How it all left me

I spent a lot of time trying to be what I perceived as normal, from the time I was a little kid until …

I always knew that what life was like with my mother wasn’t okay. It was awful and it hurt, and I tried to fight back, but I couldn’t. Then I spent time in foster care. Then I was raised by my grandmother.

No other kid I knew about had any of that stuff happen to them (in retrospect, I’d say, at least that I knew of). So I always knew I had dark (dirty) things about me that kept me from being like other kids. My main task was not to fit in (no matter how hard I tried that could never happen), but just to make sure no one ever knew the sort of things I’d been exposed to. I can’t even say honestly whether I’m an introvert or an extrovert, because everything got so mixed up so early. I remember screaming back and forth with my mother, and that’s as close to really being me as I’ve ever been, because I spent so much time and effort in not letting anyone see that I had been sullied and ruined by what happened to me before I was five years old.  What happened when I was 15 was absolutely awful too, but in a different way.

Recently, my grammar school and high school classes have created Facebook pages. (Actually, the grammar school one covers a few grades, but with only 22 or so kids per grade, that’s cool.) I only appear in one photo in either place. It’s in a Google Docs folder, and it’s of my whole class, apparently on a field trip, probably in fourth or fifth grade. I entered the class halfway through fourth grade (even harder to cope with my stuff, because I wanted friends, but couldn’t let myself be me). In the photo, there are the rest of my classmates, meant to be sitting for a sort of class photo but goofing around and laughing.  Then there’s me, off to one side, smiling at the laughing kids, but not part of it all; separate, looking on, looking a bit pathetic really. I’m not in any of the photos from high school, where I was the most outcast of outcasts. I did have a few friends (three, to be precise), but of course even with those friends I couldn’t be completely honest.

Later, I would tell numerous people (especially therapists, counselors, and other people trying to help me) the story of my early childhood as, well, a story. I stay curiously detached from things when I talk about that time in my life; just the facts, ma’am.

To this day, though, I want to not have all that ugly stuff. I would love to not be the kid on the sidelines, but to be in the midst of all the laughter and silliness. The good thing is that I have experienced it. I have gone for long periods of time feeling unhaunted.

Still: I always feel as though I have something to hide; that I am naturally a bad person. As though I am keeping secrets, and need to juggle things and be less than transparent. I marvel at people I know who fearlessly live their lives, whether simple or busy or complicated. People who just answer their phones, even if it turns out to be a recorded message, because they don’t check the number because they don’t feel they need to do it. People who just … are.

And to think: I haven’t even gone into the darkest parts of who I was yet. Where not having a sense of self took me. I just need to type this out, this constant in my life. I am grateful that I have come out of where I went and experienced joy and euphoria and motherhood and coming out and all of it.

Still, there’s that thing; always there, always telling me to watch out. I need to protect the secrets of that little girl, even though so many years have passed that most people really wouldn’t care anymore.

Which I guess means that I still do. I still care about that little girl. Even as I wander through life a bit lost and confused, not functioning very highly most days. I do care.

Nobody’s Daughter

I think it was a trigger no one knew was one, but it set off so many things inside me.  Maybe this should come with a trigger warning?  Do memoirs have trigger warnings?

My daughter gained access to my uncle’s Facebook page (something I can’t even find, and now have no wish to find) with his assistance one day when they were spending some time together (with her kids too) in the park across the street where we all live (where I’ve lived most of the time since I was born), and somehow, on her iPhone, this Facebook thing occurred.

One of his photo albums there is called “My ‘Daughters'” … mind you, my uncle never had children.  These are the daughters of his recently deceased girlfriend of about 29 years and some Asian girl I never even knew, or knew about for that matter.  Now, back (way back) when I was part of their social life (before, I guess, the Asian girl entered it), I recall watching the way Karen’s daughters would fawn over him; their familial ease around him, the indeed daughterly way they interacted with him.  I thought at the time that I was happy for him, happy that he’d found a family for himself with Karen and her daughters.

Anyway:  There is no album of his actual blood family; not of his mother, father, sister, niece. I happen to know that photos exist of us together, when I was a child and a teenager and a young adult.  None of those photos are posted on Facebook.  There’s something about the five women who shaped his life or inspired him or something; so far there seem to be only some photos posted: Eva Marie Saint (to whom he delivered groceries when he was 12), Linda Ronstadt (who he believes has the most perfect pitch and tone in the world), and others I don’t know, probably early girlfriends or someone; I’m not sure.

Back to his “daughters.”  The two of them who were Karen’s are, in order of age, the people who will control and manage his estate after his death.  After he’s been gone for 10 years, the money will be split among the three of us in a way that favors me as they have to split their half; mine is, well, all mine.  I don’t really care terribly much about all that stuff.  What I find myself so upset about is the main reason I have never been and can never be close to my uncle.  It happened 40 years ago, and it’s haunted me and in some ways shaped my life ever since.

One evening, when I was 15 years old, after my grandmother had been diagnosed with a heart problem and wasn’t ever to be upset by anything, she and I had an argument over something (I haven’t got a clue).  My uncle was called to come over and mediate this issue.  My grandmother, who was my guardian (warm and fuzzy family: not), spoke her “side” before I did; and then, the way it had been laid out to us, it was my turn to speak.  I said “That’s not true” … three words … and my uncle got up from where he was sitting and started whacking my head around via my face.  How many whacks there were I don’t know because somewhere in the middle of the whole thing, counting went out the window.  By the time he was done, my spirit was well crushed and my throat was swollen shut; when he yelled at me to apologize to my grandmother, I was unable to vocalize the words, so I just mouthed them.  I did that several times before my grandmother told him to just let me go to my room.  She had to say that twice before he stopped yelling at me to apologize and let me just go.

I don’t think I ever upset her again.  For the rest of my life, I’ve really tried hard to never upset anyone again.  I can’t confront anyone; I’d rather curl up in a little ball, and sometimes I do.  I cannot confront anyone successfully; most of the time I avoid it, pretty much at all costs; and if I ever try, I fail woefully.  It’s sort of like being unable to swim and flailing uselessly in the water, not treading but headed toward drowning.

That’s his legacy.  Not whatever Shari or Bari will be defending; not whatever comes to me after he’s been dead for 10 years.  It’s me, as I am, still frightened and living under his 6’3″ ex-Marine shadow ever since he robbed me of my voice.

The Schooling of Me

No one was in the military when I was growing up.  My uncle served for three years in the U.S. Marines, but he was done with that by the time I was four.  However, I managed to go to more than my fair share of schools around the island of Manhattan; the pace slowed down, though, the higher the grade number.  At least there’s that.

I went to nursery school (which these days would be called pre-K) because my grandmother worked full-time, and there was a good settlement house program in our neighborhood, and  they had nursery school.  I went to kindergarten at the same place.  It was (and still is) called Hamilton-Madison House.  Once upon a time there was a Hamilton Street, but it disappeared in the 1930s due to urban development, Depression style.  Madison Street is still here.

For first grade, I went to P.S. 1, which I think is rather cool.  My first grade teacher’s name was Mrs. Fraser.  I remember a few things about first grade.  One was that a girl I considered my best friend in the entire world, Donna, moved to Staten Island in the middle of the year.  They let her come into the classroom to say goodbye to me.  Then she left.  I cried all day long.  It can’t have been easy for Mrs. Fraser.

Another thing I remember is that lots of times Mrs. Fraser had me sit in her lap when she read to the class.  I don’t recall any other kids sitting on Mrs. Fraser’s lap, but maybe that’s because I always felt very self-conscious when I was on her lap, and I think she smelled of moth balls or some other unpleasant thing (although maybe not); I just know that I felt obligated to be very good and not move or breathe too much while I sat on her lap during these reading sessions.

Mrs. Fraser came to our apartment one night, which REALLY was strange.  Apparently I had homework.  I don’t think I was aware of this as an actual thing, because I know that whenever my grandmother asked me if I had homework, I always said no, and as I recall I believed it.  Since I went to an after-school program, it’s entirely possible that I completely forgot about it while I was busy doing after-school stuff.  Anyway, Mrs. Fraser and my grandmother discussed with me the importance of Doing Homework, and my grandmother knew to check my book bag (which was sort of like a mini briefcase) so she’d know when I had homework and make sure that I did my homework.  Welcome to grade school.

For second grade, I went to P.S. 126, and my teacher was Mrs. Pierce.  I adored Mrs. Pierce.  I had my first crush on Mrs. Pierce.  It was a sad and lonely thing, having a crush on Mrs. Pierce.  She was beautiful and aloof and quite a vigorous, rigorous sort of woman.  When we visited a firehouse and got to climb all over a firetruck, I announced that I wanted to be a fireman someday.  (The term firefighter had yet to be conceived; this was sometime between 1966 and 1967.)  Mrs. Pierce told me that I couldn’t be a fireman.  I did not understand this.  Why couldn’t I be a fireman if I wanted to be a fireman?  Mrs. Pierce was adamant that I could never be a fireman.  I wasn’t thinking about gender at the time; I wanted to do what they did, ride around in a red truck and put out fires!  I was so disappointed in Mrs. Pierce.  Only in adulthood did I wonder whether her stance had more to do with the second part of the word, and it wasn’t her fault that there weren’t any firefighters back then, and it was beyond both of our imaginations to come up with an appropriate term.  I still adored her, but my heart had been broken and things were never the same again.

We learned how to sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in Chinese (don’t know which dialect) and sang it in Assembly.

This girl named Terry from the projects said that I was okay but I wasn’t tough, so she would teach me how to be tough.  I was so happy about this that I told my grandma about it that very night.

I was taking modern dance classes at another nearby settlement house (Henry Street Settlement House), and apparently a famous choreographer who was involved with the place stopped by and observed our class one day.  My favorite part of class was “Improvisation” because the teacher put music on and I could just dance any way I wanted to.  Anyway, this choreographer person told the teacher that I was a natural dancer, and that I ought to study ballet because it would help develop my dancing skills.

Terry Teaching Me to Be Tough vs. Ballet Training:  Guess which way my grandma went?  Yep.  There was a school on East 54th Street called the National Academy of Ballet.  I auditioned.  I got accepted.  The weird part:  The school started with fourth grade, so I had to skip third grade to go there.  So I skipped third grade.  I also stopped going to Hamilton-Madison House’s after-school program because of both the location and hours of this new school and the fact that it was my grandmother’s firm belief that after the age of eight, the atmosphere of that program became wilder and more dangerous, and she didn’t want me around such sorts of stuff.

At the National Academy of Ballet, students had both academic and dance training all in the same building.  My uncle took me to school the first two days to make sure I knew how to get to and from the school.  It was a very early in the morning trip up, and during winter I often got home after dark.  And I was a scrawny eight-year-old kid.  It was the Third Avenue bus up and the Lexington Avenue bus down.  At least I’m pretty sure that’s what it was.  I know it was that way for fifth grade, when the school had moved to East 86th Street, but I am getting ahead of myself.  I was always to sit right up front near the bus driver.  I made some grand friendships on the bus, especially in the morning, with grown-ups from my neighborhood going to work.  I was quite the special pet, and it was probably the best thing about attending this particular school.

My ballet teacher, like a whole lot of other people, had a desire for my uncle.  He did not return her desire.  I don’t know whether that had anything to do with how much she yelled at me or not.  I do know I believed that she hated me, and actually I still believe that.  She was just awful.  I think her name was Miss Shelley, but I’m not sure because she’s half blocked out, only ugly bits remaining.  One day (it was a visiting day for parents etc.), we were being observed by what seemed like 100 people (it was probably more like 20).  My shoe came untied, and she told me to sit down and tie my shoe.  I was so humiliated, because I was clearly the only child in the whole school whose shoe would come untied.  Now, I think we were trained to wait for her to tell us when to join the class again; if that wasn’t the case, then what happened was that my humiliation sent me escaping altogether into a fantasy land away from Miss Shelley and her meanness.  All of a sudden I hear her yelling at me, something about why was I just sitting there?  Get up and back to the barre!  Now I was past humiliated, although I’m not sure what the word for that is; but it’s how I felt then.  I hated Miss Shelley.

The other ballet teacher for the younger children was named Miss Dearborn, and she suited her name perfectly.  She was a petite gossamer woman, sweet and tender.  I was hoping to have her when I went on to fifth grade, but alas it was not to be.  There I was, stuck with the Demon Teacher from Hell again.

Academic memory:  Reading the word “colonel” phonetically, and being laughed at and ridiculed by the other kids in my class, one or two of them snapping “It’s KERNEL!” at me and making me feel very stupid and small.

The piano teacher was Russian, and he had wild hair and a great deal of sternness in his demeanor.

The first day of school, I met Ginger who, like me, had skipped third grade to come to this place.  I thought we were going to be friends, but it seemed like by the second day of school she was being very mean to me.  This continued and was really awful!  In the dining room there was this easy chair at one end of one of the tables.  The one and only time I ever got that chair, Ginger pulled it out from under me.  It was a very high chair.  I was badly bruised and had to be picked up early because I got sick.  One Parents Night, my grandmother, who liked Ginger (which felt like a betrayal to me), had a talk with her about why she was so mean to me.  Apparently, the reason was that I never fought back.  My grandmother imparted this information to me.  The next time Ginger was acting like a bully (which, let’s face it, she really was) I punched her in the stomach.  After that we were friends.  As in spending weekends at each other’s homes friends, even after we went to different schools (F train to/from East Broadway to Kew Gardens, don’t remember the name of the stop at the moment).  In retrospect, the whole thing is weird.

My best memory is, sadly, when I returned to school after my mother died (January 2, 1968; fourth grade).  All the teen-aged ballerinas made a huge fuss over me, hugging me and telling me how terribly sad they were for me.  They were so sweet and caring and kind.  And when the male dancers were practicing lifts, one of them lifted me up into the air, and it really felt like I was soaring!  Of course, I hadn’t been trained in that aspect of ballet yet, but he allowed me to feel as though I were a star!

Fifth grade was better, except at some point in the first few months of the school year a boy in the seventh grade had a nervous breakdown.  It was the beginning of the end of what was by now renamed the National Academy of Ballet and Theatre Arts and located on East 86th Street.  My grandmother began looking for options, and investigated a school in Greenwich Village where her friend’s daughter had gone to school.  It was called St. Luke’s.  We went for an interview with the Principal, Mrs. Taylor.  She was very intimidating in stature and the lines of her face, but there was a feeling that she really wanted what was best for a child.  Her eyes were kind.  It just so happened that there was an opening in the fourth grade, because a boy named Cornelius was moving to Washington, DC due to his father being transferred there.  Since I was at the age where normal kids are in fourth grade, back to fourth grade I went.  Very, very happily.

My years at St. Luke’s (half of fourth grade through eighth grade) were the happiest school years I ever had.  The school was like a benevolent village, all the best parts without the insular meanness that sometimes arise in such places.  Everyone knew everyone else’s name; who was whose sibling; whose mother taught French or volunteered in the library or put together the Christmas Fair.  There was an annual Strawberry Festival, my favorite part of which was having real strawberry shortcake involving strawberries, biscuits and whipped cream.  And everyone knew me.  Oh, there were the inevitable Mean Girls in our grade, and there was the one kid no one wanted anything to do with, but I had a small group of friends in fifth grade (they valiantly rescued me from a friendship I didn’t want and only had by default due to being the new kid), although by sixth grade it was just two of us after the other two moved, one to a progressive school and the other to Connecticut.  My best friend was Alison.

Alison really was my best friend.  We shared a love of the Marx Brothers, Leslie Howard, all sorts of old movies (1930s and 1940s; they were a very big thing in the early 1970s; there were loads of books called The Films of …) and her family’s country house in Carmel.  We drifted apart after we left St. Luke’s, but she still attended my high school graduation ceremony and joined my family at Fraunces Tavern, where she and I did poses as “Washington’s Farewell to His Troops” upstairs in the museum part.  We wrote some letters during college.  Hers were always adorned with drawings in the margins (she was a fantastic artist); mine were just letters.  We always signed our letters “Chauvelin” (Alison) and “Sir Percy” (me) because one of our all-time favorite movies was The Scarlet Pimpernel.  (Somewhere I still have a signed photo of Raymond Massey.)  I met up with her once after college … and we lost each other.  I was spiraling downward and she was biding time before she went to graduate school in England.  I am sure she is living a happy, independent, very private life somewhere in New England these days.

In eighth grade, alas, came the gruesome reality of applying to high schools.  I (Grandma) applied to three:  the United Nations International School (because Alison was applying there); St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn (a foreign land); and Trinity School (because my grandmother had a thing for Trinity School, it being very old, very Episcopalian, and very top notch academically.  We toured all of the schools, of course, and I wrote essays and took tests.  UNIS was brilliant; it was practically in the East River and had loads of windows; some classes we passed had kids sitting on the floor, which looked really cool; and, well, Alison was probably going to go there.  St. Ann’s was sort of dark and scary, I think; I don’t really have much memory of it.  Trinity was incredibly intimidating.  The high school was in a new building that had no windows at all on the first floor.  I remember sitting in some classroom or other sort of room (with a lot of full bookshelves) writing yet another essay.  My grandmother was outside talking to the admissions woman, who was the wife of the Headmaster.  A Person of Importance with a III or something after his name came into the room after my essay had been taken away and I was left sitting there.  He said that my story was remarkable, and that I must be a very special person to have come through everything so well.  I had no idea what he was talking about, but in retrospect I imagine my grandmother pulling out all the stops on how sad my lot in life was; orphaned, being raised by a guardian (her), having no family but my uncle and my grandmother.  I imagine, also in retrospect, that this technique might also have been used at St. Luke’s.  In any case, I was accepted to St. Ann’s and Trinity, but waiting listed for UNIS.  Oh how I prayed for that waiting list to move up; and finally, the day came when I had moved to the top and was fully accepted!

My grandmother, of course, wouldn’t hear of it.  I had been accepted to her personal Mecca, Trinity School, and that was where I would go.

Four years of academic hell.  Flunking and having to retake Algebra 1 and Biology.  Taunted and disdained by the majority of my fellow students.  I wasn’t rich or socially acceptable.  I did develop a few very good friendships.  My grandmother and uncle tried to instill in me the belief that it was better to have two or three truly good friends than a bunch of people most of whom weren’t the real sorts of friends on whom one could count.  It was nice and all, but they didn’t know how small and inferior I felt every day I went to school.  Most of the teachers were very lovely, though.  Even though I didn’t take classical languages, the head of that department was my homeroom teacher in ninth grade.  His name was Mr. Smith, and he was British by birth.  For all four of my years in that school, he always called me “Miss Sights,” and always in a friendly kind way that picked up my spirits.  In senior year, he and M. Bolduc (head of the modern languages department and Mr. Smith’s … umm … housemate) invited a few of us students over for tea.  It was them, Ms. Pappas (classical, Greek), Jordan (good friend), me, and I’m not sure who else.  They lived in a little mews in the West 90s (the name is eluding me just now; when it comes back or I wander around and find it) and they were extremely gracious hosts.  There was also Mr. Lombardo, who was fantastic at making me feel better about myself, even getting me to speak up in English class.  He took me for a ride on his motorcyle once when he had to go to the library at Columbia University (he was a Ph.D. candidate there).  He let me cry out all my pain on his shoulders.  None of that was in any way inappropriate; he was simply a good man who saw a girl in pain.  He went on to become a psychiatrist sometime after I’d escaped from Trinity School.

College is an entity unto itself, and where a whole new chapter starts, so we’ll leave this educational havoc and mayhem behind, shall we, for another day?

Saved, scrawny and seeping

Things got pretty normal once I was living with Grandma.  I went to nursery school (which was what they used to call pre-K when I was that age) with afterschool hours at the settlement house across the street from where we lived.  There were three meals a day on weekends, breakfast and dinner during  the week with the nursery school feeding me lunch; very normal.  Calm.  Comfortable and comforting.

Grandma would read to me all comfy on her generous lap.  I told her she had the most comfortable lap in the world.  She laughed and asked if I was trying to say she was fat.  I was horrified!  I said noooooo … that she just had the most comfortable lap in the world.  (I don’t know where I got my lap judging credentials really; all I really knew was that it was the best, most comfortable place I had ever been.)  We read Curious George and Eloise and Where the Wild Things Are together.  I memorized them and could “read along,” so I thought I knew how to read even before I could.  I could by the time kindergarten started.

One day when I was in the afterschool program after a day of kindergarten, my mother came to pick me up.  She had a man with her.  I asked if he was my father and she told me he wasn’t.  I always liked to check just in case some day my father turned up.  Once we were on our way to Grandma’s apartment, my mother said that we were going to California!  I danced up Cherry Street singing “California here we come, right back where we started from”; I have no idea when or where I’d heard that song, but I was singing it at the top of my lungs.  I had no sense of fear or worry; no wondering how my mother came to be there; no sense of impending doom.  My mother was taking me to California; what could be wrong with that?

We were in my bedroom, packing my suitcase (the same pale yellow leatherette veteran from my time in the foster home) when Grandma came home.  Words were exchanged (on the order of “What are you doing?  Where do you think you’re going, and where do you think you are taking her?  Who is this man and what is he doing in my apartment?”).  The next thing I knew, my mother was locked into Grandma’s bedroom (to this day I do not know how my grandmother did that as doors here lock from the inside, not the outside …), and the man was locked out in the hallway.  My mother made a phone call.  When she was done, she yelled through the door to the man that the police were coming and he had better leave fast.

My mother was screaming back in the bedroom; the police were coming; Grandma looked like some sort of furious avenging force.  She was very angry and upset; she told me not to worry and that everything would be all right.  I still didn’t understand what was so bad about California.

There was knocking at the door, and two police officers entered the apartment.  Now I was really scared.  Grandma let my mother out of the bedroom, and my mother was fighting like some sort of wild animal.  She was screaming and so furious and so scary!  But the scariest thing of all was watching the policemen putting my mother in handcuffs.  I broke down; I started crying and screaming at them:  “Don’t put my mommy in jail!  Please, please don’t put my mommy in jail!”  And my mother was saying stuff like “That’s right, you tell them honey, tell them not to take me back to that place, that prison!” and I just kept crying and screaming, and they took her away, and I was curled up in a little ball crying my heart out.  Grandma said not to worry, not to be upset; that they were not taking my mother to jail, but back to the hospital where she belonged.  But that didn’t make sense.  What did the police and handcuffs have to do with a hospital?  The police put people in jail, not hospitals.

Well, of course, both my grandmother and I were right.  My mother was a hospital patient, but in the state hospital on Ward’s Island.  It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood what kind of hospital it was, and that my mother was mentally ill.  She had managed to escape that day, and somehow picked up the guy on her way to get me.  I have no idea how she thought we were going to get to California, or if she actually really planned to go there.  The reason Grandma was there to stop her was a combination:  She got a call that my mother had escaped from the hospital, and left work early.  She went to the afterschool program and found out my mother had picked me up.  Then the above scenario was enacted.

Life went on; I came to feel as though maybe I was at home at Grandma’s to stay.  I had occasional temper tantrums.  I drove my uncle crazy on his few attempts to take me out places people took little kids.  I was very neurotic for a four- and five-year-old.  I still cried at the drop of a pin.  I still cry pretty easily, which is probably strange.  I gather a lot of people who have been through the mill lose their ability to cry.  I am grateful for my tears.

In a cab darkly

It was actually a sunny and pleasant morning the day after my grandmother removed me from my mother’s apartment.  She took me and my suitcase, my hand in one hand and the suitcase in the other, having I’m sure explained to me where we were going and what was happening.  But I was four years old and must not have either understood or heard what she was saying (perhaps a four-year-old’s version of selective hearing).  We walked up near Chatham Square and met a very pretty young African-American woman.  It became clear to me then that I was going to go somewhere with this young woman, and that I was to leave Grandma.  I started crying and screaming right away.  I grabbed hold of my grandmother and had to be pried off of her.  I vaguely remember her saying something about this only being for a little while but my crying pretty much drowned out whatever either of them was saying.  Eventually, the pretty woman and I were in the taxi, and I was crying and staring out the back window to see my grandmother waving to me and looking tired and sad.

The taxi had to go all the way from lower Manhattan to the Bronx.  This was 1963.  It was a long trip.  I cried the entire ride; sometimes loudly, sometimes softly, but constantly for however long that trip took.  Some ideas formed in my head that would stay with me long after that cab ride; well past the point I forgot the specifics of the pretty lady’s face.

I was bad; I was deficient.  It was because I was angry at my mother; it was because of all I’d been through and seen living with my mother.  I was not a normal child; I was a horrible person.  This was why I was being sent away.  If I ever was back with Grandma again, I would do everything possible to act like a regular child and not like the evil creature I was.  The only hope I had of redemption was if Grandma came and took me back.  Mostly, though, through and through I became convinced that I was defective and very bad, and that was just the way I was and would always be.

When we arrived at the foster home where I would be staying until … when? … I was brought into a room where there was this woman and a bunch of big kids and one kid littler than me.  I was told to introduce myself.  I said my name and that I was four and a half years old.  The woman told me not to lie; I was only four years old.  Just because she was right didn’t mean I was going to stop; I needed somehow to make myself older, bigger, something; so I adamantly insisted that I was four and a half!  After a lot of back and forth, and I’m sure at some point me caving on the four years old thing, the pretty lady left; my last link with Grandma; and I was all alone among complete strangers.

The foster mother and I never got along.  I was Sent to Bed without Dinner nearly every night.  If I cried, she would smack me for crying, which of course just made me cry more, which got me Sent to Bed without Dinner.  It was okay, though, because the big kids had my back:  They would collect pieces of bread and then, at some point while I was lying in a crib (at four; total indignity, something like a jail cell) in a dark room, Pedro, my three-year-old roommate, would deliver the goods through the slats.  I guess the big kids could see that I was already pretty scrawny, having not kept a meal down for more than a day in at least a year, and bless their hearts forever … they made sure I didn’t go to bed hungry whenever they could manage it.

Every Sunday we would get into the foster mother’s car (I think it must have been a station wagon but don’t really remember) and go to some sort of large building where kids would visit with their family members.  Pedro’s father was always there.  They both had the same big dark brown eyes.  I liked his father.  Every Sunday I would confidently tell all the other kids that my Grandma was going to take me home that day.  When that didn’t happen, and I had to get into the foster mother’s car again, I would start wailing.  She would slap me.  I would wail louder.  My fate was sealed:  to bed with no dinner, but the bread of mercy delivered by Pedro once again.

One day the foster mother appointed two bigger kids to take me and buy me a pair of shoes.  We went to a shoe store somewhere in the Bronx; we walked there.  And I saw these really impressive shoes:  they were red and kind of glittery, and I decided I wanted them.  Once I had them they were the only shoes I ever wanted to wear.

Finally, one Sunday, my suitcase was packed and placed in the foster mother’s car, but this didn’t actually excite me.  I think I’d become so used to having to return to the foster mother’s place that even my suitcase didn’t convince me of anything.  But this Sunday, not only Grandma was there; Uncle Bobby was too!  He had just gotten out of the Marines.  I was so incredibly happy that I ran around telling anyone who would listen that I WAS GOING HOME!  I especially remember telling Pedro and his father, because Pedro had been my roommate and fellow crib prisoner as well as the deliverer of the bread of mercy.  Grandma told me later that Pedro was there because his mother was very sick, and Pedro’s father wasn’t able to take care of him because he had to work.  I hope Pedro and his father were able to be a family again.  Grandma made me say goodbye to the foster mother.  I think I shook her hand or something.  I didn’t like her.  Grandma said she was one of the best foster mothers in the system.  I felt really bad for any other kids with other foster mothers, because this “one of the best” was horrible.

A funny thing is that I don’t remember how we got home.  I remember that when we did get there I went looking for Uncle Bobby’s dogs, Chrissy and Mousy, but they told me that I had forgotten that Chrissy and Mousy had been gone for a while.  I guess my memories were muddled.

I was very quiet then, and for quite a while.  I went to see therapists.  I remember playing with toys and a dollhouse in what felt like a fish bowl while people, mostly men, in white coats looked in.  I remember playing with toys in an office and going in to sit with a rather serious woman who spoke to me as if I understood her, which I didn’t.  Grandma told me much later on that there was some concern that I might be autistic, but I don’t know if autism was known in 1963 or 1964.

I was quiet because I needed to figure out how normal kids behaved.  I was quiet because there was all this blackness inside me that I knew they didn’t want to see or hear or know about.  My grandmother and uncle would joke that I wanted to be an FBI agent when I grew up, and that was why I was so quiet and never said anything.  I didn’t get the joke.  I just sat with them, in Grandma’s living room, trying to figure out how to fool them into thinking I was a normal okay kid so they would never send me away again.

Those red glittery shoes, though:  I wore those nearly every day, insisted on wearing them.  Even when they were too small.  My grandmother couldn’t for the life of her see why I would want to wear them; besides being too small, she thought they were ugly.  I didn’t care.  Those shoes meant the world to me; I adored them, and I wore them as much as I possibly could.

Life with Mommy

I was brought home to my mother’s one-bedroom apartment after she and I stayed in the hospital for a while.  Back in 1959, they believed in letting new mothers spend some time there before sending them out with their babies to figure everything out.  My grandmother and her fiance (who would die tragically, hit by a truck, before they were married) had run around a bit frantically getting the things necessary for a baby once my mother had decided she wasn’t going to give me up for adoption.

The first year or so of my life, apparently it took a real village to raise me.  When I had a fever of 106, a neighbor saved my life by putting me in a tub full of ice.  Ouch.  I look healthy and happy in my infant photos.  Things deteriorated rather quickly, though, as my mother’s illnesses progressed.

I remember being in the crib (which means I was less than two years old; I think I was already verbal as a survival tool) when it was extremely dark outside; black.  There was a strip of light from the hallway running across the room past the foot of my crib all the way to a closet door on the far wall.  I don’t recall if I was hungry or wet or just awake and a bit nervous, but I started calling for Mommy.  I got more and more frantic as I called and called and called for her; she didn’t come though.  I screamed for her; I cried for her, my face was wet, my clothing was wet with my tears; and I screamed and screamed and cried out.  I have no idea how many times I called out for her:  “Mommy Mommy Mommy Mommy …”  She never came.  I don’t know if she was even in the apartment, as she had taken to wandering around Manhattan late at night; not lucid, no connection to anything of her reality … just wandering, possibly meeting men … I don’t know.  I’m guessing someone heard me that night as after that I don’t recall another time when that happened.

I was often watched after by my favorite babysitter, Michael, an effeminate and sweet young man who lived on our floor.  He was gentle and kind, and played games with me.  I always felt very safe and happy when Michael looked after me.  Apparently my mother also sometimes left me with the guys who hung out in the local liquor store; I don’t recall this, but one of those guys told me this happened.  It was probably when I was pre-verbal and tiny.

And there was Grandma; Grandma who when I was two and a half years old began taking me to daycare every single morning, usually before the sun had made its appearance.  Grandma, checking in on us, luckily living just two buildings away, walking in on us fighting.  (Apparently I could curse like a sailor by then, arguing and fighting with my mother.)  I was fighting for survival; I couldn’t accept the treatment or the neglect; the crazy slapping around and beatings she doled out whenever I wouldn’t do what she wanted me to do.

I remember parties Mommy would have too, parties with everyone drinking and smoking cigarettes, large groups crowding our little apartment.  I remember some guy lighting cigarettes and sticking two of them in his ears while smoking the other one; I wasn’t very impressed.  He informed me that I had thought it hysterical the last time he’d done it.  At three I thought it was just sort of odd.

I loved going to Grandma’s home.  Her apartment was in good order, and she was firm but fair and sane.  If I was naughty or threw a temper tantrum, I had to stand in the corner for a few minutes.  It seemed so sensible and so much kinder than the blows and screaming I got at home.  Grandma was my hero; I adored her with everything in me.  She didn’t hate me like my mother did; she didn’t hurt me like my mother did.  I would climb into her lap and she would read to me, and I would swear I could read because I memorized Curious George and Eloise.

Life with Mommy got worse and worse, though.  At three years of age my nerves were so bad that I threw up nearly every day.  My hair thinned out from malnourishment; there were patches of baldness on my head.  I cried a lot; when I was beaten, when I was forced to sit at the table for hours in front of food that got cold and gray because I didn’t like it and couldn’t bring myself to eat it, being nauseous as I usually was.  More beatings for not eating, for throwing up (even though I got good at making it to the toilet in time, as I recall).

I remember playing hide and seek with her and laughing; and I remember staying at a hotel in Washington, DC when we all went there to bury my grandfather, who’d been divorced out of the family 20 years earlier because of his alcoholism.  We explored the hotel, especially the walls of our room, to see if there were special hidden recesses.  It might have been her paranoia, but she made a game of it, and it was fun.  I liked those moments when she was fun and good.  They were few and far between, but I remember them still.

When I was four, Grandma went to family court and had her daughter deemed incompetent to raise a child.  I wasn’t there at the time.  I was being a wreck in some daycare center while all that went on.  The morning my Grandma came to get me was pretty horrible and yet wonderful.  My mother was cursing a blue streak at Grandma, but Grandma had my little leatherette suitcase in one hand, and my hand in the other, and retained her calm as she walked with me out of my mother’s apartment and across the courtyard to her own.  Grandma was my hero again; I loved her so much.

Which made what happened the next day so hard; so hard it would define much of my life for many years to come.


That’s how I was born, or at least so I was told about the time I entered puberty.

My mother was a type 1 diabetic, diagnosed at the age of 5.  At the age of 15 she was diagnosed with schizophrenia; she also graduated from high school.  She was a genius according to all the tests that measured intelligence in the 1950s.

When she was pregnant at the age of 20, in that condition thanks to my father, to whom she was married at the time (against her mother’s wishes, but she had married this guy after knowing him for two weeks anyway), and that particular man took off like a firework as soon as he heard the news of her expectant condition, everyone was scared.  It was a very dangerous thing for a diabetic woman to try to give birth; the doctors suggested that she have an abortion.  It would have been legal and medically sanctioned, long before Roe v. Wade.  But she was a schizophrenic genius type 1 diabetic, and she decided she wanted to have her baby.

They prayed for her in the chapel; I was also informed at my puberty-ridden age that they prayed for her, not for us; no one praying in the chapel of St. Vincent’s Hospital cared if the baby lived or not, only that my mother would survive the ordeal of her Cesarean section birthing experience.

She did.  So did I.  Go figure.