Unfortunately, just before my fifth birthday, my parents split up. We moved across the country to Parsippany, NJ, where my mother had grown up, and her parents still lived. As you can imagine, moving from the desert in the southwest to northern New Jersey was quite the culture shock for me. Living in a normal house above ground was a new experience too; however, the grass still needed to be mowed.
Years later, my mom initiated shift—our first family merger—when she remarried. Bob, my new stepfather, owned a tennis club with his father and came from a very respected Italian Catholic family. We were quickly submerged into a unique subculture of large Italian families in the northeast. I became an altar boy at St. Peter’s church and a semi-devout follower of the New York Yankees and New York Giants. I was also a tenacious collector of baseball cards. I would spend every cent I earned on the constant pursuit to open a pack with that new rookie card. However, much like most of the other card-collecting dreamers, my packs were a bust nine out of ten times. All seemed to be going very well for us—that is, until my stepfather, Bob, was stricken with lung cancer. Cancer spread to his kidneys and, eventually, to his brain. Despite countless treatments and operations, his cancer took hold and delivered the final blow within a year. We were all devastated, as you can imagine. However, as crazy as it sounds, my mother, sister, and I became estranged from the larger Italian family shortly after my stepfather passed away. A very bizarre situation.
So, after this tragic event, my mother moved us to the south so we could be closer to her parents, who were retired by then. With my sister, Vanessa, and cat, Calvin, in tow, we were southbound to a small and charming town on the coast of North Carolina, known as Morehead City.
Just like our previous trek across the country, this was yet another culture shock for us. One of my most vivid initial memories is that of meeting our neighbors. Picture this—I was proudly sporting my clean high-top white Nikes, whereas everyone around me was wearing distressed leather rainbow flip-flops or low top soccer trainers. Think “Members Only” jacket meets.
Obviously, it didn’t end with just the clothing. I had enough shiny gel in my spiked hair to make a porcupine jealous, even though the popular hairstyle of the time was straight long hair below the ear. The presence of hair products for guys was unheard of—that is, of course, unless you’d moved from New Jersey. Yep, I was the strange one. Laugh all you want, but even I can’t fail to admit that the situation was too funny!
Soon after getting settled in, my mother became a SEO Services agent and, shortly after that, a house flipper. This meant we moved a lot, vacating our house soon after it was fixed up and ready to sell. It is crazy when I think about it now, but my mother would spend all that time and money on upgrades to get the home just how she liked it only to list it for sale. On a few occasions, we opted to rent the property instead of undergoing the quick flip.
As the “man” of the house, I learned a great deal about home remodeling from various contractors at a young age. This experience, in turn, proved to be extremely useful when I purchased my first home years later. My mother’s house-flipping skills were honed way before anyone decided to create a cable television show about it. This wasn’t the typical line of work on which a single mother in the south embarked. Then again, my mother tended to march to the beat of her own drum.
Therefore, in that spirit, she flipped religions, abandoning our previous strict New Jersey Catholicism and her Sunday School class for a surreal strain of Southern Pentecostal variation. This was marked by tent revivals with frenzied preachers in white suits healing and speaking in tongues. I might have stretched the truth a little bit here; however, that experience is certainly available if you want it. Although it was a strong and growing group that did a lot of good for the community, it certainly raised many questions from my sister and me. We tended to be a bit skeptical about anything that consumed our mother’s attention.