1988: Knickers

When the recess bell rings, we all charge out the front doors and race across the playground toward the brick wall. Sure enough, Dad waits for us by the secret archway with a fresh shipment of popsicles. My classmates shout “Mr. K, I want orange…I want cherry…grape, please…” over one another.

Dad grins. “Yes, Yes, children! Don’t worry. Mr. K brought plenty for all of you.”

Why does he do this for my friends? Some of them aren’t even my friends. Is this his orphanage?

I wait until the herd clears to grab the last grape flavor. Dad slaps my hand—knocking the Popsicle back in the box. “Jenny. You know better! Come back to the convent for a minute while Daddy washes it for you first. Who wants to eat all that nasty glue they put on there.” I salivate as the dribbles of water re-freeze along the sides on the Popsicle. “Thanks, Dad. Got to get back to the playground now so I don’t get in trouble.”

“Okay, I’ll see you at 2:15 sharp. Just come back to the kitchen. Daddy won’t walk over to pick you up today. I have too much cooking to do, here. We’re getting ready for this big dinner, tonight. A hundred nuns.”

For the remainder of recess, we play red rover. You’re fast. They’ll never catch you. You’re home free. I tag the brick wall so hard that pieces of mortar cling to my hands. Ouch!

At 2:15 we line up as instructed. Dismissed. I bolt once again toward the brick archway, tagging the chain link gate as I cross the finish line.

I pass the gravel parking lot—sights set on the back kitchen door—when I notice Sister Jean outside gardening. Dust flies up as I halt suddenly. “Hi Sister, Jean.”

“Oh, Hi Jenny. How was school today?”

“It was good. We got to play red rover, and we’re learning multiplication. I like multiplication much better than subtraction.”

“That’s wonderful news, Jenny. I know your Father will be looking for you so you best run along to the kitchen. I’m sorry we haven’t had a talk this week, yet. I’ve been very busy getting the grounds cleaned up for fall. I hope you will stop by my room, tomorrow. I love it when we pray together.”

I nod and smile. I love you Sister Jean.

Dad stops chopping onions and looks up at the clock. “You’re late, Jenny.”

“Sorry, Dad. I saw Sister Jean outside on my way in. I just stopped to be polite.”

“Okay good. You don’t want to make your Father worry about you. Not with crazy people out there abducting babies. You remember everything I taught you right?”

“Uh-huh.” Run, scream bloody murder, never go with them, they’ll kill you anyways.

“Good, now do Daddy a favor. I want you to get the ketchup out and squeeze some into the bowl slowly as Daddy mixes the meatloaf.” I hold my breath to block out the smell of the onions and raw ground beef. “Hold it! That’s perfect. Dad scoops a bunch of raw meatloaf in his palm and molds it. See, Jenny. It’s perfect. Daddy’s teaching you to be a first class chef one day.” Someday I’ll never touch food again. I’ll hire a chef to cook for me.

Pleased with his work, Dad declares a five-minute break, outside. “Hey, how did your friends like the popsicles?”

“They really liked them, Dad.”

“Good. I don’t know what it is, but your father always had a thing for being good to kids. I think it’s because we grew up poor with nothing. Your Father starved, you know. Many times, I would get nothing but lettuce with salt on it for dinner. This was back in the 1940s. You know my Father would only give my poor Mother a dollar a week to feed sixteen kids. He was one of the foolish Greeks. While every other family was buying up land cheap and owning restaurants, he was gambling like a fool.”

Dad shakes his head at the memory and continues, “God has a plan for you and your Father, Jenny. I know he brought me to this convent for a reason. One day, your Father is going to take this place and turn it into an orphanage—like I told you—so poor kids will never go without again.” I look at Dad sheepishly, not sure how to respond.

Godmother Madeline breaks the silence by pulling up in her frosted blue Plymouth. She unloads two large black garbage bags from the trunk. “Thomas, I was at the Salvation Army today and picked up some clothes for Jenny.” Madeline hands me a brown wool coat—suggesting that I try it on. I cringe. Is it dirty?

While I lean on the hood of our new white Oldsmobile, she pulls out several pairs of checkered wool pants, too.

Impatiently, Dad interrupts, “Madeline, Jesus Christ! They’re knickers! That’s what kids who were dying-dead-poor during the depression wore. I’m not putting my daughter in that garbage.”

“Now Thomas, you shouldn’t judge an honest gift that came from the heart. Just take the clothes. They will be good for Jenny.”

The regional dinner for the sisters goes off without a hitch. Dad seems to have forgotten about his earlier annoyance with Madeline, but on our way home, He really opens up on the Northway. We’ve only owned the new car for two weeks. Dad says, I wouldn’t have bought this piece of shit if I realized it was a Diesel engine!” I stroke the fuzzy burgundy interior. I hope we have this car forever. It’s so nice.

Dad glares at me intently at me, now. “Jenny, I want you to open the back windows. And when I say, so that there’s no other cars around us, throw those goddamn garbage bags full of rag-clothes out the window.”

I look at him as if to resist. I hate the clothes. They’re itchy. But Godmother was just trying to be nice.

But Dad persists. “Now! Well, don’t just stare. Hurry up and throw those bags—both of them—out the goddamn window before someone sees us.”

Obedient, I watch as the bags bounce on the inky pavement behind us. What will Madeline say when I never wear the clothes?

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