December 2008


I heard recently from someone who’d gone to my boarding school in 1963. Her parents withdrew her after six months because the place was so bad. She didn’t say much more, but I assume that her experience was like mine and others. This woman was one of the lucky ones. She left before she endured much more emotional trauma. I hope she has not been scarred by her brief stay there.

Today, I came across a blog post that mentions a book I finished reading earlier this month and discusses the blogger’s convent school experiences. Of course, I was curious as always to hear what someone’s experience–one in a supportive atmosphere–was like.

Fellow blogger Daphne writes that she likes reading novels set in convent/boarding schools because she herself was enrolled in two. In her latest post, “The End of an Odd Year,” she writes about “Summer’s Ending,” which she read over the Christmas holidays. The book, she says, is a much happier portrayal of convent schools than Frost in May by Antonia White–a book that I finished reading two weeks ago. Daphne, who had a better experience, writes:

“Although Frost in May, by Antonia White, is one of my favourite books set in a convent school, I dislike how grim the school (the Convent of the Five Wounds) in that book is and how strict the nuns are. The students seem almost to be bullied by the sisters in that book. The nuns at my two schools were mostly lovely so it was nice to read about kind nuns in Summer’s Ending.

Canossian_school_crest The book led me to do some research on the two convent schools I attended. I don’t know why I never until now took the trouble to find out more about the orders that founded the schools. The first school, which I attended from age five til 11 was the Canossian Convent (motto: “Via, Veritas, Vita”, which means “the way, the truth, the life”, badge on the left), founded by the order of the Sisters of Conossa, an Italian order. The second school was 120px-Chij-badgea French convent, The Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (motto: “Simple dans ma virtue, forte dans moi devoir”, which means “simple in virtue, steadfast in duty”, badge right, read more about the history of the convent here). I was there from age 11 and a half til 17.”

For me, I found the grim portrayal of a convent boarding school in Frost in May more like my own. I reacted viscerally while reading the parts about breaking a child’s will, the punishments on the children, the restrictions, the oppressive atmosphere, etc. My gut tightened in a knot. The feel of place and the girls’ experiences felt emotionally familiar to me, though my boarding schools were not as severe as that. The novel took place in the first half of the 20th century and was semi-autobiographical; I went to boarding school in the 1960s. Things had changed by then, but not enough.

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Despite the book’s grimness, I too enjoyed reading it. The author writes beautifully, capturing the experience of childhood and the loss of self well.

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I remember bits and pieces of my early years. I wish I could remember more. At home, I was known as Chisaii (chisai), the nickname given to me by our landlord in Japan. Pronounced “chee-SIGH,” the word means “small.” Although not underweight at birth, I was on the small side. At school, I was called by my given name, Delia. It was like having two personae.

Our evenings in my grandmother’s Riverside Drive apartment were spent watching the Ed Sullivan Show (I loved Topo Gigio), Bonanza and Perry Mason, its Perry Mason TV Series theme music scaring me every week.

Saturdays were dedicated to errands, including grocery shopping. Going to the supermarket meant collecting more S & H Green Stamps to paste in the booklets at home and an occasional free promotional doodad, usually a flat yellow rectangle that looked like a piece of cardboard imprinted with the store’s name. I loved tossing it into a bowl of water when we returned home to see it pouf up into a sponge.

S & H Green Stamps

S & H Green Stamps

I had a vague idea of religion, too. There was Dios (I heard “si dios quiere”—God willing—often), el papa (the pope) and Jesucristo. On Sundays, the three of us attended Mass, which was in Latin back then. Before Mass, we’d light votive candles. My grandmother would give me  a coin to drop in the tin box attached to each shelf of candles. The clinking of the nickels and dimes landing in the box seemed so loud in the hushed church. She’d kneel, bless herself and bow her head, covered with a lace mantilla. She often prayed for her parents and family in Puerto Rico. I’d kneel too, breathing in the familiar smells of melted wax, burnt wicks and lit matches. My grandmother would rise, place her hand on the feet of the statue and do the sign of the cross once more.
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During the service, I could never sit still. To keep me busy—and more importantly—quiet, my grandmother brought Kraft caramel candy, which she fed me, one cellophane-wrapped square at a time, during what seemed like hours sitting on hard pews.

Kraft Caramel Squares

Kraft Caramel Squares

Mass was filled with mystery, bells, incense, candles, a man in embroidered robes, hymns and statues featuring bleeding hands, snakes curled around their feet, and blank stares. I had no idea really what was going on, but recognized one of the statues. My grandmother had a framed picture of a long-haired man in her dining room that looked like the person on the giant cross wearing a diaper—and also bleeding from wounds on his hands, which hung behind the altar. After church, grandma slipped on her housecoat and made a huge caldero of arroz con pollo, which we’d eat at her dining table beneath that portrait of the long-haired man whose eyes followed me everywhere.

Of course, I didn’t know about sin yet, only prayer. (Learning about sin would come later, beginning in first grade at boarding school.) My grandmother and mother regularly lit tall devotional candles in glass containers, which burned for about a week.

Devotional Candle depicting St. Jude, Patron Saint of Lost Causes

Devotional Candle depicting St. Jude, Patron Saint of Lost Causes

They’d set them on the stove. The constant flame, they explained, would keep their prayers before the saint. Some candles had colored wax, each color representing a different patron saint. Others had a depiction of the saint, Jesus or Mary. My mother prayed to St. Jude, the saint of lost causes. When you reached a dead end, St. Jude was your go-to saint. If one of us were sick, they’d light a candle. Money problems, jobs, boyfriends, war, alcoholic relative, divorce, family death, icy sidewalks—all merited candles. (The New York Times featured a story, “A Brisk Business Selling Hope by the Wick,” about devotional candles in December 22, 2007.)

I soon learned that all the candles in the world couldn’t protect us. One evening after work, my grandmother, with me chattering at her side, unlocked the apartment door. The door wouldn’t open all the way because the chain was hooked from the inside. My mother hadn’t come home yet. The only explanation for the locked door, my grandmother knew because it had happened before, was that someone had broken in. The police came. When the latch was cut, we entered our ransacked living room. I started to cry. The burglars had come up the fire escape and somehow managed to yank apart the bars installed inside the windows. My newly acquired sense of safety and routine disappeared at that moment. I stayed overnight with my sitter, while my mother and grandmother figured out what had been stolen and put the apartment back together. Someone had dared trespass into my sanctuary.

My life with my mother felt threatened in other ways. When I misbehaved, she’d tell me my father would come and take me away from her. Such warnings only made me fear my father’s rare visits even more. And I had plenty of reasons to dread them. My grandmother disliked him. My mother despised him. My body was wracked with tension by the time he’d show up. My parents fought over his bouncing child support checks. My mother did not want him to take me to exotic restaurants or feed me from a hotdog cart, made him promise to bring me back on time and insisted that he would not have a friend (read: girlfriend) with him during our time together. My father would answer in a voice devoid of emotion in as few syllables as possible: “Yes, Silvia. I know, Silvia. I will, Silvia. Okay, Silvia.”

He’d strut to the elevator, press the button, his lips pressed together in a thin line. We’d wait in silence, but I could feel his anger. His body was taught. I trembled. I knew he was my father, but he was a stranger to me. I barely knew him.

See, when we were a family in our apartment in Kew Gardens, New York, he was away often because of his job as a steward on Trans Caribbean Airlines. Funny, but except for pictures of them posing as a couple, I can’t recall them as a couple ever during those few years.  I can remember getting vaccinations, playing with our dachshund, flushing a lollipop down the toilet, being hit on the bottom with a Fuller hairbrush by mother. I can remember sitting on my father’s shoulders and smelling the pomade on his hair and coming home with him from the hardware store, where he bought me Flexible Flyer sled.

Flexible Flyer

Flexible Flyer

Try as I might to think of my parents together as a loving couple, my mind conjures nothing. Their interactions consisted of arguing.

My strongest memory consists of one overriding feeling: tension. Life in that apartment was like living in a vise grip. My father could grow cold and distant; my mother, on the other hand, showed her anger, raising her voice, slamming pots and pans in the kitchen. Here’s a memory: My father was giving me a bath because my mother wasn’t feeling well. To rinse the shampoo from my hair, he dunked me backwards, submerging my face under the bath water. I couldn’t breathe. He held my head there, washing away the soap. Seconds under water seem so long.

That was the man who had come to pick me up on a Saturday. As soon as the elevator door slid closed behind us, he’d tell me, “Now, I have a lady friend in the cab downstairs. Don’t tell your mother.” He was asking me to disobey her. He was asking me to lie. And that was just the start. Our father-daughter visit often included some woman, not always the same one, enveloped in a fur coat and a cloud of perfume. For the most part, I was quiet the whole time I was with him.

When I got home—be it a few minutes or two hours late—my father stood almost mute as my mother reminded him of the time. He’d leave. My mother would grill me: Where did he take you to eat? Lie. Was anyone with him? Lie. What did you do while you were out? Lie. Then I’d throw up, which confirmed my mother’s suspicions that he’d taken me to eat someplace where the food was unfit for a preschooler. The truth was that I’d not eaten much of anything. I couldn’t. My stomach was always in a knot when I was with my father. I managed not to reveal anything about the lady friend to her either. The only gut-spilling I did was literal.

Meanwhile, my mother’s employers were right: She met men at work who asked her out on dates. She accepted. After all, she was an attractive 22 year old. She was thin, dressed fashionably, wore pointy high heels, knotted her hair in a French twist

French Twist

French Twist

or teased it into a Sixties flip.

She dated, but wasn’t ready to take anyone who came along. She’d already had one bad marriage and wasn’t about to jump into another quickly. If she’d lit a candle praying for the right man to come along, I don’t know. One man, originally from Yugoslavia, courted her. After she grew to like and trust him, she revealed to him she had a daughter and that she was divorced. “I have someone I’d like you to meet,” she said to him. My mother brought me downstairs to introduce him. She feared being a divorced mother would make him run in the other direction. He didn’t. Tony knew money was tight for her. That Christmas, he gave her a winter coat for me, which he’d bought at Bloomingdale’s. My mother cried when she opened the box.

My days at Riverside Drive, though, would soon end. For the summer of 1966 my mother had to make a few decisions: what to do with me during the summer while she worked, which school to enroll me for first grade and where to live.  I’m sure she and my grandmother lit many more candles at home and at church.