Friday, August 5, 2016

Chester's Entry -- Compact Cassettes and Dead Sea Scrolls: From a Long New Jersey Time Ago, Sacred Recollections of Profane Family Feuding

This entry is written especially for my very good friend and fellow New Jersey native (not to mention meteorology grad school compatriot), Chester.

This entry contains the recollected excerpts of legendary fights between my paternal grandparents that my dad recorded on a series of old compact cassette tapes over the course of many years -- as far back as the late 1960s (before I was born) into the late 1970s when we lived on Kirby Avenue in Long Branch, New Jersey.

Oh, to find one of those tapes -- it would be like finding new Dead Sea Scrolls.

My dad used to tape record these fights -- usually once my grandparents (that is, his parents) were really rolling -- and he would make copies and send them to people including at least once to my mom (his ex-wife), who was then living in Belgium with Ray (who was stationed at SHAPE).

I remember the dialogue because my dad and I would listen to the tapes in the car and laugh. I was about 8 or 9 years old.

My paternal grandparents, Lewis and Florence Todaro, Long Branch, N.J., circa 1985.

Grandma died in January 1988 and grandpa in July 1993 at ages 79 and 84, respectively.


As background, my grandfather's complaints about my grandmother were that she was stupid, lacked sophistication, and didn't keep good house. For her part, her complaints about him were that he was "a goddamn showoff" with a bad temper and much screaming ("a bitch animal," in her wonderful phraseology).

My grandma's Tradewinds Beach Club membership card for the summer of 1986.

C-21 meant "cabana 21." In 1976 when we first started renting that cabana, it cost less than $1,000 for the whole summer. Now a similar sort of arrangement at one of those beach clubs would easily be twenty to thirty times that amount.


Keep in mind that their marriage had suffered the devastating blow of the loss of a child -- my Uncle Richard, for whom I was named -- who had severe cerebral palsy. Grandpa blamed her for Richard's condition. This is a long story involving severe seizures and a brain-damaging fever that he suffered one awful day when he was 3 and grandpa wasn't home and she didn't seek medical help) and she blamed herself.

Keep in mind it was 1946, she had no car and possibly no telephone, had no idea what to do and no other help around, and also had a 5-year old with her as well (my dad), and grandpa was off at the racetrack all day. It wasn't like today when you press 9-1-1 and you set in motion an entire first responder armada.

After Richard died in March 1963 at age 19, they should have divorced, but old Italian-American couples in New York and New Jersey during the early to mid-20th Century simply did not get divorced.

My dad, my grandparents, and myself, at some social event (quite possibly a VFW one) in Long Branch, N.J., July 2, 1972.

I only know the date because my grandma wrote it on the back of the photograph. I was 2 years old.


Excerpts (with some explanations) ...

Time: A weekend in 1976 or 1977. I was probably in South Amboy, N.J., visiting my maternal grandmother, as I usually did during the school year. Now if it was summer 1977, then I was visiting my mom in Belgium.

What: An all-afternoon, profanity-laced rolling argument.

Setting: Dad and grandpa measuring the mantelpiece above the fireplace in our den (not sure why).

My dad chuckling (because he knows the tape was on under the couch where he usually hid it): HMP HMMP HMMP!

Grandpa: Why, you dirty son-of-a-bitch, what are you on SOME KIND OF A GODDAMN LAUGHIN' SPREE??!!

Grandma: SHUT UP! Get in there and measure that thing!

Additional scene setter: Grandma standing in the little vestibule outside the den, fixating -- as ever -- on the fact that the linoleum placed on the floor by a family friend contractor didn't fit as a single piece but had one large one and two smaller ones and all three came to a slightly raised point that she was forever trying to flatten but could not. Now the "she" refers to the family friend's wife.

Grandma: See that spot ...?? It'll never come away. Right there. [Pause] That son-of-a-bitch. She wouldn't want it in her house like that, that rotten bitch. She oughta drop dead --!


Dad laughing hysterically.


My grandma opening a birthday cake for me on the occasion of my 4th birthday -- November 26, 1973 -- in Long Branch, N.J.


Time: 1978 or so.

What: One of the many fights about selling the house on Kirby Avenue and grandpa moving to Florida. Keep in mind that grandma -- a simple woman -- rarely used abstract terms such as "the market." In this case, though, when she did, she was saying that he could move but she'd stay in the house -- and that was a bridge too far for him.

Grandma: Well, YOU don't have to put the house on the market!


Possibly in that same fight at a different point (or another fight), there was also reference to the house that my father would subsequently build (although here grandpa refers to "buying" it):



My dad and I and our wonderful bull mastiff dog "Borky" in our house at 368 Kirby Avenue, Long Branch, N.J., 1977.

My dad had injured his hand in a karate tournament.

As an aside, the last time I was in Long Branch -- for my great Aunt Babe's funeral -- I realized in walking from Monmouth University back to the hotel past the old house (now unrecognizable) that the "300 block" here is actually part of the numbering system from the Atlantic Ocean -- but they are very long blocks that run through multiple streets and really drop all the way to single digits just off Ocean Avenue.


Then there was the morning when he heard me -- a bratty 7 or 8 year old -- "ordering" grandma around when she asked me if I wanted to eat my oatmeal in the kitchen or in the den (where I watched cartoons in the morning on our old Zenith TV).

He woke up all riled up when he heard that -- just in his boxers and a wife-beater, thinned out hair all wild and uncombed, false teeth not yet in his mouth, little stick arms and legs and a pot belly. Kind of like this:

My grandfather and my great Aunt "Bunny" (Ann), wife of my grandmother's younger brother Jimmy, at the old Tradewinds Beach Club -- when the new section had just been built -- in Sea Bright, N.J., August 1976.


Grandpa (mimicking grandma's voice): And you're 'dolly, do you want to eat your oatmeal in here or in there' and he's 'JUST BRING IT IN HERE!' HE'S ORDERIN' PEOPLE AROUND! HE'S ORDERING PEOPLE AROUND! YOU BETTA NOT ORDER ME AROUND!! YA LITTLE SHIT!

That was what he called me when he was angry and screaming.

I remember her that morning blocking him from hitting me -- because he came into the kitchen like a wild man. I also remember her, "ARE YA' UP?!" as in "THIS is what it means for you to be awake??"

Yours truly running in the sprinkler in our backyard on a hot summer day in August 1974. I was 4.


Oh, and then there was the time he was complaining that I talked to loudly and you hear me in my little high-register 7-year old voice declare: "GRANDPA, there's a boy in catechism class who talks WAY LOUDER than I do!!"

Here were family members at the old Tradewinds Beach Club in Sea Bright, N.J., sometime in the late 1970s.

This photo features my great Aunt Babe (far left), my great Uncle Joey and his wife, my great Aunt Rosemary, my late second cousin Betty Lu (a very good person who died of cancer in 1992), and my grandma.

Aunt Babe is the one whose 100th birthday I attended in January 2013 and then her funeral in January 2015. She was the last of the Acerra children and my grandmother's younger sister.

The other group is part of my childhood best friend Jonathan's family and friends. They were yuppies before the term was coined, working in New York City. I was with the old people. Uncle Joey and I despised each other.

Of note, so many of my dreams take place at Tradewinds or along the Jersey shore -- mixed with College Park, D.C., and Glen Burnie.


There were many other fights -- including dinner table being pushed; a bright yellow plastic container holding coffee creamer sailing across the table, leaving a trail of white; shoehorn being thrown (that was his way of trying to stop me when I would run, which I was able to do because the layout of the house created a circular path between kitchen, vestibule, and formal dining room.

From the inside of Cabana 21 looking out, Tradewinds Beach Club, Sea Bright, N.J., August 1987.

This was the last summer we belonged there -- and I spent that summer there (at age 17) basically alone the whole time. (Jonathan had basically stopped going by that point.) Grandpa had already become a hypochondriac and grandma's condition was deteriorating -- she contracted ulcers from worry and somehow -- whatever was the treatment in the 1980s -- she died after three surgeries. I've never understood why she had to have surgery because of ulcers.


Then there was the hilarious one-upmanship of each of them using the phrase "your sister's ass":




I remember the word order of "fat" and "ass" was rearranged around "sister" in that exchange.

Yours truly next to the large hydrangea bush on the side of our house, Long Branch, N.J., July 1974.


Now Chester has his own quotations -- from memory, although some apparently are quite recent (even continue to occur at his old homestead in Sussex County, New Jersey). (We're both from New Jersey and met in meteorology graduate school in College Park back in the 1990s.) However, those are his stories to tell ...

To be clear, though, Chester and his young family live a far more tranquil and peaceful life in a nice spot in suburban Maryland.


OK, that's all for now. I did make it to the gym tonight after a busy day at work, although it was a somewhat shortened workout. My next planned entry will likely be Saturday evening.


No comments: