The Nuns of Our Lady of the Foothills taught their students math, English, religion, history, geography, and a scattering of other basic subjects. Their educational technique depended heavily on rote memorization and harsh discipline. The Palmer penmanship was beaten into our rebellious right hands. Laziness on small ts earned a wrap on the knuckles. The nuns were experts in teaching through pain.
A pinched arm opened our eyes to Math. The mysteries of adding, subtracting, multiplication, and division were boiled down to tables.
7 X 7 = 63.
How didn’t matter as long the charts were in our heads.
1 + 1 always equaled 2.
The flow of history was divided into dates important to the Holy Roman Church and America; 5 BC the Birth of Jesus Christ, 1215 the Magna Carta, 1492 Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, 1776 the American Declaration of Independence, 1914 the Start of the Great War, and the 2nd Vatican Council in 1961.
Questioning why the Birth of Jesus Christ was 5 years before Anno Domino or why Christmas was only four months later than the Immaculate Conception were grounds for a visit to the Principal. Sister Mary Eucharist corrected adolescence heresy with a yardstick. She expected the same iron hand from the nuns of her convent.
The mysteries of faith were solved by the memorization of the Baltimore Catechism; God made the world, God is the Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things, Man is a creature composed of body and soul, and made to the image and likeness of God and God made us to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven. God reigned over man with capital letters.
There was no detour from these tenets, until my 6th Grade teacher Sister Mary Osmond ignored the dictums of her superior. The ancient nun had taught in Egypt and entertained her pupils with tales of Africa.
“We lived by the Nile. After the harvest the children ran barefoot over the sharp stalks without slicing their feet.”
Closing my eyes I envisioned her students gliding over the fields of razors. Sister Mary Osmond opened our minds to worlds beyond Boston and we followed her new approach to learning like sheep.
Sister Mary Eucharist hated her.
“Fear. That’s how the Church rules the faithful. Fear.”
Sister Mary Osmond nodded to her superior with love and we reciprocated by scoring the highest test scores in the Boston Diocese. Her knowledge flooded our senses and she had an answer for everything.
Not all of it was true.
One afternoon Connie Botari cried in the back of the class.
Sister Mary Eucharist would have ignored the silent sobs.
Our teacher put down her chalk and approached Connie’s desk.
“I lost my headband.” Connie had looked very cute this morning with it on her head. She was pretty, although not a pretty as Kyla Rota. Neither girl knew that I lived and breathed on the same planet. I wore glasses and sat in the front of the class.
“Is that all?” Sister Mary Osmond tenderly touched the young girl’s head. “Don’t you worry about that?”
She paused for few seconds and I expected the venerable nun to tell the same thing that my mother told me when her six children lost a favorite toy.
“If you lose something than it wasn’t yours to begin with.”
My mother had learned that lesson from her mother. Nana had come over from Ireland in the Year of the Crow. She had been 14. Losing things was bad luck and she expected her family to avoid bad luck. Only St. Anthony had the power to help us find things.
“St. Anthony, St. Anthony, Please help me. Something is lost and can’t be found.”
I had rejected the belief in God at age 8 after the drowning of my best friend, but remained true to the powers of the saints. Most of them had pagan roots and St. Anthony of Padua had at one time lived in Morocco, which rendered his faith questionable in my eyes.
Sister Mary Osmond had a different take on loss and explained to Connie, “In heaven there is a closet with everything you ever lost waiting for you.”
“Really?” The cute brunette sniffed behind the swipe of her wrist.
“The closet has your name on it in gold letters. Nothing is truly gone. It remains in your memory, so you will enjoy seeing it again in heaven.” Sister Mary Osmond gave Connie a handkerchief with our teacher’s initials embroidered in a corner.
“You keep it. All possessions are transitory on this Earth. The only thing you need is a pure soul to get you in heaven. That purity is the key to the closet with all lost things.”
I was on the verge of pubescence. Impure thoughts outnumbered evil deeds. Heaven was for only true believers. I was going to Hell and I was certain that Lucifer had a closet loaded with the things that I never wanted in the first place.
I lowered my head into my hands. My toy boat and teddy bear would remain trapped in their heavenly closet, but then I remembered what Sister Mary Osmond had said about lost things. They remained forever in your head and I smiled, because forever will be a long time in Hell without a teddy bear.
As I got older the number of lost things grew with my travels around the world. My possessions were scattered across two houses in Thailand, a mountaintop cabin north of Santa Cruz, two farms in upstate New York, my apartment in Fort Greene, and my sister’s house outside of Boston.
Upon my return to the States from Thailand in 2008 I emptied my storage space in the East Village.
Not everything was there.
I was missing paintings, first editions, color slides as well as my cowboy boots and collection of nightclub memorabilia or at least that was what I thought until visiting a good friend out in Easthampton several years ago. in 2009 I
“I have several boxes of your in my cellar,” Billy O announced on a bright sunny morning.
“Yes, you left them here after you gave up your apartment.”
“That was in 2002.” The rental management had offered $10,000 for my vacating the tiny apartment on East 10th Street.
“You were living in Thailand.”
“Remember what you said?”
“You said that now I was just another guy from Boston who once lived in New York.” Twenty-nine years in the city didn’t make you a native to New Yorkers.
“But true, I thought I put everything in storage.”
“Wrong, boyo.” Billy O and I celebrated St Padraic’s Day every year. We were both Irish in the right way.
“You want to go check on them?” Both of us were recovering from LEAVING LAS VEGAS hangovers.
“No, let’s go for a swim in the ocean first.”
“You boys be careful,” his wife shouted from the pool. She came from the UK. Sara liked her ocean calm.
A distant hurricane was churning giant waves along the offshore sand bars. The water temperature was in the 70s. The salt air and danger of riptides had natural curative powers more important than a reunion with long-lost relics of the past.
“You boys be careful.” Billy’s wife shouted from the back porch. Two people had drowned the previous weekend.
“We’ll follow the buddy system.” The ocean was unforgiving to fools.
Amagansett Beach was ten minutes from Billy’s house via the back roads. His I-pod played John Lennon’s WORKING CLASS HERO, as we broke through the barricade of slow-moving SUVs and Porsche Reich sedans on Route 27. Billy is a local. He knows the back roads.
At the beach a parking space opened up next to the reserved handicapped spot. Billy grabbed it before an up-island vacationer could steer his Mercedes GL 405 between the white lines.
“Nice, huh?” Billy had a healthy disdain for the summer people, while recognizing his high-end real estate job survived on their largesse. He smiled to the irate driver of the luxury SUV and shrugged like he was sorry. It was a good act.
We walked onto the beach with towels over our shoulders.
Two men in their 50s wearing sun glasses.
The strand was crowded with weekenders enjoying themselves in the sun. Their blankets were surrounded by coolers. The sea air was tainted by a miasma of melting sun lotion.
“Straight into the water.” Billy was a good swimmer. He did laps at Guerneys three times a week.
“The only thing to do.” A single surfer bobbed on the waves beyond the nasty shore break. Few people were venturing farther than their knees into the sucking froth. I ran into the sea. Billy followed close behind.
The water was cold and the current grabbed our bodies like the Atlantic wanted us to see Iceland.
We ducked under the close-outs and stroked through the sets of double waves to the calm of the outer break. I couldn’t touch the bottom.
The lifeguard looked in our direction.
I waved that we were fine.
He nodded to say ‘be careful’.
Billy and I rode a few waves. One crunched my body into the sandy bottom, then tumbled me in an eddy of foam. My head bobbed to the surface. Billy was a few feet from me. We shared a glance and let the turbulent surge carry us to safety.
“I think I’m ready to look at those boxes now.” I was out of breath and exhilarated by the swim.
We returned to Billy’s house, listening to John Lennon’s IMAGINE. I was never much of a Beatles fan, but these two songs revealed the genius of John, although Billy and I had to both ask, “Why Yoko?”
My boxes were downstairs. One was covered in mould. A small carpet had rotted in the damp. There was no damage to the art work; cartoon series by Gaetano Liberatore, an oil painting from the Steaming Musselman Philippe Waty, two of Ellen Von Unwerth’s first photo or a suede jacket in a plastic bag.
“It still fits after all those years.”
“A little tight around the waist.” Billy’s wife said it in such a way that the truth didn’t hurt. The English are a polite people.
The next box was loaded with slides and photos from my travels around the world. Bali, Tibet, Laos, Peru, France, Ireland, China, Thailand, plus love letters dating back to 1976, the first year I moved to New York.
I read a few aloud.
“Sweet.” Billy’s wife was very sentimental.
The third box was a set of Wedgwood china from Bowdoin College. It had belonged to my Grandfather, who had graduated from the Maine College in 1912. I had served countless dinners on the plates at my old apartment on East 10th Street. The large serving bowl still bore the stains of a sauce. I guessed that it was tomato sauce for pasta.
The last box contained books; first editions of FRANNY AND ZOOEY, CATCHER IN THE RYE, MOONRAKER, and about twenty other classics. They would have been worth a fortune if signed or still in good condition. Thankfully I hadn’t put them in the box with the carpet.
“Thanks, Billy.” He could have thrown these out years ago.
“Well, we still have to discuss the storage fees.”
“Oh, Billy.” Sara was British. They had a different sense of humor from the Irish. “You can’t charge him anything.”
“I was just kidding.”
I wasn’t so sure. The Irish can be mean.
I told them about the closet of lost things.
“It was supposed to be in heaven, but there was one right here on Earth and it was in your basement.”
“Proving there is heaven on earth.” Billy O examined the copy of JUNKIE.
“And it’s where we find the things we love.”
Now if I could only find my lost teddy bear, my life would be complete.
I am a simple man.