September 06, 2006

Low Tidings

Coming from a family controlled by women, I was relating to friends the other night how it came to be that I outsmarted the Forcucci Matriarchy.

My two aunts Lucille and Adelia, neither of whom had children, shared our Sag Harbor house with Papa (their father), my mother and father, and my older sister and brother. The three Forcucci girls inherited the property when Papa died.

The way I surmised it, a certain amount of tension existed because my family of five dominated the proceedings, especially me, who was lucky enough to have a slew of boisterous friends who felt free to come and go as they pleased.

To compensate, my aunts were given the two biggest bedrooms in the house, their private enclaves we were prohibited from entering. My sister took a tiny bedroom upstairs, and my brother and I shared the room next to it, which was almost as small. My parents slept downstairs in a little room carved out from the dining room, the smallest room in the house.

The three sisters would spend much of the time in the kitchen, the largest room in the house. There they would cook, do laundry and talk in Italian so we couldn't understand what they were saying. (My sister went so far as to buy an Italian-American dictionary, and one Christmas she figured out what presents we were getting by translating the conversations.)

Lucy would often complain that the shirt she was ironing was abnormally large, much too large for me: that would be Craig Larsen's, one of my friends who would routinely throw his laundry in with ours after a day at the beach, knowing it would show up impeccably clean, ironed and on a hanger in a day or two.

The sisters would be forced to make extra food because an unexpected guest would invariably appear, most usually Richie Grub, another of my friends, who ate a lot but spoke little — my mother used to say the only words he uttered in all the years she knew him were "more, please" and "yes, ma'am."

Once, when we were about 10, the tension reached a crescendo. Someone had snuck into Aunt Lucy's room and used her lipstick. This was a major event because 1) the sacred threshold allowing my aunts a modicum of privacy in their own house had been violated and 2) no one fessed up to the crime, a mortal sin in our household where truth was valued above all else.

Had it not been lipstick I would have been the obvious suspect. I had, after all, been caught in the last big lie the old house had born witness to. A year or two earlier, when Papa was still alive, my friend Bobby Vacca and I were gleefully playing stickball when the Spaldeen exploded.

Papa kept a large apothecary jar on his bureau filled with change. Bobby convinced me it wouldn't hurt to borrow a quarter and that he would personally return the money with funds he earned from his paper route. I was suspicious, especially since Bobby didn't have a paper route, but nevertheless, we snuck in while Papa was working the garden, gingerly took a quarter, and sprinted all the way to the Five and Dime.

The next night Papa confronted me. "Iffa you ever-a needa money you aska me," he said in broken English. I couldn't figure out how he knew until years after his death when I found out he used to count the change in the jar every night!

This time, the crack Forcucci investigative machine focused squarely on my sister Phyllis, one year older than I and already infatuated with boys, and all things girlie — like makeup.

Phyllis denied it vehemently, but soon the proof was found — her blouse with the lipstick stain on it, crumbled and placed in the bottom of the hamper. Still, she denied it, leading to an explosion of yelling and several hard slaps on the face, struck more to appease my aunt than to punish Phyllis, who wailed for hours and appeared red-faced for nearly a week.

Several months later, I was in my father's top drawer doing what I did best — stealing his silver dollar collection so I could go bowling. There I found a silvery packet I suspected contained some kind of gum or candy. When I opened it, it contained a balloon-like toy of some kind I played with for a moment and then lost interest in. I discarded it, but because it was in the forbidden top drawer, I took the precaution of dumping it in my sister's closet just in case.

My mother found the discarded wrapper and went ballistic — it was another year or two before I realized the thing was a prophylactic — and confronted me. No, I swore, I'd never seen it before.

She then zeroed in on Phyllis. My sister denied she had touched it, but as I pointed out to my mother, she was a known liar. A search quickly produced the evidence, and once again Phyllis was severely punished while I silently snickered with joy.

This story has been told for over 40 years when we gather for holidays, repeated to our kids and the grandchildren, regaling them with a glimpse of family history. The young 'uns especially love the story of how Phyllis tried to kill me when I was an infant by shoving cheese down my throat, and giggle when they hear about the time she smashed me over the head with her roller skates, knocking me senseless.

My brother and I used to liken the matriarchy to the Bene Gessiret, the secret society of women who secretly ruled monarchs in the novel Dune through trickery, and magic. To out-smart the matriarchy was a rare feat. For me, the baby of the family, to outwit my mother, my two aunts, and my big sister simultaneously was the defining accomplishment of my youth.

You see, I was the one who put the lipstick on that blouse so many years ago.

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