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My Stolen Diaries — Chapter 29: Naomi

CHAPTER 29

 NAOMI

November 1966

I haven’t written in a while, because I made a new friend, and we’ve been spending a lot of time together. She’s my first real girlfriend since Yolanda from Father Panik, who I haven’t seen since we left White Street.

A couple of weeks ago, a bunch of us kids were hanging out in the Success Park playground near Court B when we noticed a plain, black-haired girl watching us from a distance. My friends said it was Naomi, a Jew girl, and chased after her, calling out, “Beat it, dirty Jew, Jesus killer.” One of them threw a rock that just missed her head.

Their hatred reminded me of the cruelty against Rebecca, the Jewish girl, in Ivanhoe, one of the books I just finished in Adam’s classic collection.

Naomi tried to run away, but she was slow, and when my friends caught up to her, they formed a circle around her and screamed, “Go back to your Jew house and never show your ugly Jew face around here again.”

I got into the middle of the circle with Naomi and loudly shouted that they were acting like horrible monsters. That stopped them long enough for me to take this poor whimpering girl by the arm.

Then Chris jumped in and ordered them all to leave. Ever since I plunged out of his dad’s car, we’ve become close. But I refuse to kiss him again until he breaks up with Juliette because I listened loud and clear to Mem’s words about “the chase.”

And just so you know, I’m still limping around from that horrible nosedive. And I still haven’t told my family about what happened — and probably never will.

“I’ll take you home,” I told Naomi while yelling at all my friends except Chris to “Get lost.” Chris moved everyone out of our way like he was a cattleman straight out of Gunsmoke. I was impressed.

A woman was running in our direction, terrified. As soon as she reached us, she hugged and thanked me for “my courage.” She also said that I must have extraordinary parents.

Extraordinary indeed.

Naomi asked if I wanted to come to their apartment for a snack. Her mom served up some delicious pastries called rugelach, which, by the way, is pronounced nothing like it’s spelled. I met her father and two brothers; they seemed kind and moral, just like the Jews in Ivanhoe.

I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I asked one of Naomi’s brothers if the Jews killed Jesus, as my friends said. He answered that Jesus was Jewish, which I didn’t know, and that Pontius Pilate ordered him crucified, which I did learn at St. Ambrose.

Naomi and I have become very close friends, and I have a ton of respect for her family, who are wonderful people. And since Jesus was Jewish, I’m sure God is okay that we’re friends, even though the rest of my gang refuses to speak to me when Naomi’s around.  Well, everyone except Chris, who I’m still playing “chase” with.

One of the girls accused me of being a Jew lover, and I put my fists up and yelled for her to come closer to me and say it to my face, but she didn’t dare. They all know I might be skinny and scrawny, but I’m tough as nails.

One of the best stories I can tell you about being friends with Naomi is that her father, Mr. Grulnik, took us to a place called McDonald’s on Main Street in Bridgeport, not far from where Mem used to work at Woolworths.

And in case you’re wondering, I stayed in the middle of the back seat, nowhere near the car doors. And I planted both feet firmly against the front seats just in case Mr. Grulnik made a sharp turn.

Everyone was talking about this burger joint with towering golden arches and delicious hamburgers and fries for hardly any money and served up in under one minute.

You could get a delicious and affordable all-American meal in this McDonald’s place for just 45 cents.

When we pulled up, there was a line, but it went fast — and all the food was waiting for us under hot lights. I had a vanilla milkshake, cheeseburger, and fries. From the first bite, I told Mr. Grulnik that I had never eaten anything so delicious and that McDonald’s was my new favorite place. He laughed and said, “You and every other American.”

Mr. Grulnik also told us not to tell her mother where we had eaten because it wasn’t kosher.

On the way home, Naomi told me all about what keeping kosher meant, what foods she could and couldn’t eat, and explained that being Jewish meant having to follow a whole lot of rules.

I felt horribly sorry for Naomi, not because she was Jewish, but because I could never survive in life without bacon, and I told her so.

Stay tuned for Chapter 30: Mom’s Engagement

My Stolen Diaries — Chapter 28: Hiding in Plain Sight

CHAPTER 28

 HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT

 May 17, 1966

It’s been a rough few days, and I’ve been in terrible physical and mental pain. But there is a happy ending to the story I’m about to tell you.

It all started this past Saturday when I got a ride home from the roller rink. Mem dropped me off but couldn’t pick me up, so I hitched a ride with anyone I could find who had room in their car for me. This kid, Chris Santoro, who lives in Success Park and goes to St. Ambrose, asked his dad if he would drive me home, and he said yes.

Chris is the most popular boy in our grade and is dating Juliette, the most beautiful girl in school, so I was super excited to be in a car with him.

There were six of us, so we squeezed into the car as best we could — two kids in the front and four of us in the back. I was squashed against the right-hand side door.

We left Park City Skateland, which is on State Street, and as we speedily turned onto Park Avenue, my car door flew open, and I fell out, landing hard on my right side. I crawled on both knees toward the curb in excruciating pain — my entire body was convulsing in fear and panic because a car in the right lane barely missed hitting me.

I was wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt, so my knees, legs, and elbows were covered in blood and dirt, and tiny pebbles were stuck deep into my skin.

Park Avenue is a busy two-lane street with tons of cars moving in the same direction. And then, on the other side, there are another two lanes going in the opposite direction with a grassy divider in the middle, separating the four lanes. So Chris’s dad had to drive past me on our side and then come back around from the other side to pick me up, which took him a while.

I sat on the sidewalk and held my knees close to my chest, rocking back and forth in shock and stabbing pain.

When Chris’s dad finally found me, he was non-stop apologizing and wouldn’t stop asking me if I was okay. I kept lying and saying “yes” because he was so scared and nervous and uncontrollably shaking like he was the one who fell out of the car.

Then he asked me if he should take me to the hospital, and I loudly yelled out, “NO,” and begged him to take me home.

As soon as I got to our apartment, I tortuously made my way upstairs and locked myself in the bathroom, fearing Mere Germaine would see me. Mom and Mem weren’t home, so I didn’t have to worry about them. Not yet, anyway.

I took my bloody clothes off and ran warm water in the bathtub while trying to pick out the grit and gravel from my skin. I took a look in the mirror, and lucky for me; I didn’t have any visible cuts on my face, knowing full well that this accident was something I needed to hide from my family. My mirrored image reflected such agony I almost didn’t recognize myself.

I opened the medicine cabinet, took out the bottle of hydrogen peroxide, and poured it all over my cuts and scrapes. The pain was so bad I thought I might faint, so I didn’t get into the tub for a while.

Once I soaked in the tub, I grabbed a box of bandaids, covered my wounds as best I could, and scrubbed the sink and tub meticulously. Then I wadded up my ripped-up, blood-stained clothes and ran into my bedroom, where I put on long pants and a long-sleeved shirt.

I was still whimpering from the pain, but once I dressed, the only visible evidence of my accident were the cuts and scrapes on the palms of both hands, which I vowed to hide.

I tried to ignore the non-stop throbbing and took my wad of clothes outside and across Success Avenue, where I shoved them into the trash can in front of the supermarket. Then I hobbled back to the apartment and up the stairs to the bedroom, where I curled up in a ball on the bed and tried to calm myself down.

I’m not sure how long I was laying there, but at some point, Mere Germaine came into the room to ask if everything was all right. I told her I had a splitting headache, which wasn’t a lie.

When I heard Mem come home, I willed myself out of bed and agonizingly staggered downstairs. She asked me to help her unload the groceries out of the car, which I did without so much as a wince for fear she would notice my discomfort.

That night, I wore my long-sleeved flannel nightgown even though it was boiling in our bedroom. Mem kept spooning me, which caused excruciating pain, and I barely got a wink of sleep.

The next day, black and blues covered my swollen body, and I was sore from head to toe, but I was hopeful that nothing was broken.

Way more important than broken bones, though, was that I had to make sure that absolutely no one would ever know what happened to me — which meant I had to have a conversation with Chris Santoro ASAP.

Mem, Mom, and Mere Germaine went about their business for the rest of the weekend, and I went about mine. I felt a mixture of anger and fear.

I was angry that none of them noticed anything about the slow-going way I was limp-walking or the occasional involuntary moan when helping them with the chores.

But I was also afraid that if they found out that I fell out of a moving car, they would somehow blame me and find a way to be angry at me. Or worse, they wouldn’t allow me to go skating with my friends ever again.

I should be able to tell the women I love that I’m in pain, but I’m all mixed up. I’m overcome with doubt and fear, so I think the best thing I can do is heal myself as best I can and go it alone.

I can’t help but feel incredible despair and pity for myself because, as always, I’m unseen. Only I can see the scabs and scrapes all over me. My body is in excruciating pain, and so is my heart, but as usual, I am the only one who sees me.

I don’t want to tell my family that something happened to me. I want them to see that something happened to me for themselves.

Getting ready for school on Monday was tricky because my knees were a scabby, swollen mess. Luckily, between my uniform and knee socks, they were mostly covered.

I saw Chris right before the first bell rang, and he had a look of pure terror on his face. I tried to make him feel better, although it should have been the other way around.

“Don’t worry, Chris, I didn’t tell anyone what happened. And I don’t plan on it.” He was visibly relieved and told me he would catch up with me later.

As I shuffled my way home from school, Chris rode up to me on his bicycle and asked me if I wanted a ride. “The last time I took a ride from you, it didn’t work out so well,” I said, half joking.

I thought I was being funny, and I figured Chris would laugh, but instead, the terrified look on his face just about broke my heart.

“You okay?” I asked him, even though he should have been the one asking me if I was okay. And that’s when Chris told me that his dad was out of work and had been in a lot of trouble with the law recently.

I told Chris that I knew a thing or two about fathers getting into trouble with the law. And I asked him to make sure his friends in the car with us didn’t open their big mouths and tell anyone. Chris answered that they wouldn’t dare because they knew his dad would probably go to jail if they did.

I was confused. “Why would your dad go to jail? It wasn’t his fault I didn’t shut the car door all the way.” That’s when Chris told me that his dad had been drinking at a local bar before picking us up at the rink. “Both my parents are drunks,” he said matter-of-factly.

When I doubled down on my promise not to say a word to anyone about falling out of his dad’s car, he leaned over the handlebars of his bike and kissed me on my cheek. My very first kiss!

And today, Chris stopped by our apartment with a bag full of candy and told me that he owes me one and will forever be grateful to me.

When he asked to see some of my bruises, I pulled my pant leg up and showed him my right leg. He drew in a breath, grimaced, and then looked down at the floor, his voice so soft I barely heard what he said: “You’re pretty brave, you know?”

“Because I tumbled out of a speeding car and kept my mouth shut about it, kind of brave?”

His response was sweet. “Something like that.” Then, while still not making eye contact, Chris told me I was the toughest girl he’d ever met.

I’m sorry I had to nosedive out of a moving car for someone to finally see me. But I’ll take it.

Click here for Chapter 29: Naomi

My Stolen Diaries — Chapter 26: The Tony Show

CHAPTER 26

 THE TONY SHOW

 March 20, 1966

Well, I met Roberto’s family today, and let’s just say that the Tony show was full of drama.

His older sister refused to attend the Tony reveal, so as soon as we arrived, Roberto made a huge stink about Babs not showing up — loudly yelling at his mother and father and making quite a scene.

Mom was trying to calm him down, and I was awkwardly standing in the hallway with Mem and Mere Germaine, not knowing what to do. Mem had her hand on my shoulder, and Mere Germaine held me tightly at my waist so I felt safe and protected.

Roberto’s mom was nothing like I had imagined. Bella was a tiny little thing, her mouth perfectly lined with bright red lipstick, wearing way too much caked-on makeup, overly high heels, and white hair dramatically piled high on her head in an elaborate braided updo.

Between her hair and her sky-high shoes, she added at least four to five inches to her height. I was still way taller than her, although I made sure to pull my shoulders back and stand as straight as possible to loom over her even higher. I wanted her to have to look up at me.

After Roberto’s hysterical fit, Bella walked over to us and, without introducing herself, went into an uncomfortable speech about how the Russo family was against divorce, which is why Babs would not be coming.

Then, to make matters worse — while still in the hallway — Bella went on to say that the Russo family never knew any other Catholic whom the church excommunicated and that it would take quite some time for them to come to terms with all the associated issues.

I assumed that one of the “associated issues” was me.  I also assumed Roberto told Bella that Mom was excommunicated but not Mem — another lie.

Once Bella finally led us away from the front door, things got better — for Mem and Mere Germaine, anyway. The three of them had cooking in common, so, thank God, they had something to talk about besides me, divorce, and Mom’s excommunication.

I also met Roberto’s sister, Gia, who lives next door to Bella. She was loud and boisterous but hilarious and went out of her way to make me feel comfortable and accepted. Her daughter Patrice, who was incredibly beautiful, with her long, silky, straight chestnut brown hair and tiny nose, helped to relieve some of my anxiety with her kindness.

While Patrice and Gia helped to reduce my uneasiness, I couldn’t help but feel highly self-conscious because everyone kept staring at me.

Roberto’s father, Carlo, who was short and fat, barely spoke English, so he didn’t have much to say, although I thought his leering at me was creepy and uncalled for. When I mentioned it to Patrice, she told me not to take it personally, that “Poppy” leers at all the family girls. Ew.

At the end of the dinner, I was feeling a lot better about the Tony Show until Bella walked up to me and told me that whatever happens between Mom and her “only son,” I was to call her “Aunt Bella” and not Nonna like her grandchildren because our relationship would not be like that.

I’m not going to lie; even though I have no intention of calling her anything at this point, her words stung.

Before dessert, Patrice took me to the house next door to show me her room. She opened her bedroom window, pulled out a pack of cigarettes, and offered me one.

I shook my head no, but she convinced me to take a few drags. The first two times I inhaled, I choked like crazy, but then I got used to it.

As we shared our second Marlboro, Patrice told me not to be bothered by anything Nonna had to say because “She’s always sticking her spiked-heel foot into her big red lipstick mouth.”

The two of us laughed, but I was thinking that in a million years, I would never say anything mean like that about Mem.

Then Patrice gave me some mouthwash to gargle with, followed by a long hug. I got a little misty-eyed and broke the awkward silence by saying, “I hope we can be good friends. I need someone in this family to like me.”

Patrice tenderly wiped the tear slipping down my left cheek. “Friends? Oh, Tony, we will be so much more than that, you’ll see.”

Then she lovingly wrapped her arm through my arm, laid her head on my shoulder, and together we walked back to “Aunt Bella’s” house.

Click here for Chapter 27: A Gift From Heaven

My Stolen Diaries — Chapter 25: The Tony Telling

CHAPTER 25

 THE TONY TELLING

 March 3, 1966

Now that Roberto is back, Mom’s dirty little secret — me — is finally out. I told Mem it was time for Mom to admit to everybody that she has a daughter and to stop telling lies about me. Well, okay, maybe she shouldn’t tell the truth to St. Ambrose School and Church.

Mem responded that the truth always comes out, for good or bad.

But when I asked her about the lies we told to St. Ambrose, she explained that nothing good would come out of telling the Catholic Church that Mem and Mom were excommunicated sinners.

From what I heard, when Roberto told his family about me, the “Tony telling” created an enormous problem, so I’m sure nothing good will come out of that either. Should anyone be surprised?

Mom said Roberto’s mother, Bella, was hopping mad and told Roberto that Mom needed to figure out a way to get back into the good graces of the Catholic Church, or he needed to part ways with her. Is there such a thing as getting un-excommunicated?

Oh, and also, according to Mom, Bella wants to meet me and have a talk. A talk with me? What kind of talk could she possibly want to have with me? I don’t have a say in my life. I don’t have a say in anything. I’m invisible, remember?

I overheard Mom tell Mem that Roberto has two sisters, and Babs, the youngest in the family, refuses to have anything to do with him now that she knows that Mom is divorced and has a twelve-year-old kid.

His older sister, Gia, adores Roberto and loves Mom. And it turns out that Gia has a daughter, Patrice, who’s my age, so Mom said maybe that’s why she’s open to meeting me and giving me a chance.

I told Mom that Gia’s daughter might be the same age as me, but the difference is that she has a dad, she’s nobody’s secret, and maybe I should be the one to give them a chance, and not the other way around. Mom told me to shut my trap.

Mom also informed me that we are all having dinner at Bella’s house soon. I’m scared to death. What if Roberto’s family hates me? Then what?

When I asked Mom what was going to happen to Nick, she just glared at me. But I know for a fact that she’s still going out with him because Mem told Mere Germaine that she was “stringing Nick along just in case.”

Since Roberto got back with her, Mom’s been pretty sneaky about where she goes these past few weeks. And I know Nick calls because I hear them on the phone together.

I still had hope for Nick until today when Mom came home from somewhere secret. It wasn’t that much of a secret because I saw Roberto’s fancy black car drop Mom off.

Speaking of fancy black cars, I was riding my bike on the sidewalk by Court D yesterday when I noticed a black car driving slowly past me. I figured it was loser Roberto.

But when I looked up and into the car, I could see it was my father. I’ve certainly seen enough pictures of him in the local newspapers to recognize him.

I saw his handsome face, and I felt pride, but I also felt his pain. And I could see from his dark, beautiful eyes that he saw me, too. And for a second, it seemed like our pain was something we could share.

But then, just like that, he quickly drove right past me. I chased after his car, hoping he would see me riding my bike behind him and stop.

The whole time I was peddling to catch up with his car, I kept praying, “Please see me, please see me, please see me.”

But he didn’t see me, or if he did, maybe he got scared and decided stopping would only cause everyone trouble.

I knew he was trouble — double trouble — but I didn’t care. I rode that bike as fast as humanly possible. As I watched his car fade into the distance, I had no choice but to give up trying to catch my troubled but handsome dad.

Maybe he saw me, and maybe he didn’t. I’ll probably never know.

I rode my bike back to our apartment and felt crushed — while Mom was in an unusually happy-go-lucky mood.

“Roberto’s mother is making a huge Italian feast, and the whole family will be there,” Mom kept repeating herself over and over again like a broken record.

Also on repeat: “And if you embarrass me, I’ll kill you.”

I was still hurting from failing to catch up with my dad, and I was thinking about all the different ways that I could try to find him. And for the record, he also has a big nose, which fits his beautiful face perfectly, giving me new hope for myself and my nose.

Mom broke into my thoughts with, “HELLO. Anyone in there?”

I burst into tears and ran upstairs while Mom asked Mem and Mere Germaine, “What’s her problem?”

What’s my problem? I miss Steve. I miss Adam. I miss Yolanda. I miss Nick. I even miss White Street, but not the rats and cockroaches. And I miss my dad, even though I don’t know him.

Mom should be able to see that I’m hurting.  And yet, all she cares about is that I shouldn’t embarrass her so that Roberto’s family will accept me. It seems to me that I don’t have any control over whether  Roberto’s family accepts me or not.

How can I possibly know what NOT to do or say so as NOT to embarrass Mom? Why is the pressure on me? Mom is the one who brought me into the world, so she should be the one they need to accept, not me.

I didn’t ask to be born, and yet I’m the one everyone’s blaming — and my acceptance or rejection is all up to them and completely out of my control.

I hope they hate everything about me. Then maybe Roberto will kiss us all goodbye, for good this time.

And who knows? If Roberto’s family rejects me and refuses to accept me, then maybe Nick just might have a chance.

Or maybe even my dad.

Mem came upstairs, ruffled my hair, and asked me why I felt so blue. I lied and told her I was sad and afraid for Mom and there was nothing I could do to save her from making the biggest mistake of her life — when, in truth, I was sad and afraid for myself. How much more should I have to suffer for Mom’s irresponsible decisions?

Then Mem said something that will stay with me for a long time. “It seems to me that with your Mom and Roberto, it’s all about the chase. For both of them. Once the chase is over, who knows what?” I nodded in agreement because I just had a chase of my own.

I collapsed into Mem’s arms and tried to cry it all out. I accused Mem and Mom of keeping me in the dark about everything. “I’m not a baby. I need to be heard. I need to be seen. I’m strong. I can take the truth,” I whimpered through my tears.

Mem hugged me tight and kept apologizing for stuff I wasn’t even crying about. “Go ahead. Ask me any questions you want. I’ll answer you truthfully.”

I sat on our bed, dead silent. The only question I had was buried deep inside my scrambled-up brain:

Dad, did you see me?

Click here for Chapter 26: The Tony Show

My Stolen Diaries — Chapter 24: He’s Baack!

CHAPTER 24

HE’S BAACK!

February 1966

The phone rang yesterday, and when I answered it, a man was on the other end asking, “Is Natalie there?” When I replied that Natalie wasn’t home, he asked me to tell her Roberto called!

Roberto? Oh no, not again.

I wanted to tell him off, but what good would that have done? I also wanted to say, “Do you know who this is? THIS IS NATALIE’S TWELVE-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER!” But, of course, I didn’t.

I ran outside and told Mem, who was hanging sheets on the clothesline. She put her bag of clothespins on the ground, gave me a worried look, and we both sat down on the stoop.

“What now?” I asked Mem, but she didn’t answer me. Then Mem went into the house and told Mere Germaine about the phone call, and the three of us sat at the kitchen table in silent shock. Even Rib was upset, letting out tiny, high-pitched cries. “What now?” I asked again. This time, neither one of them answered me.

When Mom came home, and I told her that Roberto had called, she lifted me off my feet and kissed me all over my face while laughing like a hyena. I liked the attention, so I forced myself to look happy for her, even though I felt pure misery inside.

Mem and Mere Germaine warned Mom to think carefully about what to do next. But she knew exactly what she wanted to do and called Roberto, whispering to him from inside the closet next to the phone.

When Mom got off the call, she was the happiest I’d ever seen her and told us that Roberto was coming to the apartment to pick her up and take her out to dinner at some fancy Country Club in Westport called Longshore.

She group-hugged me, Mem, and Mere Germaine and then ran upstairs to get dressed while we stood there dumbfounded.

About an hour later, Roberto showed up at our front door. I was sitting at the kitchen table with Mem. Mere Germaine was boiling water for tea at the stove, and Mom was still upstairs getting “all dolled up,” as Mem called it.

Mem asked me to answer the door, but I said a big fat NO. Mere Germaine took off her apron and opened the front door. Mem stood up and walked into the living room, but I sat at the table with my back turned toward Roberto, and I refused to turn around unless asked to. It was no surprise to me that nobody cared to ask me anything because, as usual, I am invisible. Or maybe I’m visible, but no one takes the time to hear what I have to say.

And unfortunately, I couldn’t see anything because I was facing in the opposite direction. I heard Roberto say “Nice to meet you” to Mem and Mere Germaine, but nobody said anything to or about me. I’m sure they were all nervous about what I might do or what I might say. Rib, who barked non-stop, had plenty to say.

Mom ran down the stairs, and Mere Germaine blurted out that she looked like a movie star. Mom always looked like a movie star. I quickly turned my head around just in time to see the two of them kiss, which made me want to puke.

Mom and Roberto said goodbye to no one in particular, and from a side eye, I could see that the two of them made it a point not to look in my direction.

After they left, I ran to the front window and peeked through the blinds. They walked hand in hand to the parking lot and then drove away in his fancy black car. Mom looked especially beautiful in a green velvet mini dress that Mem always thought was too tight and too short for her. But I thought Mom looked perfect. I just wish it was for Nick and not Roberto.

Mem said she was upset that Roberto never looked over at me in the kitchen. I told Mem I was upset that Roberto didn’t open Mom’s car door for her like Nick always does.

At breakfast this morning, while Mom was still sleeping, Mem accused them of being out until the wee hours of the morning. Even Mere Germaine complained about Mom carousing around all night and made it loud and clear that she planned to speak to her about it.

The only loud and clear thing I know is that Westport Roberto and his fancy black car are back, which means poor Bridgeport Nick and his old, beat-up used car are most definitely getting the boot.

Click here for Chapter 25: The Tony Telling

My Stolen Diaries – Chapter 23: She’s an Awkward Girl

CHAPTER 23

SHE’S AN AWKWARD GIRL

January 1966

Since moving to Success Park, Mom was finally treating me like a human being again.

That was until she went to a New Year’s Eve party with Nick and saw Roberto there with another girl. Now we’re right back where we started with Mom accusing me of ruining her life.

It’s been a blessing having Mere Germaine back living with us, and I love Success Park, but I wish Mom would get over Roberto.

I also wish I could see Yolanda and Steve because I miss them like crazy. But Mem says that part of our life is over, so I don’t think I’ll ever see them again.

If I wanted to, I could easily walk to Steve’s Market and Father Panik after school and see both of them, and Mem wouldn’t have a clue.

But if Mem says that part of our life is over, I need to respect her wishes. The last thing I need is for Mem to be mad at me as well.

Nick is still hanging in there, but knowing Mom loves someone else can’t be easy for him. I know she’s trying, but Mom isn’t interested in Nick. And Mom seeing Roberto on New Year’s Eve didn’t help things with Nick at all.

I don’t blame Mom for being mad at me. I’d be mad at me, too. But the way I see it, I’m not sure Mom will ever forgive me. I’m not sure Mom even likes me.

Last night, I heard Mom say to Mem, “She’s an awkward girl.” “She needs to grow into herself, that’s all,” replied Mem.

Telling Mem I’m awkward is Mom’s new thing. Maybe that’s her way of getting back at me, although I know Mom doesn’t think I’m much to look at.

I looked up the word “awkward” in the dictionary, and the definition hurt me badly.

In the wrong direction, lacking skill, turned the wrong way, causing embarrassment—that’s what the dictionary said.

Is that what I am to Mom—an embarrassment? Or is she saying mean things because she’s still mad at me?

I once heard her tell Nick on the telephone that I’m awkward and need help in the looks department. Of course, I don’t know what he said, but it must have been something about me being shy because Mom answered, “No, she’s not shy. Not even close. She’s got a big mouth. You haven’t seen that side of her yet. She’s mouthy, she’s lanky, and she’s awkward.”

My dark, frizzy hair is pretty awful—I’ll be the first to admit it. And my nose is bigger than I would like. And okay, my skin is darker than any of my friends, except for Yolanda, because, of course, her skin is black.

Mem says that as I get older, my nose will fit nicely on my face, but I don’t think I’ll ever grow into myself like she keeps telling me.

Mere Germaine thought she was making me feel better by telling me that I have a “Roman” nose, whatever that means. Yeah, “roamin” all over my face!

Mom’s probably right—I’m awkward. But I still don’t think it’s nice to say hurtful things about me. So, to get even with her, I told Mem about Mom’s conversation with Nick about me being awkward and needing help in the looks department.

I milked it for all it was worth and told Mem I could do nothing about being ugly. I knew she felt sorry for me because she gave me a long, tight hug. Then she reminded me about the ugly duckling.

“The ugly duckling wasn’t a duck at all—it turned out to be a swan—a beautiful, graceful swan. And all the ducks were jealous. You’re a swan, my little Tony. I see it right here in your face—and in those serious dark eyes of yours. And soon enough, everyone will see you as the swan that you are.”

I thought hard about what she said. “What are you thinking, mon petit choux?” Mem asked. “Why doesn’t Mom see that I’m a swan?” I reluctantly asked.

“I see. That’s all that matters,” Mem replied. “Now you wipe those tears away, d’accord?”

Later that night, Mem had a huge fight with Mom about her calling me awkward. Mom was angry that I was snooping on her and Nick. “She’s a tattle tale and a little snitch. That’s what she gets for putting her nose where it doesn’t belong.”

Mem’s mouth was hanging open, but at least Mom didn’t say my big nose!

“You’re her mother, for Christ’s sake,” Mem screamed out. And then she sucked in a great big breath because she had used God’s name in vain. She took her rosary beads from her housedress pocket and ran out of the kitchen and up into our bedroom.

I gave Mem a few minutes, and then I went upstairs, where she was on her knees praying next to our bed. “Holy Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”

She motioned for me to kneel beside her so we could pray together. Mem prayed out loud and asked God to forgive her for losing her temper.

I prayed silently and asked God to make my nose smaller and turn me into a swan as soon as conveniently possible.

Click here for Chapter 24: He’s Baack!

My Stolen Diaries – Chapter 22: O Holy Night

CHAPTER 22

O HOLY NIGHT

December 1965

I have never seen Mem so happy and so relaxed. She’s been sewing secret gifts for all of us while playing holiday music nonstop. Her favorite song is O Holy Night by Nat King Cole, and she plays it on our record player over and over and over again.

Mem says that after what Adam did for us, the song has even more meaning to her than before.

Her favorite part of the song is:

♪ ♪ A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices. ♪ ♪

Life has indeed been glorious since moving to Success Park. Mere Germaine and Mom share a room with twin beds, and I sleep with Mem in the bed Adam gave us.

Mem says that Adam was our guardian angel and our Christmas miracle, and we all agree.

Speaking of miracles, surviving seven years of St. Ambrose Catholic School is also a miracle because all the nuns except Sister Regina Mary are beastly and mean!

Mom says it’s because they never “get any” and calls them frustrated old bitties, but only when Mem and Mere Germaine aren’t around.

When I ask Mom what the nuns never get, she tells me I’m too young to understand.

I used to think it was sacrilegious for her to say bad things about the nuns, but now I agree. The nuns have a terrifying way of humiliating us girls.

They put their fingers together in a point and pound them into the top of our heads. Ouch is right. The constant digging of their fingers into our skulls can’t be good for us.

The boys have it worse, though. The Sisters grab both their ears and yank them hard, causing their heads to bobble back and forth, which I’m sure rattles up their brains.

They also torture us in other ways, like stalking and roaming around with a wood pointer and whacking it on our hands whenever they feel like it.

Once, when Mother Superior caught me chewing gum, she made me walk around with it stuck on my nose all day, including recess, which was tricky because it kept falling off. By the time school was out, the wad of gum was filthy and speckled with who knows what.

Another time, she read a note I sent to my best school friend Vicki about a boy I had a crush on—over the load speaker to the entire school!

The good news, though, is that I am still one of the most popular girls in my class, and now that we don’t live on White Street, things have never been better.

However, there is some bad news—my friends are still not allowed to come to our apartment because I’m still from a broken family.

But at least I don’t feel ashamed of where I live, just sorry that people think my life with Mem, Mom, and Mere Germaine is broken.

Click here for Chapter 23: She’s an Awkward Girl

My Stolen Diaries – Chapter 21: Building 55, Success Park

CHAPTER 21

BUILDING 55, SUCCESS PARK

October 1965

Two weeks after the meeting with Adam’s lawyer, Mem got a big fat check and the keys to his car.

Soon after, Mem put a down payment on a two-bedroom unit in Success Park, which is in Bridgeport but closer to the Stratford side, which Mem says is the safer section of town.

It’s no surprise that Mom disagrees with Mem and says there is nothing safe about Bridgeport, mainly because she despises everything about it. And she’s still blaming me for ruining her chances of getting out of Bridgeport for good.

According to Mom, Success Park is a housing complex that the U.S. Government built to accommodate the massive number of workers coming to Bridgeport in hopes of getting good-paying jobs during the war effort.

Success Park sounds to me like it’s mostly for low-income working-class people like Mem and Mom, and lucky for us, it’s far from any bullet-flying, street-knifing areas like Father Panik and a huge step up from White Street.

Mem agrees that the people who live in Success Park are a lot like her — hard-working, honest, decent people who struggle to make ends meet and, most importantly, are devout church-going people.

Success Park sounds like everything Mem has ever wished for, but the best part for me is that Mere Germaine is moving back in with us.

Adam left us his furniture, dishes, and Frigidaire, so Mem says he not only saved us financially but also set us up with everything we needed to live our best lives.

I’m happy Adam saved us, but Mem treats him like a saint, so now I know she’ll never get back with Steve. It seems to me that Mem is in love with a dead man, and nobody can ever live up to that — not even Steve.

Mom is relieved that we are getting out of our rat trap White Street apartment and moving to Success Park, but she still thinks we deserve better and need to get out of Bridgeport to make a name for ourselves. I hate that she always says “we” because I don’t know who “we” is, and I don’t want to be part of her dream. I have dreams of my own.

Mom always says she wants money, a rich husband, famous friends, a beautiful house, and everything else wealth brings. No one can disagree that Success Park is way better than White Street, but it’s not even close to the rich and famous stuff Mom keeps wishing for.

Mom’s definition of making a name for herself is marrying someone rich, but that’s not how I plan to make a name for myself. I have no plans to marry someone rich because Mem always tells me I can only depend on one person and one person only for what I need — that person being me, myself, and I. But now, I’m not sure she’s right because Adam turned out to be a very dependable person to Mem.

Now that I’m the proud owner of a beautiful piano, I would love to be a famous pianist and travel the world playing my music, but Mem says I need to learn how to play the piano first.

Roberto is still not talking to Mom, and she told Mem she’s worried that he won’t be able to find her once we move and change our phone number. Mem answered that if Roberto wanted to find her, he’d figure out a way. Otherwise, it’s his loss and too bad for him. I keep my Roberto thoughts to myself, but I pray to God every night that he never finds her.

Our moving day was exciting but also really sad. I took my chances and ran through the Panik to say goodbye to Yolanda. We both cried our eyes out because we knew we would never see each other again. Yolanda convinced me to stop by Steve’s Market to say goodbye. I didn’t want to go alone, so Yolanda went with me.

As soon as Steve saw me, I could tell he was happy but also unhappy. I hugged him and told him we were moving, but he already knew. I told him I would never forget him and thanked him for teaching me all about meat, which made him smile.

Then Steve said that he expects to read about me in the papers because he’s sure I will do great things and to always believe in myself. I could see Steve getting misty-eyed, especially when Yolanda told us we were the only white people she ever loved.

I hugged Steve again, and he whispered in my ear to run off and have a beautiful life. I squeezed them both one last time and then ran back to White Street, bawling but excited.

Mem drove Mom to Success Park in Adam’s car, and Mere Germaine, Rib, and I went with the moving guy in his truck. Poor Rib threw up brown bits all over my shirt and pants.

When we pulled up to the parking lot in front of Building 55, a bunch of kids were playing in a cement lot next to it. They all stopped what they were doing to watch us get out of the truck. I felt like a movie star with all their staring, although I hoped they couldn’t see the chunks of Rib’s vomit dripping down the front of me.

Building 55 was a brick two-story townhouse with ten units attached in one long row. As we walked up to the front door, there was a tiny fenced-in patch of yard that I let Rib run around in.

When we opened the front door, the apartment was sunny and smelled of fresh paint. The kitchen and living room were one giant room with a patterned wood floor, which Mom said was parquet.

Adam’s piano will surely take up half the living room, but Mem said it would serve as a constant reminder that Adam saved us.

We now have a front and back yard with our very own clothesline. The yards are postage stamp size, but they belong to us. And both the front and rear doors open properly, so we finally have two ways to escape in an emergency.

Mem is thrilled that we don’t have to share a clothesline with our neighbors any longer, but she is worried about who will mow the front and back lawns since we never had grass before.

There are two bedrooms and a bath upstairs, and the whole place is spick and span. The best part about our new home is no bugs, rodents, peeling paint, or moldy walls. And each bedroom has a door, which we didn’t have on White Street, although Mem says there’s no good reason to close them. Since I never had a bedroom door before, I disagree with Mem and can’t wait to close it for privacy, although I have to sleep in a bed with her. Mom and Mere Germaine will share the other bedroom and are lucky to have twin beds.

Mom might have dreams of leaving Bridgeport, but I would consider myself the luckiest girl in the world if I could spend the rest of my life in Building 55, Success Park.

Click here for Chapter 22: O Holy Night

My Stolen Diaries – Chapter 20: Help!

CHAPTER 20

HELP!

August 1965

Today the song Help! by the Beatles was playing on the radio, and the words of the song describe our lives to a T because we desperately need some help, especially the part that goes,

♪ Help me if you can; I’m feeling down
And I do appreciate you being ’round
Help me get my feet back on the ground
Won’t you please, please help me ♪

It’s been seven months since my window screw-up, and Mom still blames me for everything bad happening to her. She keeps whining that Roberto was our only hope of escaping Bridgeport and that Nick will never be of any help since he likes it here. Plus, Mom says Nick has no ambition and will never make enough money to get us out, even if he changes his mind. According to Mom, we’re stuck in Bridgeport forever, thanks to me.

I hate that I’m the cause of all of Mom’s troubles, but as long as I’m with Mom, Mem, and Mere Germaine, I agree with Nick that we don’t need to leave Bridgeport, although it would help if we could move someplace without bugs and rodents.

Mem always says that help can come in the unlikeliest of places and when we need it the most, but Mom says there is no one to help us now that Roberto is off with some other girl. Mem’s reply to Mom is that if he found another girl so fast, he wasn’t the right guy for her anyway.

Speaking of help, before school let out, Sister Regina Mary helped me sign up for a library card because she believes that reading is good exercise for the brain. Sister also says that books will help my imagination and strengthen relationships. I hope Sister is correct because I could sure use some help with my relationship with Mom.

But the biggest thing that has happened since I wrote last is that poor Adam passed away. Lucky for him, Mem was there and helped him get to the other side. I have never seen Mem so upset, and it took her a few weeks to return to herself. You’d think that with Adam dying, Mom would be nicer to me, but she hasn’t been any help at all, mainly because she still hasn’t heard one word from Roberto.

Two days ago, Mem got a call from Adam’s lawyer asking her to come into his office. I took the bus with Mem to a fancy building on Main Street. The lawyer said that Adam’s will was recently probated. Mem told the lawyer she didn’t understand what that meant, so the lawyer explained that Adam’s will was proved by the Bridgeport Court to be his last will and testament. Mem was still confused as to why she was there and asked the lawyer if she was in some kind of trouble. Mem was shaking like a leaf.

I could see the lawyer felt bad for Mem and calmed her down by saying that she was in no trouble at all and that he had great news for her. Mem replied that Adam dying was terrible news for her, and nothing could change that. That’s when the lawyer told Mem that Adam had left her his car, the contents of his house, and a substantial amount of money.

Mem cried like a baby, and the lawyer offered her a box of tissues. Seeing Mem cry made me cry because I never saw her cry before.

The lawyer sat quietly for a minute before asking, “Who is Tony?” Mem, who was blowing her nose, pointed her finger in my direction. The lawyer looked down at his notes and then back up at me and said, “Adam left you his baby grand piano,” which made the two of us cry even more.

Then the lawyer turned to Mem. “Don’t you want to know how much?” “How much what?” Mem asked, wiping the tears off her face. “How much money Adam left you,” the attorney replied, looking shocked that Mem didn’t think to ask him.

Mem stood up, straightened out her skirt, grabbed my hand, and on our way out of his office, looked back at Adam’s lawyer and said, “No, I don’t want to know how much. When I get the money, I’ll know.”

Up to me, I would have wanted to know how much money Adam left Mem. Poor thing cried the whole bus trip home, even though I tried to calm her down by reminding her she was right on the money when she said that help comes from the unlikeliest of places and when we need it the most. She replied that right on the money was the wrong choice of words.

The one thing I know for sure is thanks to poor dead Adam; help is on the way. And no matter how much or how little, I know his money will go a long way to helping us get our feet back on the ground.

Click here for Chapter 21: Building 55, Success Park

My Stolen Diaries – Chapter 19: The Boot

CHAPTER 19

THE BOOT

April 1965

It’s been almost three months since Mem gave Steve the boot, Roberto gave Mom the boot, and Mom gave me the boot, or should I say the broom. But Mom won’t stop telling Mem that everyone got the boot because of me. Except, of course, Adam, because he’s almost dead, so there’s no way he’s getting the boot except from God.

Since I’m not allowed to go to Steve’s Market, and Adam is sicker than ever, I’ve spent most of my time at the Bridgeport Library.

I’m also not allowed to go to Father Panik Village, so Yolanda meets me at the library and helps me hide Rib in an old purse of Mem’s, so he can come with us.

We don’t have library cards which means Yolanda and I never get to the end of the books we like because we must leave them behind. I hope to apply for a library card soon because I’d like to finish just one of them, but I need an adult sponsor.

The first couple of times we went, I was paranoid that the librarian was watching us because of Rib, but Yolanda said it was because I was with a girl with black skin. I think it’s sad that the librarian is way more interested in why I’m with black-skinned Yolanda than the dog in Mem’s purse.

Rib is only three pounds, and Mem says that’s as big as he’ll ever get, which is excellent for me because I get to take him everywhere, and because he’s so tiny, no one even knows he exists, which in Rib’s case is a good thing.

Speaking of not existing, Mom still hasn’t heard one word from Roberto since I shoved my stupid face out the window. And she still hasn’t forgiven me for it, even though I make her bed every day and do all the chores she’s supposed to do, like vacuuming, dusting, and taking out the garbage.

My birthday was a bust because Mom refused to participate. Mem and Mere Germaine took me for a birthday celebration at Valley Farm Drive-In on Boston Avenue. I had a hot dog with the works, and Mem and Mere Germaine shared a meatball grinder, but Mom never showed up. When I cried to Mem, Mere Germaine told me that Mom’s heart was healing and to give her some space and time.

Mere Germaine still lives in Samir’s apartment, although I haven’t seen him since he punched out Uncle Luke. You could say Uncle Luke also got the boot, but with a fist to the face instead.

And just to let you know, I check the kitchen cupboard from time to time for any new newspaper articles about my dad, and there are plenty of them, so I’m sure he’s another man that I won’t be seeing anytime soon.

Based on his law-breaking behavior, he’s the only one who deserves to get the boot, although I hope the police don’t shoot him in the head like they did to his friend Anthony.

Maybe Mem is right when she says that all men should get the boot — except for Adam, who, according to Mem, is one-of-a-kind and not like other men. When I asked Mem about Nick, she said only time would tell whether he should get the boot.

I try to bring up Steve to Mem because I miss him terribly, but she’s stubborn and says he got the boot because he wouldn’t stop bad-mouthing Adam. Without Steve, we’re back to chopped meat, hotdogs, and liver, plus no more free cigarettes for Mom and Mem.

Mom is still dating Nick, but I can see his frustration. Nick knows Mom doesn’t love him because he told me so himself. When I asked him why he was wasting time with her, he said he still had hope.

If you ask me, I think his situation is hopeless because Mom cries every day over Roberto, so I’m all but certain that Nick will be the next one to get the boot.

Click here for Chapter 20: Help!