Fourth, fifth and sixth grades had me studying hard and doing well. I was called the smartest girl in class. Children assigned those labels, but the adults seemed to follow suit. Because I was still small, I was given the first seat in the class, near old Sister Egidia’s desk, right at hand to pick up her fallen chalk, to pass out papers, erase the blackboard, get her next textbook, watch the class when she walked out. It seemed that I was a teacher in training and carried the job well.
One day Mom told Judy and me about joining the Girl Scouts. It was a great idea especially when I heard what they did, so I mentioned it to Sister at school. When she heard that the troop met in the First Presbyterian Church basement, she said I should not go to that “non-Catholic” place. Mom and Dad both thought that idea absurd, “It has nothing to do with religion,” they insisted, and so my sister and I quietly walked over to check it out and joined on the spot.
Miss Jo was the leader of the troop. She was tall, thin, extremely neat, had gray hair, a very serious expression, and a perfectly ironed uniform. She obviously knew what she was talking about, spoke with quiet authority, and I fell in love with her immediately. She looked and sounded like a nun in green.
We began every meeting with the unfolding of the flag, the pledge of allegiance, the Girl Scout salute and code recited, and then inspection. One of the leaders would walk down the line checking our uniform, the shine of our shoes, the tilt of our beret, and finally our hands. We held them out in front of us as cleanliness was noted, the length and orderliness of our nails (and beneath them) was checked. If the slightest imperfection was noted, the girl was given a penalty to perform, and the next scout was checked. With that completed, the order to “fall out” was met with glee. Each week something special was pulled out of Miss Jo’s bottomless bag of projects.
She taught us stitching, flag folding and rules of display, several types of camp fires, making bed rolls out of blankets and safety pins, how to stand, how to sit, how to cook a meal in one pot. One day we learned Morse code from Miss Jo and from that point on, all our notices of special events were sent on a postcard in code. She took us for walks around the city, identifying trees every step of the way. Later, out in the country, it was a snap to name almost every tree and bush. She was a genius. Her assistant, Miss Mary, was a “regular” woman who wore lipstick and nail polish and even had a family. She was very different from the single, stern leader, but she also loved Miss Jo completely and absolutely, as we all did, and so we loved her too.
After school let out each year, we went to Girl Scout Camp. It was exciting yet practical. We slept in our home-made bed rolls in large wooden buildings out in the woods. We ate meals cooked by a professional in the camp dining room, but sometimes made our own food out in the woods on a fire.
One year I won the difficult fire-making contest. We were required to go collect wood in the forest—making sure we had the three essentials: sticks, twigs, and branches—then make a type A fire, shaped like the letter. We were given one match each. Those that got a fire going then ran to the table to get a two-pound coffee can filled with water and one teaspoon of powdered laundry soap. We were to place the can on the fire without, of course, spilling water on the flames, bring the water in the can to boil, and then have the bubbling soap and water cascade down into the flames to put the fire out. I did the entire event in ten minutes and won.
We had s’mores and cocoa in my honor that evening as we sat around the camp fire singing songs together and learning to be strong women. I wanted to be a Girl Scout forever, or at least train to be a troop leader, but there were other plans in store for me.
Since first grade, my best friend was Patty Platek, the toughest girl in class. She hated dresses, dolls, singing, reading, and sitting up straight. She loved playing ball, running hard, telling jokes, and fighting. For some reason she kept close to me. We visited each other’s houses, told each other stories, shared our snacks, and helped with school work. Most of the work part was done by me, but I didn’t care. Patty led the whole class in badness and I led in obedience. We were a good match. I loved her! She made sure that everyone treated me properly. We shared everything and held the class together well, until, that is, seventh grade. That was the year we turned 13.
The seventh and eighth grades were given a new teacher that year. Sister Florentine had just arrived in the parish and was assigned to us. We loved her name, thinking she must be European. We found her very beautiful since she was so much younger than Sister Amarilla and Sister Egidia, and thought her extremely intelligent. She was an artist. The classroom was beautiful when we entered that Fall and actually found sister blushing when we noticed it. Once she told us that she had a twin sister who was a nun also with the name Sister Clementine. We girls found the idea of twin nuns terribly romantic, but the boys began a whispered singing of “Oh my darling, oh my daring, oh my darling Clementine . . . .” The class was instantly ordered to write an essay on the middle ages while the classroom strongly divided its allegiance according to gender.
As the months progressed, children changed to teens. The school uniform that we wore for years somehow seemed to change shape. The nuns were constantly pulling at girls hems, buttoning up blouses, ordering hair to be redone. The eighth-grade girls looked down at the seventh-grade girls, who began to hate the others as older competitors. After Christmas, the matching up of partners began. Girls whispered about their boyfriends while boys either turned bright red or indicated that they had chosen that one because of her great kiss in the cloakroom. Soon the nuns separated the genders by event as well as desks. Girls went to the cloakroom first for coats; boys followed when the last girl returned. The tallest boy was assigned cloakroom monitor, reporting directly to Sister. Trips to the bathroom down two flights were now done in carefully monitored and separated groups.
In the midst of all this, I did not know exactly what was happening. I had heard some tales from my older sister about her boyfriends, but she seemed to get those stories from the bus rides to and from her Catholic girls high school. Even then, they turned my stomach. Why would anyone want to hold hands with a boy? And kiss one? Yuck! Boys were like my younger brother; someone to take care of.
Years earlier, my brother Gary, who was also the smallest in his class, was set upon by a group of larger boys as he left school. I was walking home with a friend and heard him calling out to me. Like a flash I ran back to the boys and began flinging my arms and shouting that I would definitely tell their teacher. That did it. Everyone knew that the nuns favored me, so from that day on, no one bothered Gary until I graduated.
There was one boy, however, that I originally thought was my boyfriend. Back when I was almost eight years old, a new boy came to school. His name was Eugene Morino. He had dark eyes, shiny black hair, pretty white teeth, and best of all, he was the smallest boy in the class—just my size. Once we both stayed after school to help Sister hang up some of our assignments on the wall. Eugene held the ladder still while I climbed up to reach the top of the blackboard. He began to tell jokes and had me laughing so hard that Sister Innocent came over to see if we were behaving! On the way home, Eugene asked if I would like to go to a movie with him that evening. There was a wonderful movie in the neighborhood, he told me, and his friends were all going to see it. We could meet there, he said, at eight o’clock. I was very excited about my first date with my first boyfriend and ran home to get mom’s permission. None of us had ever gone out at night, and certainly not to a movie. Those were only for Sunday afternoons. This was so exciting!
“A movie tonight?” Mom asked slowly as she cooked supper. “What is it about?”
“I don’t know, Mom, but I heard it’s a wonderful movie. The name is ‘To Hell and Back’ I think.”
Mom sucked in her breath in surprise, her eyebrows rising high on her forehead. “Absolutely not!” she stated firmly. “You cannot go to a movie with such a horrid name!”
I cried and begged, but to no avail. Even when Dad came home and I wanted to get his permission instead, he said “No. Definitely not. And who were you planning to go with?”
I told them about Eugene, but that only seemed to make the situation worse. I was very disappointed in my parents and worried about my poor boyfriend waiting outside the theater for me all night.
The next morning Eugene found me in the cloakroom and whispered, “Hi.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, but I couldn’t go,” I sadly whispered back.
“Oh, I couldn’t go either,” he replied to my great surprise. “My parents said night movies are no place for children.”
That was the end of my boyfriends. Eugene quickly fell in love with Nancy Nega with the beautiful curly, blond hair, and at the end of the year he moved off to a Chicago school.
Now as the trees outside our seventh-grade classroom were starting to bloom, boy and girl dynamism was everywhere. My classmates were whispering about boyfriends, the boys were noticing changes in girls’ underwear, snapping the bras at every opportunity, and the nuns never seemed to be far away.
One afternoon, Sister Florentine asked us to put our work away and assume our best behavior. Father Alex Rakowski was coming to talk to us about what was on everyone’s mind. He was the new priest who had been assigned to Saint Valentine parish that year. He was young, very handsome, had neat frameless eyeglasses, played cool basketball out in the schoolyard with high school kids, came occasionally to lead an exciting religion class, and made all the girls’ hearts flutter when he looked at them. When he celebrated Mass, he seemed to really mean every word he was saying. I thought he must be a saint. And now he was coming to talk to us about sex.
When Father knocked at the door, he and Sister whispered together. She walked to the back of the room with a pink face and told all the boys to line up. Off they went to the gymnasium with Father while Sister began to speak to the females. She opened with our changing bodies, what to expect next, the feelings we may now have toward boys, the difference between us and boys. She got redder and redder as she spoke. I felt so sorry for Sister, although I could not understand why boys’ bodies were causing her such stress. I had seen them hundreds of times as I babysat and changed diapers around the neighborhood, plus I had a younger brother. What was the problem?
After a half hour, the boys returned with Father Al. They also seemed to have pink faces, and some of the older ones carried smirks as well. We all sat up straight and began to hear him give a lecture about the reason men and women get married. It was to have children. We all knew that. But he now told us about how that happened. With a great deal of throat clearing, abundant innuendo, and many scientific words, the message was dropped on us, leaving many of us scratching our heads in confusion. The sexual act itself sounded as it if happened once in life, on the wedding night, and ended after an awful two minutes of pain. As Sister nodded her head to Father, he warned us not to discuss this wisdom nor tell anyone else of our new knowledge, he then raised his right hand to give us a priestly blessing as we fell to our knees, and the amazing day was done.
On the way home, two eighth-grade friends of mine, twins Marilyn and Carolyn, talked about how much Father had left out. They had some great stories from their mother since they were soon going to high school, but I understood little of it; it did not make sense. Why would people want to do that? Having children just seemed like a lot of work. I loved babies, of course, but I was going to be a nun, so none of this was important to me at all.
That summer, something awful happened. The lot next to our house, which had been the neighborhood corner for softball, baseball, and ice-skating in winter after firemen flooded it with huge hoses, was now gone. In its place was a big, brick garage surrounded by a high chain-link fence. That left nowhere to play but the alley. It worked all right for everyone most of the time, but we missed the field, the wild flowers, the huge space to claim as our own.
One day everyone in our neighborhood group was bored. Gary and our friend, Jimmy Pingatore, were joined by my little sisters, Judy Pingatore, and a few of the public-school kids from down the block. One of the boys had rolled an inner tube down the alley and was bouncing it against our fence until someone had the idea to play a game with it. They took turns sitting on top of the fence while the others, one at a time, threw the inner tube trying to ring it over the fence-sitter. “That seems to be fun,” I thought, as I looked through the window doing my chores.
A short time later there was a scream, growing louder with shouting and fear-sounding yells for “Mom.” I ran outside as fast as I could. Gary had taken his turn up on the fence and Jimmy threw the tire, but instead of throwing it over Gary’s head and down his torso, the tire knocked him backwards off the fence into the cement alley. Gary lay unconscious, his head split open, and bleeding badly. Mom came running from the house, Jimmy’s father, Pinky, came running from the other direction, their faces turning white as they saw the child on the cement. The children all stood in shock as Gary was carried into the car and rushed off to the hospital, with Mom shouting instructions to us as they drove off.
We didn’t know what to do. We could not stay outside anymore, so we all went in to our basement. Jimmy took his rosary out of his pocket and began saying the prayers out loud in between tears and sobs. I held my little sister, Leslie, on my lap trying to stop her crying. We were all afraid. Nothing like this had ever happened before. As time went on, Jimmy became more frantic. “It’s all my fault!” he kept shouting in between “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” Finally, he stopped walking and praying, and with tears running down his face, he lifted his eyes to heaven and said, “God, if you make Gary better and not let him die, I promise you that I will go to the seminary and become a priest.” Not quite so dramatic, but equally intense, I promised God again that if Gary gets well, I would become a nun as soon as possible. No more waiting.
Two hours later, Dad marched wearily into the basement and found us all sitting in fear. “You kids have got a lot to be grateful for,” he said. “Gary almost died, but he is going to be all right.”
We shouted in joy; Jimmy ran up and hugged Dad, apologizing again and again. His tears touched Dad’s heart bringing tears to his eyes too. “OK, Jimmy. You did a stupid thing, but Gary should be better soon. Just don’t ever play such a game like that again!”
By summer’s end, Gary was out of the hospital mending well and Jimmy entered the Chicago seminary high school to become a priest. Now was the time for me to begin my future plans.