Flash Memoir #3…kid stuff
When childhood is a time loop in which every day is exactly the same.
BOARDING SCHOOL BLUES
My brother Tom and I were deposited with no explanation at a Catholic boarding school when he was 3 years old and I was 6. We had never really lived together until that moment when we only had each other. While Tom was being rotated among various households, my time was mostly spent on Union Street in Brooklyn living with my maternal grandmother, where the adulation of being the first-born never ceased.
Being more socialized than Tom meant a quicker adjustment for me in discovering survival mechanisms. However, a deep sense of rejection, or fear of it, followed me from that place to every corner of my life, except this, my last stop.
Tom, being the youngest and cutest of the boarders, was a perfect foil for the nuns who took him on regular trips from Staten Island into Manhattan and the Hudson River docks where they begged for food and goods to bring back to that war-time community. That’s where Tom learned how to be charming, while I suffered the deeper rejection of having to repeat second grade. Everyone said it was because i was Sister Veronica’s favorite. On the other hand Tom’s earlier start in school was compounded by his being skipped a grade early on. He never found his place in life until years later when he returned from a three-year stint in the Air Force.
St. John’s Villa Academy sat on a hill overlooking the Atlantic entry to the New York Harbor. Maybe we were sent there to escape the raging polio epidemic of the time. Despite its bucolic grandeur, Tom chose to become a run-away. Quickly caught and punished, it was unbclear what he was running from or where he was running to. He knew no other life.
Until today, our discussions try to make sense of that period in our lives and to understand how it affected whom we became. Periodic visits to the school, introducing wives to our past lives, were insufficient to provide a roadmap into our minds and emotions. We did not have the same reference points as normal people. As Tom says, “I learned how to be a better nun than a father.”
In the 1960s Robert Moses expropriated part of the school grounds for an approach to the Verazano Bridge. And just last year, the Villa closed its doors forever. Developers will figure out a way to make appealing spaces among the condos for children to grow up and play in. But this time, with their moms and dads at hand.
THE MEMORY HOLE
Thinking back on one’s life and trying to reconstruct the events that shaped it is a daunting task for most individuals. For me it is nigh impossible. Yes, there were a few hectic years at the beginning that defy explanation, but from early childhood right up through high school - a span of about 12 years - there is a zero.
Perhaps the most memorable event was when my mother arrived on Sunday visiting day and told Tom and me that our father had died. This was the first time that I experienced not crying when I was supposed to. We walked to the neighborhood cluster; I downed a hamburger at the usual bar and grill. Later that evening the nuns kept us up with donuts and milk, which I devoured. I didn’t understand why I was feeling hunger when so many others reported that “they just couldn’t eat” under huge emotional stress. As a kid, I was always more serious than happy; it shows in the pictures.
I spent much of my life shielding myself from disappointment, not risking relationships. As for my peers, I was either too good for them or they not good enough for me. And in college, despite a visibility and popularity that hid my self doubts, I finally connected with a girlfriend at the end of my senior year. I let her break through as long as she understood this was not for real, for marriage. I finally married Linda after six years of trying to break off the relationship.
For Tom and me the formative years are lost in a whoosh of black habits around us. Nuns bustling unaware of our personal needs. Nary a hug. Only an occasional ruler across the knuckles. Not even Dickens could capture the morbidity of life in a place of graceful beauty. And when it came time to man up in high school, the Salesian priests could knock you down with a knuckle to the back of your head. The priests and nuns were masters of corporal punishment that left no marks.
We were clever kids and we found ways to have fun and be happy below the horizon. When we emerged into adulthood in our college years, the only reality we could replicate was found in celluloid depictions of life. When Linda and I and two children made our first real home in an embracing Cape Cod in the Ramsey Golf and Country Club, I could only think of “Dagwood and Blondie.” But watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” alerted me to the unpredictable side of life. Then I began to think of the boarding school as a safe haven. The Stockholm Syndrome was in full bloom.
For most of my life I learned to accept any situation, to eat whatever meal is placed before me, to let serendipity be the agent of my life, to go with the flow and demand only good pizza.
But I did understand the dynamics and politics of institutions. And that enabled me to generally get my way and leave a mark wherever I’ve been.