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I had been thinking of us, all young and tawny, our skin tanned the color of honey. How we would descend upon Soquel – driving down 17, which then was almost like a country road – arriving at Annie’s little shanty on Glen Haven Road where the big daytime attraction was stripping off our clothes so that we could sunbathe naked on her terrace.

Me and whatever passel of girlfriends I was hanging out with at the time. We were giggly and annoying.

Annie is someone who could never say, “Yes,” and could never say, “No.” So she had to tolerate us.

At night, we’d take off to the Catalyst whose house band in those days was the Ducks fronted by someone called Neil Young.

###

Two decades later, I spent a week there hammering out part of the first draft of Saturday Night in the Sky, my computer perched on top of Annie’s battered old desk. I forget where Annie was – maybe New Hampshire? Her Bad Boy BF Stew belonged to an East Coast family that maintained a compound there on some kind of lake.

The window overlooked the terrace and the jagged slope beyond that plunged down to Soquel Creek. It may have been beautiful: In those days, I had absolutely no appreciation for nature.

Her little shanty did afford me a spectacular solitude, and in that solitude, something magical happened: My characters came alive. By which I mean that after I was finished writing a particular scene, that scene occupied the same space inside my head that actual memories occupied. I knew I hadn’t just had an intense conversation with my charming, alcoholic screenwriter hero, but I remembered having that conversation.

A weird kind of transference.

###

When the Little Store came crashing down in 2008, Annie was not supportive. Rather the opposite, in fact. There was a mix-up about the dates that I could stay in Heidi and Bill’s guestroom (before I left to join Ben and Robin on the circus), and I begged Annie to let me stay with her for a few days.

It’s very hard for me to ask anyone for help.

“What did you do?” Annie snapped.

I hadn’t done anything. There’d been a mix-up about dates.

But it began to dawn on me then that this was the attitude my mother’s family had always had toward me. I was the unwanted mongrel child. The family scapegoat. I was the little girl in the basement.

And as I slowly healed, I decided I was through with my mother’s family.

I’ve never regretted that decision.

###

I saw Annie at Rik’s funeral. She was so completely tone-deaf to the gravity of the occasion! So. Completely. Tone-deaf. But I couldn’t even feel embarrassed by her. My sense of dissociation was that complete.

###

Still. When I heard that a mudslide on Glen Haven Road had taken out Annie’s terrace and that the county had red-tagged her house, I felt very bad for her.

The property is still worth well over a million dollars, and it’s not as if the first thing any prospective new owner wouldn’t have done was to tear down her old shack anyway.

All she’d have to do is sell, and she’d be rich, rich, rich beyond her wildest dreams of avarice.

But she doesn’t want to sell.

She wanted to live out the rest of her life there, sunbathing au naturel on that terrace every morning.

So I feel for her. Land-rich, money-poor.

Alicia, her daughter – with whom I am still distantly in touch – has been venting about Annie’s situation on Facebook. Most recently last night.

Despite being mad as a hatter, my mother did have some good ideas from time to time, and one of those was the Kittens and Puppies Postcard Doctrine: Namely, when there are problematic people in your life who, for one reason or another, it’s not wise to disappear completely, you send them postcards of kittens and puppies at strategic intervals: Hello! How are you! Isn’t this kitten CUTE?

I think it may be time to send Annie a kitten-and-puppy postcard. Possibly with a few bios of Liz Taylor (I’ll hit the used bookstores when I’m in NYC at the end of this week.) And an Eleanor Roosevelt mug from the FDR Library: Keep Calm and Carry On.
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What’s interesting about the descendents of Emidio DiLucchio – born Rionero, Vulture, Potenza, Basilicata in 1883; died Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1954 – is that we all love to lie, cheat, deceive, seduce, and abandon.

Some of us like to rob, commit mayhem, and inject chemicals into our arms, too.

Others of us channeled our innate tendencies in socially acceptable ways.

There couldn’t possibly be a gene for this kind of stuff, could there?

Nonetheless, the familial genius for deviant behavior isn’t the result of nurture. Emidio’s 12 children got the hell out of Pittsburgh just as soon as they could. Scattered. Retained little or no connection with one another throughout their (mostly long) lives.

The women stayed put, but the men tended to slip in and out of marriages, retaining little or no connection to their own children.

This is certainly not the Godfather stereotype of the clannish Southern Italian famiglia for whom blood was everything.

My own fantasy? Emidio’s father was a member of Carmine Crocco’s brigand army. (Think Mexican narco warrior in the brutish and ugly south of Italy.) Emidio himself ran away when he emigrated. The ability to form bonds of affection was beaten out of him as a child. Organic brain damage was involved. The first generation grew up in a violent, chaotic home, and since chaos was what was modeled, they modeled chaos in turn.

I like to lie, too, but as you see, I’m one of the descendents of Emidio DiLucchio who channels in socially acceptable ways.

###

Pearl and Sybil are not huggers. Not even hand-shakers.

We met outside the Eveready Diner. They’re tall like me, but they don’t look anything like me. They speak a syncopated sisterly shorthand. The next best thing to mental telepathy. It’s really interesting to watch.

As soon as we were seated, Pearl took her four-year-old son Odin to the bathroom.

“These are my daughters,” Sybil said, handing me her phone.

The photos were of two breathtakingly beautiful little girls, showing off their Princess finery.

Still. It’s a little unusual to be handed photos of the offspring before the small talk has even commenced. I had the distinct impression I was being tested: The beautiful little girls are biracial, and Sybil, who has trained her face to give absolutely nothing away, was studying me.

“And this is my oldest,” Sybil said. “She’s dead.”

Another amazingly beautiful child.

“I’m sorry,” I said. I was stunned. I had no idea what to say.

“It’s okay,” Sybil said. It was clear she wanted to be spared any outpourings of sympathy. “She was falling down a lot; I took her to a doctor. She had a brain tumor. Six months later, she was dead.”

Pearl and Odin returned to the table.

“So how exactly are we related anyway?” I asked. “I’ve never been able to figure it out exactly –“

“Our fathers are cousins,” Pearl said.

“Really? But your father and I are the same age – “

“Twelve children in that first generation,” Sybil said. “And they all married multiple times. So! Your father was an early marriage; our Dad was a late marriage.”

“Making us second cousins?” I asked.

“I believe you are correct,” Pearl said.

###

Their father, Larry, has a pretty interesting narrative. Both Sibyl and Pearl dislike him heartily.

“Oh, I haven’t seen him since 2004,” Sybil said.

Pearl shrugged. “We’re Facebook friends,” she said. “Whatever that means. We don’t go out of our way to keep in touch.”

“I don’t do social media,” Sybil said disdainfully. I liked Sybil’s implacable quality!

Sybil and Pearl grew up on a Navajo reservation where Larry was working as a computer instructor at the community college in Window Rock. It was from there that Larry first got in touch with me: I was working for People Magazine at the time, so I was eminently get-in-touchable-with.

Are you related to Jeanna? he emailed me.

She’s my half-sister, I emailed back.

Turned out that Larry’s eldest daughter, Pearl, was going to college in Las Vegas, New Mexico – that otherworldly, magical Brigadoon place where Jeanna ran a drive-in movie theater.

One day, one of Pearl’s instructors had asked her: Are you related to Jeanna?

And thus the two descendants of Emidio DiLucchio discovered one another.

“Can you imagine finding another person with your last name in Vegas?” Pearl asked. “Population – what? Five thousand?”

“Actually, I can,” I said. “Vegas is a very strange place.”

###

I hadn’t seen Jeanna at that point for more than 30 years, but Larry’s emails emboldened me to get in touch when I was flown out to Santa Fe a few months later to interview Shirley MacLaine.

Jeanna did her usual I don’t know about this thing, which as I came to know her better in the years subsequent, I came to understand is very typical of Jeanna’s way of dealing with the world. She has a kind of functional agoraphobia. She panics whenever she has to leave Vegas.

In the end, though, she drove to Santa Fe. And we spent the day together.

We hit it off and have remained close ever since.

You’d have to been raised an only child to understand how absolutely weird it is to be suddenly connected to sisters and brothers.

###

Larry, scion of Lawrence Anthony – the ninth child of Emidio – had been deserted by his father when he was three months old.

Which was exactly the same age I was when I deserted by my father.

He was raised by his mother, sent away to a series of boarding schools.

When he was 17 or so, he denounced his father in a letter, which led to his father cutting him out of the will.

“His father had a company that was making money, too,” said Pearl. "In Pennsylvania."

"In Michigan," Sybil corrected.

“The DiLucchio inheritance!” I said.

“But Dad had written the old man this nasty letter: You never came to visit me when I was in boarding school… When the old man died, the old man’s current wife sent Dad a photo: him and the old man at Dad’s boarding school. Dad was lying.”

"As usual," Sybil said.

I shrugged. “So the old man visited him one time.”

But it was clear that the sisters were determined not to cut their father any slack.

“He lied to us about his older half-brother, too –“ said Sybil.

“He said his brother committed suicide,” said Pearl.

“But really his brother was duck-taped to the hood of a car. And driven off a cliff!”

“Ah, yes,” I said. “A mob execution.”

I knew about the DiLucchio mob connection from many sources. I guess we were concentrated in upstate – that would have been the Dutch Schultz gang, right? My second cousin Desiree’s father – a descendent of Rocco, the seventh of Emidio’s offspring – covered the Syracuse territory, and she spent her childhood hiding in the dark swamplands around that area. (Today she lives in sunny Arizona and has accepted Jesus Christ as her personal savior!) And when I visited Dan – my half-uncle – a couple of years ago, he told me a lot about my grandfather’s activities in the Buffalo region –

“But my mother made him stop,” Dan said. “Plus by then he only had one arm –“

One arm?” I said.

“Yeah, he only had one arm,” Dan said. “You didn’t know that?”

“No!” I said. “How did he lose the arm?”

Dan got very quiet for a couple of seconds. “I don’t know,” he said. And changed the subject.

###

Joining the Latter Day Saints presumably keeps one on the straight and narrow. And disqualifies one from mob membership. I imagine that’s why Larry did it. And why he submerged himself in saintly service to the Native American subculture.

“Oh, you’d like him,” Sybil said disdainfully. I couldn’t tell whether this was a dis at me or a general observation on Larry's personal magnetism. “He’s incredibly charismatic. And tall!”

"Very tall," Pearl said.

“Six feet nine,” said Sibyl.

Eventually, though, the DiLucchio proclivity for snarling in the face of authority began to shine through, and Larry got himself excommunicated. Not before he became interested in polygamy, though. And hit up Pearl and Sybil’s mother with that idea.

“He had a specific woman in mind, too,” Sybil said. “First she was in her 20s. Then it turned out she was in her 30s. When we finally met her, she was in her 50s.”

Sybil looked as though she wanted to spit.

"So-o-o-o... Did your Mom go for it?" I asked.

"Oh, God, no," said Pearl.

Larry’s polygamist yearnings precipitated a divorce.

Today, Pearl and Sybil’s mother lives a reclusive life – I forget exactly where. Sibyl and Pearl don't seem to like her very much either.

“She didn’t remarry?” I asked.

“Oh, no, she’s done with all that,” said Sybil.

###

A memoir about Emidio DiLucchio’s descendents would be kinda fun to read, no? The Italian answer to Hillbilly Elegy!
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Certainly took me long enough, but finally I realized: Oh! Ri-i-ght! Fifteenth anniversary of my mother’s death! No wonder I’m feeling sad.

###

To say I had a complicated relationship with my mother is an understatement.

I could write a novel about her first cancer operation. How she set me up for the complete Dickens bedside scene – I can’t remember any of the dialogue now, except that the question, Do you forgive me? featured prominently – and then threw me out of her room: No, no – you don’t have to stay with me tonight! I’ll be fine. You’re working. You have a baby. Go to my house. Get some sleep.

And how, when I showed up at Kaiser at 6am the following morning after the operation, she had somehow escaped.

The RNs at the nursing station were perplexed. Oh – she’s not in her room? Really? Wow!

So then I spent two hours driving back and forth on all the streets between the hospital and her house until I finally spotted her – she’d put on pants but she was still in her hospital gown, trailing webs of IVs and Jackson Pratt drains. She was bleeding. It was pouring rain. And she had gone completely mad. I’d seen her decompensate before, but this was the very worse episode I could ever remember.

Cancer or no cancer, I couldn’t talk to her for a year after that.

Got pounded mercilessly by her sisters, my aunts. Cruel, ungrateful daughter! Turning her back on her own mother in her mother’s time of need!

But the insanity I saw in my mother’s eyes that rainy morning – I had to physically threaten her to get her to get her inside my car – was just too much for me.

We did patch things up before she died, six years later.

But I still have a lot of ambivalent feelings about the whole thing.

My mother had an adenocarcinoma of her salivary gland. When the oncologist advised her on excision margins, he told her that to be on the safe side, it would be wise to excise part of her facial nerve, too. This she absolutely refused to do because it would leave her with a drooping face.

They did not get the entire tumor, and it went on to metastasize.

So, in my mind, my mother’s vanity is what killed her.

###

There were a lot of good things about my mother, too. She was very bright in a cultural sense. She read a lot, had interesting opinions about books and films. She was an incredibly talented musician.

And, of course, in the end, it really wasn’t her fault that she became the person she was.

Her mother – my grandmother – was a borderline personality monster. One day, when my mother was 16 years old, she came home from Erasmus Hall High School to discover half the furniture in the bungalow at 79 Lefforts missing. And my grandmother along with it.

No explanation. No clues beforehand that this was going to take place. No letter in the months following.

The next year, my mother got pregnant with me.

I've often thought what a shame it was that my mother didn't have access to abortion services.

Though, I suppose that would mean that Max and Robin would never have been born.

And Max and Robin are both great gifts to the world.

###

I hate family chronicles, but if I ever wrote a fictionalized account of my family, I’d title it: Women Who Leave.

###

In other news, I’m reading Adam Sisman’s excellent biography of John LeCarré and writing about café life in Bukovina at the turn of the 20th century – this being the bridge at the beginning of Chapter 3 in which Henry and June get married.

Historical fact: June’s obsession with getting married was spurred by the death of her father. So I am making up a background for the father in which he comes from Wiznitz (now Vyzhnytsia in Ukraine.) Interestingly enough – though I didn’t know this when I arbitrarily chose Wiznitz – Wiznitz was a center of Hassidic mysticism. I’d always planned to give June a Hassid lover when we’re finally through with Henry and what other few biographical details are known about her. So this dovetails very, very well.

LeCarré’s boyhood – his real name is David Cornwall – isn’t even in the top 25% of the Most Horrible Childhoods on the Planet. Those slots would have to be reserved for boy soldiers in Africa, toddler ISIS recruits, and infant Untouchables on the Indian peninsula whose parents mutilate them so that they’ll get more money when they use their offspring as begging props.

But I’d say Cornwall’s childhood was about as miserable as mine was – which puts it in the top 10% of miserable childhoods in relatively prosperous, Western, industrialized nations.

It’s very interesting for me to see what he did with that childhood.

He harvested it pretty carefully. He used the hyper-vigilance that all of us neglected, abused children develop to produce a really impressive body of work. I’d rank LeCarré as one of the most important novelists of the latter half of the 20th century. The stress didn’t break him; it rarefied him.

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