I’m watching a documentary on the Sundance Channel, Sex In a Cold Climate—the source material for the fictional film, The Magdalene Sisters—and I’m having a flashback. It’s 1936. I’m six years old in St. Joseph’s boarding school in Monticello New York. My mother is ill and recovering from an operation for “lady problems.” About fifty years later, I learned the specifics of “lady problems” were a hysterectomy and nervous breakdown. Which came first, I will never know.
In the documentary, these Irish girls are sent to the good sisters to atone for sins of the flesh, real or contemplated. The focus is on one of the girls who has had a baby out of wedlock. After giving birth, her infant son is taken from her and later placed in foster care. The girl is devastated. I watch the scene; I sip my chardonnay, smoke my cigarette, and weep. Black and white phantoms are doing aves in my head. Dead nuns still managing the store.
Of course, St. Joseph’s in Monticello was just a boarding school, not a workhouse for wayward penitents. We didn’t have to slave in a laundry like the Magdalenes; all we had to do was make our beds, clean our rooms, and on Saturday night polish our shoes for Mass the next day. Unfortunately, I had gotten shoe polish on the sleeve of my rose colored bathrobe, for which Sister quietly determined my punishment. I was to kneel with arms extended to each side and tell God I was sorry for being so thoughtless. I was in this position when my mother, who was staying at the St. Joseph’s Guest House while recovering from the operation, walked into the dormitory and saw me kneeling.
“What are you doing?”
I told her.
“Get up,” she said.
“But, Mommy. Sister said I had to kneel until she came back.”
She pulled me to my feet. I was terrified of disobeying Sister. “I’ll speak to Sister,” my mother said. And she did. The following month I was sent to Ladycliff Academy on the Hudson for the rest of the school year. Mother heard the Franciscan nuns at Ladycliff were nicer than the Dominicans at St. Joseph’s.
Before St. Joseph’s and hysterectomies and nervous breakdowns, my parents and I were living in the first home I remember, at 52 Bakerhill Road in Great Neck, Long Island. I think of these first six years of my life as an idyllic time before everything crumpled into grayness. I began first grade at our parish school, St. Aloysius. Sister Mary Damien who was my first grade teacher, wanted me to learn to write with my right hand. My mother disagreed and said she didn’t believe it was good to switch. I had a huge crush on Sister Mary Damien, I would have done anything for her. If she had asked me to go the island of Molokai, the land of her name-sake, and save all the Lepers, I would have done so. The fact that my mother insisted that I continue writing with my left hand, embarrassed me. My mother won the argument. Sister Mary Damien gave in and almost seventy years later I continue to be a lefty.
After my hiatus at St. Joseph’s and later on at Ladycliff Academy, we returned to 52 Bakerhill Road and I got reacquainted with my third and fourth grade classmates in St. Aloysius. My mother was unhappy living in Great Neck, so in 1939 we moved to Bronxville in Westchester.
In those days, Bronxville was one square mile of Protestants. There was a smattering of Catholics and about three Jewish families living there at the time. African Americans were nonexistent, except as domestic daytrippers. There was no parochial school connected to our parish, so my parents were forced to enroll me in the public school, which happened to be one of the first progressive schools in the state. This was so exciting to me—no uniforms, no prayers, no “Yes, Sister. No Sister.” I was gung-ho to start my non-sectarian fifth grade.
At Bronxville Public School, the arts were integrated with the courses being taught. Our history class studied Peter Stuyvesant and old New Amsterdam, so we were encouraged to experience the life-style of all things colonial. This was decades before reality shows in which modern families endured the hardships of more primitive eras in history. We learned how to dip candles, weave cloth and make pewter spoons. I loved this stuff. Another godsend was an escape from math. If I found arithmetic overwhelming, I’d get permission to go to the art department to express myself. My father, upset with this curriculum, sent away to the New York Board of Education for the State Syllabus so he could coach me in the mysteries of fractions. During my year in Bronxville, I learned many things: how to make pewter spoons, dip candles, and that not all schools sang songs in Latin.
It’s October 15, 1940 and I’m sitting on a milk box near the side door of a bungalow we rented far away from our old house on Bakerhill Road. We moved back to Great Neck and my mother was still unhappy. Family members would say, “Aunt Mae is just feeling blue.” And she was. Many neighbors were milling about on the front lawn and an ambulance had pulled up to the curb. My father was in the house with paramedics who were trying to revive my mother who had turned on the gas and inhaled eternity. For a brief period of time, my father tried to hold things together by having himself and me, his only child, move into his sister’s home in Flatbush. My aunt was a loving, no-nonsense woman whose deeply lived Catholicism helped her endure the deaths of a husband and two children. Her remaining four sons and daughter, my father and me were in theory to live together in a family arrangement that would work for everyone. This did not happen right away. I had just turned eleven and was convinced that I was a changeling, the unacknowledged heir to the throne mistakenly left with a family of well-meaning aliens. My father, who must have been in deep despair, decided that my return to Ladycliff Academy would be best for all.
It’s 1997 and Schindler’s List is being re-played on TV. As I followed the little red dress weaving in and out of the gray mass of humanity, I thought of Anne Frank. Born in 1929, she would be my age today. We were adolescents together, she in her garret in Amsterdam, me in St. Agnes in Rockville Center.
That January, Jerry and I were on our way to Hamburg, Germany for the premiere of After Play, a play I had written that had been performed Off-Broadway in New York several years earlier. We decided to spend a few days in Amsterdam before the Hamburg opening. It was cold and damp and wonderful. Amsterdam, the land of Hans Brinker and legal marijuana. Our hotel was only a bridge away from the night club and coffee house area where a potpourri of herbal stimulants were available. For some reason we never took advantage of this largesse. Maybe we felt intimidated or too green to know what to ask for.
The day before we left for Hamburg, we visited Anne Frank’s House. We went up the stairs and in and out of the hidden rooms behind the bookcase, searching for echoes of Anne and her family. Anne’s room had movie stars’ pictures on the wall, similar to my bedroom in Long Island.
The secret rooms were real but mainly a re-creation of the conditions under which the Franks lived during their enforced hibernation. Did Anne love James Mason and Van Johnson as passionately as I did?
I’m back at Ladycliff Academy. It’s January 1941, three months after my mother’s death. By now, I was an old pro at the boarding school game. After all, I’d been out in the world a bit. I’d experienced foreign cultures like Bronxville and had an incredible working knowledge of the life and times of Peter Stuyvesant.
A new girl arrived at Ladycliff and became my roommate. She was taller than me and more athletic looking. Her Aryan hair was cropped short in what was then called a “boyish bob.” Her name was Helen Hauser. She was German and spoke English with a heavy accent. I don’t think I liked Helen Hauser. She kept to herself and tacitly let those nearby know she had boundaries. I realized this was not “best pal” material. She was at Ladycliff for about three months and then mysteriously left I say mysteriously because everything about her said verboten.
The drums of war were beating a tattoo across the Atlantic. London was already in the blitz and December 7th was not far away.
In my eleven year old imagination, I wove a sinister scenario for Helen Hauser. She is the daughter of a Nazi General who has been sent to America for safe keeping. No. Worse. She is a Nazi spy masquerading as a twelve year old. Her mission is to steal war secrets from the military and send them back to her father via coded letters.
This was not impossible. Ladycliff was in the town of Highland Falls, New York, home to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
So many years and so many wars ago, I’m still thinking about the enigma of Helen Hauser. Did she go back to Germany? Was her father tried for war crimes or did he escape to Long Island and start a new life under the friendly cover of neighborhood brewmeister? Is Helen Hauser even alive and if she is, does she ever think of our pre-teen contemporary Anne Frank?
On Sundays at Ladycliff, parents would sometimes visit their children. The Nun would come to the study hall or outside to the play area and tell you that you had company. I loved it when my father would make the trek up along the Hudson in his Studebaker and whisk me away from the usual parochial Sunday night supper. We would drive north of West Point to the city of Newburgh and have steak and baked potato and creamed spinach at the George Washington Hotel. Sometimes there would be a movie before this luxurious repast. I remember seeing Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator with Jack Oakie and Paulette Goddard. This wonderful reprieve would end too soon and we would drive back to Ladycliff, where the Studebaker would turn into a pumpkin and the wicked step-sisters awaited.
In my memory, I see him walking down the hill wearing a brown suit and fedora. I don’t want him to go. The path down the hill is a short cut to the parking lot. The trail is worn bare from the footsteps of parents returning to the real world after huggy, kissy, guilty visits. My Dad shrinks in the distance. At one point he turns and waves to me. I wave back.
“As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.” That line alone would put Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the poetry hall of fame. I’m now in seventh grade in St. Agnes elementary school in Rockville Center, Long Island and my father I are living with my Aunt and cousins at 69 Hempstead Avenue, a big brown shingled, cream trim house purchased with a loan from the Federal Housing Authority.
At St. Agnes, Sister Miriam Virginia, a humorless pinched-faced nun, who years later I learned, relaxed her face and left the convent, assigned us “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.” Samuel Coleridge, I discovered, had his own personal albatross, mainly a serious dope addiction. In those days, dope was an exotic thing that belonged to poets and Victorian ladies who assuaged their vapors with hefty swigs of laudanum.
It is 1949 and I am an apprentice in a summer stock company in Southold, Long Island. Being nineteen and actually getting to work in the theater was a recipe for a magical summer. We apprentices did everything—painted flats, worked on costumes, lights, and sound—everything necessary to get a new play mounted each week. Three or four hours sleep a night was the usual. Benzedrine tablets—Bennies—were available to keep us awake and invincible.
I didn’t think of it at the time, but that was probably my first experience with dope. The next time, I was already married for about twelve years and in L.A. with Jerry and our kids. We were visiting with dear friends who also had two children. Avery was a wonderful actor, comedian, and improvisation artist, and his wife Shelly worked actively protesting against the war in Vietnam. They included “grass” in their lives as easily as we included vodka or beer. I was one of those straights who inhale a joint and announce to everyone around me that, “I don’t think this is working…I don’t feel anything.” Then one of our friends would say something innocuous like, “Lets leave the kids with the sitter and eat dinner at Scandia.” I would immediately burst into uncontrollable laughter: “My God, that is so hilarious, the wit, the insight!” Jerry would get very Hasidic and claim he was allergic to marijuana, that it infected his gums or something. Our brief sojourn into the land of pipe dreams didn’t last long. We more or less went back to conventional drugs like wine or booze.
I wonder what my mother would think reading these words.
Before May Dempsey Meara married my Dad she used to teach third and fourth grade in a Brooklyn public school. She loved poetry and used to recite everything from “A Child’s Garden Of Verses” to Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” while cleaning our house. She would stand over the sink or stove and invent little poems. My father would take the scribbled rhymes to his office and have them typed up.
I used to know them all by heart. No more.
She loved movies and would take me with her whenever she could. I was thrilled. We would walk down Middleneck Road to the Squire theatre. The Squire Theatre was the Enchanted Wood of Great Neck circa 1935. We’d sit together in the expectant darkness. Paul Muni and Henry Fonda were May’s favorites. My favorites too. Those silvery pretenders, they were the real deal. Then we’d emerge into the cruel sunlight that ruined everything.
I am seventy-nine as I write this. If May were alive now she would be over a hundred and something. My god, that is so surreal. One old lady wanting to talk to another old lady.
But I do.
I want to find one of those time portals and go back to 52 Bakerhill Road. I want to stand next to May as she composes poems at the sink or at the stove and tell her how much I loved Paul Muni and Henry Fonda.
Born in Brooklyn, Anne Meara is an actress and comedian who has appeared in numerous roles in theater, film, and television. She is also the author of the plays After-Play (Manhattan Theater Club) and Down the Garden Path (Off-Broadway). For many years, she and her husband Jerry Stiller worked as the comedy team Stiller and Meara.