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By Patricia Carragon
The sleeves wouldn’t go up Shirley’s upper arms. The navy plaid dress that was too big last year, was now too small. There was no time to find another dress. The mother didn’t want her sobbing daughter to be late for the first day of the school term. Her tiny scissors removed a few stitches underneath each sleeve. Like magic, the sleeves went up the child’s arms. Soon she and her mother were out the door, making it before the nine o’clock bell.
The mother adored Shirley Temple and named her only daughter after her. Shirley wasn’t always Fat Shirley. The curse of “baby fat” runs in the Kaplan family. By age ten, Shirley couldn’t fit into clothes from the girls’ department at Alexander’s. Wearing dumpy garments from the pre-teen area shamed her at school. Since her mother never learned how to make clothes from the McCall’s patterns, buying smaller adult-sized clothes was the only solution.
Her mother hoped that the “baby fat” would melt away after the “red wagon’s” inaugural visit. Having an over-weight child was just as disappointing as having an underachiever. Shirley had to be tutored on reading, spelling, and arithmetic. Her brother Joey had to proofread her assignments. Shirley wasn’t special like the genius kids in the Sunday Mirror article, nor could she be like her brother who skipped a grade. If her daughter was to succeed, she’d better concentrate on her looks and marry a nice Jewish boy.
Shirley had little expectations. She had no interest in getting married or succeeding in anything. She only wanted to drop the “fat” from her body and name. Waiting for adolescence was like waiting for her hair to turn gray.
Shirley’s appearance engendered criticism, bad habits, and low self-esteem. While shopping at Macy’s in Parkchester, her father met a former colleague in the Cosmetics Department and introduced her to his family. When it was Shirley’s turn, he apologized for her chubbiness. Shirley turned red. The colleague gave a sympathetic look. At her parents’ pinnacle and canasta get-togethers, one of her father’s friends served Shirley a dish of Breyers' vanilla ice cream. She whispered to Shirley’s mother, “Why is she so fat?” Shirley overheard it and took a second helping. Her mother was no help. She fed her junk food during those boring double-features at the Loew’s Paradise and the RKO Fordham. She had Shirley get a Buster Brown haircut. The pinhead hairdo narrowed her small head and made the rest of her body look like the Mercury space capsule. Fat Shirley got fatter and fatter.
Shirley never understood why she was always paired off with her father. Her mother claimed it was because she was the youngest. It embarrassed Shirley to walk with her father. People assumed: like father, like daughter. She hated Freedomland. The excitement of the Wild West withered in the horseshit and dander, triggering a phenomenal allergy attack. She waddled behind her family until her father pulled her from one exhibition to another. Her right arm was no Slinky toy. Surprisingly, it didn’t break off like her Patti Playpal’s. She complained. Her mother protested. Her brother shook his head. Nevertheless, her father continued to bulldoze past the crowd, dragging Fat Shirley like a ragdoll. When the family headed for the steamboat, Shirley fell on the stairs. People yelled at her father. He stopped when she screamed for helped. Once on the deck, the family got an excellent view. Shirley’s eyes were on her sore arm and bruised knee. After the boat ride, the family splurged on a steak meal at The Stockyards Restaurant. Shirley felt out of place. The red velveteen booth and gilded ambiance intimidated her. She sank into the velveteen cushion. After her father left for the toilet, her mother overtly wished for her daughter to be surrounded by luxury, because Daddy had never given Mommy what she wanted. Shirley sliced her steak into tinier morsels.
Before her twelve birthday, Shirley did shed the “fat” from her name and body. However, hormones played dirty games. Shirley did get sporadic visits from the “little red wagon,” plus the agony and gore it delivered. Acne was more frequent and just as evil. Kids at school called her Scabby Face.
Shirley blew out the candles on her thirteenth birthday cake. She wished to become an adult. She did get her wish, but never knew it was going to get worse.
By Patricia Carragon
Catholicism—God as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Incense, ritual, and guilt. If Jesus and the Blessed Mother were too busy, a staff of saints was available to address your needs. Pray for money. Pray for a promotion. Pray for good grades. Pray for a new apartment. Pray for health. Pray for friends. Pray for a dog. Pray for happiness. Pray for anything. I couldn’t understand why Mommy, who was a victim to both her father’s and husband’s wrath, would be an unquestioning devotee. Life shafted her since childhood.
On top of the blond-colored dresser was a picture of Jesus. Next to Jesus were a four-leaf clover and an Irish Sweepstakes ticket. It was summer, and I was too young for Catechism brainwashing. After calling my brother and me into the bedroom, Mommy placed a pillow in front of the dresser. She instructed my brother to come forth and pray aloud. Like an altar boy, he knelt. He was well-schooled in Trinitarian “mumble-jumble.” Every morning, it annoyed me to watch him kneel for almost ten minutes with his “one-on-one” communication with a phantom. I wondered about his secret conversation. Was my brother confessing about missing mass, eating hot dogs on Friday, being lazy, or saying bad words? Was he begging for a room of his own, a nicer house or apartment, friends to come over, a summer vacation in the country, or a bike that wouldn’t be stolen? Did he wish for Mommy and Daddy to stop fighting, or for Daddy to stop hitting him? Why was he wasting his time? I’d kick him in the legs—my way of saying, “breakfast is served” or “your fairy godmother can’t hear you on an empty stomach.” I believed that he was being trained for the priesthood—yeah, a priest named “Cohen.”
My brother kept it simple and recited The Lord’s Prayer. Mommy was pleased.
It was my turn. Reluctantly, I knelt. The humiliation bothered me. The storybooks about happy children didn’t apply to a lonely kid from a hostile home. I saw no logic in praying to God or to a concept that didn’t speak or blink. Jesus was frozen in His “I died for your sins” pose. Since I disliked the sappy Jiminy Cricket, I said, “I hate you God. I hate you . . . you Jiminy!” My diatribe horrified Mommy. My brother said nothing. This ritual was never repeated again.
A year later, the Catholic Church and elementary school inculcated their newspeak. I learned to shut up and live in fear. It was my turn for my father’s wrath.
By Frank Murphy
One of my earliest memories of Mrs. Donovan is knocking on her apartment door, and her opening the door and asking us,
“Why didn’t Richard open the door?”
It was 1947 and the song “Open The Door Richard” was constantly being played on the radio.
“Because the landlord was knocking and Richard didn’t have the rent.” I answered.
I was a super’s son, the janitor’s boy. At seven I knew all about landlords and rent. Mrs. Donovan laughed and ushered us into her small apartment where we sat at a large kitchen table drinking tea and eating coffee cake. But before sitting down she asked my brother, my sister, and me if we had any gum.
She had asked us to save our used gum which she used to repair religious statues. She was known throughout the neighborhood for her ability to restore the outstretched hand of a Virgin Mary or to replace the sandaled foot of a Saint Joseph. Broken crosses, headless infants of Prague, armless statues of Saint Paul, Saint Anthony’s with lost halos, crowns of thorns separated from the heads of suffering Jesus’, and an army of other wrecked saints were lying about her kitchen. Mrs. Donovan said that she never charged money to fix a statue, but my mother and her neighbor Mrs. Jackson both claimed that she kept a jar by the door, “Where it would be noticed.”
She also fixed dolls though for some reason I don’t remember body parts of dolls spread about her apartment the way religious objects were. Maybe I was just used to my sister’s dolls, who often resembled victims of a train wreck.
Mrs. Donovan also gave card readings to her neighbors. Always for free, but there was that jar carefully placed where it couldn’t go unnoticed.