We called her Grammy, and I only knew her as a fat old lady. But in her day she must have been a proud woman. She and my grandfather bought a house sometime around 1910. It was a two-family rowhouse, in the ethnic neighborhood of an old industrial city in New England, but still, it was a house. And she was proud that she was heavy -- it meant she could afford to eat!
She had seven children altogether. Uncle Johnny was the oldest surviving boy (the first son died in the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic), and he must have been smart, although I remember him more as being aggressive and pugnacious. My dad was the next son. He was more reserved and studious. Grammy used to tease him because he was ranked 2nd in his high school class . . . and he was beaten by a girl!
But somehow, through luck or persistence, or maybe a kind of early affirmative action, my Uncle Johnny got a scholarship to the nearby Ivy League college, and went on to become a lawyer. My father followed in his footsteps. They both bought nice houses in the suburbs, had healthy families, and went on to send their children to good colleges.
But the third son had a rougher time of it. He'd suffered from polio, and he had diabetes and probably some other ailments as well. He went to a community college in New Jersey and became a teacher, back in the days when teachers made no money. He and his wife had a side business restoring antiques, just to help make ends meet. Uncle Fred walked with a cane, and his face was creased with long, deep furrows.
Uncle Fred lived on a dirt road with his wife and son. When we went to visit them in the summer the kids would go swimming in a nearby creek, with an old tire on a rope so we could swing out into the water. It was a lot of fun.
Fun for me. But Uncle Fred held some resentments. The whole family used to get together at my aunt's house in rural Connecticut a couple of times a year. So this incident happened over Easter. I think it was 1965.
I was in high school, just beginning to get tired of going to the family get-togethers. And a little embarrassed, too. I lived a suburban white kid's life where everyone lived in nice houses with green patches of lawn. The men donned suits to go to work, the women wore dresses, and everyone was polite and proper. But my father's family still had some rough edges. They drank and got loud and talked in the strange mixed language of my grandmother.
|Uncle Johnny (left) and my dad, c. 1940|
So it was that year that Uncle Johnny's son, my cousin, flunked out of college. And not just any college. He flunked out of his father's Ivy League college.
So we were all sitting on the stoop outside my aunt's house. Uncle Johnny looked over at his younger brother, Uncle Fred. Maybe Fred could help out, he thought, maybe Fred could use some influence and get his son into his no-name college in New Jersey for a semester or two, until his son got back in good graces with his fancy Ivy League school. At least his son would be somewhere in college, not hanging around home causing trouble.
I'm sure Uncle Johnny was just trying to be a good dad. But Uncle Fred bristled at the idea. "Are you kidding?" he snarled at his older brother. "Where I work, where I went to school . . . it was never good enough for you. But now your kid gets in trouble, and you come crawling to me for help? Where were you when I needed a little help?"
"Oh, you're full of crap," Uncle Johnny shot back. "I helped you for years. Gave you money to get that house of yours built. Now I'm asking for a little favor. Just put in a good word. He needs to go to school. No skin off your neck."
Uncle Fred put down his drink and stood up. "You got a lotta nerve. . ."
Uncle Johnny stood up and faced him. Looked him hard in the eyes, challenging him. Uncle Fred took a step forward. Then he pushed Uncle Johnny back so he stumbled on the step. Johnny turned and bent over, thrusting his arms out to catch himself on the concrete step. Then he whipped around and lunged at Uncle Fred, throwing punches to his body and tackling him to the ground.
Uncle Fred rolled over, got on top and was landing some blows -- even though he was handicapped he was still ten years younger. But then Grammy banged out of the front door. She stood imperiously on the front porch, looking down at them and yelling to stop.
My two uncles obeyed immediately. They got up and dusted themselves off. Uncle Fred labored up the steps and went into the house. Uncle Johnny's hand was bleeding, scraped on the concrete stairs when he fell on the porch. He laughed it off, sneering, "Oh, gripes, he'll never learn." He picked up his drink, took a swig and looked around at four or five of us kids, sitting slack-jawed on side of the driveway. We thought only kids fought; we didn't know that adults could fight as well.
"Come on, get the baseball, let's go play some catch," Uncle Johnny said.
By the end of the day everything was back to normal. My uncles were slapping each other on the back, laughing and apologizing. "Nevermind." "Don't worry about it." "No hard feelings." We then herded into our cars and started on the trip home.
As you might have guessed, Uncle Johnny's son never went to school in New Jersey. Instead, he went into the military. He learned to fly airplanes and eventually went back to college, got his degree and became a computer analyst. Now he's retired in upstate New York and likes to ride motorcycles. Me? I still live in the suburbs.