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My Stolen Diaries – Chapter 11: Mem’s Boss at Remington Arms

CHAPTER 11

MEM’S BOSS AT REMINGTON ARMS

February 1963

Mem has been desperately trying to get off the 3-11 pm shift at Remington Arms. Mem’s boss Adam has been trying to switch her to the 7 am to 3 pm shift for over six months, but so far, he hasn’t been able to pull it off.

Both Mem and Mom are saving every penny they can, working five jobs between them so they can get us a better place to live and move Mere Germaine back in.

Mem says that Adam has been awfully good to her and gives her extra shifts whenever possible. He also taught Mem the value of money and helped her to open her first bank account many years ago.

Adam appreciates how hard Mem works, and according to Mem, he agrees with her that we need to move off White Street because it’s getting more dangerous by the day. Mem says that’s why Adam gives her so many extra shifts.  Mom says it’s because Adam has a crush on Mem.

Last month Adam called Mem and asked her to stop by his office the next day after church. Mom raised an eyebrow at that. Mem was up the whole night, tossing and turning, convinced that Adam was going to fire her. Mom was convinced Adam was going to ask her out on a date because he found out about her butcher boyfriend.

The Sunday after Adam’s call to Mem and after church services, I walked home with Mom and Mere Germaine while Mem hurried over to the factory.

Mem came home crying, which was a big deal because Mem never cries. I was praying she didn’t lose her job. Mem said that when she walked into Adam’s office, he told her he had good news and bad news.

The good news was that Adam pulled some strings and got Mem the 7 am to 3 pm shift, which was the shift she’s been wanting for years, so I wondered why she was crying.

The bad news — the horrible news — was that Adam was leaving Remington Arms. He had bad lungs, he told her – from working with all the gunpowder at the factory, and the doctor told him he didn’t have long to live.

Through her tears, Mem told us that Adam’s parents are both dead, and since he was never married, he’s all alone, and she’s worried about who is going to take care of him when things get bad. Mom told Mem that Adam shouldn’t be her concern, but Mem replied that all of God’s souls should be our concern.

Soon after Mem started working the day shift, Adam left Remington Arms. His house is on Barnum Avenue, right across the street from the factory, so with Mem’s new work schedule, she was stopping by during her lunch break to keep him company and make him something to eat.

He’s been getting weaker by the day, so in addition to going there for lunch, she’s also been going back to Adam’s house after her shift is over at 3 pm to clean his house and make dinner.

Last week, Adam insisted on paying Mem a very generous salary, even though she told him she would be happy to do it for free. Mem told me that she reminded Adam if it wasn’t for him, she would have never gotten the factory job in the first place or the extra shifts.

The salary Adam is giving her is so generous that Mem will be able to quit her waitress job at Woolworths in a few weeks. The only thing I like about Mem working at Woolworths is that she gets a discount and has been buying me the Nancy Drew mysteries — one book a week. I have 1-36, so I hope before Mem quits Woolworths, I get the 37-40 that Carolyn Keene has written so far.

The best part about the books is that I have been reading them to Mere Germaine and Mem. Mere Germaine is a lost cause and barely understands what I’m reading, but I’ve been pointing out the easy words to Mem, and she’s been trying to read them along with me. Since Mem can’t read or write English, the books are helping Mem to learn how to read, although I don’t think Mem will ever be able to write more than her name and address and maybe a few words and phrases.

Until last week, I was still hanging out at Steve’s Market with Rib and Yolanda every day after school, and it was obvious to me that Steve was not happy about Mem working for Adam.

“Adam, Adam, Adam. Your grandmother is always talking about Adam.” I wanted to remind Steve that Adam was half dead, but I decided to keep my mouth shut.

Adam is getting sicker and weaker, so now every day after school, I walk home, pick up Rib, and then walk to Adam’s house, where I meet Mem after her shift is over. Adam helps me with my homework while Mem cooks and cleans and then helps him with his bath.

Steve is very upset that I’m not coming by his store after school anymore and told Mem the same. Mem got all nerved up by Steve’s stupid behavior, and she warned him not to boss her around — or else.  I feel bad about Steve, but I also like spending time with Adam, so I don’t feel that bad. But Mem telling Steve “or else” makes me nervous because Steve means a lot to me; plus, we’ve never eaten better.

Even though Mem warned Steve, he’s still upset about Mem working for Adam, so yesterday, when Steve surprised Mem with a stereo console radio and record player, she was suspicious. I think Mem loved it, but she warned Steve if his gift had anything to do with Adam, she didn’t want any part of it.

♪ It was an itsy-bitsy teeny weenie yellow polka dot bikini ♪ was blaring on the radio, and Mem kept yelling at Mom to lower the sound. But Mom ignored her and grabbed Mere Germaine and me off the couch to dance with her, so Mem let us have our fun until supper time.

Jack Kennedy is President, and while we were eating, Mem told Steve that Kennedy is a sign from God, “him being an Irish Catholic and all.”  But then Mere Germaine reminded Mem that Pere Germaine’s accident was all because of Kennedy’s bootlegging father. I wanted to ask what a bootleg was and also get the details of my great-grandfather’s accident, but the sadness in Mere’s face kept me quiet.

After supper, Steve showed Mem an ad for a GE Daylight Blue Television set. He was telling Mem how he wanted to buy her one for Christmas. Mem scolded Steve, saying, “You can’t afford no television, so don’t put crazy thoughts in the girls’ heads.”

Plus, Christmas is ten months away, and Mem says that the expensive gift Steve is promising us is because of Adam. Mem doesn’t think Adam will make it to Christmas, and once Adam is dead, she says Steve won’t have to buy us a television because that’s the way men are. Mem sure has a lot of bad things to say about men, but never Adam.

I’m going to pray to God tonight that Adam lasts way past Christmas because I don’t want him to die. I’m also going to pray that Steve isn’t like other men because I really want a television set.

Say tuned for Chapter 12: JFK’s Assassination

My Stolen Diaries – Chapter 10: Steve the Butcher

CHAPTER 10

STEVE THE BUTCHER

July 1962

After that day in the Panik, I stayed away from the project, the lot, and my so-called friends, but not Steve’s Market. I’d walk with Rib to see Steve and Yolanda almost every day. Steve would give Rib a treat, grab some candy and sodas, and the four of us would sit out in front of his store.

Steve was from Hungary — and despite what Mem said about men, I trusted him, and so did Yolanda. Steve had some weird numbers on his left arm, and when I asked him about it, he said that the numbers were branded on him by some evil and wicked men. When I asked him if it hurt when he got branded, he said it hurt more mentally than physically.

He told Yolanda and me that he was sent to a camp in Poland with his baby brother. Yolanda asked him if his brother also got branded by the bad guys, but he sadly shook his head no. I could see that all the branding and brother talk was too much for him, so I asked Steve how he got into the meat business, which seemed to perk him up.

Two Saturdays ago, after working at Woolworths, Mem got ready to go to Steve’s Market, and I jumped at the chance to go with her — something that puzzled her since I wasn’t big on grocery shopping. But she welcomed the company, so I tagged along while Steve showed her the specials.

He went into a freezer behind the meat case and brought out a huge steak he wanted to show Mem. She was impressed but told Steve she couldn’t afford no steak and bought her usual chopped meat, liver, and hot dogs.

Steve offered her a free Hurka sausage, but she refused and said her usual about not taking charity. He insisted and said the sausage would have to be thrown out if it wasn’t cooked right away. So, Mem, who never threw food out, agreed to take it off his hands, and we had a feast of sausage and onions that night.

Every week is the same old food — hot dogs with baked beans on Monday and Tuesday and liver and onions on Wednesday and Thursday.  Mem has a rule that whatever she cooks has to last us two nights, which is tricky because there is barely enough food for one night.

On Fridays, we eat fish. No meat is allowed on Friday nights because it’s against our religion. When I asked Mem why she explained that Jesus sacrificed his flesh for us. I don’t know what His flesh has to do with fish, but every Friday night, we walk over to Joseph and Mary’s on Seaview Avenue and pick up fish and chips. And every single Saturday and Sunday night, we eat hamburger casserole, so Steve, the butcher’s sausage, was a delicious change and a special Saturday night treat.

Last Saturday, after working at Woolworths, Mem did her usual shopping at Steve’s, and I was right there beside her. Steve was helping another customer, but I could see that he was excited to see us.

When it was our turn, he asked Mem if everything was okay with the Hurka sausage.  Mem told Steve the sausage was delicious and that she fried it up with some onions. Then Mem turned to me and asked if I thought the sausage was delicious, and I nodded my head yes while wondering where all this sausage talk was going.

“And the hot dogs? How were they?” Steve asked. “Oh, they were good. We had them Monday and Tuesday,” Mem answered.  Steve smiled from ear to ear. “And the liver?” “The liver was good too; I cooked it in bacon grease,” she replied. And then Steve said, “Bacon grease gives the liver a real good flavor.”

I thought their conversation about meat and bacon grease was weird, but who cared? Because Mem was talking to a man! That was a first for me, and anyway, Steve is a good guy and knows his meat. My neck was twisting back and forth between the two of them as they yacked away about hot dogs, liver, and Hurka sausage.

“Maybe I could suggest something for tonight?” Steve asked, and Mem replied, “We always eat hamburger casserole on Saturday night.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Steve said to Mem. “I got no family — I eat alone every night. How ‘bout if I bring you over this steak tonight, and I’ll show you how to cook it?” He presented the slab of beef he pulled out of the meat case like it was gold.

My mouth hung wide open, and I whispered, “Mem, please say yes,” while tugging on her dress. Steve was nice, but that steak was something else.

I couldn’t help but notice Steve rubbing the numbers on his branded arm.  “I hate to waste a good steak on just me, and I hate eating alone.”

Mem stood there for what seemed like forever. I was still tugging on her dress when she finally said, “Well, okay, but it’s not charity, right?  Because Mon Dieu, we won’t take the charity.” Steve assured her that it wasn’t charity, and they made plans for him to come over after he closed up shop.

We hurried home, cleaned up the apartment, sprayed Raid all around the kitchen, baked some potatoes, and steamed the broccoli. Mom was working and always came home late on Saturday nights, so it was just going to be the three of us, which was fine with me because Mom would have made a whole stink about Steve, and I don’t think Mem would have ever had him over if she knew Mom would be home.

Mem didn’t say anything to me, but I could see that she was nervous. I never saw Mem with a man before, so I was happy for her. Mem kept checking herself out in the bedroom mirror and even put on lipstick and rouge! It occurred to me that she probably only had the one boyfriend, who ended up being her jerk of a husband, so I was hoping this would be a good night.

Steve came right on time, and Mem jumped up when he knocked. She straightened her hair, adjusted her false teeth, and smiled the most beautiful smile at me before opening the door.

Without his white butcher jacket with blood stains all over it, Steve fixed up pretty good. And that steak, oh boy!

Mem lit a fire in the broiler at the bottom of the stove, and the two of them talked nonstop about — you guessed it — meat.  I didn’t even know we had a broiler!

By the time we all sat down for dinner, they were like old buddies, laughing and gossiping about the local people. Steve warned us to be careful going out at night because the neighborhood was going bad.

Mem replied that the neighborhood was already bad but that we were getting out soon and that she was saving her money for a decent place with a yard. I didn’t care if we had a yard or not, just no bugs and rodents.

After we ate, Steve helped Mem clean up, and when he asked her if he could come back for supper another time, Mem said she would like that. I was wondering what Mom was going to think about all this Steve stuff.

Then he asked her what we were doing on Friday night, and Mem told him we always order fish and chips from Joseph and Mary’s. He asked if it was okay to join us — but only if he could make his famous fish and chips. He told Mem he doesn’t do anything on Friday nights, and in his humble opinion, his fish and chips are way better than Joseph and Mary’s.

Mem reminded him again that “we don’t take the charity from nobody,” and he assured Mem that she was doing him a favor by getting him out of his house. They shook hands and said goodbye.

After that steak dinner, Steve became a big part of our lives, and our meals of chopped meat, hot dogs, and liver were pretty much over.

And Steve was right when he said he made the best fish and chips, so our Friday night pickup from Mary and Joseph’s was also over.

Now, all we had to do was get rid of the snapping traps and shoeboxes, move Mere Germaine back in, and our lives would be perfect.

Stay tuned for Chapter 11: Mem’s Boss at Remington Arms

My Stolen Diaries – Chapter 9: Father Panik Village

CHAPTER 9

FATHER PANIK VILLAGE

June 1962

Past the elevated train tracks near White Street is a housing project called Father Panik Village, which makes our tenement look like a palace.

Mem forbids me to cross over to the other side of the tracks. When I ask her why, she explains that “On this side, there’s still hope, but on that side, ils sont finis,” meaning they’re finished.

“Crackers who go to the Panik get shot up with a semi-automatic,” my friends would say, so I never went anywhere near the place.

There was a rumor going around that Father Panik, a Catholic priest, was shot and killed when he got caught up in a gang crossfire there, so they named the project after him. Mem doesn’t believe a word of it, but if a man of the cloth couldn’t survive in there, I certainly couldn’t. When my friends would make bets and offer money for someone to run through the Panik, I always bowed out. It was a great way to make some quick cash, but not for me.

That was until last week when Mom gave me a dollar and told me to go to Steve’s Market for cigarettes and milk. On my way to the store, I saw some friends playing marbles in the old abandoned parking lot in between the train viaduct and Father Panik. The lot is full of wrecked cars, refrigerators, and other junk, so it’s a great place to hang out and hide out.

I stopped to play a quick game of Shooter with them. My friend Trish let me borrow her marbles, and using her prize largest one — the Big Kahuna — I beat them all. When I got to the market, I grabbed the milk, and Steve, the butcher and owner of the place pulled me a pack of cigarettes from behind the counter and rang me up.

I dug into my pocket to pay, and to my horror, the dollar was gone. I told Steve I’d be right back and ran to the lot, my heart pounding out of my chest. We all looked for the money, but nobody found it. Or at least that’s what they all said. I was certain that Mom was going to beat me with her strap, and I started to cry.

“Okay, okay,” said Roland, a chubby kid who lived in my building. “I’ll tell you what — you run through the Panik, and when you get back, we’ll give you enough cash for cigarettes and milk.  I looked in terror at my friends. They all pulled coins out of their pockets and threw them into a pile on the hood of a burned-out Chevy.

“She’s a chicken,” Roland said, waving his hand in my direction. Then he pointed toward the Panik, so I felt like I had no choice. It was Father Panik or the strap. As I reluctantly walked under the stone viaduct, the other kids stayed at the corner watching me.

The girls were yelling for me not to do it, and the boys were making squawking chicken noises.

I stood facing the Panik, watching some black kids standing around a bus stop smoking and laughing. I wasn’t prejudiced — just scared. I wasn’t taught to hate — just not to trust.

Before I could chicken out, I raced full force across the street and into the Panik, whipping past the kids hanging at the bus stop. “You crazy girl?” this one black kid cried out as I sped past him. While running at full speed, I looked back to see if my friends were still at the corner and crashed into a black girl a couple of years older than me. She got into my face and asked, “You lost?” It was just this black girl and me, and I was lost all right.

Then she yelled to someone across the street, and a man yelled back at her. When I turned around, Steve the butcher ran over to where we were standing, put his arm around my shoulder, and led me toward his store.

He turned to the black girl and said, “Thanks, Yolanda. Stop by tomorrow for a soda and chips.” “Arright,” Yolanda answered and gave us a wave. I was too shocked even to respond.

Steve scolded me when we got to the front of his market. “Father Panik is no place for you, young lady. What the heck were you doing in there? I saw you leave my store upset, then watched you run across the street, and I knew no good would come from that. You’re lucky Yolanda was there and not someone else.”

I tearfully told Steve I didn’t want to go home so fast and about the bet and how Mom was going to give me the strap, and I couldn’t stop shaking. “Now, now,” he said.  “Stop that blubbering.”  He took me into his store and bagged up some milk and a pack of Marlboro’s. Then he placed a candy necklace around my neck and gave me a handful of Pixy Stixs and Flying Saucers. “Now go home, and don’t ever try that again. Next time you go in there, you might not be so lucky.”

On my way home, I thought about all the times I had gone into Steve’s Market with Mem and how he would always give Rib treats and offer Mem free samples to try out. She always refused, telling him that she didn’t take handouts.

Every Saturday after Woolworths, she would go to Steve’s and buy chopped meat, liver, and hot dogs. And he always gave us way more than we paid for. Even Mem agreed with me about that.

I always thought Steve liked Mem, but the one time I brought it up to her, she got all red and told me to hush. “Men can’t be trusted. They always let you down.  And they’re only after one thing. You’ll see when you get older.” I always wondered what the one thing was, but I figured it must have been bad.

Mem had a real problem with men and always had something negative to say about them. When she would tell me stories about my grandfather, she never said anything nice. She would go on and on about how he deserted and humiliated her — and Mom. The only positive thing she ever said about him was he was tall and that I got my height from him.

The next day at the lot, I told my friends how a gang had stopped me and shoved me and how I had punched one girl in the face and how she ran off crying like a baby, and then the rest of the gang ran off too. I put my right fist in Roland’s face and warned him that if he didn’t give me my money, I would do the same thing to him that I did to Tit and the Panik girl. You bet he gave me the money, and I ran right to Steve’s and spent every penny of it. Yolanda was there, and Steve treated us to Twinkies and cream soda.

Yolanda lived with her grandmother, MawMaw, and the more we talked about our lives, the more we realized how similar we were. Well, except she was black and I was white, which made all the difference in the world.

According to Yolanda, Father Stephen Panik, MawMaw’s hero and a priest for the poor, wasn’t murdered at all. After he died in 1954, the 14-year-old “Yellow Mill Village” was renamed in his honor because, without Father Panik, public housing projects in Bridgeport would never have existed.

And now I know that Father Panik Village isn’t so scary, although Yolanda agrees that at the Panik, people can get shot up with a semi-automatic.

Three things happened after running through the Panik that day. The first thing was that I became the Big Kahuna to my friends, and the second thing was that Steve the butcher became the Big Kahuna to me — even though Mem told me never to trust a man.

But the third thing was the best of all because Yolanda became one of my closest friends.

Stay tuned for Chapter 10: Steve the Butcher

My Stolen Diaries – Chapter 8: What a Difference a Mother’s Day Makes

CHAPTER 8

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A MOTHER’S DAY MAKES

May 1961

Ever since my birds croaked on the rat poison, Mem and Mom have been worried sick about me. They sat me down a bunch of times to talk about my acting out.

I told them that the lie they forced me tell at St. Ambrose started the whole thing, making it easy to make up stories about my life instead of telling the truth about the sucky one I was living. So now, I pretty much lie about everything. My lying is a big worry for them, but their biggest worry is that I’ve been peeing on the rat poison in the corner of our porch.

I told them there was a double reason for that. First off, I hate the pitch-black hallway where the bathroom is, and second off, I want those stupid rats to drink my pee.

Mem cried out “heavens to Betsy” and then took her rosary beads from her housecoat pocket to pray for me. Mom grabbed my ear and twisted it around while yelling that I sounded like a retard. I gave Mom the rat face, combined with hissing sounds until she threw her hands up and walked away.

Mem and Mom both have it in their heads that I’m a tough nut to crack, but I’m a scaredy-cat. They don’t know it, but I’m afraid of everything. And the scariest of all is coming home to that empty apartment.

With Mem working the 3-11 shift, she’s gone by the time I get home. Every day after school, I force myself to climb the four flights of stairs in the back of our building and then sit at the kitchen table until Mom shows up for supper.

I check the clock in the kitchen and then run as fast as I can from one end of the apartment to the other to press my face against Mem’s bedroom window, hoping to see Mom walking down the street. Then I run even faster back to the kitchen, convinced that the rats are waiting for me in the hallway.

I rock myself on a kitchen chair, willing my bladder to cooperate, so I don’t need to go to the bathroom by way of the dreaded scary hallway. If I can’t hold in my pee, I pee outside in the bowl of rat poison — way better than on the porch floor.

“The poor dear is lonely,” Mem told Mom in French a few days after the ear twisting while I colored at the kitchen table and pretended not to understand. Lonely wasn’t the half of it.

A couple of weeks later, Mom promised to take us all out to an expensive restaurant for a Mother’s Day lunch in New London.

The Lighthouse Inn was surrounded by water and was the fanciest place I had ever been. There was a path leading up to the front door with the most beautiful flowers, and on the front lawn, kids threw coins into a giant stone fountain.

I stuffed my face with eggs benedict and crispy bacon and washed everything down with my Shirley Temple cocktail. After brunch, I convinced Mom to let me throw a penny into the fountain and make a wish. The fountain area was filled with families who all had the same idea, and as we squeezed in and out of the crowds toward the fountain, Mem threw up everywhere.

Well, the crowd emptied out quick enough, and to their horror — and ours, Mem’s top false teeth flew out of her mouth and plopped right into the fountain.

Mere Germaine and Mom looked at Mem in shock as she bent over, fished her teeth out of the water, shook them off, and popped them back into her mouth. Then she turned to us and said, “la nourriture était trop riche,” which means the food was too rich.

Mom said she wanted to get the hell out of there. I was in no rush because I still never got to throw a penny in the fountain. She dragged me to the car, all the while talking under her breath about how embarrassed she was and how she couldn’t take us anywhere without us causing some kind of a ruckus. Mere Germaine was holding onto poor Mem, who was nauseous as all get out.

We got into the rickety old car Mom borrowed from a friend, and it took a few tries before the engine turned over. Mom was super unhappy, and I figured our Mother’s Day fun was over — ruined by Mem’s teeth flying out of her mouth.

We drove for a while and came to a white house with a large red barn. Mem, burping, and gagging, stayed in the car with Mere Germaine. Mom took my hand, and together we walked up to the house, where she rang the doorbell. An old lady answered the door and walked us to the barn.

When she opened the latch to the barn, there was a pile of tiny black puppies! I was happy to be playing with the baby fluffballs but ran back to the car to get Mem and Mere Germaine so they wouldn’t miss out on the fun.

When we got back to the barn, the dog lady handed me what she called the runt of the litter. “He’s a Pomeranian, and he’s got papers,” Mom told me proudly as he licked my face with his teensy red tongue. I was confused as to why I was there and what a puppy would need with papers.

“He’s yours,” Mem said lovingly. “Someone to keep you company,” Mere Germaine added. The old lady pulled out a folded paper from an envelope as I smooshed the little black snowball against my chest.

She proudly presented Mom with some papers and said, “His mother’s name is Lady Marlene, and his name is Marlene’s Onyx Jet.” “His name is Jet,” Mom told me.

Jet? I didn’t like that name. It didn’t fit my puppy at all.

“What’s his father’s name?” I asked. “Who cares about his father?” Mom responded, annoyed. The old lady pointed out a line on the paper and said, “His father’s name is Captain Jean Ribault.”

Mem yelled out “il est français!” Mere Germaine clapped her hands in delight.

“I’m calling him Rib,” I told everyone, even though they thought it was a stupid name. On the way home, all three of them tried to talk me out of calling him Rib, but my mind was made up.

It was a Mother’s Day I will never forget. Poor Mem asked Mom to pull off the side of the road so she could throw up again, and right before we got to White Street, Rib puked all over my new dress. All Mom cared about was that we didn’t get throw up all over her friend’s car.

Now with Rib in the picture, when the school bell rings, I race back to our apartment, fly up the stairs, and burst into the kitchen where my little man is always patiently waiting for me.

The bathroom? The hallway? No problem. Rib leads the way and stands guard at the bathroom door, growling and barking. He’s a tiny thing, but Mom says he thinks he’s a Great Dane, and I guess whatever is in the hallway thinks so, too, because nothing scary ever shows itself when Rib is around.

And best of all, there’s no more peeing on the poison even though the rats deserve it, and not too much lying, except for making sure I don’t forget to tell everyone at school that my Mem is my mom and my Mom is my sister.

Now instead of sitting in the kitchen, willing myself not to pee, I can dress Rib up in his pink tutu and whip him around the kitchen with his tiny front legs. Don’t worry, I won’t hurt him, because he likes it.

The two of us swirl and spin in circles until I fall, and he jumps all over me. I laugh, and he barks, and then we both try to walk our dizzy selves straight.

Hooray for Mother’s Day because now it’s Rib and me — my best friend, my guardian angel, my hallway guard, and the one and only man in my life.

Click here for Chapter 9: Father Panik Village

My Stolen Diaries – Chapter 7: A New School With a Side of Baptism

CHAPTER 7

A NEW SCHOOL WITH A SIDE OF BAPTISM

January 1961

Mem, Mom, and Mere Germaine huddled around the kitchen table, whispering to each other. I was supposed to be asleep, but I snuck out of bed to try to hear what they were saying. Mom was doing all the talking, and it was mainly in French. I tried my best to figure out what was going on, but I was confused.

Mom was telling Mem and Mere that for me to go to St. Ambrose Elementary School after Easter break, I needed to get baptized.

Wait. Was I going to a new school? Nobody told me that. And I had no idea what a baptized was.

Mom went on to tell Mem that she would have to pretend to be my mother because the Catholic school wouldn’t accept anyone from an excommunicated family. Mere said that she didn’t want Mem to lie, but she had to agree with Mom that the only way I would get into St. Ambrose was if they pretended that I was Mem’s daughter and Mom was my sister!

Then Mem piped in that it was about time they baptized me Catholic anyway and that there was no reason I should be Greek Orthodox and risk going to Limbo. She blamed my dad for that.

Wherever Limbo was, it didn’t sound like a place I wanted to go. And no way did I want to go there with my father.

Then Mom said that if anyone at St. Ambrose asked, she would tell them that she was married to an oil rig worker stationed out of state and that Mem and Mere were widows. Mem and Mere bobbed their heads up and down like Mom was the boss of both of them.

They had always taught me that lying was a sin, so why was it okay for them?

The next day Mom sat me down and told me that because of Barbara Titone, I was going to a new school.

I was thinking about all the ways I could punch Tit out for causing me so much trouble. Mom scolded me for not paying attention.

Then Mom said that I had to tell everyone at St. Ambrose that I was Mem’s daughter. When I reminded Mom that lying was a sin, she told me to “shut it.”

It was Mem who told me that right before Easter, I was getting baptized. I wasn’t crazy about getting a pile of water dumped on my head, but what could I do? Mem promised me that she would take me to Howard Johnson’s for a banana split afterward, so I was excited.

Every time I saw Tit at school, I gave her the rat face, so she stayed far away from me, but so did everyone else because they thought I wasn’t right in my head.

While I waited to get baptized, I focused my attention on the top outside corner of our back porch, where two small birds were busily making a nest using dried leaves and twigs.

Soon, the birds had a baby! Mem called them Oiseaux, which means birds in French. The mommy bird peeked her head out of the nest while the daddy bird watched their wobbly baby hop around on our rotting rail. I knew which one was the mom because she was smaller than the dad. I asked Mem if she thought their tummies growled like mine when they were hungry. She said she didn’t know. My belly was always growling from hunger, and I was afraid that they were hungry too.

But mostly, I was afraid the hungry rats would eat my new friends. I asked Mem if rats ate birds, but she didn’t know that either.

There was a window in our kitchen, close enough to the nest for me to watch them. I put a small pot of water on the rail and laughed with delight when the birds took turns dunking their tiny heads in it. But Mem took the water away, explaining that it would bring other things, and I knew exactly what she meant by that. Every time I pressed my face against the windowpane, I prayed to God to make sure the rats didn’t eat my birds.

On the day of my baptism, Mem dressed me in all white. Mom couldn’t come because she had to work, so she sent one of her friends who came as my godparent, and Mere was a witness. Mem lied to the priest and told him she was my mother. Mere kept quiet and didn’t say one word. The priest was rough, and the water he poured all over my head and face was ice cold. Some of the water went up through my nose, and I started to choke. The priest forced me to keep my head back even though I was having trouble breathing. He told me to be strong for Jesus and that the Holy water would save me.

On the bus to Howard Johnson’s, Mem told me that Catholics were against divorced people. She explained that both she and Mom were divorced because they both married bad men. She made me promise not to tell anyone about their divorces, or I would have to go back to school with Barbara Titone. I told Mem I never wanted to see Tit again, but I also didn’t want to lie. She responded that I shouldn’t give her any trouble and just do what I was told.

On the first day of school at St. Ambrose, the kids were friendly, but the nuns were strict and grumpy. I made it my business to lie, lie, lie, and told everyone I met that my dad was a famous oil rig worker who worked far away and that I lived with my mom and older sister, even though nobody asked.

When I got home that day, daddy bird was lying limp on the porch. I poked him, but he didn’t move. Then I noticed the empty bowl of rat poison in the corner. I dragged a kitchen chair outside and climbed up to the nest, where I found the baby and mommy dead.

I took them out and laid them next to the dad. Then I poured water on their heads to baptize and save them, but it didn’t work. I gently placed my bird family into the bowl of poison, hid them underneath the bottom level of the porch, and prayed to God for Him to make the rats eat them and croak.

Click here for Chapter 8: What a Difference a Mother’s Day Makes

A Novel on a Blog

I had all but given up on my unfinished novel titled My Stolen Diaries, which I began writing in 1992.

In early 2015, my book had 168 pages and 117,653 words, and I wasn’t even close to finishing it, so I decided to put my novel on hold and instead concentrated on creating a blog.

In March 2015, I launched my blog, The Teri Tome.

In April 2015, I only had 328 visits to the blog, but by March of 2019, The Teri Tome had over 27,000 monthly visits.

With that kind of monthly traffic, it seemed like a no-brainer to revisit My Stolen Diaries and analyze whether or not it made sense to add chapters from my book onto my blog.

In July 2019, I wrote an article about the pros and cons, and shockingly, the post has to date been viewed over 10,000 times. [You can read To Blog or Not to Blog My Novel here.]

Writing the blog post was incredibly useful in that it helped me figure out a format for excerpting from my decades-old unfinished book. And the many thousands of page views I received from my post solidified my decision to add chapters of my novel to my blog.

After much thought, I decided my novel-on-a-blog should be called a Novelog. In January 2020, I posted a Disclaimer and the first six chapters of my novel.

I was reasonably sure the chapters would bomb, so the thousands of hits the posts garnered made my heart happy.

My blog traffic immediately increased by almost 50%, primarily due to the My Stolen Diaries chapters.

Of my 32 total posts in 2020, seven of them were chapters pulled from the novel.

And shocking to me was that when I calculated the traffic numbers for my top five blog posts in 2020, four of them were from my ancient rough draft novel!

It turned out my most popular blog posts were less of a post-mortem on what Teri was writing in 2020 and more about what Teri was writing in the 90s.

The Teri Tome generated over 300,000 page views in 2020, a whopping 47% increase from 2019, primarily due to the page views for my novel My Stolen Diaries.

The thousands of people who have been reading chapter after chapter has given me new resolve to pull out my book and take a fresh look at it.

Maybe, just maybe, my languishing novel has legs.

And 2021 might even be the year I finish it. In the meantime, keep a lookout for more chapters coming to The Teri Tome soon!

My Stolen Diaries – Chapter 6: Tit

CHAPTER 6

TIT

It was August 1960, and I was getting ready for first grade.

I was excited but also nervous. Mem was even more nervous than me because I was going to be walking to school by myself. The walk wasn’t a long one, but I still had to do it alone.

Mom worked from 7 am-3 pm, and Mem worked a factory 3-11 pm shift and was a seamstress during the day. Because we didn’t have a car, they both had to either walk or take buses everywhere, which took a lot of time. Mere Germaine was living too far away to help out, so I was pretty much on my own day and night.

Mom said that moving Mere Germaine back in with us so she could help out was yet another reason why we had to get out of our White Street apartment.

After church, for three Sundays straight, Mem walked with me to the school, warning me about cars, strangers, and stray dogs.

The walk was pretty straightforward. From White Street, we made a right at the corner, then walked up a long hill, and then made another right, and then down a steep hill, where the school was at the bottom, and across the street on the left.

On day one, Mem packed me a paper bag with a jelly sandwich, and a chocolate doughnut from the batch she had made fresh the day before.  She wrote “RR” for right, right, on my right hand in pen so I wouldn’t get lost.

My walk was uneventful until I started down the second hill. There was a group of girls slightly ahead of me. The biggest one turned around and yelled: “Whatchu lookin at?”

I looked behind me to see who she was speaking to, but there wasn’t anyone else there but me. When I turned back around, she was in my face. “I aksed chu a question.”

I looked down at my lunch bag, too afraid to answer. “Watchu got in the bag?” She grabbed my lunch and ran off to catch up with her friends.

Later that day in the playground, I was hungry and didn’t feel much like playing. Plus, every time I looked over at the mean girl, she gave me the finger. When I asked some of the other kids who she was, one girl told me that her name was Tit.

“Who would name a kid, Tit?” I asked, and the girl told me that her real name was Barbara Titone, and she was a bully to everyone, even her friends.

Oh, she was a bully, all right. And husky. And since she was in the third grade, she towered over scrawny me.

After school, I ran all the way home, terrified that Tit was going to come after me.  And those hills were a killer.

When I got to the apartment, it was empty. Mem left for her shift way before I got home, and Mom’s shift was over at 3 pm, but after work, she had a second job as a dance instructor for a local Arthur Murray Dance Studio, so it was me myself and I, until at least 6 or 7 pm.

Between being afraid of the refrigerator, the scary hallway, the shoebox cabinet, and the rodents, I sat at the table in the kitchen until Mom got home, even though I had to pee.

Since the only way to get to the bathroom was through the hallway, there was no chance I was doing that, so the only choice I had was to hold it in or pee on the back porch.

I didn’t mention anything to Mem about Tit, but the next morning I told her I had a stomach ache and didn’t want to go to school. Mem told me she wasn’t having any of my nonsense and to pack up.

For the next few months, Tit made my life miserable. Back then, I didn’t know what a butch was, but if ever there was a butch, Tit was it.

And her name might make you laugh, but there was nothing funny about being taunted day in and day out.

In the morning, she would torture me and take my lunch, and in the afternoon, she would just torture me.

One day on my way to school, Tit was particularly aggressive and shoved me so hard that when I fell, I hit my head on the pavement and wet myself.

As I sat in a puddle of urine, Tit laughed with her friends, singing ♪ Tony needs a diaper, Tony needs a diaper ♪.

I didn’t want to say anything to my teacher about what happened, so I had to stay wet until my clothes air-dried. Tit told everyone at school I pissed myself, and I was humiliated. Plus, my clothes dried all smelly and crusty, and the back of my head was throbbing. That’s when I started to fantasize about how I was going to get back at Tit.

Even though I knew it was hopeless, I needed to take some kind of action because running away from Tit every day was both mentally and physically killing me.

The next day, on what I knew was going to be yet another torturous walk to school, I was feeling brave.

That was until I caught sight of Tit. And like a coward, and before Tit could even grab it, I handed her my lunch. So much for bravery.

But when Tit turned her back to me and began singing, ♪ Tony needs a diaper; Tony needs a diaper ♪, an uncontrollable storm of fury invaded my body.

I let out a roar, and in a fit of rage, I pounced on Tit from behind.  Tit fell on her knees, and when she rolled over, writhing in pain, I jumped on her stomach and straddled her. Then I punched Tit hard in the face, once with my right fist and then with my left. Tit was holding her hands up to her face and crying. I yanked her hands away and slapped her in the face a couple of times while repeatedly calling her shitty titty.

Then I grabbed my lunch bag, winked at Tit, gave her friends an evil grin, and asked if anybody else wanted what Tit got. While they all looked down at the sidewalk, I roughly elbowed my way through the girls and strutted the rest of the way to school.

We both got called into the principal’s office, and when nobody but Tit was looking, I imitated one of those nasty rats from our shoebox, and put my two hands up like claws, and gave her a creepy bucktooth face. And from what I could tell, Tit was scared titless.

When Mem came to get me at school, she wanted an explanation for why I beat up “Barbara.” I told her all about the Tit taunts, and how I was going to shove her tits down her titty mouth. My dirty words mortified Mem, so we stopped at the church on the way home, where she ordered me to recite the Lord’s Prayer five times. I knew Mem was more worried than mad, though, because she didn’t threaten to wash my mouth out with soap.

That night Mem and Mom spoke together in French to figure out what the hell they were going to do. I knew they used the swear word because Mem said in French, “enfer.”

Mem told Mom she was horrified at my violent actions and words. And Mom told Mem she was worried I was going to take after my father’s side of the family, and that was yet another reason why we had to get Mere Germaine back.

That night, as I laid in Mem’s bed, I wasn’t obsessing about the rats, the mice, the poison, or the cockroaches. I was happily and busily conjuring up all sorts of ideas for how I was going to torture Tit.

Click here for Chapter 7: A New School With a Side of Baptism

My Stolen Diaries – Chapter 5: My First Diary

CHAPTER 5

MY FIRST DIARY

3/4/60

My seventh birthday had finally arrived. Mem and Mom went back and forth as to whether we should have a party or not. I didn’t have many friends, so it would be mostly family, which seemed weird to me since I didn’t have many of those either. But in the end, they decided that a small party was better than no party at all.

On the day of, while I blew up the balloons at the kitchen table, Mere Germaine hid the rat poison under the kitchen sink. Mom was whispering to Mem in French about how unhappy she was that Mick’s two sisters were coming.

I didn’t know I had two aunts, and I was curious although I was hoping that they wouldn’t come to the party with guns.

“I want them all out of her life,” Mom told Mem.  “It’s not that easy,” Mem responded. “With Mere Germaine living rent-free from Samir right now.” Mom reminded Mem that Mere didn’t want any of them in my life either. Rats and all, Mere wanted to come back and live with us. I wanted her to live with us too.

I was worried about Mere being around that side of my so-called family. And I had to agree with Mom that it might be best if they were all out of our lives.

The first and last time I saw my father, Mick, was with that woman, and if I never saw either one of them again, that was fine with me. Nobody offered for me to see him again anyway.

I never told Mem and Mom about the cow’s head in Samir’s refrigerator, because I knew if I did, Mom would never let me go back to visit.

Who opens a refrigerator expecting to find a cow’s head? For a long time after that, I added refrigerators to the already long list of things that terrified me.

And if I kept the cow’s head a secret from Mem and Mom, you know I never told them about Uncle Luke and the bloody yellow kitchen table.

Anyway, when my Aunt Mona showed up for the party, Mem and Mom pretended to be happy about it.

And then my Aunt Sara showed up — with who else, but Uncle Luke! My eyes were rounder than saucers, but Luke never let on that we had ever met, and neither did I.

Every time I took a glance at Uncle Luke, he was also looking back at me. At some point during the party, he came over to me and told me that when I was first born, he used to babysit for me and that he used to walk me to nursery school. He asked if I remembered him at all, and I shook my head no.

The only thing I remembered about him was his bloody face and swollen winking eye.

I don’t recall any of the other presents I got that year except for the pink diary from Aunt Mona.

The inscription read:

Dear Tony, Happy Birthday.  I have always loved you. Aunt Mona

While I was reading what she wrote, she was smiling at me and patting me ever so gently on my head.

And I was thinking; you’re such a liar. If you loved me so much, you would never allow me to live like this.

Click here for Chapter 6: Tit

My Stolen Diaries – Chapter 4: The Yellow Kitchen Table

CHAPTER 4

THE YELLOW KITCHEN TABLE

It was a Sunday morning in February of 1960.

“Mere Germaine deserves better than this hell hole,” Mom told Mem after we came home from church, after a particularly harrowing night full of the snap, snap, snapping of rat traps.

Mem agreed, but where would she go? Mom mentioned someone I had never heard of before — Samir. Whoever this Samir was, he owned apartments, and Mom said that if she had to get on her hands and knees and beg him to find a clean and safe place for Mere Germaine to live, she would do it.

Mem spoke back to Mom in French, but I understood everything. Mem was telling Mom that if Samir found a place for Mere, he would want something in return. “Nobody gives anything for nothing.” And Mem warned Mom that seeing me would surely be part of the arrangement.

Me? What did I have to do with any of it? Mom asked Mem if she had any other ideas, and Mem said no. All in French.

I sat quietly, eating my butter and strawberry jam sandwich. “Well, then it’s settled,” Mom said and picked up the phone.

“Samir? It’s Natalie. Yes, I’m fine. Yeah, she’s a big girl already.” I assumed they were talking about me.

“I need your help Samir, but hold on.” She then kicked me out of the kitchen and told me to go to Mem’s room.

Since Mem’s room was at the other end of the apartment, there was no way I could hear the rest of the conversation.

After church the following Sunday, I helped Mom and Mem move Mere to the other side of Bridgeport. It wasn’t the best neighborhood, but it was way better than White Street.

As I ran around Mere’s new apartment, there was a knock at the door. When Mem opened it, a grey-haired man stood smiling at me.

“Look at you,” he said, arms outstretched. I was frightened and looked at Mem, who introduced me to Samir as my grandfather.

He lifted me off my feet and kissed me twice on each cheek. I was confused, but I liked the attention.

Then he put me down, and the two of us walked hand in hand to his house, which was a few blocks away.

While Samir was in the bathroom, I opened his refrigerator. There, on the top shelf, was a huge cow’s head with its tongue hanging out. I let out a scream and slammed the door. Samir flew out of the bathroom, and I pointed to the refrigerator. He laughed and told me I shouldn’t put my nose where it doesn’t belong.

Then Samir turned on the radio and was singing along to a song I had never heard before: ♪ …you can kiss me on a Wednesday, a Thursday, a Friday, and Saturday is best. But never, never on a Sunday, a Sunday, a Sunday, ’cause that’s my day of rest…  ♪ It was a catchy tune, and I hummed along as Samir prepared us something to eat. When he opened the refrigerator door, I squeezed my eyes tightly shut.

As we sat at his kitchen table, a boy in his early teens stopped by.  I was sitting on Samir’s lap, spooning a bowl of coffee filled with ripped-up toasted bread into my mouth like it was soup.

Samir called the boy Luke, and I could see right away that there was going to be trouble. I wanted to jump off Samir’s lap and make a run for it, but I was incapable of moving.

Luke was boiling mad and pulled out a gun. I had never seen a real gun before, and I was shaking.

Samir told Luke that I was Tony, Mick’s kid — and his niece, and warned him to think carefully about his next move.

Samir then told Luke to calm down and slowly took me off his lap. I bolted for the closest room, which was the bathroom. I knelt on the cold tile floor and kept the door slightly ajar so I could see what was happening.

Luke called Samir a thief, and Samir calmly told him to put down the gun so they could talk.

Luke put the gun on the table, and when Samir stood up, it seemed like he was going to hug him. But instead, he punched Luke in the face — first with his right fist and then with his left. Blood from Luke’s nose splattered all over Samir and the yellow kitchen table.

I will never forget the look on Luke’s face. It wasn’t pain or anger — it was more of sadness and misery. I can still see his eyes today, brimming with tears.

Oddly enough, I wasn’t scared — I felt pity for Luke. As he backed away from Samir, he called him a shit father.

Then he turned in my direction — one side of his bloody face was already starting to swell.

As I continued to peek out through the crack in the bathroom door, Luke gave me a wink before he left.

Click here for Chapter 5: My First Diary

My Stolen Diaries – Chapter 3: White Street

CHAPTER 3

WHITE STREET

January 1960

Mem and Mom were always talking about the big news of the day. Elvis was in the army; Senator John F. Kennedy was running for President, and Mem got a Saturday job working at the Woolworths lunch counter on Main Street.

During the week, Mem worked at Remington Arms on the assembly line, boxing bullets, and was a seamstress at night and on Sundays. I was upset that Mem was going to be away even more now that she had taken a job at Woolworths. I should have cared more that Mem was killing herself working seven days a week, but I learned quick enough not to think or care too much about anything.

We lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in a tenement on White Street, although there weren’t too many white people.

Our top-floor railroad apartment was laid out in a single long line of rooms: from the kitchen to the living room, to the bedroom that Mom shared with Mere Germaine, to my grandmother’s bedroom at the end. I slept with Mem.

The kitchen was large and had plenty of cupboards. There was one extra-large cupboard to the lower left of the sink, filled to capacity with empty shoe boxes. I hated that cupboard. I hated the shoe boxes even more.

The tiny bathroom was directly off the kitchen to the left and lined up with a long creepy hallway that ran from the bathroom all along the length of the entire apartment and ended up at a dark, steep, and narrow stairwell that led down twenty steps or so to the front door.

We never used that door because it was padlocked — sealed shut and unusable. So the only way in and out of the apartment was to climb the several rows of steep stairs in the back of the house and enter through the kitchen. Only one way in and one way out. A real fire trap.

Our apartment was run down, but Mem kept it spotless, which unfortunately didn’t stop the cockroaches and rodents from invading.

I hated the roaches. Big bad cockroaches. They came out fast and furious.  And they were bold. I would stamp my foot next to them to scare them, but they wouldn’t budge. The roach brigade usually made its debut anytime it went from light to dark.

When we would enter the kitchen at night — and turn on the lights, all the cockroaches would frantically scurry around the walls, trying to flee from the brightness. Hundreds of cockroaches would cover the walls of our kitchen. They came in droves. Welcome home.

The roach activity was horrifying.  But it was just the way it was. Mom would carry on and throw a fit, but not me — and never Mem.

But I was most petrified of the rodents. They were probably rats, but I don’t think I could have survived living there, thinking they were rats.

I insisted on sleeping with the bedroom light on even though Mem preferred the light out. No way I was sleeping in the dark. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that on White Street, everything scary came out in the dead of night.

Despite the rodents and the bugs, I never imagined that there was a better way to live. I didn’t realize at the time that we were poor and living in squalor conditions. It was just home to me.

At night I would help Mem set up the rodent traps. I hated it, but the thought of having hungry mice — or worse — roaming around our apartment was even scarier. So, our routine before going to bed was to lay traps all over the apartment. And if Mere Germaine wasn’t already asleep, she would cut up the cheese.  Mom refused to help us.

Poor Mom. She would yelp every time she heard a trap snap. Snap, snap, snap. All night long.

Early every morning, Mem would grab a shoebox from the dreaded cupboard, and roam around our apartment, throwing the successful traps into it. The shoebox would be full of rodents with broken necks. Mem would calmly throw them into a garbage bag and then into the garbage can on our back porch and place the shoebox back in the cupboard next to the sink.

On the first of every month, our landlord would put out a dish of rat poison in the corner, next to our back door. By the end of the month, the bowl was always empty, which made me happy because it meant a lot of dead rats.

I was a curious child, so I asked Mem a lot of rodent questions. I wouldn’t call Mem a mouse or rat expert, but she knew a lot about both.

My math skills weren’t the best, but I knew that where there was one rodent, there were many more. Mem told me that rats have large families — up to forty or fifty. And since rats rarely walk more than a few hundred feet from their birthplace, if I saw one, the other forty or so were probably close by.

The good news from Mem: Rats had a one-year life span, so they didn’t last long.

The bad news from Mem: Rats multiply like rabbits.

And more bad news from Mem: Rats eat mice, so they rarely cohabitate.

Which, for me, meant that the mouse jig was probably up.

As you can imagine (or not), I was obsessed with our uninvited guests. So was Mem, but not in a scared way like me.

Mem would methodically and carefully inspect all of the lower parts of our walls — particularly in the bedrooms, at about one inch from the floor.

According to Mem, rats were wall huggers, so they would leave behind dark oil marks from their hair. Rat hair oil.

I was frightened. But nothing compared to Mom. She was horrified and disgusted and regularly cried and cried out in fear.

All Mom would ever say was, “We have to get out of here.” But I don’t remember ever thinking that we had to get out.

Click here for Chapter 4: The Yellow Kitchen Table