It’s March 22nd again, Dawn Alfano’s birthday. I can’t figure out why every year for the past half-century I remember that, but somehow it’s always stuck in my mind. It’s not that Dawn and I were close or anything in third grade, but somehow the little we shared must have made an impression on me.
Every Wednesday at P.S. 11 in Woodside, Queens, and in schools across the country no doubt in the fifties, two o’clock was “release time.” All the Catholic kids would be let out early to go study their catechism. Dawn, being Catholic, brought her little catechism booklet every week and when I sat next to her, I got to look through it. It was fascinating. I stopped at the drawing of a milk bottle. The milk bottle is full until you commit a sin and then it’s half empty, unless it’s a mortal sin, and then it’s completely empty. The whole idea was amazing to me. It was probably my first encounter with anything so conceptual, so metaphoric. Like sin.
Being raised a Reform Jew, there was really no such thing as sin – maybe there was an “error in your ways.” And then you corrected it and went on doing what you did. Not that there weren’t a lot of ethical discussions about things. In Confirmation Class there was actually an hour devoted to ethical situations and deciding what was right, what wasn’t. And the cool part (and I still really feel that way despite my ongoing infatuation/fascination with things Catholic) was that we often found that there wasn’t just one right way. There were options, alternatives, choices.
The catechism, however, was really clear on things that would never be spelled out in the religion I came from. Perhaps in it was a key to why I would always ask my mother, “Can we go in there?” when we’d approach a church. It felt like there was some secret that I couldn’t get to, wouldn’t understand, until I did. Jewish girls in the fifties did not, however, go to church – except of course for Girl Scout meetings which took place in the basement. But that didn’t really count. It wasn’t up where the Christian stuff was.
The year I was confirmed into the Jewish religion, I was secretly thrilled that our temple was in transition. We were moving from the West to the East side of Manhattan, and, as such, we held services in the Unitarian Church on Lexington in the upper seventies. Though it was covered over with a cloth, as it was every time we had services there, such as the day of my confirmation, there was a cross right above where the Rabbi blessed me as I “received” my confirmation. I sort of felt that gave me a double confirmation – after all the symbol of Christianity was just above my head as I bowed to receive a heavenly benediction.
Dawn Alfano lived in Woodside, right next to Sunnyside with her father and two older sisters. Her mother must have died or something; we never discussed her. One afternoon we stopped by at her house. Dawn wanted to pick up something. In the apartment, there was lots of dark upholstered furniture, or maybe everything just looked dark because the curtains were drawn. Curtains!! In our house everything was Danish modern with nothing comfortable enough to sit on but my father’s chair – and he was always in it – and the couch, which had a foam rubber seat cushion. On every window we had Venetian blinds and the only curtains I can remember hung in the kitchen. I remember my mother tearing down the drapes the former tenant had left when we first moved into the new house, and I can’t remember anything being up on the windows of the old one. But Dawn’s home seemed to be just filled with furniture. There were all sorts of chairs with funny feet, rugs with patterns on them, and tassels that hung from lamps attached to small round tables. Scattered throughout the room on various surfaces were glass candy dishes with glass tops that had shiny pointed metal at the center (like at my grandma’s!) – completely filled with wrapped candies. The living room had a totally lived in, cluttered look to it that felt strange, different, Catholic.
Dawn’s sisters wore lots of make up. One sister had blond hair, the other had hair so dark that I wondered if it wasn’t dyed, too. Heavy eye shadow and they talked with accents so thick that my mother would have put them in speech class for the way they pronounced words. When they spoke they yelled – except when their opera singer father was sleeping – especially at Dawn. But Dawn held her own. Dawn was petite, dainty – especially compared with her sisters. She was short with a pointy nose and pretty in her own way, with more delicate features. But she stood up to them – and in a high-pitched, squeaky voice, she yelled right back. As Dawn gathered her things together, I glanced over at the TV in the living room, tuned to the kind of show I’d never dare turn on in my house – most likely American Bandstand. There were two guys singing softly, harmonizing with each other, and from the excited reaction of the teenaged audience on TV, I figured it must be rock’n’roll. I remember standing there for a moment, with Dawn just about tugging at me to come on and leave already, just staring at the television, listening to the song, “Dre-ee-ee-ee-eam . . dream, dream, dream,” they kept singing. Such a counterpoint to my father’s accusations whenever I would bump into something or spill something to his angry “You live in a Dream World!” like it was the most evil thing he could think to say about me.
We never became really close, Dawn and me. I guess once we didn’t sit next to each other and I could no longer read her catechism on Wednesdays, there wasn’t really much that we shared. But somehow she sticks with me, the memory of her apartment, her sisters with their heavy mascara, their opera singer father I never met but whose presence seemed to be imprinted on their dark cluttered living room even when he wasn’t there. Her catechism. My first introduction to the mysteries of a Catholic household, so strangely reminiscent of the warm, good secrets hidden in my extended family who I got to visit so rarely that they almost became strangers, too. All of this seems to come alive for me every year, just as the crocuses start to come up and the calendar reads “Spring.” Every March 22nd, I remember: it’s Dawn Alfano’s birthday, and I project my thoughts out into wherever she is in the world, “Happy Birthday, Dawn.”
Heidi Rain is a poet, astrologer and New Age book reviewer working on a memoir and other prose portraits of the memorable people in her life. A resident of Brooklyn for over thirty years now, she shares a house and gardens with her husband and their two cats.