One day at Thompson Elementary, our very pretty kindergarten teacher, who I had an instant crush on, asked my class to draw a picture of our school. I drew every brick and she loved it, proudly showing it off my work to the whole class. And I was hooked on being an artist for life.
One of my clearest childhood memories is feeling full of the admiration from the teacher and classmates, riding home from school as if on a cloud in the family's broken down old Ford.Fred, then age 3, my little bro Fred, my Irish twin and best pal to this day, played with a rainbow colored toy top. My beautiful mother's reddish brunette hair flowed in wind as she drove and sang along with Doris Day on the radio.
My adorable Irish "Gramma," who sat in back with me, asked me how my day at school was and I jumped up to the front seat, no seat belts in the 50s, whipped out my crayon masterpiece and proclaimed, "Look what I made, Mama! I'm gonna be an artist when I grow up!"
Mom was tickled pink, little Fred was kinda jealous... but Gramma's snap reaction nearly broke my budding artist heart, "Artists are scoundrels and usually starve to death. You'll figure out something fine and upstanding to be when you grow up, honey lamb."
A sensitive loving soul, despite her gruff exterior, Gramma saw I was hurt and pulled me into a hug. But I was a frozen statue, lost in her chubby arms that smelled of sweet scented lotion. I pouted for days until Gramma wore me down with her famous homemade apple pie, my favorite.
And if I thought Gramma's reaction to my dream of being an artist was a downer... When Dad came home, full of grease and soot from welding machinery all day, I proudly showed him my drawing of the school, with all the pretty bricks. He grunted in amused disgust, sipped his Pabst Blue Ribbon and used my masterpiece as a coaster for his beer.
Dad, you see, was a drill sergeant in the Korean War and Dad was very worried his oldest boy, who didn't like sports or hunting, was what he angrily called, "A God damn queer. A fem. A fag." I was only five-years-old so I had no idea what Dad's angry words meant, except "God damn" as the family was devout Catholic.
So I asked Gramma, who practically raised my brother and the other brother to come as Mom worked, what all those strange words of dad's meant. Gramma took a sip of beer - there was lot of beer in my childhood, beer and cigarettes -- and told me a lie that served her mission of getting me to abandon being an artist, "'Queer, fem and fag' are just other words for 'Artist', honey."
Now, Gramma thought that her lie would discourage me somehow. But that lie was enough for me to get by.
Much as Dad, believing he was doing what was best for me, would try to beat the Artist out of me with his one two punch of belt whippings and drill sergeant style tongue lashing, my mission only grew in power. Grew into home study courses and a scholarship at art college one day. And then I would meet Gloria, the girl of my dreams in college, get married at 21, have two amazing kids and happily set my art aside for 25 years to raise a family.