Note: So far I’ve been sharing all of my stories with you. Now
I’d like to share some stories from guest writers. Below is a portion of a chapter from “Any Color But Beige”. It’s a memoir written by my daughter. It’s one of her favorite childhood stories growing up in our family. Catherine is on the far right side surrounded by her siblings and her friends. Front row: right to left: Jimmy, Margaret and Michael. Back row: Left to right: Michael, Gino and Patty.
When it came to nurture, my salesman father, who worked in the grocery business, made sure to instill enough confidence in his brood so we’d be comfortable in any situation, whether it was meeting new people or speaking in front of a crowd of strangers. He did this by instituting “The Show,” a nightly after-supper performance ritual in which the four older children, ages 5 through 14, got up to perform while the three young preschoolers looked on in happy amazement at the spectacle unfolding before them. To prove there was nothing to it, my father joined in. We were our own reality show, only we didn’t know it. “This Family’s Got Talent,” my father would probably have called it.
Our stage was just in front of the television, and the nightly prize was one dollar, that was a lot of money in those days. Every night before the performance my father made a big show of taking a dollar bill out of his wallet and laying it on top of our large Magnavox console TV. It was always a new dollar, crisp and clean. He’d rub it between his thumb and forefinger to make sure there was only one. We coveted the prize, each of us fantasizing about what treats and treasures a dollar could buy us at the local dime store.
The winner was determined by applause. During dinner we’d each lobby our mother and grandmother so persistently and expertly it would make a Washington politician blush. As the oldest I went first and I usually recited a scene from a play, perfecting acting skills never to be used professionally but handy nonetheless. I was a modern-day Portia pleading her case before a jury:
“The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.”
My mother would lick her finger, touch my temple and, making a hissing sound, draw her hand back quickly as if she’d burned it with a hot iron. “How did you ever get to be so smart? It sure wasn’t from me.”
That compliment was better than a dollar any day, since my mom was one of the smartest people I knew.
My brother Jimmy, looking every bit as Italian as my grandmother with his dark hair neat and clean in a crew cut and his shining, big brown eyes, sang the very sad Irish ballad “The Wild Colonial Boy.” It’s about an Irish immigrant who leaves his home in Ireland and travels to Australia, where he meets a tragic end. I could never figure out if Jimmy’s voice cracked with the emotion of the song or because he had just turned 13 and was, according to my mother, “at that age.”
Next up was my sister Margaret Mary, whose new bellbottom pants were quickly turning into floods. (The quintessential middle child, she inherited the tall gene from my Irish grandparents.) At ten years of age, and with an unruly mop of long brown bouncy spiral curls and big blue eyes, she looked like a gangly Shirley Temple. Dancing lessons would have helped her, but they were a luxury we couldn’t afford and their lack never stopped her anyway. She was a master of improvisation.
And then there was Michael, a five-year-old redhead with blue eyes and an endless supply of jokes, some that made sense and others that did not. They at least made him laugh. And when Michael laughed he laughed with his whole body, and that made us laugh.
I’m not sure if there is anything better or worse than performing in front of the hoots and heckling of your own family. Who best to knock you down a peg or two but those people who know you best, who know your weak spots and who may want revenge for some previous day’s transgression, like eating all the Oreos? Then again there’s no better training ground for bouncing back and developing a thick skin—two essential life skills that have served all of us well.
“Hey Dad,” Jimmy would yell during one of Margaret’s dances. “You should make her register those arms as lethal weapons.”
“Hey Jim,” I would retort. “Maybe if you win the dollar you can get yourself some singing lessons.”
I heard my mother sigh. So much for love and harmony, she’d say to my grandmother. “This is more like Friday night at the fights.”
The last person to perform was my dad. Slight of stature and whippet thin with curly brown hair and bright blue eyes, he was a natural entertainer and storyteller. He also had a beautiful voice. He always sang a few lines of a rather silly song, an old playground rhyme called “Ms. Mary Mack,” but he called it “The Elephant Song.”
I asked my mother for fifty cents
To see the elephant jump the fence.
He jumped so high,
He reached the sky.
And never came back till the Fourth of July.
The applause from his adoring audience was thunderous. It was clear who the winner was this night and every night because we were all too selfish and stupid to support each other on a rotating basis. We were all eternal optimists who were certain that the next time would be our turn to win the dollar. In the end, even with no green in our pockets, it was our colorful childhood that made us winners.
Excerpt from the book: “Any Color But Beige” by Catherine Larose.
Reprinted with permission.© 2011