TO MOM ON YOUR 101st BIRTHDAY

Today is “Flag Day” throughout much of the world.  Here, it is much more. It’s my Mom’s birthday.

Happy Flag Day, America

Esther Letticia Holder Armstrong left us 11 years ago. But for me and my family, she’s very much alive in spirit and 101 years young. They were singing “You’re A Grand Old Flag” and “Over There” when Mom was born on that June 14th in 1917.  Mom’s father,  my grandfather,  was over there. He was a sailor in the Danish Navy during World War 1.

Gramps, a Barbados native, saw plenty of action as he would tell us many times in the years to come.

Esther Holder, as Aunts and Uncles would gleefully tell me, was a feisty child and teenager.  “Smart as a whip,” friends said about Mom. She graduated near the top of her Julia Richmond High School class of 1935.  My Mother once described herself to me as a “Jazz baby,” showing off pictures of herself as a young woman who liked to dance. I’m not sure how that resonated with some of the older folks in the family but none of them lived in a glass house – if you get my drift.

I guess Mom left a trail of broken hearts when she and my dad, William Benfield Armstrong, married in 1941.  It was one of the biggest social events of the year. However, modesty aside,  the glittering affair was just the warm up to my début on the world stage in April of 1942.  A star was born —  at least that’s how I’d see it in my private fantasies which Mom frequently punctured.

Mom was a single parent during my early years because Dad was away — in the Army – seeing some of the heaviest action of World War 2 in France and Germany as a Sargeant in the still-segregated armed forces.

We looked like a Hollywood family when Dad finally came home from the war. At least that’s what I thought. Mom was beautiful and Dad was such a handsome guy.

Over the years, my Mother was “the voice” of our family. She clearly set the parameters for right and wrong, good and bad for my two younger brothers and me. I tested her many times, especially as I got older and became a “man” in my immature mind.  I always lost those confrontations.

Mom was tough! She was also tender, in her own way. She encouraged me to read and write.  She actually read my first attempts at fiction and assured me I had talent. She told me I should pursue my dreams.

We weren’t big on outward displays of affection,  something that I would have to deal with in later years. However,  Mom always found quality time for me. She knew I had a huge passion for movies.  We’d go to the movies, 3 times a week.  I was “Mom’s date.” She would explain who the people on the big screen were.

They were Gable, Tracy, Hepburn, Cooper,  Grant and all the others who reigned over my fantasies through my many years of loving Hollywood.  Mom said she named me after her favorite star,  Gary Cooper.  There was a mixup in recording the birth certificate and Gary became Garry.

There would be frequent mixups later when I became a news guy on television. Actually, there are still frequent mixups. Some things never change.

I’m not sure my Mother was excited about my career choice.  She always said I should become a doctor, lawyer, or minister.  She agreed I talked well.  What she really said was,  “Garry,  you have a big mouth!”  I’d smirk when she said that.  The smirk usually quickly disappeared she gave me “the look.” Mom also thought I was too good for the women I dated. I think she left that impression with many of those women in my life. I got lots of feedback about it.

I remember Mom and Dad celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.  I saw a look in their eyes I hadn’t seen too often.  The look of love.

Dementia took hold of Mom in her last few years. Dad had passed away.  Mom was alone with my middle brother Billy in the old family home on Long Island. Anton,  my youngest Brother, was busy with his blooming career as director of the St. Olaf Choir in Minnesota. I was the married, busy TV news guy up in Boston.  Family get-togethers were difficult.

In what would be her last coherent afternoon with me,  My Mom floored me when she admonished me to be a good husband, to find quality time with Marilyn, to show affection and not stonewall Marilyn with internalized emotions. Mom held my face close with her hands like I was that stupid teenager. She smiled with patience and compassion, counseling me to “… be good to your Wife … you are lucky to have her. Show her you appreciate her, that you love her.”

I’m still trying Mom.  I’m not there yet.

In the meantime,  Happy, Happy Birthday.  Mom.  You’re the best!

MIRROR, MIRROR – Marilyn Armstrong

The Most Beautiful of Them All?

I never — at any point in life — looked in the mirror imagining for a moment that I was the most beautiful of all. All what?

I knew I wasn’t the most beautiful anything. At my best, I was interesting, sometimes eye-catching. Frequently just different. I never looked like everyone else, except maybe all the other members of my family.

I remember going to my uncle’s funeral, looking around and seeing me, me, me, me. Everywhere. Some version of me. My cousins, aunts, parents. Everyone looked a lot or a little like me.

Now, I look in the mirror to see if I pass. Do I look truly hideous or just kind of old and tired?

I don’t look anything like I used to look. My face is a different shape. My hair is different. My eyes have sunk deeper into my skull.

Humans don’t always look the same, you know. We evolve. That’s how it’s possible to look exactly like your father when you are three, but exactly like your mother at 30 … and remarkably like your uncle at 50. It should be obvious if you stop and think about it. If we didn’t keep changing, we would be born with an old, adult face. Which you must admit, would look pretty strange.

I’ve now passed the point of looking like my mother. By the time my mother was my age, she was dying. Which I, apparently, am not. Garry no longer looks like his mother or his father, but some peculiar combination of both, depending on what look he has on his face.

I suppose I don’t know what to make of me anymore. At least other people still recognize me when they see me. That’s something, right?

NEVER CAN SAY GOODBYE – Rich Paschall

JJ’s Night Out, by Rich Paschall


Jason was pacing the floor of the living room.  He was excited about his date night.  They were going to a new nightclub.  It had received nice reviews and he thought they could do a lot of dancing and singing.  Jason’s mom watched the pacing with a feeling of indifference, while his dad watched in what could best be described as “disgust.”

Soon Jason’s date would arrive. Jeff was a handsome young man who Jason had met at college.  Jeff fell immediately for the boy with the constant smile, and it did not take long for Jason to agree to a date.  After a short period of dating, they became constant companions.  Their friends began referring to them collectively as “JJ” since they always seemed to be together.

When Jeff arrived in his best preppy, all American look, he stopped in briefly to say hello to Jason’s parents and wish them a good evening.  Then Jason exclaimed, “Good night, mom,” and gave his mother a hug.  It was returned in a half-hearted fashion.

“See you later, dad,” Jason shouted at his father who was standing quite a distance away.

“Yeah,” his father returned with his most annoyed tone.  The father’s look was his best effort at contempt.  Jason just smiled and the boys set out for a night of fun.  They both hoped that someday Jason’s father would accept them as a couple.  Whether that happened or not, soon the boys would find an apartment, marry and be on their own.  They had their whole lives ahead and could not be too worried about whether they would find complete acceptance.  They had each other.  That was the main thing.

The two men enjoyed the new nightclub.  The music was loud, the drinks were cold and the atmosphere was electric.  Around midnight, Jeff leaned over and gave Jason a big kiss.  Since he was not prone to such public displays, Jason asked, “What was that for?”

Jeff replied, “Because I love you so much, my prince.”  At that Jason’s usual smile became even bigger.

At 4 am the phone rang at Jason’s home.  By the time his mother was awakened and realized it was the phone, the ringing stopped.  She started to drift off to sleep but 10 minutes later the phone was ringing again.  When she got up and got to the phone, it had stopped again.  The mother thought Jason forgot his key or was staying with Jeff.

“He really did not have to call about that,” she thought.  She waited by the phone another 10 minutes but it did not ring, so she went back to bed.

72-BW-Boston-Night_004Just as she was getting up around 7 am the front doorbell rang.  She thought, “This must be Jason.”  She put on her robe and walked to the door.  She opened it to find a uniformed police officer standing there.  Behind her was a man in plain clothes, but he was wearing a police badge on his belt.

“Are you Mrs. DeAngelo?”  the officer asked.

“Yes.”

“And is Jason DeAngelo your son?”

“Why?  What’s wrong? What happened?  Tell me, what is it?” she blurted out, trying not to sound hysterical.

“There has been a shooting at a nightclub.  I am afraid your son was one of the victim’s.  We are sorry for your  loss, Mrs. DeAngelo.”
Jason’s mother stood there absolutely frozen to the spot.  She had been kicked in the stomach and her breath had been taken away.

“Is it alright if we come in and ask a few questions?” the plainclothes police officer asked.

For a moment Mrs. DeAngelo could not speak.  Her eyes began to water and her brain was numb.  She was transported through time to a place of unspeakable sadness.  It was a place where senses momentarily failed her.

“Would you like us to come back?” the man asked.

“No,” she replied.  “Come in.”

Mr. DeAngelo joined them in the living room.  He immediately knew what had happened.  He stood there silently.  His wife answered all the questions.

For the next half hour, the two police officers queried Jason’s mom.  Did Jason go to the Club often?  Why did he go that night?  Was he with anyone?  Was he gay?  Did they know it was a gay nightclub and so on?  Mrs. DeAngelo answered as best she could.

Then they mentioned the name of the shooter which led to a new round of questions.  Did she ever hear the name before?  Did her son know him?  There were other questions too but they all became a blur to Mrs. DeAngelo.  After a while, she was not even sure what she was saying.

The uniformed officer concluded by saying the coroner’s office would be processing the dozens of bodies over the next few days and they would be in contact with them.  Both told the parents “We are sorry for your loss,” as they were leaving the house.

Mrs. DeAngelo softly closed the door behind them.  She grabbed a framed picture of Jason off a table and sat down on the sofa.  She stared at the picture as a tear formed in the corner of one eye.  She tried to envision Jason’s happy face as a child and his boundless energy.  She remembered the time she called him “my little terrier” because it seemed he could run for hours and then come and lay down right by her.  She did not move from that spot for a long time.

Mr. DeAngelo recalled the look he gave the boys the night before as they left for the club.

It was the only thing he could remember.

GARRY’S BROTHERS – Garry Armstrong

A PHOTO A WEEK – SIBLINGS

I am the eldest of three brother and the only one who married. My two younger brothers live in Minnesota. Dr. Anton Armstrong, conductor of the St. Olaf choir, is still working. Billy is retired. And of course we are here, in New England. Travel is difficult these days, so the telephone is especially important.

Geographical distance now minimizes the time I see my Brothers.  Billy moved to Northfield after we closed down our old family home on Long Island last summer. I used to drive down to see Billy a couple or 3 times a year. It was always nice to see the old neighborhood and spend a couple of days with Billy.  We shared family memories,  watched baseball and old movies, and exchanged commiseration about the aches of our golden years.  It was low-key and fulfilling. Something we never did when we were younger. I always felt closer to Billy after these visits.

The reunion of the three Armstrong “Boys” is difficult now.  Anton has a crazy, busy work schedule.  He is almost always on the road, usually overseas on tour, fulfilling his commitments as Director of the acclaimed St. Olaf’s Choir.

Our get-togethers are usually brief.  I’m usually burned out from my New England commute.  The 4 hour drive became more and more daunting in recent years.  Anton is even more fried from jet lag and minimal sleep with more work piled up on his lap top. Still,  we treasured the time we had together. Time and distance have not diminished our bond.  We actually verbalize our feelings,  something we never did as kids.  We made a pact after Dad and Mom passed away — to stay connected,  regardless of geography and different life paths.

That pact is more difficult now.  Long Island is now history after almost 60 years.  These days we stay in touch via e-mail and phone calls. Minnesota is a difficult visit for me financially and because I can’t leave Marilyn alone with our 3 dogs.  Marilyn is game but she’s too fragile and vulnerable to fend for herself alone.

The loss of family and friends is a constant reminder of life’s fragility. It’s comforting to know my two brothers are close to each other and I’m just a phone call or email away.

The Brothers Armstrong — a formidable trio.

CHANGING THE PAST – BY ELLIN CURLEY

This blog was the first blog I wrote and published on Serendipity in November of 2015. I have written a large number of blogs since then, many of them recounting personal stories from my own life as well as the lives of my family members.

Rereading it in January of 2018, I realize that it is a fitting epilogue to the Family History in Blogs that I have set out to write. It brings my story full circle. It expresses where I am after having spent so much time delving into my own life and the lives of other loved ones.


Folder for my Family History In Blogs

Here is the editorial conclusion to my opus of family lore and expression of family love:

 I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of time travel. I’m particularly fond of the fantasy of going back in time, knowing what you know now, and changing some pivotal moment in your past. I used to wish fervently for this fantasy to become a reality so I could undo some of my Top 10 “mistakes” and bad judgment calls. Many of those involved my first husband – like deciding to marry him and deciding, multiple times, to stay with him rather than leave.

Time machine, from “The Time Machine”

I’m a logical person, so the problem with this fantasy is that I have to be willing to accept all the drastic changes in my time line that would naturally flow from my new and improved choices.

The major change that comes to mind, if I didn’t marry my ex at all, is that I would no longer have my children. I can’t imagine life without them, so, scratch that option. If I had left him after I’d had my kids, my life still would have changed so dramatically the odds of my meeting my current husband are essentially nil.

I’m not prepared to give him up. He’s the best piece of luck I’ve ever had and the best decision I’ve ever made.

Family portrait from 1993

This means that I have reached a point in my life that I never thought I’d get to. I’m at peace with my whole life, knowing that all the crap I went through led me to where I am now. It also made me into who I am now.

My husband and I often discuss the fact that without the angst in both of our pasts we might not have appreciated each other when we did meet. And we’re pretty sure that we would not have gotten along well if we had, somehow, met when we were both young.

Tom and me last year

The result of all this philosophizing is that I don’t wish my past away anymore. I wish it had been easier and had left fewer scars, but I’m totally content with where I am now. So if I had to pay a high price to get to this place, so be it. It was worth it.

AMEN!

MY BROTHER MATTHEW – Marilyn Armstrong

A Photo a Week – Siblings

My brother was four years older than me. We did the usual scrabbling and arguing as kids, but over all, we were friends and allies in a seriously dysfunctional home. How dysfunctional I would not know until we were teenagers, but it was bad.

 

Matthew left home — with my mother’s help — when he was 17 and I was gone by the same age — in my case, without help.

I loved him and he loved me. He had many problems caused largely by that same horribly dysfunctional childhood we lived, but we understood what had happened and though we did not talk to others, we talked to each other because we were the only ones alive who knew how it had been.

He died 10 years ago of pancreatic cancer and I have never stopped missing him. I haven’t many pictures of him but these are a few.

LOVE IN INTENSIVE CARE – Ellin Curley

On February 11, 1972, my 88-year-old grandfather was hit by a truck crossing a street in New York City. His left side was smashed and a broken rib punctured his lung. Within 24 hours he was in a coma. My mother, grandmother and I camped out in the waiting room of the I.C.U at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan.

My grandfather

Another family was also spending most of its time in the same waiting room – the Palmers, father mother and younger son, who had Tourette’s Syndrome. Their older son, Jeffrey, 18, had been hit by a car. He was a Julliard student training to become a concert pianist. His pelvis was broken and his leg was fractured in several places. He was also in a coma.

Our two families got very friendly over the next few weeks. My grandfather was declared brain-dead. Jeffrey regained consciousness but was in traction and had a cast up to his thigh. I started visiting him and hanging out in his room.

It’s hard to describe what life is like when you’re living it in a hospital. Your day revolves around doctor’s visits and reports. Every little change in the patient becomes major news. And now we were monitoring two patients, Grandpa and Jeffrey. It is all-encompassing and totally consuming.

Me, my mom and my grandmother

Me, my mother and my grandmother

The good news was that Jeffrey and I hit it off. He was smart and funny and we had a great time talking. He was a bright spot for me at a horribly depressing time. My grandfather was gone but still alive. Our family was in a horrifying limbo. We tried to talk the hospital into letting us disconnect my grandfather from life support.

Jeffrey left the hospital after about four weeks. I stayed in touch with him and his family, who lived on Long Island.

The hospital finally disconnected my grandfather from all life support – and he survived on his own. Everything had healed and he was breathing on his own! The stress caused my mom to go into heart failure. She was hospitalized for a few days in a different hospital.

After six weeks (and withholding of food and water), my grandfather finally died on March 26, 1972. My mother recovered. Shortly after, Jeffrey moved into the city and went back to school, still in a huge cast and on crutches. We began dating.

I was 22 and taking time off before going to law school. When I wasn’t with Jeffrey, I spent most of my time helping my mother sort out my grandfather’s finances. He had left his estate in total chaos. It took at least a year to track down all his assets and get my grandmother settled financially.

Jeffrey and me

Jeffrey and I were together and very much in love for a year and a half. His family loved me and I loved them. I went on a vacation with his whole family to Bermuda. Jeffrey spent time with me and my family at our summer-house in Connecticut. It was a good and happy relationship.

I don’t remember exactly why we broke up. Jeffrey had decided to quit Julliard and was starting college at N.Y.U as a pre-med student. I was leaving soon to go to law school in Washington D.C. The age difference was an issue. But I think the breakup had more to do with Jeffrey’s new found infatuation with Scientology.

We met under strange and dark circumstances. But I have only fond memories of Jeffrey. He got me through a very tough time in my life and he was my first real love. Everyone should have such a wonderful experience with their first love. I was very lucky! And how we met makes such a great story!