I grew up in Paterson, NJ. It was a tough neighborhood where the second graders cursed, the nuns smoked and the dogs snarled. But the most feared group in all of Paterson … the ones who terrorized children … the ones who promised that retribution would be swift and merciless … was not the Jersey Mob but the Jersey Moms. And we all understood that you could never go against The Family.
In our neighborhood, every mother made it her business to make sure that every kid stayed out of trouble. Mrs Koos, down the street, was forever yelling from the stoop “Jesus Christ hanging on the cross, you’re gonna get hurt doing something like that!” When Stevie and Alfie’s Mom, who regularly wiped dirt from our faces with a spit-on tissue, would catch us misbehaving she would get eye level, shake us or hit our butt and hiss, “Don’t let me catch you doing that again.”
Mrs. George could break up a fight just by barking, “Hey you, come over here and sit until I tell you to get up”. However, she sometimes would give the offender a snack if they looked like they were truly sorry and promised not to do it again. So, we all learned how to play her.
Occasionally, the Jersey Moms would get into it amongst themselves over who hit whom first, but for the most part, they were loving and fair with us all of us. The other Mothers were like that. It didn’t matter, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Irish, Italian or Puerto Rican, the Jersey Moms all operated the same way except for mine. Because my mother was Deaf, the hearing world was one she didn’t live in. It was one she didn’t understand and a world that didn’t understand her.
In the Deaf community, Mommy was popular, quick with a joke and unselfish with her empathy. At home, she was strict and punished us regularly for being disobedient, but she never stepped in to reprimand someone else’s kid because her inability to hear made her uncomfortable and timid. She also never stuck-up for us when another Mom falsely accused us of a crime we didn’t commit.
It’s not that she ignored trouble. If someone fell off of a bike or was throwing asphalt like the Bell kids across the street often did, she would quietly try to fix the situation with a small wag of her head, a silent hug or a wave of her finger. No screaming or punishment was ever involved. And because she could only rely on her sight to catch the trouble makers, they often got away with murder when my she was around. It was embarrassing knowing that everyone in the neighborhood thought she was a pushover.
We belonged to St Brendan’s Parish where I also went to school. We had always been a devout family. We went to mass on Sundays and everyday during Lent. We went to weekly confession on Saturday afternoon which really threw a wrench into playtime. We fasted and abstained on the first Friday of the month, said Novenas and lit candles. Crucifixes, statues of saints, pictures of heaven and hell, Bible storybooks, pope mugs (which we were not permitted to use), and rosary beads crowed every available space in our house until it looked like a religious garage sale. My parents wanted to make sure there was an early warning system for those times we were thinking about committing a sin. The only thing that was missing was an angel in our bathroom to protect us while we were peeing. My parents believed they had three financial obligations: rent money, food money and money for the “suggested donation” at church. Everything else came second.
I loved going to my Catholic school. I loved the gray plaid uniform with its matching beanie. I loved all of my subjects, and not only did my homework but all of the extra credit too. I loved the maps that pulled down from the ceiling, smell of the blue disinfectant and the echo of footsteps when you were the only one in the hallway. I couldn’t wait for the school day to start so I could say the Pledge of Allegiance, read out loud, and pray at my desk. I especially loved the pencil sharpener that attached to the wall, and our janitor Mr. Malzone who smoked cigars in the school and had one eye that bounced around like superball. I was taught to work hard, pray hard and respect God, the teachers, and my parents, in that order.
One morning, when I was in the fourth grade, I asked Mommy to write a note for school. She replied by kneeling and tugging up my knee socks which were always poodling around my ankles. “Mom, stop! Don’t,” I signed, before explaining my request. “They want volunteers to work bingo. You can’t hear the numbers and I know you don’t like going to school, so I need an excuse.” Mommy leaned back on her heels and signed back, “I always so much nervous going your school. Your teachers hearing and smart. Maybe I no understanding them but if it’s important, you know I go.” She smiled and went back to grooming me. She was always doing that like the monkeys I saw on Wild Kingdom, except she didn’t eat the nits.
My school was always looking for parent volunteers and Mommy did her part by making cupcakes for the bake sales or crafts for “Brendan’s Bazaar,” but I knew from experience that anything requiring her attendance made her uneasy, so I never brought up being a lunch monitor or chaperone.
Another reason I never asked Mommy to volunteer was that she had a part-time job. It was the 1960’s and all the mothers we knew stayed at home. Our family didn’t have the luxury of relying on only one paycheck, so Mommy took a job from 9:00AM until 3:00PM at the Maryknoll Catholic Missionary Magazine managing the subscriptions. I knew Mommy’s job was my parents’ secret shame. I was told not to tell anyone especially the teachers because, “It’s no their business.” However, I always suspected my parents they didn’t want people to think that we were Deaf and poor.
A few years before this, my Mother and I went to my second-grade parent-teacher conference without my father, because he was working the second shift. Although he was also Deaf and never used his voice outside of the house, he was handsome, affable and comfortable with putting hearing people at ease. He would smile warmly and look people in the eye. Sometimes, he would pantomime a compliment, like. “Wow, look at this kid, he’s so big,” or, “This car is the best one made,” or, “The food was so delicious, I will have to waddle home.” My father would shake people’s hands or pat them on the back or take out a pad of paper to write, so my mother often relied on him to break the ice with strangers.
I didn’t feel nervous that night without my dad at the conference. Being the hearing child of Deaf parents, I did the kinds of things that many first-generation kids on my block did for their immigrant parents: made their phone calls, corrected their correspondence because English wasn’t their first language, and negotiated the parts of their life connected with the outside world. I was a shameless show-off, so I enjoyed taking care of things and explaining whatever my parents needed to know. When people would compliment me or give me the occasional cookie or quarter for being such a, “Good girl,” it always made me feel smug with pride.
Before this parent-teacher conference, I had handled these types of transactions on a small scale … explaining at the car repair shop and the bank, ordering at Pizza City and the deli or calling Granma to let her know we were making the two hour drive to visit. So, the night of the conference, I figured if the teacher decided not to write everything down, I would be doing the talking.
When we got to the school, my classroom looked so fancy, decorated with streamers and the glittered posters we had been making for days. Mommy bowed her head at the crucifix as a sign of respect and wandered around the room carefully inspecting each piece of artwork, waiting until all the other parents had left. It was only then that she ventured to the front of the room with me.
“Mrs. O’Keefe, this is my mother,” I said.
Mrs. O’Keefe’s had her gray hair was all done up and she was wearing a pretty blue dress and a gold circle pin I had never seen before. She smiled kindly, looked right into Mommy’s eyes and shouted, “WELL HELLO! NICE TO MEET YOU!.” Mommy lowered her eyes, and using her Deaf voice, she whispered. “I’m so nervous to meet you. How is Arlee doing in school?” She smiled shyly, and then suddenly, awkwardly, remembered to put out her hand to shake.
I wondered what Mrs. O’Keefe would tell her? A few times I hadn’t finished my arithmetic because I was dilly-dallying, and once she made me clean out my sloppy desk in front of the whole class. In addition to the jumble of paper and books, elastic bands and chewed pencils, I found an old sandwich smashed in waxed paper. I wasn’t worried though because I made sure that I hid the sandwich in the trash before she could see it, and I always got good grades.
I looked at Mrs O’Keefe, “My mother wants to know how I’m doing in school.” She nodded her head generously and talked in her regular low voice, “Arlene is a very good student.”
We were used to people yelling around us, and I took it as a compliment that they were trying to be nice, even though they did look like idiots.
Mommy watched me intently as I confidently signed. “I am a very good student.” She smiled.
Then Mrs O’Keefe said, “She’s a very smart little girl.” My hands jabbered with joy as I signed, “She said I am very smart.” This was a coup. Mommy would let me stay up late and she would brag to all her friends. Then Mrs O’Keefe lowered her voice, looked over the tops of her glasses and said, “But she talks entirely too much”.
My thoughts whipped around like a pinwheel in a hurricane, and magically, my hands took on a lie of their own. I suddenly found myself wordlessly signing, “But the boy behind her talks too much. Mommy and Mrs. O’Keefe looked at each other, nodded their heads in agreement, exchanged knowing glances and timidly shook hands goodbye. Crashing through the double doors into the night, I felt like I had just discovered my super-power: the power to hide the truth from my parents.
I didn’t feel that I was being deceitful, exactly. After all, I was Catholic and I knew I could go to hell but I didn’t want my parents to worry so I did my best to protect them in just like I was going to take care of this Bingo situation.
“No, don’t worry about it, I signed to Mommy. “We’ll just write an excuse. It’s not a big deal.” Mommy first took out the scratch pad so we could figure out what to say, the two of us weighing each word, crossing out and starting again. We decided that the best tactic was to say that she simply had another appointment. That way, we didn’t have to explain about not being able to hear the numbers and the working part-time because it was, “No their business.” Mommy copied the note onto nice manila paper, signed it with a flourish; Sincerely Yours, Mrs. Dorothy C. Malinowski, folded it, dropped it into my book-bag, (which also was always a mess and harbored many stale, fugitive lunches) and kissed me goodbye.
That day should have been the happiest moment of my fourth grade existence because it was the day that Jan Mascellino, the most popular of the “Populars” picked me to be part of her group. Everyone knew that being part of the 6 Girl Army of Cool had its advantages. They had an all-access pass to the front of any line. They dictated fashion trends like how the beanie was to be worn. One year, they decided it was cocked to the left, the next year back onto the crown of the head. The Populars ascribed the ranking of everyone in our grade, and had first dibs on the boys they would cheer for during gym. I always got John Perragallo a mid-level kid who was smart, nice and had a head the size of a basketball. I could do worse.
Huddled together and squirming like kittens on that sunny but brisk Thursday, Jan’s clique was having another one of its infinitely private and enviable discussions when she looked up, sighed disgustedly and said, “Arlene, come here. We need you to even up the “Mummala-Cummala line.” Me, included with the Populars? I was elated at the unexpected miracle from a benevolent God in the parking lot/playground/loading dock of St Brendan’s school.
Mummala-Cummala was a call-and-response song accompanied by dance steps and snapping fingers. Two rows of girls would line up face-to-face in equal numbers, the first row, dancing and singing “Mummala-Cummala, Cummala-Veesta,” followed by the second row of girls who would repeat, ”Mummala-Cummala, Cummala-Veesta,” followed by the first line of girls singing, “Hey Nonny, Nonny La-Veesta,” and so on and so forth. This eight-line, call-and-response would then be repeated thousands of times by dozens of uniformed girls every day before school, during recess and on the way home.
I didn’t run with this clique and was never asked to participate, but today the beautiful Maureen Miller was absent, so there were an odd number of girls. They needed someone to even up the line. This one-day-only entrée to the Populars could change my life.
Occasionally, Maryann Rodzen, who lived next door to a Popular, and I would let ourselves fantasize about becoming a permanent alternate, the “go-to-girl” in case someone was sick or hurt or dead. However, we both understood that we could never be gifted with a guaranteed spot because the caste system had already been pre-determined by the time we were in the first grade.
Jan only had to murmur her request. That was all the invite I needed, before I flung aside my book-bag and ran over to the cool girls as if I’d always belonged. We were only a few minutes into the singing, dancing and snapping when I felt a looming over my shoulder and heard the familiar clickety-clack of rosary beads. I looked up to see that it was Sister Mary Concepta, the meanest nun the whole school, who had stopped me. “Miss Malinowski, You left your book-bag in a pedestrian zone and I tripped over it. I could have been seriously injured were it not for the graces of Almighty God.” Her dry, bony hands were grabbing my ear, pulling me across the playground. She sat me down hard on the steps, and I tried not to cry. Watching from the sidelines, I didn’t know which hurt more, my pinched ear or the mortification. But one thing was clear, I was destined never to “Mummula-Cummala” with the Populars again.
Sister Mary Concepta was about hundred and ten years old and had been dying of cancer for decades, but everyone said that she would live forever because she was so mean that not even God wanted her. She was one of those nuns whose beady little eyes roamed the classroom all day for another victim; someone too fat, too stupid, too poor, too weak or too different. Then she would break them, all in the name of the Good Lord, of course. It was Catholic School Darwinism, at its best.
I had become the bacteria in her microscope, and there was no escaping. Everything I did was scrutinized and magnified. If I accidentally dropped my ruler, she’d accuse me of doing it on purpose, and I’d get a whack on the palm–with my own ruler. If my work wasn’t perfect, I was sent to the board to do it over and over, each time getting a huge X drawn through my answer in chalk until it was right. Flying erasers often found my head, and the living daylights were shaken out of me until I felt like a milk shake in the blender. Sister Mary Concepta, who looked like a raptor in a black and white habit, became my own personal drill sergeant. After only a few weeks, I could hardly lift my eyes from my penny loafers, and the Populars had shunned me, tittering loudly whenever I got in trouble. Populars are like that.
I never knew when, where or how Sister Mary Concepta was going to swoop down like a crow to peck my eyes out, but I knew that she would. The other kids couldn’t help me, because then they might get it too. Bullies are like that. But the worst part was the shame and the fear that walked along side me where my guardian angel was supposed to be to be. I had become a puny, anxious nerve-bucket. Once in a while, there would be a kid who might give me a little smile or sneak to help me pick up my lunchbox and check my thermos for broken glass, but most of the time I was alone.
However, I was not her sole victim. She scared Louis Triganni so much, that he peed on himself with such regularity.that it was hard to recognize him with dry pants on. And Susan Wildermuth started to pull out her eyelashes until she resembled an ostrich. No one was exempt from Sister Mary Concepta except the Populars, or so it seemed to me.
One day when the entire class was talking, Sister pointed to me and said, “Miss Malinowski, in order to exonerate the class for talking, stand in the corner like Christ on the Cross.” It was the first time I had ever heard of this type of punishment, so I didn’t have any role models, except Jesus, of course. The class froze. The jibber-jabber stopped, as I stood in the front of the room underneath the crucifix which was positioned in between the map of New Jersey and the loud speaker. I glanced up at the cross to study it. It looked simple enough. I stretched out both of my arms, crossed one foot over the other, and then debated. “Should I do the head or not?” The pull was irresistible. It’s true that I wanted to be authentic, but I also wanted to be funny. I wanted her to know that I could not be broken, so I cocked my head down and to the right and made the sad Jesus face. The class laughed, and I realized that there was one silver-lining to the whole situation. I was fast becoming a celebrity with the boys at school for being able to take it and not cry and I was a girl. You couldn’t buy this kind of PR in grammar school, where the popular boys had more sway then the popular the girls.
But in the end Sister Mary Concepta was wearing me down and I tried everything to fix it between us. Everything from writing a note of apology, to carrying her book-bag to the convent. I even tried praying Mary and for the intercession of the Saints to help me out. But in the end, nothing worked, and I knew I couldn’t tell my mother. After all what could she do? She was Deaf .
The crazy dream started soon after that. It was always the same. I would be at Nash Park swinging so hard I felt like my feet could kick the blue out of the sky. My parents were pushing me as I closed my eyes, faced off with the sun and jumped. WHOAAA!
I would land and tell my parents I had to go to the bathroom. They would wave me off smiling and as I walked across the playground woozy from the swing to heaven, kids would suddenly surround me, running and laughing, screaming and playing. When I squinted my eyes, they all looked like a bag of jellybeans being shaken. I’d feel happy as I considered what I might eat later at the Hot Grill across the street. Maybe I’d order a “hamburger all the way,” with the brown, hot sauce or maybe French fries but never both. We couldn’t afford it. I’d walk into the damp, smelly bathroom where the cool felt good on my skin and my eyes would start to adjust to the darkness, when I’d feel a brick of fear smash into me, realizing what was about to happen. I’d start to suck air. “Get Out” my guts warned me. Every muscle strained as I felt like I was running in quicksand.
“Nooooo! Come back!” I’d holler, as I ran out of the stone building and turned the corner. But it was already too late. Everyone had left. Everyone had left Nash Park. I heard the gate shut and the chain lock. Just beyond the gate, everyone was leaving. Beyond the gate, I’d see the back of Mommy and Daddy’s heads walking away from me, leaving me all alone
“Help me,” I’d shriek, knowing they couldn’t hear me, but I’d keep screaming anyway.
My heart hurt with every step they’d take. I’d smash my body into the grate of the fence and try to will it through the metal. All alone in Nash Park, that’s when I’d sense them. They would come for me like they always did. I’d hear them bray, hiss and spit before I would see them: The llamas. Hundreds of them would approach from behind the bathrooms, from under the swings, from the monkey bars and the dug out. I could feel the ground shiver behind me as I started to climb the fence. The sun would become blinding, and sounds would get louder and louder as the llamas came closer to take me.
Then I would wake up in my bed, sweaty, breathless and breathing . After a while, I would get up to go sit on the floor of our dining room. There, the light of the red and green neon sign from the White Leaf Cleaners streamed in through the window and it always calmed me.
The troubles with Sister Mary Concepta and the dreams kept going until it happened: It was a sunny day at school. Sister Mary Concepta called to me, “Miss Malinowski, you are a disgrace to God himself. Why didn’t you complete this bingo form as instructed and write down your phone number?”
Standing up at my desk, as was the custom to show respect, I replied, “We don’t have a phone, Sister.”
“You don’t have a phone! She wheezed like an accordion. Miss Malinowski, you are the Devil’s lie box.”
I imagined a gigantic package festooned with red pitchforks and Satan horns that held every untruth I had ever told. Sister peered so close, I could see a few hairs the color of dust escaping from her veil, which answered the question we had all been wondering for years; Oh my God, nuns did not shave their heads. They were not bald. It was a shocking revelation on the same level as unlocking the 3rd secret of Fatima.
Sister Mary Concepta continued to stare.
“Sister, I’m not a Lie Box. My parents are Deaf and that’s why we don’t have a phone. We use the one at the candy store.” I was being honest although it felt like I wasn’t telling the truth because I had the “Lie Box” picture stuck in my head.
“Oh right, your parents are the deef and dumb mutes.” She paused and mused for a moment.
She’s taking pity on me, I thought. I should have used this Deaf thing a long time ago. Of course. I suddenly saw all of my problems being carried away by happy little bluebirds like in the movie Snow White.
Then, rolling her beady eyes to heaven, she sighed, “Well, I should have known. How can I discuss your conduct problems with your deef and dumb parents who can’t talk?”
Something inside of me exploded. “There’s no such word as DEEF, my parents are Deaf and just because they don’t hear, doesn’t mean you can’t talk to them.” Then under my breath I added, “They’re not the ones who are dumb around here,” even though I knew better.
“Once again, you’re as bold and brazen as brass, spat Sister Mary Concepta. “Kneel at the crucifix and think about your sins. I don’t know what kind of heathen parents would bring the sinful likes of you into the world.”
Time both expanded and collapsed as I saw myself getting expelled from my favorite school. But, I quickly rationalized, that if I end up going to PS 25, at least I could wear culottes and sneakers.
I knelt down and stared at poor Jesus hanging there on the cross, and for the first time I broke down and cried. I cried all through school and all through detention. Eying me, Sister Mary Concepta exhaled, “Go ahead Missy, cry me a river”. She seemed tired too.
After I was finally dismissed, I picked up my book-bag and cried all the way home. When I got there, Mommy was on her hands and knees next to a pail of water laced with Mr. Clean. I knew she couldn’t hear me and didn’t want to scare her so I stamped on the old wooden floor so she could feel the vibrations. She saw me in the doorway and with her rubber gloves still on and said “Arlee, what’s the matter? Why you cry?” Normally, watching her sign with big, fat yellow cleaning gloves would make me laugh like crazy, but not today.
“Nothing. Don’t worry about it,” I signed.
“I’m a mother. I can help you.”
“You can’t do anything! You’re Deaf! So leave me alone!”
My Mother’s hands darted fast and hard, “Arlee, if you don’t tell me what’s happening, I go to the school right now.”
Everyone knew that there was no fate worse than having your Mother show up at school getting all involved. It would be horrible having to watch Sister Mary Concepta vaporize her. Or worse, having my mother side with Sister. So I gave up. “OK Ma! I’ll tell you! You can’t go to the school. I’ll tell you.”
And I did tell her, about the Populars, “Mumumala-Cummala”, the book-bag, the ear pulling, the shaking, the yelling, the hanging like Jesus, the lie box. I told her everything.
“Come here,” Mommy signed as she hugged my head. “My poor Arlee. Mommy will take care if it. Put on your coat.”
“No Mom! Just leave it.” I begged.
But Mommy didn’t listen, and it wasn’t because she couldn’t hear. Mommy marched the four blocks to the convent, her blue sweater flapping furiously in the wind like the wings of an angel with me dragging behind her. “Wait! No Ma, Please!”
When we got to the convent, I could smell dinner coming through the door, and I knew this was a bad idea. I pulled on her and smiled through my panic, “Don’t worry about it. I’m better. I can take care of this myself.”
Mommy bent down to my height and mouthed, “I take care of it. Finished.” And for a sliver of a moment I saw her head pull back in hesitation before she rang the doorbell. It chimed loud and low and long, and after an unhurried minute, I heard the latch unfasten. My heart was pounding in my chest as the door slowly opened and there standing in all of her meanness, was Sister Mary Concepta. She smiled as if she was waiting for us to drop by and have some cake and coffee. She started to speak, but Mommy cut her off, looking her straight in the eye, “Sister, I no care if you’re teacher. I no care you if you’re big shot hearing nun. I no care you think I’m dumb because I’ma Deaf . This is my daughter, you no touch her. You no talk fresh mouth or you be sorry.” And then her eyebrows shot up as she added, “Sister, I think you’re little bit not smart because God no like mean nun. Oh-no!”
For the first time in my life, Sister Mary Concepta was absolutely speechless, and I never loved anyone as much as I loved Mommy in that moment.
“Come on Arlee. Time to go home.”
To this day, I try to imagine what was going through Mommy’s head to give her the courage to stand up to everything she feared. Because after that day, the day that Mommy roared, and the angels sang, things were different for me at school. I felt like I was in the center of a Deaf world that loved me, listened to me and protected me. Mothers are like that.