My two cousins

By Rosalie Tirella

Writing my David Cassidy post got me thinking about Baby Boomer teen life and my two favorite girl cousins, Jennifer and Kris. Jennifer was the trend setter of my junior and early senior high school years. The beauty I idolized but could never be.  She was the suburban willowy love-child of the ’70s who caught all the boys’ eyes (once I was walking with her when she literally stopped traffic!), and I was the Polish immigrant nerd living in the ghetto (Green Island) with my face deep in my school books and Bapy’s potato pierogi’s.

Jennifer was the Ali MacGraw to my Mr. Magoo (I was near-sighted as a kid, and my mom bought me thick-lensed eyeglasses at the optometrist on Millbury Street), the Cheryl Tiegs string bikini to my White’s Five and Ten polyester pants. And the whole family knew it. When her parents, my sweet Uncle Mark and Aunt Mary, spoke of her, their only daughter, the word “model” popped up in lots of their sentences. As in Jennifer was beautiful enough to be a model. She was tall enough to be a model – 5′ 7″.  She had an oval face – the perfect face all models had. Plus: Jennifer made her own groovy clothes that looked like they came right out of SEVENTEEN magazine. She sewed like a demon (linings? No problem! Zippers? a snap!) and could knit or crochet anything.

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Jennifer could knit sweaters like these pom-pom bedecked doozies!

Once she crocheted herself a beautiful blue hotpants jumpsuit with a red apple on the bib (which her parents never let her wear in public). It involved following a pattern, creating pieces, putting them together…so intimidating to me!

Jennifer loved going to the beach and sunbathed in the pretty two piece bathing suits she sewed for herself. She slathered on the Coppertone sun tan lotion (SPF 0) and smelled like a coconut. 

For me, the whole Jennifer package was amazing! No one ever stared at me – a gawky 13 year old with thin hair and a gap between my two front teeth, which my mother, too poor to outfit me in braces, kept promising me would come together as my wisdom teeth grew in. (never happened). No one ever told me I had model potential. No one ever cared what I was knitting. I was in Jennifer’s knitting class at the Winthrop House Girls Club on Providence Street. Everyone in class knew I was the worst knitter at the Girls Club; in a million years I could never crochet a blue hot pants outfit with a red apple on its bib! The club knitting teacher, was a tough old Irish broad who had plenty of ability but no heart. She fawned over Jennifer and her work but sneered at me as I sweated bullets over my paltry scarves or “slippers” for Bapy. Scraps to her. She never tried to teach me anything new –  never really even acknowledged my presence. She just kept me knitting those damn scarves and slippers – both the easiest beginner projects entailing knitting/crocheting row after row after row after row…I hated the teacher and class but my mother wanted me to learn “home economics” so I took all the classes at the Club: sewing class, knitting class, cooking class. I soldiered on in knitting for three years while  Jennifer soared –  graduated to sweaters with pom poms, halter tops! and hotpants jumpsuits. She bought and  followed patterns, three-page directives that told you when you knit, purled, dropped a stitch etc.

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Jaw dropping. I never  owned or even followed a pattern, which you could buy at Woolworths on Front Street. I couldn’t even “read” them. So I became the Madame Defarge of the Girls Club – knitting and knitting and knitting my  scarf in a corner of the room.

Jennifer wore platform sandals and shoes that we’re pretty and on trend – but never slutty. She drank NuForm 1% low fat milk because she was tall and willowy and watched her figure, like a real model. She wore just the lightest touch of makeup (pink lipstick, a bit of mascara) because she was a natural beauty, like a model.  And like all models in the 1970s she wore her long, chestnut hair parted straight in the middle, straight down the back, a la Ali MacGraw.

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pics: R.T.

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Jennifer even knit herself those knit hats Ali MacGraw wore in the movie “Love Story,” co-starring  ’70s heartthrob movie actor Ryan O’Neal.

My aunt would say, “That’s my Ali MacGraw!” My Uncle would say, “That’s my Polish Princess!”

And we’d all nod, grinning.

No one ever called me a Polish Princess! But I knew I was loved by mom. For different reasons. I was up to something a little different – Ma picked up on it, knew I was wicked book smart, an all-A student.  She knew I loved music and enrolled me in violin – and accordion! – lessons at Lamartine Street School. She pushed me to be in the WPS orchestra – at 7! She’d bypass Jennifer altogether and compare me to the boys in the family. Race my intellectual prowess against that of her sister’s two whiz kid sons’ – Walter and Jim.

My Aunt Mary would brag to my mom: “Jim is number two in his class.” My mom would hit back with: “My Rosalie is number 1.” My aunt would crow: “Jim’s teachers love him.” My mom would retort: “Rosalie’s English teacher took  her and five of the smartest kids in class to the art museum on Saturday. Then they  went to McDonald’s for lunch!” If Walter was reading a hard book for his book report at Burncoat Junior High, I was reading a brain-cracker for my book report at Providence Street Junior High. If Walter was going to college to be a doctor, I was going to college to be a veterinarian – a job my mom believed required more intelligence.  Animals did not talk and therefore couldn’t tell you where they hurt or what their health issues were!

The competition was intense, and soon I felt I was on a different path than Jennifer who wanted to go the more traditional route. She wanted to be a school teacher, get married in a beautiful wedding gown …

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… with the band playing BREAD songs for all to dance to at the wedding reception.

My cousin loved BREAD and bought the above album, The Best of Bread, and convinced me to do the same. I did. When we had our sleep overs at her house we’d get into our jammies, talk boys and true love and she’d put her BREAD album on her portable record player and together we’d softly sing all the songs on it (I knew all the words by heart, still do). We’d sing high and melodramatically in the gentle moonlight that suffused her little pink bedroom, with the swing set in the back yard, my aunt and uncle in the kitchen having a final cup of coffee of the day,  together …

A few years ago I heard “Everything I Own” on the radio and cried. Not for what the music critics would call its saccharine lyrics (the critics slagged BREAD, gagged over BREAD, their entire career) but for what the band once meant to two innocent girls in the little moonlight-imbued bedroom off Burncoat Street, the swing set in the backyard by the big tree I’d sometimes climb… . Two girls who believed in all that bad love poetry with all their hearts!

“I may be climbing on rainbows, but here goes…”

“… I really wanna make it with you!”

Jennifer’s husband would be handsome and straight-as-an-arrow loyal, and – a must – he’d have a great paying job.

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They would live in a big house in the nice part of town and have a family…Jen was losing this Green Island Grrrl.

Into the breach stepped Kris, the teenaged daughter of my mother’s older sister, Helen. Kris was another beauty but very different from Jennifer. Helen, like my mom, her little sis, had married stupidly – got hitched to a physically abusive carpenter who would hit her and drink whenever he wasn’t working. I remember him at our kiddie  birthday parties, walking around the room and popping the balloons with his cigar. A total asshole. Like with my father, I was afraid of the guy. After running away from him, kicking him out of the house, getting a divorce and their house in Webster Square, my auntie became the tough, single mama survivor raising her two teenagers during the 1960s, the Vietnam War … working three shit  jobs  to keep the house and send  her kids to private schools. She eventually became a professional, an accountant, while raising Kris and her brother, Peter. She was the auntie who had a lifelong love affair with Doberman pinschers, owning one after another, huge canines built like brick outhouses, all named delicate, pretty names like Sparkle, Serena and Tatiana. Any one of them could have killed a man.

Like I said, Kris was a beauty. Wavy long auburn hair, huge melt-you eyes, pretty figure, full sensuous lips – so fetching in her blue jeans, peasant blouse and loafers. But where Jennifer was confident and exuberant, Kris was tentative and sad. Where Jennifer sauntered down that beach, Kris walked stiffly past the wavelets, her shoulders up, square and rigid like a soldier’s. She could have looked amazing in a bikini, but she wore a no-nonsense, nylon navy blue one-piece.

Still, we connected. Through our mutual love for animals. When visiting us – and my Aunt and her two kids often did visit us to escape the flying fists of my uncle – Kris never chatted about boys or music or hinted she could be a model, though, years later, I see her in my mind’s eye and she is a kind of ravishing, exotic beauty that Jennifer never was. But she was emotionally squelched by a dad who was a drinker and hit her mother with her hair brush. No. Kris was not young the way Jennifer or even I was. She was serious – until she was given our cat Rajah to pet or our English Setter mix Belle to hug. Then she smiled her toothy white grin and talked about her cats at home or their latest Doberman pinscher. …

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Kris would have loved the playful and mischievous Cece!

… But mostly Kris was quiet, “reserved” my mom called it, just connecting with our pets. She would get right on the floor with them, lying down next to them and play fight or cuddle. It was primitive. Bewitching! I’d just sit by her and my pets, watching. They were having fun. My cousin was turning into a feline! A pup!

I wanted to reach out, have Kris be my best friend cousin, just like Jennifer had been, but there was a wall. Kris was only a few years older than Jen but everything about her seemed far away, distracted.  The only emotional connection to my clan? My late mom. Kris loved my mother, who in her 40s then, had a husky, sexy voice that no one else in the family has or ever had. It made her so unique! Everyone remembers her voice, so Las Vegas, Frank Sinatra, dry martini  – even though all she did was work 60 hours a week at the dry cleaners to support me and my two sisters and come home to cook and care for us. When she saw her, Ma would always give Kris a big hug and a kiss on the cheek and … unlike her mom, leave her be … the pressure was off. Kris could play with our pets to her heart’s content. My mother would offer her a cup of Delmonte’s fruit cocktail – something Ma loved to do when we had guests over. Kris accepted the cup of syrupy soft pale fruit and then Ma’d go back to the kitchen table and sit with my aunt. They’d have a cup of freshly brewed coffee Ma made special for my aunt and chat. Ma and Auntie would never talk about my uncle or the physical abuse in front of us kids – maybe they never did, even when we weren’t around. Maybe Ma just sensed it all, Auntie telling her a few things here and there, painting a picture of alcoholism and domestic violence without using the words or even knowing that alcoholism is a disease and domestic violence follows a cycle. It was the ’70s and all of the research was just coming out. Blue collar women like Ma just did not have the knowledge at the time. They relied on their instincts, tried to reason with folks.

There was one night when Uncle Joe did not want Helen and her kids at our place. He drove to our Lafayette Street three decker and got out of his car and started yelling for my aunt, his wife, to come home with his kids. Kris’s face got beet red and tears fell from her eyes. Auntie looked flustered… . Ma went to our third floor window, opened it wide and through the screen said, gently: “Go home, Joe. Go home.” Uncle Joe kept shouting. He sounded off balance, drunk. Ma, still in that gentle voice, said: “Go to bed, Joe. Helen will come home tomorrow.”

That seemed to satisfy Uncle Joe and he drove home. My aunt and cousins spent the night. They got our beds. We kids doubled up. The next day they left early in the morning – so early my sisters and I were still sleeping. I don’t even think they had breakfast. I was sad that I missed saying goodbye to my Aunt, cousin Peter and pretty cousin Kris, who I later learned was a bigger Beatles fanatic than me! She had all the Beatles’s records. She even had the original Beatles dolls!