By Edgar Weinstock
A quite chubby, preteen, clumsy, girl child in pain taught me more about loving or nourishing a kid than even the grown ups I palled out with. I wasn’t much older than she was. Her name was Patsy Gilbert. She showed me all I needed to know.
All I have to do to become 10 years old again is close my eyes. And so: I once again see across from where I live on East 28th Street in Paterson. YEAH NEW JERSEY SO WHAT? I lived there with the others: Two parents. One or two brothers. A family of true friends named Norton. Sometimes a pet. Always surrounded by yapping or scowling neighbors, some of whom were also good stickball players. By evening, I was always indoors doing homework or imagining what the radio was conjuring or even trying to find a good channel on the XRay box in these, the late 1940s .
So it must be daylight now since I can almost see the Hernandez garage and house, where on the second floor lives the Gilbert family. Papa Gilbert is calm. Black wavy hair. Good build. Nothing showy. Just good shape and movie star handsome as the day is long. His wife must have at one time been really classically to the nth degree pretty. But now she has the worst set of purple circles surrounding her eyes and radiating further out more each month and the sides of her mouth pulling the rest of her down as she sporadically screams to one member of her family or another. Somehow from that wretched mother has come three daughters. The oldest is Anita. A few years older than I. This is more than 60 years ago but still I see as pretty a face as I have ever seen; yeah: combining the best of an uncentered version of Ann Harding plus a calmer version of Ida Lupino and a version of Carole Lombard? Hmpf; whenever she smiled. The only fly on the paper is that I never saw Anita Gilbert smile also with her eyes. Other than that, destroy any real photos of these movie dames the way they actually were at 13 or 14. Remember them in their prime then imagine what the mixture would be if they each dove into it at 13 or 14 years of age and you’ll have a good image of what Anita Gilbert looked like.
She had a really young sister. Same potential looks to come but a touch darker. Then the middle sister Patsy, already pervaded by torment and becoming fat but still having high enough energy to keep up with the other kids though she races hard to accomplish this.
A long block down past the-about-to-come-down-around-the-legs of the darkly colored family who lives in it and doesn’t dare come up the block to where we pink and sometimes spoiled-cream colored people populate … is an empty lot owned by a potentially expanding Fairclough Lumber Yard.
For some benevolent reason, a small provided playground is sort of developed from their as yet unused land. In addition to swings etc., there is one of each gendered playground Counselor. They show average but free movies near one of the corners of the block on certain hot summer nights. It’s a terrific gesture of summer community service by the lumber yard. One day it is announced there is going to be the most something or other maybe it WAS in quotes a “beautiful doll” contest. Now I would stay away knowing they seldom have anything to do with ”beauty” but are always obsessed with “pretty.”
On the day of the rivalry, all the younger girls of the neighborhood are walking to the contest to be held in the playground. Some of them are even teenagers and were I older, and knew about foul play and abortions I would think “Uh Oh!!!!” about that. But I was a kid and it all looked like fun so I too walked towards where a lot of kids from our block were walking but there began to crescendo some nasty tones of derision on the way. As I got closer I could make out some older voices, boys especially, and one or two girls, as well, castigating Patsy Gilbert’s doll that she was holding as dearly and tenderly as I have ever seen any mother of any species hold or lick or otherwise nourish her darling cub SINCE THEN.
Patsy was determined to enter the contest for the prettiest doll contest with her own little doll. But during the bullying she was also trying to cover an old half inch wide hole and two inch long crack in her little doll’s head. While she was trying to hide her baby’s accidental or someone else’s deliberate injury to her dolly, she was also trying to turn from, hide beneath her shoulder, and try to keep away from the harshest kind of non human cruelty, a constant barrage of insult and derision to all that’s true and great in a person who is brave enough to endure and/or bear that great an amount of true love. The undead zombies on the block were jealous. They couldn’t stand it: that one of us who was still alive was more capable of love than they were, that one of us had what looked like a broken and abused thing and that it inspired more love than the castigators dared to admit that they didn’t have. There were grownups there who kept walking looking straight ahead and said nothing. I tried to get them to stop insulting and scaring Patsy but to no avail. I was one of the smaller and younger kids and when they turned once again this time on me, I gave up too soon. Thus I became even more permanently estranged from what was once my own species. I watched little Patsy fight on alone and still am so amazed, remembering how she was continually outnumbered and outsized. Yet she fought away her approaching tears of anger as well as tears from having – not only her feelings hurt, but also and perhaps especially the feelings of her little doll … her doll who perhaps Patsy knew was nourishing her back.
The seeds planted in me that day also made me understand the importance of dolls or pets not only for little girls but for little boys as well. Later in life I had to design a curriculum for teaching theatre acting to elementary school youngsters. I knew it would be immoral and destructive to expect a child to have the emotional muscle to portray or express Charlotte Corday or Othello. But I remembered Patsy Gilbert, whom I bless always for teaching me that children can be at least masters of one area of acting. For they are capable of the greatest empathy…empathy which often dies young as does “the Golden Rule” in many humans…
I eventually grew older and sometimes worked with children in a classroom stage production situation. But I did so via external props, via psychological gestures, or music techniques, tools, and vocabulary of great music composers. I also taught children to perform through observation, expressive movements and how to sit, stand, walk, especially how, where from, and even when to breathe upon the stage while they were waiting for their voices to change and emotions to mature.
Yeah, it’s as I first said: A chubby, preteen, clumsy, tormented little girl taught me more about the giving and return of love than any of the grown up sophisticated stage or movie actresses or opera singers or philosophers or spokespeople for any of the organized religions whom I have known in all the ways never even noticed a difference between “pretty” and “beauty.”
Good night Patsy Gilbert, wherever you are. I hope you still breathe upon this Earth and have found happiness, dear. I never said more than three or four words to you if that. That’s my loss. Thank you for giving me more than can be found in any book except perhaps a few of the ones which remind us that in order to save the soul remaining to our species, we must love a mate, a pet, a cause, or a doll exactly the way we, in whatever state we come to, would hope to be loved ourselves.