On Siblings

“To the outside world, we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were. We know each other’s hearts. We share private family jokes. We remember family feuds and secrets, family griefs and joys. We live outside the touch of time.” – Clara Ortega

Is this true for everyone? I used to think it was, but I’m not so sure. It’s true for me. I’m close with both of my brothers. My brother Mario is only 20 months my junior, but only a calendar year apart; so it put us a year apart in school growing up. My brother Frankie is 4 years and 5 months younger than me. As I said, I’m close with both of my brothers; but my relationship with Mario is something that I don’t even have words for. Mario and Frankie… It’s Franceso really. Francesco Camillo. Mario Anthony, and I’m Esterina Francesca. We are true guineas. My father is straight off the boat from Italy; 1970 at 20 years old. My mother’s entire lineage is Italian. We are 100% Italian and have the insanely authentic names to show for it.

At 20 months old I don’t have any single memories of a time before Mario. My mother used to tell me stories about how I was excited about her big belly and understand kind of, but not quite that I would have a brother or sister. She and my aunt Fran told me about how I wouldn’t speak to my parents once he came home until not long after I observed a diaper change and asked “what’s that?” pointing to the difference I noticed about our bodies at not yet 2 years old. These are memories I don’t have but heard them enough that I feel like I do.

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Memories I do remember are of us playing together in our house on 64th street in Brooklyn… or is it E. 64th, 63rd? I don’t know. My aunt Fran would know. Or my dad when he isn’t drinking (which isn’t often). None-the-less I do remember Mario there. I have a few memories of our first home at my grandmother’s famous house where all 3 of her kids lived on different floors on Ocean Avenue. Mario was there, but I seem to remember him asleep or in the background somewhere while my parents, aunt, and grandmother played cards until the wee hours of the morning with gin & tonics about. I hung around tugging at the group and kept myself busy with the joker card and the dog. We were either in my folk’s basement apartment or my grandmother’s first floor jaunt. The 64th St. flat is where I have my earliest memories of Mario being mobile and us talking and playing together. It was a small place, but we had an imagination. I remember waking him up out of his sleep in the mornings to play. My dad will still talk of the time period where Mario hadn’t spoken at some ridiculously late age, but he talked to me. I don’t know if I just interpreted things for him and he signed, or if he was actually speaking; I only remember I knew what he wanted to say and translated it to my parents for him. He’d nod enthusiastically.

As toddlers we played behind a little desk, pretending the little piece of wood horizontally holding the two ends together was a steering wheel and we were driving. We played board games and “read” books. My dad worked and my mom was home when we were young. Aside from my dancing school lessons and our cousins, before I started school we didn’t play with other children much, and my mom was always busy cleaning or painting ceramics or something. There were no computers and like 1 hour of children’s tv on in the morning. Mario and I were mostly all we had for entertainment.

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I do remember when my mother was pregnant with Frankie. I remember understanding that the belly meant a baby. This was a period in life before sonograms and no one knew what they were having before the baby popped out (can one even fathom such a thing???). I do remember really really really hoping for a baby sister. I don’t remember count-downs or anything. I do remember playing in the backroom of my grandmother’s store (Dinettes R Us) on Coney Island Avenue with my brother Mario under a desk when the phone rang and my grandmother answered. I can still hear her famous NY accent as loud as one could possibly talk without screaming “Hallo?!”. I think Mario & I were playing cards. I remember wondering if the call was about the baby and wishing, wishing, wishing it was a girl. My grandmother walked to the backroom and said “Your mother had the baby… it’s a boy!” I was happy, so happy. Mostly because my grandmother was so happy; and I didn’t care anymore that it was not a baby sister. Mario didn’t seem to pick up on this too much. He feigned joy (likely because I was joyous) and just continued to play.

If this were a play, the next act up was Mario & I in our apartment with my aunt Fran waiting for my parents to come home with Frankie. There was some red rocking apple toy I picked out for this new brother somewhere at our apartment on that 64th Street that I knew was a baby toy but I was playing with it anyway. The moment came when Mario and I were called out to the terrace overlooking the street because my parents were home. We ran out to the terrace and saw the car pull up in the front of the house. My dad was driving and my mom was in the front seat holding the new baby.

We were both too young to feel jealous over this new character in our lives. It just seemed very normal. I remember Frankie sitting in a car seat type of item while my mother was busy in the kitchen or something (though we didn’t have car seats back then… it was 1980). Mario and I would try to make Frankie laugh (which he did) then we’d make a “boo” face to scare him and started laughing when he cried; which only made him laugh too. The earliest lessons of lovingly teasing I suppose. Frankie always had a few years behind us and was always either following us around or trying to swindle us in playing a game with him. There were plenty of memories all 3 of us playing; but many more memories I can remember of just Mario and I while Frankie was sleeping or engrossed in something a little too juvenile for us. We played made up games like the “Pink pink coolie”, barbies that went nuts and threw themselves down the stairs in the apartment we ended up at over “Dinettes R Us” on Coney Island Avenue, or just playing in our yard of the building – Uno, the kiddie pool, catching lightening bugs, laughing…. We made up plays and songs for our parents with our cousins and our parent’s friend’s kids. Through elementary school we had the same teachers and laughed about their funny sayings or sang ridiculous songs we both knew. When we realized something annoyed my mom like the abominable song our music teacher made up and taught the kids (“Hello, hello, I like to say hello”) we’d tag team with one another and get a kick out of seeing my mom so aggravated. We fought too. Don’t get me wrong. I remember us blaming each other for stuff (well… me blaming him mostly). We hit each other. We were mad often for all of 5 minutes while we got separated and sent to our rooms until we were laughing about something outside or something one of us pointed out in the house. Mario was my companion. My very first best friend.

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With my cousins Anthony & Camille

The first real memories of bonding with Mario were on Coney Island Avenue. We had a very small apartment. My bedroom was the first of three that were adjoined, meaning you had to pass through mine to get to my parent’s room. And then pass through my parent’s room to get to Mario and Frankie’s shared room. We moved to Long Island in 1988 a few days before my 12th birthday. I remember the apartment being torn apart for quite sometime with packing and whatnot before the move. I don’t know how or why, but for some reason Mario and I ended up needing to sleep in my room in a double bed for some time. The first night I remember us talking into the wee hours started with Mario tossing and turning. I was in 5th grade and he was in 4th. I asked him what was the matter and in completely different words he confessed he was stressed because he wasn’t good at anything. I felt so bad that he was upset and tried to think of things he was good at to help him feel better because I knew his worries were ridiculous. I came up with several that he shot down with some excuse. Until I remembered reading his papers that he wrote for Saint Brendan’s Elementary school classes. I told him with complete genuine enthusiasm that I thought he was good at writing… and suddenly he quieted to think this over and completely agreed. “I am pretty good at writing aren’t I?”. “Yes you are”. We talked for a little bit about the things I remembered reading and I could tell he started to feel really good about himself. We talked much longer about his talent of writing . He ended up going to sleep happy. I remember the next day him referencing the conversation. I felt so good about helping him feel confident.

I remember being in up to 6th grade and laughing into the wee hours of the morning in that same apartment with Mario. My mother screaming from the next room “Get to sleep!!!”. We’d quiet for a few minutes until one of us said something so funny that we couldn’t help but bust out. My mother would march in and turn on the lights ranting and raving. God knows this only made us super serious until the lights turned off and we’d giggle quietly again. Not being able to help busting out into serious laughter again a few minutes later.

Mario was always hilariously funny. Even then. In a very Jerry Seinfeld way long before Seinfeld hit the scenes. He has ALWAYS had a knack for pointing out the very mundane and seeing how ridiculous it was. We were just silly kids in elementary school. Being only a year apart in a small school that had only one class per grade, we knew all the same people. “Why do we always have to say Michael so & so?” (I’d actually write the last name if I could remember it)… “Why do we not call him Michael or Mike? No one would know who he is by those names”. Silly stuff, but it was just so stinking TRUE, and he seemed to have an ability to pick up on truisms that no one else noticed and point them out in a comical way.

“We know one another’s faults, virtues, catastrophes, mortifications, triumphs, rivalries, desires, and how long we can each hang by our hands to a bar. We have been banded together under pack codes and tribal laws.” – Rose Macaulay

Our family is nuts. Certifiably nuts. I know everyone says that about their family, but mine really is. The stories we can tell are practically unreal, but the crazy part is that they are not. Crazy people attract crazy circumstances, which makes crazy experiences followed by crazy stories. As they happened in my life and I had to go to school or work and told people, they wouldn’t believe the things that happened. I mean they did, but were shocked. Each story just also happened to be funny. When you step back and don’t take anything too seriously; it’s all just life and life is fun and funny! My brothers and I always made it funny. As things happened we laughed at it. We all ended up picking up that Seinfeld kind of attitude where we took the daily experience and pointed out the insanity of it all. Only we had really insane things happen that were kind of out of the ordinary daily experience that made it all the more funnier. The danger in that though is that you become immune to crazy and fail to realize when lines are crossed and accept things as normal that most people just wouldn’t. My grandmother was funny and always laughing. My aunt Fran was a hilarious cynic without ever trying to be. My dad had a funny work experience on the job as a painter almost every day and would relive it around the table over dinner laughing so hard he could barely breath. He’d start coughing from laughing, and we’d all be laughing too before the punch line even came because well… laughing is contagious. My mother didn’t laugh as much as the rest of us did, but she did have a comical side to her when she let it out. More like my aunt, hilarious cynicalness just randomly thrown out when you least expected it. She’d be annoyed when we laughed about it too, which only made it funnier.

I really remember Mario and I sitting around and bonding many warm summer evenings until literally the sun rose after we moved to Long Island until our later teenage years. At that time I had my own room and Mario and Frankie shared a room. During the summers we’d play Nintendo or Monopoly or Uno all night. It would start out with some friends, Frankie, and our neighbor Andy around sunset. Eventually everyone would go home or turn in; but we played and played long after the gang retired and my folks went to bed because they had work the next day. I remember countless nights sitting on my bed laughing about our family members, mainly my grandmother and the craziness of our dysfunctional parents. We’d point out things we’d notice and hypothesize about why they were like they were and how insane it all seemed.

At least once or twice a month one of us would inevitably knock on the other’s door, usually in the evening during homework and ask if the other wanted to talk. The answer was always yes. The intention never started with a talk that would last for hours, but it always did. We talked when we were upset, or worried, or just wanted to laugh, or reminisce about the past. We certainly shared secrets. We shared a paper route when we were in junior high into high school for a few years. With our money we’d shop and often find a sweatshirt or Z.Cavarricci’s neither of us could afford on our own but both liked and decided to share since we were about the same size at the time.

“Siblings are the people we practice on, the people who teach us about fairness and cooperation and kindness and caring, quite often the hard way.” – Pamela Dugdale

My father tried and miserably failed at teaching us how to speak Italian from the time we were little. He’d try to lure us in with fun games and piggy-back or airplane rides for each word we remembered. It worked a few days back-to-back but then we’d just lose interest. In junior high when it was time to pick a language Mario and I chose Italian and learned some through school. We immediately started calling each other Fratello and Sorella and still do until this day. Sometimes it’s shortened to “fratel” or “sorel”. We would use the little language we knew as a way to talk in front of others who we didn’t want to understand us, like some neighbors that were annoying us, or little Frankie who we likely wanted to get something out of.

mariofrank-grandmastoreFrankie was always a little hustler. He loved his eggs and tuna fish sandwiches. He’d make a delicious lunch and have it all out on the table and offer it to Mario and I. When we’d say yes he’d ask us for a fee. I swear on purpose he would go to TJ’s hero shop (most famous in town, dare I say Long Island) and come back with a beautiful piping hot hero and sit down and talk non-stop about how unbelievably tastey it was. Then he’d try to convince me and Mario that we’d like one too – here… smell it. “I’ll ride my bike to go buy one for an extra fee for the inconvenience”. We’d always cave. He was always willing to jump up for extra cash, but try to get him to do his chores and help us while my mom was working… forget it. We’d fight with him and bother my mom at work. She’d tell us to work it out and hang up the phone in a huff. Work it out meant some kind of fight with no one winning and everyone losing. Early lessons on how that gets you nowhere.

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This picture just cracks me up. We look so Miami vice. This was in 1988 or 1989, in Ocean City, MD I believe

When I started to drive since Mario and I were close in age we had a similar yet not exclusively similar circle of friends. We were even friends with another brother and sister (the Bottegos) that we hung out with on a regular basis. We didn’t hang out all the time together with our companions, but often enough to have a lot of memories. We’d all hop into my car and go out to eat at an all you can eat buffet, or just walk around Port Jefferson or go to the beach, the pool hall, the movies or a long drive to nowhere. I would pick Mario’s girlfriend up in the morning before school. It definitely wasn’t all peaches and roses. I remember a lot of fights too. Often with our friends present rolling their eyes and trying not to take sides. I remember one particular day rowing a boat down Carmen’s river through South Haven park with my boyfriend and Mario’s girlfriend. None of us were particularly good at rowing, especially coordinating 4 people; but somehow Mario & I ended up in a ridiculously loud argument in the middle of nowhere in a place that made it impossible to storm off. So we had to sit in that rowboat fuming. No such thing as silent fuming in my family though! There was the very memorable night after going to the Ponderosa that Mario threw up in the back of my car on the way home. I was so mad at him. We got home and our friends helped us clean up while we laughed about how silly we all were for stuffing ourselves, reliving the experience as if it were some long lost memory. Once we took some friends through Brooklyn to show them where we used to live and even visited “the little old man” [we called him] at the deli my mom always had us walk to on the next block on Coney Island Avenue to buy cigarettes and a loaf of Italian bread. We went to NY city on the train with a mutual moocher friend that brought no money and split paying for him. And there was the infamously still one of the hottest days of my life when we decided in the height of summer to pack as many people in my car as possible and go to Great Adventure (Six Flags) in NJ and stop by the drive through safari on the way in. Windows were required to remain close (there was seriously no choice unless you wanted a safari animal in the car) and I had no air conditioning. Haha! Then fighting of course on the way home when I got lost, looking at the large oversized Rand McNally map and arguing about the right way back home.

Mario, Frankie and I had so many famous sayings that caught on with our parents, our aunt Fran and our neighbors and friends. We single handedly started most of them. We were that loud Italian family on the corner with cars on the lawn, some project always going on. Composting right next to the driveway when no one else even knew what that was. The summer would mean the pool was open and late into the evening you’d hear screaming and splashing; fighting and laughing. Tomatoes, basil, parsley, eggplant and zucchini plants perpetually in the garden tucked away in the corner. The ragged pets that ran free through the neighborhood, chickens running around the lawn. The grandmother who would visit with a Mercedes and mow the lawn in her high heels. My mom’s picture plastered all over town as one of the town realtor’s. Us randomly hauling out a refrigerator that may have been tossed over in a fit of anger, carrying out bags of trash in quiet fear or laughing like the serious buffoons that we were. Somehow in some unspoken way we knew just what stories were ok to tell and which were too outlandish. “Your father painted the outside of the wrong HOUSE one bleary eyed morning?” “A grandmother said that?” (one is the legendarily golden ‘p’ story for anyone who knows it). “Your mother indignantly came home from work and buried that cat in two minutes flat before getting back in the car to go back to work?” As my brothers and I randomly remember these experiences and sayings as adults, we text each other to see who else remembers. It often begets a series of hilarious texts and long lost memories. There are too many to write or remember. We also had a series of pets (all who ran away from the nut house). Here are some recent texts between Mario and I just a few weeks ago while I was in Copenhagen:


As crazy, yet scary, and albeit fun my house was growing up, I knew I had to get out to be able to get along in life without being reliant on the lunacy; so I joined the military and left the summer I graduated high school. Not long after Mario sent me a story he needed to write for his 12th grade English class. I don’t remember what the prompt was, but I do remember much of the story. He wrote about how much he missed his sister. Just me barging in to take his clothes, the sound of the “schk, schk, schk” of the pump of my hairspray. How he couldn’t move a thing in my room without me getting up to put it exactly the way it was. He wrote how he didn’t think he would, but he missed all that.

Shortly after I left I got married to my first husband, and just 6 months later got pregnant with Tommy. Then 2 years following Tommy I had Gabby. A year later little Frankie popped on the scene. Mario had Maria 9 years later so she is a little bit behind our 3, but we did good living far apart, keeping in touch and making sure to get to the main events in our kid’s lives. We are not a part of each other’s families like my aunt Fran and grandmother were to us. That makes me sad but we live so much further apart.

I talked to both of my brothers often in our adult years so far. Frankie not as much these days but always Mario. We have bouts of where we’ll connect more regularly than others, but we always know we can pick up the phone to chat. That happens often enough and the conversation is never short or lacking incredible depth. I’ll often call him when I’m fuming about something because not only do I know he’ll understand and express empathy at my utter frustration, but I’m 100% confident I’ll get off the phone laughing and feeling better. We are still shaping each other’s lives. Sharing new experiences, songs, books, and philosophies. We’ll get off the phone and download or Google something the other one told us about, and talk about it next time. I feel like we can open each other’s eyes to new things easier than my eyes are opened to things other people tell me because not only do I trust Mario, I know he is so much like me that if he believes something or likes something, it’s worth the exploration because in all likelihood I would appreciate it as well. We still spend countless hours talking, laughing, and commiserating about politics, the amped up news, family members, the ex’s in our lives, my dad, and the memories of “mommy & grandma”. We have long deep philosophical conversations that leave me in another state of understanding the world and seeing things in lights I would have never glanced at before.

“We are not only our brother’s keeper; in countless large and small ways, we are our brother’s maker.” – Bonaro Overstreet

My siblings shaped my life. I now know I’m lucky to be close with them. Not everyone is this close with their kin, my own children included. Not everyone makes it to adulthood with their siblings or long into life like my own cousin Anthony who passed away at the age of 17 when my cousin Camille and I were only 16. I understand and appreciate that any day anything can happen to anyone of us, so I want to stop and appreciate the relationship I have had with my brothers and honor it in a special way.

I was there for both of my brother’s whole lives and they mostly for mine. They knew me back when as an equal, having similar experiences as I did; learning the same life lessons and teaching one another about life in various ways. Inevitably we shaped one another’s personalities and the way we see the world. It’s a beautiful thing and I’m forever grateful for it.

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Us three crazy DeGrazia kids as adults

 

 

 

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