I was born with a crooked smile on my face in September of 1958 Ė see my upcoming birthday post for exact date. As far as I can recall I was not breastfed. It was not the fashion and my mother was not the sort to do anything so unmodern. Believe me on this one. She is the model of forward thinking for her entire family. She was the first child born in America, the first child for my grandmother (Noonie) and the 4th for my grandfather.
It was a rough life for her in the early years. Her mother was not well and so she was raised for a time by her aunt Angie. Somewhere in here she picked up her uncontrollable fear of dogs. But in other respects, she was the strong one in the family. First to learn to drive. First to own a car. First one to go to college. First woman to have a job. In many ways, she took after her motherís side of the family in the old country (Southern Italy) where most of her relatives (men and women alike) are teachers. I think my mother took on my grandmotherís strong spirit, and was simply lucky enough to not have that spirit crushed by cultural norms as was the case with Noonie.
My maternal grandfather was an immigrant to the U.S. He came here to earn money to support his entire family back in the high country of Southern Italy (the farm country). He was the sole surviving male of the family after all his brothers had been killed in an earthquake. My grandfather had gone outside to use the outhouse and thus was spared when the main building collapsed. As the man of the family, my grandfather was expected to earn money to support his mother and several sisters, provide dowries (in each case, a completely furnished house), and also to marry and have kids of his own to pass on the family name. He had a wife in Italy. While he was in America, she died. That left him with 3 children, one of whom was severely disabled from an infantile bout of polio (as near as anyone can remember). The only choice was to bring his children to America where he was at least earning money. The government wouldnít let my uncle into the US, so he stayed home while his two younger sisters were allowed to accompany grandpa to Albany NY, where he worked. There he married my grandmother, Noonie.
Noonie was 16 and didnít want to get married, she wanted to go to school. But in those days it was either do what your parents said, or run away. So she became my grandfatherís wife, and inherited two teenage daughters to raise. My grandfather was much older than she. I think the whole thing derailed her life. Even though my grandfather was a wonderful and loving man, he was a symbol of everything that Noonie didnít want in her life. And soon she was having babies of her own, my mother being the first. Followed by a second baby about a year later. I understood her going insane once I knew the whole story. That she functioned so well is what amazes me now that I look back on her life. It was filled with the effects of untreated bipolar disorder you couldíve spotted from the far side of the moon in todayís environment. She never did get help for it. It made her a lot of fun to be around sometimes (like when we made paper airplanes, lit them on fire, and flew them into the kitchen sink or when she let all the cousins help paint her cellar by playing tic-tac-toe all over the walls). But she was scary sometimes (like when she pulled the big butcher knife out and threatened my brother and me!!!).
My paternal grandparents were kind of interesting too. My grandmother Scopatz was an immigrant from a little farming town outside of Trieste. She was ideologically more American than any person I have ever met. She thought freedom was the only thing worth living for, and even the thought of, late in life, needing to go to a nursing home, was enough to kill her. Literally. Donít believe for an instant that patients with senile dementia canít somehow figure stuff out. She knew where she was, didnít want to be there and died. That I was the one who recommended sending her there is something Iíll try to explain some other time. At the time Iím talking about, though, she was a headstrong girl raised in the coal country of Pennsylvania. Sheíd seen her father die of lung ailments. She saw her mom live to a very old age (late 90ís) without her husband there. Her family had suffered hardships trying to pay for polio treatments for her brother (who actually made it through pretty well and is a really nice guy). Grandma put herself through beauticianís college and was the first woman in her family to work outside of the farm or the home.
Sadly, she and my mother, being very similar, never really got along.
My paternal grandfather is more or less a cipher to me. He died shortly after my older brother was born. All I know of him is that he was helped to "jump ship" and enter this country illegally. He was in the Italian merchant marine and while docked in NY, his captain came and told him that he had to leave port precisely at Noon the next day and that any sailors not on board by that time would have to be left behind. Of course that would mean missing out on the war that was brewing back homeÖ hint hint. So, my granddad stayed and somehow made his way to Shamokin, PA, of all places, where he met my grandmother and they got married and moved to NYC. The other thing I know about my grandfather is that, being illegal, he had a hard time getting work. He was, for some time, the menís room attendant at a New Jersey country club where he worked mainly for tips. I found this out one day when I complained to my grandmother that I didnít like having to use the restroom with some creepy guy in there handing out towels and offering you spritzes of cologne. It was the first of two times I ever saw her angry with me. She told me that any work was good work and that my grandfather had that same job and I had no business saying what I did. Needless to say, I was horribly shamed and have had a different outlook since then on lots of things. I owe her for that one, big time.
My father was an only child. He grew up during the war years following the slow climb out of the Great Depression. He learned to read from comic books, loved airplanes and movies. Somewhere in his childhood he picked up a fear of drowning (stories say his uncle tossed him a lake and yelled ďSwimĒ when he was about six years old) and a taste aversion to butter. Somehow, his parents were able to afford to send him through RPI for training as an engineer. He was 6 feet tall too, which is kind of amazing when you consider how short his parents were, but his grandfather (the guy who died of lung disease from the coal mines) was pretty tall too, so I guess thatís where it came from. He had blue eyes and blond hair from my grandmotherís side of the family too. He earned money for school by helping out on surveying crews for a local company. After college he worked on the first in-flight refueling system, then moved into newly developing sonar technology, where he earned some technical patents and became a top designer for various Navy contractors. He was an early-release 2nd lieutenant from the Army when they cut back forces during peacetime.
I got dadís sense of humor. Itís Marx Brothers mixed with a little bit of Shakespeare from mom. I wish, sometimes, that I could stop making puns, but not nearly as much as mom does. Dad was also the kind of person who attacked his fears. He was afraid of drowning, so he bought a house with a pool and taught himself to swim. He made sure my brother and I also learned Ė the right way. He made great money as an engineer and so my we grew up never really knowing the hardships faced by our parents. We had good schools, money set aside for college, and a car ready for each of us when we turned 16.
Weíll skip ahead to my fatherís death. He was 40. We had his 40th birthday in the hospital. The exploratory surgery didnít go well. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given 3 months to live. He lasted 6 months and it was hell for him and for us all. He couldnít keep food down. I was the only one that could help him clean up Ė it didnít bother me for some reason. I still feel glad I could perform this small service for a guy I really hadnít gotten to know yet. I was only 15 and was as wrapped up in myself as any 15 year old can be. My brother was 16 and was already on his way towards graduation and college. My mom found herself in her mid-30's with two teenage boys who were almost, but not quite, ready to run their own lives. And she had a teacherís salary and my dadís death benefits + insurance. It was okay, theyíd purchased enough insurance to make sure we didnít lose the house or anything bad financially. But the emotional stuff was horrible.
It was made worse by the unnecessary presence of my feuding grandmothers, both of them widows by this time and one of whom had just lost her only son. They both felt that their presence was necessary at this time and so traveled 3,000 miles to the West coast to live with us for months. It was a family train wreck handled the way most families probably do in these situations Ė through fracture, silence and ignoring it till it goes away. Except it doesnít, of course, and years later it all has to surface and be dealt with.
So, my mom tortured herself with whether or not she was doing right by her boys. Struggling to keep them both from crossing the line from youthful experimentation into outright criminal behavior. My brother went off to college and never really had a chance to deal with it all. I remember him coming home and just crying that he was failing (he wasnít -- but it felt like it) and he didnít have his dad to help him figure it all out. It sucked.
I remember my mom shaking a knife at me when I was just out of control one day. Well she dropped it, instantly, but there it was. She was at the end of her rope with me and I with her. I remember wishing she had died instead of my dad. I remember feeling that I was a horrible person for driving her to this. Turning her into her crazy motherÖ
And it all worked out. If you can believe it...
No, some wonderful healing man didnít come into our lives. No, religion didnít save the day. (In fact, the Catholic Church was so useless about the whole thing that none of us returned for years!!!) Instead, we just slowly became a family again. And it was a lot better. We figured it out. It was tough. It was like a silent negotiation, punctuated by screaming matches in true Italian tradition. But it worked out.
I learned that I had a great mom. Through her I learned more about my dad so I can actually have a sense of belonging to a person of his character, and trying to live up to what they both taught me was right. I realized how much of my own streak of independence was from my mother. That even if she was deathly afraid of dogs, she was able to do amazing stuff in her life and dogs were just something she couldnít deal with.
My defiant spirit didnít go away at all, I must say. I decided that graduate school was more interesting than going into medicine (my initial, parent-sanctioned intention). Mom freaked out, but gradually got used to it when she realized I really liked what I do for a living.
In keeping with tradition, I married a very strong-willed woman, Aura. She and my mother did not get along for years! Thankfully I lived to see them become friends.
When Aura and I got married, we moved 3,000 miles away from our families (back to the East coast). And we got a dog as soon as we were able. In a way, it was my nod to my dad. He wouldíve understood the joke. And he wouldíve appreciated conquering an irrational fear head on. Mom wouldnít visit for years, but finally we got her in the same photo as our friendly little dog. It was a trick of the depth of field, but they looked like they were standing right next to each other. LOL.
So, now that I am 44 years of age, and my life is supposed to be more settled, I reflect on the fact that have I outlived my father by 4 years, so far. I miss having him in my life. We were just getting to the point where I knew him and where I was old enough to be worth knowing as a person in my own right.
Whatís in store? I donít know. Iím thinking that itís about time I figured out how to publish something. Itís time I bought my pool, you know?
Note: All incidents are true.
But at no point did I ever feel like I was
in danger of being attacked physically by
any member of my family (knife-weilding or
not). So please don't make too much of
those rather emotional, but not really
[This message has been edited by Bob_Scopatz (edited September 19, 2002).]