January 2004. My ninety-two-year-old mother waves a misshapen finger toward a cluttered end table. She says with a shrug, “That’s about my mother.”
My eyebrows rise involuntarily as I reach for two carelessly folded sheets of paper next to a ripped envelope. One is a dark photocopy of a story from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle dated June 24, 1906; behind it is another with the same date from "Saloon News" of the Brooklyn Standard Union.
Five-year-old Eleanor and I are on the upper deck of a small beach cottage on Hatteras Island, North Carolina, cradled in the hammock. We have just finished reading a book about a turtle, and are now quietly swaying in the warm breeze.
From this perch I can spot the rest of our large and unwieldy family in miniature mime across the hurricane-flattened dunes. With seven kids and 16 grandchildren crowding into a life lived at the loud edge of chaos, these quietly intimate moments with any child are rare.
During the summer of 1964, my exasperated father was explaining once again how the paper and pencils and flash cards that filled his small warehouse on Long Island would someday help children learn to read and write. A good life, he suggested with a Horatio Alger wave of a well-chewed cigar, was bound as if by heavy-duty strapping tape (Aisle 5) to the notion of purpose. He then pointedly flourished the burning ember at a rusty boxcar that I—his big-eared, bleary-eyed, eighteen-year-old son—was to spend the day unloading.
Evenings in the Sloan-Kettering ICU were starkly lit--nowhere to hide from the glare, bloodshot eyes trained on blinking lights, buzzing machines, masked men and women passing soundlessly through sliding glass doors, and little but hours and hours of bright, eerie luminosity ahead.
Everyone—and I mean everyone—had warned us (closed eyes, tight shakes of the head) that Jamaica is both deplorably impoverished and (open eyelids, raised brows) terrifyingly dangerous.
With the Allman Brothers’ Ramblin’ Man providing the soundtrack, my annual summertime fantasy begins with me herding the family into a Winnebago and taking off—strollers, bikes, boogie boards, kayaks precariously bungeed to the roof, the big driving wheel in my hands, elbow out the window, my sweetheart riding shotgun, the whole lot of us riding up over a hill on a clear blue morning, laughing, free as the wind.
One would assume that the events of one disappointing day in 1959 would be long forgotten amidst the greater, more soul rending, disappointments to follow in anyone’s life. Yet three times, separated by three decades, as I approached some generic men’s department in some non-descript mall somewhere, I instantly recalled the dizzying thoughts of the boy who once yearned for the suave coolness that a signature Philip Gaynor suit might bring to his fashionless life.
MY Aunt Betty holds out those thick freckled arms and exclaims “Stevie!” as if she hadn’t just seen me the night before at my house in Roslyn Heights. “C’mere,” she says, pulling me nose first into that massive bosom. “Oh my God, you’re so skinny! Doesn’t your mother feed you?” Inside the suffocating cleavage, I hear the muffled, icy voice of my mother right behind: “He eats just fine, Betty.” “Well,” she cackles, “we gotta fatten him up if we’re ever going to eat him!”
ONE of the running gags passed from one smirking generation to another around my big extended family was that our seemingly mild-mannered mother was one tough cookie to have outlasted our less-than-mild, often unmannered father. After his death at 93 she called herself, without a hint of irony, the Last Man Standing.
If memory serves me correctly, Mrs. Gaynor packed enough apple juice, roast beef and turkey sandwiches, pears and apples, Oreo cookies, and, of course, paper napkins to sustain the entire basketball team at Wheatley High School. But this was no bus trip to a game – and there were just four of us teenagers heading to Washington, D.C. – to attend President Kennedy's funeral
I’VE done the math more than once over the past 38 years. The first time was in 1969. I was a typical unfocused, unkempt, underachieving and generally unrepentant sixth-year antiwar undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. In a drafty cottage on Lake Kegonsa, with my brand new colicky son howling into my shoulder, I would pace across the messy living room, back and forth, my lips and fingers desperately trying to quantify how many years, months, days, minutes until the tiny screamer would be 18 and I’d be my free and easy hipster self again.
New Paltz, N.Y. - FOR me, all that's left of moving day 1951 is the memory the actual photograph is long gone -- of a curled black and white snapshot of a spindly, bare maple tree that came with the brand-new ranch house and a skinny big-eared 4-year-old standing next to it.