Like everyone else on this planet, I was born into a family. While I understand the idea of blood being thicker than water and all that jazz, I have never really considered myself part of a “pack,” family or otherwise. I am quite sure that this is in direct correlation with the fact that my immediate family, particularly on my mother’s side, was extremely dysfunctional.
My mother counted her happiest days as the ones spent far away from her family, living at the Villa Loretta in upstate, NY. Oddly enough, it was there, at the home for wayward girls and orphans, that she felt truly loved and like part of a family for the first time in her life. She always spoke lovingly of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, the nuns who ran the Villa Loretta, and she always looked back fondly on the time she spent there. She once told me that the only regret she had about her parents “sending her away” was that they had not given up their parental rights sooner.
Her father Frank was an abusive drunk who had no issues with mercilessly beating his wife or his two oldest daughters. I am not sure what happened to make him that way, whether violence was something he was born with or something he picked up later in life; but either way, from what I have been told, he was a real prick.
In stark contrast, his brother Johnny (who my mother always referred to as her favorite uncle) was a good-natured guy. He became her savior of sorts, rescuing her on weekends from the hell she called home. Johnny would pull up to the house in one of his shiny new Cadillacs, sharply dressed, and whisk my mom away for long afternoons on the road. He’d let her put on whatever radio station she wanted to as the wind blew through their hair. Johnny’s only downfall was that he too, like my grandfather, suffered from alcoholism.
After I was born and my parents divorced, my mother worked as a barmaid for Johnny in Freeport, LI, and sometimes, if she found herself without a sitter, she would bring me along for her shift. I can still picture Johnny perched on his bar stool, a smile across his face, entertaining me with his special talent, which was making balloon animals.
I always loved spending time with him. He reminded me of one of the “Old Salt” statues we had on our mantle back at my grandmother’s house. Johnny would steal change from the register and show me how to play my favorite song on the jukebox, Linda Rondstadt’s “When Will I Be Loved.” Everyone in the bar would laugh when I belted out, “When will Ivy love?” Which up until recently (more recently than I’d like to admit), I thought were the lyrics.
When my mom informed me of my uncle Johnny’s death a couple years later, and more specifically that he drank himself brain-dead, I remember thinking that drinking yourself brain-dead must be something that happened to old people naturally, like cancer or a heart attack. Johnny was 41 years old, the same age that I am now.
The first time I remember meeting my grandfather, I was about five. My mom and I happened to run into him at the local supermarket. I watched crane-necked from the shopping cart as my grandmother hightailed it down the produce aisle with a spring in her step I had never seen before. As my mom stopped to talk to a balding, older man, I realized that they seemed to have the same eyes. I can still remember the introduction. Mom said quite matter-of-factly, “Cynthia, this is your grandfather.” I greeted him with a hello, and continued to do what I liked doing best while bored in the shopping cart–swinging my legs and kicking my mom sharply in her upper thighs.
After our initial introduction, we would sometimes visit my grandfather at his bar, which was only about a mile from my grandmother’s house. He was always nice enough, but he was nothing like my happy-go-lucky Uncle Johnny. He had an intense stare, didn’t smile often and never once made me balloon animals. However, I do recall him filling a brown paper bag with potato chips and cheese doodles, the ones that were kept on a metal rack on top of the bar, and handing them to me. Knowing what I know now, and the stories I’ve heard about the beatings he gave both my mom and my grandmother…the time he slammed my mom’s face into a kitchen cabinet and knocked her teeth out; the rage he flew into when he caught her hanging out with a black boy; the morning he hid in the basement, lying in wait for my grandmother to come home from work, and used a bar stool to crush the bones in her face while their youngest child sat obliviously upstairs…well, I probably would not have taken those chips.
One of the things that I find most amazing about my mom was her capacity for forgiveness and her ability to show my grandfather kindness when she became an adult and didn’t have to. When he was dying of cirrhosis of the liver in the cramped, smelly room above his dive bar, it was my mother who went to check on him and help him bathe. She was the only one of his children to visit him in that wretched place where he lay dying. She brought me with her once, and I still remember the horrific smell of death that emanated from him.
As the matriarch of our family, my grandmother Helen was clearly in charge and ran the show. She was an extremely tough, complicated woman whose parents fled Germany during WWII. She was not much for showing affection or for saying “I love you,” but as her only grandchild, she spoiled me terribly. She could be a master manipulator when it came to her kids, and to say she was calculating would be an understatement. But she was our rock, and if anyone found themselves in a jam, she was the one you went to. Helen always had the solution.
She and my mom had a rocky relationship to say the least, but there was a strong sense of loyalty between the two of them. I imagine it was much like the bond one feels towards a fellow soldier after surviving a war. My grandmother would always tell me, “Out of all of my kids, your mother has the kindest heart.” Yet she always looked at my mother’s alcoholism as a weakness, and there were times when I saw the contempt in her eyes because of it. But in the end, my mom was the one holding my grandmother at the moment she took her last breath, right in my living room.
Out of my mother’s three siblings, there is only one that I have ever had a close relationship with, and that’s my Aunt Fay. When I was two and my mom and I moved back to Long Island, Fay spent a lot of her free time watching over me. I would tag along with her and her high school friends for what, at the time, felt like excellent adventures. For some reason, they really seemed to like having me around. Two of my earliest memories are sitting Indian-style with them under an old pine tree in the woods at the end of our block while they passed around a smelly cigarette, and the other is of me perched on her boyfriend Kelvin’s lap, steering my grandmother’s Nova while he drove. To this day, you cannot tell me I did not drive a car at three.
After she graduated, Fay made tracks and left Long Island for college in Keene, NH. I still got to see her for summers and holidays, but the time always went by way too fast and I hated to see her go. She was a free spirit who rode a motorcycle, played the drums, traveled extensively and rejected any traditional ideas of what a woman should be. In short, she was my hero.
If there was a polar opposite of Fay, it was my mother’s older sister, Christine. As an adult, I can understand how truly damaged she must have been from the abuse she suffered at my grandfather’s hand; but as a child, I was petrified of her. She hated my mother from as far back as my mom could remember, and while both had received the same brutal beatings from their father, Lizzie (my mom’s nickname) was always his favorite. And as if that was not bad enough, she was also the “pretty” one.
Even a child could see there was something not quite right with Christine. In pictures, she looks mentally ill. I don’t say this out of cruelty, I say it as someone who has finally learned to look at her objectively. My mom always talked about the first time she stood up to her older sister when she was about seven. Christine was on top of her, holding a hot iron inches from my mother’s face, threatening to burn her skin. My mom became enraged and immediately proceeded to kick the shit out of her. It was the last time Christine ever tried to physically hurt my mother, opting instead to hone her mental warfare skills…and at those, she became an expert.
To say Christine was mean to me would be an understatement. From the time I was little, she would ignore me as though I didn’t exist. If I was in the living room watching cartoons, she’d stomp in, abruptly change the channel and then leave the room, sometimes while she had her own TV on in her bedroom. It was beyond bizarre. The straw that finally broke the camel’s back was when my winter jacket, the one that had taken my mother months to pay off, disappeared from the laundry. Once again, my mother was on top of Christine, beating the crap out of her. You see, along with Christine’s stellar personality, she also had a habit of stealing things. Clothes, record collections, milk–pretty much anything she thought you might want or need was fair game. Sometimes my mom would pick the lock on Christine’s bedroom door and find untouched glasses of spoiled milk on her dresser, just so the rest of us could not have any.
Unfortunately, my grandmother’s way of dealing with my aunt’s mental illness was to simply ignore it, and after the “coat incident,” my mother managed to scrape together enough money so we could finally move out. Growing up with my mom was not always a picnic, but at least her venom came from the bottle. Christine’s seemed to come from the very depths of her soul. Even when my mother was at her worst, you knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel and that the next day she would wake up her usual good-natured self.
My mom also had a younger brother, Frankie. When he was a baby, she took care of him while my grandmother worked the third shift as a nurse’s aid. My grandfather (being a drunk and all) was not much help with the kids, so it was her duty to take care of Frankie and Fay, the two youngest children. Frankie and I were somewhat close in age, and growing up, he was more like a big brother to me than an uncle.
Several years after my grandmother died there was a falling out between Frankie and my mother, and their relationship ended for good. I like to think I am a forgiving person, but I have no forgiveness for him. I explicitly remember my last words to him being, “I will put my mother in the ground and never speak to you again,” and while I did not technically bury my mother (I opted for cremation), I have stayed true to my word.
It was no surprise to me that after my mother died I did not get one call or card acknowledging her death from either of her estranged siblings. These people are not family to me, and they most certainly were not family to my mother. They are only people who happen to share some of our DNA. While it may sound cold to some–and if it does to you, consider yourself lucky, because you probably have a wonderful family–I can’t feign a closeness that just does not, and never did, exist.
When my aunt Christine died two years after my mother, I readily admit feeling nothing but ambivalence. As an adult I understand that, like my mother, she suffered immensely; but the way she chose to deal with her pain was very different. Like my grandfather, she lashed out at those who did not deserve it. I do, however, give her credit for teaching me one of life’s most valuable lessons: Not everyone in this world is going to like you, no matter what you do. And if they don’t? Fuck them, and move on.
Recently, my mother’s cousin reached out to ask me for information for a family tree she is putting together. While I understand the idea of being able to see the history of my bloodline, I can’t help but think it’s a little ridiculous to call some of the people in that tree “family.” I also wonder how my baby sister Leslie fits into this disjointed pile of wood.
Leslie is the daughter my mother gave up for adoption when I was in the fifth grade. At the time, my grandmother, mother and I were sharing a bedroom in what is now half of my kitchen. My mom and I slept together in one single bed while my grandmother slept less than two feet away on another. This house was already too small for the five people who inhabited it, and my mother was told by my grandmother that there would be no room for more. But as always, my grandmother had what seemed to be the perfect solution. She had a good friend from work named David, and he and his wife were unable to have children of their own, so it was decided (for my mother) that they would adopt my little sister. Crisis averted.
The summer Leslie was born, I was upstate preparing for a cross-country trip with my aunt and grandmother on my father’s side when my dad told me I needed to go back to Long Island to be with my mom. She was having a really hard time after Leslie’s birth and needed me home with her. I was only ten at the time, but the intensity with which my mother needed me, even back then, was always apparent. Nothing for my mother was ever easy, and for obvious reasons giving up her child was one of the hardest things she ever had to do. Years later, in a bizarre twist of fate, Leslie found us and a relationship with her ensued. I am so happy that we all got the chance to reconnect before our mother’s death in 2009.
It’s now been almost five years since my mother passed away and in reflecting on her life, she continues to teach me the most valuable lessons. She always believed that family was not necessarily your blood, or the people you inherited by proxy. Family to her meant the people who chose you, the ones who were with you for the good and the bad, like her best friend Anne, the woman she called her soulmate.
One of the things my mom told me throughout my life, and especially at the end of hers, was that she would always be with me. I did not believe that for a long time after her death, but I have recently come to feel her presence with me every step of the way; and in feeling her with me, I have at last come to my own conclusion as to what “family” is. They are the ones who never truly leave us, the ones who, even after death, continue to enrich our lives.
Author: Cynthia Cone is a heavily tattooed Ex-Con with no college education and very bad punctuation. She currently lives on Long Island, NY where she pays extremely high taxes, likes to drink, rage against the machine and shop at the GAP.
Contact Cynthia at firstname.lastname@example.org