Memories of Uncle Rich
June 8, 2000
It’s two days after my uncle, Ritchie’s birthday, one of those queer little details that sticks in my mind, even though he’s been dead for three years.
Until his death in August, 1997, I didn’t know much about his past, only the horror images of my own childhood around him, and the wreckage of the man who I inherited in the 1980s. During the wake and funeral, I learned details of his life as a teenager as family members and the staff of the funeral home recalled him. As an older man, Ritchie had returned to his childhood roots, to make arrangements for his own burial.
The owner of the funeral home said Ritchie had hung out with his father, before his father had become director, part of a gang of young men who had modeled their dress and their behavior on the then popular group of singers and movie stars called “the rat pack.” While others of the group saw themselves as young Frank Sinatra, Ritchie came to love Dean Martin, a man whom Ritchie very closely resembled.
The junior rat pack used to come to the funeral home to get drunk, giggling over the bodies they found in various stages of preparation for burial, one of those gross little experiences that may have contributed later to Ritchie’s rather morbid views on life.
My mother talked about Ritchie’s youth, about how he and his brother, Albie, hung around each other as kids, how they joined the marching band together – Albie taking up bugle, Ritchie, drums, and how grandpa and Ritchie drove my grandmother crazy by banging on the bottoms of her pots with sticks, trying to shape music out of noise.
My mother remembered how disappointed Ritchie was when five boys jumped on him, how Albie lifted no finger to stop them from beating Ritchie up. She also recalled how Ritchie went out afterwards and hunted each of those boys down, taking them on one by one until he was avenged.
Most people knew Ritchie as a gregarious fellow, someone who was always laughing and singing and carrying on. In truth, he was a shy man, someone who learned to socialize through the use of alcohol – a habit of which my grandfather greatly disapproved, leading to many loud arguments in the house before and after my arrival.
Alcohol loosened other inhabitations. He became a notorious womanizer, especially involving himself with women he met while doing carpentry work, the wandering wives dissatisfied with their lives and husbands. This went on for years, husbands too scared of Ritchie to make an issue of his behavior, until that point when Ritchie had drank himself into weakness and became vulnerable. In 1977, Ritchie’s landlord called Ted, Ritchie’s brother, to say some angered husband had beaten Ritchie up and that Ritchie had reached a point where he could no longer take care of himself.
As a boy, I was terrified of Ritchie. When drunk, he tended to lecture, always going on and on about how irresponsible I was and how I had to make something of my life. I could not watch TV for fear of his coming into the house, and spent a great deal of time on the street or hidden in my room with my books. As punishment, my family made me work with Ritchie, something few of his own brothers could handle themselves. Ritchie tended to say one thing and do another, often yelling at me for things he himself did on the job. I often suffered other punishments more willingly.
For several months, I worked with him as a young adult, something I did in order to earn a little cash while seeking another job. Ritchie remained the same irretraceable man I knew from when I was a boy, but I understood him better, and sensed his great loneliness. Although I did not like him any better, I did feel sorry for him. Looking back, I believe he wanted me to learn his trade the way he had learned his from my grandfather, something I was unwilling to do.
Ritchie and I, however, came to an understanding. For years he had not understood my desire to become some kind of artist. He saw no practical use for a writer or a poet in a world where a man made his living with his hands. He had even once said he had no use for Shakespeare in an argument over art.
Yet he had a soft spot for music, and a respect for the opinion of his younger sister, Alice. I had started writing music, and one song I wrote had impressed Alice, and therefore, Ritchie was impressed with me. He actually met me on the front porch of the old house to apologize for not believing in my talent – a talent I later abandoned for literature.
Ritchie’s affection for Alice became his undoing. Before her death in 1975, Ritchie kept control of his drinking to some extent, never pushing himself so far as to become helpless. At those times when he seemed too lonely, Alice called him to her house to share a meal with her family, keeping him in the fold. Even had her death not struck him so hard, he would have eventually lost himself, partly because other members of the family moved out of the area just after Alice died, leaving him to face the vacuum of her death alone.
But he did freak out. During Alice’s wake, he ran up to the open coffin and fell upon her, messing up her eternal makeup with his tears. His brothers had to drag him away to keep him from being buried with her. The rest of the family – two bothers, mother and remaining sister – moved to Tom’s River later in 1975, leaving him in the care of his older brother, Albie, who lacked Alice’s care. Most of the family, and especially me, lost track of him over the next couple of years. I knew he had taken up an apartment in the old neighborhood, above an insurance broker’s office on East 3rd street and Lakeview Avenue.
The next thing we heard was when his land lord called to say he had been beaten up. After that, Ritchie went through a series of events that seemed to leave the family shocked. Ritchie stayed at Albie’s house for a while, an unwelcome guest who made Albie’s family uncomfortable. Within a year, Albie called to say that the police had called him. Ritchie had driven his truck into the river near Service Diner in Garfield, apparently attempting suicide. When the police dove into the water to rescue him, he fought them off, and they had to subdue him. Family members visited him in the mental ward of Bergen Pines.
Alice’s husband – told me then that he had money Ritchie had left with him and that if I needed it to help Ritchie, I should ask. When I did need it years later and asked, Alice’s husband didn’t know what I was talking about. I let the matter slide.
The family made arrangements for Ritchie on the outside, setting him up in a room where he might live comfortably. This was not far from where I lived in Passaic, and I could easily stop in on him during my daily jog – a vow I forgot as quickly as I made it, presuming he would get on with his life as I did with mine. Not long later, Ted got another call from this landlord, who feared for Ritchie’s health, claiming the man was constantly drinking. At Ted’s request, I went to the room and found Ritchie in remarkable bad shape. Although I could find no bottles, I found a closet full of bottle-sized bags with numerous twist off caps suggesting vast ingestion of alcohol. He apparently had also visited several doctors seeking a cure for his shaking, each doctor giving him a different prescription, he dutifully taking each pill, often using alcohol to swallow them.
His new landlord like his old landlord wanted no part of Ritchie, and thus Ritchie began the rounds of relatives, staying with Ted for a time, before staying with Frank, and finally, after much pressure from family, with me. Albie was no longer a viable alternative since he had moved his family to South Carolina in the meantime.
I had just finished my first year at college, and lived in a two room cold water flat. I had no room for him in my apartment or in my life, and hated taking him on as a burden. But since Ted had taken possession of my mother, I had no way to escape taking him. I set up a bed for him in the kitchen and hunkered down in the second room with my typewriter and my books. I made a poor effort of it, my resentment for years of abuse getting the best of me. While I didn’t ill treat him, I hardly made him feel welcome, and this cascaded in his head, adding to his torrent of despair. Then, one day, I came home to find him gone, and no matter how hard I searched the neighborhood, I was unable to find him. I even went to the Passaic police, but they hardly helped, and I later learned that the Garfield police had found him trying to climb down into the muddy water of the Passaic River for a second attempt of suicide, they dragging him off for evaluation and eventual shipment to Greystone Mental Hospital in Morris Plains.
He spent less than a year there before the state in its wisdom released him to a home in Haledon, part of a halfway house type program which brought him down to Paterson several times a month to participate in mental health clinic activities. During one such trip, he walked away, and search as the staff did, they couldn’t find him. They told me he had simply gone across the street to buy cigarettes. Months later – after he had wandered homeless through the one of the coldest winters of the 1980s – I found him sleeping on the steps of the Paterson police station. He complained that someone had stolen his shoes. I took him home.
Somehow, I managed to get him readmitted into Greystone where he spent a few months and actually improved, daily routines giving him a sense of purpose he previously lacked. By the time he came out, I had fallen out of a relationship, so we were two bachelors again, living strained lives, he going quietly out of his mind, me going out too often to get drunk – as if picking up where he left off, but conscious enough of the situation to fear its consequences. And perhaps life would have gone on like that, me turning into him as he evaporated. But he tried suicide again, and was again admitted to Greystone, and when they tried to send him back to me, I refused to take him, claiming I was hardly fit to take care of the man, and that they needed to find better arrangements than me.
They did not like it. But they had no choice. Ritchie – looking forward to his return to my home – was shocked and hurt, and had such a look of betrayal on his face that I still fell guilty. It was the right move done for the right reasons, but guilt made me stick by him this time, rather than letting him go off on his own the way I had in the past.
Eventually, the hospital transferred Ritchie to a home in West Milford where I could continue to visit him. Good fortune had provided me with a part time job at a weekly newspaper. Each Thursday I had to drive to Butler to turn in my copy, after which I drove a little further to West Milford where I picked up my uncle and took him to lunch. For well over a year, we continued the practice, growing more close in our separation than we ever had living together, although the conditions he lived in were nearly deplorable, providing little heat or food, as the minister who ran the place constructed a new house for himself and his family.
Then, a social worker from Greystone – who made regular visits to Ritchie as part of the hospital’s release program – said she wanted to help me get Ritchie out of that place, and over the next few months, worked to get him into Preakness hospital in Haledon. It was the same hospital campus from which he had made his escaped, but not the same administration, and when Ritchie tried to escape this time, they caught him and put an ankle devise that set off an alarm each time he made his way towards the door.
Haledon had other ironies that I was not aware of until I started visiting him there. I learned during early discussions that Ritchie and my father had come to Haledon when they both worked for my grandfather. To my horror, I learned that my father had started Ritchie drinking back then, giving Ritchie his identification so that they could go to a bar in Haledon. Later, six months after Ritchie’s death in 1997, I moved to an apartment in Haledon, directly across the street from the bar where my father and Ritchie went. It was also ironic to me that Rich should die in Haledon of alcohol complications.
But death took a decade and for the last ten years of his life, I became a weekly visitor, receiving collect phone calls each time I was late. I snuck him cigarettes – though it was against the rules, and brought him cookies and candy. In 1989, I chose to keep from him the fact that his brother Harold had died, remembering too well how badly he had taken the death of his sister. In 1991, I could not keep secret the death of his mother and I watched him grow sadder and older in hours, losing one more level of wit. Each visit after that left me witness to his deterioration, he growing more and more needy, and more and more desperate to see me. When I also inherited my mother in 1994, I took her to see him, and the meeting struck me as one of the great moments of my life, watching two people who had struggled to survive all their lives. Neither had seen each other in over a decade, although my mother made a point of mailing cards to Ritchie whenever she got the chance. They saw each other once or twice more after that, me, driving mother to him, and then to the graves of my grandfather, grandmother and Alice on the way home.
In mid-August, 1997, Ritchie was admitted to intensive care. I saw him once. He was barely conscious. I brought my mother the next time, he was not conscience at all, his face covered with machines to help him breathe. My mother – finding out mass was being broadcast through the hospital – asked for it to get turned on in Ritchie’s room and we sat through it with him, at the end of which, he died.
Strangely enough, I was closer to him than any other person in the world, friend, nephew, brother, and more. I had ceased hating him and come to love him, and felt as if a part of me had passed on with his dying, an important piece of me I would never get back.
Now, a few days after what would have been his 69th birthday, I still feel the same way.