Mom and dad at my wedding -December 28, 1963
Young Frankie was laying in his bed, lightly dozing on a quiet Sunday morning, half awake while the other half of him still slept. His was in the older brother’s upper bunk, in the small bedroom shared with his younger bother Fredo, sound asleep in the lower bunk.
Frankie was ten years old in 1952, a skinny light weight with glasses, tousled brown hair and brown eyes that couldn’t see passed his nose without his specs.
It was going to be a nice lazy day, no school and no need to get out of bed before he felt like it. He fluffed up his pillow and remained curled up in that comfortable fetal position thinking to himself that he would lay here for another half hour.
Suddenly the tranquility of the morning was interrupted by a “thump, thump” which seemed to emanating from the kitchen just beyond the bedroom door.
Thump! Thump! Aargh! Thump!
Frankie, startled by the strange sounds and the voice, which could only be his dad’s, climbed quietly out of bed to find out what was going on. He careful used the ladder from the upper bunk rather than simply jumping to the floor us he usually did in order not to wake Fredo, who was still deep in the arms of Morpheus.
Taking his glasses from their case on the dresser and placing them on his nose he opened the bedroom door and stood frozen, a kid in his tightie-whities, a look of incomprehension and fear now on his ten year old face.
His dad, a mid-thirties muscled construction worker was laying on the kitchen floor, his body twitching, arms and legs moving uncontrolled, a puppet with tangled strings. His face a mask, eyes wide open staring as if at an unseen horror, groans emanating from an open mouth.
Momma was kneeling on the floor with him, holding his head in her aproned lap, lovingly caressing his face, then looking up around the kitchen, spying Frankie with his frightened look standing frozen in the bedroom doorway.
“Close the door Frankie and get me your father’s work gloves” she said calmly and looked over at the gloves on the kitchen counter by the apartment’s front door.
“Over thee! Go get one Frankie! Now!”
He moved to the counter and picked up dad’s work gloves and slowly approached his mom and his father, still moving his arms and legs uncontrollably, his heels occasionally kicking the linoleum floor – thump! thump!
He watched as momma took a glove from the now trembling, near crying boy and placed it in his father’s open mouth.
As she placed the glove between his teeth she whispered “There Danny! There, there Danny! I love you baby! Everything will be all right!”
“What’s the matter with daddy mom! What’s the matter! Is he going to die mommy? Is daddy going to die?” Frankie’s could no longer hold back his tears.
“No Frankie. Daddy is not going to die. Please don’t cry. Not right now. You and I will talk later. But no, daddy is not going to die!”
After a few minutes the tremors stopped, the face softened, the eyes began to show recognition. Momma helped daddy sit up on the floor. Daddy now had a somewhat dazed look on his face.
And then he saw Frankie, still somewhat terrified at what he had seen. And daddy began to cry.
Frankie had never seen his father cry.
“Go to your room and get dressed Frankie” his mother instructed out of earshot of his father. “Don’t wake your brother and say nothing about his …. to anyone! Do you understand? No one. Not your friends. Not in school. And not your brother! Do you understand? No one.”
Frankie nodded, went into his bedroom and quietly dressed into his usual summer outfit; shorts, a t-shirt and high tops. When he returned to the kitchen his dad was in the bathroom.Mom turned to Frankie and whispered “I want you to go with your father. Stay with him and don’t let him out of your sight! Take 5 dimes from the coin jar in case you need to call me. If you do, find a phone and call me. Do you know our phone number?”
“Yes mom. CL 6 – 0874. Where is dad going?”
“He’s going to see Aunt Connie.” Aunt Connie was dad’s older sister who lived about ten blocks away.
“After what you saw today happens, he always goes to his sister. It’s like a compulsion. He always goes there for awhile before returning home. I will call Aunt Connie and let her know you guys are on the way after you leave. I’m counting on you today to carry a man’s responsibility; Can you do that Frankie?”
“Yes mom” Frankie replied, shaking inside and not understanding what was going on. “We’ll talk tonight. I promise” replied. “I’ll explain everything. You’re a good boy.”
Dad came out of the bathroom, picked up his car keys and kissed mom. “Frankie’s going with you” she said firmly. Dad looked at her as if he was going to say something but then thought better of it. “Frankie is going with you.”
Dad and I left our apartment and went down to the street. It was still early and it was quiet. Dad had a 1932 black Plymouth coupe which he had completely restored. It was the shiniest car in the neighborhood. They got in the car as Frankie sat in the front passenger seat. They needed to go ten blocks. “Be careful dad.”
His father looked at him but didn’t speak as we drove the ten blocks to Aunt Connie’s apartment through the empty streets.
Aunt Connie knew why they were there. She kissed Frankie, hugged his dad, sat him in a cushy armchair in the living room and put on a pot of coffee. Aunt Connie was a woman of a certain age with a married daughter and a son serving on the battleship New Jersey off Korea. She worked at a quilting company in the old Bush Terminal Buildings on the Brooklyn waterfront while her husband Saverio, who we called Uncle Sam, worked for a toy manufacturer.
Aunt Connie looked at Frankie knowing what he was feeling. This was the first time he had seen it. “Would you like some chocolate milk Frank or are you now ready for your first cup of coffee?”
She called him Frank; from that day forward his parents would too.
“Do you know Martucci the druggist Frank?”
“Sure Aunt Connie. He’s right up the street from here.”
“Does he know you?”
“Yes he does. I’ve picked some pills there for dad now and then. The red and whites ones and the little white ones.”
“Good!” replied his Aunt. “I want you to go across the street and speak to Mr. Martucci. Only Mr. Martucci. Tell him your dad needs some of the red and white and the white pills.”
She handed little Frank a $5 bill. “Now you go ahead. And be careful crossing the street.”
A half hour later he was back with two bottles of pills and a $5.00 bill. “Mr. Martucci wouldn’t take the money” he exclaimed, handing it back to his Aunt.
Daddy took a pill from each bottle and after awhile we went home as if nothing had happened. Aunt Connie and daddy talked quietly for awhile before leaving.
Frank’s father was relatively quiet for several days, hesitating to talk to him. Frank got the feeling daaddy was ashamed that what had happened was seen by his son.
That night Frank’s mom explained it all.
Dad had epilepsy. As a child he had been hit by a car while riding his bike and suffered a head injury. What Frank had seen was a seizure which dad was finding difficult to control all of the time. He had to leave the 8th grade because of his seizures.
During the depression dad joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. There was no work for an Italian with an 8th grade education. It seemed like a good idea. He was sent to California to work at Yosemite – and then sent home after a seizure.
He was of course unfit for military service when war came. Frank had often wondered why his father wasn’t in the war – seemed that everyone’s father was in the war.
Epilepsy was something one never talked about in those days.
Ever. Thus mother’s warning to speak to no one of what had been seen.
The general attitude of people at the time was its hereditary – or worse – contagious ; it was associated with “feeble mindedness” and violence and many thought those with epilepsy needed to be institutionalized. Everyone with epilepsy feared the state health department. Aunt Connie in particular wouldn’t tolerate any talk of institutionalization in my grand parents house when dad was young. She and his brother Angelo were always hisdefenders.
Eugenics was all the rage in America. Many states would not permit those with epilepsy to marry. Missouri was the last to repeal this law in 1980! Forced sterilization of epileptics was legal in 18 states prior to 1956. Blood banks wouldn’t take your blood until 1987. Employers would fire you after the first seizure on the job. General practitioner physicians had little to offer you and patients were afraid they would be reported to the health department.
Martucci the druggist grew up with dad. The pills were Phenobarbital and Dilantin which he gave dad for free without prescription. Dad wouldn’t go to a local general practitioner who had nothin to offer him other than what he was taking and for fear of being reported to the health department.
When he finally was able to join the construction workers union he got medical insurance which allowed him to see a neurologist in the city. Frank was there for only one more seizure the remainder of dad’s life.
Were there others? Frank is sure there were – but Frank didn’t see them. Dad didn’t want his son to see.
Frank grew up a great deal that day and kept the secret.
It’s ok now. Dad is gone some 45 years.