No one knew how I was living (or not!) or why I was constantly absent from school. The one skill my mother had was convincing people, including the nuns, that she was a devoted mother. Kind and caring, a master of words, always there to hear someone’s problems - until she was not. Little by little, the piles of garbage grew into a hoard of mass proportion - until you could barely open the front door to escape. The refrigerator had long been inaccessible, beyond its closed-door, blocked by rotting moldy garbage around it, nothing but rancid remains were left inside.
Most trips out were short, usually only long enough to fetch food for a meal - and always after 3pm (except for the few days I made it to school). Once school was out no one noticed, cared about, a child walking alone to the store. So a little after 3pm, I’d often walk down to the corner deli or (when there was money) to Dyckman Street to the kosher deli. Franks with sauerkraut and those fat fries were a real treat for dinner. Gone were the times we’d walk down Sherman Avenue to the Chinese restaurant on Dyckman and sit in the cozy booth with my grandmother, sipping tea, listening to Ricky Nelson on the jute box.
My grandmother, having had a stroke, moved out and up to her little house in Rockland County. Only to be seen when I was able to get on a bus and escape to her little house for a short while - leaving behind the secrets residing inside apartment 3A.
Mother had instilled the fear of what the authorities would do if I shared with anyone the details of the real reasons why I was not in school - why I was alone. Why I couldn’t invite anyone inside my door. If I told, for sure, I’d be whisked off to a far more terrible place. So, I kept the secrets.
Now looking back, I realize how amazing it was I managed to take and pass final exams so that I could graduate from 8th grade, and get accepted into high school. Despite rarely being present in class I had mastered enough of the materials to get promoted. Grammar school graduation day is still vividly etched in my memory. We were all on stage in our little white dresses. One of the very rare occasions I had a pristine dress to wear. The school ordered the same dress for all of us, so all that needed to be done was to pay the fee. No trip to a store to find a dress! As I looked out into the audience, I would see the familiar faces of my classmate’s families - mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandparents – proudly looking up at us. But, there was no one there for me.
The ceremony was at a nearby public school with an auditorium large enough to accommodate all the families in attendance. Afterward, I walked back to our convent school with my classmates and teachers. Soon to be joined by the relatives all gathering together to celebrate. I was called to the phone, at the front desk in the entry, by one of the nuns. When I picked it up it was my mother on the line. She had never made it past the subway stop on 79th Street. She told me to leave and meet her on a corner a few blocks away – where she would be waiting with my younger brother at her side. So as instructed, I left. However, not before telling my best friend, Jeanne, that I was leaving. Jeanne asked where my mother was. My friends only knew my mother's voice - a kind, apparently loving person, who was not seen but only heard at the end of a phone line.
I don’t remember my words to Jeanne, but still feel the stress, the need to make another excuse, to cover up! What I do remember is telling her I needed to leave because I had a “date” (my mother had arranged for me). I also remember Jeanne saying “don’t you want to be with your family”? The true answer was more than anything, I wish I had family there with me to share the day with my school mates, but I covered up yet again. Always needing to pretend, so the “authorities” would not come and get me! Once my mother (plus brother) and I arrived at the restaurant she waited outside for "my date" to arrive. She had arranged for me to go out on a “double date” with my neighbors – they were already in high school. We meet at a fine restaurant in Lincoln Center (my mother would quickly leave as soon as she gave the manager her Mastercard to pay the bill).
It is Jeanne and her family that gave me little glimpses into what it was like to be part of a family. The times I spent in their loving home meant everything to me. Her sister and her brothers were so kind to me. Her mother was the mother I wanted - strong and wise, loving, and giving. Jeanne's family never knew what I was going “home” to when I’d leave them. What I took with me, from my moments with them, has lasted a lifetime.
Jeanne was the dearest friend who taught me many life lessons. Besides having the joy of knowing her – she shared her family with me – her wonderful older sister, and then there was her big brother. The eldest of the 4 siblings, and a person who truly changed my life. He was so tall, so very handsome, and so wise. He’d go on to be the valedictorian and earn a coveted Phi Beta Kappa Key. He made me feel smart! I still feel his arms around me as we paced back and forth in his room having deep meaningful conversations about life. Not my life, but what the F--- life was about. He had a very large bedroom – looking back, it was more like his own studio apartment inside their 4-floor townhouse in the exclusive Sutton Place neighborhood. The room was like a library, books from floor to ceiling, and a little bench in the corner a perfect place for two to snuggle up. It was there that he introduced me to the writings of many great minds of past and present.
I was 17 at the time he gave me a copy of The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell – in front I found the following: "Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong have governed my life: The longing for love, pity for the suffering of mankind, and a search for knowledge." No words have ever had more meaning to me – for they expressed truly my feelings then and to this day.
Arthur and Jeanne, for sure, didn’t know how much their friendship meant and how important those moments with them were to me. We do not know what is behind another’s closed door. Sometimes the kindness, or lack of kindness, you show to another person changes their life without you knowing.
If not for them, I truly believe, I would never have had any self-confidence. I held them up as “idols” and the fact that they found me worthy of their time made all the difference and made me realize I must have some value as a person. To have found someone at such a young age who made me feel smart – was a true gift – thank you Arthur, my knight in shining armor. Thank you, Jeanne, for being my friend, for sharing your family with me, and loving me unconditionally.
Everyone should have a Jeannie in their life!