I am not a bit proud to say that I was a snoop as a child, always interested in whatever was going on behind the scenes in other peoples’ lives. I regularly used to read both of my sisters’ diaries. I went through drawers, I felt around on closet shelves. I was ever-intrigued to find out what I wasn’t being told, the story-behind-the-story. My unhealthy curiosity is how I found out a lot of information about my family. It is also how I came to view my first Playboy magazine.
I was snooping around in my brother Johnnie’s closet. He was a college man, and I thought he was the height of adult sophistication. Johnnie had a beer glass with a bottom that lit up when it was empty, a board game called “Pass Out” involving people drinking on command until someone—you guessed it—passed out, and even a black market telephone. When I was young, it was against the law to own one’s own telephone, and woe betide to anyone who dared. The Telephone Company owned all the phones, and that was that. If you wanted a phone or if you moved to a new place, you petitioned the Phone Czar to grace you with one of her telephones, and if fortune smiled upon you, she would let you rent one.
Every month, you paid rent on every phone in your house and when you moved, you left the phones. They were never yours. Outlaws like Jesse James or Richard Nixon might steal phones, but no upstanding citizen would dare. The Phone Company was the only game in town, and you risked fines, prison, and—scariest of all—loss of phone privileges if you messed with Ma Bell. I used to feel an actual shiver of fear every time I looked at Johnnie’s contraband phone. It was an old fashioned black model and he had boldly plugged it right into the Telephone Company’s jack in his bedroom. It worked fine, but I felt butterflies every time I used it, imagining G-men bursting through the front door and cuffing me for breaking the United States Telephone Act.
The illegal phone was a symbol of everything that was fascinating about Johnnie’s room. I almost always found something of interest in my treasure hunts. One day in particular, I was nosing around in his closet. Johnnie’s bedroom had, for a time, been our family room, and the shelf of his spacious closet was still used for storage of odd things. There was, for instance, a very large statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which I remember vividly because it terrified me.
Mary had a very calm expression on her face, and her arms were sort of reaching out toward me, but she was barefoot and standing on a very large and ugly snake. When I first encountered Mary of the Closet, I was fairly young and hadn’t yet digested the whole “serpent in the garden” story, so I had no idea why God’s mother was serenely squishing an angry snake to death with her bare feet. I was used to hearing Mary referred to in our family prayers as “full of grace,” as a “lovely lady dressed in blue,” as a sweet and pure maiden. I didn’t know how to reconcile those descriptions with this snake-killer who was clearly a force to be reckoned with, and who seemed to look at me with an expression that said, “Don’t even think about crossing me. Ask the snake how that turned for him.”
Next to Scary Mary rested our family’s one and only set of encyclopedias, a set of volumes called The Book of Knowledge. I am not sure when the Book of Knowledge was published, but I do recall that when I tried to use it to write an essay on the Unification of Italy, which happened in the late nineteenth century, the Book of Knowledge did not have the updated information; inside its pages, Italy was still a collection of territories grouped around the Papal States.
Before the Internet, our only way to do research for school papers—or even to learn something out of natural curiosity–was to look it up in an encyclopedia. Libraries were good sources for encyclopedias, but some lucky and/or fortunate families owned a whole set of their own. I envied those families, because they never had to trudge out into the cold and slush of a February night to get to the library to look up information for their homework. We never owned our own set of encyclopedias, but we did have The Book of Knowledge, with its cracked brown bindings and pages musty with mottled green spots of mildew.
My mother’s attitude for years was that knowledge was knowledge; the truth doesn’t change, and The Book of Knowledge was a fine resource. She finally changed her mind in the early 1970’s, when her oldest grandchild had to write an essay for school about Abraham Lincoln. My sister Marbeth, John’s mother, did not own a set of encyclopedias, so she sent him over to our house to consult The Book of Knowledge. This essay was a major part of John’s grade in fourth grade History. As my sister looked over his paper, she told John that she was disappointed in him for making things up instead of doing his research, making vague statements such as “Lincoln’s mother died of ‘a strange sickness.’” Clearly stung, John objected that he did do his research, so Marbeth challenged him to show her this “research.” There it was, in black and white in The Book of Knowledge: “Abraham Lincoln’s mother died of a strange sickness.” The Book of Knowledge was retired as a research tool at that point, but it remained on Johnnie’s closet shelf, because my mother loved books too much to ever throw one out, and no one wanted the Book of Knowledge.
On this particular day of snooping through Johnnie’s closet, my hands brushed against something unfamiliar behind The Book of Knowledge. Intrigued, I dragged a chair over to the closet to get more height and increase my reach, and my hand closed around a thick magazine. I pulled it out and down and there it was: A Playboy Magazine! This was seriously degenerate stuff in our Irish Catholic Household, and of course I was mesmerized.
No one was home that night except my grandmother, and she was sound asleep, so I took the magazine into my room to look it over. I slowly paged through it, fascinated but not sure what to make of what I saw. In those days of Playboy Magazine, there were no naked men, and the women were only naked from the waist up. What confused me was the pictures. There were a lot of women in this magazine, and they were all doing normal things like brushing horses, arranging books, or walking through gardens–but without all of their clothes on. To my preteen self, they just looked silly, and I couldn’t imagine why they would be fun to look at. In addition to the pictures, there was a joke page and some articles about politics. Even in my befuddlement, I could tell that this was all somehow titillating; clearly it was coming from a place of adult sophistication that deeply intrigued me.
Since no one was home except my grandmother, and she was snoring contentedly, I went downstairs and fixed myself a giant bowl of vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s Syrup and brought it upstairs to eat while I studied this magazine. About halfway through my ice cream and a third of the way through the Playboy, I heard noises downstairs. Egads! People were home, much sooner than I had expected. There was no way I could be caught with either the ice cream or the magazine. Thinking fast, I grabbed both and stepped out onto the tiny balcony off the bedroom I shared with my sister Susan. If I stood on the balcony, I could just reach the gutter of the roof of the house, so I rolled up the magazine and shoved it into the gutter, along with the ice cream, still in its bowl.
Now of course, I had every intention of retrieving both ice cream and Playboy at the earliest possible date, but as soon as I had secreted the evidence of my crime, I felt weighed down with shame and guilt. I hated thinking about what a terrible person I was: sneaking food I wasn’t supposed to be eating, getting even fatter than I already was, sneaking around in my brother’s room and going through his things, looking at a smutty magazine, which was so awful a deed I couldn’t even imagine confessing it at my next confession (which, I knew, I was now going to have to do) and then hiding the magazine in the gutter.
My guilt was so great, in fact, that I pushed the thoughts of what I had done out of my mind every time they came up. Rather than get the contraband out of the gutter and back to each thing’s rightful place, I procrastinated, not wanting to deal with the visual evidence of what was surely a Big Mortal Sin. This denial went on for weeks. Of course I worried that Johnnie might have at some point gone looking for his magazine, and I worried about how much he would worry if he found it missing. I understood that there was no way Johnnie could casually ask, “Hey, family! Has anyone seen my HUGE MORTAL SIN MAGAZINE?” I really felt for him. Still, I made no moves toward the balcony. I was the perfect example of “Out of sight/Out of mind.” Sadly, the saying isn’t “Out of sight/Out of mind/Gone from Reality.” I understood that fact viscerally one morning at the beginning of the spring thaw in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
On the morning in question, we were eating breakfast in our breakfast nook under the upstairs balcony. My father suddenly looked up from his Chicago Tribune and scowled. Following his eyes, I saw water. A lot of water, and it was sluicing down our kitchen wall. Uttering a few choice words, my father stood up and walked over to the wall to examine the situation. As he poked and prodded, his language got louder and more colorful. There was water all along the wall, behind the paint and up in the ceiling.
Cursing the weather, the walls, and whatever else was ruining his Saturday morning, my father summoned my brothers and donned his old navigator’s jacket to go up on the roof and find out what the problem was. This was the moment when my entire insides turned to liquid. Just as I heard my father swearing and calling for my brothers, I realized exactly what had happened. Spring had started the process of melting the snow on our roof and the water was going into the gutter and down the downspouts….except where there was a frozen Playboy magazine and half eaten bowl of ice cream stuck in its way.
I died a thousand deaths that morning as I watched my father and brothers trudge up the stairs, carrying a bucket and a shovel, then heard them hacking away at something, all of them muttering things like “What the hell?” It was not a surprise to me when my father called down to my mother that some &^&* object was encased in ice and blocking the gutter, causing the water to stream down into the kitchen. At that point, I remembered an urgent errand I had to run right at that moment, and I left the house, trembling with anxiety, guilt, shame and horror.
I do not know which of them first realized that the gutter outside our bedroom was stuffed with a Playboy Magazine and a three month old bowl of ice cream. I can only imagine the scene on that balcony when my father dug the whole sorry mess out of the gutter while both of my brothers watched, one in confusion and the other in consternation. Knowing my family as I do, my best bet is that not one of the three of them said a word; I am betting that they silently cleaned out the gutter, discarded the magazine, and brought the ice cream bowl down to the kitchen.
A few days later, my father called a handyman and he came in to repair the kitchen wall. For weeks after The Incident, I waited in agony for my day of reckoning; the ice cream bowl could only have been my calling card. I don’t know if my father talked to Johnnie, or for that matter if my brother Jamie talked to either of them. Even though my Irish Catholic family’s penchant for Not Talking About Stuff Like This saved me from that conversation, I knew what I had to do; some weeks later I finally summoned what courage I had and slinked off to confession. When I blurted the story out to Fr. Heaney, he paused for a moment and then asked me if I understood about hormones. Unprepared for this question, I replied that I did not. Father then explained hormones to me in a monologue that was kind, patient and excruciatingly awkward. I don’t remember what my penance was, but I remember how awful I felt kneeling in the confessional while Father talked about puberty.
From that day forward, I was a better, more moral person. I would like to say it was because I saw the light and chose virtue, but the truth is that, after the exquisitely awful experience of discussing hormones with Fr. Heaney, I was a new girl. Whenever I was tempted to do something that I knew was wrong, I thought about how very much I did not want to have to confess it. In the end, then, the one thing I learned from reading Playboy magazine was that sins are really never as exciting in reality as they sound in theory, and they are definitely not worth their cost. Not exactly the “Playboy philosophy,” which in the end is fine with me.