Chapter 7, Continues…

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I did learn that depression and anxiety ran way back through my mother’s side of the family, and her own home life was dominated, at least in the early years, by an alcoholic father although she never drank herself. By all accounts Nana was a modest drinker, and was not overtly affectionate with any of her children any one of which could be physically or emotionally ostracized for any perceived grievance on her part. It wasn’t unusual when growing up to know that one of my aunts or uncles might be estranged from her at any given time and maybe had been for years.

One of my aunts once told me that Ma had come back very much changed after her teenage visit to see relatives in Old Town, Maine one summer, the only trip she ever took out of state. It was as if something had happened up there, she said, that made Ma even more anxious than ever, and suddenly promiscuous. She was only seventeen. Did someone abuse her in some way? Might it have been maybe an uncle or a cousin? Some stranger? Was she dragged into the woods by a band of marauding lumberjacks while picking blueberries? No one seemed to know what if anything happened that summer or wouldn’t say if they did. She never talked about it and it was shortly thereafter that she met Georgie.

“Well the offer stands Ma, just let me know okay? It’s only a visit, what’s to be nervous about?”

“It’s my kids who should be here taking care of their mother!” she now snapped at me again. “I was a good mother! Someday you’ll find me dead in this fucking chair and they can all go to hell!” She was fond of throwing out that comment anytime she was feeling extra bitter.

“Here we go again” I said sighing, not wanting to go there but starting to do so in spite of myself. “Ma, everything isn’t as perfect as you think you remember it to be. We’ve talked about this so damn many times, and with your therapist too, you know that.” She became agitated and snarled at me. “You kids were always clean! My therapist says the past was the past!” Indeed.

True enough, but in saying things like that to Ma, her therapist really only heard my mother’s distorted version of the past. She’d suggest to me ways to try to bring my siblings into a dialogue with my mother to help address old hurts and maybe build from that and perhaps then everyone could let go and move on and get rid of some of the residual anger and resentment. But, she just didn’t get it. First off, my mother was incapable of being a positive part of any such efforts even if people were willing, which they would never be.

In spite of whatever insight that I would provide the therapist, she just couldn’t grasp the enormity of how the collective past in the minds of Trudy’s kids was now a boiling pot of bubbling and volatile emotions that could not be so easily cooled by the mere dulcet tones of any therapeutic advice anyone might give so freely so many years later.
I tried to check myself but still not able to resist, I slipped, stupidly, into my own therapist mode yet again. If Jody were there she’d have cut me off saying that she was hungry, and it was time to get going.

“Yes ma, I know, the past is the past. But you’ve got to understand that things are the way they are precisely because the past does matter, no matter what the therapist might say. You told me that she said that everyone should be able to move on. She’s right, but it’s not that easy. And didn’t she tell you that in dealing with the past, other people’s memories matter, just like yours. You get that, don’t you? Your memories are your own and they affect you, right?” She only looked at me with a blank expression.

“It’s the same for everyone else,” I went on. “Those memories have a very big impact on all of us. On our lives and our relationships—including the one we have with you. What I’m saying is you can’t expect everyone else to worry about and respect only your feelings when they don’t believe you have ever once considered theirs. You have to understand and care about their feelings, get it? It’s about empathy Ma!”
This was maddening and stupid, and I was starting to get pissed off at myself because once again I hadn’t stuck to the script! Dump the groceries, kiss her forehead, plop down her allowance, grab any mail, shoot the bull for a few minutes, kiss her forehead, then get the hell out of there.

No sooner had those last words I’d said to her come out of my mouth when I remembered an article on personality disorder that I’d read in a recent issue of some psychology periodical.

“Empathy is the action of understanding, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another. For a number of reasons, showing empathy is problematic for people with borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, or both. Those with BPD are so caught up in their own emotional tornados that your concerns get lost in the chaos.”

Geeze, what an ass I was going down that hopeless road again with her. I’d been doing so well over the last few visits in not taking the bait and focusing only on what it was I could control when it came to her needs. That included the shopping, the banking, the bill-paying, the doctor’s appointments and above all, my own emotions. But, here I was, doing it again, trying to reason with the unreasonable and feeling that familiar agitation taking over that let me know it was almost time to get out of the “loony bin” for another two weeks.

“Well, I’ll give David a call and see if he’s ready to talk with you again, okay? Would that make you feel better?”

To be continued…

Chapter 7 continues…

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Despite the fact that at this point Trudy’s life was distilled down to being, for the most part, a solitary, eighty-one year old, one hundred and fifteen pound, chain-smoking, finger-pricking, ball of self-inflicted misery, she clung with delusional determination to the notion that somehow she could, she would, reclaim her former and rightful role as the planet around which all of her children used to orbit, just like they did way back when she could pull them with ease, in as close as hostages, to her crazy and needy world through her powerful gravity of guilt, fear and threats of abandonment.

Looking at her irrational beliefs and behavior now after all these years so far removed from those long-lost but not forgotten days when we were all in her and Georgie’s clutches amid the spam, the cockroaches, the beatings, and the head-spinning number of places we’d lived, was it even possible for her to be as oblivious as she seemed to be now about the psychological carnage she and Georgie had committed and for her to not understand that the power of her spells had long been broken?

There may be residual damage, but no one was coming back, at least not in the way she wanted. What the hell was in that woman’s head? Although her psychiatrist explained that her behavior was a classic hallmark of borderline personality disorder, by now her official diagnosis, there had to be some sort of awareness on her part—but there seemed to be none. I suppose there couldn’t be any because her disorder also relied on the ability to induce that sense of fear, obligation, and guilt only in others, all the things that she needed to feel but could never conjure for herself.

Assuming that God had widened the gate to heaven, He is the only one who knows now what had gone on in my father’s head. But together through it all, it was as if the two of them had pecked at our psyches, day after day, like the eagle that ravaged Prometheus’ liver. They couldn’t see nor did they care, that although we were surviving each day, the ever-mounting but suppressed and hidden bitterness and resentment was building over the years, and that their children were navigating through life, essentially blind in a boat with no compass, some having already fallen overboard and flailing their arms for shore, while the rest headed straight for the rocks clinging together in a badly leaking boat.

If asked to try to explain how there can be any level of hatred and resentment directed at one’s own parents, I’d say that for my father it was rooted mostly in the application of his unpredictable and impressive array, and creative use, of physical and psychological abuses he heaped on all of us. As for Ma, it was aimed towards her because of her profound emotional weakness and calculated thievery of so much innocence and her grievous violation of the most sacred of trusts—the kind that should exist between a mother and child and that says ‘I will always protect you.’ The kind of trust that says don’t worry when you fear the dark, mommy’s here and will never leave you and will keep you safe at all costs rather than instead showing the boogey man where you were hiding under the bed.

Maybe it was because she had repressed so much truth about herself, however she perceived it, for such a long time that somewhere along the way she galvanized in her mind that it was she who was the greatest of not only Georgie’s but of life’s “victims,” and always had been, and being such, she couldn’t believe she’d been anything but the best mother she could be under those abusive circumstances and that her narcissistic needs trumped all others’.

Maybe she had to use that classic psychoanalytical defense mechanism of repression to protect herself from something unthinkable, but that unconscious tactic had now morphed into a deeper, crazy way of thinking that allowed her to accommodate the idea that even the emotional blackmail of her own children was more than justified to satisfy her own psychological and emotional needs.

What trauma must she have experienced that shaped her personality and turned her into what she’d eventually become in her old age? It had to be something dark and painful—it usually was. Something had to be buried back there in her past. She was always vague when talking about her growing up years, and my aunts and uncles weren’t much help other than to just shake their heads and say she’d always been the needy and neurotic one.

Personality theorists say that people develop and ‘become” through the forces of both nature and nurture. Nature meaning what is inherited biologically and nurture made up of all and with whom we each come in contact within our environment; parents, peers, teachers and television to name a few. Each of us products of both our own unique DNA and personal experiences, all triggered into motion and solidified by something as simple as a chemical imbalance or a chance meeting.

Maybe that helps explain why in a family like mine, personal outcomes can range in such wide fashion among a brood of eight children. People often asked ‘where’d you come from’ after they’d get to know more about my family, particularly my parents. I used to think of myself as a kindred spirit with the character Marilyn on the old sixties television show, the Munsters. In that household the monsters were the “normal” ones and she felt herself to be the odd one out, a feeling I understood.

To be continued…

Chapter 7, Begins

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Chapter 7

“The past is never dead, it is not even past.”—William Faulkner

“Hey,” I said in an attempt to change the subject trying to distract Ma from her sniveling. “I spoke with Susan earlier and she told me Aunt Betty called to check in on you? Wow, that’s been quite a while eh? How’s she doing?”

Betty was one of only four of my mother’s surviving siblings, all younger, and none of whom bothered with her much, especially Aunt Esther. She and Betty had kept in touch for many years, talking on the phone almost every day and visiting each other maybe once a week for tea and smokes and gossip. In spite of that, I’m not sure it could be said that they were very close. Either way, those visits had stopped years ago.

“Oh she’s not doing well at all” she said failing to sound as sympathetic as she’d hoped.

“She’s on insulin, and big as a house she says, and has a tough time driving with her bad eyes. She’s probably going to lose one of her feet.”

“Why don’t you invite her over to visit, that’d be good for both of you to catch up right?” I offered. “I mean, there are only you, her, Esther, Don, and Evelyn left.”

“I don’t fuckin’ hear from anybody!” she muttered, ignoring my suggestion and already having moved on from any idea of visiting with Betty.

Talking about Aunt Betty made me think again of Nana Bovaird who had lived out her last years living with Betty in Quincy, before dying quietly, really stoically, at ninety-nine years old. Nana was famous in the family for her sewing and embroidery skills, and for making beautiful, embroidered patchwork quilts that she gave out sparingly to various favored members of the family. I was thrilled when she presented me with one when I came home on leave one year. Its individual squares were detailed and colorful, and displayed in intricate detail and featured the state flower and bird for all fifty states. I keep it folded in perfect thirds across the bottom of my bed in the winter, ready to pull on its extra warmth during the cold nights.

Nana loved receiving the post cards that I’d be sure to mail to her from the exotic places around the world that I’d traveled to while in the military, so I guess the blanket was her way of letting me know just how much she appreciated such a simple gesture from one of her scattered grandchildren. She pinned the postcards with scenes from places such as the Appian Way in Brindisi, Italy or an aerial picture of Berlin, Germany, to the brittle plastic on the outside of an old and yellowed lamp shade that sat on the cluttered end table next to her favorite rocking chair. She’d sit there and watch her Red Sox and drink her glasses of Budweiser each game day right up until when she went to the hospital for the last time just one month shy of her one hundredth birthday.

Ma didn’t show much emotion at the news of her mother’s death, but simply announced to me that she’d be going to the wake but not the funeral because of her nerves. So to set that stage she stood in the receiving line during the wake with my aunts and uncles and sniffled as the parade of those who’d stopped by to pay respects filed by them offering condolences. Most paused for an extra moment to provide her comfort because she seemed so upset and distraught, but I could only look over and smirk to myself knowing that this was just another one of her performances to show just how this whole thing had affected her nerves, so of course everyone would understand why she didn’t appear at the funeral. To her delight she knew that all the unknowing and sympathetic people would later say at the reception that followed, did you see poor Gerty at the wake? It’s all just too much for her to handle, poor thing.

Like my mother, Nana could hold a grudge against anyone who she felt didn’t give her the respect and attention she deserved or she felt was misbehaving in their lives. But unlike my mother, Nana was strong-willed and self-sufficient, and didn’t give a damn if they ever came around and I’m sure looking down now she didn’t care what Ma did one way or the other. Some might even say she was downright mean at times, but she was always kind to me. Cripes, with Nana’s genes in my mother’s favor she just might beat some of her siblings’ odds and we could wind up putting up with her shtick another twenty years if we didn’t die first.

“So, why don’t you give Aunt Betty a call Ma, I’ll pick her up sometime if that’d help, I wouldn’t mind,” I said, not letting her off the subject.

“I will, maybe soon once I’m not so nervous” she said almost as a reflex. She wasn’t nervous and she didn’t give a thought about seeing Betty or anyone else that couldn’t do anything for her or who didn’t mean anything to her in terms of her ability to manipulate them. In spite of her constant complaints of loneliness and neglect, there really wasn’t any “company” that she wanted other than getting her children back the way she once had them. Not necessarily because she loved them and wanted their company, but more to control them and put them back into their roles as her fearful and supporting cast.

Oh sure, it was handy to use an Aunt Betty, a neighbor, or even a random stranger that might come to the door to try to elicit their sympathy from time to time, but that was fleeting satisfaction, like a quick high. And besides, if they hung around too long she knew they’d see through her façade like the staff had done at the Faulkner Hospital and that would never do. No, it was her scattered and scarred brood of children that she was desperate to reform into a doting circle at her feet.

To be continued…

Chapter 6 Concludes…

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I shook my head thinking about my conversation with Diane after her latest meltdown with Ma. I could, of course, relate to what she was saying. For those of us still willing to have anything to do with her it was just about impossible at any given time to prevent ourselves from wanting to rage inches from her face to try to get her to see that we saw through her. To make her see that we knew her behavior was contrived and purposeful, and to get her to admit to her part in intending to escalate our blood pressure and emotions.

We were on the phone, and I was trying again to help Diane to understand that it was more that Ma just could not, rather than would not, see the hurtful impact of her bitter personality and constant manipulations on those trying to help her and those she purported to love. I told her again how futile it was for any one of us to lose it and plunge into a meltdown anyway or to cajole and plead with Ma to acknowledge something, anything for her role in causing so much relational fracture.

“I know,” Diane was saying, “But can’t she just throw me one friggin bone, ever, dammit?”

“Look, I hear you,” I said, “But I don’t think she’s ever been sorry for anything. She’s just too far gone, you know?”

“I know, I have to stop letting her get to me,” Diane sighed into the phone.

“Exactly,” I said knowing that that was easier said than done and that we’d be having another conversation just like this one before too long.

I could picture Ma after Diane had stopped her yelling and shouting at her just sitting there, her face glazed over in a comic expression, like a dog watching television, and her head cocked to one side with a look that said, are you the one that’s crazy? I got to witness one of Diane’s previous meltdowns and could only sigh as I watched the veins bulge then recede back into her neck and thinking what a waste of time it was to try to reason with a true narcissist and it just wasn’t worth getting so worked up. I told her all that later but still it didn’t seem to help her control her anger because Ma just made it so hard to ignore because of the bitterness that seemed to ooze from her pores and the way she seethed with resentfulness at the idea that anyone could have a life or interest that took any sort of priority over pandering to her constant and neurotic needs.

Material needs were not the real problem. We plied her with enough orange juice to wipe out the crop of the state of Florida, enough cigarettes to kill a small town, enough KY jelly to lubricate AMTRAK railroad from coast to coast and, of course enough diabetic test supplies to bleed out an elephant. Her real desire ran much deeper than any of that, and I sensed that in spite of anything she said about “I loved you kids,” deep down she resented every single one of us for leaving her true desire for us all to circle back around her, unfulfilled.

But as for poor Diane, in the early years she had been forced to be the one who saw to it that the rest of us kids were taken care of, in any way she could, when my mother couldn’t or simply wouldn’t. Not just because as the oldest was she thrust into the role by my parents, but somehow she had been made to internalize responsibility for the rest of us in some way, although she was still a child herself. She’s carried this inexplicable belief that she had to take care of everyone throughout her life.

At twelve years old she’d make us dinner out of whatever she could scrape together, help us wash our clothes, and make sure we had something to eat for breakfast and school lunch every day. Even if it was just a bowl of thin Cream of Wheat in the morning and a peanut butter or cheese sandwich for lunch, we never left the house without at least something in our stomach and a little brown lunch bag in our hand. She’d use some of the few dollars she made once in a while babysitting to buy a package of cookies so we’d have a treat to look forward to. She’d even pick crab apples from a neighbor’s yard. Every year going back to school we’d beg our parents for a real lunch box with a thermos in it like most of the other kids had in which they carried cold milk or hot tomato soup. Maybe one decorated with The Jetsons or The Flintsones, but we never got one.

My mother would stay in bed most mornings, saying she was fighting her nerves or perhaps the usual headache brought on by another night of what she’d be sure to describe to all of us as some sort of sexual terror behind the bedroom door, so Diane missed more and more school each year until she just dropped out by the tenth grade. Ma was always telling my sisters how horrible Dad had been to her after any given night in the bedroom and describe how she’d “just laid there” and let him do it and how he forced her to put her mouth “down there.”

It wasn’t uncommon for her to do this while holding a conference in the bathroom. She’d seat herself on the toilet and my sisters would line up on the edge of the tub facing her, mouths agape as she spoke. While most mothers’ talks with their daughters were more focused on helping them to learn about life and cope with the pressures of growing up and slowly unfold the facts of life and womanhood, my mother’s “mother-daughter” talks were of a different nature, and not of the nurturing kind, that’s for sure.
It was during those bathroom talks my sisters told me that they learned many things from my mother that no child should ever see, hear, or know from a parent. One of those things Ma felt compelled to share with them was that revelation that my father had torn off her pretty white dress and raped her on their wedding night. But, of course, she said, “What could she do?”

To me, that particular story was nothing more than another example of the types of psychological weapons she deployed from her heavily stockpiled armory of emotional manipulation that she aimed with accuracy at my sisters’ already vulnerable psyches. It was insidious disclosures like these with their sexual overtones that Ma used to subtly and slyly weave over them a smothering blanket of guilt, sympathy for her and fear when it came to my father and men in general, and to strengthen their belief that they had to protect her from some constant threat of harm from Dad lest she leave them, and to steadily build on their ever-growing fear and loathing for him, never mentioning her protection of them.

I’m told a couple of Ma’s other bathroom lectures to further my sisters’ education included a demonstration on how to properly insert a diaphragm, even though she called herself a “good Catholic,” and to explain to them one of her favorite tricks saying that “if you put just a little ketchup on a sanitary napkin you can fake your period so a man won’t want to have sex with you!” She told them that if it worked for her like a charm every time with a man like Georgie, it would work on any guy.

End of Chapter 6….

Chapter 6, Begins…

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Chapter 6 – “Mothers are all slightly insane.” – J.D. Salinger

“Yes, I know, she’s got her troubles, that one,” Ma said talking about Diane while dabbing her puffy eyes with a piece of balled up old bathroom tissue that she then stuffed into the sleeve of her robe.

“Exactly right Ma, please just give her a break okay?” I asked. I glanced out of the picture window, and from my vantage point I could see just the back of Jody’s head, her pretty long dark hair bobbing on her shoulders as she spoke with the woman next door in her driveway.

In spite of my mother’s phony half-hearted sympathy for her, Diane was the one the rest of us worried about most. She was a physical wreck, but that didn’t stop Ma from calling her a dozen times a day to lament her own life and loneliness, and to complain about something or someone. She was relentless in her demands for Diane’s time and attention, and seemed to have no limit to the level of strain she was willing to exert upon her. She’d call and plead with Diane to come over, crying and acting panicky, or beg her to go to the store for her as she was almost out of orange juice or some other unnecessary necessity wailing “please help me!”

As frustrating as it was for Diane, she almost always could not resist. My mother had galvanized her with guilt from such a very young age so I supposed she was just too conditioned to do otherwise. Full of anger, she’d come over to perform her duty by going out to fetch the orange juice or whatever it was Ma needed and bring it by only to have Ma say something like “Oh, I forgot to tell you I needed bread too, would you mind going back out?” sending Diane spiraling into a rage. This scene was repeated at least every other week or so and I’d get a call from Diane wanting to vent. They’d have a screaming match with Diane storming out as Trudy sobbed and begged her not to go saying “please don’t be mad at me!” Ma would then call me blubbering, saying Diane had gotten mad at her “for no reason” and had screamed at her and wasn’t that elderly abuse?

This was a question she’d also posed to a first responder on one of the many midnight rides that followed those occasions when she’d fake dizziness, and or an anxiety attack, and press the emergency services button that was a fixture around her neck. She would do this after feeling particularly neglected or whenever some other family crisis such as, oh I don’t know, say a relative’s death, would take attention away from her.

I warned her after her last episode that if she pressed that button again and generated another needless early AM journey to the emergency room, she’d better plan on staying. I even packed a small red suitcase I’d stuffed with some of her clothing and showed it to her as I placed it as a threat by the front door, where it still sits.

“See this suitcase?” Push that thing again for no reason and I’ll be bringing it to you in the hospital so you’ll have a change of clothes to wear on the way to assisted living!”

This was the only leverage we could try to use to get her to stop her theatrics, but she knew it would never really happen. I’d promised her that as long as she was healthy enough to live alone in her own home, that’s what would happen. She was fine physically. Although she had her psychological issues, she wasn’t the one suffering from any of the effects of those. She left that to the rest of us to deal with.

“Oh no, please, please, don’t put me away,” she’d sob.

“Well, then cut the games out Ma. You’re healthy as a horse and you know it, and those ambulance rides cost over thirteen hundred bucks every time you do this!”

“But I don’t have to pay, right?” she’d ask no real concern in her voice. She knew she didn’t. Medicare and CHAMPVA benefits saw to that. Between her husbands, her children, the state and the federal government, she never earned or paid for a damn thing on her own in her entire life.  She’d had at least six of these jaunts to the Faulkner Hospital in the last couple of years, all unnecessary as it would turn out, and all for attention according to the doctors. Wow, really? She clung to the part of her fantasy, I guess, that saw all of her kids come running to the hospital to “save Ma,” just like she’d, with ease, get them to run down the hall when they were children the minute she was thought to be in any distress.   On one of those bumpy joy rides, the concerned EMT asked if she’d been eating well. In a weak voice she lied to him “No, I don’t see any of my children and my refrigerator is empty most of the time. Maybe I could get Meals on Wheels since my family doesn’t help me?”

The next day I got a call from Elder Services of Boston and another concerned and accusatory social worker asked me if I was aware that my mother had been rushed to the hospital and that she was living alone, helpless, and hungry, and did I want to sign her up for Meals on Wheels? Ma used to receive those but she kept piling them up like cordwood in her freezer because she’d never eat them and considered them “gahbage,” just like Salisbury steak frozen dinners before the gravy was rinsed off of them. I had convinced her that there were truly more needy people out there across the city that would eat them, and since she had enough means to buy her own food which she did anyway, she needed to stop getting them.

I set the social worker straight right away on everything and arranged a meeting at my mother’s house for the following week where I gave the woman a detailed etiology of Ma’s histrionics. We spoke in front of my mother as if she wasn’t even there, and the social worker said she’d spread the word to the Faulkner emergency medical personnel, but I told her no need as they’d already had her figured out as one of their “frequent flyers,” a term they used for people like her. Ma just gave me a dirty look at hearing that but didn’t say anything.

To be continued….

Chapter 5, Conclusion…

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“Excuse me?” I replied, feigning innocence. Guess he must have heard about the Marines and I should have expected this knowing him.
“What’s this shit about quitting school and joining the service?”
“That’s right Coach,” I told him, laying out my plan. “Home has nothing for me, and I know I’ll never get a hockey scholarship with my grades. And this busing garbage sucks. I’ll do my time then go to college using the GI Bill when I get out.”

“Oh really?” he sighed. “Now how the hell are you going to go to college without a high school diploma?”

“Crap.” I hadn’t thought of that.

“Well, you can always get your GED while you’re in the service and hope a shit school will take you with that” he said shaking his head. “But good luck with that.”

He got me thinking. My lousy grades in high school really had nothing to do with my academic ability. I earned my failing grades by skipping class and frequent absenteeism. At that point in my life I was pretty much angry all the time it seemed. I was pissed off at my useless parents, angry with the turmoil at school, and fed up with my rotten and abscessed teeth that just hurt all the time. The only time I felt any contentment at all was on the ice or at Mass, and I hadn’t been there in a while. None of us kids had ever been taken to a dentist, but I figured the Marines would fix me up. I’d get free room and board and medical treatment. They would give me the chance to prove I wasn’t destined to always be an insecure, skinny, kid who might make good someday. I would challenge every weakness that I knew I had both mentally and physically, and return a man in spite of no one, including my own father, ever helping to show me the way. I’d do it on my own. I could see myself coming home on leave in my crisp uniform, a proud and muscle bound trained killer.

“Look Mike, come back for senior year, play hockey, then if you still want to join the service or do something else you can! Busing is easing up, everyone sees that. You’re only seventeen, so don’t rush away your options.” Mr. Lewis picked up my check in spite of my protests and took it to the cashier, paid, and headed for the exit. One hand on the door, he stopped and turned back towards me.

“Think about it Mike. I’ll work with the faculty so you can make up the ground you lost last year. If you’re willing to work, they’ll go for it. The admin offices are open all summer. Go re-enroll.” Then he walked out and back the way he came towards Cleary Square.

I watched him until he was gone out of sight, then slurped down the rest of my vanilla milkshake and felt the brain freeze coming on. I pushed the cold glass hard against my lower left jaw to try to numb the throbbing tooth. I could taste puss. I slid out of the booth and stood out in front of the restaurant and spat a yellow wad onto the ground. Right would take me back to the center of Cleary Square and my bus stop. Turn left, and River Street would wind me around, past the municipal building and YMCA, down to Metropolitan Avenue, and Hyde Park High School.

I turned left.

I moved in with family friends of my girlfriend’s parents that lived two doors down from their house up on the hill on Maple Street across from the Most Precious Blood church. It was arranged under the provision that I went to school and did chores around the house, and with all of their support and encouragement I graduated high school the following June. My girlfriend’s dad, although a former Marine himself who had served with the other tough-as-nails devil dogs of the “Frozen Chosin” during the Korean War, extolled to me the virtues of the high tech training and the much grander quality of life the Air Force could provide, so I switched gears from my Marine Corps idea, and just one week after graduation, on Friday the thirteenth, I flew off to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, headed to basic training, my first-ever real dental treatment, and into the wild blue yonder.
“Well, I’m glad your home now,” Dad said startling me. I was taken aback a bit as he’d never said anything like that to me before. Maybe he thought Mighty Mike could fix him too.

Looking at him then, I felt my first sense of pity, for both of us, at knowing he was going to die soon. Unexpected little pangs of regret and sadness came over me as I thought about all the years of not really knowing him and not having had him as the kind of father to whom a son could turn to when he needed him, even if only for a ride to hockey practice or a game of catch. And sadness at being twenty-two years old and unable to conjure up even one happy memory to tell anyone, about some special day we’d spent together when I was a kid much like my Air Force buddies would always do on Father’s Day.
He was the one dying I thought, so stop feeling sorry for yourself. He put food in your mouth and a roof over your head hadn’t he? What more did you want?

“Me too, Dad, me too,” I said.

Chapter 5, Continued..

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I discovered great joy in every smooth stride, the ice crunching under my blades, and in every crisp pass that I sent spinning up the ice or slamming off the boards, or in hearing the sound of the puck caroming of a goal post with a loud clank. Each time I stepped onto the ice on the pond or at the rink I felt untouchable, in spite of the physical play. It toughened me up because I wouldn’t last long otherwise competing among the bigger and stronger kids and no way would I allow myself to be run off the ice. I felt free to fly in a way I could never have imagined and was amazed at the abilities that God seemed to have just reached down and given me in such a swift and unexpected fashion when pretty much every other player on the team had been skating since the age of five or six and spent years developing in local youth hockey leagues the degree of skill that it normally took to become good enough to play in the tough Boston District high school leagues of the 1970’s.

But somehow, it was as though my feet, hands, and brain just knew how to do it. But although I might have looked on the outside every bit as confident as my skills and disposition seemed to imply, no one could see the self-doubt that haunted me as it always had about everything I did to that point in my life. It didn’t matter that I kept repeating my on-ice success and that I was getting better all the time and that I’d fight anyone no matter how big and no matter how many times I may have lost because I had to. I had to fight not only because if you didn’t you’d get no respect and you wouldn’t last long, but I did it more to keep proving over and over to myself that I’d never be like him. No one was going to punch my face through a car window or anywhere else and get away with it.

But deep down I also felt something like a fraud, a Johnny come lately compared to all of those three letter jocks, all of whom it seemed had a real hockey dad who drove them to the rink in a warm station wagon while mine had never even seen me play never mind giving me a ride to the rink. They had the best skates and sticks, while I dragged an old army duffel bag full of smelly used equipment and a couple of cracked hockey sticks held together with tape onto a city trolley that would take me from Forest Hills Station to the stop on Huntington Avenue that was closest to the old and dilapidated Boston Arena, alone. I couldn’t help but feel like I was an imposter. Like they were born rich and had some sort of pedigree and I was a poor relative or some sort of charity case trying figure out how to use the silver the right way at a fancy dinner.

Although I had a couple of close friends, I felt as if I wasn’t one of them although we shared the same passion for the game and the dream to play college then maybe pro hockey one day. It was as though they had a resume that I lacked and I’d be found out and let go. Coach had some faith that I could play college hockey, or even perhaps beyond, if I worked at my academics and got into the weight room for maybe a year or two at a junior college and bulked up a lot. Then, he said, who knows? Though coach’s prediction about my hockey future didn’t happen quite that way, it did turn out, however, that while he didn’t know it, he was the one that had ended up putting my life on the right course. Hell he’d helped save it.

It was July of 1974, in what was the summer of what would have been between my junior and senior year at Hyde Park High School if I hadn’t quit. I was considering signing up for a hitch with the Marine Corps and was setting up taking a physical and some other type of aptitude test. I couldn’t imagine what in the hell the test could be for, when all my seventeen year-old brain could imagine myself doing as a Marine would be to get my head shaved and learn how to pound my fellow Marines with a pugil stick and how to thrust a bayonet deep into the chest cavity of my fellow human beings on some beach head in a place I couldn’t pronounce and I couldn’t wait.

I went around humming the Marine Corps song and I loved their motto Semper Fi short for Semper Fidelis meaning “always faithful” and the fact that only Marines got to say that and wear it with pride. I was hoping the recruiter would give me one of those yellow and red T-shirts with those words printed across the front in bold red, but I knew I couldn’t ever wear it until I’d earned it by completing basic training.

I was hanging out alone in Brigham’s, stuffing down hamburgers and a milkshake. At five foot nine inches, I only weighed one-hundred and thirty-five pounds, and I’d learned I’d need to be at least one-hundred and thirty-eight pounds to be accepted for any kind of final enlistment. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I saw my height jump to almost six feet and when I’d add another forty-five pounds between the gym and the three squares a day I’d get from the military. I was sitting in a booth facing the window and could see my hockey coach approaching from the center of Cleary Square. “That’s strange,” I thought as he walked in. “He lives in East Boston, what the hell is he doing here?”

“Thought maybe I’d find you here,” said Mr. Lewis.

Brigham’s was where a lot of the “jocks” hung out both during and between school years, and he’d join us sometimes after a practice at the MDC rink for a bite or a frappe. My girlfriend worked there part-time, although she was now off duty, and always gave us freebies when her boss wasn’t looking. I always opted for the butterscotch sundae, with vanilla ice cream, extra syrup.

“Hey Mr. Lewis, what’s up?” I said, puzzled.

“You sport, you’re what’s up. Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?” he said, sliding into the opposite side of the booth.

More to follow….