Sisters—Part Two

[This is the second of three parts of a story about my sisters, Justine and Veronica, in the 1950s and early 1960s.]

To me, Roni was the closer of my sisters—closer in age and availability. Justine, six years older, was more distant, more involved in her own stuff, and too mature to be much of a companion. Roni was different. She played with me and fought with me and talked with me often. Consequently, I liked her better. On the other side of the coin, she was the sister I kicked down the stairs.

Much later, in the two-year period between Justine’s wedding and her own, 20-year-old Roni and 16-year-old I became even closer. We went to the movies and the beach together, and I accompanied her to the classroom part of her driver training course a subway ride away. Sometimes we listened to the little blue and white Decca record player she had brought home one day after work, in flagrant violation of house rules against spending her salary on anything at all not approved by my mother. I guess one day she just snapped, having become unbearably frustrated after looking one time too many at the non-functioning turntable in the massive, vintage 1930 radio-phonograph console in the living room, which my parents knew would never work again but refused to replace, insisting they would someday get it fixed.

Roni was also very cool—and utterly noncompetitive—about her standing relative to Justine’s at school. Justine was something of a legend in St. Mark’s elementary school. She was highly intelligent and the nuns knew it and gossiped about it. She set some kind of IQ standard. When it came my turn to work my way through the Catholic school system, one of my early teachers crystallized the challenge I faced: “Oh, you’re Justine Murphy’s brother. She was a very good student.” The clear implication was that if I tried I could maybe be a respectable second best.

This mattered to me. Roni had probably heard the same thing, but for some reason having to do with gender or birth order, I guess, it never affected her. She was content to find her own way, make her own friends, and toil at the level of accomplishment with which she was comfortable. This was a good level, but not the highest level. Justine was all high 90s, Roni was typically low 90s.

In the early grades, I didn’t know from 90s, but unlike Roni I wanted to be as respected as Justine. I formed the intention of accomplishing that task, but it was initially hard to tell if I was succeeding. In the early years of schooling under the nuns of St. Mark’s, there was no perceptible, formal system of measurement by which to differentiate gradations of intelligence. There were no numerical or letter grades in first or second grade, just animal stamps, holy cards, and check marks. The teachers in those grades were probably covertly frustrated with and peeved by early signs of developmental lag in some of their charges, but they resolutely showed nothing in grades one and two to distinguish between the smart kids and the dumb kids. Virtually the sole divider that I noticed pertained to urination: Kids who peed in the classroom were held in noticeably lower esteem than those who did not.

I did not. But then, of course, neither had Justine or Roni.

###

Justine was smart, as the nuns observed, but fragile. She was painfully shy, to the point that she could barely look another person in the eye. She was also sensitive to the sun, with the result that she was constantly squinting, which brought a worried, wrinkled look to her face. She was in no way the comparatively outgoing, social type that Roni was, and consequently had few tight friends. And most notably, she was no good under pressure.

Take the nun I will call Sister Felicia Jerome, Justine’s fifth grade teacher. Sister Felicia Jerome had a reputation, well deserved, of being strict and demanding—not so much in academics (Justine’s strength) as in neatness and orderliness. In particular, Sister Felicia Jerome resented the law of gravity: She hated it when kids dropped things. She made it a policy that any dropped articles, including pencils and paper, would be confiscated, to be returned, if she wished, after class.

This of course was a virtual mandate to Justine to drop things. She lost pencils, pens, erasers, notebooks, bobby pins (Sister Felicia Jerome could hear them drop halfway across a crowded schoolyard), sheets of paper, rulers, what have you. Every day Justine would come home bereft of some essential article of learning and my mother would have to replace it.

The pencil case was the last straw. Every kid was required to have a pencil case. You could have a Lone Ranger pencil case, a Betty and Veronica pencil case, a plain pencil case—as long as you had a pencil case. The pencil case held, naturally, pencils, but also pens, erasers, compasses, protractors, and a rash of other accoutrements of fine schooling. One day Justine dropped her case and Sister Felicia Jerome took it from her. Justine went home that day in tears.

My mother had a strong reaction. She could replace the odd pencil or pen, especially since my dad could easily purloin writing implements and paper through his job at the New York City Board of Education, but a pencil case held a king’s ransom of expensive items. It was costly itself, and compasses and protractors were also pricey. The thought of replacing a fully loaded pencil case lit my mother’s fuse.

With me in tow (I was too young to leave behind and Justine too distraught to babysit), she marched straight to the school and managed to find Sister Felicia Jerome at her desk, probably brushing up on torture techniques of the Middle Ages. My mother parked me in the hallway outside the classroom door and stormed Sister Felicia Jerome’s desk. Mom was steely-eyed, righteous, and more dominant of voice than even a nun. I listened as she absolutely cowed Sister Felicia Jerome.

I of course had no intention of missing the visuals, and so I moved from the hallway to the doorway. The good nun made futile attempts to argue her case but my mother rode roughshod over her protests. All discussion ended as mom demanded to know where the pencil case could be found (a closet in the corner of the room); then she retrieved it and departed without another word. She left Sister Felicia Jerome dumbstruck.

I would like to say she also left her contrite and made a new nun of her, but I have no evidence for either claim. All I know is that Justine was involved in no more incidents of brutality. And by the time I got to fifth grade, Sister Felicia Jerome was no longer at St. Mark’s, having probably been reassigned to Quantico to train marines.

###

Justine’s shyness was a social barrier but she was in no way a misfit. She was mostly a typical American girl of the 1950s: She was aware of and responded to fads, followed the stars in fan magazines, enjoyed American Bandstand and other popular TV shows, tried to style her hair in a Hollywood way with newly invented Toni home permanent kits (bad idea), did her best to hide her acne, and even attended the Tuesday night dances in the St. Mark’s auditorium—in other words she wasn’t just withdrawn and hyper-bright.

Justine had friends but they were not the alpha girls. She admired many boys but they pretty much ignored her. Her dances and romances on Tuesday nights were virtual, never actual. She was not sexually advanced; that was for the Italian girls. She didn’t know how to flirt.

Roni knew how to flirt. She attracted boys through her good looks, outgoing personality, and sense of humor. Her school grades weren’t threatening and she was easy to talk to. The result was that Roni had an easier time than Justine in the lab experiment that is grades six through eight. This doesn’t mean that she had what you would call boyfriends in grade school or did anything as socially avant garde as go steady, but she was at least in the mix.

As for disciplinary matters, Roni glided through grade school without attracting any particular Sisterly attention. She had no pencil case incidents, no detentions, but also no scholarly or good conduct awards. Of all the Irish girls in her class, she probably earned the fewest holy cards for pious or devotional acts. She attended mass on Sundays and, with the rest of the school, on First Fridays. She didn’t talk too much or too loudly at those events.

She attended the Tuesday night dances, and actually danced with some of the boys. There were no blots on her report cards, but no stars either. And when it came time to graduate in 1956, she followed the predestined route allotted to girls of her apparent qualities—the one that led to the commercial high school, St. Joseph’s, rather than the academic high school, St. Brendan’s, that Justine attended.

Compared to Roni, Justine also accepted a great deal more fatherly attention during the early years of high school. After dinner, my father would sit with Justine at the dining room table that served as the homework zone for all of us. He had an astounding memory. Justine was forced to struggle with French (evidently a more academic language than the Spanish that was Roni’s lot in her commercial school) and my dad remembered far more than I would have guessed. I particularly remember him helping Justine through a laborious translation, bit by bit on successive nights throughout the school year, of Blanche Neige (Snow White). I was amazed as I sat doing my third grade math at two things: that my dad was fluent in French and that French people had Snow White too.

He not only did French homework with her but also, if I am remembering it right, Latin, algebra, English, social studies, and everything else but P.E. I was impressed, but when my time came six years later to take the same subjects, I let it be known that I preferred to do my homework by myself. My dad was disappointed but I had a statement to make.

The other service he rendered her (and later me) was to adjust his workday so that he could take her to high school. She was the nervous type, admittedly, but it seemed excessive even to the young me that he did this two years straight, considering that St. Brendan’s was one express stop away on the subway and he took her not just to the station but all the way to the school door. When my time came, he took me to the school door for two days; for the rest of my freshman year (and never later) he went only as far as Times Square, where our paths diverged. I don’t remember if he decided to do it this way or if I made the choice, but I suspect it was the latter.

Justine’s high school career was uneventful. She did quite well at St. Brendan’s and had several close friends. She joined the French Club and dreamed of going to Montreal or even France with her classmates, but never did. Her consolation was a class trip to Washington, D.C., in senior year, which excited her as much as Paris would have done. She was bright enough to enjoy learning and to crave more when she finished high school.

This was not to be.

[To be concluded]

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