For as long as I can remember I have been intrigued by stories from other people’s childhood or young adult years. It fascinates me to no end to read or hear tales told from different perspectives by people living together during the same time and under similar experiences. I’m an only child and have no personal reference to how or why this might occur.
I spent the impressionable part of my childhood living next door to a family with four children. Nathan was 12, Tory was 9, Larry was 6, and the only girl, Daphne was 2 when I moved in. I was 11 at the time and Tory was the one I felt the strongest connection with from day one. My mother and I had recently relocated to Miami after she determined our lives would be simpler there than they had been in Los Angeles.
Tory and I loved animals and plants and nature and my earliest adventures were ones where we would escape our humdrum existences on our bicycles and explore the miracles occurring naturally in the outdoors. He also introduced me to fishing off the pier and taught me how to know when and in which way the tides were flowing. It turns out that south Florida has mixed, semi-diurnal tides. That means they get two high and two low tides in a 24-hr period. Because of this, not only does the “king tide” (the highest tides of the year) bring extreme high water levels, it also causes very low tides. The California coast has mixed tides that are unequal, meaning they do not rise and fall to the same levels. Mixed tides can either include both sets of unequal high and low waters, or only one set of unequal high or low waters. I was fascinated by this science and in awe of Tory’s seemingly natural affinity to it.
By the summer I turned 12 he had me raising some Rhode Island Red chickens, several turtles, and the stray cats my mother and I had been feeding grew from two to twelve. Looking back on this time I realize this is when I had been contemplating a career as either a botanist or a veterinarian and settled on the latter through my first year of college. Tory was at times a brother, a father, and a confidant to me, but most of all he was my best friend. His given name was Mentor and he proudly told people that meant he was a “teacher.”
At some point I began spending time at Tory’s house and that’s when I first realized that even though all four children lived under the same roof and were not that far apart in age, each child was recording a very different childhood experience that would carry through into their adult lives.
The father, as I always referred to him even after I learned his first name was the maître d’ at the Eden Roc Hotel over on Miami Beach. This massive resort was nested along the ocean and had been designed by architect Morris Lapidus during the 1950s, along with the Fountainbleau Hotel and the eight block long Lincoln Road Mall. Soon enough I realized the prestige that went along with this position, as well as the stress and psychological pressures.
Once a year the family, Tory and his mother and the siblings were invited to dinner in the main dining room of the Eden Roc for the annual party and stockholder’s meeting. This was an opportunity for the father to show off his family to his boss and coworkers and everyone who attended. Having immigrated to the United States from Albania in 1950, he was proud of his accomplishments and his family was at the top of that list.
But the days leading up to this event were difficult ones for everyone. The father would drink himself into oblivion and begin hurling insults at anyone within earshot. I lived next door and could hear most of what he said as though he were standing next to me. Then the physical abuse would begin and by the time I knew the family the oldest boys, Tory and his older brother, Nathan would escape through the kitchen door leading into the garage. They would hide until it was safe for them to manually lift the heavy garage door and ride their bicycles up the driveway and away from their house.
One night, just days before the upcoming dinner at the hotel I had been invited to have spaghetti at Tory’s house. This was a real treat for me. At my house my mother and I sat at our small table while we ate in relative silence; at their house we sat around a huge table with bench seats on two sides and ate “family” style with lots of food being passed around and overlapping conversations, as well as a variety of creatures putting in their two cents worth. It was amazing and so much fun and made me want siblings and a father of my own so I could be a part of such a family. I told myself I could overlook any shortcomings or issues because it would be worth it in the bigger picture. Larry nudged me to pass the garlic bread and I tousled his curly hair as I handed the family sized wicker basket over to him.
But all of a sudden it was silent and Tory whispered for me to “Run!” I made my way to the sliding glass doors and as they were closed behind me I heard the father approaching. He had got off work early for some reason and was not happy as he came in from the garage. I moved so quickly everything was a blur, and I hid under a bush to catch my breath before climbing over the fence and back into my yard. I crawled on my hands and knees, fearing he would come looking for me but I was afraid to turn and look back. By the time I was safely out of range I was dirty and sweaty and out of breath and my mother was waiting just inside the back door to let me in. By then the yelling and crying had begun and I hoped and prayed the family would be safe that night.
This was my first encounter with domestic violence. Finally my mother and I begin to have discussions around these recurring events and she had come to the conclusion that when you had a father living in your house this type of behavior was possible at any moment, without notice or provocation. Of course this was not true and only her perception, but it certainly clouded my judgment around such matters well into young adulthood.
After each episode I would wait a day before spending time with Tory or the others again. They would bring it up first and that is when I began to hear the disparity in the recollections of what had occurred. Tory’s mother always made excuses for the father, saying that something had happened at work and he was upset about it. I can hear her warning to them, saying “Don’t get in your Daddy’s way when he first comes home from work.”
Daphne, the little sister would say that her Daddy got hurt and she had to be a good girl so he would love her. Nathan, the eldest brother always said that his father liked things done a certain way and if they weren’t he wanted to make things right. Little Larry never said a word. Tory was the most vocal and negative. He would say in front of everyone that he hated his father and couldn’t wait until he was dead. This caused me to raise my eyebrows initially until the shock had worn off and I understood a little more, at least from my twelve year old perspective.
Three years later my mom and I moved to a neighborhood several miles away. Tory and I remained friends and spent time together on the weekends. The father was never mentioned and we focused on having fun and engaging in projects and activities related to our common interests. He had also begun drinking and it hurt me to witness his cognitive and physical decline when he had inbibed in excess of what a human body could handle. By this time it was obvious that Tory was gay, but it would be two more decades before he would talk about this to anyone, including me. I silently wondered if this was part of the reason he had the most turbulent relationship with the father.
My fleeting thought proved prescient when Tory’s mother called me about a month later to tell me that he was in the hospital after a serious argument with the father had turned violent. It started when a neighbor insinuated that Tory was not attracted to women. I called right away and we spoke at length about everything except for the elephant’s in the room. His arm was broken and he had lost two teeth but his spirit was intact.
I returned to California in the fall and began classes at UCLA. In an English composition class we explored short stories and were assigned the writings of Eudora Welty. Why I Live at the P.O. was a favorite and was not familiar with this style of writing. And this story brought forward the idea of siblings and other family members having very different experiences and beliefs about the home they had been raised in while coming of age.
Eudora Welty wrote this short story in March of 1941. World War II was underway and it was during this month the first all-black unit of the U.S. Air Corps — the 99th Pursuit Squadron — was activated. They became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. I’m including this information because of the racist overtones and general nature of this short story, which I do not remember from when I first read it in college during the mid 1970s. It was inspired by a photograph taken by Welty of a woman ironing in the back room of a post office. The story is used as an example of Southern realism.
In Why I Live at the P.O. the characters are all members of a family living in the town of China Grove, Mississippi. The narrator and protagonist is a character known as “Sister” who is the U.S. postmistress and sole employee of the post office. The story is told from Sister’s point of view and immediately made me think of the families I have known who recall situations growing up quite differently from one another. Sister plays the victim and believes the other family members favor her younger sister, Stella-Rondo.We do not have the benefit of knowing anyone else’s perspective on this so we are left to draw our own conclusions.
My friend Tory always claimed his father favored his older and younger brothers because of their lighter hair and fair complexions. My belief was that Tory was more rambunctious and assertive and preferred to do things his own way that made him not fit well within his family.
Over the years I have continued my study of relationship within families, including my own as children grew up and grandchildren came into the fold. It’s interesting that there are four children in one family who are the exact same age range as those in Tory’s family, except in this case there are three girls and a boy. Other than this there is no similarity and my comparison ends.
I find it interesting that all these years later I am still drawn to the study of family units and interactions between members. And if I had it to do all over again I would want to be the only child of a single mother because I finally appreciate how that configuration served me as I was growing up.
I’m Connie Ragen Green, viewing the world through a lens created specifically for my use. Travel through time with me and we will explore every nook and cranny of a world that may only exist in our minds.