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.

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Lane Bryant And a White Nightgown: My High School Graduation.

 

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I was a chubby child from the time I was seven years old, always hovering at about twenty-thirty pounds overweight. It was in high school that my weight started to increase exponentially rather than arithmetically; when I received my driver’s license at the age of sixteen, I was able to get to grocery stores and bakeries that were once too far away to walk or bike to. I had a greater variety of “goodies,” and with a car, I had to exercise a great deal less in order to obtain them. When I started high school, I weighed 133 pounds (I was 5’7”) but by my senior year, I weighed about 190 lbs.

Food was my steadiest, most loyal friend, but it was a friend who called far too many of the shots in our relationship. I didn’t want to binge, but I did. I didn’t want to hate how I looked, but I did. I didn’t want my thighs to chafe whenever I wore shorts, but they did. I was consistently miserable in my own flesh.

At Divine Savior-Holy Angels High School, we wore uniforms; for freshmen and sophomores, it was a green plaid skirt with an ugly long green vest and for juniors and seniors, a blue plaid skirt with a more palatable navy sweater. My first uniform was no problem, because I was a size 10 when high school began. When the time came to change uniforms for junior year, however, I was rigid with dread. Size 18 was now a tight squeeze, and I was positive that there would be no uniform skirts that fit me. Of course, I should have known that was a ridiculous fear, since there were plenty of DSHA upperclassmen fatter than I, and none of them came to class naked. Nonetheless, I fretted, and I was hugely relieved when I discovered that the uniform store did indeed stock skirts in my size.

By the time I reached the end of my senior year, even my plus sized uniform skirt no longer fit, and I had to resort to closing it up with a chain of safety pins. Luckily, my blue sweater covered my waistline, so no one was the wiser. I knew it, though, and I hated it. I had to pull my sweater down many times a day in order to cover the open zipper, and I lived in fear that my secret would be exposed. For some reason, closing my skirt with safety pins resulted in one side being shorter than the other, so I was also constantly yanking at the one side to keep it from hiking up any further.

Having a uniform at all was a blessing, because I didn’t have many other clothing options once school ended for the day.  In the 1970’s, regular department stores did not carry any clothes larger than size 18, and I had no idea that there were stores with nice clothes for fat people. This degree of ignorance seems impossible today, or at the very least monumentally stupid, but there was no social media in 1976, and no Google Shopping. We shopped at Marshall Field’s and occasionally at Gimbels, and I had no idea what would happen if I should gain even more weight and no longer fit into size 18. I shuddered at the thought and hoped I would never had to find out.

DSHA was an all-girls’ Catholic high school, and the tradition there was for graduates to wear long white dresses and carry long stemmed red roses. A lovely ritual, but for me just another cause of Great Fat Dread. By the spring of my senior year, I weighed 184 pounds. Other than my safety-pinned uniform and a blue sweater from the Men’s Department at Marshall Field’s, my entire wardrobe consisted of the few size 18 outfits I was able to find.  My shopping trips were never about what I liked or what might look good on me; the only criterion I really had was: did it fit? If yes, I bought it.

Starting in March that year, I started casing the stores in search of a long white dress that would fit me. There were none. I never told anyone that I was going on these reconnaissance trips; I was humiliated enough. As far as I could see, no one made long white dresses in anything approaching my size. What was I going to do? I had no idea. Apparently, I was too fat to graduate from high school, and as May loomed ever closer, I resigned myself to the brutal reality that I was not going to lose enough weight to solve my problem.

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These were going to fool no one.

Finally one day, I hit upon my only solution: I would have to find a white nightgown and pass it off somehow as a dress. This would not be an easy task; I didn’t have to look around Lingerie Departments for long in order to realize that they had no size 18 white nightgowns that even remotely resemble dresses. I was terrified that I would have to choose one of these nightgowns to graduate in, and the other girls would howl with laughter when they saw me. Seeing no other alternative, I pressed on, visiting mall after mall in search of a “graduation dress.”

 

About three weeks before the big day, my mother announced that we were going to Lane Bryant to find a graduation dress and then out to lunch at the Milwaukee Athletic Club. I had heard of Lane Bryant, and seen their ads in the Milwaukee Journal, but I was pretty sure they would have nothing suitable for me. Their newspaper ads convinced me that Lane Bryant was a store for grotesquely lb-uglyobese old women who had a fondness for rayon, polyester and lots of wild prints. (It is much easier now to find cute clothes in plus sizes; in those days, I think the mindset in the fashion world was that fat women either didn’t care how they looked—I mean, there they were, fat—or that fat women did care how they looked but needed to be punished for being fat in the first place.) My nightgown strategy was not working out, so I agreed that yes, lunch and a trip to Lane Bryant was in order.

On the appointed day, my mother and I drove downtown, parked the car and walked over to Lane Bryant. I was rigid with shame as we walked into the store. It was awful enough that I had to walk through those doors; much worse was knowing that my chic and stylish mother had to cross that threshold because of me. As we entered the store, a sales clerk said something to my mother and her whole face lit up. She turned to me and said, “Did you hear that? She just asked if I was looking for the Tall Section! She thinks we are here because of me, not you!” My mother was so happy that she was the assumed shopper, that the clerks didn’t find me fat enough to warrant being in the store for fat people. I loved my mother in that moment with a purity I can still feel. As much as she hated the idea of being fat, of being around fat, of having a fat daughter, she was happy to be mistaken for a Lane Bryant Shopper if it meant I would not be marked as one.

The sales clerk directed us up to the Junior Department on the second floor. As we exited the escalator, I was stunned at what I saw. There were racks and racks of clothes, some of them very cute, all of them in sizes I knew would fit me. I had had no idea. They had an entire rack of white dresses, including several that I had seen in Seventeen Magazine, my book of dreams—just in larger sizes. I was actually in the smallest sizes in this store, and what a feeling that was! I tried on several dresses, and bought one of the dresses I had seen in Seventeen—a long white eyelet dress with a simple bodice and a ruffle at the hem.

I was happier that day than I had been in a very long time. I felt beautiful, and—even more wonderful—I felt normal. My mother was happy, too, and she triumphantly handed her credit card to the sales clerk, who put my new dress in a shopping bag and handed it to me.  We sailed out of Lane Bryant, and I felt positively buoyant, a rare sensation for someone who weighed 184 pounds. The Milwaukee Athletic Club was just a few blocks away, so we walked over there to have lunch together and celebrate.

We took the elevator to the dining room and I sighed happily as I placed my shopping bag on one chair and sat down in another. My mother ordered a martini and I ordered a TAB, and we talked about the upcoming graduation party and who would come. The waiter came over to take our order and I eagerly ordered my favorite thing on the MAC menu: a cheeseburger and french fries.

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Truly wonderful cheeseburger and fries.

Without realizing it, I had broken the spell of our happy day. My mother’s forehead furrowed, and she sighed, “I don’t understand why you would eat that after what we’ve just been through.” I was hungry, and now I felt defensive; for a moment, I considered changing my order to the MAC salad, but I wanted that cheeseburger. I wanted those fries. When our food came, I ate every bite, but the buoyant feeling was gone for both of us.

Even though the mood of the day had changed, I was grateful to have my beautiful white dress and relieved that I could stop shopping for nightgowns. My mother had really come through for me by taking me to Lane Bryant. Thinking about that amazing Junior Department, I asked her why she had never told me they had cute things at Lane Bryant. My mom thought for a moment and said, “I was afraid if you knew that, you would be less likely to lose the weight.” Ah.

I felt beautiful on the night I graduated. I kept my dress for years; I even had it remade to be a smaller size when I lost a lot of weight later on. After taking in the dress, the seamstress gave us the yards of extra fabric she had removed, and my mother used it to have Christmas ornaments made for her grandchildren—little babies with white eyelet Christening gowns.

I no longer have even one picture of myself from my graduation night, although I know that there were a few taken. Years later, when I had lost the weight, my siblings and I were looking through some family pictures. We came across one of our family’s infamous “couch pictures”—we all jam ourselves onto the living room couch for a family portrait—and there was a picture of me in my graduation dress, surrounded by my brothers and sisters.  “Oh God,” my brother Jamie laughed, “Who is that in the big white dress?” We all laughed, but I couldn’t help but sneak a look at that girl in the big white dress and amgelremember how very pretty she felt that night. I don’t know what became of the picture, but after that night I never saw it again. To this day, the only place I can find a memento of my high school graduation is on my family’s Christmas trees, in the form of tiny eyelet-clad baby ornaments.

 

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.

 

“Who Ate All The…?”

vintage-mom-shoppingFor most of my childhood, my mother went to the grocery store once a week, on Friday. My father was the breadwinner, and each week he gave my mother an “allowance” for all household expenses. On Friday morning, my father would tuck a check into the corner of the mirror that rested on top of her dresser and on Friday afternoon, my mother would go grocery shopping. Whatever my mother bought on Friday was our food for the week.

Typically, we ate the same things for dinner from week to week, a steady routine of spaghetti, meat loaf, pot roast, baked chicken, minute steak, porcupines (ground beef rolled in minute rice and cooked in tomato soup), English Muffin pizzas, roast beef or roast pork on Sundays, ham, and hamburger patties with a strip of bacon wrapped around them. Our milk came every day from the milkman (we consumed vast quantities of milk) and my mother bought bread every other day from the bakery across the street (we also ate a great deal of bread.)  When my mother went to Kohl’s Food Store on Fridays, she bought the ingredients for the week’s meals and a few treats for the family: some cookies, a box of Kohl’s Brand potato chips and six cans of pop. That’s six cans of pop for five children—for a week.

My dad had discovered a Great Deal on pop, at a bottling plant called American Beverage amer-sodaCompany; there, he could buy pop by the case—glass bottles of pop in wooden crates that he could then return for the deposit. My father loved nothing better than a bargain. He was known to drive from Wisconsin to Indiana to get a good deal on cigarettes, and until the 1980’s he drove to Chicago to buy alcohol at a place called Twins Liquors; bourbon was the family Drink of Choice and Twins had a house brand that was not as expensive as the pricier brand name bourbons. He also knew of a shoe store in Chicago that had nice shoes for cheap and he went there for years, bringing both of my amer2brothers. He was thrilled by the low price of American Soda; he didn’t drink pop himself, which explains a great deal. Strange as American Soda often tasted, though, it was plentiful and cheap, and much, much better than tap water.

The generic pop supply was steady but the name brand pop disappeared quickly. My eldest sister Marbeth loved Real Coke so much that she started to buy and keep her own supply in her bedroom closet. Woe to anyone who dipped into that private cache of Coke. Marbeth also bought her own lemon drops and artfully displayed them  in a glass jar on her desk; when my sister Susan and I were feeling particularly bold, we would dash into Marbeth’s room (as the eldest, she alone had her own room), snatch two lemon drops from her jar, and run for our lives.

Shortly after we moved from Chicago to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I had my new friend Ellen over to play. Ellen came from a calm family, the sort of family who never fought—or even disagreed, as far as I could tell. Her house always felt like a museum; her mother had an extensive doll collection housed in glass cases, and every room was perfectly organized and arranged, like a slightly dusty model home.

football-3On the first day Ellen came over to my house to play—a Sunday—the Chicago Bears were playing the Green Bay Packers on television. We were all pretty new to Wisconsin and so were collectively experiencing some significant homesickness. (The first time my mother saw downtown Milwaukee, she turned to my father, said “This is IT?” and burst into tears.) My father and brothers still identified with the Bears, of course, and despised Bart Starr, the quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. No doubt feeling festive about the football game, and not all that interested in having an American Soda Company version of “Coke,” my brother Johnnie had “borrowed” one of Marbeth’s Cokes from her closet.

Ellen and I had been playing—calmly–for about fifteen minutes when either the Chicago Bears did something regrettable or Bart Starr did something good. Whatever it was, my father and brothers started screaming wildly at the television set and pounding their fists on the living room floor. I was unfazed, as this was just another Sunday afternoon for me, but Ellen was instantly terrified and wanted to go home. My sister Susan and I managed to calm her down; after some minutes had passed, she was even smiling (albeit a bit tremulously). That was when my sister Marbeth ran past us, a screaming blur of rage wielding a baseball bat; she was hunting down my brother Johnnie and the Purloined Coke. That did it. Ellen was out the door and back at her house well before Marbeth caught up with Johnnie. From that day forward, Ellen always offered her house as our playdate destination, which was fine with me, since her mother was generous with offers of Name Brand Cookies and Choo Choo Cherry drinks.

Food, then, was a bit of an “issue” in our household of seven, and no food item was more controversial than cookies. Every Friday, my mother bought two packages of cookies for the week. Inevitably, one of the two packages would be a complete waste of sugar and salerno-butter-cookiesshelf space. I never understood the reason why Salerno Butter Cookies even existed, much less why they absorbed any part of my mother’s meager Cookie Budget. The butter industry should have sued Salerno for using the name “butter”; at the very least, they should have called them Salerno “Butter” Cookies–And By “Butter” We Mean “The Paper That Butter Comes Wrapped In.”

Another anti-cookie pretending to be an actual cookie was the Nabisco Sugar Wafer These were thin strips of what tasted like very thin balsa wood held together by sawdust and microscopic bits of icing. Just looking at Sugar Wafers was enough to fill my mouth with dust. Then there were the truly execrable Coconut Bars, which could only have been produced and sold by someone who hated cookies, children and the entire Baked Goods Industry. I was a child who would eat just about anything if there was sugar in it, but even I was known to turn my nose up at Coconut Bars, which tasted like someone had collected the hair out of all the combs in the house, mixed it with flour, toasted and baked it. coconut-barsFinally, there were Pecan Sandies, a favorite summer time cookie for my mother. She bought Pecan Sandies so that when we went to the beach we could eat something whose taste wouldn’t be altered by being covered in sand. I am not making this up.

In addition to the Essentially Tasteless Cookies, though, there would always be a package of something wonderful, usually Oreos or Pinwheels. Pinwheels were the Platonic pinwheel-packageForm of cookie; for one thing, they were huge. They were the only cookie I could eat just two of and feel satisfied. Plus, Pinwheels had three delicious elements: a graham cracker base, a good deal of marshmallow, and a covering of chocolate. When they were fresh, I could bite into a Pinwheel and the chocolate would resist for just a moment before collapsing into a pillow pinwheelof fresh marshmallow and graham cracker. Heaven. The only down side of Pinwheels was the fact that they only came twelve to a package. At least Oreos had three rows of multiple cookies, making it harder to keep count of how many were gone.

My family lived under a Cookie Honor System. No one was supposed to eat more than her/his share of the cookies, and it was expected that cookies would be available through Thursday night’s dinner for anyone who fancied one or two. The Oreos and Pinwheels rarely made it to midweek. Even the Tasteless Blond Cookies were always gone by Friday and often before.

I snuck cookies at every opportunity, knowing full well that there would be a Day of Cookie Reckoning in my near future. When no one was around and I was hungry for sweets, I displayed an astonishing lack of ability to weigh short term pleasures against long term consequences, and I would eat a good bit more than my share of the weekly cookie supply.

untitledThe dread would start in my gut right around Wednesday night after dinner, when my brother Jamie would go over to the cabinet where the cookies were kept. I swear that he never wanted a cookie at all until he was sure they were gone. He seemed to enjoy more than any cookie the drama of opening the cabinet and yelling out, “Who ate all the…..?” I would cringe, because it was almost always me and I was almost always in trouble for it, especially when I was on a diet. My mother was never happy to discover that she had been baking halibut for me while I was scarfing down Oreos on the sly.

It was my sister Susan (she sometimes got into trouble over Cookie Consumption, but not nearly as often as I did) who came up with a solution to our problem. One Wednesday night after the weekly Cookie Inquisition—and this time, Susan was the main culprit–she stomped away from the kitchen, taking me with her.  “I have some of my own money,” she whispered to me. “Let’s go to Kohl’s and buy ourselves our own package of Oreos and our own bottle of milk!” Brilliant. My sister is a genius, I thought to myself. The best kind of genius—one with her own money.

Thus began a tradition of buying food in secret and consuming it in secret—unlike a candy bar here or there, we were talking entire packages of cookies, bags of chips, the large size candy bars. We did have the problem of spiriting these contraband goods past the eyes of my mother, but Susan and I solved that problem by inventing a pulley system whereby we snuck out the back door, down our side yard, across the Steins’ front yard and to either Kohl’s, Fessenbecker’s Bakery or Hayward’s Drugstore, depending on how hungry we were and/or how much money we had. Once we had the goods, we placed our contraband goodies in an old bicycle basket and pulled them up onto our little balcony with a jump rope.

For some reason, Susan moved on from this behavior after a few weeks. Perhaps she was weary of funding my prodigious appetite for sweets, or perhaps she was turning into a Normal Person; in any event, my silent partner in crime was pulling out. Not me. I developed a firm and pernicious habit of buying junk food and consuming it alone. Once in a while, Susan would still join me in the Search for the Sugar High; when there were no goodies in the house—or the goodies that did exist were a worrisome “Jamie will get us for this” trap–Susan perfected a recipe for our own “frosting.” She mixed butter with cocoa and powdered sugar and we would eat it straight from the bowl. It was actually pretty good, and just as importantly, we could make it quietly and fast.

When even the ingredients for Fast and Sneaky Frosting weren’t available or I had no money of my own, I was not averse to consuming Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup straight from the can, or—if we had them–poured over graham crackers. One night I was craving the Chex Mix I had tasted at a friend’s house, and I attempted to recreate it by guessing the recipe, limited of course to whatever ingredients were on hand in my mother’s kitchen. I poured Cheerios on a cookie sheet, doused them with soy sauce, and baked them for about thirty minutes. They were not tasty.

m-and-mWhen my brother Johnnie got married in 1971, I was eager to hear from him what marriage was like. My sister Marbeth had married in 1966, but she lived far away, first in North Carolina and then in Texas, so I couldn’t ask her. About a week after coming back from his honeymoon, I asked Johnnie, “What’s the best thing about being married?” Without hesitating, Johnnie said, “I go to Kohl’s and buy the pounder bag of M&M’s. I bring them home, and put them in the cabinet. And then I eat as many as I want.” Made perfect sense to me. I couldn’t wait to get married.

Fat Girls Never Get the Lead: Our Lady of Fatima and Me

ourladyoffatima

No matter how bad my other grades were at Christ King School, I was always an excellent reader. In the third grade, my ability to read “with expression” helped me to nail the starring role in the Third Grade Play. I am not sure why there was a Third Grade Play, especially since the Play we performed had only three roles, four if you counted the Virgin Mary, which we certainly did. Even before Vatican II showed up at Christ King School, there seemed to be quite an emphasis on connecting religion class with drama class. In the first grade, we regularly acted out various Bible stories, and this Third Grade Play was a re-enactment of the Miracle at Fatima, which was a Very Big Deal in Catholic circles during the 1960’s.

According to the story of Fatima, in 1917, the Virgin Mary appeared to three children in Portugal with an important message about the twentieth century. Apparently it was going to be a very rough time, with terrible wars and godless governments. The three children—Lucia, Francesco, and Jacinta—were told to inform the world that much prayer was needed in the dark times to come. There were purportedly “Three Secrets of Fatima,” and the First and Second Secrets had already been revealed; the first was a vision of Hell and the second was the Virgin’s claim that another terrible world war would follow World War One. No one knew what the Third Secret of Fatima was, but it was a source of endless speculation and fascination for many Catholic children, not to mention Catholic adults.

For many years, Catholics believed that the Third Secret would be revealed in 1960, and speculation as to its contents was rampant, ranging from the prediction of the end of the world to the death of all the popes and bishops of the Church. To the disappointment of many, the Vatican did not reveal the Third Secret of Fatima as expected in 1960, which merely fanned the flames of Marian gossip.[1] Whatever one makes of the Fatima Story, in 1967 it was a great way to get the attention of children like me, who were fascinated to hear of the Virgin Mary trusting children my own age to carry on some Very Important Business between her, the Pope and some world leaders.

There were to be auditions for this play; it was going to be An Event, performed in the evening with parents invited. Encouraged by Mrs. Lane, I tried out and I was the best reader. Some of the other auditioners did fine, but I was really feeling the lines and putting an appropriate amount of pathos and gusto into each word. I also knew how to pronounce all the words, and when I pretended to speak to “Our Lady,” who was going to be voiced off-stage behind a dazzling white light, I was apparently very convincing. I was awarded the plum part, which was Jacinta. (I have no idea why Jacinta was considered the best part; she did have the most lines, but historical accuracy would have demanded that Lucia be the star, since she was the oldest, the main interlocutor with Mary, and wrote six memoirs about the experience. She became a Carmelite nun and lived to the ripe old age of ninety-seven, whereas Jacinta and Francisco both died the following year in the influenza epidemic.)

index
The Real Jacinta

I don’t remember who was cast as Francisco, but Susan Flannery—a petite blond cherub

susan flannery
Adorable Susan Flannery

of a girl with sparkling blue eyes and a winning smile—was cast as Lucia. Apparently whoever was in charge of this production did not approve of Mrs. Lane’s casting decisions and told her that I was too fat to be Jacinta. Having made this casting decision, Whoever This Was didn’t make the natural move, which would have been to cast me as the stodgier looking Lucia and let Susan Flannery be Jacinta. Someone else from our class was brought forward to play Lucia and Susan Flannery was now Jacinta. I found this out when Mrs. Lane called Susan Flannery and me out into the hallway one afternoon. She said that Susan Flannery was going to be Jacinta, because she “had the right look.” I was no longer Jacinta, but she had written a whole new role for me of Narrator. Mrs. Lane enthused about this new role of Narrator, telling me that I could wear my first

me jacinta 2
Not the Face of Jacinta

communion dress (she was dreaming; I had gained much too much weight in the year after my first communion to fit into that dress) and read from a script with a special gold cover. Even at the age of eight, I could tell when someone was trying to push something questionable past me, and this “Narrator” deal smelled like a fix to me. Thinking I actually had the right to retain my fairly-won role as Jacinta, I politely declined Mrs. Lane’s Narrator Plan, and told her that I was happy to remain as Jacinta. That is when I came to understand that Jacinta was no longer my role, whatever decision I made about being the Narrator. I accepted the role of Narrator but I felt deeply wronged.

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The Real Lucia

 

When I told my mother what had happened, she took it philosophically, pointing out that I really didn’t look much like Jacinta, and looking the role is just part of life in theater. She encouraged me to embrace my role as Narrator, and said I could wear my new pink silk dress for the performance. I wasn’t happy, but I knew it was over. I was not going to be Jacinta. The night of the performance, I stood on my Narrator’s Chair and glowered at the audience, still stewing about the basic unfairness of the world, and read my lines from my special gold script, which was actually just the same script that everyone else had, except with gold wrapping paper covering it.

Mrs_Lane_s
Mrs. Lane: She Tried

Looking back, I can see that Mrs. Lane did the best she could, and she probably fought hard for that Narrator role. As for me, I learned the harsh lesson that Reading With Expression doesn’t count for much in this world if you can’t make weight. I am pretty sure this wasn’t the lesson we were supposed to be learning from our study of religion, but my experience did have at least one good result: every year May 13, the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, I say a rosary for all the overlooked fat girls in the world. I think Jacinta would approve.

______________________

[1] The Third Secret of Fatima was purportedly revealed by Pope John Paul II in 2000, and it turned out to be an apocalyptic vision of a Pope’s death; John Paul II had been shot and very nearly killed by an assassin on May 13–the date of Mary’s original appearance to the three children in Portugal) in 1981. After he survived the assassination attempt, the Pope travelled to Fatima and placed the bullet that came within centimeters of killing him in the crown of Mary’s statue there.