EVERY FAMILY HAS THAT ONE ECCENTRIC PERSON, the one whose opinions dominate through the use of humor, the one who is always ready to “stir the pot” just for the fun of seeing how everyone else will react. Without that one person, a lot of families would fall asleep at the dinner table. In any event, in my family of siblings, cousins, nephews and all of their friends, our eccentric, opinionated provocateur with the wry sense of humor was my Uncle Oscar.
He was the youngest of six children and my mother’s favorite kid brother. A prankster with a mocking grin, he could smell a bullshitter from 500 yards—and never failed to let him know it. As a young professional dancer, he performed on Broadway before returning to his native California to work alongside Gene Kelly, Marlon Brando and a number of other studio regulars from the heyday of Hollywood musicals. My fondest memories of him are of the moments when, passing the time while my mother prepared dinner, he would lift me into the air and, after balancing me above his head, bring me back to the floor in pirouette motion as if I were Cyd Charisse in flight.
Uncle Oscar was anything but traditional; the conventional bored him stiff. And, very early on, he recognized this same penchant for non-conformity in me. Interestingly, although separated by thirty years, we were born on the same day—November 18th—and, somehow, I never thought of this fact as a coincidence. You see, I don’t believe in coincidences. Rather, I think they are clues given to us by God— gentle hints, meant to show us the way.
Oscar and I were often at odds and, as I got older, we often fought—although I could always chalk that off to his simple love of debate. Yet, when he said something that took me truly by surprise, it did disturb me. He was the only member of my family who knew that I would marry an older man, and I will never forget the day when he made his opinion clear.
I was seventeen and thought I was in love with a boy I had dated while at Westlake School for Girls. My young love attended the equally élite Harvard Military Academy—the fraternal stomping ground for all respectable Westlake girls. Clean cut, well-mannered, and from an affluent LA family, he often sat at the dinner table with us, at the one-story California ranch house where I grew up, amused by the verbal fireworks that always would erupt. Blowing the smoke from his cigarettes with a side ways breath into the air, he liked to observe Uncle Oscar from the corner of his eye… always with just the faintest tinge of derision. This responsible, well-tailored nine-to-fiver, whom everyone in my family knew was going places, thought of Uncle Oscar as “Bohemian,” to put it kindly.
It must have been shortly before I lost my virginity to this young man when, one evening at the family dinner table, I announced our inevitable marriage. Talk of this sort, and the fact that my young love never overtly contested it, was enough to send my mother straight into the stratosphere…destined for the seventh level of Heaven. But all it provoked from Uncle Oscar was that oh so mocking and dryly humorous smile. That, and an early departure from our dining room. Taking the winding route along Sunset Boulevard back to his Hollywood bungalow, he knew he’d get home before the niece, whom everyone in my family affectionately called “Bernie,” hit the sack. And as soon as he did, he was on the phone.
“Bernie, it’s Oscar,” my mother hollered from the kitchen, where she was busy washing the dishes. “He wants to speak with you.”
With my ear barely to the receiver I, nevertheless, could hear him laughing.
“You’ll never marry him,” he said. “Never.”
I can still feel the blood as it rushed to my head. His audacity had taken me completely by surprise, and I was furious.
“Who are you to tell me what I am going to do with my life?!” I protested.
But he was still laughing.
“It’s impossible, sweetheart. Don’t you see? He can’t handle you. You need a man, Bernie… a real man.”
Instantly, my feminist instincts kicked into gear. I was, after all, a child of the Sixties.
“Who says any man has to handle me?!!” I shouted back.
“Shhhh…..I know you,” he replied very slowly, while drawing out the word “know” into infinity.
It must have taken me two hours to get to sleep that night. Tossing and turning, I asked myself—what was it that Uncle Oscar had seen that I had not? Today, it is clear to me that what he saw was a bolt of ungrounded electricity, flailing in the air, without purpose or direction. Had my father lived passed the age of forty-two, perhaps by the time I was college bound I would have been different. But, in his death, he had abandoned me. And, for the past fifteen years, I had suffered from his absence keenly.
A year and a half later I was still convinced of my status as a young woman, betrothed to my high school sweetheart. By now, it was the summer of 1971 and, with complete assurance, I had persuaded myself, as well as my young fiancé, that my upcoming adventure in Europe would last no more than a year. My passage to New York booked, I would rendez-vous at JFK with my best friend from college, before flying on to Paris with her.
On August 21st, Debbie Flessas and I arrived on the tarmac at Orly shortly after seven in the morning. Five years later to the day, in a small chapel in Santa Monica, with my family, and most notably Uncle Oscar, present—I would marry Pitou. Coincidence? Like I said…God gives us clues.
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