Category Archives: Memoir

A Gypsy Melody

 

A Gypsy Melody

Christopher Conley

Buppy died on his 87th birthday. You could call the timing his final joke, but I can’t imagine anyone besides him was laughing. After Buppy (my grandfather) died, I wrote a story about him. I wrote it to keep the memory of him. But the result was a mishmash of memories splattered onto a blank canvas; there was nothing artistic about it. The story is like a key that didn’t fit in the lock it was supposed to open, and now I need to go back and fix it.

When he was still alive, I would usually find him in his kitchen sitting in a chair at the head of the table next to the “rubbish.” Or I would find him in his padded, blue rocking-chair in the living room. He wasn’t heavy-set, but rather, a grandfatherly weight — he definitely wasn’t thin. He had a long chin, white hair (that often sprung up in the air from the ocean breeze outside), and a tucked-in jaw. He always looked like he was sucking on his teeth, which might have just been the case. As a child, one of his eyes was blinded because it was hit by a baseball. The problem with his eyes was that you could never really tell which one was blind, so you could never tell if he was looking at you, someone else, or just nothing. Sometimes I would find him reading the newspaper, hunched over it like a scientist, using a curled up fist as a sort of binocular-type mechanism. But since he was only enhancing one eye, it would be more of a monocular-type mechanism. And in the end, he wasn’t actually enhancing anything. That’s how I remember him: a grandfatherly sized man who sucked on his teeth while thinking his hand could enhance his vision.
I only knew him when he was in his 70s and 80s. Sometimes he would walk around his house shouting, “Hoh Gyp-sy Mel-o-dy!” My mother figured out it was a misinterpretation of the song, “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.” Buppy had that strange tic for as long as I can remember. Hoh Gyp-sy Mel-o-dy! It followed him like a bell on a cat’s collar.

I’m actually not sure if I can say I knew Buppy all too well. My cousin Jake knew him. He knew him because they both lived in Boston, because they went fishing together, because Buppy could go to Jake’s hockey games. My cousin Joe knew him too. Because they had dinner once a week, because Joe would make him laugh. I would see Buppy on holidays or birthday celebrations, but that was about the extent of our relationship. It was more of a, shake-his-hand-hard and look-him-in-the-eye (hopefully the good one), say you’re happy to see him, throw in a Merry Christmas or Happy 4th, then watch what he does kind of relationship. I probably knew him better when I was younger, if that’s even possible. When I finally started remembering memories, Buppy and I didn’t really talk much — it was mostly just formalities. He listened to me, and I listened to him, but we didn’t always hear each other the same way he and my other cousins heard each other.

His one blind eye and the gypsy melody have always stood out to me. Sort of like when he would bang the kitchen table with his fist, or when he would call my mother homely. I cringe when my mother asks, you don’t remember that time when we did such and such with Buppy and when she says of course you remember, even when I don’t.

When he turned 80, Buppy started writing down his life stories. My cousin Britney compiled, or rather, transcribed his narratives into a book when he died. She said it was difficult because Buppy’s handwriting wasn’t very good, and neither was his grammar. He wrote all of them down on loose leaf paper — then he stored them away in a box. Britney was eventually able to copy his stories; she just guessed words and phrases every once in a while. He wrote 38 stories, along with a song and a poem. The one story with me in it was about a New Hampshire fishing trip. My brother Kevin might remember the day in New Hampshire, but not me. I sort of remember. There was rain. Thunder and lightning. A tent. And catfish. Buppy remembered. Here’s what he wrote down, or at least, what Britney was able to salvage from this particular fascicle:

Another trip that I am going to tell you about is – by the way, when I say trip I mean fishing and camping trip – when I went camping (also fishing) with daughter #1 and her two sons which happen to be my grandsons. Things happened that could have spoiled everything but turned out okay in the end and a few of these things are as follows. The biggest thing was the tent, which was brand new. It rained (cats and dogs) that night. I never remembered it raining as hard as it did that night, or maybe it was because of the tent, leaking like a sieve, and I mean leaking. There wasn’t a dry spot anywhere. But no one was complaining and we got through the night.

We ended up fishing the next morning and the boys caught a lot of fish (trout I think). We played cards, and later on we played ball. Playing with the boys is fun because they caught onto the game real good. Poker is the best game that we play and Kevin is the luckiest so far. I tell him, if I had his luck, I’d move to Vegas and lately I’ve been asked by Christopher, “Hey Buppy want to play some cards?” So we end up playing a few hands. Thank God the summer is coming, as we get together more often. The winter, they have school and things, as you know.

I always thought it had been catfish and not trout, but maybe we caught both catfish and trout. Sometimes while reading his story I feel like I’m fishing for the concrete memory. It’s in the water somewhere swimming around, avoiding my fishing rod. I can’t remember the last time I actually caught a fish — probably the trout or catfish in New Hampshire — so I wonder if I’ll ever get this memory to bite.

* * *

In another one of his recorded stories, Buppy was going to the hospital to visit Uncle Joe, his brother-in-law and fishing buddy. Before he went to the hospital, Buppy bought frozen fish. He unthawed one outside, then grabbed a rod and stabbed the fish through the hook. Him and Nana walked into the hospital in this fashion; a small, old woman dressed in church clothes with a nice purse and high heels, and a large, old man wearing fishing gear, holding a rod with a fish attached. People gave them strange looks in the hospital’s elevator. Nana just told them, “Don’t ask.”

When they got to the right room, Buppy took the fishing rod, handed it to Uncle Joe, and told him to reel the line in. Uncle Joe, who was weak but still functional, did his best to rotate the fishing reel. Buppy recorded the moment in his collection of stories by simply saying, “in came the fish sliding across the floor and a smile across Uncle Joe’s face.” He never told me about this story, but I like this one the most. At the end he doesn’t give any grand conclusion. All he wrote down is, “I thought I did what I started out to do.”

My Uncle Pete presented Buppy’s eulogy at the funeral; he talked about how he was a jokester. He hid under the stairs and popped out to scare his children. He would sneak something disgusting in someone’s food. And after each joke, he would wink an eye — whether it was the blind one or not, we had no idea — and chuckle to himself with his arms crossed. Then, right on cue, he would sing, Hoh Gyp-sy Mel-o-dy!

I saw my cousin Jennifer crying when she walked outside of the church. I asked her if she was okay, and she nodded her head. Then she said, “When we were walking out of the church I lost my balance for a second and stumbled backwards. It must have been Grandpa’s fishing rod.” She wiped her eyes with a tissue, then smiled. “He got me hooked by the shirt and pulled me back. It’s like he was reeling me in like a fish.” She laughed and I laughed and I told her I’m sure it was him who yanked her back. Just like how it wasn’t just a coincidence that after he died, my mother would find coins in random nooks and crannies of the house. It was him, of course, keeping my mother on her toes.

I wish that I had almost tripped while walking out of the church. Or found a quarter. Or felt something out of the ordinary. But when I try to think of a conversation I’ve had with Buppy, or a story, there would always be someone else there.

Weeks after the funeral, we spread Buppy’s ashes on the Atlantic Ocean, his favorite fishing hole. We sailed out on the boat his kids bought him a few years before he died; they named it A Gypsy Melody.

My first time on A Gypsy Melody with Buppy was my last time. He sat near the back of the boat with his fishing rod, and I sat on the front with sunglasses on. My brother learned how to drive from Uncle Pete. My mother made too many sandwiches. Buppy didn’t catch a thing, and I don’t remember much after that. I have a picture of me on the front of the boat with my backwards Red Sox hat, a picture of my brother steering the boat with Uncle Pete, and a picture of Buppy sitting on a beach chair, fishing for water — a determined and yet stoic look plastered on his face.

The water was gentle when we spread his ashes. We reached an open space and the boat rocked back and forth— steadily, slowly — and for once my lively family was silent. I’m not too sure what Buppy would have thought of the scene. He probably would have found it too sentimental. I was waiting for the boat to capsize. Turn us over, I thought almost sarcastically. It felt like a dare. Everything was still — the wind and the waves, gentle. A small gust. Nothing. A seagull’s cry. Still nothing. A ripple in the water. Silence. Turn us over.

It was uncharacteristic of my family to share a moment without sound. No jokes or banter; reverence to the dead. Goosebumps covered my arms and legs either because of the wind or the hush. We released Buppy’s ashes in a box that floated a while, then sank as water made its way inside. We all watched. It bobbed up and down with each wave and grew smaller each fleeting second. I leaned over and stuck out my hand; a wave splashed against the side of the boat and water sprayed onto my face. Ha, good one.

Waves pummel the side of the boat, and I feel the water spraying rapidly onto my face. The water starts to envelop my body, plunging me downward. Immersed in the vast ocean, I let myself sink. Under the weight of the waves I hear another seagull cry. I fall deeper in stillness. I descend until I stroke the slimy floor, grazing the sand with my feet. I wriggle my toes in the cold sand. I shove them deeper, twisting and turning, left and right, up and down. I try to break through, even momentarily, to the other side — hoping there is another side. I want to know how it feels. I press against a harder layer that won’t budge. I twist my toes faster. The other side is locked, shielded from the dense surface. My toes can’t fit themselves through, and yet I twist in vain.

Turn us over, I think again. I jiggle and contort my toes left and right once more while A Gypsy Melody cruises peacefully, safely to the shore.

In the Beginning

In the Beginning

Will McMillan

I’m a 30 year old man, and for the first time in my life I’m going on a date with another man. His name’s Jason, and we’ve been chatting on OKCupid for almost a month. From his online profile I’ve learned the following things about him: he looks a little like Peter Brady from The Brady Bunch. He’s into fantasy, and his favorite movie of all time is The Never Ending Story. Aside from the Peter Brady similarity, it’s that last part that got me interested in reaching out to him, since The Never Ending Story is one of my favorites as well. I figure anyone willing to list that in their profile is probably someone that won’t terrify me.

From my online profile, Jason learns the following things about me: I love writing. I love science fiction and can fire off a Star Trek quote as easily as I can pull air into my lungs. And according to Jason, from the pictures that I’ve posted, he learns that I look like Egon from The Ghost Busters. I decide to take this as a compliment.

What Jason doesn’t learn from my profile is that just two months before our online introduction I was a devout Jehovah’s Witness. He doesn’t learn that the discovery of my gay oriented browsing history via a borrowed laptop lead to my subsequent disfellowhipping and expulsion from my congregation. He doesn’t learn that while in writing I say that I’ve been “out” since I was 21 that, as far as my public image is concerned, I’m still very much “in.” Jason doesn’t learn I’m desperate to find a way to replace the faith I’ve betrayed with what will hopefully become faith in myself.

I’ve asked Jason to meet me for lunch, and he’s agreed.
We meet on a frigid Wednesday afternoon and in person he looks less like Peter Brady than I thought. He’s wearing the sort of cap that I associate with train conductors, with a long black Pea coat and skinny fit jeans pegged at the cuff. When he says hello to me I’m caught off guard by the pitch of his voice, which is high and effeminate. We’ve only ever communicated through instant messages and texts, and until now his voice was my own invention. There’s no getting around it-Jason is full tilt gay. He’s gay and I’m shocked that rather than being self-conscious about it, than being like me, he’s self-assured and relaxed. As a Witness I’d trained myself to avoid people like him, well aware of my tendency to pay a little too much attention, to watch a little too closely. I can be as interested as I want to be now, but as Jason talks I can’t help but take sneaking glances, looking to see if anyone is staring at us. I notice Jason’s posture, which seems deliberately proper, and do the opposite. I slouch in my seat and widen my legs to appear visibly sloppy. The Witness within me, the straight man, demands that I set myself apart and my ingrained insecurity forces me to comply.

On those rare instances I actually went on a date with a witness girl, I would be the one to lead the conversation. With Jason I’m content to let him do the driving, and as we eat, we talk about movies, about tv shows, about songs we like. I can admit to liking Madonna outright, not just a few of her songs. I can mention how “Will and Grace” is only as good as the scenes that Karen appears in. I can admit that I watch “Will and Grace.” I can begin to be myself, if only in small doses. Listening to him, I can’t help but wonder if Jason would be he who he is now if he’d been raised a witness, if something within the fiber of his integrity would have rejected the church outright rather than allowing it to reject him. I wonder what that would feel like.

“It was nice meeting you,” Jason says at the end of our lunch, and leans in for a hug.

“You, too,” I reply. Even the brothers in my congregation hugged from time to time I reason, so a hug doesn’t have to imply anything I don’t want it to. Jason tells me to enjoy the rest of my day and walks away, stopping for a moment to pry a frozen leaf off of the ground. I’m not ten minutes away from him when I get a text. Would I like to hang out again?
I let Jason make our plans for our second date. “CC’s. This Saturday. What do you think?” CC’s is a club. A gay one. Everybody, even Jehovah’s people, know this.

“I don’t know, maybe.”

“No maybes. It’s CC’s for us on Saturday.”

I meet up with Jason that Saturday night to discover that he’s brought a few of his friends along. Checking our ID’s at the door my anxiety is palpable, a scent lingering in the air, and one of Jason’s friends picks up on it. “Are you sure you aren’t a breeder?” he asks.

“No!”

I can’t see the look on my face, but judging by the tension in my jaw, I’m sure it’s not a good one. Less than a novice to gay terminology and slang, I assume nonetheless that my sexuality is being questioned. Lying about my sexuality is a language I speak fluidly, and I find myself grasping for words and phrases to use as I attempt, for the first time, to speak the truth.

“You sure seem like it,” Jason’s friend continues. “I think you’re a straight guy.”

“I’m not.”

“Straight guy. We have a straight guy here.”

Jason rolls his eyes, coming to my defense. “God, just shut up and leave him alone. Fucking queens.”

I drag my feet walking in, making a point to be the last one in the door. Being suspected of homosexuality was deadly within a congregation of Witnesses, and I wonder: within a congregation of gay men, were heterosexual suspicions just as deadly?

The music inside of the club is overwhelming to the point that, placing my hand on my chest, I can’t feel my heartbeat. The lighting is strobe like and it’s impossible to move without bumping into or being bumped by someone. Men are kissing and holding hands and I don’t last long enough to finish the drink Jason buys for me. As much as I want to, I can’t handle all of the freewheeling homosexuality, and I bolt outside. Jason follows, and is kind. “Too many fags trying to act fabulous can get to me, too,” he says, lighting a cigarette. I laugh, but it’s nervous. Was it an insult when gay men referred to each other as fag, or a term of endearment? And what does it mean that Jason feels comfortable saying that to me?

Over the next month we have several more lunches together, after which we either go to the movies or simply hang out, and it feels like friendship. Once I tap his leg to signal his attention, but aside from the hugs goodbye, it’s all the physical contact I permit. My inner Witness, though subdued, still insists that I keep things proper.

Jason is texting me after one of our lunches and it’s innocent enough. What am I up to? How’s my day going? I reply quickly until Jason sends me a text that stops me cold. Am I his boyfriend? “I’ve been calling you that to friends,” he texts. “Is that okay?”

I want to text no, that it’s not okay. We aren’t boyfriends. We haven’t even kissed. How are we boyfriends now? I stare at my phone, at the smiling emoticon he’s attached to that last message, my breath a prisoner in my lungs.

I tell him it’s okay.

Now, Jason holds my hand in public. If we’re alone I’m alright, but if people approach I find that I have to sneeze or scratch my head and wouldn’t you know? That always requires the hand that he’s holding. When he kisses me, I try to kiss back. Sometimes it makes me happy to kiss him. Mostly though, with my eyes closed and his lips on mine, I can’t help but wonder what the Elders in my congregation are thinking about me. I tear myself apart using the words I imagine they’d be using. Faggot. Sodomite. Monster.

“Your heart always races when we kiss,” Jason says. I’m flooded with guilt whenever we’re together now, certain that God has turned his back on me. I beg forgiveness from my creator and mercy from myself. A month after asking if we’re boyfriends, I call Jason and tell him I need to see him. “Please don’t hate me.” I say it again and again as we walk together, mustering all my strength to do something so weak.

“Please don’t hate me, please don’t hate me…”

“Don’t give me a reason to hate you and I won’t,” he answers.
And so I begin the “it’s not you, it’s me,” speech, and even though it is me, I’m too embarrassed to tell him why. Because I’m not used to being honest with myself I have no idea how to be honest with him. I offer little response when he asks for clarification, and rather than listening to me evade his questions, after 15 minutes of my rambling Jason leaves. I attempt to comfort myself by thinking that at least I’ve done what God would have wanted me to do, but the teeth of my conscience bite down on this thought as though it were made of metal. As he walks away from me I have a suspicion that Jason is crying, which only makes me cry harder, though neither one of us is feeling much pity for me at the moment.
I’m a 30 year old man who’s trying to repair the damage of a lifetime of self-loathing. I’m a 30 year old man who’s finally had the passport to cross into his true life granted to him but is too afraid to consider himself a citizen. I know that eventually I’ll cross over, slowly learning the customs as I go until, maybe, I’m indistinguishable from the natives, and where perhaps the God worshiped there will be kinder than my own.

BREAD AND SALT

Bread and Salt: What a Jewish Cemetery in Poland Taught Me about an Arab Cemetery in Israel

© Robert Brym (2014)

Department of Sociology                                                                                            University of Toronto                                                                             rbrym@chass.utoronto.ca

1977

On a wet spring morning, Marek drove southwest out of Warsaw toward my father’s hometown. During the two semesters he had spent as a postdoctoral student in Canada, he and his wife had rented the basement apartment of my parents’ house in Fredericton. My mother would periodically invite them upstairs for a meal, giving my father an opportunity to recount his youth in Poland and the war years in Russia. The two couples – one Jewish and in their mid-60s, the other Catholic and in their early 30s – liked each other, and when it came time for me to attend my first international conference, in Poland, I had little compunction about contacting Marek and asking him if he might be willing to drive me to Bodzanów, the little town 90 minutes outside Warsaw where my father lived until 1939. When I met Marek and his wife in their Stalin-era apartment bloc an hour before we set out on our trip, I saw immediately why my parents were so fond of them. They offered me bread and salt, a traditional Slavic welcome for a respected guest. Their intelligence and generosity of spirit shone.

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