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Friday, February 26, 2010

Chapter Twenty: Rum and Coca Cola

When Michelle and Pilar picked me up at school on that Friday afternoon our options for the weekend were few as all of us were on  a strict budget. While the food at the convent was predictable and filling, we talked about going out to eat anyplace else. I was addicted to burgers and fries; the girls enjoyed Norms where breakfasts were served all day. Even that indulgence, like a steak with all the trimmings at Norms would set us back more than filling up the tank for the ride to school. We decided to stay home, eat our supper at the  convent and  walk around the block before settling in to do the required work we had to do, like correcting papers for me, or tackle art projects for the girls.

Before we got home, we stopped  at the local liquor store, just to ask  the friendly clerk about mixing drinks inexpensively.  We left with a bottle of rum, a six pack of coca cola and a plan to try this simple mixing we just learned about. Sister Emma met us as the door of the convent.

“Are you girls eating supper with us tonight?” 

“Yes, lots of papers to correct.” I said, passing the package to Pilar, motioning her to keep going.

“How is it going? Is Mary Neely doing all right?” Sister Emma and I taught the same freshman group.

“She is having difficulty,” I said, remembering a girl who hung around after school, often late being picked up, often waiting in my room at the end of the day since she could see the parking lot and her ride from there. I was going to talk to somebody about her, but had been way too busy.

“I’m concerned about her.” Sister said.

I began: “She starts telling me things, and then, suddenly stops talking, and is still for a while, as if in a trance. She could be depressed.”

Sister and I talked for a while. Good grief, I thought, an experienced teacher can’t tell me what’s wrong with Mary. Now she wants to talk to her parents. I had a sense of joy and contentment going on and Sister was yanking me back to depression and mental health issues.

“They love you, you know! I just thought you would know." Then, coming closer, she went on, " You look flushed; are you getting sick?” 

“I’m bushed!  I have so much to correct!”

“You have been a good influence on them.” Sister said.

Pilar approached with her sweet voice: “Can you still help us with the report? Sorry, Sister! We have a lot to do!”

When Pilar and I returned to my room, three others had joined the party and had begun to drink. Sitting on the floor, in a tiny room, with the radio on and the door locked, we danced, giggled, threw up, shared our whole life with each other.

“So, how did you end up in this place?” Tony, another girl boarder asked.

“My parents chose it for me.” Pilar answered.

“How about you Rosy?” Tony wanted to know.

“I’m returning home in June?” I stated with pride.

“Where, Tijuana?”

“Do I sound Mexican?” I was always confused with Mexicans and that irritated me to no end.

“Well, yeah, kind of.”

“I'm not an immigrant. I just came here to study.”

“What do you have against America? This is the best place to live!”

“Have you been to Italy?”


“Have you been anywhere else?”


“Well, America may be the best place you know!”

“I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“I’m not. Just irritated. Italy is one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

“Then, if it was so beautiful, why did you come here?”

“Why? Because I had the opportunity to study English where English is spoken. You can understand that.”

“Sure.You must admit that we have more opportunities for people.”

“You’re right about that. We all come here and find more food, more jobs, more of everything.”

“There. I knew you’d come around. Girls, let’s talk about boys!”

The conversation slipped and sloshed from this to that. I had sipped rum and coke, and the room was turning on its axis. The girls were dancing and chatting for hours. I don’t remember when I fell asleep.

In the middle of the night, I woke with a big headache.

I wanted to die.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Chapter Nineteen: Retreats and Discoveries

The summer retreat brought anxious faces, and loud squealing. If someone started giggling, the whole group lost composure.Stories about transgressions were whispered between classes:  the time when the chapel was hair sprayed; or when the seats were sprinkled with talcum powder and flowers were perfumed  with bug spray.

At the last retreat, seven girls were expelled after they were found in the choir section of the chapel with candles and roses,  in pajamas and sheets, flat on the floor, waiting for the morning service to start. Their plan was to surprise the sisters at morning services. Early giggles gave the hiding place away.  

During meal times, someone’s brazen courage would be encouraged even further. One year was the appearance of bobby pins mobiles in the biology lab, and an unexplained rock and roll music during chorus practice. No class had surpassed the donut deliveries during Friday’s fasting. Each class was trying to outdo the previous one.

Talking was discouraged except at meal times and if they weren't concocting something, they engaged the novitiates or the lay teachers assigned to supervise them in some random conversation meant to embarrass them somehow.

“Sister, do you ever leave the convent for vacation?”

“Sister, how is your retreat different from ours?”

“You already pray day every hour, day and night. Don’t you do anything else?”

The adults smiled and encouraged girls to search their hearts for answers. They offered a few explanations: “We study different issues that affect the world. We explore how we can make a difference as teachers, nurses, missionaries. The problems of the world do not go away because we left the world. In our prayers, we ask for guidance.”

Girls talked about parties, alliances, cliques.They fired their questions at each other the minute they were allowed to talk, without waiting for answers:

“What did you do after school closed?”

“We went back East.”

“Did you go to Hawaii?

“No, we went to Europe, instead”.

“What did you see?”

“Wait, wait. I met this dream boy at our summer place.”

“Who? Is he cute?”

“Where does he go to school?”

“What music does he like?”

“Did you hear Elvis “Are you lonesome tonight?”

“I heard it at Nicolette’s party?”

“I did not know Nicolette had a party.”

Halls buzzed with joyful whispers countered by the ‘shush’ chorus of nuns. When doors shut, silence prevailed in the halls until the next change of classes. Sometimes  questions came up for no reason at all, at inconvenient times.

“Miss, do you like Bob Dylan?”

“Who, who is he?”

When someone asked me a question, everyone shushed, listening for the answer. At times, I was flustered and confused and tried to avoid answering at all.

“Are Sisters really married to Jesus? How can they marry a spirit? What good is it to love someone if that someone can never hug you and squeeze you and make you forget the world? Miss, do you have a boyfriend? Do you go steady?"

I heard  standard answers come out of my mouth, the ones I had heard growing up in Catholic schools. I too was scared of anything that sounded mysterious and came under the title of sinful.
Among adult lay teachers we talked more openly. None of us knew much about reproduction and sex
“How come sex doesn't appear to be painful in the movies?” we asked.

“Don't tell me you saw an R rated movie?”

“What about love?”

“Love is spiritual."

“What about birth control? I heard there is a special pill.”

“That’s for protestants. Catholics practice the rhythm."
"What's that?"
"I have no idea. I guess will find out when we marry."

“How do you know when you meet your True Love?”
“You will know. It will be like the warmth of the sun."
“Holy s…, I must be in Love; I am all suntanned! "

All our mothers had avoided the subject of sex and reproduction with pat phrases,you will fall in love when the right boy shows up.

Girls were always asking the sisters if they fell in love before they entered the convent. Their answer was to pray to the Virgin Mary for guidance.We all wavered between wanting to be like them, and wanting to expose them as hypocrites. How could they possibly know what they never experienced?

Most of us felt sorry for sisters who joined a convent so far from their homes,  no friends, no pretty clothes, no chance of ever falling in love. We got the novitiates to share, to tell us how they knew.

“It was a calling”, one would say, and we interpreted to mean that her family pushed her.

“I knew it from the time I was a little girl”, some one was scared of the world.

“There has been a nun in our family forever”, her family had insisted.

“Sister, when did you know? Is there a time when you had no doubts?”

“Do you think of the children you could have had?”

We, students and lay teachers alike, knew and understood the bond of friendship, to support and defend each other’s name and reputation. School taught us all many things. But school didn't teach  what you wanted to learn, especially  at this age.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Chapter Eighteen: Burying Doubt and Guilt

I ended up living in a beautiful mansion, behind tall walls and locked gates, in the convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph. I had a room of my own with a private bathroom, two meals a day, linens laundered and ironed weekly, and access to beautiful gardens and a well stocked library.

That first evening, waiting for confession in the chapel, running through a week's worth of sins, I almost quit my religion. What I had to confess couldn't be spoken.

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”

“How long since your last confession?”

“Two weeks.”

“What are your sins?”

“I spoke curtly to my aunt, disrespecting her authority.”

“Anything else?”

I could talk about suicidal thoughts, about an obsession with death and escape.

“Father, I have angry thoughts.”

“My child, we must maintain pure thoughts before God. Any thing else?”

“No, Father…”

God already knew how I felt. God would forgive me.

“For penance, recite twenty Hail Mary’s. In the name of the…”

Why did I not feel better? Confessions were supposed to cleanse your soul and make you feel better.

I was lying to God. I was becoming the person everyone back home thought I would become, an American girl with no scruples, wanting just fun and good times.

My room was next to that of two girls attending California Art Institute. Four other young people lived down the hall, working girls who needed a safe haven at the end of the day. There were also a couple of potential postulants.

Michelle and Pilar greeted me one evening  with a box of chocolate and a thermus of hot coffee. Michelle from San Bernadino, Pilar from Spain and Mexico. They explained the kitchen closed right after supper, a very inconvenient time around exams when they needed snacks and drinks to stay awake. Since my light was on after ten, they assumed I needed sustenance too. We spoke easily.

Thursday through Sunday, we could mess up the rooms and keep anything we wanted stashed anywhere. At other times, the rooms were cleaned, linens were changed and trash inspected by snooping eyes.

Not having a car was a real handicap in Los Angeles. The convent was close to Wilshire, and convenient to bus stops. Yet, we could never really see the city without a car. Since our curfew was at ten, we could never be sure to get back in time if we had an evening event and relied on buses to be on time. A used car would have been heaven.

Michele had lived  with her brother, a famous radio disk jockey with a successful radio spot living in the hills above Sunset.  She had moved to the convent though, because her brother was too noisy, too erratic, and forever entertaining at night. Taking a bus from the Hollywood Hills to the art school took her hours. She was quite accepting of her life finishing school and forgetting any social life.

I purchased a used Oldsmobile for $600.00, more than I made in one month. I only had a learning permit, so Michelle had to drive us around. Suddenly, we were going everywhere.

One weekend, on the occasion of Michelle's brother's birthday, we drove to Benedict Canyon and arrived  to hear  a new band from England playing in the big garden.The place was crowded, drinks offered to everyone, and everyone seemed to know everyone else. An hour later with more people and more booze, we had trouble keeping up a decent conversation. Nobody noticed when we left early.

On our way back to the convent, we passed the Whisky-a-go-go, the club where the band would be playing later that evening, people clamoring to get in, a long line snaking around the block.
"I want to see that place!" I yelled for Michelle to find a parking spot.
"We can't get in there?" Michelle kept driving away.
"This is our chance. When will be here again?" I was insistent. Something in me didn't want to forgo any opportunity now. I had lived for years without going to a dance, a party or a movie without begging. I was free and wanted to taste the America I had been promised. What would I tell my friends back home, that I lived in a convent in America?

We got in line and had no idea how long we needed to wait, when Michelle saw somebody she recognized and soon we got dragged over to meet them, getting in the club as their guests.

Pilar was catching everybody’s eye the minute we sat down.  Someone had sent her a drink, a couple more lined up to ask her to dance. She sent them all away.

“Don’t you like to dance? “ I could not understand her annoyed disposition. I was so excited to be there, in such a happy place. Nobody was asking me to dance. I knew why too. While I was busy buying the car and paying for its upkeep, I had forgot that my clothes were inappropriate outside of the convent.

“Trust me, it’s a bore” Pilar kept saying to me when I went on and on about how I wished someone would ask me to dance.

A couple of bands played fifteen minutes a piece. Two hours later, or so, the group we saw at Michelle’s brother’s house came on stage. They recognized us. We waved back, and suddenly we became the center of attention, and free drinks were sent our way.

Michelle gave an interview to someone with a camera.  I had no idea who the band was; but everyone seemed to know them.

“I Don’t Get No Satisfaction” was the song they sang that made people wild.

“Yeah!” everybody shouted, while the place reverberated with pounding drums, filling up with smoke and bodies crowding each other uncomfortably. The loudness drowned everybody’s voices; the beat of the music and the panting of the dancers hid the fear on our faces and the loneliness in our souls.

The place looked like a high school dance about to go wrong. Everyone was  touching everyone else, and nobody was leaving the dance floor.

It was late when we got back to the convent and Sister Mary Joseph let us in after a good fifteen minutes of bell ringing.

“Sister, we didn’t realize it was late!” I remained behind to talk to her and explain how the birthday party went so late. She told me we needed to avoid such occasions.

“Maybe we shouldn’t drink.” We felt awful and quite sick by the time we called the night off and left to our separate rooms.

“We shouldn't drink on account of our religion.” Michele said with an air of moral superiority.

“I never heard that!” I responded. We were about to fight, but we all had  headaches and were quite tired..  "See you in the morning!" I said, leaving for my own room, where I threw up a few times during the night.

Drinking and partying probably had rules I never heard of.

“Don’t argue with your elders”, was the rule I knew well, and threw around in my own classes. Discipline was easy in Catholic schools: girls accepted strict rules, and their parents supported us.

The next Friday, the girls picked me up from school as usual. I noticed a big pile of stuff in the back seat, and asked:

”So, what are we doing this weekend?”

“We got a big project to work on.” Pilar looked worried.

“How long is your project going to take, two, three hours? Let’s stop at a liquor store, get some booze, pick up a pizza and we can work on your project tonight.”

“Booze?” The two of them looked at me in disgust..

“We need an education, some trial and error.” I said, confidently. "What it amounts to is getting experience without paying the consequences!" I declared.

The bottles of rum and coke were our first try at mixing booze. That night, we talked about how to protect each other and remain pure. We talked about going out together, how to meet boys, and if one of us wanted to leave, everyone had to leave, even if we really liked someone. If we met a guy who really liked one of us, and asked for a phone number, we told him we would meet him for a coke at the corner drug store. If we liked him after that date, we would insist on double date. Boy, he had to be Catholic to agree to that. We needed practice meeting and dealing with boys.

We were aware of the games girls played, enticing, appearing to be interested until sure of the person, and then find an excuse to leave. Pilar was a natural siren, her statuesque stand and amazing looks said it plainly, “You wish you could have me, you fool, I am too good for you, try it, and you will die.”

She was really shy and self-conscious about her accent. We had no trouble understanding her, but she seldom spoke in public. She never liked any of the boys that came to our table, she said. If she did, our game would have ended. After a drink and twenty questions, they would realize that Pilar's interests were elsewhere. Her body was ready, she said, but not her mind.

“In Spain, they know these things,” she went on, “they send you out with chaperons until your body and mind are on the same plane. Besides, I’m here to learn about advertising so I can take over my family business.”

She knows something we don’t know, I thought. How could we be sure when  bodies and  minds were finally on the same plane?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Chapter Seventeen: Riding the Waves

Riding the Waves

The sun had been up for hours when Myra woke me.“You need a day off. Call in sick.” She  laid out a change of clothes for me at the bottom of the bed where I had spent the night crying. The room was bathed in sunshine. I did call in sick, sobbing all the way through the exchange.

Myra tried to console me. “We can go to the beach, shopping, whatever you want to do.”

“I don't know. I really feel awful. Perhaps a walk on the beach, fresh air.”

“We can go to Malibu like that time.”

“I ended up with a sun burn I couldn’t explain. It was so bad, I couldn’t go anywhere after that. Didn’t I tell you about that?”

“I thought you had different schedules from me. I had to drop out soon after; so, we both kind of disappeared. You don’t know do you? Do you want coffee or tea?”

“Coffee, please. What happened?”

“How I moved to this place?”

“Tell me what happened; di you quit school?”

She packed the car as she told me her story. “I got pregnant right after my birthday. That weekend, I think. Anyway, I quit school, had the baby, put her up for adoption and went to work full time. I got this place just a couple of months ago. When you called I happened to be at Mom’s.  Now, are you sure you don’t want to go shopping?”

“I don’t feel like shopping. Besides, I don't even have a cent. She took my purse and everything. I don't get paid for another week; I’ll wash my blouse and underwear and I'll be fine until then.”

Myra drove us to a place where kids were waiting for the waves to grow bigger and the fog to dissipate. It was cold.

“These are all friends I’ve known for a while; see that dude with the red shorts? World Champion!” Myra stripped down and rushed out to join them. This is just like Gidget. I thought, They are really good out there. Waves can wipe you out and kick sand in your face, but these people are really good.

The place was deserted except for the surfers who paddled out and waited for the big wave to throw them off once they stood up to ride it. They kept doing it over and over again, never tiring, never fearing the force of the surf. They just got back, time and time again.

They all had cars, jobs, time to hang out. Everything I didn’t have, including NO Fear! I walked for miles, thinking about my situation, the options I had. It was not a good time to be homeless and penniless, but then, I did have a job, and I was making enough to support myself for a few months until it was time to leave for Italy.

At one point, Myra came on shore and I saw her looking for me,  yelling and waving in the distance. When I got to her she explained that the time flew by and now she was late for work. A friend of hers agreed to take me back to Myra’s place where she'd meet after work.

“Oh, you’re the Italian girl!” The friend greeted me as I got in the front seat.

“That’s me!”

“Myra told me about you. What do you do?”

“I’m teaching.”

“Interesting that I meet you just when I need your help.”


“I need to learn Italian.”

“What exactly to do you need?”

“Can I take you to dinner and explain?”

“Sorry. I have things to do tonight.”

“It's just that you would really be helping me. I have an early audition tomorrow morning, I would be listening to you, picking up your accent.”

“Are you an actor?”

“Did you see the Aqua Velva Commercial?”


“My name is John Kaneen on screen. Steve O’Donnell in person. Take your pick. So, how about dinner?”


“O.k. But we’re both hungry and we can get burgers on the way.”

“I love burgers, fries and strawberry milk shakes are my favorite American foods.”

“ Yeah?”

So, after a day at the beach, after  sun and water had done their magic, after a delicious ride through the drive- in for a fantastic meal, I made a plan. I had nine months to learn to be an American before I took my flight back home. First thing, find a place to live. Second thing, learn to surf and ride the waves. Third thing, eat American drive-in food every night. I was in the real America now. I needed to become an expert.

"First lesson," I said, "try to put a vowel at the end of each word."
"Lika dissa?" He tried.
"Yes! and throw in any Italian word you know, whenever you can, adesso!"
"Ah, si,si, signorina."

I could teach anybody to be who they wanted to be. Now, I had to teach myself to be normal.  My life was not the movie I wanted to be in.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Chapter Sixteen: Parting Ways

I had been teaching in the heart of the city, on Pico Boulevard, under the path of  many jets flying to LAX. None of us noticed; we made our own noises to shut out the world.

I was in my element.

Wearing a sort of uniform, dark a-skirts, white shirts, sweaters for  chilly days, I looked the same as I did in college, not much different from the girls I was teaching. Anywhere else  I’d feel out of place, old-fashioned, convent-girl look; here, I felt joyful, every minute of every hour. Clothes were incidental. We appreciated hard work and  rules.

Early October, I overheard a couple of nuns talking about their pilgrimage to Rome, and within minutes, I had reserved a seat on the same plane. Finally, an end in sight.

That evening, at home, as I fixed dinner and waiting for Uncle to close the store,  I casually mentioned the news. Aunt's face went into an immediate frown, "Is that the reason you're late again?"

I didn’t think I needed to remind her that I worked full time. and attended graduate school. Maybe she hadn't understood.
“I’m not going to inconvenience you any longer." I said, and without taking another breath, I went on:"It’s been a long time. Why, my folks may not even recognize me! I’m thinking it’s going to be difficult to adjust back home.  I may not know how to behave like an Italian any more.”

My chatter was quick and fast.

“How can you talk like that? We have given you everything!" She was now angry and loud.

Usually, I would have smiled, and attended to some chore to placate her. Instead, I walked away without responding. The smell of her Pall Mall cigarettes was encircling me. Her hair in a towel smeared with dark streaks told me she had just colored it.  That combination of smells made me want to rush to the bathroom.

“Well, you need to ask permission from Ted!” She hurled this like a stone aimed for my head.

“I’m too old to be asking for permission!” I asserted boldly and out of character. Something about having money to buy a ticket back home was giving me confidence and courage.

“We won’t hear another word about this. You can’t go around making these decisions by yourself!”

“I don’t need permission. I'm not a child. I'm paying for this myself.” I yelled and slammed the bathroom door shut. This was the only room where I could lock myself in and regain my composure.
The place was in a shamble. Bottles everywhere. No wonder she was angry. I was not home to take care of the children on an evening when she had decided to color her hair.

“You’re an ungrateful slug. You’ve been nothing but trouble.” Hissing with rage, she was pounding at the door.

I opened the door and something came out of my mouth:  “I might as well leave right now.” I then rushed to the bedroom to gather some things before I lost my courage.

“Your Uncle will be very angry! You’ll wait until your Uncle returns.” She was shouting at the top of her range. When she saw me put some clothes and books in a suitcase, she grabbed it forcefully, “We paid for all that stuff!” Those were the last words I heard as I dropped everything and stormed out, walking as fast as I could to the street corner where there was a phone booth.  I called Myra whose number I remembered. She accepted my collect call and picked me up twenty minutes later.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Chapter Fifteen: Sundays

Los Angeles basked under an ever- present sunshine that caressed everything it touched, winking at newly watered lawns, blushing and blurring its edges. Seasons changed like Polaroid pictures, a change was sensed before the eye caught the full image.

In the shops, seasons were hurried through, before the customers had a chance to feel the need for a sweater, before the sun got hot enough for a bathing suit brightly displayed in the window in April.

Time seemed still, a starlet posing for a photo shoot.

Our lives, Uncle's, his wife's, the three babies', felt like  languid reflections, plastic toys bobbing in  backyard pools,like  leaves streaming from one end of the water to the other, without direction until, suddenly, something made them all settle at the bottom of the drain.

I had been in that house for five years in suspended animation- as if in a spell.

I sent home letters describing not my reality, but my wishes, words painting broad smiles,sunny dispositions, blessed sainthood.

The truth had been locked away, and threathened to come out and shout only on Sundays.

I went to the eight o’clock Mass when the prayers were recited in Latin, ancient language of my people. Every mass felt as if my mother and I were together, she with a shawl covering her head, bowed in resignation, grateful that I had escaped a fate like hers, thanking God and the Virgin Mary for the life her daughter was enjoying.

“Oh Mamma, If you only knew!” I was praying to the Virgin Mary, and talking to my mother, one and the same to a crying heart.

“Please, Mother, Virgin Mary, guide me, save me from my anger and my loneliness.”

"Why, daughter, why are you unhappy? You are ungrateful and spoiled. How did this happen?" These were the words I heard spoken back at me.
I couldn't explain my life.

I only wanted to end it.

I NEEDED to send a message to the saints, the family back home, a message that would have liberated me from the spell. Prayers after prayers rose with the liturgy; prayers and tears washed my soul for a few hours every week, giving me the courage to start a new week, to carry on.

After church, I prepared the day’s main meal and waited for the rest of the family to gather together. I waited, watching television-Donna Reed and her perfect world where children were loved and families were whole. On Sundays, Uncle rode his bike for hours, and his wife read the Sunday paper as children watched television and snacked on potato chips.

Nobody ate the meal I prepared. Nobody was ever hungry as I was. The food sat on the stove until it was time to clean up the kitchen.

On one such evening, Uncle’s wife barged into my bedroom room after I had gone to bed and turned the light on.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, feeling like a sinking raft.
“Do you want rats in the house? You are used to rats, aren’t you? Aren’t you? Well, this is not your rat infested hovel back home. We are civilized here.” She was holding a piece of bread that had been left on the table.
Mortified, confused with shame and disappointment, I tried to explain the bread left on the table: “Uncle was at the table. I thought he would eat it.!”

I just wanted to scream.

The truth was we were not family. Back home, everyone came to the table for the main meal. First, while waiting for everything to be ready, we snacked on olives, celery. Then, taking up our assigned seats, with Papa’ at the head of the table, the midday meal would be served. The whole meal was woven with story telling, singing.

“Mangia, mangia” Mother encouraged. The meal would end two, three hours later, when groggy from all that food, people took a long siesta, talking “sotto voce” allowing the little ones and the very old to fall asleep.

Meals were prepared according to recipes passed down for generations. Never written, never changed, the ingredients came from our farm, seeds carefully stored and carefully passed down from family to family. All of life’s moments were shared at these meals. Grandma Maria Rosaria would join each of her seven children, once a week for a midday meal that would stretch into the evening. She arrived before noon, right after the last Mass, and she regaled us with stories about her childhood, when as an only child, her pa‘pa, the padrone of the masseria, would take her on buggy rides, visiting neighbors, checking on the land that nourished them for generations.

“These hazelnuts taste just like those on that piece of land by the river, the one your great-nonna got as a wedding present. Have not tasted any thing that good. Too bad I lost it all when we went to Brazil. Those crooks sold the land right from under us. We lost everything.” Those ‘crooks’ were her brothers who instead of managing the land, saw an opportunity to sell and cash in the profits.

Invariably, the conversation would include her greatest adventure, her time in Brazil. She lost a child there, and disappointed and homesick she and Nonno returned to Italy penniless. Nonno died a few years later, leaving his wife with seven children to raise by herself.

She spoke of humid heat, of flowers of exceptional perfume, mango and bananas, fruit I had never seen. She painted canvasses of extreme beauty and extreme harshness, life and death in the same frame.

Papa' sang about a man living away from home, missing his mom. Tears streamed from everybody’s faces, especially at the end: “ Mamma, solo per te…..E per l’amore not ti lascerei mai piu”, (Mamma, because of you, ….and for that love I will never leave you again). Papa’s voice, a beautiful tenor strengthened from years of performing at weddings and anniversaries, was grandma’s pride and joy.
We tasted happiness with each bite, each song, each movement. It felt like the joyful harvesting of grapes, family and neighbors singing along as they collected grapes from one vineyard to the other.

A lifetime sat with us at these meals.

And Sunday was our day to splurge, cook a stuffed rabbit, redolent with garlic and basil, stuffed with leftover bread, sage and wild mushrooms. The meal was begun after Mother returned from the early mass, the mass for busy housewives and old people.

The rabbit was fattened in the cellar, months of scampering among wine flasks, eating scraps we brought down every time we went to the cellar.
Always with plenty of tomato sauce to coat the homemade pasta, the rabbit had stewed for hours, perfuming the entire house, sending inviting aromas to the whole neighborhood. Sunday meals lasted all day, until every thing had been eaten and everyone felt satisfied.

The world was full of food, company and grace on Sundays.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Chapter Fourteen: Lay Teachers

I graduated  in  June of 1963, expecting to  return to Italy and join the family that had moved and was now residing in Milano. After four plus years, I looked forward to taking my place where I belonged, among people who loved and respected me.

June came and went and I found out that Uncle couldn't afford purchasing the ticket. I had never given any thought to money and to expenses.  They paid my tuition, books, bus fare. There was talk about how much my education was costing them, but I had been a bit too selfish and blind to see how difficult it was for my uncle to support me.  They had lots of expenses i was not aware of.

 I was living in my own bubble.

Uncle convinced me that I needed some practical experience as well as a teaching certificate under my belt before I ventured back to Italy. Curiously, it was easier for them to dish out tuition that came in small chunks than come up with a big sum for the airline ticket. He tried to explain that with taxes and other unexpected expenses, this was a bad time. I guessed that the new baby in the house, born around my graduation was another good reason to keep me around.

My aunt in Fresno had her own difficulties, and explained that owning property was a big liability at times. Instead of making money for them, property cost them money, in repairs, in advertising, in taxes.  I had no idea.

I enrolled in a graduate teaching program at Immaculate Heart, and mentioned to the teachers and registrar that I needed to earn some money..   A few months later, when  I heard they needed a substitute at Bishop Conaty High School, I applied and was hired. The place was easier to reach by bus than Immaculate Heart College. Now, I was able to earn real money and cover both my tuition and save for a ticket to take me back home.

The school director  helped me apply and obtain  a working visa.

The  faculty consisted of a few lay teachers like myself, and sisters from different religious orders, some wearing habits, some business suits with prominent crosses. At times it was hard to distinguish the religious from the secular faculty. Four of us lay teachers were still in school,  finishing a master or a teaching credential.   All of us looked forward to being wives and mothers. In my case, I first had to make enough money, and have enough experience to satisfy the requirements for my return home before dreaming of becoming a wife or a mother.

In the teachers’ lounge the lay teachers ended up eating separately. The exception was Sister Mary Joseph, a widow who assumed religious life after she had had a full life as a wife. She gravitated to the group of young teachers, sharing opinions about everything. Eva, Muriel, Tonia all taught different subjects  but saw the same students and shared strategies  as disciplinarians.

I could have passed for a fourteen year old,  barely 100 lbs, purposely wearing dark color suits devoid of frills to display a rigid attitude and strict adherence to rules. I could have passed for a nun myself, except for my hair, styled carefully to look like Jackie Kennedy.

No nun would spend that much time and energy on her hair, I thought.

We all had extra-curricular activities, some coached or assisted in a sport, some in fundraising, some in sponsoring student council or yearbook. Our students had a reputation for strength, stamina and a winning attitude in sports. Returning after a late basketball game, we fount out all kinds of stuff about the girls and their families, their neighborhoods and their ambitions. Since many girls transferred from one bus to another late into the night, ending up in their neighborhoods at unsafe times, we teachers took turns driving them home. Since I was still commuting by bus myself, I too needed and was happy to get a ride home after long days.

In August of 1965, a traffic disturbance on Florence Avenue erupted into a police and citizen brawl that spread like wildfire and affected  students who came from the section of town called south central . Our September opening day was tense; fear and frustration were visible on everybody’s face, gravity draped over every body's  uniform. The Watts Riots, as they came to be called, paralyzed the city. At recess, emotions flared, and verbal exchanges among students from different neighborhood became standard conduct.  The staff no longer had free lunches. We took turns supervising the cafeteria and the yards.

I hated recess duty! The girls were all taller and bigger than I was.

Los Angeles was a diverse city, but neighborhoods were homogeneous. People congregated around their economic, racial and social peers. A great many people that had emigrated from Mexico lived in neighborhoods that had specialized groceries and restaurants. The caucasian population of Los Angeles was moving North, to the East San Gabriel Valley and to the Northwest San Fernando Valley where new homes where being built and sold at a fever rate.

My uncle had enrolled his eldest daughter in kindergarten in Burbank, a suburb that he favored, across town on the freeway, miles from the place where we lived. He and his wife were putting the store up for sale and moving as soon as the deal was executed. The Watts riots delayed the sale and was sowing panic all over the place.

Everyone was looking to move and to feel safer.

We were reading Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in my freshman class. We took a little longer with it and decided to turn it into a stage play, concocting critical scenes to share with the rest of the student body. We spent hours in the auditorium, writing and rewriting, working on how to present the piece, worrying about sound effects, costuming, and practicing to sound like authentic southern characters.

On a rehearsal day,  a visitor from the office of the Archdiocese stopped by. I encouraged the girls to project their voices, and stay in character. The Director and the visitor seemed to enjoy the play, the girls noted. I had been too busy to catch their entrance or their exit.

At the end of the day, as I was checking out, the Director called me into his office and told me that the play had to be postponed for now.
“I don’t understand! Father, what is the problem?”
“Let’s not get into this; Just postpone the play, for now. We don’t want to alarm the children.”

So, I made up an excuse, something about the auditorium not being available for the next few days. But this was not an easy thing to accept. Obedience has its place, I thought; obedience should only be demanded of children.

I couldn't wait to purchase my ticket back to Italy.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Chapter Thirteen: Party with the Beach Boys

When Myra invited me to her birthday pool party, I dreaded asking my Uncle for permission. In our apartment, a new disagreement would sit at the dinner table every night, shouting its way into every conversation. When I mentioned to Myra that Uncle didn’t like me to go to other people’s houses, she laughed and told me to stand up for myself, “After all, you’re in America now. You have rights!”

“Where does she live?” Uncle’s first question.

“Westchester, by the beach.” I said in a studied, casual tone, trying to hide my eagerness.

“Who’s going to be there? That immigrant girl you hang around with at school?” My aunt’s jumping in.

Uncle’s wife was a native New Yorker, did not like any body too rich, too poor, or too ethnic, regretted the life she left behind and worried about her hair turning gray. More than anything, she hated the idea that I was doing well in school, and that my visa was renewed every year. She enjoyed disagreeing with me; and if anything might bring Uncle to be nervous with me, she fed his paranoia.

We had just finished a meal I had prepared carefully, washing each pan and putting it away before dirtying the next tool.

She disliked a messy kitchen. She wanted nothing to do with sauces that had to simmer, or meals that required multiple pots. Her perfect meal was filet mignon cooked on a bbq outside, with a side of baked potato. She always had dessert and coffee. If she didn’t like the spaghetti I prepared, she wouldn’t even come to the table. She took the dessert to the living room, and sat there with her coffee and by herself. Always with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, she told everyone what their place was.

After each discussion where she didn't get her way, she added,  “You are here temporarily. Don’t forget.”

I pretended her comments did not bother me, responding as though we were just kidding with each other.

“When will it end?” She asked me about Myra's party.

“Who knows! She'll be driving me back at her leisure!”
"NO. That will not do! You must be home by ten, not ten after, twelve after. Ten. You understand?"
"Definitely ten!"

Myra had taken care of every thing. “By the way,” she had said, “ no presents; and don’t worry about a bathing suit either; we’ll have extra suits you can borrow. All my friends want to meet you.”

“She can’t just drive about, gallivanting all over the place! ” Aunt was using words I didn't know. Now, I was speechless.

Uncle heard the conversation and just added, “ We’ll see.”

After supper, as I tried to study in the room I shared with my little cousins, I overheard comments about my request, low rumbles like winds gathering strength in the distance, preparing to explode all around the house.  The party I wanted to attend was an excuse for other arguments to gather strength.

"She sasses me. I swear, she does. ” Aunt was readying for an argument.

“You want me to talk to her? I promised she could live here and go to school as long as she wanted. What did you expect?”

“You’re taking her side! You should be supporting my decisions. Now she wants us to go to parties; before long she’d want to date; she’s trouble; and I’m sick and tired of her sauciness. She is trying to be like the neighbor girls.”

Each word was a sneaker wave pulling me under, choking my confidence.

The comment about the girls living next door was unkind. In their company, Aunt was all smiles and encouragements. They had showed me how to style my hair, shave my legs, wear lipstick for special occasions, and purchase the right bras with extra help, to achieve my ‘potential beauty.’ In America, there were no ugly people, only those who had not read the right magazines and not purchased the right products. I was learning that my uncle and aunt’s expectations and rules did not match any other adult’s. The girls next door were fun loving and nobody yelled at them for looking at magazines, for purchasing products to look glamorous, for listening to music and doing homework.

“It’s our duty to look our best, to enhance Mother Nature.” Erin would show me how with just a little help, I too could look like those movie stars in magazines. I was looking enhanced with their help and expert advice.

It was the girls’ aunt who interceded with my relatives about this party.

Saturday, stiff from sleeping on the rigatoni contraption that gave my hair a glamorous wave, I welcomed Erin's help to ready me for the party. She brushed and styled my hair, added a bit of face cream and color on the lips, and even lent me an outfit she put together from items in her closet.

“Don't you have any birthday or party dresses?” She asked, "When is your birthday?”

“Oh, we don’t celebrate birthdays in Italy. Only our Saint’s Day.”

“Well, you’re in America. And We celebrate birthdays. Bet on it. This birthday party you’re going to is a big deal here.You need to look good.”

Wanting to look like those people on television, I realized that except for my uniform type skirts and tops, I had no civilian outfits and no party clothes. Erin returned with a pretty blouse and a matching sweater and pushed some stuffing in my bras for extra measure.
"There. You're ready. Just remember about the condition of the bras before you jump in the water."

I didn't understand that last comment because Myra was honking the car downstairs and I was eager to go. "Thanks for everything." I hugged Erin and rushed out.  Erin was babysitting the kids for me; nobody else was around.

Myra looked glorious, even more elegant than she looked on a daily basis. Her place was packed, and after a few introductions I was on my own. Someone would talk to me for a few minutes, then they moved on. I realized one had to keep moving about. There were over fifty people I had just counted by standing still and watching how many people went to get drinks.

All the young people  were swimming, chasing each other in the pool. I must learn to swim and buy a bikini, like Myra’s. First, though, I had to put on some weight. And maybe with more weight I would finally develop into a bosomy Italian, like Gina Lollobrigida. Italian girls were supposed to look like her.

There was music and dancing. A boy called Mike introduced himself as Myra's stepbrother. “Are you having a good time?” He asked.

“I don’t know anybody. It’s hard to even hear people.” I said.

“Come, I’ll show you around.” We moved to another part of the backyard, to a pool house where he showed me dressing rooms with extra swimming suits.  Then, he was called to do something  and I was alone again with very little else to say to anybody.

I went over to the BBQ area and Myra's mother introduced me to her friends and neighbors who were helping out with the cooking. I tried to eat a hot- dog; fortunately the cake served later was great.

I now knew four, five people among a crowd. Most were dancing. A few were swimming. A handful were eating and talking. I kept moving, pretending to know how to do this. When I saw Mike again, he seemed too busy.  I spotted Myra a few times, once in the pool, once on the dance floor.

Most of the dances were animated. “Let’s do the Twist”, the singer was shouting on the record, as everyone gyrated with their hips. Someone pulled me into a group, and I too swayed back and forth. Then, a slow dance started, and I was alone again, as everyone was leaning toward each other, holding close, head on each other’s shoulder, drops of sweat trickling from brows. “Put Your Head on My Shoulder.” the singer swooned, and gently, everyone did just that.

Before the next song, I was standing next to the record player and someone  turned to me and asked what music I liked. I must have looked confused. “Hey, you must have some favorites no? Do you want me to guess?” Before I could answer, Mike walked over and the two of them talked. Then, Mike turned to me and asked what music I liked. I told him Elvis and the Platters. He shouted out , “Rick, put Elvis!”

After the cake, Myra opened her presents. Her parents were busy serving food and clearing trash. I felt bad not having brought her a present. She had told me not to. I figured then that telling people not to bring presents must be a polite way to say, come even if you can't afford a present.

It was late before I could approach her to get a ride home. Since she was distracted, I waited a while longer and then tried again. I was the last person there. Myra had forgotten about my ride. “Sorry, Rosy. Can’t you spend the night here? Call your Uncle and ask. My stepfather took the car.”

I woke my uncle when I finally called home.

“What time it is?” Uncle asked, full of sleep.

“Myra wants to know if I can stay the night.”

“Well, it’s late. Be sure they bring you home tomorrow before church. We’ll talk later.”

He hung up with a loud thud.

There, I hated how this was turning out.  This party was not worth getting all excited about. While I was thinking how complicated every little thing was, Myra popped in the kitchen where I was telephoning and sounded excited,

“Brian is here for Mike. They’ll be working in the studio all night. First, though, we’re going for ice-cream, cause he missed my party and wants to make it up to me. Come.”

“Wait. I just called and told my Uncle I did not have a ride.”

“So? We’re not the ones with the car ! Let’s go.”

She yelled back at her mom who was still cleaning up.

“Mom, we’ll be back in a half hour or so.”

Myra and I hopped in the back seat. Mike and Brian were talking about the work they had to do later, and how this song was going to be on the radio. Myra explained that their band had one song that might be played on the radio. If that happened, the band would be on their way.

At the drive-in, attendants on roller skates brought banana splits and sundaes. Mike paid for all of us.

Instead of driving us right back to Myra’s house, Brian drove for miles on the Pacific Coast Highway, arguing with Myra, nervous and excited about the possibility of his song on the radio.

”Baby, I had to work all day. It’s all worth if they play it on the radio tonight. It’s almost time.”

With the surf pounding and the wind blowing through our hair, we rode for hours listening to music and singing.

“Girls, listen, they are playing IT. There!” Mike turned the volume up and the boys sang along.

Myra explained the song was Mike’s and Brian’s, and their band was The Beach Boys.

“You’ll see, they’ll be famous.” She said.

“We’re there already!” Shouted Brian.

The Beach Boys became famous, though I just think of them as boys, night cruising down on PCH, the wind in their faces, stopping at an ice-cream drive-in with girls in the back seats.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Chapter Twelve: Ride with Ms. Monroe

Myra Monroe lived just a few miles away, and, on Mondays and Fridays, she gave me a ride to school. Her sports car was a high school graduation gift.  She looked as though she came off of a photo shoot every time she stopped to pick me up.

She wore the same blond bob and red pouty lips as the real Marilyn Monroe. Her car, her clothes, the whole package, including the mohair sweater, the perfume, all came from studying Marilyn's pictures in gossip columns.

We met in French class, where I had become an assistant.  That is, I took French II because it would be an easy subject to take, but the teacher realized after our first class that I was way more advanced than the rest of the class, and instead of sending me to French III , she suggested I remain and help others.  She offered to help me  with my English. I was in heaven.

During our rides, Myra and I went over our homework. I enjoyed reading French out loud; she appreciated the extra help. It was a fair exchange.

She worked part time for the airline industry, and looked forward to graduating and joining the airline full time as a stewardess,  traveling the world and meet interesting people. She was dating a  pilot from Italy and when she found out I was Italian, she became a quick friend.

“What's it like in Italy?” She asked.

“What do you want to know?”

“Are all the boys as cute as Sergio? ”

“You mean handsome and flirty? Yes!"

"All of them?”

So, I told her, not knowing how she would react and how she would interpret the revelation. Telling people about your people was tricky. Uncle’s wife had asked me a simple question when I first arrived. “So, does Ted speak good Italian?"
“He speaks our dialect.” I said, meaning he did not speak like my teacher, Mr. Fioretti.

Accent, vocabulary, intonation, construction, all these factors revealed your social and economic status. In small towns, people spoke their native dialect that sounded very little like the Italian we were learning in school. Proper Italian was a studied language, complex and tricky. By comparison, English was easy.

"So, he's really a peasant, right?" Aunt seemed to cherish that bit of information. She looked interested in our history. So, I went on, telling her that we were all from peasant stock, in some ways. We had land and worked that land for our livelihood, like millions of other people I had known in poor areas of Italy.  I emphasized to her that we had suffered tremendously as a country, as a family.  She seemed to know very little about the home town of her husband.  I told her how difficult it had been for me to obtain my visa as a student because we needed to prove that  we were well to do, with enough assets.  We had to search our property titles and discover what had been our ancestry, even  abandoned land and abandoned businesses.

She asked: "Ted told me you are all related to a baron."

That comment told me that Uncle had embellished our history.

"Sure. Everybody is related to some baron or count."

Whenever she got angry she would throw insults based on that bit of background that seemed innocent enough. I never knew how Uncle Ted had represented himself when he courted her; but, I could guess that he must have constructed a bit of fantasy for her.

I tried to explain what courtship meant to Italians when Myra told me she and the pilot were dating.

“In Italy, boys  are encouraged to be charming and romantic. They embellish the truth about their feelings to please girls. The game they play is one of elaborate courtship. It is a game; and we are not supposed to take it literally.”


“All girls get entrapped, if they are not careful. Boys all lie."
"They can't help themselves! It's a national problem!"

I was guessing that she was disappointed by this information, thinking that her beau might not be sincere. I had to soften the blow right away, I thought.

"You know, I am kidding. Most guys are charming and sincere." I saw relief in her eyes.

 How can she be so gullible, I thought. It didn't make sense.  I was reading Hemingway, plain, simple words, simple construction, sentiments clearly put forth. Myra must trust everything she hears because that's the way she is. She would say what she feels, not what somebody expects to hear.

I had told her Italian boys were not to be trusted. I truly believed that.

My brother and his friends pretended to like certain girls, courting them with notes, trinkets and exquisite compliments, sending little sisters to put in a good word for them. Boys and girls could not speak to each other directly after they reached a certain age, so little brothers and sisters acted as go-between.

Sometimes we initiated a relationship where no relationship existed. I liked my friend’s brother, but he was not interested yet in courting girls. We told him that a girl was interested, had asked about him. At first, he was just annoyed; then, with time, he began to ask about this so-called beauty that we had bugged him about. Since no real girl existed, we strung along this fantasy for him. When it was time to meet, the girl was suddenly sent away to live with some relatives miles from home.

On the way to school, one morning, Myra told me her pilot was ten years older than she.

“Do your parents approve?”

“Mom says I have to grow up a bit, have a career before I marry. She says that’s what she missed most of all. Not having a life of her own before she became a wife and a mother. We need our economic independence should something happen.”

“What could happen?”

“Silly, she means should the marriage break up. A woman who has worked can be independent, earn her own money.”

“Myra, is your mother divorced?”

“ She is remarried. I have a stepfather.”

“ Are you not Catholic?”

“Irish Catholic, my dear. Nuns, priests, and poets are in our genes.”

“Well? How is that possible?”

“Do you mean, is she still going to church and communion? Well, yes, she still goes to church but skips communion.”

“Myra, how does your mother feel about you dating a non Irish?”

“Didn’t I tell you? Nobody here is pure anything, all mongrels. Momma says that as long as the man doesn’t drink more than you do, and has a good job, he’s fine. Are you dating?”

“No!!! Not allowed. Not in Italy either; both my uncle and my dad are in the Middle Ages, afraid that girls will be taken advantage of.”

“That’s cruel. Just like the church insisting the 'The Pill' is evil. Primitive thinking, if you ask me. Don’t you miss not having boy friends?”

“There are other things I miss more”.

“What? What could be more important than boys?”

“My family. If I could, I’d go home right now.”

"Don't you like America?"

"I never thought I'd miss home the way I do. Sure, I like America. It's wonderful and generous. But..."

Myra said nothing.

I was now deep with thoughts that if expressed would definitely be misunderstood: I would go back right away if I could. I felt out of place. The dream of America was too much like a nightmare. But I couldn't write my folks and tell them how hard it was to stay positive. I lived with people who resented my presence. I could do nothing right in their eyes.  I could never explain. Nobody could know.What I needed to do was show my gratitude and appreciation.

"Myrna, everything here is so much better!" I said with enthusiasm.
Myrna looked happy.

"Oh, I knew you must be homesick or something." She said, showing no interest in what I had been trying to tell her all along.

"Myrna, "I wanted to tell her, " everyone thinks America is so beautiful and rich. It is quite ugly, quite blind to what is happening in society. Look at my situation. I don't even have a room of my own here. I was better off where I came from. I was free to walk out of my house, say what I thought, eat what I liked.  Here, in this paradise, I study in a closet, and I eat what is served. I do all the chores and I'm resented if anything is done differently. "

Instead, I said, " I'm lucky to be here. Here, I can be anything I want." Myrna was happy with that answer.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Chapter Eleven: The Girls Next Door

Across the landing from us lived  a childhood friend of my uncle's wife. She  moved to California with her boy Bobby and three nieces, Erin, Aileen and Ellen and lived in the apartment across from ours.

My Uncle Ted met Marie on the cruise ship that brought him back to Italy a few years earlier, on the trip that started my journey to America. Their romance seemed certain from the start, aided by the beautiful Roman backdrop where he spent a glorious week showing her and her friend the beauty of the Eternal City.

Hollywood could not have planned a better seduction scene.

After  a honeymoon in Canada, waiting for his visa, he and his bride set up household in one of the two apartments above the building he owned in Los Angeles. Her best friend Peggy  moved to L.A. soon after.

Bobby was in middle school. The girls were at St. Mary's High School a block from the apartment.  Erin, the eldest, worked at the telephone company in the afternoon, the same place as her Aunt Peggy.  Erin was my age, and she and I hit it off right away.

She confided that she had wanted to  travel, see the world, take a cruise and  find romance. She worked the afternoon shift, and by the time she got back home and did homework, she had no time to date.

She was saving all her money to move out, buy a car and start dating properly. When I asked her about dating, what it was, she elaborated.

"At school, when we met boys and were interested in them, we  met up with them to go to movies or gather at  local drug stores for a coke and a burger. If you hook up, that was  considered 'dating'. "

"I don't see any boys around here." I said.

"Exactly! In New York, we could meet and walk out to movies together, or see a live show. Here, you need a car to go out at night, or anytime actually.   The bus to work? It stinks.  I wish I had a car, then I could work any shift."

"I thought you took taxis to work. Yes?"

"At night, the company pays for the taxi ride to keep us safe."


"Yes. So, nobody gets hurt going home. You know that for a while, some of us got extra money for taxis and we'd pocket it, getting home somehow. Then, someone got raped right on the street behind the building. That's when the company decided to have taxis at the door waiting after each shift. It's automatic now. They submit the fare to the company directly."

"In  Italy, I walked everywhere, meeting people on the streets." I responded. "Right after food, I miss  those passegiate with friends."

"You could, in New York, in certain neighborhoods."

Peggy worked a late shift.  She came home early in the a.m. and dropped in to visit with Marie. Only, Aunt Marie was not up at that time. She went to bed late, a habit she had from her own days at the telephone company when they had worked the midnight shift  in Manhattan, enjoying the freedom of sleeping late, the leisure of having entire days to shop or run errands.

Peggy was  not much older than my aunt, but looked much older. I didn’t know anything about her family, how she ended up raising her nieces as well as her boy. She was an encouraging soul, always allowing my little cousin to rummage through her purse, where she would have stashed some little thing, a small toy or a mirror to play with.

“Morning sickness, again? ” Peggy must have seen the confusion on my face.  "I'm worried about you too." She said, giving me a hug.   I knew nothing about morning sickness.

"Is it catching?" I asked, naively.
"She is pregnant. That's all. She's not her usual self. You have to understand and forgive." She said, as a kind of explanation to excuse Aunt Marie's bad moods.

“So, what are you up to this morning?” She changed the subject.

“We’re signed up for swimming lessons.”

“Did you know that your aunt never learned? Oh, we had occasions, when we were girls. But she never wanted to get her hair wet, always concerned about her looks. Her little brother was a real fish, he was.”

“She has a brother?”


“I didn’t know.”

“We have not heard from him since the wedding. Tell her I came by.”

“Can’t you stay for breakfast?”

“Too tired to eat. See you later.”

As soon as Bobby and the other girls got to school in the morning, Peggy took the phone off the hook, and went to bed. In the afternoon, when they all returned, she started her day. That’s when she’d come over to borrow something or other, and she and my aunt would actually talk for a while. Everybody was always coming and going.

Uncle was either working in the store or napping in front of television. I would hear them talking about this and that late in the evening, and then my name would be mentioned, and I was all ears.

“They are increasing the tuition again”, she’d say.

“Everything is going up. ” He said.

“What we need to do is send her to a public school.”

“Then we worry about other stuff. You know how teenagers are. Did you see the girl next door with those short shorts?”

He was making a point about the fashion of the day worn by Erin.

The comment about the short shorts. I distinctly heard him say that he did not like Bermuda shorts when his wife bought and wore them around the house. He teased her, saying girls look good only with short shorts. Now, he was putting Erin down for wearing shorts!

“I never agreed on an indefinite time. Just a year you said! Now, we are paying this horrendous tuition.”

Aunt's voice was harsh and strident.

I held my breath. Nothing about my American life had turned out the way I had anticipated. Nothing except the school. If I had to leave that school, I might not survive.

I quietly climbed in my bed and wept freely.