Autism, Work, and Nana

I often fantasize about living in a cheap country house somewhere, cooking and eating casseroles for the rest of my days.....made with cat food of course.

I left work early on Thursday. I didn't feel well, and we were leaving for Washington DC the next day, so I decided it was best for me to go home, rest and be good for the trip.

I just started this job the month prior. It was for an upscale dental office. The Doctor was great, not stuffy or stuck-up. He was the kind of person that would say thank you for the job you are doing and compliment you on how well you were doing it.

My first week in he told me I was doing fabulous. Finally, acknowledgment for hard work. It was wonderful.

I have affectionately decided to refer to myself as a House-Mother. It is a 24/7 rain or shine, blizzards or hurricanes career. A career in which there is no degree you must attain in order to become House-Mother. You never retire but you do wind up living alone in an empty nest with an occasional visit from the grand children. I fancy my “Golden Years“ eating cat food from a can, while wearing turtlenecks in the summer with baggy brown corduroy pants. I will be the poster person for crazy old lady. Hey, at least I have a goal.

When we arrived home from DC, I was greeted by a telephone call from my nana. My mom and nana, never cease to amaze me. We had just dropped my mom off at home, drove about 10 minutes to our house and with the twisting of the key in my front door I rushed to answer the phone.

I must take a moment to describe the nana that belongs to me and my family. She is a novel in and of herself. I tell her all the time that she should write a book. She grew up in an Italian neighborhood with a Mafia undertone. That alone could lead to major motion picture deals and Oscar nods, but she has more fun watching American Idol and declaring war on certain celebrities who have pissed her off.

She grew up during World War II, and aside from losing her brother in the War her only other major life altering recollection from that era was having to wait in line for nylon stockings and not being able to get lipstick at the local drug store.

Nana’s mother fell into a deep state of depression after losing her son. From what I was told, she remained in bed for a year. Nana’s father was an old fashioned man, the neighborhood butcher who would go to the gypsies and ask for advise in lieu of seeking out medical attention. As long as his wife was eating and using the bathroom he felt she was really OK. It was pressure from the family that prompted him to visit his gypsy friends for a cure. They told him his wife would be cured if he placed $100.00 in a brown paper bag and left it in the cemetery at exactly midnight. It was at that moment he decided to force his wife out of bed and tell her to start moving her ass. When asked why he just wouldn’t give the money to the gypsies, he simply told people that it was penny beer night at the bar and he had no time for such nonsense. However, he did contemplate the original cure. Nana claims she saw him counting out the money and placing it in the brown bag while securing a rosary necklace to his belt loop. Bottom line, he chickened out.

I don't know if crazy is a good word to use to describe nana. I would say she is more neurotic. She has this thing with being the eldest in the family, So, in her mind this entitles her to certain privileges, like being able to do whatever she pleases without ever having to worry about cause and effect or more specifically consequences.

When I was 13 she took me for a permanent. I had always wanted curly hair. My father did not, under any circumstance, want me to get a perm. However, nana, being the eldest, knew that his rule did not pertain to her, so off to the gay beautician I went. As I sat there waiting for my luxurious head of curls to appear I was forced to listen to John. This was the 1980’s, but I had always had this thing for Shirley Temple. So I imagined myself on The Good Ship Lollipop which was the ideal distraction from this very, very odd man.

John was eccentric. I don't think I have met a man any gayer than John was. Nana grew up with him. They shared a child hood together, so in some way she was obligated to love him unconditionally, plus, she got free haircuts.

John was also extremely arrogant, he was the definition of sarcasm. I can recall the horrible things he would say to some of his clients as he snipped, curled, and sprayed. However, much like a Doctor, the hairdresser truly holds your life in his hands when you are in his chair. I mean what's to stop him from slipping with the scissors and gouging a hole in your temple?

I sat, surrounded by mirrors illuminated by the brightest fluorescent lighting in creation. Curlers in my hair, inhaling the revolting aroma of rotten eggs, and ammonia. When it was all said and done I had a wonderful head of hair suitable to nest a flock of sparrows. What made it worse was the style. The entire head was not curled. I had only the top and sides done. I invite you to close your eyes for one moment and envision a female mullet made out of nesting and string. I imagine that this style idea was an attempt to “hide” the perm. Or at the most, easily be able to secure it as a freakish salon accident. After all, why would anyone only curl the top of their head while leaving the rest straight?

The walk back to nana’s house after the make over was to this day the ONLY walk of shame I have ever participated in. She stopped at every store front to wave and point at my head.
There is not one person who honestly thought it looked beautiful. I could see the look in there eyes as they cringed within. I just stood there and smiled.

Back at nana's house she made the phone call to my mom.

"Well, Michele, I did it, and I don't care what you say, I wanted to do it, and she looks beautiful".

Thirty minutes was all it took for my parents to brave the traffic on the Long Island Expressway to save me.

As we drove down the boulevard where the beauty shop was I saw John. I waved from my car window and he was running. John was running like he was holding first place in the NYC Marathon. He nearly tripped over his own feet when he saw my dad driving the car. It wasn’t until 20 years later did I discover why John was running. Before coming to get me, my mother had phoned him. She advised him that he better close his shop, because my father was on his way and he was going to kill him.

She told him that my father would first tie him to his chair, the one in which he "executed' many women. Than he would take the scissors, and cut off all of his hair. This alone, must have scared the shit out of him. Gay men are very vain. Getting a bad haircut could mean calling in sick to work for a month until it had a chance to grow in. After the haircut, he would than break his fingers. Twist the little creative appendages until they snapped. With a final threat of forcibly feeding perm solution down his throat John was on his way. To where, we never really ever found out.

He didn't call the police like they would now. Instead John followed the advise given to him, closed shop, and ran out of town for a few days. This was the rule. If he had called the police and filed a report he would have to leave the neighborhood anyway for being a rat. I am sure it made for some good conversation after it was all said and done. I pictured him many times, standing over some overly teased and processed blonde, saying, "Do you know what that bitch said to me? She said he was coming here to kill me!"

The bleached blonde would say. "Well, he is just crazy I tell you, crazy. It was good that you took off for a few days. So what do you think of red-heads?"


Out of breath and with the luggage strap still attached to my wrist I answered the phone. We have an answering machine, why I am so compelled to answer a ringing phone in a frenzy, I just don’t know.

It was nana. "Janine, you better talk to your mother, I am sick and tired of her telling me what to do with Mikey, if you don't talk to her, you will have to quit your job, because I can't handle him". Mikey is my 8 year old son with Autism.

"Nana, I just got in the door, what is going on?" I asked.

"Oh, you just got in the door huh?, Well, call me when YOU are ready!"
The loud slamming of the receiver on her end into my right ear, which to this day still hums and buzzes from time to time was all I heard, and than there was silence.

I stood there, jaw dropped, my husband looking at me.

"I don't know what just happened." I told him.

"Don't worry about it." he said.

There I stood, feeling like a 13 year old with her first perm. There was no one to stare at me but the feeling was the same. Disgust, anger and confusion.

Nana gives Mikey whatever he wants. He will have a pacifier in his mouth, the toilet tanks are open so he can play "Plumber Mike". She will feed him endless amounts of candy, allow him to draw on her furniture because it’s old anyway. Her kitchen cabinet doors are often scotch taped closed. If he feels the urge to use a cuss word it’s fine at nana’s house.

Nana thinks these things are cute, but what she does not realize is that these things are all parts of his Autism. His need to do “weird” stuff. A normal 5 year old, really does not play in toilet tanks, or scotch tape cabinets closed. We are trying to teach him not to do these things, so when he goes to her house basically everything we tried to reinforce has been thrown out the window. My mom brought this to her attention, and nana, being the eldest, did not appreciate the critique.

I was working 12 hour shifts 3 days a week, and I will admit, it was tough. However, I had 4 days off in a row, and it really wasn't that bad, but with the crazy weekend in DC I saw parts of Mikey that I thought had vanished. Nana was doing more harm than good, and I had to resume full time House-Mother status for a little while longer.

I called my job, and left a voicemail telling them I quit. I thanked them for there kindness and understanding, That was it. Just like that, I was a part of something, and now I wasn‘t.
A few hours later the office manager called me back and I had a chance to explain to her what was going on. Mikey needed me, it was a terrible weekend. He may need more intensive therapy, re-evaluations, more after school classes. I needed to be home to take care of this. Initially her reaction was sweet, and understanding. No one really can understand unless they are living through this. The constant rollercoaster of emotions. Just when you think the ride is over it takes another wild turn. I was thankful to have had such an easy person to explain my trials and tribulations to. Until her final response.

"I won't lie”, she said. “I was very shocked to receive a message, no warning, no notice. You really left us in a tough spot over here."

HELLO??????? Didn't she hear one word I had just said? A "tough spot"! Is she crazy? Had I finally found someone more nuts than me? I didn't plan on quitting my job. I didn't plan on being paycheck-less until who knows when. Ultimately, I did not plan on having a child with Autism.

With nothing left to say I mumbled a pathetic apology and just hung up the phone.

People often ask me to describe how “bad” his Autism is. Will he be able to get a job, get married, have a family, live independently? In this world where people demand guarantees and answers, I am unable to answer even the simplest question. While parents are busy mapping out the futures of there children, I am sidelined with Autism and a question mark. My strongest conviction in all of this is the fact that I just don't know. Strange how I have come to terms with not knowing.

While I need money and our home is probably on its way to foreclosure one of these days, I have no doubt in my mind that this was the right decision. We need the extra income, but my son needs me more. I often fantasize about living in a cheap country house somewhere, cooking and eating casseroles for the rest of my days.....made with cat food of course.

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