The summer I turned 10, everything changed. It was as if that proverbial rug had been pulled right out from under me.
What I remember about moving to Lockport after school got out the end of June, was how resentful I was about having to leave my father, my loving grandmother who was more like a mother to me than my own mom, my life-long friends, and everything else I ever knew and loved. I was especially mad because the fifth-grade class I would have been going into that Fall was to be the first class in the new school that had been built, complete with a swimming pool. Toward the end of the fourth grade, all my friends and I talked about was how grown up we would feel because we were going to be changing classes the next year just like the high school students.
My mom knew how unhappy I was and although she never tried to talk to me about it, she tried to make up for it by letting me take piano lessons. I had begged her to let me learn to play when we lived on 15th Street when I could practice every day on my grandmother’s piano, but by the time I was old enough, my mom said we didn’t have the money for it. She was determined to find a way to let me have this one luxury. “But I am not buying a piano until I know you are really going to play,” she told me. She made arrangements for me to go to my cousins’ great-grandmother’s house a few blocks away so I could practice. She had a terribly out-of-tune old upright, which ended up being the one thing that made that summer bearable.
Under ordinary circumstances, my mother would have never considered leaving Buffalo and my dad, but now that her mother was gone, being closer to her three sisters was very important to her. Her younger sister, Carolina, and her husband Thomas, had converted the upstairs of their old farmhouse into an apartment, which they made available for my mom to rent, while they lived on the first floor with their five children.
Two of us were turning 10 that summer and the kids under us ranged from 8 years old to 6 months. My mom was happy not to have to rely on the State anymore. She got a factory job and started working the swing shift. She left me and my sister in the care of Carolina, even though she was already overwhelmed with her own five children and grieving the loss of her mother six months before, as well as the loss of her sister’s 6-year-old child.
The three younger school-age children were enrolled in the public school and my two oldest cousins went to St. Patrick’s, the Catholic school across town. My mother made arrangements for me to go there as well. We lived in St. Joseph’s parish, but since they didn’t have a school, we had to go outside our parish to get a Catholic education.
My mom’s oldest sister lived in the St. Pat’s parish just two blocks away from the school. “You will be living with Carlos and Lily once school starts,” my mom told me early that summer. She didn’t think she could afford the $50 annual tuition required for children living outside the district, so she wanted to use my aunt and uncle’s address. In order to do this, it was necessary for me to move in with them, as my mother would never lie about where I lived. Since Rozanne was gone, there was an empty bed for me there. Lily never objected to the plan despite the depression that had taken over her life.
I wasn’t going to officially make the move until the first of September, but one Wednesday in August my mom sent me to practice my piano lesson at their home, while she and my aunt went to a school registration meeting. She assured me I wouldn’t be alone. “Your uncle will be there to watch you,” she said.
I could feel my body stiffen at the suggestion that I was going to be alone with my uncle. I didn’t like him. There wasn’t anything I could really put my finger on but I always felt uncomfortable around him. They had come to Buffalo at times to visit us and I remember the strange feeling I would get when he would slip a silver dollar into my hand.
“But he doesn’t know I am taking piano lessons,” I said trying to change her mind. Apparently, my piano playing was some kind of surprise for him but I cannot for the life of me remember why. My mother dismissed my pleading with, “Oh, he won’t even notice you.”
And, so it was that I was sitting at the piano practicing a minuet Mrs. Harmony, my piano teacher, had assigned for me to learn that week. My uncle was in the parlor with me, standing on a step stool in the middle of the room fiddling for the longest time with a light bulb in the chandelier. My fingers were on the keys while my mind was racing with thoughts of hope against hope that somehow this time my mother was right about how invisible I was.
The parlor was the smallest of the three rooms that ran together. The entrance of their home opened up to a large living room and on the other side of the parlor was a spacious dining room. It had only been four months since Rozanne was laid out in a small casket in front of the living room window. I thought about how beautiful she had looked lying there in her new white dress, her long blonde curls tied with a white grosgrain ribbon.
I was ready to stop practicing after what seemed like a very long time, but I didn’t know what I would do when I stopped, so I lingered, expecting the front door to open at any moment. Breaking my thought, I noticed that my uncle came down from his ladder, taking the few steps to the piano stool. Already uncomfortable, and having no idea what to expect, I could feel my heart beating like it was going to jump out of my chest.
When he took my hand and led me into a small adjacent sewing room, I sensed I wasn’t safe. Then he locked the door behind us. I had no way of understanding what I was feeling at the time.
This was the beginning of a relationship with no boundaries. A part of the relationship I had with my mother had already set the stage for a lack of emotional boundaries, as she led me to believe I had to match her emotional temperament to maintain her love. Now, establishing itself in my life was a physical pattern of “no boundaries.” His obsession with me went on for the next three years day after day and night after night as I lived there every other week of the school year until the end of seventh grade.
As time went on, everyone became used to the way my uncle paid more attention to me than the others, although they didn’t seem to know the extent of it. Nothing was ever questioned. I was horrified the day I heard my uncle casually announce to his wife: “I am going to take Maria out for a driving lesson.” I was 12 years old and had never expressed a desire to learn to drive. Her only response was, “Make sure you are home in time for dinner.”
Caught in a trap of silence and obedience, I got into the car with him. He told me we were going for a country drive and then motioned for me to move closer to him on the bench seat of his 1954 Pontiac. As I dutifully inched a bit closer, he leaned over and put his arm around my shoulder, pulling me next to him.
He took the back, more obscure roads toward Olcott Beach, keeping his arm around me and leaning his head into mine as if I were his girlfriend and this was the most normal thing in the world for us to be doing. No mention was made about me getting behind the wheel. We simply drove around in the country for what seemed like hours. Once we did get home, no one ever asked me about my driving lesson.
One Saturday afternoon he decided to treat three of my cousins and me to a matinee at the Palace Theatre on East Avenue. He knew the man who managed the movie theatre, and was often able to get tickets for any movie he wanted us to see. Usually he dropped us off and then came back to pick us up when the movie was over. But this time he got a ticket for himself. He passed out the tickets to my cousins while hanging on to mine. Grabbing for my hand, he whispered, “Wait a minute,” as the others went down the aisle to the front of the theatre to pick out seats.
Silently, he led me to a seat in the back row and sat down next to me. He then put his arm around me, pulling me in to him much like he had in the car. Nothing else happened that day but I was astonished that the other children did not question where I’d been and if they did know I was in the back row with my uncle, I couldn’t imagine what possessed them to never question that.
Of the handful of memories I have of those three years, I mostly remember the feeling of having to make sure I wasn’t alone where he could find me. One time, standing alone at the kitchen sink, he surprised me when he came up behind me and forced himself on me.
I have no memory of whatever else may have transpired in that house after that. His approach to me, as deranged and demanding as it seemed, was always in the sense that he loved me so much he could not keep his hands off me. He treated me as if I was his one true love.
My 10-year-old self was feeling confused. Up until that time, she had been so sure of the love she felt from a God she adored and just couldn’t understand how God could allow this to happen. It was the beginning of the delusion that sex equaled love, creating a distortion in her experience with future relationships. She was confused about the difference between what his sins were and what may have been her own. She had one underlying intention in her life and that was to never sin. But now her body was betraying her, sinning on her behalf without ever having given a whisper of consent.
I longed for someone to notice the depression that was taking over my life. If only someone would ask me what’s wrong and make me tell them so it would all stop, I thought. I begged my mother to let me live at home. I even considered telling her the reason, but I couldn’t trust her to believe me. If she did believe me, she would think it was my fault, confirming her notion that I was bad.
Soon, I started to realize that I could never tell anyone, not because he told me I couldn’t but because my aunt was suffering so with grief since Rozanne’s death. I heard others talk about how worried they were about her, wondering if she was going to die from a broken heart. So, as a 10-ten-year old, I decided it was my job to make sure my aunt was okay.
At that time, my child-self had no idea how things would turn out if she revealed the truth. She wondered what would happen to her if she did tell and no one believed her. Her mom had made it clear she wouldn’t love her anymore, her father was tucked away in a mental institution, and her grandmother was too far away. She didn’t know if she could take such a risk.
She also wondered what would happen to that family if they did believe her. Would she be responsible for causing them to split up? Could her aunt withstand another severe emotional blow? She thought about it and decided she was strong enough to wait until someone noticed her depression and then surely they would start asking questions. If someone pulled it out of her, then she would not be responsible for what happened. She refused to betray Lily’s love for her. She had no way at the time of knowing how much of what happened might be her fault. So she waited.
From her understanding of how things worked, she began to get scared that Heaven was slipping away from her, feeling dirty and damaged and separated from the God she once never doubted loved and understood her.
In the meantime, Lily slowly began to come out of her own depression after months of not eating and sleeping. Up until then, she was doing only the bare minimum to take care of her other children, her son and youngest daughter. That just reinforced for my 10-year-old self that she had made the right decision in being silent, reaffirming that she would never be the one responsible for another moment of anguish in her aunt’s life. After all, at one of the lowest points of her life, she took in a ten-year-old without a single complaint, never letting her feel like a burden.
Lily had loved me since before I was born. When my parents had asked her to stand up for me in baptism, she agreed despite the fact that she was carrying her own child who would not be born for another four months. “Lily,” her well-meaning friends warned her, “You cannot be anyone’s godmother while you are carrying your own child, especially your first born.” Legend had it that such a commitment was sure to bring harm to her and her baby. But she was an independent spirit, not hesitating to shush them with, “That’s just a superstitious old wives’ tale” without a second thought.
By the end of the fifth grade I began to be obsessed by a recurring daydream. The nuns had taught us that the sins of martyrs were erased at the time of death, guaranteeing their entry into Heaven regardless of what they had done. My 10-year-old mind saw this as a hopeful loophole.
I began to fantasize about how I might be able to get back into the good graces of God. I wanted to go Home now to be with God in Heaven. I wanted to escape the life I was being forced to live which I no longer wanted.
I imagined a small army of men, maybe fifteen or twenty, coming to our school dressed in green military uniforms with those little flat-top hats with small visors on their heads, each armed with machine guns. I could see them waiting in the school yard while two of them went into the school demanding that the children be brought outside and lined up.
In my vision the soldiers would shout in unison, “Denounce God or you will die.” I pictured everyone hitting the ground in terror, even the nuns. Everyone, that is, except me. I saw myself standing with my eyes closed, head held high, waiting to be shot down, dying for my God so I could regain His good favor. Before the sound of shots, something would pull me back to the reality of my life and my reverie would disappear like smoke.
When I was in sixth grade, the Bishop was scheduled to come to St. Patrick’s to administer the sacrament of Confirmation. He only came to each church once every three years, so I was going to be making my Confirmation with the 7th and 8th graders. I had looked forward to receiving this sacrament since my First Communion. It was the next step for me to take toward God before I would take my final vows when I entered the convent. Then I would live the rest of my life waiting to be reunited with God.
My soul had been freed from the Original Sins of Adam and Eve when I was baptized, I was taught. Now I would be presented to the Bishop by a sponsor in Confirmation to be strengthened in the Holy Spirit. I was considered old enough now to take responsibility for my faith.
Years before, I had asked my Aunt Tina to sponsor me when the time came, so glad she had left the convent and was free to do this. She was as excited as I was that we would have this experience together, even talking about the special gift she would buy me that would be different than the traditional wrist watch most others received.
But once we’d all moved to Lockport, Tina forgot all her promises. There were so many children in our family in Lockport that I no longer was special to her. The way she treated me was as if a different kid was inside my body and she didn’t know me anymore. I felt rejected and abandoned as a result.
I dreamed that once she heard that the Bishop was coming, she would come to me and remind me that I had asked her to stand up with me and we could pick up where we left off a few years before, but she never did.
I didn’t know how to make her like me again, so I told my mother I wanted to ask one of my father’s sisters to sponsor me. My Aunt Kitty lived in Buffalo and I didn’t know her very well, but we went there for dinner sometimes and she was nice to me. Instead of the fulfillment of a longing to become a “soldier of Christ” as we were taught in class, my Confirmation became something I dreaded.
I figured God probably didn’t like me any more than my aunt did but I didn’t have a choice. I had to go through the motions and get past this sacrament. I had thoughts of feeling close to my Aunt Kitty after reaching out to her. She seemed so touched by my invitation. We never got a chance to actually develop a special relationship, though, as she unexpectedly died about a year later.
In my mind, there was nothing good about attending St. Patrick’s School. It was like a one- room country schoolhouse, except all the grades had one room of their own. The nuns there were nothing like the nuns I had known in the past. They all were pretty much unapproachable. We stayed in one classroom the entire school day and had one teacher for the year to teach all the subjects. I don’t recall ever having a religious education class, though I am sure we must have. My fifth-grade teacher, Sister Maura, was 84 years old and would nod off while trying to teach history or math. The boys tormented her whenever they got a chance, knowing she had no clue how to relate to them.
My grades in Buffalo had all been A’s, but now I was nearly failing most of my 5th grade subjects. When my mother signed my report card, she would make a comment about me having a hard time adjusting to the new school, but that would be it.
Once a month we had a children’s Mass at 9 a.m. on Sunday mornings. The whole school was required to go to the same Mass that day and children in the first through eighth grades would sit in the center pews, separated from their parents.
We were required to go to confession every Saturday to get absolution for whatever sins we may have committed that week in preparation for Communion at Sunday Mass. Despite my confusion about what was happening to me, and the deep burning question I had about how God could allow this, I still loved receiving Communion. I had not missed a single Sunday Mass or receiving the Holy Eucharist since I was seven years old. Most of the time I would be allowed to go home on weekends, but whenever we had a children’s Mass I stayed with my aunt and uncle.
On these days, the children were led to the altar rail to receive Communion before anyone else in the church was invited to come. Once we were back in our pews, the side aisles of parents would make their way to the front of the church and stand before the priest.
When the priest put the Host on my tongue, I was careful to just let it melt. I loved the feeling of it, its essence filling my body with the Holy Spirit. When I got back to the pew I knelt on the kneeler and covered my face with my hands so I could be alone with God while the host dissolved. I had a recurring vision of all people standing with outstretched arms toward Heaven, toward the bright light that shone down on the oneness of the crowd on Earth. I would continue to kneel in reverence of all the other people who were still either going to the altar or coming back, waiting for the priest to tell us it was okay to sit.
One particular Sunday, when I finished with my vision and took my hands away from my face, I looked up to see my aunt and uncle leaving their pew on the left walking slowly toward the altar. My uncle had come into my bedroom the night before. I knew he had not gone to confession, yet he was going to receive Communion. My aunt was by his side completely oblivious to the sinner her husband was. But I knew. I am not sure if I was more dumb-founded by the fact that he deliberately made a mockery of the sacrament or if it was the realization that the adults in my life simply did not know what was real and they were the ones who were supposed to be protecting me until I could take care of myself.
Soon after, I decided I just had to tell someone about my uncle, but the only one I could possibly tell was a priest in Confession. So one Saturday, not wanting anyone to suspect that I was on a mission, I made sure I walked to church alone. The confessional was a tiny little room, smaller than a closet and I liked the darkness of it. Once I entered and shut the door, there was just enough room to kneel on the kneeler facing the little window that the priest would open when he was ready to hear my confession. The window was only so you could hear each other, but you could not be seen. The scent of the Aqua Velvet the man before me wore still lingered in the air. As I knelt in the shadowy confessional, feeling both anticipation and fear, the priest slid the little door open indicating it was my turn.
“Bless me Father for I have sinned,” I began, “it has been one week since my last confession.” The rote words allowed my mind to race in a different direction. What if he makes me tell someone in my family about this for a penance? I thought. Until that moment, the possibility had not crossed my mind. It was unthinkable for me to go against what a priest said. Not wanting to risk being put in that position, or worse, having God hate me even more than I perceived He already did, I jumped up and ran out of the confessional, out the church doors and down the street, never stopping until I was sure no one was chasing me.
Everything my 13-year-old had ever believed was shattered by the contrast between her first 10 years of feeling grounded in a solid foundation of a loving family and the next three years that provided no safety and no one to turn to, not even God. At this tender age, the whole world seemed wrong and she was developing a clear sense of rejection from God.
In order to survive in a world that no longer made sense, she created a fantasy world where she was convinced that it was her job to save this family from the truth. Protecting them also provided her with protection from judgment. From a higher consciousness, the stage had been set to explore a life of disconnection and a lack of a sense of self. By the time she was 13 years old, she was confused about where she belonged, how she should act, and what was expected of her.