Almost an Only
I remember the place, but the exact date and weather conditions, two things that some people can recall vividly about childhood experiences, escape me. My mother and I were in the new A&P grocery store on Carrollton Avenue in the Mid-City area of New Orleans. Right there in front of the meat counter, where the butcher was probably cutting a roast for her, Mother announced, “I think you may get a little brother or sister.” That’s all she said, no details about what made her think that or when the little one might arrive. She just made the simple announcement to me.
We finished shopping and left the store, walking through those magic eyes that were so new in the late 1940s, the ones that somehow opened the doors for us. I’m sure that we walked the three or four blocks back to our apartment, both of us carrying bags of groceries, not talking much. I’m positive that the little brother or sister was never mentioned again, leaving me to wonder what might have happened to my sibling. No, I never asked because I wouldn’t have known how to ask. You see, I hadn’t a clue about where babies come from.
In those days, or at least in my tiny family, we didn’t talk about such things. Shortly after my little brother or sister disappeared, Mother bought me a book called Growing Up. It had a picture, not a drawing, of a naked child on the cover, and I read through it quickly because Mother told me I had to; however, I remember thinking that it was a nasty book, not so much because of the contents (I really didn’t understand what the author was talking about) but because of that picture.
That little book was my education about “the birds and the bees” until I was a young woman getting ready for married life. I know that’s hard to believe, but it’s true. The next time that Mother mentioned anything having to do with sex was on my wedding day, when she casually mentioned, as we were sitting on the side of the bed having one last little mother-daughter chat, that she hoped Frank and I were planning to use some form of birth control and that she wanted me to know about douching. Throughout my life, she had always said that she knew she must be Irish because whenever she tried to teach me something, my reply was always, “O’Mother,” with a roll of the eyes. She heard that expression from me again that day, this being the last time that I said it as a single girl.
I know for sure, having talked to Frank about having brothers, that I wouldn’t have grown up so ignorant if I hadn’t been an only child. And I’m sure that there are lots of only children who are either more curious than I was or who had friends with whom they talked about sex; however, I just lived my life in my little world: an only child who wished for siblings but who remained “only” until she was 14, when her status changed.
Fast forward to 1954. School had just started, and I was in the ninth grade, just as happy as I could be. I arrived at home one afternoon in early September and was once again greeted with the sibling news. This time, though, it was different. A little family background is needed here.
My mother’s sister that she was closest to died in February 1954, and her husband died in May. Their deaths left two daughters on their own, the older being 19 and a college student and the younger being 13, just finishing the seventh grade. The summer after my aunt and uncle died, JoAnn, the younger sister came to spend her vacation time with us in Pensacola. In August, she went to live with our aunt and uncle in Texas. Uncle Ty was the oldest of my mother’s brothers and sisters, and he and his wife, Aunt Davy, had been married for many years but had no children. JoAnn had always been their favorite niece, and we all knew that; therefore, no one was surprised that they wanted to complete JoAnn’s “bringing up” in their childless home, a home in which the child would have more creature comforts than she had ever known before. No one in my mother’s family was what you’d call wealthy, but Uncle Ty and Aunt Davy came close to it.
JoAnn was not happy with our aunt and uncle. In fact, she was miserable. Our Texas relatives lived away from town; they had been together, just the two of them, for so long that they were what we call in the South “set in their ways”; my cousin just didn’t think that she could ever fit in. So . . . she began to cry most of the time and to tell Uncle Ty and Aunt Davy that she wanted to go live with Auntie, my mother. Unbeknownst to me, my parents had had conversations with my aunt and uncle, and probably with JoAnn, and had agreed for her to come to live with us. When I look back on it now, I think it rather strange that I wasn’t consulted at all, just told that I was getting a sister.
Sixty years ago is a long time, and, though I can picture once again exactly where we were when my mother broke the news to me (we were standing next to the dining room table in our garage apartment on “Q” Street), I can’t remember too much about the way I felt when Mother dropped the bomb. I think that the minute that she told me, I immediately pictured a little baby; however, when she told me that it was JoAnn, my first reaction was one of disappointment. A little baby would have been so sweet. But then, when I thought of how much fun she and I had had during the summer, I was elated!
I was two years away from getting my driver’s license, and Jo was three; therefore, we were relegated to finding activities to do at home or to having my parents drive us to parties and other activities. At home, we still played dolls (I know that sounds strange) and pantomimed to popular songs like “Hearts of Stone,” “Earth Angel,” and “Make Yourself Comfortable.” We were perfectly happy to entertain ourselves. Of course, we talked about boys after we went to bed in the same room. I must admit that it was strange to have someone else in the house permanently, but I loved this instant sister.
She was much braver than I was in many respects. For instance, I walked into the bathroom one time when she was taking a bath and discovered that she was shaving her legs! Oh, my . . . if my mother found out, she’d really be in trouble. No, I didn’t tell. I never have enjoyed suffering, especially for someone else. And then there was the time when she was in love with Billy while we were still in junior high school. I found out after the fact that she had been to his house to check on him when he was sick. What! Didn’t she know the wrath of Auntie? No decent girl would go to a boy’s house and especially not to his bedroom! I kept her secret.
My cousin was a beauty! She really was. She had beautiful hazel eyes and big dimples. Her hair was lovely, and she almost always wore it in a pony tail, looking so cute. A popular song of our teen years was “Chantilly Lace,” sung by the Big Bopper. Just in case you don’t know the song or in case you’ve forgotten the words, check out the following: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MfkvdlBz62k
It’s a true picture of JoAnn. She really was just so cute. I was a studious stringbean, and she was a shapely little girl who attracted lots of attention.
But when Jo went to Pensacola High School, one year behind me, she really fell in love . . . well, fell in love as only a sixteen-year-old can do. She had eyes only for a boy with a double name, Joe Allen. He meant everything to her. She stayed on the phone for what seemed like hours, talking and chewing gum, until my mother told her to hang up. Mother probably had to tell her a few times before the message got through. I just smiled and rolled my eyes. She was very brave.
Jo and Joe Allen’s problem was that Mother wouldn’t let her go out on dates with any boy yet, so they always had to double date. Nothing would do one week, when she couldn’t find anyone else, but she and Joe Allen got me a blind date with his best friend, Bobby. I wasn’t one bit happy about the date, and when Bobby arrived with Joe Allen, I was mortified! He must have been six inches shorter than I was, and I had no way of backing out. This was a blind date, but I just wished that all of the kids at the football game that night could be blind, at least to being able to see Bobby and me. I think I kept my head down the whole evening, in hopes that no one that I knew would see me. Soon after that date, Bobby met Shirley, the love of his life. I saw both of them at Shirley’s and my fifty-fifth class reunion in April, and I couldn’t resist reminding Bobby of that awful evening. He hadn’t even noticed the height difference. That’s a boy for you! He’s still about six inches shorter than I am, but I loved visiting with him and Shirley at the reunion.
We differed not only in looks and interest in boys and bravery; we also differed in what we were drawn to in school subjects. Jo went toward business subjects, and I believe she did very well in subjects like shorthand and typing and accounting. My interests we in anything literary. In fact, in my senior year, I took two full-year English courses: composition and British lit. Both of us went on to use what we had studied in high school in our vocations.
Jo and I have not always been super close in our adult years because she lived in the West and I lived in the South; however, almost twenty years ago, she and her husband moved back to Pensacola so that Fred could help his mother in her last years. Soon after they moved, I began to work for McDougal Littell Publishing Company and traveled almost all the time. We really didn’t see each other much during the years before Frank and I retired to New Mexico. Would you believe that we probably see each other more now that I’ve moved than we did when we lived in the same city? Well . . . almost more. I love visiting with her, and we reminisce a lot.
Jo has never been to one of our cousins’ reunions because of something that someone did to her at some time. I can’t get her to tell me what it is. I asked her not too long ago if I was the one who did something. Did I treat her poorly when she came to live with us? She paused for just a second before she said, “There’s not another only child in the world who would accept someone the way you did.” And that is one of the best compliments I have ever had, given the reputation that “only children” have. The best compliment. I love my ready-made sister.