covers evaporated with his interminable presence. Tony's bed was in a corner.
We four boys adored Marty: he was tall and handsome, and he had a job; he supplied us with cigarettes and candy (shoplifted -- we weren't important enough to waste money on). The room was so small that anybody living in it knew everything about it. We knew where every sock or quarter or box of candy was, hidden or not; if I stole something and hid it, my brothers would still know where it was. Not only was nothing mine, but I had no place to keep anything in secret.
I began to escape. I learned to talk to my brothers while paying attention to them for only seconds at a time; I'd give them the illusion that they had my undivided attention, when in fact I was on Mars. My sisters I didn't think about. I didn't take them seriously until I reached puberty, when the first girl-rays emanating from their strange chests began to energize a part of me that until that time had hardly even required a name.
When I began school, I learned that some of my classmates were the youngest in their families and that other families had only four or five kids. Maybe that's where my initial resentment came from: my first view of how outsiders saw my family was as the subject of astonishment and derision. My relationships with classmates formed around my concept of my family; what I carried to them was the gang of us, rather than myself as an individual. They weren't meeting me personally back there in first grade, they were meeting my family. While they were talking to me, I imagined them silently wondering about us. I was reacting to outsiders as if I were a crowd.
I was a crowd.
Walking the five blocks to St. Theresa's grade school brought my first experience of physical distance. In my free time I roller-skated (metal clip-ons with key) into terra incognita, and thus learned that my family, although it defined my galaxy, did not constitute the entire known universe. I remember the first time I skated four or five blocks in an unknown direction, stopped, and looked around. I realized that for the first time, nobody there knew who I was and nobody who knew me knew where I was. This hadn't happened in school, because my siblings had been there before me, and the school knew all about me, anticipated me. But if I went the same distance in another direction, I could be in the middle of nowhere. It was another lesson in self and other, in self and nothing, in learning how to be alone.
E moved to Manhasset in 1961. Stephanie was born, and at last we were finished. But the family had already started shrinking, because Jimmy was gone. My parents had sent him off to Creedmore that year, when he was fourteen. My father didn't take him; Father Kruzas drove him there in his car, with Mom. I didn't know what it was all about, but I could tell that Mom and Dad didn't like Jimmy. Kids understand silences and loud voices, certain kinds of looks, the heat of dislike. As Tony says, "Anyone living in a house full of kids can tell when one of them's being stiffed." But I didn't understand enough to connect their violent discharges with Jimmy's going away. It just happened; one day there was an empty bed in our room. A couple of days passed before I realized that it might be permanently empty. I looked around the room to see if I could find any candy Jimmy had left behind.
Maybe that's when I first became seriously afraid of my parents, without even knowing it. We weren't told anything; Jimmy had vanished without a trace, as if vaporized or kidnapped. If you had it out with Mom and Dad, there'd be an empty bed.
At the same time, Annie was becoming a problem. The story is that when Mom was in the hospital having Annie, a nurse was in the room, but no doctor. When Annie started to emerge, the nurse panicked and forced my mother's knees together, pushing Annie back up into the birth canal. By third grade Annie was losing ground she was never going to make up.
I mention Annie and Jimmy because this is when my mother really started going down the chute. Jimmy was born in 1946, two years before Annie. About the time he was sent away, Annie's disabilities, which had seemed only mildly bothersome earlier, became impossible to ignore. Meanwhile, Mom had ten other kids to worry about. Her back was shot, arthritis was setting in, she was smoking two packs a day. She was not even forty years old. Her next two kids were born dead. She had no one to turn to but God. As Martha and Louise prepared for a trip to Rome (don't ask me how they managed that), Mom slipped them a note to read on the plane. It said, "Please say a prayer on the altar of Saint Peter for my two afflicted children."
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.