childhood


Manhattan entrance to Staten Island Ferry Terminal

The morning of January 5, I woke to a day that was sunny and windy with temperatures in the 20s in New York City. To say that I woke up implies I’d slept the night through. I hadn’t. My body felt like every muscle was taut, like springs stretched to the max. When I did sleep, my dreams were anxiety-ridden–the kind that you rouse yourself from. I had slept for about three hours. I had decided to make a journey to my old boarding school, St. John Villa Academy, in Staten Island.

Someone asked me if the purpose of my visit was to put old ghosts to rest. My goal was the opposite. I wanted to rouse those ghosts. That morning, I knew by the night I had spent, I was doing something I needed to do.

It was time. I’d not set foot on grounds of St. John Villa since June 1969. I was curious to reacquaint myself with the place that has loomed so large in my memory–and has left an imprint on the person I am today.

I photographed my journey and took notes during the entire trip. I wanted to record everything along the way.

Battery Maritime Building (1909)
Disconnecting from Manhattan

I arrived just in time for the 10 a.m. ferry and had to run to catch it. As soon as I boarded, the boat crew pulled the accordion gate across. The horn blasted.

Departing Manhattan

I watched from the back of the ferry as we pulled away from New York’s Financial District. The ferry shuttered and creaked from the engines down below. Without warning, my stomach started churning. I felt shaky. I thought I would vomit. I’ve suffered from seasickness before and knew that what I was experiencing wasn’t a case for Dramamine. No, the visceral feeling was oh-so familiar. It was that same reaction I had decades ago, every Sunday on my trip back to boarding school. I was a child all over again.

Ellis Island

Statue of Liberty

I stepped on to the deck outside into the chafing wind. White caps dotted the water. I distracted myself by watching the boat traffic and, of course, the iconic landmarks.

Beneath the seats

I don’t know how to swim (more on that later). When I was a child, I’d see those stenciled letters on the long rows of benches on the boat and wonder whether I would have time to get at one of those life preservers in case the boat started sinking. On the boat, I was reminded constantly of being adrift on green-black water, the land gone from beneath my feet.

Verrazano Narrows Bridge

The first site of this bridge as we made the trip across the water made me think of school. At the end of a rainbow, there’s a pot of gold. At the end of Verrazano on the Staten Island side, my boarding school that was anything but a treasure.

Traffic!

Aboard the Samuel I. Newhouse Ferry

As the ferry approached Staten Island, I returned outside. The wind made it hard to push open the door onto the deck and then, once outdoors, steady my camera. In some ways, the bracing cold felt good–a distraction from all those old fears stirring about my body.

I noted the ferry’s name, Samuel I. Newhouse Sr., who started the “Staten Island Advance,” the borough’s newspaper, and went on to found a publishing empire. I couldn’t help but think of the irony. I write regularly for a Conde Nast magazine, which is part Advance Publications, and is now headed by his son, Si Newhouse Jr. My past and present were joined by that ferry. (For more about the history of Staten Island and the ferry, visit the Staten Island Museum.)

Freighter

Approaching Staten Island

St. George Ferry Terminal, Staten Island

Pulling into the dock

Lowering the walkway to the ferry

The old St. George Ferry Terminal has undergone an extraordinary renovation. The original 1940s building, the one I’d walked through so many times, had been musty and chilly. Now the building is airy with numerous glass windows to take in the waterfront views. Sunlight streamed through all the windows. I climbed into a cab. The driver, cheerful and polite, was a refugee from Kosovo. We got lost. I knew the general direction and the address, but not the exact streets to get to the school. We used the Verrazano Bridge as our landmark. His English wasn’t extensive, but between getting directions from his dispatcher and my consulting my Blackberry, we arrived 30 minutes later. He apologized profusely.

Entry Gate, St. John Villa Academy

And then we were there. I thanked him. I stood at the gates of St. John Villa Academy and looked around. I started walking. I saw no one. The only noise I heard was the whooshing of cars from the bridge ramp. I closed my eyes and listened. That sound transported me years back.

The driveway was not as long as I’d remembered. In less than a minute, I came upon the swimming pool. The summer between second and third grade, I went to camp at SJVA. There, I learned not to swim. The instructors tossed me in the deep end time after time. I’d flail around. By the end of the summer, I finally managed to stay afloat.

Pool, Summer Camp, SJVA

I walked a little further. I stopped and sniffled. My eyes and nose were watering from the cold. I dabbed my eyes with a tissue to see more clearly. Adjacent to the pool building, there it was: an ugly squat building. My old dorm.

Front of Dorm

Dorm, side entrance

Had it really seemed this ugly back then? The surrounding buildings were nicer. Now I could see, through my adult eyes, that this brick and cement building looked much like a bunker, a maintenance building. Nothing about the structure said “home” or “comfort.” The doors are heavy steel, thick with brown paint. Every Sunday, we’d enter through the side door on the far end into a large room where each girl had a small closet to stow away school uniforms, underwear, blouses, shoes, etc. The grade school girls slept on the main level in one long room. The high school boarders lived on the top floor.

Here is the back view of the doom. On this lower floor we had a TV room and a study room, where we did our homework. We used that door to exit to the little asphalt-covered play area, which bordered a parking lot for the school buses.

View from back of dorm

From the dorm’s “playground,” we could see the toll booths to the bridge. On the Sundays my mother and her boyfriend drove me to school, I would race to the back fence to catch a glimpse of his white car pulling into a toll booth, on their trip back home, leaving me behind.

View of classroom buildings from dorm

Until 1972, SJVA had both boarders and day students. Now the former dorm is used for art classrooms. I only know because I read the sign. I had been there for 20 minutes by this point and still hadn’t seen a soul.

View of dorm from walkway to cafeteria

View of dorm and Verrazano from classroom buildings

Classroom building (left) and chapel (right)

I went to classes here and received my First Communion at the chapel.

Stairwell in classroom building

I peeked into the a few doors. Classes were being held. Unfortunately, all the doors were locked.

Leaving SJVA, classroom building in rear

I explored a little more, occasionally pausing to imagine the little girl I was in a brown plaid uniform, matching plaid beret, knee socks and white gloves. As I stood at the gate waiting for a cab, a bell rang. In the distance, I could hear kids running around outside, shrieking and laughing. Ten minutes later, another bell rang. Silence again, except for the constant hum of the cars going to the bridge. And then, just before the cab arrived, a compact car drove through the gates. In the driver’s seat sat a nun, cell phone to her right ear, her left hand on the steering wheel and no seat belt. I don’t think she noticed me.

Boarding the John F. Kennedy Ferry

When I was traveling to and from Staten Island as a kid, I’d taken a JFK ferry. I found out that the ferry I was boarding for my return trip was the same one. The JFK was put into service in 1965. The boat hasn’t changed much. The ferry no longer carries passenger cars–or buses, for that matter. (In 1970 and 1971, I had gone to a different camp–this time a day camp–on Staten Island, run by the Educational Alliance, which is based on the Lower East Side. Every day, we boarded school buses at Edgies that took us to the Staten Island camp grounds by ferry.)

On the ferry "John F. Kennedy," back to Manhattan

Life jackets, JFK Ferry

Aboard the ferry

Inside the JFK, another view

Raft

In the afternoon, I returned to Manhattan. SJVA seemed a world away, yet still very much a part of me. The ghosts had been disturbed. People speak about a need for closure. I wasn’t seeking that. As a writer, I wanted to reopen that part of my life, examine it, stir things up, and then write some more.

Approaching Whitehall Ferry Terminal

Tonight, as everyone knows, is the Oscars ceremony. I have to admit that I did not see many of the movies, not because of time, but because I cannot watch films that involve some kind of trauma. It’s not an anti-violence thing with me. I used to see all kinds of movies.

But within the last 10 years, something inside me started reacting to scenes in which characters were emotionally or physically abused. I’d start shaking. I’d become extremely anxious. I’d sit in the darkness feeling as if smothered. At first, I tried to ride out the scenes, covering my eyes, putting my hands over my ears. Sometimes that strategy worked. Barely.

That defense failed me when I saw the excellent movie “Girls Don’t Cry.” The movie was well done-acting, directing, etc. I watched from beginning to end, trying to appreciate its artistry. The movie’s impact hit me suddenly–BAM!–when I got into my car and started driving. I couldn’t make it out of the parking lot. I pulled over and fell apart. My husband was with me, thank goodness, to hold me. I sobbed uncontrollably. My body trembled. It was as if I had experienced all the trauma in that movie. I knew that trauma–not the exact same kind-but just the feeling of it all. My mind and body had memories and responded automatically.

In subsequent movies that had any kind of emotional or physical trauma, I’d bolt from the theater mid scene, from darkness into the bright fluorescent light. To escape that claustrophobic atmosphere, to breathe, to make it stop. My husband would find me on a bench in the theater lobby, trying to calm down.

I’ve given up seeing such movies. I can’t even watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” any more. The last time I did, I threw up half way through. That was several years ago. In December, a New York Times writer explained the reason perfectly in the aptly titled “‘It’s a Wonderful Life’? It’s a Miserable Life!” Wendell James wrote,

“‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.” [Check out New York Times critic A. O. Scott’s take in this video.]

Now my husband and I joke about the fact that this Christmas classic made me vomit–and not because it’s sappy. But there you have it.

At least, I understand my limits now. Some movies are obvious ones to avoid. “The Wrestler?” Nope. “Slumdog Millionaire?” I wanted to see it until I found out about the flashbacks showing child beatings. “Frost/Nixon?” Yes, I love movies about politics. Then there was the movie “Doubt.”

As I wrote in a previous post, I was on the fence about seeing it for several reasons. I was intrigued because I had attended Catholic schools in New York City during the time period the movie takes place. The sexual abuse part was stopping me. After reading a friend’s review at her blog, Bagel and A Movie, I thought, “I can handle this one.” We finally saw it last Sunday.

I found the film moving and absorbing. I recognized instantly the Sr. Aloysius type and profoundly felt the innocence and tender spirit in the nun Amy Adams portrayed. What I loved most was that the movie was cerebral and explored what it means to be human, what it means to believe, what it means to doubt. You leave the movie not knowing for sure whether the priest sexually abused the child.

Some people in the audience, however, thought they knew. In fact, they arrived with that certainty. Their minds were made up: The priest is guilty. In scenes with the priest, played so well by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, audience members hissed and tsk-tsked. At times, their sounds made hearing the dialogue difficult. Granted, I was watching the movie in a theater in a suburb of Boston, practically ground zero for the clergy sex abuse scandals  (chronicled by the Boston Globe in a series of articles that won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003).

Yet, they didn’t respond similarly whenever Sr. Aloysius (Meryl Streep) lashed out, punished, mistreated, and spoke with such venom toward the children–not to mention her behavior the priest, her fellow nuns and a student’s mother. She showed no empathy, no tolerance. She abused those children physically and emotionally.

I knew so well how those kids felt. I was one of those children in boarding school. Yet, for some reason, this one time I could watch the entire movie, though I did flinch a lot. Perhaps I was too distracted by the behavior of the audience.

What I did leave with was a reminder that although people understand the trauma and wrongness of sexually and physically abusing children, some fail to see that emotional abuse can be just as traumatic.

I’ve struggled for years doubting that I had suffered emotional abuse in boarding school and elsewhere because I lacked bruises, fractured bones, some STD or other physical evidence. I have no physical scars. Unlike Maria and others who were my fellow boarders, I don’t remember being hit by the nun overseeing the dorm. But the emotional abuse I endured was very real and is the reason that after all these years I relive it when I see it happening on the big screen.

I’ve thought a lot about those people in the audience and have felt tremendous compassion for those who have suffered from sexual or other physical abuse during childhood. Sometimes, though, I need to be reminded of the validity of my own emotional scars.

Today, as I considered how I’d approach writing about this very personal topic, I turned to the Childhood Welfare Information Gateway, a federal government clearinghouse for information on childhood trauma. There, on my screen, I read these words and felt oddly comforted:

“Emotional abuse (or psychological abuse) is a pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth. This may include constant criticism, threats, or rejection, as well as withholding love, support, or guidance. Emotional abuse is often difficult to prove and, therefore, child protective services may not be able to intervene without evidence of harm or mental injury to the child.

“Emotional abuse is almost always present when other forms are identified. Abandonment is now defined in many States as a form of neglect. In general, a child is considered to be abandoned when the parent’s identity or whereabouts are unknown, the child has been left alone in circumstances where the child suffers serious harm, or the parent has failed to maintain contact with the child or provide reasonable support for a specified period of time.”

Doll in JumperEarlier this week, I received an e-mail from a woman named Maria, who was a boarder about four years before I was. (To protect her privacy, I am not including her last name. In her note, she gave me permission to reprint it.) Since I started this blog, I have been searching online for women who had boarded at this school and contacted her through a social media site. As with any person who’s endured trauma and abandonment as a kid, I wanted to hear others’ stories, less out of a need for confirmation, more out of a need to connect with others and to give our experience a voice. I had buried those years for so long. I write for a living, and finally feel driven to tell this story.

As I read her e-mail, I had such a strong visceral reaction. I felt shaky and thought I would get sick. Her words brought back the terror and pain. For the rest of the day, I grieved for her as a little girl, the other little girls and, of course, myself. Her e-mail felt that powerful and so familiar, even the part about Ed Sullivan and the collie:

“I read your blog and I guess I was surprised but also kind of felt confirmed after all these years of bad memories. I don’t know why, but I never realized that there would be others that would have felt the same as I did. I think I always thought it must have been me. I know that there were older girls there and I remember them laughing and having a good time. For some reason I think of this in some sort of locker room – is that familiar at all?

“I hated the place and the memories that most stand out in my mind are of Sr. [X]. She was horrible – she must’ve been just absolutely hateful inside and took it out on the kids. But of course, through the eyes of a child, you always think it’s just you.

“One particular vivid memory is of her holding me just off the floor by my arm while she was beating me, all because my hair got wet on a day that we were not supposed to wash our hair. Do you remember that Thursday was hair washing day? (It may have been different when you were there.) Well, my shower cap had a tear in it and my hair got a little wet. So, I’m a little kid and she’s this huge black hulking figure (black habit) and she’s dangling me by my arm while she’s hitting me and yelling. I can still almost see the twisted expression on her face. I remember the absolute terror – I don’t know how she got away with it. I don’t remember any other nun doing anything to the kids but maybe I didn’t see it.

“Another time I was in bed (I remember the dormitory with 2 rows of beds), and the 2 girls on either side of me were talking and then got out of bed. Well, Sr. [X] came up and let us all have it even though I pleaded with her that I didn’t do anything. I also remember being punished or hit for not eating all the food on my plate – you know kids and string beans. Does yucky macaroni and cheese ring a bell? And getting hit for throwing up after eating something I didn’t like. Just normal kid stuff.

“My mom took me out after 6 months because of the bruises on my body. She says she couldn’t figure out what was happening and that I never complained. Scared I guess. So she took me to the doctor who she says looked at her as if she were a child abuser. Now this is through the memory of my 76 year old mom, so I don’t really know what to say. I spoke to her the other day about this again, because I’ve never really been sure why I was there. She tells me she had to work, but she was married and there was a Catholic elementary school right across the street. I suppose times were different and she tells me she thought she was sending me to a good school.

“I do know that I could never send my daughter away – she’s going to college in September and I’m having a hard enough time with that. But if the discussion goes too far with my mom, she’ll feel as if I’m accusing her and I don’t want to go there. But I do think about it sometimes.

“I do have a good memory of watching the Ed Sullivan show on Sunday nights. And also, there was a dog – a Collie. One of the nuns would hold up her fingers, and the dog would bark according to how many fingers she held up. You can use any of this on your blog if you like.

“I wonder if Sr. [X] is still alive. I looked on the St. John’s website – there’s an area that names nuns from the past but I didn’t see her name.  I think I would like confront her, although the years of growing up and thinking of nuns as next to God might make that difficult for me to do. I’m an RN, and many years ago I had a nun as a patient. She was having knee surgery and I had to place a tourniquet cuff high on her thigh in preparation for the surgery. The thought of touching her in such a personal manner terrified me and I apologized to her. That reverence for nuns is so ingrained in us as children growing up Catholic.

“Sorry this is so long. I have really strong memories of that place – even as a 53 year old, I still cringe when I think of it.”

~ Maria, February 9, 2009

Thank you, Maria, for taking the time to write of your experience and letting me share it with others on my blog. I’m sure that your honesty will touch many. (P.S. The nun, now elderly, is still alive. She’s long since retired–the boarding school shut down in 1972 or so.)

In a previous post, I wrote of the decreasing number of Catholic schools in the US. But perhaps one solution might help to continue the educational standards set at these schools. “Mayor and Bishop Propose a Plan to Save Schools,” in The New York Times, Feb.  8, 2009, provides details of  a proposal to turn four Catholic schools in Brooklyn into charter schools. According to the Times, “It would be the first time such a plan was undertaken in New York and could serve as a model for converting other Catholic and private schools.”

I’ll be interested to see how this works. The proposal is in its early stages, with many decisions, etc., to be made. The best outcome would be one that ensures the best education for the children.

Bath time marked the start of the evening during my summer  with my aunt and uncle. In Puerto Rico, most people shower before dinner. (I’ve always thought that savvy burglars could take this opportunity to slip in and out of houses all over the island, while everyone was showering.) You’d wash off the day’s sweat and put on a clean dress. Refreshed, you’d sit down to eat.

Most times, my aunt bathed me. I was barely six years old. Each late afternoon, I experienced a child’s version of the Psycho shower.

In the bathroom’s small space, largatijos—lizards—lurked, just as they did throughout the house. You had to share, and I didn’t want to.

Largatijos were like the cockroaches in our Manhattan apartment, only not nocturnal. At least roaches stayed in the kitchen. These three-inch green-brown largatijos, with slender bodies, appear quietly everywhere. These creatures stand as if frozen on the tile wall for long periods. Eyes wide open. No blinking. Silent. When he moves, he scampers and slithers. Such stealth. Such quickness. One moment he’s on the wall, the next by the door. Some might slip into the shower drain. Others hang out on the shower curtain or pole looking down at me. One might pop out of the medicine cabinet or from behind the toilet tank. Some settled into the folds of towels. Or on the soap, the faucet handle, the showerhead, toilet paper roll. Anywhere. I feared one would jump on me.

But more harrowing still was my aunt’s washing method. She scoured my skin like she did the kitchen floor. The washcloth felt like sandpaper. When washing my hair, she scraped my scalp raw with her nails. Shampoo burned my eyes. I would run out of the bathroom mid-wash, crying, screaming, in pain. Sometimes she’d catch my arm or hair before I fled and yanked me back into the shower. She scrubbed harder, now furious with me. I had no one to rescue me.

After several evenings of this, she opted for bribery. Before my shower, Titi Grace led me to her china cabinet in the dining room. On the shelf behind the sliding glass door, she placed a quarter. If I stood still—no whimpering, no fleeing—that quarter was mine. Fearing her wrath, I bit my lip and endured the pain. For twenty-five cents, I was hers.

1965 Quarters

1965 Quarters

On late Monday afternoon, New York City was cold and gray, a light snow–picture the snow scenes in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”–dusted the streets. I wandered around a bookstore, bought a book and headed to the nearest Starbucks to read and warm up with a hot latte. Occasionally, I stared out the windows, watching the snowflakes drift to the ground and melt and people heading home for the evening. I had time to kill because Connie was held up at work. I’d waited for decades wondering when, if ever, we’d meet again. Another hour of waiting would be like a minute. I was excited and could barely concentrate on my book.

When the time came, I headed around the corner to a cozy bistro, Cafe Luxembourg, on the Upper West Side. (Excellent choice–intimate, great food.) My eyeglasses fogged up, and the lights were very dim. I searched for her familiar face. As soon as she walked in, we recognized each other and caught each other in a tight hug, despite our puffy down coats.

Our conversation flowed easily. Nothing felt awkward about it. The connection, after all this time, was still there. Other diners at the restaurant would never have guessed we hadn’t seen in each other in 39 years. We had a champagne toast, ordered the same entrees, shared dessert.

Birthday Gift

Birthday Gift

She looked the same, only grown up. Her eyes still sparkled, her skin translucent. For the occasion, I wore the earrings she had given me for my tenth birthday, when she’d come to my party. That was the last time we were together. By then we were both free from boarding school. I was in living on the Lower East Side with my mother, she in Queens with hers. I cherished those earrings, simple pink tourmaline stones. (Pink tourmaline is said to have these properties: inspire love and creativity, help one recover from emotional difficulties, provide wisdom and strengthen willpower.)

Connie and I talked fast, covering so much territory–the present, the past, the in between, politics–trying to make sense of so much. Those two years in boarding school haunt our thoughts to this day. The experience shaped our lives. But there is something more to that. It was what brought many of us to that particular place to begin with: being an only child of a single working parent in the sixties. Our parents couldn’t afford to spoil us, much less have the time to dote on us. We chatted about our mothers, their frame of mind, their needs, their neediness. Both of us admire them for what they did, overcoming sexism in the workplace, being the head of household, and so on.

And yet. We came back to one theme throughout our meal. Our childhoods were fraught with anxiety, which remains with us to this day. The adults around us weren’t taking care of us in some ways. We had to navigate so much on our own. We were lied to. We were alone.

In boarding school, we were punished for doing things that kids do. Ordinary things, not mischief. We were boarders ranging in age from 6 to 12. Connie remembered when I’d been punished for vomiting in the middle of the night in my bed. For a week after that, I was sent to bed earlier than all the other girls. There I was, at 7 pm, tucked into my bed among rows of beds. We all slept in one big room. I could never forget that incident and the aftermath. I took great comfort that Connie, too, remembered my ordeal, too.

Once, we were scolded and punished for showing fear during an intense thunderstorm. Our closets were inspected every day. Anything out of order could mean a punishment. I was caught with dimes in my loafers. We weren’t allowed to have any money at all. My mother had put dimes in my penny loafers instead of pennies, in case I needed to make a phone call. The dimes were taken away from me. I was punished. I was like an animal, always on alert, fearful that I could be attacked from any direction, for any reason, for no reason. I was never hit by the nun in charge of the boarders, but I have many scars.

Being on Staten Island adjacent to the Verrazano Bridge increased our sense of isolation and distance from any possible sense of love and security. Our mothers inadvertently added to that feeling of remoteness. Connie and I recalled that both of us had cats at home and that our mothers, without warning, got rid of them.

There was one event that I don’t remember at all: Robert Kennedy’s assassination. Connie described our dear second grade teacher, Sr. Raphael, wheeling in a cart with a TV for us to watch the news. How could I not recall something like that? That’s one of those events that you know where you were when it happened. Throughout our four-hour dinner–we were one of the last to leave–we tried to figure out where I’d been. Was it the time I had rubella and was absent? I am mystified that I have no memory of this. Connie felt so vulnerable to see that such a vibrant person had been gunned down, his life gone. When I got back to my hotel, I doublechecked the date of his assassination: June 6, 1968. We were definitely still in school. A puzzle.

Our reunion was a joyful one. We looked upon the past with awe. We had emerged from our difficult childhoods and managed to become successful. A therapist once told me that others who had experienced such traumas often become substance abusers, sex addicts, criminals. Connie and I toasted our resilience.

Throughout, the waiter, Matthew, humored us. We kept shooing him away when he came to take our order. We had been too busy talking to read the menu and told him this was our reunion dinner. Connie and I quizzed him about his own story. It turns out he’d gone to boarding school, only at age 16, in England, I think. When we told him that we had been boarders, too, only at a much younger age, he was astonished. People always are. He said something like, “even in the British system, where boarding school is not unusual, that’s almost unheard of.” (Awhile ago, I’d done a search of U.S. boarding schools. Fortunately none seem to take kids below sixth grade nowadays.)

Throughout the years, I had always thought about Connie and my other boarding school friend whom I’d last seen when I was 18. Thanks to the Internet, I found them last fall right around the time I was thinking of starting this blog. I had tried many times before, but both of them had different last names as adults. By coincidence, they had each signed up at classmates.com, which lists surnames–birth and marriage. Now that I had their correct last names, I found them on Facebook and e-mailed them. Our long-lost conversations were re-ignited. I needed to reconnect with them and that part of my life.

Connie and I said good night and hugged again at the 72nd St. subway station. Our dinner had ended, but our friendship renewed. I walked back to my hotel, careful not slip on the icy sidewalks. The lights from stores and streetlights made the wet asphalt glisten. The night air felt so crisp and clear.

At the end of my kindergarten year, my mother decided to send me to Puerto Rico for the summer, just as my grandmother had done with her when she was a child. My mother would spend part of the time with my grandmother’s parents or my one of my grandmother’s younger sisters, Graciela. Titi Grace, who ran a home daycare, agreed to take me. I also would stay with three of my grandmother’s other siblings—she had 11—and their families that summer. My mother remained in New York to work.

At JFK Airport, I boarded a Trans Caribbean flight to San Juan accompanied by a flight attendant. I was barely six years old and alone. On board, I was given playing cards, wing-shaped pin like the ones flight attendants wore and a postcard. The flight attendants knew my father and watched over me, a little thing—skinny with short brown hair. As for the flight itself, I don’t remember much.

transca021

My memory, though, doesn’t fail me when it comes to the details of my arrival in San Juan. Waiting for me at the airport was Titi Grace and her husband, Tio Pucho. Upon seeing him, I screamed. He looked like Mr. Clean, someone I’d only seen in commercials. Not only was he bald, Tio Pucho had no eyebrows, no lashes, no signs of a beard. His pink head shined in the bright afternoon sun. He looked odd—and to a six year old, frightening—without those thin lines of hair to frame his eyes to make him seem human. His face was an all pink landscape, acres of flesh.

He reminded me of a toy I had—Wooly Willy. See, Wooly Willy was a simple toy, just a drawing of a hairless face, no torso. Between the clear plastic covering and the cardboard that bore his bare face were iron retrowoolyshavings. With a magnet, you could drag the filings across the plastic to make Willy wooly. You could shape a moustache, some eyelashes and even a goatee. But that was just a plaything. Tio Pucho was standing before me, thin, tall and alive. He was Willy in 3-D and had a complete body.

I sat in the backseat of the car, my body pressed into the seat trying to be as far away from Tio Pucho as one could get in a compact. At their house, I was shown the room I’d share with their daughter, who was about my mother’s age. The two of them were close, because they’d spent summers together. At one point, Titi Grace, Pucho and their daughter lived in New York. Titi had worked in the same lingerie factory in the Garment District as my grandmother.

I didn’t want to leave that room. Tio Pucho was in the living room watching television. The first few days, I avoided him whenever I could. But I soon realized that Titi Grace was the one to fear.

I went to sleep each night to the sound of the coquis, their chirps filling the black sky, and wake up to the crows of roosters.

My days there followed Titi’s schedule. In the morning, Titi Grace made me breakfast—a bowl of oatmeal and a batida, a cold brew consisting of grape juice and a raw egg that she whipped until frothy in the blender. I didn’t want it. She’d stand over me and watch until I swallowed every bit of the sweet purple goo. I’d gag on lumps of egg white that hadn’t been broken up by the blades of the blender. Hints of raw egg smell drifted into my nose.

Meanwhile, parents on their way to work dropped off infants and toddlers in the converted carport, which was filled with toys, playpens, high chairs and other kiddie stuff. Titi spent the day changing diapers and warming bottles. In between, she’d wash a load of laundry, run it through the wringer and then hang them to dry. The woman was industrious and particular. She ironed everything—her husband’s boxer shorts, bed sheets—stopping now and again to blot the perspiration off her brow.

After lunch, I’d settle into the canvas hammock, which my aunt had sewn, for a nap. I slept deeply, suspended in that heavy cotton cocoon in the carport. My neck and back of my knees grew damp with sweat, my hair soggy, in the humidity. Once all the children were picked up, Titi moved everything out and mopped the linoleum tile lining the carport.

Then it was time for her other enterprise: selling a line of mops and brooms, like an Avon lady, only with cleaning supplies. This was no ordinary mop. Attached to it was a plastic ring that, when pulled over the fabric mop strands, twisted and squeezed it of excess water. On late weekday afternoons, we’d climb into her VW Beetle, the colored handles of mops and brooms bobbing in the front and back seat, plastic buckets and spare mop heads tucked away on the floor. I sat way back in the compartment underneath the rear window and behind the backseat. I fit perfectly in this little storage area covered in grey wool fabric that was like a flat weave carpet. The wool scratched my bare legs and arms. I enjoyed these rides. I had my own space. And Titi had hers.

On her rounds dropping off orders, Titi seemed less strict, almost carefree—as carefree as someone who is usually uptight can be. In her car, as we winded through San Juan’s suburbs, Titi Grace sang love songs. As she switched from first to second to third, she acted freer. She shifted gears, literally and figuratively. Her favorite song was Paul Anka’s “Put Your Head on My Shoulder.” Over the car’s motor sputtering in that characteristic VW Beetle sound, she’d sing like a teenager: “Hold me in your arms, bay-beeee,” lowering her voice on “baby” like Anka did. I grew to love her singing that song.

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.

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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