Things In Guacamole

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“They want me to sing about guacamole!” I whined to Jonny. Jonny sat up at his desk and turned his swiveling chair to face me. He looked incredulous. “What?!” He asked. Jonny was a senior and my direct superior in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts’ work study program. “Yes.” I answered. “Things In Guacamole from Finnegan’s Rainbow.”

Jonny rolled his eyes. “How Are Things In Glocca Morra.” He said “From Finian’s Rainbow.” ”Whatever.” I replied. “I don’t know it but I have to have the music by Wednesday.” “No problem.” said Jonny picking up the phone. “I’ll have someone from the library bring you the tape and the sheet music.”

I was pouting because only a week before Jonny had begged me to participate in the Academy’s first ever visiting instructor musical theater workshop. “Hardly anybody has signed up.” He lamented. “The instructor is Mary Alice! She’s one of the best musical theater coaches in New York!” I shrugged. I had no clue who Mary Alice was nor did I have much interest in Broadway musicals. Needing to “pad the house” so to speak, Jonny insisted that I sign up for the workshop. “If we don’t get enough people she’ll never come back.” he told me.

Jonny brought up the fact that I had been complaining about my vocal production class (the Academy’s required singing course) for weeks. “You hate to sing.” He added. “This workshop will help you.” I declined. How could someone with my singing discomfort be helped by “one of the best musical theater coaches in New York”?

The registration deadline passed and Jonny finally convinced me to sign up for it. He sweetened the pot by waiving the fee and reminding me that every single acting teacher at the Academy consistently told us to get out of our comfort zones and challenge ourselves.

I walked into that first workshop cursing Jonny and clutching my sheet music so hard I thought it would rip. It was time to meet Mary Alice. She was a petite middle aged spitfire who really knew her stuff. She was gracious but I could tell she was going to be tough.

“Our accompanist can play anything.” she told us that first day. “He’s brilliant! Been playing a long time!” Accompanist? What accompanist? There did not seem to be anybody at the piano. I looked closer and then I saw him. An ancient man sat stooped over the keys. He looked as if he were about to fall off the bench and drop dead at any second. But Miss Mary Alice was right. He played beautifully with exquisite skill.

When it came my turn Mary Alice asked what I would be singing. I only knew one song. The one I had been working on all semester in vocal production class. “Many A New Day” from Oklahoma. “Well ok then.” said Mary Alice sharply. “Get to it!”

I set my music in front of the ancient accompanist. Maybe he would collapse right then and there thus canceling my musical workshop singing debut. No such luck. He started playing. My throat closed up. The words stopped in my mouth. I lost my breath.

Mary Alice, not unkindly, ordered me to stop. She smiled. I guessed she was going to be sympathetic and allow me to skip the song. There was a pause. The smile remained. Then she said “Now get your shit together and start again.”

Startled, I choked out the song. “Do you know what acting motivation is?” Mary Alice asked me when I finished. “Of COURSE you do!” she answered for me. Mary Alice had a habit of emphatically answering her own questions. “Of COURSE you do!” she repeated. ” Your teachers tell me that you are an excellent actress. So listen…” And with that Mary Alice assigned a scene that preceded the song.
This was a revelation to me. What? You mean musical theater is just like non – musical theater?! Songs occur before and after stuff?! Like monologues? She also added a motivation to the song. Motivation too?! Another revelation. “Now Go!” she ordered. With a flick of her hand she signaled the pianist to begin playing.

I sang and she clasped her hands together delighted. “Wonderful!” she exclaimed. “But I’m taking that song away from you. It’s too generic. ” she sniffed. “Too vanilla. Too mid-range for you.” My heart sank. She couldn’t take away the only Broadway song I know. She thought for a moment then told me the title of a song that I had never heard. “You can hit that high A, right?” “Um…” “Of COURSE you can! You’re a soprano! And one more; ‘How Are Things In Glocca Morra’ from “Finian’s Rainbow’, that’ll be a great song for you. Ok, goodbye. See you next week with those two new songs.”

I was glad to see the antiquated accompanist survived the week and was able to resume his place crouched over the keys for the next workshop. Or maybe he hadn’t moved at all and had been sitting there for the last 7 days. He looked far too frail to get up and walk. In fact I don’t think I ever saw him move from the piano bench.

“Let’s hear Glocca Morra!” Mary Alice commanded. I placed the sheet music down in front of our 100 year old accompanist but he surprised me by not playing right away. He peered at the music for a few seconds then pulled a pen out of his shirt pocket. He started writing on the music! “They left out some notes here.” He explained. “See?” He played the newly added notes. “It’s kind of a trill. Still within your tessitura.” My whatty what what? Should a man his age even be discussing a woman’s tessitura?

I asked him how he knew about the added notes. “I was the rehearsal pianist for the show.” he explained. The show? What show? “Finian’s Rainbow” he said. “When it was on Broadway.” When it was on Broadway?! Oh geez, no pressure there.

Mary Alice was tired of this time wasting. “Start singing!” She ordered. Once again I fearfully coughed up a song. It didn’t help that I was singing it in front of the musician who heard it sung by the original actress. I bet SHE didn’t call it guacamole.

Mary Alice sighed, then spoke. “This is a song about homesickness. Where are you from?” “Erie, Pennsylvania” I answered. “ERIE!” she burst out joyfully. “I’ve been there! That beautiful lake! That magnificent sunset! You must miss it terribly. Am I right?” “Um…” “Of COURSE you do! Now think of the last time you saw Lake Erie.”

I didn’t think that this would be the right time to tell her that my last view of Lake Erie and that magnificent sunset included a bloated dead cow that had washed ashore some days previously.
“Sing about how much you miss that lovely lake.” Mary Alice said. “Sing about how much you miss your home.”

I thought about the lake sans the dead cow. Maybe it was beautiful. Maybe I did kind of miss it. I mean Lake Erie doesn’t always have dead cows along it’s shoreline. (Although more frequently than you’d think unfortunately. But dead cows are a subject for country songs not Broadway tunes) Maybe I really could infuse homesickness into the song and make it work. Acting and singing? Together?

Somehow I managed to marry those two concepts that day in Mary Alice’s workshop. The song worked. Mary Alice was happy. I was happy.
The workshop continued for five more classes. I even miraculously hit that high A. And all these years later I sometimes see a willow tree and the Glocca Morra melody just starts flowing through my head. So I glace around to see if anyone is nearby. And if the coast is clear I start to sing.

Featured

Our Feature Presentation

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It was an exciting day at Villa Maria Elementary school. We children were lined up to go to the auditorium! Why? Because we were going to see a MOVIE! I was in 7th grade at the Erie, PA Catholic grade school.

We so rarely had the pleasurable treat of watching a movie. Of course it was an austere Catholic school even in the late 70s and early 80s so we rarely had any fun at all really. Only 2 years before Villa Elementary (or “Little Villa” as it was called to distinguish it from the high school of the same name) had been taken over by a new principal. Sister Margaret Frank, a Nurse Ratched type character who did not like to see children enjoying themselves.

Movies in the school auditorium were a rare pleasure indeed. Once a year, the day before Christmas break, the entire school was marched into the auditorium to watch Old Yeller. No movies with happy endings at Villa Elementary! Movies were shown to teach lessons. The lesson gleaned from Old Yeller was presumably that a boy becomes a man only when he is ready, willing and able to shoot the family dog.

Every year I hoped that I had remembered the ending wrongly and Yeller wouldn’t get shot. But every year, BANG! Dog dead. Merry Christmas children! See you next year, haha! Get it?

But that day in 7th grade was nowhere near Christmas break. A movie? In the middle of a school day? Unexpected. A rare treat.

Each class lined up single file and quietly made their to the auditorium for the mystery movie. Silence was always demanded when we walked through Villa Elementary’s dark halls. At least it was back in the early 80s. Villa children were never permitted to speak in lines outside the classroom. The halls echoed and chattering students made the chronically cranky low paid teachers wiggy. Hallway silence must be maintained at all times.

We took our seats in the auditorium. The movie screen was already assembled up on the stage. Sister Margaret Nurse Ratched took to the podium. Always stage right for some reason. Never center.

“We have a very important movie to show you today.” She announced solemnly.

I was hoping it would be a sequel to the last movie we had watched there. “Old Yeller 2, Dog Survives!” No such luck.

“This movie is about something very bad.” Sister Margaret told us. “Something that is happening right now! We’re going to show you a film about abortion.”

Even in 7th grade I hadn’t heard very much about abortion. I wasn’t quite sure what to think.

Old Maggie explained to us that yes, people were indeed killing babies. They were murdering babies right now!

So the entire school …ok to be fair, I’m not really sure it was every student. Would they really make first and second graders watch an abortion movie? I only remember that every seat seemed to be filled. It seemed to me that the complete student body was in attendance.

And so without further adieu, Our Feature Presentation! This time, unlike the yearly Old Yeller screenings, there was no French kid chasing a red balloon featurette to open the show. They launched right into it.

A Catholic abortion propaganda film. Circa 19 seventy – something. Only problem was that my 7th grade self did not yet have an effective bullshit detector. I could not recognize obvious and ridiculous propaganda.

I was horrified. I took it all in with disgust. Those uncaring pregnant women that were killing their babies in multitudes. The clinics on every corner. The glaring , evil doctors who operated in foreboding dark rooms. But most of all the babies thrown into wastebaskets. Bloody arms , legs and heads thrown right into the garbage without a second thought.

I was appalled. According to this, ahem, “documentary”, thousands of chopped up babies were tossed into the trash on an almost daily basis. The movie ended with the baby in the trashcan money shot. Eerie minor key music and lights up!

Sister resumed her place at the stage right podium. She announced that we would all be headed back to our classrooms to learn and practice the new Pledge of Allegiance. WTF?!

What on God’s green baby killing earth did THAT have to do with what had just transpired?

Although I was astonished I had to remain expressionless. Sister Margaret had only recently called me into her office to tell me that she kept a special eye on me during assemblies. “You are always the one smirking, making faces and rolling your eyes at what I say.” She angrily told me. “And it disgusts me!”

Well, yeah. She had me there. I did find her pretty disgusting.

But, dammit, I did not want to remain silent after watching that film. As much as Maggie wanted to squelch my expression I wanted to talk about it! I had questions. But no talking allowed. No questions either. We made our silent procession back to the classrooms.

No time for questions anyway. Once we returned to our classrooms we had to practice the new Pledge of Allegiance. We had to be ready to recite it to the flag the very next morning.

Mrs. Evans, our 7th grade homeroom teacher, had obviously already been schooled with the new Pledge. Which was basically just the old Pledge with a very important addition.

After “and justice for all” we had to tack on “the born and the unborn”.

Well of course we did. The unborn needed liberty and justice too, right? What with them being yanked out of the womb, hacked to pieces and thrown into the garbage and all.

Some of my 7th grade colleagues had questions. But it was pretty obvious that Mrs. Evans had been ordered not to discuss what we had all just seen in the auditorium.

For anyone who has had the misfortune to attend Catholic school, you know that there is no small amount of holy horseshit thrown at you from every direction. Probably in the hopes that at least some of it will stick and stink up your psyche.

Quite a bit later in the school year we had just recited the Pledge as usual. Mrs. Evans interrupted us just before we could attach our new “born and unborn” addendum. “You guys don’t have to say that anymore.” she informed us. Someone started to ask “But why…”

“You don’t have to say that anymore.” she repeated more curtly. Subject closed.

What happened? Why not? Were we not praying for the born and unborn anymore? How was this daily baby slaughter going to be stopped without children’s prayers? Wait, is the Pledge of Allegiance even a prayer anyway?

For two more years my imaginative mind held fast to the images on that screen. Catholic propaganda success! It’s quite simple really. Take a young, impressionable mind. Shock them with bloody barbaric images overlapped by a terrifying narrative. Tell them that Jesus doesn’t approve. Forbid questions and discussion.

Now that I look back I believe that Old Yeller was a better actor than the “mothers” and “doctors” in that horrible film. Is this film still around? Was every Catholic grade school required to screen this cinematic piece of crap?

Sometimes when I relay my parochial school experiences to friends who had the great good fortune to have a public school education they look at me like I’m from Mars. “You had to clean the school after class?” ‘You had to go to mass?” “Wear uniforms?” “Watch a movie with bloody baby parts?” Yep. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

I believe that film is no longer shown. I’ll never know why the Bishop and Sister Margaret decided to shock children that particular school year. And why was the “born and the unborn” removed from the pledge almost as quickly as it was added?

So many questions. If only we had been allowed to ask them.

Fred Field, You Son Of A Bitch!

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What is your grandmother’s name?” the first grade teacher asked my mother. “Mary Field” was the quick response. ”And what is your grandpa’s name?” My 6-year-old mom was ready with an even speedier answer. “My grandpa’s name is Fred Field, You Son of a Bitch!”

As my mom much later explained it, “Well, that was how Grandma Mary always referred to him. I thought it was his full name.”

My mom fondly remembers her Grandpa Fred as a quiet and very kind man. “Grandma was always yelling at him, though,” she told me. My mom’s older brother Paul concurred. “Yeah,” he said “Grandma Mary was what you’d call a fishwife. She called him every name in the book.”

Both siblings agreed that they’d learned the majority of their cusswords from Grandma Mary’s lively discourses with her husband Fred. “He never talked much, though,” my uncle Paul said. “But what do you expect? How could they get along? She was Irish and he was English.”

I myself did not know that my great-grandfather was English until I was in 6th grade. It was a happy surprise. By 6th grade I had become a rabid Anglophile. I watched British TV shows. I lost myself in picture books of London and the English countryside. I wistfully told my mom that I wished I was English. “How cool would that be?” I asked.

“You are,” my mom informed me. “A little bit anyway.” This was news to me. She explained about her English grandfather, Fred Field. At that point, I had not yet learned that he was a possible son of a bitch.

I was ecstatic. So somewhere in the mix of Poles, Ukrainians, Rusyns and Ashkenazis there was an Englishman?! In the middle of all those unpronounceable, practically vowel- less, “Can you spell that for me again?” names there was a FIELD?!

I asked many questions about my English great-grandfather but my mom had very few answers. He liked to hunt. He played the violin. He was quiet. Sat in a chair and stared out the window a lot. He seemed sad. Although Great Grandma Mary swore at him quite frequently, Fred Field never raised his voice.

Then my mom remembered something funny. “He had a brother named Chester that used to visit sometimes. Haha. Get it? Chester Field! Like the cigarettes.”

For several years now, I have been wanting to find out more about Fred Field (YSOAB) What was he like? Did he actually deserve the sharp-tongued assaults that Great Grandma Mary constantly lobbed at him? Where in England did the Field family originate? Did I possibly have ancestors who came to America before the 1900s?

I found his 1953 obituary in the Erie, PA newspaper archives. Nothing of interest there. Nothing that I didn’t already know. I looked up his gravestone on a site called Findagrave. Although he is buried locally, I am not one to visit cemeteries. A picture of his and Mary’s shared grave appeared when I clicked on his name. His obituary was also on the site. But not from the Erie Daily Times. Fred’s death notice was also printed in his hometown newspaper, the McKean County Democrat. I excitedly scanned down the new obit. No brother named Chester. I read the notice again more slowly. It was puzzling. I called my mom and asked her how many children Fred Field had. “Only two girls,” my mom answered. “Just my mother and my aunt. ”  I had another question. “What year was Grandma Goldie born?” “My mother was born in 1916,” my mom replied. “Why do you ask?”

I took a breath and said, “Fred Field, you son of a bitch.” According to Fred’s hometown obituary, he had sired NINE children. There was, unbeknownst to my mom and uncle, a first wife. Eliza Field was married to Fred for 22 years and bore him 7 children. The obit stated that Fred and Eliza were divorced in 1917. A year after my grandmother was born.

Both my uncle and mother were astonished to find out that Chester was Fred’s son and not his brother. But who was Chester’s mom Eliza? I clicked on her name and read her death notice. She was Canadian. “Oh yeah, ” my mom remembered. “He was a lumberjack in Canada when he was young.”

I initially thought that Fred must have brought his new wife back from Canada but later learned that Miss Eliza Reid and her family had already been living in Smethport for a few years. Eliza’s father owned a sawmill. I’m guessing that Fred’s lumberjack experience got him a job at the Reid Mill.

I’m also making an educated guess that a dalliance with his boss’s daughter sometime in the lusty month of May prompted Fred and Eliza’s wedding on July 4th of 1895. Six months after their summer wedding, Chester appeared on the scene.

It had to be freezing that December day that Chester was born. Smethport, PA is a bitterly cold town in NW Pennsylvania. Even today Smethport often breaks low temperature records. It is still wild and rural with harsh winters.

Of course Canadian Eliza was no stranger to the cold. But she had to have been scared.  She was a new bride giving birth to her first child among her husband’s family. There must have been a fire that was kept burning.

I wonder if Fred’s mother Nancy attended the birth? Eliza would have needed strong women around her. Was her mother-in-law present when grandson Chester came into the world? Mother Nancy Field had given birth to her 7th and last child, Claude, only 3 years earlier. Her youngest son and first grandson would be playmates.

Eliza became a farm wife. Two years after Chester, she gave birth to her and Fred’s second son Carlyle Archibald Field. 1898 saw the birth of their first daughter Bertha. I believe that Fred must have been thrilled with his first daughter. My mom always said how he adored his daughters and granddaughters. The birth of his first little girl had to have been a special day. The next 7 years gave Bertha four little sisters.

I can only guess that Fred felt the extreme pressure of supporting a wife and 7 little ones with the meager earnings of his portion of the Field family farm. Sometime around 1907 Fred packed up the entire family and ditched farm life for city livin’ in Rochester, NY. Fred and Eliza’s youngest daughter Martha was born in New York in 1908. Martha was their only baby not brought into existence on the family farm.

Not many clues exist about their life in Rochester from 1908 until 1910. It seems that they were all living together at the time of the 1910 census. But by the 1915 New York state census, one of their children was missing from the lineup. Little Bernice, Fred’s middle daughter who was 5 years old and living with her family in 1910 was not listed along with her sisters and brothers.
Where did Bernice go? There is no mention of Bernice beyond the child’s listing in the 1910 census. In fact she is never referred to again. Neither Fred nor Eliza’s obituaries mention their middle daughter. Both obits indicate that there were 7 children. Neither lists Bernice.

A genealogy site I found briefly states that Fred and Eliza gave Bernice away to a couple who adopted the child. How does that happen? How do parents just give one of their daughters away? What about the 4 other daughters? Did they miss their sister? What happened to Bernice? I couldn’t find out any more information.

Wouldn’t that be hard for a little girl? To leave her parents and siblings to go live with another family? It doesn’t look like anybody had contact with Bernice ever again. Was she taken away to a different city? Was her name changed? Did her sisters ever see her again? How do you erase a child from your life?

Information about the Field family and their life in Rochester is practically non-existent. In October of 1914, Carlyle Field, only 17 years old, was shot in the leg. He must have recovered because he and older brother Chester served in WW1. Chester came back to Rochester after his service but Carlyle stayed on in the marines for a few more years.

In 1917, Fred and Eliza’s children had probably forgotten much about their previous Pennsylvania farm life. They had been at least 10 years off the Pennsylvania farm. Bertha was 19, Ruby, 17, Marguerite was 14 and Martha was 10. That year got off to a horrible and tragic start.

In March of 1917 Bertha Field was putting newspapers into the basement furnace when a backdraft caught her dress on fire. She desperately tried to escape by breaking out a basement window and screaming for help. A neighbor rushed over but a frantic Bertha had made her way up the basement stairs and collapsed at the top. Only Chester was home asleep upstairs. By the time Chester was awakened by the commotion, his sister had already burned to death.

As patriarch, I guess Fred would have to be strong for his wife and remaining children. Bertha’s little sisters had to be inconsolable. Chester, being the only family member to witness the horrific event must have been deeply affected. And Eliza…Eliza, the mother who in the space of a very few minutes lost her first daughter, could not have been anything other than completely grief-stricken.

Only problem with that scenario is that Fred wasn’t there. As in he was not even in Rochester, NY anymore. He was in Erie, PA with his mistress, Mary Clancy, and their 5- month-old baby girl, Goldie Jean. Goldie was my grandmother and Fred’s 6th daughter.

I don’t know how Fred received the news of his eldest daughter’s death. Did he get a telegram? Did Chester perhaps make the long drive to inform his father of the awful news? Did Fred attend the funeral? I can’t believe that he would avoid his own daughter’s memorial service. But tensions must have been high. It hadn’t even been a year since Frederick Albert Field fled Rochester with his pregnant mistress. How did he greet his children upon seeing them again for the first time in several months? Little Martha was only 10. Did she miss her dad? Did she think he had come back to stay and comfort his children through this tremendous loss?

How did he greet his wife upon seeing her again? Did they even speak? Did he have any words of condolence for the mother of his dead daughter? Could she even look at him?

Fred didn’t stay. He had a mistress, baby daughter and new job back in Erie, PA. He became a maintenance man for a large estate and kept that job until his retirement 35 years later.

Fred’s wife and children remained in Rochester to grieve their loss without him. Eliza lost her daughter to a fire and her husband to a mistress all in the same terrible year. An entry in the Rochester newspaper noted that Mrs. Eliza Field and family wished to thank the community for the support and comfort during their recent bereavement. Fred was not mentioned.

And it was a terrible year. As 1917 started drawing to a close, tragedy was not done with Fred Field. Fred’s youngest brother Claude was walking home from a night out at a local bar when he was shot in the head, robbed and dragged into a nearby barn. It was Fred’s father, Joseph, who found the boy.

The murderer was quickly found and imprisoned in the Smethport jail. Fred and family had another funeral to attend. Claude Field was a toddler when Fred’s first son Chester was born, so I have to believe that Fred’s children made the trip from Rochester to Smethport. They had all spent their first years together on the family farm. An uncle that was so close in age had to also have been a childhood playmate.

It was reported that Claude Field was well thought of in the community. His father Joseph could not even testify at the trial for becoming too overcome with sobbing grief to even speak. I recently visited the Smethport cemetery where most of the Field family is buried. It is small and forgotten. Not even maintained anymore except for a yearly mowing and weeding by the local Boy Scout troop. Most of the stones are barely even readable but Claude’s stood out. It was bigger and obviously much more expensive than the ones belonging to his parents, aunts, uncles and siblings. I’m guessing that the town came together to buy the headstone for Claude’s family.

Eliza and the children continued to live in Rochester. In 1920 Eliza was still in New York but not for long. I would love to know how this happened but, by 1921, Eliza had returned to her adopted town of Smethport. She came back to the area where Fred had married her, 19 and pregnant, to become a young farm wife and mother. I wonder if it made her nostalgic. Places can have that effect. As the seasons changed did she remember her children’s births? Was she reminiscent about those early days on the Field family farm?

I can’t know if nostalgia was behind her move back to Pennsylvania because she had another reason to settle and live out the rest of her life there. She married Fred’s cousin! Certainly she must have met Fred’s first cousin Clarence Cadwallader Hutchins at Field family gatherings. Clarence was a widower with two daughters. I hope Eliza had a happy second marriage. They remained together until his death in 1948. 

I recently found out that Fred and Eliza’s divorce was not final until 1921! Fred and my great grandmother Mary had already been living together in Erie for 6 years. I don’t know if Eliza refused him the divorce until she was ready to re-marry. Certainly couldn’t blame her if she did. Although great grandma Mary called herself Mary Field I can find no record of her marriage to Fred anywhere.

Back in Rochester, Fred’s second son Carlyle became a hero in 1924 when he stopped two runaway horses from trampling a group of children. Both his legs were broken in the process. He was honored by his fellow Marines for this even as he recovered from his injuries. I will never know if Fred heard of this, was proud or even visited his injured son.

Almost a year later Carlyle died of meningitis leaving behind a wife and new baby girl. Fred lost another child but, of course, I have no way of knowing if he attended the funeral. Carlyle was laid to rest by his fellow Marines in a military service. There must not have been much help for military wives in those days because Carlyle’s wife and baby went to live with a wealthy family. Young Mrs. Field had taken a job as a live-in housekeeper. I don’t know if Fred ever saw the little girl.

In 1927 Fred’s brother Orlo died of septicemia almost a year after the poor man had broken his leg in an automobile accident. The leg never healed and the infection eventually killed him. 1928: Fred’s brother Burr was overcome by gas in a Utah mine and died shortly after being carried out of the mineshaft. I don’t know how Burr Field went from Smethport to Utah but it does appear that he was quite prosperous.

Other than the death of his mother in 1933 and his father in 1936, it seemed that the rest of Fred’s life in Erie was relatively uneventful. He and Mary Clancy Field lived in a small apartment on 4th and State Street. The apartment was provided by the estate for which Fred worked.

Both my mom and uncle tell me that their Grandpa Fred was a quiet man. “Well he couldn’t get a word in edgewise,” said my uncle,“what with Grandma always yelling at him.” My mom remembers that her grandfather was almost always sitting in his favorite chair staring out the window lost in thought.

Was he remembering Bertha? The first little girl to be born to him and Eliza? Was he thinking about Claude? Did he ever zone out while Mary was yelling at him and remember Eliza, the young Canadian woman who surely must have been smitten by the tall American lumberjack? Was he thinking about the daughters he left behind in Rochester? My mom only remembers visits from Chester. Was he estranged from his other children?

But Fred wasn’t always melancholy. Sometimes he called square dances as he played the fiddle. He enjoyed hunting and often returned to the wilds of Smethport to shoot game. It was always a great show when Fred came back from these trips. City-bred Mary Clancy Field never ceased to be thoroughly disgusted by the dead animals Fred brought home for her to cook.

My uncle and his cousins always amusedly listened through the keyhole to their grandma Mary’s post-hunting tirades. Fred expected his wife to cook his fresh kills and Mary angrily told Fred Field (you son of a bitch!) to get the dead creatures off her kitchen table. It’s almost certain that all the other women in Fred’s family – his mother, sister and heck, probably Eliza – had no problem with (and were probably very adept at) dressing and cooking any animal that their husbands brought through the door.

By the mid-1950s Fred finally had enough of his harpy second wife and took another mistress. He began courting a fellow septuagenarian. “A nice old widow lady,” said my uncle. Fred moved out of the little State Street apartment and into the widow lady’s home where he remained for 2 years until his death.

Mary Clancy Field, of course, did not take Fred’s abandonment graciously. (Ironic, right?) “I’ll piss on his grave!”, she declared to anyone who would listen. She lived two more years after he did so she may very well have taken the opportunity to do that. Nevertheless, they are buried together.

They are very intriguing, these stories that happened to the ancestors that came before me. I am endlessly curious about these real people, their real emotions, stories, relationships. I hope they all found some happiness in the midst of the tragedies and complications that made up their lives.
RIP Fred Field, You Son of a Bitch.

 

 

 

Maxine

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This beautiful photograph was taken by Darrell Tolbert, a talented photographer and a great friend to Maxine. See more of his work at https://www.facebook.com/WildlifeNatureAndMorePhotography/

Her name was Maxine. She was an Eastern coyote living in the city of Erie, PA. Specifically she made her home in the Erie Cemetery, a 75 acre resting place right in the middle of the city.
They (whoever the ubiquitous “they” may be) say that you should never name wild animals. Why do they say that? Various reasons. it anthropomorphises them. Turns them into pets.
Humanising a wild animal is wrong, correct? Once we start ascribing feelings and emotions to critters (especially nuisance critters like coyotes) we make it more difficult to kill them.
A few years back I called Clarke Kuebler, the general manager of the Erie Cemetery. The news of Maxine taking up residence in the city cemetery had just broken. Nobody seemed to know quite what to do. There was talk of hiring the local nuisance trapper to set some traps . This concerned me because I knew that animals trapped within the city limits have to be euthanized. Seems it’s the law here in PA.
Before I go any further I honestly don’t know if Maxine met her death at the hands of our local nuisance trapper. It’s absolutely conjecture. But conjecture based on probability. You know what else? I’m not really sure the trapper, if indeed he was the guy that ultimately brought about Maxine’s demise, is even the bad guy in this whole story. Seriously. I hate what he does but I’ve met him. Had conversations with him. He is respectful towards animals. I gave one of his business cards to friend of mine who had a terminally ill cat. A few days later the trapper euthanized the cat with empathy, kindness and compassion.
So truly I am not villainizing the trapper. He may very well have been the one that had to be called to tie up the loose ends in all this. To end the work that all the actual villains put into motion. I don’t know.
So where was I? Oh yes, the day I found out that a coyote was roaming the Erie Cemetery. One of my favorite places to walk. It was reported that traps had been set. I called Clarke Kuebler. I asked him if he was sick of fielding calls about the coyote. He was amiable and said no. He was patient. In our brief conversation I tried (and still try) to see where he was coming from. Certainly he felt pressured to keep cemetery visitors safe. “So many of them are elderly.” he told me. “And people who bring their children.”
I guess he felt he would be blamed if the cemetery dingo suddenly went on a baby eating spree. So he called the trapper. I am not sure what happened with that first trapping attempt. Maxine remained in the cemetery for about 6 more years so either she eluded the trapper or Clarke called the whole thing off.
Shortly after that phone call I saw her for the first time. I was walking in the cemetery when I saw a rabbit dart out from behind a gravestone. In that very second I knew she would be right behind. And she was. I was taken aback at her beauty. Her gracefulness. How very much she looked like a wolf. I held my breath without realizing it. Unfortunately she had flushed out the rabbit only to have it quickly taken away from her by a red tailed hawk who swept down and grabbed her prey. She seemed to take it in good stride and trotted off and out of sight. She wasn’t the only predator who lived there.
A Facebook group was formed. Many people wanted to protect her. I joined this group to see the amazing photographs and commiserate with others who loved her as much as I did. It was an active forum with members sharing stories, sightings, experiences and lots of beautiful pictures.
As nice as these stories were I was already getting a little concerned about the coyote’s safety. It seemed that Maxine was pretty acclimated to humans. Well of course the eastern coyote is an animal that lives its life in close proximity to people. They are urbanized. They also average about 10% domestic dog DNA which leads some researchers to believe they are more easily accustomed to human presence.
The years went by and the group remained an enjoyable way for me stay up to date on Maxine. Then in early Spring of 2017 someone, reportedly “a lady with a pitbull”, said that Maxine followed her and tried to attack her dog. “No way!” said several of the more active members of the Facebook group.
They said that Maxine had never once in 7 years been aggressive. Indeed so many people would look up from tending their loved ones graves to see Maxine quietly watching them. Serene and unconcerned. Many called her “the guardian of the dead”.
Reports of aggression continued. “There’s a male now.” said some members of the forum. I remembered that a few members had mentioned seeing the male a year before in May of 2016.
This caused some consternation within the group. Some swore that they saw the male with Maxine. “He’s bigger.” they said. “He’s darker. He doesn’t live in the cemetery with her. He comes and goes.”
“Absolutely not!” said one of the more vocal members, a man who walked his dog in the cemetery daily and almost always saw Maxine. “There is no male!” he adamantly declared. Other regular visitors agreed. No male, just Maxine.
And still the aggression reports continued. Some said it was because Maxine had babies. Group members to this day never saw Maxine’s alleged pups. None of the regular members believed that Maxine had ever been pregnant. Those who watched and photographed her on an almost daily basis had no reason to believe that she had bred with the mysterious seldom seen male.
But Clarke Kuebler said otherwise. According to him, cemetery workers had seen the babies. By this time in our narrative the previously affable Mr. Kuebler was becoming rather testy about the whole coyote issue. Emotions were also running high within the Facebook group.
All of us in the group wanted to rally to her defense. But I just felt sick. I knew in my heart that they were never going to let Maxine continue her life as a mother.
Various members of our group contacted the cemetery. Some contacted wolf sanctuaries, the Erie Zoo, the local animal shelters and every wildlife rehabber in Erie county and the counties beyond. I called the local office of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. People like myself have to be very careful when dealing with Northwestern Pennsylvania Game Commission employees. They are touchy when they believe they could possibly be dealing with a tree hugging PETA weirdo.
The gentleman who answered the phone was evasive. I said “You’re going to trap and kill the coyote in the Erie Cemetery, aren’t you?” More evasion. “You have trucks there right now.” I told him. “I just drove by.” Even more evasion. He eventually confirmed the trucks. Well, duh, I had just seen them 20 minutes earlier. He also confirmed the Game Commission’s awareness of the “problem”. I pushed a little harder. He said maybe he could have a supervisor call me. I declined, telling him I already knew everything I needed to know. I knew exactly how they were going to solve the problem. My heart sank and the sick feeling returned.
Meanwhile Maxine’s Facebook group redoubled their efforts. Some became concerned that Maxine was becoming too used to people because she was being fed. At last our group and Clarke Kuebler agreed on something. He was quoted stating his concern that visitors were feeding the coyote. I had hoped that wasn’t true but unfortunately for poor Maxine, it was.
Around this time many group members started circling their wagons around Maxine. Many were going to the cemetery more often to try to keep an eye on her. One member confronted a woman feeding lunchmeat to Maxine. It seemed that Maxine knew the woman. The member photographed the feeder and shared her picture with the group.
One of the more ardent members of our group plastered the woman’s photograph on as many local Facebook pages as possible. Within hours the woman, a nurse, was recognized, ratted out and publicly shamed. To her credit she owned up to her careless idiocy and apologized. But she had already driven quite a few nails into Maxine’s coffin.
By June of 2017 I had hoped that the Maxine baby rumors would be either quashed or confirmed. Eastern coyote pups typically start to emerge from their dens around mid June. Maxine’s babies never emerged.
By now Clarke had pretty much stopped responding to any queries about Maxine. He made a few comments to the local news outlets, some of whom had taken a mild interest in Maxine’s imminent removal. He spouted much the same stuff he had said 6 years earlier. “Blah blah safety…blah blah working with a trapper. “
I’m conjecturing again but maybe he felt guilty. Some people have told me that the cemetery workers were actually very fond of Maxine and quite sad about the whole situation. If my timeline (and some of the news reports that came out in July) is correct the babies were taken from the den about mid June. Did Mr. Kuebler feel badly about that? Did he know how distressed new mother Maxine would be after returning to her den to find all 3 of her babies gone?
About a month later, in July, all the coyotes, supposedly 5 in total were gone from the cemetery. When it was all over Clarke stepped out of his silence to offer his brief and final words on the subject. Among the statements he offered was the ludicrous claim that he had “no idea what the trapper did with them.” Really Clarke? I believe everything he said except for that one line of bullshit.
I know Maxine is dead. I knew her death was impending a year before it occurred. Am I certain that she and her family ended their lives in a carbon monoxide chamber? No. Just making an educated guess here. If the local nuisance trapper is in fact the guy responsible for the coyotes’ removal from the cemetery, then that is very likely how her death went down. He himself told me that’s how he kills the animals that he traps. Once again we are at the mercy of Pennsylvania state law. All rabies vectors trapped within the city must be killed. The law does not permit release and relocation.
Nevertheless many Erieites were convinced that she and her family were now living elsewhere in peace and freedom. Some still swear to that fact. A lot of people confused the word “removed” with “relocated”.
Wishful thinking on the part of those who do not know the ways of Northwest Pennsylvania’s strong hunting culture. Combine that with America’s pure hatred of coyotes and we really are not looking at a happy ending for Maxine.
If you are not local to Erie then you must know by now that Erie is in Pennsylvania’s northwest. Have you heard James Carville’s quote about Pennsylvania? “Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama in between.” That puts Erie right there in Alabama territory. The first day of hunting season is a holiday here. No kidding. A day off from school and work.
Hunters here hate coyotes. Well I suppose hate is not the right word. Coyotes are detested all across America. The thousands of hunters in Erie and Erie county are obligated to dislike coyotes. Any local hunter will tell you how awful “them yotes” are. All the disgusting and horrible things these wild dogs do. They love to say how coyotes kill multitudes of baby deer. I guess they don’t like the competition.
There is no closed season on coyotes here. That means you can shoot and trap as many as you want whenever you want. Most of Pennsylvania’s huntable wildlife have seasons that come and go but not coyotes. Nothing gets a hunter’s rocks off more than a critter that can be killed year round.
If you want to expand the picture further beyond Erie, then it is fair to say that Americans despise coyotes. We kill about 500,000 of them per year. The minute that white colonists landed here in the states they decided the coyote had to go. Had to be decimated and wiped out forever. Between 1947 and 1956 Americans exterminated 6.5 million coyotes. All with the U.S. government’s help, support, encouragement and payoffs.
I knew all this before I’d ever heard of Maxine. Truthfully I never thought she would have seven full years of freedom living in the cemetery. Maybe Clarke Kuebler and crew deserve some thanks for allowing her those undisturbed 7 years. Maybe they were fond of her too. Perhaps they made a tough decision with heavy hearts and not callous indifference.
I miss her so much. I miss looking into those wise eyes. Now when I try to remember that beautiful soulful expression I see it morphing into one of terror. The fear she must have felt when that metal door slammed shut ending her freedom forever. Terror as she was loaded into the truck that eventually brought her to the carbon monoxide chamber. Now I see her eyes closing as she fights for breath.
There are times when I feel profoundly guilty for the cruel havoc that my species has wreaked upon animals and this is one of them. I believe Maxine deserves an apology.
I am sorry, Maxine. On behalf of my species I am sorry that you were labeled a nuisance. I’m sorry for the many years we have spent trying to decimate your species. I’m sorry we humans decided that you invaded “our” world when in fact your kind were here first. I’m sorry that the actions you took to protect your babies were called aggressive. I’m sorry that we determined you would not be permitted to live out your natural life. I’m sorry that you, your mate and babies had to die. Sorry we could not allow you to be free in our human world. Yes, my species sucks. Rest in peace, beautiful soul.

LINKS

Darrell Tolbert’s Photography Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/WildlifeNatureAndMorePhotography/

There is a 2019 calendar available with beautiful images of Maxine. https://abstudios.net/shop?olsPage=products/pre-order-maxine-2019-calendar&fbclid=IwAR05fX4yvIBK5RC1i372aqMl9TyOp616gpJI9kqt1OOd5oIxOnD_lE67aqk&olsFocus=false

The local Erie, PA satirical news site did a story about the cemetery coyotes, https://gooferie.com/2017/06/07/pa-game-commission-seeks-to-move-cemetery-coyotes-to/

Eastern Coyote/Coywolf Research, http://www.easterncoyoteresearch.com/

If you would like to make a charitable donation to honor Maxine’s memory, this is a good place, http://www.coyoterescue.org/

Overheard In A Chinese Restaurant (Or The Night I Should Have Learned To Stop Eavesdropping)

EggRoll

I wanted Chinese food for my 16th birthday. Back in the day Erie, PA had some decent Chinese restaurants so my wish was granted. My parents and brother joined me for a Chinese birthday dinner. The food was delicious but the conversation was soooo BORING.
As the tables in this particular restaurant were in close proximity to each other I decided to look around and see if there were more interesting conversations going on at any of the adjacent tables. Dinner and a show for my sweet (and sour) 16. If my own family was not going to interest me then perhaps another more entertaining family would fit the bill.
Well another more interesting family did manage to make an appearance at the next table over. Much more interesting. More interesting than an almost 16 year old could handle.
At first glance this newly seated family did not seem as though they would be offering me any diversion. A standard, rather well dressed basic looking whitebread couple. The husband had that professional authoritative bearing with a side of arrogance that made me think he must have been a physician. I thought at the time that the dude had an uptight look behind his eyes. A simmering nervousness that he was barely keeping under the surface. (did I mention I was bored?)
His wife was heavily pregnant. And there were children. 4 or perhaps 5 young children. Each one aged about a year apart from the other. Uggh. They were horrible children. Did you think that parents who sit in restaurants and let their brats run wild was a modern development? Think again because it was certainly happening on the day I was turning 16 and that was EONS ago.
The little demons ran amok. They stood up on chairs and jumped from one chair to the other. They stuck chopsticks into various orifices. They screamed, they sang, they weaved through tables chasing each other. My own mother actually caught one of the little fiends as it fell off a chair. (Did I mention the close proximity of our tables?) Uptight hubby and pregnant mum did not seem to notice their spawn’s misbehavior. Shouldn’t the kid’s own mom be the one to have noticed the impending fall and caught her own offspring?
I pondered just how interesting our table neighbors were going to turn out to be. Five awful little kids and the poor woman pregnant with another. “Must be Catholic.” I thought. I quickly chided myself for assuming such a thing. Then the family’s dinner guest showed himself. A priest. I chided myself for chiding myself.
The family stood to greet Father. Father was HUGE. An enormous priest. Respectful greetings were exchanged.
Gah, boring. Family with shitty kids meets massive priest for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. I decided that this plotline was probably not going very far and turned my attention to my own family and our arriving entrees.
But yet…there was that barely below the surface tension exuding from sharp dressed husband. I’d have to keep an eye on the situation in case this foreshadowing actually led to something more captivating than my mu shu vegetables.
I glanced over briefly to see corpulent priest squeezing into his seat at the table. I took a few bites of eggroll and noticed some potential activity. The restaurant manager stormed over to the table and angrily told the parents that their children had to behave or they would be asked to leave. I didn’t see it because it happened behind me, but my mom told me that one of the little dervishes had run in front of a waiter almost making the poor guy drop his tray of food.
Were we reaching a denouement? Or was this that middle part of the performance where the action briefly picks up and then slides back down again before the final curtain? I wondered what was going to happen next. Was there going to be a fight? Was Dad going to become outraged and get in the manager’s face? He did kind of seem like the type to do that. Were they going to be loudly escorted out before they even got their food?
No such luck. The parents took it quietly. Sigh. The priest did not react at all. The table calmed down. The waiter, free from toddler tripping hazards, brought the family their meal. They said grace. Yawn. I picked at my fried rice. Most boring birthday dinner ever.
As uninteresting as the next table’s events were I felt by this time that I was already engaged in what little intrigue there was so I might as well keep watching. You know how it is when you’re watching a bad movie but you’re kind of interested to see how it all turns out? Let’s finish this up, right?
I shot a quick look at the priest. My quick look turned into an out and out blatant stare. Father had become completely captivated by his meal, seemingly oblivious to anyone and anything else. He was devouring food like a woodchipper. A huge plate of spareribs. His eyes seemed to glaze over. He barely paused after finishing one sparerib before quickly picking up another and starting the whole process anew. I dropped my fork mid bite and gawked.
My trance was broken when the dad made an abrupt pronouncement that the mom had to take all her brood to the restroom before they started eating their dinner. The priest did not seem to notice nor even hear dad’s sudden order. It was as if the family had entirely disappeared from Father’s periphery and the only thing in his world was that rapidly diminishing giant plate of spareribs.
Husband briefly got up to help herd the children in the direction of the restrooms, which were all the way past the kitchen to the other end of the building. When he was satisfied that Mom and her litter were safely out of earshot he quickly dashed back and planted himself in the chair next to Father.
“She’s really sick, Father” said husband. “The pregnancy is not going well.” Whoa! Here we go. He explained what was wrong using a ridiculous amount of medical terminology. My first impression was correct. He was a physician. My ears perked up big time. I was listening now.
Unfortunately the dad seemed to have more of my attention than the priest’s. Father was still intent on gobbling as many spareribs as possible.
“She might not make it, Father.” said the guy, quickly glancing back to see if his wife and kids were on their way back. Holy crap! Now I wasn’t even keeping up the pretense of pretending not to eavesdrop. I was unabashedly staring, mouth agape.
Father continued on his sparerib quest without even making eye contact with the guy who had just shared some pretty awful personal news with him. To be fair he did occasionally offer the dad some possibly sympathetic sounding grunts between swallows. I felt for the dad, really I did. He laid his soul bare to a priest who seemed more interested in swallowing whole spareribs than providing comfort to a distressed flock member.
Husband continued his confession. Priest continued his eating and grunting. “She doesn’t know.” the man said. “She doesn’t know anything about this at all.” What?! She could potentially DIE and the dude used his medical connections to keep that fact from her?! “I don’t want her to know.” He went on. “Besides, when the time comes she’ll more more worried about the kids anyway.”
OMG. (which was not an expression back then but seems apropos now) What was the priest going to say about this? I imagined the script in my head.
“You must tell her, my son” said Father in my imaginary screenplay. “Keep her informed. Offer her comfort. Gather your loved ones. Let’s pray about this. Let us take this to Jesus.” Yes. Certainly Father would say this. Or something like this. I waited.
Father finished his last sparerib. I was sure this was going to be the moment where his divine wisdom would enlighten Dad. He spoke.
“Could you pass me that eggroll?”
Are you kidding me?! Really?! Those were his Heavenly inspired words of wisdom?
And get this. The dude totally passed him that eggroll.
And then Mom and kids came back. They sat down. Normal conversation resumed. Mom talked about her imminent delivery. She was enthusiastic. “I hope it all goes well, Father.” she said. “You never know. Of course this one…” she jerked her thumb at hubby “…this one just bought a big life insurance policy on me!” She laughed. “I don’t know why!”

Mrs. O’Quillen

UPDATE: This post has been changed from it’s original incarnation.  A 40 year old photograph of “Mrs. O’ Quillen” (not her real name) had to be quickly changed to a ridiculous clip art female leprechaun.  Mrs. O never read this but somehow her sister in law did.  Sis -in-law angrily told me that Mrs. O would be “crushed” to read something like this. Ordered me to remove it immediately.  Said I was demonstrating “poor form”. I kinda agreed but informed her that the story would stay and then offered the well known “If people wanted you to write warmly about them then they should have behaved better” quote. Of course she was indignant. She then sent her own sister (no relation to Mrs. O) after me to try and bully me with email threats.  I relented and agreed to remove the photograph and change identifying details.  But the story stays.  Although we have mutual friends I have never met sis-in-law face to face.  Nor her bullying sister. But I sometimes wonder how they would have felt if their own children were treated so poorly in school. Something tells me they would be angrily rushing to the kid’s defense and turning their fighting indignation to the shitty teacher.  All a matter of perspective, huh?femalelep
Mrs. O’Quillen was our 6th grade science and homeroom teacher at Villa Maria Elementary in Erie, PA. I truly do not know what her teaching qualifications were but she came from a big Catholic family. I have said before that Catholic schools in the 70s did not actually require their lay teachers to have teaching qualifications. Villa Maria Elementary was no exception. They wanted Catholic teachers that worked cheaply. Did Mrs. O’Quillen know anything about science? At times she seemed to. She was certainly a huge improvement over the previous science “teacher”, a Mr. Nick DeSantis, who spent the entire hour of every science class talking endlessly about his knee surgeries, reading the book Dracula out loud to us and constantly making fun of several of the students’ names. He was particularly fond of calling one of the very few Jewish students, a boy named Israel, “Egypt”. Mr. DeSantis thought he was hilarious and switching Israel’s name was one of his favorite gambits. We all enjoyed Mr. DeSantis’ class but learned absolutely nothing about science. To be fair, Mrs. O’Quillen did run a halfway decent class. We had an aquarium in the classroom. We had gerbils! We had some fairly new books. Almost all the Villa Elementary schoolbooks were from the 50s and 60s so a modern science text was a huge improvement. Mrs. O’Quillen was tiny. Probably no more than 5 feet tall. And she was all about being Irish. Her Irish ethnicity was a huge part of her identity. And we students had better know that. Nothing thrilled Mrs. O’Quillen more than the approach of St. Patrick’s Day. Her classroom was bedecked in green. Irish maps all over the walls. “You must be Irish.” She said to me once. “Those green eyes!” She ordered us to wear something green on St. Paddy’s Day and was angry when I didn’t. I told her my eyes were my green adornment of the day. One of my more enterprising classmates scotch taped a blade of grass to his uniform shirt. Mrs. O’Quillen was not totally unkind as many of her Villa Elementary teaching co-horts were. She was not physically violent. There were two other teachers that taught during the same era as she, Miss Myers and Mrs. Bullock, who were quite slap happy. At least Mrs. O’Quillen taught without smacking students and that was always a relief. She WAS ridiculous though. Although she did not dislike me as much as some of her fellow teachers from the Villa 1970s Decade of Shitty Teachers did, she was annoyed by me. In most particular she HATED to hear me laugh. Odd, huh? I once saw her staring at me while I was in a group of students telling jokes. She told me to come speak to her. She was angry yet smirking. “I heard your laughter above everybody else’s.” She told me, then repeated. “Everybody else’s“. I still had half a smile from the joke telling session so she stared hard at me for a few seconds. “You don’t know what that means, do you?” She finally asked. My smile started to fade. “It means you laughed harder and louder than all the other kids. Do you even realize you do that? I always hear you laughing above all my other students and that’s WRONG!. Girls should not laugh SO hard. And you are to laugh quietly, do you understand me? You are foolish and you’re embarrassing yourself. Now don’t let me hear you laughing that loudly ever again.” My smile gone by this time, I cast my head down and walked away totally ashamed. Isn’t it crazy how I still find myself doing that? Quieting my laughter and walking with my head cast downward. Mrs. O’Quillen enjoyed humiliating students that got her “Irish up”. I cringe at the memory of a mentally challenged boy named Shawn. I liked Shawn. He was into science fiction and weird off the wall stuff that I also enjoyed. Mrs. O’Quillen did not like Shawn. Shawn annoyed her. He was dealing with some pretty severe mental health issues that drove Mrs. O’Quillen off her Irish rocker. He sometimes had difficulty controlling his facial expressions so Mrs. O’Quillen brought in a hand mirror from her home. She made Shawn look into it for an entire 45 minute class so he could see “how ridiculous you look, Shawn”. It broke my heart. I have no idea if Mrs. O’Quillen is still teaching. She must be in her 60s by now. I was always hoping to run into her someday. Supposedly she still lives in town. I want to tell her that Shawn died in a mental hospital. I want to tell her that I was completely unimpressed by Ireland. That Eire was so completely different from the lush, scenic green photos she plastered around her classroom. That it was dull, grey, damp, rainy. It felt like being in a third world country sometimes. I thought about her this St. Pat’s Day. It’s a big day for her. Hope she enjoyed it. Hope she is no longer ridiculous.

Catholic School Nonsense (MUCH More To Come Later)

Sister Margaret Frank, SSJ
Sister Margaret Frank, SSJ

It was recently pointed out to me that I join the Villa Maria Elementary of Erie, Pennsylvania Alumni group on Facebook. Along with that suggestion came the preposterous idea that I should also friend request the former principal of VME, one Sister Margaret Frank SSJ. To me Sr. Margaret has always been evil personified. I once called her the Antichrist but retracted that statement after I realized how unkind it was to say that. Not to mention a great insult to the Antichrist.

Astonishingly I have run into many fellow alumni who adored her. Memory is subjective and we all experience things and people differently. A while back I saw her. The first time I encountered the woman as an adult. She recognized me immediately and praised me for having been in so many theatrical productions. “You always hated me.” I blurted out. The words came automatically to my lips. “Nooooo!” she declared. “Yes.” I countered. But as I just said, memory is subjective.

My earliest letdown in the Catholic school known as Villa Maria Elementary was the day of my first holy communion. At that point, at seven years of age, I had already been kicked out of a religion class. The incident occurred the year before in first grade. I had suggested that the class should not be praying in the chapel that day. The bewildered old nun was quite affronted by this and asked me why not. I indicated that the huge candle in the sacristy was not lit. In a previous tour of the chapel it was pointed out to us that the fire burning on the candle signified the presence of God. “That means God is here with us, children.” said Sister Drool. Now of course Sister Drool was not her real name but we children could not keep up with the numerous old corpses sent down from the motherhouse (which at that time was a few floors upstairs from our classrooms) that we had to name them by their attributes. “God’s not here today.” I explained to Sister D. whose openmouthed gasp temporarily stopped the flow of drool. I was made to stand outside the chapel while the good children were led in prayer.

Well, hey,maybe this would be my first chance to try some of that holy water from the basin sitting in the marble cherub’s outstretched hands. Nobody was looking and holy water must taste awesome, right?! Probably better than Kool-Aid! Better than Tang! Maybe even better than chocolate milk! After all it is holy! Word to the wise, kids. Yuck.

Yet holy water had to be nothing compared to the communion host that by second grade I was now going to be allowed to eat! Now this had to be something special. For one thing, only adults were permitted to take it and for another, it was BLESSED! Blessed by priests who had power that was passed down to them from Jesus Himself! And not only that, we had to partake in a special ceremony just to become eligible to eat this magic bread!

I was anxiously awaiting this most holy of communion days. We had a practice run in which we did get to eat an actual real honest to goodness communion wafer. I was discouraged that it tasted so terrible until we were informed by Sister Weeble that the practice bread had NOT been blessed. Well that explained it. No flavor and no magical powers.

I spent the day of my communion being primped by and for the adults in my life. Curlers, flowers, jewelry and a very uncomfortable starched white dress and veil. All fripperies that I normally hated but could tolerate on this most holy special day.

Communion day came and went. I ate the special bread. And I was not miraculously endowed with special powers. I had really been hoping for the ability to fly. After all, Jesus flew all the time, didn’t He? At least in my seven year old mind he did. ( Four years later, in sixth grade , I saw a production of Jesus Christ Superstar whereupon I overcame my disappointment that our savior apparently did not have the power of flight. Now He could sing rock and roll which was even cooler.)

In third grade Villa Maria Elementary became what I affectionately refer to as a school for troubled teachers. My guess is that the decrepit creatures from the motherhouse could no longer make the journey downstairs to instruct us. Since they taught for free (or maybe it was for  room and board) the school had to find alternative educators. That third grade year started a succession of interesting characters at the head of our classrooms. To describe them all would be a blog unto itself. It was as if the new principal, Sister Margaret Frank, shouted out the window at passersby and asked them if they wanted to be a teacher then invited them in if they answered yes. Some were ineffectual, some were actually dedicated wonderful educators and some were downright abusive.

Holy communion did not bestow any particular blessing on me as the ensuing years at Villa Maria Elementary only got more hellish.

Mrs. Susan Bullock was my third grade homeroom teacher. A new hire, Mrs. Bullock was one of Sister Margaret’s pool of low bid foot soldiers. Surprisingly, Mrs. Bullock actually had a degree in education. What she lacked was humanity. Third grade began what was to become a year of horrible difficulties for me…difficulties that I’ll explain briefly below. Difficulties that made ME difficult and Mrs. Bullock took an instant seething dislike to me.

One of Mrs. Bullock’s favorite gambits was to point out my ridiculousness or stupidity to the rest of the class. All activities had to stop while this humiliating event occurred. “Class, please stop what you’re doing” she would start and I knew I was in for it. She would hold up my paper or point out some absurd thing I had done and say “I want you all to see what Karen (redacted) has done this time.” She always blended my first and last name into one. “If you had any brains in your head at all, Karen(redacted), I think they would rattle!” was one of her fondest directives toward me. To this day I get very shy about introducing myself with my first and last name. I still hear Mrs. Bullock’s putdowns even in my adult head.

To be somewhat fair to Mrs. Bullock I have to offer the full disclosure that I did become a very difficult child for any teacher to deal with the year she started teaching. Awful things that happened outside the school changed my behavior for the worse. Early in my third grade year I was molested by my pediatrician and later that year my father went into a coma and hovered between life and death for many weeks. I became an angry, frightened, insecure and defiant child.

I became “trouble”.  An annoyance. And a huge thorn in Sister Margaret’s side.

I saw the unsympathetic, money worshipping side of the Catholic church at a very early age. The same Catholic mentality that sent scores of known child raping priests to poorer parishes.

God and Sister Margaret favored the rich kids. It was too much of a bother to extend time and compassion to the child of working class parents who had difficulty making tuition payments.

At one point during a particularly nasty Sister Margaret Shitlist Session (that would be where the good sister called in her least favorite students one by one to angrily insult us and tell us what rotten Catholics we were) she asked me to leave Villa Maria Elementary. “Maybe you belong in public school.” she told me. The words “public school” were spit out of her mouth with a disgusted sneer. Just saying “public school” in that building was akin to uttering a profanity.

This was good news to me! Surely I could take this statement to my mother and it would treated as some sort of royal command. A decree from her royal heinous, Sister Margaret, that I be banished to the uncivilized lowlands known as public education! Naturally, I did not see this as a banishment but as a release, an early release from prison.

Unfortunately that day only got worse as the next victim on Sister Margaret’s shitlist was my dear friend Ann (REDACTED). She was going into Sister’s office as I was leaving. Ann had not been at Little Villa very long but she and I had bonded deeply. Ann’s troubled childhood and family difficulties of her own cemented our bond. We had glommed onto each other. Nobody else found religion class as boring and as humorous as Ann and I did. Two little blasphemous heretics in sea of pious, compliant urchins.

Ann left VME that very day. Sister Margaret had apparently given her the same “You would be better off in (sneer, spit) public school .” speech. Ann’s’ mother was called and Ann was quickly and quietly spirited away from VME forever. ( I still envy her!) She asked Sister Margaret if she could go back into the classroom to say goodbye to me but Sister was still in heartless bitch mode and refused that request. Ann’s last act of Catholic school rebellion was to write me a beautifully touching farewell letter which she slipped into my locker while gathering her things.

My mother does not remember Sister Margaret’s decree. I certainly remember my plaintive plea that I be allowed to leave that school because it was a plea that was repeated every day for many more years after that. I suspect that my mother quickly tired of hearing the same request day after day and just tuned me out. Even Summer vacation did not go by without a daily appeal to be transferred to a different, preferably non-Catholic school. Still every summer ended the same way.

Back in line at VME. All the students being greeted by a grinning Sister Margaret whose smile abruptly left her face upon seeing me. Perhaps she smiled at my eighth grade graduation , secure in the knowledge that I would never be back