May 3, 2016
Seven years younger than I, 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 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.
And 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 a job promotion, and I ” bought ” 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 politically polite..
And, I didn’t mind that either, because looks, including mine, meant so little to me . My life revolved around my interests which included listening to afternoon radio programs such as Captain Midnight, Jack Armstrong, the all American Boy, and the Lone Ranger or, after school, riding my bike all over Throgs Neck ( I can’t believe my mother would have allowed that in today’s world ) .
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 had no impact whatsoever on how I led my life, my relationship with my parents began to change..Sometimes my father looked at me with bad intentions, especially if I talked back.
I plainly remember my mother having afternoon coffee and crumb buns with her sisters Rose and Lilly ( with me under the table, all ears but 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 …ever…especially now that my sister required attention and care far in excess of what I needed. ( or wanted.) ..And, my mother never worked, the entire 35 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. 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 went with being a ” trailblazer”
I was more likely to find my friends in the neighborhood, because with neighborhood friends you had ongoing 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 bycycle handlebar grips excellent for dueling. And, surprise….no one lost an eye. My friends went to PS14 or Saint Benedict.
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 Throgs 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 ” Invisable Man ” had somehow entered the room and , I helped my friends liberate an unwanted ( we thought ) boat hull from the Marine Supply store 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 !!!” ( I literally believed that, giving no credit whatsoever to anything of worthwhile purpose in the rest of her life ).
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. The only thing she didn’t do was stick 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 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 impudent. 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 who were just about to have dinner. My father raced out of the house, 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 had a house built on McCollum Place, just next to the Hillview Resevoir 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 ,Mc Lean Avenue, Yonkers and after school was playing running bases at Coyne Park and had her front ( second ) tooth knocked out. Aside from that 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 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.
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.
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 by threatening to twist the heads off her dolls if she bothered me when I was with my friends….although my feeling 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 types at the intersection of McLean and Kimball Avenues which was Woodlawn’s outer boundry with Yonkers. But Beth had nothing to do with any of them .
To show whose genes she carried, Beth formed a company ” The Offsetter Flower Company ” and traveled the neighborhood 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 just had trouble dealing with the unpredictable consequences of unpredictable events which couldn’t be handicapped in advance. But, I did too, except I always expected the worst and always planned for it, so I had fewer nasty surprises..
Time flew by , she attended Saint Barnabas High School and won a full four year New York State Scholarship to College.
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 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.
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 border, even though the campus was less than a half hour from our house. 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.
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. She was like my mother in that she loved to dance, only it wasn’t the Charleston. it was the Watussi.
I’m struggling to rotate this photo…..sorry.
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