Monday, January 12, 2015

Another Long Gone, But Forever in My Heart

I think my uncle Marty, my mother’s kid brother, might have been the handsomest young man in the world at one point, but the deck was stacked against him. I think their dad, the maternal grandfather I never met, either tyrannized or ignored his three kids, and that my grandmother didn’t do the world’s greatest job of protecting them from the tyranny. If self-esteem were water, the three kids couldn't between them have dampened a postage stamp. I don’t think Marty ever lived away from his mother. I’m not sure he ever held a job or had a girlfriend.

He was a pal to me at a time (otherwise known as My Childhood) when I didn't have many pals. When, from the age of around seven, I was consumed by self-loathing, he never seemed to disdain me, and in fact always seemed to enjoy my company. I don’t know if he’d ever actually had a woman, but my sex talks with him a few years later were very much more elucidating than those with my dad, who was content to make grand pronouncements about taking me to a prostitute, and my learning while doing. (No words can convey how much this prospect terrified me.  Given my dad’s penchant for playing the ladies’ man, I expected it to be mortally embarrassing.)

Marty’s psychiatrist — I suspect they called themselves analysts in those days — prescribed a primitive antidepressant, under the influence of which Marty had an awful automobile accident. He survived, but lost enough of his chin to feel ugly, to not want anyone to lay eyes on him. My grandmother accommodated him by moving out to the Antelope Valley, where, unseen by anyone except those who might glance out the window and notice him walking his dog very late at night, he wrote short stories and teleplays, none of which ever got bought. He attempted to escape his pain with an overdose of barbituates, and survived. Serving, as I would so often, as my mother’s mouthpiece, I — 14 years old and swollen with rectitude — gave him a good talking-to in a letter, demanding to know how he could care so little about those who loved him.

His lawsuit against his shrink came to nothing. His despair deepened. He tried again to kill himself with pills, and was more successful this time. (I like to think that sentence might have made him chuckle.) He asked to be buried beside his sister Doris, who’d died young of whatever had earlier crippled her, in a grave beneath a stone bearing a quotation from his idol Thomas Wolfe.

Five years ago, while living alone in New York’s Hudson Valley, I rediscovered his papers and was appalled to find the self-righteous letter I’d written to him. I could imagine how it must have hurt, how he must have felt that the one person in his life who might have loved him unconditionally had turned against him. I read his suicide letter, much of which he’d devoted to vilifying my dad, whom he apparently blamed — God knows why — for the failure of his lawsuit. The whole thing was neatly typed, but after he’d taken his overdose, he’d discovered that his spleen wasn’t completely vented, and had taken pen in hand to vilify my dad a little bit more until his handwriting deteriorated into illegibility. I don’t think even a stranger could have read it dry-eyed.



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