Life at the HOUSE of JOES - or - When it Comes to In-laws, Sometimes Divorce is the Only Way Out - 15
During the year following Joey’s stent placement surgery, we scraped and saved every penny we could. Joey worked part time at a sign shop and I had a full-time job to make sure we had adequate health insurance, for obvious reasons. Although I had come to accept the fact that I was definitely the pragmatic one in the relationship, it sometimes felt as if I was the one who always had the job that offered medical benefits - benefits that Joey needed much more than I did at the time. Yet, he was always taking on art projects that didn’t pay a lot of money, and any discussion that steered him towards getting even a temporary job always ended abruptly.
Both Joey and I were college-educated, talented artists, but when I look back, it seems my career had never been the focus. Whenever Joey and I visited his parents, Derba and Big Joe would train their attention on their son, savoring every detail he shared with him on his latest gallery exhibition or mixed media creation. I often felt like an “also ran.” Joey was verbally supportive of me and praised my work, but I often felt empty inside when I stopped and looked at the way our lives were going.
All the more reason to get back to Italy! In Italy I felt a sense of parity that I did not enjoy when I was in New York and living less than five miles from the House of Joes. Because I spoke Italian and Joey did not, it gave me an advantage that I might not ordinarily have, and I liked that. I loved living on the mountain top with Cyril and his family and the odd assortment of characters they associated with. It made me feel alive! And it wasn’t just my dream – it was Joey’s, too. In fact it’s one of the things we had in common and something that had initially drawn us together.
I guess on some level one could make the case that we were running away. But as far as we were concerned, it was the thing that united us, something we could do together – our raison d’être.
It was early June and almost one year to the day Joey left the hospital. We boxed up the few things we had unpacked from our last trip, bought our plane tickets and went to spend our last week at Joey’s parents’ house. When we arrived, Lambchop and her husband Bill were there with their baby boy, JoJo, who was now walking and talking. God, was I grateful for that kid. Any time things started to get dicey with Derba or Big Joe, Joey or I would say, “Look how curly JoJo’s hair is!” or “Did you see the picture of the doggie that JoJo drew today?”
Since the family’s elderly cats had passed away, I had had no buffer. Now, whenever our visits overlapped with Lamilla and her family, I had JoJo. He was the only person who accepted me unconditionally – as soon as he saw me, his cute little baby face would erupt in a big smile. He’d burst into giggles and squirm out of Lamilla’s arms and come running, his chubby arms outstretched ready for a big hug. Just wait, I thought to myself. You’ll get over it – it’s only a matter of time.
The reason I had those thoughts about poor little JoJo losing his natural hugging instincts was based on my experience with Derba, Big Joe – and JoJo’s mother, Lamilla. Whenever Joey and I visited, there was an awkward ritual that always took place upon entry and exit. We always knocked – even if our visit was prearranged. It was usually Derba who threw open the door and squealed, “Oh, hi kids!” And Big Joe was just behind her, with a look of feigned surprise on his face. He gave Joey a short hug and a slap and said, “Hello, Son.” If Big Joe and I were on speaking terms at the moment, I would also get a brief embrace. Then Derba would chirp nervously, “Do you want to come and sit inside?” “Inside” meant the living room. We knew better than to arrive during Gunsmoke or Little House on the Prairie – that was not even an option. And when Joey and I stayed with them for a few weeks the last time we went to Italy, it was not unusual for one of us to come downstairs late at night and see Big Joe sitting in the blue glow of the television, eyes fixed on the screen.
Sometimes, usually after a particularly uncomfortable session at The House of Joes, I would find myself obsessing about Joey’s family. I was always trying to figure out what made them tick. On one hand, you had Big Joe, a man from meager beginnings and a second-generation immigrant whose parents had no more than an 8th grade education. He had made his own way in the world, doggedly pursuing a business degree and rising to middle management, where he stayed until retirement. A good living, to be sure, but nothing that would ever set the world on fire. Big Joe admired white collar work, and held those who were not in the “mainstream” in low regard; especially artists and musicians. His daughter, Lamilla, shared Big Joe’s disdain towards creative types.
Then there was Derba, whose background I’ve detailed in previous chapters. Her mother abandoned her when she was five years old, and, like Big Joe, had come from a poor family and grew up during The Great Depression. Derba had the basic script of her life memorized by the time she was twelve years old, and the fact that it had all come true in her mind was a testimony to the power of her own imagination. “I’m going to marry a man who goes to work in a suit, and have two children – a boy and a girl. And that’s exactly what happened!,” she often declared, especially when times were tough.
And Joey’s sister, Lamilla. In an earlier chapter I described the episode in which Lamilla went to sleepaway college. She did not even last one night before calling her parents to come pick her up. “Lambchop” modeled herself after Derba, and dreamed of the day when she would be able to inspire her own children, just as Derba had done for her and Joey.
The problem was that, in my opinion, there was little inspiration going on and a whole lot of forming and fashioning after Derba’s own image. And it was working, too. Lambchop grew up with the same dreams, the same aspirations, and the same goals of having two children – a girl and a boy – and that’s exactly what happened! Together they were a formidable force of “girl power,” sharing private jokes with each other and shrieking with glee at what they perceived to be the absurdities of life.
Joey, on the other hand, was proving to be a colossal disappointment to his parents - more so to Big Joe than to Derba. In fact, Derba had a tendency to be overprotective of her sensitive, artistic son, while Big Joe tried to rough him up at every opportunity – both emotionally and physically – by ambushing him with a punch in the arm, or calling him a sissy boy. The stress on Joey was enormous, and is what I believe to be the cause of many of his medical issues. The guilt that he felt was enormous, and he found it very difficult to stand up to Big Joe. Once, after Joey had undergone a medical test that had required him to be sedated, we stopped by Derba and Big Joe’s to tell them how everything had gone. Still experiencing the after-effects of the narcotics, Joey made an awkward attempt to express some of his feelings about his life and especially about his childhood. Derba and Big Joe sat in stunned silence while Joey went on and on about some of the times when he had felt that his parents had let him down. At the time I was sitting in a rocking chair across the room, cringing, trying desperately to signal Joey to stop talking. Joey’s eyes, however, were completely glazed over in a post-operative stupor, and he wasn’t picking up on my subtle cues. After Joey’s soliloquy, which lasted approximately fifteen minutes, Big Joe stood up and said, “I think you two had better leave now.”
But finally, here we were in the final week before we were to return to Italy. Just seven more days and we would be on a plane to Florence. Simply knowing that this was just around the corner only strengthened my resolve not to upset the apple cart – for one week I knew I could endure just about anything!
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