4. Family Matters

Unorthodox starOne day Tookie brought his wife and child to the home of his brother, Aron, a car salesman, who lived a few miles away. Tookie could not afford the big American car like the one Uncle Aron drove, which would have delighted Velvul. His father had purchased an economy model imported from Germany called Goliath. Unlike its gargantuan name, the car was barely bigger than the sofa in their living room. Velvul sat in back, looking between his parents’ shoulders out the little windshield. When they arrived at his uncle’s split-level home in the suburbs, Razel got out, tilted her seat back forward so that little Velvul could extricate himself from the rear. Before he could pull his tiny hand away, Tookie slammed the passenger door shut on Velvul’s finger. His parents walked arm-in-arm up the long cement path through the lush green lawn to the house while their son stood on the curb, screaming in pain. Tookie turned back and ordered Vevlul to hurry up, but the boy just stood and bawled. “I’ll give you something to cry about,” his father threatened, but when Razel ran back, she discovered what had happened, opened the door and lovingly lifted the damaged hand. She gave her husband a scowl, but he just turned away and walked briskly up to his brother’s front door.

Aunt Minnie was a nurse and took care of the broken skin and bleeding, gently cleaning the area and applying a fun-looking bandage decorated with cartoon characters. While Tookie and Aron sat on the Spanish-red, crushed-velvet, overstuffed furniture in the spacious living room arguing over who was more successful, Velvul went down to the rec room to play board games with his two cousins, David and Esther. They were a few years older and resented the way their grandparents doted over Velvul, who never seemed to win at any of the board games they played together.

Sometimes they went to visit Razel’s oldest sister, Aunt Reenie, who smoked lots of cigarettes and screamed at everyone what she wanted them to do for her in a loud, raspy voice. Like her sister, Reenie never learned to cook either, and the dinners she prepared mostly tasted like mushy, burnt cardboard, except for the slimy frozen peas. Velvul had never learned to like vegetables at home, and he would not eat the pale green spheroids on his plate that tasted like snotballs. “Eat all your peas, Velvul, or I’m going to lock you in Farvel’s bedroom until you do!” his aunt would holler. Velvul spent more hours than he could remember locked in his cousin’s bedroom contemplating ways to escape his horrible life.

Grandma Rosa (who detested being called “Granny”) and Aunt Reenie (whom Rosa called “Ree”) maintained a verbally pugilistic, but loving-from-a-distance, relationship. At one family gathering, Aunt Reenie shouted across the table, “Hey, Ma, I keep forgetting, your hearing is going. Which is your good ear?”

Rosa’s distaste for dealing with the unpleasant subjects of aging and health matched her hatred of the word, ‘Granny.’ She stood up, pushed her chair back, bent slightly over the table, pointed to her butt, and answered her daughter, “This one, Ree! This is my good ear. Talk into this one.” She returned to her chair while everyone smiled and giggled.

If the room had not had so many family members gathered together, Aunt Reenie would have probably responded with one her favorite expressions: “Shit in your hat and pull it down over your ears!” Their good-natured feud continued right up until the day Reenie died in her mother’s arms from lung cancer caused by all those carcinogenic cigarettes.

Razel would occasionally take Velvul to visit some of his female school friends in the afternoon. The moms would sit in the living room, watching their stories and talking on and on about their stories, while Velvul ended up playing “House” with his friends. Because no one had ever spoken to him about comparative anatomy, there was no “Show me yours and I’ll show you mine” going on, just imitations of non-sexual grown-up activities. The girls would inevitably take on the traditional female roles of cooking, cleaning, ironing, and dressing up. Velvul had to sit at the table and pretend to read the newspaper (which was much less interesting than when Grandma Yeti read it to him). He liked to collect empty bandage packets whenever he had a boo-boo because he used them as “teabags” when playing house. Once you opened the package, there was a small piece attached by a red string to a larger piece, which vaguely resembled a real teabag. At least making tea was somewhat closer to what actually interested Velvul. On the way home, Razel would ask how things were with his girlfriend, a word that made Velvul twitch. “She’s a girl, and she’s my friend, but she’s not my girlfriend.” If only he could spend afternoons with the boys he liked from class. That would have been much better. Velvul found some of the guys attractive and friendly. They might have played with their model cars together or built things out of mud.

Besides cars, Velvul liked making things, or even better: taking things apart. Frequently, Tookie would come home from the fix-it shop to find the vacuum cleaner in pieces strewn around the living room. It could have also been the telephone, the television, the record player. Anything with moving parts that could be disassembled, Velvul deconstructed with his inquisitive magic. Tookie would groan and retrieve his tool kit to reassemble the hapless appliances. Once in a while, he got so mad at Velvul, he removed the cardboard belt from his waist, folded it in half, grabbed it with both hands and began pulling the ends tightly, making a loud “snap!” sound. The exasperated father would chase his son around the apartment broken-field style, menacingly continuing the snapping noise, until he finally caught the child and belted him so hard his backside took on new and unimaginable hues. Velvul used to consider this bruised flesh as his own private “coloring book.” When his father shouted in anger, “You’re going to wish you had never been born!” he probably had no idea the seed of that thought had already been planted in Velvul’s head long before.


Next up: Funny Stuff (“A serious thing happened on the way to…”)




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