If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance. -George Bernard Shaw
I was born in Waterbury on January 6, 1955. Called Little Christmas, or Russian Christmas, January 6 is a holiday in the Eastern Orthodox religion. In fact, we were all holiday people. My mother was born on Valentine’s Day, something my father saw as a cruel but humorous trick of fate. Paulie, named after my mother’s father, was born on Halloween, and Maura was born on Christmas Day and was brought home in a big red stocking. A few years later, on Labor Day, my brother Jimmy was born. I was named after my Father’s uncle, John Sullivan, a Boston railroad conductor. Denny was named for John Sullivan’s brother, Denny Sullivan, a Boston policeman.
My father was the grandson of austere, hardworking, highly devout, teetotaler Irish immigrants who came to America in the late 1890s from a village in remote western Ireland. My grandfather, Patrick Tuohy, was the exact opposite of his parents, and not by mistake, I should think. He was a two-fisted, quick-tempered, committed labor socialist with a penchant for drink and hard narcotics. He was a carpenter by trade, but rarely worked steadily at his craft, or at anything else for that matter. Patrick was an interesting man who tried his hand at everything from chicken farming to politics. He briefly struck it rich in the early 1930s, when, while on a drunk, he parked his car on a railroad crossing, fell asleep and was struck by a train. He survived, but with severe damage to the brain. He sued and The New Haven Railroad assumed it was their fault and settled for six figures. He moved to Chicago, God only knows why, where he ended up serving a short prison sentence for financial finagling. Busted, he returned to the safety of his Depression-wracked working-class Irish neighborhood in Naugatuck, Connecticut, called Kelley’s Hill, because so many Irish lived there on that patch of hillside. This is where my father and his eight siblings were raised.
My father was a handsome man with watery, soft blue eyes, who was always fit and trim. Unlike all of us, who were ruddy, he carried a darker complexion. He was the kind of handsome that people defer to. I noticed that when he spoke to women, they curled their hair in their fingers. He looked like a winner. Men held doors for him and cops let him out of speeding tickets because he had that rare ability to be almost instantly liked. People wanted to take care of him. It was fascinating to watch. People who barely knew him would smile at him and pat him on the back. I saw it but I never understood it, because, if the truth be told, he was not a particularly nice person. In fact, he barely tolerated most people, but that didn’t seem to matter when his magic kicked in.
My father, who was also named John, was a seventh-grade dropout who served in the army in World War II as part of the Connecticut Yankee Division. He detested his father, something he told me many times over the years. He recalled him as a belligerent bully.
“He was a no good son of a bitch,” he’d say as we drove along in his paint truck. “Just a no good son of a bitch.”
I never asked why he was a no good son of a bitch, because as soon as the words left my father’s mouth, he would look into some mist of yesterday that only he could see, and disappeared into it for a few minutes. However, my father adored his mother, Helen Sullivan of Boston, whom he always described as nothing short of angelic. When she died in 1943, my father was stationed with the Military Police on Fishers Island just off the Connecticut coast. My aunts told me that at his mother’s burial, my father had a complete emotional breakdown.
“He tried to leap right into the grave ditch with her, Johnny,” my Aunt Maggie, his older sister, told me. “It took all of us to hold him back, and then he just sat down and cried and cried.”
I am sure it is true, but I cannot, for the life of me, see my father becoming even slightly emotional over anything, least of all the way they described him. He was not a man of great emotion or depth, at least not that I ever saw. Despite his good looks, charms, and instant likability, he was a very shallow man and not very bright.
“Something in him shut off after she died,” Aunt Maggie whispered to me as she shook her head in that dramatically mournful way that the Irish have when discussing death.
Maggie insisted on being called Margaret but never was. “Margaret is more high-class,” she said. A New England spinster, she was a vicious gossip who had an uncanny and unsettling resemblance to the actor Margaret Hamilton who so brilliantly played the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. The chin, the mouth, the laugh. Perhaps she was right about my father and something snapping inside of him.
He left the military police and the safety of Fishers Island behind him, joined the infantry, and lugged a Browning automatic rifle across Europe. He won, in less than a year, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Purple Heart. He killed Nazis by the drove, according to the New York newspaper accounts that I read, but never once, in all of the many times he spoke of the war, did he acknowledge that he had shot anyone at all. Instead, his war stories were told and retold to me through the eyes of a small town New England kid, fascinated, scared and mesmerized by a world gone mad.
“We used Belgian money for toilet paper,” he said once, at the dinner table, of course.
“You know why?” he asked.
This was not a conversation I wanted to enter into, so I stared at my mashed potatoes and hoped it would go away.
“You know why?” he asked my mashed potatoes.
“No, Da. Why was that?” I said, and gave him my complete and full attention.
He would lean back in his chair, smile that pirate smile of his, and say, “Silk—it was made with silk. Not the whole thing, but a lot of it.”
He waited for my reply but I figured at that point it was pretty much all I needed to know about Belgian money and toilet paper.
After several seconds he said, “It was very soft.”
And then, wrongly assuming we had left the world of Belgian toilet paper behind us, I had started to eat again when he added, “and very wide, too.”
At the war’s end he returned to Waterbury and worked as a union house painter, the only job he ever knew outside his brief stint as a soldier.
My mother was born into a working-class family in Harlem, New York. Her mother, Nellie Connelly, was a hard-drinking, rebellious girl who left her native Northern Ireland in the late 1920s to work for an aunt as a chambermaid in a midtown Manhattan boarding house. But Nellie worked there only briefly, under the tyrannical Old World rule of her aunt, before being pulled away by the flashy new world of America. Within a year, she was living in Brooklyn earning her way as a housemaid.
My mother’s father’s family were Prussian Jews, the Zellners, who arrived in upstate New York in 1832. They made a small but respectable fortune in the dry goods business and later, in the twentieth century, in high-end furniture sales. They were also instrumental in building one of the first synagogues outside New York City, in the city of Elmira, New York, a cutting-edge transportation center that counted Mr. and Mrs. Mark Twain among its summer residents.
My grandfather, who was born Maxmillian Zellner and died as Paul Selner, but whom everyone knew as Milton, was drafted into World War I and served as one of General George Pershing’s drivers, though he didn’t know how to drive when he volunteered for the job. “I figured, ‘How hard can it be?’” he explained to me. “Nice job, and you never hear about them generals getting shot at.”
After the armistice, he elected to stay in Manhattan instead of returning upstate, and landed a job selling men’s suits at Gimbel’s, once the largest department store chain in the country. He’d been interviewed and hired for the position by Mr. Gimbel, the son of the Bavarian immigrant who founded the chain.
Milton, a short, stocky, swarthy man, met my grandmother, a tall, sallow redhead, at a political luncheon for young adults sponsored by Al Smith. A few weeks later he asked her to marry him, but she refused until he agreed to become a Roman Catholic. He had never practiced Judaism, so he converted without any hesitation. He was baptized at Saints Peter and Paul church in Brooklyn and given the Christian name Paul, after Saint Paul, Saul of Tarsus, the Jewish persecutor of Christian Jews—a bit heavy-handed in the symbolism, I think.
They had eight children, seven girls and one boy, most of whom lived brief, tragic and violent lives in the slums of Brooklyn. Several drank themselves to death at an early age, as my grandmother did, only ten years after she was married. Eddie, the only son, was murdered in a fight with his daughter’s boyfriend. He was stabbed more than fifty times.
When my mother was in her early teens, my grandfather forced her to leave school and raise her brother and sisters. Later he farmed her out as a housemaid, and eventually, he raped her. She carried those emotional scars with her for the rest of her life and several times she tried to kill herself. Toward the end of her life, she was finally diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, a form of mental illness that causes extreme mood swings. The illness may be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and it more than probably is genetic.
She watched television late into the night or simply sat alone in the kitchen sipping tea with milk and piles of sugar. When she did retire for the evening, she rarely slept through the night. Occasionally, when the depression set in, however, she slept for hours and rarely rose from the bed at all.
Her depression showed itself in dozens of other ways. She always had trouble concentrating, recalling things and making even simple decisions—hence her urge to seek out the opinions of those truly frightening, howl-at-the-moon crazy, God-awful creatures who surrounded us on Pond Street.
She complained endlessly of headaches, backaches and digestive problems and her appetite could and often did range between binge eating and self-imposed starvation, all of which caused her weight to swing drastically.
She never held a job. Although this was not unusual for many women of her generation, throughout her life she lived on welfare. She entered the hospital for virtually everything and anything, with the state paying the tab, and more than one unscrupulous doctor scheduled her for surgeries and operations she didn’t need. Eventually, and true to form for people with bipolar disorder, she developed migraines, thyroid illness, obesity, Type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Throughout her life, my mother’s fits of mania were breathtaking. At one moment she could be upbeat, positive, happy, and full of life and energy, talking so rapidly about moving out of the slums into a house in the country that it was nearly impossible to follow her thoughts. Then, suddenly and without warning, she flipped to the dark side and slid into a deep and frightening depression that left her overwhelmed with hopelessness.
Although she often felt sad to the point of numbness, I don’t recall ever, not once, seeing my mother cry, even during her dark moments of depression. However, there were, apparently, constant thoughts of suicide. She made several attempts as a girl and later as a young mother. Talk of death, her own death, was a constant theme with her, no matter what the mood. The comments on death weren’t always negative, especially during her normal intervals. Rather, they were simple, off-handed comments woven into the fabric of everyday conversation.
The depression didn’t last as long as her uncontrollable fits of temper did. Unlike the upbeat moods or the depressions, we could see the dark moods coming. She became snide and very irritable and then the violence started.
There was another side to her, of course, as there is another side to all of us. Although almost completely uneducated, she was extremely intelligent, unlike my father. While my father’s humor was plentiful but pedestrian, and his political outlook simplistic and jingoistic, her humor was surprisingly complex, as were her political philosophies.
By the time I was born, the grinding poverty of her life, the after-effects of her father’s rape which plagued her for many years, and the daily tensions of mothering seven children had overwhelmed her and she cracked. She suffered some sort of mental collapse and never fully recovered from it.
In the early 1950s, my mother’s younger sister, Maureen, met my uncle Bobby when he was passing through New York on leave from the Army. They married a year later and Bobby, a native of Waterbury, moved his bride to Connecticut. A few years later my mother followed. By then, she already had two children: my eldest sister, Bridget, a redhead like my mother, whose father was a punchy Long Island boxer turned bartender named “Irish Eddie” Boyle; and my tow-headed brother Paul, who was born from a short-lived affair between my mother and a Brooklyn musician named Jimmy Welch, also an Irishman.
My father met my mother in a downtown tavern in the early 1950s and they moved in together in 1954. They never married. They were solidly lower-class working people, poorly educated and not terribly cognizant of anything outside their world, but decent people. They were both movie-star handsome and they had many fine attributes when they were not drunk or crazy, but otherwise my parents were very different. All these years later, I do not know for the life of me what brought them together.
My mother was a vivacious, outgoing, beautiful redhead with a thick Brooklyn accent. She was an outspoken, opinionated woman who would be heard and would not be pushed or buffaloed. My father was her exact opposite. He was happy to fit comfortably into the background. His temperament was grounded, much more so than my mother’s was, and he went out of his way to avoid confrontation.
While my mother had a thirst for learning, respected the educated and held education in high regard, my father was not particularly inquisitive about anything. Nor was he particularly bright, something he recognized and accepted about himself. Like my mother, he was also nearly illiterate, and also like her, he enjoyed a good time far more than he should have and shared her genuine fondness for people.
In their own way, they were both instantly likable, amiable people, happy to accept the simple things in life and with no desire to rise above their modest places in the world. I don’t believe they were together because they loved one another but rather because they hoped for what could be, and because they probably understood that oftentimes even the tiniest bit of hope can create the birth of love.
In 1962, six year old John Tuohy, his two brothers and two sisters entered Connecticut’s foster care system and were promptly split apart. Over the next ten years, John would live in more than ten foster homes, group homes and state schools, from his native Waterbury to Ansonia, New Haven, West Haven, Deep River and Hartford. In the end, a decade later, the state returned him to the same home and the same parents they had taken him from. As tragic as is funny compelling story will make you cry and laugh as you journey with this child to overcome the obstacles of the foster care system and find his dreams.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John William Tuohy is a writer who lives in Washington DC. He holds an MFA in writing from Lindenwood University. He is the author of numerous non-fiction on the history of organized crime including the ground break biography of bootlegger Roger Tuohy "When Capone's Mob Murdered Touhy" and "Guns and Glamour: A History of Organized Crime in Chicago."
His non-fiction crime short stories have appeared in The New Criminologist, American Mafia and other publications. John won the City of Chicago's Celtic Playfest for his work The Hannigan's of Beverly, and his short story fiction work, Karma Finds Franny Glass, appeared in AdmitTwo Magazine in October of 2008.
His play, Cyberdate.Com, was chosen for a public performance at the Actors Chapel in Manhattan in February of 2007 as part of the groups Reading Series for New York project. In June of 2008, the play won the Virginia Theater of The First Amendment Award for best new play.