St. John


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

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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.)

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.