By Rosemary Rogers
was said that the father, Mr. Feeney, would look in the mirror every
morning and announce, "Thank God I'm Irish!" The Irish
were the only ethnic group he would tolerate and only Catholic Irish
who hailed from Co. Kerry, his birthplace. Mr. Feeney regarded most
of his working class neighbors as "left footers," a derisive
term reserved for the Irish who indulged in such unorthodox behavior
as marrying outside the tribe, attending public school or preferring
American to Gaelic Football. Though we lived in the tiny apartment
just below his tiny apartment and a fire escape adjoined our bedrooms,
Mr. Feeney rarely deigned to visit our home. My parents were from
the "wrong" part of Ireland and took little interest in
any kind of football. When he did attend one of our graduation parties,
he took great and vocal offense ("I will not line Her Majesty's
pocketbook!") when my mother offered him a subversive scotch
instead of Irish whiskey. He left in a huff.
Bluster aside, Mr. Feeney abhorred untidiness and would follow and
critique his equally fastidious wife while she cleaned, and Mrs.
Feeney cleaned constantly. When Mrs. Feeney wasn't cleaning, she
was gossiping-her role as Bronx biddy was helped along by a keening
voice and oversized eyeglasses. She set herself up as a strict sentry
of her unclean neighbors and their many sins: with no small amount
of wit, she would describe sloppy apartments and mothers who wore
too much makeup. She enjoyed naming the names of those who arrived
late to Mass and snuck out early from wakes. Some tough old birds
would openly parry with her but most, like my mother, feared her.
The Feeney's youngest child, Martin, was what was euphemistically
called a "change of life" baby. Starting when he was about
five, Mrs. Feeney would send Martin down to play in our apartment
not knowing that my sister and I took advantage of his younger age,
his pricier toys and his gullibility. When we weren't taunting him
with epithets ("Fartin' Martin" being our particular favorite),
we were making up stories that he always believed. We convinced
him that our one-bedroom apartment had a private elevator, World
War III had broken out downtown, and he, not us, had tangled and
ruined another one of his Slinkies.
But the most fun we had with Martin was dressing him up as a little
girl, a game he enjoyed as well. My sister and I would put him in
a skirt and blouse and arrange a flowery kerchief around his golden
Shirley Temple curls. We even christened him with a jazzy, American-sounding
Judy! We took "Little Judy" down to the candy
store, the playground, and the supermarket, introducing 'her' around
the neighborhood as a cousin from Flushing.
Decades passed, my sister and I had real children to dress up and
we seldom thought of Martin. We knew he was still living with his
parents and worked as a meter man for Con Edison. At 30, he was
unmarried, "a bachelor man," as his mother liked to call
him, making him seem almost rakish. When an impolitic neighbor would
suggest it was about time for him to marry, Mrs. Feeney would counter
"At least he's not living in an apartment on his own!"
or "Well, tis better he's single than divorced, tisn't it?"
This last remark always stung my mother since I was, in fact, divorced,
a dark secret she kept from Mrs. Feeney. Even in 1982, Mrs. Feeney
felt divorce was shameful and confined to high-heeled hussies who
were denied the sacraments and destined to burn in Hell.
It was around this time that my parents, now quite elderly, came
home from Thanksgiving dinner at my house. Reaching the front door,
they were alarmed to notice it was slightly open. They slowly entered
but stopped when they heard what my mother later described as "horrible
animal noises" coming from their bedroom. My mother's first,
odd, thought was that somehow "a bear had gotten caught in
a trap" inside her Bronx bedroom. They made a quick call to
the police and hustled out of the apartment.
They were still on the landing when Martin burst forth from their
front door, his oafish body naked. He ran past them and up the cold
stairs. My mother managed to note the doughy backside while my father
spotted the shamrock on his arm-a tattoo with the somewhat redundant
inscription, "I'm Irish." Then they heard him enter his
apartment, slam and double-lock his door.
Later that night, when my mother was telling me the story, it was
at this point that I gasped, "Oh God, he had a girl in your
bedroom!" My mother answered, "No, no, it wasn't a girl.
It's worse. He was alone."
Stunned, my parents returned to the apartment and made their way
to the bedroom. The room was ransacked and the iron gate guarding
the fire escape window had been bent as if it were part of some
strongman routine. My mother found something curious on the floor,
namely her underwear, mostly sale items from Mrs. Platz's Corset
Shoppe: A salmon colored full slip (size 20 ½, a size specially
designed for the short and stout), the long line brasserie with
safety pins to reinforce both straps, the panty girdle with four
garters dangling like four anchovies. Her right and left support
stockings, severed from the garters, were flung to opposite sides
of the room. Finally, under the bed were her roomy underpants, which,
she noted, were quite damp.
Thanks to a recent episode of The Phil Donahue Show featuring
transvestites, my mother had diagnosed Martin's malady around the
same time the police arrived. She told them what happened; they
called Martin demanding he come down immediately and "bring
any clothes that don't belong to you." Ten minutes later, he
entered my parents' apartment carrying my mother's Easter outfit
in his arms like it was a sick child. Apparently, for this heady
cross-dressing binge, he had chosen her Easter outfit as his main
costume. He went upstairs to his mother's apartment, dressed
up as my mother stopping by for tea after Easter Sunday mass.
He confessed all, without prompting, the tears running from his
blue eyes and landing on his skimpy mustache. He knew my parents'
schedule and where his mother kept their keys. He knew where my
mother kept her nightgowns, her housedresses and especially
underwear. On this fateful Thanksgiving night, he heard them come
in the apartment and tried to escape out the fire escape, but only
succeeded in bending the iron gate covering the window-a gate designed
to keep burglars out but now served to keep a transvestite in. When
the police asked how long this had been going on, he answered, "Since
I was 12." 12!!!!! Since he was now 30, 18 years of my mother's
missing foundation garments and unmated support hose was instantly
explained. A policeman asked, "Are you a homosexual, Martin?"
"Of course not!!" he snapped, affronted and, for a moment,
no longer ashamed.
When my mother had a moment alone with one of the policemen, she
asked why he just didn't wear his mother's clothes and spare himself
the trip downstairs. The officer, surprisingly educated about such
matters, explained that Martin would never wear his own mother's
clothes but he still wanted to dress like her. In other words, he
wanted to dress in Bronx grandmother outfits rather than flashy
showgirl costumes and, luckily, my mother's 20½-size wardrobe
accommodated Martin's heft. Besides, the officer pointed out, entering
someone else's apartment was dangerous and danger usually goes along
with compulsive behavior, a big part of the thrill.
That night my sister and I talked a long time about Martin. We felt
guilty. "Could we be responsible?" we kept asking each
other, replaying scenes of "Little Judy" preening around
the neighborhood in her different disguises. Our remorse, however
genuine, was tempered by a wee bit of schadenfreude: Martin
was pathetic but his dilemma seemed such a comeuppance for Mr. and
Mrs. Feeney, both so intolerant of anybody who was "different."
When my mother had asked him the crucial question, "Do your
parents know?" Martin was finally reduced to uncontrollable
sobs, pleading "No, no, no, please don't tell them!"
My mother never did tell the Feeneys or, for that matter, any of
the neighbors. But it wasn't long afterwards that she blithely announced
to Mrs. Feeney (and anyone else) that I was divorced and doing just
fine. She didn't care if Mrs. Feeney imagined me entertaining burly
strangers or lamented my (divorcée) inability to receive
Holy Communion. My mother no longer felt the need to keep it a secret.
She was, at long last, liberated.
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