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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 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.”