Sadly, there are many who can relate to the story of a family member suffering from addiction. Yolanda Reyna shares a loving tribute to her sibling Gilbert. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.
By Yolanda Reyna
My brother Gilbert was taken away from my mother when he was a young teen. My mother had six children from my father, three boys and three girls.
We called ourselves the Brady Bunch, after the sitcom on TV. So, I guess I was Jan Brady and my brother was Peter Brady. We were the middle children. I felt a connection with Jan. I’m not sure if Gilbert felt a connection with Peter.
My brother was a happy child; we were all happy children. Sure, we were disciplined, and that meant getting yelled at a lot and getting the belt to our butts.
My mother had so many children that when she called out to one of us, she’d say every name except the one she was calling. We’d laugh as she called out the names. We’d wonder which one she was calling.
We knew that one of us either had to take out some trash or run to the store to get something she needed for dinner. That was a daily routine in our family.
One day my father and mother got into an argument, but that was not the first time. They had had many arguments. I never knew what they were arguing about because they spoke to each other in Spanish. So whatever this one was about, it was big!
My father left the home and took my brother Gilbert with him. To this day, I never knew why my dad took him. I do know that he favored Gilbert. They were gone for a very long time. I remember missing my father, not that I didn’t miss my brother, but I really missed my father.
They went to live with my grandmother in Watts. My brother Louie even ran away to be with them. But my father told him to go back home. I didn’t know at the time how long they were gone but I believe it was a year. That is a very long time.
When my father finally brought Gilbert back home we noticed a change in him. He was very rebellious, hanging out with the wrong crowd, and drinking alcohol. Rumor had it that my father had brainwashed him.
When Gilbert was seventeen, he wanted to join the air force. Because he was a minor, he needed the consent of our parents. I believe my parents were separated at the time, and I guess, they gave their consent, for whatever reason. Maybe they thought it would give him some structure in his life. Somehow they weren’t having any success.
When he was given leave from the air force, Gilbert would visit our family. I remember being so proud of him, and he was proud of himself too. I thought he looked so handsome in his uniform.
Everyone made a big to-do when he visited the family. There were a lot of hugs and kisses! My mother cried a lot. She also cooked a lot of homemade meals. That’s what he looked forward to – homemade enchiladas! He was basically treated like a king!
After Gilbert served in the Air Force, he attended mechanics school. He then met a girl named Rita. She wasn’t Hispanic, she was a white girl. That’s how my father referred to her.
Rita’s culture was very different, but in other ways, she was like us. She was very outspoken and she fit in well with our family. They soon got married and had a very nice wedding. I was a bridesmaid! It was a wonderful day for both of them. They had two sons, Gilbert III and David.
My brother decided to live in Arizona, so we didn’t see him as often as we wanted to. But he did visit during the holidays.
I knew my brother drank alcohol, but I never knew it was a problem. Often times Rita would call my mother to let her know that my brother was being very abusive toward her and the boys, and that he was spending his hard-earned money on booze. He was a mechanic and earned very good money.
My mother occasionally sent Rita money to ease the burden. The years went by, and Rita continued her calls to my mother.
Finally, Rita could not put up with him anymore. She told Gilbert to leave their home. My mother sent Gilbert a plane ticket to come back to Los Angeles. Only then did we realize and see what Rita was talking about.
Gilbert lived with my mother and he stayed in the garage. I lived with my sister Ophelia at the time. Gilbert was out of control. He lost his job, was drinking every day and was mistreating my mother. He could be like a roaring lion waiting for his prey.
The only thing my mother could do for him was pray. He started to roam the streets and was often spotted panhandling.
But there were days when he was sober. When he was sober, he was caring and funny. He loved Bugs Bunny, and he’d go on and on, talking about the cartoon character. It was amazing to me what joy he found in that cartoon character.
He had a lot of favorite TV shows. The Rockford Files was one of them. He was also extremely intelligent, using words that I didn’t understand. He quoted scripture from the bible. That was impressive!
When my car needed fixing, he was always there to service it. He taught me how to change the oil. He was my mechanic back in the day.
When I wanted to visit my mother and my father, I’d call to see if he was around and drinking. When I knew he was sober, I would sit in the garage with him. He would be so quiet and reserved. I could not comprehend the two personalities!
He’d sit there and smoke cigarettes and watch TV. When I think about it now, it breaks my heart, but for some reason, my brother had this inner torment. He used to say, when he was drunk, “I can’t get this monkey off my back.”
One day my mother called me and asked if I could get him out of the house. I went to pick him up. I said to him, “Come on, Brother, let’s go for a ride!” The first thing I noticed was that he was very drunk, and his demeanor was overbearing.
There were two things my brother demanded respect for – the Los Angeles Rams and the name Reyna, which was our last name. When he was fueled with alcohol, he would remind you of those two things.
So when he said to me, “What’s your name?” I said, “Yolanda.”
“Yolanda what?” he snarled.
I said, “Yolanda Reyna.” And with a furrowed brow and tightened lips, he’d answer, “That’s right, and don’t you forget it!”
I just could not comprehend the two personalities, and I was torn between the two of them. But that is what alcohol does to a person.
I saw him slowly deteriorate from being very handsome to looking bloated, very dark-skinned, and meaner by the day.
One day I received a phone call. It was November of 1997, Thanksgiving weekend. My sister Mary called me.
She said, “Yolie, are you sitting down?”
My beloved brother Gilbert, who was so proud of his military service, is buried at Riverside National Cemetery. He was forty-one years old when he passed away.