Mom and her brother Roy were cut from the same cloth — talented, strong-willed, and hypersensitive with a dark humor — but Mom showed up ten years later, and no matter how hard she tried, she could never catch up. Roy was already gigging by the time Mom was in kindergarten. Roy wasn’t around much, but his influence loomed large. When she became a real musician just like her big brother, they took sibling rivalry to a professional level. People always tell me it must have been so wonderful growing up in a musical family, and I’ll admit, it was a lot of fun sometimes. What little girl wouldn’t love getting dressed up in her cousin’s fancy hand-me-downs, skipping school and staying out late, watching the family perform to roaring applause at a packed nightclub? I loved the attention and the break from reality. I loved Auntie Jackie and Uncle Roy. They were masters of illusion, onstage and off.
The Kral Family Circus revved up as soon as Jackie and Roy announced they’d booked a gig in L.A. and planned to stay with us for a few days. Mom immersed herself in home improvement, shampooing carpets, reupholstering and rearranging furniture, buying new bedding to match the fresh paint in the bedrooms. As soon as she was finished with the house, Mom dragged me and my sister to Fashion Square for new clothes, shoes and haircuts. Mom needed to be flawless. Jackie and Roy would notice if she wasn’t. It was showtime the minute they arrived with their steamer trunks.
Roy wasn’t a big guy, but he had strong features and a booming voice. He glided around with an air of entitlement. “Kral” means “King” in Czech, and he believed it. My leggy blonde, blue-eyed aunt that could give Grace Kelly a run for her money and together they looked like the couple on top of a wedding cake. They were always put-together, always ready with another story, always gracious to their fans and their friends if not their family. The phone rang like clockwork and they were all booked up as soon as they finished arranging their guest quarters. Mom grew up around show business, but my dad’s farm boy roots couldn’t grasp all the folderol. I found Dad pacing in the kitchen one afternoon, checking his watch and shaking his head. He smirked and whispered, “I’m waiting for Jackie and Roy so I can chauffeur them around town to run errands, but they’ve been getting dressed for over an hour.” The door to their room was open enough for me to grab a clandestine peek. Roy was preening over his pressed khakis and his crisp shirt in a full-length mirror. Jackie was involved in her vast cosmetics collection. Without looking away from her make-up mirror, she groaned, “Don’t wear that blue plaid today, Roy! I’m wearing my pink blouse and I don’t want to clash with you.” Roy barked, “How much longer is it going take for you to get ready?” Dad snuck up behind me and laughed. “You don’t need matching outfits to go to the supermarket, Mr. and Mrs. Perfect!” Roy turned red and snapped, “Jackie! Let’s go!” but she ignored him, as usual.
When they left town, Mom grumbled around the house for days, wishing they could’ve stayed longer but relieved to see them go. She loved them. She missed them. She was jealous of them. She was sick of them. Mom had to fight for bi-annual gigs at the local armpit. Club owners chased her away, saying, “We can’t make money on you. Nobody remembers Irene Kral.” Jackie and Roy never forgot to share their latest publicity photos, their glowing reviews, their exotic postcards from gigs around the world. When my mother got a local gig or a little shot of publicity, she still felt lost in their shadow. Dad brought the L.A. Times to Mom one sunny Sunday, where we’d gathered on the patio to devour a fresh box of donuts. Mom opened the Calendar section to find the review of her latest gig. Melissa and I marinated in sticky glaze until Mom threw the newspaper across the lawn and stomped ranting into the house. “I’m sick of this shit! Why is it always about them?” She slammed the screen door and screamed, “When is it my turn? God damn it!” Dad finished his donut before he went into the house to console her. I grabbed the newspaper dancing across the backyard and read the headline of Mom’s review: ROY KRAL’S KID SISTER SINGS, TOO.
Siblings are taught to share and the lesson finally came when my mother and her brother least expected. I remember bounding home after my last day of elementary school, excited about summer vacation. Dad corralled me in the hallway as soon as I breached the front door. “Come and sit down with me,” he said. His eyes were wild with pain. After three years of my mom’s surgeries and treatments and hospitals and hiding out, all I could think was, Now what? I longed to slip into my bathing suit and disappear into the swimming pool, but I was stuck with Dad in such bad shape. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “I don’t know how to tell you,” Dad stammered. He couldn’t look at me. He was fixated on a patch of carpet at the entrance to the kitchen, threadbare from years of wear and tear. He choked on his words. “Your cousin Niki died this morning.”
A bolt of lightning hit me and a shock ran down my arms and legs. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t speak. My mind flashed blurry images to when I was four years old. Daddy and Uncle Roy and Auntie Jackie sat together in the front seat of the station wagon. I was in the backseat with Mommy and my cousins, Niki and Dana. Everyone had ice cream cones, everyone was laughing. Life was miraculous. My cousin Niki showed me how to eat an ice cream cone backwards, from the bottom up. I’d never see her again.
Hot tears soaked the silver heart locket they gave me for my birthday. Dad’s voice trembled over the constant whoosh of the swamp cooler. “Niki fell asleep at the wheel. She crashed her car into a tree and died at the hospital before Jackie and Roy could see her.” Dad looked like he needed to throw up. “Your mother’s packing,” he said as he lifted himself from the couch. “You might want to go give her a hug, but don’t bug her. She wants to get out of here in a couple of hours to be with Jackie and Roy in New York.” Even sibling rivalry couldn’t break my mother’s bond. The reviews were in, but a family crisis upstaged them all.