November 18, 1955
It was a five days before Anthony’s birthday. His Aunt Laura, as usual was visiting after their early Sunday afternoon dinner. Aunt Laura helped his mother cleanup the dishes and made some tea. The sisters both sat knee to knee around a pink and gray top Formica kitchen table with matching vinyl chairs. Both gently blew across their saucers to cool down their hot Lipton tea with Carnation Evaporated Milk.
For the past two weeks, he had driven his mother crazy, begging her to have a birthday party. He had gone to many parties at his friend’s houses but he never had one of his very own. He circled the kitchen table like an Indian, pestering his mother and making sullen looks, as he grabbed a “black and white” Ebingers cookie from the green bakery box.
“Please Mommy, please, please, p-p-p-lease.” At his final p-p-p-please, all of a sudden, his mother put down the saucer and burst out in tears. She sank down on the chrome kitchen chair, putting her hand to her head and sighed, “Yes, Anthony, you can have your birthday party on Friday after school. Just be quiet”.
Aunt Laura rose up from her chair like a black bolt of lightning, and gave her nephew a look that could kill. “Anthony you are such a bad, boy! You have no consideration for your poor mother, you only think about yourself.” She put her hand on her sister’s shoulder. “Josephine, it will be too much work for you in your condition. Josie you gotta rest. He doesn’t deserve it anyway.”
As she sat down, Aunt Laura stubbed her big fat toe on the bottom of the Formica kitchen chair. Anthony sniggered but turned away not to show his smile. He wondered what his mother’s condition was. She was acting funny lately, and she had gotten very big around her middle. His mother had told him he was going to have a new sister, but he did not put the two and two together. His bratty brother Michael was already three years old and he didn’t remember how he had magically arrived. His mother laughingly told him, the stork brought them. He went to the school library and looked up storks. Mmmm…
Anthony was so upset he made his mother cry but he still wanted his birthday party. Standing in back of her chair, he put his arms around her and whispered: “Mommy, I’m so sorry I made your cry and you’re not feeling well. I promise to do all the work. P-p-please, Mommy.” His mother whispered back that he could invite his second grade classmates of St. Thomas Aquinas for a party after school on Friday. He tried to give her a kiss, but she brushed him away.
He was such a lucky boy. He would now would celebrate his birthday twice – once with his classmates after school on his actual birthday and then one with all of his relatives came over on Sunday. Aunt Laura was not happy as she nosily started to clean up the table and rattled the teacups in the enamel kitchen slop sink. She glared down at the smiling boy. He gave her a big toothed “black and white” cookie filled grin.
His Dad came back from Nona’s house. He went every Sunday afternoon to visit his mother who lived way up in the Bronx. “Tony”, as all the adults called his father, gave his mother money for the party. That Monday morning she gave Anthony two whole dollars to go down after school to buy decorations at Kresges on Fifth Avenue.
All day in class, his stern teacher, Mrs. Morris, had to wrap his knuckles with a ruler to stop him from passing around notes inviting his friends to his party. The night before he had written out ten notes in his best cursive handwriting. He would rather do that, than ask his friends and stutter and be laughed at.
Please come to my Birthday Party
Friday November 18
463 10th St.
After school, Anthony ran up Ninth Street to the 5 &10 on 10th Street, only two blocks from his home. He first poked his nose in the record department to see if any new Broadway albums had come out. He finally made his way to to see what the theme would be for his party: Mighty Mouse, Roy Rogers, Howdy Doody, Flash Gordon or Lady and the Tramp. After spending at least an hour deciding, he had planned splendid party of blue crepe streamers, white balloons, Mickey Mouse paper plates/cups and a Pin the Tail on the Donkey game. With his last nickel, he bought himself a Snicker Bar that he ate on the one home. He went straight to the front hall closet to hide his purchases. He rummaged around the back of the closet, chock-a- block with Christmas decorations to see if there were any birthday gifts for him since that’s where his mother always hid the Christmas presents. No presents! All he knew was that his mother had said he would get a very special gift that year but it wasn’t in the closet. What could it be? What could it be???
Since he got home late, he hurriedly finished his arithmetic homework so he could watch Kukla, Fran and Ollie after dinner at 7:00 pm. At 8:00 pm he got on his knees to say his usual evening prayers, blessing everyone, asking Jesus to get him a Jack-in the-Box for his birthday – the tin one where Jack would leap out with a freaky ghoulish glee. He also prayed that his Aunt Laura would stub her big fat toe again and it would fall off. He jumped into bed and dived under the yellow chenille bedspread. He gave his brother, Michael a kick and shoved him over to his side of the bed. But Michael kept turning and tossing until Anthony finally had had enough and took his pillow and made a fort wall between him and his brother. He used his Teddy Bear instead of the pillow that night to sleep on.
In the middle of that late chilly November night, Anthony got up with a start when he heard his father and mother talking in loud whispers across the way since they all slept in one big front room of the Park Slope brownstone. He played dead as he tried to listen to what they were saying. Finally his father came over and sat next to him on the bed and whispered with a definite seriousness: “Anthony, I have to take your mother to the hospital. Go back to sleep and take care of your brother. Your Aunt will be here by the time you wake up. Be a good boy for Daddy.” “Is m-m-mommy ok?” Anthony stuttered. “Be quiet. You’re the oldest, watch your baby brother and go back to sleep” and with that, Anthony’s father turned off the lights and left the room with his mother wrapped up in her big woolen coat. Anthony heard the front door close. All was quiet again. He covered up his brother Michael with the bedspread, gave him a soft kiss on his forehead. He fell back to sleep.
At 7am his Aunt Laura came bursting in, expecting to find the house burned down. “What are you still doing in bed, you lazy pig?” He always got up at 7:30 am so he didn’t know what all of the stink was. “Hurry up now, get dressed, it’s time to go to school. If I were your mother I would have put you in The St. Vincent Home for Boys a long time ago” Every time they would drive past the home on Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn, his aunt would point to it and say “If you don’t behave we’re going to leave you there with the rest of the bad boys”. Sometimes his mother would threaten to give him away to the Gypsies who told fortunes, living in an abandoned store around the corner.
He was so excited about his party even though it was still two whole days away. He could barely put on the clothes that his mother had laid out the night before: clean white BVD’s, pressed navy blue chino pants, yesterday’s old wool socks, a white starched shirt and a maroon knit wool tie embroidered with STA (St. Thomas Aquinas). Finally, he managed to get dressed after wrestling with his pants legs that he had put on backwards. Just as he was about to leave, Aunt Laura said “Tell all your friends that you can’t have your party because your mother is sick!” Anthony was stunned. “B-b-but Aunt Laura! We have to! I have all the stuff bought. I invited them all.” She stood in the doorway blocking the way. “Your mother will not be back until Friday and you are not having a birthday party and that’s that. So un-invite your so-called friends. I will cancel the cake. Do you hear me? You are not!” She let him pass but not before she stubbed her big toe on the kitchen table leg and yelled out a loud: “son of a bitch!”
Anthony ran out the front door and slammed it behind him. He was so hurt that he could not even relish Aunts stubbed toe. He didn’t have time to write notes so he had to tell his friends, one by one. They didn’t laugh when he stuttered. They all said they would bring him his presents, they were already bought anyways. It didn’t seem fair to Anthony that they should have to give him presents without going to a party.
Anthony’s father came home late that night without his mother. He heard this Dad and Aunt whispering something that sounded like Preemie. Was it code? Was his mother dying? His father went right to bed. The next day Anthony went to church after school and knelt down at the altar rail of the Mary Chapel and prayed for his Mother and told Jesus he was sorry he hated his Aunt Laura but still wished she would disappear like the melting Wicked Witch of the West. He said “Three Hail Mary’s” and one “Our Father” like the priest would have asked him to do at Confession. Aunt Laura made supper that night and his mother was still not home when he went to bed.
Anthony got up very early Friday morning, his birth-day. His father said he could stay home from school to watch his little brother. Aunt Laura couldn’t come over, she had to work at the A&P chocolate factory down in the Bush Terminal Buildings. He pictured her in a white chef’s hat like Lucy on TV. “Roll them!” he snickered. After he had his bowl of Cheerios, smothered with sugar, he turned on the Dumont TV and watched all the soap operas his mother would tell him about. In the middle of the afternoon, even with his brother annoying him, he got so lonely and so, so sad. Drying away dramatic tears, he went to the closet and got all the party favors out. He quietly decorated the entire kitchen in blue crepe streamers and white balloons as his brother watched from the kitchen linoleum floor. Anthony put his party hat on with the elastic band under his chin and sat at the table and started to eat only the red M&Ms. He sang “Happy Birthday” to himself. He didn’t stammer when he sang.
Suddenly the door opened and in shuffled his mother and father. His mother was cradling a small bundle. Anthony was so happy to see her and was just about to tell her about mean Aunt Laura canceling his party when his mother said “Wow! How beautiful the kitchen looks Anthony. How sweet, you decorated it for your new baby sister.” Leaning down to him, she lifted the bundle’s pink coverlet and showed Anthony his new baby sister, Karen. Her eyes were closed and crusty with sleep. It was the tiniest person he had ever seen so he guessed a stork could carry a baby. She was small as a peanut. Aha! Peanut not Preemie!. He decided then and there to call her Peanut. His mother went to the bedroom. She laid Peanut down next to her and both took a nap. Anthony glowed that he made his mother so happy. He didn’t tell her he secretly had decorated the kitchen for himself.
Later that night, all the relatives unexpectedly came over. There were the two grandmothers: Nona and Grandma; all the Italian and Polish Uncles: Nick, Larry, Phil, Ed and Joey; his Aunts: Mary and Mary and his Cousin, Viola and of course, his wicked Aunt Laura. They all oohed and ahhed at the new blessing and all draped themselves on the couch, the two club chairs and kitchen chairs dragged into the living room. Dad opened up some whiskey, passed some frosted high ball glasses around and they all toasted him on his new daughter. Anthony kept poking his father till he gave Anthony a sip that made his lips pucker up.
In the middle of the festivities, Anthony’s mother took Karen to the chair-less kitchen table and laid her gently down. Anthony followed her in. “She has to be changed” his mother said. There was a sour smell mixed of Johnson & Johnson baby oil and poop. As she took her diaper off, Anthony eyes widened. He couldn’t figure it out. “Where’s her Pee-Pee? She ain’t got any.” His mother laughed gently. “She’s a girl, Anthony. Girls don’t have Pee-Pees. Don’t ask so many questions, you are such a curious boy. Now be quiet and go back in the other room while I finish.” His Aunt Laura came in to help and pointed her finger shooing him to leave.
Anthony stopped in the bathroom on the way down the long hallway. He climbed up on the toilet bowl cover. He pulled down his pants and held his pee-pee in his hand so he could admire it in the mirror. His mother was always yelling at him to stop playing with it. He realized he had something his little sister didn’t have. His brother, Michael had one too but so much smaller. Even his Dad did, he guessed, though he had never seen it. He smiled. He was very proud of it. He put it away, climbed down from the bowl. He put the toilet bowl seat lid back up as his mother had taught him.
As he entered the parlor, the lights went off. What happened? Not another circuit breaker that always goes off? He moved slowly down the dark corridor toward the living room. Then with a start, he jumped as he heard everyone singing:
“Happy Birthday to you!
Happy Birthday to you!
Happy Birthday dear Ant-hony,
Happy Birthday day to you!”
They all clapped and laughed as he entered the living room, beaming. And there was Aunt Laura, standing in the kitchen doorway, carrying a big white whipped cream birthday cake. He started to cry as he blew out all eight candles. All his relatives kissed him, patted his back and his little butt. He then turned to his Aunt Laura and gave her the biggest of hugs. She sorta smiled. Thank God, Jesus didn’t hear everything he prayed for, he thought.. He cut the first slice of his cake and on purpose, got some whipped cream on his nose and made them all his relatives laugh.
When his Mother came back in with Karen, they cried out – “Bella bambina – What a beautiful baby – She looks just like you, Josie.” His mother gave the baby to Grandma to hold. Nona looked stonily on. His mother reached behind the couch and pulled out a beautifully wrapped present. “You didn’t think we would forget your birthday, silly boy?” He uncharacteristically tore the ribbons and paper off and there was his Jack-in-Box! He wound it up. It played “Here we go ’round the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush, here we go ’round so early in the morning” and out sprang the Jack in the Box. He pretended to leap up in surprise as he gave his mother the biggest kiss and got whipped cream on her cheek. His older cousin Viola yelled out: “He looks just like you!” All his relatives laughed again. His Aunt Mary, walked over to the closet and pulled out two winter coats she had bought at the Arthur Avenue Open Market. Anthony politely thanked her. “Give Titzie a big kiss!” Like an octopus’s tentacles, her kiss sucked his cheek out.
Rock & Rye was rolled out and liberally poured over ice as the Polish and the Italian accents bounced around the room accompanied by platters of capicola with caponata and kielbasa with potato salad that had hastily been purchased at their local neighborhood delis. Aunty Mary puffed on her Kent cigarettes like a locomotive; half eaten plates of birthday cake were strewn on the coffee and end tables. His grandmothers sat as sultans in their court – détente. The streamers started to fall from the heat melting the scotch tape glue.
Aunt Laura organized the cleanup. Anthony’s mother retrieved his sister like a little chick, that was laid to rest in a nest of his relatives coats tossed on the bed .Even Dad was teary eyed good byes. Kisses on one cheek from the Polish contingent and two cheeks kisses from the Italians; bye-byes and ciaos. At 8 pm everyone was gone, all the grandmothers, aunts, uncle and cousin. The house was once again quiet. Exhausted, the Napoli family all went to bed early.
Before he went to sleep, he got on his knees, said his prayers and asked blessings for his entire family including his Aunt Laura. He thanked him for the Jack-in-the-Box and even the two coats too. But he knew the best present of all, was the one his mother gave him, his new baby sister, Karen Jean – Peanut. Anthony wished a special blessing on her and promised Jesus he would love her all his life and take care of her (as his Aunt Laura said he should). Although he and his sister’s birthdays were three days apart, November 15th & 18th, they would always celebrate them together.
So Anthony did have his birthday party after all. And on Monday morning, he would get more presents from his classmates. He would thank them all, one by one. He did not stutter…
Karen Jean – Peanut
November 15, 1955