"For better or worse, we are what we learned as children." -- Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Fist Fight

     My dad grew up in an immigrant family. His mother and father came from Austro-Hungary in the 1890s. I never met my grandfather -- he died before I was born -- but my grandmother was a fierce woman who spoke only broken English, but was bound and determined that her children would grow up and succeed in this new country.

     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
     My grandmother was the roughest of them all, ordering her sons around, telling them what to do. My own mother did not like Grammy. "She never thought any woman was good enough for her precious sons," she said with some bitterness.

     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.


Wisewebwoman said...

You have a way with the telling of a good story. These uncles came to life for me.

Well done!


DUTA said...

Well, all americans are immigrants or children of immigrants. The distinction is between immigrants that once made America great (such as your austro-hungarian family), and those that systematically destroy it.

Jono said...

Terrific story, Tom! I totally related to the two different sides of the family, the more refined versus the coarser segment. It did make for some interesting holidays when I was a kid. You have given me some ideas!

Janette said...

What a great story. Thank you for sharing.

Linda Myers said...

Good story. I remember the drama of family gatherings too. These days, they rarely happen. What on earth will our kids have to remember, with no punches thrown?

gigi-hawaii said...

Great story and quite amusing. I have great resentment towards certain members of my family, particularly my younger sister. Don't think that there will ever be a reconciliation.

Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com said...

Hi Tom! Yes aren't family dynamics interesting? And they point out how many of us share the same DNA and even the same parents but yet can turn out so differently. I found it fascinating that your grandmother was an immigrant and didn't speak that great of English was still such a powerful matriarch. My great-grandmother, my dad's mother, also immigrated back in the 20s and never learned to speak a bit of English. She also never encouraged her children to attend school so even though my father was quite bright, he dropped out of school to support her in the 7th grade. He was the youngest of the family and all of his older brothers were off during WWII and his older sisters were married. He never returned to school and never encouraged his children to seek education either. Such a different trajectory. But one thing is for sure, those family feelings of who has more and who achieved more seem to exist in all families and pop out when you least expect it! ~Kathy

Tabor said...

Families can be so complicated!

Suemn said...

Great story Tom. I loved the ending!


Rebecca Olkowski said...

Family stories are always so interesting. Sounds like you had some characters in yours.

Dr Sock said...

Tom, a beautifully written account of an epeisode in your family history! I am struck with the parallels with my own family history on my dad’s side. My paternal grandparents were Eastern European immigrants from Romania to the USA, and then to Canada. They had nine children, and the first two died of Diphtheria around 1910 during a visit back to the old country. My dad, Johnnie, was the youngest of the seven children who lived. My grandfather died long before I was born, and my grandmother, the family matriarch, passed away when I was six. I still have vivid memories of her. And, oh, the family dynamics!


Sally Wessely said...

Loved this story! I wonder how my cousins would take it if I stared telling stories. Do your cousins read yours? I doubt my cousins read anything I write, but story shared might make them read, but I doubt they’d like my memory. Anyway, keep the stories coming. This was great.

Rebecca Olkowski said...

What a great story! I love reading family stories from when we were young. My mother's grandparents were Austro Hungarian. Actually Slovakian but it was part of the empire at the time.

Anonymous said...

"Well, all americans are immigrants or children of immigrants." Umm, no, Native Americans are Americans and if they "immigrated" it was a very long time ago, long before (allegedly) a Chinese ship of exploratin arrived, or Europeans arrived.
Many black people arrived as slaves. They're American too.