Friday, June 2, 2017

Complicated Is Better Than Gone

Last spring, a ninety-two-year-old woman came up to us on the bench outside Newtown Book & Record Exchange and gave us a twelve-minute info session about her life and times, largely prompted by the photographs she carried in her large purse. Everything she said is so quotable that I might co-write a song with her. Not that I know her name....

"That's my oldest daughter. She's seventy. She's crazy." "Instead of saying 'I don't,' I say 'I do'." "God bless you!" "He already did!" "The heart can repair itself." "Do you live the dash of your life?" "Who’s singing in there?" "August." "But it's not August!" "That's my baby, Gary. He's only... '39.'" "There goes my nose! It rhymes!" "I had her when I was forty-one. I don't know if I was sexy... or I made a mistake."

photo by Greg McGarvey (Newtown, PA, USA, 2016)

Speaking of great-grandmas, I just remembered that I've got a thirty-plus-minute recording of my Grandma Helen talking about her own life. When I was twenty-six, I suggested we take a trip to her old homestead in Brooklyn. To my great relief, the trip happened. She showed us the church where she got married, went into one of the public schools she attended, walked to the front of her childhood home (but did not go in), took us for cheesecake at Junior’s. I shot video the whole time, including the half-hour drive back to Piscataway. The old-time stories just kept coming, non-stop. I felt grateful to be able to document so much of her life story. I got her in a good day.

photo by Friendly Waiter (Brooklyn, 2009)

photo by Greg McGarvey (Piscataway, NJ, USA, 2009)

Some of the relationships in this side of my family bring to mind planets going in and out of alignment. This dysfunction was so pronounced, the inconsistencies so consistent, that I suspect I’d need two lifetimes of analysis to fully uncoil the wires in my mind.

We tried to visit her two Easters ago. She’d been out-of-touch for two years, even missing the chance to meet her new great-grandchild (and now her second). I walked up to her front door with Nicky and my mom behind me and tried to offer her an Easter basket. Everything about the ambiance of her and her home was just like it used to be, with the exception of the now-undyed grey hair. In an unnervingly calm tone that was incongruous with her words, she told me we were rude to visit unannounced and, before closing the door in my face, said, “I like my life the way it is.”

I drove my mom to the little park near the train tracks and I held her hand. What we didn’t know - and still don’t know - is the state of Grandma’s health, physically and mentally. In her heart, I said, she wants to love. Ain’t no one of sound mind that doesn’t want to meet their first great-grandchild. I wish that my mom could get all of the love she deserves. These days, she gets a lot of love from her grandkids.

photo by Greg McGarvey (Newtown, PA, USA, 2017)

I will love Grandma for the many good times either way. I could justifiably hate her for the way she’s hurt my closest family members, but I just don’t. I love her good side. There’s nobody more vivacious and I-grew-up-in-Brooklyn-in-the-rough-and-tumble-days than this old lady in her tiny house in the middle of New Jersey. I hope that she can reunite with some of us before it’s too late. Either way, I will celebrate her in my words and music so my younger relatives - and strangers - can learn something about her.

What I remember most fondly is waking up in the mornings to soft sunlight on the old hardwood floors, the freight train noises echoing through the sleepy neighborhood with its sturdy old trees, its strip mall full of now-long-gone mom-and-pops, the model train shop down the road (still in operation), the lovely old church with its talented musicians, the tiny Krauser’s convenience store.

Grandma’s house was sort of like a dollhouse blown up to ¾ size, with its very specific yet hard-to-define design aesthetic. Lots of dark wood, brass, dark fabrics, knickknacks aplenty, hundreds of whimsical refrigerator magnets - as tightly controlled as my mom’s house was not. Same coin, two sides. Just as I see the hard edges of both of my parents’ seemingly unblendable, mismatched personalities in my own.

photo by Greg McGarvey (Piscataway, NJ, USA, 2010)

I photographed her front steps once, right before she had them repainted. I liked it better before she fixed it. You could see all the time that’d passed in the house, like rings in a tree.

photo by Greg McGarvey (Piscataway, NJ, USA, 2009)

This part of my history is just out-of-reach which means that it will be be ancient history before long. I hope that we get enough of a handle on our climate crisis that I can be somebody’s weird old relative from one-hundred years ago. This life has been hard at times, but I’m grateful for the ride. I hope the human race can get its act together for future riders. 

I remember my mom walking me along the train tracks that cut through town, telling me how free she felt as a teenager wandering here alone. Stepping away from the madness that family sometimes can be. My mom is a complicated lady, but in this moment, I understood something about her. It is through her, perhaps, that I learned to escape the pressures of my life in human society through nature’s beauty. Come to think of it, Dad was into that, too.

She used to talk about riding her bike down the Watchung Mountain in Green Brook. It was a long, dangerous, winding road with little to no shoulder, but she felt so alive when she’d do it. My Dad used to take my sister and I up to the top of that mountain, too. We’d load up on White Castle burgers and drive up to the overlook, gazing at miles and miles of New Jersey landscape. Sometimes we’d put a quarter into the viewfinder and look at New York City in the distance. The Empire State Building looked cool but the World Trade Center looked doubly cool.

I drove up the mountain in the months after Marcella died. I was listening to R.E.M.’s song “We All Go Back To Where We Belong” on repeat. It made me cry very hard each time. Like so many R.E.M. songs, I can’t pinpoint what it is that gets directly to my heart and makes me lose control.

I dreamed that we were elephants
the water, sun and clouds of dust
I woke up thinking we were free
I can taste the ocean on your skin
that is where it all begins
we all go back to where we belong
we all go back to where we belong
is this really what you want?

photo by Aunt Laura or Aunt Enza (Topsail Island, NC, USA, 2014)

When I find myself in that part of New Jersey, I always try to find a moment to go to the top of the Watchung Mountain. Although it is inherently beautiful with its panoramic views, natural scenery, and Native American history, I don’t understand why it pulls me in so much. I suppose it’s because it’s my original home. My sister and I were born there in that region, we lived there for a few years, and always came back on weekends even when we moved to Pennsylvania. Perhaps I recall simpler times when I’m there. And a yearning for whatever New York represented to me at the time.

photo by Greg McGarvey (Green Brook, NJ, USA, 2014)

photo by Greg McGarvey (Green Brook, NJ, USA, 2014)

Somehow, we never actually went into New York until I was fourteen. Grandma took us there and we took the very fast elevator up to Windows On The World. Regrettably, I didn’t have a camera yet, but I haven’t forgotten the the feeling of excitement. We finally made it to the city we used to just dream of. The city where, when I was a little kid, Cousin Brucie honored my request to hear “Wake Up Little Susie” on WCBS. The city that, when I was twenty-five, I drove to and played songs that my friends and I wrote ourselves. Our crowds were not gigantic, but we did get what we wanted from New York. I’ve since been back for more.

photo by Matthew Park (NYC, 2009)

Nicky is finally far away enough from me that I can write a song about her. The writing of Count The Colors seems to be complete which means that I can finally dive back into the present. The songwriter can’t really predict which songs will make it out of the gate, but I do know that I’ve lately started songs about my beloved cat Jamal, Nicky, and Jerry Plavins, the namesake of an old appliance store in my old town that’s been replaced with some strange inactive-looking store that features a mysterious, scowling man on its sign. My old town seems more interesting now that I’m up the road. Just as my girlfriend’s importance is revealed a little bit more now that she’s a time zone away instead of a couch cushion away.

photo by Greg McGarvey (Newtown, PA, USA, 2017)

Back in my hometown, he's totally convinced that he can walk. Wants me to help him out of the wheelchair so he can walk around the house. This is hard.

“He ate the whole bag of marshmallows because I forgot to hide them.”

I’m in Quakertown to do a job. This area fills me with a strange comfort that I can’t articulate. A place you visit just infrequently enough to never get a handle on. It’s where I had to empty my recently-paralyzed father’s trash-filled apartment last summer, but it’s also where my dad’s last long-term relationship was based. A vivacious woman from a big and truly wonderful family; a lover of travel, conversation, parties. For years, she seemed like his life’s missing puzzle piece. Seemingly irreconcilably different from one another, yet a ten-year concern. They saw much of the U.S.A. together. We had wonderful times at their home in Dublin, Pennsylvania.

photo by Greg McGarvey (Dublin, PA, USA, 2009)

It started to turn after the first stroke. Signs that he was going to take doctor’s orders with more than a few grains of salt. By the second stroke, she seemed to approach a breaking point when he continued to not exercise or follow the dietary guidelines. I, too, was watching him fail to save his own life and it did break my heart.

After this second stroke, he required intense physical rehabilitation. After commuting to the hospital most days he was there, I stayed with him at his Dublin home for two weeks to help him transition back to home life. I assumed healthy eating and regular walks would be part of our daily routine, but he wouldn’t take even a single walk. This wore me down after a while. I kept working on trying to inspire him to take control of his health, but it just wasn’t happening. I entertained myself with Dogfish Head, country walks, conversations with women from OkCupid, and guitar playing. Whatever would help me keep my head above water.

photo by Greg McGarvey (Bucks County, PA, USA, 2012)

My family’s house fire happened immediately after I returned home from this upsetting two-week stint. Marcella met me a week later. Between my dad’s issues and my mom’s justifiably poor reaction to the house fire, my heart was broken. She spent much of her last healthy years mending it. Thank you for that wonderful gift, Marcella. She counseled me often about the fact that I can’t fix other people. Thank you for that, too, Marceller. Shit, you were right.

photo by Marcella Di Sandro (Tullytown, PA, USA, 2012)

After things ended with Claire, Dad ended up in an apartment in the woods near Nockamixon Park, practically at random. This apartment, while in a breathtakingly gorgeous neighborhood, was even further north. A two-hour round-trip trek for us. But we did take that trek often, spending much time at a cozy little restaurant and bar with unpretentious pricing and an unpretentious name - Country Place. We spent lots of time in this rustic little spot, most memorably the time that Pam announced to Dad and I that she was pregnant. Dad also celebrated his sixtieth birthday with us here.

photo by Marcella Di Sandro (Perkasie, PA, USA, 2013)

His landlord was a kind, older man named Bill. He and his wife later told me that, although my dad kept to himself, they felt a bond with him and were heartbroken about his failing health.

photo by Greg McGarvey (Quakertown, PA, USA, 2016)

In the Claire period, Pam and I said over and over again: “what on EARTH would he do without Claire?”

Here we are. She saw it coming. I don’t blame her. There was a night when, having seen Marcella get wheeled in for brain surgery in the morning and having moved into a trailer in a muddy field in the afternoon (thanks to a crooked contractor who failed to finish our house in time), I managed to have a falling out with about ten people at once via social media. Music friends that I decided had wronged me, Claire and her family. I was not well that night and I lost a few friendships as a result. In my heart, though, I only have good feelings for Claire. Thank you for the good years you gave my Dad, Claire.

The apartment is a little lonely without Nicky, but I am happy to have a friend tonight on-stage. I met Skaggs (whose real name is reportedly Marc) in my New Hope period. We’ve never spent a whole weekend stargazing and talking about life together, but we understand each other. My man Skaggs has recently lost both parents and I’ve come to learn that that’s the only way I can contextualize the more complicated family relationships - complicated is better than gone.