WE INTERRUPT THIS PROGRAM – Rich Paschall

When You No Longer Have a Home, Rich Paschall


Jimmy knew it was not going to be easy.  He had put it off for weeks, but after a while, the delay was just as hard as what he perceived the actual event to be.  So the high school senior marched home, mustered up all his courage, and prepared for the inevitable battle.

Born of a rather dysfunctional family, Jimmy’s parents were divorced when he was just 4 years old.  His biological father remained marginally in his life.  His mother introduced a new “step-father” when Jimmy was 5.  He was raised by ultra-conservative parents to have values of the ultra Christian right.  Unfortunately for the family structure, Jimmy did not adopt the “family values” of his rather right-wing parents.  Nonetheless, the 17-year-old boy was prepared to take a bold step forward and challenge the strict guidelines he had been given.

When he arrived home near dinner time on a cool fall evening, his parents were already watching television and absorbed in some crime drama.  At the first commercial break, Jimmy made enough noise to be noticed.

“Well, boy,” the stepdad began, “you are a bit late, but you can still grab some dinner in the kitchen.” The mother just smiled and went back to watching the television.

The teenager had already called up all his courage and was not going to back down.  The moment had come, and even though he was shaking, he began a speech he prepared all day.  “I had something important to say,” Jimmy stated rather meekly.

“Well spit it out, boy, the commercials are almost over.”

Without launching into his well-rehearsed speech about each man having to be his own and so forth, a nervous Jimmy did indeed just spit it out.  “I’m gay,’ he declared.

“What?” the middle-aged, balding, flannel-clad stereotypical alpha male shouted. At that, the mother turned down the television volume.

“What did he say, dear?  I don’t think I heard him correctly,” said the middle-aged, middle class, middle intelligence woman.

“I think he said he’s a damn faggot,” the man shouted in a loud and disgusted voice.

“No, sir,” the boy countered. “I said I am gay.”

“The same thing,” the fake dad declared.

“I am appalled.  No son of mine is going to be a sinner.”  The mother was as much angered by the “sinner” as having to miss her TV program.

The step-dad marched right up to the boy and shouted in his face, “You will stop that right now or you will get out of this house, do you understand me?”

“I am sorry sir, I can not change,” the teenager said in a trembling voice.  At that, the step-dad pushed him as hard as he could and the boy went flying over a living room chair and crashed into the dining room.

The mother then began shouting at the boy, telling him he would go to hell, that God would never forgive him, that such behavior was forbidden in the Bible and that God hated him.  The boy rose to his feet and stood there staring at the shouting parents.

“If you are not going to take back that sinful statement, then you are not staying under my roof.  Get out sinner,” the pretend dad shouted.  With that, he gave a menacing look as if he would hit the boy again.  Before long, he started after the boy and shoved him, knocking him to the floor.

“OK,” the terrified teen said.  “I’ll go if that’s what you want.  I don’t want to be here either.  I will get my school books and leave.”

“I paid for those books,” the man shouted.

“Like you are going to read them,” the teen retorted.

At that the boy hurried to his room, he put his books, a few items off his dresser and whatever items of clothing he could stuff in his backpack and headed toward the front door.

“God hates faggots, son,” his mother said with great disdain.

“I don’t know that God hates anyone,” the boy countered, “but he does not hate love.”

That prompted the step-dad to pick up an ashtray to throw at the teen, but the boy was out the door too quickly.  The angry parents resumed watching television as the trembling senior high school student walked aimlessly down the street.  Tears filled the eyes of the handsome youth as realized he had no home, no parents, and nowhere to go.

Attribution: BookCrossingBefore at the English language Wikipedia

He struggled forward, step by step, as the night air began to chill his bones.  Was he shivering because of the night air, or because of the sad situation he found himself in?  When he arrived at a major intersection, Jimmy took a seat on a wooden bench by the bus stop.  He was not planning on taking the bus.  He had no plan at all.

After many moments filled with crying, Jimmy pulled out his cell phone and called the one person he thought could help him, his real dad.  He located the number, dialed, and got a quick answer.

“Hello dad, it’s Jimmy.  I have been thrown out of the house.  I have nowhere to go.  Can I come and stay with you a while?  I promise I will not be a bother.”  The teen was not ready for adulthood, and certainly not this.

“Why, what happened son?  What would cause them to do that?”

“I told them I am gay.  Can I come there?”

There was a long silence on the phone.  Neither one spoke for what seemed like minutes.  Jimmy finally spoke up again.

“Please.”


Note:  This is a work of fiction, but there are many true stories of teens tossed aside.  What do they do?  

MEMORIAL DAY: THEN AND NOW, THE DAY AFTER – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Time changes everything. It’s a given. Memorial Day is no different and that’s a shame.

When I was a kid, Memorial Day was usually a family affair. It seems as if it was always sunny and warm for the gathering of several generations. I was fascinated by the stories told by the men who’d collectively served in two World Wars and the Korean “Peace Action.” The stories were funny and sad as were the memories of when they served our country.

How many 78-year-old men can still wear the same uniform they wore at age 17?

My maternal Gramps, a Barbados native, served in the Danish Navy during World War One, the war to end all wars.  His stories seemed to be from a distant time that I grasped only in a haze. I’d read about WW1 a bit. Dry accounts in those history books of the ’40s and early ’50s we were given in school. My personal library included books by Erich Maria Remarque who gave bittersweet accounts from the German perspective.

“All Quiet On The Western Front” was the most memorable. I don’t think Gramps or the other elders liked my interest in Remarque’s books. I didn’t understand their attitude. Not then, at least. There was music, including songs like “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary” which elicited smiles. The music blended with the sounds of the parade outside all the open windows. I usually dashed outside for a glimpse.

Those parades included veterans who’d served in the Civil War.  I was always impressed and wondered how old some of those men were who marched with pride and crispness, belying their years. I felt a stirring in my heart. I wanted to be one of those men someday.

In my adolescent and early teen years, family Memorial Day celebrations changed. Some of the men were gone. So were their stories. There was still laughter, fueled by liquor consumed in prodigious amounts by uncles, cousins, and friends.

My father in uniform, World War 2

My Dad, Bill “Tappy” Armstrong, had been an Army Seargent in WW2. He had seen action in the Battle of the Bulge among other places.  He smiled at some of the war stories but never shared anything.   He never shared anything about his personal war experiences until the final year of his life.

Those accounts were harrowing and gave his three grown sons a better understanding of Dad’s quiet demeanor, moodiness. and reluctance to share his feelings. After Dad passed, we found many medals stowed away apparently for more than half a century. It was his legacy of the Greatest Generation.

One of the staples of those family Memorial Day celebrations was watching war movies. Even before cable, the networks and local TV stations ran a marathon of our favorite John Wayne, Errol Flynn, Robert Taylor, Robert Mitchum, and other Hollywood gung ho flicks that raised the roof with laughter from the real-life vets guffawing over the exploits of Hollywood heroes. There was derisive laughter for Wayne and Flynn who single-handedly won the war according to the heavy propaganda scripts.

I thought those guys were real heroes. Hell, I was gonna be a Marine like Duke Wayne’s Sgt. John Stryker in “Sands of Iwo Jima.”  The parades outside now included WW1 Vets. The last of the Civil War heroes had passed. The music of Tommy Dorsey, Vera Lynn, and Glenn Miller permeated the celebrations. I loved their sad, sweet words and music. They would always be part of my musical collection.

My vow to emulate Duke Wayne’s Sgt. John Stryker was fulfilled as I enlisted in the Marine Corps right after high school graduation in 1959. I was a baby faced 17-year-old who needed his parent’s signature to become a gyrene.

Memorial Day 1959 was in my rearview mirror when I signed up. I had clear memories of that family Memorial Day. There were only a few WW1 Vets still around to participate. WW2 uniforms dominated. A fully integrated armed services participation brought big smiles to faces in my family. The music included new interpretations of war tunes offered by Elvis, Connie Francis, Paul Anka, and other fresh faces in the top 40-market.

My Dad cried when he saw me off to basic training at Parris Island where “boots” were turned in fighting gyrenes. It was the proudest day of my life.

I never became the new version of Sgt. John Stryker because my lifelong hearing affliction made it impossible for me to serve, especially as a Marine. Imagine crawling through the jungle, listening for any sign of the enemy. It would have been a catastrophe waiting to happen. I did get to “enjoy” a fair amount of basic training.

I left my mark with many a hard-nosed Drill Instructor frustrated when I laughed as they barked out intimidating orders. I drank homemade hooch (I’ll never give up the brewer), stripped and refitted my M-1 blindfolded, survived a few double-time forced marches, and had my first barroom fight with peckerwood Southern bigots in a nearby Beaufort gin mill.

My platoon mates and I cleared out the place with just a few scratches to show for our brawl. Now, I was officially a Marine!   Our C.O. smiled when he chewed us out for drinking and fighting. His main concern: Did we leave any of those miscreants standing?  Hell, NO!  The C.O. gave us a sharp salute and a night off to soothe our bruises.

A few days later, thanks to my hearing problems, Pvt E-1 Garry Armstrong was mustered out and headed home. in uniform.

My Dad cried again when I arrived home in uniform. Yes, he saluted me.

OO-rah!

This past weekend’s Memorial Day celebrations were lost in the COVID-19 headlines. A sad sign of the times for those who served and still serve our country. I salute all who put their lives on the line and am proud I still have my Marine Corps uniform. It fits better than ever.

I’ve never marched in a Memorial Day Parade. I leave that to those who’ve spent full tours in service and beyond.

Semper Fi!

HELLO, WE’RE HERE! – Rich Paschall

Now What? by Rich Paschall

What do you do when friends come to visit?  Do you plan a nice dinner?  Do you stay in and cook or do you go out?  Do you plan some activities or do you go for spontaneity? Do you bring out old photo albums or run pictures on a computer or even on your television?  There are a lot of things you can do if it is just for a day.

What if friends and family are coming for more than a day?  A few days of guests may take a little more planning.  Maybe you want to both eat at home and go out.  Maybe you want to take your visitors around to meet other family and friends.  Maybe this is the opportunity for a lot of conversation that has been missing in your friendship in recent years.  But what if they come for a few weeks?  Yes, weeks!

When I was small, perhaps 6 years old, I recall visiting Tennessee with my grandparents or other family members.  My grandparents were from Tennessee but they spent the late 1940’s to mid 1960s in Chicago.  There were plenty of relatives in the small town and rural areas for us to visit, so we made the rounds whenever we arrived, staying here and there.  Since I was the little kid from the north, these friends and relatives of my grandparents enjoyed entertaining me when I first arrived.  That probably wore off quickly.

Down on the farm

Down on the farm

We stayed with people I do not recall and, since I was little, the details are a bit sketchy.  I had no idea that decades later I would be interested in these vague memories.  I do recall that sitting around the living room, or front porch if the weather was nice, and telling old stories was a popular pastime.

“Well, how ya’ll doin?  I guess it’s downright cold from where you come from.”

“No, it is hot there too.  It’s July!”

“I swear you are the spittin’ image of Robert Lee at that age.”

My father’s middle name was Lee.  I guess I heard plenty of stories of my father when he was my age, although “my age” seemed to take in his entire childhood.

Most of these visits included my grandfather or some other relative telling how my father got that scar on his chin.  It seems that he was not much more than a toddler when he ran into a barbed wire fence chasing after my grandfather.

“He was told to stay put there at the house but he wanted to help out in the field like everyone else.”  I could not see my father as a farmer, at any age.

Sitting around telling stories is a trait of a lot of families.  It is a happy thing to do when family and friends get together.  In a rural area, it might just pass as the most exciting thing you could do anyway.

I do recall that I must have been the entertainment sometimes as the southern folks took the city boy around the house or farm.  One time some adults had finally convinced me that I should walk across a field to pet a cow.  Never mind the fact that I was just a tot and the cow was, well…, a cow.

I headed out  across the field, a bit scared I am sure, but determined to pet the cow.  When I got near the cow, he took off in another direction.  I guess he was just as afraid of the little city boy as I was of him.  Anyway, he wanted nothing to do with me.  There are some more amusing farm animal stories but, fortunately, I can not think of anyone still alive to tell them.

What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

After my grandparents retired I was old enough to get put on the train in Chicago and collected from the train in Fulton, Kentucky.  It was the nearest stop to my grandparents in Tennessee.  Yes, we went around and visited relatives and friends.  I could now participate in some story telling.  I was still told I looked like Robert Lee, which I was always to take as a complement.  In my grandparents’ retirement years, there was not much more to do.

“You can walk right down there to the Dairy Queen and get yourself an ice cream cone.  If you go down there after dark, you can hear that bug zapper getting something every minute or two.”  Now that’s entertainment!

Robert Lee’s boy

When my grandmother passed away at some point in her 90s, we returned to Tennessee for another round of family visits.  My father and I attended some family reunions in other years.  One time it was at a Baptist church, the next time it was at the John Deere dealer.  It seems the John Deere dealer had the largest room in the area, bigger than the church.  We didn’t need any farm equipment, but it was interesting to see.

Even decades later, our visiting routine was to travel around and see relatives, mostly without advance warning.  We were always welcome, however.  Once my father and his brother, my uncle, tried to remember how to get to someone’s house using landmarks from when they were kids.  The amazing thing is there was little movement of families and we always found our way around.

On one trip my father wondered if old Aunt Ella was still alive.  She would have to be in her 90s and we were not confident we would find the small town well off any highway, much less Aunt Ella.  When we spotted a mailbox with our last name, we went up to the house where an old woman sat on the porch.  My aging father had not seen her in decades.

“Well, I guess you don’t know who I am,” my father started out.

“Why, you’re Yancy’s boy, Robert Lee,” she declared without missing a beat. “And you must be Robert Lee’s boy,” she said to me.  I must have been in my 40s by then.  We sat around and talked, as was the custom.

What do you do when relatives come calling?  Do you ever go to visit old family and friends?  Go to restaurants? Visit museums, famous landmarks, local hot spots?  Have actual conversations?

WHAT’S IN A NAME? – Rich Paschall

Would You Change Your Name? by Rich Paschall

When I finally come around to writing a short story for SERENDIPITY, I usually get stalled at the beginning when I need to decide on character names. It seems to me that the name is important and certain names will convey certain feelings to the reader.  So, I try to choose carefully.

I liked Harold for an older character because I don’t know any younger people named Harold.  Although the most famous literary character of this century so far is named Harry, I never thought of Harry Potter as a “Harold.” But he probably is.

I inadvertently used Harold twice. I wrote a story titled Alone and actually filmed it a year later, calling the only character Harold.  This did not stop me from forgetting about it and naming another older character Harold in a series of stories that started with Soup and Sandwich. Some names just seem to lend themselves to young and old, rich or poor. A lot of that is surely based on personal experience and naming trends over the years. Names go in and out of favor for newborns.

The characters of the stories are newborns to me. Most of my characters arrive full-grown, I look for age appropriate names.  For example, Richie might be alright for a boy, but a grownup would probably prefer Rich or Richard. A few folks who know me from childhood still call me Richie. I get all three versions of my name these days. I can’t escape the variations.

what's in a name

If a story has a local flavor, I try to use names that could not be mistaken for anyone I know.  Trying to think of names that don’t belong to friends or relatives can be challenging … and leave me looking up names on the Internet.

If you named a child, did you use a book of baby names?  Did you look up names on the Internet? Did you make lists of names,  then negotiate the final choice with others? Fortunately, I only have to debate with myself about my characters’ names. Right or wrong, I’ve no one to blame or congratulate but myself.

Aside from Harold, I don’t think I’ve duplicated a name, but I’ve got so many stories out there, I can’t say for sure. I know I’ll always have favorites tucked in the back of my mind.


In my neighborhood, there’s a family in which the father is Edgar. His son is also Edgar. Another son is Eduardo.

In this household, no one is called Ed. The younger Edgar is Eddy. The others are called by their full names. Parents get to set rules on that — at least in the home — but there’s no telling how kids will change your name once you start school. You could get a nickname that sticks. That might be good. Or not.

If there are several kids named John in your class, classmates —  even a teacher — may decide you’re Jack, Johnnie, Jay … or something else. A room with multiple Johns, Michaels, or Susans will likely trigger a round of renaming.

Did you get stuck with a nickname? Do you like it? Hate it? Don’t much care either way?

I had a cousin named George whose father was also George, so they called him Ricky. For years, I thought that was his name. No idea how they chose this name, but it stuck with him his entire life. When relatives on that side of the family called me Ricky, it drove my mother crazy. She’d point out Ricky is not my name.

Aunt Mary is called Joan. It’s her middle name. Some said they did not want to call her by her mother’s name, but no one I know called my grandmother Mary.  Her sister called her Mae. There are Roberts who became Bob or Bobby, including my father.

I know a few people who hate their name.  Some are downright upset at their parents about it. If you were named Moon Unit or Dweezil, disliking your name might not seem unreasonable. Yet, Frank Zappa’s kids stuck with those names.

The Zappa family got away with giving their kids what could optimistically be considered “unique” names. Celebrities get a pass on lots of stuff. I doubt an ordinary kid would survive such names. Most parents want to make their children feel their names are special, but sensible parents don’t want their kid’s name to make them a target.

Destiny Hope Cyrus decided she liked Miley better. She changed her name — which was already her nickname.

Just don’t call me late for dinner.

As for my own, I’m neutral about it. I neither love nor hate my name. It’s okay. All of its variations are fine with me, including Rick or Ricky, despite my mother’s objections. I am also okay with RJ (Richard John).

But I hated Dick. Few dare call me that, but one friend does. He’s the only one who gets away with it. I remember all too well the years of President “Tricky Dick” Nixon. I wanted no association with that name.

Do you like your name? Would you prefer a nickname?  Did you always like your name or did you accept it over time?

If you could change your name now, to what would you change it?  Feel free to share your new name in the comments?  I might choose Ming the Merciless, Emperor of the Universe.  That had a certain ring to it when I was small, though it would be hard to fit on a business card.

THE SURPRISING CHRISTMAS – Rich Paschall

A family plus one holiday tale

by Richard Paschall

72-Christmas Eve_013Kyle was coming home for Christmas. He was bringing with him his college roommate. The boys met during freshman year and became fast friends. Somehow they maneuvered the dorm manager into assigning them to be roommates for sophomore year. There was no one on earth Kyle would rather spend time with than Michael.

So, he was glad Michael agreed to come to dinner on Christmas Eve. This was in exchange for Kyle agreeing to go to Michael’s parents’ house on Christmas day for dinner. Michael was going to make a big announcement to his parents and of course Kyle had to be there.

Kyle’s father had slipped into a den on the east side of the house. All of the family noise was a bit more than his reserved nature could take. Kyle’s sister, Mary, who was 8 years younger than Kyle, was louder than usual, and no matter how many times grandma told Mary to “quiet down,” things didn’t get quieter.

The threat of Christmas carols by Mary and Uncle Roy was enough to drive dad into the den. There, he immediately made haste to the bar where a glass of sherry seemed to be in order. Dad only drank a sherry on special occasions and this certainly was one of them.

It was dark now and the neighbors across the street had turned on their Christmas lights. Almost everyone on the block had a nice display so the street was well-lit. Kyle’s dad was drawn to the window to see the lights, look at the gentle snow flurries and enjoy a moment of peace.

As he stood there sipping his sherry and waiting for Kyle to appear, he finally spotted his only son walking quickly down the street with another young man right behind. As they got to the walkway that led up to the house they stopped to exchange a few words. Then a sight took dad’s wondering eyes totally by surprise. Kyle kissed the other boy. It was not a short kiss, but long and passionate which they both seemed to enjoy.

Soon Kyle rang the doorbell just to announce their arrival before he put his key in the lock and opened the door. Off the entranceway on the left was a door to the den. Kyle’s father was standing in the doorway just staring at the two. Kyle’s mom came through a big archway on the right that led to the living room. Mary was close behind and eager to see her brother and his friend. Uncle Roy and grandma did not vacate their seats. They knew the rest would join them soon.

First Kyle walked over to his father and said, “Dad this is my room-mate, Michael.” The roommate held out his hand and the father shook it. “I am pleased to meet you, sir. Kyle says such wonderful things about the family.”

Kyle’s dad just sort of nodded at that, while studying this stranger in his home. The silence was out of character for the head of the household and a bit of a surprise to everyone except Michael, and that is only because Michael did not know him.

Then Kyle introduced Michael to his mother and his “little brat sister” Mary. Michael held out his hand to each in turn but the little brat held out her hand instead as if he was supposed to take it and kiss it, so he did and she squealed and ran from the room. At that Kyle’s mom offered to introduce Michael to the others. Kyle’s father then announced to all, “We will join you in a moment.”

With a more serious tone, father said, “Kyle, would you step in here for a moment, please?” This was not a question but rather a command of the type Kyle knew was not good. As the father retreated into the room Kyle followed. Before turning around dad said, “Close the door.”

last snow low contrast winter

Kyle only took a few short steps before his father turned around. He looked at him as if he had never seen him before. It was the strangest look Kyle had ever seen from his father. “Kyle, is there something you should be telling me?” the “official business” dad said in an odd businesslike tone. Kyle figured it was some sort of trick question but knew he should answer it anyway.

“No, dad. I don’t think so.” This clearly was the wrong answer. His dad did not say a thing but his body language spoke volumes and Kyle became as nervous as a first-grader who has been caught stealing Oreos from the kitchen. Now the master of the den, the commander of the car keys and the payer of his tuition walked slowly to the window, looked around the outside and turned to Kyle.

“You know, son, that there is a great view of the neighborhood from this window. You can see all of the beautiful Christmas displays across the street. You can see a nice Christmas snow flurry. You can see everyone walking down the sidewalk and turning up the walkway toward the house.” At that Kyle’s father fixed his sights squarely on Kyle and said, “So now is there anything you should tell me?”

Kyle stood motionless as his dad threw a stare at him that went right through and hit the door behind. It took Kyle almost an entire minute before he realized what his father had seen from the window of the den. All the while, that whole long minute of time, Kyle’s father stood there waiting.

Uxb Common Christmas Poster

Kyle wanted to begin “I’m sorry dad…,” but nothing came out of his mouth. He was so nervous and so afraid of his father’s reaction that he could say nothing. It is not that he wanted to be silent, he just couldn’t speak. Fear of saying the wrong thing paralyzed his tongue for the moment. Finally, Kyle’s father just nodded that same nod he gave Michael when he was introduced, walked around Kyle, opened the door and walked across the foyer to the living room.

Kyle was knocked off his spot when his mother’s voice came floating into the room. “Kyle, don’t be rude. Come join your guest.” Kyle shuffled across the hall and searched around the room for Michael. He did not look at anyone else as his eyes avoided everyone but Michael. At that moment, with a room full of family, he had no way of telling his mate that he needed a hug and he thought he might need to cry. After a little small talk by grandma and Uncle Roy, Kyle’s mom asked them all to go to the dining room. Christmas Eve dinner was ready.

“Michael, you sit right there next to Kyle and Kyle will sit next to me. I have this end of the table and Kyle’s father will carve things up at that end of the table. Uncle Roy will be there next to you and grandma and Mary will be on the other side.” At that, the little brat sister ran around the table and dropped herself on the chair opposite Kyle. She looked at him with a smirk as if she knew his little secret and was going to blurt it out if he did not stop calling her a brat.

72-GAR-Night-Uxbridge-121015_005

Everyone sat in silence until Kyle’s mother looked down the length of the table and said to her husband. “Sweetheart, will you say grace for us?” There was a long, awkward pause before he said, “No. Tonight Kyle will lead the prayer.”

At that instant, Kyle prayed that something, anything that made sense would come out of his mouth. All eyes were on him as he began, “Bless us, oh Lord…” The words that fell out of Kyle’s mouth were for blessing and thanksgiving, but in his heart, he was praying for acceptance.

That became the only gift he truly wanted for Christmas this year.

DAD WAS *MORE* THAN A CONTENDER – Garry Armstrong

A friend emailed me info about a popular boxer who just improved on his very impressive record. I had to admit knowing nothing about the prizefighter. I’m a self-proclaimed baseball maven but know nothing about professional boxing these days.   I’m not a fan.

I don’t get my jollies watching two people bashing out each other’s brains. This is no ethical line in the sand.  I enjoy football but never have fantasized about tossing a final second ‘hail mary’ pass to win the Superbowl for the home town team. I flinch when I see the guys grinding each other into the dirt just to pick up a few yards.


My Dad wouldn’t agree with me. He was the boxing maven in our family. We used to watch the old Friday Night Gillette boxing matches. It was our one Father-Son bonding event.

We used to watch the likes of Kid Gavilan, Chico Vejar, Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong (no relation), Rocky Graziano,  Rocky Marciano, Jake LaMotta, Floyd Patterson, Jersey Joe Walcott,  Ezzard Charles, Ingmar Johansson, and the young Cassius Clay – Muhammad Ali.

Joe Louis was Dad’s hero.  Unfortunately, I only remember seeing Louis in the declining years of his memorable career.  Dad used to describe listening to his fights on the radio when “The Brown Bomber” was in his prime.

My father is on the left and Marvin Hagler is on the right.

I remember seeing Louis’ pictures in the homes of many Black families.  He was more than a boxer, more than the heavyweight champion of the world. He was a folk hero and legend to people of color.  Louis was a sport and cultural icon before Jackie Robinson. My Dad could recite, chapter and verse, round by round, of many of Joe Louis’ fights.

As a young boy, I looked at pictures of my Dad in his boxing prime.  I was always awed. Dad was  6-feet plus a few inches. A tall, matinee-idol handsome man. This isn’t fog of memory sentiment.  My Dad never lost those strikingly good looks – even in the autumn of his years.  My girlfriends visited, they would stare at my father with jaw-dropping admiration, then glance at me with a, “What happened to YOU?”  look. It always deflated my ego.

When we had visitors, it was like living with Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, or Denzel Washington as my Dad.  All three of the Armstrong boys addressed our parents as “Mommy and Daddy” even when we were adults, well into our professional lives.  It may seem bit old-fashioned now but it felt normal for the 50-year-old Garry Armstrong, noted TV News Reporter to talk about his “Mommy and Daddy”.  My friends always smiled with appreciation,  maybe a little envy.

I am drifting here.  Typical Garry.  William Armstrong, Sr, the pride of Antigua and World War 2. Decorated Army Veteran  ( The EAME Service Medal, The WWII Victory Medal and the American Service Medal),  did a lot of amateur boxing during the war where he saw lots of active duty and action, including the Battle of the Bulge, Normandy, Vineland, and Central Europe.

I don’t recall Dad’s boxing record.  He said it was recreational.   An avocation. Something to do between combat.  I suspect it was Dad’s way of getting respect during a period when our Armed Services were still segregated.  When asked, he begrudgingly said boxing was relaxing for him and his opponents were usually friends or Army peers.  As I write,  I don’t remember if Dad ever fought a White opponent.  I never thought to ask that question as a kid.

Dad taught his 3 sons some basics about self-defense but never made it a big deal. He never tried to force boxing on us.  I’m not sure he shared our passion for baseball.

Dad showed rare outward passion when “nice guy” Floyd Patterson suffered boxing defeats.  He always thought Patterson should’ve been a little tougher but the one-time heavyweight champ had a very sensitive outward demeanor that rankled some old school boxing fans.

Rocky Marciano’s undefeated career record was always appreciated by my Dad.  I wanted to say my Dad commented “Good stuff for a White Guy” but, no, my Father wasn’t given to such acerbic comments.  Leave it to his oldest son with a slightly bent sense of humor.

During my Boston TV News career, I met Marvin Hagler, the pride of Brockton, Ma. and a champion pugilist. We struck up a friendship beyond reporter-prizefighter when I talked about my Dad and his love of boxing.

I managed to score a painting that showed Mavin Hagler and “Bill” Armstrong, head to head, in a boxing match.  An artist friend did the painting and Hagler was kind enough to add a personal sentiment to ” a fellow boxer” for my Dad.  It was an emotional TKO for me.

When I presented the painting to my Dad, he gave me the biggest smile he’d ever shown me in my life. I felt a deep tug in my heart and barely held back the tears. My Father really LIKED the gift.  It’s hard for me to explain how important that was for me.

Me and my father at our wedding.

Years later, after my parents had passed and we were on the verge of putting the family house up for sale,  my two brothers and I were deciding who would get what. It surprised me when they said I should get most of Dad’s boxing stuff.  I didn’t expect it because my two brothers were closer to Mommy and Daddy in their final years while I was busy with my career in Boston.  I didn’t forget them but my visits were fewer.  Yes, I felt a little guilty because I was so focused on my job.

When I started going through Dad’s stuff, a flood of memories came back. All those Friday evenings watching boxing matches.  Dad’s expert take on the state of professional boxing (he didn’t like where it was going).  Dad’s own recollections when he sifted through his equipment.  The gloves, the shoes, the pictures.  I could see my Father reaching into his own past when he was the boxer, master of his own moments in the ring, and maybe a magic moment in Madison Square Garden — standing beside his boxing heroes.

Top of the World,  Dad!   You made it!

MY GRANDMOTHER’S EARLY YEARS – By Ellin Curley

My Grandmother, Sarah, grew up in Minsk, Russia. Her father was one of the very few Jews there who were allowed to do business with the Russian Gentiles. Therefore he was relatively well off. Grandma remembers her mother taking baths in milk. Her mother was an aloof, Grande Dame and was treated like a queen by her family.

In order to stay in the good graces of the Christian Russians he dealt with, her father adopted their pro-Czarist beliefs. My grandmother, from early on, was an active socialist and anti-Czarist. She often clashed with her father over politics. The tension with her dad came to a head when Grandma took her mother and sister to a socialist rally with her. The rally was a set-up and was raided by the Czar’s troops. The troops crashed through the crowd killing and beating as many people as they could. Grandma was saved by a dead body falling on her and hiding her from the troops.

Grandma and her family in Russia. She is the little girl in the front between her parents

Grandma and her family made it home safely. But her father was livid that Grandma had exposed his beloved wife and favorite daughter (grandma’s sister) to such danger. It was decided that Grandma should move to America, and take her younger brother, Abe, with her.

Grandma and Abe had first class tickets on the ship to America. But Abe lost the tickets and last minute steerage tickets had to be procured. Grandma was not happy with her hapless brother. When they arrived in New York City, they were taken in by relatives who lived in the tenements of the Lower East Side, the Jewish section of the city. They were penniless.

To earn money, Grandma worked in a sweatshop, similar to and down the street from the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. That factory caught fire in 1911 and trapped and killed 146 garment workers, mostly young, immigrant women. It was the worst industrial disaster in city history. So many lives were lost because doors had been locked and exits blocked to keep workers from taking unauthorized breaks or stealing. The tragedy spurred the passage of safety laws for factories. It also spurred the birth of the labor movement and the creation of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union.

Sarah and her brother Abe

Grandma knew some of the girls who were killed in the fire. She became active in the pro-union movement. In later years, she would take my mother, even as a child, to union rallies and to speeches by socialist and union leaders.

Grandma met a first cousin of hers, named Abe, who had also recently immigrated from Russia. They were actually half first cousins because Grandma and Abe’s mothers shared a father but had different mothers. They married after a short courtship.

After my mom was born, Grandma took in sewing to make extra money until Grandpa could earn enough money to support the family. When my mom was still a young child, my grandfather, a hypochondriac, spent all the family money on fake cures and treatments. He also went to stay in special treatment “spas”, for long periods. During this time, Grandma took in boarders as well as sewing to make ends meet.

At one point she fell in love with a wonderful, socialist teacher who was boarding with her. But she refused to leave grandpa to go with this man. Her marriage to grandpa was adversarial and volatile. They had no interests in common and one was a socialist and the other was a Republican. Not a good relationship. But divorce was not acceptable in those days so grandma stayed.

When all their money ran out, Grandma and Mom had to move in with relatives. They had to go from one relative to another, sharing beds with different family members until Grandpa came back and started to make money again.

Grandma and Grandpa with my mom when she was about two

From that point on, Grandma was financially comfortable but never happy in her marriage. She was a devoted mother and grandmother. Her parents immigrated to America and settled in Stamford, CT. Her father became a respected rabbi and teacher there. Grandma was a devoted daughter as well till her parents’ deaths.

Grandma was also active in pro-Israel organizations and was a founder of the Women’s League For Israel. She was also on the board of many other Jewish charitable organizations.

Grandma was a huge influence in my life. She encouraged me to fight for justice, freedom and equality whenever and however I could. She never lost her passion for liberal causes and passed that on to me. Thank you, Grandma!

ULTIMATELY, WE ALL ARE ORPHANED – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Orphan

Although most of us never plan to go home again to live, there’s always somewhere, way back in our minds, the realization that if terrible things happen and everything else fails, we can go home.

We wouldn’t like it and they probably wouldn’t care for it, either. We might even hate it.

Otsego Road – Photo: Garry Armstrong

But the thought is there. Almost hidden by the rest of our lives, friends, work, children.

I never went home except for the occasional dinner. I swore when I left I’d never go back … but there was always a tiny corner in there. Not even a set of words, but a fragment of a thought. There was a last-ditch place I could be if the rest of the world collapsed around me.

I never went back, even when things were bad and I was sick. Never wanted to be there, not even briefly. Then, my mother died. Eventually, my father died though losing him wasn’t much like losing a parent. I hadn’t seen him as a parent for many long years. Garry’s father passed and eventually, his mother too. He never went home, either.

We are orphans. We can’t go home because this is home and there’s nowhere else to be. We haven’t even the fragments of those unspoken words.

Eventually and ultimately, we are all orphans.

THE CIRCULARITY OF SPODE’S TOWER – Marilyn Armstrong

Blame it on my upbringing, the peculiar traditions of my mother’s family.

We say “I love you” by giving each other stuff. All kinds of stuff. Art, furniture, gadgets, clothing, books, whatnots. We were never a touchy, feely, huggy family nor verbally effusive. We rarely said, “I love you.”

I’ve had to learn to say the words. I’d still rather buy you a present.

spode's tower plateOver the course of life with my family, I got clothing (used and new), pottery (ugly and uglier), jewelry, paintings (“No, really, it’s okay … you keep it … please!”) and whatever else came to hand. If someone had a sudden unplanned attack of the warm fuzzies, they might give you the nearest small object — ashtray, silver cigarette holder (from my mother, who never smoked), old souvenirs from Coney Island, empty cigar boxes (Uncle Abe).

No wrappings or bows. Spontaneity precluded amenities. It was my family’s version of a hug.

One time, my dearest favorite-est aunt gave me the coat off her back while crossing 6th Avenue in Manhattan. It was mid-winter in New York and definitely not a good time to be coat-less, but I had said I liked it and she needed to express her love right then and there.

“Please, Aunt Kate,” I cried, hoping the people swirling around us didn’t call the cops, likely thinking I was mugging my elderly aunt. “I am wearing a coat. You gave me this coat years ago. I wear it all the time. I love it.”

Which only made it worse. “That old thing,” she cried. “You need a new coat.”

“When we get home,” I promised. “You can give me the coat at home.” And she did. I wore it for many years until it fell apart. I knew I was wearing her love and it kept me very warm.

When I lived in Jerusalem, I bought a box of odds and ends from a little shop on Bethlehem Road. They had been cleaning out their back room. They said, “We don’t know what’s in here, but you can have it for five dollars.”

I took the box home and began to sort through it. I found tiny carved ivory elephants, amber beads, buttons from dress shirts, old Agora and a green, crusted thing I was going to throw out until a friend said: “Hey, that’s an old coin.”

I stopped. Looked at it. “How can you tell?” I asked.

“That’s what old coins look like,” she said. “Soak it in lemon juice for a few days and see what happens.”

I soaked it for two weeks and it still looked like a piece of green crusty metal. Finally, using a toothbrush and copper cleaner, I extracted an ancient bronze coin, circa 77, the second year of the First Jewish War Against the Romans. The date was on the coin in old Hebrew script.

I had the coin appraised at the Rockefeller Museum. It was the real deal, but not worth much – maybe a couple of hundred dollars, if I could find a buyer. So I turned it into a pendant and wore it on a ribbon. When my mother came to visit, she admired it.

Of course, I gave it to her. When my mother died, my father gave it back to me, but it disappeared. I suppose it will turn up someday in another box of odds and ends and become someone else’s treasure.

You had to be careful in my family. If you admired something you were going to own it. There was a hideous pottery owl that looked like its eyes were bleeding. Chartreuse with scarlet eye sockets. I was caught staring –and had to say something. It was a masterpiece of sculpting, but the overall effect was gruesome. So I said: “It’s … really interesting.” It was, in a ghastly way.

“It’s yours!” cried my mother. I detected a note of triumph. I still harbor a suspicion she had gotten it from some other family member and was just waiting for the chance to move it along. Tag, I was it.

The ultimate example of family love (en passant) were the Spode’s Tower dishes.

It was entirely my fault. Mea culpa.

I bought the entire set from a barn on a back road in Connecticut in the early 1970s. I was poking around a room full of pottery and turned one over. It was Spode. The markings looked to be late 19th century. The set included 86 pieces, including a chipped sugar bowl and eight demitasse cups minus the saucers plus a set of saucers without cups.

In pretty good condition. For $30.

Spode's Tower

It turned out to be Spode’s Tower. The dishes were old and delicate, so I never used them fearing they’d get broken. They stayed in the closet and gathered dust. Years passed.

One day, my mother admired them. Faster than you can say “Here, they’re yours,” I had those dishes packed and in her car.

She loved them, but they were old. It turned out, valuable, too. So she put them away and never used them.

One day, my Aunt Kate admired them, so Mom gave them to her. Kate then gave my mother her set of bone china for 12 which she didn’t need anymore, the days of big dinner parties being long over.

My mother didn’t need such a large set either, so she gave Aunt Kate’s set of 12 to my brother, who gave my mother his china for six. My mother gave my brother’s dishes to me while Aunt Kate traded my Spode for Aunt Pearl’s set of China.

Aunt Pearl packed the Spode away in a safe place because they were old,  valuable, and she didn’t want to break them.

Twenty years later, Garry and I went to visit Aunt Pearl. She had the Spode, carefully wrapped and boxed. She gave it back to me and we took it home. She had saved them all those years.

Of course, I never used them. I eventually gave them to Owen and Sandy who had the sense to sell them. They knew they would never use them and neither would anyone else.

Love can be wrapped in paper and carefully protected. There is love. There are dishes. And there are memories of my family, carefully stored, ready to be given.

To you, if you like.

NATURE VS. NURTURE – DOES HARDSHIP MAKE YOU STRONGER? – Marilyn Armstrong

Fandango’s Provocative Question #20

Kelly Clarkson song leverages something originally attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche, who said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” That quote is attributed to the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Anyway, the song got Fandango thinking about the validity of Nietzsche’s notion, so here is this week’s provocative question:

I have always hated being told: “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

The people who spout it are usually people who have never experienced anything harder than a long walk with a foot blister. I particularly resent people who add “God” to the expression because if there’s one thing that could give me a strong anti-God point of view, the idea that he does this sort of thing as a kind of  “video game with us as the playing figures” is disgusting.

Does hardship make you stronger? Tougher? Or merely meaner? Does it make you more able to deal with the rough parts of your journey from birth to burial — or does it just turn you mean, angry, and depressive?

Depending on the person, his DNA, and natural “state,” perhaps it does all of the above in varying degrees. Certainly coddling children and making sure they never have to cope with the bumps and dings of “real” life won’t make them stronger.

I think it’s healthy to allow children to deal with reality as they mature because sooner or later, you won’t be there to fend off “the bad stuff.” So letting kids handle at least some of the difficult aspects of life helps them grow up and more importantly, helps them understand what it means to not be protected from everything. It’s always difficult to know when to let it go, let a child stand up for him or herself — or to take a hand in the matter. I suspect one ought to at least consult the kid about it. Some of them have strong feelings on the subject.

But that’s talking about intelligent, involved parents who are not desperately poor, lurking on the edge (or middle) of criminality, abuse, or worse.

So let’s roll this back a bit:
“Do abused children grow stronger?”

My answer? Sometimes, but let’s not count on it. Many abused kids grow up to be abusive parents and criminals. Others become psychiatrists, physicians, lawyers, police officers, or other caretakers. Or writers, artists, and teachers.

We make choices. We live by the choices we make.

The argument over “nature vs. nurture” in child development has been going on as long as I’ve been alive and has probably been going on since anyone had a family and could argue about it.

I used to be all about nurture, but watching children grow — the three in my terribly dysfunctional family, my son in mine, and his daughter in his … I’m inclining more towards a 60-40 nature-nurture split. Before Owen was a week old, he could push himself up on his arms and look around the room. I remember the doctor saying “Oh, this one is going to run you ragged!”

He didn’t run me ragged. He ran himself ragged. These days, kids with that kind of energy are instantly put on drugs because teachers want placid students. They don’t want energetic boys who need activity, not all day stuck behind a desk.

Does being DRUGGED from first grade make you stronger? I think it turns you into a druggie always looking for a better pill to solve your problems. Not to diminish the role Big Pharma has in the current mess, parents who allow themselves to be bullied into drugging their kids from first grade on shouldn’t be surprised if their kid grows up still looking for the right drug to fix everything.

There’s more than one person at whom we can point our fingers.

2010

I grew up in a family of three children with a child-molesting, abusive father — and a mother who simply could not believe things were as bad as they seemed. My brother built a life, but I don’t think he ever stopped being angry. His childhood had been torn away and the pain never left. But he managed to have a marriage that lasted from when he was 20 until he died.

My sister got mired in drugs and vanished into a world of chaos and I don’t even know what else. I haven’t seen her for years and no longer know if she is alive. I’m assuming if she had died, someone would have called me. The last time she was hospitalized, they found me, so I’m sure they’ll find me again if they need to.

2012

And then there’s me. I was probably the tough one. After growing up with my father, I was never afraid of anyone. I was probably just a little bit hostile in my earlier years, mellowing out somewhat as time has marched on. There are still a lot of areas regarding men and especially ANGRY men that push all of my buttons at the same time and I have a temper that I’ve spent a lifetime holding in check.

I worked hard and I don’t think anyone ever referred to me as “easy-going.” Did childhood make me tough? Or would I have been tough anyway?

I was always determined to do my own thing. Unlike many of my peers, parental pressure — really, any kind of bullying — has had little effect on me. On the other hand, coaxing, suggestions, and a fine editor have done wonders. I listen when people have good ideas. I’m always ready to try things a new way.

I think I was born this way.

I think if my mother had tried coddling me I’d have been out the door and miles away before she could call me home. I was also extremely responsible at a very early age. I recognized danger, didn’t do things that would get me killed or hurt anyone. I could (did) babysit for my sister when I was six and no one thought that odd because my brother was older, but I was more responsible.

So this is one of those “maybe yes and maybe not” answers. Nature — DNA and the way our particular helix is designed has more to do with how we turn out than parenting. But other things — manners, taste, and interests — come from our environment. Kids brought up with books read books. Kids whose mothers drag them to art museums learn to love art.

Energy, determination, will-power, and talent are gifts. What we do with them are 50-50 culture and DNA.

Now, let the arguments begin!

DINNER TABLE CONVERSATION – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I was raised by well-educated, well-read, New York City intellectuals. My mother was a psychologist and my father was a psychoanalyst. In addition to seeing patients, my father wrote books and articles in the inter-disciplinary fields of psychology, sociology, and anthropology.

From the time I was old enough to sit at the dining room table, I remember lively intellectual discussions. Like most families, we’d talk about our day and share personal news. But we always eventually got around to current events or what my father was currently writing about.

Me, Larry, David, and Sarah. Sarah was eight. David was thirteen

My parents talked about the social trends of the day with my father’s unique inter-disciplinary approach and talked about the day’s news through a historical perspective. We’d talk about everything from science and history to the current trends in the arts, movies, and TV. Our conversations took on a life of their own.

A conversation about child rearing practices might morph into a discussion about parenting in other periods of history or in other cultures. A discussion about the growing Feminist movement might end up about the social and psychological effects of changes in gender roles on individuals and on the family.

Me and my parents when I was about eight years old

I was always included in these talks. If I had something to say, no matter my age, I was respectfully listened to and all of my questions were taken seriously and answered.

When I was in high school, I regularly had friends over for dinner. They always commented on the fact that a famous psychoanalyst and a published author like my father, always asked their opinions. They were included, as I was, in all conversations.

This made a huge impression on my friends. At my 40th High School reunion, an old friend told me she still remembered the conversations at my house and the respect she was shown by my parents, who were both genuinely interested in what she had to say.

Me and my dad when I was about eighteen

Dinner time was also when my parents shared stories and asked for advice about their patients of the day. My parents openly talked about their patients’ lives, relationships, and problems, though no names were ever used to conform to doctor-patient confidentiality. Because of this, I learned early what not to do in relationships. This knowledge served me well when I started dating and after I married.

When talking about patients, my parents didn’t shy away from talking about sex. When I was young, much of what they said went over my head. But I joke that I learned about sexual perversions before I knew how ‘normal’ sex was performed. I knew the man was not supposed to do ‘it’ in a shoe, but I wasn’t quite sure what ‘it’ was or how or where ‘it’ was supposed to be done.

My mother continued this openness about sex as a grandmother. I remember her talking about AIDS and anal sex at a Passover dinner, sitting next to my eight-year-old daughter and my thirteen-year-old son. I think it was highly inappropriate, but totally in character for my mother.

Grandmothers rule the Passover table. Really. They do.

My ex, Larry, and I were both lawyers. So our discussions about Larry’s work revolved around the law. We made a point of teaching our kids how to analyze problems and argue their positions clearly and persuasively.

My daughter, Sarah, remembers that if she wanted to do something or wanted not to do something and we objected, she could get us to change our minds if she presented a good enough argument.

Sarah was always asking questions, like most young children and Larry and I made a conscious decision to answer all of her questions. None of her questions were considered stupid or irrelevant. If she asked why we never just said ‘because.’ We always gave her the best answer we could.

Me, Larry and the kids when Sarah was eleven and David was sixteen

We also continued the open discussion policy with my kids when they were growing up. So Sarah too remembers being included in ‘grown-up’ conversations from an early age. Her contributions were heard and commented on. She and her brother grew up to have inquisitive and analytical minds. Sarah also has an immense curiosity about a wide range of topics and approaches them with a similar perspective to mine.

So the tradition of including children in sophisticated conversations has served me and my kids well. I hope if my kids have children, they will continue the family practice with their offspring.

NANA VIGNETTES – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My first mother-in-law, Dorothy, was a complex person with strong positive traits and equally strong negative ones. Despite all of her issues, she was beloved by her whole family. She babysat all of her grandchildren, even when it meant coming to New York from Florida to stay in our house while Larry and I went on a trip. She kept up with what everyone was doing and was always encouraging and proud of everyone’s accomplishments, however small.

She told everyone how much she loved them and made sweaters and needlepoints for her kids, grandkids, and in-laws. I was close with her before her stroke and loved her dearly. She was affectionately called ‘Nana’ by everyone.

1986 – The whole family wore the sweaters Nana had knitted for each of us

When we announced our engagement, my first husband, Larry, and I went down to Florida so I could meet his Mom. When we got there, Nana took out the family photo albums and started going through them with me. There were lots of pictures of kids but none that looked remotely like Larry. I patiently waited for her to get to the interesting photos of my betrothed.

Finally, I lost interest and patience and asked her to please show me some pictures of Larry. She was puzzled. “What are you talking about?“ she asked. “These all ARE Larry!” To this day, I don’t see even a trace of the Larry I know in his childhood photos, at least until he’s around fifteen!

Larry, me and Nana in the early 1980s

As I said, Nana could be a sweet, caring, giving and supportive person with a sense of humor and a silly streak. But when her husband of 33 years, Bert, left her, she was devastated and became consumed with anger and bitterness for many years. She had been a housewife and mother for most of her adult life and in return for her dedication and devotion, she had been verbally abused and cheated on. And now, to add insult to injury, she was abandoned! Yet in her endless rantings and ravings against Bert, it seemed that the worst thing he did to her was … he left her.

We tried to tell her that she couldn’t have it both ways. He was either a wonderful husband and it was a tragedy to lose him, or he was a lout and good riddance. But for the rest of her life, even after she had a sweet and loving man as a life partner, she trashed Bert for being an abusive cheater AND for leaving her.

She was particularly obsessed and hysterical about her recent separation when she met my parents. In their first encounter with Nana, Nana talked incessantly about how horrible Bert was and then added that Larry was just like him! Very disconcerting and alarming for my parents.

My parents

As we were planning the wedding, Nana started calling all the guests from Larry’s side, threatening she’d never talk to them again if they so much as spoke to Bert at the reception. This caused so much distress to Larry’s family and family friends we almost canceled the reception entirely. We eventually decided to have the wedding party and assigned a few of Nana’s close friends to shadow her and try to rein her in.

It didn’t work.

Nana spent the entire reception telling horror stories about Bert (who was also there) to anyone who would listen, even to my family and friends. People kept coming up to my mother offering condolences on the crazy, dysfunctional family I had married into.

Nana and Sarah as an infant (1985)

Nana also tried to turn her kids against their father. Larry refused to take sides and continued his relationship with both parents. But his sister acquiesced to her mother’s demands. She didn’t talk to her father for two years. During that time she had a baby. Her father didn’t see his second grandson until the child was more than two-years-old.

Nana was a very anxious and obsessive person and a neat freak. She lived across the street from the beach in Pompano Beach, Florida, but she didn’t like her grandchildren to go to the beach. Why not?

Because they might track sand into her apartment. Larry and I took our kids to the beach anyway when they were little.

Nana and David at the beach

But then Nana had a stroke in 1993 when Sarah was eight and David was thirteen. Nana’s speech was affected and she basically had to learn how to talk and read again. Her speech was never the same and from then on she struggled to find words, a constant frustration for her.

The stroke sent Nana’s OCD into the stratosphere. Now she had to leave the house at least a half hour earlier than necessary wherever she went to make sure she wouldn’t be late. She would literally get hysterical if everyone else wasn’t ready to leave on her schedule. She became convinced that no amount of showering in the pool area could wash all the sand off the grandchildren. From then on, we all stopped going to the beach and just spent time at the condo’s pool.

Nana with Sarah at around 1 1/2 years old

One Passover at her house, we were reading through the service in the Haggadah. Suddenly Nana got up and started vacuuming under and around the table because she saw some crumbs on the floor. We tried to get her to stop and sit down with us to finish the service, but we finally gave up. We just shouted our portions of the Haggadah we could be heard over the vacuum cleaner.

Another of Nana’s quirks was avoiding handprints on her walls. All four grandchildren remember constantly being yelled at, throughout their childhoods, “Don’t touch the walls!” When Nana died, David and I went down to Florida to help empty her condo and get her estate in order. We took pictures of David with his hands on the walls and sent them to the three other grandchildren!

Nana with Larry at her 75th birthday party

When she turned 75, Larry and I gave her a party and I wrote a poem for her, which she framed and kept prominently displayed along with the numerous family photos in her condo.

I still miss her unconditional love and her enthusiasm for everything I did. Her daughter and grandchildren also miss her and when we get together we fondly tell stories about her.

Despite her flaws, she left a legacy of love, affection and warm memories.

SOLVING TWO FAMILY MYSTERIES – BY ELLIN CURLEY

We’ve had two family ‘mysteries’ that involved genetics and inheritance of traits. The first involved my first husband, Larry, and his blood type. He always said that his dog tag from the army (Texas and Vietnam postings in the early 1970s) listed his blood type as O – the universal donor.

Normally blood type is at most a not very interesting fact about a person, but it became an issue when my second child, Sarah, was born. I don’t know why it didn’t come up when my first child was born, but it just didn’t.

The OB-GYN who delivered Sarah came in after her birth to talk to us about our new daughter’s health. As part of her report, she mentioned that Sarah’s blood type was AB positive. I am type A and Larry suddenly realized as type O, you can’t get an AB child. Not from an A parent and an O parent. He started to get upset.

Sarah’s birth announcement

The doctor pulled me aside and furtively asked me if I wanted her to pursue the issue. She was politely asking if the child could have a father other than Larry. I told her emphatically that the child was Larry’s and asked her to please do everything she could to find the obvious error as quickly as possible.

Larry, Sarah and I all had our blood drawn for testing. It was very tense between Larry and me while we were waiting for the results. I knew that Larry was the father but he believed that he couldn’t be, so what should have been a glorious day for us turned out to be strained, at best.

Larry and Sarah when she first came home from the hospital

Thank goodness the test results came back quickly. I was confirmed as type A, Sarah was confirmed as type AB positive and Larry turned out to be AB positive too, just like his daughter. The army had made a serious error. Larry’s blood type was listed as the universal donor type instead of the universal recipient type. So if they had ever asked him to donate blood, he could have killed someone with an incompatible transfusion!

Larry was shocked that the military had made such a serious error but he was greatly relieved. In fact, both of our kids have their father’s blood type. So, marital crisis averted!

Another picture of Larry and a newborn Sarah

The other genetic mystery we had in our family was my son, David’s, left-handedness. David was an eight-week Preemie and was part of a study of Preemie development at New York Hospital. A researcher came to our house once a month during David’s first year of life and gave him a battery of behavioral and motor development tests.

He was about a month behind in most things but he was way ahead on one – favoring one hand over the other. That usually doesn’t happen till the end of the first year, but from the time David could reach for things, he strongly favored his left hand.

My mother, me and David when he was an infant

The developmental testers were surprised and so was the family since being left-handed is genetic and no one in either family was left-handed. We quizzed every family member on both sides but David still remained a mystery. Then one day, when David was about one and a half or two years old, my mother was playing with him and the topic of his left-handedness came up again.

Suddenly a light went off in my mother’s brain. “Oh my God!” she said. “I forgot that I was born left-handed!”

My favorite photo of my mom and David

In 1916, when my mother was born, being left-handed was not considered to be a good thing. It was a ‘problem’ that had to be ‘fixed’ to make the child ‘normal’ and like the majority of the population. When Mom was of school age, she was forced to use her right hand instead of her left.

This was so traumatic for her, as well as being neurologically challenging, that she developed a stutter. A ‘psychologist’ of the day told my grandmother to cure Mom’s stutter by smacking her in the face every time she stuttered. This barbaric tactic eventually worked and Mom grew up to be a right-handed adult with no stutter.

My mom as a two-year-old in 1918

But the experience so scarred her that she buried the memory. Even a year of talking about David’s inexplicable left-handedness didn’t trigger her memory. I don’t know what finally did, but now we know that David inherited something directly from his grandmother.

Another family mystery solved!

FAMILY FIXERS – Marilyn Armstrong

Everyone needs help sometimes … so where do you go to get that quick fix? How about your family?

If it isn’t something I can fix myself or Garry can manage, I usually ask my son for help. He’s not shy about asking for my assistance if he needs it. We are good at different things. Also, he is tall and I am not.

My granddaughter can sometimes be cajoled into cutting or dying my hair … and occasionally, can be urged to come out and take some pictures with me. She’s a good photographer and has a great eye.

Kaiti

When my brother was alive, if there was anything that had anything to do with printing he was always my first call. I do miss him very much. Too many have died too soon.

Other than these folks? The rest of my family was more or less stuck in the 19th century. They were already past middle age when I was a kid and they never made it into the computer era.

I had Uncles. Jack, Abe, Herman, Louis, Mickey, and Sam. I still have an Uncle Sam, come to think of it, but I’m sure he’s not related by blood.

I cannot imagine under what circumstances I would have called any of these uncles to help me with anything at any point in my life, not even when they were still alive. Their current lack of aliveness makes them even less likely to be helpful in a crisis than formerly. It’s hard for me to picture big, bluff Uncle Abe, the guy who used to toss me in the air to make me giggle and scream, giving me advice on Men, Marriage, Career … or how to fix a computer.

uncle-sam

Or even asking him to read something I wrote to see if he liked it.

He wouldn’t have liked it. None of them would have liked it. Or understood it. Their brows would have furrowed and I am sure they would have found my interest in Such Matters perturbing and disturbing. At the very least.

So here’s the scenario.

Ring. Ring. Ring.

“Hello?”

“Uncle Herman, hi. It’s Marilyn.”

“Who?”

“Marilyn. Dorothy’s daughter.”

“Oh, Dorothy. How is she? Is she coming to visit? I haven’t seen my little sister since … ” Long pause.

“Last month,” I offer helpfully. I’m nothing if not helpful.

“Yes,” he agrees.

“Uncle Herman, I have a problem. My laptop screen seems to have an intermittent connection to the keyboard and I can’t figure out how to fix it. Can I bring it over and have you take a look?”

“Sure Bubbala. Your Aunt just made a big batch of the jello you like so much.”

I really did love the jello Aunt Ethel made. It was never too hard or too soft — always perfect. And she used bunny rabbit-shaped molds so the jello wriggled and jiggled, as jello should.

Jello notwithstanding, I cannot imagine a positive outcome to this encounter. Although in his day, Uncle Herman was good with machines, especially sewing machines (he was a cutter and tailor, as were most of the men in my mother’s family in that generation), computers were … well … not his thing.

July 1963

He could give it a good whack, which might cure the problem or finish off the computer. A simple, fast, permanent fix. Not exactly what I had in mind.

Or they could have served me jello and we would talk about this and that, forgetting the reason for the visit because seriously, when you have a problem, do you call your family to help you out? Really?

And as a final note of caution, quick fixes are rarely good fixes. Just an observation.