(Right now, I’m focusing on my memoirist work that I’ll call, simply, “Pictures of Tommy” -- all about my psychotic brother and his legacy. If so inclined, please share, and tell me what you think. . . )
Being in a Diocese of Brooklyn Catholic school spelling bee was a big deal. This is a huge parish, with millions of people and hundreds of thousands of kids enrolled in the schools. This annual spelling bee was held for grade eight students. Tommy, of course, was one of the finalists from our school, good ol’ Saint Anastasia’s; being skipped a grade, he was also one of the youngest contestants in the diocese.
He made it, in fact, to the finals in downtown Brooklyn somewhere, in a huge old-fashioned auditorium, with plush seats that pushed down, like in a movie theater. I was along that day, and the memory of the tension that spelling bee contest day twists my stomach as I type.
Every time they’d ask a kid to spell something, I’d spell it in my head, too. I got most of them right (maybe that’s why I love playing “Jeopardy!” to this day, the triumph of the correct answer), and was very proud of my older brother for doing so well and not cracking under the pressure.
After what seemed like years, a lunch break was called. After lunch, it came down to three finalists. Unbearable tension in the air in this massive hall, a dark, dank auditorium that looked like it held a thousand, at least.
It was Tommy’s turn. “Spell ‘balalaika,’ a Russian stringed instrument.”
Tommy went, “B-A-L-E--“ and continued, “-L-A-I-K-A.”
Wrong. He was out. Should have stayed with the a’s. . . so much for my brother’s moment in the sun for our school. It was back to being the old “Egghead Agnelli” again.
Of course, I learned how to spell “balalaika” -- how could I ever forget! It’s no secret why we were good at spelling in our house: dad would give us 25 cents (equal nowadays to a fw bucks, easy) for correctly spelling stuff like “Worcestershire” sauce. I remember going to the refrigerator door, taking out the Lea & Perrins bottle, and memorizing it.
I remember the secure feeling of my hand, clutching the quarter. . . And I wondered how Tommy felt, missing that word in the spelling bee. Did it make him sad? Did it make him mad?
He didn’t seem to have any reaction but a mild shrug. He never spoke about it. That seemed weird to me but then, boys were different, anyways, how they reacted to things. But with Tommy, really: no affect.
(graduation photo of Tom, 8th grade -- I'm on the left, and Carrie's on the right -- she's such a cutie!)