First, there was church. Dad didn’t go – he was ‘done’ with priests after a falling out when he told a priest he was using birth control in the confessional years ago. The priest’s admonitions were cut short by my dad who, not-too-quietly told the priest that until the Church agreed to provide for additional mouths to feed, he would be well advised to stay out of people’s bedrooms.
So Dad would drive Mom, me and my two older brothers to church and remain in the car with my younger brother, who napped while he read the Sunday papers. We’d pile back into the car after mass, and return home for our weekly family breakfast complete with bacon and eggs, english muffins and hash browns. Once the kitchen was clean, we were off to visit the only relatives we saw during my early years.
Waiting for someone to open the front door of the house on Avenue M, I’d hop up and down, excited to see my uncle. I was too young to stay with the older kids, and too old to sit with the women and baby brother. Even though my younger brother was Uncle Rick’s godchild, he often claimed I was his favorite, so it was natural that I’d scamper off to the dining room, climb onto my uncle’s lap, and snuggle in until dinner.
I adored Uncle Rick. He was happy to let me stay with him, saying that I was his lucky charm. He and Dad played pinocle and drink scotch with several of Uncle Rick’s ‘friends’, while I listened. They spoke Italian and I understood nothing; I didn’t know then that ‘business’ being discussed. Aunt Mary stayed in the tiny kitchen with my mother and baby brother. I don’t recall her ever being dressed in anything other than a house dress during those visits, stirring a large pot of marinara, all the time drinking coffee and taking drags on the cigarette always in her hand.
The visits came to an abrupt halt one Sunday in late September. Yelling and cursing, then glass breaking and loud thumps, came from inside the house as we stood on their front steps. Uncle Rick abruptly pulled open the door — unusual, because my aunt always let us in. He was flushed with anger and Aunt Mary was behind him in the living room, crumpled on the floor with her arm bent at an odd angle under her.
Mom pushed past Uncle Rick as Dad walked his brother around to the backyard, instructing my oldest brother was to take us kids back to the car and stay there. We did, but not before I saw. My aunt had bruises on her arms and her eyes were swelling shut. I was not yet five years old but I knew she’d been beaten and I knew my uncle had beaten her.
Mom’s angry shouting exploded into the air for everyone to hear, as we waited in the car. There was only the quiet, low voice of my father in response. I couldn’t hear what they said.
Mom wasn’t herself after that. She was angry and crying most of the time, forbidden from talking to, or seeing, Aunt Mary. She grew distant in that time, further away from us all and unresponsive to our childish requests. She often forgot to cook dinner or hang clean laundry on the clothesline to dry, no longer interested in caring for her home or family.
Four weeks later, I was wakened in the dark of the early morning by the sound of male voices. (There were only two bedrooms in our small house and I slept in a corner in my parents room.) Faking sleep, I watched as my father and uncle pulled my mother out of bed, and forced her down the stairs to my uncle’s car. It was months before I was told that they took her to a mental hospital.
When my father returned alone, he took me and my baby brother away, too.