When I was young, it was customary to go “visiting” on Sundays. I’m not sure if was prearranged or if we just showed up at a relative’s house. It seems likely that we would call ahead. In any case, visiting was a fairly common weekend activity. It always occurred on Sundays in the afternoon.
This is how keeping in touch with the extended family was done. I don’t know if people still do that today. Perhaps they do. But when I was young it was something that many people did. Back then, there was no Internet providing email or cell phones helping people stay in touch through video chat and texting. Visiting was the only way you’d have real face to face conversations and meaningful family-wide socialization. Also in the past, people were more aware of making long-distance phone calls in order to keep their telephone bills in check. So, even the limited experience of phone conversation was not always a viable way to keep in touch. These days, most people have some sort of regional calling plan and don’t have to be as concerned about toll calls, but a voice-only communication method lacks body language, which is a vital component of communication between people. Perhaps, unfortunately, the people of today rely too much on technology to provide a lot of their extended family interactions. I think the connection to the extended family identity is lost if the practice of “visiting” is no longer a routine activity.
Visiting was always an exciting event, at least in most cases.
Once every six weeks or so, we would visit my father’s parents. They lived in four different places during the years that I knew them. The first time I can remember visiting them they were living on McBride Street in Northbridge, MA. I’m pretty sure this is where my father grew up. Perhaps not in the same apartment but I’m pretty sure they lived somewhere on that street when he was young. That would have been in the early 1930’s. They lived upstairs in a multi-family building on the second floor. I have no memory of the inside of this apartment. But I do remember the nearby park and its baseball field.
Soon thereafter, they moved to a building one street over from the McBride St. apartment. This apartment was a textbook example of what is called a tenement. In later years, they moved to a smaller apartment in yet another multi-family building that was very close to their son Lucien’s house. Lucien was, of course, my father’s brother.
The last place that they lived was on Main Street in Rockdale in an apartment that was very close to the bar that my grandfather used to frequent. I have pictures of him sitting in a booth with his friends, all of which had a beer in front of them and I think most of them were smoking cigarettes. The Main St. apartment is the place that I remember the best. It also was in a multi-family building and once again, they lived on the second-floor.
Whenever we visited, my father spent most the time sitting in the living room with his father and they would watch a baseball game. There was very little conversation. My mother, brother, sister and I sat at the kitchen table with my grandmother. My grandmother spoke very little English. And my mother spoke very little French. So the visit wasn’t very exciting. The highlight of the visit would be when my grandmother opened a bottle of Coke, and gave each of us kids a cup. We didn’t drink soda at home, so this wildly exotic carbonated beverage seemed like a treat. Oh yes, my grandmother also occasionally took hits off of a bottle of Vermont Maid pancake syrup.
On most Sundays, we visited one of my aunt’s or uncle’s homes. My mother had three brothers and six sisters and my father had two brothers. If we visited them in an orderly one-after-the-other fashion, we would only see each relative about once a year. But the visits were not evenly spaced out. My parents had favorites and we would visit them more often than some of the others. The black sheep of the family were my mother’s brother Ernie’s wife Virginia and my mother’s brother Sam’s wife Joyce. They were visited less often. There were other relatives that we saw very often, so they didn’t even need to be on the visiting schedule.
With the exception of visits to grandparents, all the visits we made included seeing cousins. I had a lot of cousins.
Here are my mother’s six sisters and their children:
- My Aunt Ann and Uncle Walter had three children (Walter, Jimmy and Sandra).
- My Aunt Cecile had a husband but I never met him. I don’t even know his name but apparently he showed up now and then and as a result that adds eleven cousins to the list (Butch, Smoky, Linda, Pat, Steve, Diane, Becky, David, Dennis, Denise and Richard (who was from a different husband).
- My Aunt Ruth and Uncle Alvin had two kids (Bruce and Eddie).
- Aunt Blanche and Uncle Rene had two children (Donna and Rose).
- My Aunt Mabel and Uncle Noel had eight kids (Henry, Noel, Joel, Linda, Lucy, John, Albert and Mary).
- Aunt Bernie and Uncle Jerry had five (Glen, Tommy, Michael, Andy and Chris).
Now for my mother’s brothers:
- Uncle Ernie and Aunt Virginia had three children (Christine, Patty and Billy).
- Uncle Sam and Aunt Joyce had five (Peter, Michael, Bobby, Kathy and Debbie).
- And finally, my Uncle Henry and Aunt Connie had three children (Priscilla, Eugene and Denise).
On my father’s side:
- Uncle Leo and Aunt Lorraine had five children (Jim, Jerry, Theresa, Jeanne and Annette).
- And my Uncle Lucien and Aunt Frannie had five (Mickey, Tommy, Danny, John and Cathy).
My father’s brother Lucien’s family was comprised of seven very strange people. Seriously, they were ALL weird. My Aunt Frannie smiled a lot but I never knew what it was she was hiding behind that smile. There was something sinister going on in her head. Their oldest son, Mickey was the closest to normal person in the family. Of course, he was a lot older than me so maybe I just didn’t know him well enough to learn his dark secrets. Tommy and Danny were a lot alike; they were both very creepy. I think Danny could possibly have grown up to be a serial killer or other miscreant. He was just too weird not to have become something sociopathic. Tommy is probably in prison. John was hospitalized for some mental illness. No one in the family ever talked about it so I have no idea what that was all about. Kathy didn’t really talk much, and subsequently, I know almost nothing about her. That didn’t stop her from appearing slightly dazed and confused.
On the other hand. my father’s brother Leo and his wife Lorraine had a very nice family. Their oldest son’s name was Jim and he was gay. I didn’t know this until many years later when I was an adult. My only memory of him is seeing him handling some sort of shiny purple ascot and talking to his sister Theresa. He moved away and no one ever heard from him again.
At one point we lived only a few houses away from my Uncle Leo and Aunt Lorraine and I saw Theresa and Jeanne all the time. Jerry accomplished something significant in his personal life. I don’t remember what it was but it was the talk of the family for a long time to come.There’s a good chance it had something to do with the Catholic church.
Now let’s get back to my mother’s side of the family. We’ll start with Ann. Aunt Ann and Uncle Walter were very nice people. They were very connected to the South Grafton community in which they lived. I think my uncle played horseshoes. I remember visiting them and hearing my aunt ask if anybody wanted some pop. She was talking about soda pop. She was the only person I knew or have known that used the word pop to describe soda. They drank a lot of ginger ale and tonic water. They lived in a side-by-side duplex house. Their attic was very, very large, and up the attic stairs led to an abundance of all sorts of things, the most interesting of which were old board games and toys. There were magazines and books as well. Playing in the attic was the preferred activity when visiting Aunt Ann and Uncle Walter. It seemed to be a place of never-ending surprises.
My cousin Sandra was not particularly interested in her own attic, so we didn’t interact very much during family visits. When she was older she married and she and her husband moved to Puerto Rico.
Her brother Walter remained in that apartment after his father died and his mother moved elsewhere. He was a quiet person, who kept people at a distance. Walter had been in the military. He was the right age to have been deployed to Vietnam but no one ever specifically mentioned whether he had been there or not. If so, it would explain a lot about his personality. He married a woman named Chris, and I have mentioned Chris in a different blog entry related to the time that I came out in 1992.
The remaining cousin was named Jimmy. He joined the Grafton Police Department, and he is also mentioned in a past blog. He was the policeman who detained me and my cousin Bruce after Bruce had made disgusting and inappropriate remarks to two girls that were walking down the road as he drove by in his truck.
Aunt Ann had a different mother than my grandmother (who was affectionately known as Memere). Memere’s husband had been married before he met her for a very brief time. His first wife died soon after giving birth to my Aunt Ann. Ann was about two years old when her mother died and my grandfather remarried within a year. So the only mother Ann ever knew was Memere.
However, Cousin Jimmy didn’t recognize Memere as his grandmother. There was a time that he pulled me over while I was driving Memere’s car. Apparently there was a taillight out. He came up to the window and told me to tell my grandmother to get the light fixed. When I told Memere what he had said, she was very perturbed and said that she was going to give him an earful the next time she saw him. I’ll sure she did.
My Uncle Walter died in 1973. My parents were still overseas and they asked me to attend his funeral as the representative of our family. I didn’t want to go, but I went. It was the first funeral I had ever attended I didn’t particularly like it. Also, I think it was a silly concept to send an emissary from the family to attend the funeral.
My Aunt Ann has the distinction of being the first to die of my mother’s siblings. Just as Memere lived to be 99 years old, so did Ann.
The next aunt to discuss is my Aunt Cecile who had many children and had to raise them by herself. She was one of my favorite aunts. She was well-liked by the extended family but made some people uncomfortable with her abundant use of profane language. She grew all her family’s non-meat foods and canned an enormous amount of goods in the late summer and early fall. Besides canning, she was an incredible cook and baker.
Cecile’s oldest son was my cousin Butch. He’s probably in his late seventies now as my Aunt Cecile is in her late nineties. Actually, my mother told me that Cecile is not well and is expected to die soon.
My Cousin Butch was a very nice guy who played the guitar and sang. That’s about all I know about him. Oh yes, he had a TV repair shop back when TVs were usually worth repairing when all that might be needed would be a new vacuum tube (before the digital age).
Next is my cousin Smokey. Very little is known about Smokey. He was named after his father, but of course I don’t know what that name was. Nobody ever said anything bad about him so he must have been an okay guy (there is an interesting note about Smokey that we will get to a little later on). I do know that he left home at an early age and it was suggested that he was a wanderer like his father.
Now I’ll mention Pat. She had a very infectious laugh and always seemed happy, even though she had an abusive husband named Ken who was into Satanism. I guess Satan wanted him early because I think he went to hell in his early forties. But Pat also had a really incredibly large Hammond organ. It took up almost their entire living room. It was BIG! There was a time when she lived on Main Street in South Grafton and she used to let the play the organ. Well, not so much play on it, more like experiment with it. It fascinated me and was probably the first real keyboard I ever touched. Whenever she played it, I was mesmerized by her ability and by what I was hearing. It seemed magical.
Cecile’s 4th oldest daughter was Linda. Linda was always smiling and somewhat demure. She ended up having quite a few children and she always seemed very happy.
After her, comes Steve. Steve had a car accident in which he lost an eye. He had a strange look about him that reminded me of any member of the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Peter Lawford). Well not so much of Sammy Davis, Jr. because Sammy was, after all, African American. Steve usually had a cigarette in his hand and I always expected him to break out into song.
Her next two sons were very close in age I used to think they were twins, but they weren’t. David moved to Ohio and won $5 million on a scratch ticket. I don’t have any idea about what might have become of Dennis. He seemed troubled.
Diane and Denise looked quite similar even though there are few years between them. I remember them often sitting on the front porch of the huge house in which they lived. The house was owned by the town. I’m not sure what arrangement was in place but they didn’t pay rent. It was like a town charitable housing project consisting of just one home; it was a truly magnificent house.
Anyway back to the kids, I remember Linda, Diane, and Denise sitting on the front porch singing along with the radio as the song Angel of the Morning played. They all sang so well that they actually sounded like they were part of the recording. It was very cool.
My Aunt Cecile’s last son (Richard) had a different father from all the rest of her children. His father’s name was Shorty Linnell. I don’t know what his real first name was, but I bet it was Richard.
Here’s where the note about Aunt Cecile’s son Smokey comes into play. Shorty was a friend of Smokey’s and this is how my aunt came to be introduced to him. They soon got together and after a short time, they married. Obviously, Cecile was quite a bit older than Shorty; I think there was about thirty five years between them. This didn’t seem to bother anyone. In fact, my parents were best friends with Cecile and Shorty. They were such good friends that they bought burial plots together; the headstone reads Dion with the name Linnell underneath it. I’d never heard of a combined headstone/burial plot arrangement such as theirs. To me, when you look at the headstone, it looks like someone named Dion Linnell is buried there.
Shorty was a truck driver and unfortunately he got into an accident and was killed. So although he was the youngest of the four, he was the first one to be buried in their combined burial plot.
Cecile and Shorty’s son Richard (and his partner) were said to be the first gay couple in Massachusetts to adopt a child. I remember my mother mentioning at that time the fact that the “mother was still involved.” I could tell that this was some sort of caveat she felt compelled to attach to the arrangement of two men adopting a child. I think she heard it from her sister Cecile and it made them all feel better to have this (fantasy) arrangement known. The mother’s only actual involvement was signing over her parental rights to Richard and his partner, Gary Chalmers.
In doing research, I was unable to verify that these two men were the first gay couple to adopt in Massachusetts. However, I did discover that they were among the plaintiffs that brought suit against The Massachusetts Department of Public Health. This was the suit that took the issue of same-sex marriage all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Court (and won the case three years later). So he was instrumental in legalizing same-sex marriage in the State of Massachusetts. Which is way cool.
After Cecile there is Ruth’s family to talk about. My Aunt Ruth is a very creative person. She paints, and makes pictures out of ocean-smoothed stones and glass that she finds on the beach. I remember that on my fifth birthday, she noticed that the kids didn’t have party hats. So she immediately made party hats out of construction paper that looked a little bit like sailboats. I’m pretty sure any picture of this party would show these hats.
My Uncle Alvin was into photography. He wasn’t abusive but he wasn’t very nice to my Aunt Ruth, at least what Memere used to intimate. It was easy to see where their son Bruce got his opinions about women.
Ruth and Alvin’s son Bruce was a misogynist pig who thought very little of women and wasn’t shy about his opinions. You may remember me mentioning him before as there came a time when I moved in with him when I returned from overseas at the age 17. He married his high school sweetheart and they got divorced a year or so after I moved in with them.
Eddie was Ruth and Alvin’s second son. He was a shy. I don’t know too much about him other than he manages my Aunt Ruth’s summer home in Jamestown, MA. He has at least three kids.
Next we have my Aunt Blanche. Blanche came close to a black sheep but wasn’t labeled so because she was an actual blood relative unlike the other black sheep I mentioned earlier that were mere daughter-in-laws. Aunt Blanche was bland. She did nothing in particular that was interesting. She was always pleasant enough to me, but I guess she had some occasional strong opinions and those opinions were not always appreciated by the rest of the family.
Her husband, my Uncle Rene, (pronounced “Rainy”) had a huge junkyard in his backyard. There must’ve been many hundreds of cars in all states of disrepair in his private junk yard. Interspersed among them were a few shacks in which he kept chickens. Whenever we visited I would spend almost all the time in the junkyard exploring. In the mid-seventies, he worked as a franchisee landscaper, and one day he had a heart attack while driving his landscaping van and died instantly.
Their daughter Donna had a Magnus Chord Organ. Hers was the larger model and stood alone on its own legs (most were table top models). I only got to press the keys on it a few times. It was this organ that inspired me to ask my parent’s for one of my own. I don’t remember when, but I did get my own Magnus Chord Organ at some time in the future. I played that thing constantly and my parents never seemed to tire of it.
Donna had an extremely controlling husband. He expected her to wait on him hand and foot, which she apparently did. She didn’t really get to go out much, and I think there were some concerns about exactly how much control he had and what else could be going on.
Their other daughter, Rose, was a few years younger than me. I didn’t like her. She was mousy and feeble-minded. She could be thought of as the reason that my soon-to-be-wife, brother, and I were detained and I was arrested in a park in Whitinsville in the early seventies. She had asked us to meet her at the park around 9:00 p.m. And I have a suspicion that she was parked somewhere nearby watching when we were detained and I was arrested. I could feel her beady little eyes trained on me. Unpleasantly, she had a crush on me (her cousin) and I believe she was jealous and vengeful that I had an actual non-familial girlfriend.
Now we’ll move on to my mother’s sister Mabel’s family. Her husband, my uncle Noel, had a heart attack at some point in the late seventies. I don’t know the details of this situation but it was known that the doctors had told him that he had about 10 years to live. I remember thinking that this ten year sentence must have been an estimate, but as it turned out, he did die ten years later. I remember a time when he and my Aunt Mabel were sitting in their side yard smoking pot. It was a little bit unusual to see this. I think they had decided to live life to the fullest and to have adventures and make the most the time they would have together.
They transformed a school bus into a recreational vehicle and traveled extensively. At some time in the early seventies, their son John was in a car accident and was killed. I don’t have much memory about their oldest children, namely Henry, Noel and Susan because they were much older than I was. However Linda and Lucy were good friends of mine. They were fraternal twins. My wife at the time was also named Linda. My Cousin Linda’s husband was named Rich and the four of us moved to California a short time after my Uncle Noel died. “My” Linda and I moved back to Massachusetts after about a year but Cousin Linda stayed and remains in California to this day. My aunt and uncle’s younger children, Joel and Mary, were a lot younger than I was and I don’t know very much about them.
The next family in line is my Aunt Bernie and Uncle Jerry’s family. They lived in Millbury Massachusetts, and there came a time when I went to live with them. They had five sons, but at some time in the seventies, their third son (Michael) committed suicide. His brother Chris found him in hanging in their garage.
Michael was gay. Nobody ever admitted this or talked about it, but it was obvious to anyone that was paying attention. I was only 16 at the time and it was obvious to me. The only thing my aunt and uncle ever did in regard to his sexuality was to send him to a psychiatrist, “to get him help.” To me, this must have sent him the message that there was something wrong with him. Michael was very involved with his high school’s cheerleading activities. In particular, he designed flags, sabers, rifles, and batons for the cheerleaders. He was acknowledged as being an expert at twirling these things around. He lived in a family with four brothers, all of which were very macho or at the very least stereotypically masculine in their appearance, demeanor, and choices of activities. They were all involved in some type of popular sporting activity. Michael didn’t fit in and I think this had to be a factor in his decision to end his life. I don’t think the family ever got over this terrible event.
Their oldest son was named Glen and he was a really good friend of mine for many years. However, after I came out in the early nineties, he pretty much drifted away. Apparently, Tommy became a hypochondriac although he did actually have some valid medical problems as well. Andy went to culinary school in Rhode Island and moved away to seek out a career as a chef, which he achieved. Chris was the youngest of the five and I believe he worked in construction.
That takes care of my mother’s sisters so now let’s get into the lives of my mother’s brothers: Sam, Henry, and Ernie.
Sam and Joyce had 5 children, the oldest was Michael. Michael and I were good friends. He had a really big Afro haircut and was a heroin addict, which eventually killed him. I saw him shoot up all the time. I was the non-druggie guy (think about it, I was the person least into drugs within this group!) in this circle of friends. I think they counted on me to keep a connection to reality so they didn’t need to. The family mythology is that Michael was trying to “get better,” and that although he was found drowned in a lake, it was generally said that his death was probably an accident.
I can’t remember the names of two of Sam and Joyce’s sons. But I was good friends with Bobby during the time in which I lived in Wilkinsonville, MA. Sam and Joyce’s youngest child was a girl named Kathy and I once saw her working at B.J.’s in Westboro in the early nineties. My Uncle Sam died in his early fifties; I don’t know what killed him.
Next we’ll discuss my uncle Henry. Uncle Henry was a happy and friendly man. He worked in construction using a bulldozer and other large pieces of machinery. Occasionally he would bring them home. He knew that I collected bells and once, while he was on a job digging what would become a foundation, he found an old solid metal bell that was about four inches tall. The bell clapper was broken off but was found along with the bell itself. He welded it back into place. It was a really cool gift and I still have it.
He and his son Eugene liked to work on cars. There were times when Eugene and I drove some old cars through the woods and on a few occasions we pretty much wrecked them. In that family, wrecking cars in the woods was seen as an appropriate recreational activity for teenagers. Their oldest daughter, Priscilla, teased her hair up into a huge beehive reminiscent of the female lead singers in the B-52s. She was a little strange but was otherwise a really nice person. Their younger daughter, Denise, got into a car accident which resulted in her having some brain damage. It was not severe but it did change her personality.
My mother’s other brother Ernie was married to Virginia, who if you remember, was one of the black sheep of the family. Uncle Ernie was arrested sometime in the late seventies or early eighties and charged with 168 counts of child molestation. He went to prison but he has since been released. His wife Virginia was a very large woman and their oldest daughter, Christine, was very obese. So was their other daughter, Patty. I’m not saying that they were fat. I’m saying they were all really, really big. Billy, once he graduated high school, moved to Alaska to work as a chef and never returned.
I’d like to mention that I have always heard people say that my youngest sister Norma was my maternal grandmother’s (Memere) 50th grandchild. I’m not sure how that could be true because that would mean that I have forgotten about sixteen of my cousins. This is impossible. So this claim’s validity will remain a mystery to me. I do know that the number of Memere’s great grandchildren was in excess of 50.
That is the summary of my extended family as I remember it from the time I was quite young right up to approximately 2005. Because I have a large extended family there are more opportunities for unusual circumstances to occur, and like all families, my extended family had a lot of diversity. It has included good people, bad people, strange people, some criminals, families in crisis and families living the good life, artists, friendly people and boring people, people who didn’t speak English, those that died young and some who lived to be 99 years old, drug addicts that died from an overdose, heart failures, cancers, car accidents, brain injuries, lottery winners, people living with abusive spouses, child molesters, musicians, Satanists, (potential) sociopaths, people with brain damage and missing body parts as well as people who would generally be considered as normal.
These days,if you are not a Catholic or a Mormon, you probably won’t have more than two or three children. But fifty years ago or more, families seemed to be much larger than that. Many families lived on a farm, and having a large family helped distribute the workload. Birth control was also less available if you go back far enough. Fewer children mean smaller extended families.
Having smaller extended families limits the advantages of the old-fashion large extended family. People say blood is thicker than water (which is, at the very least, physiologically true). So it would seem advantageous to have the larger family if given a choice in the matter. Seemingly, it is to one’s advantage to have as many blood relatives as possible if they are the ones that you will be able to count on when it really matters.
That is, if you keep in touch with them.