For this holiday season, I wanted to keep it light and return at the end of December on a serious note, so here now I present an excerpt from my memoir that recounts the bittersweet Christmas after I came home from the hospital in 1987. My beloved Grandpa had died while I was on the Veronica Lane ward.
Slowly, the dark undertow of the holiday was replaced with cheer farther along in my recovery. This entry hints at the genetic component to my SZ. I learned only last year that my grandma had a cousin who became psychotic after giving birth to twins, and her husband took the babies away and left her, feeling she was an unfit mother. She never saw them again. Another cousin is actively paranoid in his later years and lacks the awareness that his beliefs are delusional.
So I offer you now a snapshot of a tradition that has been going strong since I was seven years old: The Night of the Seven Fishes in Italian culture.
Christmas Eve was a sad and strange music, the ending of an era I was unable to let go. I felt beat up against myself, subliminally drawn to be who I was: a girl I fancied to be courageous, someone who went against the grain. How could I miss her when I still wanted to be her? Dressed in black, I was pulled into the instinct to hibernate inside my body: I wore muddy eye shadow and brown lipstick.
The windows of my soul were closed; locked; shuttered. Only the smear of lipstick was a clue: like velvet in a panic.
I was crushed at the loss of Grandpa as my father now headed the table, where everyone bumped elbows. The old oak table in Aunt Rose's dining room was long as a highway and with many stories along its worn surface. One of them was Aunt Millie. She wore like a cloud her Jean Nate after-bath splash. We could set our clocks by the money cards she gave us at Christmas-in which we each received a crisp fifty.
Tradition like this held us together, though this year Nonna sat on a chair against the wall in the kitchen, watching as Aunt Rose and Mom took over the cooking. Always the seven fishes: lobster, shrimp, calamari, mussels, clams, scallops, and scungilli. And forever, family: together clasping each other's hands as one of us said grace.
Aunt Millie sat next to me, eating her food in careful bites, and sent fresh shrimp onto my plate in not-so-covert operations.
"Eat, eat," she nudged me.
Aunt Millie worked at the OTB-Off Track Betting-and loved horses. She lived on Lenox Road just off Flatbush, and had been in the first-floor studio for thirty years. Pictures of derby winners lined the walls. She was afraid to take the subway, and wouldn't ride in elevators.
We used to visit Aunt Millie every Thanksgiving, when I was a child, in the years after her favorite brother, my Uncle Jerry, died. Mom and Dad would urge her, "Come, celebrate at your sister's, and spend the holiday with family." Though she was a great aunt, we called her, simply, aunt. I remembered the cart on which the liquor bottles preened. She was a good friend with Johnnie Walker.
Years later those bottles were indented in my brain, a curious memory. Each time we'd go there, Aunt Millie would make a fuss, and reluctantly bundle up in her one good coat, and get into the Impala-or not. Only sometimes. She dried up and came around slowly, until she wouldn't ever miss her real family for the world. Here we were, feasting on fish and hearing the story we pretended we were hearing for the first time, our eyes shining intently.
"Hot dog wagons, that's the ticket," Aunt Millie said, pointing her fork in the air. "If I opened one up on the corner of DeKalb in 1957, I'd have been a millionaire now."
"I coulda bought a race horse if I had the money." She looked forlorn.
Nonna was losing her moorings. Trying to make the coffee, she poured the grinds into the boiling water in the pot. Mom secretly replaced the contents when Nonna went into the living room. All families have an Aunt Millie, or a Nonna. Those women who have always been a little off, and you think nothing of it, because you love them.
They were women who had more secrets than anyone will ever know. My grandma and Aunt Millie were sisters from a family of nine children, some of whom weren't here, others scattered far away.
My aunt, whose given name was Carmela, was thin as a rake handle. "How about some blackjack?" She always wanted to play card games. Aunt Rose went into the kitchen and came back with a deck.
I always lost, asking Aunt Millie to "hit me" until it hurt, and I went over 21. It involved luck and skill I didn't have. "Unlucky at cards, lucky at love" was the double bind because the reverse was true too. But I was willing to bet on love; I held out the hope that I'd find someone who'd take it slow and easy.
"Blackjack," Marc called out. And we started again.
Aunt Rose folded after three rounds. My father won one game.
At nine o'clock, he drove us home. I was scared of the changes and endings, of losses and letting go. Tonight I missed Grandpa: the smell of him, his Canoe aftershave; his eyes lit up like little marquees announcing, "I Love You."
When I fell asleep, I dreamed of a horse out of Belmont named Aunt Millie: winner, by a nose, in the third.
Published On: December 23, 2008