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October 3, 2011

A lot of people came and went through our kitchen when I was kid.  Mom rarely left it.  My father, whose own headquarters were at the bar, called Mom “The General” and the kitchen was her command center.  She cooked, sewed, did laundry and helped us with our homework all in the kitchen.  Every major appliance – fridge, stove, washer, dryer – was lined against the same wall, along which she moved up and down for two decades, raising ten children and wearing a groove into the linoleum so deep the concrete showed.  The phone, with a twelve-foot cord, stood at the end of the line.

Once my baby brother was enrolled in kindergarten and all ten kids were tucked nicely away for the school day, Mom branched out.  She founded a church organization called F.I.S.H., which she ran almost entirely from that kitchen telephone.

F.I.S.H. was an acronym for “friends in need of service and help” and a play on the fish that the early, persecuted Christians painted above their doors.  The sign of the fish established fellowship without setting off the Romans.  It was through FISH that I was first exposed to our contemporary pariahs – the drunks, unwed mothers and homosexuals whom even the church got in on persecuting.

Initially, the FISH clients seemed no more interesting than the garden-variety church poor – the families to whom we gave turkeys every year.  Mom recruited volunteers from our parish church and when calls came in from the needy she put them in contact with her volunteers and arranged for rides to the hospital or the market.  Mom walked up and down her aisle — stove, sink, washer, dryer — and talked on the phone, which she clamped tightly between chin and shoulder while she used her free hands to work.

As I got older and understood things better I noticed that Mom’s FISH calls involved more than logistical arrangements.  Some of these callers had dramatic problems.  There was the unwed teen whose family threw her out.  Mom went through her list of volunteers and put appropriate people in touch.  Couples came to our house and conferred with Mom.  I knew a match was made the day that the girl herself showed up and left with one.  The couple took the girl in until the baby came to term and could be put up for adoption.  A few years later, we were the family to take in one of these teens.  But in the early days, Mom just took the calls.

I knew most of these people only by voice on the phone.  There was the lady who called all the time in tears.  Her husband drank and she needed to find him rides for his AA meetings.  I knew my own father drank, but he never crashed our car or lost his job.  I eavesdropped while doing my homework at the kitchen table and knew that Mom also organized food drives for such women, women whose no good, drunken husbands were out of work and who needed more than that one turkey a year.  This would never happen to us.  No matter how much my father drank, Mom’s parents would never fire him from the family business, which, since it was a supermarket, also meant we’d never starve.

I’m sure Mom would’ve liked that I felt safe, but she would not have wanted me to feel superior to her FISH clients.  She did her best to keep these people’s problems private.  She was particularly cagey about a call if it involved a family with kids we knew.  This rarely happened, but when it did, Mom was right: we noticed.  We lurched and listened.  And something was definitely up when that couple came with their teenage daughter who talked like a boy.  I didn’t know the girl; I was only in fifth grade at the time and she was a high school kid.  I had two teenage sisters, Kathleen and Cecilia, and they knew this girl all right.  They knew all about her.

The girl arrived still wearing her uniform from marching band practice.   I knew marching band was for geeks, because Cecilia, the cooler of my two older sisters, told me so.  I also knew that Cecilia was the cooler one because Kathleen’s friends were, in fact, in the marching band.

I was at the kitchen table doing homework and I desperately wanted to stay to hear this girl talk more.  I’d never heard a girl with such a deep voice.  If it weren’t for her long, stringy hair, she could’ve been a boy.  It was 1976 and boys still wore their hair long, but not that long.  Besides, her being a girl and not a boy seemed to be the crux of the matter.  Mom sent me to the living room, which was directly beyond the kitchen and had an open doorway from which I could still hear.  You couldn’t really shut things out in our house; there were too many people and too little space.  My siblings were streaming in and out of the kitchen, living room and bathroom all afternoon.  I gathered what I could eavesdropping from the chair closest to the kitchen.

The mother kept saying things like “we don’t know what to do” and the father kept reassuring that, “No, come now, it’s not really that bad.”  They just needed to think about the other kids.  There were other kids to think about.  Apparently, the boyish daughter – I’ll call her Sharon — was making life difficult for the pretty daughter and this could not be.  The mother then said what I remember most distinctly, because it was the precise sort of thing that made my own mother shake her head in disgust whenever she heard it:  “Sharon’s a bad influence.”

I went to a birthday party once where one classmate was conspicuously denied attendance.  The birthday girl’s mother thought the classmate was a bad influence because she was caught smoking cigarettes at school.

“There’s no such thing as a bad influence,’ Mom said.  If she had raised us right, she declared, we would do what’s right — no matter the other kids were up to.

It’s a good thing my mother thought this way, because more often than not, I was the one bringing cigarettes to school.  But a boyish sister?  On what grounds was she a bad influence?  I needed to know what this girl had done. I gleaned better information after Cecilia discovered her presence.

“What on earth is Sharon Jones doing here?” Cecilia asked.

“Why?” I asked. “What’s wrong with her?”

Cecilia seemed to know all about this Sharon Jones, how she stared at the other girls in the locker room and how she dressed like a boy and how she should just leave us alone.  Cecilia didn’t seem to know anything about the pretty sister, but Kathleen did and it was on this point that Kathleen and Cecilia began to argue.

“Her sister’s a bitch,” Kathleen said. “You have no idea how mean she is to us.”

Kathleen hated the sister more than she liked Sharon and it occurred to me that a similar sister rivalry was at play between she and Cecilia.

I felt for Kathleen, as one often feels for the underdog.  But I also felt it was unfair to ask Cecilia to be brave on this one.  Cecilia hung out with popular girls yes, but she was only a freshman and by no means the queen bee of the crew.  Her position was precarious, augmented in one way by having big brothers who were handsome and good at sports.  And then, of course, there was always safety in numbers.  There were enough of us to be spread throughout every grade and every clique. 

In so many other ways, alas, our family was also the problem.  Our house was crowded and every one of us slept two, sometimes three to a bed.  Worse, Mom hoarded.  Friends teased about the mountains of magazines, broken toys and empty cookie tins.  There was a joke that our house was like the Bermuda Triangle; once something entered the realm – be it an old shoe or a dried out pen – it never left.  Even the kinder kids commented on how strange our autistic brother Brian was.  Brian sat on the floor all day, Indian style, rocking to music and spinning tops.  He never spoke and instead made loud braying noises.  He often wet his pants and always ate with his hands.  Brian wandered the house at will like an untutored Helen Keller while Mom went her merry way solving the community’s problems via FISH.

Though never stated, I intuited Cecilia’s position and empathized:  our family couldn’t afford to be any weirder.

Still, the girl was only sitting in the kitchen.  As soon as they left it became clear that she would not be coming back.  Mom began making calls to place her.  I didn’t hear the FISH volunteers refuse, but I assume they must have, because Mom ended up putting her in a spare room at my Uncle Joe’s house.

I needed to know what was so wrong with this girl and it had clearly come down to one, salient question: “Why,” I asked Mom, “Does that girl act like a boy?”

“It’s not her fault,” Mom replied. “Some girls are born with too many male hormones.”

I persevered, but hormones were the most Mom could make of it.  To this day, I’m not sure if my mother could come up with anything more sophisticated and I’m glad of it.  I’m glad she cared for the girl without understanding one damned thing about it.

My Uncle Joe lived in the school district and it was arranged for Sharon to catch the bus from his house.  I knew nothing of her sexual identity struggle, but I sure felt sorry for her now.  Uncle Joe’s house was pigsty. He was actually a great-uncle, my maternal grandmother’s retarded brother.  Mom brought him to our house once a week to bath him and do his laundry.  Otherwise, Uncle Joe sat on the porch with his hand his pants shouting at traffic or in his house shouting at wrestlers on the TV.  His filthy house provided work for some of the more desperate FISH clients, whom Mom hired to clean, but it could never be a pleasant place for a teenage girl to live, boyish or not.

I think of this girl often now because of the way my sisters’ respective attitudes changed in their adult years.  Cecilia went to art school in New York and developed the open-minded ethos of the single, city chick. Kathleen moved to Oregon and became a born again Christian.  Her take on homosexuality is right down the line with her fundamentalist church: it’s a sin because the bible says so.  The paradigms of acceptable behavior changed with age and geography.  Everything changes – politics, culture, and media tropes on tolerance.  Only the compassion that animates such things is constant.  Mom was constant.

She forbade the term “white trash” at a time when most people were just learning that it wasn’t ok to say “nigger.”  The whole country had just finished watching Roots and was engaged in a mass self-flagellation about slavery.  The guilt was followed by a glut of sitcoms telling us how to see blacks in a way that could make us feel good about ourselves again.  We could watch Archie Bunker say racist things to the Jefferson’s and know that we weren’t racist because we understood that the canned laughter was at Archie’s expense.  Likewise, Goodtimes’ introduced us to ghetto cool and told us it was right to repeat after JJ, “Dy-no-mite!”   We knew our cues. 

But there was nothing on TV telling us it wasn’t ok to despise poor, ignorant white people.  I didn’t even see any poor whites on TV.  I only saw them on Allen Street, the poorest street in town where people lived in two family dwellings without garages and where disassembled cars rusted on view.  My schoolmate Missy Kappes lived in one of those houses.

The Kappes were one of those poor families who had not even ethnicity to help.  When my classmates bragged about being Irish or Italian (usually Italian), Missy Kappes had nothing to contribute.  Her family descended from various lines of intersecting poor for so long that they had become what my father called “mutts.”  This seemed to degrade them as much as poverty in a town where there was already little money and ethnicity became a proxy for class. It didn’t help that the Kappes’s never went to church. Even a Baptist Church would’ve helped, though of course, it was best to be Catholic.

My best friend, Debbie Fiorello, had the sort of pedigree that counted in our town.  She was a full-blooded Italian christened at St. Michaels.  Debbie’s father was an auto mechanic who wore his hair in a doo-wop like Frankie Valley.  Her grandfather hailed from the province of Caserta, in Southern Italy, as did my grandparents.  Many of the town’s people were from Caserta and many, likewise, were related.  The only relatives the Kappes had were packed into the same house.  Or half a house.  An old lady with hundreds of cats lived in the other half.   And she was probably a Baptist.

Missy achieved a certain degree of fame when, at twelve, she developed the largest bust in the school.  Boys began to notice her and the girls followed suit.  We invited her to spin the bottle parties, but I noticed that I was one of the only kids who invited her home for dinner.  Debbie Fiorella once told me that she wasn’t supposed to play with Missy.  I assumed it was because Missy’s brother had gotten a girl pregnant and it was bit of a scandal.  But it wasn’t the just the brother.  It was Missy’s whole family.

Whenever Andy Lamberto taunted Missy about her breasts he finished her off with the phrase, “poor white trash.”

“You’re just poor white trash.  Everybody knows that.”

I knew it, of course.  I just didn’t know why “white” was part of the equation.  We were all white and none of us knew any black people, rich or poor.   Clearly, I had failed to appreciate the problem of Missy’s being white without being one of us.   Her family was so out of the loop that they weren’t even on FISH’s list for free turkeys.  It was just as well, as I visited Missy’s house once and saw that nobody there was of a mind to play Thanksgiving anyway.

Missy had invited me to sleep over.  I loved sleepovers and prided myself on the honor of always being invited for them at the Fiorella’s house.  Debbie’s mother provided junk food and let us play Nintendo in the den. There was only one TV at Missy’s house and I saw instantly that we weren’t getting anywhere near it.  Her two teenage brothers, grandfather, and a middle-aged man who appeared to be an uncle of some sort were camped in front of it watching a car chase show, probably Starsky and Hutch.  There were plenty of men, I noted, but none was the father.  Missy said she didn’t have one.

There was an overweight woman in a tube top, which I remember because I wore one too.  I always had trouble with tube tops because my chest was too flat too keep them up.  This woman had no such problem; cigarette ash fell six inches deep in her ponderous cleavage.  She looked too old for the brothers but too young for the uncle, though I think she belonged to him because that’s who she was screaming at.  She told him that he nigger-lipped her cigarette.  That started it.  The n-word came up now like a drunkard’s hiccup.  She was a nigger lover.  He was as lazy as a no good nigger.  She’d know it if he were to beat her like a nigger and she’d deserve it too, the no good nigger bitch.

I did not think “racist” when I heard the n-word.  I thought “white trash.”   I’d noticed that upstanding people – even those who might secretly regard blacks as inferior – were careful not to use that word.  It could brand them as trailer park and that was the lowest caste of all, so low it eluded even the liberal’s scale for tolerance.  Americans may forgive a black man for anti-Semitism or homophobia because there’s a mandate on compassion for minorities; but there’s no way to pat yourself on the back when it’s po’ white trash.  People like the Kappes had no claim.  On anything.

Missy’s mother sat at the kitchen table drinking and playing cards with the littlest brother, Charlie.   I knew Charlie from school and while I ordinarily avoided second graders as too uncool for my fifth grade self, I suddenly gravitated to him.  I invited him to come upstairs and play with us, which infuriated Missy.  She wanted to fight with the men for TV time.  I’d already seen the girlfriend throw a butt at the screen and declare it “the most stupidest, dumb show” she’d ever seen.  I think the poor thing wanted to watch something smarter, like Laverne and Shirley.  The man told her to shut her ugly, whore mouth or go home and watch her own fucking TV.  Then he took a swig from the bottle.

I’d seen men drink before, but not like this. Dad did his drinking out of site, at the bar, after a full day’s work in the butcher’s room.  Then he came home, alone, watched the news and went to bed.  Adults didn’t gather to drink at my house unless there were a party, usually a First Communion or Confirmation party.  The Italians on Mom’s side gathered at the buffet table and the Irish on Dad’s at the bar.  It was festive and followed a certain protocol.  The Kappes adults were drunk en masse on an ordinary Friday night.  I was also perplexed by the way Missy’s teenage brothers drank openly in front of the TV.  Teenagers might have come to my house to drink and smoke pot with my big brothers, but they snuck it, and getting over on our innocent mother was part of the game.

There was no game at the Kappes house, because there were no rules.

There wasn’t even any food.  That floored me because I knew certain basics – bread, milk, pasta, rice – were cheap.  Mom always had generic, economy sized batches in stock.  She used stale bread to stretch her casseroles so that however bland, there was enough to offer any kid who visited.  She doubled a gallon of whole milk by mixing it with powdered milk and water.  I assumed all people, even poor people, had such staples in the house.  Yet when I asked for something to eat, Missy had to turn and ask her mother for a few dollars to go to the Quick Check.  Her mother told her to fetch a pack of cigarettes while she was at it and began to root through her bag for change which, of course, was missing.  Another scream match erupted, this one so loud that old grandpa had to rise from his seat to be heard.  He cussed as badly as his grandsons.

“Forget it,” I told Missy.  “We can eat at my house. Why don’t we go to my house?”

Things began turn when I realized that we could do just that.  I got it into my head that I didn’t have to stay there the whole night and following morning.  I could escape.  Missy seemed to think that if she could just feed me, I would stay.  She made her mother look harder for some money.  Mrs. Kappes went upstairs and then, on the way down, fell plop on her ass.  She slid down the stairs laughing. 

The whole family laughed, which Missy took to be a bit of comedic respite.  “See,” she seemed to want to say, “We’re having fun now. You can relax.”   Instead, I insisted on telephoning my mother.

“You can’t pretend to have a tummy ache,” Mom said.  “And you can’t walk out on the poor girl.  It’ll hurt her feelings.”

I was surprised.  If I’d called from anywhere else Mom would’ve sent an older sibling to pick me up no questions asked.  She regarded her kids’ play dates as a transportation nuisance and no more.  As long as I could get a ride home, I saw no reason to stay.

“Her family won’t understand,” Mom explained.  “They’ll think you don’t like them.”

I considered telling Mom how there was no food and how everyone was drunk and racist and cussing but I knew that wouldn’t register as legitimate hardship.  Then I offered what was, to me, the greatest horror: the mother was drunk.

“It’s not just the men,” I said, “It’s her mother too.  Missy’s mother is drunk.  She just fell down the stairs.”

Mom remained perfectly calm and said it was no reason I couldn’t stay and play nicely with my friend.  In fact, she explained, it was all the more reason to stay.

“That poor little girl might need a friend,” Mom said.

A deal was struck:  Mom would pick me up, but only if my sister Vincenia agreed to take my place.  Vincenia was one year older than me yet far less social.  I still can’t imagine what made her agree to sleep over Missy Kappes’ that night, unless Mom appealed to her in a way that made it a personal favor to her.  I’d never known Mom to care so much about how I treated a school friend, particularly since I had not done anything explicitly cruel to this one.  I decided it was about the family. Missy’s family and my own.

I’d noticed time to time that Mom needed town’s people to know that she was not rich.  Her parents, yes, but not she.  Mom owned precisely six pairs of polyester slacks from Woolworth’s that, together with smock and apron, comprised her daily attire.  She was five foot tall, two hundred pounds and so disinterested in fashion that when the waistband of her slacks snapped, she cinched it with a safety pin.  I suppose the safety pin made sense as a complement to the rubber bands perennially piled up her wrists.  Mom’s one and only luxury was a dab of lipstick once a week before Mass.  When my grandparents came to Mass they sat in the pew that bore their plaque and Grandma dressed as befit the parish’s main benefactor:  fur, jewelry and an eighteen carat gold front tooth so tacky that today it would be called ‘gangsta.

A friend’s mother once grilled her on our house once was disappointed to hear it was messy.  Mom laughed.  Nobody could accuse us of being fancy and this pleased her.  I, in turn, was pleased that the friend could report on the opulence of my grandparent’s house.  We all lived on the same street behind the old ShopRite, the very first grocery store my grandparents had built.  The street was regarded as the ShopRite family’s very own and lent us a stature decidedly different from anyone living on Allen Street.

I was reminded of Missy’s peculiar reputation once again when, one day, I took her with me on an errand to Grandma’s house.  Grandma liked to meet our friends and ask about their town lineage.

“Who’s your grandmother?” she might ask one. “Is she the Polumbo who married Joey the barber?”

Grandma would interrogate the kid to see if any of their relations worked for ShopRite.  She liked that.  If someone in their family were sick, graduating or celebrating a sacrament, Grandma made a note to have the store send a fruit basket.  She was almost as intent as Mom to elude a reputation for snootiness.

Unlike Mom, however, she knew nothing of the Kappes family.

“Where are your people from?” she asked Missy.  “What church were you with before St. Michael’s?”

Missy didn’t grasp the question and could only give the names of some towns where she’d previously lived.  Grandma let it go once she discovered the people were transients without a church.

When I was in high school I introduced a new friend to Grandma and when Grandma couldn’t place her surname she asked, “Are you Jewish?  It’s ok if you are.  My accountant Bernie Sobel’s Jewish.”

It so happened that my friend, Tammy, was the one and only Jewish student in my regional high school and to her credit, adored my grandmother’s loony questions.  I was now of an age to be embarrassed by Grandma’s noveau rich décor and made jokes about the all the red velvet and gold gilding.  Tammy thought it was fabulous.

“No way!” she cried at the sight of the place,  “It’s perfect! Just too, too funny!”  Tammy then nailed it with just the right touch of condescension and whimsy, “I so love that neither of your grandparents finished the eighth grade.”

Missy, however, was genuinely impressed if not mesmerized by all that red velvet.  She fondled the crystal drops on the standing chandeliers and ran her fingers over the same gold plate utensils that Tammy and I would laugh at half dozen years later.  The housekeeper, who was usually quite ingratiating, followed us around in a huff that day.  She told Missy to keep her paws off the crystal, adding, “I just cleaned that.  You’ll smudge it.”

I knew this wasn’t true.  I knew that this housekeeper, Mrs. Ray, just didn’t like Missy.  She pulled me aside to tell me so.

“You shouldn’t be playing with that girl.  Does your mother know she’s here?  She could steal something you know.”

All I knew was that the Ray family hadn’t much more than the Kappes.  They lived in a tidy, but tiny, house near the school.  I also knew that Mrs. Ray was a FISH client and that Mom had gotten her this job to help while Mr. Ray was out of work.  When Mrs. Ray did Grandma’s ironing, she made a point of telling me how nicely she ironed her own kids’ clothes at home.  I knew her kids and it was true – they were terribly well pressed.  Nothing to be ashamed of.  But nothing special either.  None of my siblings found the Ray kids interesting enough to befriend.  They did just as poorly at school as the Kappes kids, though the teachers were not as inclined to pick on them.

I made fun of Mrs. Ray when I got home and declared that she had a lot of nerve accusing Missy of theft.

“Who the heck is she?” I asked Mom.  “If she’s so hot, how come she needs to clean Grandma’s house?”

“That’s a terrible thing to say,” Mom replied.  “Who are you, I might ask?”

“But they all call the Kappes’s white trash.  You said yourself that was as bad as saying nigger.”

“It is.  But the Rays don’t know any better and you do.”

“But shouldn’t she know better?” I asked.  I said that Mrs. Ray, of all people, should know that not all poor people steal.

Like most of my siblings, I enjoyed a good argument – even if I knew Mom was unlikely to engage.  She sat back and listened appreciatively when my left leaning big brothers discussed politics with our right wing father.  She was proud of the rhetorical talents they bore on defending their respective positions.  But if forced to articulate her own case, she could muster only the simplest statements.  For instance, “It isn’t about what Mrs. Ray should or should not do. Just worry about what you do.”  And then, always, the refrain, “Didn’t I teach you to be kind?”

Over the years each of my siblings has become enamored of some cause and in due course added our mother to the mailing list.  I love going to Mom’s mailbox because it’s filled with the most amusing variety of propaganda.  I can recognize each sibling’s ideological hand as I sift through pamphlets from such disparate organizations as Right to Life and Planned Parenthood; PETA and The NRA; The Southern Law Poverty Review and The American Family Association – all addressed to Mom. It’s occurred to me that we can each assume Mom’s allegiance to the right cause because what we really trust is that which is right in her.


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