Andrew Sarewitz- Febuary 2, 20201
IN PAT'S KITCHEN
The time I remember Pat most clearly is around the holidays. That’s not entirely accurate, because I think about her often. But at Thanksgiving or Christmas, I see her kids and grandchildren and it drives home the vacancy at the dinner table and in the living room. And in particular, the kitchen. That’s where the best conversations took place. Around the square, penknife-graffitied ebony table that now lives at the eat-in kitchen at her son, Rick’s house. I am now older than Pat was when we met.
There’s an encyclopedia’s breadth of water-smudged memories that have made it difficult to write concisely about her. More inhibiting for me is wishing to portray her accurately. I’m not aiming for perfection — which is boring anyway. But in my mind, you don’t raise four children to be electric individuals without possessing special charms. Physically, I see Pat in Sharyn, her oldest daughter’s face. It’s a lovely reminder, particularly because I love Sharyn as well. But Pat’s characteristics and personality are unduplicatable. And that scratchy, unmistakable laugh — indelible and memorized.
In New York City, where the local populations live far and wide apart in small spaces with kitchens that tended to be constructed for short-stay defrosting, friends meet to socialize at diners, coffee shops, bars and restaurants. At least among my group. Having grown up in the suburbs, we all hung out at friends’ homes. And in Pat’s house, the kitchen was the center of the world.
It wasn’t love at first sight. I had become friends with Rick when he and I were in 11th grade. I had been invited to his family’s house on Walton Road in Maplewood, NJ, a few times after school, but hadn’t met his mother who, ironically worked at our high school. The first time I was introduced to Pat was on a warm, spring evening when her family was having dinner out on their screened-in porch. Pat did not take to me at all, nor appreciate my interrupting family time. I chalk it up to a couple of things; most notably her not wanting her son to hang around me. I think it was evident I was in love with him.
Ricky, knowing his own mother well, arranged a day at the beach for the three of us. Fair or not, I was used to having to earn someone’s approval. This was the late 1970’s — I dated girls back then. I hadn’t considered until decades after the fact that my girlfriends’ parents approved of my courting their daughters. What could be safer than having their precious girl be with a boy whowouldn’t knock her up? If that’s accurate, it was short sighted. As a teen, a spring breeze gave me a hard-on…
There were multitudes of high schoolers that hung out in Pat’s kitchen. But the boys that surrounded Rick, some of us glaring outsiders, were drawn to his relaxed nonconformity and acceptance. I won’t say that he didn’t care what others thought of him, but he definitely encircled himself with personalities that didn’t earn him peer approval.
We’d go over after class let out and meet in Pat’s kitchen. We all smoked cigarettes, which seems so foreign now. We did homework (occasionally), talked about school and girls, played Boggle, attempted crossword puzzles and discussed the various topics of the age. And in my case, thanks to uncontained allergies, sneezed constantly. At its height, Pat’s house had four cats and a dog. I wasn’t allergic to Flip, their gentle Collie/Golden mix. But no one told me to pick up and cuddle Spike, the adorable green eyed, black cat that Rick’s sister, Debbie brought home. Before Spike was full grown, she’d dive onto one of the porch screens, freeze vertically like a squirrel on a tree, then dive to a perpendicular screen, before ricocheting across the room and running to the other side of the house. It was hilarious.
The school friendships naturally ebbed and flowed. But even if no one else was at the house — including Rick — any of us boys would be happy to have Pat to ourselves for unabridged conversations about almost anything.Was it warmth or approval or conversation or inclusion? Or all of the above? I’d love to illuminate the piece of Pat’s personality that places her not only as unforgettable but as necessary. She wasn’t another mother to me: I had a mother. But the word friend, broad as the term may be, doesn’t capture the right grace we all felt in her presence.
The day at the beach.
Pat picked me up in her powder-blue Scout, with Rick riding shotgun. We drove down the shore. I can’t tell you what we discussed throughout the day but acceptance shifted in my favor. I came home with a painful sunburn and Pat’s affection.
The illustration I hold as iconic is Pat in her kitchen, wavy auburn hair falling just below her shoulders, dressed in Emma Peel slacks, brown flats and a button down blouse. She’s leaning on the counter, preparing an oven and stove-top meal, holding a lit Viceroy 100 between her lips while finishing a thought, all as casual as a carafe of wine.
I want to be careful here, but I think it’s relevant to talk about Rick’s father. The first time I met Dick, he was very welcoming. Discussing theater and humanities — he and Pat had attended the same high-school as Rick and I. The next time I came by the house, he eviscerated me. I didn’t see it coming and wasn’t prepared for an adult, let alone a friend’s parent, to go on the attack. A verbal knock-out, and he wasn’t wearing gloves.
Licking my wounds in the kitchen, his daughter, Debbie reminded me that I was a guest in Dick’s house. She acknowledged that it wasn’t very nice of him but I needed to see I was on his territory. I’ve never forgotten the conversation. I thought being Rick’s friend and in Pat’s good favor meant I had some rights to that house. It was the spring I turned 17, with the misplaced narcissism that comes with being that age.
To this day, I don’t talk much about Dick with his children. He was their father and however I feel, I respect that. Even if they talk negatively about him, I try to keep my opinion to myself. There were times over the years when he treated me well. But I always had my guard up and though I’m someone who often needs people to like me, I genuinely didn’t give a crap what he thought of me, as long as he kept his distance.
He and Pat must have been a gorgeous couple when they had been young. At middle age, they were both incredibly attractive — as are all four of their kids. I can imagine the initial romance was something to witness. Knowing very little about their early days, I remember that Dick was raised up on the hill, on the “good” side of town. Not so Pat. I wish I could have seen their chemistry. By the time I knew them, decades had claimed any evidence.
I recall as a ritual that Dick’s presence was mostly peripheral. Even in his own house. I didn’t put Pat and Dick in the same sentence. Coming home after work, Dick would walk into the kitchen, wordlessly fill a tumbler with ice cubes, vodka and lime, and retire to his den to watch tv in peace.
Wrong or right, Dick waited for Rick to graduate high school before leaving Pat for another woman. His secretary. How unoriginal. But what is true and very surprising to me is that I now believe he had drifted out of love with Pat and genuinely fell in love with Joanne. Pat was a beauty. Joanne was average at best and before I got to spend any time with her, I had decided she was uninteresting — particularly when compared to Pat. But I changed, or at least opened my mind about Dick. He hadn’t gone for some pretty, young debutant, leaving middle aged Pat for a sports car and some curvy airhead. He and Joanne stayed together until Dick passed away. In the years he was with Joanne, Dick was engaging and practically warm with me. I played along but all I could think of was what his leaving had done to Pat. Whether his responsibility or not, when Dick moved out, Pat began to falter.
For Rick, having his friends hang out in the kitchen was welcome company, but the constant clubhouse of it all wasn’t the plan. We didn’t take the hint. Rick would sometimes come home and head straight up to his bedroom to escape the social network. It was a different era and culture. I can’t believe we all would just show up and walk into the house. No phone call, no polite advance notice to see if it might be convenient. If the front door was unlocked, we would just walk in as if the house was our personal property.
Even after moving away, I was annually included in their family holiday dinners. Initially this was a dilemma for me. I was very close to my parents yet I couldn’t stand taking part in my own extended family’s traditions. It’s not a logical reaction I can easily explain. Whatever the forensics, eventually I found a way to be with the Lawalls, even when it meant lying to my parents.
With the possible exception of my mother, no one was surprised when I came out as gay. But I can say with certainty that Pat did not want to see this. I still don’t know how much was steeped in a concern that Rick and I might be together. Rick almost always had a serious girlfriend, so that may be less the issue than Pat not wanting me to be “like that.”
I was so naive about sexuality. I was a believer in love and I loved Pat’s son. I remember awkwardly describing to her how I thought Rick and I felt about each other. What was wrong with me? This was his mother! It became elevated to the point where I actually asked her, “Do you know what I mean?” Pat turned to me, fuming and said, “No Buzz, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
I can’t explain away how I thought back then. My excuse is having been young and stupid with no guidance or role models. Did I just assume that everyone saw how close Rick and I had become and therefore there’d be some sort of natural acceptance if things progressed? This was the 1970’s. To contradict that thought process, had Rick even tried to make a move — which he didn’t — I don’t know what the fuck I would have done.
I have some understanding of certain, primitive straight men (I’m not talking about Rick) who don’t really like the company of women: but treat their closest male friends as coveted. They don’t know how to communicate with the opposite sex beyond seeing them as sexual stimulation, a mother to their children and maybe confirmation of their masculinity. The fictional Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson had that sort of friendship. If I seem to have sailed off course, that kind of mutual male affection is how I qualified Rick and myself.
While Pat still lived at the house on Walton Road, I heard from friends that she had begun to act erratically. One high school adversary named Aaron, told me that he showed up one evening and from the front stoop, Pat screamed and threw a flower pot at him. I was sure he was lying. Shortly after, when I stopped in for a visit, though happy to see me, Pat did seem “off.” Something was very wrong. She and I sat up all night talking. We spent hours heading toward the truth of what she believed was happening. What came to light was paranoia and a break from reality. In trust, by morning, she confessed to believing the house on Walton Road was holding her prisoner. Knowing I was over my head, I told her to call one of her kids. At 8:30 in the morning, she dialed Debbie, then living near Washington, DC. Out of context, Pat didn’t explain herself well when she told Debbie that the house was keeping her there. Debbie’s response was that she didn’t have time for this. She hung up. Pat reverted to self-protected denial, never discussing it with me again.
I don’t pretend to know the relationship between Pat and each of her children. Debbie may have suffered illogical ravings over the years and heard her mother again crying wolf. But what I saw was a woman I adored at her most vulnerable asking a daughter for help and getting a response that she was an inconvenience.
I had my own life a world away from suburban Maplewood. No longer present, I wasn’t there to see Pat’s deterioration. Her children moved her out of the house and into an apartment in Summit, NJ. I hadn’t seen her in quite a while when Rick, who was living on a lake in Central New Jersey, invited me to her apartment for Christmas dinner. It was the first time I saw Pat, knowing that she had been told I was gay. When she saw me, she wanted to be angry, but was fighting all smiles. Not able to stop herself, in the kitchen she said to me, “How can you be this way, Buzz?” I said, “you better love me anyway.” Pat, who had never been demonstrative, threw her arms around me and said, “dammit, what can I do? I hate it but I love you.” It was a different time. I understood.
There was no way to deny her decline, even physically. Her hair was stringy and unkempt with inches of gray roots. I have no issue with gray hair — my own mother let herself go silver. But Pat always took pride in her appearance, which included coloring her hair. Her lipstick looked dry and a lower front tooth was missing. But the essence of what I loved so dearly permeated. Both difficult to see and grateful to be around.
Dick’s leaving brought on Pat’s mental illness. Having witnessed mental disorders in my own blood line, I ignorantly say she had either hidden it well or, like certain physical diseases, it lay dormant until something awakened the sleeping enemy. Her being abandoned by Dick released or ignited a cruel change not previously apparent to me. I don’t know the details surrounding hospitalization or medications. Her kids ended up chipping in money each month to support Pat, with Rick managing the finances.
In January of 2002, while on vacation, I got a phone call from Rick’s third sister, Trice. I was sitting poolside at a guest house in Key West, when the manager brought me the cordless house phone. Pat had died. As I welled up, Trice said to me, “Buzz, you know how much Mom loved you.”
I have tried to write about Pat for years. Balancing my truth alongside everyone else’s is not easy. And my friendship with her kids is more important than relaying some unauthorized story of my memories. I don’t imagine it’s unusual for teens to become close to their friends’ parents. But this was different. Had my relationship with Rick and his sisters not survived, I still believe I would have kept my friendship with Pat. It’s not new saying this, but I wouldn’t be who I am had it not been for Pat Lawall. I ask her children to forgive my divulging the sad epilogue. The years of Pat’s den-mother kitchen and the boys who would rather have spent time with her than friends their own age tells of the great and unusual adoration we had for her. I hope we gave her this much happiness in return.
In the summer of 2019, there was a double homicide in an affluent town in northern New Jersey. A jilted lover stabbed a father of two to death in his bed before chasing down his ex-girlfriend, the family’s au pair, bludgeoning her in the street outside the home. The gruesome murders made the front page of the New York Times. I read the article first. Then, as I studied the photograph of the sight, my hands began to shake and I dropped the newspaper. I knew that house very well.
There are no drawing comparisons to the horror that was perpetrated there. But I won’t apologize for feeling terrible for Rick and his sisters. Their memories were stolen and forever stained by a tragedy having nothing to do with them, overshadowing the independent history that came years before, in that beautiful wooden colonial, on a corner lot on Walton Road in Maplewood, New Jersey. Pat’s house, always.
Andrew has written several short stories (www.andrewsarewitz.com) as well as scripts for various media. His play, Madame Andrèe garnered First Prize from Stage to Screen New Playwrights in San Jose, CA, opening the festival in August, 2019. His play Five Men, Four Beds advanced to the Second Round at the 2019 Austin Film Festival Competition. Andrew’s sitcom spec script, The White House is a Finalist in the 2019 Pitch Now Screenplay Competition. Mr. Sarewitz also has authored numerous historical and critical artist essays with a primary focus on non-conformist art from the former Soviet Union.