December 14, 2009
When my father and mother met in 1957, he gave her a fake name. John LaSalle, he called himself, claiming he was visiting from New York to help out a friend who had just opened a bar and needed an experienced hand. He was only in Chicago for a few weeks, he claimed, so obviously he wasn’t looking for anything “serious.” This was, apparently, good enough for her.
My mother was twenty-five, which seems preposterously young in 2009, but in 1957 most of her girlhood friends were already married with children in elementary school, whereas my mother lived alone in a studio on Rush Street, occasionally singing and playing piano in jazz clubs (though she could not read music), working as a secretary by day, and sometimes falling into pits of depression she describes as “black periods,” in which she wrote morose poetry full of lines like “the faltering foot of man who wades/into the guideless brew” and “go my chain.” She had, though you were not supposed to admit it in those days, been through her share of men, including a broken engagement in her late teens. She had traveled the country with two traveling salesmen who dined on steak and made her eat burgers, selling No-Doze machines to truck stops. In California, she had briefly worked as a ballroom dance instructor and been so poor she lived on Hershey bars, but now she was back in Chicago, where she had been raised, with a stable job. Though not thin by today’s standards, my mother was a beautiful woman, with a striking resemblance to a young Isabella Rossellini. Her boobs were something to behold. A semi-famous actor once tried to acquire her as a mistress, but she was not cut out for that life. She had too rigid a moral center, or too much fear, or both, to her betterment or her detriment.
Though this is not ostensibly “about” my mother, I guess what I’m trying to say is that she, while not perfect, was in my father’s estimations “above his station.” Even now that she is seventy-seven, he seems unclear what exactly she is doing with the likes of him . . . though as with most men, this does not mean he has always treated her well. Besides his lacking hair and being older, my father had never lived outside Chicago or even graduated from the eighth grade. More importantly, he was shy to a fault whereas my mother was—and still is—the type of person almost everyone immediately likes. She is outgoing and palpably kind, and she asks a lot of questions (which seem polite and interested if you don’t know her well, albeit bordering on Inquisitional if you know her very, very well.) She’s easy-going and accommodating, avoiding confrontation as though it were a venomous snake coiled at her heel, but that her eternal optimism makes her believe she can easily sidestep and outrun. In public in their early days, she was taken perpetually for his daughter: a mistake they milked with rare and comic perversity.
Yet for all her smiles and pleasantries, my mother is a deeply secretive, easily wounded person who prefers getting to know others to being known herself. She had always been popular as a teen, and into her early twenties—a party girl who won a contest for the prettiest legs; who danced on car roofs in the rain with other bawdy young girls and lived in apartments with a string of roommates . . . but by her mid-twenties, many of those friendships had faded away. Her relationships (platonic and romantic) seemed based more on surface fun than true intimacy, so by the time she met my father in 1957, she was acutely lonely, though she may not have put it that way, or even realized it. She was, as they say, “ripe.”
They met on a blind date. A friend of my dad’s (who was, incidentally, an ex boyfriend of my mom’s) gave him her number after my father chauvinistically proclaimed that women knew nothing about jazz—the fellow said my mother could give him a run for his money. So they met at a coffee shop at two in the morning, because that was when my father got off work. Their conversation lasted into morning, when they moved to the restaurant across the street for breakfast. Afterwards, I am fairly sure they adjourned to my mother’s apartment for sex, though I was (thank god) never told this explicitly. Certainly, they could not have gone to my father’s place, as he lived with his parents in the same small two-bedroom in which he’d been born, in a rundown Italian neighborhood far from glamorous Rush Street. My mother, of course, did not know this. She did not even know he was Italian—which, if you have ever seen my father’s nose, does not speak highly of her powers of observation. When a couple of weeks later, my mother once called him at his “friend’s” bar to tell him she’d be late for their date, she was told there was “no John LaSalle” there, but that the owner, John Frangello, might know who he was and where to find him.
Hence, my father’s ass was busted—my mother recognized his voice and slammed down the phone in fury. Later that night, my father showed up at her door with champagne and cheeseburgers, and for reasons lost to history yet eternal among lonely women in any time, my mother forgave him.
Four years later, they married. If they are both still living in August 2011, it will be their fiftieth wedding anniversary. My father would be eighty-nine.
Two quick details about their courtship, just because:
1) They not only met based on a lie of identity, but married based on one. In order to snag my mother a vacation from work—her boss was rather smitten with her and never gave her any time off—my parents told the man that they were going on a honeymoon to Europe. Only once the other secretaries at her office threw her a shower and gave her presents did my mother realize that everyone would expect her to come back from vacation with a new surname. She had two options: quit her job, or get married. As an Executive Secretary, her position was a coveted one for a girl with no college degree, so it seemed a shame to lose it. “Well then,” my father said, “we’d better get married,” and off to City Hall they went.
2) My father had a predilection for oral sex and was obsessed with giving it to my mother. (Why my mother told me this would obviously be fodder for another post, entitled “Too Much Information: Shit My Mother Told Me That I Never Needed to Know,” but there it is.)
But again, as this is not the story of my mother, neither is it the story of their dating years, their sex life or—later—the lack thereof. Those are stories that are fun, or at least funny, to tell, and that I have explored somewhat in my fiction. Today, however, is my father’s 88th birthday. And so, perhaps, this is a harder story to tell: one that eludes me even as I am beginning it. The story of how you get from point A to point Y. This is a story of knowing point Z—end point—is hovering nearby, forever around the corner, yet not precisely when it will hit. The story of the wild ride, and when, sometimes, that ride goes on without you, long after you are nauseated from the curves and would simply rather get off.
How do you tell a story like that? Apparently, here, you start with the easy stuff. You start off slow, and hope that somehow you can circle things around just enough to create a pastiche, a collage, a portrait that resembles a whole, even if it can never be exactly complete.
“Getting old is a kick in the ass, honey,” my father told me when he was maybe seventy. By then, he had already outlived all his brothers spare one (long dead now), as well as his parents and most of his male friends—old customers from his bar or other bar owners, musicians, or occasional Mobsters whom alcoholism, drug use, high blood pressure or violent lifestyles got killed early. His fifties and sixties were full of wakes, and by the time he entered his seventies, he was already a Last Man Standing of sorts. When our longtime neighbor, reputed Mob boss Joe Lombardo, was let out of prison in the late 1980s, he drove by my father’s house honking his horn and waving, making a loud show of his “respect” for my father, one of the neighborhood patriarchs.
Every night my father dreams of his dead brothers. His dreams are full of barren, frozen grounds and solitary old men, dragged off by hostile crowds in the back of carts. His dreams are full of death imagery and ghosts. He never dreams of me or my mother. In his dream life, he has been standing alone for nearly two decades now.
“The show’s over,” he’s been telling us for years. And then, in the next breath, looking at my daughters, age 9, “I wish I could be around to see them get married.”
Where am I going with this? Where am I going?
I have given myself the week to figure it out. This is the thing about “youth,” even middle-aged-youth: I can still believe in the luxury of time. And so I’ll try again tomorrow.