My Closet

 

1969 visiting family at St. Michael's Home where I use to live.

1969 visiting family at St. Michael’s Home where I use to live.

 

I was cleaning out my closet a few days ago and found an old photo of myself lying about on the floor by my wife’s shoe rack. It was a  photo that I have searched for months, and there it was resting on top of my safe that holds all our take returns, over thirty-five years worth, all this time.

 It was one of only about five photos of me  as a little boy between the age seven or eight. I might have posted it on my blog a couple of years back, but I would have to go back to see if I even did to begin with. 

The photo is of me, wearing a brown corduroy coat standing next to a little girl, who my oldest sister told me that is was my mother’s friend’s daughter standing by trees on the grounds of St. Michael’s Orphanage home.

What I found so weird about the timing finding this particular photo in the first place, we were just visiting friends on Staten Island just last weekend, and I decided to take my wife to where St. Michael’s Home, what’s left of it, before we headed home, to take a few photos of me standing on the actual sidewalk path I once walked countless times as a little boy when I lived there.

What’s left of the broken up concrete sidewalk today, is now covered with grass and weeds. The pruned bushes that once lined the walkway are now overgrown trees hovering over the pathway just like those same trees lined up along the yellow brick road in the movie The Wizard of Oz.

What a haunting feeling I felt  looking at them.  I  shared some stories with Donna the memories   I had living there so many years ago. The memories were still fresh in my head as if I was telling stories that happened just days ago.

But those days were actually over 48 years ago. Now your probably wondering where I am going with this story. So let me tell you before I lose you. When I was standing there looking around the where St. Michael’s Home once stood, I came to realize that I never had one bad memory to share with Donna my time living in the orphanage ….not one story.

I stood there next to my Donna, thinking, that I was actually better off not being placed in a foster home to begin with. I think I was happy  little six year old boy sharing a big massive red brick building with my other brothers and sister, not to mention the many other little boys and girls who parents didn’t want either.

It was better than the projects where we lived our short time in a small apartment on the second floor apartment 2D on 17th street in Manhattan, and plenty to do as well.  For starters, there were no sounds of honking horns in the middle of the night, no cops walking around all the time telling us to go home when we wondered off. 

But most of all, no crying nor screaming coming from any of my brothers and sisters being disciplined by my mother with punishment that was so extreme that in today’s world, she be placed under arrest for Child Abuse and Neglect as well as my father.

Looking over that one photo that I found in my closet only reminded me that the place I once called St. Michael’s Home was just that…a home. It was a place where we were safe and had nuns and other people taking care of us…..more than I can say about my parents.

Sounds of Silence

I was wondering what happened to my brother when I left him back there in the parlor with that family. I had thought that maybe they did take him instead, but that never happened. From what Sister Lockhart told me, after a brief conversation the family had left, but were coming back the following weekend to meet me again. I remember her saying how happy she was for me and that I should be too that another family wanted to take me into their home for a visit.

I had asked her if my brother was coming with me and I remember her saying he wasn’t but my youngest brother was. Well, I was kind of relieved that someone was, but why him? He’s just three years old. I would rather have my brother who was with me. He’s a year younger and we saw each other practically every day. But the next weekend was days away, so I didn’t put any more thought into that family for the rest of the week.

As each day passed, I realized that life at St. Michael’s wasn’t so bad after all. I just got used to it I guess. I didn’t think much of my home on 17th St anymore. If I did, it was when my mother or my sister would visit us on Sundays. But that soon faded by the time they got on the city bus and headed back to New York City. My brothers and sister were all here with me, and I got to see them as much as time allowed, so I was just fine living at the orphanage.

It was our home, and we made the best of it. A week went by, and here I was once again putting on my Sunday clothes on a Saturday. My Sunday clothes consisted of dress pants, a shirt, a clip on tie and my black shoes. This is what we wore on Sundays going to church, which was the next building over from our dorm. When mass was over, we would go back and change into our play clothes and hang around inside the visiting hall or play outside by the big gazebo we called the “Summer House”  until our parents arrived.

There were times we would be swinging on the swings and see our mother walk up the driveway with bags in her hand and we would run up to her all excited hugging and kissing her, then go through the bags looking for our orange juice. We would sit inside the Summer House and share with my mother what we had done since the last visit. Well, that wasn’t happening this weekend.

I was getting ready to see this family again. I didn’t want to go downstairs at first, but my counselor Mr. Jack had a way of talking to me that changed my mind. So there I was walking down the steps and through the hallway as I did just days before. I entered through the door that lead to the parlor where I met the girl with the big smile. There they were, all five of them sitting there on the couch waiting to meet me with two nuns and my youngest brother with them.

Mr. Jack went over to talk with the family as I just stood there looking out the window. Then suddenly, I saw a nun with a suitcase walk over to me. She said she had packed some extra clothes for me and my brother and our tooth brushes. I was confused. They told me that I was only going to their home to visit and then come back, but here I am holding a suitcase with our clothes inside them.

NO WAY!  I was not going now. I started crying and screaming that I didn’t want to go. I remember those words. “I don’t want to go now, I don’t want to go now!” I was begging Mr. Jack for him not to let them take me.I grabbed his leg and cried so hard and so loud my head was vibrating. He took me in the hallway, and calmed me down as he explained to me that it was just for the weekend, and if I didn’t like it, I didn’t have to go with them again.

He promised me that everything would be just fine once I gave them a chance. Now, Mr. Jack was about in his early thirties. He was tall with short black hair and always played with us when we asked him to. He had a deep voice but it wasn’t too deep to be scared of. I trusted Mr. Jack, so there was no reason to think he would start lying to me now. I stopped crying as he made his silly faces to get me to laugh, which I did.

He gave me a hug and patted me on the top of my head and told me to have fun and that he would be waiting for me Sunday when I came back. We walked back to the parlor where he told them that everything was just fine and I was going with them. He leaned over to me and said ” This is the Garrison family and they are very nice people, so you be good and I will see you back here on Sunday”.

So there I was, walking out of the main building with the brown suitcase in my hand and my little brother walking ahead of me totally clueless about what was happening. We all walked  down the sidewalk  that led to the parking lot. Mr. Garrison opened up the trunk to put my suitcase in and walked over to open the passenger side door and pulled the seat forward so I could get inside.

I sat in the middle with the tall boy to my left and his sister Linda with the long hair to my right. My brother sat in the front with their younger sister Sandy as we drove out of the parking lot and on our way to their home. I didn’t want to look at anyone, so I just kept my head leaning to my left facing the back seat and said nothing. Linda then asked her father to turn on the radio so we all could hear music.

The song that was playing was very familiar, and I remember hearing it a few times on the radio in our kitchen at St. Michael’s where we had our lunches, or just playing in the playroom in the background. I heard it enough times growing up… but to this day, I still don’t know the words to this song but it was playing on the radio…The Sounds of Silence.

 

 

                                                     

Window Smiles

Just as I thought, that family on the other side of the window talking with the nuns wanted to meet my brother and me. Why else would we be wearing our Sunday clothes and told not to run around? But as soon as Sr. Lockart left us alone, we did exactly what she told us not to do. We started running around and wrestling on the floor and we were going at it in full force. We were laughing and pulling at each other like two playful puppies you see through those windows at a pet store.

As I let go of my brother, he would try to pin me down while I was tugging him by his shirt attempting to bring him back down.We were laughing loud enough to catch the attention of the people with the kids on the other side of the curtain window. I continued to straddle my brother sitting on his stomach and happened to look up and see two girls looking back at me smiling.

So I got up and walked over toward the window with my brother trailing behind me to get a better look at them and see if they wanted to play with us. It started out with something like waving back and forth with the younger girl and myself. She seemed to want to play, but we were separated by the windows, and just waved and played peek-a-boo through the curtains.

The other girl was bigger and seemed older, maybe around twelve like my oldest sister Gloria. She was smiling as she continued to tease my brother through the glass by making hand gestures like she was holding a gun shooting at him, and my brother was doing the same back to her. I remember that so clearly as if I’m back in that room as I am telling this story.

Then it happened. The two glass doors suddenly opened up and startled me for a moment because I didn’t expect anyone to be walking in. I remember just standing there not moving, as if my feet were glued to the floor. I don’t even remember what my brother was doing because I was so focused on the face of the man who was looking back at me. He was tall with big hands and his hair was pushed back like my father’s.

I remember his voice was deep as he looked down at me and said hello. I didn’t say anything back. I looked up to the woman next to him and all she did was smile, and when she did, her eyes twinkled like stars. She had wavy dark hair. I remember her skin was a little dark like my real mother’s. But I still refused to say hello and that annoyed Sister Lockhart.

She reminded me that it was impolite not to say hello back. My brother on the other hand was more than happy to say hello. But what did he know? He talked to anyone he met and got in trouble for doing just that when we used to live on 17th street. My mother always yelled at him for talking to strangers by the front lobby where we played with my other brothers. So it wasn’t unusual for him to start yapping away to these people. But I wasn’t having any part of this.

I wanted to leave, and that’s exactly what I told Sister Lockart. But the young girl with the big smile came over to me and asked me my name. I was hesitant to say but told her that it was Michael and she said her name was Sandy. Before I continue, I will not be using anyone’s real name through my stories about this family. All names will be fictitious from here on out.

I have not been in touch with any of them for many years and I am sure we all will continue this practice for the near future. Besides that, I did received legal advice that it would be for my best interest not to use any names, including my family members unless I  receive written permission to do so. Ok, now that that is out of the way, let’s go back to the story.

As she introduced herself to me, the bigger girl walked over and told me her name was Linda and the tall big boy standing next to their father was Benny. He seemed quiet and didn’t say much. But the two sisters were more than happy to talk with my brother and me. The next words that came out of Sister Lockart’s mouth was something I didn’t want to hear.

She told  me that this family wanted to take me back home with them for a couple of days. When she said that, my stomach felt funny, and my body felt like my brother was sitting on me and I couldn’t breath. I did not want to go anywhere with them and you can bet your ass I wasn’t, so I took off out of the room and ran back to my dormitory leaving  my brother behind with that family.

I guess it was every man for himself at that point.  Take him; he’s the chatty one. He would go with anyone who handed him a box of cracker jacks, but not me. I ran so fast down that hallway and up those steps. I ran through St. Peter’s Dorm and opened up the door that led to my dorm and went right to my bed. I was getting out of my Sunday clothes before Sister Lockart arrived.

As nice of a nun as she was, I knew she was going to be mad, but I didn’t want to leave St. Michael’s home. So, I got undressed and put on my day clothes and laid on my bed pressing my hands over my ears, rocking back and forth like I usually did to calm myself down when I was scared. The next thing I heard was a voice calling my name while tugging at my shoulders.  I looked up to see Sister Lockhart.

She wasn’t mad at me like I thought she would be. She sat by my side as she held me telling me with almost a whisper that it would be fine. I just laid there crying. The last thing I remember asking her was…what was going to happen to me now?

Sunday Visits, Sunday Clothes

You may be wondering if my parents ever came to visit us while we were in the orphanage home, and the answer is yes. We had visiting day every Sunday. I would be with my brother and some other boys playing in the playroom when Sister Lockhart, our group sister, would come over and tell us that our mother was here. I would remember the feelings of excitement and anticipation as we headed down the stairs and through this long hallway that led to the visiting hall.

Now, the visiting hall was this big blue and grey room with benches along all the walls. I don’t remember if their were any chairs and tables, but who cares, my mother was here!As my brother and I got closer to the hall we could hear laughing and talking that grew louder and louder as we approached the entrance. When we opened the door you could see all the other children running around playing with their brothers and sisters as their parents looked on.

I would see my mother sitting down on the bench to my right by the window with a cigarette in her hand and brown shopping bags by her feet waiting for us. When she saw us coming towards her, I could see her  face change from looking serious to the biggest smile a mother can give to her children with her arms wide open for us to run into. We would scream her name as we hugged her and she would shower us with kisses all over our faces.

Then in seconds I could hear my other brothers yelling her name as they ran up to her and received the same hugs and kisses. We were a family once again.  The only one who might be missing most of the time was my sister Gracie. As of now, she is the only sibling whose real name I will show because she is no longer with us. She passed away from breast cancer over seven years ago and we will just leave it at that for the time being.

I am sure she had her reasons not wanting to see my mother and to be honest, I never put too much thought into it either. When she did show up to see my mother, it always seemed that they would start arguing and my mother would get upset and kiss all of us and leave early. My older brother would yell at Gracie sometimes and then we would find ourselves going back to our dorms before visiting time was over.

But this day, Gracie wasn’t there and I don’t even think anyone noticed, except for my mother. Anyway, my mother would take put her hand inside the bag and pull out those skinny long containers of Tropicana Orange Juice and boxes of Crack Jacks and hand them to us. Sometimes there would be extra ones,but we all knew why. We would open the Cracker Jacks first and if we didn’t like the prizes we would swap them among ourselves.

But we took our time drinking the orange juice. If it was nice outside, my mother would take us to these big wooden gazebos next to the visiting hall we called the Summer House. I don’t know where that name came from, but that’s where my mother would go for shade while we played on the swings. Our visits were mostly happy times. When my mother didn’t come for whatever reasons, she would send my oldest sister G instead.

I remember a few of those visits but not many. I do remember my father visiting us a few times, but don’t remember them as much as I remember the time my mother spent with us. I do remember him putting us on his lap as he drove his car in the parking lot and let us all take turns to steering. I remember kite flying in the field with him, but it always seemed that he was the one doing the kite flying as we all watched.

I remember sleigh riding down this hill we had behind the gym called Donkey Hill. That’s where we all would go sleigh riding or just throw ourselves down to the ground and race each as we rolled all the way to the bottom. He brought his new girlfriend with him once, but that’s it — I don’t remember after that. There are some memories I have during my stay at St. Michael’s, but as time passed those memories faded, as well.

But there is one memory I wish to this very day I didn’t remember. I was playing in the playroom when Sister Lockart had called out my name. As I looked up, I saw my brother, who’s a year younger than me standing next to her smiling. I had no idea what this was about, but it looked to me that we were going somewhere. So, I ran over to her and my brother and asked where we were going. All she said was that we had visitors and we needed to wash up and change into our Sunday clothes.

Now wait a minute, I thought. Today is Saturday. My mother and father never visited us on a Saturday, not even my sister G. I remember asking Sister Lockhart why we had to wash up and wear our Sunday clothes when it was Saturday? I wanted to know who was visiting us. She told me was to stop asking so many questions and just follow her. So we did just that.

We passed through St. Peters Dorm which was connected to our dorm, and walked down three flights of stairs that led us through the long hallway towards the visiting hall. But we made a right into the main building.She then opened a door to a room we had never been before and told us to wait inside until she came back for us. I thought we had visitors?

There was no one in the room but just me and my brother. But we could hear people talking in the next room with just two big doors with curtains separating us from the voices. So we walked over and peeked through the window and saw other kids with their mother and father talking with Sister Lockhart and another nun. My brother asked me who they were and all I could respond back was that I didn’t know.

I was trying to listen to what the man was saying to the nuns, but my brother was being annoying and kept  asking me a bunch of questions. I told him to be quiet so I could listen and find out who they were. I felt that something wasn’t t right and felt the urge to want to leave and go back to my dorm. The family standing on the other side of the door talking to the nuns were here for us.

 

This Is My Bed Now

Inside the dormitory where we lived in, there was one giant room but filled with furniture and beds… lots of beds. You could stand in one corner of the room and see straight across the other side with no obstruction. If you’ve ever seen a loft or lived in one, then you have an idea of what I am trying to describe. After playing outside, we all had to go straight to the bathroom to wash up, and not just our hands, but our face, neck and of course behind the ears.

Yep, all that just to eat. We would have to raise our little hands and show that they were clean. If our hands weren’t clean enough, we had to run all the way back to the bathroom to wash them again. Believe me, when you have little legs, that bathroom seemed a lot further away than it looked. So you can bet on it that we made sure our hands were clean enough to pass inspection.

After our dinner, we all had to take our trays and put them by the sink and throw out plastic utensils, then rush to the living room to watch T.V. I don’t remember what we used to watch, but I do remember watching The Wonderful World of Disney every Sunday night. Following our group shower, we all changed into our pajamas and rushed to the couch to claim our spot before 7:30.

If there wasn’t any room, we sat on the floor as Mr. Jack, our counselor,  handed out small containers of milk and chocolate chip cookies. I don’t think anyone ever turned down snacks when it was Disney time. One Sunday night while we were watching Dr. Doolittle, we heard this loud scream coming from the bedroom area. We all got up to see where it was coming from and found one of the boys from our group standing on the stool beside his bed pointing.

There was a big brown turtle on top of his covers. A turtle was on his bed! The only thing that I wondered was how did this turtle climb up three flights of stairs and get inside our dormitory and end up on someone’s bed? Mr. Jack picked up the turtle by its shell and told us all to calm down. We followed him to the back door where he went downstairs to let the turtle out of the building.

We all were standing  by the back door on the top landing looking down between the stairs when we heard  Mr. Jack open the door and then shut it just as fast. He was yelling for all of us to get back inside before he reached the top steps. We did just that. Before we knew it, it was time to go to bed. After all that excitement that just went on, we were all worked up and started acting up while in our beds.

Mr. Jack yelled at us to calm down or he would turn off the lights before 9 pm. Well, we calmed down alright, but when 9:00 came, he said goodnight to all of us in his nice voice, flipped the switch and the lights were out. There we were in the dark acting up and getting out of our beds to jump on other beds when the lights came on. It was the night lady. That’s what we called her.                                                       

She would yell and threatened to tell our head nun Sister Lockhart in the morning if we didn’t listen. I could hear her mumbling, as she turned off the lights. As I lied in my bed, I thought how my brothers and I used to play around when we were in our own bedroom on 17th street, and could hear my mother yelling from the living room for us to knock it off and go to sleep as she cursed in Spanish.

My older brother would mimic her and pretend he spoke Spanish and we’d all laugh until we heard her yelling once again for us to go to sleep. My last thought before I fell asleep that night, wasn’t how the turtle get on the bed, but how I missed sleeping in my bunk bed with my brothers. I guess this is my bed now.

Light’s Out!

Learning how to make a bed, folding clothes, organizing lockers (that were at the foot of the beds), and cleaning up after oneself would be a challenge for most children under the age of 6 at home, but not for us. The counselors had a way to get our attention, and they had it down to a science. They would have us stand next to our beds as they stood in the middle of the room and with a loud voice say…” This is your bed, and when lights are out, you sleep, and when lights come on in the morning, you will get out of it and make it before breakfast…then show us how.

We would do this until we all knew how to make our own beds, and we pretty much did by the third try…well, most of us anyway. I got it right after the first try, and I was feeling happy that I did. When the counselor came over and asked me if I used to make my bed at home, I looked up at him and responded no. He just smiled and  rubbed the top of my head then walked over to the boy next to me who seemed to be having trouble making his bed no matter how many times he was shown.

I thought something was wrong with him because he couldn’t even put the pillow inside the pillow case. I mean, how hard was that? The next thing I remember is they had us stand next to our lockers showing us how to fold our clothes and tuck our socks into a ball, and lay them in a particular order — pants, shirt, T-shirt, underwear, and socks on top. We placed our sneakers and shoes under our lockers and that’s how it was done. Again, we did that until we all got it right, except for that boy again next to me.

I remember he just couldn’t get the hang of it, no matter how many times he tried. He was having a really hard time remembering anything the counselors were trying to teach us. Now, some of you may be asking yourselves how do I remember all of this at such a young age? Well, remember in the beginning when I wrote about Impact Memory? The reason why I remember this particular story was because of that boy next to me, who seemed to have trouble doing anything right…I believe his name was Matthew.

He might have been older than me…not sure. He was a little chubby with dark hair and spoke in soft voice. I remember asking him one night when we were lying in our beds, why he didn’t want to learn to do anything? He said something that I will never forget as long as I live. He told me if he didn’t do anything the counselors were telling us to do, that they would just get mad and send him back home.

Thinking back at that moment, I thought that was a pretty good idea for him to think that, even though they never did send him back home. In time, he was making his bed and folding his clothes like the rest of us. Just two days ago, as I walked on the property where the Orphanage home once stood, I closed my eyes and let my memory take over just for a moment. I could hear the voices of the children playing in the playground not far from where I was standing.

I could see the big wrap around porch of the main building where we used it as a short cut to our dormitory. I could still see the smile on the face of Father Kenny as he would reach out his arms to hug us when we went to visit him down the driveway from the main building. I would remember Matthew. The little chubby boy who believed he was going to be sent home for not listening. For that one moment, it was 1967 for me again. I opened my eyes, and there I was, back  inside my dorm St. Aloysius, laying in my bed talking with Matthew next to me while the other kids were goofing around on their beds until we heard those two familiar words……Lights Out!

The Big House

I don’t remember the actual day when we arrived at St.Michael’s home, but I do remember it was sunny out. I was looking out the window of the van we were in and saw what seemed to be a Big House. I remember asking my older brother if this was our new home. I noticed the look on his face started changing, like the look he would get when my mother would yell at him countless times. His eyes started watering up and I knew this wasn’t good…so I began to cry.

Now, I wasn’t crying because we were at this place called an orphanage home, and I wasn’t crying because I had no idea what was going on. I started crying because my brother cried, and that meant only one thing. He was scared, and if he was scared, so was I. The next memory I  was in an office with a nun. She was big and had a loud voice. It also looked like the top of her head was missing. I remember thinking she looked funny because we couldn’t see much of her face.

We were taught that all nuns were married to God, and that they always wore their wedding dress and a veil that covered their whole head right up to their eyes. They said it, we believed it. I remember this nun asking our names and if we were hungry. Before we knew it, we were in a big kitchen with lots of tables and chairs. There were other kids there, too. Big ones like my older brothers, and small ones like me. There were even girls there. I remember feeling like I did when I would see other kids playing in the courtyard where I used to live, and would start playing with them.

But not this time. I stayed close to my brothers because the kids in the courtyard were familiar, but I didn’t know any of the children here. I stood right next to my other brothers and just ate whatever they fed us. Not long after that, I found myself in a room that looked like the one in the shelter where we were before we came to the orphanage, but nicer. There were lots of beds and wooden lockers at the foot of them and nice pictures on the wall. I remember a long table in the kitchen area with a white refrigerator filled with juice, little milk containers,  jello, and pudding.

We never had any of that in our refrigerator at home. Right across from that was a TV set with chairs, a big couch, end tables with lamps, and a big thick rug in the middle.There was even a white cat lying on top of the TV. I remember the walls were blue and the ceiling white. There were two doors in this large room. One in the front that had a sign that read St. Aloysius and one in the back that connected to a bigger room with more beds read St. Peter’s. This big house where we were living now made me feel different from I remembered feeling when I first got there.

I didn’t feel that scared anymore. The last memory I have from that day was thinking my brothers and I had lot more room to run around in than where we used to live. After each day passed by, everything started to change. There were rules we had to follow, and the nuns weren’t messing around either. No one, and I mean no one, was going to wipe our asses, blow our noses for us, dress us, give us a bath, brush our teeth, make our beds, or fold our clothes. They were our counselors, not our parents, and they made that very clear to all of us. They taught us a new word we never heard before… Discipline.