A Lovely Gal
My godmother began corresponding with a “lovely gal” some years ago.
“We’re pen pals,” she says in-between bites of a cheeseburger at a country club. “A priest organizes pen pals for the inmates in a jail in Montgomery.”
“That’s very kind of you,” I respond.
My godmother volunteers for a lot of organizations in her town in Alabama: church, school, teen center, food bank, soup kitchen, garden club, library, community outreach mobile … A pen pal is a new addition to the list.
“She’s terribly lonely,” my godmother says as she dips a fry into a dot of ketchup. “I’m her only friend. Can you believe it? She’s fifty-two and has no other friends?”
“Not a one?” I ask as I cut into the Chicken Piccata on my plate.
“No,” my godmother responds as she reaches for her glass of merlot. She takes a tiny sip, and as she returns the glass to the table, she gives her head a little shake.
“Poor thing,” she mutters.
I nod while chewing.
“And most of her family is gone,” she says.
“Dead. And she was an only child.”
I nod again.
My godmother is susceptible to misfits. Bring her to a party, and within minutes she’ll saddle up to an injured person sequestered in a corner and befriend her for the night. My godmother’s drive is two-part: sympathy and companionship.
I imagine the prisoner version to be an ideal companion: needy and captive.
“She’s a sweet gal,” she says. “She volunteers in the prison library, she’s an active member in the prison Bible study, and she mentors new inmates.”
“You two share charitable interests,” I note, wondering if early release is the prisoner’s motivation. It would be one of mine. I think of a dining room scene in a Woody Allen film where the naivety of a hostess is revealed when she invites an ex-con to dinner.
“Yes, we do share the same charitable interests,” she says with assurance. “I volunteer at the library, and I‘ve been in a Bible study group for over twenty years.” She takes another bite of her cheeseburger while I try to remember how many pages are in the Bible. Twenty years, I think.
“We’re very different – she came from a modest background and didn’t go to college – but we get along very nicely,” my godmother says after swallowing. “We’re very similar. She’s very bright.”
I nod. My godmother is always surprised when people who aren’t formally educated demonstrate intelligence. Always!
“Must be all that Bible study,” I note.
“We exchange letters weekly, and I’ve grown to look forward to them. She said receiving letters from me is the highlight of her week!”
My godmother has a strong desire to be needed. Her parents were present but neglectful. Substance abuse played a role. And she might as well be an only child given the circumstances.
“You’d love her,” she blurts. “Absolutely love her!”
My eyes widen at the prospect of getting roped into this arrangement.
“So why is she in jail?” I ask.
The question appears to surprise my godmother. Her eyes dart around the room as if she is looking for an answer.
“An accident,” she says eventually, drawing out the word accident with a hint of mystery in her voice.
Her voice drops to a whisper: “There was some sort of accident.”
“Accident,” I repeat as the possibilities for a manslaughter conviction fill my head: Distracted driving, drunk driving, unattended children, …
“Yes, it was some sort of accident,” she says as she reaches for her glass again and focuses on the task of lifting it to her lips.
“What kind of accident,” I ask.
She takes a long, slow sip.
“I don’t know exactly,” she says as a tiny hint of anger creeps into her voice. She places the glass back down with more precision than is necessary. She folds and then refolds the napkin on her lap.
This conversation is starting to feel like a Murder She Wrote episode with an unreliable narrator.
“But you seem to know a lot about her,” I say. “You know a lot about her life in prison.”
My godmother studies me but doesn’t respond.
“She’s been working hard to make amends,” she says finally.
“Amends for what?” I ask.
“It was an accident,” she says shifting in her seat. “She’s going for an appeal.”
I decide to let it go at that. My godmother is either fighting a truth or trying to hide one from others. I’m reminded of Hyacinth Bucket, the pretentious middle-aged social climber of the 1990’s BBC sitcom Keeping Up Appearances.
I hope the priest was prudent in his matchmaking.
A year or two go by, and I hear nothing more about the prisoner pen pal until my godmother tells me one morning over coffee how frustrating she finds it to have everything, even the photographs she brings to the prison, searched.
The word “photographs” rings like a siren in my head. In Truman Capotes’ In Cold Blood, a family is the target by two ex-cons because of stories traded in prison of the imagined contents in a basement safe. In Nick Pizzolatto’s True Detective, a woman is targeted because of the stories her ex-boyfriend shared about her with his cellmate. My godmother takes lots of pictures of my kids.
“They look for tabs of acid on the photographs,” she explains. “People sneak them in that way.”
“I bet,” I say not knowing much about smuggling acid but having seen online how tiny and thin the tabs are.
“Do I look like the kind of person who would do that?” she asks. “It’s utterly ridiculous!”
“I thought it was a pen pal relationship,” I respond.
“It was,” she says. “But now I visit with Mary once or twice a month depending on my schedule. Each time I go, I’m thoroughly searched and so are the things I carry with me. I even have to pass through a metal detector.”
“Those rules apply to everyone who visits a prison,” I say. “It’s not personal.”
My godmother lets out a loud harrumph and shifts in her seat.
“Why is Mary in jail?” I ask.
“An accident,” she says quickly and definitively. My godmother places her coffee cup down on a side table and scoots back on the sofa pressing her hands into it for support. She sits up tall.
“Yes, you mentioned that before,” I say, holding my gaze on her. “What kind of accident?”
My godmother shifts her entire body away from me and to the right. Her line of vision moves with it. The act reads like a child who covers her eyes and believes she’s invisible. It’s clear I’m not the first person to reject “accident” as the full explanation.
I imagine my godmother bringing up the prisoner pen pal while doing activities such as potting plants for the Garden Club’s annual Mother’s Day sale or attending Bible study meetings. I imagine the immediate response of her friends followed by the more pointed, potentially revealing inquires.
“What kind of accident?” I press.
“A push,” she finally blurts. The force behind the words surprises me but only momentarily. It reminds me.
“A push,” I repeat.
“Yes,” she says. My godmother’s hand rises quickly, and in a spastic, fluttering gesture, she brushes away an imaginary object. “Something to do with some sort of push.”
She returns her hand to her side. She looks back at me, challenging me.
“I don’t see why it matters,” she says. “Why does everyone ask me the same question? Mary is my pen pal.”
“It doesn’t matter to me,” I say, “unless you’re bringing photos of my kids to the prison.”
My godmother shifts in her seat again. She looks at me in the same way I suspect she eyeballs the corrections officer as he takes the photos of my children from her hand.
“Are you?” I ask, my eyes narrowing.
My godmother sits silently.
“So who exactly did Mary push?” I ask.
“Her mother,” she spits.
“Her mother!” I repeat.
“They’d gotten into a fight over groceries. Her mother was always nagging her. Correcting her. Holding her to task.”
“Did she kill her mother?” I ask.
“Mary pushed her mother, and she fell. She put her in bed to rest. Her mother died the next day.”
I allow the new information to sink in.
“So a fight over food leads to the death of her mother?” I paraphrase.
My godmother sits silently.
“It sounds as if there was a lot of anger between them,” I say. “A lot of resentment.”
“Mary said her mother was a drinker. Abusive.”
I don’t doubt it. According to psychiatrists, matricide rarely happens where there isn’t a strained relationship between the mother and daughter. Financial stress, substance abuse, and PTSD can fuel it.
“That’s the problem with these cases,” Chandra Bozelko, a prison reform expert says. “They are cocktails of social problems. It’s rarely clear-cut.”
“Mary got mad and reacted. It can happen. It doesn’t mean she’s a bad person.”
In 1994 when Susan Smith drowned her two young children because she was dating a man who didn’t want kids and the world demonized her, my godmother sympathized with her.
“I’m a single mother, and I can understand why a single mother would kill her kids,” I overheard her say more than once in the presence of her children. It became a conversation starter for her. My godmother had no idea how insane she sounded nor did she note the alarm on the faces of those she was trying to convince. She thought her stance would elicit sympathy.
Yes, I think, it could and does happen.
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a true crime account of the 1959 murders of a family by two ex-cons in Holcomb, Kansas. While researching the novel, Truman fell in love with Perry Smith, one of the two murderers. He said that he came to regard Perry as a version of himself. “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house,” Capote said to his best friend writer Harper Lee, “then one day, he walked out the back door, and I walked out the front.” Truman’s biographer Gerald Clarke said that Capote recognized in Perry “his shadow, his dark side, the embodiment of his own accumulated angers and hurts”.
“She didn’t mean for her to die,” my godmother says settling back on the sofa. “It was an accident. Mary’s a lovely gal.”
I recently had the good fortune to meet Chandra Bozelko. She’s a Princeton graduate who became a journalist and prison reform activist after being convicted of a series of white color crimes. Chandra maintains her innocence and continues to pursue appeals even though she served her sentence and most of her probation.
When Chandra was in prison, she started a diary and some of the entries appeared as a newspaper column. Since she was released in 2014, Chandra has been publishing the rest of the entries in a blog called Prison Diaries and has contributed over one hundred and forty articles to publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. She has her own nationally syndicated column.
I met Chandra at the Connecticut Press Club Awards ceremony earlier this year. I introduced myself when I sensed she didn’t know anyone in the room. Chandra has arresting blue eyes that register curiosity and caution in equal measure. They also register intelligence and kindness.
The subjects Chandra covers range from dating with a rap sheet to the indignities inmates face in jail to an extensive reformation of the prison system. The night I met her at the awards ceremony, she was the recipient of eight awards, which was the most of anyone honored. Most of the subject matter Chandra covers is serious and difficult; there are no easy fixes.
One of the headings on Chandra’s website asks the visitor: Why should I care? Most people don’t care about prison reform since it doesn’t directly impact them, but we should. There are many flaws in the system, and it’s extremely expensive. The estimated total annual cost of incarceration on the American taxpayers is one trillion dollars according to a Washington University study. It’s those costs that were the primary catalyst to the December 21, 2018 passage of the criminal justice reform bill titled The First Step Act.
The Act builds on a prison overhaul bill that unwinds some of the tough-on-crime policies put in place in 1980 that have played a key role in the rise of mass incarceration in recent decades. According to the Brennan Center for Social Justice, the federal prison population has risen by more than seven hundred percent since the policies were established, and federal prison spending has increased by nearly six hundred percent.
Additionally, the federal mandatory minimum sentences were a catalyst for the recent surge of harsh prison sentences for non-violent crimes. Research continues to show that the stricter sentencing has done little to reduce crime and can increase the likelihood of people returning to criminal activity. These sentences disproportionately impact people of color especially African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos and those living in low-income communities.
“I have many problems with the First Step Act,” Chandra says from her home in Connecticut, “namely the carve-outs that tie a person’s risk of reoffending to the severity of their crime. The two facts are not positively related like that. Still, to the extent that it is the first bill to bring some dignity and hope to the federal prison population, it’s passage is good for the country. Indeed, the law’s been effective within two weeks. Matthew Charles, a man who was released from prison in error and then sent back after living an exemplary life for two years, is back out, home and contributing to society again because of the law. That’s fast and that’s good.”
To learn more about Chandra and her work, a Q&A follows or visit her website Prison Diaries.
Q: Why do you write?
A: My writing is my 911 call. After seeing the effects of mass incarceration on individuals and society as a whole, I know we need to be rescued from it. I write to inform people about this threat to our principles and our pockets.
Q: When did you start writing?
A: My alma mater, Princeton University, emphasized the importance of writing skill so I would say that anyone who attends Princeton started writing when he or she was a student there, regardless of their chosen profession. I didn’t start writing for others until around 2010 when I was in prison and felt a need to explain what was happening to me to the world. I didn’t start writing for money until I left prison in 2014.
Q: How has writing helped you?
A: Writing has helped me in many ways. For one, it was a legal escape from prison life. While other women were fretting or fighting in prison, I stayed to myself and wrote. I think it preserved whatever sanity I had left. Second, it gave me a certain freedom because I could be creative in my wording and the ways I told the story of what was happening. Lastly, writing has helped me because it’s been the vehicle for my impact and the change I want to make in the world.
Q: Do you have a goal with your writing?
A: To change people’s minds about people who are incarcerated. How we see people who are in prison informs all of our criminal policies. Changing how people perceive this population will translate into better laws for everyone.
Q: Who are a few of your favorite journalists?
A: I am a fan of bloggers and opinion columnists. I like Lisa Smith Molinari’s “The Meat and Potatoes of Life” and Suzette Standring Martinez’s spiritual columns. Dave Astor writes a blog on books and literature for Barista.net that I read. And I’m a big fan of Dave Lieber, the Watchdog, the consumer protection columnist at the Dallas Morning News.
Q: What book(s) are you reading now? Or what is the last book you read? Who are a few of your favorite authors?
A: I read mostly non-fiction. I wish I had time for fiction. The last book I read was Snitchingby Alexandra Natapoff, which is about how prosecutors abuse due process in the ways they rely on informants.
Q: Favorite book from childhood? And why?
A: I was a big Herman Hesse fan in high school. I wrote term papers about his novels and read them for fun. Siddartha was probably my favorite.
Q: What project are you working on that you are currently most passionate about?
A: I just started as a columnist with Creators Syndicate. I will be writing a weekly column called “The Outlaw” about criminal justice. It’s a chance for me to express opinions that probably wouldn’t be featured in the publications I usually write for.
Q: What article or book do you want to write?
A: This is a hard question because I have so many. I want to write my memoir, which I know would take up several volumes at this point. I would like to write a novel and I’m working on a screenplay about women who come home from prison.
Q: Where do you write? Do you have an office? If so, what does it look like? How does it help you work?
A: I write in a home office. I’m lucky to have such a nice space within my house to do my work. I have a built-in desk that’s quite large (it has to be because I’m a pen freak and I have about 15 jars of pens and pencils). I face a window so there’s tons of light.
Q: What advise would you give aspiring journalists?
A: Write all day, every day. Writing is like a sport in that the more you practice the better you become. Waiting for a perfect story or topic or even the perfect time to write will leave you waiting forever. Get better now.
Q: Favorite movies and TV series?
A: Since my experience with the criminal justice system has affected my taste, I am a big fan of Orange Is the New Black and the HBO series The Wire. I watch The Wire repeatedly. The People Vs. OJ Simpson was also one of my favorites because that was the first event I can remember that alerted me to the criminal justice system. True crime series like Making a Murderer and The Staircase draw me in as well since I know so much about the insides of the systems that are being portrayed.
Q: Do you have any pets?
A: I don’t have pets right now. Our family’s dog, a pug named Arabella, lived exclusively with my sister when I was in prison. I always expected to see Arabella again but she passed before I could travel to see her. I guess I am still in mourning for her.
Q: What is a favorite memory from childhood?
A: I enjoyed attending Hamden Hall Country Day School. As I get older I see what a great education I received there and how special it was to be part of a small, supportive community.
Q: What’s the best thing that happened to you last few years?
A: The best thing that happened to me in 2017 was being accepted into the “Leading with Conviction” Fellowship at JustLeadership USA. I met 36 other fellows who had been through the criminal legal system and had rebounded and excelled. It was a long-awaited feeling of belonging that had eluded me for years. The best things that have happened to me in 2018 were winning the People’s Voice Webby Award for Prison Diaries and getting my own nationally-syndicated column.
The Birthday Letter
I received a letter last week several days after my birthday. I don’t receive many letters anymore. I don’t think most people do. This letter was folded and inside of a card that pictures a cat opening a present. It’s the kind of card sold in Dollar Stores. The illustration is cutesy; the coloration is vivid. Above the drawing, it reads: “A Birthday Wish for You”. The typed letter inside the card is two-and-a-half pages long. It’s taped together rather than stapled. The third page is cut in two, just under the signature. Writing is on the back of the half of the third page. It’s crossed out, and it’s clear that the rest of the sentence is why the paper was cut in two. The sender decided to exclude it. The words on the page are the end of a sentence. They have lines scratched through them but I can read them. Well, I can kind of read them. The words are either: “take it!” or “fake it!”
I’m standing in my kitchen going through a stack of mail. Half of it goes immediately into the recycle bin while the other half into piles based on requirements. It’s eleven o’clock at night. I’m moving quickly through the mail. The letter inside the card stops me. Its sender is a friend. She’s not a close friend but someone I saw on a regular basis for a period when I lived in Manhattan. She worked for a doctor I frequented when pregnant with my oldest daughter. She’s Eastern European. She’s kind. She’s industrious. She’s had a hard life. She’s separated from her husband, and she has one daughter who is mentally ill. Her daughter stopped taking the medication that stabilizes her to have children. The break from it was supposed to be temporary during each pregnancy. My friend spends her days worrying about her daughter.
The letter is the longest correspondence I’ve received from her. All the others have been short thank you notes that arrive in January after she has received the two books I send to her for her grandchildren at Christmas. My friend is smart but nor formally educated beyond high school in her native country. She speaks English well, but her writing of it is a struggle. It’s clear she spent days composing this typed letter. The effort put into it for my sake makes me sad. I can’t speak her language so why should she know how to write in mine?
The format of the letter reads like a combination of a research paper and an informal letter. “Untitled” is centered at the top of each page.” “Dear Ann,” follows under it on the first page, also centered. A few phrases in the body of the letter stand out: “daughter moved”, “don’t know her address”, “son-in-law”, and “tricking me”.
The last thank you note I received from my friend told me her daughter is no longer speaking with her. I received it in January. I also received a thank you note from her daughter in January. It was the second thank you note my friend’s daughter has sent to me since I started to send books to her kids.
My friend who has worked hard her entire adult life, retired early to care for her grandchildren. When her daughter and their family moved, she was asked to follow and did. Before she retired and they moved, my friend spent her weekends and evenings watching her then only granddaughter to give her daughter and son-in-law time for their work and rest. She showed me pictures of the little girl whose thick curly hair is white blond and eyes are a deep brown playing in her apartment. The little girl’s features are broad yet perfectly proportioned on her sweet, rounded face. She’s beautiful. She looks like my friend.
I scan the letter. Something inside of me is resistant to read it straight through. I know it’s going to be upsetting, and I know there’s little or nothing that I can do to make her situation better. More phrases stand out to me: “horrible drama”, “almost tragedy”, and “blessed tragedy”.
I ignore the rest of the mail and move to the sofa in our den. I settle in and start to read the letter from the beginning.
thank you so much…”
The format and her difficulty with writing in English make it hard to understand the letter. And unlike the thank you notes she has sent to me for the last eleven years, in this longer letter she rambles in a way that makes me question her stability. There is talk of her son-in-law being related to mobsters and his being charged with neglect of his children. There is talk of the brainwashing of her daughter. There is mention of a psych ward and a stabbing. There is mention of her being boxed out as a caregiver and depicted unsuccessfully as mentally unstable in court.
I know how much my friend loves her daughter and her grandchildren. I remember her excitedly telling me about her daughter’s wedding. Her only complaint to me about her son-in-law was the excessive time he spent playing video games. I’m so sickened by the letter that I feel as confused as the writing in it.
I breathe. I shift. I lie down on the couch and reread the letter. My friend suggests I run two Google searches to back up her claims. She knows how fantastic her story sounds. And she knows one of my first thoughts will be about her extreme involvement in her daughter’s life. I never faulted her for it but cautioned her about how it could potentially create problems in her daughter’s marriage.
I reread the letter again. I read it very slowly. I plan to go to bed and pick the letter back up in the morning. I don’t plan to Google the references. Given what I imagine is my friend’s state of mind, I sense they’re stories she’s read and incorporated into her account to justify her part in the split. The letter is that incredible and rambling. I don’t know how I will respond to it.
But then I decide to run the searches. How can I not? My friend went to such trouble to write the letter. I move to my phone. I open the Safari app. I type in what my friend suggests for the first search. It’s her daughter’s full name and a date. There is no indication in the letter as to what I will find in this search other than it refers to “horrible drama”.
Headlines both sensational and straightforward fill my screen. Two years ago, my friend’s daughter took her oldest child with her to a subway station and, after clutching the pretty little girl with curly white blond hair and deep brown eyes, she instructed her to look forward. Then she braced to jump in front of a subway train. An observant MTA employee and some pedestrians saw them and knew something was amiss. The mother and daughter were standing with no bags. My friend’s daughter left all of their belongings in the street outside of the building.
My friend’s daughter was charged with reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of a child. She spent the next seven weeks in Bellevue, the Manhattan psychiatric hospital. The little girl was sent there from the train station as well and put into the custody of the Administration for Child Services.
I imagine the panic rising in my friend when she received the call from the police and the terror and helplessness she felt while riding public transportation to see her daughter and granddaughter. I imagine her pleading with the admittance staff and officers. I imagine them noting how much the granddaughter looks like her grandmother.
According to the letter, after the suicide attempt, the son-in-law was convicted of neglect and my friend was given temporary custody of her oldest granddaughter and the younger grandchild was sent to her godparents. From what I can tell from the letter, once my friend’s daughter was released from Bellevue, the children were given back to her and her husband.
The second suggested Google search in the letter appears after my friend explains how the son-in-law tried to have her labeled as mentally unstable in court so that she wouldn’t be allowed to care for her grandchildren. This occurred after the suicide attempt and she was granted temporary custody and he was convicted of neglect. The suggested search words are his name, “stabbing” and a date. My friend refers to the outcome of what her son-in-law was involved in as a “blessed tragedy”. It occurred at the beginning of this year.
Again, headlines both sensational and straightforward fill my screen. Her son-in-law was stabbed and killed while visiting at midnight the ex-girlfriend of the man who killed him. There were four children in the home at the time. They’re the children of the ex-girlfriend and the murderer. My friend suggests her son-in-law was having an affair with the woman. He had told her daughter that he had a night job, but they discovered after he was murdered that he had been going to see the woman at night.
My friend then explains how her daughter never went back on the medication that stabilizes her after the first pregnancy. It was her daughter’s husband who encouraged her to stay off of it according to my friend. She had legal medical guardianship over her daughter until she turned twenty-one. She questions without directly naming it how something as serious as the attempted suicide and potential murder of a child and a forced stay at Bellevue wouldn’t lead to the enforcement of regular medication. She wishes there were better and more flexible laws to help the mentally ill. She believes the current ones protect their rights to the point that can be dangerous. She wishes the laws allowed for a case-by-case analysis when necessary. From what I recall, her daughter dislikes the side effects of the drug she was prescribed, which makes her overly tired. My friend says her daughter and two granddaughters live somewhere in Texas.
The letter ends with my friend repeating why she says she sent the letter to me, which is to tell me to not send her granddaughters Christmas gifts this year. She is conscientious and is trying to save me time and money. She apologizes for sharing the “horrible story”. She praises her oldest granddaughter for her strength. She says she waits for the day that the little girl turns eighteen and can be on her own and maybe live near her. She asks me to pray for her family.
The letter is typed but ends in pen. “Thank you again! Sincerely, …”
The Cardboard Box
Pork Chops, Meatball Grinders and Lunch Ladies
A boy recently tired to gain the attention of one of my daughters by repeatedly calling her fat. She was more annoyed by him than upset because he had started to badger her and his tactics were getting more overt. She went to the dean of her school and reported it. The boy was adequately reprimanded: A note was added to his file, he was given a minor form of detention, and he had to apologize. This is how well-managed schools handle bullying, and this is how kids who are taught that bullying is wrong and that they don’t deserve it respond to it.
When I was in seventh grade, a boy named Robert started to chase me through the halls of our school yelling “Pork Chop”. I would exit IPS or Algebra, and he and a few of his punky friends would be waiting for me. Robert was a foot taller than my five-foot, three-inch frame, and weighed a good fifty pounds more than my one hundred and ten pounds. He was the biggest kid in our school. The badgering would start as I stepped into the hall and by the end of it, I’d often be in a full sprint clutching my schoolbooks with my friends trailing close behind.
We went to a small Catholic middle school and half of our classes were held in an adjoining high school. The halls of the high school weren’t as well monitored as the halls of the middle school and Robert knew it was a place where he could taunt me. It never occurred to me to tell on him. I can’t explain why other than name calling was a much more common and accepted thing in all of the environments I experienced as a child.
Our class took a field trip to Mystic Aquarium at the end of eighth grade. Robert approached me while I sat with a friend at an outdoor exhibit. He sat to my left, and as I began to move away, he stretched a clutched hand out in front of me, blocking my departure. As I stared at his fist debating what to do, he slowly turned it over and opened it. Lying in the middle of his beefy palm was a perfectly shaped pale pink heart made of soap.
“It’s for you,” he said. “I bought it in the gift shop.”
We shared a seat during the bus ride home, and we became friends. High school started the following September and wherever I looked, there was Robert. He was no longer trying to taunt me. Instead, he had begun a very successful campaign to make me smile.
We shared the same math class, and every few days it would go something like this: Robert would drop a pencil to get my attention. Then he would shove an entire piece of loose-leaf paper in his mouth and begin to aggressively chew it returning it to pulp. When our teacher, who everyone in the class hated, would turn to the blackboard, he would remove the wad from his mouth and fling it at the board several feet from her. It would explode on impact, spraying the backboard with white bits of pulp. She would spin around and face the class, angrily asking who did it. No one ever told on Robert; she was that hated.
At lunch, Robert would wait for me and my friend Lisa outside of the cafeteria leaning against the tiled wall with a giant smile on his face. We would enter the food line together, and he would proceed to eat as much as he could before making it to the register. His face and shirt would be covered in mayonnaise and crumbs, and his pockets bulging from hastily crinkled sandwich and cookie wrappers. One day, Robert ate three large meatball grinders in line, shoving them into his mouth and chewing like an animal before one of the more astute lunch ladies began to yell: “Robert, I see you!!” … “Robert!!! Stop!!!” … “Robert, you are going to have to pay for those!!!!” Lisa and I were doubled over in laughter, barely able to push our trays through the line.
Three years ago Robert died. He overdosed, reportedly, and from what I’ve been told, there were several suicide attempts over the years. Robert and I lost touch after high school. He lost touch with most of our mutual friends. I read about his death in a Facebook post. Included with it was a picture of him smiling broadly; his bright, mischevious eyes and his tremendous, familiar grin overtaking my computer screen. If I hadn’t seen the post, I wouldn’t have heard about his funeral in time to go.
Robert lived close to the schools we attended together, and his funeral was held in the chapel of our middle school. I recognized very few people at it but noted who had become his friends in the twenty-five years in-between. Some were clearly still struggling with what killed him. Seeing his mother was the hardest part. Based on what was shared about their relationship during the funeral and after, she had dedicated her life to get him clean.
A mutual friend of Robert’s recently reminded me of a story about him from high school. Robert and a group of boys were asked to sprint from one end of the gym to the other during a race. Determined to win, Robert ran hard and fast, slamming into the mat-lined brick wall on the other side. He broke both of his wrists badly and ended what was a promising basketball and baseball school and potentially college career.
I cried like a baby at his funeral. As much as I hated him during middle school, I had grown to love him in the years that followed. I loved and worried about him. Signs of a growing addiction weren’t noticeable to me during high school, but his extreme nature was evident. I wish it could’ve been channeled in a way that led to a fulfilling life; he was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.
And I wish those who are bullied could recognize that the person who is taunting them is in as much pain as what he or she tries to inflict.
Up, Up With People…
My mother joined an alternative Catholic Church called Emmaus in the ‘70s. It was a newly formed, experimental community with a groovy “Up With People” vibe. Organized by a group of educated and well-intentioned people who were looking for a less fear-based, more liberal approach to religion, it was the ideal community for her.
Mass was held in the cafeteria of a local Catholic school, and we sat on folded metal chairs in front of an altar that was rolled in each Sunday. A priest, who had to be given permission by the Archdiocese to work with the untraditional community, led the masses but the adult Emmaus members were in charge. They planned all of the ceremonies.
We were allowed to wear jeans and t-shirts to mass for the first time; our Sunday Best tucked away and reserved for special events. The Emmaus sermons discussed current events such as civil and women’s rights with an overall message of equality and fairness. They were more interesting to me than the ones given at our previous Catholic Church, St. Leo’s, and at the ultra-conservative church our grandparents attended.
There was more spirited singing at Emmaus than at St. Leo’s. Depending on the song, hand holding, vigorous clapping, and raising arms accompanied it. The music group, which was positioned to the right or the left of the alter depending on the day, was a ragtag ensemble that reminded me of the gang from Scooby-Doo. Dressed informally in polyester or denim bell-bottoms with polyester button downs or cotton peasant dresses with bell sleeves, they strummed, banged, blew and belted out songs. There were a few standout talents in the group, including an opera singer. Our mother played the tambourine and sang backup on occasion.
Bible stories were reinterpreted and incorporated as mini performances into some of the masses. Largely acted out by the parents, the plays were meant to be entertaining and instructional but the kids in the community were convinced that they were designed to satisfy the theatric aspirations of the adult members. To this day, I can’t think of Good Friday without a smile. Every year, one of the fathers would dress up as Jesus in a scrap of white cloth and during a reenactment that involved other members walking along beside him, he dragged a massive wooden cross made out of fencing posts through the aisles. A different dad performed the routine each year giving the lugging and three “falls” his own spin. During these ceremonies, small eruptions of laughter broke out in the cafeteria; the kids of the community simply couldn’t hold it in.
There was a “Personal Share” portion of the mass that I have since likened to the reveals of support groups such as Alcoholic Anonymous. The shares weren’t exactly confessional, more of an opportunity to brag, complain or rant, but they possessed the same eye-opening observations that spying on my mother and grandparents’ dinner parties allowed. What was shared was by turns funny or frightening.
The Emmaus “Kiss of Peace” wasn’t the quick turn to your neighbor and extend a hand or a wave across an aisle with the occasional peck on the cheek that I had experienced at St. Leo’s. It lasted at least fifteen minutes, longer on holidays when all the members were in attendance, and involved kissing and hugging every single person in the cafeteria. You know how teenagers enthusiastically greet each other? It often went something like that with the adults revving up, spreading their arms and smiles wide as they moved quickly towards their mark. What followed felt suffocating, although it was always well intended, and I wrestled my way out of at least one long embrace every mass. Announcements signaled the end of, what by that point, had become a tortuously long time for a kid to sit on a metal folding chair.
Despite the entertaining and often-hilarious theatrics during the mass, all the kids wanted out by the end. The ceremonies regularly ran over ninety minutes. The adults loved the hour of Coffee, Cake & Conversation that followed but the kids dashed from it like rats abandoning a sinking ship after grabbing donuts and Kool-Aid. We would meet up at designated spots and do one of three things: Scale the high school’s metal security gates and explore the rest of the school; play outside on its sports fields; or pile into one of the parents’ cars and listen en mass to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 while laughing about what we had just witnessed during mass.
My mother loved Emmaus and still does. She’s now in her eighties and remains a very active member. My siblings and I stopped going regularly in high school and completely stopped when we went to college. All of the children of the original members did the same. It’s a wonderful, supportive community but it was our parents’ concept of an ideal alternative church, not ours. What I liked the most about my time with Emmaus was the kindness of the members. I spent countless hours playing in their homes with their kids, which in retrospect, I believe was offered to give my single mother some time to herself. They brought meals to our house when she was sick and the entire community showed up on one moving day to help when my mother felt overwhelmed. It’s a community in the truest sense of the word.
Sunday Best, my second novel (following my first The Adjustments), was inspired by my time with Emmaus. One of Sunday Best’s plotlines has its roots in a church experience. Sunday Best is a comic mystery and involves an alternative Catholic Church called Unify founded in the ‘70s. Unlike Emmaus, a guru and a clairvoyant run Unify, and the storyline is potentially linked to two gruesome crimes committed in 1988 and 2017. Like Emmaus, Sunday Best’s liturgies regularly include mini-performances, personal shares, and a kiss of peace, but the Unify members and their antics are fictional.
My friend, the playwright, Jacque Lamarre and I will be discussing how to include friends, family and foes in fiction without upsetting them or getting sued at the Mark Twain House Writers Weekend on September 29-30th. Jacques has written over twenty plays and I’ve written two novels based, in part, on personal experiences. The Q&A is titled: “How to Avoid Lawsuits and Other Awkward Encounters.” Attorney David Polgar will join us to give his legal perspective. If you’re a writer or interested in becoming one, or just like to read and talk about it, please join us at the event.
Another attorney friend recently asked me about Sunday Best. When I told him its plotlines, his response was, “My God, where do you come up with these ideas?”
Flying Porta-Potties & Other Curiosities