Friday, March 24, 2017

Life with Jack and Jane: Part II Jane, "Queen of Queens"

I gave a little character description of Uncle Jack in Part I of Life with Jack and Jane (read: Jane, Aunt Jane, Uncle Jack’s common law spouse, was in complete contrast to my Uncle Jack. My Uncle Jack was 100% Irish Catholic. Jane was 100% Jewish. Uncle Jack, six foot something plus, Jane, four foot eleven on a good day. Jack was a comedian, never to be taken too seriously. He drank and ate too much and did other stuff too much. He even cussed. Jane did not. She laughed all the time, mostly at Jack, but she had not a comedic bone in her tiny frame.

Speaking of her tiny frame, Jane was one round ball from head to toe. She ate like a bird but looked like a hippo. There were no lines stopping to define where her head met her chin all the way to her ankles meeting her feet. Her hair was a frizzy, mousy brown, cut short with big, dark rimmed glasses, sallow skin that makeup may have addressed, and a really large gap in her two front teeth. She smelled like lilacs and intense body odor with maybe a hint of moth balls and soot she picked up from living with Jack.

Appearances don’t matter when you are the sweetest "Queen of Queens."

Jane was one of the finest people I have ever known. Not only was she lacking a funny, comedic bone but she also was missing a mean bone. I never heard her speak a bad word about anyone or anything. She always saw the best in everything. She was also extremely respectful of everyone, she never judged, her manners and taste were impeccable. She was dainty and polite.

Generous and thoughtful with Jane were a given. She minded her business and never got in anyone’s way. I honestly do not think she ventured much past Queens other than to travel to work. Maybe she took the occasional trip to New Jersey to visit her sisters or our family. But other than that, I really don’t think she left Queens. She may not have been a worldly queen but she guarded and preserved her territory like any great ruler.

That’s why I crown Jane "Queen of Queens!"

Jane, a native Jew from Queens, was married once before to another native Queens Jewish man whose parents escaped a Nazi concentration camp, or were rescued by the Americans from a camp at the end of the war. Whatever the specific details of the story, that’s how they ended up in America. They were Holocaust survivors that went on to live the American dream. They built a fortune in American in, if memory serves me, the steel industry. They had a son, Jane’s husband. Jane and her husband had a child named Jill.

Jane and I would spend countless hours talking, mostly every Friday evening when she would end her work week at the United Nations and mine at Simon and Schuster publishing firm. We’d commence the long week by ordering Chinese, sitting at her traditionally appointed mahogany dining table, eating our broccoli with chicken and brown sauce. We would talk and talk while Uncle Jack, um, hmm... tended to his plants.

I often wondered what happened in her marriage and why she and my Uncle Jack after all these years of committing to one another had never married. I began to inquire, like any novice investigative reporter, in a very nonchalant, quasi manipulative manner. Knowing such an answer to my question would require her to delve much past the point of my inquiry’s origin I proceeded to ask, "How did you and Jack meet?"

In her Minnie Mouse voice, in contrast to my Uncle Jack’s Frosty the Snowman loud, husky diction, she told me Jack had just returned from Vietnam and she was recently a widow.

“Yes, I was told your husband had passed away. How did it happen if I may ask?”

Now one thing about Jane, "Queen of Queens," she was so sweet she put a sugary spin on everything. She never would say a single bad word about anyone or anything. In her thick Queens’s accent she began to tell me her story, “Oh, he was verwee, verwee sick. He was in horwible pain. He had, sorwt of like a brwain tuma, you know like a big mass in his brwain, cawsed him terrwible, terrwible pain. It got werse, and werse and he eventually died."

I’m thinking he had a brain tumor and that’s what killed him. No, that’s not what happened. She continued with her story, “He shot himself in the head from the tuma. I trwied to take the gun frwom him but he pointed it towards me and my little gurl and luckily we were fine but he shot himself.”

I continued to listen. “It wasn’t his fawlt ya know, he was verwee, verwee sick. He hearwd voices and stuff so he didn’t know any better. And so I was verwee, verwee sad. My little gurl, she was verwee young. But he died. He had a lot of demons in his head that herwt him so I can’t blame him. He had no choice.”

"My little gurl and I ran to the closet. We were vewry scaed. I was worried. Ya know, back then we didn't have cawdless phones so I could cawl anyone. We just waited and hearwd the gun and well, he died. We came out of the closet and he was on the flowa and he must have been in so much pain from the tuma, I can only imagine. He was suffering so much he had to do it. He was vewry sick."

I didn't know what to say so I said nothing. I felt I had pried too much, perhaps overstepped boundaries for her to share such a painful memory over Chinese food, on a Friday, after a long work week. But Jane was happy to continue down memory lane.

“I met yaw Uncle Jack on the street one day. He stopped to tawk to me. Yaw Uncle Jack was so sweet to me and my little gurl. And he was so vewry handsome. And chaming. And from there the rest is histowry.” She ended with a little giggle, covering her mouth as her body jiggled from laughter.

Handsome and charming? I was startled, “Uncle Jack, handsome?" I said.

"Oh yes, vewry handsome." She covered her mouth again as she giggled a body jiggle. She was so proud and glowing as she spoke of him. "Heyr, let me show you some pictchas." She pulled out some pictures of her and Uncle Jack, circa 1970 something, with bell bottoms and platform shoes, hairy chests sprouting from collared polyester shirts. My Uncle Jack was, to put it in a non-weird niece way, hot! Tall, tan, golden, blond hair, no mustache, no oversized tie-dye t-shirt, muscular, obviously carrying the confidence of someone who feels the world is their oyster and they are young and invincible. Jane likewise was hot! Slender, curvaceous, stylish, well-coiffed hair, accessorized, beautiful makeup, just drop dead gorgeous.

“Who were these people and what happened to them?” I asked myself.

Upon viewing the photos I began to string together my own answers to my curiosity about Jack and Jane. It was like “Bizarro World” out of the movie Superman, reenacted in the popular sitcom of the times “Seinfeld” nothing was as it seemed but it all made sense.

They had both been to battle and were survivors, living with their scars, keeping them tucked away in a compartment, occasionally recounting them in a soliloquy for the young and stupid like me. 

I was given a glimpse into my future. Who I am today may not be who I am tomorrow. Of course we're always changing and growing but to an unrecognizable point? Yes, quite possibly, what happens today will catch up with my tomorrows and over power my yesteryears. Today I have youthful exuberance glowing from my na├»ve and untested soul.  Years from now I could become a vestige of my former self, unrecognizable to me but judged by strangers for my imperfections carved by life’s trials, in what form, in what story, I yet to know will present themselves but I know they're waiting.

I was haunted, once again.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Life with Jack and Jane: Part 1 “Moving On Up”

“I installed a skylight in my apartment…
the people who live above me are very furious!” Steven Wright

With my few belonging I packed up and headed to Queens, NY. I left my sheltered, suburban life behind. In one trip, all that I knew was a thing of the past and what lay ahead I hadn’t a clue.

Jack and Jane were common law spouses. They had lived together for over twenty years. They resided in a rent controlled, pre-war apartment building in Forest Hills, Queens, NY. Forest Hills was considered a ritzy borough. To me, it was a city: dirty, crowded, and concrete. They did live in a really nice building. The lobby was grand, with black and white marble floors, brass accents, spacious, like a page out of a featured art deco design in an Architectural Digest magazine.

Their apartment was comfortable and loaded with character. Beautiful built-ins and shelving, crown molding everywhere, hard wood floors throughout, a modest dining room with French doors, a large landing that stepped down into a generous living room. The kitchen was galley style but it had a nice window. A long hallway led to two very spacious bedrooms with windows that let in a lot of natural light. And of course one bathroom for three adults to share.

I had my own room with a king size bed, a black and white TV, and a pretty, peach satin fabric chair and ottoman. I moved in the summer of 1996.

The apartment had no air conditioning and New York City summers are hot and humid, sticky and stinky. I slept with my window open as wide as it would open just to let some type of breeze blow through and reach my clammy, perspiring skin. Every now and then a light, feathery gust would whisper through but mostly the sound of JFK airport two miles away, car alarms, and neighbors arguing and shouting their home life dysfunction was the only breeze I felt.

The building was a block away from the subway so I could walk and then ride to my city job at a large publishing house. Groceries could be delivered or a quick walk across a four lane highway could fetch one the necessities of nourishment.

Forest Hills had a street lined shopping district which was fun to browse. The original US Open tennis stadium was around the corner, and a slice of suburbia was tucked away, filled with glorious and gorgeous historic Tudors and mini-mansions. I loved walking those streets. I would catch families coming out of their homes, getting in their cars for a weekend excursion. I wondered, “Did their mom just finish making them blueberry pancakes?”

Yes, I very much missed my family but this was a new chapter in my life. I was an adult, still not fully independent, but those days of Saturday morning pancakes made by mom with Bisquick and blueberries, would have to be saved in a box and pulled out years later like a recipe passed down from generation to generation.

Life with Jack and Jane was good. They rescued me and I am eternally grateful. If I could ever repay the favor, not sure how, but maybe someday I would if I could. I was still in survival mode though so such a thought was brief.

Jack was my mom’s oldest brother. He was about six feet plus and inch or two, looked like Santa Claus with his big belly on his 300 pound frame. He sounded, and picture this because this is truly how he sounded, his voice sounded like Frosty the Snowman. Like when Frosty comes to life and says “Happy Birthday” that was my Uncle Jack’s voice.

Jack was always cheery, happy, easy going, thoughtful, kind, and generous. He always liked to try to make you laugh or put a smile on your face even if he paid a self-deprecation expense. He reminded me so much of my grandmother, his mother, except with a mustache and shorter hair. Even their hands were the same. I think they even smelled the same. Like moth balls, cologne, and soot with a hint of body odor.

Yes Jack always seemed happy. A fifty something Vietnam veteran hippie with a green thumb. He grew these funny looking plants in his living room window. They had these little brownish, black seeds I used to find all over the apartment. I’m not sure what type of plant it was but it sure made him happy – and hungry!

Every night he’d hunker down in his room after a long day of cleaning the subways. Some funky smell emanated from under the crack of the door. I knew he had a six pack of beer that he finished every night so I gather he had a touch of the Irish in his bones. But then he’d get the munchies and finish off a gallon of milk and an entire Entenmann’s yellow cake with fudge icing.

I learned not to mess with his cake. One day I couldn’t resist and figured he wouldn’t mind if I had a slice or two. I probably should have asked before I ate but we were family. Never again! That was the first time I saw Uncle Jack cranky, anger, and quite frankly bitter. Never again would I touch his chocolate cake.

Life with Jack and Jane was so easy going. We were three peas in a pod. They said I was like a ray of sunshine to them which was nice to hear. We would talk and talk and talk about anything and everything. One time Uncle Jack even broke out some old photos of his days in Nam. After two tours of duty, he told me he’d go back there in a heartbeat. He told me part of him never left and there was the happiest days of his life.

I asked him, “So you really enjoyed being a cook?” He said, “Cook?! No darlin’ I was on the frontline.” And then he proceeded to tell me how he was crossing this field in Vietnam, by himself and out from the woods or jungle comes another American soldier, his cousin Noelle whom he grew up with in Bel Harbor, NY. Neither one had any idea the other was in Nam. They stood there, just the two of them in the field, talking, reminiscing, very surreal, a moment of extreme euphoria and then headed back towards their assigned platoons.

I said, “Hmm, I always thought you were a cook.”

He said, “Nah, that’s just what I told my motha so she wouldn’t worry.”

Yes, life with Jack and Jane would teach me a lot.

Following is the link to the prelude if interested in starting from the beginning: