Vignettes of a Blighted Family Tree

by Rachel DeFranco

“You really don’t have to go,” she told me, which was the last thing I wanted to hear. I’d spent the past few days trying to talk myself into this little endeavor, and the idea of backing out now, well...I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t enticing. I was regretting now, that part of me that felt the need to rebel—the part of me that felt it was necessary to prove and reprove myself, almost as though one day, they’d realize the caliber of person I was, and stop hating me. The part of me still believed perhaps, if I tried hard enough, they’d accept me as one of their own. My mother meant well, but this was bigger than me, it was bigger than what I wanted.

I had some grandiose notion of making a sweeping entrance in a spring dress, nearly coiffed hair, just a touch of eye shadow in a color they wouldn’t have recognized on me (blue, white, or unthinkably, pink). I’d make my entrance, I’d sit politely, I’d be captivating and charming in conversation, and maybe—just maybe—they’d regret casting me out, they would see that I wasn’t so much an outcast or a leper, as just another person. But the idea of the dress had been dashed. What I looked like shouldn't have been important; what should've mattered was that I was family, and I was a good person. If they couldn’t see that, no dress in the world was going to change their opinions.

“You really don’t have to do this,” she said to me again. And I found myself wondering, not for the first time that day, just how terrible it would be if I didn’t show up. But that same, proud part of me wouldn’t let it go. They could say anything they wanted about me—and they would—but I would never give them the chance to accuse me of not keeping my word.

“I really do,” I said, feeling as though I were the tragic heroine on the cover of a paperback, expression demure and hair flowing in the breeze. But self-sacrifice was never a good look on me. She gave me one last glance, hugged me close, wished me luck, and sent me on my way.

“You sure you’re ready?” Mary asked, turning to face me as I slid into the passenger seat.

“Absolutely not,” I answered, and it was true. But that nagging little voice in the back of my head wasn’t going to rest until I had given them one last shot. I felt bad for dragging Mary into it...she didn’t deserve this sort of torture, and I reckoned I was the worst sort of friend for making her go through with it. Going into the lion’s den was one thing, going alone, smelling of fear, was another, entirely. I figured there was safety in numbers, and they wouldn’t do anything too terrible to me. Not if they were trying to impress a guest.

So we started the drive down to Ashfield, trying not to think too deeply about what was to come. We pulled up to the house and debated where to park. It would have to be somewhere on the street—the driveway was already full with the familiar cars of my father’s family. There wouldn’t be any room for us.

And wasn’t that a sad reflection of the situation as a whole.

We found a spot to slide into, a few houses down and across the way, just sitting in the car for a minute. Seatbelts still buckled, radio still on, air conditioning going full blast, it was a moment of silence, a moment to steel ourselves against the impending clusterfuck that was the Ricci family.

The house, itself, didn’t inspire any dread in me. I’d spent every childhood Thanksgiving in that house, Gia and Frank’s. Really, I was in this mess because of them. The family hadn’t spoken to me in more than a year. It had been a self-imposed silence on their part—the aunts and uncles had stopped acknowledging my presence, the cousins had simply begun ignoring my messages on Facebook, my emails, my texts...some of them going so far as to block my number or remove me from their contacts with no explanation. So they’d had Gia and Frank call, because they were the two who’d never wronged me.

Of the entire family, they were the most human, I suppose. They still had their flaws, still had their faults; Gia was incredibly cold, full of hate for her siblings. She had the same steely eyes as her mother and a habit of hugging that was reminiscent of strangulation. In a way, I felt bad for them. They were very much like me, thrust into a family that they didn’t deserve, dealing with the cruelties, the idiocies of the shallowest end of the Ricci gene pool. Gia was the eldest daughter, but it had long-since been dictated that when their sweet, loving, saintly Mama finally gave up the ghost and kicked the bucket, Anna would take over as family matriarch. That wouldn’t have sat well with me, and I can’t imagine it sat well with Gia.

We made it up to the door, which was open, unlocked. It was common practice to simply push your way in, slide off your shoes, and greet everyone as you made your way through the entrance. I took a deep breath and took the plunge. There were looks, as I had expected, surprise and confusion quickly masked by plastic smiles—smiles that didn’t reach their eyes, but then again, I suppose they never did. Ever the gracious hostess, Gia was the first one there to hug me, say how glad she was to see me, the cousins were just in the other room, if I’d like to join them, it was very nice to meet my friend, and by the way, youse all need to remember that there’s food if you get hungry. So we smiled and grabbed a few cookies, heading into the living room. We passed a few extended family members on the way, people I didn’t know, people who didn’t know me, still accompanied by a strange hush, as if they understood the scandal implicitly.

We had just about reached the living room, when a hand grabbed my wrist, and I froze. I knew those porky fingers anywhere, and I had no desire to look up into the face of their owner. Nothing about Vito ever sat well with me. He was my father’s baby brother, the one they’d tormented endlessly as a child. All of the men in the family were large, but he was the largest, his piggy face perpetually red, sweating with even the slightest physical exertion. He’d keep a dishrag on him at all times to wipe his face—a disgusting habit they all seemed to pick up somewhere along the line. He made a show of hugging me, as they all would. He made some crack about not having seen me in a century or two, and tugged on my ponytail like a childish playground bully. I held my breath until he walked away.

He was, quite possibly, the only man I feared more than my father (or at least feared the same), ever since the incident over the summer. His wife had left him, and he’d decided that if she wouldn’t have him, no one would. He’d taken a hunting rifle out from his gun cabinet, loaded it, cocked it, and headed out behind the shed. He’d pressed the gun to his temple, spending a moment to ponder what it would taste like in his mouth, the heavy metal muzzle— whether it would be cold and oily, whether it would choke him. If it would make a better show, a bigger mess for the neighbors to see and for the newspapers to write about, for the family to include in his eulogy, alongside their accusations of his ex-wife being a whore and a murderer. But he kept it to his temple. On the front porch, he could see his daughter sobbing, wet cheeks reflecting red and blue, cries shrill over police sirens. Of course they’d be here in a matter of seconds, they were used to this house, had stopped referring to them as Mister and Missus Ricci after years of domestic abuse calls (black eyes and bloody knuckles, children screaming in the background). But so caught up in his dramatics, he didn’t see his son come up from behind and wrestle him to the ground, knocking the gun from his hands. They would up the dosage on his mood stabilizers, but he wouldn’t take them, so it didn’t matter much anyway. Those damn doctors were nothing but damn quacks, he wasn’t crazy. He wasn’t crazy.

The radio silence that greeted us as we entered the living room wasn’t unexpected, but it still cut. Only one or two of them looked up from what they were already doing, and even then, I was greeted with only that momentary glance before they went back to what had previously occupied them. There were no hellos, no smiles (false or otherwise), and I shot Mary an apologetic look over my shoulder—already feeling unspeakably guilty for so damning her by association.

“Michelle,” came a shrill voice to my right, “Come sit by Auntie Anna.” And there she was, sitting in front of the picture window; varicose veins blue and bulging, bared by the too-high cuffs of her pedal pushers, hair tightly curled, and eyes beady as a rodent’s from over the rims of her wire-framed glasses. I had no choice, and I made my way over with the determination of a prisoner headed for the gallows. But before I could force myself to occupy the space next to her, Mary swept in and sat herself down between us. Anna was displeased, having been robbed of her only opportunity to pick at me as a crow might a carcass. She turned her head and attempted to engage one of her daughters in conversation.

Anna, I’m fairly certain, is what children imagine what they fall asleep at night, afraid of what might be lurking under their beds (too scared to let a leg or an arm hang over the mattress, lest a clawed hand grab and drag them under, never allowing them to see the light of day again). She had been ruling over the Riccis with an iron fist since the ripe young age of twelve, and she had achieved what only her mother had, in the past—uniting the family under fear and a shared enemy. She was a firm believer in her mother’s old standby, “Cut ‘em, don’t kill ‘em,” And she lived up to it, damn it. If nothing else, she lived up to that. Something in those beady little eyes made it quite clear that she would have no issue wrapping her hand in your hair and yanking at it until she pulled strands out by the root. She was a wolverine in cherry red lipstick, a sleeping viper; pry too close and risk losing a finger or an arm. Her rage was bottled up and condensed tighter and harder than her biweekly bowel movement. The others would all continue to deal with it, to cope with it, to accept it...the abuse ingrained in their minds through a lifetime of Italian double standards and Catholic guilt.

I’d felt eyes on me since I’d first entered the room, and when I finally glanced into the kitchen, there was my father, leaning against a counter. He didn’t say anything, he didn’t meet my gaze, but he continued to look in my general direction, just over my head, as though trying to decide what type of creature I was.

It continued on like that for an hour, quickly becoming obvious that nothing would change. We had reached an impasse, and so we decided to take our leave. I took a moment to search out the restroom, to double check my makeup, to fix my hair, to stare myself in the eye, to remind myself that I was a good person, and they were the ones who were wrong. I had only just opened the bathroom door, prepared to find my coat and leave, when I saw my father pull Mary aside. “How much did she pay you to come here, today?” he asked, tone accusatory, barely masked by a cold chuckle. She smiled, waved it off, found me.

I said my hasty goodbyes, none of which were acknowledged, before I was pulled aside once more. Paul always looked too tired, too sick for his age. No one was ever quite sure what he did, how he made his one ever asked, really. It was just easier that way. He had said, once, that finding a plot to bury their Mama in would be difficult. She couldn’t be buried next to her husband, after all, since “Pop hadn’t been buried in the most...legitimate of senses.” A statement that would conjure images of my father and his siblings sneaking into the cemetery in the dead of night, upturning dirt with shovels and trowels before tossing their estranged father in without a second thought. I can’t imagine it was particularly far from the truth. “You know, the family’s going on vacation over the summer,” he said in that confidential, back-room bootleg way he had, voice hushed to a stage whisper that would carry throughout the better part of the house. “It would be a real shame if you didn’t come with us. The whole family’s going, wouldn’t really look good if you didn’t go.” I told him I had to work, trying to make money to pay for the college my father refused to help with. He gave me a muted, angry sort of look, turned, and walked away.

We walked out of the house slowly, calmly, pretending to converse contently as we made our way back to her car, but it was with the sort of restrained terror with which a movie victim flees the masked murderer. Only when we were a safe distance away did Mary tap me on the shoulder and tell me to look behind us, to where my father was staring intently out of the bay window, watching us leave—the man who had hated me my entire life, the man who had told me I was a mistake, the man who had broken my toys, had filled me with dread and loathing, had snuck into my room every night to tell me I was worthless and he wished me dead.

I opened the passenger side door, I sat down, and I buckled my seatbelt.

I had done all I could.