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.

bowl1

 

 

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

mm-gd-me
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.

my-barbie
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

susan-barbie
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.

tutti
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.

francie2
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.

tt-barbie-use
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

awk-hug-barbie
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

criminal-barbie
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.

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:

bc-4

instead of pictures like these:

vat-2-b

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.