by James Avitabile
I was an only child until I was eight. I was OK with that. I was the youngest of five cousins and I was spoiled rotten. If I wanted a special toy and my mother said “No,” I’d go to my grandmother or to my aunt and plead for whatever it was and bingo, I got it!
Then in August of 1950, I was no longer an only child. I had competition. My 110-pound mother gave birth to an 11 pound seven ounce baby girl. They named her Bernadette. “What’s her name I grumbled, Burn to Death? I had lost my status as next in line to the throne. All the attention I once had now fell to her. Overnight I went from the head of the class to standing in the corner in the back of the room. They treated her as if she were a delicate demitasse cup.
“Be careful Juny, don’t hurt your baby sister. Mommy had to go through so much to give you her.”
My inner voice cried out, Give ME her? Who said that I wanted her? It was YOU not ME who wanted her.
I publicly sulked no matter how many Charlotte Russes my grandmother or my Aunt Grace bought me. I remember when the intruder was christened, I wouldn’t take any photos with her unless the guests came with two gifts, one for her and one for me. Then overnight my attitude quickly changed. I had to survive. My mother had everything to do with that.
“If you don’t want to accept your sister, I’m going to put you into a home.” That did it. I didn’t know what that was, but it didn’t sound good. It sounded like she would give me up if I didn’t change. And sadly, I yielded.
I began to wonder if my sister and I had been switched in my mother’s womb. They say that little girls are sugar and spice and everything nice. That was me! It wasn’t my sister. At the age of six she was knuckles and scraped knees and spit and dirt. She was a tomboy looking for her next fight. She was tough. The only thing that made her look like a girl was her Shirley Temple locks. Every night my mother would wash her hair, then use stove pipe cleaners and meticulously roll up sections of her hair. ”Ouch! You’re hurting me Mommy!” she’d bark. I’d gloat when I heard her. By morning my mother would unwind her locks and her dark brown hair would bounce up and down like Shirley’s did on the Good Ship Lollypop. She hated the name ‘Bernadette.’ “Bernadette is a sissy name. Call me Jean.” I wished I’d had her name instead of ‘Juny.’
Whenever I had the opportunity of pointing out the bad sister to my mother I would do it.
She’d pick up smoldering cigarettes off the street and puff on them.
“Look Ma, she’s smoking a cigarette.” My mother wouldn’t even stir. Her precious little girl couldn’t do anything wrong. My mother would warn me, “Don’t make trouble.” I watched and waited and hoped that maybe one day my mother would see for herself the bad sister her precious daughter really was.
My mother had an expression, God will get you for that. She thought I was the bad one God was going to get even with when I hadn’t doing anything wrong. But many times I had and He didn’t get me. Once my mother told me to watch my sister while she ran out to the butcher. My sister had just come home from the hospital and was sleeping in her bassinet. I thought she might want to read, so I took a small lamp that was plugged nearby and put it close to her bundled up feet. Just then my mother came back. She screamed, “What are you doing? You could have burned your sister.”
“I just thought she wanted to read, Mommy!”
“GOD WILL GET YOU FOR THAT.” He didn’t.
There was a summer day when my Mom, my sister with her springing hair, and I walked down Castleton Avenue to Woolworth’s 5 & 10 Cent Store. My sister was about four. My mother needed some ribbon. When we got into the store, my mother bent down and told both of us.
“You each have ten cents to spend on anything you want. That’s all I have. No more! You understand?”
“Yes Mommy,” I answered.
My sister’s locks bobbed ‘yes.’ I looked around and saw a box of colored pencils. They were fifteen cents. I had an extra nickel in my pocket. My sister pointed to a puppet. It cost more than a dollar. My mother told her, “I told you, you have ten cents to spend!” My sister began to cry loudly and cause a scene. Her hair was bobbing all over her face. My mother got all nervous and began to try to quiet her down by pulling at her locks. Now my sister was stomping and causing more of a scene and some of the customers were watching. My mother pulled her hair harder, as she talked nervously to the saleswoman. Her calm façade was quickly crumbling. Now the screams seemed to be coming from two sources. Was my sister crying in two different octaves? My mother wasn’t pulling my sister’s hair! She was pulling the hair of a little girl that was standing next to her.
“Lady, why are you pulling my daughter’s hair? I should call the cops.”
“Oh, please excuse me. I thought it was my daughter’s hair I was pulling. I’m so sorry”. Then she turned to my sister and snarled,“Wait till I get you home, I’m going to pull out every hair on your head.”
While the crowd of onlookers dispersed and no one was watching, I leered at my sister and whispered, “When we get home, Mommy’s going to make you bald.”
Telling my story has been a happy/sad experience. It took me awhile before I found my voice. But once I did, I couldn’t stop talking.