Goodbye Moonshine Man

I am sitting in my small Santa Monica apartment when Mom calls. She refuses to take her anti-psychotic medication these days, dozing in and out of sanity. It’s hard to believe if what she is saying these days is true or not. “Charlie, Haliti vdiq.” She speaks very matter of fact. “Haliti died” Grandpa had rarely been sick, he was a tough Albanian country man, who religiously brewed his own moonshine with the grapes that grew in his garden. But I believe Mom. Partly because a few seconds into our conversation my younger brother texts with the news.

But still neither mom’s words nor my brother’s message hit a cord, no tears, no sick feeling in the stomach, nothing.

It isn’t that I don’t care about my grandfather. I believe I loved him. Last time I had seen my grandfather when I visited Albania, I stayed with him and grandma. At 76 he hadn’t slowed down a bit. When the 6ft wall that separated his garden from the neighborhood had been damaged in an earthquake, he dragged his hurt leg and re-built it himself. Brick after brick. He refused any help.

At the end of the trip I remember grandmas last words.

“Call us okay?” she says as we hug one last time and the smell of her warm cooked peppers wafts off the white gauze scarf she wraps around her grey bob. Now guilt rushes in.

I never call my grandparents after that trip. Not once.

“What a cold hearted bitch” I hear my inner voice railing on me. “Why hadn’t I?”

I know being an immigrant has toughened me up in some ways. And it had also numbed me.

Numbing up was a better guarantee of survival. My family’s first many years as immigrants in the US were fraught with so much drama, pain and poverty. When my mother’s mental illness got out of hand, I was the only one in the family to admit there was something wrong and eventually had to make the call that landed her at Bergen Regional, a mental hospital in New Jersey. I was nineteen. Already having spent 10 days in a looney the year prior when I’d called the suicide hotline.

Mom was the one who usually called our extended family in Albania. The last few years the relationship between her and my grandparents had been strained.

Dad had told me that she’d often call my grandmother at 2 or 3am Albanian time and go on one of her delusional rants. Speaking about dead Albanian relatives she’d seen roaming the streets of Hackensack New Jersey, where my parents now lived.

Dad would have to intervene or eventually grandma’s patience would run out and she’d hang up, usually in tears, upset Mom was so delusional. I felt too embarrassed to call grandma. I always felt I had to make excuses for mom.

When my grandparents refused to accept mom’s invitation to come visit us in America Mom had been furious and upset. I understood and was angry with her, but I also realized my grandparents had spent a lifetime dealing with a daughter who seemed too wild, too much for them. For most.

“They never loved me” Mom moaned for days, weeks, months, then eventually her madness got the worse of her. She rarely spoke of them anymore. I never knew what had really happened between Mom and her parents when she was young. I wish I knew.

My grandparents were tough country folks, they were also kulaks. Persecuted by the communist regime because their families had owned lands pre-communism. My grandfather’s dad, my great grandfather had hung himself off a fig tree in his land when the communist came to snatch everything he’d worked for. My grandpa had to learn to fend for himself early on.

I want to cry for my grandfather, I want to be there for him, but I can’t.  To cry means to feel the pain and to remember the past. To forgive him and grandma for never visiting us, for whatever I assume they might have done to Mom. For sometimes wondering if his moonshine obsession had something to do with Mom becoming addicted to alcohol from an early age.

I call my brother Ergi in NY. It’s already ten in the evening there. His work as an inner city teacher and his second master’s studies keep him busy. But he answers. “I meant to call you but it’s been crazy.” he says, sounding exhausted.

“I know it’s okay”

“You got my message about grandpa?” he asks worried.

“Yea, mom called too. She didn’t even sound upset”

“Yea that’s mom for you, she’ll panic over the silliest thing but her father dies you’d think she didn’t even know the guy.” Ergi ads sighing in a tired laugh.

“How are you feeling though?” we rarely speak these days.

“Better than I thought. It’s crazy how living apart makes you not as upset, you know. It’s like you let yourself feel and in some ways you’re kinda fucked cuz you can’t do much about it. I mean I haven’t seen the guy in forever. I’ve forgotten what he looks like.” His words are somewhat comforting. I know exactly what he means.

I decide to rummage through some old boxes where I’d hid old photographs of my family. Some from my childhood in Elbasan, Albania. Some from our early years as fresh off the boat immigrants in New Jersey.

Black and white photographs of our family at the beach before life in Albania became a shit show and even those gorgeous beaches were too dangerous to visit. Black and white photos of me as a baby. The first colored photo of my little brother and I posed in a bush in the main park, taken by one of the local photographers since nobody owned personal cameras. Photos of our parents’ wedding, even one of my mother in the special black wedding dress my paternal grandmother had sewn of her.

But no photos of Grandpa. I quickly rummage my memories of him. They always begin in the house he’d built in the north end valley of our lil ol city of Elbasan. His immaculate garden, chickens running around kookooing, the whole property surrounded by his all organic white and red grapes. So many you’d bump your head thru the bushels as you walked through the front gate in the later summer months. The time when I was seven and sat on his lap curious as to what that wood oven in the middle of the garden my dad had built for him was being used for.

“I wanna try grandpa” He doesn’t hesitate.

The small shot glass smells like rubbing alcohol and grapes. It’s warm, immediately comforting but also nauseating. I take a small sip feeling the heat burn up my insides.

“Yuck” I pucker my lips and run off. Grandpa laughs.

Then there is Grandpa sitting on the veranda, writing in his mysterious notebook in the early afternoons. A notebook he keeps locked in an old wooden box at the foot of his bed. Grandpa was a serious man. He spent hours watching the news. Yelling at the politicians on the screens for making empty promises. Then I remember grandpa, who wasn’t one to give compliments, telling me one hot summer afternoon when I am twelve: “You’re smart, you know. You can make something of your life.” I don’t know what to make of it. “Did he mean it? Or was he trying to make up for the times when he’d make fun of my dad for not being able to hold his alcohol well.”

My heart is softening up but my mind is still fighting it. I wish I could’ve been closer to my grandparents. I wanted to know them better, as an adult. I wanted to ask them about mom. Sometimes I’d blamed them for her madness. “They must’ve done something to her.” I remember feeling upset as a teenager when mom’s madness hit its peak. But I would never know. I close my eyes and realize I don’t want to live with anger in my heart for a dead person. I have to let it go, all of it, the questions and the silent accusations. I imagine his soul somewhere between the living in the dead. “I hope you hear me. I didn’t know you so well but I want to wish you a good afterlife. Goodbye Moonshine Man.”

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Living in Sin

Recently, writer Royal Young suffered the loss of his grandfather, Zayde.  As he writes in Fameshark,  his memoir noir (Heliotrope Books 2013), “My maternal grandparents Babbi and Zayde supported everything that had to do with the arts. Their three-story house in Great Neck, Long Island was crammed with Zayde’s impressionist paintings and Babbis’ sculptures.”  Royal called it “Jewish Grey Gardens”, and everything about this picture was in direct contrast to my own maternal grandparents.

This month marks the tenth anniversary of my grandfather’s death, and I feel nothing, really.  We were not close since twenty years prior, though close is a stretch to define our relationship even at all.  Anthony Beaudry, my aloof French-Canadian grandfather: he smoked cigars incessantly, my father hated cigars. Whenever my grandparents came down from Worcester, Massachusetts, to visit us at my childhood home in Noank, Connecticut, Anthony was forced outside to smoke his smelly cigars. Yet the house reeked all weekend and even after they left. My other three grandparents, Anthony’s wife Louise Caputo, my paternal grandmother, Helen Pelosi, and my namesake paternal grandfather Rocco Gemma, all radiated an Italian warmth, or at least parlayed easy company.

I left the United States on January 4, 1989 to study abroad for my last college semester, meaning I would graduate while in Grenoble, France, and I had no intention of returning home for an anonymous graduation at UCONN.  Plus, my parents’ divorce was finalized on August 17, 1989, a process that started in the spring of 1987 when my sister was just about to graduate from high school.  Time was up, and my mom made the announcement, as soon as I got settled in my first dorm room, fourth semester, up at UCONN Storrs, having just moved out of the house in Noank, having lived at home for my first three semesters at UCONN Avery Point.

My sister had started college in the fall of 1987 at URI, and seeking sisterly solace would drive Route 138 West over to UCONN most every weekend, not wanting to go home to Noank.  My parents had separated, but due to each of them not wanting to grant the space to the other, they were still living at the same address: my childhood home, a raised split-level ranch, where my mom lived in the upstairs, and my dad lived in the downstairs- a situation that was not fun for anyone. It took another year before my mom moved out, in the fall of 1988.

I was ready to move off campus as well, three semesters of dorm living were three too many for me. In the same fall of 1988  that my mom moved to a temporary place in her hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, I moved into a modest Colonial  brick house with four other roommates that I had casually met in the last year, three boys from Fairfield County and the sweetest hippie girl from Norwich.  My sister Maria continued to visit me at UCONN, arriving at the brick house most every weekend. When I left for France in January 1989 for my eighth and final college semester, Maria transferred from URI to Northeastern in Boston, and looked up one of my former brick house roommates, who had already transferred to UMASS Boston.  She moved in with him, as a familiar counterpart. During the year that I was abroad, their friendship deepened from the platonic to the romantic.  When I returned at the end of 1989, it was official that they were an item.

The first family function in Worcester that spring of 1990 was a cousin’s school graduation, and my sister and her boyfriend planned on driving down from Boston to attend.  My maternal grandfather, Anthony Beaudry, announced that he would boycott the family event, if Maria and her boyfriend made an appearance.  They were living in sin, according to my grandfather.  I remember being shocked that he was actually taking a stand on this distinction. He had, heretofore, never crystallized an official definition of his Catholicism. I felt that I was already growing apart from the totality of family gatherings in Worcester, having been raised in Noank since I was five, and I was at that point, barely attending the annual Christmas Eve dinners. My parents’ divorce had far-flung all previously engaged in rituals, so it was basically a free-for-all for my sister and I.  We were already feeling the guilt trip that each parent passively placed on us to divide our time evenly, while visiting each side of the family in Worcester for Christmas Eve: the only relief was that at least the host of each family gathering was conveniently located just a few miles apart from each other.   We tried to make it a party and have fun ourselves, but there was never a moment that we didn’t feel some guilt, if we had inadvertently let the moment escape at one house, and then knew that disappointment would follow at the next stop.

But, my grandfather’s stand clearly required a response. I wrote him a letter, urging him to reconsider his position; that times had changed, and modern relationships were strengthened with cohabitation. That as a couple had the chance to live with one another,  they could discover if their relationship would survive in the long run.  As children of divorce, we most wanted to not get divorced.  We watched our grandparents,  in what we interpreted as loveless marriages: separate bedrooms, which seemed frightening, and  each grandfather barking orders to each grandmother, who waited on him “hand and foot”, because… he… worked…all… day. Then we watched our parents get divorced. This is not what we wanted.

Anthony Beaudry would not budge, in typical stubborn stance. He wrote back to me, claiming ownership to his religious principles, which forced him to be inflexible in his points of view. I was disappointed, and other relatives intervened on my sister’s behalf, and life moved on.  In the summer of 1990, I was not only back from Europe, I was back from an ill-fated trip out west in the US which resulted in a ski-trip accident in Vail, Colorado, and then knee surgery and physical therapy back east. I started a relationship back in Mystic, with an old friend from junior high school. As late summer faded into the autumn, I was ready to get my own place in Mystic, and found a lovely apartment located within the glory of a local mansion, run by my friend Courtney’s family. My boyfriend Rich moved in with me that October 1st, just two short months after we started dating. I was now living in sin.

As my sister and I were the two oldest cousins out of the eleven that comprised my mom’s side of the family, we were the first to experience the many rites of passage throughout our childhood. It makes sense that we would be the first to break ground in the family with boyfriends and living arrangements. As Grandpa Beaudry aged, it seemed to matter less to him, when my younger cousins experienced the exact same milestones, and they moved in with their significant others. My mother was always bitter about this. As well, my grandfather had tried to convince my mom against getting a divorce, on religious grounds, but he lost that argument.  He, however, in a finely tuned maneuver,   never acknowledged my mom’s new partner that she was living with in Mystic. My mom visited her parents solo from 1992 until her parents’ death in 2009, just ten months apart from each other: January 3rd and October 3rd, 2009.

I could never grasp religion with my grandfather’s type of dissociative fervor. In my childhood, I resented being brought to church weekly, and worse, being forced to attend “Sunday School” at the local high school, adjacent to my church, which was across from the town police station. I could not buy the basic premise of Catholicism, that the Pope was infallible. Noone was infallible. It did not make sense to me. I dreaded church and stopped going just after my confirmation.  I understand the structure that religion provides for the ceremonies of life- baptism and marriage, and for the ceremony of death.

Placing judgment on life itself:   to define “living in sin” did not have merit to me. The years passed quietly from 1989 to 2009 for me in my relationship with my grandfather. I was polite, dutiful in the sense, that I would not embarrass my mother. I even conceded a visit to him in the nursing home, when all that was keeping him alive was a feeding tube. His mind was gone, and his body followed on the third of January, 2009.

 

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