In 1970, I was eleven years old. It was a rough year for my family. My twenty-year-old cousin Denny had died in a car crash in 1968. (For that story see here.) My stalwart and beloved grandmother, having endured a botched cataract surgery that blinded her in 1968, broke her hip that year, and my mother had to put her in a nursing home where she was utterly miserable. My father, who would go “on the wagon” in 1971, was still drinking. My sister had gotten married in 1966 and dropped out of college, and by the time 1970 dawned, she had had three children in a row. My brother was in high school and rebelling in various ways that scared the daylights out of my parents. As for me, I spent as much time as possible in the basement, reading books and eating chocolate peanuts by the bagful. I hated school, and played “hooky” whenever I thought I could get away with it. (For a story of how that once went horribly wrong, see here.) My grades were terrible.
As a Catholic girl in a Catholic family, I went to mass every Sunday (at the minimum) and once a month walked up to Christ King Church for confession, accompanied by my mother. On one of those “confession Saturdays,” I was feeling pretty bleak about the state of my soul and about life in general, and for the first time in my life veered away from the “script” of “Bless Me, Father, for I have sinned….” Oh, I still said those words, but when I got to the part where I told Father Stommel my sins, I burst into tears instead and unloaded on Father about my troubles. Before giving me absolution, Father told me that I had a lot of problems that really weren’t a matter for the confessional. He said that I needed to meet with him in the rectory the following week, for some “counseling.”
On our walk home, I told my mother that I was a much bigger sinner than I thought I was, because I had to go and see Father during his off-hours. My mom’s pace slowed a bit upon hearing that, and she said, “Just what did you say in the confessional?” Truthfully, I told her that I mentioned how unhappy I was, how fat I was, and how little my religious faith seemed to be helping. “Do you want to go to this meeting?” she asked. I told her that yes, I thought I had to. I didn’t explain to my mother that since Father had absolved me only AFTER securing my promise to meet up with him later, I thought that if I failed to show up, the absolution would be revoked and I would be back on my way to hell. My mother didn’t look especially pleased about the whole thing, but she grudgingly said, “Well, okay. But I think it’s strange.”
About three days later, I rang the bell at the door of the rectory, and the housekeeper let me in, saying, “Father is expecting you.” I had never been in a rectory before, and was surprised at how much it looked like any other house. She directed me to what looked like the study, and sure enough, there was Father Stommel.
I was extremely uncomfortable to note that Fr. was not in his clerical garb, which is the only way I had ever seen him before. He was in a tropical themed shirt and a pair of unflattering shorts. Also, he was smoking a cigarette, which did not match any vision I had about priests. He gestured at a chair and I sat down. I don’t remember a single thing we talked about, but I vividly remember how profoundly miserable I was the entire time.
After about an hour, Father said that our time was up but that I definitely had to come back the following week. My stomach sank; I had endured that awkward hour only by reminding myself it would end and I could go home. Now Father was saying I had to go back. Priests were as close to God as I got, and if Father thought I needed more work, I had to go back.
The following week, the same scenario played out: we sat in the study, Father was dressed like a creepy Beach Boy and smoking like a chimney. I remember very little of this hour either, other than him telling me that he had a plan. Father would try to quit smoking and I would quit eating sweets and we would meet regularly to support each other. After the hour was up, I dutifully agreed to meet him the following week.
I don’t think I have ever dreaded anything more than I dreaded meeting with Fr. Stommel again. For me, those two sessions had been nothing but uncomfortable feelings and off-the-charts awkwardness. But I saw no way out; this was a priest and he called the shots.
After the first session with Father, I didn’t tell my mother that I had to go back. Given all the tumult in our family at the time, the last thing I wanted to do was make things even harder for her by revealing that I had to meet with the priest again because I was so screwed up. In fact, I didn’t tell a single soul about that second meeting, because I was so ashamed that it was necessary.
After the second excruciating session with Fr. Stommel, I had a complex dilemma. In my bones, I knew that there was just no way I was going back there. But I also knew that to stay away would be to brazenly reject the authority of my parish priest. So I did what I always did during my childhood: I went to my older sister Susan. While Susan never quite knew how to solve my problems, or at least how to solve them well, she was always game to take a well-meant swing at them.
Once I had described my first two meetings with Fr. Stommel, Susan was quiet for a minute and said, “Don’t go back.” “But if I don’t show up,” I wailed, “He might come to the house looking for me!” I really did think that Father would track me down if I defied him. Susan thought for a moment and then said, “Let’s not be here during the time you are supposed to be at the rectory. That way, he can’t find us. We’ll take the bus to Marshall Fields and have Frango Mint Pie in the Linden Room.” That was just about the best solution I could ever have imagined: not only would I escape Fr. Stommel, but I would get to hang out with Susan and eat delicious pie.
And that is what we did. Even as we sat in the Linden Room laughing about how weird Fr. Stommel was, I kept one eye on the entrance to the restaurant, still half convinced that he was coming for me and knew where I was.
The following week was the annual Christmas play at Christ King School (for more about that, see here). I was cast as the Spirit of Love, which was (for me at least), A Very Big Deal. The play went well; I had remembered all my lines, and I was really happy as we all marched in two lines back to our respective classrooms. About five minutes after we sat down at our desks, there was a knock on the classroom door and Sister Collette answered it. She came back into the classroom and walked directly to my desk. “Fr. Stommel is outside and he wants to see you,” she told me. My stomach plummeted like an out-of-control elevator. Oh God, I thought. I was right. He tracked me down. Nearly paralyzed with anxiety and embarrassment, I stepped into the hallway. Father was dressed in his clerical garb, which was a big relief to me, and he wasn’t smoking, another big plus. He said that he just wanted to tell me that I had done an excellent job in the school show, and that he was disappointed when I didn’t come to my meeting with him the previous week. Before he could even mention the possibility of rescheduling, I muttered “thankyoufatherIgottagonow” and I escaped back into class.
I couldn’t wait for the day to end so that I could go home and report this ominous new development to Susan. I was afraid that, having told me he was disappointed in me for not showing up for our meeting, Fr. Stommel would be expecting me at the usual day and hour. When I told Susan what had happened, she said, “Don’t worry. Every week at the time you met with him before, we’ll just go get some Frango Mint Pie again like last time.” And for four weeks in a row, Susan and I took the bus to Marshall Fields to eat pie during the hour I was supposed to be with Fr. Stommel. After a month went by with no more encounters with Father, we stopped going to Marshall Fields and resumed our normal activities. Fr. Stommel never approached me again, and a year later he was reassigned to another parish.
Every now and then, I check the websites listing the credibly accused priests in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee; his name has never appeared. To this day, I have no idea what Fr. Stommel was up to back in 1970. He may well have simply been a priest who was new to ministry and eager to serve his flock in any way possible. He may have thought that I sounded like a chubby miserable kid who just needed a friend. I will never know. But that whole strange chapter in my life did teach me a few things. First of all, I learned that children in stressed-out homes are vulnerable. Second, I learned why a child would simply not tell her parents if a priest had made her uncomfortable. Third, I learned that it’s important to keep a safe distance between the teaching authority of the Church and the teaching authority of a single priest. Fourth, I learned to trust my intuition, at least a little bit. Finally, I learned yet again that my sister, though still a child herself (albeit an older one) always had my back and would look out for me. Oh—and also, sometimes a sister’s love and protectiveness comes in the delicious form of Frango Mint Pie.
I had the habits of a Catholic girl long before I understood what a Catholic girl was. Thanks to my mother and father, by the time I started the first grade, I was in the habit of going to mass every Sunday, rain or shine, vacation or no vacation, whether I felt like it or not. It went without saying that every Sunday morning would find all seven Maloney’s filling up a pew in Christ King Church for 11:15 mass (12:15 if my parents had enjoyed a particularly festive evening the night before), followed by breakfast. Sunday mass was simply something that we did, like making our beds and writing thank you notes for gifts.
In 1964, I entered the first grade at Christ King School. I was eager to start this next chapter of my life, and on the day after Labor Day, schoolbag packed and ready, I was off on my new adventure. I had been to kindergarten, and I figured first grade would be more of the same—coloring, singalongs, indoor ‘tag’ games, naps and circle time. I was ready.
After our parents dropped us off at the door, Mrs. Wojciechowski marched us into the
classroom, showed us to our proper desks, and ordered us to be seated. I was already ruminating about our first activity; I had a new box of crayons in my schoolbag, and I hoped we would start with coloring. To my considerable surprise, however, Mrs. Wojciechowski clapped hands the moment we were all seated and told us to stand up again. Then she told us to choose a partner and line up at the door. Confused but compliant, I tried to do as I was told. Because I had attended just one year of kindergarten unlike my classmates who had been kindergartners for two years (for more about that, see here), I was five years old and had no clue what “choose a partner” meant. It was not a skill I had learned in kindergarten, where our teacher, Miss Eiseley, had always chosen our partners for us.
Nonetheless, I did my best to do as I was told, and asked the girl at the desk next to me to be my partner. She looked at me, said, “You have fat teeth,” and walked off to partner with another girl, no doubt someone with slimmer, more appropriate teeth. After that, my strategy was to wait until everyone else chose a partner. If we had an odd number of girls that day, my partner was the other girl left over, and if we had an even number of girls, I walked to mass partner-less.
Once we were all assembled in an orderly fashion at the door to our classroom, Mrs. Wojciechowski announced that we would stop at the “Lavatory,” but our ultimate destination was the Church, because we were going to mass. Mass? I thought to myself. But why? I knew that mass happened on days other than Sunday; I had even been to mass during the week every now and then with my mother. Daily mass with my mother was a treat, because I would have her all to myself on our walk to and from church. Not only that, but after mass, she would let me have a cup of tea while she had her coffee, which made me feel very grown up. I had never been to mass without my family, though, and I had no idea it was something I would be expected to do with other people. Furthermore, the choice whether or not to attend daily was always mine, but Mrs. Wojciechowski was not asking us our preferences. This was a command performance, and it would be repeated every morning of every month of every year.
This was, to my mind, an awful lot of mass. In that first year, we first graders did not even have the distraction of lining up to receive holy communion; only after we had made our first confession (for more about that, see here) and our first communion would we be sacramentally fit to receive our Lord and Savior. In those early years, my spiritual life tended toward the thin side; I spent most of my time at mass thinking about what I would eat later for lunch, or wondering why God didn’t shine His divine light on me as I kneeled in the pew, marking me as one of His especially holy followers. Humility was not my spiritual strong suit in the early going.
By the time I arrived in the third grade, daily mass was really beginning to wear on me. I felt confident that my spiritual needs were being met by my attendance on Sunday, and I went to confession once a month. Not only did all this mass-going seem excessive, I still had considerable partner anxiety. I was chubby, I was quiet, and since I never paid attention in class, my grades were terrible. I was never in demand as anyone’s partner.
What with the worry of not having a partner enroute to mass, sitting through mass, then worrying about not having a partner on the way back from mass, the whole experience struck me as unnecessarily stressful. I decided I needed a break.
By the time Mrs. Lane clapped her hands the next morning and told us to partner up and get in line for mass, I had crafted a plan to take some time off from the worship of my Redeemer. I knew that we would stop at the bathroom enroute to the church; when that moment came, I would enter the bathroom with my classmates, but I would not exit. Instead, I would stand on the toilet seat with the door to my cubicle locked. No one would be able to see my feet and they would all march off on their holy way, freeing me up for some peace and quiet during the thirty minutes they were at mass.
When the time came, I executed the plan perfectly, and all the girls left the bathroom, leaving me blissfully alone. After about a half-hour had passed and I heard the clatter of everyone heading back, I discreetly exited and joined my line. Unlike the march to mass, which was quiet and fiercely regimented, the walk back was always chatty and somewhat chaotic. Success! I gloated inwardly. I had figured out how to escape this anxiety-laden chore! Of course, spending a half hour sitting quietly on a toilet with nothing to read and nothing to do had not been a great improvement over sitting in a pew with my classmates and my Lord; nonetheless, I applauded myself for this brilliant strategy.
I had successfully employed Operation: Not Today, Lord for about three days when I decided that I had to share the wealth. It really was pretty dull sitting by myself on a toilet every day. I figured that if I let someone else in on my discovery, I would make a friend and have a companion sitting on the toilet next door to me to chat with. After careful consideration of all the candidates to serve as my partner in crime, I chose Cathy Petrusek, because though she was fairly popular, Cathy was always nice to everyone, even me.
At the end of my mass-free week, I approached Cathy and made my offer. She was intrigued by what she heard, and game to give my plan a try. The following Monday morning when Mrs. Lane clapped her hands for us to line up, Cathy partnered with me. When we stopped at the lavatory, we entered side-by-side cubicles, locked our respective doors, and stood on the toilet seats. Mission: Impossible had nothing on us. I exulted over our success and began to imagine the fun we would have all year long sitting together in the bathroom on our separate toilets seats. I would have a partner enroute to the bathroom and possibly a friend for life.
When I crafted Operation Not Today Lord, however, I failed to account for the fact that two bathroom cubicles being locked and out of commission would draw more notice than one did. Sure enough, Carol Taibl was still in line when everyone had to exit the bathroom and resume the march to mass. Suspicious of her long wait time, Carol peered through the crack between the door and the side of my cubicle and spotted me standing there on the toilet. Carol ratted us out to Mrs. Lane, who swooped into the bathroom after mass and ordered us both out of our cubicles.
I have no memory of what our punishment was; nor do I remember whether Mrs. Lane reported this misbehavior to our parents. What I do remember, however, is the moment when Mrs. Lane turned to Cathy Petrusek and said “I expect this sort of thing from her (gesturing with her chin toward me), but you come from a good family!” I may have been only eight years old, but I knew that my family’s honor had just been besmirched. By me. No other punishment could have hurt more.
For the rest of third grade, I marched dutifully to mass and back; sometimes I had a partner and sometimes I didn’t, but I was never again partners with Cathy Petrusek. She avoided me as the bad influence I surely was, and I didn’t blame her. After that day of reckoning in the girls’ bathroom, I decided to try a new strategy to deal with my partner anxiety: I prayed. I asked God to remove the daily stress of that walk back and forth to mass. And sure enough, on the first day of fourth grade at Christ King School, Sr. Pierre announced that Pope John XXIII had thrown open the windows of the Church with a tool called Vatican II, and daily mass was required no longer.
Ironically, having figured out how to spend a few minutes at daily mass actually talking to God and sharing my problems with Him, I missed it when it disappeared. As an adult, I attend daily mass sometimes to continue those conversations I began in 1967. And God doesn’t seem to have held Operation Not Today Lord against me. He’s good that way.
In October of 1962, when I was almost four years old, my family moved from Chicago to Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. This was, for my mother, a tragic day. Both of my parents had been born in Chicago to parents who were themselves born in Chicago. Both had fully expected to die in Chicago after long and happy lives as chic Chicagoans. My father had relocated briefly to the island of Guam during World War II, after brief stays (with my mother) at army bases in Texas and Nebraska. Living outside her beloved city during those years only increased my mother’s ardor for her hometown. When the War ended, my parents (now with a new baby girl they named Marbeth) moved to Essex Avenue in a posh area of Chicago known as South Shore, and my father used the G.I. Bill to go to “insurance school” in Boston. He had a wife and a baby to support, and he figured he could make a good living in that business. Shortly after he returned from Boston, my father got a job selling insurance for the James S. Kemper Company.
Housing was scarce in post-war America, and my parents knew they were lucky to have a nice apartment near Lake Michigan just a short train ride from downtown. My mother soon gave birth to my brother Johnnie, and when she got pregnant with my brother Jamie, my parents knew that they needed more space. They weren’t alone; thousands of soldiers were returning home to their wives and babies. The country was about to experience a sizeable baby boom; affordable family homes would be in steady demand, and so forward thinking developers got busy. The city of Park Forest was born, and my dad found us a townhouse in this spanking new “planned community.”
My mother was not happy to leave the city limits, but she was also pretty tired of carrying three children up and down three flights of stairs, not to mention the buggy. The “yard” on Essex Avenue was small patch of cement, and while the lake was just a few blocks away, she longed for some open space for her children to burn up their considerable energy. Park Forest was not Chicago, but it was a fairly easy drive, and there were trains. For the good of her family, my mother moved.
After Susan came, the Park Forest townhouse was a tight fit, and my father decided it was time to buy a house on one of its carefully laid out streets. 471 Lakewood Blvd. was a ranch house with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, an eat-in kitchen and an attached garage that could be renovated into a “rec room.” The developers had planted trees and seeded front lawns, but when my father’s car loaded with four children and my mother turned into 471 Lakewood, the trees were spindles and the grass was only a promise. For my mother, this was a bleak landscape indeed. Nonetheless, there we were and she was resolved to make the best of it.
Park Forest was an idyllic place to be a child. Every house on every block was stuffed with other children, so there was a never-ending playdate happening on the street every day and every evening, rain or shine. There was a decent sized woods, with a trail for hiking and bike riding. There was an Aqua Center with several pools. There was even a fancy new strip of stores all hulking together called a shopping mall, with my mother’s beloved Marshall Field’s at the core. And while she missed living in Chicago near her sister and her parents, my mother realized that her own life was easier when her children were surrounded with playmates. The neighbors, nearly all veterans and their wives, were all in the same boat and everyone got along. When evening rolled around and the men got off of the train and came home, the adults joined their children in their own version of a playdate: they put the kids to bed and met in each other’s houses for cocktails and conversation and more cocktails.
While Park Forest was a paradise for children, it was no place to hail from, at least not in my mother’s eyes. No matter where she went in the world, she was at all times supremely confident that introducing herself as “Mercedes Maloney from Chicago” informed new acquaintance that she was an up-to-date and sophisticated city dweller. “I’m from Chicago” was my mother’s go-to mantra in any demanding social situation. So dedicated was she to the importance of being from Chicago, she insisted on delivering me at a downtown hospital, Passavent Memorial. When I was older, she explained that she had made the forty minute trip while in labor so that I would never be saddled with a backwater like “Park Forest” on my birth certificate. (Later in life, I wrote about this in the Chicago Tribune; you can read all about that, if you are interested, here).
By the time I came along, my sisters were sharing one bedroom on Lakewood and my brothers shared the other. I slept in my crib at the side of my parents’ bed in their room; it was a tight fit. My father’s salary was increasing slowly but steadily, and my parents hoped that they would soon be able to move to a bigger house in a more prestigious suburb like Oak Park or River Forest. Charming and persuasive when he set his mind to be, my father had a genuine talent for insurance sales. He sold policies to corporations and factories, and forged lifelong friendships with some of the people whose companies he insured. When James S. Kemper decided to expand into the Midwest, it didn’t take them long to choose Milwaukee as the next outpost; in the early 1960’s, Milwaukee was rich in industry with companies such as Johnson Controls, Bucyrus Erie, Continental Can, and Allis-Chalmers. My father was the man picked to be promoted and transferred. He was now the President of Kemper’s Milwaukee office.
My mother was happy that my father got promoted but decidedly unhappy at the prospect of moving ninety miles north. For two years after my father took the job, he commuted between Chicago and Milwaukee, coming home only on weekends. I was a toddler when all of this happened, and so for me my father was a festive stranger who came over every Friday night and left on Sunday. One of my earliest memories is of standing on the couch at 471 Lakewood and looking out of the window so that I could be the first to spy my dad walking up the front walk. As soon as the door opened, I would scream “Daddy!” and he would reply “Baby!” and throw his arms around me. My father knew how to light up a room, and even my grandmother, often helping out my mother on Fridays, remarked that when Jack Maloney entered a room, everyone’s spirits lifted.
Two years is a long time, and my father was tired of living in a hotel and commuting every week. Finding a house was not an easy or fast process, though, especially since whatever house we bought would have to house seven people and make my mother less miserable about leaving Chicago. The house we eventually bought had been on the market for a long time. Since it was a lovely, stately manor on a corner lot in a prestigious neighborhood, the price was astonishingly low. To figure out why, one had only to step inside.
While 2337 had lovely “bones,” the previous owner had apparently developed his decorating style in Chinese brothels. Each of our three bathrooms sported wallpaper featuring naked mermaids, hungover men in boxer shorts and many martini glasses. The “rec room” above the garage was painted scarlet and every window was covered with long black draperies featuring little Chinese men in hats. The previous owner’s love of red was carried through to the kitchen; until she moved into that house, I don’t think my mother knew that Formica countertops were even available in cherry.
Our house in Park Forest went on the market but did not sell, and so for a while my dad was making two house payments. Without the money from the first house, my parents had no down payment on the home in Wauwatosa, and the previous owner must have been very ready to sell, because he accepted a down payment of fifty dollars on a house that cost 38, 500 dollars. (In 1962, that was a tidy sum indeed.) We had a double mortgage right from the start, and James S. Kemper had one of them. Family finances being what they were, there were zero funds in the “redecoration” account, and we lived with that decorating for a decade. We all got so used to it we never saw it anymore, and it was always a surprise when a friend came out of our bathroom and said, “There are naked mermaids and hungover men in boxers holding martinis on your bathroom walls” as if this might be a startling development of which we were unaware.
Mortgaged to the teeth and living in a house decorated by Beelzebub, at least we were all together again as a family living under one roof. My mother was certainly happy about that, but she did not find Milwaukee an easy place to love. The first day she returned from the bakery across the street where she had gone to buy a loaf of bread, she walked in the back door muttering, “Damned Germans!” Apparently there was a very long line at Fessenbecker’s, and the other customers were stolidly lined up single file out the door. In Chicago, no one lined up at bakeries. Everyone just shoved toward the front shouting their orders and waving their arms. Not only that, but she had to cross the street to get there, and when the light was “green” for the cars, the other people stood and waited for the “WALK” sign. (For at least the first ten years of our life in Wauwatosa, every time my mother was confronted by a patrol office for jaywalking and/or crossing against the light, she would smile at the police officer and say, “I am sorry Officer but I am from Chicago.” Once in a while, that worked; more often, the officer was not impressed.)
When my father took my mother to see downtown Milwaukee, she took one look at
Wisconsin Avenue, the main street of the city, and burst into tears. “This is IT?” she moaned. “This is downtown?” It certainly was.
My father had done his homework during those two years of living in Milwaukee on his own, and so in no time at all my siblings were enrolled in their various schools and attending classes, leaving me and my mother home alone in our new neighborhood which, my mother whispered to me at one point, was almost certainly filled with Republicans. We can only imagine what our new neighbors thought when we pulled into the driveway for the first time; the hood of our “vintage” car had flown off into a ditch on the way to our new home, so we pulled up in what looked like a wreck and all seven of us piled out of the car and onto our quiet street, a bevy of Irish Catholics in a world of German Republicans.
Republican or not, my mother knew that the neighborhood was the home of my future friends, and she set about to find them for me. After breakfast one day, we were off on our mission; my mother walked me up and down our new street with the intention of introducing me to any girls playing outside who looked to be roughly my age. She stopped in front of the first little girl she saw (later we found out her name was DeeDee Kindt) and asked if she would like to meet a new friend. DeeDee’s emphatic response: “No.”
After that inauspicious beginning, my mother took me home and gave me a popsicle, which seemed like a pretty good deal to me. Already at the age of four, I was finding food to be a much steadier and loyal companion than other people ever could be. My mother never really forgave “That snotty Kindt girl,” as she called her for the rest of our lives. Daunted but not undone, we ventured forth again the next day, with greater success. My mother found two little girls playing in a front yard, and introduced me to them. When she asked these two girls if they wanted to play with me, they shrugged and acquiesced. My mother turned to me and said, “This is Regina and this is Ellen. They are your new friends. Have fun!” And she was off. Without missing a best, Ellen said “We’re playing tag. My porch is gool. You’re it!” And they ran away.
This would have been great fun except I had never played tag in my life and had no idea what the word “gool” meant. I sensed that my role was to chase them, and so I did, but they made it to “gool” safely time after time. I was “it” for most of the day. (I discovered soon after that day that Ellen had a minor speech defect; she was actually saying “goal,” not “gool.” Before long, I understood everything Ellen said, and for a year or so served as her official translator around adults who didn’t know her.)
Regina and Ellen became my best friends. There was only one mother on the block who worked outside the home (interestingly, DeeDee’s mother) and so we moved in and out of each other’s homes all day. When it was the three of us, Regina, Ellen and I usually got along and had fun, and when it was just Ellen and me, we also did fine together. Less successful were those occasions when Ellen was unavailable to play and it was just me and Regina. I had nothing in common with Regina; she liked sports and physical activity a lot, and she was a very literal girl. Imaginary play wasn’t big on her list of fun things to do. Also, Regina’s family looked and sounded like an ad for fresh, cold milk: they were achingly wholesome and clean-cut. Being the eldest girl in a family straight out of the Disney casting closet, Regina grew up in a very different atmosphere than mine. As the youngest child of a Colorful Family from the Big City, I frightened her parents a bit with my worldly ways—I said things like “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” and snuck cookies from the cabinet when I could get away with it. I was a dangerous and possibly delinquent playmate, and Regina’s father always looked at me as if I were a junior hussy, mere moments away from luring his daughter down to the docks to meet sailors or Democrats.
Despite having nothing in common, Regina and I managed on most days to find something to do together, but it could be a struggle. She liked to play games with balls and race our bikes. To me, these activities involved sweating for no good reason. Also, I hated doing things I was bad at. My idea of fun ran more toward riding our bikes down to the river and pretending to be Jews hiding from Nazi killers, or refugees who needed to subsist by eating the foliage around us. I was not averse to actually consuming the pulp inside twigs if it lent verisimilitude to the story we were weaving.
Regina (who grew up to be a psychologist) didn’t understand why it would be fun to make up stories and pretend to be people we were not, especially if such pretense included long hours “hiding” under bridges and eating sticks. After all, she reasoned, we could instead be out racing our bikes in the sunshine, stopping now and then at her house for some Choo Choo Cherry or Goofy Grape Funny Face. (Funny Face was a Kool-Aid type drink that Regina’s mom always had in a pitcher in their refrigerator. We did not have Funny Face in a pitcher in our refrigerator, ever. My mother was opposed on principle to all powdered drinks on the grounds that the process of making those drinks would inevitably result in spilled sugar on the counter, which would then get sticky in the heat, which would upset my mother. When the powdered drink industry came up with the idea of presweetened powdered drinks, my mother said that all that sugar wasn’t good for anybody anyway.)
In the name of friendship, Regina tried to spend at least some time pretending to be Anne Frank and I tried to engage in wholesome bike races and games involving balls, and somehow, we made it work. As we got older, though, our friendship faded. Once we all started elementary school, both Regina and Ellen were a year behind me because they went to kindergarten for two years. Everyone in Milwaukee attended two years of kindergarten, but I moved on to first grade after one year at McKinley School because my mother thought that two years of kindergarten was the most ridiculous thing she’d ever heard. The summer of third grade (for me, second grade for her) was the last summer that Regina and I still played together regularly; we really did have little in common.
One gorgeous afternoon during that last summer together, Regina for some reason I couldn’t fathom didn’t want to hang out in my basement dressing up in my grandmother’s old ball gowns and smoking pretend cigarettes made of colored pencils dipped in lipstick. She wanted to be outside, and she wanted to race bikes. I never won a bike race with Regina, not even once. For me, bikes were a form of transportation to other things, not an end in themselves. I didn’t mind riding my bike to the river to explore the mossy rocks beneath the current, or to Heyward’s to buy a dime’s worth of penny candy, but Regina thought of bike riding as a stand-alone fun activity. I didn’t understand that, but since she was my friend, I tried to please her once in a while.
On this particular day, we agreed to the usual racecourse: we would start at the corner in front of my house, race to the end of the (unusually long) block, turn the corner and continue to race down the hill for two blocks. The “finish line” was North Avenue, a busy street that we didn’t ever cross without getting off our bikes and walking them across.
The race began as it always did; one of us said “Go!” and off we went. By the time I was halfway down our block, Regina was already turning the corner and starting down the hill; she had the race won, again. I had had it. I was hot, sweaty, and about to lose, again, doing something I didn’t even enjoy doing. I was tired of losing. I jumped off my bike, let it skid sideways off the sidewalk and onto the McGuire Sisters’ front lawn, and shouted out, “Regina! I fell!” I figured she would still win, as always, but at least I wouldn’t have lost. Regina would coast down the hill to the finish line, turn around and come back, and we could spend the rest of the day doing something I liked to do, something that didn’t involve physical activity of any sort. I didn’t count on Regina’s essential goodness.
When she heard me yelling, “Regina! I fell!,” rather than letting her momentum carry her to the bottom of the hill before turning her bike around to retrieve me, Regina attempted to stop her bike in its path and turn around immediately to come to my aid. Instead of stopping, however, her bike skidded sideways, throwing her off of it and onto the sidewalk. From where I was sitting with my faked injury, it didn’t sound good. By the time I got back on my bike and pedaled to the corner to see what had happened, the woman who lived in the house next to the spot where Regina fell had already called for help. Regina had broken her jaw, rather severely. She was whisked away to the Emergency Room, and I went home.
I didn’t see Regina for a couple of days. When she was finally able to receive visitors, I went to pay my respects, dreading the moment when Regina would ask me how I was, given that I had also “fallen” that day. To my horror, however, my worry was unfounded, because Regina’s jaw had been wired shut; she could not talk at all, could not eat solid food for weeks, and had to drink Carnation Instant Breakfast for days and days.
I would like to say that I spent the rest of the summer selflessly devoted to Regina’s well-being, reading to her and bringing her treats and fluffing her pillows. I would like to say that this incident was a turning point in my eventual path to sainthood, and I never again lied to get my way or let my competitive nature rule the day. That is, however, not what happened. What happened was that I stayed away from Regina for the rest of the summer. My guilt was overwhelming, and Regina’s jaw and bedside glasses of Carnation Breakfast were concrete evidence of my own calumny and small-mindedness.
Did anyone ever find out the true story of Regina’s broken jaw? No. Not even Regina. Unless she is reading this now, she doesn’t know to this day that I didn’t really fall off my bike the day that she did. If you are reading this now, Regina: I’m so sorry.
My Irish Catholic parents were not people who talked about sex. Ever. My four siblings, as far as I know, had to learn about sex the old-fashioned way–on the streets. My brother told me once that, after he had already been “to the street,” my father took him out for a walk. This alone signaled Important Doings, because my father was not big on walking. The city mailbox was less than one block from our home, and my father used to drive there. Once my dad and Johnnie embarked on this unusual father-son walk, Johnnie could see that my dad was trying to move the conversation in a certain direction. It never happened. Apparently my dad “ran up” on the subject a few times, and then aborted the mission. This unsuccessful attempt at a father-son talk was not exceptional for the times. At least in Irish Catholic families, sex simply wasn’t discussed. Ever. (Even such reticence was a step ahead of the previous generation. When my mother was a child, a boy in her class at Our Lady of Peace School told her what turned out to be the correct facts about how babies are made. Appalled, my mother ran home from school and told her mother what she had learned. Without missing a beat, Mommy Mayme replied, “That’s a dirty lie.” I have no idea when my mother realized that indeed it was not a lie but a Beautiful Truth.
By the time I started in the direction of puberty in the late 1960’s, parents were encouraged—even admonished—to tell their children about sex; learning about it on the streets was no longer acceptable. The sixth grade teachers at Christ King School must have, at some point, informed our parents that we would be talking about sex in Religion class and to be prepared for questions. I think this must be so because one day out of the blue my mother asked me to bring my Religion Textbook home with me. She wanted to look at it. This was an unprecedented and surprising request. Until that moment, I had no real sense that my parents even knew exactly what classes I was taking, much less what books we were reading. Nonetheless, I dutifully complied.
My mother took the textbook from me and took a quick glance at the Table of Contents, then turned to a specific page and read something there. Then she closed the book and handed it back to me, saying “Well, that’s fine.” Deeply intrigued and ever on the alert for Odd Parental Behavior, I noted as best I could where in the book she had looked, and as soon as I had the book back in my possession, I went there.
I found the pertinent paragraphs. It was a section of our book we had not read yet, and it was called God, Sex and You. It was mystifying. Our author started out by telling us that sex is Very Beautiful. Then he said that sex is like a fire. If I put logs into my fireplace and light them on fire, they give the room a lovely glow and lend warmth to all who are gathered. That is, the author pointed out, a Good Fire. A Bad Fire is when, instead of putting logs in the fireplace and lighting a match, I set fire to my whole house. Such a fire rages out of control quickly and destroys everything in its path. That, the author pointed out, is a Bad Fire. He concluded by saying that sex should always be like the Good Fire and not like the Bad Fire.
I had no idea what they were talking about, and why anyone thought he needed to tell me not to set my own house on fire. I may not have been an “A” student at the time, but I knew not to do that. I didn’t pursue the matter further, though; by that time, I was resigned to the basic strangeness of all adults whenever the word “sex” was spoken.
By the time we actually arrived at this part of the textbook in Religion class, I had a better—though by no means clear—idea of what they were getting at, because my mother had done her maternal duty and taken me to a movie at Christ King School about the Facts of Life.
I do not know the name or provenance of the movie they showed; all sixth grade parents were encouraged to attend along with their child. There were actually two movies, because the boys and their parents were sent to the “big gym” and the girls and their parents were directed to the “small gym.” My father did not go with us, so it was just my mother and me taking our seats while one of the sixth grade teachers welcomed us. I don’t know if the boys and the girls were shown the same film, but I doubt it. Our film involved a lot of information that I realize, in retrospect, would never have been deemed suitable for the boys.
I have only very dim memories of the film, but three things stayed with me: first, it opened with scenes from the Garden of Eden; we saw Adam and Eve looking happy and healthy, and then God pointing out a few trees that were Strictly Off Limits, and then the snake showed up and things spiraled downward from there. It was a familiar story. The one scene from this part of the film that I remember vividly was the moment when Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden. There they stood, with their hair and/or hands strategically covering their private parts, looking extremely sad. Behind them a very angry angel glared in their direction and slid a golden spear through the handles of the Gates of Paradise, shutting them out for good.
Having heard this story many times, both at Christ King School and at mass, I admit that my mind started to wander at this point. We had had to leave the house immediately after dinner to make it to the film on time, and so dessert had not been served. I knew there was some butter pecan ice cream in the freezer and some Hershey’s Syrup in the fridge. I was musing on this pleasant prospect when I realized that the film had exited Genesis and was now showing scenes of Typical Young People Doing Fun Young People Things. I was not a typical young person, though I often longed to be, and my ideas of fun almost never meshed with what other young people did, so whenever I was offered a peek into scenes from a typical life, I soaked them up with the passion of an anthropologist.
The Typical Fun Girls in this movie were, at first, having milkshakes together at an ice cream store (very nearly derailing my focus back to that butter pecan ice cream awaiting me at home), and then they all went bowling together. Over the pictures of these smiling, happy young women, the narrator intoned the information that “something was going to happen to me.” Soon. Now they had my attention. What was going to happen to me?
I am pretty sure I paid close attention at that point but I surely must have missed some crucial bit of information, because now the narrator was telling us that as a result of this thing that was going to happen, there would be times during the month when I would feel lethargic and even cranky. At those times, I would not want to go bowling with the gang. However, the narrator encouraged me, I should go bowling nonetheless; it was very important that I bowl, no matter how I felt.
This seemed to me to be a very badly made movie. I had no idea why we moved from Adam and Eve to this bowling scenario. We were still years away from Rotten Tomatoes back in 1969, but this film would have scored abysmally on my Tomatometer. After the exhortation about bowling, there were some diagrams of what looked like part of the engine of my father’s car—tubes and knobs and a central joining-up place—that the narrator said was my Female Reproductive System. He went on to say that God was amazing, because He had thought so far into my future that I already had all my eggs. “Just think of it!” said the Narrator. “Right now, this very day, you have all of your eggs already in your body!”
I cannot adequately describe how confused I was by this. All my eggs already inside me? I thought. But I eat eggs. Eggs that are clearly outside me and then I eat them and only then are they inside me. They are never “already there.” Should I not be eating extra eggs, since I already have the eggs I need right there inside me? Before I could ponder this weird Narrator Side Trip, however, the lights came up. The movie was over.
On the way home from Christ King School that night, my mother asked me if I understood the film. “Yes,” I replied honestly. I thought I did understand it; I just didn’t think it was very good. I hadn’t been asked for an evaluation, so I didn’t tell her that I had found the movie confusing and not at all well-made. Genesis? Bowling? Eggs? Then my mother asked if I had any questions. I could tell that she hoped that I didn’t, so I did not ask any, but I certainly had some. For starters, I had only been bowling once in my life, and I hated it. I was also terrible at it. Why was it now important that I embrace bowling with my friends? And why was bowling important only at certain times of the month, when I was cranky and out of sorts? Why did we go to school at night just to brush up on the well-known facts of Genesis? And what was the mysterious thing that was going to happen to me? And what was the deal with the eggs?
A few months after the Really Bad Movie about Adam and Eve, Bowling, and Eggs, I read an article in the Milwaukee Journal about a sexual assault. I didn’t know what the phrase “sexual assault” meant, so I asked my mother. She said it was an assault having to do with sex. Well, that was not at all helpful, so I asked her what “sex” was. My brother Johnnie was in the room during this conversation, and he began to chuckle. That was my clue that something was up; I had a clear vibe that information was being withheld.
My mother said that “sex” meant the female sex was a girl and the male sex was a boy. Johnnie’s chuckling intensified, and he said to my mother, “Good one.” Now I was really hot on the scent. They were both holding out on me. At that moment, my mother decided it was time to start making dinner, so she left for the kitchen to assemble grilled cheese sandwiches. I followed her.
I was a child flawed in many ways, but I had some strengths. One of them was doggednss. There was unstated information between Johnnie and my mom, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it. I stood sentinel at the cutting board while my mother methodically placed slices of Kraft American Cheese on individual slices of bread and topped them with tomato, green pepper and onions. I pushed and pushed for the information I wasn’t getting, and finally my mother erupted with, “Ok! Sex is what happens when the penis is inserted into the vagina!” As my mother continued slapping sandwiches together, I felt as if actual dawn were breaking over my consciousness; it was one of the few moments in my life when I felt literally enlightened. “That’s why husbands and wives sleep in the same bed!” I crowed. My mother agreed that yes, that was so, but even then I could see that she thought it an odd response. She must also have been confused as to why this was such news to me; after all, she had done her due diligence: she taken me to the film at school and she had even asked if I had had any questions.
At some point I made the connection between my mother’s startling fact about intercourse and that time of the month when I would feel cranky and out of sorts. Unlike a lot of girls my age, I was eager for that part of puberty to begin. Everyone told me that it would mark the beginning of My Life as a Woman, and I was ready. Childhood had not held many charms for me, and I was ready to move on.
I kept careful watch for what my mother told me was called “My Period.” No one told me that when that rite of passage was on the near horizon, my body would change in some other startling ways. Thus it was an unhappy surprise when I went to bed one night and realized that my chest has taken on a disturbing life of its own. I didn’t have breasts, but out of nowhere my nipples were starting to swell up. That can’t be good, I thought to myself, and figured I just might be getting cancer. The thought of asking my mother any more questions in this area was not appealing, so I took matters into my own hands, and tried to pop them with a safety pin.
That did not go well. In fact, it hurt. A lot. Still not in the mood to approach my mother, I told my sister Susan I might be dying, and showed her my chest. Susan studied my chest sagely, then said, “You don’t have cancer. And stop stabbing yourself in the chest. It’s weird. It’s all just part of the whole thing that happens when you get your period. And you can’t stop it.”
I asked her if she had already “become a woman.” “Oh yeah,” she said. “For a few years now.” This was fascinating information for me, as I shared a room with Susan and thought I knew all of her secrets. “Did you know all the facts of life when it happened?” I asked her. “Oh no,” she said casually. “It just came one night when Mom and Dad were out. I thought I was dying of cancer. But I wasn’t. Mom explained when she got home. Then she washed my pajamas.”
Not too long after that conversation, my period arrived. I was so happy. I was a woman. I told my mother and showed her the tiny stain in my underpants. She was prepared, and brought me into her bedroom, opened her chest of drawers, and pulled out a box. In the box were padded things, which she then pinned to a belt she also took out of the box. This was a “sanitary napkin.” I had never seen anything like it. She showed me how to put the belt on, how to pin the pad to the belt, how to pull my underpants up and over this bulky new situation in my swimsuit area. While I was thrilled to be a woman, I found all of these mechanics distasteful and embarrassing. My mother showed me how to wrap a used pad in lots of toilet paper and dispose of it in the wastebasket.
I was not a fan of the mechanics of Becoming a Woman, and by this time, I was eager for the conversation to end. I had no idea how I was expected to live my normal life and still deal with this belt and pin and pad and toilet paper chores. I found out that, in fact, there were now going to be days when I would not be able to go swimming or take a bath. The filmmakers who had been so obsessed with my bowling commitments might have at least mentioned this, I thought. I actually liked swimming and I loved baths. So far I was hearing nothing pleasant about this great moment when I Became a Woman.
And then I heard some magical words. “When you are at this time of the month,” my mother told me, “You aren’t expected to participate in gym class.” Now there was some good news. I despised gym class for many good reasons. “How do I get out of it? I asked her. “Tell the gym teacher at the start of class that you are having your time of the month,” she told me. I can do that, I thought. I can definitely do that. This news almost offset the creepy parts with the belt and the pins and the no swimming rule.
At my very first opportunity, I told Mr. Landisch, our gym teacher, that I could not participate in gym class because it was my time of the month. Instantly uncomfortable, he nodded and mumbled something and hurried off, clipboard in hand. It was as if I had been given a magical incantation. While my classmates climbed ropes and raced each other on tiny little scooters and picked teams for indoor soccer, I happily sat on the sidelines with my book. As time went on, of course, I could not resist using my Get Out of Gym Free card even when it wasn’t officially required. After a few months of that, though, even Mr. Landisch was not fooled. I used my card one morning, but on that particular day, he bellowed at me across the entire gym, “Maloney, you’ve had your period three weeks in a row!” That was the end of that; I knew I could only use my ironclad excuse once a month. It was still better than nothing.
And as for bowling—I didn’t bowl again for at least twenty years. I was still terrible at it. But I felt just fine.
Like most families, we split holiday celebrations between my mother’s family (Christmas) and my father’s family (Thanksgiving and Easter). We spent Thanksgiving at the McCall’s; my aunt Mary Clare was my father’s only sibling and she lived on the north side of Chicago with her husband Fran and their two children, Denny and Dona (I have written about Maloney Thanksgivings, see here). Easter was at our house; once we moved to Milwaukee in 1962, the McCall’s made the drive up on Easter Sunday every year and spent the day with us.
Dona was a bit younger than my sister Marbeth and a bit older than my sister Susan. They sort of “shared” her between themselves. (I had no one to play with on my father’s side of the family, and would much rather have been with my cousin Kathy, the daughter of my mother’s only sibling, Bernadette.) Denny also fell between my two brothers in age, and the three boys were inseparable. As the youngest Maloney, I barely registered on Denny and Dona’s radar screen; they were nearly teenagers by the time I was born, and their lives were utterly remote from mine. I was as uninterested in them as they were in me.
My mother, for reasons that were always murky to me, would turn into a tense and volatile woman about two days before Easter. She and my aunt Mary Clare didn’t have a great deal in common, and they were both outspoken. There were clashes. To my child self, my mother’s reaction to a visit from Mary Clare was mysterious. She would clean and clean and clean the house, and then say, as the McCall’s walked up to the front door, “Mary Clare is going to walk in here and say ‘Oh Merc, the house is so clean!’” My mother’s tone would sound as if she had just quoted Mary Clare saying “’Oh Merc, I hate your house, your dress and you.’” Mary Clare always brought a lamb cake to our Easter feast, and lamb cakes were, we kids thought, really cool. We would ooh and ahh over the sculpted and coconut-iced lamb, only to have my mother hiss later that the cake was stale and not at all tasty.
It didn’t help matters, family-relationship wise, that my father, Mary Clare and Fran enjoyed their drinks and tended to consume quite a few of them. Nor did it help that the McCall’s were staunch Republicans, whereas my parents were Democrats. Every Easter, by the time dinner was over and we were ready to dig into that (stale, my mother would remind us) lamb cake, three of the four grownups were well into their cups and all of them were happy to express their opinions in loud and take-no-prisoners voices.
In 1968, the Easter post-dinner pre-lamb cake conversation lurched into politics. We were only ten days out from the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4, and America was in turmoil, with riots erupting in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and even Milwaukee. My brother Johnnie, who by then was twenty-one years old, somehow decided it was a good idea to announce to the table that he planned to vote for Bobby Kennedy for President. (Of course, none of us could know that Bobby Kennedy would be assassinated after winning the California primary in June, just two months from that Easter night.)
Mary Clare and Fran were convinced that the Democrats were at fault for getting the United States mired in the Viet Nam War, so Johnnie’s announcement was not received well. He was loudly criticized, and my mother, feeling protective of Johnnie, jumped to his defense. Things escalated from there, until my mother decided her best option was to begin clearing the table in hope that it would end the conversation. Mary Clare was having none of that, and screamed at my mother for being a Democrat when she–my mother–had a twenty-one and a nineteen year old son, and Mary Clare’s son was twenty. She told my mother that if the Democrats won the election, her sons would die in Viet Nam. I was the youngest person at the table that night, but even I knew that a line had been crossed. I have no memory of what followed upon that declaration, but somehow the conversation ended and we all moved on to the living room and away from the lamb cake, the ugly fight, and the specter of Viet Nam.
Shortly after Easter, my mother and father left for Kemper Insurance’s annual “business trip” that was in fact their yearly vacation/getaway from the children. We kids were always very happy about these trips, because it meant that our grandmothers, Mommy Mayme and Mimi, would come up from Chicago on the train to take care of us. Mimi died in 1965, so after that it was just Mommy Mayme, but a week or two under her benevolent and forgiving gaze was always a nice break from the status quo.
About four days into our parents’ trip and Mommy Mayme’s visit, I came home from Christ King School to find Mommy Mayme sitting portentously in the living room. I was nine years old and in the fourth grade; my biggest concern that day was whether my teacher, Sr. Achillea, was going to keep me after school every day that week until I could pass my Music Appreciation Test. Other than dealing with Sr. Achillea, my major preoccupation at the time was my continuing quest to get a dog. (We did in fact have a dog for a short time in 1966, but Connie Jean was sickly and she lived with us for less than a week. Having Connie Jean had only whetted my desire for my own dog. For more about the dogs in my life, click here.)
When I walked in the door that May afternoon in 1968, I knew immediately that Something Big was going on. Mommy Mayme looked more serious than I had ever seen her. Being nine years old limited my capacity for imagining possibilities, and I immediately hoped that she was going to tell me that we were getting a dog. This, of course, made absolutely no sense; my parents weren’t even home, and Mommy Mayme was in no position to make decisions about acquiring new family pets. The ways of the grownup world were mysterious to me, though, and especially in my house, strange things could just happen. (Just two years after this May day in 1968, I would in fact wake up to find out that we now owned a golden retriever named Cheddar because my father had agreed to take him in after a very festive evening of dinner and many drinks with friends; for more about that, see here.)
Mommy Mayme, however, was not saying anything about a dog. She was talking about a car accident. There had been a crash in Chicago, she said, and Denny was dead. She said those words—“Denny is dead”—and sat back a bit, looking at me gravely. No doubt it had been a very long time since Mommy Mayme had been in charge of delivering such important news. As the earliest child home from school that day, I was her first audience.
I am pretty sure that my reaction was a disappointment. After hearing that Denny was dead, I was quiet for a moment and then asked if I could go upstairs. Mommy Mayme asked me if I had any questions about what happened; I did not. Maybe I was in shock, but I was also nervous about how different my grandmother seemed from her usual cheerful self. Not having ever experienced this solemn version of her, I just wanted to absent myself from the situation until I figured out what she wanted from me. I went upstairs and pulled out my book; I was happily lost in the fictional world of Nancy Drew when, a few minutes later, I heard my sister Susan downstairs, wailing loudly and sobbing. So disconnected was I from the drama of Mommy Mayme’s earlier announcement downstairs that I wondered what Susan was so upset about.
Venturing into the living room to find out what was going on in there, I found Susan sitting on the same spot I had occupied earlier near Mommy Mayme’s chair, her face streaked red and her nose streaming with snot, crying loudly. “Susan!” I yelled. “What is the matter with you?” She howled in reply, “Denny’s dead!” Ah, I thought. That. Yes. I could see that Mommy Mayme was much more gratified by Susan’s response to this terrible news. I was grateful to my sister for supplying the drama that the situation called for. Susan told me the details of Denny’s death; when Mommy Mayme had asked me whether I had any questions, I hadn’t thought to ask for the details, but Susan had.
Denny had been riding “shotgun” in his friend’s car the night before when the friend lost control of the wheel and hit three parked cars. The driver had suffered only a minor scratch on his hand; Denny’s head had been smashed on impact by something in or outside the car. He had been taken to a hospital and he had died there. Mary Clare and Fran’s parish priest had given him Extreme Unction, as the Sacrament of the Sick was still being called in 1968. After Denny stopped breathing, the attending physician removed his class ring and gave it to Mary Clare.
My parents, of course, were called and immediately came home. My sister Marbeth was married and living in Minneapolis by then with her husband Mel and their two babies, John and Sarah. My brother Johnnie called and told her. I don’t know how or when my brothers heard about Denny, though I am sure Mommy Mayme must have told them as well. They were both very close to their only boy cousin, and it must have been a wrenching blow.
It was already becoming unusual in the 1960’s to have a wake that lasted more than one night, but Denny’s wake spanned two nights. We drove back and forth between Chicago and Milwaukee three times in a row—once for each wake, and then for the funeral. By the time Denny died, I had been to several wakes; my Grandpa Din died when I was three years old (for more about that, here) and my grandmother Mimi died when I was six. As the child of Irish parents from Chicago, I had also been to a good number of other wakes as well. By the time I was nine, I was a seasoned wake-goer. Nothing had prepared me, however, for the wake of a twenty year old boy.
Because Denny’s head had been crushed, the casket was closed, with Denny’s high school graduation picture perched on the closed lid. I had never been to a closed casket wake, and it made the reality seem much more ominous somehow—no opportunity to witness Denny looking peaceful and “at rest”—the fact of that closed lid spoke of violence and harm too terrible for any of us to see. The funeral home was packed with teenagers and young people, and I was bowled over by the drama of their anguish. One young man threw himself on Denny’s casket, wailing loudly. As jarring as all that drama was, however, even more ominous to me was Mary Clare’s serenity. She was sitting in a chair near her son’s casket, greeting guests and even smiling a bit. Seeing that, I turned to Mommy Mayme with my eyebrows raised; before I could even ask what was going on, she leaned over and said, “The doctor gave her some drugs, thank God, and she isn’t having to feel anything.” Oh, I thought to myself. Well, I hope he gave her a lifetime supply.
I could not imagine how Mary Clare was ever going to survive this catastrophe. Denny and Dona were her entire world and now Denny was gone for good. The finality of that closed casket really brought it home to me. On the way home from the first night of the wake, I asked my mother why God had let Denny die when he was just twenty years old. My mother told me that God has a special plan for every single person, and when a person’s special plan was completed, he went to heaven. Since God had taken Denny, she explained, he must have already fulfilled God’s special plan for his life. Hearing that, I was really sorry for Denny that his special plan meant he would miss so much of life—falling in love, getting married, having kids of his own, all the Christmases and Easters and summer vacations he would never have. That night, I prayed that God had a long term plan in mind for me; I was a lot more wary around God after Denny died, because He seemed suddenly very unpredictable.
The death of a young man is no doubt always a surreal and unnatural experience; our sorrow and confusion over Denny’s death was compounded rather than alleviated by his funeral mass. Denny died just as the changes wrought by Vatican II were starting to show up in the liturgy. The old “Dies Irae” dark-and-gloomy approach to Catholic funerals had been abruptly jettisoned and replaced with a liturgy that focused exclusively on the joy of the resurrection. While this new liturgy might have seemed fitting had we encountered it for the first time at the funeral of an elderly aunt or uncle, it was jarring at this funeral mass. The priest’s vestments were white—for joy–and there seemed to be nothing but constant talk of the Resurrection and how happy we were. My parents were utterly dumbfounded, and even I felt weird about all the joyful talk when this young man was just arbitrarily snatched from his life and his family. My mother said later that the entire experience was just awful, because we had to pretend to be joyful and sing Alleluia when a twenty year old boy was inexplicably lying in a coffin in front of the altar.
After the mass concluded, we got into our cars and drove to All Saints Cemetery. Here, too, things were different. The focus was on new life, not death, and so there was no prayer at Denny’s grave and we did not see him lowered into the earth. Instead, we said our goodbyes to his casket in the little chapel at the cemetery and then we were sent home. Back at Mary Clare and Fran’s apartment, I was shocked to see platters of food everywhere, as if we were going to have a party. To my literal fourth grade mind, this was no time for sandwiches. Who could eat at such a time? Apparently, as I soon discovered, a great many people. Before long, the apartment was packed with people who were drinking and smoking and acting as if this were just another get-together. I often wondered about the strange ways of grownups but never more than I did on that day, staring at a platter of sliced meats while people stood around drinking high balls and laughing, as if we hadn’t just left my cousin at a cemetery in Des Plaines, Illinois when he should have been in his back bedroom next to the kitchen, listening to his beloved 45’s and goofing off with my brothers.
Unsurprisingly, Mary Clare and Fran never fully “recovered” from the loss of their son; always drinkers, they drank even more after Denny died. Their loss was unfathomable to us; Denny’s death was the greatest calamity our family had ever suffered. Just three years later, Fran would die of a massive coronary while driving to my brother Johnnie’s wedding, but of course we didn’t know that then. Nor did we know on the day that we buried Denny that in a little over a year the United States would conduct its first Draft Lottery; the order in which young men would be drafted for service in Viet Nam would be determined by a random draw of balls inscribed with birth dates.
Every family in America watched the television that night, mesmerized and filled with
dread, fearing that their beloved brothers, sons, and husbands would be the unlucky losers. As the balls were drawn, we Maloney’s heaved sighs of relief–both of my brothers, Johnnie born October 17 and Jamie born October 27, were safe. The second birthday drawn that night, however, was Denny’s—April 24. At our Easter table just two weeks before Denny was killed, his mother had wailed her fear that Viet Nam would kill our family’s sons. When they drew Denny’s birth date out of that barrel and my father repeated it incredulously—almost to himself—I remember thinking that grownups almost always worry about the wrong things.
In the summer of 1969, my father decided that we needed a family vacation, and chose Aruba as our destination. Aruba was such an obscure place at that time that most people had never even heard of it, much less traveled there. About three hotels had been built, with more to come, because gambling was legal in Aruba. This vacation meant that all four of us Maloney children were going to leave the country for the first time (my sister Marbeth was married by then, and off on adventures of her own), which was exciting. We had to get vaccinated for smallpox, which was also exciting. My father had to get new passports for himself and for my mother, which was more exciting than it probably should have been. When he asked the clerks of Cook County, Illinois, for a copy of her Birth Certificate, they calmly informed him that my mother didn’t exist. Since he was really sure that she did exist, my father was disgusted with the obviously incompetent clerks in the Cook County Records Office, and he let them know that in some very colorful language. Despite my father’s best efforts, Cook County was implacable. There did not exist a birth certificate for anyone named Mercedes Lynch. Frustrated by this Typical Government Incompetence, he stomped home one afternoon complaining loudly (and colorfully) about this situation. My grandmother, Mommy Mayme, was visiting us and she asked my dad what on earth he was going on about. “According to the %^&^ clerks at Cook County,” he said, “Mercedes doesn’t exist!”
“Oh,” my grandmother said serenely. “That’s because her name is Loraine.” My father was not an easily surprised man, but this was a surprise. He had been married to my mother for twenty four years, which was a lot of time to be in the dark about her actual name. Mommy Mayme and Grandpa George had a somewhat unusual marriage in that they often operated in separate orbits that occasionally intersected. Grandpa George was out with his friends celebrating the birth of his daughter when the people in charge of birth certificates made their rounds in the hospital where Mommy Mayme gave birth. They asked my grandmother what her baby’s name was and she told them it was Loraine. From that day forward, Cook County knew her as Loraine Lynch.
Either no one told Grandpa George, or he heard the name and rejected it. When my mother was born, my grandfather was reading The Count of Monte Cristo and liked the name of one of the characters: Mercedes. My mother was baptized Mercedes Marie Lynch. All of this was news to my father. (Years later, we found out that my mother’s sister Bernadette was—according to Cook County—actually named Virginia Alice. My grandparents really did need to work on their communication skills).Once my father knew my mother’s actual name, he obtained a passport for her and we were off on our Aruba Adventure.
I was thrilled to be on this trip. The first thrill was flying in an airplane. We flew KLM and they were very nice to children; I was provided with a free toy (a small toy like a Lite Brite without lights) and as much pop as I wanted. Always interested in food, I was eager to be served a whole meal right there on the airplane. My disappointment was deep when our food came and it turned out to be eggs with some sort of foul smelling red sauce splashed all over them. My father told me that this was a dish called Huevos Rancheros, but to my eight year old self it looked like a crime scene. I stuck to pop.
I am not sure what time we were scheduled to arrive in Aruba, but we touched down very late at night. The late flight was no doubt cheaper, and my father was on the lookout to cut every corner he could: bringing his wife and four children to a Caribbean Paradise must
have cost a good bit of money. Even though we arrived at our seaside hotel in the deep of the night, I was wide awake. I needed to stay alert, because there was going to be a special licorice drink waiting for me at the hotel, and I didn’t want to miss it. I knew about this special licorice drink because my Dad had shown me the brochure for the hotel when he was planning our trip. The brochure portrayed beautiful men and women strolling along white beaches sipping cocktails. “Come to Aruba!” it said. “When you arrive, we will greet you with our special licorice drink!”
To my considerable dismay, when we walked into the lobby—six exhausted Maloneys and a great deal of luggage—there no drinks of any kind in evidence. There wasn’t even any licorice. There were no beautiful people strolling the beach, or even lolling around in chairs in the lobby. I tugged on my mother’s sleeve as we headed to the elevator and whispered, “Mom! What about our special licorice drink?” Bleary-eyed and pale with exhaustion, my mother said, “What? What are you talking about? Get in the elevator.” My Aruba vacation began in bitter disappointment and I muttered something under my breath about false advertising. For the duration of our stay, I never stopped looking around for some hotel staff to offer me that licorice drink that was mine by right.
My dad had reserved two rooms: one for my brothers and himself, another for my mother, my sister Susan and me. The rooms were very nice and the beds inviting; after a long trip, we all went to bed. That first night was by far the most comfortable night we spend in our hotel, through no fault of the hotel. Whenever we stayed in hotels, my dad was always resolute that we would squeeze every ounce of value out of his investment. That meant that from the moment we walked into a hotel room until the moment we left, the thermostat was set to temperatures so cold that we would ache with it; in Aruba, we had a balcony attached to our room and every morning as soon as I woke up I scurried out to that balcony to warm up enough to move my arms and legs without pain. We also kept all the lights on until we went to sleep and we always had the television on. Electricity came free with the room, so we made sure to get our money’s worth and more.
The balcony we used for thawing out was lovely; it looked out over the Caribbean Sea and the hotel swimming pool. The moment I saw the Olympic-sized pool and high dive, I knew where I would be spending most of my time. I loved pools of all sorts, and usually had to be called out of the water whenever I was around one, my fingers and toes wrinkled as raisins. To my surprise, the pool in Aruba was filled with salt water. After the first shocking mouthful of salt, I adjusted and then I couldn’t get enough of that pool. The high dive that would no doubt cause night terrors for anyone writing an insurance policy for a hotel today, but we kids adored it, and had a great deal of fun jumping off. We eagerly reprised our stunt from the Three Coins Motel in Las Vegas; (here) we did have the good sense, at least, to confine our “jumping off the diving board while seated on lawn chairs” activities to the low dive. Aruba was a very laid-back place, and the Hotel’s philosophy was apparently “Be Stupid At Your Own Risk.” We certainly took them up on that offer.
My father not only brought us to this Island Paradise; he laid out some serious money so that we could have some Authentic Island Adventures. On our second day there, he announced that he and my brothers would be going scuba-diving and my mother, my sister and I would be renting Sea Jeeps. Since I wasn’t at the Scuba-Diving Event, I cannot tell the story of what happened there. I remember only that my father’s oxygen tank somehow ended up on the bottom of the Caribbean Sea and my brothers are still amazed, fifty years later, that he lived.
I do, of course, remember the Sea Jeeps. My father, finished defying death in Scuba Gear, was there to see us enjoy our motorized frolic in the Caribbean Sea. My mother went first, and she seemed to enjoy zipping around the water at the speed of about twenty miles per hour. Once she was ashore, I think my sister Susan must have gone next, although I have no memory of her on the Sea Jeep. It’s possible that I was so panicked about my turn on the Sea Jeep that I didn’t register what was going on immediately beforehand. I had zero desire to ride a Sea Jeep. From what I could see, they went very fast and needed some serious steering. I was clumsy enough in gym class at home to kill myself engaging in such pedestrian activities as riding a scooter across the gym floor or jumping over “the horse.” (here) I shuddered to think what the risks were here, with an actual motor and a Sea in the mix.
Adding to my considerable anxiety was the fact that the minimum age to ride a Sea Jeep was fourteen. I was nine. My father didn’t want me to miss this Fun Experience, and so he lied to the young man in charge of renting the Sea Jeeps and told him I was fourteen. As with the lounge-chair-off-the-diving-board caper, Aruba was very relaxed about enforcing this rule. They were also lassez-faire about life jackets. I knew I was taking my life into my own hands; emerging from this experience alive was my only goal.
The fellow in charge told me to sit down on my Sea Jeep and put my belt on while he told me how to work it. I sat there listening as intently as I could to his fast patter of instructions: once he started the motor, he said, I should head about fifty feet out or so (how far is fifty feet, I wondered), then gently start to turn left and motor around for a while, enjoying the sea breezes and salty air. When my minutes were up and it was time to come in, he continued, he would signal me and I would then turn the Sea Jeep around and head back to shore. It was important, he warned, that I not turn off the engine until I was about ten feet from shore, because the Sea Jeep would stop abruptly as soon as I turned it off. Too far out, and he would have to wade in to get me, and he did not want to have to do that. My head swimming with questions, I nodded dumbly when he asked if I was ready, and he started my Sea Jeep.
My first discovery was that Sea Jeeps are very speedy. In mere seconds, I was out plenty far, certainly fifty feet if not more. It was definitely time for me to gently turn left as instructed. In my panic, I didn’t have a clue which way left actually was, so I turned the wheel and hoped for the best. To my horror, I was still heading out to what looked to be the middle of the Caribbean Sea, so I tried again to turn. I was successful the second time, but I was pretty sure I hadn’t gone left because now I was headed directly toward a huge glass-bottomed boat filled with tourists who were looking at me with their mouths open like “O’s.”
Vaguely hearing a lot of screaming from the shore, I turned the Sea Jeep again and missed the Glass Bottomed Boat, though not by much. Thankfully, I was now headed back to shore; there were several people waiting for me who were still yelling and waving their arms frantically. Reminding myself that I was to turn the Sea Jeep off when I was ten feet from shore, I held on for dear life and plowed home to safety. My ability to gauge speed and distance was no better in this direction; I turned the key to “off” about one and half feet from shore. White faced and none too pleased with my father, the fellow in charge barked at me to “Exit the Sea Jeep!” and I gladly complied, grateful to have survived another Maloney Fun Experience.
Our family vacation was divided into two segments: daytime fun and nighttime fun. Once the sun went down in Aruba, my parents and my brothers enjoyed the nighttime fun: gambling in the hotel casino. Unlike the swimming pool and the Sea Jeep Concession, the people in charge of the Casino enforced the Adults Only Rule strictly. Whether because my parents didn’t want my sister Susan to miss the Fun Experience of Losing All Her Money, or because they just didn’t like being told what to do, they decided to dress Susan up one night (she was fourteen) in a dress and my mother’s pearls and high heels, in the hope that she would fool the bouncers and be admitted to the Casino. She was, and so I was alone for one night in Aruba. I missed Susan, and was happy to hear that she had no desire to go back the next night.
Other than the “Let’s Pretend Susan is an Adult” night, I had my sister for company during the long evenings of Adult Gambling. It wasn’t a great deal of fun to be in our hotel room for hours on end, and the Dutch Antilles were not known for their marvelous television programs. Several nights into our enforced room stay, Susan decided that it was time to take matters into our own hands. It was 9:30 at night and we were children in a foreign land, but Susan announced (to my utter joy) that we were going to the beach. Earlier in the afternoon, when we had left the water to come back to the hotel for dinner, Susan thought the surf was just starting to get wavy. We both adore wavy days, and hated to lose what might be our one chance to play in waves, since the Caribbean Sea was almost always as still as glass.
We threw on our bathing suits and grabbed some towels and made our way down to the beach. Once we ran past the pool area and onto the actual sand, the night was as black as ink, and even though we were only feet away from the water, we could only hear it. And we heard waves. Joy! We ran straight ahead toward that siren sound and right into them. These were not small waves, and it was so dark that we could not see each other, our own hands, or the next wave. I remember seeing a sky filled with stars and nothing else. The water and the air were black, and it was easy to lose track of which was which.
Susan, being older and marginally wiser, realized fairly quickly that this escapade was turning very dangerous very fast. Using her most assertive, grownup voice, she shouted at me to head into shore. While things like Sea Jeeps terrified me, I was never afraid of water, even when I should have been. I didn’t want to go in; being in the Caribbean Sea at 10 p.m. in a high surf could was exciting and fun. Certainly mere water couldn’t be hazardous—or, maybe hazardous for other people, certainly not us. It was only when Susan’s voice moved from stern to outright panicked that I reluctantly started paddling toward what I hoped was the shore. It was so dark that we really couldn’t see where we were going.
The only reason we are both alive today is that Susan has a much better internal compass than I do, and she guessed correctly which way we had to go. Even paddling in the right direction, it was an ordeal to get back to sand, because the waves by then were truly impressive. We did make it back, and scampered back to our room to dry off and get back into our pajamas, Susan still trembling. Some sixth sense told us not to mention our late night caper to anyone, and it was years before we told our parents about that night.
My father wanted to make sure that we had a lot of Fun Experiences while in Aruba; the Sea Jeep/Scuba Diving Caper wasn’t the end of our Caribbean fun. He decided that we should all have the experience of Deep Sea Fishing. This entailed making arrangements to hire a local fisherman and his boat; our Captain would take us all out into the Deep Sea and provide fishing lines and bait for us. Until I was in Aruba, I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as Deep Sea Fishing, so this did indeed sound like an adventure. We were to meet our Captain at the docks at 5:00 in the morning. Anything that entailed getting up at 5:00 in the morning sounded exciting to me, so when dawn was breaking and my dad woke us up, I bounded right out of my cot and onto the balcony to get the feeling back in my arms and legs and greet the day. My teenaged brothers were less enthusiastic about this awakening.
My dad had directions to the proper dock and knew the name of our boat for the day, so off we went. We found the place and the boat, but there was a man passed out cold on the dock, which was not a sight I had ever seen. My father woke him up, which I thought was a rude if not dangerous thing to do, especially because when the man opened his eyes he looked pretty ill and disheveled. My dad knew something we didn’t know; this man was our Captain for the day. The man pulled himself up, adjusted his pants, and gestured for us to get onto the boat. We were off.
The Caribbean Sea was beautiful, and the early morning air was salty and mild. We all sat in the boat and basked in this loveliness and peace for at least ten minutes. Then my brother Johnnie lurched up, turned around, and vomited over the side. My mother had a fragile stomach, and the sight of Johnnie throwing up, in concert with her own mounting queasiness, had her up and around in no time, also heaving over the side of the boat. My dad, Jamie, Susan and I were grimly holding our own, trying to enjoy the beauty of nature and ignore the hot saliva rushing up into our mouths, when our Captain starting cooking our complimentary breakfast. To our noses, breakfast smelled like fried offal with a side of rotten fish. That was it for us. Only my dad managed not to lose his previous three meals to the Caribbean Sea. The rest of us enjoyed a close-up view of the water directly beneath our streams of vomit.
After my dad and our Captain enjoyed their breakfast, accompanied by the soundtrack of Five Heaving Maloneys, it was time to fish. My mother, my siblings and I were in no shape for any activity other than praying for death, but my dad had paid a great deal of money so that we could have this Fun Experience, and we couldn’t bear to let him down. We somehow pulled ourselves away from the sides of our boat and our Captain handed each of us a fishing line, which he had helpfully baited for us. Our bait came out of a big bucket of dead fish under our feet, the sight of which sent my brother Johnnie back to the side of the boat. So far our biggest discovery was just how much a human being could vomit without throwing up his own stomach. Our lines properly baited, we threw them into the Deep Sea and started to fish.
Unluckily for us, the fish in our corner of the Caribbean Sea had extremely high fish I.Q.’s, because every single fish we nearly caught simply ate our bait up to the dead fish head and them swam merrily away, no doubt taunting us as they departed. My brother thought he really had one at one point, and he enthusiastically pulled his line in; our collective thinking was that if we could only each catch a fish, my dad would be satisfied that we had had a Fun Experience and we could get back to what we really longed to do, which was vomit some more and hopefully pass out. When my brother pulled his line, though, once again he had only a dead fish head on the end of it, which swung wildly toward the boat and slapped me square in the face. That was the end of Deep Sea Fishing for me. I thought I had been close to foul smelling fish before, but having one directly applied to my face was enough to finish me off.
Having lost his best shot at catching a fish, my brother was forced back to the side of the boat for the vomiting, but while he had been struggling with his fish, apparently the wind changed direction. We realized this because he vomited into the wind this time. His vomit blew right back in his face and shoulders instead of falling into the Caribbean Sea. He was officially finished with fishing at that moment as well. Along the way, my mother and other siblings had given up and were cradling their heads and moaning softly. My sister Susan started singing under her breath; I heard snatches of The Beach Boys song, “I Wanna Go Home.” We still had a few more hours on the boat, and my dad had paid for the full day of fishing, but even he could see that he was not going to get his money’s worth on this adventure, and that if he insisted we stay the full time out at sea, several of us just might die of dehydration. He told our Captain it was time to go in.
After our day of Deep Sea Fishing, we took a few days to just relax at the hotel and not attempt any Fun Activities whatsoever, which was just fine with me. I loved that pool and the Caribbean Sea was kind of fun, too, even during the day. It wasn’t long before our last night in Aruba had arrived. My parents and brothers went to the Casino, and Susan and I were left to entertain ourselves in our room. As on the night of our Wave Adventure, we were bored very quickly. Knowing better now than to go down to the pitch-dark beach, we decided that it couldn’t hurt anyone if we just went down to the pool area. The pool was open but empty, and we didn’t have our bathing suits on, but it was very pretty there with the pool lit up and the Divi-Divi trees swaying in the breeze. My brother Johnnie wandered over and saw us there, and Susan asked him how things were going in the Casino. Not well—not for Johnnie, anyway. He had lost money, and he was feeling downcast. I figured he must be really sad, because his disappointment seemed to have robbed him of the power of speech. He was slurring a lot of his words and stumbling over easy words like “blackjack” and “bankrupt.” Eventually he wandered back off, and Susan told me that no, Johnnie had not suffered a sudden stroke as I feared; he had been drinking. Ah. I knew all about that. I just hadn’t recognized that as something Johnnie did. Lots of things were just different in Aruba.
Susan and I went back to our room, and decided to sit on our lovely balcony and enjoy those sea breezes for the last time. For some reason, my dad came back up to the room, probably to get something he needed down at the Casino, like more money. I did know how my dad seemed when he had been drinking, and I could tell that he had been drinking. Even stone cold sober, my father had a habit of tempting fate in ridiculous and dangerous ways, thus terrifying his children, and a few cocktails only made this side of his personality stronger. My dad started leaning out over the balcony rail, commenting on our lovely view and this lovely trip that was ending the next day. Foolishly, I said, “Daddy, please step back from the railing. You aren’t steady on your feet.”
Of course, that was the worst thing I could have said, because my dad heard it as a fun sort of challenge. He promptly climbed over the balcony rail and stood on the ledge that jutted out about two feet from the rail. There was nothing between my father and the pavement 17 stories below except air. Now I was frankly terrified, and I whispered, as if the very breath of my voice might blow him over, “PLEASE, Daddy, come back over the railing.” His blue eyes twinkling with mischief, he started to bounce softly, up and down, on the two feet of cement. I saw no way he was going to live through this, and I didn’t know what to do. I froze. I don’t know where Susan was, but I don’t think she was there. I couldn’t move or speak—it was, I think, my first moment of utter terror. Seeing no escalation of my challenge—what he took to be a challenge, anyway–he climbed back over the rail, told me to get to bed, and went back downstairs. I didn’t tell anyone about those ten minutes on the balcony, and I am not sure my dad even remembered it. I am very glad that he didn’t die in Aruba in 1969, but I am still amazed that he didn’t fall. Perhaps God didn’t want my poor mother to have to figure out how to transport a dead body and four children back to the United States, and He had mercy on her. As our mother and the wife of Jack Maloney, she had certainly earned a few favors.
Our flight out of Aruba was the following morning, and we were late getting out of bed. The “Farewell to Aruba Tour” had taken a toll on both of my brothers and my father, and they were not feeling so hot. By the time we actually got ourselves to the airport, we had missed the final boarding call. Out of the plate glass window, we could see our plane taxiing away from the gate and gliding toward the runway. My mother gasped, stunned at the sight of her ticket home leaving her behind with all of us and no money. I have no idea to this day what my father said to the ticket agents at the gate, but they called the plane and the plane stopped. All six Maloneys, suitcases and all, hurried through the gate and out the door of the airport. A portable set of steps was wheeled out from somewhere, the plane door opened, and we climbed aboard. That was fifty years ago, and I have never since seen a plane stopped and reopened for tardy passengers. Say what you will about my father, but he was a heck of a salesman.
My father wanted us to have an unforgettable and Fun Experience in Aruba. That we certainly did. In fact, certain parts of that vacation are seared into my brain, and I can be heard talking about some of those moments in my sleep even to this day. I think of our Aruba adventure whenever I see a Glass Bottomed boat, a Sea Jeep, a fish head or a man jumping up and down on two feet of cement suspended seventeen stories in the air. Oh wait; I never saw that sight again. Thank God. Satisfied that he had done his fatherly duty and given us a great vacation, my father headed back to home and ordinary time with his lovely wife Mercedes. I mean Loraine.
From the age of four onward, I was an ardent Barbie fan. My first Barbie doll was a gift from my grandmother Mimi and my Grandpa Din on my fourth birthday. Actually, it was my sister Susan’s ninth birthday, but we celebrated both birthdays on the same day. Moving a birthday to the nearest convenient date was never a thing in my family; my parents reasoned that a birthday is a chance every year to say to the celebrant, “You matter deeply to us and so we are stepping out of ordinary time and celebrating the day you were born.” Such sentiment lost considerable steam, they thought, if the postscript was, “So let’s find a convenient date for us to tell you that.”
So it had not been the plan back in 1963 to combine our birthdays. The original plan had been to celebrate my birthday on November 11 with a family trip to the Milwaukee Athletic Club for “Family Swim.” I loved the MAC and adored Family Swim, because it was the only time that women and girls were allowed to use the Men’s Pool, which was huge and had a high dive. As if that weren’t spectacular enough, there was a snack bar right next to the pool that sold things like hot dogs and pop. I could not imagine a better birthday. We never got to go, however, because on November 10, my Grandpa Din suddenly died. His death was a profound shock to my parents and siblings, but I was four years old, so my reaction was deep disappointment at the loss of my birthday party.
The next few days were taken up with Grandpa Din’s wake and funeral in Chicago, so by the time everyone was ready to celebrate my fourth birthday, it was Susan’s ninth birthday and we celebrated both. I was thrilled when I opened my present from Mimi—my first Barbie doll, “Bubble Cut Barbie.” I was also confused, because the card was signed, “Mimi and Grandpa Din.” I knew Grandpa Din was dead. My theology was a bit fuzzy, as is true, I think, for most four year olds. Still, I was pretty sure that the people in heaven did not purchase Bubble Cut Barbies and sign birthday cards. I remember looking at the card and saying, “But Grandpa Din is dead,” and Mimi telling me that he had sent my gift from heaven. So apparently heaven was a place that gave eternal happiness and provided Bubble Cut Barbies. It was years before I sorted all of this out.
I loved that first doll because she was mine, but she was odd. Unlike any Barbie I had ever seen, my Barbie’s Bubble Cut was silver. When I played with my friends, they snickered at my “Grandma Barbie,” and I didn’t blame them. I envied Susan, whose Bubble Cut Barbie had orange-ish hair. Looking back, I am not sure why orange hair was more appealing than gray, but it was. A recurring story line in those years was one in which my silver haired Barbie snagged a boyfriend and brought him home, only to have him stolen away by the more beautiful and alluring orange haired
Right from the start, I loved to play Barbie; it was a way to make up stories in my head without the nasty repercussions that often followed when I did that in my real life. These stories were limited, however, by the fact that I had just the one doll. I needed a cast of characters. I filled the void by imagining an entire world for my Barbie; this entailed some awkward moments. Susan and I, for example, had to pretend to be our Kens, which wasn’t always easy, especially when it came to kissing. Kissing our own Barbie dolls while pretending to be their boyfriends was just weird. I was really happy on my fifth birthday when I unwrapped my first Ken doll. About six weeks later, I received Skipper, Barbie’s little sister, for Christmas. Things were looking up.
Skipper was a big hit in Barbie World, and so it wasn’t long before Mattel introduced yet another sister, this one named Tutti. Tutti was adorable, and of course I wanted her very badly. My mother thought that Barbie, Ken and Skipper were more than sufficient for my needs, and I despaired of receiving a Tutti doll anytime soon. Luckily for me, however, a birthmark on my neck starting to morph into something ominous right around that very time, and I had to go to the hospital to have it removed. That hospital visit turned out to be my ticket to a Tutti doll.
I had been born with the birthmark, and it was impressive. By the time I knew I had it, which coincided with the time when other children started pointing it out, it was the size of a silver dollar pancake. My cousin Kathy, who loved me, called it my “chocolate mark,” but everyone else was considerably less kind. The doctor told my mother that my birthmark, while ugly, was not dangerous unless it began to get bigger, darker, or start growing hair. When I was nine, it started to do all three, and in the summer of fifth grade, he said it had to go.
I was thrilled. That birthmark had been nothing but trouble for me. It was just one more thing that caused other kids to steer clear of me or worse, make fun of me. I couldn’t wait to see it disappear. Its removal required an overnight hospital stay, and while I was convalescing, the wife of one of my father’s clients at Kemper Insurance sent me a present—Tutti. I was thrilled. My Barbie family was complete for several months, and I happily incorporated Tutti into my storylines. I couldn’t imagine needing anything more to enhance my Barbie Universe. Then I saw an ad for Barbie’s cousin Francie.
Whereas Barbie was a bit formidable with her heavily made up eyes, red lips, permanently misshapen feet, narrow waist and huge bosom, Francie seemed younger, sweeter, nicer, and prettier. Francie had longer hair that fell softly to her shoulders, and flirty bangs. My cousin Kathy had a Francie, and I wanted one, too.
Always on the lookout for an opportunity to inspire me to lose some weight, my mother seized upon my lust for Francie. She promised me that if I lost ten pounds, Francie would be mine. I readily agreed to this plan, and I was determined to lose the pounds as quickly as possible by eating less and exercising more. Uncoordinated and lazy, I had never been a fan of exercise, so I decided to walk a mile or so to Mayfair every day after school, where I could gaze at Francie dolls and deliberate about which one to take home when the weight was gone. Blond? Brunette? I couldn’t decide but it didn’t matter, because all of the Francies were adorable. Even Francie’s clothes were cuter than Barbie’s.
Despite my sincere attempt to cut back on eating and ramp up on exercise, I wasn’t losing any weight. This was a distressing situation, and I railed at the injustice of the universe. My grandmother, Mommy Mayme, was visiting, and one day she found me crying in my bedroom. When she asked me what on earth was wrong, I told her the whole sad tale: my need for Francie, my mother’s bargain, my body’s stubborn unwillingness to do anything I wanted it to do, my general misery. For a moment, Mommy Mayme didn’t say anything. Then, she said, “Maybe you should just dial the scale back before zero; that’s the fastest way to lose weight.” I have no idea why Mommy Mayme thought this was a good suggestion to make to me; for all I know, she was joking. If she was being facetious, however, I was not. This plan actually made sense to me.
My entire weight loss was being done on the “honor system.” No one else was looking on as I weighed myself every morning; my mother trusted me to let her know when the pounds were gone. Despite the fact that no one was checking the numbers on our pink bathroom scale except me, I began to dutifully move the dial incrementally back behind zero so that it looked as if I were losing weight.
I figured it was plausible that I would lose ten pounds in about a month. So I paced my scale-managing system to create this faux ten pound weight loss about thirty days into our agreement. On the appointed day, I turned the scale back to negative ten and announced my ten pound “weight loss.” My mother seemed disappointed that I looked no different, and none of my clothes fit any better, but a deal was a deal and she trusted me. She gave me the money to buy my Francie, and I did; I bought a brunette Francie whom I adored every bit as much as I thought I would. Francie became the ingénue in all my stories, and Bubble Cut Barbie was relegated to the role of wise-cracking older sister. My mother never asked if I was regaining the weight, and she never challenged my claim to have lost it. It was, however, her last attempt to bribe me into going on a diet.
I was content in my Barbie universe for a while, and then Mattel revolutionized the world for young girls everywhere by coming out with “Twist N Turn” Barbie. Before the advent of Twist N Turn Barbie, all of the dolls were made entirely of rigid plastic. Barbie and Ken always had
strange hugs and kisses, because their arms stuck straight out every time they “embraced.” They also sat in a weird way, because their legs didn’t bend at any point. Twist N Turn Barbie changed all of that. Her knees bent! Her waist twisted! Her arms were still ramrod straight, but this was major Barbie progress.
I didn’t hold out much hope of receiving a Twist N Turn Barbie, because I already owned more Barbie dolls than my mother deemed necessary, but when I found out that my cousin Kathy had received one for Christmas, I was bereft. I wanted one, too. My mother took pity on me when she saw me gazing at Kathy’s doll, and she relented. My Confirmation gift in March that year was my first Twist N Turn Barbie. I had become a Soldier for Christ, and it was already paying off.
Once I had my Twist N Turn Barbie, my other Barbies seemed more problematic. I still loved Francie, because she was so cool that she could overcome anything, even unbendable legs, but my Bubble Cut Barbie was dated and old; after all, she had always had grey hair. I wanted another Twist N Turn Barbie. I had no means to obtain one, but that didn’t stop my wanting.
Then, one day my mother and I were visiting my sister Marbeth at her apartment building on the south side of town. That building seemed like heaven on earth to me, because it was a high rise on Lake Michigan with its own swimming pool and a little grocery store in the lobby. Whenever Marbeth ran out of something or needed something small, she could just pop down to that little store and buy it, which was a big help to someone who was home all day with two babies under the age of three.
On this particular day, we needed something at the little grocery store. My mother fished a five dollar bill out of her purse and sent me down to get it. It might have been a loaf of bread; I don’t remember what it was, but I do remember that I handed the clerk the five dollar bill and she gave me change for a ten. I saw immediately what she had done, and I had a very fleeting impulse to say something to her. I said nothing, though. I took the change and made my way upstairs, thinking I would tell my mother and sister about it and go right back downstairs to give back the extra five dollars. But a Twist N Turn Barbie cost four dollars. I could keep the money and buy myself the new Barbie I coveted. I kept the money and said nothing to anyone.
The following Monday after school, I took the bus to Mayfair (no walking that day; I was
flush with cash) and I bought my new Barbie at Gimbel’s Department Store. With the money I had left over, I went to the in-store lunch counter, named Tasty-Town, and ordered myself a plate of French Fries and a chocolate milkshake. I felt very strange, sitting at the counter all by myself, ordering and paying for my own food. I also felt guilty, and worried that the clerk at Marbeth’s store had gotten into trouble when the money came up missing at the end of the day. I wished, sitting there in Tasty Town, that I could feel happy about my new Barbie; she was the most beautiful Barbie I had ever seen, with waist-length glossy black hair and big blue eyes, but I couldn’t shake my worry and guilt. I decided, by the time I finished my snack, that what was done was done. I had kept the money, bought the doll and consumed the food. Now I had to forget about the clerk and the fact that the money wasn’t mine and move forward.
That wasn’t easily done, especially in my Catholic world of mass, examination of conscience and confession. (For more about my adventures with the sacrament of confessions, click here) I knew I had to confess about the five dollars, and I dreaded it. I was terrified that Father would tell me to come clean with my mother and/or pay back the store. Either possibility terrified me. I was so worried about my potential penance, in fact, that I went to confession a few times without confessing the theft, which only made things exponentially worse. Not only was I still carrying the sin of stealing, but now I was adding on the sin of knowingly concealing a sin in the confessional. I was soaking in sin.
After a few months, the anxiety of all this sinning overtook the anxiety of my sin’s possible ramifications, and I confessed the whole sorry tale—the clerk, the money I kept, the Barbie, the French Fries—I let it all out. Father Stommel, on the other side of the grid in the confessional, asked me how much money it was, and I told him it was five dollars. I held my breath, heart hammering wildly, and Father said, “Well, that’s not a mortal sin. A mortal sin is a theft of more money than that.” Really? This was news to me, but welcome news it was. For my venial sin, I had only to say two Hail Marys and two Our Fathers. Nothing was said about restitution or telling my mother. I think the “kinder, gentler” Vatican II approach was thoroughly in play by then, and I was only too happy to be coddled by the “Spirit of Vatican II.”
Even though I had clearance from On High, I always felt a nagging dissatisfaction with my raven-haired Twist ‘n Turn Barbie. Her most beautiful feature was that long hair, and one day I decided out of the blue that she needed a haircut. I cut off all of her hair, almost certainly a form of self-created penance. I never stopped playing with her, though.
I played Barbie by myself a great deal, but I also I loved playing with my sister Susan and my cousin Kathy. The summer of fifth grade, Kathy and I stayed at Mommy Mayme’s apartment in Chicago for two glorious weeks. It was one of my best vacations ever, and we had a very specific routine for our days. Upon waking, we would amble down to Lake Street and stop at Woolworth’s for lunch. (We slept late.) Kathy would order a hamburger, fries and Coke and I would order a hot dog, fries and Coke. After we polished off lunch, we would stop at the candy counter and buy a pound of Tootsie Rolls each. (My father used to call our time together “The Bobbsey Twins Visit Calorie Farm.” He had reason to do so.) The bag of Tootsie Rolls was our sustenance until dinner, or until we reached the Carriage Trade, an ice cream shop on Lake Street. We loved sitting inside actual carriages and ordering our Junior Hot Fudge Sundaes. On Carriage Trade days, we often had some trouble working up our appetite for dinner. Usually, though, we managed. After dinner, we would set up our entire Barbie universe in my grandmother’s front hall and play for hours and hours; one night we played until dawn, creating story after story together.
I did enjoy playing Barbie with Susan and with Kathy, but as the years went by, first Susan became too busy and grown up to play Barbie; then my cousin Kathy ‘outgrew’ Barbie. I held on much, much longer than anyone else, until my mother finally laid down the law and told me it was time to pack it up. Externally compliant but feeling frustrated and sad inside, I began the task of wrapping Barbie, Ken, Francie, Skipper, and Tutti in tissue paper and boxing up their clothes, shoes, houses and cars. My father happened by my room as I was doing this, and he quoted the Bible to me approvingly: “When I was a child, I had the things of a child, but then I put childish things away and became a man.” Since I was doing this task under protest, however, I scowled at him until he went away.
Putting away my Barbie dolls was not easy. I mourned all the stories I had invented and acted out with them, and I wondered where I would ever again find such an outlet. I was, so much of the time, ill at ease and unhappy in the “real” world. Anxious and clumsy, I felt awkward nearly all the time. I didn’t fit into my own skin, and I felt as if everyone else had been given a playbook at birth with the rules of how to behave and how to live. When I made up imaginary worlds, all of that awkwardness and anxiety disappeared. Those moments of make believe were some of the best moments of my childhood, and I had no idea how I was going to survive without them.
Sitting on the floor, surrounded by the dolls I was sending to their final rest, I was suddenly struck by a lightning bolt. “I could be a writer.” I stopped dead in the middle of my sad chore and gazed down at my dolls, now wrapped in their tissue-paper burial clothes. I could, I realized, still make up stories, still imagine alternate worlds. Instead of acting out those tales with my dolls, I could write them down. If I wrote the stories down, they wouldn’t be tall tales any more, or the lies for which I used to get punished on a regular basis. With utter clarity, I saw my future. Barbie had been my Muse for many years, and my love for her caused me to sin and even to enter a life of crime. I could redeem my criminal past—and survive my actual life—by bringing my Barbie stories inside my head and writing them down. I would grow up and become a writer.
I was a chubby child from the time I was seven years old, always hovering at about twenty-thirty pounds overweight. It was in high school that my weight started to increase exponentially rather than arithmetically; when I received my driver’s license at the age of sixteen, I was able to get to grocery stores and bakeries that were once too far away to walk or bike to. I had a greater variety of “goodies,” and with a car, I had to exercise a great deal less in order to obtain them. When I started high school, I weighed 133 pounds (I was 5’7”) but by my senior year, I weighed about 190 lbs.
Food was my steadiest, most loyal friend, but it was a friend who called far too many of the shots in our relationship. I didn’t want to binge, but I did. I didn’t want to hate how I looked, but I did. I didn’t want my thighs to chafe whenever I wore shorts, but they did. I was consistently miserable in my own flesh.
At Divine Savior-Holy Angels High School, we wore uniforms; for freshmen and sophomores, it was a green plaid skirt with an ugly long green vest and for juniors and seniors, a blue plaid skirt with a more palatable navy sweater. My first uniform was no problem, because I was a size 10 when high school began. When the time came to change uniforms for junior year, however, I was rigid with dread. Size 18 was now a tight squeeze, and I was positive that there would be no uniform skirts that fit me. Of course, I should have known that was a ridiculous fear, since there were plenty of DSHA upperclassmen fatter than I, and none of them came to class naked. Nonetheless, I fretted, and I was hugely relieved when I discovered that the uniform store did indeed stock skirts in my size.
By the time I reached the end of my senior year, even my plus sized uniform skirt no longer fit, and I had to resort to closing it up with a chain of safety pins. Luckily, my blue sweater covered my waistline, so no one was the wiser. I knew it, though, and I hated it. I had to pull my sweater down many times a day in order to cover the open zipper, and I lived in fear that my secret would be exposed. For some reason, closing my skirt with safety pins resulted in one side being shorter than the other, so I was also constantly yanking at the one side to keep it from hiking up any further.
Having a uniform at all was a blessing, because I didn’t have many other clothing options once school ended for the day. In the 1970’s, regular department stores did not carry any clothes larger than size 18, and I had no idea that there were stores with nice clothes for fat people. This degree of ignorance seems impossible today, or at the very least monumentally stupid, but there was no social media in 1976, and no Google Shopping. We shopped at Marshall Field’s and occasionally at Gimbels, and I had no idea what would happen if I should gain even more weight and no longer fit into size 18. I shuddered at the thought and hoped I would never had to find out.
DSHA was an all-girls’ Catholic high school, and the tradition there was for graduates to wear long white dresses and carry long stemmed red roses. A lovely ritual, but for me just another cause of Great Fat Dread. By the spring of my senior year, I weighed 184 pounds. Other than my safety-pinned uniform and a blue sweater from the Men’s Department at Marshall Field’s, my entire wardrobe consisted of the few size 18 outfits I was able to find. My shopping trips were never about what I liked or what might look good on me; the only criterion I really had was: did it fit? If yes, I bought it.
Starting in March that year, I started casing the stores in search of a long white dress that would fit me. There were none. I never told anyone that I was going on these reconnaissance trips; I was humiliated enough. As far as I could see, no one made long white dresses in anything approaching my size. What was I going to do? I had no idea. Apparently, I was too fat to graduate from high school, and as May loomed ever closer, I resigned myself to the brutal reality that I was not going to lose enough weight to solve my problem.
Finally one day, I hit upon my only solution: I would have to find a white nightgown and pass it off somehow as a dress. This would not be an easy task; I didn’t have to look around Lingerie Departments for long in order to realize that they had no size 18 white nightgowns that even remotely resemble dresses. I was terrified that I would have to choose one of these nightgowns to graduate in, and the other girls would howl with laughter when they saw me. Seeing no other alternative, I pressed on, visiting mall after mall in search of a “graduation dress.”
About three weeks before the big day, my mother announced that we were going to Lane Bryant to find a graduation dress and then out to lunch at the Milwaukee Athletic Club. I had heard of Lane Bryant, and seen their ads in the Milwaukee Journal, but I was pretty sure they would have nothing suitable for me. Their newspaper ads convinced me that Lane Bryant was a store for grotesquely obese old women who had a fondness for rayon, polyester and lots of wild prints. (It is much easier now to find cute clothes in plus sizes; in those days, I think the mindset in the fashion world was that fat women either didn’t care how they looked—I mean, there they were, fat—or that fat women did care how they looked but needed to be punished for being fat in the first place.) My nightgown strategy was not working out, so I agreed that yes, lunch and a trip to Lane Bryant was in order.
On the appointed day, my mother and I drove downtown, parked the car and walked over to Lane Bryant. I was rigid with shame as we walked into the store. It was awful enough that I had to walk through those doors; much worse was knowing that my chic and stylish mother had to cross that threshold because of me. As we entered the store, a sales clerk said something to my mother and her whole face lit up. She turned to me and said, “Did you hear that? She just asked if I was looking for the Tall Section! She thinks we are here because of me, not you!” My mother was so happy that she was the assumed shopper, that the clerks didn’t find me fat enough to warrant being in the store for fat people. I loved my mother in that moment with a purity I can still feel. As much as she hated the idea of being fat, of being around fat, of having a fat daughter, she was happy to be mistaken for a Lane Bryant Shopper if it meant I would not be marked as one.
The sales clerk directed us up to the Junior Department on the second floor. As we exited the escalator, I was stunned at what I saw. There were racks and racks of clothes, some of them very cute, all of them in sizes I knew would fit me. I had had no idea. They had an entire rack of white dresses, including several that I had seen in Seventeen Magazine, my book of dreams—just in larger sizes. I was actually in the smallest sizes in this store, and what a feeling that was! I tried on several dresses, and bought one of the dresses I had seen in Seventeen—a long white eyelet dress with a simple bodice and a ruffle at the hem.
I was happier that day than I had been in a very long time. I felt beautiful, and—even more wonderful—I felt normal. My mother was happy, too, and she triumphantly handed her credit card to the sales clerk, who put my new dress in a shopping bag and handed it to me. We sailed out of Lane Bryant, and I felt positively buoyant, a rare sensation for someone who weighed 184 pounds. The Milwaukee Athletic Club was just a few blocks away, so we walked over there to have lunch together and celebrate.
We took the elevator to the dining room and I sighed happily as I placed my shopping bag on one chair and sat down in another. My mother ordered a martini and I ordered a TAB, and we talked about the upcoming graduation party and who would come. The waiter came over to take our order and I eagerly ordered my favorite thing on the MAC menu: a cheeseburger and french fries.
Without realizing it, I had broken the spell of our happy day. My mother’s forehead furrowed, and she sighed, “I don’t understand why you would eat that after what we’ve just been through.” I was hungry, and now I felt defensive; for a moment, I considered changing my order to the MAC salad, but I wanted that cheeseburger. I wanted those fries. When our food came, I ate every bite, but the buoyant feeling was gone for both of us.
Even though the mood of the day had changed, I was grateful to have my beautiful white dress and relieved that I could stop shopping for nightgowns. My mother had really come through for me by taking me to Lane Bryant. Thinking about that amazing Junior Department, I asked her why she had never told me they had cute things at Lane Bryant. My mom thought for a moment and said, “I was afraid if you knew that, you would be less likely to lose the weight.” Ah.
I felt beautiful on the night I graduated. I kept my dress for years; I even had it remade to be a smaller size when I lost a lot of weight later on. After taking in the dress, the seamstress gave us the yards of extra fabric she had removed, and my mother used it to have Christmas ornaments made for her grandchildren—little babies with white eyelet Christening gowns.
I no longer have even one picture of myself from my graduation night, although I know that there were a few taken. Years later, when I had lost the weight, my siblings and I were looking through some family pictures. We came across one of our family’s infamous “couch pictures”—we all jam ourselves onto the living room couch for a family portrait—and there was a picture of me in my graduation dress, surrounded by my brothers and sisters. “Oh God,” my brother Jamie laughed, “Who is that in the big white dress?” We all laughed, but I couldn’t help but sneak a look at that girl in the big white dress and remember how very pretty she felt that night. I don’t know what became of the picture, but after that night I never saw it again. To this day, the only place I can find a memento of my high school graduation is on my family’s Christmas trees, in the form of tiny eyelet-clad baby ornaments.
When I entered Marquette University’s Graduate Program in Philosophy, I had no idea what I was going to “do” with an advanced degree in Philosophy, but I was sure that I wasn’t going to teach. Accepting Marquette’s scholarship and fellowship was a way to postpone a future in which I would certainly be expected to shape up, grow up, and find something useful (and profitable) to do with my life. My hazy plan was to get my Master’s Degree and then go to law school. When I was accepted into the Ph.D. program, I made sure that I could “opt out” after two years with Master’s Degree in hand.
Before my first term at Marquette, my mentor at Mount Mary College warned me that graduate school would bear little resemblance to my undergraduate classes, where we had read wonderful books and asked fascinating questions. Graduate school, Dr. Conlon told me, would be about learning a specific set of skills. I would be taught how to think, write and speak like an academic. What we studied would matter less than what I learned about how to do research, how to write for publication, how to defend my ideas in public at conferences.
I didn’t care. Maybe graduate school wouldn’t resemble my undergraduate experience, but from where I stood, it was as close as I was going to get. At least I would still be reading philosophy and talking about it with others. I was sure it would be superior to any alternative I had. As the summer ended and my first semester at Marquette drew closer, I grew more excited to begin my classes and my research work. I had graduated Summa cum laude from Mount Mary College in May, and I felt certain that I was ready.
I was not ready. The first class I walked into was a Philosophy of Freedom seminar—an entire course about free will. On that first day, Dr. Anderson informed us that each student would be writing a major paper on a topic of our choice related to free will. In addition, we would be writing a critique of a fellow student’s major paper. Each major paper would be presented in class, followed by the critique. We would not have access to the critique until the day we presented; part of Dr. Anderson’s evaluation of us would rest on how well we responded to criticism “on our feet.” Our grade would depend on how well we defended ourselves; the grade of the student writing the critique would depend on how thoroughly he or she filleted us. Those two scores—our paper and our critique—would be the sum total of our semester grade.
I wrote my paper on David Hume’s philosophy of freedom. I logged hundreds of hours writing that paper; the final version was forty-four pages long, and I felt confident. Not only did I have a strong paper; for the occasion, I had gone to Marshall Field’s and purchased a new Pendleton skirt and matching cashmere sweater with my initial embroidered on the breast. I was set.
The critique of my paper had been assigned to a fellow student named John; he was a Sartrean. He also looked like Tom Cruise, and I was pretty sure that he liked me. He had asked me over to his apartment after class so he could make me dinner; clearly, I was sailing high with this whole “graduate student” experience. After I presented my paper, John-the-Cute-Sartrean began his critique, and I simultaneously experienced my first—and only—case of hysterical deafness. John’s mouth was moving, things were clearly being said, but I heard nothing. And then his mouth stopped moving, and the members of the class, including Dr. Anderson, turned in unison to look at me. “Um,” I stuttered, “Could you repeat that?”
Silence. Then Dr. Anderson nodded at John and said, “Repeat your main objections.” John did so, and I could hear his words this time, but they were not strung together in any way that made sense. He may as well have been reading a shopping list. From the planet Bajor.
Silence. I knew I couldn’t ask John to repeat his critique yet again, so I stammered out some sort of response, relying on my undergraduate knowledge of Sartre to carry me through. It must have been alright, because the conversation moved on from there, but I was badly shaken. I begged off of dinner at John’s; the thought of spending the evening with the fellow who had carved me up for lunch was distinctly unappealing. I went home instead, and spend the evening whimpering, listening to Paul Simon songs, and eating chocolate peanut cluster ice cream. I had taken a major hit. And I was, more than anything, confused. In my classes at Mount Mary College, I had always been confident, calm and self-possessed. I still had warm memories of the night before I graduated–first in my class. All the seniors had stood on the steps outside Notre Dame Hall carrying Japanese lanterns and singing “Climb Every Mountain.” What had happened?
I wasn’t sure. But I had gone to an all-women’s high school and an all-women’s college, whereas the free will seminar consisted of nine men—and me. My last experience of being with men in the classroom had been Christ King School, and those “men” had been twelve years old. These graduate student men were considerably older, and seemed like a different species. They talked—a lot. It seemed to be their way of figuring things out—talking, jousting, thrusting, parrying. They were thick skinned and aggressive, and not one of them was inclined to say, “I totally see where you’re coming from,” or “I hear you,” or “Wow! Your hair is so shiny today!” I was used to my fellow students using language to establish continuities and connections, to understand my point of view, but these beings were using language to make distinctions and establish dominance, to defeat my point of view. It was a new world, and no had given me the Instruction Manual.
My Plato seminar was more of the same, but without any instances of hysterical deafness. There were three other women in that class, and one of them—Mary–befriended me. She had been around for a while, and was dating one of the dominant primates in the group, so she was a kind ally, my Virgil as I navigated the first graduate school circle of hell. But the class itself was incredibly difficult. Each student had to turn in, by semester’s end, an eight page single spaced summary and analysis of ten separate dialogues, excluding the Republic, in addition to a short paper on the dialogue of our choice and a longer (20-30 pp.) paper on a topic of our choosing. I had made it through college never having pulled even one “all-nighter,” and was convinced that students who stayed up all night studying were just poor time managers. I was never so smug again after my Plato Seminar. There were several nights of driving to Open Pantry (open 24 hours) to re-up on Diet Coke in order to finish an analysis of the Gorgias or the Meno just as dawn was breaking over Milwaukee.
I was also taking Metaphysics, taught by the most enthusiastic atheist I had ever encountered. Dr. Algozin was one cheerful, relentless atheist. I was the only woman in that class as well, but it was smaller than my other two classes, and more comfortable. The other students included a young man who dressed every day in three piece suits, carried a briefcase and a rolled up Wall Street Journal, and sweated profusely. The other two students included a farm boy from Iowa who wore overalls to class, quoted the Misfit from Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find at least once a day, and glowered at our atheist professor. Rounding out our little group of metaphysicians was an eerily quiet fellow who slouched back in his seat, took no notes all semester, then blew everyone away in the last week of class with an analysis of the flaws in the arguments of Errol Harris. (Years later, I married him. The quiet fellow, not Harris.) Dr. Algozin, the professor, loved George Santayana, and so I learned more about “tropes” in the philosophy of George Santayana than I had ever expected—or wanted—to learn.
Those were my classes. For my research assistantship, I was assigned to Dr. Vater, also my Plato professor. (And yes, we all called him “Darth Vader.”) He gave me what he took to be an ideal job: I was to spend ten hours a week learning how to use Marquette’s fancy new computer so that in the spring semester I could type his book manuscript into it. This was well before the days of the personal computer. Until Dr. Vater gave me this assignment, the only computer I had ever even seen was the one at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance when I worked there the summer after high school. That computer was a behemoth, and only the very most trained Computer Shamans were allowed to go anywhere near it.
My first research task: find the computer. This task I completed successfully; the department secretary gave me directions to a large and drafty old garage at the edge of campus, near the freeway. Approaching the site of my new job, I felt a bit like Madeline Kahn in the movie What’s Up, Doc?” The whole scene felt forbidding, strange and weird.
Inside the garage was housed The Computer, walled off from all of us by glass walls. Around the circumference of that walled-in machine were desks with terminals on them. The terminals were, of course, connected to the main frame computer behind the class. They each glowed a ghostly green, and on the unused terminals flickered a tiny cursor: on/off, on/off.
Bravely, I grabbed a terminal and sat myself down. The person in charge of the terminals came over when I beckoned, and showed me how to log into the giant computer behind the wall. He also handed me a dog-eared manual listing all of the prompts and commands I would need. He might as well have handed me the operating instructions to a space shuttle—written in Cyrillic. I knew I was in for a long semester.
By the time the annual Christmas Party for the Graduate Students came along, I knew that I had done well, earning two A’s and an A-. On the other hand, my eating disorder was back with a vengeance, and I was a far more rattled and anxious girl than the one who had stood on the steps at Mount Mary College the previous May singing “Climb Every Mountain.” Apparently, it is much easier to sing about climbing mountains than it is to actually climb them.
In the Old West, when a cowboy gets shot, his friends make the decision whether to take him along or leave him to die by asking one question: “Can you stand?” If the cowboy could still stand, he had a decent chance of surviving his wound. I was
wounded, but I was still standing. At that Christmas party, I walked around in a bit of a daze, and whenever one of the professors asked me “How are you doing?” I said “I survived.” When I said this to the Chair, he twinkled at me, and said, “This is all part of the process. You come in thinking you know it all and we spend the first semester destroying you so that we can build you back up to be stronger.” I thought Dr. Coffey sounded a bit like a deranged educational Cartesian, but I smiled and said, “Oh. Hah. Hmmm.”
My second semester as a graduate student was better; I became friends with some funny and wise fellow students, and my second semester professors were not as much from the Nietzschean School of “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Even better, Dr. Vater had looked over my work on the Marquette Computer, and immediately informed Harry Klocker, S.J.—my Aquinas professor that Spring—that I was far more suited to his needs. Fr. Klocker agreed, and I happily ensconced myself in the library, studying Church Latin for Fr. Klocker while another graduate student hiked over to the Garage with the Giant Computer and typed in Dr. Vater’s manuscript. What with the nicer professors and the more amenable research project, I was actually looking forward to coming back for my second year.
Before we all broke away for the summer, Dr. Coffey summoned me into his office. “I have good news for you!” he beamed at me. “We had our meeting about all the new students, and based on your grades and evaluations this year, we are moving you from Research Assistant to Teaching Fellow one year early! Starting next Fall, you will be teaching two full section of Logic! Yes! You’re Welcome!”
Wait. What? “You mean, I will be a Teaching Assistant for one of the Professors?” I asked. “Oh no,” Dr. Coffey said. “The Philosophy Department doesn’t have TA’s. We give our students their very own courses to teach, after they have earned the equivalent of a Master’s Degree. In your case, we are saying that you are ready to move up now.”
I knew that after two years doing research, graduate students were moved up to Teaching Fellowships. But I had assumed I would be sitting in a classroom at Marquette Law School by then. Teaching was not ever supposed to be part of the plan.
“Oh, No,” I responded. “No. I am not. I am not ready. I don’t want to teach. I didn’t come here wanting to teach. I like research. I love research. I have never wanted to be a teacher. Thanks so much, but no. I decline.”
Dr. Coffey paused for a moment, then scowled. “Hmm. You’re not catching on. I’m not asking you. I’m telling you. The Graduate Committee has moved you forward. You aren’t a Research Assistant anymore. If you want your scholarship and your 660.00 a month stipend, you are a Teaching Fellow. In Logic. Two sections. Next Fall.”
I had no idea how to even begin to picture myself as a teacher. I was twenty-three years old; many of my students would be just one or two years younger than I. Watching my own professors at Mount Mary College, I was keenly aware that they were possessed of vast amounts of knowledge. I knew next to nothing, and yet I was going to be plopped down in front of two sections of thirty students each with the expectation that they would emerge in mere months with a working knowledge of modus ponens and modus tollens? Oh God, I thought. I have a lot of work to do.
Over the course of the summer of 1981, I chose the textbook I would use for my classes, opened the book up to the first page, and worked my way through the entire text, completing every problem until my memory of how to do symbolic logic was fresh. I made meticulous notes on each chapter and outlined lectures for the semester. I went back to the syllabus from my Logic class at Mount Mary College, and used it to model my own versions of paper assignments. When the first week of September 1981 rolled around, I was as prepared as I was ever going to be.
“Prepared,” however, is not the same thing as “Ready.” In no way did I feel ready to stand in front of a classroom and act as if I knew anything. I drove to campus that first morning and wished the tires would fly off the car so that I’d have a reason not to show up. To my consternation, the car remained sturdy, and I arrived at Marquette with time to spare. Before heading over to Marquette Hall, I stopped at Coughlin Hall to drop off my coat and books; there I ran into my old Metaphysics professor, Dr. Algozin, the cheery atheist. He was on his way out of the Men’s Room. “Oh Hi!” he chirped. “How are you?”
“Well, Dr. Algozin,” I said, “I am pretty awful. I have to teach for the first time in a few minutes, and I am a mess.”
“Oh, yeah,” Dr. Algozin laughed, slapping me on the shoulder. “That never goes away. I’m almost twenty years in, and I still get nauseous on the first day of classes.” He swung his head left to indicate the door of the Men’s Room. “I teach in a few minutes, too. First class of the term. I just threw up! You’ll be fine! See Ya!” and off he went, whistling under his breath.
With no more tasks to distract me and no other professors to cheer me on in whatever way they saw fit, I trudged over to Marquette Hall. Room 100 was a lecture hall with desks on risers and a blackboard at the front of the room. There were thirty bodies in chairs when I entered the classroom. I placed my notes on the lectern, cleared my throat, and said, “Good Morning. I am Miss Maloney, and I will be your Instructor for Logic this term. I am here today because I am getting paid to talk about Logic. What are you doing here? Why should anyone study Logic, anyway? How is all this talk about Logic not a waste of time? What good will it do any of us? What’s the point of this?”
I looked up. At least seven people had their hands up. I called on them, and other hands went up. I started to write on the board, and every time I responded to one student, another hand would rise, another student would ask a question. I was talking about ideas with intelligent people just a bit younger than I was. They were asking good questions. I was answering them, often by asking other questions. I was going to get paid to do this. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I was home.
The bell rang. I couldn’t believe that forty minutes had passed. It had seemed like ten. On their way out the door, several students said, “Great class! Good conversation! See you Wednesday!” I couldn’t wait. I could use some of the great ideas and questions from this day to make my opening for the next class even stronger. I started scribbling down new ideas, imagining how I would start class on Wednesday, imagining how I might move into the opening chapter of the text.
There were, of course, some bumpy days ahead of me. I was teaching two sections of Logic, but I had never in my life crafted a syllabus, made up an exam, created a paper assignment, or graded student work. I learned some necessary skills the hard way; when I created my first Logic midterm exam, I figured that if it took me thirty minutes to “take” my test, the students should be fine in their allotted forty-five minutes.
That turned out to be a wildly wrong assumption; none of my students finished in the allotted time. As the minutes ticked past, the smell of panic and sweat permeated the classroom; two girls cried. One fellow was in ROTC and it was uniform inspection day. The test freaked him out so badly that he threw up on his dress shoes and I had to write a note to his commanding officer explaining what happened. No one passed the exam; no one even finished it.
The following class period, when I handed back the tests, I apologized to the students, and told them that there would be another exam in a week; I would be throwing this one away. They forgave me. They took the makeup test and mostly did fine, and I learned that an exam that takes them forty-five minutes should take me about five.
Another time that semester, I realized after I got home from my day’s classes that I had taught Aristotle’s Square of Opposition incorrectly. After two nights of agonizing about my error, I walked into class and told my students to rip out the pages in their notebooks from the previous class, because I had messed them up bigtime. Then I retaught the Aristotle, and they were fine. From the beginning of my life as a teacher, I have found that, when I admit my limitations, acknowledge my mistakes, and make sure the students never suffer because of my errors, they are generous, kind and forgiving.
I taught Logic again the following semester. I loved it just as much, perhaps more. In May, Dr. Coffey called me into his office to tell me that my grades were excellent and my teaching evaluations impressive; the graduate faculty had decided to promote me from teaching Logic to Philosophy of Human Nature for the next academic year.
I now knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to teach philosophy. I hadn’t been certain of much up to that point, but I was certain of that. This new certainty, however, meant that I would be staying at Marquette for my Ph.D. Because I had always operated under the assumption that I would “opt out” at the Master’s Degree level, I had blithely ignored the Ph.D. requirements. Now that I wasn’t leaving, they were pertinent.
I would have to complete at least one more year of coursework, pass proficiency exams in both French and German (neither of which I had ever studied; I had six years of Latin under my belt), pass an eight hour written comprehensive exam on the history of Western philosophy and a three hour oral exam on two areas of my choosing. When that was behind me, I would be writing a dissertation on some original idea in philosophy; I would have to find a topic, choose a director and a dissertation board, write the thing and then defend it publicly. In short, I was in for a long walk through several more circles of hell.
I didn’t care. I knew what I wanted to do. My life’s work was to teach Philosophy, and I had nearly missed it. I had ended up in Room 100 of Marquette Hall in September of 1981 either through a series of coincidences or the whimsical turnings of God’s will for my life. (For more evidence of this whole “God-in-my-Life Thing, see here.) With no real idea why, I had applied to graduate school, and I went only because I knew that I loved doing philosophy and would do it for as long as life let me. Good Catholic girl that I was, I saw in the twists and turns that led me from a required Core Course at Mount Mary College when I was seventeen years old to a cavernous lecture hall at Marquette University five years later a plan whose author wasn’t entirely me. I decided then and there that the God who somehow got me to Room 100 would show me the way through the forest of obstacles that now confronted me. I was ready.