Margaret Rose Doyle was crying when I stayed with her on Sunday January 6, 1980; Little Christmas she called it. Her face was drenched in tears just as the brandy cakes on her kitchen counter were soaked with booze. The whites of her green eyes turned salmon pink and her porcelain cheeks boiled hot with sad emotion. Maggie’s breath fumed from the useless curses and the bitter whiskey. My tio Gjeo had admitted, again, to infidelity. She didn’t have to tell me, I had always known that face. It was a communal mask shared by the hapless women who entangled themselves with the rambling men of my family.
The revelation didn’t stop my Maggie from throwing herself and a bunch of surly biker mommas the biggest post-Christmas Day party in Silver Lake. As I understood it, Little Christmas was a party mostly for women and girls practiced in Ireland, Maggie’s homeland. On this date the three wise men allegedly reached baby Jesus and the epiphany that he was the Savior was proclaimed.
My 9 year old mind could not reconcile what Baby Jesus and biker women partying and getting drunk had to do with each other on account of what I had learned about Christianity from the kids’ show Davey and Goliath. Davey was a Lutheran. I liked the show because Davey, the boy, was always getting into some kind of moral dilemma with his big brown talking dog, Goliath. Davey hardly ever did the right thing, but he wasn’t cursed to Hell during the episode and usually got to learn an important life lesson instead. I liked the idea of going against the grain for a good cause and not being punished for it. Yes, that was my life at the time: talking Lutheran dogs, cheating men and drunken women. On this particular Little Christmas, I had a terrible dilemma.
My greatest joy during Maggie’s parties was to watch the women talk and laugh, particularly because the rest of the year they were raging or crying over guy problems. I’d serve them cocktails and sometimes would stick my tongue in their glasses to have a taste myself. Vodka became my favorite and by the ripe age of 9 and half I could drink about a cup and sleep fine through the night without throwing up and without waking up with bad breath. Vodka and I had a very nice relationship in my youth.
Through their essence of boisterous character and furious conversation I felt like I was part of something. They’d pet me, call me “China Doll” and call me stuff in Italian, like piccola signora (little lady). There were a few South American ladies too, with short tempers who’d always call me nina or preciosa. In their thick exotic accents, they would tell me stories of how they got the shiners on their faces. I knew they didn’t fight off a purse snatcher as they claimed. I knew my dad’s friends gave them those bruises. I felt helplessly sad for them, but I just smiled, refreshed their drinks and complimented their hair, make-up and jewelry. They really liked that kind of attention, but I didn’t understand why.
There was this golden, olive toned Italian lady, Carmela Clemente. She was a curvy woman with blonde hair and hazel eyes. She was known for dating a few of my uncle’s biker buddies. I liked Carmela because she was known as a cascavel, the rattle snake amongst the biker boys. I even think she went a few rounds with my dad in the love ring, but she mostly liked the sand blonde dudes from the San Fernando Valley. Carmela’s meaty hands spoke before her thick magenta lips did. She was as friendly as she was striking in her manner of not putting up with the guys’ poor treatment of the women they dated. Carmela hid blades in her hair which she showed me in the bathroom one time, because Los Angeles was molto pericoloso, very dangerous. I also heard stories of her cutting up guys’ break lines and their faces if she felt they weren’t treating her nicely. I thought it was funny she felt Los Angeles was dangerous to her. Nevertheless, I wanted to be bad ass like her when I grew up later that summer when I’d be 10.
Maggie and I got up around 5 that Little Christmas morning to clean up the house, but mainly to spend a little time together before the festivities started. I made her coffee and she fixed me a cup of Nescafe with lots of milk and a few tablespoons of Nestle Quick. “For your health, little one.” She cooed at me.
My uncle wasn’t home from Bakersfield yet. After we drank our coffee and talked about me going over to Gardner Elementary in West Hollywood next year, we went into the garage to get her giant, see through plastic bins to store away her Christmas Day decorations later on when her guests arrived as she traditionally got her guests to help her do. I could tell that Maggie was upset about something. She would walk in and out of the house, her face wasn’t made up, and she took quite a few shots of whiskey when she thought I wasn’t looking. But, being the little soldier that I was trained to be, I was always looking.
As I grew up, my love for Maggie was complicated. Often this love was sickly, full of stomach butterflies, confusion, and frustration. I didn’t like her drinking. Her longing for her country caused me to fear losing her, and my uncle’s cheating on her caused me to harbor conflicting feelings of anger toward him.
If you were female, living with a man from my family meant you had to be tough, loyal and with an incredibly open mind and closed mouth. Males were expected to work hard, party harder, make money and be loyal to each other. Maggie served my uncle with a subtle cognitive dissonance. She had to in order to keep her sanity intact. She struggled to keep her identity as a strong, intelligent, beautiful, deserving woman, so she drank and spent his money. She was loyal and faithful to my uncle in spite of his actions. Perhaps she felt indebted to him for giving her a home and for supporting her and her two then teen aged sons after arriving in New York way before I was born. Maggie and her sons were in America illegally after having had her husband murdered in Northern Ireland was what she’d tell her girlfriends.
Maggie encouraged me to learn all I could about science, Astronomy, history and anthropology and, as soon as I was walking, I faintly recall her move empty liquor bottles to the sink and the random slumbering biker from the party the night before from the kitchen counter to finish their sleep on the floor so that she could plop me on the counter instead. Then she’d read to me from National Geographic, the L.A. Times or her special books from the book case. She loved Dylan Thomas, Shakespeare and Dos Passos, although at that young time in my life I had no idea what impact any of them had made in the world. When I was a teen, she claimed that she’d seen Bukowski and a young girlfriend at Musso and Franks once.
My Maggie Rose also loved her whiskey, more than me sometimes. But for long periods of my life, she was my only mother figure. Maggie would fight both of my parents when she saw that they would abandon me. Maggie would feed and clothe me and made sure I went to school most of the time. Maggie taught me how to dress and groom myself and how to be a lady while eating at the table. And, it was from Maggie that I learned how to mask hurt, betrayal and anger with booze, smiles and laughter.
Tio walked through Maggie’s kitchen door at about ten that morning, his Rolling Stones tee shirt inside out and an aura of Channel perfume all around him. At the sink, I was babbling about cherry flavored candy canes while washing the dirty coffee cups when I saw Maggie and Gjeo locking eyes, his hands half way up trying to articulate an excuse out of the sugar cookie scented kitchen air.
There were no words expressed or exchanged. Maggie put on her communal mask of pain, and asked Gjeo to go into the garage with her. When they walked back into the kitchen, she was gracefully devastated. She smiled at me then him, she talked about the garden, about taking me to the movies and China Town and going to Sun Valley or Saugus to see the horses. The bigger her heart wound got, the bigger she’d smile and the tighter she clung to Gjeo’s neck to show me that everything was o.k. and then she’d poured gin and orange juice into a plastic, turquoise tumbler.
Gjeo cupped my face with his big hands dirty with betrayal. He didn’t look at me with his hazel gypsy boy eyes, but asked if I wanted to go to House of Pies for breakfast. I hugged his legs because my 9 year old self hurt for them both and I did not know how to fix them. I shook my head “no” with a lump in my throat and as I let go of his rock steady legs, I quickly flashed on how those same hands rescued me from my father, provided for me, and held me tight when I couldn’t sleep at night. Tio quietly went into his room to rest. I was very confused in my sense of loyalty and integrity: I loved them both, but even though my uncle was my blood, Maggie was a hurt human being. In my 9 year old heart, this wasn’t right and some kind of action on my behalf was required to set the universe of our house on balance again.
After meticulously winding up what seemed to be 40 acres of Christmas lights and entertaining Maggie’s leather and denim clad girls, I stole away to the back patio of the house and opted not to wait until I grew up in the summer. I decided to be like Carmela Clemente that afternoon. Taking out offerings of three C and H 5 pound sugar bags and one and a half bottles of Mrs. Butterworths syrup from a brown Safeway paper bag, I introduced the gifts into the tanks of my uncle’s 5 Harleys and 3 Ducatis. “Rompapapa-rompapapa that, tio!” I sighed with satisfaction in my mind. I was very unlike baby Jesus that day and I never watched Davey and Goliath again.