Who are your people?
Whenever I’d go to Memphis, Vicksburg or New Orleans to meet with another set of Corps of Engineers clients in the early Seventies, the conversations always started on this single point.
Not in those words. More of a search for some connection between these men rooted in the life along the eastern shore of the Mississippi and this fellow here from St. Louis. They were patient and they were probing. I offered that I had some cousins named France and my father grew up in St. Louis, though I did not. Round the table, heads shake. Missouri’s disputed territory, could be anything. No one seemed to know any of the France family and sure hadn’t heard my funny name.
Where’s your momma from?
I’d say Boston. Flemings, Coakleys, Sweeneys. More frowns. Then I learned to say brightly that both sides of the family came to the US after the war. The war didn’t have to be named; they knew I meant after 1865, after the War of Northern Aggression. Maybe a slight grunt or two signaled that as I wasn’t a real Yankee I got a pass, and we could get down to talking about the flood control.
My parents were only vaguely religious. Both were baptized Catholic and each had fallen away. My mother seemed blithly to have blown off her Catholicism and my father shed his after his mother died and my grandfather married a cruel WASP. His aversion to her possibly carried over to her Protestantism. Neither talked much of their religious upbringing. They made token attempts at providing their children a religious education. These consisted of occasional references to God, Jesus in the manger at Christmas and on the cross at Easter plus a few church visits.
The highlight was idolatrous. I sat next to Roy Rogers and Dale Evans one Sunday. Minus the side arms they were in full Hollywood cowboy regalia and in character, at least to my 8-year old eyes. Clean took the boredom out of the sermon. The low point was Palm Sunday mass around the same time. The significance of the fronds was unclear, the proceedings were in Latin, mostly inaudible except at the unpredictable times the faithful called out a chorus response or kneeled or stood. It was also interminable. “The longest mass of the year” was my mother’s lame excuse. The confirmation and first communion experiences that my peer cousin Cherie was said to have undergone were equally obscure to me.
Nobody ever explains to kids the really interesting stuff.
The scariest experience was a visit by a pair of door-to-door nuns drumming up business. They spoke of the growing number in their cells. That did not bode well, even though they meant something along the lines of a Bible study group and not incarceration.
There was also a brief stint at Sunday school, where I was dropped off by a parent not in their Sunday best. The first time the lesson kicked off with a continuation of a discussion of one of the women of the Old Testament, I forget which. Without any context beyond In the Beginning, Adam and Eve, Cain and Able, Noah, King David and King Solomon, absorbed through the æther, it was baffling.
The rest was schoolyard theology, but there wasn’t really much of that. The boys mainly contented themselves with references to Hell. Somehow that seemed to be less taboo than the other forbidden words. A brief stint in the Cub Scouts provided a somewhat Calvinist take on damnation in addition to the usual platitudes. A father gathered us round and told a tale of a father handing his son a hammer with the instruction to drive a nail through a new, expensive coffee table then pull it out.
When you sin, you make a hole in your soul. That hole can no more be taken out than the hole you just made in the table.
My parents’ social circle was varied but not wide, as they moved restlessly from state-to-state and place-to-place.
There was an older couple, Archie and Ivy, who occupied the role of “good friends.” They seem to have been acquired when we lived in Alhambra in a small apartment block. She looked vaguely like Eleanor Roosevelt and he represented the genus of bald men with mustachios otherwise seen only on TV. They had two children, Mike and Mary (in reverse chronological order, but that was how they were referred to). They were in a private school and considered on our side to be rowdy. Not polite. That was my father’s term for any child who did not fall silent in his presence. They fell away after moving away to Ridgecrest way out in the desert.
Ollie and Avenel, my father’s best friend from high school and his wife. He moved back to St. Louis after she died, drowned in a pool of water by the roadside, overheard of in hushed tones. Ollie was a bomber pilot during the War, which partially made up for being my being given a middle name in his honor.
Once my father’s boss came to dinner. I had to have my nails cleaned specifically for the occasion on account of what he would think. I wondered why he could possibly care.
Neighbors in one of the Valley’s instant vast suburbs were another component. The only native Californians were some of the children; otherwise, everyone was from somewhere else. Ed and Audrey with their children Skip and, uh, a name I should remember since later she provided the second serious kiss lived next door. He was an Army major in the National Guard and an accountant. She was fat, another type specimen, like Archie. George and Elaine and two blonde daughters lived across the street and had a pool. With a diving board. He started a side business selling vacuum cleaner parts and we used to help them put the rubber rings and such into little plastic bags and staple them with cardboard. She was tall and glamorous. Bob and Norma and son Scrappy were from Oklahoma, or Back East as the rest of the country was referred to, and vaguely exotic due to their accent.
Socializing consisted mainly of drinking. Sometimes mixed drinks, but usually beer. Father was partial to Brew 102, which was a pale beer and the cheapest. They had a sign near downtown on a huge cylinder a hundred feet or more high. Later I was disappointed to learn that it was not full of beer but natural gas. Wine was unknown except for Manischewitz at Thanksgiving. I forget if eggnog was made with rum or with brandy.
And smoking. First thing in the morning with the instant coffee. Throughout the day. At the dinner table. Worst of all in the car. This with an admonition not to smoke because it would stunt your growth. If that were true, I might have been an NBA star if I hadn’t taken so much secondhand. It was as bad as the acrid LA smog. At least it had the decency not to be omnipresent. My brief attempt to be a grown-up burned my tongue enough to warn me off.
Beyond the parents
I never did nail down how many cousins there were altogether, maybe four dozen of the first degree, half again as many of the second. The Greatest were a prolific generation and mine were American Catholic on one side. Growing up I understood, accurately or no, that the Catholics were under something of an obligation to have large families. This was said to be for the purpose of increasing the proportion of Catholics in the general population. The proposition might also have been an anti-papist hangover. Whichever, large was relative. Three to four seemed to be the norm generally. I formed the impression that seven was the sweet spot for the Catholics. Only children existed across religious, but were a rarity. There may have been childless couples, but no reason to ever run across them.
The rest of the circle was filled by extended family. This began with some people who must have been family because they kept me at five while my mother was having my first brother, Rand. I think it was in Studio City, which doesn’t otherwise resonate. The one definite memory is being served rabbit. I had no idea. Probably, I’d have been equally astonished by lamb, goat, horse or squirrel. Or, even, beef, which I didn’t connect with cows. (Around the same time I thought that “Yon round Virgin” was “ground round version.”) Rand had a dark low hairline, causing me to wonder if he was going to grow to be my own personal Curious George.
My paternal grandfather lived in distant Santa Ana with his wife, Ma Chapman. She was the principal old woman of those years, conspicuous for her rolled down stockings over her elephant calves.
My mother called him Pop. To avoid any confusion with whatever she called her father. He mumbled, had an accent and looked like an ancient Howdy Doody or Charlie McCarthy with prominent marionette lines on his face. He was a draftsman for Douglas Aircraft, had had a profession as a women’s shoe designer and carved apples that he let dry into shriveled faces. No one ever explained why he was Mexican. That didn’t seem normal. It eventuated that although he was born in Mexico and grew up speaking Spanish that he was not really Mexican, or even Spanish, but Basque. In junior high, I learned that being Mexican was not actually respectable and I was glad to embrace the protective coloration of an obscure European ethnicity. The claim turned out to be bogus.
Grandfather Álvaro Otho Careaga and his father Satornio Careaga were born in Matamoros. Álvaro married up, to Esperanza de la Peña, a beautiful, very tall (6-feet) blanca. He and his father were both mestizos. The tell against Euskotarak is the Q-3 haplotype, which belongs to the indios. The origin of the surname is likely some distant Jesuit pulling a surname out of the capello romano for a baptism.
My Irish grandparents lived in Boston. I remember meeting Daniel only once, when I was around 11, perhaps. He was an orphan who found a home in the Navy, rising to CPO. He was reputed to be a quiet man and acclaimed as a saint for his marriage to Marjorie, an unholy terror, possibly bipolar 1, prematurely grey matriarch. Whether her stock were lace curtain or shanty Irish back in County Cork, they were prosperous by the turn of the last century. Of my mother’s grandparents I know nothing apart from her grandmother having nursed her through a childhood illness by spooning brandy into her mouth. The only other member of their generation I heard mention of was Uncle Phil. I never learned if the title was an honorific or whose brother he was until just after I wrote this. He was Marjorie’s brother, along with a Patrick, two others, plus some fostered children. It was Patrick (“Packie”) who introduced his WWI Navy buddy to Marjorie.
Marjorie made herself known as “Dana.” I didn’t know that was an Irish customary name for a grandmother. I learned only recently that Daniel was “Panta.” That derivation I know not.
My father’s older brother Alphonse visited with one of his families once and their younger brother Rudy once. Rudy must have been down on hi/s luck because he was given some of my clothes, including my grandfather Fleming’s black-and-white wool buffalo plaid shirt that I’d come by after his death. Rudy later fell to his death in Minneapolis while cleaning windows. Their sister Hope I didn’t meet until I had left home. The youngest, Robert, son of Álvaro’s second marriage who also lived in Orange County we saw with his wife and children. He became a family pariah when he left his wife for a man who he lived with the rest of his life. I liked Bob and Lee, when I met them in college and wished I hadn’t lost touch. I heard of a great-uncle Faustus, another shoe designer, but never met him. I met a great aunt at Álvaro’s funeral.
I had brief contact with my mother’s brothers, Fred and Danny. Fred was a flight engineer for Eastern Airlines, the third cockpit man, when he died in a crash at Idlewild, now JFK. Danny was remarkable to me for his wife Dotty, a childhood sweetheart, and their five children all named with letters that began with D.
Of my mother’s sisters, I met the youngest, Alice, on the single trip “home” to Boston when I was thirteen and once afterward when she came to visit us. Since neither of her brothers became priests she was naturally designated to fill the vacancy and became a novice. After a few years she found that she did not have a vocation and left. I heard her mother exclaim that Alice had killed her father as a result. She gave me a rosary, perhaps as gentle encouragement to return to my faith. She may have felt that Richard Cardinal Cushing, when he was Archbishop of Boston and signed my birth certificate, needed reinforcements. I knew her, her husband Frank and their four children later. For someone who didn’t find a calling in the cloister she is very devout. She is also one of the three sweetest hearts I’ve ever known.
Extended family consisted mainly of my other two aunts, Patricia, the eldest, and Theo, with Danny and my mother one of three middle children, and their husbands and children. We all briefly lived in the same vicinity and they swept the largest part of the π in our circle.
My Uncles Jim and Ed were satellites around their respective wives. Patrick was as blond and pale Irish as they come, easy going. He had been an RAF pilot during the War but didn’t succeed at turning his dozens of bombing runs into a career in civil aviation, despite a sharp mind that he kept behind an easy going screen. (He had been surprised at the outbreak of war to discover that he was a Canadian citizen, accounting for flying in the British air war. None of the European air wars was a picnic. His was odds defying. I never heard him talk of it.) Alongside his father-in-law he should have been beatified, at least. Ed was a Pole, an accountant maybe with a ferret face and a vaguely wiseguy demeanor. The fifties was a time of transition from the transformation of racial classification based on national origin to a washed out whiteness, and Polish “extraction” was a novelty, but without much to distinguish it, really, except when it also came with the tag Jew.
My cousins there number 11 in all—three boys and eight girls, split 7/4 between Patricia, and Theo. Together with my mother’s three (with a fourth to catch up and a fifth later) we made a tribe. Patricia’s distressed us collectively because they did not know that children should only speak in hushed tones and had fun whopping it up. Theo’s made little lasting impression on my long-term memory. I was closest to my slightly older cousin Cherie, a strikingly beautiful blue-eyed blonde who stunned me in the cradle, as far as I know, but certainly from my earliest memory of her at 6. The bond we formed remains. She is the second of the three sweet women I have know and grew to be a formidable woman.
The center ring of the social circus was the trio of sisters. When they all came together they carried on three simultaneous conversations on three topics, for hours on end. I don’t know why I sat there in awed contemplation of the flow of words as one watching a spectacle so beyond comprehension. When they visited one-on-one, their conversations were more readily followed, although topics would weave in and out like Bach motifs. They revolved around their Boston in the 30s, their siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. I never got the lineup card to keep them straight. The experience was the same dazed fascination.
Most of family life, of course, was closer to home.
It came in episodes. Five years as only child was followed by promotion to big brother with additions to the portfolio three years later and again four years after that. A half brother, Scotty, came along after I was married. Scotty was the child of my mother’s second husband Red. Mother was expecting him at my wedding. Scott I know less than my my other siblings and I will neglect him and Red as outside the same circle of connections thought of as one’s “people.” Both should have their own stories.
Steven Rand, known then Randy and since Rand, was my practice kid. I might have diapered him, as I did sister Jeanne and brother Greg later, but probably not. He was my roommate until I was in high school we moved to a house with enough room for a family of six.
Rand was a prodigious child. Before five he not only spoke in paragraphs, but with the cadence and intonation of Noel Coward. As he grew, he would spend hours intensely concentrating on drawing tiny figures. He still uses a 000 drafting pen. He also fearlessly baited father, ever surprised to provoke a volcanic eruption. I took on the office of intercessor, sometimes a volunteer fall guy.
Jeanne was a shy girl, not easily coaxed. For a time she subsided on scrambled eggs with ketchup. We roamed freely in the neighborhood streets and backyards and pools, except for the year in Seattle. Cold and rain was alien to our sense of the outdoors. In California we all grew dark, Jeanne and Rand markedly so. Jeanne would claim to be Hawaiian to account for her complexion to teachers and schoolmates.
Greg may have been a reconciliation baby. He was certainly a hard-luck case. Pigeon toed and lazy eyed, he had a severe allergic shock to a hand cream and pulled a coffee pot off the stove onto the chest, raising an ugly scar. One day he toddled down the street to a drug store with a sack and cleaned out a mass of vitamins. I was deputed to return the loot, cooling the mark.
We four were together between 1961 and 1964 when the wheels of the 17-year long marriage finally fell off the wagon.
More parental backstory
Parents are at the core of one’s people. Mine was a pair of matched dueling pistols, children who never broke under parental emotional abuse but took the hurt out on each other.
Álvaro Gilbert, never junior, actually just Al, was the older, by five years. He was born in Laredo, which was common for well-off Mexican families along that part of the border. Half-orphaned at five, he was left with his brothers and sister at a children’s home run by nuns. Álvaro Otho returned to Matamoros for unknown reasons, said by his son to have been overcome with grief. The man relates the boyhood experience as a happy time trotting out with the cows and his little lunch pail and leading them home to be milked in the evening. His older brother and sister were said, by a cousin, to have detested it. Rudy would have been too young to remember.
Grandfather solved the day care problem in the usual way, by marrying a widow. All I ever learned of the household was that she disfavored her new stepchildren abusively. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 Al asked to go there to fight and had no preference as to which side. Permission was refused and he graduated high school in 1939, a tall, skinny kid, a sharp dresser and big-time Big Band fan. There was a trip with his father to the New York World’s Fair, followed by a gap in my understanding for 1940 and most of 1941.
On December 7, 1941 he was in St. Petersburg training for the merchant marine. He made it out just under the transfer freeze deadline to take the train to New Orleans to enlist in the Marines. After basic, he shipped out for the Pacific where their war was getting underway. On the way he and other 6-footers were volunteered for a newly formed special operations unit, the lightly armed First Marine Raider Battalion. He landed with them on Tulagi in August 1942 then went on to Guadalcanal to hold the one airfield against Japanese assault. He swept on up the Solomon Islands, won a woman in a hand of poker on Bougainville, then hit the beach on Guam and was immediately hit, nearly fatally.
It was a bitter war, with nothing resembling chivalry. He talked little of it until his old age, when it assumed the leading role in his life’s story. He got an eventual PTSD ticket to go with the rest of his wounds, when psychiatric injury began to be recognized after the Gulf War.
After a long convalescence he returned home to St. Louis, had a brief romance with Beulah Mae, a brewery heiress, but began his sales career as a photographic supply representative in Mexico City, where he met my mother.
Bernice, “Bunny” to her family, but a second “Pat” to the world, was as bad a girl a Boston Irish girl could possibly be without actually getting shipped to the mercies of an Our Lady for the Redemption of Wayward Girls somewhere. The family dynamics were unclear, but her mother seemed to have taken it out on Patricia, on the one hand—screaming “how could you let her do that!” or on Theo on the other, who may have suffered beatings better laid at Bunny’s door. She ran away to NYC at 15, surviving somehow, before being fetched back. She was a looker and lore has it that when she was a waitress at the Parker House after the War, JFK gave her a once-over. That may not be a great distinction in light of what has since been learned of the man.
But she definitely caught the eyes of at least two men in 1946, when she ran away from home the last time, at 20. One is an illusive figure who was going to take her to Hollywood and the other my father. She dumped the one and fell into the arms of the second. By then she was calling herself Pat. Perhaps she had stolen Patricia’s identification. Originally, I thought that it might have been a case of envying big sister, but that’s now unclear to me. Also, along the way she had morphed from a dark-haired, southern Irish lass into a striking blonde.
Received teaching is that it was a one-week courtship, culminating in a September civil wedding. Her mother called me a bastard once, which I took literally. I still don’t know if she meant that her daughter had not had a church wedding or she was referring to some relationship between the date of the wedding and the date of my birth, ten months later. There are arguments to be made on both sides. Pent-up nuptials demand was a noted phenomenon of the post-war scene. It was a good time to be an ex-pat couple in Mexico City as a tall, handsome man and stunning blonde. A society photographer, Vic de Palma, brought them into teh scene. They had a tiny dog, Toco, the stories of which consist of one photograph and an anecdote. They’d spend themselves down to the price of a last pack of Delicados, the cheapest available.
I was an early illegal alien under the theory that life begins in utero and my mother crossed the border illegally. She had overstayed her tourist card and her husband had to bribe our way out of Mexico, although not into the US. They went to Boston for delivery and then to St. Louis. There was a possibly going-home-to-my-mother visit sometime later and a return to St. Louis.
My father continued a career in sales, this time selling Playtex brand underwear. My mother, I suppose, was a housewife, then the principal occupational category for women. She said that she considered trading up my father for my pediatrician. I don’t know if that was an affair of the heart or simply an affair. Whether it has any connection to our move to Houston is unknown, as is how long we stayed there before washing up in California.
The sales career settled on housewares and was always national, with frequent 2-3 week absences. After one return there was a loud fight and a broken telephone and a hole in the ceiling. In the coffee table drawer were torn letters that even innocent 8-year old mind could read as romantic. I didn’t know what “with Al on the Isle of Capri” referred to, but the message got through. Only arrogant stupidity or emotional cruelty could have brought them into the house. What idiot gives his one-nighter or girlfriend his home address?
A couple of years later, the next move was to Seattle. Why the move and why Seattle was never explained. He did go out on his own as an independent sales representative, but that only meant the same work as a freelance for multiple manufacturers and distributors, still on a national level. Nothing specific to the work seemed to require Seattle as a base. Whatever the motivation, it proved a failed experiment and after a year the family was returned on the pretext that mother didn’t like the lack of sunshine. That was his explanation, not hers, I noticed.
We returned to an identical house a few blocks away, perhaps a rental. After a year and the trip back-East, we moved again to the identical model house, with another pool to keep clean. All three lots now lie beneath California Highway 118. Marital discontent continued to simmer. Mother remarked, out of the blue, that she didn’t know why she ever had me. Reconciling that remark with her usual extravagant characterization of our relationship had no apparent rationale. I ended up as taking it as regret for her impulsive decision to marry. After our longest tenure, three-years, we moved to a tonier neighborhood into a bigger house, this time with a pool.
That coincided with two years of increasingly open warfare. He bellowed at her. She insulted his sexual prowess. The end came after 17-years without apparent joy in being together. Father told me that he was leaving because Mother wouldn’t keep the house clean and orderly. From a guy who made a living in sales that was insultingly low-grade bullshit, especially since he had a replacement ready to hand, a lovely woman, Ginger. She turned out to be more adept at providing the deference he desired. A nice lady.
Mother did not take being the one to be dumped well. She tried to get me to intervene. She got screwed in the property settlement. She had to move from her nice four bedroom into one of the ubiquitous Southern California dingbat apartments with the kids and find work. Pushing 40 and rejected, she went into bar scene overdrive. When I left for college near downtown LA, she moved into a rental house and my sister became friends with one of Ginger’s daughters the next block over. The kids presented somewhat of an embarrassment, so Al and Ginger took Rand and Greg to live with her other children in the house of her ex. He and his girlfriend moved out, so it was to the neighborhood more like a change in management.
After that, I was only ever a visitor to my parents until my father’s final illness when the siblings assumed responsibility for his care before his death from an unnecessary hip replacement. He left me a death letter. He wanted to be sure that I knew how very proud he was. To be a Marine all his life.
Mother died at 70 after abusing her quadruple bypass with smoking and drinking for over 20 years. Jeanne, who had been trapped with her until leaving home at 15, bore the brunt of the years following my leaving. I will always feel guilt for having abandoned my post to go to college, especially given how the experience failed to match my expectation.
At the onset of adulthood, I entered society as a young man of uncertain provenance. In the stratum in which I assumed that I would land, my parents were not to be put forward as credentials and I avoided mentioning them whenever possible. In jumping ship I left behind many of my people. It would take me too long to find them again.
Tolstoy and Dickens enlighten on friends and family
We often fail to know our own hearts, never more so than our future hearts.
I entered college intended for the Foreign Service, at the prompting of my mother. Where she got that idea is unclear. To please her and for lack of any better notion, I duly enrolled in Russian classes. The summer after my freshman year, I read War and Peace. Not in the original, of course, but in the hope that someday I might.
An older roommate remarked that after I finished I would “feel as if I had made many friends.” With that priming, I did. With each re-reading I re-connected.
In high school a few years earlier I had no such guide to David Copperfield. I read it because it was a “classic” and wondered why. Of course, I was reading to find out what was happening next, which seemed inordinately drawn out and mostly inconsequential. Of the characters, I thought David rather passive, Heep and Micawber caricatures, and others merely fillers or decorative. I may have got all the way through it but mostly forgot it until seeing the recent screen adaptation.
Thereupon, I determined to renew my long-suspended acquaintance with Mr. Charles Dickens and to read again his work David Cooperfield with the eyes of a man matured by many years and experiences with the object of ascertaining whether the work, still held in esteem as a classic of English Literature, would vary in my consideration from that I deigned to bestow upon it when I was but a callow youth those many years past, now, in the San Fernando Valley, a world and society so far removed from London as to be barely conceivable, even today, after having indeed been to London and seen some of the places in which the author places his tale.
It struck me less as Dickensian than as insightful into universals. London has its downtrodden masses and I can’t doubt that given the franchise and a Trump that they would have had any great reluctance to vote their grievances. Our age is no stranger to dysfunctional families, police-state schoolrooms and class repression.
Reading it this time for not what happens but what is observed was the great difference. It struck me as the autobiography that Dickens wishes he could have written. Myself, I would never be able to write a 700-page account of my life through childhood and youth. Whole provinces have sunk beneath memory. I have not the imagination to create a coherent account.
The characters are finely drawn even when they are drawn as types, but there is such a richness of unforgettable portraits. Dora, his child-wife, was a babied daughter who never grew up. His eccentric Aunt Trotwood and her particular friend Mr. Dick, his nurse Peggoty, her relations, old school chums, all come into focus either instantly or over the course as fogs around them lift to reveal their particular truths.
There is sentimentality, which I indulged to the end, when it overtook me. David looks back upon his life to date, his circumstances, his wife and children, his friends and relations and their circles and takes from it not self-satisfaction but contentment.
I closed wishing that my younger hearts had considered more closely the matter of friends and family. I’ve been, at least, inconsistent. My lack of talent for friendship left me only with a wealth of former acquaintances but really no one I’ve ever called on for help, even where I would have been given it if asked. Guarded all my life, I would give but not take. I don’t recall ever crying for help to anyone before coming to close to a dead end, when I returned to my closest people.
This might be an autobiography or maybe all that is worth relating? ¿Quién sabe? If I were to go there, the quartos would possibly fall along these lines:
- Before Reason
- Bon Garçon Richard
- Young Loves
- On Fortune’s Cap, I am not the very button
- Tectonic Shifts
- Shot at and Missed
- Second Run
- Faking it as a Gateway Drug
- Fast Talking
- A Second Fall of Mankind
- In the Service of Despoilers
- Far Ends
- A Second Attempt
- Educated Fool
- Called to the Bar
- Dot Bust on the Side
- In the Service of Rentiers
- Deferred Maintenance and a Scare
- Up the Maypole
- Tumbling Down the Stairs
- Back to Blue
- Boarding Passes