It all started with my mother. Most things back then seemed to anyway and this was no exception. The way it went was something like this: she was bored just looking after me and my father didn’t want her to work, some macho Italian pride thing with him, like I’m the man of the family and I’ll make enough to take care of us. My mother, though, like so many women during the war had learned to be independent of the men in their lives who were off in the armed services doing what men do in circumstances like that and she had worked in Grumman’s, a defense plant on Long Island, riveting airplanes together and taking care of my sister, my aunts who lived with my parents, and the house she bought on Long Island without consulting my father who did not, I repeat, did not want to leave Brooklyn but was away in Washington, D.C. guarding the White House or other government buildings. Since he was the oldest in the family and responsible for all seven of his siblings, he was not shipped overseas like my uncles but stayed in The States as an MP.
Anyway, this was after the war, in the 50s, Eisenhower years, and he was doing his long commutes in and out of Manhattan, slightly cursing, no doubt, the house on Long Island and wistfully thinking of Brooklyn, while my mother, who actually worked as a secretary before the war, grew bored watching me go back and forth to school. So she saw this ad on TV or read it in the paper or heard it on the radio, I don’t remember which, about being a foster parent and said, “Since you don’t want me to work and I’m pretty bored just taking care of this one kid, why don’t we become foster parents and take in some other kids who need a home?”
My father, probably trying to eat dinner in peace at 9:30 at night after a long day at the Downtown Athletic Club handing out towels to members in the gym and arguing politics with whomever was available, said, “Okay.”
And that was how I ended up with brothers. Seven altogether, but only three at a time. And the criteria established by my mother when asked what types of children she would take was: only boys because she didn’t want to worry about sharing rooms and that they be Catholic so she only had to worry about sending all of us to one religious service. So at age 9, I suddenly, within only a month’s time, ended up with three brothers.
First came Richard. He was two years older and Italian-American like me but that’s where any similarity ended. Richard was the illegitimate child of an alcoholic mother and had been sexually abused as a young child. He had already been in and out of several foster homes before he came to live with us and had acquired two characteristics that would eventually cause his undoing: he was a thief and an habitual liar. Truth was for him a foreign language that he could never quite learn. And though he stole, he rarely kept what he stole for himself but was in the habit of giving it away as gifts. There was the time, for instance, he found a watch and a wad of over fifty dollars in the debris of a burned out building. He gave the watch to a friend who was with him, of course, but when my father wondered how paper money did not burn in the fire, he said it was buried under some boards that he just happened to kick over by accident. It wasn’t long, though, before two detectives from the Lynbrook Police Department came to our door asking to talk to Richard. It seemed that someone who was a customer on Richard’s paper route noticed his watch and billfold were missing from the end table where he left them. Thinking back, only the newsboy, Richard, had been in the house since he last saw them. Richard finally confessed, the watch was retrieved from the friend he gave it to and returned, but the money was gone. According to Richard, he felt so guilty about the theft that he went to confession and the priest, the beloved Father Dempsey who was the kindest, most sympathetic priest in the parish, told Richard to put it in the poor box rather than return it. My father was stunned, and after the detectives left, leaving Richard in my father’s custody since he was a juvenile, my father took Richard upstairs to his room, closed the door, and then we all heard thunderous slaps emulating from behind that closed door. My father’s voice rang out: “You dare lie and use a priest’s name.” Another slap. It was the first and only time he ever hit any child and it broke his heart to do it.
Richard became a cause for my father, as if he felt morally responsible to salvage him. But it was a losing cause. Richard kept stealing, even taking my sister’s engagement ring, jewelry from my mother, anything, really, that wasn’t securely locked in a safe in whatever room he wandered in.
But no matter how often my father forgave him, all efforts at reform failed and Richard one day stole jewelry and money from us, including my silver dollar collection, and ran off to Miami with a friend. They were there a few days before the hotel staff grew suspicious of their ages (they were only 14 at the time) and notified the police who eventually sent them back to New York. Richard was returned to the Child Welfare Agency which placed him in a reform school run by Catholic Brothers. This was not a high security institution but one based on the honor system. There were no walls or alarms or guards, and we actually visited him there and he seemed happy and adjusted. But, of course, he stole from there, too, and ran away and was finally put in a more secure reform school. My father died broken hearted about Richard but he was not out of our lives yet.
Richard would write occasionally but it wasn’t until he became engaged that he finally came to visit. Now Richard was average height, about five foot nine, and weighed maybe 150 pounds soaking wet, so it was a surprise for us to meet his fiancé Rose Marie who could only enter through a doorway sideways and needed two chairs to support her weight at the dining room table. But she was as sweet and kind as she was obese and we instantly grew attached to her. She fawned over my mother, calling her “Mom”, bringing presents, being solicitous at every turn. She also seemed to be the one with money and Richard informed us that he was working for her father. Of course, we knew that wasn’t the real reason Richard married her. She fulfilled some psychological need in him: someone who would love him unconditionally and that no one would ever try to take away from him.
There was a wedding that I can’t remember if my mother went to, I was away at college at the time, and afterwards, when I was home on holiday, Richard visited with his wife, her father, and someone else who it turned out was a bodyguard. Richard had, much to our surprise, married into a mafia family in the Bronx. His father-in-law bought them a house in Massachusetts which my mother and younger brother Robert visited. This house turned out to be a kind of “safe house” for members of “the family” to go to when they needed to be away for a while. My mother noticed one guest who always stayed close to the house and his handgun. It became a kind of family joke for a while until the inevitable tragic turn when Richard couldn’t keep his wandering hands off his father-in-law’s money and stole several thousand dollars and disappeared for a few months. We only knew about that because Rose Marie called quite frantic asking if we had heard from him. He eventually returned, tearfully begging forgiveness, and his father-in-law took him back into the fold, saying he was “family”. So it was all quiet in Massachusetts for a couple of months until one day Rose Marie called again to inform us that Richard had committed suicide. A single shot to the head. We didn’t believe it, of course, but who were we to argue. The scars on his psyche could not have led him any other way.
Years later, my mother saw Rose Marie again on TV. She was watching some daytime talk show while having lunch in the kitchen and the health guru Richard Simmons was being interviewed about a new revolutionary diet plan he was promoting and Rose Marie was one of his success stories. She sat there beaming, all 140 pounds of her, having shed over 200 pounds on that diet. I had to wonder about Richard then. Perhaps, wherever he was, he was proud of her.
Sad as that is, it isn’t the most tragic of the stories I can tell. That distinction belongs to the last brother I had: Harry. But first let me talk about the other five.
There were always three in the house at the same time, this being dictated by the number of bedrooms we had. So right after Richard came my brother Johnny Ding. He is two years younger than me and since we virtually grew up together and have aged together all these long, long years, I think it’s safe to say we are perhaps closer in ways that only siblings two years apart can be. We set off the two packs of firecrackers I pilfered from Richard’s stash before the cops came to the house to confiscate them; had epic battles with our toy soldiers on the front lawn; played stalking games with our air rifles in the woods by the train tracks; had hour long games of Risk with our cousins; rode goats at my Uncle Mike’s house in New Jersey; spent two weeks every summer camping with the boy scout troop we joined; both of us hated lima beans and lumpy mash potatoes; would both make fun of our cousin Richard “the clod” who was always two years behind in whatever was fashionable; and grew up knowing blueberry pie was my favorite dessert and White Castle hamburgers were his favorite meal. My brother Johnny who once when working for NCR and was out on a repair call was subjected to two men making fun of him because he was Chinese. Johnny calmly put his tool kit down, opened it to remove his hammer, then turned to them, hammer in hand, and asked, “What did you say?” Who decided once that he wasn’t Chinese but Italian and kept insisting we call him Giovania. Johnny will still point out the telephone pole I smashed into one late night after a very long rehearsal and I will always remember how he coaxed all of us brothers to go disc dancing after Cindy’s wedding and one summer we all put up the fence in Johnny’s backyard because he insisted we should help him do that so it will always be memorable in his eyes.
The third brother to arrive was Robert McManus, age 8 weeks old, straight from the hospital and up for adoption, though by the time my parents started the process, my father died and so Robert stayed foster his whole life. Robert was the baby of the family and so never really did the chores the rest of us had to do: taking out the garbage, washing and drying the dishes, vacuuming and dusting all the common rooms in the house, cutting the grass and weeding the garden, etc etc etc. The youngest child is often like an only child in that they become a focal point in a family, are spoiled, and often become self-centered as adults. Robert, though guilty in that regard, still has a great sense of humor, is a great cook (he once graduated from the Culinary Institute of America training to be a chef), and a supervisor at his company overseeing production and quality control of surveillance equipment, and has probably the most extensive music library of anyone I know. He is a self-proclaimed couch potato and has a high tech home entertainment system which he spends hours enjoying, maybe even more than he loves puttering in the kitchen. He is famous in the family for his desserts and his tomato sauce, and his meatballs rival our mother’s.
So the original set of brothers were those three, but once Richard was gone, he was replaced by Michael Velasquez who stayed over a year before he went to live with his older sister. Michael insisted he was a Spartan and eventually joined the Navy after high school. I would see him periodically until losing track of him after I moved to Ohio to work for the Boy Scouts.
After Michael came Raymond whose last name I can’t remember and who also was only in the house a year before his family recovered from their financial problems to be able to take him back. We never heard from him again.
And then came George Ding, Johnny’s youngest brother who was unhappy in his foster home and Johnny asked me if we could take him, and I asked my mother who asked my father, and thus George came into the family that fall in 1962 just a few months before my father died in January, 1963. He was the last one to come in permanently. And George, a lawyer now in ethics review for the State of New York, was from early on the logical, calm voice in a household of sometimes conflicting personalities. The only thing all of us brothers seemed to agree on was voting, being all liberal democrats, and George wanted to follow in William Kuntsler’s footsteps and combat social injustice wherever it might be. Of course, he would get in trouble occasionally like the time Johnny and I had to drive out to Long Beach and bail him out of jail for arguing with a cop over body surfing policies. Things I remember about George growing up: how sad he was when he found out he had to wear glasses, his election to Vice President of the Honor Society, his first real girlfriend who was Jewish but how bitter he became when her grandparents forced her to break up with him because he was not only Chinese but Catholic and thus how he never dated anyone who was not Chinese after that, which was pretty hard to do in our town since there were only three Chinese kids in Lynbrook and two of them were my brothers. He was selected All Sections Fullback on the soccer team and had a soccer scholarship to a state college upstate but when the coach insisted he cut his hair, George quit the team and thus willingly forfeited his scholarship. I remember his sharp wit, calm approach to problem solving, and the way he would try to ignore all of the empty bags of White Castle hamburgers Johnny left in their closet.
Finally we had one more addition to our family, though for too short a period of time and the one brother whose fate broke all our hearts: Harry DaCosta.
Harry came right out of the hospital at 8 weeks old, like Robert, but the off-spring of a bi-racial couple. His mother had sexual relations with a married man and when she got pregnant, put her mulatto baby up for adoption. Her parents already were raising Harry’s half brother, another product of her involvement with another married man, and just couldn’t accept a second grandchild that way. Harry was not supposed to be with us long because he, too, was up for adoption, so my brothers and I tried to ignore him since we didn’t want to develop any emotional attachments, but it was impossible with Harry. He was just a loveable baby, so lively, always laughing and smiling, he stole all our hearts. My Aunt Mary and grandmother were living with us at that time and the three women, my mother included, doted on him. He was singing the Italian songs my grandmother taught him by age one and walking before that, constantly finding ways to escape from his crib and running all over the house to surprise us in the kitchen, which was our unofficial meeting place. He would break all his toys and say “I fix, I fix” but, of course, he would only break them further. We all played with him, even Johnny, the last holdout, gave in and fell in love with him. I was at Nassau Community College by then and Johnny was working his three jobs while finishing high school and George was in junior high, Robert in elementary school, but we all found time for Harry. We hoped he would be with us forever but that wasn’t to be. The Child Welfare Agency decided to close the books on this case and arranged for his mother to have a rent-free apartment and a monthly allotment from Welfare as long as she agreed to raise Harry on her own. So after a little over two years with us, he left to live with his mother.
And that might have been the end of the story, except his mother would visit us periodically with Harry and a different boyfriend each time with one sob story after another looking for money for essentials for Harry. My mother was no fool, so she offered to buy him whatever clothes he needed but would not give her the cash. And after several attempts to weasel money out of my mother, she stopped coming around. But the last time she came, my grandmother took Harry into the bathroom to help wash him and discovered bruises and welts on his body. Harry panicked and pleaded with my grandmother not to say anything and so she waited till after they left to tell us. My mother called the social worker who had handled Harry’s case to report it, but she and that agency turned a deaf ear. The case was closed, he was with his mother, she was on welfare, it wasn’t their concern anymore. My mother tried to get someone involved and finally they told her they would investigate but a few months later, that same social worker who also handled Robert sadly told us that Harry died in the hospital from head injuries which had also caused extensive brain damage. He was drinking his own urine when brought in and mumbling incoherently. He had bruises and burns, most likely from cigarettes, on his entire body. It seems his mother and boyfriends didn’t like him to disturb them during their drinking and would beat him to keep him quiet. Nothing really happened to them since the child abuse laws were not very effective in those days and Harry died without reaching the age of four. There were no more Italian songs, no more “I fix” broken toys, just a broken body and a voiceless corpse. And Harry, laughing, smiling Harry, still haunts my dreams.
I was blessed, though, with my brothers, the memories of growing up together on Lyon Place, of how Johnny and I would wait for George to lock up the Carvel stand he was managing in high school so the three of us could go for our weekly 2 am breakfast of blueberry pancakes or Pigs in Blankets at the diner Johnny referred to as The Golden Roach. Or the evening Johnny came home from drinking with his friends with a four foot ceramic lion he took from someone’s lawn which he just had to have only to discover it was cracked. We tried to return it then but he couldn’t remember where he got it so after a few hours of driving around residential neighborhoods in some other Long Island town, we gave up trying to find the house and adopted the lion. And finally, there was the night Johnny came home slightly drunk for our weekly 2 am breakfast with four paper bananas that had adhesive backs. He insisted we hold a ceremony to induct all four of us into The Order Of The Banana, so we woke up Robert, brought him upstairs to where our bedrooms were on the third floor, and in candle light held the induction ceremony. We were all very solemn and even Robert at 10 understood something important was happening then. And thus, each of us was awarded an adhesive banana to stick on the headboards of our beds to bind us forever as brother bananas from that night forward to the end of our lives.