Tony turned 19 in April and met Jean in June. Nineteen is a difficult age for boys; or should that be men? Therein lies much of the difficulty.
Jean was just half a year older but she’d learned how to stand on her own two feet far better than Tony had. She’d had to. Living with his parents and four siblings Tony had never answered the phone only to have his father hiss, “Tell them I’m not home!” Jean had.
Jean learned early on that when creditors called “Chief” wasn’t home. When Chief’s cronies called they knew that if he wasn’t in the yellow colonial that they’d moved sixty miles north to from Queens a quarter century earlier that he could be found at Romans. It wasn’t just Chief’s friends who knew where Chief was; his wife did too.
Romans was a dive less than two miles from Chief’s house and they knew Chief well. Well enough to call when he was far into his drink. Jean was the fifth of six girls, “Number Five” Chief called her affectionately. Once they were old enough to drive all six daughters had shared the chore of driving down to Romans with the mother, pouring Chief into the back seat of the second car and then driving both cars home.
Romans called more frequently as the years went by. Greater frequency combined with daughters who flew the nest early in life meant that the job of getting Chief home safely fell on Jean, her little sister and Mom more and more often. When Jean left home to attend a SUNY two year college it was just Mom and little sister who acted as designated chauffeurs.
Jean received her Associate’s Degree while she was still nineteen and lined up her first job in her field of study before commencement. With high hopes and great expectations she moved to suburban Washington D.C. and began her training as a restaurant manager with the Marriott corporation. She was excited to be on her own, excited to put her education to work and excited to face the next phase of her life.
Tony worked in the restaurant where Jean received her training. When they met Tony figured she had to be a few years older than he but when he learned that she was just 19 he became interested in her.
Nineteen is a difficult age for boys. “Act like a man!” is both a spoken and unspoken edict that permeates the fabric of life and all too often becomes a smothering blanket when adolescence hits. Is a man kind or strong? Sexually faithful or does he play the field? Sensitive or stoic? A party animal or one who takes care of his body? These contradictory themes competed in Tony’s mind as he moved slowly from boyhood to becoming an adult.
Tony must have had something going for him because when he finally got up the nerve to ask Jean out she said yes. They had only been on a few dates when Jean said, “My sister is getting married in September. Would you like to come to the wedding?” Was Jean someone to have and to hold or merely a passing distraction?
“Um, sure.” He knew that Jean had come from New York but was unsure of how serious their dating was and how much significance he should give the invitation. His ego stroked he smiled and said, “Why not?”
Jean turned twenty the week before her sister’s wedding and they celebrated by going out to dinner. Tony’s desires were drifting toward a more committed relationship but he was still on the fence. The mores of youth had a theme that Stephen Stills had expressed in song, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Pleasure for pleasure’s sake versus commitment is one of those nineteen year old’s conundrums.
As the wedding approached they worked a late shift together and then piled in the used Ford Grenada she’d purchased after graduation and drove all night from D.C. to Brewster. Once in Jean’s childhood home they collapsed in sleep.
When they awoke later that morning Tony met some of Jean’s family. They drove a few miles to the house where her eldest sister, a woman ten years older than Jean, lived with her husband and two children. The third child was due to be born in another month. Meeting the family was exciting. Jean had told Tony tidbits about the members of her family but hadn’t mentioned her father’s drinking. It was after three in the afternoon when Chief opened his case of Ballantine beer. By the time Tony went to bed the case was nearly empty. Chief was the only one in the house who drank Ballantine.
Tony thought of all these things as he partied into the night at his own son’s wedding thirty five years later. Kevin and Katie would turn twenty five at the end of the year and were starting a life of their own. Tony’s and Jean’s younger son Patrick was enjoying the reception in a manner most reminiscent of Chief, the grandfather Patrick had lost while still a young child.
He looked at Patrick and smiled. He loved his children, adored his wife but worried about the direction Patrick’s life was heading. Tony wished that Patrick could retain his boisterous spirit while successfully navigating the shoals of his life journey. He shook his head and thought of how many of Patrick’s aunts, uncles and cousins had been lost to drink. He longed for the magic words that would help him on his path to manhood.
“Act like a man!” is both a spoken and unspoken edict that permeates the fabric of life and all too often becomes a smothering blanket when adolescence hits. Is a man kind or strong? Sexually faithful or does he play the field? Sensitive or stoic? A party animal or one who takes care of his body? These contradictory themes competed in Tony’s mind as he moved slowly from boyhood to becoming an adult.