"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Families–Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them

“He eats like a lizard”, said my mother of Uncle Harry. “He just sits there then suddenly snaps at his food”.

He ate less like a lizard than looked like one – large, hooded eyes, one slightly louche that moved like a reptile looking for a fly.  His skin was scaly.  His psoriasis had lost its flaming red and was now just crusted on his forearms.  No one liked to look at him or watch him eat.

“But generous”, my mother said. “Generous to a fault”.  He had given my aunts and uncles a lot of financial support, usually cash in an envelope put tactfully by the plastic flowers in the sitting room of  Aunt Carmela’s walkup in Wooster Square; or a twenty put in Uncle Johnny’s breast pocket as he draped his arm around his younger brother’s shoulder.

As far as I could tell, both Johnny and Carmela were leeches and lived off my uncle’s generosity.  They came to him for money every week.  If it wasn’t the furnace that needed repair, it was my Cousin Nello’s palsy.  Uncle Harry hated and resented the whining and cadging of his brothers and sisters but put up with it because his mother had begged him to help the less fortunate members of the family.

The family fights among the brothers and sisters were legendary – not only because of Uncle Harry’s supposed favoritism, but because they were jealous of each other.  I could never understand where their envy and spite came from.  Each one was poorer than the next.  Moving up in the world meant literally moving one floor higher above the alley cats, garbage, and coal chutes.  Everything, however, was a trade off. The linoleum floors on the second floor were cracked and warped, the radiators banged and hammered because the pipes on the Wallace Street side of the building had never been replaced; and the baking smells from Lucibello’s, enticing to the occasional visitor were downright sickening if you had to smell them day after day.

One uncle was a laborer at the Winchester Arms factory, another worked the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad, and a third swept floors at the Clock Factory.  None of them had a pot to piss in, my mother said.  Auntie Angie’s walkup always did have a trace of cat urine but that was overwhelmed by the smell of mothballs and coal oil.

In any case, all the brothers and sisters hated each other.  It is surprisingly difficult to get back at someone when you are poor.  No one owned a car, so you couldn’t foul plugs, cut wires, or puncture tires. No one had a bank account, there were no welfare checks to pilfer, and since nothing worked in the building anyway, it was impossible to gum the plumbing up any more than it was.

So the family resorted to rumor and innuendo; but again, poverty didn’t leave much room for inventiveness.  Everyone came home knackered from ten hours on the factory floor, had just enough time for a bowl of pasta and a bottle of Chianti before passing out on the sofa.  No cinq a sept liaisons to cover up, no paper trails of expensive gifts to lovers.  Even a lingering scent of cheap perfume, so overlaid with the garlic and mothballs in every apartment, would never be noticed.

No matter how they tried, the sexual route to disgrace was a dead end. “What do you mean, Mikey’s screwing her?”, Aunt Viola snorted. “He hasn’t gotten it up in years.”

The only way to rile up the relatives was through their children, and they cooked up wild stories about how daughters were going with darkies from East Haven, how Father D’Alessio kept finding panties in the confessional, and how Lydia had missed her period.

Few of these stories took hold; so the only recourse left was the tried and true, classic squabble about money, as little as there was.  Whatever little my grandmother had saved, there was definitely not enough to go around after her death, and since she never wrote a will, everything was up for grabs.  The ensuing fakery, empty expressions of love and concern, and sheer deceit was worthy of Gooper and Mae, the greedy relatives of Brick Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Once Gooper and Mae learn that Big Daddy has terminal cancer, they ramp up the love and attention in one final push to get the bulk of his inheritance.  In the final scene, Gooper tells what’s really eating him:

I’ve resented Big Daddy’s partiality to Brick ever since Brick was born, and the way I’ve been treated like I was barely good enough to spit on and sometimes not even good enough for that.

Mae is not troubled by any Oedipal or Cain and Abel issues.  She is just greedy and anxious to get her hands on the biggest estate in Mississippi.

There are hundreds of modern stories, plays, and novels about family greed and venality, but I like Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes best.

Regina's brother Oscar has married Birdie, his much-maligned, alcoholic wife, solely to acquire her family's plantation and its cotton fields. Oscar now wants to join forces with his brother, Benjamin, to construct a cotton mill. They approach their sister with their need for an additional $75,000 to invest in the project. Oscar initially proposes marriage between his son Leo and Regina's daughter Alexandra – first cousins – as a means of getting Horace's money, but Horace and Alexandra are repulsed by the suggestion. When Regina asks Horace outright for the money, he refuses, so Leo, a bank teller, is pressured into stealing his uncle Horace's railroad bonds from the bank's safety deposit box. (Wikipedia Plot Summary)

Edward Albee, Hellman, Williams, and O’Neill – like Shakespeare before them - understood that families are both the source of most of the greed, animosity, and venality in the world; and the best expression of them.  Human nature is the same whether directing competitive, selfish ambitions in the family, community, or country.  Far from criticizing families for their pitiless selfishness and greed, these playwrights saw them as crucibles within which people test their morals, ethics, honesty, courage, and finally themselves. 

Arguably Albee’s best work is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a play in which George and Martha flay each other during an evening with guests.  They wound each other so deeply that George concludes that they have not only cut each other to the bone but to the marrow.  The fight is epic.  Martha is a harridan, flesh-eating harpy whose cruelty knows no restraint.  She destroys George piece by piece, until every weakness has been exposed.  George is more ironic in his attacks on Martha but through his elaborate and more and more intimate and revealing games, is just as cruel and vicious.  There can be nothing left of either of their old selves, and they both know it.

Yet at the end of the play Albee shows that this humiliating, destructive spectacle was absolutely necessary.  George and Martha depend on each other desperately, and only by stripping away all illusion, pretense, and – in Brick Pollitt’s words, duplicity – can they ever restore their marriage to a more reasonable, healthy, and happy state

They would have never arrived at such a primal stage – very much like Lear on the heath, a man reduced to his elemental self - ‘an unaccomnodated man, a poor, a bare, forked animal’ – unless they had had to live within the crucible of an intense and irrevocable marriage.

The story of Lear is, of course, the quintessential family story of ambition, greed, jealousy, and hatred. He so totally underestimated the nature of families and especially his own, the resentments and hostilities of children towards each other and especially towards their parents, that he naively divided and distributed his kingdom while he was still alive.  Far from keeping the will out of probate, it simply raised the ante.  Not satisfied with the lands they had been bequeathed and given the third of their honest sister, Cordelia, Goneril and Regan set out to destroy their father, cruelly deprive him of his courtiers, his horses, and his dignity.  They are the real Evil Sisters of Shakespeare.

Many observers have noted what they see as the obsolescence of the family.  Why constrain newly-liberated women and sexually adventurous men within an outdated construct.  Childbearing is an option, not a given; and can be achieved through a range of technological options.  Neither mother nor father – only eggs and sperm – will be required for procreation, and fluid, adaptive social networks will replace the old system of traditional families.  Accession, inheritance, primogeniture – all have gone by the wayside as men and women compete equally and children are expected to make it on their own. 
Care for the very young and the elderly is outsourced; and reproduction becomes a luxury good. Have children only if you feel that their benefits outweigh their costs.

There is no doubt that without the family people will still fight, express their ambitions and resentments in other forums, but the special nature of the traditional family – irrevocable responsibility – will be missing. How can one learn proper moral and ethical behavior, explore the dimensions of love without the constraints of family?  Maturity only comes by banging your head against the wall built by disciplinarian parents.  It is no wonder why Freud was so widely accepted.  He knew, like Shakespeare, that the family is the be-all and end-all of human enterprise.  Understanding the complexes, resentments, repressed sexuality, and personal ambitions of his patients – frustrations and dreams that were forged in the crucible of the family – was the only way to understand them.

One does not form a family expressly to mature and grow; but that surely is perhaps the most important by-product.

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