Most of you know that Mr. Wow had a checkered childhood, often spent with relatives and friends, during periods when my mother was unable to care for me, for various reasons. There was also a stint in upstate New York at St. Joseph’s Orphanage. It sounds very Oliver Twist, but really it wasn’t.
By the time I got to St. Joseph’s, I was used to these separations. Of course, this was the most dramatic. I was “taken away” at night. My mother, dressed in slacks and wearing a long dark coat, stood on the sidewalk with two men flanking her (she was admitting herself into Manhattan State Hospital, after slashing her wrists.) Later, in recalling this, it seemed very film noir—like she was mysterious spy, being taken away for interrogation.
She urged me, stridently, to be a “big boy and not cry.” I don’t know that I was going to cry. As I said, this had become normal life. I turned once to look back at the three dark figures on the street. I didn’t cry. (My mother would later regret and be tortured by the fact she ordered me not to cry.)
My first night at the orphanage was rather jolly. We were all in little cubicles with beds, acclimating ourselves. Somebody held a comic book above the top of the partition, I forget why. I was fascinated because I didn’t know what a comic book was. My mother read to me, and encouraged me to read “real” books. St. Joseph’s was a beautiful place. Clean and neat and with sloping green lawns. When I first arrived, I couldn’t help but notice all the religious statuary. I was especially interested in the Virgin Mary figures, some encased in glass. Maybe these were the more merry, wayward Marys, who might take off in the night?
Soon, we were assigned to our room and beds. My bed was closest to the door. There was a huge window at the end of the room with a striking view of the grounds. I liked to look out that window. There was some sort of schooling and I was considered “bright and advanced.” But, as would happen time and again in my future life, I was a disappointment. I never paid attention. I daydreamed. I didn’t much care to interact with the other children. I wanted the interest of adults. Though not necessarily the nuns. They were a chilly bunch. Not brutal, as were so many of the Brides of Christ my mother, her sisters and brothers encountered during their frequent stays at Catholic homes. But if one was looking for tenderness, the nuns were not available. (I developed a huge crush on one of the social workers, and even asked her if I could come and live with her? It was painful because I think she would have, if I’d been a true orphan.)
My lack of interest in any sort of schooling and resistance to discipline (I sulked) did not go unnoted. Or un-remarked upon. Great sighs were heaved as I heaved great sighs when expected to conform to the drill. “He can’t seem to concentrate” they would tell my mother, when she was finally well enough to visit me, though not yet ready to be responsible for my care. Thin and pale with thick-lashed electric green eyes, my mother wasn’t terribly involved in my concentration issues. (Later, when we lived together, she’d see it differently.)
She was more concerned if I’d been hit, and would always ask that. I hadn’t been, but I doubt she believed me; her own experiences having been so extreme. My mother’s presence in my life was, even by that point, was a cause for tension. She was always in a turmoil, ready for an argument, coiled to strike before she could be hurt. Her anxiety was palpable and nerve-wracking. Although I’d have preferred not to be at St. Joseph’s, I never regretted it when her visits concluded.
I was ill, to my memory, only once. An earache. A really bad earache. I recall one of the nuns saying to me, “You have a bubble in your ear, if it bursts, you’ll die!” To be fair, I might simply have imagined this, in my pain, but I remember thinking, “That’s not a very nice thing to say to a child!” (As much as I wanted adult company and acceptance, I never forgot that I was indeed a child. I’d say that was part of my precocious game to avoid certain responsibilities—but I’m only a child! Alas, I never grew out of that mind-set.)
Napping one day in the playroom, I dreamed I fell down Alice’s rabbit hole. Only, I never got anywhere. I just fell and fell and fell until I woke up, extremely disappointed that I’d not tumbled into Wonderland.
I swallowed a marble once. I panicked and cried I was going to die. A nun assured me if I hadn’t died already, I wasn’t going to, and “everything would work itself out.” Now I understand what she meant. Then I thought, “She’s going to let me die—and I’m only a child!”
At Christmas, Santa came and placed a passle of gifts on a huge sideboard. We were then instructed to rush en masse to the pile and pick what we wanted. I had my eye on a certain teddy bear. I asked, “But what if somebody else gets the present I want?” One of the nuns answered, wearily, “There’s plenty here for everyone.”
“But what if somebody else gets the present I want?”
“I’m sure you’ll get something nice and even if you don’t get what you want, you can share.”
“I don’t think that’s fair. Why can’t we choose?”
Enough was enough. “You are very selfish and ungrateful, young Wow. Some children don’t have presents at Christmas at all!” I knew this was true. But I wanted that teddy bear. I didn’t get it. And in a classic case of cutting off one’s nose to spite his face, I stubbornly took nothing from the pile of presents. If I couldn’t have what I wanted, I’d make myself suffer. Like anybody cared? In time I would come to care very deeply about the concept of having things that were my very own. This didn’t lead me to a life in which I would really work for things that were my very own, but the idea of it was quite powerful. And I’m afraid I didn’t become more apt to share, either. I am impulsively generous and never regret my generosity. But I am not thoughtful, and I do always regret that. Which means nothing. “Sorry” is the sorriest word.
My most memorable and dramatic experience at St. Joseph’s happened one afternoon when, for some reason, I was alone in one of the corridors—between a class or some healthy outdoor romping? I was walking slowly down the hall. In my right hand I held a crayon. As I walked I idly ran the crayon on the wall. I had no aggression. I wasn’t thinking. I literally zoned out. Suddenly, I was zoned in. Towering before me was one of the nuns. “What are you doing?!”
“Why are you defacing the walls?”
“The crayon! Why do you have that crayon in your hand?”
“I don’t know.” (Which was completely true. I was surprised to see it there.)
“You don’t know? How is that possible?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know. You don’t know. You never seem to know, do you?”
I felt this needed no response because, well—it was true. I never did know.
“Come with me,” she said. I was taken to a closet, filled a bucket with water, given a sponge and a bar of soap. “Now, you will clean up what you did.”
Okay. Believe it or not, I wasn’t angry about this. I’d done it, after all, even if I had no idea why I’d done it. It seemed like a big job. But everything seems big at that age. After I was done, the nun beckoned me into the boys bathroom, where childish graffiti spotted the stalls . “Now, clean up all this, and wipe down the floor.”
“What? But this isn’t fair. I didn’t do this!”
“How do we know? And anyway, you’ll know better than to scribble on walls in the future.”
She left me alone and I burned with rage and frustration. Even today I can feel my face flush as I recall what I considered this terrible crime against me. I did scrub off the graffiti. I wiped the floor. I did it all in a towering fury. It seemed like I toiled for hours, but I’m sure I didn’t.
Afterward, she said, “You can go outside now.”
“I’m tired. I don’t want to go outside.”
“Very well! Go take a nap.”
I went back to the dormitory, with its rows of beds on each side. I fell into mine, nearest to the door, farthest from the big window. Exhausted—mostly, probably, by my emotions rather than any severe work—I was instantly asleep. And then, my bed elevated, and swiftly flew down the room, between the beds and right out the window. The sky was so blue and so clear. No clouds. It was a dream that seemed to last forever, and with only one function and one character—me, going ever higher, and as far away from St. Joseph’s as I could possibly get. I don’t recall waking. But it remains the most powerful dream of my entire life—the color of the sky, the feeling of elation and escape. Freedom. From everything.
In time, I would escape St. Joseph’s. My wonderful Aunt Margot visited me, and as she, my cousin Stephen and my uncle Louis attempted to leave, I became totally unhinged, shrieking and weeping. I am sure my aunt, like my mother, was convinced I had been horribly abused. Against the wishes of her husband—he loathed his wife’s family—my aunt demanded I come and live with them. My mother approved, though not without some hesitation. (Tensions between all the siblings was always great.)
And so there was that for a year—a happy year–and then back to my poor mother, who was almost a stranger to me by then. When my aunt gave me the “wonderful news” that I would be reunited with my mother, I wept hysterically. She told me, “You don’t have to go.” I knew better. I could not be the cause of such a horror within a family. Sisters fighting each other for custody of me. “I’m crying because I’m so happy.” Never before or since have I told such a lie.
But I’ve never forgotten that dream of the flying bed and blue sky. Only in that dream have I ever felt so much hope, so much potential. Because I don’t remember awakening from it, there’s no memory of sadness that it was only a dream. In my mind, it remains something I attained once, something perfect.
I know I’ll never fly that high again, I’ll never dream that big.
But that’s okay. Once was enough. Even in dreams.