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Friday, July 27, 2012

Little Drops of Mutual Recognition


sharing the extraordinary in ordinary lives

by Jono Walker

I read Gilead a number of years ago, which means I’ve forgotten most of it, but it is, nonetheless, a book that bubbles into my conscious thoughts from time to time.  It’s written as a letter from an old Methodist Minister to his very young son.  He lives in a forgotten little town in rural Kansas called Gilead, and he wants to write this letter because he realizes he won’t live long enough to see his son grow up.  I don’t contemplate my life in precisely the same terms as this minister does, but as I read the book I found myself treading with him on plenty of common ground. 

Mostly what I think about though when I think about Gilead is my Dad. From where I’m typing I can glance up and see its narrow spine wedged between some larger books, and what I see is Dad disappearing into the blueberry bushes along the fairway of the golf course in Maine searching for one of his errant drives. Another time when I look up I might catch a glimpse of him standing in the distance in front of a backstop on some muddy baseball field, tossing up a baseball and hitting me fly balls.

When Dad was alive we fought like crazy.  He talked too much, which irritated me, and I was often dismissive towards him, which no doubt caused him no end of grief.  The Vietnam years were especially stormy.  We got into some real knock-down drag-outs in those days—on one occasion quite literally so, with a black eye and damaged furniture to show for it.  We partook in no long conversations at any point in our lives. The only safe topics we could talk about tended to revolve around our mutual love of sports—how the Yankees were doing or if the Giants would ever get their act together again. I never remember him giving me fatherly advice.  Actually, that’s not true.  What I remember is him giving me advice about one thing or another while I sat blocking it out. 

Here’s a bit from Gilead that I underlined:

“A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.”

I like that quotation. Though I’d alter it by adding the word “recognition.”  I don’t think it’s contradictory for a father or a son to experience both mutual incomprehension and chances to share at least some occasional flashes of mutual recognition.  Maybe if the old man in Gilead had been lucky enough to see his son grow just a little older—or luckier still, see his son grow into a man and have a son of his own, maybe then he’d know what I am talking about.

One of the last memories I have of Dad is when he was elderly and walking with a cane.  He and Mom were down on a visit, and I walked the old centerfielder over the long stretch of uneven grass to a seat on the bleachers where he could watch my son, Ben, play baseball.  It was a blustery early April afternoon with a biting wind that made Dad’s eyes get oozy, but not oozy enough to dampen their sparkle as he sat there leaning on the handle of his cane taking in the action and hearing baseballs cracking into gloves.  At one of Ben’s at bats he hit a screaming line drive over the second baseman’s head that bounded out between the right and center fielders.  As Ben got midway to second base, he looked over his shoulder, and when he saw that the right fielder bobbled the ball, he made his commitment to try and stretch his hit into a triple.  We all knew that Ben was a fast runner, but when he put his head down and rounded second he notched it into a higher gear than I had ever seen before and was moving way faster than you would expect such an ungainly knobby-kneed 14 year old could run.  I saw Dad lift himself up just slightly from his seat and heard a little sound catch in his throat and I knew as Ben was streaking towards third, the wind rushing over Ben’s face was blowing across Dad’s face too, and that the crunchy feel of infield dirt being swallowed up by feathery baseball spikes was just then pressing up against the soles of his brittle old man’s feet.  Even though there wasn’t a close play at the base, Ben slid anyway, but too hard, and awkwardly, so that he rolled over the bag and had to reach back to it with his hand.

When I sat back down and the excited chatter from the smattering of parents in the stands had quieted, Dad and I sat there side by side with our eyes fixed on Ben as he dusted off his uniform. When Dad spoke, he didn’t offer any words of praise.  Nothing like that.  All he said was, and just loud enough so that only I could hear, “When are ya gonna teach that kid how to slide?”

Some people, especially daughters and moms might not understand this, but I’m telling you that these little drops of mutual recognition—which may only have materialized  from time to time—raised the river of my father’s and my mutual incomprehension just high enough to keep us from wrecking on the rocks. Moments like these kept us floating together in the sometimes swirling currents in what turned out to be—astoundingly enough—the same general direction.

Indeed, whenever I come up gulping and look around for a place of safe purchase, I can see Dad … just there, riding the currents with me still. 

Jono Walker is a writer and book review blogger who moonlights as an advertising executive and marketing consultant.  He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife Julia, their big weedy garden, a couple of poorly behaved dogs, and his trusty fly rod.  Visit his blog at

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Fortune Cookies

by Rebecca Marks

I have never considered myself to be an overly sentimental person.  While I pin old Playbills from my favorite Broadway shows to my bulletin board, I have never been a scrapbook keeper or a superb memory preserver.  The movie ticket stub from my first date is nothing but a fond memory, and my camera generally lies untouched and forgotten in a desk drawer.  Of the half a dozen diary entries I actually committed to paper in my youth, the most exciting one reads, “Dear Diary, I felt sort of barfy (sic) today.  Mommy gave me some Saltines.  I hope tomorrow is fun.  Love, Rebecca Gayle Marks.”  My elaborate calligraphic signature takes up nearly as much space on the page as the scintillating entry itself.  I do, however, maintain one sentimental practice: the preservation of years’ worth of fortunes from fortune cookies.
        I have always loved fortune cookies.  In truth, I have yet to meet a cookie that I did not adore; complex carbohydrates and I share a deep, enduring bond of love and commitment.  Fortune cookies, however, have always been a favorite of mine.  From the rare opportunity to play with my food to the sweet, buttery taste melting on my tongue, these confections are truly excellent from start to finish. 

For someone who has always lived with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, fortune cookies have taken on a particularly meaningful role.  These multifaceted desserts are my unscratched lottery tickets, magically holding the promise of wealth and prosperity.  When cracking open the cookie’s sugary shell to uncover the clairvoyant slip of paper within, I become the treasure hunter about to unearth an elusive chest overflowing with riches.  When your life is largely characterized by sadness, the fortune cookie’s ability to deliver the promise of a better tomorrow becomes an incomparable treasure.  Dozens of these small slips of paper float about my room, resting in the bottom of forgotten wallets and nestling in the deep recesses of unused drawers.  My favorites assume a place of honor, featured prominently above my desk where I can view them daily.  Of the hundreds of fortunes that I have encountered in my lifetime, three have played an especially prominent role.   

The first came to me while celebrating my younger sister’s ninth birthday at a local Chinese restaurant.  Due to my life-threatening peanut allergy, I must be hyper-vigilant at Chinese restaurants as several traditional dishes contain nuts.  I was dining on an innocuous bowl of chicken lo mein when the restaurant staff brought a tantalizing chocolate birthday cake to our table.  The glowing candles atop the sugary confection emphasized the rich frosting and chocolate chips sprinkled across the top.  Our waiter delivered the cake sans singing or general merriment, as my sister has been known to run from the table crying hysterically if anyone sings “Happy Birthday” to her.  All birthday photos of Shana up until the age of six display red-rimmed, swollen eyes and a tentative half-smile.  As my sister blew out her candles, my father inquired to our waiter whether the cake contained nuts. 
“Why, yes,” the waiter replied eagerly. “Our chocolate fudge black-out cake is filled with a hazelnut crème ganache.” 
While the waiter’s eyes twinkled, basking in the glow of this gourmet display, three other sets of eyes shifted nervously to me.  Their owners knew that I would now face the daunting task of watching my mother, father and sister dine on a scrumptious looking cake without being able to touch it.  Not a simple feat for an eleven-year-old lover of all things sweet.  I couldn’t very well demand that my nine-year-old sister send back her birthday cake (though I considered it), so I dejectedly poked at my leftover noodles with a splintered chopstick while my family enjoyed their mouthwatering dessert.  I was confident that if I didn’t complain and played my cards right, I’d be treated to fruit sorbet upon our arrival home.
        After the torturous treat was consumed, our waiter brought the check and a pile of fortune cookies to our table.  Finally, I thought to myself, a smile broadening across my face.  Here was a dessert in which I too could take part.  As I eagerly tore open the plastic wrapper and split the cookie in two, my fortune fluttered to the table. 
“What does your fortune say, Becca?” inquired my mother.
Unraveling the slip of paper reverently, I read aloud, dumbfounded, “You can have your cake and eat it, too.” 
After a few moments of silent uncertainty, my family and I burst into laughter.  The juxtaposition of an eleven-year-old having to watch other people eat a beautiful, undoubtedly delectable chocolate cake to which she was allergic and a fortune reading “You can have your cake and eat it, too” was utterly hilarious.  While it was my sister who was celebrating a birthday and enjoying rich deliciousness, I was the one who walked away with the true gift that night.  I learned first hand that laughter truly is the best medicine.  I didn’t know it then, but this prescription would prove invaluable later down the line. 

        Fast forward to my sophomore year of college.  My sorority was celebrating welcoming a new member class into our organization.  After an exhausting day of bubbly name games and bouncing on trampolines in matching, neon sweatshirts, we were all thrilled when dinner arrived.  The new member coordinator had ordered half a dozen varieties of noodles, several of which contained nuts.  The members of my sorority were all well aware of my nut allergy, so I was permitted to jump to the front of the line and serve myself first.  Avoiding a line of a hundred ravenous sorority girls and tearing into the macaroni and cheese first is definitely one of the few benefits of having allergies.  After heaping a generous portion of al dente pasta and creamy cheddar cheese onto my paper plate, I took my first warm, salty bite.  Immediately, my teeth bit down on something crunchily out of place and reminiscent of Asian cuisine.  I knew that the restaurant had sent us several orders of pad Thai as well, so I was immediately terrified that I had unknowingly ingested a cross-contaminated peanut.  My eyes wide and my face stricken with obvious panic, my friend Katie worriedly asked me what was wrong.  After violently spitting out the bite in question, I pointed to the chewed up food and shouted, “I think I just ate a peanut!”  Without blinking an eye, Katie plucked the regurgitated noodle from my napkin and popped it into her mouth.  Her brow furrowed in deep concentration, she eventually announced, “Not peanut, bean sprout.”  This impressive display of unconditional friendship would not mark the last time that Katie would swoop in as my knight in shining yoga pants.   
At the end of the school year, I reluctantly drove Katie to the airport so she could return home to Chicago for the summer.  After a tearful embrace at passenger drop-off, I returned home and settled down at my desk for some last minute studying for final exams.  Sitting on top of my computer was a pale yellow post-it note inscribed with the words “Love you - Miss you” in Katie’s neat handwriting.  Taped to the post-it note was a fortune with the word “bean sprout” typed in Arial 12 on the “Learn Chinese” side of the paper.  Laughing warmly to myself, I smiled and pinned the note to my bulletin board where it has remained ever since.  Whenever I look at it, I think of the friend who was miraculously brought into my life, just as serendipitously as she stumbled across a fortune cookie containing the word “bean sprout”.

        The following year, my mental health took a dangerous turn for the worse.  I remember the day distinctly—February 6, 2012.  The impetus for my almost lethal overflow of emotions is essentially irrelevant; the combination of my chronic depression, overwhelming anxiety, a dash of obsessive-compulsive disorder and complete lack of medication meant that hitting rock bottom was completely and tragically inevitable. 
        As tears streamed down my face like turbulent floodwater spewing forth from a fractured dam, I fell deeper into the dark and dangerous depths of hopelessness.  I became increasingly certain that the situation would never improve and utterly positive that I would never truly know happiness.  Feeling wholly defeated and desperate, I did not think that I had the strength to continue living and fighting. 
I paced back and forth across my small room, feeling my nervous energy churning throughout my body with absolutely no outlet.  As I continued to wear lines in the dated carpet, my eyes settled on a bottle of pills.  The ordinarily harmless ibupofren that I often mindlessly swallowed to combat headaches and body cramps suddenly become a horrifyingly tempting deadly weapon.  While I had experienced thoughts of suicide regularly for the past several years, this situation was unprecedented.  For the first time, I felt there was a scarily real possibility that my life would end that night at my own hand.  In this damaged state, I decided that this was my destiny, so I may as well get it over with before accumulating more hurt and sadness.  As terrifying thoughts of overdose and impossible letters to friends and family menacingly swirled through my head, a life-saving deus ex machina in the form of my best friend intervened. 
Stopping by my room to see if I’d like to study together, Katie immediately took note of my condition and stepped in.  “I am not leaving your side.  Period.”  As Katie took control of the situation, I felt relief wash over my body.  The tiny white off-brand analgesic drugs instantly transformed from a lethal device back into harmless pain reliever.  I was immensely thankful that my life had been saved, but angry and confused that I had been the one about to destroy it. 
        Two hours and one emergency phone call later, Katie dropped me off at my home thirty minutes away into the open arms of my mother.  Armed only with a pillow and a haphazardly packed suitcase, I saw my world turn upside down. I had gone from the well-accomplished college student at the top of my class to a mental patient living at home.  In that moment, I felt that I was no longer the successful, independent woman of whom my family was so proud.  I was the daughter, the sister, the granddaughter, the cousin, the niece and the friend who had almost taken her own life.  I was the girl who was almost gone.  While I was still miserably unhappy, I was determined to get my illnesses in order and above all, continue living. 

One exhaustingly long month of waiting later, and I was admitted into a partial-hospitalization intensive therapy program.  Every Monday through Friday, I spent seven hours in a hospital to develop stress management and coping skills and an effective medication regimen. 
The first morning of the program felt completely surreal.  Who was this person bringing a sack lunch and emergency anti-anxiety pills to a mental hospital?  When I looked in the mirror of the hospital bathroom that didn’t even lock, I didn’t recognize my own reflection.   
After going far too long without cracking a smile or emitting so much as a giggle, I discovered that my therapist for the program sat on an enormous bouncy ball rather than a desk chair.  As I tearfully described what brought me to this low point in my life, Cindy nodded earnestly and continued to ricochet back and forth on her bright red alternative-seating device.  I quickly discovered that the words “suicide attempt” sound substantially less frightening when punctuated by constant squeaks.  Little by little, bouncy squeak by bouncy squeak, I felt the glorious soreness from smiling too widely return to my cheeks.  As I wiped tears of laughter from my eyes while recounting the nonsensical tale to my family, I realized that this moment of much needed humor constituted the best medicine I had ever received.  For the first time since that heartbreakingly dark sixth of February, I felt the tiniest beam of sunlight fight its way through the clouds and reach my skin. 
        Later that week, my mother and I were eating at a Chinese restaurant.  As I licked remnants of sweet and sour sauce from my lips, I split my fortune cookie in half to reveal the following prediction: “Your eyes will soon be opened to a world of beauty, charm and adventure.”  The only thing to which my eyes were open was the prickling of hot tears.  This slip of paper became a divine message telling me that my life was worth living, that my simple goal of happiness was not beyond reach.  I have never subscribed to the superstitious school of thought that ascribes cosmic significance to a moment, but I know that this fortune was ordained to be mine.  This moment and this tiny slip of paper was my sign that my world was turning around for the better.  

        A little over a month prior to the almost tragic sixth of February, I was at a friend’s apartment celebrating New Year’s Eve.  “Enjoy the last New Year’s ever!” shrieked exuberant party guests, referring to the Ancient Mayan belief that the world would be brought to a catastrophic end in the year 2012.  While cheery partygoers surrounded me toasting with cheap champagne and exchanging friendly kisses, I closed my eyes in silent prayer.   I prayed fiercely that 2012 would be my year—the year that I would be freed of the shackles of depression, finally able to embrace life and all it has to offer.  In the most unexpected way possible, my prayer was answered. 
On February 6, 2012, the Mayans’ prediction came true for me.  My world burned in a fiery conflagration of pain and sorrow.  When I almost took my own life but didn’t, my world changed.  On that night when my illness almost killed me, I miraculously regained control of my life.  The years of hurt and countless tears were destroyed, leaving behind the glowing embers of potential and determination.  I was left standing in the ashes, but the flames did not destroy me.  I was a phoenix, reborn amidst the blaze. 
Just as fortune cookies splinter into tiny shards of baked flour and sugar, I too fell apart when I almost committed suicide.  But rather than disintegrating into forgotten crumbs swept swiftly into a garbage can, I became the smooth slip of paper, filled with the promise of a better tomorrow.  I discovered a new, stronger person within.  A person who can and will laugh even when she can’t have her cake or eat it, too.  A person who can fully realize and appreciate her amazing friends and family.  A person whose eyes will indeed be open to a world full of beauty, charm and adventure. And above all, a person who has many, many years of fortune cookies ahead of her.

Rebecca Marks’ qualifications include a wicked under-bite that yielded a pronounced lisp, a laundry list of allergies that necessitated years of shots and an addiction to antihistamine, a Jewish heritage that provides a boisterous family and an overflow of neuroses and sarcasm, and most expensively, a nearly completed Bachelor’s degree in English.  Her work will be appearing in an upcoming issue of The Inconsequential and has been featured in The Portland Review.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Uncle Ralph

by Donald Dewey

I never came close to climbing into the ring as a contender and my brother never ended up hanging from a meat hook in an alley, but the two of us have always identified strongly with “On the Waterfront”. The link isn’t the Malloy brothers played by Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger, but their mobster patron in the 1954 Elia Kazan movie, Lee J. Cobb’s “Johnny Friendly.” Our uncle Ralph Johnsen might not have controlled the docks, but he was so physically similar to Cobb, down to his heavy jowls, deep, bleating eyes, and quiet growl of a voice that we found it easy to imagine him controlling just about everything in Brooklyn that Johnny Friendly didn’t. Supporting that fanciful impression was his “money game.” But we’ll get to that later.

Like all those of his generation, Uncle Ralph was a man of hats and cigarettes. You can see him whenever you turn on the Turner Classic Movie channel—black-and-white characters going brim to brim and butt to butt, working small miracles every time they move away from one another without putting out an eye with either of their everyday weapons. But even more noticeable than his brown fedoras and Old Golds in my Irish Catholic family was the particular that Uncle Ralph was a Norwegian Lutheran who had seduced my Aunt Mary into marriage with his smorgasbord charms. For those who grew up within the steeples of central Brooklyn, the Scandinavians who inhabited the borough’s southwest area around Lapskaus Boulevard and Fort Hamilton Parkway were at best domesticated Vikings with a secret nostalgia for their pagan rituals. No question that Bay Ridge restaurants relied on their trade for survival, especially on hung-over Sunday afternoons, but what were all those bellicose drakkar pins and logos promoted by the Sons of Norway? Just homage to Leif Ericson’s fabled discovery of America or the tip-off that professional pillagers always had one more invasion in them? Wasn’t the peace-loving cross of the Knights of Columbus good enough for them?

Give Uncle Ralph credit for trying to bridge the cultural gap. At times this meant painfully diplomatic interest in the latest Catholic gossip from another of my aunts: what ballplayers should be rooted for because they were of the right religion, what movies should be avoided because they offended one commandment or another, what priests had just dropped dead before Uncle Ralph and his heathen ways had gotten to know them. Others confronted by these parochial assaults either suddenly remembered phone calls they had to make or refrigerators that had to be defrosted, but the family Lutheran was usually left with only one defense—his habit of nodding attentively as he slowly circled a room and shook all the change he kept in both pants pockets until my aunt’s pious recital had gained something of a musical score. (My mother once cracked that “Ralph keeps his hands in his pockets more than some of those guys in the subway,” but then her opinion hardly counted since she was always the first to go running outside to unplug the refrigerator when my aunt got started with her bulletins from the Vatican.)

Politeness wasn’t Uncle Ralph’s only tactic in trying to ingratiate himself with his wife’s family; he also did his best to inform those on the other side of the barrier why he was proud of his own background. Sometimes this produced only blank stares, as in his peppery bulletin one day that Norway maples were the most common tree in New York City—this to people whose sole interest in trees was how much they cost around Christmas. Other times it approached the dubious, as in his boast that Jimmy Cagney was Norwegian—an ethnic fact not unlike the claims of Hollywood publicists that their latest he-man star is one-eighth Cherokee. He was on more solid ground when he carped at a once-popular beer commercial built around the ethnic diversity of New York City. If Madison Avenue could point out that there were more Puerto Ricans in New York than in San Juan and more Jews in the five boroughs than in Tel Aviv, he complained, why couldn’t they also mention that Brooklyn had the largest Norwegian population outside Norway?

He never received an answer to that one, but he labored on with his instruction. Our cat heard more about the Atlantic voyage of the Restauration than Cleng Peerson’s descendants. One weekday afternoon (when it wasn’t morally compromising) he conducted a tour of his sparely furnished Lutheran church to show his in-laws that there were no traces of a baby’s blood on the altar. He was also emphatic that nobody in the family make other plans for Norway’s Constitution Day in May—a social obligation I still associate with a lot of O’s, for Oslo the capital, Olaf the king, and Ole the neighborhood drunk who annually stood another round for “Ralph and his Catholics.” And maybe most personal of all, he made sure every piece of his ulcerated stomach extricated over the years was dispatched at the Norwegian Hospital, thus giving relatives the chance to see that the place could handle more than frostbite and reindeer poisoning.

Probably inevitable for anyone feeling tested in a social setting, Uncle Ralph had a compulsion to perform, in his case by telling jokes. Even more inevitable, many of the jokes had self-deprecating Scandinavian themes, if with more cultural subtleties than I was able to appreciate at the time. One that has stuck after decades appeared clearly aimed against the Swedes. As Ralph told it, one holiday before he was encouraged to drink more and talk less, two Norwegians and a Swede found themselves near an ice cube death at the North Pole. Suddenly they discovered a magic lantern in the tundra, and the standard genie emerged to grant them three wishes. The first Norwegian said he just wanted to get warm, so the genie transported him to a nice fireplace in Oslo. The second Norwegian said he wanted the same thing, so off he went as well to the fireplace. Asked what he wanted, the Swede replied that he was suddenly feeling very lonely and wanted his companions back. I don’t remember this or any of the other stories bringing howls from my parents or other aunts and uncles, but Uncle Ralph always seemed to show an extra layer of pleasure in arriving at his punch lines, as though he had just evened some generational score in Stockholm.

To say Uncle Ralph worked as an insurance agent was much like saying Johnny Friendly worked as a labor union agent, at least to the impressionable who knew him mainly in his leisure hours. In fact, there were few occasions when I didn’t know him in the far more romantic light of gambling. Cards, horses, pool tables, ballgames—Ralph seemed to dedicate his every free hour to policies Prudential would never underwrite. Other members of the family had their living rooms dominated by sprawling couches, mantle pieces, or television sets; the most conspicuous objects in the Johnsen living room were stacks of playing cards and burnished mahogany chip wheels. Looking for a pencil in a drawer usually meant having to dig under a Jack of Diamonds that hadn’t been thrown away with the rest of an old deck. I don’t recall how much I knew about poker beforehand, but I do know that after spending a weekend with Uncle Ralph and Aunt Mary, I never again had any doubts about the hierarchical order of straights, flushes, and full houses.

Visiting them produced other epiphanies, as well. For instance, there was the Nordiske Tidende, the first foreign-language newspaper I had ever seen outside a candy store or newsstand. It wasn’t that Ralph read the paper or was even fluent in Norwegian; as he put it when I asked him, “I can understand the headlines.” Forget that this is the answer I would give if somebody spotted me holding the newspaper of Laotian tribesmen. More to the point was that he was open to the extortions of a sister, an activist in Brooklyn Scandinavian circles, who pressed a subscription to Nordiske Tidende on him as his tie to a homeland neither of them had ever seen. For her part, Aunt Mary didn’t seem to mind collecting the newspaper every morning and sticking it, usually unread, in the garbage every evening: “We get a lot of rubber bands,” she said. On the other hand, there was no sacrifice for either of them in shopping at a local Scandinavian bakery. The meticulously baked glue of Silvercup, Taystee, and Wonder Bread never had a chance against fyrstekake, or even the Danish helenesnitter—at least until I asked for these discoveries when I returned home and my mother suggested I go take a swim in my favorite fjord.
Exposed as we were to it from an early age, Ralph’s gambling might have seemed like an easy source of corruption. Nobody was more aware of this than he was, leading to a solemn—and morally bracing—ritual when the family teenagers reached their 18th birthday. As his special gift to me, as to my sister and various cousins before me and to my brother and various other cousins after me, he rented a limousine to go to Belmont for an afternoon. On the drive out to the track, he delivered a little homily about the responsibilities of reaching 18 and how these new burdens included knowing how to spend the envelopes of money we had all received for such a signal birthday. In other words, he made it clear, he would be there for advice if needed but any money wagered would be our own. From this experience, he warned, we would get a clear idea of the pitfalls of gambling.

Truth to tell, his little lecture lent a dour Protestant air to what was supposed to be an afternoon of fun; in other words, I had been counting on him to bankroll a few races. But thanks to my sister and the cousins who had preceded me, I had learned enough about racing forms to keep my questions to Ralph to a minimum and remembered enough about arithmetic to keep my bets to five dollars. Also like my sister and cousins before me (and my brother and other cousins after me), I left the track that day with a nice profit, while Uncle Ralph and Aunt Mary bickered in the limo all the way home about whose moronic idea it had been to put down so much on Crazy After All These Years. Needless to say, no one who celebrated an 18th birthday with Uncle Ralph’s help developed a phobia about racetracks.
Another time, Ralph’s desire to impart positive moral lessons led him into the perilous territory of what he presumed Catholic kids should be hearing. The occasion was what he assumed was going to be an innocuous Robert Mitchum war movie, “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison”. He was right about its being innocuous—except that he decided as we went home that the film’s central situation of a soldier and a nun being stranded together in a cave on a Japanese-held island required further explication. So he explained and explained and explained, along the lines of “Deborah Kerr isn’t a real nun, just an actress” and “Soldiers don’t think of nuns as real women, they think of them as female altar boys with a job to do.” By the time I arrived home I was resolved to return to the movie house the following weekend to see what I had missed. (Many years later, I told this story to John Huston, the director of “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison”, and his response was: “Lad, the thought of anyone sitting through that twice is terrifying. You would’ve been better off listening to your uncle.”)

Although he never delivered on a cushy job in the loft as Johnny Friendly did for Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront”, Uncle Ralph did have a fondness for folding bills (singles) into the shirt pockets of his nephews after we had entertained him around the pool table at his Scandinavian social club. “Go buy yourself a soda and let the old man play with the other old men” was his version of a kiss-off. But nowhere did his benevolence come off as self-satisfied power more starkly than with the money game.
The money game belonged to our family holidays as much as Santa Claus did to Christmas and the Easter Rabbit to Easter. The first ingredient was Uncle Ralph shaking all the change in his pants pockets whenever he was called upon to move from Point A to Point B. The second ingredient was a pack of nagging kids begging him to play the money game—a chorus of charming innocence that, as the hours went on and Ralph pleaded for four or five more beers first, reached lynch mob timbre. Finally, with the other adults present also entreating him to get it over with, he gathered all the kids in one of the bedrooms and explained the rules. The most important of these was that anyone who threw a punch or gouged an eye would be immediately expelled from the bedroom.
As soon as that was on the record, he reached into both pants pockets and came out with more nickels, dimes, and quarters than all the parking meters in the neighborhood could accommodate. Up they all went into the air, over beds and bureaus and nephews, and the scramble was on. The chaos might not have had the same religious significance as when the Greeks dove off the Sheepshead Bay piers every year for an Orthodox cross, but the theological principle was the same—grab first. And through it all Uncle Johnny Friendly stood with a beatific smile, watching out for any foul blows but mostly handicapping the winner to himself.

We talked about the money game the last time we saw each other. I was about to leave on a trip to Europe and he was in bed with little more stomach to surrender and few days remaining on his calendar. He joked that the game had been his opportunity really to do what Aunt Mary said he had always been expert at doing—throwing his money away. But forget about that; did I think I would get to Norway while I was in Europe? I told him I didn’t think so, but at least I was crossing the Atlantic to France on a Norwegian freighter. He tried to look like that was close enough.

I decided it wasn’t. So I took the freighter to Bergen.

Donald Dewey has published 31 books of fiction, nonfiction, and drama, including widely translated biographies of James Stewart and Marcello Mastroianni, and a history of American political cartooning, The Art of Ill Will. His two latest books were published in June—a biography of the trainer Ray Atcel (Ray Arcel—A Boxing Biography) and the novel Wake Up and Smell the Bees.