November 2008


My journey to boarding school began because two people were wed and never should have.

parentsHigh school sweethearts, my parents married on a snowy day in mid April 1959 in a Catholic church on the West Side of Manhattan. My mother had just turned 17 that month; my father would turn 19 two weeks later at the end of April. Both of them had grown up in broken homes. My father was in the US Air Force and stationed in Tachikawa, Japan.  (Note: Turn off the sound to avoid the bad soundtrack. These photos are from my early days there.)

Initially, my mother stayed in Manhattan, while he returned to the base. Their plan was for her to join him when they had enough money for airfare. A few months later, her father-in-law gave her money for the flight to Japan. “You should be with your husband,” he said. My mother had never been abroad, and except for a few years, had always lived in New York City.

Hospital, Tachikawa Air Base

Hospital, Tachikawa Air Base

I was born at the base hospital in April 1960 and baptized at the base by proxy. My godmother lived in New Jersey, my godfather in Puerto Rico. They were my parents’ best friends from high school. My mother, who’d been raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools, intended to do the same with me.

Author at 8 1/2 months with Uncle Adam, her paternal grandfather's brother

Author at 8 1/2 months with Uncle Adam, her paternal grandfather

Nearly three years later, my father finished his term of service and they returned to the city. My father took a job with Trans Caribbean Airlines as a flight attendant because he wanted to travel. Trans Caribbean Airlines in its first incarnationMy mother settled in as a housewife and mother in our apartment near the airport in Kew Gardens, Queens. She  looked forward to married life back home and wanted to have a second child.

Their marriage, however, didn’t last. I don’t remember much about them as a couple and living in a two-parent household, but as I got older, I could see they weren’t made for each other. Their temperaments were incompatible. My father enjoyed partying and being a ladies’ man. I guess he wanted the kind of social life he had during high school within his marriage. The roles of husband and father didn’t fit into that picture.

My mother, our dachsund and I moved in with her mother in a one-bedroom apartment on Upper Riverside Drive in Manhattan. Her furniture was piled in the bedroom, along with clothes and boxes. The three of us slept in the living room on two sleeper sofas. Eventually, the dog was given away.

In some ways, my father’s absence didn’t faze me because his job meant he was away often. I missed the dog more than I did him. I saw my father at Christmas and around my birthday and occasionally in between. The divorce agreement required only that he pay child support—if you can call bouncing checks support. When he visited, my mother and he would argue. My grandmother couldn’t forgive his indiscretions. I dreaded his visits, to the point of becoming sick to my stomach and vomiting.

Fortunately, I had school—pre-kindergarten and kindergarten at a nearby public school in our Harlem neighborhood—to add some stability to my life. We went on field trips. I loved painting and doing other crafts. I made a “radio” from a block of wood with two round pieces for dials and painted it orange and blue. I wanted a transistor radio like my mother’s father carried with him at all times. On it, he listened to the Yankees games and broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera.

During 1964 and 1965, I had only some inkling of the racial tensions around me. My skin is light brown, somewhere between my father’s Filipino dark brown and my mother’s white skin. At age 4, I’d ask my mother why my skin wasn’t white like hers. I wanted to be white. She said, “Your skin is brown because you eat a lot of chocolate.” I loved chocolate, so it seemed plausible to in my little girl’s mind. In my class, only one other person who had skin lighter skin than mine was an Asian girl—something I’d not realized until I looked at my class photos years later. However, outside of class I heard some relatives, family friends and strangers whisper about my coloring. The wife of my paternal grandfather—his second wife—said to my mother, upon our arrival from Japan, “Too bad she got her father’s coloring.”

The second thing in my life that set me apart was being a child of a divorced mother. In the early sixties, the social stigma of divorce still existed. (I’ll talk about the issue of having a divorced mother while I was at a Catholic school in a later post.) My mother, who had trained to be a secretary at Cathedral High School, ran into problems finding a job to support us. She was rejected multiple times during interviews. Prospective employers told her, “You’re just here to find a husband,” “You’re a single mother,” or “You’ll miss work whenever your daughter gets sick.” My mother was caught in a bind. She was determined to support us and get her own apartment. But she needed to rely on others to watch over me. My grandmother also worked full time. On school days, our downstairs neighbor took care of me after school. Finally, she secured a job in a typing pool at Chase Manhattan Bank.

Our days fell into a quiet rhythm. In the mornings, grandma did calisthenics, put on her makeup, splashed on Jean Nate cologneJean Nate Cologne and got dressed for her job as a seamstress at the Eve Stillman lingerie factory. My mother dressed me in a jumper—usually blue, my favorite color— and gave me breakfast. I drank milk mixed with apple juice—the idea of which now turns my stomach. It was my favorite drink back then. I’d watch her tease her hair, apply makeup, slip on nylons and a girdle, wriggle her feet into pointy high heels. The apartment smelled of hair spray and cigarette smoke, with a hint of perfume. My mother or grandmother picked me up from the neighbors when they came home from work. We’d have dinner in my grandmother’s tiny kitchen and start again the next day.

My little world fell apart the summer between pre-K and kindergarten. My mother had no one to take care of me full time nor could she afford to. She packed me off to Puerto Rico to stay with my grandmother’ sister who ran a home-based day care. During her own childhood, my mother had done time with Aunt Grace, too. And yes, it was like doing time. The woman had rules and kept you in line just with the sound of her voice. She resorted to other means as well. I was so homesick and frightened.

This pattern of being sent off to relatives during school vacations or illnesses and eventually boarding school would govern my daily life for years. I never stopped being homesick.

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Starring Maggie Smith, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie takes place in an all-girls school in Edinburgh, Scotland. Only the superficial aspects of it remind me of my boarding school days–namely, the uniforms. But something else occurs to me about my experiences. My boarding school also had a day school. Daily, we were reminded of our status as boarders. Many of our classmates went home on yellow school buses they boarded behind our dorm. I watched my classmates climb into idling buses coughing up the diesel fumes.

At boarding schools that did not have day students, dorm life seemed to intersect more with the boarders’ education. We had no headmistresses, just a Mother Superior, nuns who oversaw the boarders and the nuns and lay faculty who taught/ran the school. We didn’t get to know our teachers except in class. They didn’t know about our lives as boarders. Because of this divide, we boarders never quite felt like we were living in a community. It was the place we stayed because we couldn’t go home. And boarding school never did feel like home.

I wonder so often what life was like for those who attended elite boarding schools. I’d see the ads for prep boarding schools in the New York Times. Did money make a difference in the way the boarders lived? Would it have been better to go to a place where everyone was a boarder? I’ve been reading studies about the effect of being a boarder during the early grades of elementary school. (I will blog about in the near future.) So far, I gather that putting a child in boarding school at a very young age is detrimental. I’m sure several factors come into play.

Meantime, for those of you who were ever boarders, perhaps this movie trailer for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie may trigger some memories. Of course, life doesn’t imitate art, nor do I expect that drama would replicate life.

I have read so much about Puerto Rico in its earliest decades after Spain turned it over to the United States. Poverty was rampant, as the island struggled in its new status as a US territory. My grandmother loved her country and her family, but left in pursuit of a better life in Nueva York in the late forties for herself, her husband and her young daughter.

For a peek into the world my maternal grandparents left behind in Puerto Rico, I’ve posted these two videos. Although I’ve seen photos and know about my grandparents’ lives before they settled in New York, these two photo montages bring tears to my eyes–reminders of the sacrifices they made and the difficulties they endured. They were fortunate to have lived to see that the hard choices they made paid off in their own lives as well as in the lives of their progeny. I am grateful to the two people who posted these on YouTube.

Out of necessity, my maternal grandmother, Catalina, had never been a housewife. Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1916, the second of 12 children (additional siblings had died at very young ages or were stillborn), she was raised in a traditional Spanish household. Her ancestors were from Spain, some possibly from the Canary Islands. From a young age, she helped my great grandmother, Clara, with household chores and the care of her younger siblings. My great grandfather, Segundo, laid down the rules: girls didn’t wear pants, his daughters couldn’t date unchaperoned. My grandmother’s education ended around the eighth grade. Because Puerto Rico was under US rule by then, she had learned English.

I have often considered my grandmother’s upbringing in light of the woman I knew growing up: a divorced single parent living in her own apartment in Harlem in Manhattan.

Riverside Drive, north of 135th St., not far from my grandmother's apartment

Riverside Drive, north of 135th St., not far from my grandmother's apartment

She’d done radical things for a woman of her generation. She had married her first cousin Rafael—their fathers were brothers—who promised to bring her to the United States. Puerto Rico was a really poor island. My grandfather worked in sugar cane fields under the hot sun, the air heavy with humidity and filled with mosquitoes.
Sugar cane workers resting, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, 1941 Dec. Delano, Jack,, 1914-, photographer., The Library of Congress

Sugar cane workers resting, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, 1941 Dec. Delano, Jack,, 1914-, photographer., The Library of Congress

My grandmother had a few miscarriages and stillbirths. And then in 1942, she had my mother, delivered by my great grandmother, her son—my grandmother’s youngest brother—looking on from close by. He was only about four or five.

A few years later, my grandfather kept his promise. He brought her to the states, hoping to fulfill his dreams of being a batboy for the Yankees. He never did, though he remained a loyal Yankees fan until he died. “Los jankees,” he’d say in his accented English. Instead, he worked in the Waldorf Hotel’s kitchens—years later, I found silverware in her drawer stamped with the hotel’s insignia—and taught himself bookkeeping.

Sometime early on, my grandmother grew tired of his drinking and suspected he was having an affair. They separated, and my mother stayed with her. Periodically, my grandmother sent my mother back to Puerto Rico to live with her parents in Ponce for months at a time because of her job. She needed to support herself and my mother. My grandfather stayed in the picture, visiting regularly and providing money for child support.

In the 1950’s, my grandmother worked long hours stooped over a sewing machine at the Eve Stillman lingerie factory in the Garment District.Garment District, Manhattan, Steam coming from pressing buildings She’d arrive at work in stylish dresses or suits, felt wool hats, long gloves and high heels and change to a housecoat, just as the other women did. Despite Manhattan’s cold winters with its bracing winds sweeping up from the Hudson River, she never once wore pants. In that way, she obeyed her father, who had never known temperatures below 50 degrees, no doubt.

Grandma kept a Thermos of coffee or tea by her side. She took coffee, smoking and lunch breaks, per the ladies’ garment worker union rules. In the large room surrounded by rows of industrial sewing machines and cutting table, she hand-embroidered flowers and other designs on fine cotton or silk nightgowns, camisoles and other undergarments. She sewed delicate lace and transformed thin scraps of fabric into tiny bows and straps amidst the fabric dust, hissing irons and whirring sewing machines.

Vintage Eve Stillman Cotton Camisole and Pants

Vintage Eve Stillman Cotton Camisole and Pants

The lingerie was sold at upscale stores, such as Bloomingdales and Henri Bendel, places my grandmother could never afford. The lingerie was popular with many Hollywood stars, including Joan Crawford, Debbie Reynolds, Ida Lupino and Barbara Stanwyck. My grandmother hand-sewed the lingerie for Grace Kelly’s trousseau, which she took with her to Monaco when she married its prince.

My grandmother took pride in her work. Sewing was more than a means to earn a living. She made clothes for herself and my mother. She bought yards and yards of heavy fabric, which she stitched into pleated drapes and sofa pillows. For her, sewing not only saved money, it was a hobby. She looked down upon store-bought clothing. Grandma believed homemade clothing was of better quality and proved to the world that you weren’t lazy. With a careful eye, she matched seams, sewed even stitches, tailored a dart here or there, took pains to make hem stitches invisible on the right side of the fabric. In stores, she’d examine seams and sneer in Spanish, “machine made.”

For a while, two of my grandmother’s sisters also moved from Puerto Rico to live New York. Mostly, though, my grandmother had no family around her, except her ex-husband. She enrolled my mother in boarding school—St. John’s Villa Academy elementary school—a ferry’s ride from Manhattan. She knew that my mother would be safe under the watchful eyes of the nuns. My mother, though, was not one to hold her tongue. After the first week in school, my mother was moved to the next grade. “She told us she already knew how to read and knew everything,” a nun told my grandmother upon arrival on Friday to pick her up.

When my grandmother told me these stories, half in Spanish, half in English, her hands were always occupied: making arroz con pollo or other Puerto Rican dish, knitting a sweater, crocheting a blanket, stitching on buttons, and always, a cigarette perched on her lips. The wispy smoke would drift upwards into her hazel eyes. I was riveted and asked her to tell me these stories again and again. Her life had become my own, some of the patterns repeated in mine. Perhaps these tales would help me adjust to my own circumstances.

I admit this: I also loved hearing about the stories she told about my mother when she was a little girl. I was amazed that my mother talked back at the nuns. She rebelled, answered the nun with sarcastic retorts, failed classes. We’d gone to the same boarding school. And yet. I emerged complaisant and quiet and fearful. She had driven the nuns crazy doing what seemed to me outrageous acts: reading novels hidden within her textbooks during class, chewing gum, getting demerits, sitting in detention. I had endured punishments as well, though never for any behavior remotely close to hers. I didn’t dare.

My mother and I did share one thing about boarding school: We both hated it.

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My three years in a girls’ Catholic boarding school (first grade at St. Mary’s Academy; second and third at SJVA) have never left me. I cannot forget those days and the emotions involved. I need to explore how that time shaped me. What was the effect of that place on who I am today?

I know the details of why I was sent there. My mother, single and divorced, had to work. My grandmother had sent my mother to the same school when she was a single parent, working in New York’s Garment District where she sewed silk and cotton nightgowns for the Eve Stillman line. The gowns sold in Bloomingdale’s and other high-end stores. Neither my grandmother or my mother had other family who could watch over a young child after school nor did they have the means to pay someone to do so. And then there are the details of that life sent away.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Nicholas Dawidoff has a thoughtful piece, “The Trouble With Memoirs,” in which he goes over the usual problems with memoir–facts vs. imagined–and those who violated the readers’ trust–Frey, “Jones” Seltzer, and so on. But he also examines what makes memoirs wonderful:

“. . .Memoirs are typically episodic, likely to describe only a fragment of a life or an aspect of it — aspects that tend to emphasize emotional subject matter. The things we stay up late thinking about are the stuff of memoir. They are our interior lives, our complicated feelings, what we write about when we write about love — and the complexities of failure and sympathy and ambivalence and money and mortality.”

I have thought so much about my life as a boarder. That world has lived on in my head: the memories of saying goodbye to my mother on Sundays, the fear and anxiety of doing something wrong and the punishments I’d endure, the sense of being watched all the time, the struggle to shine my shoes perfectly, the older girl assigned to me to “supervise” me, the nagging feelings of abandonment and loneliness, the two girls whose friendship became my refuge. Every time I make the bed as a grownup, I remember where I learned to make hospital corners, and then it all comes back. Why?

The journalist in me wants to ensure that I get the story factually correct. To that end, I have been doing a lot of research. I need to keep in mind what Dawidoff says about this genre. Yes, he writes, be rigorous in your factchecking, but also remember:

“Memoirs imply that they are giving you the whole story, but in conception they are idiosyncratic, less comprehensive and formally constrained than autobiographies, often set within a brief time frame, and that seems appropriate in a genre where often the writer is attempting to give shape to ambiguity. The memoir looks inward to offer a personal outlook, and what is seen is as varied as life itself. The memoirist can write at length about the American Dream, or wrinkles, or optimism, toughness, shoplifting, a stamp collection, shorthaired dachshunds, a bus stop, a will with surprising contents, something that mortified you in the moment but later became funny, the smell of witch hazel, a life shadowed by an obsession with the Internal Revenue Service, encountering a Whites Only sign in an antiques store, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, an effective boss, what happens to a parent who comes unwillingly to know that she has a favorite among her children, what led a person to switch political parties or to grow more religious as he or she got older.

“Lousy memoirs come bound in the dull skin of self-involvement, but the memoirs destined to endure are those that open outward and use the author’s life as a point of departure for exploring the broader emotional themes and common faiths that apply to lives everywhere. Spending so much time with your own past, examining it over and over, the story must expand and accrue, become something bigger than you.”

I also want to avoid sounding like I’m indulging in navel gazing. I believe that my story speaks to , something larger, something universal. Every day that I write about it means that I can get closer to that truth.

Dawidoff himself is a memoirist: “The Fly Swatter,” which was a 2003 Pulitzer Prize finalist, and “The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness and Baseball.”