The great advantage of living in a large family is that early lesson of life's essential unfairness. - Nancy Mitford
I am eleven years old and just another of the eight Ciccone kids about to have dinner with our father and stepmother, Joan, in the harvest-yellow kitchen of our home on Oklahoma Avenue, Rochester, Michigan. We are squashed around the dark oak table -- just recently stripped and restored by Joan, and still stinking of varnish -- and we are happy because we know we are getting chicken tonight.
My four sisters are all wearing variations of maroon velvet dresses with white lace collars, all made by Joan from the same Butterick pattern. Madonna hates hers, but Joan has told her to "shut up and put it on" and has made her wear it anyway. Another night, Madonna might have run to our dad, and he'd probably have given in and let her wear something else, but tonight he was at a Knights of Columbus meeting and arrived home just in time for dinner.
As always -- not because we are poor, but because Joan is frugal -- she has only made two chickens to divide between the ten of us. I feel as if I've spent half my life fighting to get the breast, which I love, but failing, simply because I'm too slow off the mark and everyone else beats me to it. Tonight, though, I've made up my mind that I'll get the breast at last.
But before I can swing into action, it's my turn to say grace.
We all stand up and hold hands.
I take a deep breath. "Dear Lord, thank you for this beautiful day. Thank you for all my brothers and sisters."
My elder brother Marty, who has just been caught smoking in the basement and has been disciplined by my father, snickers.
My younger sister Melanie -- born with a silver streak on the left side of her hair, across her left eyebrow and left eyelash -- assumes I'm sincere and flashes me a tender, beatific smile.
My elder brother Anthony, who is coming down from a bad peyote trip and is still clutching Carlos Castaneda's Separate Reality, closes his eyes tightly.
My sister Paula, always the underdog, makes a face.
My baby half sister, Jennifer, gurgles.
My baby half brother, Mario, in his high chair, plays with his rattle.
My father and my stepmother exchange a quick approving glance.
My older sister Madonna lets out a loud, prolonged yawn.
I glare at her and go on.
"Thank you for Grandma Elsie and Grandma Michelina. Thank you for our father and for Joan. Thank you, dear Lord, for the food we are about to receive, and could I please have a chicken breast tonight?"
Everyone cracks up, even Madonna.
I strike out. I don't get the chicken breast. Not quick enough off the mark because I am still heartily laughing at my own witticism. Poetic justice, I suppose. But at least I don't go hungry -- because no matter how often my sister Madonna has portrayed herself as the quintessential Cinderella and insinuated that Joan was our wicked stepmother, Joan has never starved or mistreated us.
On the other hand, she doesn't believe in lavishing expensive food on us either. She always reserves any delicacies -- Greek olives, Italian salami, expensive cookies -- for her guests, whereas the kids' biggest treat is granola. Whenever Joan isn't around, no matter how much else we've eaten that day, just for the hell of it we sneak into the kitchen and pilfer a gourmet cookie earmarked for the guests.
One Saturday morning, when I am fifteen, she summons us all to what she terms "the Formal Dining Room." She has spent the last few months redecorating it, during which time we have been banned from going in there. I assume she is about to unveil her latest decorating feat to us. While my siblings aren't exactly clamoring to view the new and upgraded dining room, I, at least, am slightly curious about the results. I just hope that Joan doesn't expect me to applaud her efforts, because insincere applause isn't yet part of my repertoire. That will come later, on the many occasions when I sit through one of my sister's movie performances and don't want to hurt her feelings.
Consequently, I find it difficult to mask my reaction when we file into the Formal Dining Room. Moss-green shag carpet, strips of stained wood on the walls, tiles in between them that Joan describes as "antiqued," one of her favorite words. I know it's the seventies, but nonetheless, my design instincts have already begun to form and I am far from overwhelmed.
But Joan hasn't summoned us to the Formal Dining Room so we can admire her decorating prowess, but because one of us kids is in deep trouble. In Judge Dredd mode, she announces that the angel food cake she's only lately bought for coffee with her friends is missing, and she wants the culprit to come clean.
"You'll sit here all day, until someone confesses," she decrees. None of us says a word. She puts an Andy Williams album on the turntable. I think to myself, Torture by music? I fix my eyes on the Asian landscape -- a fall scene of junks sailing along a river -- that our father has brought back from his recent L.A. trip and mentally repaint it myself.
After an hour, Joan leaves the room. We sit around the table in silence, examining one another's sheepish faces, each of us secretly trying to guess the identity of the culprit. Although I don't openly accuse her, I mentally finger Madonna for the crime, simply because I know that although angel food cake tastes too bland for her, she may like the name. Besides, filching it would be another notch in the gun that -- figuratively speaking -- she has continually pointed in Joan's direction. Half an hour later, Joan returns and announces that a neighbor has come forward and says he witnessed the theft through our kitchen window. Moreover, he has identified the thief: me.
I am innocent, but have no way of proving it. Besides, my friends are waiting for me in our tree house. They've just received the latest Playboy in the mail, and I am dying to get out of the house and sneak a peek at it. So I confess to having stolen the angel food cake. I am duly punished for my transgression: grounded for a week, without any TV. Many years later, the true culprit is unmasked when Paula confesses that she took the angel food cake, but by then it was far too late, as I had long since been punished. My own fault, of course, for having confessed to something that I didn't do. The birth of a behavior pattern, I suppose, and a harbinger of things to come.
Since Joan married our father, one of the pleasanter rituals she's established is that each of us can select our own birthday cake. Madonna always picks strawberry shortcake. My choice is always pink-lemonade ice cream cake.
Soon after the angel food cake debacle, I am on tenterhooks as to whether Joan will still make me my favorite cake. To my relief, now that I have been punished for supposedly stealing and have paid the price for my crime, Joan has forgiven me. And I get my pink-lemonade ice cream birthday cake after all.
Making cakes is Joan's greatest culinary accomplishment. But in general, she was an abysmal cook back then. She makes Spanish rice, but forgets to put in the rice and often serves us a massive bowl of stew from the freezer and, with a self-satisfied smile, says, "I just cooked this fresh."
"Freezer fresh!" we all chant under our breaths, careful that our father doesn't hear us because we don't want to make him mad. He demands that we treat Joan with the highest respect and insists we call her Mom. All of us struggle with the respect mandate and, for many years, practically gag when we obey our father and address Joan as Mom.
My natural mother, who was named Madonna, died when I was just three years old. I have only one clear memory of her. I am running around the green-grass backyard of our small, single-level home on the wrong side of the railroad tracks and step on a bee. As I cry my eyes out, my mother gently places me on her knee and soothes the sting with ice. I feel safe, protected, and loved. For the rest of my life, I will yearn to recapture that same feeling, but will always fail.
The sad truth is that I was too young when my mother died to ever really know her. For me as a child, the only way in which she existed was through pictures. One of the many I loved was taken of her sitting astride a buffalo -- she is so vibrant, so charismatic, so alive, such a star. Looking at her then, I couldn't believe she was dead, that I would never see her again. Nor could I reconcile her joie de vivre with her extreme piety.
I only learned about my mother's intense religious devotion twenty years ago, when my father sent all of us a bundle of her love letters to him. She wrote those letters when my father was away in the air force, and he and my mother were courting.
I read just one of these romantic missives written by my mother. After reading it, I couldn't bring myself to read any more as I am not a very religious man, and the extremism of my mother's religious sentiments is difficult for me to grasp. Although her letter is loving and sweet, to me it seems a bit fanatical. All about how God is keeping her love for my father alive, God this and God that. I am unable to read any more because I have quite a different picture of my mother in my head and don't want to distort it.
My father sends Madonna copies of those same letters, and I imagine that she also reads them. Nonetheless, we never talk about the letters, or about our mother. We avoid even mentioning her name.
We Ciccones may be afraid to confront our emotions, but little else fazes us. After all, we have pioneer blood in our veins and are proud of it. In 1690, my maternal ancestors, the Fortins, fled France and sailed to Quebec, then a complete wilderness, and settled there. Quintessential pioneers, they wrested a life for themselves and their families out of that wilderness.
More than two hundred thirty-five years later, my grandmother Elsie Fortin, and my grandfather Willard Fortin, marry and honeymoon in splendor at the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan. Although Elsie will spend a lifetime denying it, the family tree confirms that sh...
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.