Meeting the mafia

mafia car

 1979  Boston

I wanted to take Kristen to Vermont to show her where I’d gone to boarding school. I was entirely comfortable with hitchhiking and mentioned my plans to Keyo, but he became concerned. Keyo, I said, I’ve always hitchhiked and enjoyed it. I’ve met some incredibly good people that way.  I’m a good judge of character. I know who to trust and how to talk my way out of trouble.

He knew he wasn’t going to change my mind so he pulled me gently over to his pack. Karen, I want you to carry my knife. If anyone gives you trouble, you’ll have it to protect yourself. You won’t have to use it, but wear it on your belt and when people see it, they’ll know you mean business. I laughed, Yes, and when they ask me what I do for a living, I’ll say, I’m a spiritual teacher and here is my switch blade knife. He insisted. I took the knife to make him feel better and headed out the next day.

The knife was big and deadly, like nothing I’d ever seen. I pushed a button and a long sharp blade sprang into action. The metal shone of polished silver and frightened even me. I fastened it to my belt, like Keyo had recommended and prepared for our trip.

It began the next morning when a small pick-up pulled over to give us a ride and a policeman materialized from nowhere. He peered in the driver’s window and delivered a lecture about delivering us safely to our destination. No foul play, he warned. The driver was  put out. Man, I stop to do somebody a favor and the next thing you know, I’m being pulled over and treated like a criminal. I apologized and we went safely on our way. We had two more short rides and then climbed into a car driven by two young men, who talked about the Mafia like it was the Boys Club.

We talked easily, laughed and seemed to have a lot in common. They lived near by and offered an evening meal, shelter for the night and a swim in the pool. It sounded good, so we agreed. The car left the highway and threaded along a tall cornfield,  loose gravel pounding the window. Dust blocked my vision. When we reached the house, Kristen and I climbed down from the cab. The boy’s mother came out, asking who we were and where we had come from. When they explained that we were hitchhikers, an already heated conversation exploded. It was in Italian, so I don’t know what was said, but certainly got the drift. It was something like, these people are scum, get them out of here.

One of the men broke away and said, I apologize for my mother. She is very old fashioned, but it’s ok for you to be here.  His mother was heavy set, with thick black hair pulled away from her face, and a mind that measured the world in threats and dangers. This may not be a good idea, I said. No, no! He insisted. It’s late, we’ll swim and then you can stay in the guest house above the garage. You’ll be fine here, don’t mind my mother. I minded his mother a lot and so did he.

None-the-less, we changed into our suits and cooled off in the pool. It was a nice contrast to standing in the hot sun and being bathed in car exhaust. One of the boys went into the field and picked fresh corn. We tore back golden husks and ate it sweet and raw, while lingering in the pool. The sun was going down when we climbed out. I made my way to the changing house, put my hand on the door knob and turned it hard, but it didn’t open. I pushed again. That’s odd, I thought, I must have locked it by mistake. I turned around to ask for help and discovered that the boys had been sent into the house on an errand – their mother was standing in back of me.

She grabbed my arm and led me to a bench, I have locked the door, she told me. You can not enter. You must leave my house at once. Do not harm my boys. You are a mother, you know what I mean. She pointed to my clothes, which she’d piled on the ground outside, then lifted the knife from its holder. You are a dangerous woman and must leave my house at once.

I was speechless. I’d never been seen as a dangerous person and the idea that I might over power her sons with a knife was incredible. Her sons emerged from the house once again, and Italian words flew hot and fast. They stood nose to nose, each pleading their case in shouts and bursts of emotion, without anyone being heard.

One of the boys broke away, grabbed my clothes and showed us to the guest house. It will be all right, he assured us. It’s too late to leave. Rest well and go in the morning. Kristen and I looked at each other in bewilderment, as we hung our wet suits on the shower and talked about the events of the day. We were settling in for bed, when a car came screeching to a halt outside the window. Doors sprang open in unison. Six large Italian men got out, all of them carrying guns. The boy who had shown us to the guest house flew up the stairs.

I’m sorry, you’ll have to leave now, he said gasping for breath. You’ll be all right, Momma has sent some friends to make sure you go back to the highway. We didn’t even retrieve our suits from the shower wall, just grabbed our belongings as we were hurried out the door.

Kristen and I sat in the dark along the road, glad to be gone. I thought about throwing the knife away, but knew it was expensive and that Keyo would want it back. We cuddled together on my suitcase and sang songs, while we waited for some sign of life in the traffic lane.

We were picked up moments later by a man who was on his way home to his four children. He was generous and kind, invited us to stay the night and we accepted. We climbed the stairs to a guest bedroom, pulled back covers on a queen size bed and quickly fell asleep. Only I didn’t stay asleep. I tossed and turned and dreamed violent dreams of people being stabbed by knives. I was so angry with myself for agreeing to carry a weapon, because it was doing the opposite of what it was intended to do; it was endangering us.

In the morning, over a breakfast of orange juice and muffins, I learned that our host was vacationing with his children, because his wife had been brutally murdered only one month before. I offered my sympathies and asked how she’d died. Someone broke into our home while I was away, he said with tears welling in his eyes, and stabbed her to death. I listened to his sorrow and realized that my dreams had not been produced by anxiety, but were images resulting from very real terror.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. We were delivered safely to Vermont, walked around the school grounds, looked up acquaintances and got a ride back to Boston with an old friend, who had career-shuttled from musician to CPA. Upon returning I looked up Keyo and delivered his knife, glad to be free of it! I had learned an important lesson about the energy objects hold and attract, and that my personal safety had more to do with my outlook and essence, than it had to do with carrying weapons.


pale-roseI was in my last year at boarding school before I picked up a book and read it from cover to cover. Before that, words were a collection of tiny line drawings in black ink, placed against a light background and bunched together in clusters of illegible form. Much of my childhood was spent alone in my room with one illness or another. School became a place I rarely went, so my mother hired tutors to keep me in the educational loop.  I didn’t fully realize that I couldn’t read, because I’d been taught the mechanics in school, I simply could not gain entry.

Tutors came to my bedroom and left stacks of books on the night table, with demands for memorizing and reciting to avoid failure. Bright pink markers guided me with clear certainty to mountains of exercises and reading assignments. I saw the tutors and the books as ugly intruders, the certain onset of a headache. I would look at the pages as one would look at a book of Latin or Greek, and put it aside. I wanted to comply but didn’t know how. Once, in my frustration, I copied the pictures I saw in pencil and ink. I made a great sweeping portrait of Mark Twain and handed it over instead of a book report. It landed in the trash with more threats and verbal lashings describing the dismal future I’d have if I failed to cooperate. If I had been brave, I would have torn the pages and filled my bedroom with paper airplanes, but I didn’t do that. I was not brave.

Reading was painfully slow, but I got better as I got older, better at faking my inability and better at recognizing words. I envied those who saw it as a source of comfort or escape into a better world. When we were assigned book reports in school I would ask others to describe the story or ask a librarian to talk to me about the book. I was able to slide by, but hiding and the extra effort made me weary.

When I was sent to boarding school to recover my health, my roommate gave me John Steinbeck’s  Of Mice and Men. She owned his entire collection which sat on a shelf between our beds. Here, read this, she said, as I lay in bed with a cold. It will help pass the time. I had never read anything that was not academic. I opened the book out of sheer boredom, expecting as ever to be turned away, either by dull content or its failure to allow entry. To my surprise and delight, I was invited inside. The words were easy and enjoyable. I could read it!  I went from cover to cover and wanted another. I was so proud of myself. I was 17 years old and it was the first book I’d read from start to finish. This Steinbeck guy didn’t seem so bad.

Unfortunately, the experience didn’t begin a love affair. I had too many year of seeing books as the enemy for that, plus they required holding still, which I didn’t enjoy either. After so many years of illness, I wanted to be out in the world, doing, not stuck in a room reading.

My character is not very different now. I do love finding a good book, but never suffer an author I don’t connect with immediately. I find beauty and comfort in language, especially in classics like Anna Karenina, and the well-met phrases of Shakespeare.  Dick Francis and his stories from being the jockey for Queen Elizabeth are other favorites.  And now, as miracles have it, I have my own book at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Who would have thunk? Surely not the little girl lying miserable and alone in her room, starring at the towering piles of books near her bed,  and wanting to burn each and every one.

Boarding School

windowThe air was crisp and the trees wore the bold colors of autumn’s tapestry as mother and I drove to St Johnsbury,Vermont. I felt adventuresome, and excited to go to boarding school. It wasn’t until we went to bed that night that the reality of it hit me. I had been delighting in her company without fully realizing that the next day she would get in her car and drive away. I had felt deprived of her before, but now I felt abandoned and panicked.

She lay sleeping, her face turned from view. I studied the way her hair fell against the pillow and the gentle rhythm of her breath. Her nightgown of silken pink with satin borders invited touch, but I resisted. I was afraid to wake her, afraid to betray my intense desire for her comfort. I was her problem child, the difficult one. Everything about me took extra time and energy. She gave what little time she had, but I always hungered for more.

As I stared into nothingness, I fantasized that she would rise in all of her feminine splendor, lean over me, place her warm lips against my hair and whisper, Sweetheart, I’ve made a mistake. I could never leave you here. I love you far too much to be away from you. Let’s work this out differently because I simply can not bear having you gone. I pulled my thoughts back. That was not going to happen. I needed to be strong.

I met my housemother in the morning, Hazel Simpson. She was entombed in a closet-sized room near the front door. Welcome to Brantview, she said, attaching herself to my mother. We’re all looking forward to having your daughter with us, and what a lovely girl she is. My mother looked down at me and smiled, while Mrs Simpson squeezed my face between her thumb and chunky middle finger. We’re getting such good quality girls these days. Look at this one. She has the face of an angel. For years we had such troubled children, now that’s all turning around. She released my face and went back to exchange pleasantries, assurances and goodbyes with my mother. I said my own farewell amidst promises to write .

My room was on the third floor of the Brantview mansion. Mr. Fairview had been a prominent figure in the community, when he died his home became the academy’s dormitory for girls. The boys were not so lucky. Their building was cheap and small, sat on the edge of a traffic lane and was badly in need of repair. The Brantview mansion, by contrast had long rambling walkways, a tree lined drive, and an archery course. The building had turrets, balconies, winding cherry stairwells, stone fireplaces, two pianos, coves for retreat and perches with views of the town. The front doors were arched, grand and windowed with stained glass.

I met my room-mate tucked in a corner of the balcony, sitting in the sun hugging her knees. She was shorter than I, had long chestnut hair and a German heritage that showed in the structure of her face. I’ve already taken half the closet and chosen this bed, she said. You can have the other one. Her bed faced the window, while mine faced the wall. I picked up my suitcase and headed for the closet. To my surprise, it was large enough to be another bedroom, and overflowed with the most fashionable and expensive clothes I’d ever seen. A second wall was lined with shoes in rich shades of polished leather, while half-opened drawers revealed boxes of feminine finery. I drew back from the sight of it. Such opulent beauty. I’d never seen such finely crafted garments. I didn’t know they existed.

Nice things, I said.


Just thanks. That was it, like it was all nothing. I decided to unpack later.

I stretched across the bed and began reading the house rules:

No riding in cars. No boys in the girl’s dormitory beyond the front steps. Week-days the bell will sound at 6:15 AM. You must have your bed made, room clean and leave for the dining hall by 7 . You must always sign in and out indicating your exact location. Women must wear dresses at all times. Men require a jacket and tie. After school there is an hour of free time before going to the academy for supervised study. Lights out at 9:30. Rounds will be made by the housemother. Non-compliance will result in demerits. Accumulated demerits will result in loss of free time, or denied week-end activities. Week-ends can be spent away from school on special occasions only with written parental consent. The list went on.

To my surprise, the routine and structure of the academy were just what the doctor ordered, and the fresh air was good for my health. I marched through my days like a fine little solider, counting myself lucky. There was no way to do badly in school. Each evening we went back to study hall to complete our homework, if we didn’t understand something a teacher was there to explain it. My isolation and illness seemed far behind and I found myself embracing life for the first time.

Madame Schinnerea

conductorAt boarding school I traded gym class for music and went into town to study with the worldly Madame Schinnerea. She was accomplished, rigid, expensive and formally trained.  The woman managed, all by herself, to remove any joy I had ever felt for music. Under her training, music became cold and technical. If, at any time, she felt my work was less than perfect, she would cancel whatever engagements had been scheduled.

The minister from the Congregational church was especially put out by this. During my lesson he stopped by and demanded to know why my performance had been canceled.  Madame Schinnerea replied, she does not sing the piece as Handel intended. I won’t have a student of mine doing sloppy work.

The minister pleaded; couldn’t she just sing a simple hymn? It’s the beauty of her voice we love, not the sound of her jumping through classical hoops. She glared at him with all the impatience of a superior mind, dealing with the hopelessly ignorant. No, not even a simple hymn. It was over. I was to be perfect or not open my mouth. I tried; I pushed and pulled myself to become a gifted musical acrobat. I sang arias I didn’t understand in Italian, French and German – still not good. She gave me Hamlet to recite, in the hope of elevating my mind and thus my voice, but I could not please her. Finally I rebelled and joined the cheerleading squad where I screamed for hours in damp weather.  She was furious and informed my mother that I could have had a career on the concert stage, but lacked ambition.

I never had such lofty ideas. I was full of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, never Maria Callas.  Defying her further, I went to church every Sunday and sang hymn after hymn in the choir. I was their soloist, the only dormitory student, and was regarded with curiosity by the white haired ladies. We’ve never had a boarding student take an interest in the choir before. What an unusual young woman you are.

My best friend during those years was a beautiful Lebanese woman named, Susan. She was a townie, as distinguished from a boarding student. The academy was attended by local students, which saved it from being elitist or intolerably over run by the behavior problems of the wealthy. When I spent the night with Susan, I’d put on classical music and delight in the beauty of Chopin’s Piano sonatas, but she’d have none of it. I keep telling you, I don’t like that stuff. Put on something good, like Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan. I didn’t know who they were, so she educated me. When Susan put Dylan on the record player I was very glad Madame Schinnerea was no where around, because I knew she’d die of a heart attack on the spot. I could imagine her gasping for air and clutching her heart at the sounds he produced. Why wasn’t somebody canceling his performances?


I love singing the arias of my youth. No matter where I am in my life, no matter my age, or what is happening around me, I can open my memory and access the vocal acrobatics that take me back to being a girl.

I stand on years of singing around the piano with my brothers and sisters, lessons from a full-faced teacher with a large gap between her front teeth, and finally off to boarding school, where all that love of music was nearly extinguished by a German voice teacher named, Madame Schinera.  There were recitals, performances and pressures, plans to study opera followed by the Mozartium in Austria.

I sing the arias of my youth perfectly, as I was taught to do. I am a vocal gymnast doing double back flips to amaze an audience. A single melodic phrase can return me to all of that. I congratulate myself on my exceptional training. The money, time and effort invested, that stopped when I married, as abruptly as a car hitting a telephone pole.

I remember. I am transported, and always, without fail, wished I’d studied instead with a large black woman; a woman who wiped her hands on a threadbare dish towel; a woman heavy with kitchen smells and children. She was the teacher I sought, when I was too young to know what I knew. I wanted her large embodiment of spirit to teach me the blues, I wanted to find jazz in her bloodstream. I yearned for a musical mama with her feet in the dirt; not an academic, who asked me to measure classical tempo, like teaspoons of baking power in a centuries old recipe.

written February 13, 2008


I remember piles of broken china and figurines half buried in mounted earth near the small shed by the front porch. I used to sift through them with my young hands, each shattered piece a treasure of discovery.

The farm house was my safe place. I would wake from the chaos of my home, go to the stables, saddle my horse and ride six miles through unfenced terrain until I reached the welcome land that defined my aunt and uncle’s farm. The pond was the first to come into view. It lay quiet on my left, like tea in an unmoved cup. Herds of cows milled behind barbed wire fences on my right, as bright red barns with tall silos beckoned me forward.

I was going away to boarding school. This would be my last visit for a very long time. I was terrified to leave the land and move into an English academy in Vermont, where my days would be alien, structured and organized. I was being sent away for my health. When I neared the barn, I saw my aunt herding cows toward its shadowy interior. I stripped my horse and set her free in the field.

barn door

Aunt Ethel, I shouted, I’m leaving for boarding school this week-end.

She barely looked up.

I don’t know when I’ll be back.

She fingered the cloth hankie that slept in the pocket of her apron. Her red print dress hung above black rubber boots, a splash of mud marked her forehead below short curly hair. She slapped the rump of a cow into the stall and motioned me inside.

Don’t go givin’ yourself airs now, she said, Just cause you’re going to that fancy boarding school. Don’t come home callin’ horse shit, manure.

My heart ached at the thought of leaving. I did not want to be ripped from the four a.m. mornings, when we turned on the radio and danced around the barn together; me balanced on my uncle’s boots, Aunt Ethel squirting warm milk into the mouths of the barn cats, who were lined up waiting and mewing. I did not want to leave the symphony of clocks that ticked and chimed in every room of the house. I wanted to keep smelling black tea served in blue willow cups that warmed my fingers each afternoon. I wanted to keep seeing their reflection in the polished silver sugar bowl that sat on the large oak table.

I put my arm around her.

I’ll come back, I promised.

No, you won’t, she said. Once kids go away, they’re gone. Too bad though. You were the best of the lot.

I lifted the handle on the egg basket and walked to the hen house. Warm tears splashed against soiled brown eggs, as I carefully lifted each one from the safety of its nest. I fingered their fragile vulnerability, as I positioned them layer by layer inside the cold metal wiring of the basket.

written April 16, 2008