Sunday, April 26, 2009

Barbara's Birthday

My sister Barbara, two years younger than me, had a birthday yesterday. I'm a long way from Queens, New York, so I had to do it by card and email and I'll try the phone today. She was another--along with Mike, Pat, Peg, Pete and Reg, the baby--of the great Gormans. What a time we had growing up. It was the 1950s and early '60s and our dad Tom was an actor on then-fledgling live television, and Broadway, and mom, mom, had had a heck of a career in radio, but quit acting for 20 years to raise us. She did go back when we were grown up and had just gotten a juicy part in a national tour when she got too sick to work.
But the kids: Mike was a wonderful athlete and creative force for us: He invented, or copied, The Strong Kids' Club, and membership involved all sorts of torture: But nothing he wouldn't do himself. We'd have to lie, absolutely still, in the tub with six inches of ice water for 30 seconds--and he had a stop watch to keep us honest. And we had to be able to walk around the whole house in bare feet whenever it snowed, which it did quite a bit in Whitestone, Queens back then. And we had to be able to write our whole name in blood on scary notes: Peter Thomas Gorman. And if the pin-prick dried up before you got your whole name down, well, you had to start over.
He went on to play baseball for St.Johns, served in Vietnam, became a NYC policeman and retired as a lieutenant. During his cop days he became a lawyer as well and is now a judge in the Bronx, NY a couple of days a week.
Pat was the artist. She could draw anything. And she was also the softer side of the Gorman kid's creative force: She would give us younger ones pony rides on her back and had half-a-dozen different pony personalities, from a real lazy one to a bucking bronc. She also had save up for our own horse, and we hit nearly $100 before mom told us we just didn't have room in our yard. Pat, with Peg, also started the Whitestone Twirlers, a baton group that probably had a dozen local little girls in it. They'd practice every Saturday and march in the local parades and then they got good enough that by the time they were young teens the Whitestone Twirlers were asked to march in the big New York City St. Paddy's Day Parade up 5th Avenue. That was cool. And then she was always winning those local art shows where kids paint local store windows for Halloween and Christmas and such. And she went on to be an important graphic designer, designing the changing MTV logo, lots of album covers for Sting, Billy Idol, the B-52s and so forth. Later she became an acupuncturist and now teaches Tai Chi.
Peg was the beauty. Absolutely gorgeous drop-deal blond. She was also the monster of the baton, winning contests both individually and doubled up with Pat. Our father, Tom, taught them a stage fencing move of tossing the batons to one another, and they won some big tournaments tossing fire batons back and forth, 20-25 feet in the air. Or at least that's what it looked like to me. But Peg was just two years older than me and so there was a rivalry there: It seemed like she was always biting my head or doing other painful things to me. After high school she went to work as a legal secretary and I've got to tell you she was wild on those old IBM Selectrics. She could do better an 125 words a minute mistake free (I think she'd put it at 145) and it was fun just to watch her fly through pages and pages of stuff like a cartoon Olive Oyl. She married her high school sweetheart--and is still with him 40-years later--and they've raised three beautiful daughters who have given them a lot of grandkids. And somewhere along the line in the last 10 years or so, she decided to become an interior designer. Not for fancy apartments, but for things like casinos. And her boss had her doing exterior design as well, architectural renderings for shopping centers with the parking spaces, the gardens and such. And she's been doing a pretty phenomonal job at it.
I came next and you already know too much about me. I suffered juvenile rheumatoid arthritis as a kindergardener and spent months in a hospital. I was a trial patient on cortisione in 1956 and that had me up to 162 as an 8 year old. And I somehow made it through the Strong Kids' Club--though I don't think I was ever officially inducted--and wound up someone who liked the underbelly of NY, overdid drugs and alcohol, was a very excellent NYC chef, hitchhiked 50,000 miles, managed to turn a penchant for writing into a living, and fell in love with the Amazon jungle.
Barbara was after me. She was the actress and early writer in our gang. Nicknamed Butterball by the family doctor, she was, like Peg, drop dead gorgeous. And she could make a stone laugh. She'd come to the dinner table and start naming the last names of the kids in her class--we always thought she was making them up--and two minutes later the rest of us had milk coming out of our noses, and Tom would be crying with laughter. And at about 7 she began writing a book, and she'd read pieces of it to us nightly for what seemed like months. What a howler. Even though I was older than her I would listen in amazement and slight jealousy. And then, could she act! When a church group or Rotary club would ask my father to be a guest and do some Shakespeare, he'd sometimes ask Barbara and myself to come along to be his foils. And we'd learn our lines and rehearse and when we got where we were going Barbara would be so damned good, and I would be a nervous nellie. She just became the person, while I was nearly always stuck outside, trying to be the person. She did that through school and it was a wonder to watch her work. And at home, when Mike would invent a play to do for mom and Tom--the most memorable was The Blind Dentist--she was always in the role to a T. A little later, she and my sister Regina, at the suggestion of her boyfriend, now husband of nearly 35-years, Paul Errico, they formed a group with Reg and Barb the lead singers and hot chicks and toured the east coast one year. And she and Paul, a working musician whom many of you probably remember from his work on Steve Forbert albums, wound up with three beautiful kids who are stories of their own.
And then there's baby Regina. She was as lovely as the others but like Pat, Mike and me, a brunette, not a blond. She was someone I just fell in love with. I was just the right age and size to be able to take care of her--at four years older--and so I'd strut her around in the stroller, carry her through the house and so forth. Early on she suffered a trauma when her first grade teacher at St. Mels, a nun, had her do a math problem on the black board. It was probably something like 4 +3, but whatever it was she didn't do it and the teacher sort of snapped. She grabbed Regina's long hair and smacked her head into the slate blackboard, leaving her with a slight skull fracture. Now hitting was okay for teachers in those days, but this was over the line and Tom marched us all down to the convent that night to have us watch him beat the hell out of that woman. While he wasn't a catholic, we all were, and I knew we were going to hell for even going to the convent, much less for punching a nun in the nose, but march we went. I don't think Tom actually hit her but I think he made his point that the group with him were his kids and that if there was any future head knocking to do he'd be the one doing it, not the nuns.
Still, it left a bad taste in Regina's mouth and she didn't much care for school. She didn't even finish high school. She was the only one still living at home when mom got real sick and took care of her more than the rest of us. And she became a waitress and married the guy known as the 'toughest guy in New York', Tom Leonard, and they had little Tommy, whom I used to babysit for.
And then something happened and Big Tom got Regina to go for her GED, high school equivalency diploma and she did, then went on to Hunter College and kept going and got her masters and became a teacher and has twice been voted Teacher of the Year by the other teachers in her school.
So that's a little about us. I wouldn't have changed a thing. And if I get a bit soft when I think about Barbara's birthday, well, that's just who I am. And when some people think it odd that I love having Chepa's new babies around this house, when they're not mine, well, they just don't get that they're still my kids' sisters and they're all supposed to grow up and remember a full household and lots of zany stuff and crazy mealtimes and if I could give it to them the way mom and Tom gave it to us, well, I'll be very surprised but very happy.
Happy Birthday, Barbara! Hope it's a wonderful year for you.


Arbol said...

The bit about your younger sister rings a memory for me when I was in the public elementary school system and I used to get hit by the teachers from 1st through 8th grade in the 60's and 70's.
Love the way you write and the way you convey imagery Peter. Thanks for a peek into the Gorman family

Kuchinta said...

What a beautiful story about your family, Peter! And what a talented brood all of you are!
Thank you for sharing : )

Gritter said...

Another really good read Peter. It makes sense of many of the other things you have written about kids, growing up, and etc. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

lovely lovely! Thank you for sharing these little details about your formative years and family.

PS Chad sends his love