Feeding Emily

Her crinkly slip scratched, and the elastic on the puffy sleeves of her dress cut into the soft skin of her upper arms. Emily closed her eyes and folded her hands together and offered it up as a sacrifice.

All around her, on this Easter Sunday, dressed up families were smiling, all shiny and clean and pretty. Emily’s dress wasn’t new; it was last year’s ‘good’ hand-me-down from Ellen. And her family never went to Mass all together, not even on big holy days. Somewhere else in this crowded church, her brother Andy was squirming in his pew, probably close to the door so he could dart out before Father Hamson, who wanted Andy to sign up to be an altar boy, could catch him by the collar. If indeed Andy was actually there, and hadn’t ripped open his collection envelope (sometimes Emily found the pieces scattered as she walked home) and kept the quarter.

Andy said ten was too old to start as an altar boy, and he said Father Hamson’s breath smelled like a dead fish, and he said if he wanted to find God, he’d look outside in the woods God made and not in some stupid, smelly church. So sometimes he skipped, Emily was pretty sure. She was afraid for his mortal soul, of course; Sister Angela had explained what happened to children who died with mortal sins on their souls, and skipping Mass was certainly a mortal sin. But she was more afraid of what would happen at home if she told. Andy would exact some kind of retribution, but worse, their mother would beat him, maybe with the broomstick like she’d done once when she caught him mixing wine with the grape juice.

Emily had hid in the back closet that time, on top of the empty burlap potato sacks and behind the winter coats, and covered her ears. Later Andy saw her there and laughed at her.

“What are YOU worried about?” he said. And added jauntily, “She can’t hurt me. But this is a doozy of a bruise. Wait till I show Donnie.”

Donnie was a wild boy, Andy’s best friend. He went to public school, and the nuns said parochial school kids should only make friends among their own classmates. But Andy was bold and fast and he didn’t care.

He’d make up a story about falling out of a tree or ramming into something with his bike, and then he’d pick up his shirt and show Donnie the bruise on his back, and Donnie would say, “Wicked!”

Emily had seen this happen before.

Her sister Ellen and brother Frank got up and went to 8 am Mass. They both preferred dragging their butts out of bed to waiting for High Mass to be over to eat their Easter goodies. The family rule was that no one could touch their Easter baskets until they’d gone to communion, and the 10 o’clock Mass was a High one, so it went on and on. Ellen had an alarm clock, so she got herself up and dressed and pounded on Frank’s door but never waited for him.

When Emily was ten, she could get working papers and pick strawberries and grapes when they were in season, and she’d save the money she earned for an alarm clock. But until then, no one thought to wake her.

Her brother Joey was only four, and he didn’t have to go to Mass yet; his mortal soul wasn’t old enough to be in danger. Her mother got up early and went to 7 a.m. Mass, and her father usually worked on Sundays. When your work supports a family, Mom always said, you get special dispensation from going to church.

**********

The Gospel was so long on Easter, and Father Hamson droned on and on, and Emily knew she should try to listen. But she was thinking about her Easter basket and the one, solid, chocolate Easter bunny that waited for her. It was about as big as her hand. They got the same thing each year: that bunny, some foil wrapped eggs, a marshmallow peep and some jelly beans that rolled through the plastic grass and onto the bottom of the basket. Emily didn’t like the peep or the jelly beans—she always put them in the dish on the dining room table, and someone else grabbed them pretty fast, but she loved the chocolate.

Her friends got the most amazing things in their baskets. Once, Nancy C had gotten a hollow chocolate bunny two feet high. Even though it was hollow, the chocolate was really thick, and she brought chunks of it to school to share. Emily thanked her so much, but Nancy C waved it away.

“I’m not that crazy about chocolate, anyway,” she said airily. Which confirmed Emily’s opinion that Nancy C was just not right.

Her friends Abby and Mary Sue McCloskey, who were Irish twins and in the same grade, got solid white chocolate bunnies and little chocolates shaped like animals. They shared, too, and Emily especially liked the little chocolate ducks that, if you turned them a certain way, suddenly became bunnies instead. What was once a bill became bunny ears: a little bit of Easter magic.

And there wasn’t, she thought, too much magic about Easter. She didn’t remember ever believing that there was an actual Easter bunny. It was too obvious that her parents pulled the baskets out of the attic every year, and the chocolates often had price tags on them from the Nu-Way store where her mother shopped. But the having of chocolate all to yourself was a treat, for sure, and Joey did believe, so she kept her mouth shut.

**********

When Mass was finally over, she slipped out the side door, so she didn’t have to shake Father Hamson’s hand; he terrified her, and besides, there was a big clump of people surrounding him. She ran home; their big old house was on the same road, not all that far from the church. When she got there, she ran upstairs and hung up the scratchy dress (maybe this would be the last time she ever had to wear it!), and put on her play clothes, a soft striped t-shirt and an old pair of dungarees. The jeans had been Andy’s, and they were a little too long, but they were just right across the belly. Because, as her brothers often reminded her, she was fat. Emily folded up the cuffs as neatly as she could and ran downstairs in her sock feet.

Her Easter basket was sitting on the dining room table, and the chocolate bunny was gone. Disbelieving, she checked all over the table, under the basket, and under the table, even on the end tables, the chair seats, the shelves. Her bunny was nowhere to be found.

“Mom!” she yelled, and her mother snapped “What???” from the kitchen. Emily pushed through the swinging door. She felt drawn with loss.

“My chocolate bunny’s gone.”

There was a silence. Her mother turned from where she was peeling potatoes; her hair was all crazy and she had on an old housedress. Frank, who had been out working on his bike, turned from the sink, lifted a glass of water to his lips, and smirked. Ellen had the long phone cord wrapped around her wrist, and she rolled her eyes and took the phone into the back hall.

It could have been either of them, Emily thought. It could have been Joey, who had recently taken to climbing on a chair and helping himself to things on the table. (But if it was Joey, there would be wrappers to be found. Joey wouldn’t think to hide the evidence.) She was bereft and shaking and angry. “Mom,” she said, imploring.

“What?” snapped her mother. “You shouldn’t have left your basket on the table. That means everyone can help themselves. You know that.”

Emily stared at her. It had always been the rule that they left their baskets on the table so Monkey, the dog, didn’t eat their chocolate. It never meant someone could just take your bunny.

Mom tsk-ed at her. “If you got your lard butt out of bed and went to early Mass you could have eaten that bunny by now.” She swung back to the potatoes, her back an unassailable divide.

************

Emily took all her foil eggs up to her room, even though they weren’t allowed. No food in rooms was a big rule, but Emily thought bitterly that rules seemed to change without warning. Her room was tiny, maybe a maid’s room once when rich people lived in this house, and she squeezed in between the bed and the closet door and sat on the floor. She peeled the foil from the eggs—there were seven, but there might have been more: maybe someone stole those, too. She lined them up on her blue-jeaned legs, and slowly, carefully, ate them one by one.

There was no use in crying, she knew that: often she got whacked just for crying. (Her mother would say, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” which was terrifying, and also made no sense. And of course then she couldn’t stop. Better just not to start.) But she also knew that she had been wronged: it WAS a big deal, taking that bunny. It was something she waited for all year. It was something she loved. Stealing the bunny was mean.

But if you whined and carried on, things did not get any better. You had to act like the martyrs: strong and brave, even if you were jelly inside. Emily knew the martyrs had horrible ends, but at least they went with dignity and were remembered forever because of it.

She wouldn’t become a saint over the loss of a chocolate bunny—even an eight-year-old knew THAT—but she could do the strong thing and rise above it. She would be cheerful and kind, and she would not give her mother a reason to say, “You’d better wipe that puss off your face or I’ll wipe it off for you.”

Somewhere in her, she felt being strong would be noble, and somewhere else, in a deeper, more devious spot, she also knew that it would drive someone crazy.

Her doorknob rattled and she bunched together the foil from the eggs and slid the little ball into her pocket.

“I hear you lost your chocolate bunny,” Andy said, and he wasn’t being friendly.

“Oh, it’s all right,” Emily said, practicing. She smiled at him. “I don’t really care that much.”

He stared at her or a moment.

“Yes, you do,” he said. “Of course, you do.”

**********

Dad was home in time for dinner, which was ham and mashed potatoes, canned peas, and a chocolate layer cake for dessert. Emily didn’t really like mashed potatoes with no gravy, but she took a spoonful and made a ditch for the butter, which melted and made a gravy-like pool. She ate them without complaint, along with a spoon of the pasty peas. The ham had baked a long time; it was hard to cut with her knife and fork and finally, she just picked up her slice and chewed on it. But it was salty and good.

Mom cut everyone pieces of cake and Dad sat back and relaxed. He didn’t eat the cake, but he had a cup of coffee and lit a cigarette, and he looked around at all the kids and said, “So? Eat all the candy yet?”

There was a babble of replies, and then Mom looked pointedly at her. Emily made herself smile.

Mine’s all gone!” she said, and she scooped up a big piece of chocolate cake. She loved it with white frosting. Mom narrowed her eyes suspiciously, waiting for a follow-up, and Frank and Ellen swiveled their heads to stare at her. Andy snorted, Joey babbled, and Emily took another bite of cake.

*************

That night she dreamt that she had an invisible friend who walked with her for hours in the woods out behind the backyard. Just before she had to go in, the friend said to her, “We’ll feed you.” Emily wasn’t sure why that made her feel so good, but she had that hazy happy feeling when she woke up, the kind of feeling when you don’t want your dream to end.

They had the whole week off, and she went to the library by herself, because eight was old enough to have your own card. She got four books, three biographies and one story to read with Joey. When she didn’t have chores, she read. She liked to read in the scratchy red chair in the living room, but sometimes her mother would say, “Get outside!” and Emily would take her book and go sit behind the old garage in a spot she’d made. There was a broken chair and an old sheet stuck between a short tree and the back garage wall; she’d wrap the sheet around her if it was windy or cold, and usually no one bothered her for hours.

She read about George Washington Carver one day and thought she probably wouldn’t be a farmer. She read about Jane Addams and Hull House, and she thought maybe she would like to work at a mission in a big city and teach poor people to read and cook and shop for groceries. She read about Helen Keller and plugged her ears and closed her eyes and tried to figure out how a deaf and blind person could learn to talk.

On Thursday morning, when she woke up, there was a Hershey bar next to the lamp on her nightstand. She hid it in her underwear drawer and tried to figure out who left it there. But nobody said anything, and she couldn’t see any clues on their faces. She broke off a row each day and ate it before she took her bath and brushed her teeth; it was a little secret waiting for her at the end of each day, a reward for being strong and good. It was gone by the time she started school again on Monday.

On Wednesday, Andy’s teacher, Mrs. McLean, saw her in the hall after school and asked her to come to the fifth-grade classroom. She said she didn’t have any fifth graders who were interested in washing the boards and clapping the erasers, and she wondered if Emily would do it. Emily lit up; she had looked forward to the day she’d be old enough to do these chores. Mrs. McLean showed her how to wash the board, and she went with her to the side door by the playground and put a wedge in the door so Emily could get back in after the erasers were clean.

When she came back, Mrs. McLean inspected the erasers very seriously and smiled. “Good job,” she said. She was a short teacher, and fat, and she looked jolly. “Especially for your first time. I knew you’d be a good worker.”

Mrs. McLean went to her big old wooden desk and pulled open a drawer. She winked at Emily. “Now, I’m not going to pay you every time you do this, but I just happened to have this left over from the Easter party, and I thought you might like it.” Mrs. McLean’s husband ran a pharmacy that sold candy, and her class always got the best and biggest treats.

It was a solid white chocolate lamb, a big one. Emily’s eyes got wide; she couldn’t believe it. It was way too big to eat at once, so she and Mrs. McLean decided she could work on it each day after the boards were clean; she’d leave it wrapped up in cellophane in a bag in the teacher’s desk.

On the way home, Emily, skipping, stopped as a thought occurred to her. Had Andy told Mrs. McLean about her rabbit? That would mean he felt bad about it, and it would also mean Mrs. McLean felt sorry for her.

But then she realized she was EARNING that chocolate, doing work no fifth grader would do, and so she started skipping again.

A few weeks later, after the white chocolate lamb disappeared, the lady at the library checked out her books and commented on what an interested reader Emily was. She told her that the rule was only four books at a time, but that they were going to change the rule for Emily: she could take six.

“But don’t tell your friends,” the lady laughed, and then she invited Emily back to the room where librarians take their breaks, a room like a kitchen. She poured Emily a glass of milk and gave her three chocolate chip cookies. “I baked those for my grandson,” the lady said, “but he got braces and isn’t supposed to have many sweet things.”

Emily bit into the cookie; it was crispy and chewy and loaded with chocolate chips—chocolate chips in every bite! Her mother’s cookies were soft and plump and usually one cookie only had two or three chocolate morsels. She ate all three cookies, trying not to wolf them down, to be polite. And then she thanked the lady so much and took home six books.

She savored every treat. It seemed that something special would happen, and that would give her a little happy boost for days or a week, and just as the glow wore off, something else would take its place. The man at the five and dime stopped her one day and asked if she liked chocolate covered peanuts, which she did of course. He gave her a little white bag full; they were all that was left, he said, and he wanted to clean the bin. Another time she found a dollar on the sidewalk; she asked her teacher what to do with it, and the teacher said it wasn’t enough money to report and she could keep it. She bought candy at the drugstore and took it home to share.

At first she wondered if someone felt sorry for her because of the missing Easter bunny, if someone in her family had told a teacher or someone else, who went around to all their friends and said, “Here’s something very sad which happened to this little girl.” And she started watching, a little breathless, for the good things to happen. Eventually, something always did.

And surprising things kept happening even after her family moved in fourth grade, to a smaller house that was closer to her dad’s work, and she went to a different school, where nobody could possibly know about the missing bunny when she was eight. She remembered what the invisible friend had told her in that dream,–“We’ll feed you!”– and gradually she came to accept this: that life can be very, very hard, but that sometimes good things can happen, especially if you don’t whine, and if you are brave and strong.

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Loolie’s Latest Monkey Business

 Monkey 1

Sacrifice and Celebration–different definitions

The sun is pouring through my dining room window as I write this in the early morning of Easter 2014–a glorious sun, like a metaphor, like a proof.  The season of sacrifice is over, and the day of celebration has arrived.

I made my pig-picking cake this morning, and we feasted on that for breakfast; there is Anthony-Thomas chocolate waiting on the counter. In an hour or two, we’ll get in the car and drive for five hours to the home of Mark’s parents, and we’ll feast again, on traditional Easter noshes provided by Mark’s brother and sister-in-law, Thomas and Susan.

Lent is over; the season of sacrifice is over.  But I keep thinking about some young men I met recently.  Their time of sacrifice seems to roll on and on.

We were putting together, at the College where I work, a workshop called ‘Dealing with Challenging Classroom Situations,’ and planning what topics to cover: What to do when a student is hostile, or helpless, or rude or distracted.  How to proceed when a student stops coming to class or shares dire information about a family situation.  What actions to take when a student really seems to need accommodations but refuses to seek them, or conversely, says s/he needs them, but doesn’t have the paperwork to support the claim.

We were talking about which campus experts could best cover which topic when my young colleague Heather made a suggestion.

“Why,” she said, “don’t you talk about about returning veterans in the classroom?”

So that’s exactly what we did.  Heather, who is one of our outstanding veterans’ support officers, gave us some scenarios, dug up grant money for refreshments and door prizes, and found three student veterans, all young men, to serve as resource people.

We set up the panel discussion in a ‘speed-dating’ format, so the participants, in small groups, spent fifteen minutes talking to each of five sets of ‘experts’.  When the whistle blew (or in this case, when the screaming monkey doll flew to the center of the floor), each group moved to the table to their left, and a new discussion.

There was great information being shared from the Advising Center, from Disability Services, from the Student Success personnel who help track down the absentee student.  But what the student veterans had to say impressed people the most. They didn’t talk about their service, except to tell us where they’d served–one in Kuwait, one in Afghanistan, one in Iraq.

“How was it?” someone asked, clumsily.

There was a pause, and then–I’m making up these names–Kurt said, “It was hot.”

Steve added, “It was really hot.”

And Bill agreed.  “You’ve never seen hot like that hot.”

And that was the extent of their comments on active duty.

(It reminded me of the only time I’d ever seen my father get truly, white-edged angry. We were at a family-style picnic and an acquaintance of my dad’s was holding forth on World War II.

“I saw my buddies die on either side of me,” the man said.  “I’ll never forget how it sounded. I’ll never forget the smell of battle.”

Not long after the man started expounding, my parents bundled us into the old Buick, and we headed home.  But before he started the car, Dad–who never got mad, and very seldom used any kind of vulgar language–said, “That horse’s ass was a typewriter jockey.  He never left the States.”

He added, “If you’ve been there, you don’t talk about it.”)

What the student veterans did tell us, though, was about the difficulties they encounter transitioning from active duty into the classroom. They don’t like to sit with their backs to a room’s only entry.  They are there to learn, and they are really bothered when other students goof off, are rude, or disrespect an instructor.

Kurt told a story about a classmate who, asked to pull something up on a computer screen, displayed a vulgar and distasteful picture.

“The instructor turned beet-red, but tried to play it down,” he said.  “She said, ‘Oh, I think you got one of those annoying pop-ups.’  I wish she would have told her, though.  I wish she would have kicked her out.”

They talked about the conditions they brought back from war matter-of-factly.

“I let all my instructors know that I might have to leave the classroom when my PTSD kicks in,” said Steve.  “They’ve been good.”

They talked about wounds to limbs and wounds to brains.  Traumatic Brain Injury was a common enough circumstance to warrant its own acronym–TBI.

And they talked about their struggles in the classroom.  Most times, they said, a vet won’t complain.  He or she will just cope, or if that doesn’t work, drop the class.

Should we ask veterans to identify themselves in the classroom? an instructor asked.

The young men looked at each other.

If it’s relevant, they agreed.  If the class is talking about war, or the military, or a Middle Eastern country, of course, ask if anyone’s been there and done that.

But to recognize vets and say thank you?  Not so much, they said.

They just want to get their degrees, move on, and get jobs.  They’re not looking for praise or gratitude or recognition.  Just make it possible for us, they told us, to get this job done.

After the workshop, a participant said, “Boy, give me twenty four students like THAT in my classroom.”

Amazing, we all agreed. But it was a perilous and overly costly course for these young men to reach their points of extreme maturity.

Much of what the young vets said–and one looked young enough to be a high school senior–nagged at me.  I went home and did some research, and what I found isn’t very ‘feel-good’ information.

An article in the Huffington Post (3/19/13), tells me the transition back to civilian life is fraught with hardship.  Unemployment for post-9/11 vets is higher than the national average.  Medicine, the article said, is making it possible for veterans to survive with catastrophic injuries–or, to be blunt, wounds that not so long ago would have killed the veteran are being treated successfully, and people are returning to civilization a different form of themselves–missing limbs, brains irreparably damaged or changed,–and they are expected to get back to normal life.

In 2010, the article stated, 22 returning vets committed suicide EACH DAY, and 228,875 vets who served in the Middle East conflicts had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Homelessness among returning vets, according to the Huffington Post, was still way high, but getting a little better.  At the same time, veterans’ education benefits were being suspended by several branches of the military.

I got on the Wounded Warrior website and reviewed the results of their survey of the veterans who, returning with one of those catastrophic injuries and looking to the program for help, had offered their insights. Depression and PTSD hover around 75 per cent for this group; they have sleep issues, and their energy is low, and many state that they require the assistance of another person or program to get through the day. It’s an eye-opening report; if time allows, you may want to look it up.

What can we do?  The best I’ve been able to come up with is to create a place where we can comfortably talk. In a kind of accidental serendipity, and because of Heather’s outreach, the workshop provided that.  It opened my eyes, and the eyes of my colleagues. I’m proud to work at a College with an official “Veteran Friendly” designation, proud of my colleague Heather and the wonderful work her office does.

This Easter morning unfolds, and my silly little sacrifices–no chocolate, no soda pop, no noshing after dinner–come to an end. There ought to be a different word for that kind of giving up, a smaller, less consequential word, than the one used to describe what the young veterans we talked to gave up in their active duty tours.

I hope, on this day of celebrating new life, that each of them can find that, can move beyond the nightmares of the memories they’ll never share to a future that is rich in achievement and joy.

So here’s my prayer this Easter season: Lord, help returning veterans find a place where life holds joy and promise again. And help us end this fighting, in a swift, just, and compassionate way, so no more young people have to make this transition.  Amen.