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.”

The blog “Going Coastal” has a wonderful post about the Staten Island ferry. Going Coastal is a nonprofit dedicated to connecting people and coastal resources by raising awareness of the immense value of the coastal environment. For those who have ridden the ferry without thinking much about its beautiful journey or for those considering taking the ferry to Staten Island and back to lower Manhattan, read this piece, which covers history:

“People have been traveling to Staten Island by some sort of boat for centuries. In 1609 Henry Hudson, the explorer, named it Staaten Eyelandt, in honor of the Dutch Parliament. The American Indian population on the island resisted settlement attempts in three battles: the Pig War, over accusations that Raritan Indians had stolen settlers’ pigs; the Whiskey War, over a distillery; and the Peach War that erupted when a woman from the Aquehongan tribe allegedly stole a settler’s peach. Though the indigenous peoples didn’t believe in owning land, they would soon enough be edged out by the Dutch and then the English.

Launch of a landmark

The first regular ferry service was a sailing ship set up by 16-year-old Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1810. He eventually built a transportation empire worth $100-million. By 1816, steam ferry service was available, but because the fare was 12½ cents each way, it was mainly used by wealthy Staten Islanders. Staten Island became a borough of New York City in 1898, and then, in 1905, the city took control of the ferry.

Though the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, completed in 1964, connects Staten Island to Brooklyn, the ferry remains the only link to Manhattan. It used to carry cars, too, but that service was discontinued after 9/11.”

Literary ties:

“The poetry of memory

Edna St. Vincent Millay immortalized the Staten Island Ferry in her poem Recuerdo, which means “memory,” written in 1919. The first two lines of her poem are printed in large letters on the wall of the Whitehall Terminal, which opened in 2005:

We were very tired, we were very merry

We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.”

I grew up in Manhattan, but have two distinct memories of the Staten Island ferry. One was going to and from Catholic boarding school, which was on Staten Island. More often, my mother’s husband drove us over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. I remember riding the ferry home in the middle of the week from school. The school called my mom to have her pick me up. Fortunately, she worked in lower Manhattan, so the ferry was a quick walk from her office. I’d come down with what was then called German measles, now better known as rubella. On the trip back to Manhattan, an elderly woman leaned her face into mine, which was covered with red spots. “Your kid has something wrong with her,” she said. My mother replied, “She’s contagious.” The woman pulled back quickly and said nothing more as she walked away. I missed about another week or two of school. When I returned to SJVA, several kids in my class were absent. They too had rubella. I had been the first.

I’m sad to find out that the ferry no longer allows cars and other motor vehicles. My other memory is of a happier time, two years later when I was enrolled in the Educational Alliance (Edgies) day camp. Every summer weekday, we’d board school buses, which were driven onto the ferry, on the Lower East Side. After our ferry ride, the buses drove–more like raced each other–through the island to Henry Kaufman Campground, where we spent the day. For lunch, I brought cream cheese and grape jelly sandwiches, which tasted so good after a morning of arts & crafts, games and other activities.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey or Historic American Engineering Record, Reproduction Number (HAER NY,24-BROK,57-7)One of the enduring images for SJVA boarders was the tollbooth plaza of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. We could see it from the back fence outside our dorm. Every Sunday afternoon, my mother’s husband drove his Impala through those booths. I sat in the backseat of the smoke-filled car, my stomach churning, the lump in my throat growing, with each landmark we passed. I felt so small back there—even tinier than I was then. At 7 years old, I weighed barely 35 pounds or so.

Every Sunday during the school year, our journey began in Ozone Park, Queens, where my mother and I lived in an apartment next to the elevated “A” train. I came home on Friday nights, always relieved to be back. By Saturday night, I was dreading the next day: my departure once again. Our route to school took us from Queens through Brooklyn to the Verrazano. The bridge was new, opened to traffic three years before, in 1964. Named after Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian explorer who was the first European to sail through the Narrows in 1524, the bridge is an imposing light grey span with 693-foot towers. Unlike New York City’s grander bridges, the Verrazano looked cold, a spare feat of engineering. A sum of bolts, steel and asphalt.

When we reached the bridge, I could feel my world—or what could be my world had I been like other kids, a day student, with two parents, maybe some just-baked cookies to greet me after school—shrink away behind me. Although the bridge connected two boroughs, I viewed it more as something that was a boundary—disconnected from home, from my mother. Cross that bridge, and I was deposited into the charge of Sr. Claire. She oversaw the boarders who were attending elementary school. At that moment, passing through the tollbooths, I felt abandoned and isolated. I was thrust into a place where I had even less control than any child could have.

I’d try my best not to cry. After my freshly washed uniforms, white blouses and gloves, knee socks and underwear with little white tags bearing my name sewn in at the waist by my mother, and my shoes were placed into my closet, and after my bed was re-made with clean linens, my mother and her boyfriend would leave. And I would run out to the back of the dorm, embraced only by the chilly autumn dusk,to glimpse their car passing through the tollbooth and watch until the Impala became too small to see.

I hope to start a conversation with women who were sent away to a Catholic boarding school, especially if you attended St. John Villa Academy in Staten Island, NY. Ours was a unique experience. I can still summon myriad feelings of isolation, abandonment, loneliness, fear, etc., even though I was a boarder back in the Sixties. My time there for two years (1967-1969) and at St. Mary’s Academy (1966-67) in Lakewood, NJ, have stayed with me always. I loved attending grammar school, but hated being a boarder. I long dreamed of the day I would become a day student, someone who could go return to a real home every day after school and be greeted with love, not a stern nun, strict regulations and more regimentation.