A.J. Benza’s distinctive blend of wit, dry humor, and genuine tenderness shines through this candid, compelling memoir about the summer of 1974 when his shy, effeminate cousin comes to live with A.J.’s family, which is dominated by his short-tempered, outspoken, hyper-masculine father. At its core, A.J.’s story is about learning that “being exactly who you were meant to be is the only thing that matters.” Through anecdotes of fishing with his father, playing tackle football, and conquering neighborhood bullies, he tells a story of triumph and acceptance, of a loving but rough around the edges family that puts aside its prejudices to welcome with open arms a young boy struggling to understand his sexuality and ultimately accept himself.
In a sometimes raw and always endearing voice, ’74 and Sunny is a revelatory account of a life-defining summer on Long Island, when tolerance wins over ignorance, family neutralizes fear, and love triumphs over all. For anyone who’s navigated the choppy seas of adolescence, this story about redefining what it means to be a man, and learning to accept those whom we might fail to understand will surely resonate.
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'74 & Sunny
SEASON FOR LOVING
A great day I remember was the Halloween we drove out to Jersey.
It had nothing to do with the actual drive, of course, which was monotonous in the sense that it had been done so many times before. But in taking the Throgs Neck Bridge, off Long Island, and the preferred route from my childhood home of West Islip, to my uncle Larry’s house in Wharton, New Jersey, I was replaying memories from the roads I had once traveled when my father held the wheel.
Back in the 1970s, my father liked to ride all highways at what he called a “sensible speed.” There was no need to put the full weight of his foot into the gas pedal as we meandered down the winding Southern State Parkway, across the magnificent bridge, and onto the mind-numbing miles of Interstates 95 and 80. And it seemed just right to him to end the drive by slowing down and coasting into the hidden lush of Route 15 and what was essentially the welcoming ramp into the front yard of my uncle’s hidden home on Taylor Drive. It might’ve taken him an extra hour, door-to-door, but that’s the way my father liked it.
But the drive I made that day, that Halloween, was at entirely different speeds and had a much deeper meaning. I was going to see my uncle Larry before he died.
I remember my sports car skidding on a mass of pebbles as I sharply turned into his driveway. The tray of eggplant parmigiana my mother had dutifully held on her lap the whole ride almost slid down to her feet. “Oh . . . Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” she said.
“Oh, they eating over too?” I said, as I switched off the headlights and put the stick in Park. “You sure you brought enough eggplant?”
“You know what the hell I meant,” she said, quickly turning somber.
My mother needed a cigarette in the dark of the car before we walked into Uncle Larry’s house. “Okay, let’s go do this now. Oh, Larry,” she quietly exhaled. “Oh, Larry . . .” The absence of words had more meaning than anything she could’ve spit out. I understood the silence. Her husband—my father—had died five years earlier in 1985 and now she was essentially saying good-bye to his older brother, her loving brother-in-law and my unforgettable uncle. Two men who turned rooms upside down, who went off to the Great War when their country called, who guided each other through the first-generation experience and helped each other with the trials and tribulations of marriage and family. “Okay, your father wouldn’t want us to cry,” she said, as I opened the side door and pulled her out of the car by her elbows.
There wasn’t much to my uncle’s yard leading up to his front door. I saw a couple of strong fig trees—common in most Italian yards—bending forward in the country cold. There were several tons of large rocks and garden stones leading to a creek that sharply turned into the dark woods. And just to the left of the welcoming yellow light off his front porch, I spotted several strong peach trees that were undoubtedly pulled from my father’s garden years earlier.
“Ma, look,” I said, motioning to the peach trees.
She smiled. “Yeah . . . your father and his brother shared everything together.”
I didn’t much know what to expect upon entering the Taylor Road home. This was my uncle’s second home, the one he retired to, the one he bought with his second wife, Ruth. The one his grandchildren called home. But not the one I knew best. That one was in the Succasunna.
When we stepped onto his porch, I could see his door was open a slice. I pushed it and called his name. “Uncle Larry!” I felt like our presence let loose the delicate wind chimes that were hanging above my head. “Hello . . .”
A few seconds later, I heard his voice, noticeably weaker from the raucous summers he spent with us. “That you, A.J.? Lilly?”
We crept past a few lazy calico cats that slapped at our feet while we walked.
“I’m back here in the living room,” Uncle Larry yelled out. “I’m sorry I can’t get up just yet. Follow my voice.”
My mother shot me a quizzical look but moved on. “Don’t look at me,” she whispered. “I don’t know what the hell to expect with your uncle Larry.”
When we finally found our way around a dark staircase and we were, what sounded like, one room away, we stopped at a doorway that was adorned with dozens and dozens of twigs, and sprigs hanging from the ceiling. At first glance we might as well have been one hundred yards deep into the forest behind his house. But upon closer inspection we had stumbled on what looked and smelled like some sort of makeshift new age, woodsy medical lab.
“Is that a friggin’ dream catcher?” I asked my mother.
“A what?” she said. “Just keep walking.”
When my uncle called out to us again, he was right around the corner. “I hear you,” he said. “You’re getting warmer. . . .”
It felt as thick as a summer night inside Uncle Larry’s living room, but when I finally laid eyes on him, he was lying on a long couch with about three layers of thick wool blankets on his chest and legs. He also had a wet washcloth stretched tight across his bald head. But you wouldn’t know that his brain and lungs were riddled with cancer by the life that sprung out of his pesto-green eyes.
He made a huge effort to pull his body off the tan leather couch, but my mom and I stopped him, seeing that he was straining under the excitement and all. “Larry, Larry, stop. Don’t get up. Relax,” my mother said.
“Oh . . . it’s so wonderful to see you both, just wonderful,” he said, his eyes customarily welling up with tears. “What’ve you got there, Lil? Your arms are full. Is that my favorite—eggplant?”
“Of course, Larry,” she said. “You know we always knock on the door with our feet.”
“Oh, jeez, now I hope I have the appetite to finish all of it.”
“You taught me eggplant tastes better cold the next day, on a warm piece of semolina,” I said to him as he smiled and squeezed my leg.
“Larry,” my mother said. “You look beat. Let me go in the kitchen and get you a glass of water or club soda or . . .”
Uncle Larry began to laugh a little. “No, Lilly. Don’t worry about it. I have the chief in the kitchen working on what I need.”
That sentence didn’t quite sound right. My mother and I shared a look. “You have a handkerchief in the kitchen?” she said.
“No, no, no,” Uncle Larry said, laughing through a grimace of pain coming from who knows where in his body. “I have the chief working in the kitchen.”
That was met with blank stares.
“I guess Ruth didn’t tell you,” he said, sitting up on the couch and motioning us to come kiss him.
“Larry,” my mother said, “I don’t know who or what the hell you’re talking about.”
And with that, my uncle pulled the cloth from his head, straightened his robe, flashed me a giant smile and a wink, and called out to the kitchen. “Chief! Please come, come meet my brother’s family.”
A hulking presence of a man, wearing a flannel shirt, carpenter jeans, and work boots, walked slowly and respectfully into the room. He stood there slightly bowed, his long, thick black hair squeezed into a ponytail resting just past his shoulders. He had an expression on his angular face that suggested his being there was more than social. And in just a fleeting glance my way, I could sense he knew our drive to Jersey was rather significant.
“A.J., Lil, . . . this is my guest, Chief Lenny,” Uncle Larry said. “He comes by whenever I least expect it but—it turns out—whenever I most need him. Right, Chief?”
The two men shared a knowing smile.
My mother was still in a little bit of shock while I extended my hand. “Chief Lenny, it’s nice to meet you. I’m sure you’re here for very important reasons.” The chief shook my hand, smiled, and started to walk back into the kitchen. “Pleasure,” he called back.
“Okay, Larry, what is going on?” my mother huffed. “Did you let in a trick-or-treater?”
My uncle, perhaps knowing that what he was about to tell us would be hard to digest, motioned for us to grab a seat next to him on the couch. “Let me tell you a crazy story . . .” he began. “And God help me if I’m lying.”
The chief walked in the room and gave us each a cup of tea and then vanished again.
“I first ran into the chief—or I should say the chief ran into me—when the headaches started,” my uncle began. “Not just headaches, mind you, but headaches so bad that I felt blinded by even the smallest of light entering a room. Not even the light of a firefly passing the window could sneak by without the migraines getting worse.”
My mother told him she remembered he wasn’t even taking calls when the debilitating headaches began about a year earlier.
“This is well after I had gone through the initial chemo and radiation on my lung. And right before I was to be diagnosed on the spots on my brain,” he said, motioning for us to sip our teas. “It’s very hard being a doctor with cancer, because we in the profession are the first to place odds on a patient. I knew mine were very, very low.”
“But you and my father are fighters, Uncle Larry, and fighters always have a puncher’s chance,” I said. He put his hand up rather weakly. “Perhaps that’s true, A.J. But cancer is never the underdog in a fight. It enters the ring, it comes into your body, as the favorite.”
“So . . . the chief,” my mother interrupted. “How’d you meet the chief?”
“I’m sorry. My mind wanders,” he said. “It was a rainy night, I want to say about a year ago. Once again, I’m on this couch suffering a headache so bad even the raindrops on the roof hurt.”
“Oh, Larry . . .” my mother whispered.
“On top of the headaches I had developed a lousy cough earlier in the week. So I was really suffering. Suddenly I hear some tapping on the back sliding door, and I’m thinking it’s some opossums or rabbits or some other creatura out there in the woods that want to be fed.”
“Or maybe those black bears are back from a few years ago,” I offer.
“At this house, who knows,” he said.
My uncle took on almost a reverential tone when he went on with the next part of his story. A story that wouldn’t have been so damn believable if it hadn’t been staring us right in the face the whole time we were there.
“I used every last bit of strength I had to rise off the couch and shuffle to the door and peer through the raindrops on the glass. And godammit if it wasn’t an Indian staring right back at me,” he whispered. “A fuckin’ Indian with feathers in his long hair and paint on his face. Standing right there on my deck, on a rainy night in Jersey. If that don’t beat all.”
It still didn’t connect with my mother. “You were seeing things!”
“No, Ma,” I said. “Uncle Larry’s saying that Indian was the chief.”
Uncle Larry laughed and shook his head in unison with mine.
“The chief has saved me, Lilly. He’s kept me around a lot longer than modern medicine could.”
My mother was incredulous. “Larry, why didn’t you tell any of us about this?”
“Would anybody have believed me if I had said an Indian drops by sometimes to help me live?”
“So, is he a witch doctor or what?” my mother asked.
“He’s not a witch doctor. He’s Chippewa nation, from an organization known as Midewiwin.”
As my uncle Larry laughed at the expression of shock on my mother’s face, the chief’s lumbering footsteps came from the kitchen and joined us by the couch before he handed my uncle a cup of something.
“What’s this I’m drinking, Chief?” Uncle Larry asked, before motioning for his friend to shed more light on his being there.
“Of course, Doctor,” the chief said. “This is just a little wild onion and wild garlic tea, with a small hint of mountain sweet. To help with your breathing and to beat back those small tumors. Also to encourage probiotics.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” I said.
The chief turned his attention to my mother. “We in Chippewa nation use material remedies that are the secrets of our organization. We believe that every tree, bush, and plant has a specific use. And that is the knowledge I bring to brother Larry.”
Uncle Larry sipped from his cup. “But, best of all, I never had to tell Chief here I was sick. He came to me that rainy night because he sensed the spirit of suffering lay in this house. Ain’t that right, Chief?” Uncle Larry said.
“How the hell do you do that?” I said.
“Yes, Doctor,” the Chief said as he pointed to his head and chest. “Your uncle’s pain directed me here. It did not matter that we were strangers. What mattered is that we were destined to meet.”
As my mother sat down in a heap, blown away by the fairy tale of it all, Uncle Larry told the chief to walk me around the kitchen to take a look at all his medicines and potions. “Give him the tour,” he said.
The chief walked me into the kitchen, where he had taken over a whole wall and countertop for all his wares. There were dozens and dozens of leaves tied into packets and twigs tied into bundles. My father taught me enough about nature for me to see remnants of spruce sprigs and leaves belonging to hemlock and creeping snowberry plants. I even pointed out, to the chief’s delight, a bunch of red raspberry and portulaca.
“You were taught well,” the chief said to me, tapping my shoulder. “Let me show you a little of how we use nature’s bounty.”
He told me that on that first night, he wandered through the woods—he and my uncle’s pain his only compass—until he came upon the back porch of a home set back from Taylor Road. He brought with him a large leather pouch filled with the remedies he sensed he would need. “The inner scrapings of bur oak to immediately help the doctor’s heart and circulatory system as well as Labrador leaves and root of dogbane for the severe headaches and affliction of nerves.”
After a seventy-two-hour marathon of administering these remedies—in which the chief never slept a wink—he knocked my uncle’s pain clear out of his body. More important, it slowed his cancer to a crawl. This feat allowed the chief to ease my uncle past the world of just sipping on teas stirred with a stick.
“What other stuff did you use?” I said, running my fingers across numerous bottles of powders and elixirs, like wintergreen, joe-pye weed, boneset, and pennyroyal. “After the initial visit, your uncle was game for anything,” he said. “And I got to work. And I didn’t stop until we felt better.
The chief told me he would scrape the inner bark of dried bur oak mixed with dogbane root and pulverize it enough so that it could be snorted as a powder. Or he would gather up and mix spruce sprigs, hemlock leaves, chokecherry, and wild cherry twigs and pound them into a powder and place them on hot rocks so my uncle could cover up under a wet towel and inhale the strong and healing fumes. Other times he would pulverize dried yarrow leaves and combine them with mild tobacco, bearberry, and red-willow leaves to be smoked in a pipe.
“It was most important that I got bobea, wild snowball, and mountain sweet into the doctor’s system first,” the chief said. “I felt the pain leave us from our lungs first and next the very blood running throughout our bodies.”
“Mom, you have no idea how cool all this is,” I shouted into the other room.
The chief laughed. “Usually I mix a tea with root bark and goldenseal each night before bed for your uncle,” he said. “But I don’t think he will need it tonight.”
“What’s that tea for?”
“Despondency and melancholy.” He smiled. “I know he feels happy that you are here, because I feel happy that you are here.”
I thanked the chief for all he told me about helping my uncle by shaking his hand and hugging him hard around his back. It seemed out of place and very ordinary for all the mystical and otherworldly stuff he had just shared with me. When I walked back into the den, it was obvious from their expressions that Uncle Larry had shared some special things with my mom, perhaps more accurate things, concerning his health.
My uncle called out to me. “I was just telling your mother, A.J., how much that summer of 1974 meant to me and your aunt Geneva.”
“Summer of ’74,” I said. “Yeah, that was a great movie.”
“Don’t be a smart-ass,” my mother snapped. “That was the summer we watched Gino for a few months while Aunt Geneva recuperated from her surgery.”
“I know, I know. I’m just breaking balls,” I said. “Yeah, that was one helluva summer I had with my little cousin tailing me. I know I’ll never forget it.”
“My family was just here the other day talking about it,” Uncle Larry recalled. “All the girls and their kids. Robin, Susan, Geneva, it was just wonderful. Gino and Glen were here too. So happy, my son is. So handsome! I don’t know why I ever worried.”
“Spitting image of his old man,” I said.
“But you’ll never know how much that summer meant to me as a man,” Uncle Larry knowingly said to me. “One day, you’ll be a father yourself. And you’ll never expect that there’ll come a day when it’s not enough to be the only man in your little boy’s life.”
His eyes were welling up a little, so I tried to shake us back to reality. “Ah, come on, Uncle Larry. Ain’t there a tea Chief, here, can make to get us to quit getting so sad?”
But my uncle Larry would rather live in the moment, however uncomfortably beautiful it was. “Look at me,” he said, running his hand down his torso. “I used to hold my health in an iron fist and say things like, ‘That’s not what I imagined would happen to me.’ Well, the grip has loosened now, so I can let it just be what it is.”
I looked over at my mother, who was working a tissue like she knew she wouldn’t be seeing her brother-in-law too much longer. “I told Uncle Larry how it sometimes bothers you that we signed a paper for the doctors not to resuscitate your father,” she said. “He wants to say something to you.”
“Ah, Ma, not that again . . .”
“No, no, no. Listen to me, A.J.,” Uncle Larry said with a soft smile. “He’s not up there upset that you guys did what you did. He was counting on it. My brother and I talked. And I hope my son does the same thing if it comes to that.”
“Now you’re talking crazy, Uncle Larry.”
“No, A.J. You know what’s crazy? Crazy is an Indian chief in your kitchen.”