My mother’s three husbands
Andrew, Joe and Phil all died on the return trip.
My mother was married three times in an age when divorce was frowned upon. The nuns at St. John’s Villa Academy regularly reminded me and my brother that mom was hell bound. Our choice: be good and never see mom again or be bad and join her in hades. If Tom and I went in separate directions, I leave it to our friends and relatives to decide. However, I must report that I never found coal nuggets in my Christmas stocking.
Mom’s first husband, Andrew Carmine, made me his Junior. There was a 20-year gap in their age, and my so-called premature birth could explain their rush to elope. Mom left a note for grandma on the dining room table that she was going to Chicago where a doctor needed someone to care for his children. Eventually, my charmer dad won the family over, and the 1940 census reveals that grandma was off doing her thing while my dad was the responsible adult in the household. Well that marriage broke up when dad had a brief detour to prison for some minor embezzlement in a company he owned. After he was released from prison, mom prepared to re-marry him, but a heart attack ended his life. I was 12 years old.
Mom was still married to Joe Casta at the time. He was a personable, hard working cabbie, who always wore his army khakis. He never spoke about his military service, but he was the father we knew best, who introduced us to many of the “firsts” in our young lives. But mom was upwardly mobile. Soon she was dating a professional man, an old family friend, Phil Fallotico, also recently divorced with a daughter, Jocelyn, attending an upper crust boarding school in Tuxedo Park,NY. But the marriage of convenience was becoming more and more inconvenient, so mom rekindled her relationship with Joe, who had always adored her, and they were making plans to re-marry when Joe met the same fate as Andrew. Dead.
Now it was back to Phil, whom she had not yet divorced. Phil was a Columbia University trained mechanical engineer. He was known for doing tough projects, like the outdoor bandshell near Lincoln Center, NYC. I believe he may have worked on the main theatre when no one could handle the outwardly sloping walls of the acoustical design. During the war he worked on the Manhattan Project, which was responsible for the first Atomic bomb. His later death by leukemia was probably not related. But it wasn’t long after mom and Phil settled into their Kings Highway apartment in Brooklyn, that he too died from a pierced nasal pimple that spread infection to his entire body. We remember fondly Phil’s generous help as we settled into out first houses, mine in Smithtown, LI and later both of us in Ramsey, NJ.
Well, Tom and I followed in mom’s footsteps, three marriages. Five of the six wives are still alive. One will go to Jewish heaven, one to Russian Orthodox heaven, and the others to the usual heaven, where mom probably is because all her husbands pre-deceased her. In-laws in heaven probably make it seem like hell.
My mother was a savant. She remembered details of every major event or place she visited, what people wore, the color of the drapes, etc. She had a sense of how a social setting should appear. She once ripped the straw bonnet off my second wife’s head because she felt it didn’t fit in the Group photo at my brother’s third wedding. Judy hardly ever spoke to her again. Judy too was a savant. She could remember every dismissive thing that was ever done to her.
Mine was a family of savants. I could give someone directions anywhere using restaurants as markers. And no matter where you were heading in my neck of the woods, I could tell you where the closest best pizza was. My brother was savant -like conceiving the right software to handle any work situation, without the silicon valley credentials.
My mother was a master of instasayings. Once when her sister felt that maybe her life was ending, she comforted her with, ”Don’t worry. You’re no going to die. You haven’t suffered enough yet.”
She often repeated a common lament in our family, “Oh to 80 again.” Something I appreciate now that I’m 87.”
And then to my brother, with feigned sincerity, “Tell me again — what it is you like about this house.”
We were still finding Christmas gifts under the tree signed “from Santa” when we were 60 years old.
When she asked me to light her oven with a long match because the pilot light was out, she never told me that she has left the gas on. KABOOM. No eyebrows, no lashes, singed hairline.
She repeatedly asked my brother, who held some of the top jobs in NY publishing, “What is it you do again?” She distinguished our careers by thinking of Tom as a numbers guy and me as a words guy. And when Tom finally asked her, “Why do you love Andy more?” - without hesitation she responded, “Because he needs more.”
It took us years to get over our peeve that she had consigned us to Catholic boarding schools for the better part of our youth. My sometime uncouth style is traced back to those years of emotional desolation, as is my inability to grieve openly over loss. Later in life we learned that she cried bitterly over having to send us away. In those days, we all lived with her mother, brother and sister. Far from a big, happy family - grandma called all the shots, and I surmise that the push to away schooling came from her. Mom had to work.
When we finally accepted that mom sent us away because she had no choice, and it was the only stable life she could make for us - that made our later years together the best of our lives. She cherished the long overnight visits with her sister to my bother’s Mahwah house. And me she could always count on when something was needed to ease her life.
Until the end mom loved me without reservation, though calling me a “ bastard” was a favorite reaction if I didn’t conform to family decorum, like calling the right family members at the right time. When she died, I was in Italy running one of my summer academic programs. It is a guilt I can’t get over.
Mom would have loved my current wife Olga, who selflessly cares for my increasing needs as aging takes hold. All she wanted was for my happiness, and she was predictive as I married the first time. She felt Judy was a good fit, but she noticed the fall-off after the hat incident. Olga is a committed as they come. It’s the Russian way. And with her I have been able to let loose the unreserved love that eluded me all of my life.
Mom’s three marriages were a painful gift. We chafed under the instability. But later it gave us the courage not to live in deteriorating situations. To understand life was not to be lived between the lines of others’ expectations. To avoid the smothering love that leaves no room for emotional growth. And for me, an annoying inquisitiveness that set me up for the perfect career that I’ve had and still continue to realize.
Never said “Thank you” while she was alive. She never sought gratitude, but she craved acknowledgement from those around her the she “did the right thing.”
Whenever she introduced us to others, even later in life, it was always as “my boys” with proud comment that we didn’t drink, gamble or have another bad habits.
Mom, a job well done.