William Burroughs is the only famous American writer who shares my birthday. Of course he was born in 1914 and I was born much later. And, although married, he was pretty much gay, and despite the numerical limitations it has placed on my romantic life, I'm straight.
But we were both birthed in hot, muggy Midwestern cities full of crime and poverty, he in St. Louis, moi in Cincinnati. And we agree on lots of things. Burroughs is the wag who first said, "A paranoid schizophrenic is just a guy who finally found out what's going on. That's a paraphrase but the gist of that pithy saying is 100 percent, as is my agreement.
Burroughs was a lot smarter than I am though and it has taken me years to figure out what he meant when he said, "The past isn't really ever past, you can even change it by writing about it honestly," another paraphrase.
Finally, older and spending at least as much time looking behind me as in front of me, I think I get it. I am reminded of all this because I have heard from some of my older readers after writing about my paternal German grandparents one week and my maternal Irish, German, Jewish grandparents another week.
If you miss my columnar evisceration of teabaggers, faux conservatives, corporate shills, rapacious bankers and other criminals, I'm sorry, but it's family again this week.
I feel a certain pity for a lot of modern kids, products of nuclear families, whose idea of relatives stops at brother, sister and maybe grandma. Raised in an ethnic enclave in the Midwest, even a mostly German Catholic one (the current pope is not a relative, thank you) I saw aunts, uncles and cousins on a weekly basis, at a minimum. When my father died young and my mother remarried, another big German fella, I was suddenly gifted with three step-brothers and two step-sisters. A new party they had to invite me to.
I liked it a lot.
The best memories of my childhood center around family. I had a literal stew of aunts on both sides of the family but the two who stand out in my own particular living past, were my Mom's sister, Dorothy Brenner, and my uncle John's wife, Joan.
Dot was my godmother and a shaper of my early life. Unmarried despite four proposals, she had plenty of time and a huge inclination to make certain I flew right. But when my life collapsed around me after my time in the armed forces, 1966 to 1968, Aunt Dot stepped up big-time.
I had a problem with drugs (I liked most of them, prescription and otherwise, way too much) after I separated from Uncle Sam, a much less congenial relative but also family. Dot had the Midwestern Irish Catholic's vigorous aversion to all narcotics except alcohol and nicotine which she indulged in liberally -- she died from a cancer that started in her lungs after smoking at least a pack a day of unfiltered cigarettes for more than 40 years. But despite her belief that drugs were bad she never judged me, and still had my then-chain-smoking, long-haired rebellious angry self over for drinks and conversation on a weekly basis. She even drove me around. Not that she didn't disapprove of my choices, she lectured me endlessly, but she never gave up on me, and when I came out the other end a decade later and was a college-graduated, on-air television news reporter, she told most of the local population I was her nephew and godson.
My aunt Joan became my only familial confidant during the same, "bad" period. She took me in when my mother couldn't once, and when my uncle John complained about my chain-smoking, possible drug-taking and cussing in front of my younger cousins, I heard her tell him in no uncertain terms that he should leave me alone.
My entire family read books but Joan was the only one who read literature and that became another connection. She and I could talk about Thomas Hardy, the subject of my senior thesis in college, and she was even familiar with Joe Conrad, who I wrote about to win some academic prize, I think $50, while studying at the University of Cincinnati.
Other than red wine and a beer or two after softball on those rare warm summer nights here, and five or 10 cigarettes a month when my last smoking friend, Patricia, visits, I have been drug-free for three decades. There are two drug counselors, an ex-wife and my mother to thank, too, but one of the main reasons I got clean, when many friends couldn't, was the support I got, without too much judging, in the bad days, by both my aunt Joan and aunt Dot.
I hope Burroughs is right about the past still being alive because I never told either of these ladies how much I owed them when they were above ground.
I wish I had, but if old Bill is right, this isn't really too little too late. Thanks, ladies![[In-content Ad]]