Since I did not attend Kindergarten, I had not yet learned to read when I began my 1st grade year in Mrs. Tuttle’s class. My brother, being in 7th grade, ever the helpful mentor, decided to take upon himself the task of teaching me to read so I could keep up with my classmates/peers who had attended Kindergarten. Since my mother also taught 1st grade, she was able to bring home the state-adopted reading text, which my brother diligently read to me over and over, beginning with the first page, pointing to each word as he read it aloud. Clearly, Hooked on Phonics did not exist in 1956.
Finally, after numerous repetitions of hearing the first page read aloud, I proudly “read” it back to him flawlessly, at which point he dragged me and the book in front of our parents, who were preparing for dinner. “Mom, Dad, I taught Jean how to read,” he declared excitedly, as I once again “read” the first page of the book aloud with no errors. Showering praises on both of us, our parents then urged him to turn the page so I could continue to “read” more of the book. Staring blankly at the new unfamiliar text, I looked up from the page with a hopeless expression on my face, sighing with embarrassment. I guess that was the point at which I began entertaining the notion of getting into acting, since, clearly, my memorization skills were exceptional.
When I did eventually learn to read, as much through Mrs. Tuttle’s tutelage as through my brother’s, an incident occurred one afternoon at the parsonage that continued to amuse my father for the rest of his life. I was an excellent speller, which assisted me greatly when I began writing stories of my own, and on this particular occasion I was reading about a girl my age who had been sent by her mother to the bathroom to wash her hands before dinner. Upon completing that particular passage, I immediately located my father, to inform him that there was a typo on the page, and that the word “wash” had been misspelled, by virtue of the fact that it was missing the necessary letter “r” in the middle of the word. My father looked at the word, then at the consternation on my face, and then burst into uproarious laughter, at the same time attempting to explain to me that the Southern pronunciation of the word belied the actual correct spelling—not “warsh.”
In addition to being a model student, my brother was also very skilled at playing a variety of games, which he attempted to teach me over the years that we were growing up together. During the three years that we lived at the parsonage, our parents would occasionally go out for the evening, to call on local parishioners, have dinner with childless friends, or just have an evening alone in our absence. Since my brother was now an adolescent, they determined that he was of sufficient age to supervise me, so the two of us would be left alone with each other from time to time. Not accustomed to taking directions from someone whom I still considered a peer, I did not make his task very easy, so he was forced to develop some new strategies to ensure my cooperation.
Of all of the games that my brother taught me, poker was one of my favorites. On one of those evenings with just the two of us, I was being particularly resistant to getting ready for bed, and so he announced that we would play a game of strip poker. Of course, he continued to win each hand, so by the time I had bet and lost my shoes and socks, and it was time to bet my shirt, he informed me that I would need to put on my pajama top before doing so. I did, and lost, followed by my pants, which, of course had to be replaced by my pajama bottom. At the conclusion of the game, he announced, gloating smugly, that he had not only won, but had succeeded in getting me to put on my pajamas, and that it was time for me to go to bed. It was at this point that I learned that my brother does not engage in any form of competition without some kind of personal agenda.
But as authoritarian as he was on those occasions when he was left in charge of me in our parents’ absence, he was equally as generous when it came to fulfilling one or another of many roles for my benefit. On one of our family excursions, ending at a toy store, my parents bought me two cloth hand puppets—a tan fox named Skippy and a black Scotty dog named Snoopy. I adored these new furry friends, as they were reminiscent of the puppets on my favorite T.V. shows, particularly Black Tooth and White Fang from my favorite, the Soupy Sales show. In order to keep me occupied and out of our parents’ way, my brother would place one of the puppets on each of his hands and improvise elaborate puppet shows, which would keep me entertained for hours.
There was another incident that I recall, this time outside, near the giant apple tree that grew in the back yard, behind the church. My brother and I were walking by the trunk one day, and suddenly from nowhere appeared what seemed to me at the time to be a huge lizard, its size on the scale of a small crocodile or alligator. I’m sure that in reality it wasn’t any larger than the British-accented reptile on the Geico commercials, but it was terrifying to a 6-year-old, and as soon as I saw it, I let out a blood-curdling scream.
My brother grabbed my hand and pulled me back toward the parsonage, where he grabbed a hatchet that he had stored in his room, and, returning to the scene with me, sliced the creature in half with the blade. To this day, I will never forget the perplexing sight, once the tailless lizard scampered away with what remained of his body, of that long severed tail, squirming and wriggling on the ground all on its own. Up until that point, it had never occurred to me that not just human hair and nails could grow back. ¥¥