Camp “What the F*#k”? (For Tanya)
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.