"I don't shake hands. I hug."
And with that, I stood in my driveway and a tall stranger wrapped me in his arms.
My mother had started dating Jack a few weeks prior. I had been away at school finishing my junior year. It had been a happy semester; I’d eaten lots of ramen noodles, I’d found a bar I could get into underage with my sister’s expired license, and I had been relatively faithful to my long-distance boyfriend. I lived each day pleasantly unaware that everything at home had already changed.
That summer I was a sleepaway camp counselor, and I called my house one morning to say hello to my mother. The machine picked up and Jack's booming voice informed me and anyone who called that my mother could be reached at his home in Smithtown from now on – and then he left her new phone number.
There are some incidents that just shriek of the abnormal, and that moment was one of them. I hung up the phone slowly and tried to steady myself, though inside I was raging. A few angry tears were falling down my cheeks as I stood sweating on the basketball court that separated the boys' side of camp from the girls'. That's when my boyfriend's eleven-year-old brother happened by on his way back from the go-cart track. Noticing my stricken expression, he asked me what had happened, and when I told him, Brett patted me on the shoulder and smiled at me. Then he
asked, almost too patiently, "Does this really surprise you?"
I guess sometimes it takes a tween's wisdom to bring you back to a reality you never played a hand in constructing. I was not surprised. My mother was entirely smitten with this man, and it had become everybody else's responsibility to simply catch up to her bliss and to not disrupt it in the process.
They were engaged by mid-autumn. I found out when I got back from my Feature and Magazine Writing class and I listened to my answering machine. They had left a message informing me of their upcoming nuptials by speaking loudly over each other on Jack's car phone.
I called them back later that day to say congratulations. At that point I didn't even bother to bring up whether they found it either normal or appropriate to leave me such a message. There was no reason to broach the subject; I wasn't in the top five of either of their priorities that winter -- and knowing that definitively didn't make the realization any easier to accept.
In December, they got married in the living room of Jack's house in Florida. I guessed it was my mother's house now too, which felt strange. The actual ceremony was just "the family," which meant it was me, my sister, Jack's two daughters from his first marriage, and his young son from his second marriage. As a wedding gift, all the kids sat for professional photographs that served as a piece of visual proof that we were, in fact, now a family. We wore matching jeans and denim shirts – that it was 1995 is still no excuse for the choice of outfit. We posed smiling, arms wrapped around one another, pretending that any of this made any kind of sense, pretending like we
actually knew one another.
The night of their wedding they had a big party at the house. It was catered. For the first time I tried something called a “sun dried tomato pate,” and, other than a frozen Yodel, it was the most delicious thing I had ever eaten in my life. The house was filled with people, many of whom I’d never met, and I watched my mother hugging and kissing all of them like she’d known them forever, like they knew even one of her deepest, darkest secrets. I’d watch her across the marble tiled room, and she looked like a stranger, albeit a very happy stranger. At the end of the night, my sister, my new stepsisters, and this young child that I was told was my new brother, went outside and taped a sign to the limo that drove my mom and Jack off to the hotel where they would spend their first night as a married couple.
“Third time’s the charm!” the sign proclaimed.
I didn’t go outside and I didn’t help tape the sign to the car’s back windows. I didn’t think any of this was funny. I didn’t find anything charming about my mother marrying a man I hardly knew. I didn’t like how he acted like he knew everything about her, and he would inform me about her qualities, like I hadn’t spent two decades with the woman while he had spent about two minutes with her. And I really didn’t like that, with this new little blonde boy they had full custody of as an addition to the insta-family, that I was no longer considered the youngest. To be told when you’re about to turn twenty-one that you are no longer the baby of the family, and, oh yeah, here’s three brand spanking new siblings and please act like you know each other? Total utter bullshit. I figured, though, that I’d try to keep my mouth shut and wait this union out, hoping that, if it imploded, it would happen while I was away. Having already been a spectator through two of them, I was really sick of divorce at that point in my life.
Implode? Never happened. In fact, my mother and Jack have now been married for almost twenty years. And today he is easily one of my favorite people in the whole wide world.
I wish I could pinpoint the moment when Jack and I became truly close, but I can’t do it. Our relationship evolved organically. We carved it, we nurtured it, and, at times, we fought for it. What made it take an upswing was something rather simple: each of us realized how smart and kind the other happened to be. I hadn’t immediately respected that intelligence within him because it had initially been overshadowed by how loud and chaotic moments with him often were. Every car ride turned into a hellish cacophony of noise: cell phones ringing, radar detectors buzzing, him speaking in a voice that was at least two octaves above any other human voice –and a teeth-clicking habit that I have never been able to accept, and I never ever will.
But I began to adore him. I found that, when we spoke, we never spoke superficially. I trusted him, so I’d speak openly and he would listen to what I said, and we would have complicated, in-depth discussions about life and personal beliefs and politics. I liked to call him on Sunday mornings after The McLaughlin Group. We would disagree over almost everything that had been discussed on the show, and I would ask him to explain his views and how they had been formulated and we’d discuss what I believed. We would vociferously disagree with one another for about an hour as I drank my second cup of Sunday morning coffee, then we’d say, “I love you,” and each of us would hang up happily.
It became common for me to leave him these kinds of voicemails: "Hi Jack! I want to talk to you about Benghazi. Love you!” And even though he has a busier schedule than any human being I know, he would call me back from the car to explain his views and ask me to explain my own. Then he’d arrive at a job site and say, “I have to go, sweetheart!” before he’d hang up the phone.
He took me to the first Yankee game of my life, and I went almost begrudgingly; baseball was soboring. But I was trying to make this new relationship I had found myself a part of work, and it was also pretty clear that my mother seemed to like me more when Jack liked me too. Plus, I’d heard I could get vanilla Carvel served to me in a plastic Yankee hat, and I would have gone much farther than an outer borough for something that yummy, especially if it came with different color sprinkles.
Before the game we ate at the Yankee Club. We rode up in a velvet-walled elevator that had a person inside whose job it was to push the button of the floor you wanted to go to. The maître d' greeted Jack by name and shook his hand and then he kissed my mother on the cheek. She’d already been to the Club many times.
It’s not like the Club’s menu was all that spectacular, but even I, not a baseball fan, realized that it was a big deal that I was eating a cheeseburger in the inner sanctum of that cathedral. I knew that not everybody was allowed entrance. I knew I had friends who would have given anything to be there, and I was very cognizant that I was very lucky. And several hours later, as I watched my first Yankee game ever, sitting on cushioned seats four rows behind the team’s dugout where waiters brought you water if you waved a menu into the air, and the Yankees won the World Series at the end of the night, I realized, utterly and completely, how fortunate I was to be having the experience.
Okay, so the first game I saw, the team won the biggest prize in baseball. Not much in baseball-land can beat that, but there’s another moment that will forever be tied as the greatest. We were eating at the Club one night, and it was the very end of the regular season. At the next table, where he always sat if he came in, was George Steinbrenner. He and Jack would shake hands hello, and I would feel proud of Jack when that happened, because he was a man who had been raised with nothing and he had built himself up to someone who sat in such close proximity that he was able to pass the salt to the owner of the most famous team in sports. On that illustrious evening, the television behind Steinbrenner’s table was on, as it often was, and I got to watch George Steinbrenner watch the Boston Red Sox lose the game that determined that they would not play the Yankees in the American League series. There was clapping and a look of pure joy and glee on this man’s face as he witnessed the nemesis team losing, and the whole dining room applauded.
“I will never forget this,” I said to Jack at exactly that moment. “I will never forget watching Steinbrenner's face as Boston lost. Thank you so much for bringing me here.”
“You’re welcome, sweetheart,” he answered, and I could tell that he knew how grateful I was.
When my sister had children, my parents began outfitting them in Yankee attire. It seemed that every time they visited their new grandchildren, they’d arrive with onesies with Mariano Rivera’s number, or a teeny tee with O’Neill’s name scrawled across the back. My sister appreciated the new stuff that constantly appeared, especially since hers were vomity children and they would spit up on any outfit quickly following a meal, so it was nice to have a seemingly never-ending supply of clothes to change them into. But my poor brother-in-law was a Mets fan, and one day I asked him if he minded that his kids were often dressed like they were Yankee ball boys.
“I die a little inside each time I pull his leg through the Jeter onesie,” Rich replied, and I knew he wasn’t joking.
The truth is, my mom and Jack would probably be happier if I end up with a woman who has been convicted of larceny than a male Mets fan. To this day, they believe my sister is embroiled in a mixed marriage.
My father, who passed away when I was young, had been a huge Yankee fan. I remember when Mickey Mantle was in the hospital, my dad wrote him a fan letter as a forty-five year old, wishing his forever-idol a speedy recovery. Mantle never wrote back, and I never forgave him for that, but when I went to Yankee games with my mother and Jack, I would think of how much it would have meant to my father to watch those games in those incredible seats. I would wear my silver locket with my father’s picture inside, and I would open the locket up so that he could watch the game with me, and even though I’m not so spiritual that I believe he could really watch from my locket, at the small chance that it was a possibility, I wanted him to enjoy himself. Often, my mom would lean over and she would ask, “Is Daddy watching?” and I would say yes, and she and Jack would smile at me.
On the way home we’d listen to Yankees Radio, starting from the moment we would fly into the car in the parking garage, in the spot he had illegally parked in after paying off the parking attendants, all so we could get out faster and onto the Deegan while more than half the stadium was still watching the team celebrate to the strains of
I’ve spent more time with Jack now part of my life than without him, and I hope that ration only continues to grow. I adore him. We call to check on one another all the time. I spent much of the winter calling him at night, when I knew he would be driving icy roads home from job sites, and I’d worry he’d be texting on the treacherous roads, and I’d keep him on the phone because I figured that would keep him from texting or shaving while driving during a storm.
We are very honest with one another, and, when I patiently told him that I had reached my limit and that I would not buy him any of Ann Coulter’s books for holidays in the future because she was a lunatic shrew whose last name was far too close to my own for comfort, he told me he understood – but he did ask for the new bestseller by Bill O’Reilly, which I purchased in tears. Last year for Father’s Day, I bought him a blueprint of the original Yankee Stadium, complete with the construction notes scrawled on the print, and the look on his face as he unrolled it was worth the trouble of procuring it in the first place.
“I couldn’t love anybody more,” he told me that day, and I knew that he was telling me the truth.
Look – he’s not perfect. The man has literally clicked his teeth down to little nubs, even after I have told him that each and every time he does it, it feels like I’m being punched in the face, even when I’m not in the same room or the same house as it’s happening.
As his hearing has gotten worse, both he and his television have gotten louder.
When Wookie stayed there once, he refused to let her sleep in their bed, and my mother, having returned beautifully to her strong self, took the dog and slept in the guest room.
The next morning over breakfast she turned to her husband with a raised eyebrow and said, “Wookie is the one who never left your side after your stent surgery. She brought her stuffed duck to the bed and sat with you for hours, making sure you were okay. And you deny her the right to sleep in our bed?”
Wookie slept between them that night, and when the thunder began, she moved to the top of Jack’s pillow and spent the remainder of the night sleeping on his head. The last time she stayed there, he woke my mother up during the night to get out of bed because he had to go to the bathroom and he didn’t want to disturb Wookie who was sleeping on his other side.
“That’s not really necessary,” I told him the next day when I came to pick her up. “You can feel free to disturb the dog instead of my mother who never sleeps through the night soundly.”
“But she looked so peaceful,” he said, smiling at the dog who, I swear, smiled back at him.
Then he turned on the TV and blasted the volume and yelled for my mother to please come sit next to him – and he held her hand and he kissed me goodbye, telling me that I looked beautiful and that he loved me so very much.