The New York Times has an excellent column that runs on Sundays called Modern Love, which consists of real first-person accounts of love and its challenges in its various manifestations (romantic love, familial love, platonic love, pet love, self-love, etc.). I’ve been reading it consistently for at least two years now. The subjects span a pretty vast emotional landscape and are almost always fascinating.
Yesterday’s entry, a piece entitled “Never Tell Our Business to Strangers“…
…was one woman’s account of how she and her parents lived on the run within a matrix of lies throughout her childhood and teenage years, starting when she was five years old and the FBI arrived at their home to take away her father:
We were living in Irvine, Calif., where he had a small carpet-cleaning business. My older cousin happened to be visiting from Florida, and my mother told her to keep me in my bedroom as the agents arrested my father. It was a harrowing ordeal; distraught, I rushed my bedroom door time and again, trying to get to my father as my cousin restrained me.
WHAT had he done? My mother first told me they had mistaken him for someone with the same name. (And there is, in fact, an organized crime figure with his name.) After his arrest led to his detention, however, my mother conceded that he’d done something wrong, but she wouldn’t tell me what.
Interesting. Imagine the horror. Still, the fun was just beginning for this girl…
[…] our lives were turned upside down. The F.B.I. took my father to New York, and my mother followed to arrange for his defense, while I was sent to live with my aunt in North Miami Beach. A parade of character witnesses testifying to my father’s honest work as a carpet cleaner finally led to his release a year later.
I didn’t learn of his release until my parents showed up in Florida on my aunt’s doorstep, which was the best surprise I have ever received and remains my fondest memory of my parents. I was 6 years old.
We stayed in Florida for a few months until my father, who had gotten a job as a line cook, could save enough money to take us back to California. When we returned, we kept on the move, living over the years in Garden Grove, El Toro, Lake Forest, Mission Viejo, Laguna Hills, Aliso Viejo and Laguna Niguel. The nature of our cocoonlike existence led me to trust only my parents, to look only to them to tell me who I was and to feel fearful and disloyal for seeking outside comfort. My parents’ mantra, drilled into me, was, “Never tell our business to strangers.” And I didn’t.
And so their unholy pact was born…
Until I was 5, I knew our last name to be Cassese, but then my parents told me our real last name was Mascia. Cassese was the surname of a prison buddy of my father’s. I knew my father both as John, his real name, and Frank, his father’s. During our brief time in Houston, he had apparently gone by Nicholas.
The day after I graduated from high school, we packed our belongings into a U-Haul and moved to New York, where my father had friends who could get him work. He joined a painting crew, earning $100 a day, leaving my mother and me with nothing to do for the summer but drive around Long Island in a car that was soon to be repossessed, talking. After one of these drives, I broke down in tears, recalling the anguish of the day my father was arrested. “I deserve to know what happened,” I told her.
At my insistence, she finally opened up. She began by telling me the real story of how she and my father met, which was not “through friends,” as had been their story, but at the Fishkill Correctional Facility in New York, where my father had been incarcerated for “racketeering.” My mother was a high school English teacher with a humanitarian bent, who visited prisons, hoping to write a book about the prison reform movement. My father was among the inmates she interviewed.
Their interviews gave way to animal attraction, and when my father was paroled a few months later, they started dating. Within a year they married and moved from New York to Miami, so he could escape his previous life of crime. But after I was born, he went back to his old partners and their sources of income: bulk marijuana and cocaine sales in the Port of Miami.
When I was a year old, my father was arrested on cocaine possession charges. The authorities didn’t yet know he had violated his parole and mistakenly let him out on bail. And the second my parents stepped outside, my father said to my mother, “If we stay here, I’m going to end up dead or in jail. I’m running. You coming?”
“Of course,” she answered. It would prove to be the defining moment of her life, and mine.
And so, as she explained, it was that act—skipping out on bail and then crossing state lines—that led to my father’s being arrested by the F.B.I. in California five years later.
Which was the truth, but not, as it turned out, the whole truth.
Not even. Stick with me, people. I know this is a long post, but I found this utterly fascinating. It gets even thicker. Later, still not satisfied, ol’ girl (the daughter) does some digging of her own…
A year after my mother and I had this conversation, when I was in college, I read a newspaper article about a woman who had searched an online database for criminals who had been shuffled through the New York State Corrections Department. One afternoon I found the site and typed my father’s last name into the search field. His record appeared, and I was able to verify that it was the right John Mascia. The birth date matched. I scrolled down the page past his identification number to a table listing “crimes of conviction.” And there it was, the real act that had bound the three of us together.
I sat silently as my center seemed to drop through the floor.
Holy Smokes!!! But wait, there’s more!!!
[…] last winter, […] my mother had a stroke [ed., the father had died at this point] and was close to dying herself. When she emerged from her haze, she somehow felt compelled to tell me the rest. “Your father did some bad things after he got out of jail, Jenny.”
No. Was it possible he had repeated the crime that put him away in the 1960s and ’70s? “Tell me,” I said. “Was it…?”
“Four, maybe five,” she said sheepishly.
I was reeling.
“It was after you were born,” she continued. “It was a part of that life. He was doing a job, and one of the byproducts of that job was to do what he did.” She went on to explain that his victims were fellow drug dealers, as if that made it more palatable.
Go daddy!!! Go daddy!!! Daddy killed folks!!! Yes, he killed folks!!!
Needless to say (<== don’t you just love a good cliche’?), this was the proverbial straw that broke the blah-blah-blah, and ol’ girl finally decided (after her mother’s death) to step away from their horrible legacy. All of this reminded me of the relationship between quintessential mob boss Tony Soprano (of HBO’s brilliant show, The Sopranos)…
…and his daughter, Meadow…
…and the way she gradually realizes what her daddy really does. She has her suspicions early on, but when the rumblings become too big to ignore, she ultimately has to face the truth. Her reactions to this knowledge, at any given moment, run the range of revulsion and disdain to a Michael Corleone-esque…
…which starred the late River Phoenix as the son of parents (played by Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti) who’d been on the run from the law his entire life as a result of their dark doings and radical associations. (Staunch anti-war activists, they’d blown up a napalm lab in the early 70’s as a protest statement and had been fleeing the FBI ever since.) Like the girl in the Modern Love article, Phoenix’s character was an ever-rolling stone, living under assumed name after assumed name in town after town, never getting to put down roots or have the prospect of a future for himself. When there’s a chance for him to break free and have a life of his own via an acceptance at the prestigious Julliard School, his father is both adamantly against it and outraged that his son would dare to even consider breaking from the family and their life on the run. To him, the family was paramount, the greater entity which must survive no matter what, even if it was at the expense of the individuals who were the parts of its sum.
Sooooo!!! I say alllllllllll of that to finally ask, what do YOU think about this kind of thing…the whole family first, “never-tell-our-business” rule? I actually address similar issues in one of my novels…
…where a troubled clan holds some very dark deeds very close, while others in that same family struggle to break free.
Loyalty to family vs. loyalty to self: which side of the fence do you fall on, or are you firmly planted on the fence? Is there nothing you won’t do for your family? And do you always hold the family secrets close, no matter what?
*There were a lot of options for the title of this post. Figured I may as well cram them all in.
**The final season of The Sopranos begins next Sunday, April 8th. Woo-hoo!!!!