Summers Part 2

Next door to my grandparents lived my maternal great grandfather. Much of him remains a mystery to me but he is a person who continues to shape who I am today.

Levi Moskowitz moved from Poland to the United States in 1914. He worked as a tailor for most of his life. He had two children, my grandmother and a great uncle whom I don’t recall ever actually meeting. I remember him being straight-laced and serious. A man who loved to play card games and have conversations.

I would go over to his house, he’d offer me some fruit from the seemingly endless bowl he had on his countertop. Then he’d sit me down at the counter and he’d shuffle a deck of cards and deal us a game of Kings in the Corner. It is similar to solitaire but for two people. It involved critical thinking and strategy. Early on he’d go easy and explain his moves as they happened. As the game count mounted, he took the training wheels off. He taught me to think. I lived for those games and treasured those moments.

The one memory of him that stands out says more of my grandmother than him but I love it nonetheless. He would come over every night for dinner. He sat at one end of the table across from my grandfather. My grandmother would sit to the left of her husband and cut his food due to his paralysis. Papa Lou as we called him asked my grandmother to “toss him a biscuit.” Now, when I say he was straight-laced, I mean we had to eat french fries with a fork, napkin on the lap, no elbows on the table. These were strict rules we followed. Well, when he said to toss him a biscuit, my grandmother did just that. A biscuit went soaring across the table. He caught it with a look of shock on his face. My grandmother had a mischievous grin. Us kids stifled laughter. It was great.

Little did I know these moments wouldn’t be as numerous as I would have liked. He passed away when I was 7. He was 86. It was my first bout with losing a loved one. I didn’t fully grasp the concept of death and only that our card games wouldn’t ever happen again. Those rich conversations I had, even at 7, were gone.

It wasn’t until my adult life that I truly learned his history, and it is something I think a lot about. It was an offhand comment by a member of the family but it revealed my jewish ancestry. My grandmother was raised jewish, my mother was raised with a mix of Jewish and christian beliefs, and chose to only raise us in a christian/catholic household.

Many people and families are anchored to their cultural identities. My family doesn’t have that. My father’s side, the Italian side, was never the stereotypical large boisterous family, with great food. Hell, my off the boat Italian grandmother couldn’t even make pasta without burning the noodles. I lacked that. My mother’s side, they didn’t really have an identity. I grew up not knowing my Polish or Jewish roots.

As I move through adulthood, I am trying to find those roots. I’m trying to anchor myself or parts of my identity to a culture, but I feel a lack of connection with it all, which seems to be a common thread of my life. A search for connections.

Summers. Part One

After the divorce, the best part of my home life was summer breaks. We would come down to Florida to visit my mother’s parents. My mother would pack me and my sister into a minivan along with her sister and her three daughters. There would be a stop half way, and we’d then arrive at my maternal grandparent’s house. And I would set about making the best of memories

My grandmother was a spitfire of a woman. Quick witted and played by her own rules. She was incredibly loving, but strict and tough as nails. A side effect of raising five kids alone in days when that was uncommon. Her first husband, died in a freak accident when my mother was three years old, leaving behind a wife and four children. She worked as a nurse in the infant ward of a hospital which only added to her thick skin. Throughout my life, whether it was me crying over physical pain of doing something stupid as a child or emotional pain later in my life, she would repeat the line I have declared to be the family motto: “If you’re looking for sympathy, you can find it in the dictionary between shit and syphilis.”

While I obviously never knew my biological grandfather on this side of the family, there was a man named Harry that basically raised my mother and her siblings. He was the man I called Grandpa. About the time I was born, he had a stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body. The mental toll was apparently worse according to my grandmother. He barely put the effort in for his rehab but enough to be able to walk short distances with help of a cane or for longer outings he would use a motorized scooter.

My grandparents lived in a two bedroom house on the water. When we came down, there would be nine of us. Needless to say, the house was a bit crowded. My aunt and my mother would share the spare room, the two oldest cousins would get the pull out sofa, and then us younger three would sleep on the floor in the living room.

Every morning at 7AM, my grandfather would wake up, get dressed and start his walk to the kitchen. Every morning at 7:05AM, my grandfather would poke me with his cane. This was the signal to wake up and get the newspaper for him. I’d jump up, run outside in the Florida summer morning, grab the paper, come inside, pour him a cup of decaf coffee, put two eggs waffles in the toaster, and pass him his sugar free maple syrup. I’d get him situated, make myself waffles with regular syrup, and sit next to him in mostly silence and read the parts of the paper he was finished with. After breakfast, he would move to his recliner and put on some political talk show and I would sit and wait for every one to wake up.

Some afternoons, Grandpa would want to go to Sam’s on Hudson Beach which was at most a five minute walk. He’d choose one of us to join him. We all loved those times. We’d sit on his lap, and he’d let us drive his scooter. In the course of getting to the beach, you had to pass a bait shop. It was the almost the best part of the trip, second only to him getting us ice cream. As we passed the bait shop, he’d ask us to read the sign. We’d grin and say “Chip’s Bait and Tackle!” To which he’d reply “Nope! It says Chip’s Bait and TICKLE!” and proceed to tickle us relentlessly.

On afternoons Grandpa wouldn’t go to the beach, he would sit on the lanai and watch the afternoon storms roll in. One day, I decided to join him. I asked what he was doing, and he told me. Silence ensued. The next day, I again followed him and sat in silence. After a few more times, he invited me to sit on his lap. He told me does it because it reminded of his time in the Navy during World War II. He said the thunder reminded him of the sounds of the guns of the ship he served on. Each afternoon for the rest of the summer I would get a new memory. These afternoons were our moments, and I still treasure them.

I was born in New York. I spent the first eleven years of my life there, but as I look back it is obvious to me so much of my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood is centered around Hudson Beach. Summers spent there at first, then moving there, my first kiss, the first dose of mortality, falling in love, getting engaged. It all happened there. To this day, when I’m feeling lost, I make the drive to Hudson Beach to smile at the ghosts of my past

Interlude.

 

About a year ago, I started seeing a therapist for several issues. One being this mental and emotional disconnect I feel inside. There is a public Daniel. There is an internal Daniel. Public Daniel can take over a party or public setting. Public Daniel can spin a story, can charm his way through almost anything. Private Daniel just wants people to understand him. Private Daniel wants to be taken seriously. Private Daniel craves emotional intimacy. Private Daniel is the fuel public Daniel burns to survive. When Public Daniel makes an appearance, the entirety of the next day Private Daniel regrets it all. Why do I keep doing it? Because I need the approval. I need the laughs. I want each and every person at that party to not dislike me. So, you get the show.

Looking back at my childhood, it is easy to see where it started. I was the youngest of two siblings. I have three male cousins all older than my sister on my father’s side and three female cousins  two older than my sister and one that is a year younger than her. I was the odd one out. At once coddled by the adults and exiled by the children. Soon, I NEEDED to be a part of it. I wanted to be part of the conversations they would be whispering about when adults were around. I wanted to be in on the inside jokes. I wanted attention. From parents. From Aunts and Uncles. From my cousins. So I did whatever it took.

At first, it was the typical youngest whining and tattling. That is just what us youngest do. As I went through those early years of school, I learned that if you start reciting facts and memorized things, people were impressed. Family likes smart kids. In fifth grade, we learned bones of the body. General ones. Patella, clavicle, tibia. Things like that. I easily retained that. I loved science, and I loved impressing family. Sure enough, it became a party trick. “Daniel! Come here! Watch this. Do you still know all the bones in the body? Yeah? Okay. What bone is this?” I’d give them all they wanted. To this day, my father’s nephews still ask me if I can name them. You bet your ass I can.

Being the smart one eventually had drawbacks. As my cousins got older, suddenly smart wasn’t cool. I was the nerdy cousin. I wanted to read and be smart. They wanted to be smart asses. It was time to learn a new gimmick. I started to make them laugh. Now I was the little cousin who was hilarious. At age seven or eight, I even created a new persona that I called Doctor Funny. I created a jingle for him, a voice, and even a walk. I learned early sometimes you need to bury parts of you and exaggerate other portions if you want as much control of people’s reactions to you as possible. While my family were laughing, they were paying attention to me, and I needed that more than anything.

Around the same time I discovered laughter was a great way to garner attention, someone gifted me a magic set. It had card tricks a thing to push a pencil through a foam cup without spilling water, and a few other gimmicks. I loved it. Eight year old me could do magic tricks while making people laugh. Brilliant! I studied the manual. I practiced the tricks. I wanted to do a show. I was going to be the star of the night. My father obliged.

At this point my father was living in a small two room apartment built in his best friends garage. During this time there were a husband and wife and their two adult children living there as well. I had my audience. I started with your basic card tricks, Then I asked for a dollar bill, rolled it up, slid it into the little tube in my hand that was attached to my sleeve with elastic. TA-DA! They clapped and feigned amazement. They were all giving me the approval I wanted. Time for the finale. I poured water in the foam cup I had. I took a pencil. I shoved the pencil through the side of the cup. I removed the pencil. DISASTER. Water started to fountain out. I was mortified. They started laughing. I was near tears, but my father couldn’t stop laughing. He came up and hugged me. Despite my internal struggle, I still won the room.

Looking back, I always thought my sister inherited the entirety of our father’s showmanship. She loves to sing, to dance, to get on stage and perform. She did a few shows at a local dinner theater in town. Going through these memories, it looks like I got my fair share as well.

Spaces Between

After the divorce, my father moved back in with his parents. They had an apartment upstairs in which my family apparently lived in until shortly after I was born. He didn’t have many things. An old tv set, an armoire, and a king sized bed. My best memory and my worst memory of my father happened in that apartment. Both of which have had lasting impressions on my life.

Lets start with the worst.

Some back story is needed. My paternal grandfather, despite my parents splitting up, stayed an active part of my life. My mother worked long hours to keep our heads above water, and he helped out by babysitting us and cooking dinners. Just all around helping out. He was my favorite person. I loved sitting on his lap, calling him a turkey, and going every where with him (mostly because anything I wanted, I got.).

I was seven or so. Dad has been living with my grandparents for awhile. It was his weekend and my grandfather drove me back to his house to save my father a trip. I remember sitting on my grandfathers lap, and my father asked if I was going to come up stairs for bed. I asked him if it was okay if I stayed downstairs in the spare bedroom they had. We were in the same house. I’d go upstairs and hang out and go sleep downstairs in my own bed. He said okay, and stormed up stairs. My little brain already knew enough to know this wasn’t good. He slammed the door, and we heard things crashing around. I decided it was time to go make it right. I went upstairs, and he ignored me. He was just pacing around the living room in a fit. So, I just went and curled up in his bed and tried to sleep. Sleep wasn’t going to happen. I’m not sure if he forgot I was there, or if he wanted me to hear him, but he made a phone call to his best friend. For most of the conversation he was talking in a normal volume which I couldn’t fully hear. Out of nowhere he starts yelling into the phone that his son doesn’t love him anymore. That I should just be downstairs since I don’t want to be there. This is all punctuated by objects flying.

It was a night that changed the way I saw my father. I subconsciously decided to shut down and be the dutiful son. To do anything to placate him so those outbursts were no longer directed at me. Maybe this is where my aversion to conflict comes from?

Time for the good.

I was a sickly child in first and second grade. Constant ear infections and strep throat. I have hearing issues due to scarring of my ear drums. The solution for these problems was removal of my tonsils and adenoids. The day after the surgery I still couldn’t talk, my father brought me back to his place. One detail remains hazy to me. I cannot recall if it was so close to the divorce that he didn’t have any furniture moved in yet, or if he was moving out into his friends place. Regardless, the living room area of the apartment was empty. Just plain carpet. In my grandparents hallway closet is where my toys were kept. My father brought up my play set that was Cowboys and Native Americans. He built the plastic fort, positioned the plastic warriors all around it, and got into the prone position with two bags of rubber bands next to him. He motioned me to do the same next to him, so I followed his lead. He reached into one bag pulled out a rubber band and fired it at one of the soldiers. I smiled. He handed me a rubber band and told me to shoot. I missed. He told me to go again. And this continued until every last plastic soldier was down. There were rubber bands everywhere but we did it. Instead of cleaning up we curled up on the floor and took a nap.

This was the one time in my childhood I felt we bonded. It was quiet. It was simple. To quote my favorite movie, Beginners, “Here is simple and happy. That’s what I meant to give to you.”

Unfortunately our relationships, especially with our parents are never simple and we can only hope they are happy.

 

Walls

One of the earliest memories I can recall, one that I am certain is a memory and not an internalized story my family has repeated often enough for it to be rote, is building a wall to turn what was the master bedroom in my childhood home into a third bedroom.  I remember spending the day with my uncle, a few cousins, and other assorted family. That day started happy. Hell, theres even a photo in the album my mother made me commemorating that day. I was about six years old at the time, and had no idea the implications. I was just enjoying the company and thinking I was helping build something. 

I’m not fully certain if time has clouded things or if it is the actual truth but in my memory bank, these two events happened the same day.

Like every wall, this one had two sides. I didn’t comprehend the other side of it until it happened. The wall wasn’t just to split a room in two, it was meant to divide the family as well. This was the day my mother put her foot down and kicked my father out. 

I vividly remember sitting in the front half of the newly divided room. On my parents bed. I was told to go inside as my mother broke the news to my father. My father, as expected did not take it well. I guess he asked for a moment to speak to my sister and me. That talk wasn’t the kind you’d like to think it was. It was a tempest of raw emotion. He yelled, he blamed our mother, he cried, and a small part of my brain says he threw some objects. It wasn’t until his father stepped in, kicked us out of the room, and spoke to him, did he leave. 

I wish I had profound revelations, or motivational things to say about keeping families together is about tearing down walls, not building them. Some cliched line like that. I just don’t.

Maybe in the initial first few years of my parents separation did I want them to get back together. I was 6. Of course I wanted my father around. After awhile though, it was nice not laying in the bottom bunk of the room my sister and I shared. Twirling her hair that she would hang down for me while our parents yelled and screamed. Dad sometimes punching or kicking holes in walls. It wasn’t a loving home in that sense. Not until after the wall was built.

I offer that maybe in some cases that walls are good. Cordoning off the bad parts and moving full speed ahead towards better and brighter is the way to go. Grab my tool belt, and lets go onwards.

 

68

Today would be my father’s 68th birthday. He passed away from cancer 3 years ago. It is always a weird day for me. A reminder of his passing and a reminder of a relationship that was complicated at best.

Growing up, he toured the country in a production of Music Man. He was on Broadway in Lionel Bart’s Oliver! that featured Davy Jones of later Monkees fame. Through that he appeared with fellow cast members on a historic episode of The Ed Sullivan Show. Also appearing that night for the first time? The Beatles. Since his passing, I have found old letters from all genders and age ranges writing him about being on Broadway. I found contracts from appearing in commercials. He was a showman from a young age.

His love of show tunes. His love of dance. Until his health failed him, he taught adult education tap dance at a school. I spent many nights during my Thanksgiving breaks locked in a school cafeteria, attempting to do homework, while he taught a ragtag group of mostly senior citizens how to tap dance. All of them constantly telling me how much I looked like him, and asking if I had his moves. I did and still to this day do not.

He wasn’t physically a large man, but his personality was larger than life. I took him to visit his coworkers in the last months of his life. We had just a day earlier learned treatments stopped working, and the end was fast approaching. I stood 4 inches taller, 35 years younger and healthy. He filled the hallways of the Senior Center. Half his face was numb, an eye no longer opened due to tumors pressing on nerves. He openly told people his condition, but quickly followed it up with “I guess you could truly say I am a numbskull.”.

He was a showman until the end.

My father was prone to depression. I didn’t know it at the time, and he never admitted it, but one of my mother’s biggest issues with him was his tendency to lock himself in his room and lay in bed. Growing up she always told me not to adopt his habit of laziness. Now that I’m in my thirties, and have a knack for laying in bed for hours after work, and speaking to a therapist, I’m aware its more than being lazy.

The other issue my mother (and the rest of us) had about him was his temper. You never knew what would set him off. Invectives and objects would be thrown around a room with reckless abandon. Once, his computer didn’t respond the way he desired, and he was on the ground throwing a tantrum like a toddler. There were unaddressed issues.

The divorce from my mother exacerbated these issues. Our first weekends with him were spent laying on his bed while he cried and repeatedly told us it was our mother’s fault. He would continually tell my sister and I that he loved us. On the way to be dropped back off at our mother’s he’d ask if we had a good time every 6 minutes or so.

He was a complicated man. He had a tempest of emotions I assume he never really learned how to express. Growing up, he coached my soccer teams despite never knowing the sport. He never missed a child support payment, nor a weekend with us. He took me on trips to Gettysburg, Toronto, Washington DC, and others. He bought me books and cds. He, on the surface, was a decent father. We just never connected.

When I moved to Florida, we would alternate Sundays to call the other. The conversations were always the same. He’d ask about the weather, maybe a little about school, a few I love and miss you’s and we’d hang up.

My late teens and early twenties were a complicated time emotionally for me. I reached out to him in my way, and I don’t think he was able to understand and responded in a way he usually would. It hurt me deeper than I admitted at the time. We started to drift apart and before I knew it, the distance was greater than just New York and Florida. It wasn’t until I received a message saying the cancer was getting worse and he was emotionally beaten. Maybe a phone call from me would help lift him back up. I chewed on that for a couple of days. Was it possible to bridge this gap? Could I let go of a pit of hurt?  Yes and no. I called him. Weekly. The hurt of the past was never addressed, in fact, it only increased as events unfolded, but relationships, especially familial ones, are never quite black and white. I know my father loved me. I also know there were things in his head that would not let him reach beyond himself and give me the emotional connections I needed from him.

With his passing, I won’t ever get the answers to some of my questions, and I wrestle with them in my head often, but I’ve come to accept him for who he was. I can sit here and thank him for my sense of humor and for that small creative spark inside my head. I can thank him for doing his best, and I can thank him for giving me a mirror of my shortcomings that I need to address so I don’t repeat his mistakes.

Happy Birthday, Old man.

Beginnings

This all starts out being the youngest product of a mother with an over abundance of love she showered upon everyone she met, and a father who had to learn how to love multiple people all at once. It starts with being the youngest and sometimes only male child in a close knit family. This isn’t to say I had a difficult upbringing. Quite the opposite, I did not lack for food, clothes, or affection. The only thing I lacked was a sense of belonging. One that continues thirty-three years into my life.

I am surrounded by the best group of friends I could ask for. My mother, sister, her children, my step father, they all love me unconditionally and push me to be a better person. Yet, here I am. Still searching for a place in this world.

That is the purpose for this blog. It is a journey I need to take. As honest a reflection and interpretation of the events of my life and the lessons I have learned from those around me that I can give. Whether they are family, friends, ex loves, or people who only were present in the favorite scenes of my life, I believe they all served a purpose and gave me little lessons like bread crumbs left by whatever omnipresent deity to guide me toward what ever the end result of my life ends up being.

I’m looking forward to taking this journey.