Mother Dearest

Can you feel this photo? What’s the first word that comes to mind?

This is my mother and her mother. The photo was taken probably around 1965 at my gay uncle’s first false wedding. Well not false, exactly, but a ruse, a show, a public event to prove his heterosexuality to those that could affect his opera career.

He loved this wife, I believe he loved all of them. But this was more of a business arrangement, they had an agreement. He could sleep with any man he chose, or as many men as he chose, but if he were to stray to another woman, he would be castrated, and probably slowly, without anesthesia. And so, the rings were placed, the papers were signed, and they moved into an elegant three-story town home in Connecticut.

But back to the photo. Elegance. Disdain. Contempt. Animosity. Acrimony. Secrets. Adultery. All the best ingredients for a steamy reality show.

Since I was not invited to this fete – probably because I was still in the prime of my drooling and relentless attention seeking season – I do not have first-hand knowledge. I do, however, know this relationship.

Let me catch you up.

My exquisitely dressed grandmother in her silk shift with the precisely placed brooch and oh-so-understated pillbox hat seems to be saying, “I can’t believe you’re still with that man, when is he going to marry you? What do you see in him anyway? I know you’re doing this to spite me. You’ve never listened to me. Well, now I guess you’re getting what you deserve.”

To which my stunning mother in her Audrey Hepburn hat and understated jewels, quips, “I love him, Mother. We have a child to consider now. He’s going to leave her. You don’t get a say in this one.”

This will not be the end of the conversation. It will continue openly throughout the years, silently simmering with an undercurrent of imminent eruption and outwardly with gin-laced venom and righteousness. I could feel their caution around each other as a child but never really witnessed – or don’t recall – any verbal assault in my presence. Instead, my grandmother would buy too many gifts for me on special occasions – things my lousy-no-good-cheating father could never afford. She would fly me to Florida to visit her. Alone. She would take me places and teach me the ways of the world she probably hoped would poison me against him. Turns out she didn’t really have to work all that hard at it.

This nonverbal tug of war left their relationship threadbare and my mother would work this out her entire life, how she felt about her own mother. She was clear that certain women that set her teeth on edge just by the way they said something or acted a certain way were reflections of her mother. She held them blameless but would not befriend them.

For my grandmother, she was sure she was right, so there was no internal conflict on her part, my mother just had to come to her senses.

But to be fair to my mother, there is another photo of my grandmother in this pile of proofs I’ve uncovered, in which she is reaching to shake the hand of the beautiful and happy bride, with a similar look on her face. In that one she seems to be saying simultaneously, “You’re not good enough for my baby brother and I feel sorry for you and the difficult future you have chosen.”

That look it turns out is genetic. An accident of birth. I have shot a similar look at my own mother – mostly in that adolescent black hole of junior high – and for sure my mother cast a disdaining look upon some aberrant behavior that was surely a genetic flaw on my father’s side that I exhibited. But outside of age 13 or 14 I don’t think we would have had the balls to go toe to toe like this.

Maybe they didn’t either. Maybe this was just a flash of a moment caught on film while they waited for the ladies’ room that I’ve crafted a story around. Albeit a yarn built on truth.

A mommy dearest moment.

Cousin Eddie

This is young me and my cousin Eddie. He was the son of my great uncle Ed of many wives. Big Ed was the same age as my father when when Eddie and I were born, an ancient 36 in those days, which made them fast and dangerous friends.

I don’t remember much about Eddie, but the elders of my family used to say things like, “remember that time you and Eddie did….” To which I’d usually smile beatifically and nod. Weren’t we such scamps?!

I doubt the photo was staged, I’m sure we were randomly pounding out nonsense. My family though, was pretty creative and musical. I grew up with a piano and harp in my house. I took seven years of piano. First from Mrs. Russo, a relic of about 40 that made me practice and play the classics only. Then from Mrs. Turner, a hippie by comparison, who let me choose what I wanted to play. As a result I can play the beginning of Fur Elise, a few bars of The Entertainer and most of Annie’s Song by John Denver. I can still read music, but it’s a struggle, although I do now have a piano in my home again. And occasionally I’ll sit down in front of it.

I wish I could remember more about Eddie, about our silly antics that seemed to have delighted our relatives. I’ll just have to trust that we were adorable and got into the cutest trouble. And appreciate the photographic evidence that these times did exist.

She Could Have Been Somebody

Mary Ellen Rudy Palmer had a choice. She could accept the invitation of Andrew Carnegie and sing for a proper audience in his renowned and beautiful hall in New York City, just a couple short hours away, or, she could keep her promise to marry my great grandfather. Maybe it wasn’t a choice so much as an ultimatum. And it wasn’t coming from Mr. Carnegie.

This is the story handed down from the generations before me and I have no reason to doubt it. Except the dramatic part about the ultimatum. In truth she may have been flattered, but no, I have a husband to tend to and a family yet to raise, maybe later.

In this photo she hasn’t met John Calder Palmer. Or if she has, she is not yet betrothed to him. She is the one seated on the arm of the chair in which her elder sister Mildred, for whom my grandmother was named, sits.

Once she does meet John, she will have four children in rather quick succession, as was common in the early decades of the last century. My grandmother would be first with three brothers to follow. When I was still in single digits, she would regale me with the stories of the antics her rambunctious younger brothers. But hidden within the storytelling there was also a weightiness, perhaps speaking to the responsibility of being a second mother to them as her own mother would have to find work to help feed the family during the depression.

The Palmer children remained very close throughout their lives. As adults they were there for each other during too many combined marriages and divorces to count, and as restless teenagers the boys would teach my grandmother how to throw a punch, which saved her chastity at least once and quite possibly her life.

Eight years after the birth of the first four children, Mary would be gifted a set of fraternal twins to whom she would play the doting stage mother. Both boys grew to be talented singers. All her children were for that matter, but there were much more pressing issues to attend to in the early thirties and any aspirations other than good hard work would have to be back burnered.

By the mid-forties though, Mary would have a firm handle on the very rich prospects for her twins’ future stardom. She lived, breathed and worked at her dream through them non-stop.

And it worked. For one of them. They were both gifted, but their personalities differed greatly and one was drawn to the spotlight while the other preferred quieter pursuits. A star was born. Thomas Moyer Palmer would go on to debut at the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in New York City in 1970 and I would be there in my new green winter coat with the fur collar and cuffs tightly cinched over over my red velvet dress, white tights and shiny black patent leather Mary Janes. I would be given a box of M&M’s for my silence that would be taken away from me, in a cruel twist of irony, for making too much noise during the performance.

I love opera today. When Orlando had an active Opera Guild, I held season tickets. It is not a love I would have acquired on my own without this early exposure, I don’t think. I suppose I have my great grandmother’s tenacity to thank for that.

Mary Ellen Rudy grew up on a farm with one sister and two brothers near Harrisburg, in Pennsylvania. Her beginnings were sturdy and humble, and she was never able to hang her name on her own Broadway star, but she put all her effort into ensuring her beloved son had his chance.

He would go on to be a successful baritone the world over. He should still be alive today, it’s totally possible, he would be 85. And he certainly should have lived past 60, but his secretive (to some) life as a gay man, married to a woman (3 of them throughout his life) led him to seek the love he so longed for away from prying eyes. His wives knew, they had agreements, but no amount of discretion or permission could protect him from AIDS. He would finally give up his fight, with another woman companion by his side, in the early nineties.

His beloved mother passed away at the peak of his health and the gently waning side of his career, confident that her guidance and love would carry him through continued success.

But there were five other children whose lives she shaped. And their children and their children and many future generations. And oh the stories.

The Mom Chronicles

I have a project, a book idea, that I really want to start. At least I say I do. I think I do. My body, though, is offering some sort of different direction.

I have bazillions of family photos, maybe a literal ton. Somehow, I have become the family historian. I completely embrace it, but now that I want to do something with all this history I’m stuck. Memoir? Novel based on imagined histories? Something else yet to be revealed?

There is this clear chronological plan in my head: take all the photos from the 1800’s through today and organize them by year, or decade if the specific year is unclear. So I started. And as I am sorting I feel so much tension in my core. Angst even. It doesn’t matter what decade it is, my body does not like this. A tiny little voice, and sometimes “random” outside influences, whispers, “let go of the past.” But I’m not holding onto it. Am I?

I’ve said all along that I’m not sure what I’m supposed to glean from this project. There is not a ton of hidden history. I mean, I’m on a first name basis with all the skeletons. And deep dives into my ancestry show pretty solid hard workers, no slave ownership, northern stock, farmers, railroad men, way too many children for each household. For sure there are secrets I’ll never uncover in the way back. For sure there are hidden truths within my own lifetime. But that doesn’t resonate as a plan or feel like the source of this unease.

I’m shifting my focus, changing up my process. I will gather all the photos of one person regardless of decade and create a timeline. But what about the other people in that person’s life? Where do they go? Why am I doing this anyway? There is something I need from all of this. Maybe the clenching in my gut is a sign to keep going. To find the right path. I hope there’s juicy dirt or ridiculousness hiding for me.

Whatever the case, I am going to choose one photo a day to write about. Could be of anyone from any era. Whether my writing is rooted in the truth or a complete fabrication will remain to be seen. The process is to write. To connect words with the image.

So here goes.

This is a photo of my mother and an unknown friend. It’s the mid 1940’s and she is living in Texas with her mother, new stepfather and new little brother. Her new dad is in the military and will use his training and GI Bill education to become an engineer like his father. He loved my mother, adopted her the moment he could after he married my grandmother. Her young childhood was good, sandwiched between a traumatic entry into the world and the realization, around 7, that her step grandparents preferred to believe she didn’t exist. She wasn’t blood. They would shower her younger brother with gifts at holidays and leave her with nothing. They doted on him while turning away from her, adhering to some antiquated code that made no sense to a young child. Or even her grown parents.

But here, in this photo, at this time in her life, she was free and happy.

There are parallels between my mother’s life and my own. Her birth story is quite dramatic, mine less so, but still not ideal or average. Her younger brother would garner the lion’s share of positive attention. Mine did the same, especially from my father who already had two daughters by another before I came along unexpectedly. If he had to have another unplanned child, at least a golden boy child was bestowed upon him.

But back to mom. She’s not around anymore to query about the mysteries of her past, but she did share a fair amount while still living. I love a good story so every opportunity I had I would throw out a few questions while pouring her another glass of wine. Maybe as I pluck photos from the past some of these stories will resurface and I can share them.

If not, I’ll make something up that sounds feasible and hopefully entertaining.

Gay Uncles

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I took a break from organizing and donating crafting supplies to begin the task of categorizing photos. The entire surface of the bed in the guest room is covered in boxes and baskets of photos. This room, the guest room, is my most favorite. It is decorated exactly the way I want it – simple white linens, an antique cherry night stand on one side of the bed and a filing cabinet hidden under a round top and layers of white linens on the other. The headboard is painted white-ish and gold – perfectly distressed – there is a cream colored bookcase, a dark oak hutch, white linen curtains and a dark wood chair. The art on the walls consists of bird prints and tiny pieces of original art I purchased on trips abroad. It is simple and clean (most of the time) and it’s where I go to breathe. The one room that is almost always neat and clean. I miss that feeling, so I’m digging in to unearth my little island of calm.

The photos are a mix of recent, with vibrant colors and uniform sizes and old yellowed, black and white with creases and cardboard backing. I love them all. The fresh memories and the bits of history I’m left to make up in the older ones. It’s those stories waiting to be told that I get lost in.

In these various piles there are two secrets closely held: one in a brown vinyl travel bag, the other in a tan photo album. They belong to my uncles. The twin great-uncles that I loved so dearly.

There is nothing scandalous hidden here. No pornographic images, no confessions or blackmail. The memories and photos are powerful in their simplicity. Each had many photos of the two of them together, they were very close, just standing side by side smiling for the camera. They were gay, both of them, though the opera singer would never claim his preferences. His brother, discreet, but out, would share his twin’s secrets with my mother and I after his death.

They weren’t really secrets.

The photos they left behind hold images of men seated in living rooms and kitchens, laughing, smiling, enjoying themselves. There are couples, it seems, only if the time is taken to go through them all. The same two men are standing or seated side by side with their arms around each other like “pals” on more than one occasion, in different clothes and maybe a change in hair style or length. These were relationships.

Tucked in with these photos are newspaper clippings of accomplishments of each other and their friends, their family.

What is so striking about these photos is nothing. Yet they were held in bottom drawers of dressers under winter clothes. I imagine them filling a roll of film half with these photos and the other half with shots of them with family and women so as not to arouse suspicion at the one-hour photo processing center in their home towns. Or even driving the unprocessed film far enough away. They would carefully cull out the photos and place the special ones in albums to be viewed often and probably alone or just with the subjects contained within. The other photos would be found loose in a kitchen drawer or in the envelope they came in, resting on the coffee table. Or maybe discarded.

So much of their lives were manipulated and restrained for the comfort of others. These secrets and maybe lies would ultimately undo them.

The opera singer, became well known in the opera community of New York City. He was married three times to different women, powerful artists in their own rights. I always suspected he was gay. He was just this side of flamboyant – dramatic perhaps, that was his job after all – and he never had children. Never wanted them. He was happy to be an uncle and he was an awesome one.

But his secrecy made him sick.

Ultimately the “not gay” opera singing uncle would succumb to AIDS toward the end of the eighties. He wasted away. He had denied his actual existence in favor of the persona he thought everyone wanted. And it killed him.

The other uncle lived much more quietly, pursuing the arts differently. He would work in Europe for Fortuny, then in Boston. Later he would open a lighting store, then a florist shop. He would drink and make the unfortunate decisions that come along with alcoholism. It was not easy living inauthentically. Liquor helped.

Later in life he would give it up. He met and fell in love with someone a decade younger who was sober but infected. They never had sex, he told me, but they were affectionate and madly in love. There are photos that make this obvious. Sweet, gentle images of the two of them engaged in conversation, smiling, listening.

But AIDS would take him too. They both knew it would eventually come and were as prepared as anyone can be for such profound, gradual loss.

There would be no other lovers. Instead he turned his life over to AA. For over 30 years my sweet uncle would take in people in the “the program” who needed a soft place to land for a while. He had inherited his father’s house and there were two bedrooms and a Florida room surrounded on two sides with jalousie windows and a back door. He moved into the Florida room to allow the residents of the other rooms some privacy. That’s just how he was.

The house was a very small typical Florida home built sometime in the 40s and 50s. Just one small bathroom, a large kitchen with a window over the sink with a wide sill that my great grandmother would place peanut butter crackers on for the local squirrel population, feeding some of them by hand and a living room big enough to fit an upright piano. His parents had lived in it over 30 years. He moved in with his father to help take care of him in his later years, to be sure he took his meds and didn’t drive after too many cocktails. His dad “knew” but it wasn’t discussed. His mother had passed ten years prior and she would not allow it to be spoken about. She knew too, they were her babies, the youngest of six by about 12 years. But still, you just didn’t talk about such things.

He would, much later after his beloved dog died, check himself into an assisted care facility from which he would not emerge alive. He was beginning to forget things and didn’t want to be a burden. He knew what was coming, he had seen it in every one of his older siblings, except his twin who would escape that fate by dying too young.  Less than a year after he moved out of his tiny Florida home he went to sleep and didn’t wake up. I’m pretty sure he planned it that way.

Their lives were rich, they mattered. They loved wholly and completely. They each left a legacy of art, beauty, laughter and love.

They were great, great-uncles and sifting through their photographic pasts fills my heart with compassion and sadness in equal measure for the lives they lived and the ones they hid.

 

Bad Grandpa, Good Grandpa

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Someone, one of my second, third or some number removed cousins, accused my great grandfather of inappropriate touching. I don’t remember which one, but she would be hovering around 70 at this point.

I don’t know the details. None of them, simply that it allegedly happened. She was the only one of dozens of girl cousins who made such accusations.

When something like this comes up there are any number of appropriate or expected responses: disbelief, denial, entertain the possibility, shut down and talk about the weather. I chose the third response. Anything is possible.

I leaned toward curiosity more than repulsion or embarrassment. He was long gone by the time I heard this bit of family gossip and I knew so little about him, that I couldn’t piece together an argument either way, but I could wonder.

I suppose it’s natural to sweep something like this under the rug, why would I bring it up? But humans as a species, and my family in particular, fascinate me. I get excited at the idea that I have dissidents or deviants in my bloodline, that we’re interesting, even in the worst way.

My great grandfather was born in 1896. He met the love of his life just before The Great War wherever it was she was singing. (I like to imagine a smoke-filled USO hall with a great deal of drinking and patriotism, but truthfully a church would probably be closer to the mark.) Once betrothed he gave her the false option of marrying him or continuing on with this singing silliness. The fact that I am writing this is evidence of a passion thwarted. It came back later in the form of stage mom, but that’s another story.

After the war he worked at the post office and advanced in pay grade despite the obstacles of The Great Depression. (So much greatness back then.) He and his beloved silent song bird would produce six children. The accuser belongs to one of them.

Perhaps he was too old and tired by the time I met him, but he was nothing but a really old funny man to me.

When we rode around in his 1960-something metallic aqua Ford Galaxie with the front and back windows that rolled all the way down, he would throw the question into the back seat, “Hey there Allison, is that back wheel going around?” To which I would reply, “If we’re moving, they’re all going around.” This would elicit a grand guffaw. Too smart for old grandpa.

I remember standing in the front yard of his Florida home kicking the dirt, bored while adults made small talk about food and directions. Noticing my impatience and wrapping up the conversation my great grandfather would ask me if he could pick me up by my ears. I ran to him to experience such a feat of strength. Both his and that of my ears.

He would make a great show of gathering my ears into his fists, then he would carefully place his palms over my ears and lift me off the ground. He was of course picking me up by my whole head and I wonder just now how wise that really was. There doesn’t seem to be any permanent damage so, no harm I suppose.

Somewhere between those memories and going off to college his wife died, after a rousing bout of dementia – including stories that shouldn’t be funny, but are – and he aged dramatically. “Just sitting around waiting to die,” he would say daily to anyone who asked how he was.

But that didn’t stop him from cocktails in his driveway at 3:00 pm with his two cohorts, Jim and Frank. The youngest was 78, the oldest 86.

This was near the beginning of his day. After drive way happy hour there would be early bird dinners out and waitress flirtation and sometimes pinching or grabbing (aha!), more cocktails, driving home after many cocktails, cocktails at home, nodding off in front of Johnny Carson, waking up to a test pattern but in time to take medication, then bed. Up at 8 in the morning for more medication, back to bed until noon, local news, put the lawn chairs back in the driveway and so it continued.

Until it didn’t.