Locust Valley Lockjaw

by James A. Avitabile

Thank God ‘Mama Don’ was in my life. He knew what I was going through with my mother. It was so different for him. His parents were Irish immigrants who never talked to each other. Sheila stayed at home while Pat delivered the mail. They then sat silently in overstuffed club chairs in their Bronx living room and read for hours. Words came from a page and not from their mouths. Donald was a good student so they let him do what he wanted.

I was a good student too but I couldn’t do what I wanted. I was the son of Italian immigrants. My mother had a tough time conceiving me. She suffered five miscarriages before I was born on Father’s Day. She held onto me tightly. She didn’t want to lose me as she had with the others. My father was hard of hearing and couldn’t read. My mother had to yell to get through to him. He worked hard as a hat cleaner. Until I was eight, my mother raised two children: my father and me. I didn’t think he was any different than other fathers until I went to school.

That’s when I saw how fathers took an active part in their children’s education but my father couldn’t. I dreaded Father’s Night when students honored their fathers. My father never attended. How could he? The fathers would find him strange. I was ashamed of what my schoolmates would think about me if they met him. My mother couldn’t accompany him to be his interpreter. She had to stay at home to take care of my baby sister who was eight years younger than I. I felt like an orphan on Father’s Night. When I was in the third grade I began to realize that he would always be in the background of my life. He deferred any arguments I had to ‘our’ mother for resolution. He was soft. She knew it and used it against us both.

“Daddy, mommy won’t let me go to the movies with Johnny. Can’t I go? Please, daddy, please?”
“What does mommy say? If mommy says no, then no.”
I loved him and hated him. He was my mother’s puppet. He couldn’t talk and he couldn’t teach. I began to search for that someone who could.

I met Mama Don as Donald the first week I got to Cornell. When I first met him he was dictating a recipe for sweet and sour meat loaf to an eager and plump female graduate student. “You’ll love it Peggy. I guarantee it.” That was the first hint for me that he might be a member of the ‘committee’. It was the 60’s and he was more comfortable in being accepted as a straight man. He locked his gay secret in a closet that only came out in the dark anonymous rambles of Central Park. I was more comfortable with who I was. I used my closets for clothes not secrets.

At first sight he was just a Black Irishman’s face in the crowd. Over six feet tall, he rose above it. His eyes were chards of gleaming obsidian and his skin the color and feel of kneaded semolina dough. His black kinky hair was cropped short and looked glued to his head. He wore second hand tweed jackets that were broken in but not broken down. He could hand knot a bowtie with studied imperfection to make it look like a hasty afterthought. He shed his unacceptable Bronx accent and eased into a ‘Locust Valley Lockjaw’ with its ponderously slow cadence and mumbled elision of words. Mama Don had given me a ‘stage name’ too.

“They don’t want ‘Bronx Irish’ Ceil, they want Wasp. Mama will teach you.”

He was a good teacher who made it a fun game. We laughed along the way. Gradually, I became fluent in this new acceptable language where I could even pronounce both t’s in bottle. My jaw wasn’t as ‘locked’ as his.

It was never sexual between us. He led and I wanted to follow. He was a ‘grounded’ gay man with goals. He was my pattern maker and not my missing father. In Ithaca he introduced me to buying Brooks Brothers at thrift shops and twenty-five cent sumptuous, homemade Saturday night church suppers where members of depleting congregations were trying to rebuild their flock by tempting us with delicious bait.

“How about seconds of that brisket and maybe another piece of apple pie or the cherry cobbler or both?” Unfortunately for them, they filled my stomach but not my soul.

At Cornell, we lived well with little money and a lot of imagination and had a lot of fun along the way. Through Mama Don, I became part of a family of gay men who were focused on making something of themselves. And during that summer of ’67, I migrated with him to a rental cottage in East Hampton: a place I had once thought I could never belong. Mama Don was there to dare me to let go of my insecurities and to accept that I was a hat cleaner’s son.

“You’re like Mama, Ceil. We did it. We came from there and we’re here now. Let it go!”

I did.

He died at 46. The fable was that he ate contaminated salad greens that grew in human feces on the slopes beneath the Parthenon.

Thank you, Dr. ‘O’ for encouraging me to apply for admission to the IRP Program. I dedicate this piece to you and ‘Mama’.