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?

Advertisements

1995: Almost Graduation

Dad moseys the old Plymouth down a narrow one-way street to drop me off for school. St. Mary’s Academy. The gothic stone structure always seems out of place standing next to a plastic-cluttered playground and a chain link fenced parking lot across the street.

Dad always says, “The church—with all their money—had this place built over sixty years ago by some famous architect. They even imported the marble all the way from Italy.”

When he made the decision in 1986, Dad pronounced, “Jenny you’re gonna go to the same Catholic school as your Father. In those days, the nuns beat us with thick wooden rulers.” He holds his sausage-link thumb and index finger up to approximate the ruler’s width. “Now it’s illegal for them to do that. But let me tell you, those nuns were as mean as any drill instructor Daddy ever had. Evil—some of them were too. They hated children!”

The car is now idling in front of the main entrance. I hear Dad going on, “You know, Jenny, one time me and my buddy, Gary, got to meet the Pope. We tried to suck the ruby out of the bastards ring, but we couldn’t get it. Can you imagine these so-called men of God wearing jewelry like that? It’s all a farce if you ask your Father.”

I wonder momentarily, why the hell did you send me here then? Ah who gives a shit. You’re in 8th grade. You’re about to graduate, and then you can go off and become the first woman President of the United States.

Basically, I’m a senior around here since the high school shut down in 1989.

Dad snaps me back to reality as he turns to me before letting me exit the cab, “Jenny, why do they have to take you on a senior field trip to goddamn Canada of all places? And to a theme park, no fucking less! You know that you and Daddy hate those kind of places.”

I give him a concealed death glare. I don’t know what I hate because I’ve never been allowed to go to any places!

 He continues, “And besides, you can’t go unless I go. So you better make sure that I am a chaperone for this little trip of yours.”

Defeat. I’m screwed for life. You will never give up. I just want one day without hearing your voice. I want to be cool like other kids, like Jessica, who gets to have boys sleep over. I want a mother. They seem to understand. As usual, I nod, “Okay.”

“Okay what? Make sure I’m on that goddamn bus. I’m not letting anyone take my daughter to Canada without me being there. Did you hear me Jenny?!”

Later that week, all 13 of us pupils, prim and proper, line up outside the stone church. We don’t dare talk in line as we wait to receive our diplomas; we have learned well the consequences long before this point. We are expected to behave perfectly and are shown no mercy should we falter.

Who cares? We don’t require words; we’ve learned to communicate through glances and gestures. We are practically family. No we are family! Brothers and sisters. We grew up together. This is the end; we have finally made it.

Even at the age of 14, we all realize, jokingly, that we will need therapy one day.

I feel proud in this moment and as the organ music begins to sound, I well up with tears for all of our achievements. Don’t lose it now; Get a grip!

Suddenly, Dad comes rushing toward the line with the look of a wild coyote.

“Come on Jenny, let’s get the hell out of here. This goddamn bitch says that you can’t graduate.”

Uh, he said “goddamn” and “bitch” in church. Oh my fucking God. Not graduate? But, I’m an A student.

I see her behind him. The principal, who happens to be a part Catholic nun, part drill instructor. This is not the first time that she and Dad have sparred. This is her revenge.

As I walk out with Dad holding my right arm, she grabs onto my left arm, and says, “Wait, Jenny, don’t leave. Let me explain to you what I told your father. You can graduate today…”

My face is burning red and I spin around to face her. I know in this moment that I will commit a sin that cannot be erased.

“Let me go, you fucking bitch!”

I rip my arm away and watch her face contort in shock. I hear gasps as my father and I make our way out of the church.

The fresh, June air that I breathe tastes surprisingly raw. This moment disappoints me more than any other in my life, so far. Shit. I earned this!

When we get in the car, the maroon vinyl seats stick to my already sweaty silk dress. I roll down my window and ask “What about my class trip tomorrow?”

“Well, that evil cunt ruined that for you too! Naturally, you can’t go now.”

My heads feels like it will permanently hang down at a 45-degree angle. This is his fault. He never wanted you to have fun anyway. He never tries to work anything out; it’s always bullshit drama.

 “Daddy feels bad, but we couldn’t let her push us around. How dare she tell me that you weren’t going to get your diploma, only a shitty piece of blank paper. If we weren’t in church, I would’ve punched that bitch right in the face.”

We drive around town for a while, but I am dazed. After a couple hours, the answering machine blinks red with several messages from my friends.

“Hi, Jenny. We all hope you are okay. Are you coming to the awards ceremony tonight? Will we see you tomorrow? The bus leaves at 7 am.”

How can any of your friends still care about you—the weirdo?

 Later there’s more. “Hi Jenny, this is Sara. I have your awards from tonight. We really missed you. Please call us.”

I want to pick up the phone and say, “No, I’m not okay. Please come and take me away from this prison.

Dad becomes more annoyed with every call, “Don’t these people ever give up? No! We’re not okay. We’re alone again. Just Daddy and Jenny. There’s no mother or sisters or brothers. Nobody really gives a shit about us.”

It’s 8pm. I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast. Dad realizes this and opens the cupboards to reveal the bare ingredients in the apartment: flour, sugar, milk, and a liter of grape soda. Like magic he whips us up some homemade pancakes and “maple” sugar syrup.