Monday, May 26, 2008

Hot Snakes

One thing that occurs in your 40s: time really does a number on your memories. The farther you get away, the harder it is to recall things that aren’t hallmarks in your life. There are certain memories from back then that are burned in my mind – like puking in church on Easter Sunday, 1972. But many other things – the huge bulk of life, I’m having a harder time with.

My Grandma, for instance. She passed on in 1981, just a few days before my birthday in June. Somewhere in her early 80s. Six years earlier, she had suffered a massive stroke which truly did a number on her memory and cognitive abilities. At the time, and being a kid, I just rolled with it, not knowing any better. If something like that happened to my Mom now (who is just a few years shy of that stroke age)? I’d be devastated, mostly because I now know and can recall how rough a six-year ride that was.

I wouldn’t say it was like growing up with death in the house, but it was growing up with the recognition of someone very old who had been dealt a grievous blow, and my teenage years, that time of blooming and discovery, were tinged with that knowledge of old age and impending death. And I don’t consider that a bad thing! A worse thing would have been to have her shuttled off to an old-folk’s home, which was not an option.

Before the stroke, Grandma had been the matriarch: mother to four sons and a daughter she had raised through the Depression and sent off to fight in World War II. Her husband, my grandfather, must have died before I was born, in his 50s. He worked in the mines – not sure if he was a coal miner or not, but I know he worked at the mines. When there was work. Dad would tell us that during the Depression, guys who worked the mines got to work one day a week so they’d have just enough money to afford basic food needs and not much else. To raise five kids in that sort of time must have been something – but they were far from alone.

For years, Grandma kept a little flag in a drawer that was given to mothers of soldiers in World War II to designate how many sons they had in the war. Hers had four stars (red on a field of white with red stripes on the edges) for her boys (my aunt was in the WACS, but I guess that didn’t register as a star), who got around: one in a bomber (which was a near death sentence), one in the jungles of New Guinea, don’t know what my oldest uncle did, and Dad, thanks to a grenade accident in boot camp that killed two guys behind him (their body parts covering him ensured that only his legs got sprayed with shrapnel), missed the Battle of the Bulge, but spent a few years in Germany as the war ended and during the Nuremberg Trials.

These guys had been through a world of shit by the time they were 25; there’s a reason that generation wanted to settle down, fast. My uncles and aunt went off in their own directions, but Dad stayed home after wandering the world as an army mechanic for roughly 10 years. Think he gave college a try, didn’t like it, and found his way into factory work. How it was he came to take care of Grandma and live at home, I guess it was a slow sort of acceptance that this is how it was going to be. I grew up with an unrealistic view of home ownership as a result: I thought everyone paid their mother $1.00 for a house, and it was theirs.

It was mostly a blessing to have her there. I’ve noted this earlier. One of my earliest childhood memories is Grandma leading me to the upstairs bathroom, after I had shit my diapers, a full load, and had me sit on the toilet … while she picked up each turd by hand and dropped it into the water between my legs. While I just sat there, slack-jawed and shit-assed; this probably freaked me out as much then as it does now. I’d post a “kids, don’t try this at home” warning about something like this, but I think most people would ride a bike through a safari park in a steak suit before they tried this at home.

She was always doing hard-core things like that. Things that sort of said, “I love you, little boy,” but also, “I’m harder than you are.” And I can imagine a woman who raised sons through that above-noted storm of circumstances must have been hard as nails. The most memorable incident for me was Hot Snakes. That part of Pennsylvania qualifies as deep country – even now, although I notice way too much of suburban influences starting to sink in as time goes on. You can see it in various pictures, where there’s a wilderness beyond our backyard, where houses were just starting to be built in the 60s and 70s. Thankfully, not many were built, and the woods crept right up to the cemetery a block away, still do.

In the spring, sometimes we’d find snakes in the backyard: copperheads. Never got bit, but they scared the shit out of me. Why they came out of the woods was to seek warmth, which they’d find on cement that absorbed and held heat longer than woods and grass. So one of those breezy May mornings, you’d sometimes look out the kitchen window at the backyard, and there’d be a snake or two sunning themselves on the sidewalk. Sooner or later, they’d leave, but just the idea of them being that close to kids and pets wasn’t cool with anyone in the neighborhood.

Grandma did her thing, at least on one occasion – not sure if this was a regular occurrence. But she once went out with a baseball bat and beat two copperhead snakes to death on the pavement. The picture is long gone – and you better believe I wish I still had it – but there was a polaroid taken of her standing with the two “hot snakes,” one in each hand, smiling as the spring sun rose behind her.

She was tough. I noted earlier, “mostly a blessing.” The downside was hard-line Catholicism. I mean full-on, “if I had my way, you’d all be priests” Irish Catholicism. When Dad married Mom, a filthy Protestant, he may as well have married a topless African native – the level of acceptance would have been slightly better. It was like a “mixed” marriage, something staunch Catholics just wouldn’t advocate. I can tell you now, marrying Mom was the best thing Dad ever did, because her sweet and open view of life and the world was something that perfectly set off his more hardened, stoic take on things. It wasn’t as bad as the actual Catholic/Protestant “troubles” in Ireland, but it was surely frowned upon.

Especially by Grandma. But I think Mom immediately won her over, or at least I never remember them arguing about religion, mostly because Mom was a non-practicing Protestant for the most part, and Dad bagged church religiously every Sunday (claiming to go off to church in another town, but driving around listening to the Big Band station in his Sunday’s finest, which probably did him a world of good in terms of keeping his head on straight). Grandma was the Catholic enforcer, and, boy, she put us through the paces. Routine confession, all the classes involved with catechism, confirmation, etc.

Luckily, we dodged being sent to Catholic school, probably because it cost extra as opposed to a free public-school education. We also dodged being altar boys. How, I don’t know, as I know Grandma was hot on having this happen. Thank Christ she never got her way … as we later learned the parish priest was diddling little boys at his various assignments, and I shudder to think if he got anyone in our neighborhood – I assume he did, but don’t want to think about it.

Catholicism was a constant under-current in the house, and the quiet message was that Mom was an outsider. I’ve always been leery of religion as a result. When you’re raised in a house, by a woman you know is true and would give her life for you, and you’re being fed the subtle message that she’s somehow lesser because of her religion, you either reject the person or the concept of religion. Seeing as how Grandma was forcing the stuff down our throats like castor oil, you can guess which side I leaned towards. But I never fully rejected Catholicism – still haven’t, although I’d be hard-pressed to call myself one. I think when you’re raised Catholic, that sort of things sticks with you the rest of your days, and not in a bad way. Like guys who have been in the military. But I’m far from a practicing Catholic and don’t particularly worry about it.

All along, the matriarch quality of Grandma’s life was constantly driven home for me, mainly by our relatives routinely visiting the old homestead and paying tribute to her. I hardly ever see any of my cousins anymore, as we’re pretty spread out, and even if we weren’t, it seems like we all have our own lives now as adults, and we’re not like one of those extended clans where cousins are constantly flitting around each other’s lives. But every summer, it was visiting time, and every few weeks, there’d be another massive family invading our house, which was already crowded. Kids in sleeping bags. Huge vats of baked beans. Cook outs where we could have eaten an entire cow. Amusement park visits, constant activity of some sort. It was fucking chaos. Upwards of 12 people in a house that would have comfortably suited four. It was amazing we didn’t have too many memorable blowouts, but we were also on our best behavior, and looking back, I genuinely liked a lot of my relatives and recognized them as good people.

But it was made clear, these visits were happening because in my uncles’ and aunt’s minds, this house I was being raised in was their home, and my grandmother was their mother, whom they still loved immensely. Again, a good thing to be exposed to that and recognize the value of someone. Do I miss those sort of huge family convergences? Not really, but by the same token, I’ve realized they weren’t the horrific weekends I made them out to be at the time.

And then, of course, one day around 1976 (I can’t recall the exact timing), I come home from school and am told by Mom that Grandma won’t be home for awhile, she’s had a stroke and needs to be in the hospital. When she came back, man, day and night. Before that, she had been vibrant, hands-on, wouldn’t think twice about putting you over her knee and giving you a good swat for being fresh. The effects of the stroke were immediate and obvious. Slurred speech. Scrambled thoughts. Memories jarred askance. Physically, she lost a lot, moved slower, was prone to falling and hurting herself in ways that would leave her bed-ridden for days. Until one’s experienced a family member going through something like this, it’s hard to explain. But again, I’m hoping nothing remotely like this happens with Mom. Lord knows, Dad was hobbled in his last few months from the chemo he received for his stomach cancer – and I think in his mind, he was probably thinking, “Been here with my mother. Later for this shit, I’m checking out.”

That was the cataclysmic change in all our lives, especially Mom's. On top of taking care of four kids – luckily we were either teenagers or just getting there – she now had an elderly woman to watch over who was having a rough time just dealing with every-day life. And Mom, to her credit, handled it like a pro. Never once complained. Did everything and then some to make sure Grandma’s life was as comfortable as possible. This would often involve bathing her, helping her up and down stairs, watching over her all day to make sure she didn’t wander off, basically being a round-the-clock nurse that would have cost a fortune to hire. You have to understand, up to that point, I felt like I had two mothers, which is a great thing for any family to have, and why I'm prone to not busting on grown adults living with their parents in some form.

This is also where the Catholicism got strange. Because of her stroke, Grandma could no longer attend church. And with her mind wandering through her entire life, she’d often be banging on our bedroom doors at four in the morning on Sundays, telling us to “get the horses ready, we have to go over the mountain.” She was referring back to her childhood when she and her family would prepare a horse and buggy to take them to church at the next town on the other side of the large ridge on the edge of our town. Since she couldn’t be at church, she became totally obsessed with making sure we got ready for it on Sunday morning, with the campaign usually kicking into high gear by Friday.

It was nuts. This was when my brothers and I stopped going. Sure, going through the motions, getting dressed, and leaving at the appropriate time. But we’d pull up short, stop in the cemetery next to the church, and go sit around the mausoleums, waiting for the bells to ring that signaled the end of mass, so we could scurry back home and make it seem like we had gone. This became our teenage ritual. We weren’t all that nuts about church to begin with, but to be harangued over it constantly all week … forget it. When we were in the cemetery, one of our neighbors would sometimes drive by in his utility vehicle and stare us down. Expecting what to happen, I’m not sure. (As this guy was later nailed repeatedly for tax evasion, he should have been more worried about his own problems.) We just sat there and stared back. We weren’t “bad” kids. Christ, we were wearing plaid pants and clip on ties! Short hair! Just sitting there. A sane adult, like me now, would have said, "fuck it, kids bagging church, obviously they're not going to cause trouble for anybody as they don't want to get caught." But he had our number, yes sir! We’d also field disapproving glances from some of the “church” people when we saw them during the week. To which I thought, too bad. You make church seem like a prison sentence, no kid in his right mind will want anything to do with it.

I should mention that all along here, my grandmother’s sisters (of which there were four or five, I can never recall) all lived in the same house in a town called Port Carbon, which is still a gritty little town back home. Back then, I recall there were occasionally riots, the kids in that town were particularly nuts, over what, I have no idea, probably just a very bad grouping of kids by chance (and drugs, most likely). Their small row house was by the side of an enormous rock-faced hill on the edge of town, and everything about it screamed “old lady.” I don’t know how they all ended up there. A few of them had been married, but I gathered their husbands had passed on. The place smelled funny. Like pennies, vinegar and cigarette smoke. It seemed like Bing Crosby was always on the stereo. In my mind, it was always raining over their house alone, like in The Addams Family. This was Irish Catholic Central. We may as well have been in Belfast.

When relatives would visit, Port Carbon was always part of the agenda, we would always go down there, on top of us routinely visiting with Grandma throughout the year. There was a forlorn park on the other side of a shit creek a block from the house, and we tried to get over there as much as we could. The place felt like Mars to us – the whole fucking town. Even now when I pass through Port Carbon in a car, I feel vaguely melancholy as I zip by that crooked rowhouse that used to be theirs, that I spent so many rainy Sundays in. They had two dogs, a pissy little chihuahua that bit, and a big old Irish setter that was friendly as hell. Most times, they’d be camped out behind the coal stove, wagging their tails as they took in the heat from the boiling tea kettles.

After Grandma’s stroke, Mom got in the habit of taking Grandma down to the house in Port Carbon much more often, I guess because she sensed that whatever had happened to Grandma, the end could always be near, so she was probably just honoring Grandma’s request to spend more time with her sisters. Mom’s reward for this? Being called a filthy Protestant and a bum on a much more regular basis, as it was clear the sisters were inundating Grandma with even more anti-Protestant dialectic when she was down there. Without fail, every time she came back from a visit there, the Protestant bashing rose to a much higher level. Understand that my Mom never gave a shit about being Protestant – non-practicing, and frankly didn’t care what you or anyone else believed in, so long as you were a decent person.

This memory shades my overall memory of those women as a result. I don’t hate them now – in fact, I can recall how loving and warm they were to us kids, how glad they were to see us, every time. I was forever wiping my face after getting a big wet kiss from one of them, generally after hearing, "Oh, look at little Billy, all the children in Dublin look just like darling Billy!" But the bullshit they put Mom through over something as pointless as religious differences, man, Mom had the patience of a saint to never blow her top. She owed those women nothing. They weren’t her blood relatives. She could have just as easily said, “Screw it, I’m never speaking to those assholes again. And someone else can take care of her, since I'm not good enough!” But that never happened, because Mom was better than that. And I think they eventually came around when it became clear a few years on that Grandma’s health was truly deteriorating, and Mom was going all out to make sure all was as well as could be.

When that started happening visibly, I think I’ve blocked out a lot of it, but it surely went on for a few months, at least. All I recall is that she started having more accidents, falling down and injuring herself more, becoming more delusional. I don’t know how long this went on. I think the bulk of her post-stroke life was tolerable, but the last few months, things came apart more quickly. There were a few falls requiring hospital stays, and it was becoming clear, at least to us, that this was leading nowhere good. Again, for a kid, this was an odd experience – I’d never watched anyone die over a period of time. I didn’t know she was dying. People want to believe the best when it comes to situations like this, like a bad spell is happening, and things will get better. But there are points in life where things don’t just get better and only get worse.

I recall the last fall, that June in 1981, a perfect summer’s afternoon. My sister went into the bathroom and found Grandma on the floor, unconscious. Immediately, we called an ambulance. And I’ll still remember what a nice summer day that was, twilight, fireflies coming out, crickets starting to chirp. When the attendants wheeled Grandma by the screen door in the kitchen, where Brother J and I were, her eyes caught ours, and I’d never seen such a look, which I now recognize as “goodbye” but at the time wasn’t sure how to interpret. J blurted out, “This is it. I think she’s gone this time.” I didn’t know what to think. A few years earlier, a similar situation had happened with our dog Butch, an old dog who died on the carpet in the kitchen early one winter morning with Mom and Dad vainly trying to administer his medication with a dropper. We heard one last choke, Dad gasp, “shit,” then nothing, and J and I in the living room, with J saying, “Butch is gone.” Didn't have to see it. We just knew.

Sure enough, that was it, we never saw her alive again. She passed away in her sleep early the next morning at the hospital.

The next few days were absolute chaos. I don’t know how many people converged on the house: dozens. All her children came with their families. All her friends showed up, some traveling miles to be there, a few dozen older people, I gather who had known her decades ago, showed up for the wake and funeral. A few were legendary bums who only went to funerals to get a free meal. It was like a sad circus, with a lot of crying and eating. Food everywhere. As a kid who lived there, I felt territorial towards the house, but that feeling was forfeited for a few days, just absolute madness. I was too blown out first by her death, and then by this whirlwind of activity, with relatives and strangers, that I didn’t know what was going on. I remember us kids sitting in the living room on the morning of her funeral in our pajamas, just too freaked out to move. People everywhere. We had to get dressed and use the bathrooms. We couldn’t, as there was a constant stream of people in and out. When we finally did get out shit together, we were late for our own grandmother’s funeral.

All I remember about the funeral is that my brothers and I sat at the top of the hill in the cemetery, away from the action, and took our shoes and socks off because it was so damn hot. We were wearing collard shirts and ties, which was something we rarely did and never in summer. Everything about the day was disorienting and off. The Temptations have the song “I Wish It Would Rain.” It made sense on a hot, sunny day like that, a day that would have found us normally making money mowing lawns or playing tennis. We eventually put our socks and shoes back on for the ceremony, probably because Dad waved us down, but again, afterwards, going back to our house, there were far more people I didn’t know in and around the house that I didn’t know than the handful of relatives I recognized as being part of Grandma’s life over the past decade. Whether people were annoyed by our "antics," I have no idea. They weren't antics. We were shocked by her death and had virtually no space to gather our wits and relax from literally the next morning after she passed on.

Brother J and I found our way upstairs, got into our shorts and t-shirts, went to the local mall and caught Raiders of the Lost Ark, which had opened a few days earlier. Just as going out and renting Anchorman the night after Dad’s funeral had cleared me out, I’ll always have a soft spot for Raiders – for the simple reason that it gave me a chance to disengage for an hour or two from a really bad situation. Afterwards, we drove around as much as possible, got home around sundown, and luckily, it was just down to our uncles and their families, still a huge horde of people, but at least we knew them all. And everyone left the next morning. I can recognize now, for Dad and his siblings, that was it: their father had passed on years earlier, and now their mother was gone. I can anticipate what a raw, empty feeling that's going to be and don't look forward to that day.

A crazy few days, and I turned 17 while all this shit was going on! That’s a birthday that came and went without a trace, over-shadowed by a far deeper event. I wish there’s more I could remember. I’m sure pictures and chats with family members would dredge up a ton of stuff, most of it good, but these days, Grandma is more a feeling or a fiber of my being than an actual memory. If there's any toughness in me, and there is, I know where it came from. I think this is what happens when people pass on, and then decades pass. All that’s left is whatever they put into you in the first place. And it’s hard to remember how this happened.

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