Fall/Winter 1984 – Spring/Summer 1985.
During the first several months following my dad’s passing, my mom and I continued to stay at Nanny and Papa’s house.
It was late summer when my dad passed away. School would be starting in a few short weeks, and I was about to enter 1st grade. There was a ton of stuff that had to be done. I needed to be registered for school, get my immunizations up to date, go clothes shopping and then get all the supplies I needed for my first day of school.
In the weeks and months following the loss of my dad, things grew increasingly difficult for me. I struggled with anger, fear, and anxiety. I had a hard time focusing in class and staying on task. I would daydream and draw pictures; meanwhile, I’d end up getting behind in my school work. It’s not that the work was hard…I simply found it difficult to sit still and focus.
My social interactions with my peers also declined. On more than one occasion, I got in trouble for either being overly aggressive or having an outburst of anger. It was hard for me to fit in.
With my dad being gone I felt uncovered, unprotected and vulnerable. Even before his passing, he was hardly involved in the parenting process; when he died, that void became even bigger.
My self-esteem floundered, and my image of self-worth diminished. I ended up becoming an easy target for the other kids to pick on.
I knew that what my dad did to himself wasn’t what healthy people do. I used to see the other kids with their dads, and I knew that what had taken place with my own father, wasn’t right.
When I was at school, I used to wonder if the other kids knew about what had happened.
While my transition into first grade was a challenge for me, life at my grandparents was a welcome reprieve.
I used to spend the evenings watching T.V. with Papa upstairs in the living room; or I’d be outside playing with my cousins, who lived across the street. Often, Papa would take me to the garage, which was the car dealership he owned. In his warm deep voice, he’d ask, “Hey Matty…do you want to go to the garage?” Of course, I’d say yes! I loved going there. My uncles (my dad’s other brothers) used to work there. They’d be busy doing paperwork or supervising the folks that worked for them. I absolutely loved hanging out and seeing all the cars on the lot and on the showroom floor.
To this day, I can still hear the whine and whir of the mechanic’s air wrenches. I remember the distinct smell of rubber, leather, oil, and gas; all vivid in my mind, as if it were yesterday.
Honestly, I think this exposure to the automobile world at such an early age, imprinted on me. I’m an automobile fanatic…cars and trucks, classic and modern, muscle and exotic…it doesn’t matter. If it has four wheels, an engine, a gearbox, and a steering wheel, I’m all over it.
As you can guess, I loved going to the garage. Even though my dad wasn’t around anymore, those moments with my Papa and uncles, somehow filled the gap.
Quite frankly, while we were at Nanny and Papa’s house, my mom and I were well taken care of; we were comfortable and provided for. One of my uncles and his family lived across the street; if I needed kids to hang out with, all I had to do, was walk over to their house.
Considering what my mom and I had just been through, it seemed like a pretty good arrangement.
The loss of my dad magnified some issues that already existed with my mom. When he was alive, she was obsessed with him; worshiping the very ground he walked on. She clung to an idea that there was a grand Divine plan for them both as a couple. Although he was often absent and abusive, her obsession clouded rational thinking.
When my dad died, that obsession took on a life of its own and morphed into delusion and paranoia.
My mom became overprotective and emotionally co-dependent towards me. In the weeks and months following my dad’s passing, she started to believe that everyone in my dad’s family was against her and plotting to steal me away.
Her paranoia gave way to delusion; to the point where she no longer accepted that my dad was permanently gone, but instead, she insisted he was going to be miraculously resurrected. She would tell me that he was going to be restored to us at any moment…and at some point, I actually started to believe her.
At six years old, the violent death of my father was already hard enough to process; but then I had to deal with my mom telling me that he was only temporarily away and that God was going to bring him back to life. The impact of those statements on my already wounded young psyche only compounded my grief and confused me.
As the weeks went by, my mom’s behavior became increasingly hostile and paranoid toward my grandparents. Nanny and Papa were trying to process the loss of their son. They had to bury a child, who had taken his own life. Adding to that pain, they had to deal with my mom’s erratic behavior, which was compounding to their grief.
Nanny and Papa were doing their best to provide a safe place for us. Their dedication to ensuring our needs were provided for, was both evident and paramount. A few months after my dad’s passing, they decided to convert their entire downstairs den/basement area into a two-bedroom apartment where my mom and I could live. It was complete with a bathroom and kitchen.
Her delusion and paranoia became so pronounced, that during the construction process she refused to let me sleep anywhere near my grandparent’s. She would not let me out of her sight.
Located upstairs in my grandparent’s house, there were two other spare bedrooms, which were completely furnished. Rather than allow me to stay in one of those rooms, she had me sleep with her on the couch down in the den; the same couch that I had been sleeping on the night my dad killed himself.
Because my grandparents were in the process of building the apartment downstairs, the entire den and basement was a mini-construction zone. There were scraps of wood and nails everywhere; buckets of paint and pieces of drywall all over. Definitely not the kind of place where a little six-year-old boy, who just saw his father kill himself, should sleep.
I remember one evening, Papa confronting my mom. The man had been through hell with the loss of his son, my dad. My mom’s behavior and treatment of me had caused him to reach a breaking point.
Papa was angry; he wanted to know why my mom was acting the way she was. He told her that what she was wrong and unhealthy; that it wasn’t fair to be putting me through the things she was doing. He told her that she shouldn’t be making sleep with her on the couch downstairs, like some kind of animal, in the midst of all the nails and boards from the construction debris.
Instead, my mom’s deep paranoia towards my grandparents and her delusional rhetoric about my dad being resurrected from the dead solidified her decision to keep us away from anyone in his family.
As the winter of 1984 drew to a close, our season of staying at Nanny and Papa’s house would soon come to an end. By early spring of 1985, she was preparing to leave and take my unborn brother and me away with her.
Abruptly, all contact with my Nanny, Papa, uncles, and cousins were brought to a screeching halt; it was as if we had gone on the lamb…as if my mom had taken us into hiding.
By the time I reached my 7th birthday, all linkages to my paternal family were severed. There would only be a handful of moments where I’d see my uncles, cousins or grandparents again.
For the next 12 years, I would be cut off from regular contact with my paternal relatives. Sadly, my little brother would never get to know anything about our dad or his family.
There was an iron curtain being built by my mom. Slowly, the flow of information into and out of our small yet broken family unit was being filtered and restricted.
That spring, we moved out of my grandparent’s house.
One day (probably during spring break) my mom, who was about seven months pregnant with my little brother, had us pack a couple small plastic bags with a few personal items: socks, underwear and maybe a change of clothes. We walked down the street from Nanny and Papa’s house, to catch the local transit bus.
The bus picked us up and after about an hours ride, we got off at a stop a few miles away from the church we had been attending. From the bus stop, we walked the rest of the way.
After we arrived at the church, my mom had me wait downstairs in the area that Sunday School was normally held.
While I waited, I guess she went to make some phone calls to some of the church leadership, in order to get some type of help.
I was exhausted from all the walking, so my mom had me sleep on the floor of the nursery.
I’m not sure who she talked to or who came to pick us up, but I do remember us staying with a family who owned a bed-and-breakfast in Charlestown, Rhode Island. It was a large historical home…built during the Revolutionary War era. The house had several rooms and was on a large piece of property.
Honestly, I hated it there. Like I mentioned earlier, we had moved out of my grandparent’s house during spring break. That means I was no longer in the same school that I had been attending. After spring break was over, I had to be enrolled in a new class, in a new school, with a new teacher and with kids I’ve never met. It was another major shift in my life during an already unstable and painful time.
On top of the fact that I was now enrolled in a new school halfway through the school year, I was dealing with feelings of homesickness. I missed my grandparents and family. Even though my dad was gone, being close by to Nanny, Papa and my uncles somehow made him feel closer.
Instead, the old house, that we were staying as guests at, spooked me. There were lots of dark drafty rooms, the floors creaked and the plumbing groaned. There was no T.V. and no other kids around to play with. I was lonely and miserable.
Monologue: The mind of a child is small and vulnerable; the rest of the world can seem so massive and confusing. Within nine months my world was completely changed. I had seen something that no one should see…especially a child. In that small amount of time, I had witnessed and walked through more heartache than some adults experience for an entire lifetime. Stability and healing were words that were not only foreign to me in spelling, but also in meaning.
About a month after moving into that scary old house, another dramatic life would take place.
My little brother Benjamin was born…