The story of how my mother managed to raise two sons alone. She overcame such adversity as rape, spouse abuse, child abuse, alcoholism, and the death of the man she loved. I'm the one everyone thought would grow up dysfunctional. My brother's the one who killed himself.
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One night, Barry and I were in our big motel room bed, and my eyes were closed, but I wasn’t asleep yet. Mom and Eugene were talking. Then they started arguing. Then I heard Eugene slap her.
"Don’t you hit me!" she said, trying to keep her voice down.
"I don’t want to hit you," he said. Then he slapped her again. "But you have to do what I tell you. Can’t you understand that?" Then he slapped her again.
I was lying on my stomach, my eyes closed, my face buried in my pillow. I heard him hit her, again and again. I was crying because I wanted him to stop. I wanted to get out of the bed and make him stop, but I couldn’t. He was so big and strong, and I was just a little boy.
Eugene was hitting her and she was crying out because it hurt. I fought back my tears because I didn’t want them to hear me. Eugene kept hitting Mom. I wondered if Barry was awake, but it didn’t matter. I could have jumped out of bed and woke Barry up, but Eugene was too big and strong. He’d have just hit all three of us.
My mother left my father when I was two. When she remarried, she didn't know that she'd end up raising my little brother and me alone. Nor did she know that, at age twenty-six, I'd be the sole survivor of our family.
When they married, Daddy was twenty-nine and Mom was twenty-six. He was surprised to learn that this former beauty queen was still a virgin. A doctor had told Mom that she couldn't conceive, but he was mistaken. After my birth, he told Mom not to get pregnant again. Sixteen months later, my little brother Barry was born. Mom had a hysterectomy after that.
After Barry was born, Daddy picked up Mom and Barry from the hospital and took them to the motel room where I waited with a baby-sitter. He had lost the house in a poker game. A few days later, he won it back. Maybe a year later, Mom left Daddy and took Barry and me with her.
Of course, many years would pass before I heard of this poker game. And quite probably there were many other causes for the divorce of which I will never be aware. Mom preferred not to speak ill of Daddy. After Mom died, I made a major effort to know Daddy again, first as a drinking buddy, then finally as a father. But whenever we got drunk enough, and he felt like explaining it all, I stopped him. It wasn't about me; it was about them. Quite honestly, that's all I care to know.
"That boy is too quiet," my grandmother often told Mom after I was born. "He's not right in the head. It's just not natural for a baby to be so quiet." Was she right? The jury's still out on that one, but rest assured that Barry was loud enough for both of us. Especially when I stole his baby bottle, which was often.
Salvatore "Sam" LaRocca was born in Poughkeepsie, New York of Italian immigrants. While his family members were being assassinated in garment worker's strikes, he was excelling in the Army. He belonged to the 82nd Airborne, the pride of the service. He was stationed at Fort Bragg, just outside Fayetteville North Carolina, which is where he met Mom. Sam married her and adopted us. Sam was tall, dark and handsome, as they say, and this was a time when America paid its soldiers well.
Sam LaRocca was in the Officer's Club at Fort Bragg with his new bride when his ex-wife came into the club with a black general. Sam attacked the "fucking nigger." After the court-martial, Colonel LaRocca became Drill Sergeant LaRocca just in time to lead some kids into Vietnam during the war. He spent two years on the front lines, jumping out of planes ahead of the regular infantry.
Meanwhile, Barry had grown bigger than me, and he'd discovered the joys of picking on his older brother. I often ran to Mom and she tried to restore peace, but Barry was persistent. Finally, Mom told me to handle it myself. One day she came home to find Barry lying on his back, screaming and crying because I stood over him holding a chair.
"But Mom, you told me to handle it."
"Not like that."
I think I was bluffing, but I don't remember the episode at all. Of course, I had held the chair over my little brother quietly. I always was a quiet child.
Sam returned from "the war that was not a war" and retired from the Army as a Staff Sergeant. To those unfamiliar with the U.S. Army, this is not a rank that a veteran of twenty-three years can be proud of. Especially not one who was once an officer.
My first memory is of kindergarten. I was five years old. I walked from the house to the school bus on a bright sunny day. I loved the feel of the breeze on my face. Birds were chirping, and the kids on the bus were laughing and yelling. When I got closer to the big yellow school bus, I could smell the diesel fumes. There was a small cloud of white smoke coming from the tailpipe.
Mom watched from the doorway of the house with a smile of pride and a tear in her eye. Her face was covered with lines because she was smiling. She was always beautiful, but all those lines made her even more beautiful. Barry watched quietly, quizzically. He was always such a cute little boy. He looked normal. I just looked weird, with my pasty white skin and my big blue eyes and my unkempt reddish-brown hair, but I wasn't thinking about that. I was so proud to be old enough, important enough, to go to school by myself—unlike my evil little brother. I wanted to turn around and say "Nanny nanny boo boo."
My teacher had long, dark red hair and green eyes. She had a friendly smile that covered her face with lines, and she obviously loved children because she always smiled at us. I still remember her face. My favorite part of a woman will always be her face.
We worked on learning how to talk and socialize, perhaps a bit of addition and maybe multiplication. We had cookies and grape Kool-Aid before every nap. My best friend was a black boy who didn't like grape Kool-Aid. School was fun, and going home was fun. Then I could tell Mom and Barry about what I had done and what I had learned.
Mom was an excellent cook, even though the only seasonings her mother ever taught her to use were salt and pepper. Sam taught her about Sicilian cuisine. Whenever he started cooking supper, the aromas of tomatoes and herbs quickly filled the big house. Kids in school picked on me, calling me "skinny bones," but it was not for lack of eating.
Barry started school the year after I did. He was almost five, and one month too young to go to a public school. But we were private school children, sons of a retired war hero. We were also two Scotch-Irish mutts with an Italian name, but children never know things like that until they are older.
When I went to the bathroom at home, I often forgot to close the door. As an Army veteran, Sam thought nothing of walking in and peeing while I was still peeing. God, his peter was big. I just had a little dinky. He had a big manly dick. It was scary. I knew I'd never have one like that.
When I finished first grade, and Barry finished kindergarten, Mom sat us down one day to have a talk with us. I don't remember where Sam was, but it was important that he not be there.
"Sam is your daddy," she began.
"I know," Barry told her. "That's why we call him Daddy Sam."
Mom smiled. "Yes, but you also have another daddy. Daddy Jim. Do you remember Daddy Jim?"
"No," Barry said, shaking his head, "I don't remember him."
I thought about it. "Yeah, I think I do."
"Well, he's your daddy too. First he was your daddy, and now Sam is your daddy."
"Why?" Barry asked.
"I used to be married to Daddy Jim, but now I'm married to Daddy Sam."
"Why?" Barry asked.
"I love both your daddies, Daddy Jim and Daddy Sam. But Daddy Jim and I decided that we shouldn't be married anymore. So we got a divorce, then I met and married Daddy Sam. But Daddy Jim is your daddy too, and now he wants you to come visit him."
"Why?" Barry asked.
"Because you're his sons and he loves you. You really should go see him, because he was your daddy first." She paused. "Do you understand?"
Barry looked at me and waited.
"I think so," I said.
Barry nodded his head.
"Do you want to go visit Daddy Jim?"
Barry looked at me again. I loved Mom, of course, but Daddy Sam scared me sometimes. And Mom had said that we should go see Daddy Jim. "Yeah," I decided. "I want to go meet Daddy Jim."
"I don't," Barry said.
Mom's patience never failed her. "I'll talk to Daddy Jim and see what he says."
I visited Daddy Jim alone, but I hardly remember it. I met Daddy's new wife Ruby and her three sons, Daddy's two children from his first marriage, and Daddy and Ruby's best friends. Daddy worked a lot, so he left it to the other people to keep me entertained. Then I went home to Mom and Daddy Sam.
One day, I remember, Barry and I were throwing a football back and forth in the front yard. The yard had a circular driveway. In the center of the yard was an ornate cement fountain, a statue with a cherub pouring water from a jar, which we had to be careful not to hit. LaRocca was carved into a rectangular piece atop the fountain. The kids at the end of the road were flying kites.
"Hey, let's go get our kites and join them," said Barry.
"We can't do that," I replied. "Mom's not home and Daddy Sam won't let us because he's mean. Mom would let us do it, but Daddy Sam won't."
"Yeah," Barry agreed.
Daddy Sam had all these rules, like no children in the den, and he was quick to whack my butt with a belt. Usually I didn't know why, but I knew about that den. I thought he liked Barry better and spanked me more. I think Barry thought Daddy Sam liked me better and spanked him more. Daddy Sam was just plain scary.
A few months later, Barry and I went to see Daddy Jim for a few days at Christmas. Meanwhile, Mom and Daddy Sam visited her parents. Gramma had made some souse meat.
"What's souse meat?" Sam asked.
"It comes from the head of a hog," Gramma replied, amused.
"A hog's head? That's not food. That sounds disgusting."
Mom laughed. "You're worse than Michael. How do you know you won't like it if you don't even try it?"
"I just won't. Hog's head. That's not food."
Mom cut off a piece and held the fork up to Sam's mouth. "Just try it."
"Just one bite. Try it."
Still scowling, Sam bit into the piece of souse meat.
"Well?" Mom asked.
Sam slowly nodded. The gravity of his Italian face gave way to a slight smile. "It's good," he admitted.
Before he left, Sam instructed Gramma to always have souse meat waiting when he came to visit.
We got lots of presents from Santa Claus. Daddy and Ruby took us home in their car and all the toys were in the trunk. Sam wasn't home when we got there, but Mom was.
"When can we go see Daddy again?" Barry asked her.
"You can go see Daddy Jim again in the summer," she told us.
After Daddy Jim left and Daddy Sam came home, he went into the den and brought out a bunch of presents from Santa Claus.
"He came here too?" Barry asked.
"Yes, he did," Mom told us. "You were very good this year."
We opened all the presents and played with our new toys. We didn't get any outdoor stuff, but we didn't want any. We already had some kites, and the Big Wheels that we were only allowed to ride in the driveway. Also, we had the little swing set in back and the big one at the neighbor's house.
Barry won at checkers, Chinese checkers, and backgammon because he was better. He won at Chutes and Ladders, Life and Mousetrap because he was luckier. Monopoly took too long to play, but he was winning when we quit. We knew how the chess pieces moved but not about checkmate, so we just played until all of one player's pieces were dead, and Barry won that too.
The educational games were boring and I already knew all my math. I thought Barry might play with them, but he wasn't interested either.
I couldn't even remember which daddy gave us which presents. We just put them all in the middle of the floor and played, then put them up when we were done. It was fun having two daddies.
We finished the school year, and summer meant another visit to Daddy Jim and Ruby. I turned seven, and a few months later Barry turned six. Now we were in the same school, because he was in first grade and I was in second grade. We walked to and from school together because it was closer to our house than the kindergarten.
Daddy Sam still had his rules, and we still didn't understand them all, but we did our best to get along. He seemed harsh sometimes, but every now and then, there was enough kindness for us to know he was a good daddy. He often told Mom that he wanted nothing to do with his own family, that we three were his only family now.
He made a good pension, he liked to build additions to the house, and he had a little winery in the back yard. Mom cooked Italian food sometimes, too. Our lives seemed to be settling into what anyone would consider normal.
But one day I walked through the den. It was a lot faster to get to the kitchen that way, and I didn't think Daddy Sam would know if I was real fast and real quiet. Daddy Sam was sitting in the den. I knew I was in big trouble. He jumped angrily from his chair and ran over to me. I was too scared to do anything. He grabbed my arm and flung me against the closest wall.
Mom came running from the kitchen, holding a chair. Barry was behind her, standing in the doorway, watching. He was scared. I was, too. Mom swung the chair at Daddy Sam.
"You get away from him!" she screamed. She was mad, but it wasn't scary because she wasn't mad at me. She was mad at Daddy Sam. "You can hit me all you want, but don't you dare touch my son!"
Daddy Sam backed away.
"Are you okay?" she asked, kneeling over me. The chair was between us and Daddy Sam, where she could grab it again if she needed it.
I nodded. Mom felt my arms and legs, then hugged me with tears in her eyes. I was still scared of Daddy Sam, but I was happy too, because Mom had finally stopped him from being so mean. Mom stood up and glared at Daddy Sam with her hands on the chair.
"That's it! We're leaving! You can't do that to my son!"
Daddy Sam didn't say a word. They had two cars, one for her and one for him. She told him to help her pack some stuff into her car, and he did. Then Mom and Barry and I got in the car and we left.
"Where are we going?" Barry asked.
"I'm going to leave you at Eleanor's house for a little while so I can go find us a place to live."
"Are we ever going back to Daddy Sam?" Barry asked.
"No." Mom's smile vanished and her expression turned hard.
"Did Daddy Sam really hit you?" Barry asked.
Mom nodded, and swallowed. "You don't have to call him Daddy Sam. Just call him Sam."
"I don't like Sam," Barry said.
"Me either," I agreed.
"Don't worry," Mom told us, "you'll never see Sam again."