Robert was the older child. He was pale, thin and wore glasses. He was teased mercilessly by the other kids on the block, and didn't join in the street games we always played. If there was no one else around, I would play with him, (magnanimous, huh) mainly because he was allowed to carry every boy's dream... a pocket knife. We played a game called Mumbly Peg. Each boy in turn would hold the knife in his palm and then quickly jerk his hand and flip the knife to make it stick in the dirt. You scored points according to where the knife landed. Pamela was a pretty tomboy who was a good friend of my sister's. Unlike her frail brother, she could out run and out climb most boys on the block.
The two prize characters in the family were Aunt Lou and Aunt Jo. They could have stepped out of the cast of Tennessee Williams "The Glass Menagerie". Always beautifully dressed and powdered, they exuded refinement. Occasionally, they would invite me into the house (after locking up the silver) and offer me a piece of fruit or candy. I imagine they felt some sense of "noblesse oblige" to those in the neighborhood like me who were lower born than they. I tried to be polite (their appearance demanded nothing less) but honestly I couldn't wait to bolt out the door. In my own urchin way, I felt somehow unworthy to be in their presence. I thought of them years later, while watching the wonderful movie, "My Fair Lady"; naturally I identified strongly with Liza Doolittle.
The spinster sisters had a "Gentleman Caller" whose name was "Mr. Pape", and that's how we always addressed him. He too was regal in bearing and impeccably dressed in a three-piece pinstripe suit, white shite and silk tie. He would unfailingly tip his homburg hat whenever he greeted you. Mr. Pape drove an immaculately kept car that looked something like the one pictured at left. Most weekends he would drive up and take Aunt Lou and Aunt Jo for drives. As incongruous as this scene may sound for a blue-collar Brooklyn neighborhood, it was just accepted.
The Gildersleeves were part of the varied ethnic and racial fabric of East New York, Brooklyn in the fifties. We had diversity, but weren't sanctimonious or self-congratulatory about it. We were all neighbors just trying to get by.
(Originally published October 4, 2008)
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