My earliest memory of my sister Coco is of her standing over my crib saying, “Un, deux, trois,” over and over again. It should not surprise the reader that my first words were not “mama” or “papa,” but “one, two, three,” in French. After all, we were living in Paris, France when I was born. We spoke French both at home and in public. When my family repatriated to the USA, I hardly knew any words in English.
In the picture above, you can see me and my three older sisters. As children, the four of us split into two camps. I was under Coco’s charge and Babbette was under Mimi’s. I would not say that we were warring camps, but rather, competitive camps. We played so many games together. My favorite game was “Let’s pretend.” I think that the name of the game gives away the format. We would pretend to be princesses and a prince. Sometimes we were pirates. Sometimes we would break out the cap guns and go at it like outlaws from the Wild West. Coco was the dominant player, so she had the power of veto over any suggestion for the potential scenario of “Let’s pretend.”
An extension of “Let’s pretend,” was a time of quiet and passivity on the part of Babbette and me. We would lie in bed with a whole regiment of stuffed animals placed strategically on the bed. Coco and Mimi would perform the voices of the animals, playing out a story of their own creation, while Babbette and I would curl up and listen. Sometimes, Babbette and I would interject with questions or comments, and Coco and Mimi would incorporate our voices into the story-line. Often these stuffed animal theaters would come at the culmination of a day of chaos and I think we all needed a safe place to express our fears and hopes.
My father and older brother did not possess the patience to teach me how to play catch or chess. After a while, shriveling under the harshness of their criticisms and obvious disappointment with my performance, I would forgo any invitations on their parts to engage in either of these activities. It was Coco who had the patience and understanding to teach me how each piece on the chessboard moved, and how to catch a baseball in your glove and throw it back. Let me digress momentarily to say that during our childhood, Coco was a bit of a tomboy, and was quick to recognize the injustice of my father taking me and my older brother to sports events without considering that perhaps some of the girls would appreciate being invited to these outings.
My last summer as a free child, before I began primary school, Coco began to prep me. “You are going to love school!” she would tell me enthusiastically. “You are going meet other children your age, and make all sorts of new friends!” She promised me an environment where I would learn to read and write and how to do math. She explained that entering school would herald a new era in my life, that of being a “big boy.” So when my first day of school arrived, I leaped out of bed, exuberant to begin a new life as a “big boy.” It was my mother who took me to my first day of school. When I saw the painted cinder-block walls around me, heard the hustle and bustle of older kids reuniting after a summer apart, saw the towering bodies and grim faces of the school teachers, in the parlance of today, I freaked out. I clung to my mother’s skirts, shrieked and cried. I begged her not to leave me in this place. It was an inauspicious beginning to an academic career that began with an immediate refusal on my part to accept the authority of my teachers and a gleefully sadistic pattern of bullying by me of my schoolmates. I can’t help but believe that if Coco had been allowed to accompany me to my first day of school, events might have played out differently.
These are but snapshots of my memories from childhood. I know that at this point in my narrative, I’ve portrayed Coco (and Mimi) to be some kind of saints in the lives of me and Babbette. Of course there were times when the two older ones would exploit their physical and intellectual superiority over me and Babbette in order to play out their own insecurities and neuroses that were embedded into our dysfunctional childhoods; however, if we were to place the positive and negative on a scale, the kindness, gentleness and sweetness of our two older siblings would far outweigh the occasional episodes of petty meanness.
In the box of memories that I am opening for you all now, there are many episodes of little cruelties, but who can judge a child for how they react to an environment riddled with chaos, anger, insecurity and indifference? I believe it would be unjust to judge my older sisters on the same scale as one would an adult. They did their very best in a situation that was quite fraught, and taking all the complex pieces of the puzzle that make up the life of a child, Coco and Mimi were stellar siblings and I believe that both Babbette’s and my childhoods would have been quite barren of all the things that make for a happy childhood; magic, imagination, play. learning, and above learning, the most abiding element of all, love without their nurturing and support.
Now let me go into one aspect of Coco’s influence on my life that does not include my beloved sisters, Mimi and Babbette. That would be a love of music, and learning to exploit one’s talents in that area. I suppose when I was about seven years of age, Coco began to extol to me the wonders of playing the trumpet. I saw how the older ones were taking piano lessons, trumpet, clarinet, violin and flute lessons. I wanted to be included in this new mystery of life. So it was with little prodding from my parents that I began to learn how to play the trumpet. It was Coco who taught me how to read music, and it was Coco who taught me how to play scales on the trumpet, even though that wasn’t her major instrument. (Please allow me to digress once again to say that the clarinet was Coco’s major instrument. She would go on to earn a Bachelor degree in Fine Arts from Catholic University in Washington, DC with the clarinet as her major instrument. She would learn to master everything from the guitar, both classical and folk, to the piano. But it was with the clarinet that she really shined. She could have and would have been a professional clarinetist had not certain elements come to play in her life. I will touch on that at the end of the essay.)
At any rate, from the age of eight, under Coco’s guidance, I learned to play the trumpet. When I about ten years of age, Coco began to explain to me that trumpet players were a penny a pound. They proliferated the musical landscape like sheep in an English pasture. She explained to me that if I took up the French Horn, I would face much less competition and be in higher demand. As in most things, I took her advice. My mother bought me what is called a “single horn,” a poor beat up old thing and I embarked on my career as a French Horn player. When my parents recognized my aptitude and commitment to this instrument, they bought me a beautiful French Horn, a King Eroica, a double horn with strings that wrapped around the valves. From the ages of twelve to seventeen, I took private lessons on the Horn. Oh, it was a beautiful instrument, covered in silver with a case that was lined in deep blue velvet. Thanks to Coco, I became a musician. Sometimes I would practice for hours at a time until my embouchure collapsed from exhaustion. It would seem that I’d just started playing when I’d realize that I’d been practicing for two hours or more.
Of all the gifts that Coco gave me, I must say that a love and appreciation for music was the greatest. It is a treasure that I carry in my heart, more valuable than any amount of gold or riches that could be heaped at my feet. Because of Coco, I participated in school bands, county and state solo festivals (earning accolades for my performances) attended Fine Arts Camp in the summers that I turned fourteen and fifteen years old. I learned the magical feeling of being part of a symphony and the thrill of performing in front of audiences.
Now I must close this essay with tears. During Coco’s senior year in college, she was stricken with rheumatoid arthritis. It was of such severity that it became clear that she would never be able to pursue a career as a concert clarinetist. As if some dark shadow had stationed itself over her life, her tenure on this planet became a tapestry of pain (both physical and psychological). She married a man that she met in college. They had three children. When the oldest was ten years of age and the youngest just a baby of three years, Coco’s husband died. Crippled from her disease, widowed, she was forced to raise her three children as both mother and father. If not for the support that she received from our parents, she and her children would have been utterly destitute.
Her children are all grown now. That all three of them are successful and independent members of society is a testament to her nurturing skills. Coco knew how to take a dull evening and turn it into an exciting event. She had an enthusiasm that was infectious. In another age, another place in time, she would have made a great leader. In her heart of hearts she was a warrior. Coco died last October. Because of our turgid family situation, she and I had not spoken for two years. When I got the news that she was dead, I cried out, “We haven’t spoken in two years, and now we will never speak again!” Well, I am speaking to you now, Coco. God bless you. May you rest in peace. Today would have been your birthday. All I can say is that I will never forget you, beloved sister. I beg you to forgive me for the wrongs I did to you and ask that you remember the good that I did do for you during our time on this planet together. It is just a little bit darker and sadder without you.