Over the river and through the woods.

This is long, so don't feel badly if you skip it.

I met “Uncle Walt,” the man I would later call “Dad,” while playing with the He-Man coversheets to my LiteBrite.

There was something exciting, pre-sexual, about pushing each blue colored peg through the outline of The Sword of Power. The soft resistance and then ecstasy, the glow from within, colored brilliance and beauty revealed.

Even more than Hasbro’s quiet comment on virginity was its strong message of conformity: the overwhelming despair I felt when my clumsy, pudgy hands went astray and accidentally pushed the peg through the unapproved blackness, a white hole to reveal my past indiscretions to me every time I flipped the switch, and no smoothing of the paper could hide the Y-shaped light of judgment peering through the tear of sin.

Of course, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my grandmother’s house, I felt only anxious excitement, the lessons absorbed but too subtle for me to yet notice as I quietly mouthed the words “By the power of Grey Skull!”

“Uncle” Walt—it was my mother’s policy for me to call all her grown-up friends not Mr. and Mrs. but Uncle and Aunt--was about to enter the intermittent phase as “Landlord” Walt. My mother and I were staying with my grandmother, her mother, while mom tried to get back on her feet after the divorce, and the good Walt offered us the basement half of his home in Rochester Hills, Michigan.

Before that my mother’s days were spent as a waitress, leaving me to the whims of my grandmother’s bizarre humors.

My grandmother is a recovered alcoholic, on the wagon for longer than I’ve been alive. I don’t have that many clear memories of the time we stayed with them in Chicago, nor the other relatives and friends. Whenever my mother and I talk about it, I always have to ask what kind of dog Uncle and Aunt Whatever had; I remember the dogs, large furry people that would put up with all kind of abuse if you just dropped your food now and then.

I do have six other memories from that Chicago house:

  1. Sitting at the dining room table with a bag of Chewy Chips Ahoy and my actual, blood-relative, Uncle Tom, listening to the tribulations of a bespectacled man whose dream was to be an air force pilot in a time before lasek surgery and breathable contact lenses. As we talked I watched Uncle Tom eat the entire package, one at a time, each cookie popped into his mouth with each breath. This was back two recipes and a size larger ago, when anything worth eating was filled with Red Dye #2, sugar and lard. My uncle now has moderate diabetes, which runs on his side of the family but not my mother’s, as they do not share the same insulin-deprived father.

  2. I was playing with my Care Bare over-sized playing cards on the front porch. The Windy City, living up to its name, tore 2 of Clouds Share-Bear and Ace of Hearts Tenderheart Bear out of my hand. They flew into the street, the Forbidden Territory and I, perhaps foreseeing their future collectability, screamed and cried. My mother rushed out and was so angry that I had scared her into believing I was hurt, spanked me.

  3. Once, setting the table, I thought I saw a ghost out of the corner of my eye, a white, ethereal nimbus that stayed only half of a second once I locked my eyes onto it. I wasn’t afraid, just curious, but it did not reappear.

  4. I had a stuffed fox, creatively named Foxy. Back when I knew how to fold paper hats, boats and airplanes he and I were colonels, pirates and fighter pilots. My grandparents’ stair case reached up to a balcony overlooking the vaulted ceiling living room. My grandfather, an engineer, was always teaching me new airplane designs and he, Foxy and I would launch them off of the balcony, judging on speed, length and duration of flight.

  5. There are four different instances involving my refusal to eat certain foods at dinner. My grandmother’s rule was that you clean your plate, no matter how long it takes you or how little you like it. She was poor when she raised my mother, aunts and uncle, and had an almost Depression era thriftiness. My mother’s rule was that you try everything, but if you don’t like it, don’t force it—presumably she made this decision because she was raised by my grandmother. As we were in my grandmother’s house, however, her laws superceded my mother’s. I was forced to eat pea soup after repeatedly telling her it would make me vomit. It made me vomit. Directly into the bowl, with no aesthetic difference in presentation. A similar instance involved cooked beets which got cold while I ate, as I always did, one thing at a time on my plate—all the meat, all the starch (potatoes normally) and then, only then, all the vegetables. Another time I spilt my water on my Wonderbread, which made it taste, as I said at the time, “like pee.” My grandmother teased me about drinking pee and I had to eat it anyway. The last involved everyone’s favorite childhood pastime: crossing one’s eyes. She kept telling me it would stick that way and it never did, until one time at lunch, while I picked at some macaroni and cheese she had enough. She hit me sharply on the top of the head, hurting so badly that, in hysterics, my eyes did stick and I stumbled to the bathroom, running into walls and crying, fearing spending the rest of my life as a freak, my grandmother laughing in the background. I would die worthless and alone, and every person mocking me would be multiplied into two people, increasing my eternal torture. I wept and vomited in the bathroom until I realized that my eyes were no longer crossed. I hated my grandmother for a long time after that. Later I learned, in her drinking days, she beat my mother so badly that she fractured my mom’s jaw, damaging the nerves and killing two of her bottom front teeth. The damage was not discovered until twenty years later.

  6. I had returned from visiting my father in Tennessee or Florida or Main or New Mexico. I was wearing a coat covered with new wing pins from cheek-pinching stewardesses (as we called them back then) and awe-inspiring pilots. Telling my mother about my trip to the cockpit (those were the days), I realized my prized stuffed animal, a Sad Sam puppet, was not in my luggage. A call to my father revealed he did not have it in California or Oregon or Texas either. I was depressed for a week, but Foxy enjoyed his new promotion.

  7. After getting a bean stuck in my nose, having my mouth, once again, washed out with soap and Tabasco for back talking, and breaking one of my toys on accident, my grandfather cheered me up by juggling eggs and upsetting my grandmother.

My grandparents moved into a smaller house after my mother and I left, somewhere in one of the outlying suburbs of Chicago. My grandmother remains odd, with a cynical, crude sense of humor that once made me laugh so hard as a child that I farted uncontrollably. She is a chronic smoker, even after being hospitalized for emphysema, flat-lining and coming back. Even after being in the hospital for over six weeks, long enough to get the nicotine and the habit out of her system. She is unapologetic about it, perhaps rightfully so, describing it as her own personal choice. She is also a hypochondriac and claims to be allergic to any number of things that make it hard for her to breathe.

My grandfather, always an esoteric figure in my childhood, making his own custom joystick for his Commodore 64 or kicking the respective asses of 20-year-olds at basketball now has a bad knee that is forcing him to retire, a fear he has long harbored.

While some of his good humor is gone, his eyes still twinkle every now and again and I think, maybe once more, I could convince him to juggle some eggs.

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