May 3, 2016
Seven years younger, a girl , and having been plucked from a garbage pail, my new sister, Lilibeth, ( March 12, 1944 ), didn’t make me feel threatened in the slightest.
But, truthfully , I didn’t see the need for her and my vote would have been…….thumbs down..
Nor was I lonely, or looking for a playmate. I was quite happy playing my own games, listening to my radio programs, and expressing to my parents and anyone else who would listen my opinion on any subject I thought I knew anything about. And,, her arrival notwithstanding, I was still the one and only Prince Richard, with all rights and privileges pertaining thereto.
But, then, things started to change. The first hint that my world was changing was the day Beth came home, and I saw my parents dis-assembling my youth bed which had occupied space parallel to their bed along the hall-side bedroom wall. Then, a crib was erected in the spot my bed had occupied. I was told that as a big boy, seven , I could now be trusted to occupy a ” grown up ” ( no side rails ) pullout bed on wheels which could be rolled into the living room for me each night. They made it sound like grade promotion at school , and I ” bought into it” , even though I felt something was strangely amiss.
From the start , people commented on Beth’s good looks……far more enthusiastically than one would consider them just being polite..
And, I didn’t mind that either, because looks, including mine, meant so little to me . My life revolved around my radio interests which included “Captain Midnight”, ” Jack Armstrong, The All American Boy” , and “The Lone Ranger ” or, after school, riding my bike all over Throgs Neck or sending away for prizes enclosing box tops from products such as Ovaltine chocolate drink.
And, my feel good relationship with my mother and father continued. EXCEPT, I was starting to notice they weren’t being as protective of me as they had been, and were beginning to have higher expectations about my performance at school, and how I went about doing things in general. They were beginning to stress the benefits of self reliance. So, while my sister went through a stage where she was a passive baby doll , my relationship with my parents began to change..Sometimes my father looked at me with what could be considered bad intentions, especially if I talked back. I decided they were both capable of giving me a parental spanking…..although not to the degree or intensity of the “spanking machine”,we were told was located behind the” green door ” at school..
I plainly remember my mother having an afternoon coffee and crumb bun conversation with her sisters Rose and Lilly ( with me on the floor , all ears but doodle playing with my plastic cowboys ), saying how lucky we were that the government had changed selective service classifications soon after my sister was born. Before the change, my father would have been “1A “, draft bait, even with two children. Now the army was no longer drafting men with two children..providing the wife didn’t have a job. My father never wanted my mother to work. And, neither did I. Her job was at home and that wasn’t questioned in any way…..EVER…especially now that my sister required lots of attention and care…And, my mother never worked, the entire 34 years they were married. And, it was always made clear to me that a father’s role was to work and provide and the mother’s role was at home…..if at all possible.
Then, I was told that my sister would become a Walter Thornton model because of her 2-3 year old good looks. And, my Aunt Rose swung her focus from me to Beth as soon as Beth could walk. . But, I knew my Aunt Rose would be there if I needed her, and I was just as happy that she wasn’t totally focused on me because she could be a loving ” obstacle “..
Looking back, I can now see that my sister was far more likely to be dependent on family and school relationships than I. She smiled and never complained, made friends easily and was a pleasure to be around. I, on the other hand, was more likely to question everything , especially in terms of the “fairness and justice “.of rules and how they were applied. I was far more assertive than Beth and accepted all the admonishments and penalties that came with being a ” trailblazer” for childhood , individual freedom..
I was more likely to find my friends in the neighborhood, because with neighborhood friends you had ongoing, year round, daily contact via sports, pretend games and mischief such as stealing peaches by infiltrating an orchard on a moonless summer night, or, smoking cigarettes ( age nine- ) hidden among the reeds that General William Howe found so unsuitable for military operations, or hollowing out these marsh reeds to construct blow guns suitable for use with dried split peas.. We also found wood dowel sticks and rubber bicycle handlebar grips excellent for dueling. And, surprise….no one lost an eye. My friends went to Public School 14. I attended Saint Benedict ( $1.00 per month tuition ).
And then, there were the chestnuts falling from trees to be drilled and threaded with a shoelace and hung from an outstretched arm awaiting the overhand pendulum slam from another boy’s chestnut. If he missed, it was your turn again until one of the chestnuts was destroyed. You would continue to use your chestnut against others until it suffered a similar fate. A win was recorded as a ” year “, so a chestnut with 40 wins ( years ) was probably as hard as a rock and had been soaked in mysterious solutions to make it even harder.
While Beth was becoming an angel in an ” alice blue gown “, I was sliding down the slippery slope of negative incidents which upset my parents to the point where I no longer could consider myself Good Prince Richard… Left to my own devices and the influence of older Throggs Neck boys, who could be merciless if you didn’t go along to get along, I slowly became Richard the Perpetrator.
I was hit by a laundry hook thrown at my head by a neighborhood kid and needed to get 5 stitches in my forehead. I took a yellow towel from our bathroom and headed toward the trolley tracks determined to show my friends, to their delight , that, like Billy Batson, I could become Captain Marvel and stop a trolley with a good stiff arm.
I jumped from our bathroom window because I was convinced the ” Invisible Man ” had somehow entered the room and , I helped my friends liberate an unwanted ( we thought ) boat hull from the Marine Supply Yard which backed onto the Green and in doing so sliced my wrist while climbing over a fence . My mother drove me to the doctor’s office for seven stitches in my wrist, driving with one hand while reaching across to the passenger seat so that she could backhand me and drive at the same time. That is when she told me that if I kept on my present path, I would wind up in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison. Not exactly positive reinforcement.
I was sent to the A&P for groceries with our ration book. I lost it. When my mother found out, she informed me that I better dress warmly because she was putting me out of the house. I was to go to the trolley stop and wait for my father to arrive from work and tell him that, through carelessness I had lost our entire book of food ration stamps for the month. There I stood, in the cold November dark, waiting for my trolley of doom to arrive carrying my father, my executioner. But just then, a little girl came up to me and said..”.did you lose this ? ” I replied ” you were sent from heaven to rescue me !!!” Can you imagine the outrageous egocentricity of me literally believing that, …giving absolutely no credit whatsoever to anything of possible worthwhile purpose in her life other than finding my ration book ? !
My sister gave no one any trouble whatsoever. She was a ” pleasure ” and I was a ” pain “. And, I had to listen to my Aunt Lilly fill in everyone on the latest accomplishments of “My Matt”. I wasn’t jealous of Beth or Matt. I just wasn’t happy with the total absence of optimistic predictions for me..
Beth really entered my consciousness in 1948 when we spent the summer renting on the ocean, at Long Beach, Long Island.. I can remember her sitting there watching “Howdy Doody,” eating from a dish of dry Cheerios, playing Solitaire and carrying on a conversation…..simultaneously. That’s when I had my first preview of how smart she was. She never caused a problem or had a tantrum. Everyone marveled at her non -confrontational disposition. The only thing she didn’t do was rub it in by sticking out her tongue at me from behind Aunt Rose’s skirt. She didn’t need to…the praise she received was unending …..but well deserved..
Its a good thing she was a girl and seven years younger, otherwise our relationship would have taken a more confrontational turn because I would have felt compelled use my older brother status to demonstrate my seniority in all sorts of ways. And, whenever, due to circumstances, I wished I had a protective older brother instead of her , I quickly dispelled that notion, realizing that I valued my higher place in the pecking order far more than being protected.
Once in a while, my sister was a pain. After we moved to an apartment ( 234th Street, Woodlawn, the Bronx ) , she is the one who alerted my mother to Mary Biggins and her red pigtails and me carrying her books from school ( Saint Barnabas ). It wasn’t too long after that that our neighbor Mrs. Slevin alerted her actual biological sister, my 7th grade teacher, Sister Delores that I couldn’t think straight because of the influence of that girl ( who sat two desks in front of me ). The relationship with Mary was terminated by Sister Delores forthwith.
And, there was the time my sister noticed that some of the 16 and 17 year old tough guys of the neighborhood ( furniture movers ) had decided to punish me, a thirteen year old, for being” bold and impudent” with them.. The punishment decided upon was to take me to the 238th Street Bridge over the Bronx River Parkway and dangle me by my ankles above ( far above ) the oncoming traffic. My sister caught wind of their plans just as they were getting ready to move me to the bridge. She raced home and alerted my parents. My father raced out of the house in his undershirt, ran two blocks and confronted this gang and forced my release, which , in the eyes of the Council , was merely a stay of execution.
Then, my dad,acting as general contractor, had a house built on McCollum Place, just next to the Hillview Rescevoir in Yonkers, about 2 miles away.. We were no longer residents of the Bronx and never would be again. My sister was attending Saint Paul’s Grammar School , McLean Avenue, Yonkers. Aside from one after school incident playing running bases, in which she had her front ( second ) tooth knocked out, she never gave my parents an ounce of worry.
I was a different story because I still had pals in Woodlawn. Fourth of July was coming and I and a big fellow named Ray were assigned the redemptive task of travelling to the Gun Hill Road section of the Bronx to buy $35 worth of fire crackers from a curbside Vegetable Truck which was parked next to an unimproved, barren building lot / field. We made our purchase and were walking back toward Gun Hill Road when we realized we had company. Several guys our age started to walk along side us and tell us about the intense police activity focused on confiscating fire works. They said it would be best if we just dropped our shopping bag and ran if we encountered any police. Well, before long someone shouted ” police “, but I didn’t drop my bag and I didn’t start running until I saw the switchblades come out. And then, I did run as fast as I ever ran in my life. So fast that I reached the car traffic of Gun Hill Road faster than Ray, shopping bag and all..
I raced out to the middle of Gun Hill Road and got a car to slow down enough for me to throw myself on its hood. This brought the car to a complete halt. The driver later said the look on my face made him decide to open the door for me. Both Ray and I hopped aboard with our shopping bag and we made it back to Woodlawn with our haul. It would not have been a good outcome if we had come back minus the $35 and minus the fire crackers. My punishment for being impudent was satisfied by successfully accomplishing this task. And, we had a great time with the fire works until the police showed up and gave chase through the streets of Woodlawn. I was able to save myself by sneaking into Saint Barnabas Church and stretching out under the first pew, nearest the altar, and staying there for one hour , planning the safest route home.
My sister and I were at home for dinner just about every night and I had as little to do with her as possible because seven years apart, we had different lives. She thought I was a tease. a ” torturer ” and I suppose I used to tease her a bit, especially by threatening to twist the heads off her dolls if she bothered me when I was with my friends…In truth, my feelings for her were a lot more protective than I wanted her to know.
We each had our own bedroom. Mine was set up like a sitting room with wood panelled walls, a big desk and a couch which opened into a double bed. Beth had a girls room that could have been decorated for Olivia Newton John, with a girls double dresser, mirrored tray upon which sat a hand mirror and a brush….ugh!. In fact, now that I visualize it, that’s who Beth was…Sandy in ” Grease ” the movie. and believe me, we had a few John Travolta type guys at the intersection of McLean and Kimball Avenues which was Woodlawn’s outer boundry with Yonkers. But Beth was not a ” hang out ” type person like me and had nothing to do with anybody at the corner of McLean and Kimball..
It showed whose genes she carried, when Beth formed a company ” The Offsetter Flower Company ” and traveled the neighborhood, door to door, selling her flowers ( colored toilet paper folded into various shapes ). She always could sell and she always had a gunslinger mentality when it came to risk….just like my father. She has always had trouble dealing with the unpredictable consequences of unpredictable events which couldn’t be handicapped in advance. That loss of control could drive her to tears and to me. I always expected the worst and always planned for it, so I had far fewer nasty surprises to deal with. I find it interesting that Lloyd Blankfein, President of Goldman Sacks says he spends his day planning for 98% of what has 2% chance of happening. That has always been me..
Time flew by , Beth attended Saint Barnabas High School and won a full four year New York State Scholarship to College and gathered lots of friends with whom she has stayed friendly to this day..
I told you she was smart!
She later proved it again when she appeared on” Match Game ” and won with her partner, Roddy McDowell. She had what I would describe as a memory that would allow her to spread out cards, turn them over, and them re-locate them from memory, on demand. Another a gift from my father. And, she and my mother loved to play cards and gamble, because they both had luck.
The turning point for me came when I overheard my parents discussing me and Beth after discovering I had cut the afternoon session of the College Entrance Boards. I heard my parents saying ” lets put whatever money we have behind her because he has the attitude of a loser “. That infuriated me and I said to myself, ” I’ll show them “. That very night, I decided that when I started college I would turn over a new leaf and totally re-educate myself, and, to a much higher standard. And, I did, graduating college Magna Cum Laude .four years later.and then, aiming still higher seeking an overseas career in international banking.
Beth then graduated from Saint Barnabas High School and decided with my parents to attend Manhattanville College of the Sacret Heart, Purchase, NY . as a boarder, even though the campus was less than a half hour from our house so that she could experience the full college experience. Those were the days when the school was famous for the Kennedys and Ethel who had graduated just a bit before Beth. My parents made no bones about her meeting someone who could support her in the style they wanted for her. My marching orders were to prepare myself to support a family the way a man should…as my father had. I got what I deserved, and wanted, four years as a day hop at Iona College, re-educating myself among the bookstacks and brick chimneys of Iona’s Library attic. And, summers working as a wire lather , mainly on housing projects, as my cousin Matt had done before he died.
My parents moved to Bronxville just as Beth was hitting her stride with the boys. Take a look at her photo below and you will know why she was absolutely pursued by the boys. And, like my mother, she was a great dancer, only it wasn’t the Charleston. it was the Watussi.
I won’t get into her marriages or mine because I don’t think its good to bring up the past when you have been married more than once.
I’ll close by saying that it wasn’t until Beth could be comfortable.. without being hostage to the limitations of a marriage partner, that she really came into her own as an independent and self assured person…and , today she is indeed a happy lady ,deservedly enjoying her sons, their wives and her grandchildren. And, I know for sure, my parents would be absolutely happy at the way her life has evolved ! Great job …Betsy!