Monday, September 14, 2015

The Time My Dad Yelled at a Little Old Lady for a Very Good Reason

My dad, Nick, had a pretty hot temper when he was around my age, but he rarely directed his anger at me, and never at my mom. Mostly, he reserved his hostility for transactional arguments with strangers over parking spaces and other stupid things that could easily get you shot for no reason in 1980's New York City. I have various memories of these tantrums, but one in particular stands out as justified. 

It was 1983, and we were at a little old lady's house in Queens. The little old lady, it so happened, was my mom's aunt, Anne, whom my dad and I had met only once or maybe twice before. 

Aunt Anne lived in a musty apartment with plastic-covered furniture and sticky, dusty, off-brand hard candies in a fake crystal bowl on a coffee table made of composite wood. She had a mop of bright orange hair and lipstick to match, drying in caked rivulets in the wrinkles framing her dessicated mouth. Her husband, Jack, was a squat, dour, dumpy-looking gnome of a man with a shuffling gait who wore cracked house slippers and dressed in head-to-toe polyester.

We were there for one reason, and one reason only: To retrieve photographs and other personal effects belonging to my grandmother, Muriel. Muriel was my mother's mother and Anne's sister. When Muriel died of breast cancer at 46, Anne and her other siblings descended like vultures on all of my grandmother's possessions.

Muriel's death orphaned my mom and her sister, then 11 and 7. But instead of taking them in, Anne and the rest of Muriel's siblings sent her daughters to live with strangers in foster care, claiming there was "no room" for both of them. It was sort of like a familial microcosm of what countries always say to repel immigrants in dire straits.

Anyway, Anne was acting shifty about the location of these various items, claiming she didn't have photos my parents knew she did, and generally resisting repatriating any of Muriel's things. After some back and forth about this, my dad lost it.

I could see my dad's love for my mother transform before my eyes into a blind rage at what this woman had done to her, years before they had even met. It wasn't about the pictures, of course. But now they were the only tangible artifact of an unforgivable betrayal that had permanently scarred my mother in a very profound way.

He got right up in Anne's face and pointed a trembling index finger two inches from her nose. Jack lurked, mute, behind her. "You're going to find those pictures," he hissed in a low and terrifying voice, "and you're going to find them now. And we are not leaving this apartment without them."

We didn't. My mom got her pictures, and I got an early lesson in the raw, spontaneous, and unexpected forms that love can take.

My dad and Isaac. He's a lot mellower now.

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