I learned very little about the grandparents on my father's side of the family. And even less about Grandpa then Grandma. But I do recall some of my younger years, and those occasions when I was dropped off at their house up on Battle Hill in White Plains. The place was ghetto fabulous with the funky air battling it out with the kitchen odors. In the end, both the kitchen and foul air settled into the deep shag carpet.
Babysitting me wasn't hard. Just get me in front of that old record player and leave me with the stack of Jackson Five records that myself and other grandchildren would play over and over, despite the cracks or scratches in the vinyl.
Just a little bit of love every day
will surely keep the doctor away.
I used to play that damned "Fly Robin Fly" 45 so much that I don't think I'll ever forget the lyrics. I will also never forget seeing a shotgun in Grandma's house, behind the door in her bedroom. I was incredibly curious in my adolescent years, but not enough to touch that thing. Instead, I was more interested in Grandma's entrepreneurial spirit. She grew her very own greeting card store-a small shop on Prospect Avenue in Mt. Vernon, New York-from the bottom up. When she passed away, my father took it over. He in turn took her efforts a step further, molding the small enterprise into a candy store, and eventually, the entrepreneur stepped his game up and developed a chain of six bodegas. For some reason, I got to know my grandparents on my mother's side of the family a lot better. Grandpa was the only relative I've known to represent the Indian heritage in our blood. He looked the part too, with the long, stringy hair and deeply wrinkled Coppertone skin. And, in my eyes, he also carried himself as a traditional Indian; always so reserved, sitting quietly while watching TV or reading a book. My grandmother meanwhile was the irritation, the energy, the voice, and the love that Grandpa enjoyed to death.
Out of all my relatives, Grandma probably made the biggest impression. I remember those 6- ounce glasses of apple cider she served me, just like I remember those greasy foods Dad used to sell in the deli. Grandma was also on the radical side of feisty. In a humorous way, she was sarcastic, pessimistic, disbelieving, and very set in her ways. These attributes were inherited by my mom, and are subsequently a part of me, her only son. My mother wasn't the complacent type to just sit around the house and mope about my father's frequent absences or constant infidelities. Absolutely not. What that did was set the tone for the conflicts, the debates, the arguing, and the domestic violence that took place at home. Dad needed a woman to take care of him, put up with him, and still maintain her dignity while keeping her fucking mouth shut. And that was not
Mom. Mom rebelled. She was Miss Individuality. Already so versatile in her youth, Mom was always involved in the arts and music, and she was even a hockey player in school.
Even as my parents hooked up and made enough babies to keep Mom busy, Mom's wants and desires and progressive nature stood out like a flag or a symbol of her independence and liberation. I wouldn't lie and say ours was a single- parent house - hold, but with Dad always working, it felt just like one. It was only because of Mom's curiosity that my childhood was more of a pretty picture; she made sure I was exposed to a brighter and more prosperous lifestyle than the hood we were subjected to.
Digging into the family heirlooms, I found the newspaper clippings showing Dad as the next Jackie Robinson before he lost his leg during a car accident. The follow- up press clippings showed how he overcame the odds by bouncing back, despite his prosthetic limb. There was significant pain in that closet-put away, .led in boxes, out of plain view. It was a history that I would not come to terms with until years later when I'd shed my youth and ignorance.
I only remember the good times, and the family joys up until maybe age nine or ten. I remember getting to know my two sisters as they came into the world one by one. Mom would have her three children do exercises regularly and we'd stand on line for a tablespoon of castor oil. I remember Christmas when it was rich and plentiful; the .re engine under the tree, the homemade ornaments, and the two or three snowfalls so massive that cars couldn't budge through our suburban streets. I remember spending quality time in a tree house I built in our backyard, and how me and my sisters would tease the neighbor's dog, until the day he broke loose and chased us. Those were the days. In my early teens the joys I knew as a youngster gave way to more miserable circumstances. Dad took some risks, investing heavily in bullet- proof glass and the expansion of the deli. Yet even though the new deli and liquor combination was the biggest business in our neighborhood, the venture did not come without its challenges. In short, the family business began to suffer growing pains. There were financial woes and certain sacrifices had to be made, including Dad selling our first home, with our family of four forced to downsize our living arrangements to squeeze into a small apartment positioned over one of his stores. That meant sleeping side by side with my sisters and doing what was necessary to make the family unit work. And I never realized how heavy the burden, to be just one man with so much potential, with so many duties, and with so many expectations to fulfill. However, my dad always survived the rain and maintained his want and desire for more. I later learned about the other brothers I had, children my father sired out of wedlock. I also learned of the other women-women other than my mom. Couple that with Dad's growing gambling habit and the pieces of the picture begin to come together.
Dad's other life was a secret to all of us, until later on. And I'm not sure if my mother was aware, but it must've taxed our family unity somethin' vicious. Not to mention the expense of carrying other women and children, and how that must've contributed to the downsizing from a four- bedroom house in the suburbs to a two- bedroom apartment in the ghetto.
Still, the "family businesses" once again flourished, especially with the heavy markups on the groceries, as well as the fast food and liquor that was available for consumption twenty- four hours a day, seven days a week. It was a sign of the times, and the one significant entity that my father decided to keep blossomed in the spring and bloomed during the summer. The deli and liquor store combination was a hit, serving customers for blocks in every direction. As a family, we survived the employee thefts, the armed robberies, and my dad's infidelity, and I personally survived the neighborhood shenanigans that I began to indulge in-stealing bikes, gambling, and various degrees of trespassing. We eventually moved back to the north side of town, back to the suburban side of Mt. Vernon's four square miles of mostly residential properties.
All the while, even as Dad battled to achieve success with his small business, enjoying a positive cash flow from the sales of the other stores, as well as (I'm sure) his new fifteen- hour- plus distance from his family, I still maintained this mischievous lifestyle that brought about constant school troubles, neighborhood conflicts, and frequent whippings from both Mom and Dad. I remember Mom's whippings and how she used switches until the bushes where we lived lost their consistency. Dad, on the other hand, played a whole different ball game, wielding a leather belt that was my worst enemy. Or maybe I was my own worst enemy and the belt was merely the .x- it for my troublesome ways. I'm not sure why I never changed, why I never made the effort to "straighten up and .y right," as Dad always used to say while he beat me until I had welts on my body, and sometimes until I bled. But when I think of it now, it seems like it was a mix of my being the punching bag for that black man's burdens, and me waiting to chart my own course, do what I wanted to do, and take what- ever I could get my greedy hands on along the way.
I went through a puberty that was hardly recognizable; no significant, overnight voice changes like I remembered from Peter Brady, the TV character that I most identified with. And I didn't experience any obvious physical growth. Just a gradual growth that left me lanky and hyperactive. But that was no major issue, not for the dysfunctional life that I was leading.
My big wake- up call was hearing my parents' arguments escalate to physical abuse. With all three children in the house and my smallest sister hiding under her bed, my dad would slam closed his bedroom door and he would put the belt on Mom, no gentler than he put it on me. I listened to the leather hit her skin and I knew how it felt. I knew how bad it stung. I knew it hurt like hell and I knew it left marks. And Mom had light skin, so her marks were more prominent.
I'd hear Mom scrambling through the bedroom, running as best she could from Dad, trying to escape through the door. Screaming. Crying, "No!"
I wondered if all of Lorraine Avenue could hear this as I heard it. And I began to weigh things and compare all that was happening behind our closed doors to the various other ills on our block. Maybe our block being a "dead end" had some significance because just as violence existed in our house, it also went on across the street, where an Italian family lived, as well as in another home where a family of Jamaicans lived. During my lengthy relationship with one of the girls from that family, I found out that the lady of that house was getting the dog shit beaten out of her. In a sick way, seeing other dysfunctional families and knowing of their experiences with physical abuse made it seem okay. Still, these images are etched into my mind like a sad Billie Holliday tune with words I'll never forget. They are images I must live with for the rest of my life.
I guess I'm jaded.
Excerpted from Seems Like You' Re Ready by Relentless Aaron.
Copyright © 2004 by Relentless Aaron.
Published in October 2008 by St.Martin's Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.