Family Demons and Theater Ghosts

My Uncle Jerry– “Junior” to his parents and siblings—was one the true tragic figures in my family. He’s been on my mind a lot lately because I’m playing a character based on him in my play “Banshee” to be produced in August at FringeNYC. I guess there’s nothing like walking a mile in someone’s moccasins to stir up memories and ghosts of the past.

I first knew my Uncle when I was about 9. In 1978 he took me to my first game at Yankee Stadium. He was a tremendous, rabid Yankee fan. I remember being way back in the stands, deep in foul territory on the right-field side. When Jim Spencer hit a home run, I could see the ball pass high by the foul pole before disappearing into the outstretched hands of the the crowd. It was his attempt at conversion. He bought me a pennant and a Yankee photo book, with pictures of Willie Randolph, Greg Nettles, Lou Piniella and Chris Chambliss staring out at me from pat poses, seeming as awkward in front of a camera as I would have certainly been facing a 97mph fastball.

To his eternal consternation I became a Met fan anyway. The dignity and mundane excellence of the Yankees could not sway the bleeding heart of a boy who would find himself rooting for underdogs the rest of his sorry life. The Mets were losers, but they were MY losers. He referred to them, not kindly, as the “Mutts”.

Uncle Jerry had been a city beat reported, I was told, and on rare days when we were sleeping over the Chelsea apartment he and my Grandparents shared–and nobody was looking– I explored his bottom dresser drawer that contained cut-out articles about robberies and murders with his by-line. There was a Journalism award and a few Yankee yearbooks and yellowing newspaper pictures of the team. I had never seen anyone in my family who had their name in the paper. By the time I knew him he wasn’t a reporter anymore. He wore a long coat with gloves and a police-type hat, and my Grandma complained bitterly about the conditions he had to deal with out on the West Side docks on his behalf. He wore a sad, drawn, silent face as she explained the bitter wind, the shameful, cussing, hard-boiled truck drivers who cursed him for slowing them down, how the skin on his face would freeze in the winter and burn in the summer. At the time I hadn’t a clue why he would choose to do such a thing when he could be out covering crimes and getting press passes to whatever game he wanted to attend.

As I grew older I realized something wasn’t right. Sometimes my Uncle would talk incessantly, arguing with an edge in his voice about any topic, arrogant, too animated, manic. He would get so wrapped up in the Yankee game he would yell out at the screen, admonishing players that would never hear his voice. Other times he was silent, moody, unapproachable. He would sleep and we would all need to be quiet in the apartment, or our house in Rockland when he was visiting. He avoided eye-contact and appeared to be haunted by something only he could see or hear. He would mumble to himself and recite whispered curses at the TV while repeating movements with his fingers over and over in an attempt to hex the opposing team. If the Yankees won he would relax and slowly return to himself. If they lost he was too.

Slowly I was able to piece the past together through overheard conversations and innocent questions. When my Uncle was a young boy, three or four, my Grandpa came over from Ireland to New York to settle himself before bringing his family over. World War II began to brew and it wasn’t until some eight years later before my Grandma and my two Uncles were reunited with their husband and father. It was like meeting a stranger. My mother was the result of my grandparent’s reconvening.

By this time my Uncle Jerry and his mother had developed a kind of interdependence that is all too common between eldest Irish sons and their mothers. Grandma was his caretaker, his defender, his shield against a cruel world, and after eight years of absence my grandfather didn’t have a chance of breaking that impenetrable bond. Hearsay says that when my Grandpa tried to get my Uncle to move out of the apartment and live on his own my Grandma vehemently interceded on Junior’s behalf and threatened to go with him. The subject was never brought up again and my Uncle lived with my Grandparents in that four room apartment for the rest of their lives, and then his.

There were also deeper, overheard snippets of a story about my Uncle’s suicide attempt, his times in institutions, how his life got away from him and how he lost the little he cherished like his reporting job. I went with my mother when I was about 19 or so to see my Uncle in St. Vincent’s psych ward. He sat in a chair not moving a muscle, with a thousand-mile stare as my Grandma pleaded with him to stop this nonsense and just get up and come home. He moved his eyes imperceptibly toward her and tried to form words that his mouth could not execute. She would never understand the idea of mental illness, and he would never be able to explain it to her. That mute, misunderstanding non-communication is how I always remember their relationship. I was there with my mother again (just after my parents divorced) after my Grandmother died of pneumonia on the couch in the front room. We waited and waited for the morgue to come get her as my Uncle kneeled by her in vigil, heaving and sobbing. We’d practically drag him into the kitchen to try to interrupt his relentless grief, only to have him return again and again to her lifeless body. It went on for hours.

I had been living across the hall from their fourth floor apartment at my Aunt Kitty’s place. She was in an old-age home but the apartment was still in her name and rent-controlled, so I squatted there four days a week so that I could get to my college down on 5th Avenue. After my Grandma died and the owner of the building caught on to what I was doing, it was agreed that I would stay with my Uncle from Monday to Thursday during my Junior year. I was apprehensive. We always got along well despite my preference for those New York Mutts, but I didn’t know what state he would be in after losing his mother.

The state he was in was sedation and slight catatonia. He still smoked his Camel unfiltered, still had his meal in front of the television, but it was as if he were working on autopilot. He told me over and over how glad he was to have me there, how lonely he was when I went home for the weekend. His defenses were not just down, they were completely destroyed. I had to work out my schoolwork so that I could visit with him a few hours a day, usually while the Knicks were on, and then later in the year the Yankees. I would comment on the game we were watching and he’d comment back, but he rarely spoke first. He would get a couple of turkey sandwiches from a place he probably went to for years, because they piled the turkey on them like Richard Dreyfuss’ mashed potatoes in “Close Encounters”. We’d eat about four, I’d read or do work until 7, we’d watch the game together and then go to bed, me in his room near the kitchen and him in my Grandparents’ room with the Sacred Heart of Jesus nightlight shining like a spotlight above the bed.

The last time I spoke to him was on the phone the summer between my junior and senior year. I was working six days a week off the books at a deli so I could afford to go back to school. He told me the place was lonely without me around and I told him I’d make time to visit him before I came back for school. I never did, and I feel an enormous amount of guilt about it to this day.

The character I created is not my Uncle Jerry in the purest sense—he’s more willing to take chances, to fight for his life. I think in “Annie Hall” Woody Allen says we create art so we can write the endings we wished could have happened. The play’s ending leaves Junior’s happiness very much in jeopardy, but it at least holds out a chance for it that he never had in real life, resigned as he was to surviving his demons by clinging to my Grandma’s lifeline. I can only hope that “Banshee” serves as some sort of redemption for the past. Even if it succeeds as a play I doubt it will actually redeem anyone—but I think it might provide a catharsis. Either way, my Uncle Jerry will be alive for a couple of hours, some parts of him onstage and other parts in my memory. Stirred up with the other ghosts of the theater who exist for a few fleeting moments before settling back down to earth. If he could settle with a bit more peace, I might have fulfilled my promise to visit one more time.

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