AMBER LOVE 20-MARCH-2014 Today is a Thursday and it happens to (finally) be the Spring Equinox. After a grueling winter that, at many times felt relentless, it seems like all of the northeastern US is jumping up and down in joyous revelry.
Today also would have been my grandmother’s 94th birthday; she only made it to 79 though. She was by far, second only to my mother in the checklist of people who have influenced my life. Mom, Gram and my grandfather raised me while my father worked night shifts my entire life, was a volunteer fireman, and a National Guard warrior so I basically never saw him more than a few minutes a week until he retired and I was living back at home.
Born in 1920, Gram had certainly seen a lot happen in the world even though she spent her life in the same house where she had been raised by her mother. The odd purplish-grey bricks of the house had been covered by beige aluminum siding when I was a kid. The one-car garage could never actually fit a car from what I remember but it was filled to the roof with stuff including our summer toys. Those good ol’ days were before I developed my bug phobia and I used to actually enjoy digging in dirt and playing with all the bugs I found; the thought of it makes my skin crawl right now. My grandparents had adorable small patches of flowers on their postage stamp property in the not-yet-urban New Jersey neighborhood.
Before my Gram died, the town had become a sprawl of ghetto crimes like shootings, car jackings, and drugs. Before then, back in the 1970s and 80s, when we’d get in the car to drive to Two Guys, Rickel’s or Sears, Gram would point out the “Jewish neighborhood,” the “Black neighborhood,” the “Italians,” or which houses were obviously owned by the Portuguese who would put tiles on the facades and have little gated yards with statues. I think the Italians had enough money to live anywhere else like the Oranges, Elizabeth or Roselle Park except of course Hillside resident and New York Yankee announcer Phil Rizzuto who, I’m told, once asked my grandmother out not caring one bit that she was married. There were even houses in the town Gram would tell us were where bad boys and girls got sent.
By the way, every trip to the Evergreen Cemetery was exactly the same as touring the town itself: the Russian plots, the Gypsy plots, the Black plots, the Irish, etc. Our Prussian family plots are snuggly placed in a corner next to the Gypsies which was not a pejorative back in those days because we could proudly say the film, THE KING OF THE GYPSIES (1978) was filmed right there by our plots! Oh, the pride I had for a movie I have never seen. It meant that at some point Susan Sarandon, Shelley Winters, Judd Hirsch and Eric Roberts had been hanging out in my hood. My grandparents cut out the newspaper clippings of the filming and kept them in a scrapbook. And this was about as big a deal as the lotto girl – sorry, “Lottery Hostess” – Hela Young/Yungst being from our neighborhood too. My grandfather clearly had a massive crush on Hela.
Spring at my grandparents’ house meant that their tiny yard would be decorated in bright purples, yellows and pinks of crocuses, tulips, hyacinths, lilacs, and my favorites – snapdragons and pansies. To this day, my mother and I are still particularly fond of purple and yellow flowers so if I pick up a bouquet of daisies or whatever, it’s most likely going to look like an Easter bunny will pop out of it. I’ve just never been a red roses kind of gal. When my folks moved us out to the boondocks of western New Jersey where no one had ever even heard of a bagel, spring meant that my grandparents would be spending a lot of time in our big rural parcel trying to make it look like something presentable. We never got the place to look like the previous owners had. They were obviously good country folk and we were city people without a single green thumb between us.
I hated it.
There were no sidewalks. No parks. No places I could go to visit friends because friends lived a 20-minute car ride away. That meant my outdoor pre-computer hobbies of bikes and roller skates were never going to do me any good in this backwater town. We also had never experienced deer before. Deer and groundhogs – the two plagues to anyone who has ever tried to garden and landscape. Don’t even get me started on ticks and fleas because by this point, my fear/hatred of bugs was growing by the second. Nothing else can explain how much I hated my new country life as a 10-year-old than the fact that I would demand my grandparents drive in gallons of city water with all its smelly array of chemicals because well water is absolutely disgusting; this is still a preference of mine 30 years later but now there are “brands” for water so we just get that from the supermarket.
Nothing stopped my extremely tan Italian shirtless grandfather from gardening though. I have no idea how my Gram never had a tan in her life. The woman was so white she would win a contest with those shitty sparkly vampires for palest complexion. She also never had to shave any part of her body EVER. Lucky for me I inherited the Sasquatch DNA from the Polish side!
My Gram was a lot of fun and a bit of gal pal for me which was great considering how few friends I had. I spent plenty of time at her beauty parlor amid the foggy haze of cigarette smoke and aerosol hairspray back when every beautician would light up, take a drag and leave their cigarette in the ashtray at their work station. Back then, they didn’t even smoke in an employee break room. Nope. It was right there at their mirrors. Somehow the place never combusted into a fireball. It’s also where I was transformed a couple times: once when I cut off my own foot long ponytail because I was so sick of being a pretty little girl and once when I wanted to be a pretty girl and had them cut my hair like Princess Diana. Of course, I wore epically giant glasses so I never really got to look like Princess Di.
Gram didn’t exactly dole out advice. In fact, it was more like giving commands about how to exist in life. There were two commands in life my grandmother tried to impart on me:
1. Always put the grave covers on the graves the Saturday before Thanksgiving; it was some kind of bad luck otherwise. I don’t know. Gypsy curse maybe.
2. Never let a man run your finances. Always – ALWAYS – be in charge of the household money yourself. Keep some scattered around in secret hiding places in cash too. You never know.
I tried my best but I failed at both. If there are ever people in your life you never want to fail, it’s your parents and grandparents. I had gone from honor student to disaster in my short three and a half years of college. My GPA, though still honors, meant absolutely nothing to me because I had lost all grasp of reality by that point. College – I’ll save that story for another time. Failure was something with which I became well acquainted.
Now the cemetery is an hour away not five minutes so it’s a giant inconvenience to get there. As for the money… well, what can I say? I followed her rules for as long as I could. Then every single aspect of life got way too overwhelming. When I married again and had yet another breakdown, I begged my second husband to do the finances which he did even though our accounts were never combined; even now, I need my mother’s help. My Gram was stalwart. I don’t know what feelings she would have if she ever saw me at my worst. Women were supposed to be able to take care of things even if they weren’t the ones with the biggest paycheck or any paycheck at all. The day I left my shitty first husband I needed my Gram and she was only half there for me.
I was going in for an outpatient surgery on my cervix. A lovely “condition” believed to be caused my husband’s philandering which had to be repeated years later to a more extreme fashion. The Asshole was supposed to take me and he forgot. He went to work or to get a blowjob or who the fuck knows. He just wasn’t there. My mother took me in to the medical facility where my nervous breakdown was already in full swing by this point. Years of dealing with him, his kids, his ex-wife, his ex-girlfriend and my utterly miserable job had all come to that moment with me and my feet in stirrups, legs spread, tears streaming and my mother patting my hand. I was never going back to live in that house. I don’t know if it’s because of the anaesthesia or my mental state but I don’t know when my mother left this delightful scene. I only remember that the ONE friend I was “allowed” to have, Nancy, came to pick me up. She drove from the very last town in western New Jersey near Pennsylvania, to get me somewhere in Hunterdon County, and then drive my distraught ass back to Hillside to my family homestead in the city – to my grandmother.
Gram was clearly stressed. Her nervousness was unusual. After all, she was the strong one. She was the matriarch. She ruled that house through a few generations and I never knew her to be afraid of anything. I’m pretty much afraid of everything. I’m the exact opposite of my darling grandmother although I have her bloated midsection, high blood pressure and unfortunate hobbit height. Something had gotten to her and she was not the one to tell me what it was.
I asked calmly then pleaded, “Can I live here?” Every member of my family had at one time called the house on Fitzpatrick Street home except for me. She said no. My grandmother wouldn’t let me runaway to the one place I didn’t hate. It wasn’t the running away part, I later learned. By this point, she and everyone saw the Asshole for what he was and she was glad to have me out of there but I couldn’t stay with her and to be perfectly honest, that broke my heart more than he ever did.
Years later, my mother told me the truth and I was dumbfounded. I was informed that my grandmother was afraid the Asshole would show up at her house and she didn’t want to deal with a domestic dispute – the polite way of saying the cops show up because a family is beating the shit out of each other. This was a police call more common than drugs or DUIs. I know that because the Asshole was a cop and would tell me about his blotter. One thing worse than a domestic call was a domestic call with a badge involved.
I made the best of a shitty situation. I moved home to the crestfallen estate with my parents for the first time. I’m back again a second time after yet another failed marriage. I sense a pattern. But I tried to see my Gram as much as possible after my grandfather died and I had my license. So after the rejection about the living situation, I would drive over there every two weeks to paint her nails which she had trouble doing because of arthritis. We’d make a trip to the cemetery of course too, then have lunch at Five Points. This was before I was vegetarian and would get the best hot dogs in the world at Galloping Hill. Gram would always order a Happy Waitress and black coffee but don’t bring the coffee out until after she had eaten.