Saturday, September 6, 2008


This is a sort of tribute to my Cousin Steve, as well as a clearing of the air for the benefit of the readers of his weblog. You need not read further unless slow moving trainwrecks hold a special fascination for you.

Steve and I are estranged now since his heart attack a few years ago, but some things he has written on his blog recently lead me to the inescapable conclusion that the guy I loved and thought of as a brother really harbored a festering resentment of me and my immediate family.

His weblog ( is an eclectic mix of campy items he has collected from print media ephemera, amusing fabulist stories, shaggy dog stories, and his own political rants. Among these items he has posted several heartbreaking pieces in tribute to his mother, father, sisters, and brother (all since passed).

He has one surviving brother who he has not devoted a piece to, but who he mentions once in passing. The items about his parents were remarkable eulogies to people who otherwise would not be so honored and he treats them with great respect and affection, as is their due.

The pictures of his mother and sisters are works of art probably shot and printed by his father in the fifties and sixties. They should be seen by all because of their remarkable composition and the vivaciousness of their subjects.

Go here for some of them as well as the usual collection of family photos:

Other pictures exist in his flickr account:

Steve is a brilliant, creative person who is a complex mix of passion, humor, bitterness, and anger. Like with any person you feel affection for, you take the good with the bad. His sense of humor can be quite biting at times. Cruel, even. You can see it in two posts where he ridicules a less than beautiful couple and in the way he uses the picture of a disabled carny to make a (mostly clever) political joke.

We (his cousins) are very proud of him and have followed his avocation of acting, stand-up comedy and painting as closely as he would let us. He is a published writer of mysteries and has won some magazine awards for his short stories. He is firmly embedded in his community and has legions of friends and readers who follow him very closely.

His is brilliant, but (as you will see later) he is also forgetful. If you have the patience, read this post where he describes his early life living in the Redford, (a suburb of Detroit) projects and the poverty he was born into: Monkey Muck: The most expensive thing in the world.

I think that it is clear that his family experienced some serious deprivation and this led to a strong feeling on his part of food insecurity, among other issues surround attachment, that haunted him for some time.

He describes a happy, if troubled existence in the projects. His family was stalked by poverty, death, mental illness, and family violence, but he (as any son would) remembers the good times and honors his parents and siblings with a graceful pen. I spent Christmas breaks with them and I always enjoyed my visits. My cousins were like rare butterflies to me and I loved them dearly and were fascinated by the stories they told and their apparent (and relative) sophistication. They were from the city and I was from the country. I was a bumpkin who treasured going to the big city to ride the buses, walk the streets and play in the urban parks and shopping centers.

He witnessed the death of his younger sister when they were all merely crossing the street to buy some candy. His father was schizophrenic and his mother and father were eventually divorced. Finally, around 1972, his mother died and the four remaining children were left with nowhere to go. Their mother's relatives were unable to care for them and so they
came to live with us.

This is the part where Steve's story diverges from fact. Or more specifically, key facts are left out. The man and women he refers to as "Aunt Rageaholic" and "Uncle Adultry" are my mother and father.

At the time of his mother's death, we (the Iwaniszeks) were a family of four natural sibling and two foster sisters (related to each other, but not to us). The Hisey girls were teenagers and their oldest sister had married and moved out before the cousins moved in. The remaining two were semi-transient and lived with us but moved out periodically for reasons I can't recall. But the upshot is that the Detroit cousins moved into a family that already had six to seven kids taken care of my mother and father on our farm in rural Michigan. We also had others come and live with us and leave (another foster brother, the son of one of my mother's friends, and a true charity case my mother took in for a year).

Besides characterizing my mother and father by their signal character flaws (unfair, given the vast set of qualities they possess that made our home what it was - my mother's cooking, her singing, the sheer herculean effort she expended to care for so many children, the expansiveness of her heart and her generosity, and her exhuberance; my father's creativity and industriousness and his labor to feed, cloth and shelter so many, and his service in Italy during WWII), Steve maligns my mother by terming her "greedy" and implies that somehow she was profiting from taking in her brother's children and raising them.

Their mother didn't work, so it is not clear to me that they qualified for social security survivor benefits. There may have been some kind of child welfare payments available in Michigan at the time, but I don't know what, if any, was available to compensate for the upkeep of four children recently orphaned. Their father was still alive at that time, so perhaps he provided some child support when he was working. Whatever the case, my father (who made no more than 30k a year in the 70s) was the sole breadwinner for a very large blended family.

I think that the point I am trying to make is that my mother was not motivated to raise her brother's children because it paid well. It was out of a sense of family duty and the love that we all had for those kids we treasured and spent our summers with.

Reading his posts, I can't escape the sense that the cousins harbored deep resentment towards me and my brothers and sister. They must have been in terrible pain over the loss of their family and the dependency that they had no control over. Their lives contained a series of tragedies not of their own making and the winds of death and madness buffeted them from all sides. The farm that was supposed to be their haven was very chaotic at times and we all had to pitch in a make it work. The sheer logistics of cooking, washing clothes, and keeping so many children healthy and in school required that the kids perform lots of the work.

I think Steve is forgetting the incredible, almost hallucinatory, good that came from living the lives we had.

We had the freedom (once the work was done) to run wild through the woods and fields of Michigan (and later, Virginia). Every summer day we traipsed to the lake to swim or hid out in the woods, or played in the yard. We put up hay and cared for cows and chickens and grew vegetables in our garden. The house was crowded and we fought like cats and dogs, but we were kids and we had the freedom most kids would envy if they even knew it was possible.

Steve's filet-mignon post is a shaggy dog story structured around its punch line. It is very likely that my mother did use the comparable price of filet mignon to illustrate how expensive some of those foods were to limit portions. But remember we had a huge family and when you cook for crowds like that, there has to be some restraint on portions. One way is to pre-plate the food, but we sat family style and passed the plates and took our portions from the serving platter. It is very easy to take so much that the last person in line gets nothing so Mom had to keep a watchful eye on the kids to make sure everyone got a share. If you haven't lived like this then it is difficult to grasp. There was plenty of food. It may not have been particularly lavish or luxurious, but it was good and the cousins were known to brag about it to their friends and family.

We moved to Jonesville, Virginia in late 1974. I think that was turning point for our family where we began a descent into fragmentation and bankruptcy. Yet most of my memories of that period are good. Once again we found ourselves in an expansive rural setting. The schools were not the best, but almost all of us made it through and beyond. When I left for college, I had been preceded by my oldest cousin. He was expelled for cause (I don't know what the cause was, but I believe it was academic negligence - failure to attend convocations) and he went on to the Navy and proceeded to edit himself from our family's lives until close to his death a few years ago. (Steve's tribute to his brother is quite nicely written. Charlie is fortunate to have someone who eulogized him so eloquently. I doubt many people will experience a similar honor in their lives.)

Steve's sister Sandy followed me to Berea College, but dropped out in her first year. Her story is told on Steve's website as well.

My mother was always entrepreneurial. In Michigan she had a catering service. In Virginia she had a little painting business, and then established a restaurant. I think that it is true that she somehow came in to possession of Steve's settlement money (he was the only minor left
in his family under her roof). The other cousins blew through their money from that settlement, but Steve's was still in the bank. Clearly, that was not responsible of my mother as Steve's guardian, but in her defense, she thought that the restaurant would be a success and that she would be able to pay Steve back with interest. That's not how it worked out.

In fact, the events that transpired after the restaurant was opened led to the dissolution of my parent's marriage, their bankruptcy, and my mother's falling into poverty for several years after. All this time, my cousin was my mother's dependent, along with my younger brother (now deceased by his own hand). My mother was able to build a successful business starting in her sixties and worked until her late seventies. She is struggling financially now after a disastrous business miscalculation but she is still working and lives independently. She is 82 and the sole survivor of her side of the family.

So you can see that there is much more to the story about when he and his sibling were "sent to live with Aunt Rageaholic and Uncle Adultery". Much he is leaving out either because he forgot or because to leave the details in would not fit the narrative he is trying to build.

Steve is a brilliant. His creativity is unquestionable. He has the makings of a great writer. It is sad that he feels the need to cut off so much of his childhood and to derogate the people who raised him and the family who loves him. That he does it so easily and publicly is a shock to me and my sister. I can only hope that my mother never sees it.

I want this estrangement to end. My sister and I have reached out with Christmas cards and gifts, but he doesn't seem responsive to our attempts to continue to include him in our family, if only to get a civil note in the mail or an occasional telephone call. I doubt that this post will help in that endeavor, but I can't let his mischaracterization of our family stand without rebuttal.

Thank you for your patience with my family drama. But without drama, what would families be?

No comments: