I LEARNED TO SKATE on Binney Pond, the same place Olympic gold-medalist Dorothy Hamill learned. She lived down the street from us then; she was younger than me, not yet famous. I don’t know whether she ever ventured over to the Mianus River, another popular spot for a glide. Back then, I never did.
Binney was just down the hill from our house, closer, more convenient than the Mianus, and I was not one to venture far from home. I learned the fine points of skating by watching my father. He’d pick out a small area of ice beneath the shadows of trees and the Congregational church steeple across the way, and cut beautiful figures with the edges of his blades—swirls and esses and crossovers.
Years later, after I married, my husband and I lived within a stone’s throw of the Mianus. We had one side of a colonial, our landlady the other. We called the area the Garlic Belt for its strong Italian presence, though our landlady was Chilean. Nevertheless, she fit in comfortably with the neighborhood’s Catholic eccentricities. She was the receptionist at a company that manufactured chemical filters and liquid separators, not ten minutes away, so she was home by 5:15 every day and hammered by six. Jack Daniels was her drink, and she’d hold sway on the deck out back with her dog Pepe, a lovable Bassett hound whose dangling participles swept the floor with every short-legged step.
Our street made a narrow loop from Valley Road, which runs parallel to the Mianus. We were at the quiet end, away from traffic yet close enough to walk to the river for a swim in summer or a skate in winter. There was a bike shop on the corner, and a deli opposite, handy for the kind of excursions we liked to take. Vegetable gardens enclosed with chicken wire were a popular feature in many yards, as were grottoes displaying a blue Mary or brown St. Francis, sometimes the heavenly and earthly side by side.
Before lapsing, I had been a member of the Catholic church that looms over the lower parts of the Mianus—the pond, the waterfall, the brackish inlet that merges with the Sound and smells fishy at low tide. St. Catherine’s sits on the corner of a busy intersection of the Post Road, a thoroughfare that serves as both connector and dividing line. Realtors favor properties south of it, while the less-affluent cluster north.
Of the sacraments available to believers, I made four out of a possible seven, a solid square in terms of spiritual foundation, still, short of a canasta. To prepare for my first Confession and Holy Communion, I and my fellow acolytes got to leave school half an hour early every Friday in order to attend religious instruction, a rather paltry exodus heading for forgiveness at week’s end.
My mother would drive me over to the parochial school attached to the church, now empty of my friends, the Burkes, who lived across the street from us, and their plaid-uniformed classmates. The nuns had just finished spending the week and the better part of their energy molding this holier group of children. We were the penance they did before retreating to the sister house next door for the weekend.
The parochial school classrooms were as stuffy with sweat and boredom as the secular ones we’d just vacated, but at least here grades were not the object. Our success was based on another form of measurement. The nuns droned on about how bad we were, how original sin tainted us from birth, how questionable our entry into the kingdom of heaven was. They tested us on our catechism and shook their heads at our poor performance. We learned the difference between venial sins and mortal ones, the ten commandments and how many ways there were to break them. A good act of contrition was what was needed after we learned to confess our many and varied sins. We were all of eight.
Toward the end of the year we walked over to the church to practice entering and exiting the confessional, a carved wooden cubby lined with red velvet curtains that blocked out as much sound and light as possible. There we pretended to commune with God or in any case his stand-in, the priest, after which we filed up to the altar for make-believe Communion, properly sticking out our tongues to receive it. I couldn’t help but notice the priest wore sneakers for this practice run-through, giving an altogether different impression than he did on Sundays when weightier wingtips peeked out from under his cassock. Before we went home, the nuns handed us indulgence cards—on one side a picture of Jesus, his oversize heart bursting from his chest; on the other, a few lines of a prayer we were supposed to endlessly repeat, guaranteed to lessen our lives in purgatory.
In third grade we were learning to diagram sentences. I loved parsing the words, using a ruler to draw the little rockets for subject clauses above the line, predicate phraseology below. It appealed to my sense of order. One Friday afternoon at religious instructions, with fifteen minutes to go before the nun dismissed us, I busied myself diagramming the Act of Contrition, a series of compound sentences I could go to town on. The final product resembled a drawing of some complex chemical, the milk of human kindness it might have occurred to me, if I had known more than I did in third grade.
There was a lot going on that year. Things weren’t as easy as they had been. I remember becoming aware of a bifurcation in the social fabric at school, the rise of the popular kids. At recess, girls either played house or softball. I did neither. In those days, schoolchildren could walk home for lunch if they lived close enough, and I did. Afterwards, I’d look down the hill, waiting for recess to end before going back.
Every now and then my mother was out and I’d have to eat lunch in the cafeteria with everyone else. Mostly I remember the sliced peaches. And the noise. Then I’d have to deal with recess and somehow carrot myself into the girls’ pecking order. Occasionally one of them said, “You have funny shoes,” or “I don’t like your freckles,” but I never had the wherewithal to tell them where to go. In our house we weren’t even allowed to say Shut up, so I was pretty much stuck.
My teacher, Miss Welsh, didn’t help. During recess she and her colleague, Miss Cox, leaned against the school’s brick wall and chatted. Miss Cox, short and pug-like, barked a lot. Miss Welsh wore tight skirts and smoked cigarettes. I was a good student grade-wise, usually an in where teachers are concerned, but she still didn’t like me. One day between puffs I walked up to her and complimented her on her hairdo. This gave her pause. Then she figured out what I was up to, misfit me. Go and play, she said.
In the spring, a bunch of us were singled out for some kind of interview. The selection process was conducted in whispered tones while we leaned over times tables and state capitals. Our visitor was young and pretty and had a kind expression. I was game. We chosen few lined up in the hallway, excited and curious.
The interviews were held inside a janitor’s closet that had been temporarily converted for the afternoon. I can’t remember who went before me, but I do remember Kenny Carlson and Ridley Pearson were behind me, two of the popular boys. They were wrestling and being generally boisterous, which as a prim schoolgirl I found obnoxious, though I didn’t mind being in range of their attention, thinking somehow I might fit in after all. Finally it was my turn.
The pretty lady welcomed me warmly, told me to sit down at the tiny table she had set up, closed the door, and sat down opposite me.
“How are you?” she asked with genuine interest.
“Fine,” I beamed.
“I want you to look at some cards I’m going to show you,” she said. “On each card are two stick figures. Something is wrong with each of them. I want you to tell me which one you’d rather be. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said, wanting to do my best, suddenly aware of the lack of air, how it smelled like mop.
The first card wasn’t so bad. One figure had his arm in a sling, the other his foot in a cast. I chose the sling because it seemed more familiar. In a glass-fronted cabinet over my father’s desk, alongside a bronzed baby shoe, my brother’s silver cup, a clay handprint sprayed gold, and a blond lock of hair, was my contribution: a plaster cast about four inches long from when I had broken my arm. I was six months old, my mother told me, though she never knew how I’d done it. Had I caught it between the railings of my crib? What kind of leverage would I have had to use? I have no recall of the event. In any case, my mother said I was acting fussy at dinnertime, holding my arm awkwardly in my highchair. The next day she brought me to the pediatrician, where he ascertained the problem was a hairline fracture of the radial bone and bandaged me up. My mother said she always had the feeling he thought it was her fault. This from the doctor who became known for his very thorough examinations of prepubescent girls. I suppose he took my mother’s consternation as an opportunity to belittle her as well.
The second card required a little more on my part. One figure had a sling and a crutch, the other two crutches for two broken legs. I noticed the first one’s sling was on his left arm, which meant he’d still be able to write and brush his teeth and stuff and maybe even hobble around using his good arm and good leg, unless he was left-handed like my brother. But it wasn’t my brother, so I said, “Okay, that one.”
“Good,” said the lady, putting a check mark somewhere on her lap. “And this one?” she asked. It was getting hot in the room, though she was cool as could be.
The cards were stiff and white, the kind that new men’s dress shirts are wrapped around. With each one I answered, the lady turned the card over. It was white on the back, too, and blank. I suppose that was so you’d concentrate on the new image and forget about what you just saw.
The next few cards are indistinct in memory except they were all horrible, illustrating various states of amputation and missing features, like eyes and such.
I didn’t know where to look. I remember groaning and needing fresh air. My forehead was sweaty and my clothes were sticking to me. I imagined running out of the closet and down the hall, bursting through the exit door of the school and across the playground, home to where my mother would be folding the laundry or piecing together something on the sewing machine that Jackie Kennedy might wear.
“You have to choose,” said the lady.
She no longer looked like a model on a Butterick pattern. I couldn’t even look at her, or the cards. I couldn’t look anywhere but a spot on the wall, the brushstrokes from when it was last painted, the row of black tiles halfway up, the grout between.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know.”
“You have to pick one.”
I closed my eyes and pointed, I didn’t care where.
Sometime that summer, weeks after I made my first Act of Penance on a Saturday and marched in my white Communion dress with a scapula around my neck the day after, I goaded a couple of neighborhood kids into taunting a shy girl with thin hair and big eyes. We leaned on her split-rail fence and yelled, “Marcie is adopted, Marcie is adopted,” until her father came charging out to make us stop. I was the last to take off, the one who got caught. I don’t know how Marcie’s father kept from beating me silly. What he did instead was worse. How would you feel? he asked. There wasn’t an act of contrition big enough.
To repent, I decided to make nine First Fridays, a tough thing to accomplish, especially once school started. But it was mid-July. I’d figure it out. By going to Mass on the first Friday of nine consecutive months, I’d lessen my term in purgatory by something like a hundred years, probably a drop in the bucket of what I’d racked up, but a start.
The day came around and I got up early for the 7:30 Mass, leaving the house before breakfast. I parked my bike outside the church and went inside where the cool darkness was refreshing on that hot August morning. Just before the recessional, I started feeling dizzy. I was afraid I was going to throw up, so I got up to leave and by the time I got to my bike, I was sweating all over.
The next thing I knew, a man and his son were leaning over me, the man propping me up, asking if I was all right. “You must have fainted,” he said. I was still shaky and too woozy to ride home. He offered to drive and I said okay.
My mom made a big fuss over me when I told her what happened. When my father got home from work that evening and heard the news, he said he had a funny feeling about me all day, starting at the train station that morning. That wasn’t at all like my father, having any truck with the supernatural, or connecting to me in that way. I took it as a sign that God didn’t think I was such a lost cause, that maybe I wouldn’t be stuck in purgatory forever.
Two years later when I was ten, my oldest sister married a boy she’d been dating for three years. She was nineteen. He was twenty-one. He grew up on the other side of the Post Road, in a blue-collar neighborhood. When he was little, he’d fallen in the Mianus River without knowing how to swim and got the scare of his life. He never did learn to swim, but he excelled at ice hockey—learning to skate on the river, of all places—and played goalie for the Catholic high school he attended, and after that a men’s league.
He and my sister wed at St. Catherine’s that June. During the ceremony, while the priest was busy getting Communion ready and the couple was kneeling before him, the groom looked like he was having some trouble. He was hunched over, rocking slightly back and forth.
“It’s his knees,” my dad whispered to my mother.
My brother-in-law’s knees had taken a beating after years of deflecting pucks and opponents. We all watched as he suffered in silence. In another moment my father left our pew, stepped gingerly up the steps to the altar and knelt beside his daughter’s betrothed, supporting the young man as best he could. When the priest turned around to distribute the Eucharist, he paused only a beat to take in the unorthodox trio in front of him before continuing with the ceremony.
That November, on a Friday, at around two, I was walking home from school to go to religious instructions when Susie Burke from across the street came running outside yelling, “Kennedy’s been shot! Kennedy’s been shot!”
That evening I asked my politically conservative father if he was glad. For years I’d heard him complain about the President and his policies, how Joe Kennedy bought the election for his son, how Bobby pandered to his older brother. “No,” he said, only slightly annoyed, a smile forming somewhere. “Of course not.” He riffled through the day’s mail, his mind on other things: the market, a hot bath, what he’d do next. It was the weekend, something to look forward to.
Fourteen years later, not long after my father dropped dead of a heart attack early one Friday morning, I had a dream. I was in the kitchen of the house that he and my mother bought after we’d all grown up and moved out. The country club was five minutes away, the Merrill Lynch branch office fifteen, a much shorter commute than the one my father had endured to Midtown Manhattan for nearly thirty years. If he had lived, my parents would have had a nice life ahead of them, the hard work of raising a family and saving for a comfortable future far, far behind them.
It was around six, the time my father used to get home from work. The windows were open to the breeze and the summer. I was making iced tea for my mother while she relaxed on the terrace. Footsteps came from the garage, then through the laundry room, and when I looked up, there was my father in the doorway, dressed in a suit, just home from work. He looked tired.
“Dad,” I said, startled. “I, I thought you were dead.”
He huffed in that characteristic way he had when something was disagreeable. My brother inherited the trait. My sisters, too. And me. “What gave you that idea?” he asked gruffly. Then he rounded the corner and my dream ended. I never saw him again.
Twenty years later, my husband and I were living in a modest home about an hour north of the Mianus. Our son and daughter were little and shared a bedroom next to ours. My mother had died recently, and now my children had only one set of grandparents, never having known my father, my mother barely. My daughter’s crib was next to one window, my son’s bed next to the other. Outside was a very large tulip tree my son liked to stare at as he fell asleep, especially in winter when the branches were bare. He’d talk about the Shadow Man in them, but no matter where he pointed or how hard I looked, I couldn’t see it.
One night, he ran into my bedroom and woke me suddenly. “A man is stealing Robin!” he cried.
I raced to my daughter’s crib in a panic only to find her sleeping peacefully. “She’s all right,” I told my son. “See?”
The next morning, remembering my son’s vision of the night before, I asked him what happened. He said he woke up and saw me standing over the crib, staring at his sister. He called to me, but I didn’t answer. That’s when he realized it wasn’t me at all, but a man he’d never seen before, leaning down to pick up the baby.
“So I ran over and punched him,” my son said, bravely reenacting his moves. “But my arms went right through him.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“It was the Shadow Man, Mom,” he said. “It was your father.”
I couldn’t imagine how he connected my father, a man he never knew, not even from photos, with the comforting tree figure he fell asleep to. The relationship was a complete mystery to me. Was my father communing with my children?
While we were living near the Mianus, I tried to teach my husband to skate. None of my instructions helped. It was a childhood friend of my husband, a terrific skater, who had the right advice. “You want to move back and forth,” he said. “From one side to the other.”