All in the Family
“You’ll be okay, buddy! Stand up! Shake it off!”
One of my earliest childhood memories—seeing stars.
My brother Doug, eleven years older, crouched over me. His best friend and partner in crime, Mike, stood behind him, fighting to keep a straight face. Closest in age of my siblings, but still eight years my senior, my sister Diann sat nearby, conflicted. Undoubtedly, she worried I was fast on my way to a concussion. But this was just about the funniest thing she’d ever seen.
“You weren’t running fast enough,” Doug said. Mike, who had just taken a sip of a soda, laughed so hard that he blew Coca Cola out his nose. They were all laughing. Not me. I was determined.
“This time, run as fast as you can and maybe … just before you hit the wall … bend over a little bit, and sort of go head-first,” Doug demonstrated a diving motion. “Like this … You’ll slice right through.”
That Saturday morning had started harmlessly enough. I was happy as could be, curled up on the family room couch watching the Hair Bear Bunch cartoon.
The youngest of five, teasing me served as entertainment for my older siblings. This day it was Doug’s offer, “Do you want me to teach you a magic trick?”
This trick, he assured me, would allow me to pass through walls—no door, no window—just abracadabra! And he demonstrated for me. He had me sit up on the couch, close my eyes, count to ten and then shout “Abracadabra!” When I opened my eyes, sure enough, he was gone! Then there was a knock on the wall—he was on the other side, in the next room! Whoa!
His sidekick, Mike, offered, “Want to see it again? Close your eyes, count to ten … ” And voila! Doug was back, standing right in front of me. When they asked, “Do you want to try it?” you know that I did!
It may have been four or five times I tried. Recollection gets a little fuzzy after the first couple. I know—from others’ recounting of the story—Dad intervened just in the nick of time.
Despite the tribulations of being the youngest, most vivid among my early childhood memories are the impressions I formed of my siblings—which today, some forty-five-plus years later—remain pretty much unchanged.
When I was 4-years-old, my two oldest siblings left home. Dave went off to college. Debbie got pregnant. I was too young to understand. My only recollection is the strange mixture of pride and hush over their respective departures. My parents shed tears over both.
Weekends and breaks when Dave came home were like holidays for me. He had a 1966 Mustang, and he’d invite me to help him clean it, work on it and then take me for rides in it. He made time for me. He’d let me listen to records on his Phillips portable turntable—he even taught me how to care for the vinyl, so they wouldn’t get scratched. He took me places. I’d accompany him on errands.
Every now and then we’d go to a car wash across town. We’d wash his car and then park it up on a grassy hill to chamois it dry. Right across the street was a Frisch’s Big Boy restaurant. The place was marked by a florescent-lit, 30-foot-tall Big Boy holding a 10-foot hamburger with toppings dripping out the sides high over his head. Made me hungry.
Dave was a hero to me. He was the guy I wanted to be just like when I grew up—own a Mustang, go to college, wear a t-shirt with Greek letters on it, part my hair on one side … you know, all the important stuff.
The times I got to spend with Debbie, too, were some of the best early memories. She had a son—I was an uncle! I had to be gentle. He was too young to play rough with. Something about babies having soft heads. I couldn’t wait for the little guy’s cranium to set. What fun was he fragile?
Debbie was married at 16, and rented a small duplex half-an-hour from our home. I’d get dropped off over there often—babysitting that freed my parents up for a few hours, and paid Debbie a few bucks.
Being an uncle was cool. My sister bundled the little soft-shell up in a stroller and we’d all go to a playground. Next to the park was a big water tower, and that thing fascinated me. There was a ladder up the side of it, protected by lock and key. I so wanted to climb that ladder. I’d pretend the monkey bars were a water tower. I’d scale them. I was on top of the world.
Debbie was confusing though—she was my sister, but yet also a mom. From my vantage point, the way we all had settled into this new family dynamic was happy on the surface, yet there was a tinge of sadness underneath. It felt awkward, like she was still wanting to be a kid, but had grown-up responsibilities. It was tough to discern whether she was really happy in this new life, or longed for a do-over.
Not long after Debbie moved out of our house to establish her own, our family took a cross-country vacation in a rented motor home and she wasn’t with us. Though our family had taken vacations and camping trips every summer for years, this is the first trip I really remember. It was a strange feeling, like we were incomplete. We were experiencing a great family adventure, but Debbie wasn’t there. I missed her.
Doug wasn’t confusing to me at all. He was a rebel and a daredevil. He talked back to Dad all the time. And he was still alive! This was astounding to me.
Doug played trumpet in a rock-n-roll band. His friends had long hair—the guys! And then he started growing his hair long, to Dad’s irritation. Family lore has it that, when Doug’s hair was at its longest, Dad would introduce him as “my daughter Douglas” and call him Goldilocks.
But the real gift my brother Doug possessed was humor. Doug’s quick wit kept us all laughing, when Dad wasn’t fuming—and even sometimes when he was. I recall moments when Dad wanted to be furious over Doug’s antics and a war broke out on his face: the old man’s skin turned red with anger, but a glisten in his eyes and a quiver through his lips betrayed hidden amusement.
As I mentioned, Diann was closest to me in age. That meant she spent her adolescent and teenage life as my chief babysitter. Just about anywhere the poor girl wanted to go, she had to tote me along. I was a tumor on her social life. That might have been by design—the folks probably figured it would be hard for a second daughter to get pregnant if there was a built-in tattletale and romantic-mood-killer attached to her hip. Foolproof birth control.
Diann’s life adventures became mine. When she dated the drummer in my brother Doug’s band, I became a roadie. When he played rugby, I was a team helper. When he hosted a World Series party in 1975, I got to add the partygoers’ empty beer cans to the giant pyramid they built over the entire seven game series. Those kids drank a lot of beer. I was living the life. Diann wasn’t pregnant.
Extended family also play vivid roles in my early memories. There was Granny—my mom’s mom. I really enjoyed spending time with her. She had a number of feuds going with her neighbors. It was an adventure each time I visited to figure out which of her friends she was angry with, who she was talking to and who she wasn’t.
Her neighbors Emily Greene and Phyllis Brown alternated, in her good graces one week, then persona-non-grata the next. I didn’t understand their grown-up issues. What I knew was that the Greenes always let me pick fruit off their trees and the Browns always had cookies. When I arrived, it was a matter of learning where I could go, who I could call on that particular day, for a treat.
Granny had a family room coffee table that housed a box of toys for when I’d visit. My favorite, by far, was the barrel of monkeys. I’d play for hours, stringing those monkeys arm in arm. Which leads me to recall Great-Granny … a not-so-great recollection.
Great-Granny was Mom’s grandma—and let me assure you, through the eyes of a little boy, there was nothing great about her. Evil, wicked and nasty are too kind to serve as adjectives. My recollections of this woman prefigure hell. She’d landed, sourpuss, at Ellis Island with her parents and siblings in 1900. No kidding—I have a picture to prove it. Her disposition never improved.
Going to Great-Granny’s house was like a sentence for bad behavior. “No! Please! I’ll behave! Not Great-Granny!” The folks would drop me off and the woman looked at me with a maniacal smile. She couldn’t wait for witnesses to leave … and the torture to begin.
She, too, had a barrel of monkeys. She’d pour them on the table between us and ask, “Would you like to play?” I’d nod, “Yes,” and reach out my hand. She’d swat the back of my hand with a flyswatter. “No!” she’d yell. “Those are mine!” I’d fight back tears. She’d offer again, “Well, okay. I’ll share. Go ahead.” I’d reach a second time, and SWAT! She’d laugh out loud. Her lips twisted like a towel being wrung out of water. Then she’d hand me a monkey, “Go ahead, Darling. Your turn.” SWAT!
My siblings tell stories of how the old woman was so desperate for attention in her later years—certainly no one wanted to visit her—that she’d fabricate emergencies. She’d call our house, saying, “I’ve fallen. Come quick!” We’d rush over to find her in a heap on the floor—a full two rooms away from the telephone she’d used to make the call. Go figure.