The Mysterious Connection Between Sex and Bowling

bowl sexMy 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 sex5better—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.

bowling2The 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.

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My Love of Barbie Leads to a Criminal Act (and a Vision of my Future).

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Me with Mimi and my Grandpa Din Shortly Before He Died

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.

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Grandma Barbie

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

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Susan’s Barbie

Barbie.

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.

skipperSkipper 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.

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Tutti

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.

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Ever-Stylish Francie

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 francie1scale-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.

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Twist N Turn Barbie

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

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Awkward Hug

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

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Raven-Haired Beauty

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.

writer-gilrSitting 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.

Jobs I Have Loathed II: The Convent Switchboard

switchboardWhen I started my studies at Mount Mary College in the Fall of 1976, I was so grateful to be back in an academic environment that I could have kissed the ground beneath the Arches. My summer job at Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company had paid very well, but the best benefit I received was a fervent and unswerving gratitude for the privilege of being back in school.

My parents expected the Maloney children to contribute half the cost of our college tuition, and my industrious siblings had never failed to do so, working at all manner of hellish jobs in order to meet this obligation. (In those days, a well-paying summer job provided more than enough money to pay half of a college tuition bill; when I began my studies, tuition at Mount Mary College was 1,495.00 per year. Marquette University, where my brothers went, charged 3, 490.00 per year.) Because my summer job had paid well, I had enough money for my first year of college, but I knew that I would need another job to pay for the three years to follow.

When we were in school, my parents considered school to be our job, and we were discouraged from taking on other jobs during the school year, which was fine with me. Work-study jobs were an exception; perhaps because they were on-campus and sometimes even related to school work, we were allowed to apply for work-study.

I chose to do so. I loved being at Mount Mary and so I figured that any job I would get there would be better than a job in another dreaded insurance office. Work-study pay tended to be generous, since the money was coming back in the form of tuition anyway, and the recipients of that money were already members of the community. My plan was to work steadily throughout the year at my work-study job at Mount Mary and bypass altogether the horrors of the summer job that no doubt awaited me otherwise.

I applied and was accepted; my assignment was to man the main switchboard–the central locus of communication for both the College and the Convent. (The School Sisters of Notre Dame, who owned and operated Mount Mary College, also lived on campus, in the convent.) I was in charge of answering both inside and outside calls, routing all calls to the proper recipient. One buzz from the console meant “outside call,” and I would plug in the proper cable and say in my most musical voice, “Good Morning, Mount Mary College, how may I direct your call?” Two buzzes and I would plug in and say “Switchboard.”

The best thing about my new job was that the nuns didn’t mind if we read during the slow times. I was always willing to take the early morning shift on Switchboard, because that meant fewer calls (often, the College was closed during those early hours and so I was fielding calls only for and between the nuns, who weren’t heavily into phone chat). Fewer calls meant that I was basically being paid to read novels and even sometimes for doing my reading for class. In my early days on Switchboard, I spent a good bit of time congratulating myself for my excellent job-finding skills.

sb4As the first few months passed, I got better at managing the board. It’s hard to picture now in the days of smartphones and wireless technology, but an old-fashioned switchboard is an an intimidating thing to behold. The Switchboard was a sizeable box covered with holes into which cables were plugged in order to receive calls. The machine would buzz, and my task was to grab a cable, plug it into the proper opening, and speak into my headset. Once the caller identified his need, I then pulled his cable out of the hole it was in and plugged it into the hole he wanted—for example, the business office, the library, or the dining room. If the call was a personal call for one of the nuns, I had to hold the caller in his spot while I “rang for” the desired nun.

There were a lot of nuns in that convent at Mount Mary College, and each nun was identified by a system of bells. If the caller asked, for example, for Sr. Georgeann, I had to ring Sr. Georgann’s bell code, which was 1-2-2-1. Throughout the halls of Mount Mary the bells rang “bong/bong-bong/bong-bong/bong.” Whenever the bells rang, every nun pretty much stopped dead in her tracks to listen for her code. Once Sr. Georgeann, for example, verified that yes, that was her bell, she then had to find a phone, pick it up and call the switchboard. Once I answered and heard a breathless voice say, “This is Sr. Georgeann,” I would pull her caller’s cable and plug him into the phone from which Sr. Georgeann was calling. Multiply this activity by the seventy or so nuns at Mount Mary, add the typical number of outside calls to the College, and the Switchboard could be a very busy place.

Keeping all those cables straight and plugging people into the right ones was an art, but especially important was the learned ability to answer every call quickly, routing and connecting calls calmly even if the number of callers on “hold” was escalating fast .  After a few months working the quiet morning shifts, I had more or less mastered the intricate system, and had settled in happily with this job. Then I got promoted. The students who had been handling the Board during the busy afternoon hours were making mistakes, and the nuns were missing calls. It was time for a shakeup, and I was first choice to take on the busy shift. My reading-on-the-job morning shifts were apparently over.

Switchboard at the busy times combined the stress of rush hour with the technology of a 1940’s era television set. Toss in a few nuns who had just been cut off from their much-awaited phone call from home, some outside callers who insisted that they wanted to speak with the head of the archeology department (Mount Mary had no archeology department), and you have a recipe for steady panic, flop sweats and disaster. Several moments from that time stand out for me.

nuns1One afternoon, a bevy of nuns visiting from the Mankato, Minnesota Motherhouse landed at Mitchell Field, the main airport serving Milwaukee. Their leader phoned Mount Mary (from a pay phone in a public phone booth) for directions to our campus; her call was answered by me. I have such a poor sense of direction that I have been known to get lost going from one building to the next, and when I took my Driver’s License Exam, I had to put a big blue ring on my left hand so that when the Instructor said, “Turn left,” I would know which way to go.

Yet I was the woman in whose hands rested the fate of these unfortunate travelling nuns. When I realized that I was being asked for directions to Mount Mary, I pleasantly said to the Lead Nun, “Please Hold,” and immediately plugged a cable into an outside line so that I could call my mother. When she answered I gasped, “Mom! A bunch of nuns need to get from the Airport to Mount Mary. What do I tell them?” My indefatigable mother told me to take out a piece of paper and write down everything she told me, which I did. I hung up on my mother and plugged back into the Travelling Nuns. “Hello, Sisters, here is what you do,” I said calmly, and told them everything my mother had just told me. Grateful, the Lead Nun chirped, “See you soon!” and hung up just as an outside call buzzed in. “Good afternoon, Mount Mary College,” I pattered smoothly. “OH MY GOD,” I heard my mother gasp, “I should have told you to take I-94 West, not I-94 East! Get back on the horn with those nuns and turn them around!” “MOM!” I yelled back. “They hung up! They’re on their way! Where are they going to end up?” Silence. Then, my mother’s voice, deliberately calm. “Well, either Lake Michigan or Chicago.”

This was not good news. I had no way to contact the nuns once they hung up, and so my only recourse was to pray that they stopped to ask more questions prior to entering either the lake or Chicago. I prayed that my shift would be long over when the wandering nuns hit the proverbial fan. I was, in fact, off duty when those bedraggled nuns eventually found their way to Mount Mary, three and half hours later (the trip should have taken about 30 minutes). I never asked any questions about their adventure, figuring that my best strategy was to lay low and hope it all seemed funny to them by the end of their stay. If it did, I never heard about it.

There were several such anxious moments at the Switchboard during peak hours. As I continued to work the busy shifts, I discovered that fast thinking in stressful situations wasn’t necessarily my strong suit. I developed a habit of unplugging from particularly unfriendly callers—calls in which I was required to be ever-pleasant and ready to apologize my very existence if need be—and letting off some steam by saying what I really had felt like saying all along. This practice was helpfully cathartic, until the day I unplugged a rather nasty call from Sr. John Ignace in the Business Office and said in my quietest and most deadly voice, “You can go straight to Hell, Sr. John Ignace,” only to realize that I hadn’t completely unplugged the call. Sr. John Ignace was not amused. Early morning and late night shifts were suddenly more available to me after that.

I had not worked many night shifts when I started on Switchboard, but right before the Christmas Holidays, they started to show up on my schedule. The night shifts ran from 5 p.m. to midnight, and since nuns were not known for their late-night partying, the switchboard got very quiet every night by about 9 p.m. When calls did come in for the nuns, especially around Christmas time, it was essential to connect the caller with the nun. The sisters longed for those phone calls from family, and stopped with every bell that rang to listen for their code. To miss such a call was unthinkable, and I took this responsibility very seriously. Some girls on the Board would ring a sister’s bell once or maybe twice, then give up. I was always willing to keep that caller on the line as long as I could in hopes of finding the desired sister. My reward consisted in those times when a breathless sister picked up a phone after her bell code had rung four or five times, so grateful I had held on while she got out of the bathtub or back from the chapel. I liked working the nights.

That changed the week that Mount Mary College’s President at the time, Sr. Mary Nora, returned from a trip. Sister Mary Nora was a large woman, and for reasons mysterious to all of the students, she was confined to a wheelchair. Whereas the majority of the sisters at Mount Mary College were rather heroically kind and patient, Sr. Mary Nora was not known for her patience or her humility. When she attended Mass in the Chapel at Mount Mary, she always sat in the back because of her wheelchair, but when time came for communion, it was very important to her that she be the first to receive. Most of the students knew to hang back from the communion line until Sr. Mary Nora had whizzed up the center aisle to receive, but once in a while, some poor soul who hadn’t received the memo would step into the communion line before Sr. Mary Nora had received. It was not unheard of that such a person could be physically pushed off her feet by the whizzing wheelchair of Sr. Mary Nora; it was not a mistake that anyone made twice.

I don’t know what Sr. Mary Nora’s personal struggles were, and I was young at the time and inclined toward the absolute sorts of judgments that the young are liable to make. But Sr. Mary Nora did not like me, and I did not like her. By the time I started handling the night shift on Switchboard, we had encountered each other a few times already.

Our first encounter occurred in my first months at Mount Mary; one of the sisters had become a good friend to both my older sister and my father. A dear woman with a good soul, she had discussed with my family the sad state of Mount Mary’s current fundraising initiative. Listening to this discussion, it occurred to me that Marquette University, the bigger University across the city from Mount Mary, never had any trouble raising funds. Mount Mary was a college for women, and I surmised that one of its main obstacles when raising money was the fact that women control a lot less of the money supply in our culture. This seemed deeply unfair to me, and already a bit in love with my College, I decided to right this injustice by writing an editorial for the Milwaukee Journal, castigating my fellow citizens for not doing more to support the education of women.

Sr. Mary Nora was not pleased. In fact, she was enraged. Convinced that the editorial would actually damage the College’s prospects (as it turned out, an incorrect assumption), she summoned me to her office for a personal inquisition. More than anything, Sr. Mary Nora wanted the name of my source. Who had “spilled the beans” to me about the lackadaisical status of the capital campaign? There was no way I was going to tell her who my source was; that poor dear nun would have had her head served to her on a plate. Despite every bullying tactic she could think of, Sr. Mary Nora was unable to get the name out of me, but she never forgot me after that. When the College hosted an annual dinner for the main donors, each class sent as its representative the student with the best grade point average for the year. I was that person in my year, but the number two girl was invited instead. Sr. Mary Nora made sure that I knew the reason: I wasn’t “a suitable representative” of Mount Mary College.

Thus it was that when I was the night girl on switchboard and Sr. Mary Nora returned from her latest trip, I was surprised to be summoned by Sister Herself that first night. I heard her wheelchair whizz up to the steps just outside the Switchboard Office, and then I heard her distinctive voice: “Girl? Girl?” Gingerly, I removed my headset and crept around the desk, poking my head out the door to see Sr. Mary Nora sitting there in her wheelchair. When she saw me, she frowned and said, “Oh. You.” I raised an eyebrow, wondering what on earth she wanted and why she hadn’t simply called the Switchboard rather than go to all the trouble of wheeling over.

I found out right away what the reason was. It was bedtime for Sr. Mary Nora, and she needed to get her nylon stockings off. That, apparently, was my job. When Sr. Mary Nora told me to roll her stockings down from her thighs, over her pudgy knees and over her blue-veined feet, my first thought was, “She is joking.” Of course, she was not joking, and looking back over the years, I can’t think that this was any more pleasant an experience for her than it was for me. I did as I was told, and I remember being shocked more than anything by the fact that Sr. Mary Nora didn’t shave her legs. Once the task was accomplished she turned her chair and whizzed away, without even a “thank you.” I slowly walked back to my desk and thought to myself, “Whoa. This was NOT in the job description.” I didn’t want to have to take off Sr. Mary Nora’s stockings again, ever. I had no idea who to talk to about this, but supposed my complaint would have to go to Sr. Gertrude Mary, a sweet but somewhat dotty nun who was putatively in charge of the girls who worked the Switchboard. I didn’t want to go to her, though, because I didn’t want to have to explain to sweet Sr. Gertrude Mary that I didn’t want to undress nuns, and didn’t think it fit my job description. Even though Sr. Gertrude Mary was about 55 years old, and I was 18, I felt as if she was too young somehow for this information.

Two days later, I reported for work at the Switchboard; it was a Monday and it was the afternoon, so I knew that there would be no “disrobing assistance” calls from Sr. Mary Nora. This was a considerable relief to me, as I still hadn’t decided what to do about my situation. Possibly because I was distracted that day, I dropped several calls and caused more than my share of trouble in so doing. Toward the end of my shift, a personal call came in for Sr. Joselma, an unpleasant nun who received very few personal phone calls. Years after I graduated from Mount Mary, I found out that Sr. Joselma came from a very big family in Wisconsin; they lived on a farm and Sr. Joselma was considered unmarriageable. (She was not an attractive woman, in that she resembled a toad.) Her parents sent her to the Sisters as a way to get rid of her. Of course, I didn’t know any of this that day at the Switchboard; I knew only that Sr. Joselma was an unpleasant woman with a hair-trigger temper.

Sister received a personal call that day, and I lost the call. I not only lost the call; I failed to get the name of the caller. Understandably, this was a huge disappointment to Sr. Joselma, and she was very angry with me. I heard a great deal from her about her anger, and in fact she threatened to make sure I lost my job on Switchboard altogether. Now, what with losing nuns in transit, being called upon to remove nylons from hairy-legged nun, and being in general under-appreciated (in my opinion, of course), I was feeling fairly fed up with the job. The alternative, however—losing work study meant being thrown again into the gulag Summer Job Experience—was worse. I ended my shift that day with Sr. Joselma’s threat ringing in my ears, and sorrowfully began my walk home through the cold winter twilight.

Head down and forlorn, I stepped into the busy intersection of Center Street and Swan Boulevard. Just as I stepped out into the street, a man turning right was momentarily blinded by the sun’s glare on the frost crusting his windshield, and his sizeable sedan hit me full-on.  Literally thrown out of my shoes, my body sailed a few feet and landed, shoeless and with an impressive thump that knocked my breath out.

Unable to catch my breath, I was pretty sure I had been killed, and desperately tried to say the Act of Contrition, a “clear the decks” prayer you want to say before the Particular Judgment—basically, a “Boy Am I Ever Sorry” prayer before meeting up with God. Not only could I not breathe, however; the only prayer I could remember was our family’s grace before meals, which hardly seemed suitable. This rumination all took place in a real time miasma of black panic, as I was sure I was actually dying right then.

ambulanceWhen the crash happened, I must have made quite a noise, first hitting the car and then hitting the pavement, because people ran out from their houses and businesses on the street and started yelling a lot. Someone threw a blanket on me and somewhere in there I got my breath back, which turned out to mean (a) I was not going to die right then and (b) I was in a great deal of pain. There there were sirens, and an ambulance, and a trip to the hospital that I barely remember. I was very much alive, but I had a rather seriously banged up leg, and would need bedrest, then a leg brace for several months, and rehab for my knee.

There was no way I could fit my now heavily braced leg behind the desk of the Mount Mary Switchboard. The driver of the car that hit me was distraught, and owned up immediately to being at fault. My brother, by then an attorney, talked to his insurance company and retro_vintage_black_white_happy_money_woman_poster-r0522e118a05e4a0a8a8bd5109523a6c0_we1qq_8byvr_512they eventually offered a settlement. In order to assess lost wages, my brother had to call Sr. Gertrude Mary and ask for an estimate of those wages. Dear Sr. Gertrude Mary made a very generous estimate of how many hours I would have worked—especially considering that Sr. Joselma wanted me summarily fired that very day—and the money from that accident paid my share of my entire second and third year tuition at Mount Mary College. My knee hurt a lot, the brace was uncomfortable, and rehab was no fun at all, but I was nonetheless pretty happy about the way things turned out. Getting hit by a car was more fun than any job I had ever had, and a leg brace was a small price to pay for getting at least two of my summers back.

 

A Frozen Playboy, A Bowl of Ice Cream, and the Wages of Sin

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 passoutcommand 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.

phoneEvery 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.

After the sinMary 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.”

book-of-knowledgeNext 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.

ice-creamNow 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.

playboy-philosophyFrom 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.

 

The Short Life of Christian Recess in the Third Grade

Once “The Spirit of Vatican II” blew into Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Religion classes at Christ King School changed quite a bit. We had started out in first grade with a book called The Baltimore Catechism, which I really liked because it had cool pictures and clear explanations of difficult concepts like sin, purgatory and the Trinity:

bc1  the-trinity-1

I was pretty disappointed when it was time for Religion class one day and the Baltimore Catechism was gone, replaced by—well, replaced by not much:

vat-2-d       vat-2-a

 

 

 

 

 

 

Instead of talking about really interesting and useful things like “Purgatory and How to Avoid It,” or “Is it a Sin to Eat Mincemeat on Fridays in Lent?” we now spent most of our time talking about how important it was to be kind. I did not, even in my limited third grade mind, dispute the relationship between avoiding Purgatory and being kind. I just missed seeing the connection made explicit in vivid detail:

deathjudgement1

Instead of sitting at our desks, which we did for the really important subjects like Spelling and Math, for Religion class we now sat on pillows, often drawing pictures or listening to music. I still remember the day Mrs. Lane teared up when she put Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” on the turntable, telling us as it played, “Do you see? Jesus loves Mrs. Robinson, and He loves you, too! More than you know!” We also did a close analysis of “Richard Cory,” which, according to Mrs. Lane, was a tale of what happens when Christians are unkind (for those unfamiliar with Simon and Garfunkel lyrics and the poetry of E.A. Robinson: suicide). Now, I had been a Simon and Garfunkel fan from the start; my brother Johnnie, whom I adored without reserve, had both of their albums and I knew all their songs by heart. I also knew that Paul Simon’s parents were Hungarian Jews. It seemed unlikely to me that this nice Jewish boy was writing songs about Jesus, but I didn’t want to let Mrs. Lane down, so I said nothing. Nonetheless, I really missed the Baltimore Catechism.

If my training in religion had begun in the third grade, I would have thought, with good cause, that “Christian” was a word meaning “golden-hearted.” It was hard not to notice, however, that my fellow third graders talked a good line in Religion class but all of their touching and luminous reflections on kindness disappeared the moment their feet hit the pavement at recess. Suddenly, the very girls who had been exulting about how nice it is to be nice were forming groups to play jump rope and making it clear that I was not welcome to join them. It would have been helpful to start recess immediately after looking at pictures like these:

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instead of pictures like these:

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To be honest, I didn’t seriously mind not being included in the daily recess routine; the girls in my class just looked sweaty as they jumped rope while chanting about their future spouses. The “spouse options” were doctor, lawyer, or Indian chief, with “Indian Chief” being the booby prize—not a very kind attitude, when you think about it. When they weren’t jumping rope to the rhythm of our future marital choices, they were writing “recipes” for their Easy-Bake ovens. I was used to standing against the chain link fence and watching everyone else while my mind wandered; I often took that time as an opportunity to daydream about the dog I might someday get, a dog who would adore me. I did, however, inherit from my mother a nose for hypocrisy, and I was starting to take note of the stark difference between the angelic discourses in Religion class and the Jungle Laws of recess.

Intrigued by this discrepancy, I went home one day and shared these thoughts with my mother. Her imagination was captured by this conversation. It was unusual for me to approach my mother with any of my school problems; I had apparently decided early on in life that my mother had a lot to deal with already, so my sister Susan was my “go-to” in all situations. It was also unusual for my mother to take decisive action because of something I told her about school. My parents weren’t the only ones in the 1960’s who left their children in what they assumed were the capable hands of the school system; it was nearly unheard of for a parent to question any decision a teacher made or to suggest a better way of doing things than the one already in use. My mother did have a particular dislike for religious hypocrisy, however, and my playground observations hit all her buttons in that regard. She requested a conference with Mrs. Lane to discuss the discrepancy between Religion class and Playground Culture.

When my mother complained to Mrs. Lane that her charges were dropping their Christianity at the door when they left the building for recess, Mrs. Lane was galvanized to make an immediate change. The day after she talked to my mother, she announced to the class that from that day forward, all the girls had to play with each other, and so did the boys. No groups, no teams—just girls together as one and boys together as one. As she made this announcement, she kept beaming at me and very nearly winked; I was squirming in my chair, fearful that I would be discovered as the Girl Who Ruined Recess Forever.

To my surprise, however, my classmates took to this new idea of Christian recess with gusto. As far as I could tell, no one suspected me as its source (really, though, no thanks to Mrs. Lane.) And in fact, recess that day was great. I don’t remember what game we played; certainly Mrs. Lane’s “Everyone Plays” rule limited our options. But I do remember playing something, and I remember having fun. Things were definitely looking up.

The next day, Mrs. Lane didn’t mention anything about the New Rule for Recess before she sent us forth to the playground at 10:20, and it was back to business as usual. The girls split into small groups and the boys did whatever it was that boys did at recess.  I shrugged, and took up my usual station near the fence, thinking about what I would have for a snack after school and ruminating about names for the Dog I Might Get Someday.  I don’t know why I never told my mother that Christian Recess lasted exactly one day, nor do I know why my mother never asked me how things were working out. Even less do I understand why Mrs. Lane never followed up on Christian Recess, but I suspect that her memory wasn’t what it once had been, and what memory she had was largely taken up with her dead husband, about whom we heard a great deal in the classroom every day. He used to call her His Rose, and when she married him—Mr. Lane—her name was “Rose Lane.” We third graders (well, at least the girls) loved this stuff, and never complained if stories of the late lamented Mr. Lane spilled over into our time for Math.  Mrs. Lane was a good-hearted soul, but her finest days in the third grade classroom, I suspect, were behind her. She meant well, though, and I knew that.

Religion class never really got any better after third grade. We never went back to the Baltimore Catechism, much to my chagrin. We did, however, continue our Close Religious Study of the songs of Simon and Garfunkel. By seventh grade, we had advanced to Sr. Collette saying, “Do you see? It’s Jesus! Jesus is the Bridge Over Troubled Water!” I never did bring up the fact that Paul Simon’s parents were Hungarian Jews. It wouldn’t have been kind.

 

 

Sweet Potato Pie and Social Justice

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My mother and father were very much pre-Vatican II Catholics, and the changes wrought by the Council delivered some real shocks to their systems. They trusted the Church, however, and they tried hard to “open the windows of the Church” as Pope John XXIII exhorted them to do. My father, especially, was not a man to do anything in a small way. He was definitely a “jump in with both feet” sort of fellow. Thus it was that in 1969 I found myself transported from Christ King Church on Sunday mornings to St. Boniface Church, an African-American parish on the other side of town.  We started attending St. Boniface because it was Fr. James Groppi’s parish, and my father wanted it to be very clear that the Maloney Family stood with Fr. Groppi. (For those who were busy or not alive in 1969, Fr. Groppi was a priest in Milwaukee who marched for open housing and other civil rights; he was a real rabble-rouser.)

Our Sundays at St. Boniface were an early experience of the variety to be found in Catholic worship. Whereas the mostly German white Republicans at Christ King Church maintained a safe distance from each other at all times and performed the newfangled “Sign of Peace” as brusquely and quickly as possible, the worshippers at St. Boniface really got into it. Instead of remaining in our pews, we all stood around the altar with Father, and the Sign of Peace was The Enthusiastic and Lengthy Kiss of Peace. Never a demonstrative child, I was not a fan of the Kiss of Peace and spent the first half of mass glancing sideways and dreading the kissing moment that was to come. While for me, the Kiss of Peace only gave rise to the dread of kissing strangers, I did like the music at St. Boniface. Unlike Christ King, where Mr. Keeley labored away on his organ while the stolid German Republicans grimly stared forward, at St. Boniface, we sang. I can still sing several choruses of “Sons of God.” (“Sons of God/Hear His Holy Word/Gather ‘Round the Table of the Lord/Eat His Body, Drink His Blood/And We’ll Sing a Song of Love/Allelu, Allelu, Allelu, Alleluia!”)

In the Spirit of Vatican II, my father also decided to join a movement called “Cursillo.” At the age of ten I had only the fuzziest notion of what Cursillo was all about; all I knew was that my father went away for several days on a retreat and we all wrote letters to him. At the end, the whole family went to wherever the Cursillo was and the Cursillists came out of a door and we all hugged. My father was so enamored of this Cursillo Experience that he encouraged my mom to go, too, and so she did. More letters, more hugs. When my grandmother, Mommy Mayme came to visit a few months later, my father convinced her to enter into the Cursillo Experience. I don’t know if we had to write letters to her, but there was definitely hugging. On the day that Mommy Mayme finished Cursillo and we went to the Church for the Hugging Ritual, my Aunt Bernie was visiting us and she came along. When the Cursillists walked out for the Hugging, Mommy Mayme had a giant crucifix around her neck and she was beaming at everyone. My Aunt Bernie turned to my parents and said, “WHAT have you done to Mother?!” In any event, Cursillo activity ended there and we moved forward, no doubt stronger—if not more demonstrative—as a family.

As part of his newly intensified social conscience, my father got involved with an African-American gentleman named Henry Carter. Henry Carter had a wife, Barbara, and a lot of children, one of whom—Glinda—was my age. Henry had been arrested for theft, and claimed that he was innocent. My father believed him, and thought his arrest was an example of the lack of justice in our racist society. He paid Mr. Carter’s bail, and we ended up getting involved with his entire family. They were, of course, deeply grateful to us, especially Barbara, and embraced us fully. My father invited the Carters to join us for Easter Dinner that year, and while they couldn’t for some reason come for dinner, they did come and spend the afternoon with us, bringing us a sweet potato pie. What with our family and Henry’s large family, it was a memorable day in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, and I can bet that my parents got more than a little bit of enjoyment imagining the neighbors’ faces when the Carters piled out of their car and into our home.

At some point shortly after that Easter, my dad received a late night phone call from Barbara Carter. Henry had been arrested again. And apparently this time he had been caught red-handed with the goods. It was pretty clear that Henry was guilty and he was going to jail. My father did not abandon Henry’s family, though, and we stayed in relation with them for some time. I was about ten years old, and Glinda—the Carter child who was my age—invited me to her birthday party. I barely knew Glinda, having met her once at Easter, but I knew that my parents thought that my going to her party would send a Strong Social Statement, so I accepted her invitation.

It was a strange experience for me, and no doubt for my mother, who brought me. The Carters lived in a housing project on the North Side of Milwaukee, and when we arrived at their apartment we saw that they owned no furniture. In the abstract, I had always thought that it was swell for our government to build housing for people who couldn’t afford it on their own; seeing where Glinda and her family actually lived was a sobering experience. The apartment building looked like a Stalin-era gulag (I had read the book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, so I did know what a gulag wasit was an unusual book for a ten year old to have read, but in those days my brother Johnnie was giving me reading lists. That was also the year I read Fail Safe.)  Not only were the buildings bleak, but there was very little grass and tiny trees that offered no shade whatsoever. I was really, really glad I didn’t live there.

Even more disorienting to my ten year old self, the Carters’ living room had nothing in it except a television set, although it was a very nice television set. (Even at the age of ten, I pondered the fact that Henry had been arrested stealing television sets.) All of Glinda’s guests were there when we arrived, and mother told me later that never before had I looked so very white. After we had been at the Carter’s for about half an hour, Barbara said that she was going to go out and buy a cake, and “Mrs. Maloney will be in charge of the games.” This was big news to my mother, who generally did not like children and hated games. A lot. We were both in uncharted territory.  I have no memory of what my mother did with us, but we all did something until the cake arrived. I am pretty sure she found a container of some sort and something to throw into it, for a variation of “Drop the Clothespin in the Bottle.” Whatever she did, the partiers were quickly bored and decided instead to sit on the floor and listen to Otis Redding sing “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” over and over again. So there must have been a record player in addition to a television.

I spent “Game Time” recovering from all this diversity. I was still trying to get my mind around not having any furniture. Also, I was hungry because my mother and I assumed we would be having lunch. That cake couldn’t come fast enough for me. This seemed like a very depressing place to live, yet Glinda and her friends were clearly having fun together. And when Glinda’s mother, Barbara returned (with cake, thank God!), she was also very happy and relaxed. It was 1969, years before the phrase “cultural diversity” started showing up in everyone’s vocabulary. My parents were providing culturally diverse experiences long before it was cool.

Glinda Carter’s birthday party was one of the oddest experiences of my childhood, but I am proud of my parents for trying so hard to be what their Church was asking them to be, however clumsily they implemented it. Eventually we lost touch with the Carters, and I do not know what became of Henry or his family. I’m pretty sure my father lost his bail money, but he never complained. I think he was hoping that John XXIII would have been proud of him. I know I was.

 

 

 

 

Sister Collette Smacks the Spirit of Love: My Second Attempt at Theater

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My sister Susan was always a More Fully Well Rounded Person than I was; she actually paid attention in school, volunteered at a camp for disabled children, competed in Debate and Speech events, and participated in school theater. She could not sing, but she always snagged the largest non-singing part in plays. I was her adoring and devoted audience; whereas my parents went to one performance of each play and forced my brothers to do the same, I found a way (tricky, since I was much too young to drive) to attend every performance. I was the Adoring Audience. And really, once you’ve snagged a stage, a company, a set and a script, what is more important than an Adoring Audience? I knew my part, and I played it well.

Watching Susan on stage over the years and seeing how much fun she was having, I started to recall my own triumphant turn as a gypsy in my second grade ballet recital (here)That memory inspired me to put my disastrous Drama Class Adventure behind me (here)and audition for the seventh grade Christmas Play at Christ King School.

I was cast, and in a major role. This was well before the days of “participation ribbons” and the philosophy of “everybody wins,” so being cast as one of the leads was a real coup. All of the girls and even many of the boys tried out, so there were quite a few disappointed seventh graders. For once, I was not one of them. I have no idea what the title of that Christmas play was, nor who wrote it. I do know that it was not a very good play, so it is possible that Sr. Collette wrote it herself. Sr. Collette loved to engage in creative activities, but her efforts often fell short of whatever mark she was aiming at. Earlier that year, for example, she had decided to create a filmstrip about “The Joy of Reading,” starring the entire class. In this film, each of us wore a giant board with a letter on it and walked around forming words with our bodies accompanied by the song “Celebrate.” (For those who missed the 1960’s, the lyrics were “Celebrate! Celebrate! Dance to the Music!”) I am unclear as to what Sister’s vision was for this project, but I could tell when we watched the completed film that we had not achieved it.

Wherever it came from, the seventh grade contribution to the Christmas Pageant was a one act play with a short running time; there were eight other acts to get through in one afternoon, after all. I was the Spirit of Love. I do not remember who played the other two parts; in fact, I don’t know what the other two parts even were, although I assume they were the Spirit of Hope and the Spirit of Faith. My part consisted in gliding onto the stage at some point, dressed in an ethereal white robe, and giving a misty speech about love to a little boy lying in a bed. I don’t remember why he was in the bed, but I assume that the action was taking place on Christmas Eve a la A Christmas Carol, and the little fellow was going to learn some important life lessons from his Spirit Visitors.

In order to achieve the “ethereal” effect, Sr. Collette arranged with Mr. Keeley, the Christ King Choir Director (and a very intimidating man) to borrow three long white choir robes from the Christ King Choir. Mr. Keeley agreed reluctantly to let Sr. Collette use the robes, but he pounded into her the warning that nothing must happen to these robes. On the day of the dress rehearsal for the play, we three Spirits of Something got to put on our robes, and—even more exciting—we rehearsed in full makeup. The little boy in the bed didn’t get any makeup, but then he didn’t have any lines, either. We three Spirits, however, were decked out in vivid pink cheeks and red lipstick.

I don’t remember the rehearsal itself, but it must have gone just fine, because whenever anything didn’t go well in our seventh grade classroom, Sr. Collete would become memorably angry. She had an Artistic Temperament. After rehearsal, we three Spirits ducked into the cloakroom to disrobe and rejoin the dull world of People Who Aren’t in Theater. As I was taking the Very Expensive Choir Robe off over my head, I caught the front of it with my fully lipsticked lips, leaving a sizable smear right on the front of the robe. It looked like the Spirit of Love had been attacked by a knife-wielding maniac.

Seeing the impressive red slash on Mr. Keeley’s Choir Robe, my two Spirit castmates gasped and ran out of the room as fast as they could. One of them (who in that moment was definitely channeling the Spirit of Tattling) yelled out to Sr. Collette that “Maloney messed up Mr. Keeley’s Robe!” I stood there in stunned disbelief, looking down at my sorry choir robe and coming to grips with what had just happened, dreading the moment that Sister found out what I did. Sure enough, Sr. Collette swooped into the room, a black and white blur of rage.

No doubt Sister herself was terrified of Mr. Keeley; we all were, but I was also terrified of Sr. Collette, and never more than in that moment. When she saw the red lipstick smear on the robe, she hauled off and slapped me right across the face, as hard as she could, and she was not a frail woman. I never questioned her response; I knew that I had—accidentally, but still—committed a dark deed, and no doubt betrayed any trust she had in my ability to For Once Not Screw Up.

I never told anyone that Sr. Collette hit me. I was relieved that we were in the cloakroom and no one else saw it; I was at least spared a public humiliation. Also, I really didn’t blame her. I knew that she was now in deep trouble with Mr. Keeley, and it was my doing. Sister tried the best she could to get the lipstick stain out with cold water, and after her ministrations it was reduced to a faint pink blur. Surely (we hoped) the mark would be invisible to the audience while I was on stage. Neither of us held out any hope that the same would be true of Mr. Keeley.

The Christmas Program took place during the afternoon; in those days, evening events were unheard of, since our teachers thought that our parents deserved relaxing evenings at home after their day’s work rather than having to haul themselves up to school to watch their children do things badly on stage. Those parents who were at home during the day were welcome to come and stand in the back of the gymnasium, but very few parents did so.  My mother had told me that she would try to get there to witness my triumphant stage debut, and my sister Susan was planning to come as well. (She must have had the day off from high school, as she would never have been allowed to miss school for a grade school pageant.) The Program started at 1 p.m., and as soon as the curtain went up, I started looking for my mother and Susan to appear. As the moments ticked by and there was no sign of them, I got more and more anxious.

As the program marched inexorably onward, the time came for the seventh grade to take the stage. No sign of my mother; no sign of my sister. Still, I knew that the Show Must Go On. I stepped out onto the stage when my cue came and spoke my lines with confidence, as if to say to my audience, “Ignore that pink smear on the Spirit of Love’s ethereal white robe. Attend only to the profound words issuing forth from the Spirit of Love.”

Susan and my mother missed my star turn, and they felt terrible about it. My mother was taking care of my other sister Marbeth’s baby that day, and Marbeth was caught in traffic and late to pick her up.  My mother had four other children and several grandchildren, and I knew she was juggling a lot of balls. I comforted myself with the knowledge that I had, at the moment I needed to, stepped up and given my performance. I was also very glad that it was Sr. Collette and not I who had to bring those robes back to the formidable Mr. Keeley.

My Smutty Book Club with Sr. Lydia

 

A-young-girl-reading-a-bo-001_zpsb78ffd4aMy mother worried continuously over my lack of friends and my weight.  I loved to read, and I was content to lay on the cot in our basement every day after school and all through the summers with a bag of forbidden chocolate at my side, reading my parents’ collection of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and whatever else I could find on our shelves. While my mother wished I were less in love with chocolate and would have loved to see me pursuing more physical-fitness oriented activities, she thoroughly understood my love of books. We always shared that passion, and it was a good one to have in common.

Books saved my life; at least, they saved my sanity. They had the power to lift me completely up and out of the world I was wedged into so physically, and they filled my mind with other peoples’ adventures and sorrows and loves, coloring in the sketched-in lines of my own. My first rescue through books came in the summer before fourth grade when my grandmother, whom we called Mommy Mayme, stayed with us after her failed eye surgery. We shared a room, she in one twin bed and I in the other. Mommy Mayme snored like a steam engine, and I would lie awake all night long, unable to sleep next to such impressive noise. As I would watch the pink sky creeping toward my bedroom window, I would listen to the radio I kept under my pillow, and some nights by the time that pink was advancing, I had heard  “Hurdy Gurdy Man” seven or eight times.

One night as I lay in bed listening to Donovan sing and my grandmother snore, I risked turning on a light. Mommy Mayme didn’t stir when the light clicked on, and I was off to the races. I started reading the first book in a series my sister owned called Honey Bunch. honey-bunch
They were awful books: syrupy sweet, with a perfect little girl named Honey Bunch who did no wrong and loved everyone. I read two a night, until they were gone. Then I read Cherry Ames: Student Nurse, but there were only two of those on the shelf. I moved on to the Bobbsey Twins. They were less tooth-achingly sweet than Honey Bunch, and the Twins had a funny Aunt who was deaf and heard everything incorrectly, but really the Bobbsey Twins were just a warm-up act for Nancy Drew.

I loved Nancy Drew, and when I found her books, I couldn’t wait to finish one so that I could move onto the next. Although Nancy must have had some sad times—she was sixteen years old, and her mother had been dead for years—you would never know it. She had a doting father, Carson Drew, a housekeeper who clucked over her regularly, her own Roadster, and two best friends, George and Bess. n-drewShe even had a boyfriend, Ned Nickerson. Trouble always found Nancy, but she prevailed in the end, and she didn’t need parents or a boyfriend to do it. Nancy was smart and independent and I loved her.

Whenever I found a book that I adored, I read it over and over again, savoring it differently each time. I studied every moment of city-girl Betsy’s life with her farm relatives in Understood Betsy, I wished I had a baby sister like Phronsie in The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew; I recoiled in horror when Jo married Professor Baer in Little Women. When I read Mrs. Mike, I fell completely in love with Mike Flanagan but also with Katherine Mary O’Fallon; I fell in love with their love and with their marriage, and when their babies, Ralph and Mary Aroon, died, I was devastated.mrs-mike I more or less memorized Mrs. Mike, and to this day I recall its images and anecdotes at various moments in my own life. No book quite took over my life, however, the way that Heidi did.

I found Heidi in a box in Anne Fischer’s basement. Anne was my mother’s best friend from childhood, and like my mother, she also loved to read. There were boxes and boxes of books in Anne’s basement and whenever we visited, she would tell me that I could take home any books I wanted, which was my version of heaven. When I found Heidi, I took it home and read it straight through. I fell in love with Heidi and with her grandfather. Heidi’s life was so difficult that it made my problems seem like nothing, and she never let her difficulties destroy her.heidi I wanted to be in Heidi’s world, which is odd, since Heidi’s world included being abandoned to live with her grandfather, a very grouchy and distant old man, sleeping in a hut on a desolate mountain with this old man, building a loving connection with that same man through pure resilience and good humor only to be taken away without notice to serve as a companion to a rich crippled girl named Klara whose housekeeper despised Heidi…THIS was the world I wanted to leave my world for? Yes.

For most of a summer, I pretended I was Heidi without telling anyone I was doing so. I pretended my twin bed was a pile of hay in a loft, like Heidi’s was, “climbing” into bed each night from my rocking chair; I scrubbed my face each morning just as Heidi did each morning at the well; I ate applesauce whenever possible at meals because it most closely resembled the “mush” that Heidi and her grandfather ate every night. I think what affected me so powerfully was the fact that Heidi’s life was as bleak as it gets, but she never let it change her. She changed her world, instead, with a steady hope that things would get better and that if she loved people, they would become loveable.

Another book I found in Anne Fischer’s basement was Marjorie Morningstar. A hefty book, it took me weeks to get through it, and several pounds of chocolate malted milk balls. I was enraptured. Marjorie was a teenager in New York City during the 1940’s who wanted to escape her nearly certain fate of getting married and moving to the suburbs. She wanted to be an actress, and she was determined to make it happen.marjorie_morningstar I didn’t realize until many years later that Marjorie had not actually been all that talented, that her own dreams of being an actress and an unconventional woman had been risible given her clear status as a typical Jewish girl of her time.

In eighth grade, I read Gone With the Wind. The book took over my life for a solid month. I would sit through classes all morning, and as soon as the bell rang for lunch, I would run home to eat my sandwich and read for twenty minutes before running back to school before recess ended. Then would begin the long wait for the last bell of the day, and the dash home to get into my comfortable clothes, grab the book and head to the basement, snacks in hand. I didn’t get much homework done, and thebarbie homework I did turn in that month was not very good. I was doing nothing to improve my solid “D” average in science and math; my reading and spelling scores were good because I didn’t have to study them to excel. Even my reading grade plummeted, though, when I had to turn in an art project about a book I had read. My task was to create a diorama about a book I had enjoyed and, lacking any artistic talent whatsoever, I dressed my Barbie doll in her best dress, put her in a box, and said she was Scarlett O’Hara. I got a D. The diorama next to mine was created by Dianne, a girl I had never seen read an entire book in her life, and she had a scene from Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, with a pond made from a mirror and realistic looking snow. She got an A.

When I was in eighth grade, Reading Class (now called “Language Arts” for some reason) involved everyone in the class reading the same book and then doing a great deal of non-reading activity about it. One of the assigned books was The Light in the Forest. It wasn’t a long book, but it took up huge amounts of time because most classes were not about the actual book; they were about things that had some remote connection to the book. So, for example, if the book mentioned someone eating applesauce, the class would make applesauce. If the book mentioned a shoemaker, the class would be subjected to a lesson on making shoes. It was Reading Class For People Who Hate to Read. Thankfully, there was a different group for “Advanced Readers.” The Advanced Readers were allowed to read anything we wanted to read, at whatever speed worked for us. The only requirement was that once a week, each Advanced Reader had to prepare a selection of one hundred words from her book of the week. The idea was to read our chosen passage out loud and then tell Sr. Lydia why the book was wonderful and what we learned from it. These “Advanced Reader” conferences took place while the other students made applesauce or colored pictures of shoes. After reading her “one hundred words,” the student would explain to Sr. Lydia why she chose those particular words and how they best represented what the book meant to her. The idea was that each Advanced Reader would read about one book a week; I easily read more than that, as reading was my favorite thing to do in the world, other than eating, which I could do while I read, thus combining two favorite activities in one experience, a win-win for me.

One particular Friday, I hadn’t yet read Sr. Lydia the “one hundred words” from my book of choice. I had probably read several books that week, but the only book I had with me that day was a book I had barely started. My mother was always happy to buy me a book if she saw one that looked interesting. Just that week, she had seen a book at the Marshall Field’s Book Store that she thought I might like, and brought it home for me. I had started the book, and liked it fine. So I just grabbed that book and went up to Sr. Lydia’s desk to read my “specially selected” one hundred words. Opening the book at random, I started reading, only to realize quickly that I had accidentally opened the book to a sex scene. My mother had not vetted the book, and I had not yet gotten to that page. When I got to the words, “They were closer than close,” I abruptly stopped reading. Sr. Lydia said, “Go on, dear.” Flushed, ashamed and sheepish, I miserably finished reading. I have no idea what I said in response to Sr. Lydia’s question, “Now why did you choose precisely those pages to read to me, dear?” I have blotted that memory out completely.

My mother believed that reading was the most important talent and the best hobby there was. She was thrilled that I loved to read, and had a very lassez-faire attitude toward my selections. One time in the gift shop of Chicago’s Union Station, I wanted to buy a book called Coffee, Tea or Me? ctor-mefor the train ride to Milwaukee from Chicago. My mother was a bit dubious given the somewhat racy-looking cover, and asked me what it was about. “The airline industry,” I said. “You know, how hard it is to be a stewardess or a pilot.” Reassured, she gave me the money to buy the book, and I read it happily all the way home.

I didn’t finish the entire book on the train, but I was very eager to pick it up the following day; the book was about the job of being a stewardess all right, but it was racy in the extreme and I was enjoying it wildly. I would not be using it for my “one hundred words” presentation to Sr. Lydia. I couldn’t find the book anywhere the next day, and when I went to ask my mother where it was, she informed me that my brother Jamie had ratted me out. He had told my mother that Coffee, Tea or Me was a “sex book,” and told her to open the book at random and read anything. She did so, and apparently learned some things even she, a mother with five children, didn’t know. That was the end of Coffee, Tea or Me for me, at least until a few weeks later when I finally found it on my mother’s closet shelf and finished it on the sly. She hadn’t kept the book to read it herself. My mother had very good taste in books. She just couldn’t bear to throw away a book, any book, and she certainly couldn’t give it away to anyone and be an Occasion of Sin.

The only other time I can remember my mother taking a book away from me and hiding it on her closet shelf was the summer of eighth grade, when I had a dermoid cyst removed from my ovary. That surgery was a major deal, and I was in the hospital for over a week, much of it spent hooked up to tubes and in a great deal of pain. My sister Marbeth’s best friend Jolie gave me a copy of the brand new book Our Bodies, Ourselves.obos I had been in no shape to look through it while I was in the hospital, but I certainly looked forward to perusing it once I got home.  One day while she was visiting me, however, my mother started paging through the book while I was napping. I awoke to a very irate mother, who had some rather unfavorable things to say about Jolie. “Who would give such a book to a twelve year old girl?” was, I believe, among them. “The first page I opened to had a picture of two women. Dancing. With each other. And they were both in the nude!” Our Bodies, Ourselves went home that day under my mother’s arm, and in order to read it weeks later, I had to find it on her closet shelf.

Finding and finishing the books my mother had put away for a later date—or forever—assured me that there was such a thing as a bad book, and that my mother actually knew what a good book was. I am still grateful for my mother’s love of books and her encouragement of my own love of books. We often clashed over food issues, and my mother was often distracted from my day-to-day life because of all the other demands on her attention—a sick mother, a troubled sister, teenaged children, an alcoholic husband—but we always had books in common, and that bond sustained us until the end of her life.

When my mother was eighty-one years old, she discovered that she had terminal cancer, and when she went into hospice, we developed a practice of reading together every night before bed. For her birthday that same month , she had received as gifts a book about the Civil War from her grandson and The Secret Garden from her granddaughter. While I stayed with her in hospice, we developed a practice of reading both books at night before we went to sleep. Alternating between the two books, I would read aloud until she fell asleep. My mother died before we finished either book, but I was so grateful that we shared our love of books to the very end.

 

secret-garden

My Failure to Avoid My First Confession

penanceSecond grade was the year that we made our First Confession at Christ King School. I was in the second grade in 1966, so the changes wrought by Vatican II were still two years away for us. Sister Shawn Marie and Fr. Lippert did their best to make this process reassuring; Father visited class and practiced the routine with us (“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my — confession. Here are my sins: —–I am sorry for these and all my sins, especially for all the times I —–.”) Each student was in charge of enumerating her own venial sins, but for some reason that is not clear to me it was decided that Sr. Shawn Marie would supply us with what is called our “principal fault,” or the sin that came after “…especially for all the times I —-.” When it was my turn to sit next to Sister’s desk, I ran through the whole script with her and when I got to the “especially….” part, Sister supplied the words, “….for all the times I was lazy.” I remember thinking, “Huh. Did not see that coming. Lazy. Is that even a sin?”

I was a bit uneasy about this whole “going into a dark closet and talking to a grid” thing, not to mention the idea of confessing the sin of laziness, which I wasn’t all that convinced was my biggest flaw anyway, so I solved the whole problem by pretending to be sick the day of my First Confession. My mother had no idea it was the day of First Confession, because in those days the school handled these things on their own without bringing the parents in all the time. I thought it was very clever of me to avoid the entire situation and also have a day off from school. I don’t know why I didn’t understand that Confession was going to happen again, but I didn’t. And so, about one month after First Confession, Sister announced that we were to line up and march over to Church for Confession. My heart lurched. Confession! This was going to be a Regular Thing! And now everyone else was lining up in a confident and serene manner, with an air of “Oh, yeah. Confession. We totally know how to do that. That’s cool.”  What to do?

I did the only thing I could do, which was line up with the others and march to Church with confessionall those relaxed second graders who had already been there and done that. I sat in the pew and ran through the script in my head, trying to remember the right words and where to plug in my sins. After not nearly enough time had passed, Theresa Buth opened the heavy wooden door of the confessional and nodded at me to enter. I gulped and walked inside the little dark room. Best to just launch in, get it done and exit with as much panache as possible, I decided, so I knelt down and said the whole thing in one big breath: “BlessmefatherforIhavesinnedherearemysins…..” etc. Just as I was finishing up I heard a scrapy, sliding sound in front of my face and suddenly a kind male voice said, “You may begin.” Begin? I had just done the whole thing! Where was HE?” He was, of course, on the other side of the confessional. I closed my eyes in resignation and started over: “BlessmefatherforIhavesinned…” I remembered everything I had planned to say; I did not, however, confess being lazy as my major sin, as Sister had instructed me. I had decided, all on my own, that my Big Sin in the last action-packed seven years was stealing a holographic block from Patty Goodnetter. The block I had stolen was so attractive to me because the pictures kept changing, just like a television set. Not knowing the words “holographic block” at the age of seven, I cut to the chase and confessed to Father that I had stolen a television set.

I remember there being a pause after the words “….especially for the time I stole a television set,” and then Fr. Lippert gently said, “How old are you?” “Seven, Father,” I replied. “Could you please describe to me the television set?” I did so, and—after another brief pause–Father told me that I had made a very good Confession and asked for my Act of Contrition. Wow, I thought, I think maybe I aced this. I totally got an “A” in Confession. I was so amazed at my Confession Prowess that I almost didn’t hear my penance–two Hail Marys and two Our Fathers. As I opened the wooden door to let the next penitent in, I felt the weight of all my sinning lift off my shoulders; cleansed and pure of heart, I floated out of that confessional and rejoiced in my sinless state. As I knelt down in front of the statue of Mary to say my penance, I realized that, immediately after being absolved of my sins, I had been prideful about my Awesome Confession Skills. Not to mention that I completely forgot to confess the illness I faked to get out of Confession in the first place. Sighing with resignation, I squared my shoulders, acknowledged the constancy of my own fallen nature, and understood that I would be going to confession again very soon and for the rest of my life.