She was in her mid-20’s when she met him, long past the age that her cousins and girlfriends had married and there was something knowing in the way that she carried herself that said she was no longer a virgin. She had red, Rita Hayworth hair and the low, sultry voice you got from too many cigarettes. Her roman nose was too arched for real beauty and her almond-shaped eyes had a yellowish glint that gave her small face a feline look. Her name was Jacqueline but she was called Jackie and worked as a beautician in an Italian beauty shop on the wrong side of the wrong town.
He was the youngest of four children and the only son in a first-generation Italian family. His mother and father were immigrant peasants who never learned to read or write. He had been drafted into the Second World War but due to the incessant prayers of his three sisters and mother had emerged unscathed from the conflict. Upon returning to the States, he got a job in the local steel mill and found girl friend at a local dance hall. But his strong-willed mother did not want a non-Italian, non-Catholic, daughter-in-law and eventually exerted enough pressure to wear down the young soldier as the war had never done. Finally, he relinquished his love and set out to find the kind of wife his mother expected.
Because Jackie fell in love with him right from the start, she never had a chance. She was the Rebound, the girl he got when he gave up the one he really wanted. And although she was Italian, it seemed her family was not from the right part of Italy. His family was from Roma whereas hers hailed from Calabria; and everyone knew they were the black Italians, crazy with their passions and jealousies and knives.
An uneasy truce was declared between the mutual families when the six bridesmaid-wedding was held. Jackie wore an ivory ensemble of satin and lace with hand-sewn pearls and a tiny turban-like hat. In the wedding picture, the groom looked a little drunk as his best man stood beside him. In the background, his mild-mannered father was wearing his only suit and his mother had a dark dress with big white flowers in honor of the festive occasion.
After a two-week honeymoon at Niagara Falls, Jackie and her new husband moved into the second floor apartment in the family home his mother has prepared for them. Within a month, Jackie and her mother-in-law were fighting and within a year, the first and only child was born, a son, who was, of course, named after his father.
Soon her husband began drinking more and staying out later and Jackie suspected he was seeing his old girlfriend again. The famous Calabrese temperament that had been sleeping appeared and soon Jackie was following him when he went out. She cried, she threw things, she begged him to stay home, she scratched him with her long, maroon, manicured, nails. His mother called her a witch and said she was killing her son.
After three years of marriage, they divorced. Jackie went into a deep depression and was institutionalized. It was the mid-1950’s, so they gave her shock treatments to snap her out of it. After a few months, she returned to work at the same beauty salon that she left years before to become a bride. There was a haunted look at the back of her yellow eyes and tightness in her curving lips.
He continued living at home in the upstairs apartment of his parent’s home. He went to work at the mill every day, drank too much every night and saw his son on weekends if the child support was paid up. Since he was Catholic, he could never marry again without being excommunicated so the nice girls wouldn’t date him.
Although I had known Jackie most of my life and had, in fact, attended her wedding as a toddler, I got to know her better in my early teens when she and my uncle finally remarried. This time they bought a house in another neighborhood several miles from the domineering mother-in-law and Jackie used the downstairs rumpus room, as it was called then, to set up an at-home beauty shop.
I used to go there for haircuts and perms and every once in a while Aunt Jackie would talk to me about how unhappy she was. “I hope you never learn what it’s like to love a man more than he loves you, Marie. It’s like always being hungry,” she said one day. “No matter what I do, he never wants me like I want him.”
The continual battles they had were common talk within the family and my uncle, although a nice man was, like his father, a born victim. Everyone felt sorry for him because of “that woman” while overlooking his steady drinking and lonely eyes.
I remember one day when I was about 14 my uncle asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said that if I hadn’t been a girl I would like to be an archeologist or an architect. He told me, “You do what you want. Don’t listen to nobody. Don’t let them take your dreams away.” He never identified “them” or talked about which dreams he had lost, so I was left to surmise.
Within the next few years, first Grandma and then Grandpa died. When Aunt Jackie didn’t attend Grandpa’s funeral because of a fight they had had that morning the shaky marriage was over. My uncle went back to living alone at the home he grew up in.
One Sunday morning about a year later my mother stopped by to see why he hadn’t answer the phone. She found him still in his pajamas, sitting on a kitchen chair, dead of a heart attack- or was it a broken heart – at 42. When a family friend was informed of his death, the immediate response was “Did he kill himself?” Meanwhile his sisters blamed the shrewish wife for driving the beloved brother to despair.
Jackie took his death real hard because now he was forever out of her reach and took more and more medication to battle her depression. The son who had been named after the father eventually grew up and had a child and a divorce of his own.
Over the years Aunt Jackie attended all of the family parties and weddings and faithfully gave my children birthday cards each year with a few dollars in them. On these occasions she would arrive stylish dressed with hair and makeup perfect. After exchanging some pleasantries she would sit quietly in the corner smoking one cigarette after another, becoming more and more withdrawn as the tranquillizers kicked in.
Aunt Jackie lived alone in a tiny subsidized apartment on the wrong side of the wrong town until one day her son found her in bed partly conscious and unwashed. After being hospitalized for several days, she was taken to a nursing home where she patiently waited for a few months before rejoining her long departed husband.
“For one man is my world of all the men
This wide world holds; O love, my world is you.”
Christina Rosetti, Come Back to Me