No longer would a push mower do either. We traded it in for a power mower, and instead of the smell of fresh grass clip.pings filling the air and the sound of a rhythmic rotary blade purring, my ears were accosted by the loud and obnoxious sound of a gasoline engine that never wanted to start, smelled like noxious smoke and spewed clumps of grass out of its side appendage like a mad cow spitting out its cud!
This 1950’s American Dream that my parents acquired was not as much fun for me as the 1930’s American Immi.grants’ Dream of my grandparents that I was used to living in. Now, instead of being surrounded by the cacophony of familiar voices, sights, smells and sounds, things were quiet and more solitary. The neighbors kept to themselves on our street. There were no dramas that I could see or hear, or smells of simmering Polish sausage and sauerkraut, or even voices of kids playing. I was on my own in a whole new world.
In the beginning I had lots of time to get my bearings. My biggest new joy was spending time alone, outside in the back yard and in an abandoned lot. It felt vast, open, but it was treeless. Although there was no shade, that didn’t stop me from climbing the dirt hills and declaring them my territory or creating a grassy stage to act out soap opera-like stories with my own imaginary cast. I loved picking the mounds of Queen Anne’s lace that grew like a coverlet over the tops of short.er weeds. I loved to contemplate how the dark purple center flower managed to grow in the middle of all that white. I hunt.ed for pollywogs that lived in a makeshift mini pond probably left by a large tractor tire. To me, this new freedom to wander outside alone, to be in nature and not a park, to have no side- walks or cars, and to be able to pretend to be an explorer, an Indian or just a crazy wild child, free of adult or other family supervision, was my first memory of real freedom. I remember being out all day playing by myself and coming in at night dirty and tired, happily taking a nice warm bath, getting into my favorite yellow pajamas, grabbing my natty blue blanket and curling up on the couch to watch TV with my parents.
Ed Sullivan was one of our favorite shows. I especially liked the Chinese juggler who would spin plates on long poles and balance them on his nose with one leg in the air! Or Topo Gigo, a foam rubber mouse puppet who would say silly things to Ed in a mouse Italian accent: “Heillooo Eedddie, you are suuu kind to hove meee on your shooowa, heheheheheeh,” and get the audience laughing it up with his cuteness. Afterwards I would drift off to sleep and somehow end up in bed.
In September of that year I went to first grade. My broth.er was going to Catholic high school in the city. He was almost never around to be part of this new world. He had to take two city buses to get to his school and his life now revolved around studying, the debating team and girls. My sister was in sixth grade and a very quiet person back then. She mostly stayed out of the way of my brother and me, but she and Gary had their own taunts and teases. I was just too young to be part of that or remember much about how they tortured each other!
Lynn and I both went to St John’s Catholic School and had to walk there. She soon didn’t want her little sister tagging along. Within a few weeks of school starting, I was walking a mile to school each morning and afternoon alone. I was a latch-key kid too. My mother worked for my father who owned a wholesale business selling non-food products to grocery and drug stores. When we lived in the city, I always had someone to come home to or walk with after kindergarten let out. Now I was on my own. Whenever my sister stayed after school or went to friends’ houses, I ended up home alone.
I really hated coming home to an empty house. It frightened me. It was so quiet except for the tick of a clock, which reminded me of the crocodile in Peter Pan who was always sneaking around trying to eat Captain Hook. It gave me the willies!
One year I remember my whole family went to some kind of state fair. It had a “ freak show” attraction. A large graphic banner had an image of a woman barely dressed with a huge python wrapped around her. With “blood” dripping from the corners of her mouth, she was pretending to eat the snake alive. My brother, who was so good at giving me a hard time, said, “Dale, let’s go in there, come on!”
“No!” I shrieked. “I don’t want to see those scary people…no, no, no!” I dug my heels into the dirt outside the tent, crying and fighting off Gary who was trying to drag me inside.
I remember another big brother episode when he had a comic book that he convinced me had an application in it for kids to go into space. Gary led me to believe he was going to fill out that application and that I would have to go into outer space, alone! He was so inventive! He also once convinced my sister and me that he could fly and that he could teach us! Yes, we were pretty gullible. But he was a teenager and really good at tricking us and then laughing when we fell for his prank.
My sister never did things like this to me. She was a good girl. I worried about her because she was so good. When she was a teenager, I use to wait up at night for her to come home and make her curfew. If she was late coming home, my father’s infamous temper would explode and he would say awful things to her and act in a ridiculous threatening manner. I wanted her to lie to him, to make up really good stories and never tell him the truth, but she never did that. She would just tell him the truth, and I remember thinking: “I will never do that!” I never did, and he left me alone thinking that I wasn’t someone to worry about.
My sister was also a cheerleader, very petite and very popular. She loved clothes and had a great wardrobe. I was not petite and always a little chubby, but that never stopped me from wearing her clothes. Once she left for school or an event, I would go through her closet and pick out something of hers that I really liked, wear it for a few hours, and take it off before she got home. I got away with this for a while, until the fabrics started to stretch and seams started to split or hemlines change. It was pretty funny, but she rarely got too mad at me.
I never did go inside the “freak show.” I think my father made Gary leave me alone. Afterwards, though, I was terrified of that snake-eating woman coming to our house, ringing the doorbell when I was home alone and then peering into the windows to try to get in! From then on when I would come home alone from school, I would immediately turn on the TV and the radio at full blast to ward off the scary thoughts and potential scary beings trying to break in.
In second grade I made my first communion. My mom and dad’s families had a long lineage of being Polish Catholics, which is Catholicism on steroids. Back in the city we attended our family church every Sunday, St. Stanislaus, in the heart of Polish Town. My parents were baptized there and went to school there. My brother, sister, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends–pretty much everyone I knew was baptized there, went to school there and went to Mass every Sunday and every holy day in order to ward off mortal sins from forming on their souls.
Growing up Catholic was a trip.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “[one] commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent.”
Always curious about Church doctrine, I recently found this on the Christianity Stack Exchange website:
The reason we talk about grave sins is that we cannot know if another person truly committed a mortal sin without knowing if they acted with knowledge and con.sent. But we can know on the basis of certain objective qualities that it was a grave sin, so we are able to call it that. There isn’t always a clear distinction between grave and light matter. Objectively, some sins “admit of no lightness of matter,” such as blasphemy or hatred of God. Other sins admit lightness. For example, intentional theft is sometimes only venial, such as when one willfully steals paper clips from the office. It is especially difficult for a person to self-evaluate the gravity of one’s own sins, which is why the Church trains priests to recognize the gravity of sins during Confession.
By age seven, I had already mastered this difficult equation: knowledge and consent + grave matter = Mortal Sin!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
St. Stanislaus was and is a beautiful church that was built in the 1890s and filled with gold-leafed icons; floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows; a life-sized Virgin Mary with a halo of star light bulbs; a vaulted dome ceiling painted sky-blue with stars, orbs, and gold-lettered Polish prayers; and an ornately carved wood pulpit that resembled a medieval alien space.ship. It was there that I had my first transcendent experiences. I loved going to this church. I never understood a word of the prayers because they were either in Latin or Polish. But it wasn’t about the words; it was about the sound of the priest’s voice, half-singing, half-speaking Latin that rolled off his tongue like water over smooth stones: “Dominus vobiscum./ Et com spiritu tuo./ The Lord be with you./ And with your spirit.” It was beautiful, mystical, a show-stopper for a young kid. The altar boys would kneel at the altar, ring the brass bells, and the priest would simultaneously bring out the big guns: the brass incense burner, which made a clicking metal sound as he swung it back and forth, ceremoniously wafting frankincense through the whole church. I used to “trip out” on the frankincense smell. It really made me heady.
However, when we moved to Greece (see how funny that sounds?), we did not have anything remotely as beautiful or magical as our beloved family church to gather and pray in. We had St. John the Baptist Church instead. It was a small simple wooden structure plopped on West Ridge Road, a busy four-lane route that was the most direct road to Canada, which was about an hour away. The church was devoid of the etheric and mystical qualities of St. Stan’s. It had simple statues, not much gold on anything, and brown rafters that were uninspiring to my eye. I did my best to feel spiritual in this church, and if you look at my first Communion picture, you’d swear I had real tears of joy in my eyes. I remember that I wanted to look sincere that day and tried to play the part. There was a reason my brother once called me a drama queen.
In the Catholic Church you study in order to make your Holy Communion at age seven. Everyone, I learned back then, was considered a sinner, even after Baptism. I was instructed by the nuns to think of what sins I had committed, which I would then tell the priest at my first confession. I had to think long and hard about this. I had to talk to a priest, alone, on my knees, in a scary velvet-curtained box with a weird screen panel between us, and I thought I needed to make this a good story. I also wanted to go to Communion and experience what it was like to eat the Body of Christ. Once I saw that His body looked like a white cracker, I thought, “How hard can it be?” Besides, the nuns were really scary to me. I didn’t want to defy or cross them. So, after some thought, it didn’t take me long until I realized that I was a sinner too.
When I was four or five years old and living on Roycroft Drive, I did something that caused me to come up with my first sin. I was walking by a friend’s house about five doors down from our family house. My friend’s name was Jimmy Stenslick. I had a crush on Jimmy. He was a year older than me. I really thought that he was cool because he seemed like an older man. Jimmy had a plastic yellow boat I coveted. I thought it would be fun to play with it in the bathtub and be.cause Jimmy played with it too. I knew I shouldn’t do it, but one day when I walked by Jimmy’s house and the little yellow boat was sitting on the front stoop with a few other toys, I stopped, looked at it, picked it up, and ran home with it.
Once I started being educated about sins, commandments and confession, the incident loomed larger and larger in my imagination. I finally was able to go to confession because I was now convinced I had a real sin. I confessed to the priest, was told to say three Hail Marys and say the Act of Contrition and I would then be pure enough to take Holy Communion. I think the religion lost me right there and then, but it would take another ten years for me to cut the chains.
Life in the burbs was quiet but predictable for a while. My parents’ arguments went on hold, as they loved to entertain 50s style in their new home and this helped put the focus on fun things. For my parents, Hank and Liz, hosting cookouts and clambakes for the old gang from the Polish neighborhood was a highlight in their new life. The gang drank too much and many had wild nick-names, such as Whiskey Eyes, the Bull, the Load, and the Silver Fox.
My parents also hosted a lot of the family holiday par.ties, which often culminated in my Uncle Freddie singing old Polish songs while holding a fat half-smoked cigar in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other. Drinking was definitely the drug of choice for everyone that came to our house back then. As a child, it seemed to me that liquor made aunts dance on tabletops raising up their skirts like showgirls to reveal their garters. Others would swear a lot and tell really strange stories and laugh so loud it hurt my ears. When my mother would finally take me to bed late into the party, she would smell of alcohol and cigarette smoke and make me think I would never, ever smell and act like that when I grew up and had kids.