My Uncle Johnny is Dad’s brother, sixteen years younger; when Dad was a teenager he realized there was going to be somebody new in the house besides him and his sister, my Aunt Terry. That was okay because Dad didn’t mind having a new baby hanging around, because he said he always wanted a younger brother to play baseball with.
By the time I came around, Uncle Johnny was nine years old, but he was already an uncle to Aunt Terry’s kid Joey, so I was his second nephew. Joey had two months of being the new baby star in the family, but then I came along with my asthma and pneumonia and was suddenly all anybody could ever talk about (so Ma tells me). And with Uncle Johnny still a kid, we were a pretty busy family of guys. Sometimes we’d go sledding in McKinley Park down Deadman’s Hill, which was just about the highest spot in the neighborhood for anybody to go and kill themselves on. In the winter it got icy slick, and from the top of the hill down to the Seventh Avenue gate was a scary, straight shot, and you either hoped to end up in some thick bushes, which would stop you from flying out through the gate and into the traffic, or you would hit the gate itself. One time me and my friends got creamed when we rode a flipped over picnic table with one pair of legs all the way down the hill and into the fence. We should have been killed but we were wrapped in so many layers of sweaters, scarves, hats, and snowsuits that nothing really happened. Egghead bumped his head of course, like he was always hitting it on something, so you couldn’t really tell.
You didn’t have to worry about running over the old men playing bocce on the court when you sped by them because they didn’t play bocce in the winter. I guess the parkie didn’t shovel snow because he was too nuts keeping us from flooding the bathrooms with paper towels stuck in the sinks. And there was one who was real mean, who threw sticks and rocks at us in the summer when we goofed on him. He wasn’t an Italian guy, and lived down the block from us near Eighth Avenue. He had two granddaughters, one I went to school with named Nancy, and one who was Uncle Johnny’s age named Karina.
Karina started out kind of short and lumpy, but by the time she finished high school she was tall and thin. She kind of had a face like a bird. I mean, birds don’t stand around long enough for us to decide whether some of us look like them, but there was something definitely about Karina that reminded me of a bird.
“What are you talking about?” Ma asked me when I told her this. “Just because she has a big nose and little eyes doesn’t mean she looks like a bird,” but she laughed when she said it which is a way for grownups to agree with kids without having to say “you’re right.”
Karina became one of those girls who go to the beauty parlor every Saturday morning with their mothers, wearing sunglasses and a kerchief over their hair like the Hollywood movie stars that you saw in the papers. You weren’t supposed to recognize them or say anything because they thought they looked bad; plus, they were going out in public with their mothers to a place they didn’t really want to be at, so the rest of us used to just stare quietly from whoever’s stoop we were sitting on when they tried to walk by, invisible. Sometimes we would laugh but one time we got a lecture from Mrs. Belvis, Kathy’s mother, while Kathy stood there crossing her eyes behind her mother’s back. We liked Kathy because she never acted like we were bad guys when we bothered her.
Kathy was sort of friends with Karina when Karina started going out with Uncle Johnny, but the girls got closer because Karina needed an ally and Uncle Johnny was good friends with Kathy because they were partners when they made their First Communion. Plus, Kathy was the type who could be friends with a lot of guys without anybody ever wondering whether or not they would start liking each other too much.
So one Saturday morning in the summer, Kathy went up the block with Uncle Johnny to get ices, and they were going to bring us back some—it took like ten minutes for us all to decide what flavors: me and Egghead and Tommy and Laraine and Doris and Lois. When Uncle Johnny came back, though, he was with Karina and her mother and we could tell that he must have met her when she was coming out of the beauty parlor because she looked all new: her blonde hair was all high up on her head and there was only a teeny bit of kerchief left to tie under her chin. Her mother looked all happy, because mothers liked Uncle Johnny anyway because he was an altar boy and never missed Mass.
When he gave us the ices I asked him where Kathy was he said she went to the store for her mother. There were a lot of questions I had, like were he and Kathy just plain friends, or were he and Karina going to be boyfriend and girlfriend, but Egghead’s mother came out and told us to get in the street with the ices because we were dripping all over her steps and that would bring ants. Somebody was always telling us that, like having ants was the worst thing that could ever happen.
Then they left to go down the block and we stood between parked cars eating our ices. I didn’t know why I asked for pistachio because I didn’t really like the nut part, just the green ice, so Lois traded me her lemon.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
At the end of the summer, we were all sitting around wondering what our next nuns were going to be like. I got through second grade with Sister Anne Elizabeth, a year I would like to forget, and now had the fear of spending third grade with Sister Gonzaga. The thing is, the older kids on the block could warn us about the nuns we were going to get, and let’s just say that Gonzaga was called Sister Godzilla behind her back. So I knew what my nun was going to be like. She was probably the meanest of the three mean nuns at school—Sister St. Dominic was the other one, and I already had Anne Elizabeth and now I had to have Gonzaga. I spent most of the summer trying not to think about her, but her face would pop into my mind anyway, usually when I was enjoying myself or thinking about something funny. And with nothing to say about it, I would get St. Dominic in the eighth grade, because she taught math and spelling. All the homerooms in the eighth grade marched around the hallways and inside different rooms for different subjects all day when the bell rang every hour, which meant that each day had a collection of nuns of all flavors and sizes—step right up, take your pick!– that only showed that God had some kind of weird plan for my life.
But here it was only a few weeks before third grade started, and my stomach was more of a mess every day. I would see Gonzaga way up in the front row of Mass each week, on the Mary side, sitting with the oldest nuns. I even heard once that she was around when they built the school, which was way before they had TV. She was the kind of nun that you heard before you saw. If you were standing in line outside the school waiting to get in after recess, you could hear her on the inside just when her swinging rosary beads hit the door. Then it would fly open and there she’d be in all her glory. We always got real quiet and it’s like, when she opened the big doors, she was looking at each and every one of us personally, right in the eyes.
It was like such a long time since first grade, when I was the favorite of all four nuns: Alberta, Julia, Magdalene, and Johnella. I even made them Valentines that year. Magdalene used to send me on errands to the eighth grade room nuns and one time I got to read aloud from the TV Guide and everybody clapped. So I liked school but by the time of Ann Elizabeth and now Gonzaga, it was like those days were gone forever.
“It stinks you have Gonzaga,” Egghead said. We were sitting with three older girls, Mary, Florence, and Eileen, who were taking turns brushing and playing with each other’s hair like those monkeys do on educational television shows.
“Gonzaga heard my cousin in confession and pulled her out of the booth and smacked her,” Eileen said. She had pointy blue eyeglasses with sparkles, that were always getting lost. We would find them in people’s yards, on the edge of a street drain, or in the pet store on the floor in front of the fish tanks. Her father owned the butcher shop and her mother had a mustache. “No lie.”
“That’s nothing,” Mary said. “My brother got his head rammed into the blackboard. The crack is still there if you wanna know. She keeps that good hygiene poster covering it up.” Mary’s parents were the artistic ones on the block. They had weird paintings and future looking lamps in their house long before anyone else ever thought of them.
“Her brother is a dentist, that’s where she got the poster,” Florence said. “And in her desk drawers are all the things she’s stole from kids over the years… old gum, Cracker Jack toys, cootie catchers, notes… She never throws notes away and so she knows everything about what’s going on.”
“She really hurts when she hits.”
“On account of she keeps chalk in her hand when she smacks you.”
“One time she smacked Lydia Farrentino in the hall outside Room 165 and split her lip with her nails. Plus, she throws erasers.”
Great. I felt like I had to throw up but probably Egghead’s mother would have come out and chased me home, so I kept it in. I figured I would probably have to hold it in for the next nine months because Gonzaga would have me expelled if I threw up in her room.
Then I forgot all about Gonzaga because Uncle Johnny stopped by the stoop with Karina and said they were going steady!
* * * * * * * * * * * *
I didn’t forget for too long because soon it was the night of Labor Day and the next day was Gonzaga. I felt like I had a fever and a stomach ache and I wasn’t hungry all day.
“What’s the matter with you?” Ma asked when we were all sitting there at dinner.
“Because he has Gonzaga tomorrow,” Lois said. “He said and Mary and Florence and… and the other one SAID that she was going to smash his head on the blackboard. Right?” she asked me.
I didn’t say anything because I was afraid to open my mouth. Throwing up in school is one thing but throwing up on the table is another.
“Are you afraid of a nun?” Dad asked.
“Yes he is because Florence and Eileen and… and the other one SAID.”
“Why would you be afraid of a nun?” Dad asked.
“Are you kidding me?” Ma asked him. “Don’t you remember? When I was a kid they were really mean,” she said, slicing bread with the big knife. “Me and Tessie once had to stand outside in the cold with our books on our heads because we talked in Mass. Our eyes froze shut from tears!”
“Did you tell your Mothers on her?” Lois asked.
“Are you kidding? They woulda smacked us worse.”
“Don’t be afraid of nuns,” Dad said. “They’re just ladies like your Ma.”
“No, NOT like your Ma,” Ma said. “No way.”
The Tessie signal must have gone off somewhere because she appeared in the kitchen a minute later. She always let herself into our house no matter how many times Ma told her to ring the bell, but Tessie always said bells were for strangers.
“You ready for Gonzaga?” she asked. “Oh BOY, are you in for a treat! You better behave.” She took bread from the plate and went to our refrigerator for mayonnaise. “When I had her she said my skirt was too short and she made me sit in class with a newspaper wrapper around my legs. A newspaper!”
“Don’t scare the kid,” Ma said but you could tell she was enjoying all this on account of the fact that she was happy when she talked with Tessie about the olden days.
“You’ll be fine,” Dad said. “Just don’t give her trouble.”
“Yeah… don’t even MOVE. Don’t make a sound unless she calls on you. Never talk… don’t even look out the window,” Tessie said. “One time Claire Pultz got caught looking out the window, and Gonzaga made her stand outside looking IN the window for the rest of the day.”
“Her eyes went bad,” Ma said. “That’s why Claire has such thick glasses. When you see her in the A&P it’s like a blind lady coming toward you, she can’t see, she knocks into you with her cart.”
“For crying out loud!” Dad said.
That’s what I felt like doing: crying out loud, but instead I went into the bathroom and finally threw up. Maybe that would make it better the next day, but not really, so I prayed to the Virgin Mary that night to help me figure something out that would make this whole mess easier. But all the nuns looked like Mary with their dresses and veils… Anyway, I couldn’t think of anything except if somebody kidnapped me. Then they would find me dead in the sewer and boy would they feel bad.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Uncle Johnny and Karina walked me to school the next day, and I had to hear their Gonzaga stories. It wasn’t any use asking them to shut up because I was younger and, besides, everyone loved telling Gonzaga stories. I felt like I wasn’t ever going to see anyone normal again after going into the school and into that classroom.
The nuns were outside forming us into lines, and I went into the Room Six line with all the other kids. There was Gonzaga, waiting. She was sort of about as big as a Volkswagen.
She didn’t have to make sure we fell in place because she knew WE knew where we had to stand. Everyone looked scared, like we were about to get yelled at even though we didn’t know why. I guess we were all thinking who the first one was who was going to make her explode, and I sure didn’t want it to be me.
Nobody said a word. When it came time for Room Six to file in, Gonzaga clicked her clicker and we followed her, quiet, not looking left or right. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. In the classroom, we each went to our desk when she called out our name and seat. I was row five, seat five. Lucky me, there was nobody in my row yet and so I walked slowly, counting the desks so I wouldn’t sit in seat four or six by mistake.
“Move it along,” she said from the front. When I was in my desk, I breathed quietly and watched the other kids fill in the seats around me. Some of them looked like they wanted to cry. I probably did too but I kept trying to think of what Dad said.
“Don’t be afraid of nuns.” But I still was.
Noreen Kane sat down in front of me. Great. She was trouble from day one so I just knew that whenever she got called out, I was going to be in trouble too because she had this way of causing problems for everybody who sat near her in school.
When we were all quiet, sitting there like statues, Gonzaga took the roll call, probably to make sure none of us had tried to escape.
“Crescitelli… another one of those…”
“Present, Sister… what did you say?”
She looked at me from her desk way in the front.
“I beg your pardon… did you ask me a question?”
“I didn’t hear you.”
Now I was scared. I was turning out to be the first one!
“What question did you ask me?”
“I asked what you said after you said my name.”
“THAT was how you ask me a question?”
There was a long time where she just looked at me without saying anything. Nobody moved. From the corner of my eye I saw a mother with two little kids walking in the park across the street and I felt like I was in a prison.
“Come up here,” she finally said. “Now.”
I got up and felt like I had to go to the bathroom right that minute. When I got near her desk she got up and took my arm and turned me around so I was facing all those kids. I could feel her nails.
“I’m going to set an example, class,” she said. “Mr. Crescitelli here apparently doesn’t know how to properly ask a question, because apparently HE thinks he—“
She had to stop because there was a knock at the door.
“Don’t dare move,” she said to me as she went over and opened it. I figured, what have I got to lose, so I sneaked my head to the right and saw a nun standing out in the hall with like forty kids behind her looking scared. Gonzaga closed the door behind her after warning the class not to talk, but Noreen Kane whispered to me and asked what I saw outside. I was too afraid to answer.
After a while Gonzaga came in, closed the door, and told me to take my seat, quietly. When I was settled, she made an announcement.
“Gather your books and file out into the hall and go to Room 11 with Sister Daria.”
That’s all she said, but it turned out that her and Daria had to exchange kids for some reason. Like it was in a dream, we got our stuff and went out into the hall where that pretty young nun was standing with all those terrified looking kids I had seen when Gonzaga opened the door. As we went past them, feeling like we were going to Heaven upstairs in Room 11, Noreen whispered to those kids, “you guys are gonna get creamed.” We didn’t even know what Daria was like, except that she was one of those young “new” nuns, so she had to be better than Gonzaga.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
And she sure was. Third grade with Daria was a circus compared to what it could have been like with Gonzaga. There was even a new girl in the class that I liked, Sharon, and we used to walk through the park on our way home from school even though she had to go down a different block.
And it was perfect, until one day in Advent Daria had to go to the city for something. They never explained what, only that they had to be away for the day. She was probably in the convent with the mumps, but we weren’t supposed to know because nuns were perfect and never got sick.
The Room 11 kids had to go down to double up with the kids in Room Six, which made it pretty crowded. I was worried she would remember me from the first day of school, but Gonzaga had her hands full looking around making sure nobody was breathing. I had to sit next to some kid who smelled. Her class was already terrified enough, so it was mainly us she had to watch. I guess she figured it was going to be a lost cause with all of us jammed in there, so she told us Room 11 kids to do an exercise where we had to write down in our notebooks all the words with vowels that we saw in our readers.
Well, after a few minutes it was like every word had a vowel in it, and I got scared that maybe I heard the instructions wrong. That’s all I needed that day… it was bad enough that I was sweating because I was hoping Gonzaga wouldn’t remember me from the first day, but now I felt like I stuck out even more like a sore thumb, like she could read my mind.
I got so confused that I stopped writing down each and every word. It was getting boring anyway, so I started scribbling circles in my notebook to pass the time. And then I looked up and Gonzaga was standing by our desk.
“What are you doing?”
“Well Sister you said to write down the words with—“
That was all I got to say. She hauled me AND my notebook to the front of the room.
“I’m going to set an example, class,” she said. “Mr. Crescitelli here apparently doesn’t know how to follow instructions, and THIS is the result.”
She waved my notebook around for everyone to see. Boy, did I want to cry! And then she did something worse. She saw the back of my notebook where I had written I love Sharon… a girl I liked.
“Sharon Maynard, Sister,” I sobbed. My nose was running too.
And Sharon was sitting just a few rows down, my Room 11 love probably feeling like an idiot because of me.
Gonzaga slammed the notebook against my rear end and gave me a lecture about writing on notebook covers, and I had to make sure I brought her a note from Ma saying WHY I had done it. “Written on THIS piece of paper,” Gonzaga said when she gave me an official piece of blue nun writing paper. “NOT on another sheet, do you understand me?”
I knew why I did it. I saw one of Uncle Johnny’s schoolbooks with his name and Karina’s written in funny bubble letters, and I wanted to do the same thing. So now I had to drag the whole family into it. But why was it such a big deal to Gonzaga? It’s not like it was a sin to write I love Sharon on a notebook… or was it?
Sharon didn’t walk with me that day, mainly on account of because I hurried ahead of her.
“I can’t believe that nun,” was what Ma said when I told her the whole story. “What’s she thinking you’re doing? Making out in the class?”
“What’s making out?” I asked.
“For crying out loud,” Dad said. “She hasn’t changed in twenty-five years.”
Ma called Tessie to tell her the latest Gonzaga story, and then Tessie came over to help Ma write the note.
“Do you put the date in the left corner or the right?” Ma asked.
“I think the right because it’s a note and not a typed business letter,” Tessie said, chewing on a pencil.
“I wish I could remember,” Ma said. Suddenly it was like the two of them were in school again, and they were afraid!
“Let’s try that then,” Ma said. “Then I guess I’ll write Dear Sister… or should I write Dear Sister Gonzaga?”
“MA! Just write it!”
“Don’t be so fresh! You and your love letters got me into this! If I screw up she’s gonna be over the house smacking me around before I know it!” She and Tessie thought that was so funny, but I didn’t.
Ma started writing.
“How do you spell Gonzaga?” she asked Tessie. “It’s been so long. Three A’s or one O and two A’s?”
“Oh for Christ’s sake, why don’t you just call the school? Call the principal!”
“Just spell it g-e-s-t-a-p-o,” Tessie said, and the two of them almost fell off the kitchen chairs.
So Ma practiced on the back of the phone book until she thought Gonzaga looked better than Ganzaga, but when she wrote on the official blue nun writing paper she spelled in Goonzaga!
“MA!!! I’m gonna get creamed!”
“Well, whaddya think of THAT! Goonzaga! Now I gotta start over!” she said and crumpled up the blue paper and tossed it into the garbage pail across the room.
“Two points,” Tessie said.
“But MA! She said I had to use THAT paper and now I’m gonna get KILLED!”
“What difference does it make what paper?”
“Is Jimmy going to get killed by Sister?” Lois asked when she came into the kitchen looking for her milk. “Because when I go to school I don’t wannoo be killed.”
“Go inside,” Ma told her.
“But my milk.”
Tessie got Lois her milk and then Ma started a new note on her own paper, which had pictures of flowers and turtles on it that she got for free from the bank once because they were out of those folded up plastic rain hats. I knew I was going to get creamed for this, and it would be all her fault, partly Tessie’s, and even Uncle Johnny’s. What did I do to get into this? Nothing!
Ma wrote that I was copying Uncle Johnny’s idea, and that she hoped Sister Gonzaga would forgive me. Could you believe it? Like I had done something wrong!
“It’s not that you did anything wrong, I just don’t want to get into a fight with her,” Ma said. “She’s not even your nun so let’s just get her off our backs, okay?”
“MA!!!” I said, and I wasn’t happy about it. No matter how I tried from then on, Gonzaga was going to know about me. I could never hide!
“Ask if she remembers us,” Tessie said. “Ask if she remembers the time she made us go down to the office because we were chewing gum and she yelled and we said it was Aspergum for our teeth.”
“That wasn’t us, Tessie, it was Margaret Sheehan and Sheila Gallagher.”
Oh boy! Here I was getting ready to be murdered, and all they could talk about was gum. Now do you believe what I had to go through?
* * * * * * * * * * * *
So the next morning I get up with that stomach feeling like I had all summer, and went to school. Ma made me cereal and I think she felt a little sorry for me because she asked if I wanted her to take me in.
“No! Boy, I just I wish we had that blue paper still, that’s all.”
“Have your cereal.”
“I don’t feel hungry.”
Lois came into the kitchen.
“When Jimmy dies can we get a dog?”
I knew, I just knew she was going to be calling and telling Tessie what Lois said, as soon as I was out the door, because Ma had that look of she couldn’t wait to tell Tessie the latest. I just wanted to go to school and get it over with, whatever it was.
And you know what? Like it was through some nun magic, Daria knew all about what I had to do, and she said I could go and bring the note to Gonzaga after recess. “Maybe she won’t remember, but we’d better not take that chance, shall we?”
I loved her even more after that, and by the time I went home at lunch for my baloney sandwich, I was feeling happier—still scared, but not so much.
“Did the nun try and kill you?” Lois asked. “Did she hit you with a stick or what?”
“Let him eat, young lady!”
“Did she throw a rock in your head?”
On the way back to school I met Uncle Johnny and Karina and he said I looked sick. I told him real fast the whole thing about Gonzaga, but I said that it wasn’t really his fault even though he wrote on his notebook, too, and Karina laughed.
“Which girlfriend, Johnny?” she asked him.
“You were an altar boy, Uncle Johnny, is there a prayer I can say? Could something happen so she forgets?”
“She probably won’t forget but you can ask the Virgin Mary to help you in a good way.”
“Really? Like what? I tried but I couldn’t think of anything. And she didn’t help when I asked her once…”
“Say ‘Mary, make something happen to Sister so she forgets that I’m in trouble with her, but not a bad thing.’ “
So I said it until he thought I sounded good, and then I ran to school.
When I got to Room 11, I sat in my seat until Daria said I could go down to Room Six with my note. The whole class knew where I was going, and Diana Massaia raised her hand and asked if she could walk down with me.
“I think he’s quite capable, Diana, but thank you. Class, that was a very good example of generosity and good citizenship.”
And everybody clapped for Diana Massaia.
Me, I went downstairs and stood outside Room Six. My hands were sweaty and felt like electricity was going through them. I was so afraid of getting the note wet that I put it on the floor and dried my hands on my pants. I said Uncle John’s prayer—‘Mary, make something happen to Sister so she forgets that I’m in trouble with her, but not a bad thing.’ Inside, I could hear Gonzaga.
“And that’s why we should pray every day for peace, because one day the Communists could be coming here on the Staten Island Ferry to take over. We could look out that window and see Communists! Do we want Communists to come to Bay Ridge?”
“No sister,” forty kids all said at the same time, because they knew what was good for them.
Finally I got up the nerve and knocked on the door.
“Silence!” I heard her say and then she came and opened the door. For a minute she looked down at me like who was I, and I thought I should run, but then she took my shoulder and marched me over to her desk. You couldn’t hear one sound in that hot room… and I thought I smelled a tuna fish sandwich.
“Well! And what have we got to say for ourselves?”
“I have the note, Sister.”
“Place it on my desk.”
Boy was I sweating. I put the paper with the flowers and turtles on her desk, and when she saw it she started to turn red, just like Dad did when he had to go out before work in the morning and shovel snow.
She brought her hand up slowly, and I got ready to be hit, but then she slammed it down on her desk, hard, and everybody jumped.
“WHERE IS THE BLUE–!”
She had to stop because the loudspeaker came on in the corner of the wall above her desk, and you never knew if it was going to be for a fire drill so we always had to stop what we were doing and listen.
It was Sister John Francis, the principal, and she sounded very, very sad, like she was crying.
“Sisters and students, your attention please. We’ve just heard on the radio that President Kennedy has been shot.”
Gonzaga’s mouth popped open.
“Sisters, please join me and lead your classes in prayer. In the name of the Father…”
After praying Three Hail Marys with us, John Francis clicked off.
Oh boy… the President? Gonzaga was white, not red, and it was like she was frozen at her desk. Nobody did anything right away, but then some of her class started crying and she didn’t stop them. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, and it’s like she wasn’t there with us anymore, you know? Like she’d gone someplace else without moving. I could hear noises out in the hall, and out of the corner of my eye I could see mothers running past the windows, like they were coming to get their kids from school right now, even though it wasn’t anywhere near three o’clock. Everything was going so fast and slow at the same time, like I was in a speeding car watching it all on television.
Then Gonzaga started to cry, right there frozen at her desk, and she turned and looked at me.
“His poor children,” she whispered.
I didn’t know what to do, standing there far away from Room 11, so I reached across the back of her chair and patted her on the back of her head. Then she took my hand and held it while she raised her right hand to get everybody’s attention, and we all started saying another Hail Mary. I think the whole school was doing that.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Ma and Lois were outside school to meet me at three and we walked home, very quiet. Tessie was waiting in front of her house for us with some of the other ladies, but nobody was saying anything. Everybody looked like they had just been in the worst trouble ever.
“Any broken bones?” Tessie asked me, and that’s when Ma really started crying, and she couldn’t stop. Tessie took us all up the stairs and into our house, and we started that long afternoon and night of watching television, waiting for Dad to come home from the office.