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.

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

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

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

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

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.

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.