lucked out

stories of my father

fish and veal

page nine


dad didn’t get to do too many kid things as a kid, that’s why he was taking piano lessons in his forties. at least, from the small amount that he and my aunt franny ever talked about their childhood, it seems to have been bleak in some ways. there would have been no money for piano lessons, even if his parents had allowed their oldest child, and a boy, to do something “sissy” like play the piano.

was there ever any money in that family, that family I came from, for anything? the few stories seem to say there wasn’t. a story about stuffing newspapers into shoes and clothes to keep warm in winter. a story about my father having to go to work at ten, weekends and after school. the first job was taking care of the veal calves on a farm. another was on the gloucester fish piers.

prior to 2008, I thought this lack of money was due to the fact that my grandfather was a simple housepainter, an uneducated immigrant whose english wasn’t very good. work was sporadic. but now I know that he was a fairly skilled mafioso, and that he had another family back in greece, and that any money was being sent back to them. in my last conversation with aunt franny in january 2014, she told me one I’d never heard before. as a child she was hit by a bus or some kind of vehicle, and there was a settlement. I don’t remember the amount but it was a lot of money for the 1940’s, for a family that was always living hand-to-mouth. at the age of 84, franny was still bitter that she’d received not one penny of that money. I could hear it in her voice. I don’t blame her. the money was used for grampa to take a trip to crete, all alone, and to buy a half interest in a restaurant in new jersey. a man with five children and a wife living in poverty. or maybe there were only four children by then… maybe johnny, the youngest, was already dead.

this is what my father came from. a mafioso leading a life of crime who let his american children go hungry, a mother who was one of the coldest, most manipulative, most self-centered creatures I have ever known, and poverty. and perhaps there was physical abuse too. no one spoke of it much, but heavy dark undertones were certainly there.

after the veal calves, a little boy’s first job, dad could never eat veal again until he was in his sixties. these calves were treated so badly, and he cared about them so much, he was scarred for nearly his whole life. the fish piers had a similar effect. he said his mother wouldn’t let him into the house when he came back from the piers, he stunk so much. he had to stand in the porch and take off all of his clothes before he could go in. for many years the only fin fish dad would eat was batter-fried haddock on friday nights, when it was on sale because of the catholics. the haddock didn’t stink. I was a grown adult before he began very rarely trying any other fin fish, and even then he still had trouble with the smell. if my mother would fry the little smelts that she liked, dad would walk around the house opening the doors, spraying stuff, trying anything he could think of to get rid of the smell.

when he was fifteen, the mafia man was ejected from the household by grammy. we were never told why. don’t know what dad was doing for work at that time, but it wasn’t enough for four kids (by this time johnny was dead) and a mother who, as far as I know, never lifted a finger as a wage-earning person in her life. at seventeen he lied about his age and joined the army. it was 1943, there was a war on, and his father was gone. it was that very year that his father was being murdered over on crete, but supposedly my father’s family did not know this. he signed up partly because he hated school anyway. though extremely bright, dad never liked the regimentation of school life. and partly he did it out of patriotism, wanting to help with the war effort. but I think his biggest reason was the money. the army money was a fortune to a poor kid from the gloucester fish piers.

piano lessons weren’t the only thing he did in his forties. he got his GED too, with a very high score. I’d sit with him in his cellar office sometimes while he studied. he’d read me things out loud from the math, english and science books he’d bought to prepare for the test. youth truly is wasted on the young. if only I’d known how precious those moments in that cellar were going to become years down the road, how much more difficult things between my father and me were going to get, I would have paid more attention. sitting with him while he studied was one of the many things I did over the years to try to get him to value me, to think better of me than I thought he did. to try to be a good son. yes, I often tried to be a good son, because my brothers weren’t, and I wanted dad to love me as much as he loved them.

dead 16 years now, his sister franny dead just this past may, 2015. time never stops twisting me into knots. wasn’t it only very recently that I had to say: my father’s been dead for a year. I have no father in the world now. wasn’t that just a couple of years ago? how can it be that he is gone 16 years, that I haven’t heard his voice for 16 years and will never hear it again? how can it be that this wound is so old, when on so many days is does not feel old. more often than you’d think, it feels like yesterday.


read… aunt franny    lifelines

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a gangster, a piano

Page Seven


thursday 13 february 2014

it’s that time again, his death anniversary. second thursday in february, fifteen years ago today.

is it because I have asperger’s that I have such enormous difficulty figuring out exactly who people are?

why am I writing this book about my father? first, because he deserves something. every human being, I think, deserves some testament of themselves remaining in the world when they are gone. since my father left none of his own, I make one now. the one I make is mine alone. I can never know what he would have said about himself. second, I write these things about him because I’m still trying to put in manageable form all of his contradictions, and all of my contradictory feelings about him.

because I still haven’t figured out who he really was for me, what the bottom line is: was he a father who was on the whole a good one for me, or the reverse? as my life continues, which so far it is doing, should I regard him as someone I’m glad I had, or someone I would have been better off never knowing.

I’ve inherited from him qualities I respect: generosity, intelligence, a love of music and nature, a desire for a home and a yard to stay in, a nest to care for. a love of good food and feeding people. a lack of reluctance to earn extra money by doing menial work. although my father was an inspector for the department of defense, he always had extra part-time jobs. he made grinders and pizzas at a local shop, or cleaned our church on the weekends, or cooked food in a little kitchen at a VFW post. and more. when my daughter was very small my main job was as a home health aide, work which I found meaningful but didn’t pay well. my extra job was cleaning my daughter’s kindergarten nights and weekends. and all this when I had a BA from boston university. it always made me think of my father inspecting missile parts and submarine parts and what-have-you by day, wearing a suit, and changing into his jeans to cook in small joints at night or clean the church. this willingness to do what needs to be done without pride or arrogance I get from him.

I took piano lessons a number of times growing up from several different teachers, but the most unusual course was when my father and I took them from the same teacher. different sessions for each of us, as he was more advanced than I. I didn’t know any other piano girls whose fathers also took lessons, and with the same teacher.

this is by no means all the good that can be said about him. perhaps more comes later. but then of course there is the other side. he could be scathingly mean. a couple of years after he died, my girlhood friend, who had gone to his calling hours, said to me on the phone: He was the meanest man I ever knew. this hurt me deeply at the time, but over the years since she said it I’ve had much opportunity to reflect on her perception. my father was often mean to me, right to his dying day, but is he the meanest man I’ve ever known? it’s possible, possible, but I haven’t yet made up my mind. yet if he was the meanest one, he was at the same time the kindest. many acts of kindness flowed from my father for people in even tougher straits than he was. even great kindness to me at times. when he was in the army, he sent most of his pay home to his mother so she could buy a house for herself and the other children to live in. their own house. he returned from war expecting to see his family ensconced in the home he had sacrificed for, only to find that his mother had spent the money on herself and her friends, and there was no house.

I’ve asked this question already. more than five years ago, in one of my blogs: did my father, as the oldest child and a son, know that his own father was a mafia man? a couple of weeks ago when I had his sister on the phone for the first time in years, it seemed quite markedly that she was trying to get information out of me. trying to get me to say point blank things that she perhaps had long suspected: your father was a gangster. he had another separate family in crete. don’t worry about where he’s buried because you’ll never find it. he betrayed his organization and they killed him, way over there on that island, in 1943. if he was buried at all, rather than thrown into the sea with heavy rocks tied to him,  it was in an unmarked hole in a field somewhere. though she often plays the innocent I-know-nothing, my aunt is no fool. she could have been suspicious of her father for decades. he wouldn’t have told his true “business” to his girls. but to his son, his oldest son? I can’t help but believe that he would indeed have told my father, but if this is in fact the case, then dad took that information to his grave. out of shame? to spare us the shame? if he wanted to spare his children the shame, then as much as that is a deception that I for one rage at, it is also, from a different angle, an act of kindness. I just don’t happen to agree with such a choice.

my father had a traumatic upbringing on many fronts. perhaps the explanation for his meanness lies partly there, partly in genes. his life was always hard. even when he married and began an adult life of his own, it was still  hard. the difficulties just came in different packages. I was one of them for the first ten years of my life, an endless stress and financial drain. it wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t deliberate, but maybe it was a reason that I could never be very deeply loved: I had added to his list of traumas. I fell squarely in the column of things that had damaged him.


read… neverending solitaire

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decoration day

decoration day

Page Six


it’s 27 may today, the day on which we are, in 2013, observing memorial day. 

my father served in the army in WWII and the navy in Korea. two wars, and came back alive from each one. and marched in memorial day parades from the days before I was born, until he was too ill in his late sixties to keep it going.

my nephew, on the other hand, served in only one war (iraq), and came back dead at nineteen years old after only seven months.

these are the soldiers I remember on this day. so far as I know, they are two of only three men in my family for at least three generations who actually went overseas to war zones. my mother’s father was a career serviceman and is buried (because he was rich) in arlington national. it seems he couldn’t have avoided the same wars my father sailed away into, but no one ever told me that he did. since he had very little to do with us or our lives, it’s hard for me to think of him as one of the family war-attenders, but I suppose he was, and that I should remember him too. he was such a snob. he cared so little about us…  on to other things.

decoration day is what memorial day used to be called, and I prefer the old name. that’s all I want to do on this day, which has extended from decorating the graves of soldiers to dressing the graves of all our dead. I want to eat a hotdog, since hotdogs on this day and on the fourth go way back to before my first memories at the age of three, my father having been a connoisseur of excellent dogs, both in the brand of dog and the cooking method. his favorite was well-steamed (removed before splitting), and a good natural casing brand. so I want to eat a hot dog, of whatever inferior brand and preparation, and to decorate the graves of my dead, both animals and people. the hot dog I can get, but not the graves. no car. my father is dead fourteen years, and I haven’t even seen his grave, much less put flowers on it. poverty deprives a person of thousands of daily things that people who are not poor never think about or realize. nor do they care. who gives a rat’s hiney about me or any other poor person who can’t afford a car to visit graves or do anything else with? no one, that’s who.

I do another thing with flowers on this day that is a poor substitute for being able to decorate the actual graves of my actual dead, and today I have already done it. that leaves the hotdog. 


read…   kaikenlainen (a brother)…   all my stars…  

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Page Five

it’s sunday… the 17th of march, 2013. st patrick’s. had he lived, bill nakis would have been eighty-seven today.

once, maybe I was thirty, I had a T-shirt made for him for his birthday. white with green trim, and a couple of shamrocks on the front. on the back, in heavy black letters:  o’nakis. all of his life, since long before I was born, there had been jokes about a greek being born on st. patrick’s day. my father was only half greek, but because it was the male half, it came out in the very obviously greek last name. anyway, he loved the shirt, and wore it often for a number of years, showing it off to anyone he ran into.

years later, when he was in one of his periods of not speaking to me, my daughter and I came back to turners trolls after a visit out to my parents, and I found that T-shirt on the floor of my car. grampa gave it to me, my daughter says. I don’t really want it, but I didn’t want to say no. so I myself got the T-shirt back. it meant something to me, that shirt, even if it no longer meant much to him. I saved it, as I save many things. it’s gone for good now, though. because of my brother.

today, on this birthday, I know things that I didn’t know when I started this book and decided to call it lucked out (and in light of this new knowledge, I’m seriously considering a different title). it was an expression he used a lot, this lucked out, and it was as well a desperate hope he always had: to luck out. but, he was not irish, only born on the big day. and he did not luck out. not in the end. not in the most important things. I sit here now, knowing the things that I learned three weeks ago, and see him as a very unlucky man. unlucky in his wife, unlucky in his sons, in his grandchildren, and, if he were here to say it, he would say that he was extremely unlucky in me, his only daughter. financial failure that I am. stubborn witch that I am, insisting on saying true things in the family that no one in the family wants said. and all that expensive illness when I was a child? if he were sitting here, bill nakis might well say that I am the biggest piece of bad luck he ever had.

I disagree with him there. I did when he lived, and still do so now, fourteen years after  his death. two years after his blessed baby son, now also dead, lost bill nakis’ house to gambling, drinking, and shyster mortgage companies. I disagree with you, o’nakis, that you were unlucky in me. I would not have lost the house, poor as I am. I have no gambling or drinking problems, however disabled I might be. I have a love for that little house — for every ounce of work you put into it — that no one besides you had. I remember the day we moved into that house: memorial day weekend, 1958. I remember your labor there, well into your sixties. decades of labor. decades of pride that you had a house for the kids, a house to pass to the grandkids, when your own parents had given you nothing. I remember today that it’s your eighty-seventh birthday. does anyone else? I very much doubt it.

I now have to see that all his labor taking care of a house he saw staying in our family for at least a generation or two more as for nothing. I look back on the way his sons always treated him, the way his grandchildren treated him, the way his wife treated him, and say that his efforts were for nothing. it’s so strange to me always that he could never see that I was, in a way, his only chance. I am more like him, the best things in him, than anyone else. I wanted some of the same things he wanted as badly as he did. I was his best chance for a real friend among his relatives. I was his best candidate for caregiver when he got older and more ill. I was his best chance to save the house. and yet I was the one to whom he dished out his worst nastiness, the one he rejected over and over. the one he belittled the most. I don’t mean to say that there were no better times between me and o’nakis; there were. but they never lasted long enough, and there weren’t enough of them.

I was his best chance. he either didn’t see that, or I suppose, out of some sort of self-loathing, treated me the way he did because I am the most like him, the most like his better side. whatever the reasons, reasons I’ll never know for certain, he threw his best chance away. and now his house, his little half-acre of cherished land, belong to shysters. the baby son to whom o’nakis entrusted these things is in the cemetery plot beside him, and ashes are all that’s left of his decades of work for the family and for its future after he was gone.

william constantine o’nakis, born on st. patrick’s day in 1926 to a mafia man and a flaming sociopath of a woman, was a very unlucky man. which fact, naturally, breaks my heart into tiny irish smithereens, yet again. how many times can a heart be torn to shreds, I wonder, before there’s no heart left at all.


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dad, dog and boat

Page four 

In 1969 (I’m pretty sure), when I was sixteen, my father’s dog died. A black lab mix called Sarge, he was my contemporary, being fifteen or sixteen when he died. Sarge was a fantastic family dog, as many labs are, with his breed’s loyalty and gentleness. I think it’s quite possible that he was my father’s best friend on the planet every minute that he lived.

Naturally there was a great hole in Dad’s world in the space where Sarge had been. And to fill that hole, my father did something he had never done before and would never do again: he paid a ridiculous amount of money to get himself from a pet shop a purebred puppy. This was a complete aberration in my father’s life, in my father’s self. He had grown up in the depression. You did not pay for family animals. There were unwanted puppies and kittens everywhere, and the way you got yourself an animal was to grab one of the many that someone else had thrown out, or was about to throw out. And you did not get purebreds. The results of this snotty breeding stuff were temperament problems and even worse, many physical problems that you just didn’t get with mutts. Yes, we called them mutts, mongrels, Heinz 57’s.  In both cats and dogs, you got a much safer deal with a mutt. I still hold to this precept.

My parents were doing some business in Haverhill, as I recall the story. They happened to walk by a pet shop and decided to look around, because my father needed an heir to Sarge. He went in there expecting to just think about his next dog. When the time came to actually do it, he would get himself a mutt somewhere.

Falling in love, as we all know, can be so damnably sudden, and damnably unexpected. So it was that day with Dad and a very tiny black Scottish terrier puppy. Almost all of my father’s personal animals, all his life, were black: many dogs, one cat and one guinea pig. He had this penchant for black animals. So here was this tiny thing, black, and love ensued. This pet store sold its puppies by weight, each breed having its own per-pound price. The pup weighed three pounds, cost $33 a pound, plus tax. My father paid over $100 that day for this purebred dog who would no doubt turn out to be riddled with defects. A hundred dollars was a huge amount of money for our family in 1969, and if such a sum was spent, it was spent on a bill or a doctor visit. Not even for a new TV had my father ever paid $100 at that time. He splurged on himself for one of the few times I ever saw him do so, and none of us begrudged it to him or grumbled, thank goodness. My father got enough grumbling and begrudging from us. I’m glad we didn’t do it over the dog. In fact, it became a great joke in the family for the next two years that this little gremlin had cost $33 a pound.

The name on the kennel club papers was Scot Rob Roy the 34th, or some such nonsense. But once out the door of the pet shop, he was just plain Scotty.

Dad had never had such a small and portable dog. Like all his other dogs, Scotty could ride in the car. But there was much more fun in the offing, because Scotty could go just about anywhere. For several years Dad had a little wooden boat that he would take to the clam flats. He called it Skoshy, which I think is the Japanese word for small. Skoshy, Scotty and Dad would head out to the bay every fair-weather weekend, supposedly to dig clams. Yes, clams were often brought home, but they were really just an excuse to go out on the water. If there was red tide and the flats were closed, if my father was sick of eating clams, still they would go off in the boat. Dad would come home many times from these trips and regale us with stories of how Scotty had jumped into the brine and needed to be rescued. Or how a thunderstorm had come up and Dad had had to hold tight to Scotty so not to lose him in the boat’s picthing. Or how the motor had died halfway to or from the flats, and they’d had to sit in the hot sun while Dad worked on the motor, and he’d wet Scotty down with the seawater to keep him cool. Or how Dad would toss Scotty a clam while he dug, and the dog would proceed to shake the bejeezus out of the poor clam.

Now we arrive at the part where I will cry as I write — because it’s father’s day, and because the man and the dog and the boat are all gone, and because the magic that I shared with them out there on the water happened only the once.

My father had been bugging us all for a couple of months, my brothers, my mother and I, to go out in the boat with him. He had suddenly decided, after about a year, that he wanted to share this with one of his family (though he didn’t use those words). We were all teenagers, and we didn’t like to hang out with our parents anymore than we absolutely had to. I regret this now, but can’t go back and change it. Finally I caved. I waited for one of his sons to go and do this man-thing with him, but they wouldn’t. I waited for my mother to do this thing with her husband, but she wouldn’t either. It hurt me, all of it. And even though I didn’t particularly want to be stuck out in Rowley bay with my father and risk him yelling at me about something, or asking me to dig the clams out of their homes, I agreed one Saturday to go.

Out there on the water I saw a father I’d never seen very much of at all in seventeen years. Little glimpses now and then, but nothing like these few hours in the boat. He did not take me to the flats and ask me to dig. He didn’t yell at me about anything. He smiled and laughed and spoke in a fairly quiet voice. He pointed out everything to me: Straight ahead the ocean; left Newburyport, right Ipswich. There’s Plum Island, and that little island over there is such-and-such. And, as if conditioned by Pavlov himself, when Dad cut the engine, Scotty thought we were at the flats and immediately jumped out of the boat — into the water. And Dad went in after him. I was the only dry one left.  My father was, for Bill Nakis, ecstatically happy, and clearly tickled pink that I had agreed to come. He told me, again, the stories of the adventures he and Scotty had had out there.

I was seventeen. I both loved my father and loathed him. I both needed him and pushed him away. I had Asperger’s. I did not smile and laugh there on the boat. I was emotionally very, very closed in until I was twenty-three. I did not say to him what I was thinking there in the boat, and I so fiercely wish that I had: Dad, you’re so happy here. I’ve never seen you this happy. I didn’t know you could be this happy. Bring me out here again.

But he didn’t. As far as I can remember, that was the one and only time he ever took one of us out in the boat. I wish he’d asked me again, but he didn’t. I wish I’d been able to ask him, but I was too reserved to invite myself, and too scared to risk the rejection if he should say no.

Scotty lived ten or eleven years, until summer of 1980, I think. His adventures with my father, their bond and their antics, are still treasured family legend to me. On the day Scotty died, and at my father’s request, I stood guard against the visits of neighborhood children so that he could be alone to bury his dog. We already had another black dog, Groucho, so there was no new one acquired after Scotty’s death. Skoshy only lasted another year or two past the day of the outing. It was fall ’71 or ’72 when she was tied up at the beach, but my father hadn’t yet brought her home. There was a violent thunder storm, and the little boat was pretty much torn to bits on the rocks. Dad brought home the stern board with the name Skoshy on it and hung it in the enclosed patio. He never had a boat again. And the man himself only lasted until 1999.

Nineteen June 2011, today. My thirteenth father’s day now with no father. In the first few days after his death, I wrote a poem about that day on the water, but with all the destruction in my own life since then, I have no idea where that poem is now. It may or may not turn up again. I have some jewels to look back on in the years that I had a father, and that day in little Skoshy with little Scotty riding on the bow beside the wheel, with a father so happy I almost couldn’t believe he was the same man I’d always known, is the brightest, most costly of them all. One of those rare days in a person’s life that is always wished back again down the years, always longed for again: Give me that day just one more time. Please. Just one more time.

And that, of course, can never be.


read…    Lifelines…    Mugsy’s book

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