Thursday, August 31, 2006

Dr. Jacob Sharp DDS

Growing up, dental hygiene was not high on the list of priorities in my family, at least for me it wasn’t. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I can’t even remember brushing my teeth on Henry Street. We had no sink in the bathroom and try as I may, I still can’t dig up a memory of brushing my teeth in the kitchen sink.
The first memory I have of seeing a dentist is walking to the office of Dr. Pitts. Yes, that was his real name. I still remember the black and white sign stuck in front of the closed Venetian blinds in the first floor of his office/home on Dixwell Avenue. The office was about 6 blocks from where we lived.
I was probably about 6 and my mother had instructed my brother to walk me to his office. The magazines on the coffee table in the waiting room held unforgettable images of rotted gums, tooth decay and photos of oral surgeries that are still visible in my mind.
Dr. Pitts was a big black gentle man. The first visit didn’t seem to take that long and I was back home with a note in my hand explaining to my mother that I had to have 6 baby teeth removed. I was never given any explanation. I don’t even know if my mother was given an explanation, and if she had been, she wasn’t sharing.
I was told it wouldn’t hurt as they were baby teeth and probably already loose.
The next week I was back on my way to Dr. Pitts office with my brother.
When I left I was bleeding heavily from the extraction of 6 teeth with a wad of gauze protruding from my mouth. No needles were given to dull the pain. Pulling my teeth was painful but quick. I spent the next 2 days in bed.
From that moment on I did everything I could to escape any dental visits. Preventive measures weren’t exactly on my mother’s list of things to do. I quickly learned to live with the dull ache of a tooth now and then. It was far better than the alternative.
When I got to about 10, my teeth were in really bad shape. My brother at this point was getting braces. Everyone marveled at the fact that Frankie was so courageous for the pain he endured at the dentist. My mother had managed to find him an orthodontist and the money along with it to pay for the braces.
Unable to cope with the dental pain, I was sent to another dentist referred by my aunt and cousins, Dr. Jacob Sharp DDS. Stories about Dr. Sharp abounded. He had written a book, he had an affiliation with Yale, he was a distinguished Dentist. On and on the accolades went.
Dr. Sharp’s office was located on the 2nd floor of a Chapel Street bulding in the center of downtown New Haven.
He was an older gentleman, white hair, white mustache, and wore rimless glasses. He was mild mannered, talked very softly and was very distinguished looking. His waiting room contained antique leather couches, chairs, and was elegantly furnished. Upon meeting me for the first time, he remarked that my aunt had called and told him that I was especially afraid of dentists, but not to worry, he would take good care of me.
No nurse was necessary for his practice he explained because he only worked part time and could take care of things himself. His dental office was simple and clean. A desk was in back of the dental chair with the old black rotary phone placed on it alongside his calendar book. An inner room contained things like sets of teeth, molds, books etc.
The big black dental chair faced a wall of windows and occupied one entire wall of his office and overlooked the rooftops of the shops located on Chapel Street. His “tool” chest was a beautiful dental cabinet ~4 feet high with 3 inch drawers and 2 glass doors that housed his pristine dental tools. Dr. Sharp always dressed in a white medical nylon shirt that had 2 buttons on the top right side, folded down and unbuttoned, somewhat like the Nehru jacket collars.

The first few visits went fairly well, except for the news of needing 2 root canals in my front teeth. I was petrified, but Dr. Sharp assured me he would be gentle and not to be afraid. I started to trust and believe this grandfatherly type man.

The day the first installment of the root canal procedure begin I was terrifed.
I took my place in the big black chair. Dr. Sharp once again assured me that he would take it slowly and gently. The first order of business was to adjust the dental chair. As he began to tip the chair back for just the right angle for himself , I noticed that the adjustment had me just about lying flat as if on a cot. Okay, all the more help to relax. He then asked me to open my mouth so the cotton could be packed down around the roof of my mouth.
He passed the time by chatting and explaining what the procedure called for. He then gave the novocain shot that would dull the sensation of the root canal.
He then stepped back, folded his hands and waited for the needle to do its magic,all the while looking down at me and smiling.
He then placed the dental bib on my chest, clipped it, and carefully took the dental instruments that he would use and placed them on the bib resting on my chest.
But something was wrong.
Everytime he placed an instrument on my chest he pushed it hard onto my breast and held it there, as if kneading a loaf of bread. Each placing of an instrument became a ritual that lasted longer than the previous “touch”. Then at some point, he would “drop” one of his instruments between my legs, reach down, and feel around for where it fell, only to probe and poke an area where I knew he shouldn’t have been. I remember trying to cross my legs so nothing “fell” between them. That only added creative ways for him to insert his fingers between my legs and poke around when he "dropped" another instrument into my lap.

The physical contact ended there, but the verbal abuse kicked in. While I sat there lying flat on my back and cotton stuffed in my mouth, unable to talk or respond, he would begin his barrage of questions, grinning with a disgusting grin. “Your mother works at the White Tower all night right?” I would mumble a yes. His next question would be, “ I bet she sees a lot of nigg--s, right’? Having nothing to say I would just sit there. And then the punch, “I bet they have great big black co-ks, right?” “They say all nigg—s have big juicy ones.” "Ever seen one"? I tried not to look at him and just keep my focus on the hideous drawing on his wall of the 16th century "tooth puller" working on a patient with 5 men surrounding him. I have never forgotten this drawing. Imagine my suprise when I found it for this post. These monologues and variations on the same topics continued for the next 3 years until I could manage to get out of going to the dentist altogether.
I did try and tell my mother, my aunts and my cousins once what happened at the dentist. We were all sitting at a table at my aunt’s house. I told them that Dr. Sharp said really bad words and that he acted strange when I sat in the chair. No sooner had I gotten the words out than I heard this reply. “Stop saying things like that. He’s a famous Dentist and you’re lucky to get an appointment with him.” Yeh, that was me, lucky. I wasn’t surprised. It was just like everything else in my childhood. I was labeled as “difficult” and a “baby” for being afraid of the dentist. After all, my bother Frankie went through so much more pain than I did and he never complained.
I still am afraid of the dentist, though I do realize the reality of it will never happen again. But it doesn’t stop the visual from playing in my head each and every time I sit in that dentist chair.
It hits me like the pain of a dull tooth ache that will be with me forever.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Room for rent

Growing up I wasn’t fortunate enough to have children my own age to play with either in school or on Henry Street. During the summers, the streets of downtown New Haven became my playground.

Down the street from the White Tower on the corner of George and College Street was a rooming house that was home to a variety of New Haven “downtown people” as they were called.
It was a huge brick building, standing 3 floors high with a horizontal red neon sign that just read, “Rooms”. We’ve all seen this signage in old movies depicting less than favorable housing in low rent neighborhoods.

The occupants of this neighborhood house were as varied as you could imagine.

Barbara and Eddie managed the builing and the tenants. Eddie was a slimy looking short guy, with greasy slicked back hair. Eddie would walk around with a cigarette always hanging out of his mouth so that the smoke would always blow back in his eyes and cause him to constantly squint making him even more devious looking than he already was. He lived with his common law wife Barbara who was insanely jealous over any woman or girl that Eddie talked to. She was shorter than Eddie, always wore flowered house dresses with no sleeves, sneakers with no laces or socks. She had an annoying habit of always burping. She followed him like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, obeying his every command and wish.

Eddie would perch himself on the second step of the outside entry way smoking, squinting and grinning, so that his face was level with the chest of any woman walking by. His eyes told it all. Barbara watched from the 2nd floor, leaning out the open window as if she were going to pounce on anyone who dared to flirt with Eddie. Barbara and Eddie always held themselves over the tenants, believing that the occupants were the low lifes, not them.

Each room in the boarding house consisted of the same thing, small formica table with 2 chairs, 1 twin bed or 2, a dresser and a hot plate. No cooking was allowed and perishable food was kept on the window sill mostly in the colder months. It wasn’t unsual to walk by and see bottles of milk stuck in pots or containers holding ice, mayonnaise or mustard jars or loaves of bread lined up on the window sill.

Earl and Kevin were two veterans that lived together. They had been injured in the Army and had lost their legs. They lived on the 2nd floor and could fly up and down those steps faster than some people with their limbs intact. They used their arms as pivot points and would raise their bodies with their arms and swing their torso onto the step over and over again. Their muscular arms were sculpted like a body builder.
I would sit with them outside the rooming house and either watch or help them strap their bodies onto their home made skateboard with belts. The skateboards were made of regular 2x4 pieces of plywood, curved at the ends, with wheels taken from old pairs of roller skates that they salvaged. Extra wheels were kept in their room.
They would then paddle themselves using their gloved hands as dry oars, up and down the streets of New Haven, faster and smoother than Tony Hawk or any other skateboard contender. Upon arrival at the White Tower Restaurant or grocery store, they would then take their food, coffee and supplies and belt that to their body and then the skateboard and whiz right back to their room.

Henry and Evelyn were not as fortunate as the occupants inside the house. Most nights they could be found sleeping inside the front door to the rooming house. Evelyn was a 20+woman who was mildly retarded and Henry was her much older companion who tended to her care. Both were street people. By day, you would see them walking a grocery shopping cart with their 2 dogs inside, amidst bottles for the 2 cent return. They scrounged garbage cans for food and never would accept help, although Evelyn was caught trying to steal soda bottles for the money. There was a certain understanding to their relationship. Evelyn was childlike, innocent, and sad and trusted no one except Henry. Henry treated her as a daughter, with the utmost respect and tenderness. Legend always accompanies people like this and although it may not be true, Evelyn’s family was supposedly to have had money, but nothing could be done for her. Henry seemed to be her only source of salvation that she wanted.

No, I haven’t had a normal childhood with play dates and friends, but I have learned about people, their survival skills and acceptance.

And I have always remembered those dogs in the shopping cart.

Monday, August 28, 2006

A new leash on life

I used to think that I wanted to come back as my dogs in the next life. They have it pretty good. Fed, exercised (if they felt like it), unconditionally loved beyond belief, and they have fun. At least I think they do. They may tend to think from time to time that living with me is somewhat chaotic, but it adds to an interesting life.

Then I thought about two of my very best friends in the world, Richard and Gilles. These men are my heart and soul and my life would be at a loss without them.

They have been together for 28 years and have one of the happiest and healthy “marriages” I have ever seen. I have been blessed to be a part of their lives for the past 26 years, although they may have a different spin on the “blessed” part. They are generous to a fault, loyal and kind to everyone.

They are both hairdressers, very successful hairdressers I might add. Richard was Sally Jessy Raphael’s hairdresser, hairdresser to famous people, makeup artist to stars and political figures and hairdresser to Kitty Dukakis when her husband was running for President. Poor Richard still hasn’t gotten over the loss of that campaign, nor the “Power of the Motorcade” he was part of . He had grand ideas of how to re-decorate the White House and rename it to “Mauve or Taupe House,” or some other designer color. Richard’s had a good run with fame and fortune and it continues for him, as well it should.

Richard has had his own “specials” on the Sally show, parading his talents of makeup and beauty tips and basically started the rage of the “Beauty Makeover.” He is a master, a genius at making women look their best, and feel good about themselves.

I was happy to play a small but important part in his rise to fame. It was my face he practiced on with makeup, lipstick, mascara and rouge. He would apply different makeup styles to each side of my face, until he found the magic combination. He would then look at the recently created masterpiece, fall over himself laughing, and begin again. We would spend hours watching the Donna Mills Beauty Tip makeup video. Little did we know that applying cucumbers to my eyelids and sticking my head in a pot of hot steamy potpourri to moisten the skin, would evolve into Richard receiving 2 Emmy Nominations for makeup for the Sally show. He sadly lost to Jim Henson's Muppets.

Gilles, the “Hair Surgeon” has also become an accomplished Photographer, selling stunning photographs of their trips to Europe, and the Christo Gates in New York.
And yes, I’m jealous of their lifestyle, money, freedom, notoriety, beautiful home on the water in a yuppie town, everybody loves them, they’re so wonderful, they contribute so much to the community and other causes, blah, blah, blah.

Their house holds treasures of art, beauty and distinction. Their sense of style is impeccable. They own furniture purchased from around the world that should be roped off, as in a museum, or at least when I go over. China, dishes imported from Italy and France set on a country French table 200 years old that kings and queens have dined on with lovely Murano glass candies displayed next to each dinner plate. I’m not sure why they couldn’t afford real candy, but I guess it’s a certain style.

I also once owned a set of Limoge china that was taken away from me by my friend Karen. She happened to walk in my house one day when the dog was drinking from the Limoge gravy boat on Thanksgiving.

An Italian Murano goldfish in a bowl adorns the hand made stone fireplace. I guess real goldfish require too much maintenance.

They have both worked extremely hard and continue to do so, and they deserve all the riches and more.

Richard and Gilles also own 2 pugs, that have been to more social events and galas that I could ever dream of being invited to. Giacomo and Luca are their names. Although Giacomo departed from this life last summer, Luca is still with us.

I must admit they are extremely well behaved.

These dogs have been welcomed to shop in places like Bergdorf Goodman in New York, and Ralph Lauren and Bloomingdale’s. When Giacomo was forbidden to enter the Time-Warner Building in New York, an establishment with less sophistication, Gilles went home and cancelled his Time-Warner Stock, although a month later the stock rose to incredible profits.

Although both dogs have been photograhed with their own spread in "House and Garden" along with Sally Jessy Raphael, it all hasn’t been a bed of roses for the dogs. Legend has it that bad breath halted the TV and magazine career of Giacomo.
Giacomo also had an incurable debilitating aliment. While walking him, or playing with him, to even talking to him, he would get so excited, his uvula would get caught in his throat and he would keel over and faint. Poor thing.

The dogs’ routine begins early in the morning. Gilles carefully measures out their organic natural hand pressed chunks of hand fed chicken and lamb sautéed in natural pan juices from basted free range chicken breasts.

Their water dish is Waterford Crystal, and their food dish is from Tiffany’s.
I think I still use Melmac.

The next item on the schedule is cleansing the space between the wrinkles of their skin with freshly pressed aloe, and then hand washed by Gilles, so that no infection ever enters their system.

A walk along the beach is next with the appropriate weather chosen wardrobe. Booties and little “sockettes” adorn petite ankles, baby boots when it’s wet and leather padded boots for that nasty mix of ice and sleet, carefully protecting the pads of their tiny feet, while I chose to walk around in the New England winters with Birkenstocks sans socks.

In the fall, they may don a dashing colored Hermes dog collar and matching scarf, a Burberry trench coat or sweater, a lovely Coach tweed coat with matching cap covering their precious ears.
Cashmere sweaters are hand made and fitted to their unique little body shapes, to battle the winter's chilling grip. Not just any designer clothing will suffice. Chanel attire was said to be “a little too gay”.

And in the summer, only the highest rated consumer doggie life vests, from “Outward Hound” for sailing on the high seas or trips in their kayak.

But it’s not Rich and Gil’s life I crave. For me, it’s too much pressure, too many social obligations, too many days and nights of always “being on”, too many knick-knacks to dust, and especially too many things for my dogs to chew or break.

I’m not coming back as my dogs; I’m coming back as their dogs.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Training is key

Tony was my favorite dog. He was me, funny and goofy.
I knew more about Tony’s “parents” than I knew about my own. His father was a champion seeing eye dog that belonged to the owner of the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation in Bloomfield CT. Tony’s mother belonged to a woman I worked with a Yale. Great lineage. This dog was going to be the best.
On his papers he was officially named Sir Galahad of the Sleepy Meadow Mountain Spring on the Left Side of the Hill or some ridiculous name like that. I just named him Tony.

He was a German Shepard that was rejected from the guide dog vocation. I was told that he was “too tall.” At the time it sounded right, and what did I know? I was also told before I shelled out beaucoup bucks that he had done “exceptionally well” on his IQ test. That sounded pretty good too, although I have no idea what the hell an IQ test is for a dog.

Tony grew rapidly. He had, as I liked to call them, “dancer’s legs” with a “model’s neck.” I was delusional. But Tony was my boy.

He had big ears like a donkey and would ride in the front seat of my jeep with me. Friends passing by the car thought we looked like a strange couple.

Tony was strong. One of the very first incidents we had together was when he saw a squirrel and pulled at the leash so hard, I pulled my back out and was in bed for 8 days.Okay, that could happen to anyone.

A good friend of mine came by one day during a snowstorm. She loved Tony.
She had this visual of taking him for a romp in the freshly fallen snow. I tried to warn her. The next time I looked out the window, Tony was dragging her through the snow on her stomach up the street like the dogs in the Iditarod sled race.
That was the last time she walked Tony.

One of his many talents, which I thought to be ingenious, was when I had company, Tony would sit on the floor, or the couch or wherever he wanted for that matter, and stare at someone’s shoes. He would focus in on their shoelaces. After a few minutes of gazing at their laces, he would walk over to the person and gently start pulling their shoelaces. He was untying their shoes! I was amazed. It must have had something to do with those “seeing eyes.” He was like a skilled surgeon with exacto knife teeth. I of course found this hilarious and marveled at this genius of a dog. Usually my company was too stunned to comment.

Tony was active. Actually, hyperactive was more like it. After a year or so, my form of discipline didn’t exactly work anymore (which was laughing at everything he did) and I knew I needed professional help, and so did Tony.

I hired a Personal Trainer for Tony. Ken the Dog Trainer was his name.
Now this wasn’t cheap. It was $1000. I signed a contract that said Ken would not leave my side until Tony was trained.

Ken died first.

All I needed to do was pass the evaluation test that Ken put before Tony and myself andwe could start the training. What if we weren’t accepted? We would be laughed at, ridiculed. But it was for the good of Tony.
Okay, I was ready. Needless to say we both scored low on the “Alpha Test” Tony, Ken determined was the alpha dog, I was not. The one good thing was that Ken said that Tony was so gentle that, "He wouldn't bite roast beef." And that was true. He was gentle. Ken accepted the challenge but warned us of the uphill battle.

The training went well for the first 10 months. Every kind of weather, every situation-Shopping malls, parks,playgrounds, and downtown New Haven were our testing grounds.

Tony had to be “socialized” and taught to be walked off leash. Great. My dreams come true. No more trips to the chiropractor, no more muscle spasms, just a well trained dog by my side, just like in the movies.

I also received helpful tips from Ken such as, “The dog is faster than you- he has 4 legs, you have 2.” Okay, I was up on the count. So far so good.
Also, “dogs do not think, they react.” Wow. I was becoming enlightened.
Maybe I would change careers and train dogs.
And my personal favorite, “Never ever have Tony and a monkey in the same room because they will kill each other”. Okay, that hadn’t been my plan, but point well taken. I couldn’t have spent my money any wiser...

Now for the actual training. These were the steps:
Plan A
Let Tony off the leash. If he runs away, just lie down. He will look back and think you are playing and run right back to you. Wanna guess how many times I hit the ground and just lie there without him returning? Many, many times. I looked like an idiot, in the park, on the sidewalk, on the street. You name it, I laid there.

Plan B
Throw a piece of chicken at Tony, and when he grabs it, toss your set of keys at him while saying, “TONY, COME” Okay, that kinda worked. I didn’t like pieces of chicken all around the house and Tony didn’t like the sound of the keys. But every time I picked up my keys he would race towards me. Mission accomplished.

So, with this issue fixed, I decided to go away for a week and my good friend Karen offered to watch Tony so I could save the cost of the kennel. Karen and her sons picked up Tony. I handed her the “Keys of Discipline”, gave them directions for disciplining Tony wished them well. I was free to go to California.

Upon my return, Karen was kind enough to pick me up at the airport.
Happy to see me, I inquired about Tony. Did the keys work? Was he a good boy? She looked at me and sweetly said, “Your dog is an idiot.” “Ken is an idiot and you are an idiot for hiring him for $1000”

It seems she took Tony to a public beach where dogs were allowed. She opened the door to the van, Tony bounded out as usual, romping like My Little Pony towards the unsuspecting patrons relaxing and playing on the beach.

As soon as Tony approached the beach where women and children were, Karen started jiggling the keys and screaming, “Tony, COME.”

Well, as Karen tells it, she could have been screaming Lasagna and it wouldn’t have made any difference. At this point mothers and fathers who weren’t aware that if anything, Tony would just lick someone to death, started picking up their small children and running and screaming. It took 2 hours to get Tony back. The beach had been cleared, the park had been cleared. Karen had lost the keys several times in her pursuit of Tony.,

The keys failed to work.
After this adventure the kennel became Tony’s best friend.

Tony died when he was 14, a good age for a dog. I mourned his death as I would no one else’s, or ever will.

My friends rallied round me and offered to chip in and buy another German Shepard. Although I knew I would never replace Tony, I did have a special dog in mind. In upstate New York, the Monks of New Skete raise guide dogs and also train and sell German Shepards. I could go and stay at the Monastery while the Monks trained me along with the dog. This was my choice, my dream, to have a perfectly trained German Shepard. The price tag was $7000 for this perfect dog. My friends almost would have considered it.

Their reluctance was the dog could be trained, but could I?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Deep Pockets

The third day I had Penny, I decided to show her off to my friend Joany (the victim of the bureau incident-see “Cleanliness is next to Godliness (and I'm screwed)” post).

Penny was 7 weeks old and weighed about 4 pounds. Her eyes were crossed, and her head was bigger than her body. She was a little strange looking, but she was adorable to me. She was going to be put to sleep, because she was the runt of the litter and her owner thought something might be wrong with her. I couldn’t help myself- the owner sounded like my mother and this poor dog needed to be saved.

Joany was a dog lover also, and I knew Penny would win Joany’s heart as she did mine.

Joany got in my car and was sporting a brand new navy pea coat. Mistake # 2- Mistake # 1 was getting in my car in the first place. Mistake # 2 was wearing anything black or dark in my car. Dog hair abounded. But I had assured Joany that Penny didn’t shed. I may have lied.

As we drove around, Penny sat on the console between the 2 front seats. God, what a dog! I finally had a dog that would behave in the car! Could this be? I had the kind of dogs that loved cars, but would bark and whine and jump, and make the car rock as if the car were being tipped over by rioters. They bark at absolutely nothing and everything.

As we continued our drive, Joany was just thrilled to have this quiet little dog next to her who just loved to ride. At one point, Penny, being tired from her adventure, lay down on the console and lovingly put her head in Joany’s pocket of her brand new pea coat and seemed to be sleeping. Sweet sweet Penny, what a find!

God had finally sent me the dog I deserved. I was in love.

Joany and I looked at each other and smiled, neither one of us wanting to talk and interrupt this moment in time.

Until……a few minutes later, Joany turns to me and says in a very low voice, “Suzy, get this fu&*%ng dog away from me.”
Penny had not been sleeping.
She had been puking in Joany’s coat pocket.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Reason for Caller ID

It was a dark and stormy night. It really was. A hurricane was headed to the east coast. The winds were whipping the leaves and loose branches off the trees. I was sitting in the living room next to my arsenal of crutches and walker, waiting for the electricity to be halted at any moment due to the storm. The dog’s constant barking at the wind was even annoying me. What was more annoying was that they kept “thinking” they wanted to go out. Then they wanted to come in. On and on the silly game went until I opted to leave the back door to the yard open. It was as painful as it was exhausting getting up, grabbing the walker, shuffling to the back door to let them in or out. They are silly dogs and I love them, but that night, with my nerves on edge due to the impending storm, my patience was running thin. As I would let them out, they would run through my walker or underneath my crutches with the frenzy of dogs that had never been outside in their lives.
They are happy dogs and I am thankful for that. After several minutes of barking at the wind outside, they would bark and scratch at the door to be let in. When they entered the house, it was if I had been gone for 5 years. The whining, the crying, the jumping and the excitement of them being let in would follow me all the way back to the living room. Up and down, barking and whining whether they came in or out. People say the barometric pressure affects the dogs and their behavior becomes strange. Not my dogs. They were “gifted” and always like this. The solution this night was to leave the back door open for a while and they could waltz in and out whenever their little hearts desired. Problem solved. They loved the freedom of dancing in and out of the house to the fenced in back yard. If they could giggle, I think they would have. They were happy, and I was relatively happy.
Half an hour later, they both rushed in side by side and jumped on the couch. I noticed their behavior to be a little strange, even for my dogs. They were sneezing and rubbing their heads on the couch. And then it hit, the smell, the faint odor of a skunk. As quickly as I could, I got my walker and shuffled to the back door. The dogs followed in their usual manner, underneath the walker. We moved through the house as if we were co-joined. I went to the back door and slammed and locked it shut. Close call I thought. No more in and out tonight. The animals in the neighborhood must be just as looney as my dogs were due to the storm. As I wheeled around and went back through the kitchen with my Velcro dogs by my side, I noticed something in the middle of the kitchen.
I froze. The dogs froze. Did I mention the 2 cats I had who also froze? There in the middle of the kitchen staring at us all was the biggest skunk I had ever seen, staring right into my eyes. It was a standoff that I was about to lose.
Within seconds, almost in slow motion movie time, the skunk spun around like a child’s water sprinkler, spraying me, the dogs, the cats and the kitchen. Round and round he went, like he was playing ring around the rosie with himself. As soon as I realized what was happening, I put the walker in high gear, grabbed the dog’s leashes and phone and went out to the front porch.
The skunk was locked in the house. Nice play.
I am convinced my friends subscribe to Caller ID because of me. They have learned that if I call, there usually is some bizarre plot or adventure they find themselves lured into.
I called my friends John and Jill. John was out, but I tracked him down like a bloodhound and screamed in the phone-“get over here please, you can’t imagine what’s going on.” Of course he could, which is why I didn’t tell him. I just hung up.

What followed was as ludicrous as what had just happened. John appeared as I was sitting on the front porch crying. The dogs were still barking at the wind, and we all smelled. John stood there in the street 20 or so yards from the front porch yelling. “What the hell’s that smell’? When he realized the smell was coming from inside the house his first inclination was to leave. Can’t really blame him. He went to his car and appeared back with a small towel covering his face, as a thief would wear robbing a bank, gagging all the way to the front steps. I begged him to go in the house and get rid of the skunk. Peals of laughter and “Are you fu&*#ng crazy”?
The night ended with my calling an Animal Remover who came to the house, spent 2 hours “talking the skunk” out of the kitchen and into a pen. The skunk went peacefully.
The dousing of the house cost $1200. 4 industrial Odor Remover machines were used with herbal spray. My clothes had to be thrown away, the couch had to be thrown away along with all the bed linens.
The dogs were washed with a mixture of baking soda and 20 bottles of Summer’s Eve, thank you, that John had to buy at several all night grocery stores.
The dogs were washed at midnight in the back yard during the hurricane, by someone that John and I both knew, who had no sense of smell, or time for that matter.
John’s brand new sneaks, purchased that day, were discarded immediately.
Yes, my friends still answer the phone when I call, but usually with fear and trepidation.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Cleanliness is next to Godliness (and I'm screwed)

Two years ago, having been the recipient of 2 hip replacements gone awry, one hip being loosened by an over zealous therapist, and the 2nd hip having been defective, I was on my way to a 3rd hip replacement. The pain was intense and I was fairly crabby for a couple of years until all this was hammered (literally) out.

A week before the 3rd surgery a good friend who I’ve known since I was 10, came by to help me clean my house so that when I did return it would be all set. Now I am the first to admit, that the house tends to get a little hairy with 2 dogs and 2 cats. Add crutches, a walker and a cane to the mix, and cleaning the house wasn’t exactly my #1 priority.

As my friend cleaned up in the kitchen, I attempted to “pick up” the bedroom. I was doing my best to put things away and straighten and throw anything away that I could.

Under my bureau I happened to notice an orphaned black sock. With one of my crutches I began to poke at it and try and drag the lonely sock out. No luck. It wasn’t moving. It was stuck.
I tried with a broomstick handle, nothing. My friend, after looking at this feeble attempt of mine to clean, came in and offered to get the sock.

She promptly moved the bureau, looked down at the floor, looked at me and said, ”I fu#@*^g HATE you.” “What’s your problem”? I said. As I looked down there was one of my cats, dead. She had been missing for oh, 3 or 4 days.

I have no idea when she died.
She didn't smell. She was a little stiff and had her eyes open.
I did manage to close them. Her little front claws were wrapped around the telephone wire. Was she trying to call 911?

My dogs, which sleep in my room every night, 1 foot away from the bureau, had no idea.

Needless to say, my friend won’t help me clean my house anymore.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Camp “What the F*#k”? (For Tanya)

The fifth grade in St. Brendan’s grammar school marked the auspicious beginning of a change in my thought process. Having been made the illustrious “Captain of the Jellyfish Row,” (see prior post “Captain of the Jelly Fish Row”) and becoming the target for a nun gone wild, my sense of humor began to kick in, only in my head though. Saying out loud the things I thought would have only gotten me in more trouble and or excommunicated I'm sure.
St. Brendan’s Church was one of the richest parishes in town. Yearly, boxes of envelopes were sent to each and every parishioner with their names printed on it. These envelopes were to be filled with “charitable contributions” every week. Money. Wampum. Bucks. An envelope dated for every week to be placed in the offertory basket passed around and collected by the charming Pedophilic Sacristan, Mr. Rose. My family was poor, but my mother gave to the best of her ability. She would never be outdone by anyone, or so she thought. Not only would St. Brendan’s graciously give out ready made-to-give envelopes, but every year beginning in 5th grade, St. Brendan’s Church would print out, in newspaper fashion, the names of all parishioners and the amount they had given (or not). I can still see the shiny fold out newspaper, printed on the finest high quality glossy stock, suitable for framing. But that was okay. I knew we “made the list”. My mother gave every single week. It was a ritual comparable to any sacred rite performed. No problem here, or so I thought.
As I made my way to my assigned seat as Captain of the Jelly Fish Row one morning, I saw a familiar newspaper on Sister Rotten Joseph’s desk. She probably just wanted us to tell our parents thank you for a job well done. She began, “Children, the generosity of your parents has come to my attention”. Great! We were on a roll. It was going to be a good day. No snotty remarks, just kindness and gratitude. She continued, “…..although I don’t see everyone’s name here.” “Maybe there is some misunderstanding and some people were left off by accident”. Wow, sure wouldn’t wanna be them. I knew I was covered. That envelope was dropped in that basket every week, come hell or high water.
Her next words stunned me. “Maria, I don’t see your family's name anywhere in this paper”. How could this be? It was there. I saw it. But then I remembered with dread, a yet undiscovered truth. My mother and Big Frank had a different last name than mine. Theirs was Martino. Mine was Pafka. I’ll just explain it I thought. As I stood and explained the name issue, her eyes scanned the entire newspaper, all the way to the bottom. “Here it is, Martino, at the bottom under the $50.00 amount.” If she had used a loudspeaker, it couldn’t have reached a higher decibel. A little embarrassing, but at least we had given.
But it didn’t stop there. And it should have. She did a stand up routine par with Robin Williams and Don Rickles combined. “Why is your last name Pafka”, she asked. “Frank Martino is my stepfather, Sister,” I responded. “Do you have brothers or sisters”? Again I responded, “Yes I have a brother”. Then, the killer question. “Is his last name Pafka or Martino”. I was screwed! “No Sister, his last name is Kafka”. There was a moment of silence and then the show began. This had just been the warm up act. Sister Rotten Joseph had the class in stitches, with quips like, gee, maybe someone spelled your name wrong, and are you sure you’re in the right family and with what she considered to be her finest moment, “Do all those names fit on the mailbox”? The crowd roared. I had become her straight man. Even my colleagues in the Jelly Fish Row turned on me and joined in the laughter. Who could blame them? The name game. I hated it.
It was at that precise moment I began sparring with her, but only in my head.
Do all those names fit on the mailbox? Does my fist fit in your mouth? Does my foot fit in your mouth? Can those rosary beads wrapped around your waist fit in your mouth? I knew I was being bad, and that there would be a special place for this kind of thinking sin- somewhere between purgatory and hell. She was brutal. But not only were here comedic skills honed, she had the hearing of Superman. As I sat down, I muttered something like, yeh, your face is funny too. Silence. A loud silence as they would say. I had risen to my title as Captain of the Jelly Fish Row, no control.
That little remark cost me a two week’s worth of doing the nun’s laundry in the convent after school. To be more specific, hanging their wet underwear and bras on the clothesline outside of the convent. I had all I could do to control myself from taking their underwear and rubbing the crotch part in the poison ivy in the woods out back. But I knew I would be caught, having been the last one to “handle” their underwear, and probably catching poison ivy myself.
Two weeks later, after having my poverty level exposed along with any pride I might have salvaged , I was asked to stand up along with Mary Ann Pritchard.
Sister Moron Joseph announced to the class that St. Brendan’s Church along with the school had decided to pick the 2 “neediest” students and send them for 2 weeks to a Catholic Girls summer camp in Washington CT. Mary Ann and I were the chosen ones.
The camp was situated in one of the richest parts of Connecticut. It was a mansion that someone had donated to the church so that good Catholic (rich) girls could enjoy themselves and each other’s company. This experience couldn’t be farther from my world than Mars. I had nothing in common with anyone. I don’t even think we breathed in the same air. Each morning we would rise for 7 am Mass, then gather for breakfast. After breakfast, we would gather again for “Share Time”, where we would “share our family experiences and stories, each girl relating the “happiest times” with their families.
This exercise was so everyone could learn about each other and their families.
Hmm. Which stories to share? The beatings, the sexual abuse, the breakdowns of my mother, my adoption rejections? I did what anyone else would do. I lied.
This topic moved onto the schools we went to and the extra curricular activities we engaged in. Hmm. What stories to share? The beatings from the nuns, the sexual abuse from the church sacristan, the apparent insanity of the nuns, the after school program of hanging nuns’ underwear on the clothesline? I lied again.
But it came to an abrupt end. Two nights later I woke up in my cot and had developed hives all over my body that were blistering. I was sent home. I failed camp. No one really fails camp. But I did. My punishment was to stay in the house for 2 weeks. My mother didn’t want anyone to notice that I had flunked camp.

A Woman Scorned

After my brother’s fiasco with major league baseball, my mother kept and even closer eye on my brother’s life. Never wanting him to feel pain, rejection or unloved, she devoted her life to his. She was constantly paving the way for each and every opportunity that came along, plotting his every move. I marveled at the fact that he never had to make a decision on his own. She was right there by his side, practically breathing for him. And he loved it. We had just moved from Henry Street to Hamden, just outside of New Haven, and living in a 2nd floor apartment over a grocery store.
Frankie occasionally dated, but it seemed each romance ended with my mother intervening and putting her 2 cents in, usually driving the girls away. No one was good enough for her son. One serious relationship that everyone thought would go somewhere was destroyed by my mother. She had a habit of calling the parents of the girl and complaining to them that their daughter was distracting Frankie from getting on with his life, to accusing them of trying to spend his money. In time, the girl just walked off into the sunset. When this relationship ended, my mother said, “I bet Frankie stopped seeing Joanne, because she said something about me, he didn’t like.” Delusional. My mother was high maintenance. Frankie had no balls about him when it came to my mother. She always knew best. Big Frank, my stepfather, just stayed out of the picture. Frankie belonged to my mother and only her. Except for once.
Across the street from where Frankie parked cars, for my step father, and down the street from the White Tower, there was a famous barber shop. It was famous for one reason. It boasted as having the only “lady barber” in Connecticut. And it did. Men would flock to this barber shop to have Donna “do them”. Donna was an older woman, had dyed red teased hair, chain smoked and applied her makeup as a child would. As the story went, she had a “reputation”. Donna was tough and proud of it.
Frankie fell in love with Donna and vice versa. My mother, as you can well imagine, pulled every trick out of the book to stop the two of them from seeing each other. She sent Frankie down to Florida to college. When he charged $500 worth of phone calls to my mother’s bill, to make calls back home to Donna, she quickly brought Frankie back home and made him enroll in New Haven College. He then skipped classes to be with Donna so my mother yanked him out of that college.
She then decided that he should attend Stone Business College. That didn’t work. No school or trade lasted more than 4 months.
Meanwhile, my mother had banned Donna from ever being served at the White Tower restaurant. Their arguments over Frankie in public became legend, with my mother screaming names at Donna like, whore, slut, pig.
Wow, 2 women fighting over 1 man. Too bad one was his mother.
But alas, a very sad day came. This was the era of the draft and all single men were drafted. My brother had received his draft notice and my mother treated it like a death in the family. Certainly not mine though. My brother was given a party, leaving on the day of my mother’s birthday. Ample ammunition for Mary the drama queen.
Family came by and gave him presents and money. The one saving grace, according to my mother, was that at last Frankie would be rid of Donna, and their separation, my mother felt, would be the end of the relationship. Or so my mother thought. He would at last, find himself in the Army and be the man she wanted him to be.
My mother tearfully drove Frankie to the recruiter’s office where they said their goodbyes with my brother stating that he had finally ended the relationship with Donna, leaving my mother tearful and proud.
A week later, I came home from school, and found my brother sitting in the kitchen.
He said he had gone to Fort Dix New Jersey and had failed the physical exam. It seems like that “baseball arm” had reared its ugly head and he was dismissed from active duty.
You would have thought my mother had received the Purple Heart. She was beside herself with joy. Once again she was together with her son and they could plan his life according to Mary. He immediately resumed working at my stepfather’s parking lot until “something better” came along. My mother and Frankie were together again.
The happiness didn’t last long. A month later my mother received a phone call from my aunt. She was the Town Clerk of Hamden and had just received a marriage license stating that my brother and Donna had gotten married in April. He had never gone into the Army. He had found out just before he was to leave that he didn’t have to go. Frankie and Donna had eloped.

That night when Frankie got home, my mother had her script ready. She asked him to step out to the back porch. There in piles, were all his clothes, belongings, baseball trophies, and the 5 scrapbooks she had made that detailed his baseball career.
Her words were short, mean and hateful. “You want to hurt me”? “Well you might as well put a knife through my heart, because I would rather be dead than see you with this woman.” As this crazy woman is saying this, she is flinging everything he owns off the 2nd floor back porch and onto the street below. “Now get out of my house and never come back”, she screamed.
My brother walked into the bathroom, and started to grab his tooth brush and comb. She followed him, relentless in her hatred as well as her love for him, and stood in bathroom next to him screaming, “You’re just like your dead father. Want to know what he died from? He didn’t die of cancer. He died of syphilis. That’s the way you’re going to die. You’re just like him.”
As I stood by the bathroom door, I could see the reflection of Frankie’s face in the mirror. . He bent over the bathroom sink and just sobbed.
I went in my room and did the same. He was the child she adored. What happened? Tough love? Disturbed love is more like it.
When I came out of my room, Frankie and his things were gone.
My mother was doing the laundry as if nothing had happened.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Big Bed

Waking in the middle of the night to the sound of my mother crying was not routine. She never cried. Was I hearing right? In my bunk bed I could hear my stepfather, Big Frank say something like, “don’t cry, you’ll wake the kids up.” More crying. Big Frank’s whispers could be heard, “let’s go for a walk, maybe you’ll feel better." Shuffling of feet, kitchen chairs being pushed back into the table. I could hear Big Frank tip toe to the closet in the middle room where the bunk beds were and grab his coat and hers, then a reminder from my mother not to forget to take the cigarettes. I pretended to be asleep. My brother, for all I knew, was still asleep in the bunk bed on top. Big Frank and my mother left through the kitchen door and stayed out for what seemed like hours. What was going on? Where were they going and why was she crying? This wasn’t like her.
By the time they returned, I had fallen asleep. I was awakened by Big Frank gently shaking me and telling me to get up and go sleep in the “big bed”. The big bed in the next room belonged to my mother and Big Frank. I tried to ask why but before I could Big Frank explained that my mother wasn’t feeling well and she was going to sleep in my bed. He would sit in the rocking chair next to my bed to keep her company.
I did as I was told.
She didn’t go to work the next morning, or the morning after that. She had changed. Her primping and preparing for work at the White Tower had stopped. She would stay up all night and she would sleep during the day. During the day she would sit in the kitchen chair by the floor to ceiling window, staring out at the backyard at nothing.
When I came home from school, she had changed places and was sitting on the edge of the big bed staring blankly out the front window. Her bed, always so meticulously made would be as disheveled as she seemed to be. No conversation, no talking, nothing. It was as if no one was there. It was as if she wasn’t there. Sleeping in the big bed became my nightly routine.
I would lie with my head at the foot of the bed so I could see straight into the kitchen, to see what was going on. I would fall asleep soon enough but then the sounds from the kitchen would begin. The view was always the same. My mother would sit at the kitchen table with Big Frank leaning sitting next to her. She would rock back and forth, while crying and break into sobs. Words and phrases between tears and uncontrollable sobbing came gushing out. “I can’t go on like this.” “I’m so tired of this.” “This isn’t fair.” “Get me out of here.” “I can’t stand to be in my own skin.” “I just want to leave and never come back.” I couldn’t drown out the words, and sleep just wouldn’t come. I was scared. Big Frank tried to console her, but nothing worked. All she kept saying was that she she hated this life and what had she done to deserve this. What was this about? At the end of each and every crying jag, Big Frank would take her for a walk around the block be it fall, winter, spring and summer. I became a master at hearing their distinct footsteps. My mother would shuffle. Big Frank would take a couple of steps and then wait, so that she could catch up. Shuffle, shuffle, step, step. To this day, I have this unique gift of knowing certain people’s footsteps, much like my dogs too I imagine.
On one particularly sad night, her crying seemed so tormented, my brother rolled out of the top bunk and went into the kitchen to see what was going on. I followed him.
As my mother caught a glimpse of Frankie, she pleaded with a whisper to Big Frank, “Please don’t let Frankie see me like this.” As a point guard in a basketball game would do, Big Frank stood up and outstretched his arms as if to guard Frankie’s shot. “Go back to bed Frankie, it’s okay.” As Frankie turned around to leave, my mother shot a glance my way and said, in a low guttural sound, “make her go away.” Big Frank just looked at me and pointed to the big bed. His eyes said it all. I turned around and went back to bed.
Make her go away. Make her go away. What had I done? She couldn’t even say my name, just the command, make her go away. Surely it was something I had done. But what? I knew, even as a child what those words meant. She wanted me to go away, literally. My birth was the death of her life, as she saw it. How I longed for the way she used to be. I would have traded these words and feelings for a beating anytime. i guess I didn't know when I was well off.

These nights continued for a year. She had to quit White Tower. It was later said that my mother was having a hard time with “her nerves”. And as quickly as it had started, one day it just ended. We were back to the old ways. She had perfected the art of indifference towards me.

History has a nasty way of repeating itself. Many, many years later when I was in my late 30’s I received a call at work informing me that my mother had been taken to the hospital with what seemed to be a stroke. My brother was never called on these occasions; after all he was a “family man” and had responsibilities. I, on the other hand was not married, and could attend to my mother’s needs.

When I arrived the Dr. informed me that she had suffered a TIA- a stroke like symptom, but it was okay to take her home.
As I took a sharp left turn into her neighborhood on the way home, she suddenly fell over onto my lap with her body weighing heavy on my shoulder. She couldn’t move or get up. All I felt was the burden of her entire being, leaning on me suffocating me.
She was in the throes of a full blown stroke. As she lay on me, looking up into my eyes and asking for help, all I could think of and feel was, get her away from me, get her away from me.
I am still ashamed of this, not wanting to touch her, not wanting to hold her. I still carry the guilt to this day for those words and feelings. I always will. I was always the good daughter by rote. Doing but not feeling. I guess in retrospect, that’s how she did it. But the transference was successful. She had taught me how to not love or even like her, and I was a good student, although it tool me a while to learn.
Even now, when I find myself acting like her, and I do, those words ring loudly, get her away from me. I am my mother.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Take me out to the ballgame

My mother, Mary Martino treated her son Frankie Kafka, my half brother as though he were one of her preferred customers at the White Tower Restaurant.
Serving him, waiting on him was her goal in life. Her first priority was the White Tower, the second was my brother. She handled them both in the same way. Prompt, courteous attention, and service with a smile became her trademark when “working” Frankie or the White Tower. It was the “White Tower Way” or “Frankie’s Way.”
They were cojoined. You couldn’t really tell where one began and one left off.
For White Tower she would show up on time, ready, willing and able to work her shift and she would show up at his school, and sports events ready, willing and able to participate and contribute. Frankie was her life.
Frankie was a talented athlete. Baseball was the only game in town. Scrapbooks my mother put together became her hobby, her passion, her obsession. Photos of his teams, articles in the newspapers, became the sole reading material for my mother right up there with the romance comic books she would read at dinner. She would pour over these pieces as though they were the original stone tablets that held the ten commandments, reading them over and over, memorizing them, only to quote them to customers and family at any time. Why not? Frankie was a god to her.
Baseball became the focal point of their lives. She never ever, missed a game. I know. I was there, dragged to each and every one of them. Adulation from coaches and teammates only intensified the mania that was building. Frankie was going somewhere, he was going to be a star and make big bucks. He was a south paw (left handed) pitcher, the likes of which no one had ever seen. Perfectly pitched games became his trademark. Hitting homeruns came naturally to him. When he wasn’t on the mound, fanning batters one right after the other, his exploits in center field were heroic. Baseball scouts came to the basement apartment on Henry Street, all trying to woo my brother to their teams. College was never an option. My mother wanted Frankie on the “fast track."
Jealous? Yes I was. No doubt about it. I probably still am.
My mother made sure that nothing, absolutely nothing interfered with their baseball efforts, from doing his homework in high school, to buying him the best baseball gloves that money could buy.
Her weekly trips to the A&P grocery stores in order to purchase the latest installment of Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia was a pilgrimage. Although she bought the series for Frankie, she would ceremoniously do his homework, so he could practice baseball and be the star she envisioned.
Strangely I saw a metamorphous take place. Her obsession with the perfectly starched uniform for White Tower, the polished white shoes, the ritual in donning her stockings and garter became his ritual, almost like the Stations of the Cross at church.
Different steps for different articles
The Glove
Frankie would polish his baseball glove with saddle soap until the correct shine was visible, then place a brand new baseball in the pocket of the glove, then wrap heavy duty rubber bands around it to gently break it in. Perfectly molded glove for the perfect catch. The glove would then be placed high on top of a bureau somewhere, out of the reach of anyone, not to be disturbed.
The Hat
Frankie would fold over his new baseball cap in half so that the visor or beak would touch. That also would be held by a rubber band so that the visor was perfectly formed and curved over his forehead.
He would then indent the top, the peak, as to have a little form, and the hat would not be pressed against his head. The hat would then be placed next to the glove.
The Socks
The first socks to go were the tube white style knee socks. Over that he would put on the team colored stirrups. The socks would be held in place, never to move, with a huge wad of rubber bands. Frankie would actually measure as I held the measuring tape, the exact height he wanted the stirrups to be.
The Pants
The rule was to have the pants gently rolled at the knee, just above the stirrup.
The Hair
Frankie's hair had to be perfectly combed to minimize "hat head" for when he took his hat off.
The Baseball Hat
The hat was donned at the baseball field, never before.
The Cleats
Last, but not least, the cleats. Frankie would painstakingly clean out each tiny little crevice of dirt from the game before, and then polish the cleats until the shine came back. Once again, these were only put on, on the field.

Frankie was a sight to behold. He was the perfect son and perfect baseball player.
My mother could not have been any prouder if she were on the mound herself pitching.

But her dream never materialized. It seems all that perfect pitching in high school ruined his arm, or at least that’s what the scouts said. Frankie developed some sort of elbow injury just before spring training opened. The baseball scouts disappeared from the house as fast as cockroaches scurrying when the lights are turned on.
Frankie never got to the big leagues.
Neither did my mother.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Sister Carla OP & Sister Mary Jacob OP

Sister Mary Carla OP & Sister Mary Jacob OP (commonly referred to as "Sleepy & "Grumpy" respectively) were not the usual run of the mill, bullies. They weren't really malicious but they certainly possessed (no pun intended) peculiar qualities.
Sister Carla taught freshman Biolgy in St. Mary's High School, an all girls Catholic school. She was tall, serious looking as well as a quiet demeanor, and I mean quiet.
On the first day of class, in a new school, Sr. Carla waltzed into the classroom, introduced herself and immediately took roll call. Okay so far. She then proceeded to elaborate on what we would be learning that year in Biology. I was looking forward to her descriptions of what we would be doing, dissection of frogs, labs twice a week, working with microscopes, studying cells, ect. We would finally be working with something exciting off the beaten path of the stilted Catholic school curriculum.
That was until she suggested we "go round the room" and introduce ourselves. Ok-no problem. I was in the "P's" and I would just say basically what the other girls were saying. As the roll call progressed around the room, I happened to glance up at Sister Carla. She was sitting upon her perch, a platform raised about a foot above everyone else. I'm sure it was meant to be a pedestal, which all the nuns wanted to be placed on. The student's seats were 5 students across a row with laboratory benches serving as our desks.
As I watched her sitting there, I noticed her eyes were closed. I figured that she was probably really concentrating on learning about us and good for her! I was impressed, until I realized that after we had roll called about 30 students, her eyes were still closed. Being freshman on the first day of class in a new school, no one had the courage to say anything. After a 15 minute uncomfortable silence, a couple of students began to cough. Miraculously, Sister Carla opened her eyes and began talking as if nothing had happened. Okay I thought, we're back on track.
After elaborating on other details of the course, Sister Carla then asked us to open our text books and begin reading the first chapter,and explained there would be a brief discussion after the 15 minute reading period.
As soon as we began our first assignment, Sister Carla's eyes were once again closed-shut. The allotted reading time of 15 minutes had come and gone. Everyone had finished and were waiting for our discussion. It never happened. Sister Carla's eyes remained closed until the change of class bell rang 25 minutes later, at which point Sister Carla immediately opened her eyes and conveyed what our homework would be for that night. After class, as good Catholic had always been instructed, we never asked questions, no matter what the circumstance were.
To make a long story short, this continued throughout the year, every day, every class. Sister Carla had narcolepsy. You could count on Sister Carla's naps for at least 20 minutes of the 45 minute class. Any pause in the teaching curriculum and Sister Carla would be off in sleep mode, just like a computer. Any movement or sound and her lithe body would awaken.
Most times we just sat there enjoying the free time and silence. Sometimes we dropped text books on the floor just to test her reaction time. But sometimes believe it or not, it was detrimental to our education, such as the times we were in the middle of dissecting frogs, and she would drift off to sleepyland, while rigormortus set in for the poor frog.
The other nuns had to know. Everyone knew. She fell asleep in Church, in assembly and one time at a luncheon. Why didn't someone tell us? Why didn't someone tell her? But she never once yelled at anyone. She was too busy sleeping. I often wonder what became of Sister Carla. She's probably resting somewhere. Poor thing.

Sister Mary Jacob who taught Earth Science in the next class in the same room, was the exact opposite. Talk about Yin/Yang! Fast talking, swift moving, and obnoxious were her trademarks.
She would ask you a question with a smirk on her face and then answer herself just as sarcastically as she posed it. It was like she was having a conversation with herself or talking out loud, so you weren't really insulted.
Sister Jacob appeared in my life some 15 years later in camouflage. She was pretending to be a person. She had left the convent, been de-nunned or de-vowed or un-habited or whatever the terminology was.
I was at my photography exhibit at the Yale Divinity School. A friend of mine who was instrumental in acquiring the space for me, came by to introduce a friend of his.
Her face was somewhat familiar. I certainly didn't recognize her name, but as soon as she opened her mouth and said her first sentence, I was thrown back to a different place and time. Her first words to me were, "Humph, I certainly didn't think you would amount to anything, but maybe I should rethink that". BINGO!
Sister Mary Jacob. What a piece of work.
I saw her after that in a few social situations. Her inappropriate manner had followed her into civilization where it really wasn't tolerated or understood. People shunned her and were embarrassed to be with her. She said all the wrong things to the wrong people. I actually felt sorry for her. Poor thing.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Jelly Fish Row

Sr. Martin Joseph OP was my 5th grade teacher at St. Brendan’s Catholic Grammar School. Unlike Sister Teresita OP, Sister Martin Joseph had her own style of teaching and torture.
Sr, Martin Joseph OP was a tall stern looking woman whose smile was more of a sardonic grin . Her quiet, but sneaky demeanor was just a decoy for the her acerbic personality. Her beady little eyes were like missles, seeking out a target, waiting to destroy at a glance any student who went against “her rules”.
Basically, she was a snot.
She would march down the aisles of the classroom, with her arms folded underneath her habit, as if she were holding some kind of weapon. No need for weapons. Her looks could decimate you. She was a walking WMD. She never really talked to you- just snide remarks that only she appreciated. Among the many incidents, she was infamous for few that will remain branded in my mind forever.
Any student that didn’t meet up with Sr. Martin Joseph’s standards, were labeled as weak. Not being like everyone else was the biggest sin you could make. These students were usually the ones that looked a little different than the rest, were shyer than the rest and usually had problems with their studies. Rather than deal with their issues on a individual basis, or even recognize that they were different for a reason, these students were branded lazy and uncooperative.
Sr. Martin Joseph’s resolution for this was to group these children together. Not in an educational way, but an insensitive and insulting manner.
She developed the “Jelly Fish Row”. The jelly fish row was the last row in a classroom of 5 rows across the room and eight to a row. It was next to the window so the “jellyfish” could look out the window when they felt out of control and not annoy the rest of the class. Spineless, transparent, no backbone, uncontrollable jelly fish is what they were she stated.
The day the Jelly Fish row roll call was announced, you could feel the tension building in the classroom. Who was going to be selected to the Sea of Spineless Creatures?
There were only 8 slots. The instructions from Sister Martin Joseph were clear.
“Your name will be read in order, from the last seat to the first. When your name is read, please pack up your books and papers and proceed to your new desk in the Jelly Fish Row”.
First name,
8. Bobby Brueler
7. Charlie Faracielli
6. Maryann Pritchard
5. Kevin Saunders
4. Stanley Mucha
3. Maryanne Barile
2. Thomas Melillo

Whew, I had escaped the dreaded aisle of wrong.
She made a special announcement for the proud winner that held the first seat.
This person would be the Captain of the Jelly Fish Row-
The last name to be read was mine.
I guess that’s what the bible means when it says “And the last shall be first.”
Stupid jelly fish row.

This Catholic School had more mysteries than the 5 Mysteries of the Rosary.
For some bizarre reason, we were forced to take “Ball Room Dancing Lessons” from a guy named Bill Miller for 50 cents a week collected in the mornings before class. It was no coincidence that his daughter and son went to St. Brendan’s, were wealthy, and contributed to the Church mega bucks. Each and every person in the Miller family looked like models. They were perfect. Perfect hair, perfect teeth, perfect bodies, perfect sickening smiles.
Perfect suck ups..
The dance lessons were held after school, every Tuesday in the gym. The girls would line up on one side, and boys on the other, while “Bill” and his lovely wife, “Mrs. Bill” would show us the latest and greatest ballroom dancing steps. I’m not sure what good these dance lessons were to a repressed Catholic girl from the ghetto like myself, would accomplish. No cotillion balls, no country clubs, and the only coming out I had was when I came out of the closet in my 20’s. No ballroom dancing then either.
Sadly, this exercise in futility continued throughout the year. It was especially sad for the least popular boys and girls, like myself, who often weren’t chosen for a dance by the lucky kids from the “in crowd”. Being left more than once on the sidelines with the rest of the untouchables, we were forced to dance with Mr, Bill or Mrs. Bill.
On this particular Tuesday in class, my being the Captain of the aforementioned Jelly Fish Row, I was asked to stand up at my seat. I did as I was told. I was a good soldier.

The conversation went something like this:

Sister: Did you pay your 50 cents this week?

Me: Yes Sister I did

Sister: Empty out your pockets and put the contents on the desk.

Me: ( I pulled out my beanie, a key to my house and 3 quarters)

Sister: Where did you get the 3 quarters?

Me: From my mother

Sister: For what?

Me: So I could go to the store after school and buy stuff.

Sister: I don’t believe you. 50 Cents was stolen from the Dance envelope and Stanley Mucha said you were the last to leave the room. The envelope was on my desk.

Me: I didn’t do it (now starting to cry like any other 10 or 11 year old)

Sister: Then why are you crying. I think you stole it. Sit down.

To this day, I swear I didn’t take the money, I think someone just counted wrong.
So, my official title was Captain of the Jelly Fish Row that steals and lies.

Where the hell did they get these women? Another mystery.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Sister Teresita OP

Sister Teresita OP (or as the students called her “Sister Terror sit on your face”) began her reign of terror, as the Principal in St. Brendan’s Catholic Grammar School in 1956.
Students agreed that the initials OP at the end of her name stood for Open Palm, which you got when she slapped you across the face, or Open Palm for the money she would somehow coerce us into giving. In actuality, it stood for "Order of Preachers", another misnomer. Sandwiched between terrorizing the students of the school with her threats and condemnations, she also taught my 3rd grade class, due to the shortage of qualified nuns.

Sister Teresita was a large brash woman, who marched quickly and forcefully anywhere she was headed. She would sooner knock you out of the way if you happened to be in the path of her mission. You could hear her walking down the hall or over to your seat without even looking up. Her steps pounded down on the tile floors with the standard nun’s black shoes, beating in time with the swish of the belted rosary beads slapping noisily against her black belted waist.
Her cotton tunic and dress was white, perfectly creased and ironed. The rigid form-fitting white coif that surrounded her face, made her pit bull face bulge as if it were going to rupture. It was like a box that was packed too tight, with no room left to expand. The stiff white crown band on top of her forehead forced her brow to wrinkle in a perpetual frown. She was mean looking. She knew it and she loved it.

Salvatore Minerva was often the recipient of her hostile antics. He was a sweet boy that had the soulful eyes of a bloodhound. Although he wasn’t in my class, she would drag little Salvatore into the class room to demonstrate her supremacy. Salvatore wasn’t a bad boy. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, which could have meant he was anywhere in her cross hairs. He always looked like a deer caught in the headlights. Dragging him by the collar, almost off the ground, she would storm into the classroom and say, “look who I found in the hallway”. “I found baby bunting,” That was her trademark term for anyone who didn’t act like a grown-up.
At first no one laughed. But then she would turn her sour face to the class and say, “Doesn’t anyone else see this”? “Are you all stupid?” Rather than be pummeled or worse, being dragged up to be “baby bunting’s” companion, everyone soon learned to laugh. This is exactly what she wanted. Humiliation by numbers was her specialty.
If this wasn’t debasing enough, she would then take a yard stick, sit and place Salvatore across her lap, and spank him with the yard stick, while chanting like some Gregorian Chant gone wild. “You want to be a baby buntin?” “ This is what we do to baby buntings.” Usually Salvatore would cry, his face red from embarrassment, and she would then pick him up by the seat of his pants and tell him to get out of her sight.
She made him an act that she appeared with when she needed attention. It was like watching Abbott and Costello, with Costello always getting the short end of the stick.
Sister Teresita OP was an adult bully.

Her culinary directives were just as insane as she was. Every morning she would have us raise our hands to tell her how many of us had eaten onion sandwiches.
It seems in her bizarre religion, onion sandwiches were the remedy for any and every ailment. She almost made it one of the commandments.

Her other talents included having us sing the National Anthem every day. This in itself wasn’t so bad. It was the vehement directive that we memorize and sing the 2nd verse.
She would stand there, punching the words out with her fists and screaming, her face reddening as the words were shouted out in some sort of demonic beat. If she thought you weren’t singing loud enough, you could expect a punch or shove in your back, and then she would stand there and pound your desk until she heard the decibel she was expecting.
She was out of her mind
I think I’m the only person that knows the 2nd verse of the National Anthem by heart, and I never hear it sung anywhere.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Art of Conversation

From the moment she got in the car and slammed the door, I knew it was going to be an explosive visit. As usual, there was no eye contact, no conversation, and no acknowledgement of my presence. It was as if she were driving alone. Every visit or stop over was the same. Today though, would be different.
Today would be special. It was Mother’s Day.
I thought by taking her to her favorite restaurant, it would ease whatever rage, or self pity that was currently festering in her mind, if only for an hour or two.
Driving in her silence for the 20 minutes it took to get to the restaurant, I was constantly trying to engage her in some inane conversation about anything. Anything, just to make her talk to me. You think I might have learned about 30 some odd years that this was an exercise in futility. But no, I kept on yakking like Pinky Lee, trying to entertain and inquire about her life. Any semblance of normality would have sufficed. “Happy Mother’s Day mom.” “How did you sleep last night?” “That’s a nice dress, mom”. “How is Mrs. Dolan your neighbor”? On and on until I couldn’t stand hearing myself anymore. Her response was nothing. It was like having a deaf mute for a mother. She had mastered the “silent treatment’ as she called it, and was proud of it. Being with her was an exercise in delivering a monologue. No dialogue existed.
As we pulled into the parking lot of the mall, she exited the car exactly as she entered it, slamming the door.
We walked into the restaurant, with my mother well ahead of me by 10 steps, as a teenager would do at a mall, not wanting to be identified with their parents.
How ironic that her favorite restaurant was “Friendly’s.” She stormed over to a booth and sat down. I followed.

Her first words to me were, “I’m not even hungry and I don’t know why we even came here,” she said staring off into the distance as if she were talking to herself.

I told her that it was Mother’s Day and I wanted to take her out to dinner at a place she liked. I reminded her that she agreed to this the previous night. With this she picked up the menu and began her tirade of how “this food wasn’t good” and “I guess if you don’t have any money, we can eat here”, she said.
As the waitress leaned across the booth to place the knives and forks, she wished my mother a Happy Mother’s Day. No response. The waitress didn’t exist either. I of course responded for my mother and myself, inquiring if the waitress herself had any children, blah, blah, blah. I was talking for two. It was always like this. I never wanted people to think I was as miserable as my mother.
Without looking up from the menu my mother, in her icy style, ordered a grilled cheese and a coffee. “But the coffee now”, she rudely demanded, and was promptly served or in my estimation was promptly shut up so she wouldn’t complain.
I ordered the quickest item on the menu, both to prepare and to eat. I wanted this hell day to end quickly.
I always notice when I go out to eat and see people together eating but not talking, what their problem is. Do they not like each other? Do they not like the food? Do they not have anything to say? Or are they like my mother? Completely and utterly unhappy?

Not soon enough for me, the Friendly's waitress returned with our orders. As the waitress was placing the grilled cheese in front of my mother, my mother spoke. She spoke to me the way I had wished she would for years.
Her words were precise, direct and on target, and finally eye contact.
“Want to know the one regret I have in life”? “It was having you.”
“My entire life changed for the worse.” “You are the biggest disappointment in my life and I will never forgive you.”

The waitress at this point is frozen in time, as I am; only this really wasn’t news to me. This was an affirmation of our life together. At least it was out in the open. No more guessing for me. No more thinking I could change her, no more thinking that maybe the older she got, the nicer she might become. No more thinking and wishing that there might be just one thing I could do, to make her just like me, let alone love me.

The waitress however, stood there with my salad in her hand, unable to decipher what she was hearing. She looked at me, and just with a tilt of her head, I knew she felt bad. I just shook my head and shrugged it off. I felt worse.

My mother had this perfectly timed. What a performance! She was performing for this waitress. Did she think the waitress would agree with her?

Me, awkward, sad, embarassed.
My mother, relentless, impenetrable, cruel.

Time stood still for me on occasions like this. It took me 3 days to get over these encounters. She was an artist at making me feel as though I owed her everything and anything. My lot in life was to serve her. I never fully came to terms with her mandates, that's where the problems and the hate resided. I tired to fight her off and still be a "good daughter". It just wasn't meant to be.
I danced around her demands like Mr. Bojangles, always trying somehow to please her without giving up the soul she was trying to take.

The amazing thing is that she actually blamed me. I still can’t understand her thought process on this one. So, it was my fault that I was born. Yeh, right.
Nah, I don’t require therapy or medication.

Oh, and the Mother’s Day Present I got for her? As she got out of the car, I handed her a box wrapped up with a couple of blouses inside. She didn’t even look at it, didn’t say goodbye and once again, her trademark, slammed the door.
Yeh, I really like Mother’s Day.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Mr. Landy

The row house 2 doors away from my home on Henry Street was owned by an older gentleman named Mr. Landy. Mr. Landy was about 60 years old and lived in the basement apartment which was identical to mine. The other 3 floors of his row house were unoccupied. No one knew why, and the thought at that time was that Mr. Landy had enough money and didn’t need to rent it out.
Mr. Landy was always dressed in a felt hat, an old brown suit with a white shirt, without a tie, buttoned at the collar. His bent frame of an old man’s body would take a “daily constitutional”, as he would call it, to a neighborhood grocery store, Sherman’s, half a block away. His purchase might include bread, milk or cold cuts. But the one purchase he always made was his daily pack of Pall Mall cigarettes. I knew because my mother had borrowed a cigarette from him once, and remarked how they both liked the same brand.
One summer, I was awakened from a sound sleep by fire engines and then someone banging on the front bedroom window. My mother was pulling her all night shift at the White Tower,while my brother and step father somehow managed to sleep through all the noise. At the window was a fireman, yelling about someone’s house being on fire and if anyone knew if there were more occupants in the house. I ran out to find out what house was on fire. It was Mr. Landy’s house.
The fireman was somewhat relieved to hear that there might not be anyone else living there. Mr. Landy had been taken out, barely conscious, and was on a stretcher trying to get his breadth back.
It seemed Mr. Landy had been smoking in bed and the mattress caught fire. He had miraculously managed to call the fire department before he totally passed out from smoke inhalation.
As I stood there in astonishment, watching the fire rage through his basement apartment and listening to the fireman yell at him for smoking in bed,
I knew this would be a lesson learned.
Not so. This happened again a month later. The same exact thing-smoking in bed. The same drill, firemen waking the neighbors, making sure no one else was in the house, and reprimanding Mr. Landy for the same foolish act.
He was a lucky man, so far.
The 3rd fire was the last. The final time I saw Mr. Landy, he was being carried out on a stretcher by the firemen. Burnt to a crisp. That’s the only way I can describe what I saw. He didn’t wake up in time, couldn’t call the fire department, and couldn’t get out alive. He burned to death. To this day the vision and the stench remain in my mind.
Three strikes and you're out.
So much for the first two fires being a wake up call.

Many years later, in my 30’s, my mother called during the night. This was nothing unusual. She had a habit of “crying wolf” to get my attention for any reason. She would feign sickness, fainting and/or heart attacks just to get me over to her house. It was a game, and I played it like a champ, or maybe chump, but she always won.
On this particular night when I went over, I noticed a strange yet somewhat memorable smell in her apartment hallway. There were about 100 apartments in the complex. It smelled like burnt toast.
I walked in her apartment and realized the stench was coming from there. She too, had fallen asleep smoking Pall Malls, setting fire to the mattress. I doused the rest of the small but smoldering inferno with water.
What did I do? I dragged the smelly, wet, burnt mattress out the back door of the apartment, stuck it in my car, took it to my apartment, threw it in the dumpster. I then dragged the mattress I was using back to her house for her to sleep on.

And oh, why did she call me in the middle of the night, and not my brother who’s a FIREMAN and lived closer than I did? Her response was that she didn’t want him to know she had done something so stupid. God, the rules never applied to her.

I’m sure there’s a message in here somewhere, but I don’t know if it’s for me. I’ve never smoked.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

My top 10 myths I was taught by the Catholic Church

1. Only Catholics can be saved, only Catholics will go to Heaven and everyone else will go to hell. "Extra ecclesiam, nulla salus," -- outside the Church, nothing is saved

2. Biting down on the host at Holy Communion will make the Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ come pouring out your mouth.

3. Chewing gum was immoral, only “prostitutes” chewed gum

4. Any wish you desire will be granted if you stand completely still while the Passion of Our Lord is read during Palm Sunday Mass.

5. If your infant has not been baptized by the Church, he or she could face hell. If your child has been baptized, then there is hope!

6. If you die with a *mortal sin on your soul, you will go straight to Hell.

*Mortal Sin
e.g., murder, missing Mass on Sunday, sex before marriage, birth control,any type and homosexuality

7. Praying the rosary out loud each night with your entire family will create a bond will draw your family closer forever.

8. If you get your throat blessed on February 3rd, the feast of St Blaise, you will never choke on a fish bone.

9. The Catholic religion rejects abortion, euthanasia, and embryo stem cell research. All life is precious - from the moment of conception to the moment God calls each one of us to Him. The Catholic religion also rejects homosexual activity. This is a grave sin.

10. The Church’s teaching on the ordination of only men is because Jesus was a man, the apostles Jesus chose were men, and the Church believes that Jesus intended His church to be led by only men.