Thanksgiving this year will be celebrated at Grandpaís and Grandmaís. It always is, but that seemed the place to start to tell you about this.
Iím from a large Italian family, but thatís probably redundant. I donít know any small Italian families. There might be some, but then, theyíre probably not really Italian. Why are all our families large? Itís probably a combination of things. Sure, weíre all Catholics, but also, Italians seem to love kids, and Italian women seem to love babies, and Italian men seem to like to do what it takes to make babies, so it all fits together pretty nicely.
What doesnít fit as well is me. Iím gay, and Italians donít think much of gays. Now thatís a pretty broad statement, and a stereotype, and I donít like stereotypes much, nor most broad statements if you want to know the truth, so perhaps I shouldnít say that, but itís what I feel right now. Iím gay, Iím Italian, and while there may be worse things in the world, the only one I can think of at the moment is trying to figure out how to tell my family about me.
When I say my family, I of course donít mean Dad and Mom and my sister and two brothers. Sure, thatís my family; but when I say my family, I mean us but then also the rest of us.
We live in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn where it seems every other family is Italian. And a lot of those families seem related to us, one way or another. But when I talk family, I usually mean Grandpa and Grandma, their kids, and their kidsí kids. We all live close in Cobble Hill, and every year we all come together for Thanksgiving Dinner.
Iím 16 now, and itís time to tell everyone about me. Why, Iím not sure, but itís time and I know it. Maybe itís because Iím starting to hear a lot of, ďWhen are you going to bring a girl around to meet us, Michael?Ē Or, ďYou know Mary Mastonioís daughter Rose, from down the block, donít you, Michael? She asked your cousin Frank if you were going to the school dance. You donít have a date yet, do you? Why donít you ask her?Ē Or, ďI saw Francie Santomarino at yoga yesterday, Michael. Sheís got real pretty. Do you know her, from school? Sheís not at our church, but I know her mother; have you met her?Ē Or variations on that theme.
But itís not just that. I know how to brush those questions off, though it does get tiring. No, itís a feeling inside me, like I just need to say this, that I have to start being me, that Iíve been hiding something and want that to stop. We Italians are pretty open people. We donít like hiding. I donít like hiding, and hiding who I am from the people Iíve grown up around, who I love, who are family, it just is getting uncomfortable, you know? Itís time.
And with Thanksgiving coming up, Iíve been thinking of doing it then because I can tell everyone all at once and be done with it.
When we walk in, the whole house smells of cooking, with that rich, special smell of turkey which makes your mouth water hovering over everything else. I have to go greet Grandpa first. Italians have traditional ways of doing things, and showing respect for Grandpa and Grandma, especially in their own home, is pretty close to number one.
Heís in the living room, on his favorite chair. Heís talking to Uncle Sal and Uncle John when I walk in, but he spots me right away and starts to struggle to his feet. I rush to him so he wonít have to stand and sink to my knees beside him and give him a big hug. He hugs me back, fiercely. We hold it for a few seconds.
ďHi, Grandpa,Ē I say, eventually. He smells of pipe tobacco. He tells me all the time heís trying to quit, but I think he just tells everyone that to get them to stop worrying about him. Heís a short man with thick white hair and lively, knowing eyes set in a handsome and almost always smiling face. He looks into my eyes now, then winks at me.
ďMichael!, Happy Thanksgiving, and youíre looking, well, serious today. Whereís the smile? Anything you want to talk about? We could go into my study if youíd like. Maybe I can help?Ē
Grandpa is like that. He can read me like a book, and I know I can trust him. I donít know how he can see I need his support right now, but he can. Not having told him about me is one of the reasons I so need to do this. I hate keeping anything from him. Heís always been my favorite. He likes me too. Oh, he loves all his grandkids, but Iíve seen him watching them, and I sometimes turn around suddenly and see how heís watching me, see whatís in his eyes. I know Iím special to him. Weíve got this bond that he doesnít have with any of the others. Hiding myself from him, even if he disapproves, is just wrong. If heís unhappy with me, weíll deal with it. I donít doubt his love for me one bit, and however he feels when he learns, we will deal with it. He wonít stop loving me.
I tell him itís nothing, hug him again, and tell him I have to go say hi to Grandma.
I go to the kitchen and Grandma gives me a big hug. She has the softest, most loving hugs of anyone. After hugging me and patting me on the cheek and telling me how handsome I am getting, something she always does which somehow I never get tired of hearing, she tells me to go find the other kids, she has plenty of help already and dinner wonít be too long now. She kisses my cheek and then tickles me out of the room.
I go into the family room and thereís Tony and Little Sal and Dante and Rachele, Uncle Salís kids, and Jacob and Jolanda, Uncle Johnís kids, and Dino and Anthony and Adele, Uncle Dinoís kids. Susan and Matthew and Patrick, my sibs, are there too, of course.
You donít have to remember all these names, unless you want to.
About a third of these kids are right around my age, within a year or two, with the rest both older and younger. Uncle John is the baby in Grandpaís and Grandmaís family and his family isnít as big now as it probably will be. Heís only got two, and Jolanda is young yet, only six. But Jacob is almost 11, and thatís a lot of years between kids, and there hasnít been another one since Jolanda, and whispering has started that Aunt Grace is using the pill, but I donít think so. Thatís a sin, right?
How in the world did I get onto that? Back to where I was.
I am in the family room, with my sibs and cousins. Thereís a football game on the TV, a CD is playing over the stereo speakers, a few of the kids are playing Monopoly and a bunch are just talking. And of course Anthony and Jacob are wrestling. Theyíre always wrestling. You canít hear much of anything over all the noise. Just like usual.
I watch everybody, sort of staying on the outside of it all. I have a reputation for being the quiet one. It fits me. Iíve always been like that, watching more than joining in. Itís made me wonder a little. Ever since I realized I was different, Iíve wondered if thatís why I donít join in things as easily as other people do. Iíve decided it isnít that. Itís just my personality to be that way, to maybe think about things a little more than most kids, to stand apart. This is my family, people I know as well as I could know anyone, people I am entirely comfortable with and who Iíve grown up with, but even with these guys it just seems natural to stand to one side and watch things rather than jumping into the middle of the commotion.
Vinnie comes into the room right after I do. He has no hesitation at all, and the last thing heíd ever do is what I am doing. I donít think he ever has just watched anything in his life. He walks into the room, announces himself by shouting, ďHey guys, whatís up?Ē squeezes my shoulder as he walks past and then walks around the room, greeting people individually and enthusiastically, making comments about the Monopoly game, singing a bit of the song that is on the CD, off key but loudly, asks the score of the football game, jumps into the conversation and generally becomes involved in everything that is happening all at once, all in about thirteen seconds. That is Vinnie. He is just a month older than I am, though it has always seemed to me he is about a decade older if youíd go by his self-assurance and forwardness.
If youíre now thinking Thanksgiving and lots of people and dinner, you might also be wondering where all these people are going to sit for dinner. Fourteen kids and ten adults, twenty-four people. Thatís too many, isnít it? I suppose it would be for most families, but we all live close by and we get together for meals like this several times a year. Grandpa and Grandma think family is the most important thing ever and as we kids began to get older, they started thinking about not wanting a separate kidsí table, about wanting us all to be together, the entire group all gathered together when we ate. Grandpa loves his grandkids and wants to be involved in their conversations, and wants them to be involved in his. So he had a table made that was big enough for the whole bunch of us. It is set up in the family room in the basement whenever we are all together, then taken down and stored away the rest of the time.
Yes, they have two family rooms, one upstairs, one down. They have a big house. A big old brownstone. Itís right across from Cobble Hill Park. Grandpa bought it in 1985, when people had begun talking about fixing up the park and people were beginning to do some reconstruction work in that neighborhood, and he had the house all modernized too. Itís like a mansion now.
Grandpa and Grandma had been like most Italians from their generation. They hadnít gone to college. Theyíd done what they could to survive, and during the Depression that wasnít easy. But Grandpa had been smart, hungry to get ahead and a hard worker. Heíd got a job washing cars for a car dealer when he was 16. Ten cents a car sounds awful, when you think about it, but it was a start. He did such a good job and worked so fast, it wasnít long before he was being given other things to do. He did them well, and he learned. As improbable as it might seem, he was the Sales Manager of that dealership by the time he was 25, and owned it by 35. That was the first of three dealerships he ended up owning. Martin Motors, thatís what heíd called the franchises. His name was Martino, but back then, you made everything sound American. Uncle Sal ran it all now, but all my uncles and my dad worked for the company.
So Grandpa has a big house. There is a family room upstairs, where we kids are gathered, and the one downstairs, set up for dinner. Thatís where we are being called now. Dinner is ready.
Iím a little nervous, but the food smells so good Iím actually looking forward to going downstairs. I tell myself, go down and you can eat, and the sooner all this happens, the sooner you can say what you want to say. That gives me some more strength, more courage, and I walk to the top of the stairs, and then down.
Grandma has place cards so everyone knows where to sit and the kids wonĎt be fighting over which chair they get and who they get to, or have to, sit next to. The food is all laid out on the table. You know how much food it takes to feed 24 people? A lot. You know how much food a group of Italian women cook for a meal like this? Even more. Much more. That is one long, long table, and it is mostly filled with food. There is the turkey, of course, actually two of them, with the traditional American side dishes, but there are a lot of everyoneís favorite Italian dishes, too. It is incredible looking at it.
We all settle down. Then we all have to hold the hand of the person on either side of us. I am sitting next to Aunt Rebecca on one side and Vinnie on the other. Grandpa says grace. He thanks God that we are all there, everyone who is important to him, right there at that table. He says a lot of good words, but it isnít too long. Itís just right and even inspiring.
There is a turkey at each end of the table, and Grandpa carves one of them and Uncle Sal, at our end of the table, does the other one. It still takes some time for everyone to have a plate in front of them, but eventually we all do. Then the side dishes start being passed around, and that takes more time, and I am now getting a little nervous with all this waiting, waiting for the time to say what I have to say.
Finally we are all eating, and various conversations are starting up. That only goes on for a few minutes before Grandpa stands up and clicks his spoon on his water goblet and we all quiet down, and he says, ďLike usual, weíll have everyone stand up and say what theyíre especially thankful for this year. Instead of going around the room as we usually do, I think weíll change that this year and start with the youngsters. It looks to me like Michael wants to go first. Why donít you start then?Ē He is looking right at me with compassionate eyes when he says this, and then he nods at me with a smile.
I push back from the table and stand up. I have to do this. I want to do this. I am going to do this. I just hope my voice doesnít shake too much to allow me to be heard.
I begin. ďHey guys. Thanks Grandpa. And Grandma, for making all this delicious food! Thanks for that, too.Ē I turn and let my eyes pass over everyone. It isnít too late to stop. But then, yes it is. I have to do this.
ďGrandpa said I had something to say, and I do. It isnít the usual ĎIím thankful for this or that.í This is something else, something thatís important to me. Something I have to tell you all. This isnít easy, but here it is. Iím gay. Iíve known for a couple years. Itís time you all knew. Youíre my family, I love every one of you, and you deserve to know. Iím gay. Iím not really thankful for it, it just is. Itís part of me, just one part, but itís part of me, and I need to tell you. I hope, my biggest, most important hope, is that you can all accept me. Whether you can or canít, at least now you know.Ē
And I sit down. Iím calm. I did it, and Iím proud of that. It was hard, but I did it. I keep my eyes on my plate for a while. There is silence at first, but then people start talking again. I hear Jolanda, the youngest one there, say, ďWhat did Michael mean, Mommy?Ē and then people chuckling. Then everyone seems to be talking at once. Vinnie next to me grins and says, ďWay to go, Mike. That took guts.Ē
Aunt Rebecca says something to me, but I donít hear her. Iíve raised my eyes to look at my mom across the table from me. Her face shows some surprise, but then she smiles, even though thereís a worried look in her eyes. She says softly, but somehow so I can hear her, even with all the noise in the room, ďI think I knew. I think I always knew. I love you, Michael.Ē
It is difficult to see my father because he is down the table, towards Grandpa, on the same side I am on. I want desperately to see his face, but I canít.
Matthew and Patrick, my brothers are looking at me questioningly. Theyíre both old enough, at 14 and 12, to know what me saying Iím gay means. I can see from the looks on their faces weíre going to have to spend some time at home talking about this. Neither one looks disgusted or grossed out at all. Theyíll be fine. My sister Susan is 18 and sitting next to Uncle Sal. She has very little expression on her face, but sheís always been there for me, and that wonít change now.
The noise is getting louder, everyone seeming to speak at once, when suddenly it is quiet. I look up and Grandpa is standing up again. When Grandpa stands up, everyone always hushes, and they do now.
Grandpa looks around the room, then looks right at me. ďMichael,Ē he says, ďthat took great courage. Thank you for telling us. Weíre all family here, and in this family, everyone cares for everyone else. No one will have a problem with what you said here. No one does, do they?Ē And he looks around the table again. No one speaks.
Then Grandpa comes down the table to me and takes me in his arms and hugs me. He is followed by my father and mother. They hug me, too. Then we all go back and continue eating. I have a much better appetite now. Much better.
When Iím just chewing my first bite, I hear a voice and look up to see my father standing at his place. He speaks loudly, saying, ďEveryone, could I say something?Ē and they hear him and quiet down.
ďEveryone, I need to say what Iím thankful for.
Now more than ever, I need to say this. Iím thankful for a fine family, and
especially for a wonderful oldest son who has courage and a kind heart and a
great mind and knows the meaning of the word family.
We walked into Grandpaís house and smelled the wonderful odors of cooking, the aroma of roasting turkey of course overwhelming all else and instantly making me a bit queasy. My stomach was already in knots, and the smell of cooking turkey was a bit too much.
I had to go greet Grandpa first. Donít do that and your friendly Italian parents have a way of becoming something that would could scare dedicated terrorists back into their hidey holes and make them want to take up macrame or line dancing or something.
He was in the living room, on his favorite chair, a large chair that Iíd thought looked like a throne when Iíd been little, a chair only Grandpa sat in. He was talking to Uncle Sal and Uncle John when I walked in; he spotted me right away, I could tell from a brief glance he threw in my direction, but he didnít acknowledge me at all. He was listening to Sal talk about monthly sales figures. I walked over to stand and wait till I could say hello. After a few minutes, he finally waved a hand at Sal, who could talk all night if you gave him the chance, and looked up at me and reached out and touched my arm. Iíd have preferred a hug, but he didnít do that; you didnít, either, with Grandpa. I loved my Grandpa, maybe I guess, but was leery around him, too. To tell the truth, he inspired much more fear than he did respect, and more respect than he did love. Heíd been a powerful man in his time, still was in fact even though heíd retired, and most everyone was a little intimidated in his presence. He carried himself in such a way that he was just a little scary. Especially to us kids. Adults seemed to tiptoe cautiously around him, too.
ďHi, Grandpa,Ē I said, smelling the scent of pipe tobacco and whiskey. He told me once he was trying to quit both, but it was a lie. I think the only reason he said it then was because Grandma could overhear him. He said it for her benefit, probably to get her off his back.
He was a short man with thick white hair and piercing eyes that made you think he knew exactly what you were thinking and sometimes creeped you out, making you feel guilty even if you werenít.
He looked into my eyes now, then
frowned and his look became stern. ďMichael, what is it. Somethingís bothering
you. Anything I should know about?Ē The way he said it, it felt like he meant,
ĎThereíd better not be anything I should know about!í
Grandpa was like that. I could never get away with anything with him. He had this uncanny ability to read me like a book. I always thought he could look inside me and see all the bad stuff in there, the stuff I wasnít proud of, right from when I was just a little kid. I donít think that way so much any more, I knew he didnít know my secret, but I still thought he had insights into me that not even my parents did, and I was always both careful and cautious around him because of that. He seemed to watch me like a hawk, closer than he did his other grandkids. Maybe we all thought that. Iíd never asked any of the others about that. Somehow, you just didnít. He just had a way of making us all think we were being watched especially, and we all felt his presence and were on our best behavior around him.
What heíd think, what heíd say, after I told everyone what I had to tell them was one of the things I was most worried about, maybe even more than what my parents might say. They had to love me, didnít they? I was their oldest son. I think they had to. They didnít make me nervous like Grandpa did. I had no idea how he would react. I was going to tell everyone anyway, however. I was. It was time for me to do this.
After saying hello to everyone in the living room, I went to the kitchen and found Grandma. Where else would she be? I hugged her, she sort of distractedly hugged me back with only one arm and told me to go somewhere else, it was already too crowded in there. Sheís not really as cold or dismissive as that may sound, written like that, but when sheís busy cooking you donít want to interrupt her with anything as trivial as just saying hello. She jabbed me in the ribs to get me moving, so I left. Quickly. One jab like that is enough.
I went into the family room where all the kids were. It was pretty noisy. Jacob was being held down on the floor by Anthony, which happened too frequently when they were together and unsupervised. Jacob was a year younger than Anthony and nowhere near as big. He was a brave, determined and self-possessed kid, however, and did his best against his bigger cousin, but where Anthony thought it was funny to attack him, I could see Jacob hated it. He never said anything to anyone, though. I started walking in that direction, planning to play the peacemaker as usual and peel Anthony off him.
Thatís when Vinnie, Anthonyís older brother and Uncle Dinoís second oldest son, came in. He saw me and as he walked by, hit me in the shoulder, hard, and said, ďHey, howís the faggot these days?Ē Then he laughed his irritating, challenging laugh.
Me and Vinnie donít get along. We never have, really, but itís been worse since one day when we were eleven and my mom was babysitting him. Heíd ended up with me alone in my room and had started talking to me about beating off. I didnít know anything about it, and he ended up showing me how, on me. Then he insisted I do it to him. I didnít want to. I donít know why, I found the whole thing exciting, but I didnít want to do that. Even then, I was a little scared of Vinnie and didnít like him very much and had no desire to do anything like that with him. He grabbed me, pushed me down, and said heíd beat me up if I didnít. He was always bigger than I was and a lot rougher. Iíve always been a quiet, maybe you could even say timid, unassertive sort of kid. I refused to do what he wanted me to, and he punched me. I yelled out. My mother was already on her way upstairs with a load of clean laundry. She heard my cry, rushed into my room, and there was Vinnie on top of me, both of us with our pants down, me crying.
He took one look at her and, yanking his pants up, jumped off me and took off running, past her and out the bedroom door. She just glanced at me and took off after him. I got dressed.
Vinnie got in a lot of trouble for that, and from then on, he hated me. He somehow thought that me yelling when he hit me and so him getting caught was all my fault. I think Uncle Dino might have beaten him pretty good for what heíd done because he wasnít at school that week. Iíd talked some to Anthony, and he said yeah, their father beat them if they stepped out of line. That might have been why both boys played so rough, I donít know, but I spent as little time as I could with either of them.
Vinnieís greeting to me that Thanksgiving was about what was usual for him. If no adults were around, I usually ended up getting hit or kicked or pinched or something. I always berated myself for not fighting back or standing up for myself, but he was bigger than I was, and Iíd only have got hurt worse next time.
After hitting me and watching me wince and grab my shoulder, Vinnie laughed and walked over to where the younger kids were playing Monopoly and started messing up their game, taking deeds from one player and giving them to another, moving the pieces to different squares, generally making an ass of himself. When they started yelling at him, he laughed and started singing to the song on the CD player, adding as many dirty lyrics as he could think of. He finally got tired of that because no one was paying attention, and after being ignored by the older kids who were talking together, just plopped himself down to watch the football game.
I rescued Jacob, and Anthony went to watch the TV too, but didnít sit close to his brother.
A few minutes later, we were all told to wash up and make our way downstairs and find our seats. There was a mad dash for the three downstairs bathrooms. I guess everyone else was looking forward to eating a lot more than I was.
My stomach felt like the last thing it needed in it was food. The thought of food was almost nauseating. I was so nervous, now that the time was closing in on me, I wasnít sure I could walk down those stairs. I tried to buck up my courage. Over and over I told myself, I am going to do this. I told that to most of myself. A little part of me I didnít bother to tell. That was the part that wanted to go back home and go to bed.
My stomach was tied up in knots, and I felt ill. Could I really do this?
The room had been decorated in a Thanksgiving theme. The table looked fantastic with fancy silverware along with crystal goblets and good china, and you knew a lot of work had gone into all this. Unfortunately, the table was also piled high with food, lots and lots of food, and it made me feel even sicker just looking at it. I could see hunger in all the other kidsí eyes. I wasnít hungry at all. Just scared. The sight of all that food, the smell of it even, didnít help my stomach one bit. Donít get sick, I told myself; you can get through this. I almost believed me. My stomach didnít seem to be hearing too well today, though.
Everyone got seated except some of the women who were still bringing hot dishes to the table. Mom was pouring wine, and all the kids except the very little ones got at least a small glass. Hey, weíre Italian. We make as much wine as the French do. Iíd been drinking a little wine at occasions like this for years. Okay, maybe theyíd added some water to mine, but Iíd still been drinking it.
Grandpa was at the head of the table, of course, right where he could have us all under his gaze, where he was completely in control of everything, just as he liked it. He said grace. As usual, he went on and on, a special Thanksgiving grace that took him forever. The little kids were really fidgeting by the time he got done. I think he liked that, drew it out on purpose. Usually when he did this, I worried all the food would be cold by the time he finished. I didnít worry about that today. I tried as hard as I could not even to think about food. As far as the fidgeting goes, though, the little kids werenít the only ones doing that. Truth be told, I was too. I wanted this done and over with.
For some reason, theyíd put me next to Vinnie. We had to hold hands for grace, and he tried to squeeze mine so it would hurt. Iíd been ready for that, and when we took each otherís hand, I only gave him my fingers. No matter how hard he squeezed, they just folded up together and he couldnít hurt them. He tried, but he couldnít.
After grace, both turkeys were carved and plates passed. Weíd just started eating when Grandpa said we were going to tell what we were thankful for like we did every year. This was it. This was when I was going to tell. Iíd only had a couple nibbles up to now, I was just picking at my food, really, hardly eating anything at all; I wasnít feeling the least bit well, my heart was beating triple time, and now those few nibbles I had had seemed more and more like theyíd taken a mind to back up on me.
Like he always did, Grandpa started with the person next to him, Adele. Theyíd have to go all the way down one side of the table and a third of the way back up again before they got to me. Thatís a long time to suffer.
And I did. I suffered. I wanted to get it over, and at the same time, I didnít want them ever to come to me and prayed for a nuclear attack or something like that to intervene. I sweated it out. Every new person to speak was one person closer to me. I think I was getting pale. I was feeling a little light-headed, and quite easily could have upchucked all over the table. Please, not that, I begged.
When it was Vinnieís turn, he stood up, said, ďIím thankful for all this food,Ē and sat back down. Real insightful, Vinnie, I thought, but then, that was about par for the course for him. No one said anything. They knew him as well as I did, and not much was expected of him. Uncle Dino was the largest of Grandpaís boys and it was apparent even to me he was the dimmest. His kids were all large too, and unfortunately had inherited his brains. Vinnie had meanness in him, though, and I never saw that in Uncle Dino. Uncle Dino might not have been real smart, but he was good-natured. Unless he was beating his boys, I guess, but I never saw that, and in my opinion, he didnít beat Vinnie nearly enough.
Vinnie sat down and my turn had come. Feeling distinctly ill and not ready for this, though Iíd been waiting for it for what seemed like forever, I pushed back from the table and stood up, almost shaking. I had to do this. I wanted to do this. I was going to do this. I just hoped I could control my voice.
I began. ďI have something to say. This is difficult for me. Iím gay.Ē
And I sat down. I almost fell down, really. Iíd meant to say more. But I couldnít. So I sat down. Then I started shaking. I kept my eyes on my plate. There was silence in the room, then Jolanda, the youngest one there, said, ďWhatís gay, Mommy?Ē
And that broke the silence. There was general pandemonium, and Vinnie, next to me, said loudly, ďJesus Christ, you really are a faggot, a fucking faggot,Ē and hit me in the shoulder again. The same shoulder. Hard.
He hit me in the exact place heíd hit me before, and the sudden pain was so sharp it brought tears to my eyes. Oh no, I thought. Not now, I thought. Everyone will see them and get the wrong idea. Please, not now. But the words didnít help. The tears were there.
Aunt Rebecca said something to me, but I didnít hear her. I was looking at my mom. Mom was across the table from me and was looking shocked, like she just had been hit by an axe handle or something. He mouth was open and moving, but she wasnít saying anything. Her eyes were open wide, and a stray thought occurred to me: is she still breathing? Then I saw tears form in her eyes, my heart lurched in my chest and I had to look away.
I couldnít see my father at all, but I could hear him. I heard a bellow, then saw him stand up. I saw Grandpaís hand reach out and grab his arm, and they started arguing. There was too much noise from everyone else for me to hear what either of them was saying.
I could see Matthew and Patrick, my brothers, who were both seated across from me, separate and both a ways apart but both in clear view. They looked at me like I was some new species of especially peculiar bug they had for a brother, something theyíd never realized before. Matthew was 14 and Patrick was 12. They certainly knew what I was talking about; they just didnít know what to make of it, how to react. Susan was 18 and sitting next to Uncle Sal. She has very little expression on her face, but what was there looked, I donít know, sad, I guess. I hoped it was sad and not disappointed. They look quite the same. Whichever it was, it made me feel even more like crying. My tears began to come. I couldnít hold them back.
The noise was getting louder, I was getting really panicky and it felt like I was going to hyperventilate, I was sure I was going to cry in front of everyone, and then, suddenly, it was quiet. Iíd been looking at my plate again when the noise stopped, and I wiped my eyes and hesitantly looked up, not knowing what to expect. Grandpa was standing up again, a furious look on his face, and that look had stopped everybody. Now he looked at me and said, ďMichael, come with me. You too, Peppi.Ē My fatherís name was Pietro, but Grandpa always called him Peppi.
Grandpa got up and walked to the stairs and on up. I got to my feet, feeling entirely numb. It was as though I couldnít feel or hear anything. I was sure everyone was looking at me and I felt like something in the zoo. I pushed that from my mind and just focused on the stairs, walked to them and on up, sort of on autopilot. Whether the people at the table had resumed talking or were silent, I had no idea.
Grandpa was at the top of the stairs and took me to his study. Dad was following us. He came in and Grandpa shut the door.
ďWeíll sit on the couch, Michael. Peppi, take that chair.Ē When Grandpa went into his boss mode, no one ever argued with him. He had a manner that just told you not to. No one ever did.
Grandpa sat down. I was scared to sit next to him, I didnít know what heíd do, but he pointed at the cushion and I didnít have any choice. I sat down next to him.
His eyes, when I had the courage to glance at them before dropping them to my lap, gave me no encouragement.
I was rapidly reassessing my position. Iíd been so sure my parents would accept this. My fatherís sudden leap up from the table, my mother looking like sheíd been poleaxedómaybe Iíd been wrong. If so, what could I do? If Iíd been scared before, I was terrified now. It suddenly dawned on me, we were Catholics. Grandpa was especially Catholic. He went to mass all the time. Catholics donít look kindly and forgivingly on homosexuals, do they? Great time to think of this, now.
No one was talking. My father finally broke the ice.
ďMichael, how could you say that? What, that was supposed to be some crazy joke? At that table, with everyone there? Youíre going to have to apologize to everyone, especially Ma. Youíve ruined her big day. Weíre going to have to talk about this at home. You know I donít believe in acting like Dino does, but this, this, I donít know. This is bad. Why did you do that? Answer me!Ē
I couldnít speak. My eyes started watering again. Iíd gone through all this, I really gone through with it, and I saw now, he not only could not accept what Iíd said, he didnít even believe it. What was I supposed to do now, try to prove to him I wasnít making a joke? Somehow prove to him that I really was gay?
I looked at him with my eyes blurring, then switched them to Grandpa, who hadnít said a word. I looked at him, and was shocked. I was expecting to see the same anger, the same lack of understanding, I saw in my fatherís. Instead, I saw something I never, ever expected. Through my tears, I saw compassion.
He simply looked at me for a few moments, then turned his gaze to my father. ďPeppi,Ē he said, his voice soft, ďIím going to talk to Michael for a while. Why donít you go back downstairs? Eat your meal. Iíll call you when Iím ready for you. When I do, bring Mary, too.Ē
My father started to reply, but my Grandpa was used to being obeyed, and he did something with his eyes, and said just one word, ďPlease?Ē but the tone of that word wasnít the soft tone heíd just used, there was a challenge in it, and my father closed his mouth, stood up and left. A lifetime of obeying his father without question had a lot to do with that.
Then my Grandpa stood up and reached his arms out for me, and I stood too. He hugged me. It was a gentle, grandfatherly hug, something I didnít remember ever getting from him before this, and I almost melted, I needed it so badly. I couldnít help it. I started crying, then cried and cried. He moved me back to the couch and we sat down, but he never let go of me.
With my head against his chest, I could feel his voice as well as hear it when he started speaking. ďMichael, Iíve watched you grow up, like Iíve watched all you kids. Iíve been wondering about you. My cousin Marco, when we were your age, was just like you. He looked like you, too. Really handsome, almost too handsome, almost pretty. Dark hair and eyes. And he was quiet, too. Very thoughtful. He and I were close and talked a lot, and he told me what it was like for him, how it was being a homosexual. We were both 16. They didnít have the word ďgayĒ then. And back then, being a homosexual was a very bad thing. Except Marco wasnít bad. He was my cousin, and my best friend, and I loved him. Not that way, but I loved him. We grew up always at each otherís sides, we had a special bond. We were closer than brothers, really.
ďHe first told me when we were ten he thought he was different. I tried to understand, but at that time, I didnít. By the time we were 16, I did understand, and protected him as well as I could. It had to be a secret. For Italians, you just couldnít be homosexual. So we kept it a secret.
ďBut when we were 16, he started telling me he didnít want to live a lie, he wanted to tell his family. I imagine thatís what youíve been feeling, why you did what you did today. Is that right?Ē
My head was still against his chest. I nodded. I didnít trust my voice.
I could hear the smile in his voice when he continued. ďI think itís the age. Kids your age start to feel independent, start to want to stand on their own feet. He had this need to tell people, just like you did. Not every kid is that way, but I guess some of you are. Some keep it in, ignore it or hide it, and some, like you, just canít. Some of you have the will and the courage to say it, itís that important to you. He was like that. You are, too.Ē
He stopped speaking, and finally I looked up at him. His eyes were far away.
I could hardly speak, but I had to. ďGrandpa? You donít mind, about me, I mean?Ē My voice shook. I was still scared, but was calming down. His arms being around me made all the difference.
ďNo, I donít mind. What if I did, it wouldnít change anything, would it? You are who you are, Michael, and I love you for who you are. And I think you might be the best of us. You and Jacob are the only ones who seem to think about things. You and him, youíre both special.Ē
I didnít answer, but I did wriggle into him a little closer. I was 16. At that age youíre not supposed to need hugs. But I was learning all about a Grandpa Iíd never really known. Iíd respected him, Iíd been a little scared of him. Iíd told myself I loved him. I donít think I really had till now.
ďMy dad, Grandpa. Heís seemed, well, I donít think he believed me.Ē
ďPeppiís a good man, but a little old fashioned. You know him. He needs time to think about this. This was a shock, how you told him. Heíll come around to this. So will your mother. Itís just a surprise. They both love you. You could have done this a little easier, you know. Telling them in front of everyone, well, I think I know why you did it, but telling your parents in private might have made it easier on them, and on you, too.Ē
He smiled at me, and even feeling like I did, I couldnít help smiling back, even if it was a little sheepishly. I realized Iíd only been thinking about how this would affect me when Iíd made the decision to tell everyone at dinner today. I hadnít given my parents much thought, other than taking them for granted.
My grandfather hugged me a little tighter for a moment, then let go and stood up. ďIím going to get your parents now. We all need to talk. Wait here, Iíll be right back.Ē
He brought them back, and we talked. They were sort of stunned by the news, but it was already sinking in, and Grandpa was great. He just kept everything calm. I could see that the way he was accepting me was making a difference in the way they were thinking about it.
They were going to need some time to get used to this, I could see. Neither of them was happy. But they werenít going to stop loving me, either. Mom made that clear as soon as she walked into the room. She hugged me. Dad watched for a moment, confusion in his eyes, then he walked over and joined the hug, tentatively. I felt a lot of tension Iíd had in me slip away when he did that. This was all going to be all right.
At last we went back downstairs, where we found everyone was eating dessert and drinking coffee. The younger kids were all back upstairs, watching TV or playing together. Vinnie was still at the table, along with Susan.
I walked over and hugged her, and she hugged me back, and whispered in my ear, ďThat took guts, kid. Weíll talk later.Ē She smiled at me, and I smiled back. We were best friends. Always had been. Weíd always talked. A little thing like being gay wasnít going to change things between us.
I didnít want to sit down next to Vinnie, but I did. As soon as I did, he started talking. ďHey, itís the faggot,Ē he said, and that was all he said. There was a loud BANG, and we both jerked our heads up. Grandpa was standing at his place and had just slapped the table, really hard. He said only one word, ďDino,Ē but the anger rang out when he said it, and suddenly Uncle Dino was on his feet and coming for Vinnie. He grabbed him and hauled him out of his chair. With one hand on the back of his neck, he escorted him to the stairs and on up. Then I heard the door slam shut and a car start.
I didnít see Vinnie for a few weeks after that, not till Christmas dinner, again at Grandpaís house. Vinnie wasnít at school. I found out from Anthony that Vinnie and Uncle Dino had really gotten into it at home that night, Vinnie had been defiant and it had ended up pretty violent. Uncle Dino was a lot bigger than Vinnie, but Vinnie was large himself and they both had tempers and theyíd come to blows. In the end, Uncle Dino had sent him away to a boarding school. I found out later it wasnít just a boarding school, that in fact it was a military school. I did see him at Christmastime, briefly. His hair was about a quarter of an inch long and he was standing up a lot straighter than he had been. He was thinner, and his cheeks had a sort of hollow look to them. He looked right through me when we passed each other in Grandpaís house. He didnít say a word to me. Which was fine with me. The vacant look I saw in his eyes stuck with me a while, though.
Things are working out pretty well. Because of Grandpa, my parents came around real fast. I know my mom isnít really happy with it yet, but sheís a mom, and she loves her kids, and sheís adjusting. My dad is taking longer, but I havenít seen any of the anger he felt when I first made my speech. I think that was shock more than anything else. I make it a point to talk to him every day, and heís back to acting just the same as he did before this. He isnít uncomfortable around me at all. I think as more time passes, this will just be another thing about our family, not an important one, just another thing that is different about us, like having only two kids and them being almost five years apart in age is different about Uncle Johnís family. Grandpa has accepted me, and to my father, thatís major. I just feel weíre going to be okay.
Now that theyíre used to it, my brothers arenít bothered by what I said at all. Patrick thinks itís funny. Matthew has a lot of questions and the time I spend with him answering them has resulted in us now being closer than we ever were before, and I like that a lot. Heíd been closer to Patrick before, probably because I was so quiet all the time. Now, he makes it a point to talk to me, and weíre more like the brothers Iíd always wished we could be. Heís a lot different than I thought. Thereís a lot going on inside him that I simply didnít realize. I donít think I was paying enough attention, to tell the truth. I like him a whole lot more now than I used to. Iím hoping that Grandpa will see what I see now in Matthew and think heís special, too.
School isnít the problem I thought it would be. Iíd been frightened, quite a bit, really, but Iíve found out it isnít like I expected. I knew once I told my family, my school would know right away. All my cousins my age go to the same school, St. Joseph High School. There was no way it would stay a secret.
This isnít 1980 any longer. Things are different now, and a lot of what went on back then isnít tolerated at schools any longer. I donít know if itís the lawsuits or the school shootings or something else entirely, but things are a lot different from what Iíve heard and read they used to be. Kids learn in sex ed about gay kids, a lot of schools have clubs for kids like me, and other kids arenít so frightened by us like I guess they used to be.
I hear some comments, of course, and a couple jocks look at me like theyíd like to rearrange my face, but that isnít so much, really. I can live with that. Just counting my family alone, I have a lot of backup at that school.
So Iím dealing with it all. Even though right at first it seemed Iíd made a huge mistake, itís all worked out. Everyone knows about me now, and I feel really proud of myself for having had the guts to do what I did, even if at the time it looked like it was going to be a disaster.
Oh, and Grandpa? Weíre really close now. I love that man. I asked him what happened to his cousin Marco and he told me when I was ready, heíd tell me. Weíre going to go to the Yankee game next week. He got us box seats, some of the best in the stadium. He even said we might get to go into the clubhouse afterwards, he knows someone.
Heís Italian. Knowing someone is what we are.