Christmas 1978

L-R: Grandpa, Aunt Pat, Tommy, Mom, Aunt Millie, Nanny, Me, Grandma, Holly, Bobby, Uncle John.

There’s me in mid-bodytwist, dodging Holly and Tommy, wearing a clingy lavender-colored batik unicorn shirt. (Not only wore it, but loved, bragged about it.) A really busy photo, made more busy than usual by the presence of relatives on my father’s side of the family: Aunt Pat, Uncle Mike (not shown), their son Chris (also not shown) and Grandma. They start coming to our Christmases for the next couple years, after having their own little celebrations at their own house, maybe a ten-minute drive from our own. I really hope they weren’t bored senseless by all this — how exciting could it be to watch other people unwrap presents? (Well, maybe there was some for them, too, I dunno, can’t remember.)

Probably taking after my parents’ lead, I called my maternal grandmother “Nanny” and my paternal grandmother “Grandma,” and while I loved them both, Grandma definitely had the edge for a long time. Initially, though, while she would do neat things like let me and my brothers play with watercolors in her Brooklyn apartment, I remember also being a little intimidated by this scolding edge she had, telling me in no uncertain terms there were parts of her apartment I couldn’t go into. One time when I was very young, she came over, probably spending some time over at our family’s house, and (I suppose undbidden) went through my closet and throwing out a lot of minute things that, because they were mine, I had an attachment to, and that made me unhappy. Dad told me that when he was a kid, she used to throw out his toys — baseball cards, comics, things like that — without the least warning. Mom told me similar stories about her mother, and I think this might supply a facile reason…no, probably a pretty straight-forward and conscious reason for both my parents’ un-ending Christmas generosity and my Dad’s adult love of trains. (I probably should’ve mentioned this earlier, but seriously, I don’t think that’s crossed my mind in maybe twenty years.) I also remember her getting angry at me for not eating a sandwich in the kind of argument that mom and dad would never get into with me, them being largely laissez-faire about my eating habits. And then, after her apartment was broken into, she moved to North Bellmore, a mere fifteen second walk away from my maternal grandparents. And then she seemed very different to me, very generous, very uncomplaining, very up-up-up, and so I gravitated towards her. I started spending a whole lot of nights over with her for a couple of years, and we would amuse ourselves, watching TV on Friday (the first night might’ve been the same night as the premiere of Diff’rent Strokes, November 3, 1978), then going somewhere, maybe to a card store or maybe to the mall, then come back, and then I’d get picked up to go home. At a moment when family tensions were beginning to come to a head, she was somebody who could give me a willing ear and — I’m absolutely not proud of this — deep pockets for whatever random shit that caught my eye. (I’m almost positive that she got reimbursed from my parents.)

And then I stopped. I tried again, for old time’s sake, in 1984. It says something about my obsessions of the time that I fix this moment with musical reference points: I fall asleep on her couch watching Friday Night Videos, and when we go to Sunrise Mall, we get Phillip Norman’s Shout! and the Jacksons’ “State of Shock.”‘And in the record store there was this one moment when, looking up from the stacks, I saw her bopping her head — only briefly — along to the piped-in music in a way that scared me: I was losing her. I avoided her a little after that, only seeing her on family occasions, my dad’s wedding and Christmases, and she was still very much my ally but with little eccentricities creeping around the edge of her behavior. Mom, Bobby and I went to see her much later, maybe when I came home from college my freshman year, I’m not sure. Still chipper, and dishearteningly gaunt-eyed, we made small talk I couldn’t wait to end. Then she died. The first family member I knew to pass away. I was in school, in Santa Fe, and it was just…I couldn’t do it.