In October of 1960, Mom was pulling for Kennedy and Dad was rooting for Nixon. I couldn’t have cared less one way or the other—my thoughts were on baseball. The Pittsburgh Pirates had just crushed my heart by beating the Yankees in the seventh game of the World Series (to this day, I still wonder if Mickey Mantle cried as hard as I did after such a devastating defeat), and I wasn’t sure if I would ever recover.
The morning after that fateful game, my mother walked me to St. Stephen’s of Hungary, the Catholic elementary school I attended on 82nd Street. At the entrance, I kissed her goodbye and dragged my school bag up the four flights of stairs to my classroom. I sat at my desk, feeling glum and numb. My melancholy lasted for about an hour until suddenly I realized that there is more to life than baseball.
There are also girls.
Even at six years old, I was beginning to get a funny feeling in my belly whenever women were around. I had so many crushes—delightful first crushes—and I found them in the strangest places.
In the first grade, it was Sister Beatrice.
Sister Beatrice smelled great. I did all I could to figure out ways to get close to her. Shoe knotting was a ritual requiring assistance. I’d offer my leg out hopefully.
“Excuse me Sister, could you please tie my shoes?”
Sister Beatrice would drop to one knee to reach my shoe. When she leaned, I leaned—all the way. My nose would nearly touch her forehead, which peeked out of her hat. Sometimes, a little wisp of brown curly hair slipped out of the hat onto Sister Beatrice’s forehead. The first time I saw the hair I was shocked, then relieved. I thought all nuns were bald and the hats kept their heads warm. With my nose to her forehead—she was too busy tying to notice—I would whiff away.
I smelled baby powder. I smelled Ivory soap. I smelled her. She smelled better than my brother’s bottom after Mom put a new diaper on him. Being close to her, having her directly talking into my ear, made me swoon. I’d breathe in deeply so that I had some of her smell left over when I went back to my desk.
I loved her.
By the holidays, my grandfather had taught me how to tie a perfect double knotter, but I never let on.
“Oh Sister Beatrice, please tie my shoes?”
She started giving me funny looks. By the spring of first grade, every other kid in the class tied their own shoes. I could see it in her eyes, “What’s wrong with the boy?”
I had a choice: I could go on letting her think I was a moron, or I could begin tying my own shoes, and lose my best opportunity to smell her. It was no contest.
“Aren’t you practicing like I showed you?” Sister Beatrice asked.
“All the time,” I said. “Just can’t get it. I feel so bad.”
I loved Sister Beatrice because of the way she smelled, and also because at lunchtime, when they closed off the street to let the kids play in front of the school, she would play punch ball with us. On her knees, she’d help us draw the bases onto the street bed, and when she stood up; her front would be loaded with chalk. (It went well with the chalk on her bottom. In class, she liked to lean against the blackboard while flipping an eraser in one hand. She never dropped it. Not once.)
Sister Beatrice would come up to the plate to take her turn hitting. She would whack the ball, punching it between the fielders. Then she would scoot down to first base, holding her heavy skirts up with both hands, flying past the parked cars. I would stare at her black wide-heeled nun shoes and black stockings. Sister Beatrice had perfect shoes for kicking field goals.
My first love was a pretty, punch ball-playing nun who smelled wonderful. I was hooked.
In the second grade, I became a choirboy. I was no fool—I was one of two boy sopranos surrounded by fifteen blue skirted girls. Three times a week they stuck me right in the middle of them. I loved their white socks, their black and white shoes. The girls needed to cover their heads when they entered the church with school issued beanies. If a girl forgot her beanie, she had to think quick. One day, my all-time crush Barbara O’Shea forgot her beanie. I moved in.
“Barbara, would you like my hankie?”
“Did you blow your nose in it?”
I showed her both sides twice.
“Clean as a whistle, just washed with Clorox.”
Barbara accepted my hankie. With a Bobbie pin, she fixed it over her silky black hair. I stood back. She was Bernadette of Lourdes. The only thing missing were the sheep and a couple of farm kids. We were in the choir, high in the back of the low lit church, but I imagined we were in the French grotto, where the Holy Virgin appeared to Bernadette. With a halo glowing softly over her head, Barbara smiled at me and whispered, “thank you”. My knees grew weak.
The hankie stayed in my pocket for three weeks before my mother, a notorious neat freak, noticed me hiding it under my bunk bed mattress.
She said, “What are doing?”
She came closer for a look-see.
“What are you nuts? There’s snot all over that thing. Give it to me.”
“No, no, I have a cold. I don’t want anyone else catching it.”
She grabbed it, “I worry about you.”
I sighed as my beloved hankie flew through the air, hit the lip of the hamper and slipped beneath the rim into the pile of dirty laundry.
Being in the choir was fun, not only because of Barbara, but also because practice got me out of class twice a week. I even ended up with a special assignment for Father Emeric’s Silver Jubilee as a priest. I had to learn his favorite folk song in Hungarian. I was going to sing it before 200 people in the school’s auditorium.
As the event grew closer, I began to practice at home. We had a small apartment, and the only place I could rehearse was in my parents’ bedroom. It was the only room with a door, and even with it closed, I could hear my parents and my brother giggling on the other side. It drove me crazy.
My father grew concerned. One night, I overheard a conversation between him and Mom when they thought I was asleep on the couch.
Dad said, “Doesn’t Tom seem a little too happy about this choir assignment?”
“Bob it’s an honor. He sings great, and it keeps him out of trouble with the nuns,” Mom replied.
“Well sometimes, he leaves the house with this blissed out grin—I mean he’s going to choir – not the park, not to skate, not to play ball. He’s going to choir. I don’t get it.”
“Well if you went to the church and heard him sing, you’d get it.”
“Well, I hope it’s a just a phase. Dear God let it be a phase.”
Mom’s last comment held the secret. If Dad went to church and looked up into the choir, he’d have seen my enormous grin stuck in the middle of the fifteen girls in their white socks and black and white shoes. All his worries would have faded away.
I remained in the choir, buried in the middle of my harem, until that horrible day my voice changed. And then, with great reluctance, I retired.
One day in class, when I was in the third grade, Sister Ancilla said to me, “One more word, one more word mister, and you’ll be staying after school.”
That wasn’t a threat, it was an invitation.
I loved being around the nuns, especially after school–they acted differently then. They were regular people, with normal feelings. Figuring out ways to spend more time with them outside of school was easy. I had a big mouth. I was constantly being told to “watch my step.”
When I was punished and had to stay after school, a nun had to stay with me. And sure, they could do some of their paper work or read whatever holy book they were reading. But what they wanted most of all was to get out of the classroom and back to their residence floor.
Forty empty desks, the nun and me. I learned it could play out three ways. First way, she kept you in the class room for a long time then home you went. Second way, she gave up and let you out early. Third way, wanting to punish you but not punish herself, she told you come with her. I preferred door #3.
On this particular day, Sister Ancilla took me to the mysterious fifth floor with the curtained windows and no classrooms. I was in their private sanctuary. She put me in the study room and told me to keep my mouth shut. It was heaven. I was so quiet, she forgot I was there.
Sometime later Sister Mercedes, the principal and eighth grade teacher, came into the study and jumped when she saw me.
“Thomas what are doing here?”
“I’m not sure—Sister Ancilla put me here.”
“Why did she put you here?”
“Oh, I’m being punished for something. She said she was sick of the classroom, so she brought me up here, and put me in this room.”
“Well, you sitting here like a sack of potatoes is doing no one any good. Do you want to do something useful?”
“Come with me.”
We went to the kitchen. It was hugest one I had ever seen.
“Help me with the string beans.” Sister Mercedes ordered.
This I knew how to do. My Mom always made string beans. All you did was twist off the ends. I jumped up on a tall stool around the centered wood block counter and began my chore. Most of the nuns, at one time or another, walked through the kitchen while I worked away. When Sister Ancilla walked in, she was ready to scold me—it was a no-no for non-nuns to be in the kitchen. But Sister Mercedes shot her a look. It needed no words. The look said, “I put the kid to work, let’s leave it at that.”
I began to mischievously worm my way into the nun’s residence on a regular basis. Sometimes, my “punishments” included polishing the furniture or vacuuming the rugs. Other times, I had to sit in the study and read books about the saints and all the great ways that they had died.
Late one afternoon, Sister Mercedes popped her head in the study and saw me reading with my feet up on a hassock.
“Are you still here?” she asked.
“Well, I was worried you might have something else for me to do,” I replied.
“It’s almost five thirty!”
“What are you making for dinner?”
“Thomas, go home.”
I left slowly, reluctantly, hoping she would change her mind and call me back. In a way, their sanctuary had become a haven for me, too—a place of comfort, acceptance, and community. A place where I could observe these women I loved—the first women I was ever attracted to—in all their mystery, from a safe distance. I knew they could never love me back. I was just a boy. But still, they filled such a large place in my heart.