Rick Berlin’s childhood spills out like a box of photographs that have been knocked to the floor. He picks them up one at a time, rattling off family members, friends, and life events in a jumbled montage.
He starts off many of his sentences with “I remember.” He ends most of them with “…And shit like that.” It’s one memory and then he moves on. Rick recalls his school in Tucson, Arizona where the jungle gym was comprised of old World War II helicopters. Another, of his first brush with Santa Clause, who smelled like booze. “I remember I shit my pants in second grade and the teacher had to clean me up and send me home. That was horrific,” he adds casually. He says he doesn’t remember much else.
But the episodes develop into a narrative as Rick recounts his sprawling family history. He starts by speaking deliberately, as if he were pulling the images together in his head, then speeds up as they comes back to him. His parents married in the winter of 1944. He was born the first of the three siblings in Iowa. Janie was next, in Tucson. Last was Lisa, who was born in San Francisco. The family moved often in his childhood and as a result, the kids had to make new friends every few years.
Nonetheless, Berlin has always been close with his sisters. “We grew up under the arc of our parents relationship, which was troubled. Dad was an alcoholic, Mom wasn’t. Mom handled all the books,” he says.
When Rick speaks about his mother, he smiles. “She was great, so full of life…We were always pals. She’d help me do my homework. She loved me to pieces. She could be stoic but at the same time had a great big belly laugh.”
His parents, Richard (Dick) and Jane, were a glamorous and attractive couple. They had met while Jane was with the Red Cross and Dick in the Army. He was handsome and charming, although his magnetism attracted more than just Jane – Dick cheated on his wife many times during their marriage. Rick had an intimate knowledge of this, as his father used to read him love letters from his young mistresses.
“My father was a rake, women went nuts for him,” he says.
Berlin’s relationship with his father was more complicated. “[My father] said he was always wooden around me. Awkward,” he says. At other times, his father was great to be around. He loved to laugh and drink and fart. He drew people in. “He loved music,” Rick says. “He would stand in front of the stereo and conduct symphonies drunk. He loved musicals and shit. Once he had Archie Shepp over the house, they had met in some bar, Archie was playing the piano and my dad was just sitting next to him…He was a romantic and I love that. He wore his heart on his sleeve, but you know, I think most of that was because he was drunk.”
His father’s contradictions taught Rick a lesson that is largely the reason he is an artist today. “He said, ‘I can’t teach you what to do but at least profit from my mistakes.’ His big mistake was having a job he didn’t like. So I said fuck it, I’m going to do what I want,” he says.
Jane divorced Dick when Rick was about 30 years old. He points to this time as when his father’s life started to deteriorate. “He sort of spiraled down, one girlfriend after another until he vomited into his lungs on Christmas Eve at Tufts Medical and expired at 55 years old.”
Berlin tells a story that sums up the nuanced and difficult relationship he had with his father. He passed away in the middle of winter, and had wanted his service to be at church in Copley Square in Boston. During the funeral, there was a guide explaining the church to tourists. Afterwards, Rick and his sisters went up to the roof of his father’s apartment building in Beacon Hill to spread his ashes. They cut the box open with a bread knife to toss the ashes. Unfortunately, none of them had known that the remains of a cremated person are not merely ashes. “In the snow, we tossed the remains up in the air, but they’re not feathery. There’s bones and teeth. So they go BOOM, right down into the alleyway, lands right on the windshield of a Country Squire station wagon, which my father hated. And I went down to look at the license plate and it was Rhode Island so Dad got driven to Rhode Island. It was complete absurdity. We were laughing and crying at the same time.”
He laughs uproariously. “I think it’s great to have a fucked-up youth because if you can survive it, you know more about life than if you’ve had a silver spoon.”
Rick is thankful to his parents for what they’ve given him and for the opportunity to have a magical childhood. It wasn’t perfect, but he had friends, and his sisters, and now he has stories. Snapshots.
“What do they say, ‘When your parents are dead, you finally grow up.’ I think I resisted growing up,” he says.
“But they’re gone now.”