Excerpts from Of Roots and Wings
That same year, 1960, when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon ran for the presidency, I noticed that Dad was interested in the outcome of the election. Although I was only twelve, I followed the campaigns on TV with him. On Election Day, Dad voted at our local fire hall in Boothwyn but worked at the polling site in Chester. I observed the process with him throughout the day And was excited. That night we watched TV and waited for the returns. Kennedy was declared the winner. "Well, he won the election," Dad said. "We better prepare for four years of war."
"Why do you say that?" I asked.
" He's the first Catholic president, and he's a Democrat. In the past whenever Democrats were elected, there was a war."
The following day everyone seemed happy except me; I was a Nixon supporter. Sister Claire exclaimed, "This is a wonderful time we live in when a Catholic could win a national election!" She used the election as a civics lesson and asked, "Why is it good to vote?" She called on me.
"It is good to vote, Sister, because you get paid."
"Get paid? Nobody gets paid for voting."
"Yes they do," I responded. "Yesterday, I went with Dad to the polls, and I saw him give a new dollar bill to each person who said they'd vote Republican. Later when they came to vote again, they got another dollar bill."
I was proud that I was the only kid in the class to answer Sister's question. I couldn't wait until dinner to tell Dad and Mom. I waited for the perfect moment. I wanted it to be nice and quiet for my big contribution to the otherwise adult conversation. When I told them Sister's question and my answer, they looked at each other in silence, rolled their eyes, and looked up toward the ceiling. Dad quickly changed the subject and talked about an operation he had performed. This was not the reaction I expected.
There are feelings that I thought I put away forever
But now they come hurling back at me
At speeds of at least two hundred mph.
It is as though
They are mad at me for leaving them alone for so long.
They tell me I should have listened to them then.
I should have watched over them or
At least looked in and checked them occasionally.
But I never did.
The way I remember is they hurt.
Take the feeling of fear, for instance.
That really hurt.
What hurt most about fears was
People who told you that your fears weren't real.
"You're being silly,"
"Big girls aren't afraid.
"It's your imagination."
It wasn't my imagination
Or maybe it was.
My fears were real.
I wanted to grow up.
I didn't want to be silly.
And I wanted my father to love me.
He could only love strong people.
So I became afraid of nothing.
I practiced walking in the dark
By closing my eyes in the daylight.
And I wasn't afraid of the dark.
I started believing in reincarnation -
And I wasn't afraid of dying.
I made the "Boogie Man" into a clown
And I wasn't afraid to walk by that closet
Where they told me he lived.
I grew wings, like the Angels
And I wasn't afraid of falling.
I put on a suit of armour
And I wasn't afraid of anyone hurting me.
So I gave up my fears.
At least Dad must have thought I gave them up.
He said later,
"You are the brave one in the family."
The reality of my fears as a child
Come charging back at me.
And I remember
But most of all
The loneliness of being afraid.
Early in my senior year, several classmates applied to college. Some of the girls were engaged and looked forward to marriage right out of school. Jack and I both applied to Pennsylvania State University. He had combined College Boards scores of over 1400, while I had only 545 in verbal and 339 in math. Included in the application was a section on health; I had checked off " frequent headaches" and added "migraines."
" Why did you put that down," Dad asked, when he read the application. "They'll think you're not right."
"I'm only being honest," I said. I mailed my application. Jack and everyone else who applied to Penn State had been notified of the institution's decision but I heard nothing. Now, I figured, Dad was correct - they'll think you're not right. And that's why I didn't hear anything.
Mrs. Elizabeth Taylor, the dean, called me to the guidance office. "When and where did you send your application?" she asked. "You should have heard one way or another."
"In October," I said. "I sent it to Mr. Willard Hall at Penn State."
"Mr. Willard Hall?" she asked with a smile. "Mr. Willard Hall is the name of the administrative office. It's a building, not a person." I had seen the name on the enclosed envelope, and I thought: I don' know him and I shouldn't be addressing him by his first name. I'll be respectful and add "Mr." I submitted another application. This time I did not check "frequent headaches."
"What was our dad like?" I asked.
"Look over there at Ivan," Tom said. "He's the image of Dad. And Julie you notice how much you and Ivan look alike? Dad was five-three with dark brown hair that curled in the center of his forehead. His gaze was piercing with cat green eyes; playing the spoons and singing were interests of his. He worked in the coal mines of Schuylkill County. He liked to play softball and was a good catcher. His nick name was "Hap" because when drinking others at the bar saw him get happy. Dad raised pigeons and did a better job of that than raising his children.
"What caused the family disruption?" I asked.
"When dad was drinking, which was every day," Connie said, "he became abusive. He had a gun and sometimes chased Mom around the house threatening her life. Tom and I took turns at the window trying to gauge what type of mood Dad was in when he came home from work. If he walked down the lane and had his gun pulled, the other of us would usher Mom out the back door and try to hide her in the woods. When Dad found out that Tom tried to protect Mom, Dad would beat him. The final blow which led to a neighbor phoning the authorities, was when Dad broke a broomstick over Tom's back." Jeannie, Rosie, and I looked at each other, and I felt only sorrow and compassion at what my siblings had endured -- maybe viewing autopsies wasn't so bad after all.
One day on the playground, a group of other seven-year-old girls came up to me and asked, "Why don't you have real parents? Why did your real parents give you away?" They took me by surprise, but I quickly thought of an answer. "My parents didn't give me away," I said. "They were killed in a car crash. I was with them and saw them die. Both my legs were broken, and that's why I'm so short. My father I have now was the doctor who took,care of me, and that's how I came to live with him and my mom."
I didn't feel the pain of that experience until years later. Those girls viewed me as different, but they had sympathy for me and didn't ask again. I didn't know the true story of my birth parents at that time, but I was sure whatever it was could not have been helped. I told myself that my parents didn't want to give me away and that when I grew up I would find out the story. I would never admit it to anyone, but secretly I suspected they gave me away because I was bad.