OUT OF THE OLD BLACK BAG
They Play Pinochle in Heaven, Don’t They?
By Anthony Kovatch, M.D.
AHN Pediatrics — Pediatric Alliance Arcadia
Musical accompaniment: “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel.
“Go take care of your father,” he said with dire concern as we passed through the gauntlet of the wedding party hand-shaking, kissing and hugging while exiting the church after the grand Hungarian marriage service that Saturday afternoon in 1969. My cousin Ernie had just exchanged vows with Suzanne, the one and only true love of his life, but Daddy was crying profusely for reasons unbeknownst to any of us — perhaps even to himself. For the sake of the photographers who would have to avoid the glare of Ernie’s thick horn-rimmed glasses, he was functioning without them and I thought that he was merely misinterpreting Daddy’s tears of joy as tears of sorrow. Now, over a half-century later, I realize that they were nothing more than tears flowing under the bridge over troubled waters.
The story starts about a century ago in the obscure coal-mining village of McAdoo, in northeastern Pennsylvania; if you pass the “Welcome to McAdoo” sign and sneeze or blow your nose, you will next see a new sign: “Welcome to Tresckow.” A little man named John Kovatch (“blacksmith” in Hungarian) dragged his tiny, devoutly Catholic wife, Mary, to the new world of opportunity and labored in the mines for years to feed his 11 children (8 survived). There, they weathered the Great Depression. “The only meat on the family table went to the father of the family,” my Daddy would lecture to us when he sensed our greed for worldly pleasures. “Everybody else in the family got the broth!” This legacy of deprivation and gratitude for opportunity has run through the veins of all the Kovatch descendants (especially of this author) right to this day!
Working day and night with the canaries in the coal minds over the years causes damage to the mind, and by the age of fifty, John Kovatch had completely lost his. Whether by genetics or toxic exposure, or a synergy of the two, John spent the last 20 years of his life in a state of withdrawal and apathy; the consensus of the locals was that it was a by-product of toiling deep within the mines. Before his breakdown, John sired his eleventh child — a small, fair, skinny boy with white hair who ran very fast and played the violin to entertain the rest of the family; John Kovatch would peer at this son, the violinist, from behind his bedroom door — at that point in time he never spoke.
However, these years surrounding the Depression imbued the Kovatch family and the other denizens of McAdoo with a spirit of the greatest magnanimity: BLOOD was thick, and every family member helped to support all the others — sisters raised their brothers’ children (and vice versa) with little differentiation between biological and adopted siblings. A baby whose mother died in childbirth or because of complications of coat hanger abortions common in that era was raised immediately by a surrogate parent; the truth was never disclosed even to the child.
I remember my father (named after Saint Anthony but called “Rocky” after the boxer, Rocky Marciano) telling me and my brother that he never really had a father. I think in retrospect he was trying to tell us that he was lucky enough to have had many fathers, including but not limited to all his older brothers, his older sisters’ husbands, and the priests at the Hungarian church. In fact, anybody who you played pinochle with was your father!
But of all the card playing fathers, the man of honor was Rocky’s oldest brother, Elmer, who looked after him and treated him like the eldest of his own 6 children. “He was my favorite because he felt sorry for me and took me swimming!” my father would say. If he were alive today, I would rudely respond thusly in the words of novelist William Faulkner in Delta Autumn:
“Old man, have you lived so long and forgotten so much that you don’t remember anything you ever knew or felt or even heard about love?”
After serving as a medic in the war, Rocky married Virginia, “princess” and crown jewel of the well-to-do Bonacci family from Tresckow. Whether from winnings in the stock market or from association with the Mafia, Michael Bonacci the patriarch elevated his family of 13 children to the equivalent of royalty for that coal mining area. However, in defiance of Michael, Rocky and Virginia ventured out on their own to the industrial “armpit” of New Jersey for employment away from the mines; rumor had it that they were lured to go east by Rocky’s favorite brother, my Uncle Elmer.
Elmer already had 5 children of his own when we joined him in Jersey, which entitled me (the lonely sheepish mouse) to 4 older brothers and an older sister, in addition to my younger brother Michael — who was a star athlete and a “cool jerk” drummer — and an infestation of pet cats and dogs over the years, to which I became allergic. The most enduring and fondest memories of my childhood were shared with my Jersey cousins; the epitome of every family gathering was the traditional game of pinochle. This card game was played with the most profound degree of competitiveness — complete with yelling and swearing, pounding of the fists or glasses of beer on the kitchen table, accusations of foul-play with every hand, and convulsive outbursts of laughter that on occasion would justify admonitions by the local police for disrupting the peace. Michael and I were only allowed to observe (and not be heard) and learn the scholarly art of card playing, on the condition that we convey no hand signals to our favorite cousin, who might “pay us off” with nickels or dimes. Although I always kept a poker face about it, Ernie was my favorite.
Pinochle Hungarian Style
A favorite family Hungarian slogan — “If you want to dance, you have to play the fiddle!” — dashed its truth upon all of us when Uncle Elmer suddenly passed away from the family curse: premature heart disease. At the same time, Virginia commenced her agonizing deterioration into the dementia of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. In the face of these tragedies, the Kovatch blood became thicker, the hearts grew stronger, the Hungarian fiddles played louder. Ernie spearheaded the charge against despair and loneliness and self-pity.
To be continued…