My Brother’s Keeper

19 02 2010

Black Heritage is my heritage–embodied in the history of my family.

Excerpted from Fried Chicken and Sympathy, Chapter 4: My Brother’s Keeper

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“This, too, I carefully explored: Even though the actions of godly and wise people are in God’s hands, no one knows whether or not God will show them favor in this life.”

Ecclesiastes 9:1

Death truly does comes in many forms, which don’t necessarily involve a dead body.  There are economic, psychological and emotional deaths as well.  Oliver was the sole economic provider for our family, and when he died, that element died with him too.  Bay now found herself burdened with providing for seven children, along with bearing the weight of our various struggles and illnesses, and the inevitable hardships that followed.  Oliver’s death changed our lives irrevocably.

But next to Bay, I think Gerry was affected the most deeply.

Gerry was supposed to have been the “baby” of the family; then I came along and usurped his place.  Because we were the closest in age of the siblings, we were often stuck together, while the others were off at school or doing the teenage thing.  The one family picture where I actually got to see myself as an infant was the one I described earlier, with Bay, the six older siblings, and me on her lap.  The other picture of me from early childhood was with Gerry; I was probably about one and a half, and he was about eight.  It had been a professionally-done black and white print, overlaid and enhanced with colored oil paint.  I am in a cute yellow dress, and Gerry is in a fine blue suit.  The photographer posed us with me sitting on his lap, and one of his arms draped around my waist, holding me securely in place.  We are both all smiles and glow, my milk teeth showing, his a sunny grin with tiny teeth, reflecting a closeness that became damaged and diminished.

When I was six, and Gerry twelve, my favorite T.V. show was Speed Racer, and his, Batman. The problem was, the shows aired at the same time on different channels, and these were the days of one TV per home, and no TiVo™.  We would have “good-natured” battles over who would watch what.

“I don’t want to watch Batman!  He’s stupid!” I’d whine.

“Is not! You got to see Speed Racer yesterday – so I’m watchin’ Batman!”

“No, you’re not!” I’d yell, stamping my foot.

“Yes, I am!”  he’d yell back, turning the knob on the TV and shoving me to the floor.  I would then hop on his neck and start punching him.

“Oww!” he screamed, trying to get me off his back.  “Leggo!”

“No!  I wanna watch Speed Racer!”  He attempted to topple me off his back, while I reached toward the channel knob.  I pretty much had him in a chokehold until Bay stepped in to arbitrate the mini-war.  Most of the time, I ended up watching Speed Racer, while Gerry pouted and fumed.  But with those he loved, Gerry rarely got ugly or violent—and I knew he loved me.

Our favorite game was hanging upside down on the couch with our heads toward the floor and our feet skyward.

“I’m falling down Niagara Falls!” Gerry would yell, pretending to drop.

“Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!” I’d scream, letting the blood rush to my head.  Then we’d roll off the couch, feet over head, and walk around woozy for a bit, before getting back on the couch and doing it again.

So my being born really didn’t cause any huge sibling tension, or affect Gerry’s place in the family.  He was still the baby boy, and Oliver’s little prince.  He was spoiled rotten, and got away with acts that would have been unacceptable with the older siblings: being able to stay up past bedtime, talking back, and eating whatever he wanted, even if it was bad for him.  This distinction was not lost on Teddy, Adrienne, Barbara, June and Joan, so they did what they could to put him in his place.  Any of his infractions of household behavior was gleefully reported to Bay or Oliver, in the hope of his getting a beating, or at least a scolding.  It mostly backfired, because in Oliver’s eyes, Gerry could do no wrong.

The same was true of Bay.  Her reactions to Gerry’s bratty behavior and outbursts were based on fear that he would do serious harm to himself; and in his case, her fears had a legitimate basis.  June said that when Gerry would throw a temper tantrum, it involved a lot of thrashing and crying, and three times it resulted in Gerry’s getting a head injury.  The first time Gerry pitched a fit, it was because Bay wouldn’t stop washing dishes to give him some sweets.  She tried to get him to wait, but he first tugged at her skirt, then eventually started hitting his head against the wall.  He did this with such force that he busted the skin above his brow, at his scalp.  Bay rushed him to the emergency-room at Cook County, and he had to have stitches.  Another time when he was upset, he ran into a table and gashed open his head, also requiring an emergency room visit and more stitches.  So it was no wonder that she gave in each time he became demanding, to avoid any more injuries or medical bills.

The coddling given by Bay and Oliver did nothing to improve his short attention span, or his even shorter temper, but I have always felt Gerry’s behavioral patterns had a deeper-seated cause that had little to do with lack of discipline.  From my own personal studies and observations, I suspect my brother suffered from one of the Autism Spectral Disorders (ASD), perhaps Asperger Syndrome.  Many of the behaviors outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) fit Gerry’s behavioral and social dysfunction.  From his difficulty communicating or perceiving what has been related to him, to repetitive behavior and motion, to the inability to interact and lack of sensory response, Gerry lacked the necessary frame of reference to be able to navigate in the outside world.  My curiosity and study led me to seek out a professional opinion.  So a friend referred me to Dr. David A. Reisbord, a Los Angeles neurologist who treats many cases of Autism and its related illnesses.  “The temper tantrums and self-injury are typical in Asperger patients,” says Dr. Reisbord.  “So are all of his other symptoms.”

If Gerry had been born today, and I had had a mother who were willing to seek help, he might have been appropriately diagnosed and treated.  Even if his condition had been recognized and attended to in his teens (during the mid-‘70s, when Autism was being recognized as a serious developmental disorder), some of his pain, and much of ours, might have been assuaged.  But back in the 1960s such syndromes were not commonly known, or were simply dismissed among “plain” folk like us.  Bay’s desire for privacy also tied into her myopic approach to Gerry’s problems.  What happened in the home, stayed in the home, and it was nobody’s business how it was handled.  Even if the appropriate help and treatment had been available then, Bay would never have sought it.


Oliver’s Twist

10 02 2010

Black Heritage is my heritage–embodied in the history of my family.

Excerpted from Fried Chicken and Sympathy, Chapter 2:  Oliver’s Twist: The Father I Barely Knew

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“People can never predict when hard times might come. Like fish in a net or birds in a snare, people are often caught by sudden tragedy.”

Ecclesiastes 9:12

I only have two memories of my father: The first one was in life, the second in death. The first was of a family trip to Brookfield Zoo in 1969. I consider June the unofficial family historian, and even she is surprised that I remember it so well. After the nine of us had spent our day at the zoo, we ambled single-file through the parking lot, to get into our lovely green four-door Oldsmobile with the chrome bumpers and the white-green interior, and head back to Cabrini-Green.

I was a vision of two-year-old cuteness, in a sky-blue pinafore with little embroidered flowers, blue socks with frilly borders, and braids that were contacting Mars; to this day my hair still has a life of its own. I distinctly remember Oliver (as most people, including us kids, called him) swooped me up with one large hand, and tucked me in his arm, holding me in the crook, while he used his other hand to retrieve the car keys from his pocket and open the door for the rest of the family. Oliver was stylish, in his button-down shirt, suspenders and tweed slacks. He had on one of his classic wide-brimmed hats, and I attempted to grab it off his head—an attempt which amazingly he dodged—seeing that his arms and hands were full.

He whispered something in my ear, but at that age I didn’t understand or care about words. All I cared about was his arm around me, holding me close, and the feeling of contentment it gave me.

My second memory of him is not really about him, but about his funeral. We were at Burr Oak Cemetery in Worth, Illinois on July 12, 1970. By today’s standards it’s a ghetto cemetery, but back then, it was one of the few options for people of color. Grandpa Joe and Grandma Annie had been laid to rest there, so it was in keeping with tradition.

So there we were, all seven of us kids standing around the gravesite in the rain, like strong little soldiers in black. I was holding onto Bay’s black-gloved hand, and something struck me so suddenly that I began to urgently tug on her arm. She looked down at me, her head wrapped in a black scarf, eyes shielded by the dark glasses she wore.

“Is Oliver coming back?” I asked. I didn’t get an answer. Just silence, with all eyes plastered on the hole in the ground. My first lesson in family dynamics. When faced with a hard question, pretend it was never asked.

I still have a knack for asking hard questions that have no answers.

I felt about as confused, and cheated as I sometimes feel now. At the age of three, I was not mature enough to wrap my heart around death’s finality. The little girl now buried within the adult still doesn’t.

It puzzles me how you can ache and long for someone you didn’t really know. I’m still that little girl in the blue dress at the zoo—except now, I long for my daddy’s arms instead of enjoying being in them. It’s a gaping hole—no matter how hard you try to fill it, it remains a bottomless pit. I pinpoint a lot of my emotional problems to the fact that my father was stolen from me. The depression I struggle with, my choosing emotionally-, and physically-unavailable men, and the subsequent lack of trust which has resulted from all those dead-end relationships.

As part of my own therapy to get a handle on the past, I’ve attempted to piece together Oliver’s life, like shards of a shattered plate. A delicate and painful exercise, with the end result being bloodied hands, and a piece that lacks the beauty, function and worth of the original. To some, it might serve little use except as a reminder of what used to be; but, painstakingly, I continue with the task. With each piece that comes together, and every little bit of new knowledge I acquire about him, I get a sense that I’m doing something significant and important—even if it’s for no one else but me.

June Elizabeth Long, 1958-2008

14 03 2009

“I answer the heroic question ‘Death, where is they sting?’ with ‘It is here in my heart and mind and memories.'”
Maya Angelou

The Life of June

“What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.”
Richard Bach

My Expanding World

9 03 2009


My darling husband turned 48 this weekend, which means, come August, I will turn 43. I enjoy our five-year age difference, because he’s old enough to make me feel as though I’ve married a “mature” man, but young enough for us to have shared certain generational milestones through the same lens.

We’re going on four years together and two years married, and one of the significant things he’s brought into my life is an expansion of community.

One of the hallmarks of my life is that I tend to connect to people from different backgrounds and walks of life. Every group or person leads to a different group or person. My world was most expanded through the people I met through High school, church, an entertainment industry group called Premise, Writer’s groups, Bible studies, the workplace, or friends of friends, who then became my friends!

Beginning with the friends from high school, this expansion altered my life and broadened my horizons, allowing me to see new places and explore a variety of situations and opportunities that I normally would not have had I remained in my box. And each of these situations gave me an opportunity to see how others reacted to me; much to my surprise and delight, it was always favorable.

To this day I am in the process of erasing old tapes, and disconnecting from negative labels that had been placed on me since youth. These expansions of community helped me to see that I was someone others noticed and were drawn to–quite the opposite of how I used to see myself: Ignorable and forgettable.

Lynn has continued that expansion by introducing me to the Amateur Radio (HAM) community, the phone community, and the variety of different people involved in them. A good majority of the “phone” people Lynn knows are blind, so I’ve had the privilege of learning a bit of what life is like when living without sight, and gaining new insight and admiration for people who live with and overcome disabilities. With Amateur radio, I am not only learning a new skill (which holds the potential for career expansion), but getting to know a plethora of really knowledgeable people from different walks of life who love communications, sharing their knowledge, and being with others who do too.

My Facebook page shows a portion of my sizeable community (82 so far). People who I have known through various stages of my life in Chicago and Los Angeles—and that’s only the tech savvy ones! There are a whole range of others who are a part of my world, who do not (or cannot) connect via technology.

While the junk from the past no longer hinders me from seeing myself clearly, interacting with my community is still revelatory in confirming or reinforcing who I am, and how others respond to me. Probably more so because in moving past the junk, you get to see and delight in things that you missed when initially walking through it.

My friend Andrea Wilson-Woods wrote something profound on her blog: ” As we walk toward the future, we carry our pasts with us….” I’m happy I’m at a place where this is a point significance, rather than of pain or regret.

As I build a future with my husband, our combined and expanding communities continue to bring us new horizons and opportunities, as well as deepened friendship. Thanks to all who make that possible!

Where Have All The Community Eating Places Gone? Long Time Passing….

18 06 2006

Lynn’s and my third dating experience, was impromptu. He had just called me to chat, and I impulsively asked if he wanted to hook up—what can I say, when it comes to new relationships, I’m like a puppy: bouncy, excited and always wetting myself. Thank God that he enthusiastically answered “Yeah!,” and we went about the business of deciding on a place to meet. This was the beginning stages of our courtship, so coming over to one another’s houses was not yet an option. We live about 16 miles apart, he on the West end of the San Fernando Valley, and me on the East end, so I recommended The Good Earth in Northridge, which is somewhere in the middle for us both. I hadn’t been to that Good Earth in ages, but it held some warm memories, and I felt excited about introducing him to a particular venue that I held in high esteem.

“It’s right off of Nordhoff and Shirley. Just past Tampa,” I directed.

“Okay, I’ll see you there,” he responded.

I was running late, and was jamming on the freeway, when my cell phone rang. I had since programmed his number into my phonebook, so his name popped up on the view screen.

“Hi, what’s up?” I answered.

“The restaurant is gone.”

“What?! Are you on Nordhoff and Shirley?”

“Yes, I’m in the parking lot, and there’s construction, and nothing else.”

“I’m almost there, so let’s just meet in the parking lot.”


I got there, and indeed it was, gone… I was devastated to say the least. I had arrived in Los Angeles in 1988 and one of the first places I was introduced to was The Good Earth Restaurant and Bakery. The 10-grain pancakes were to die for, and their tea had a unique sweet/tangy flavor to it, without even adding sugar. But the good food was coupled with good times and good friends, so it not only meant the end of a quality restaurant, but the end of a place where community had flowered. Lunches and dinners with friends from the single’s group at church after Sunday and Wednesday services, sitting for hours sipping tea (the refills never ended and were free!) and sharing about the sermon, our lives, the last movie we’d seen—whatever. It was a place where you could gather, and the management didn’t seem to have that L.A. disease of pushing you out the door as soon as the wait staff dropped the bill.

Dalts Grill is another place that has since bitten the dust, sometime in 2005 (where have I been?). Once again, I discovered this on one of our dates—Easter Saturday, as a matter of fact. We had left the church service and were hankering for a place to eat. Lynn is a lover of American dining—coffee shops, bar and grills or pubs—if the place has good old-fashioned stick-to-your-ribs food that’s consistently prepared, he’s there. So I got all excited and wanted to take him to Dalts. It was a bit more upscale than a coffee shop, but had traditional food and a great old-fashioned bar atmosphere; in fact, it was very similar to the bar featured in Cheers. The prices were reasonable as well, and you could easily feed two people on the cheap.

We drove up Riverside Drive, and were about to turn the corner to the parking structure, when I saw a black tarp where the lighted “DALTS GRILL” sign used to be. My heart sank.

“Forget it hon, it’s closed.”

“What?!” He said a bit churlishly. When Lynn’s blood sugar drops, it’s not a good thing.

“I’m sorry, but it’s closed. Let’s find somewhere else.”

Another one of my favorites just…gone. We ended up at Bob’s Big Boy, which made Lynn happy, as Bob’s was a huge part of his life, and he had lamented the day when they shut down most of the Bob’s in the San Fernando Valley because it was no longer the “in” place to eat. Lynn was born and raised in the Valley, and except for a few years living in San Luis Obispo, he has never lived any place else. Part of what makes him a treasure—how many native Southern Californians do you know that still live here and are proud of it?

Not that he doesn’t also note the massive changes that have occurred in his 45 years of being in L.A., and grieves the loss of places of consistency, quality and substance, that were removed to make room for the hip and commercial. For me, there are certain places that make a community, and when they disappear, it leaves a discernable hole.

Both The Good Earth and Dalts Grill are connected to my 20s and early 30s, the years that best represented community as I understand it, and wished that I had again. I and my friends had special events, birthdays, or just good “hangout” time at these establishments, especially at Dalts. I discovered the restaurant when I first moved to Burbank back in 1990. They were conveniently placed between Disney Studios (where I was temping at the time), and my home on Pass Avenue, so on occasions when I had the money, I would stop there after work and have loaded fries—French fries covered in melted cheddar cheese with bacon bits and green onions, and finish it off with a slice of their famous Malt Cake—I can feel your arteries hardening, but man was it tasty!

My friend Chrissy invited me to go along with a group of people she knew to a production of “Much Ado About Nothing” at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood. “Much Ado…” is one of my favorite Shakespeare comedies, and we all had a blast and enjoyed the production immensely. Afterward, we went to Dalts for dinner. Those fabulous quesadillas were the hit for that night, along with discussing the play and our combined love of all things the Bard.

I recall one late night when me, Chrissy and Chio, another nutty friend from my nutty past, were craving a chocolate fix. So where did we go? To Dalts, of course. Not only because of the famously rich malt cake, but unlike other Valley restaurants, they actually stayed open until midnight! We shared one piece of the malt cake, a-la-mode (the piece they gave you was huge, so this was easily done), and were in endorphin heaven for the rest of night/morning! While savoring her bites of the cake, Chio exclaimed, “This is better than sex!”

Dalts was also a reliable place for connecting with my friend Paula Potter, who is the manager of the Rights Clearance department at Disney—they are the ones that say “nay,” or “yay, and pay this much,” to requests to use any film or audio clips licensed to Disney or its related children (Touchstone Pictures, Hollywood Pictures, Miramax, etc.). She’s as busy as all get out, but we somehow managed to meet once a year (sometimes more) for Dalts’ Sunday Brunch. Paula’s one of those people that no matter how long the absence, when you get together again it’s like you never parted. I’ve seen her through her many bridesmaids adventures (but still not a bride—damn it!) and the deaths of her aunt and father, and her mom’s recent illnesses, all over that all-you-can-eat buffet. But no longer. When we do connect again, it will have to be another restaurant, and it just won’t be the same.

So why am I blathering on about this? Yes, there are plenty of other places in L.A. that have good, reasonably-priced food, and yes, the food at these restaurants definitely mattered—would I be going on about 10-grain pancakes and malt cake if it wasn’t fabulous?! But the crux of the matter goes beyond that, to what these places signified—the bonding and community that happened around the good food, that has me complaining about the closures. It feels like another blow to consistent community, because when a place becomes a part of your life, it’s hard to say goodbye—especially when the separation is so sudden and unexpected. It’s as if I’ve lost an old friend, and a part of my past has been obliterated. I’m sure these establishments will be replaced by something that I’ll consider pedestrian, and less than community-oriented: like a Denny’s, or Heaven forbid, a Starbucks. Just what we need, more high-priced, low grade coffee and Wi-Fi so people can hide behind their low-fat lattes and laptops and not have to connect with the real world.

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