As I mentioned last week, I grew up knowing almost nothing about what people often refer to as the “great family,” in other words the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and so on. On the other hand, my three older brothers, and especially my two oldest brothers, Billy and Frankie, knew all about them because they were born way back when all our grandparents were still alive, and lived through the years when my aunts and uncles got married and began having kids.
But me? “The kid?” The one and only grandparent I ever met was Grandma Schuster on my mother’s side. By the time I met her she was an old lady with no teeth, and the only thing I ever learned about her was that she came to the United States from Baden-Baden, Germany. Sadly, she was gone before I was 6 years old.
On top of that, Daddy died when I was barely 5. I have no memory of him at all.
However, I do remember some things about a few relatives because I saw them when I was very young. For example, I knew that Daddy’s sister Grace lived up in “snob city” atop Ward Hill on Staten Island. She lived in a fancy house — with a maid, during the Great Depression — along with her husband, Farrell Kane, a New York City District Attorney, and their two kids, Joanie, two years or so older than I was and very likable, and Farrell Junior, nicknamed Buzzie, who was my age, and was someone I thoroughly disliked.
I also remember two crazy old ladies who used to come to the house and “talk” to Mom. How could I forget them? They were named Lizzie and Gussie, and when they visited us they “talked” with their hands instead of the usual way because Gussie was deaf and mute.
I will never forget them because they seemed so odd to me, and because Mom told me something about Aunt Gussie that still makes me shudder. Mom said that when Aunt Gussie was young she was unable to speak, but could hear just fine; and even though she was supposedly unable to speak she would come out with a word or two once in a while.
However, when some “dodo of a head doctor,” as Mom put it, told her parents that Gussie would grow up “nervous” they “let that dodo doctor,” as Mom always put it, “take a knitting needle and destroy her eardrums.” Although she was now both deaf and mute, she still occasionally blurted out a few words, suggesting that she would have probably learned to talk!
Can you imagine the state of psychiatry in that era? Ugh!
Then there was Uncle Willie, who often used to drift in from a nearby bar with a “pail of beer,” an aluminum container in which you could buy a few pints of take-out beer in a bar in those days. He was quite nice, but he died when I was very young, and Mom — who was never short of descriptive phrases — told me that the doctor had said his liver was “as hard as a rock.”
Then there was the mystery of my three Aunt Mabels. Except for one of them, Mom’s sister, who lived out in Grandma Schuster’s old house in the country with her husband Wallace Crabbe and their son Wallace, I had no idea how I could have three aunts with the same name.
Next week: One of the greatest surprises of my life.