There is something about this time of year that always gets me thinking about the past, specifically autumn of 1985. I was entering into the second year of my seven-year exile on prison grounds, and, sadly, I was no happier than I was the year prior. I was starting a new school for the second time since our relocation, and, despite my protestations, my parents decided it would be best to send me to a Parochial school rather than the local junior high. So, in September I donned my Catholic school uniform and made the long walk down the hill to the main road where I boarded the bus. It was a seemingly endless journey to my new school, past prisons and tobacco fields, until we reached the “industrial” side of town where the bus deposited me at the entrance of a very small school.
There’s just nothing like entering a new school in the seventh grade, especially when it’s the kind of school where all the students have been together in the same tiny class since kindergarten. And this school, situated in the center of an ethnic neighborhood, was not in the type of community that saw many newcomers. It was a Polish school, and, as I would soon learn, Polish was often spoken, not during instruction but at other times- between teachers, teachers and students, the students themselves. This would have been fine…except for the fact that I am not Polish. I just felt tremendously out-of-place. It was disorienting.
Well, that year I was not the only unfortunate to be starting seventh grade at my new school. There was a group of families from a neighboring town that also migrated to this school and parish. They were unique bunch, each family consisting of anywhere between seven to nine children. As it turned out, these families had been banished from their local Catholic church for participating in “cult-like” activities. Apparently, they believed that the second coming of Jesus Christ was imminent and that he would be returning their rural town. Years later, when, out of curiosity, I researched this group, I was horrified to learn of the deviance of some of its members. But, at the time, that was not common knowledge. All anyone knew was that they seemed a bit strange.
Anyway, being a new kid is school stinks, especially when you are eleven years old. And new kids gravitate to other new kids. So, when the new kids from the neighboring town offered me their friendship, I gratefully accepted. Of course there was always something different about my new friends, although I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. They were just so unlike the kids I hung out with from back home. My old friends and I all came from similar backgrounds. We were middle and working class and lived in either tiny 1940’s capes or 1970’s ranches. We went to school and girl scouts together. We were silly and had fun. I remember laughing…a lot…about ridiculous things. We ran through backyards playing hide-and-seek and tag. We played with Care Bears and Smurfs and Cabbage Patch Kids, and I think, for the most part, we were all relatively happy. But these new girls were different. They were dour. But they offered friendship, and that I would have accepted from anyone.
After about a month, my new friends began inviting me to their homes for sleepovers. I remember well the long and lonely drive to their houses. We passed prisons and corn fields, tobacco fields and old colonial houses until we finally reached our destination. Their homes were so unlike anything to which I was accustomed. They were large, large enough to accommodate families with eight and nine children. And they were old and, well, from my standpoint, creepy. As a matter of fact, one of my friends informed me that her living room was haunted. I believed her, and, now as an adult thirty years later, I still believe there was something off about that house. There was a feeling, a flat, sad, heavy, lifeless feeling to her home. Just like my new friend, the house was somber and cheerless. It was as if it existed in a dream and its reality was from a time past. It was eerie. I remember not being able to sleep when I stayed there. Insomnia, true insomnia, which plagued me into adulthood, began in my new home on prison grounds and settled in during my stays in that house.
I vividly recall one chilly autumn day when I packed up my overnight bag and headed over to another one of my new friend’s homes. Again, it was large, large enough to accommodate my friend’s eight other siblings and her parents. It was the day after Halloween. What’s funny is that I don’t remember what I had done the night prior. Did I go trick-or-treating? Who knows? I can recall every Halloween I had ever celebrated, except for that one. Perhaps it’s because the events of the day after overshadowed the festivities of the night before. What I do remember is sitting down for dinner at the kitchen table with my friend, a handful of her siblings and her parents. I remember the mother saying in a rather serious tone, “Okay. Let’s get the saints.” I recall following my friend and her siblings into their dining room where, on the sideboard, was a vast collection of saint statues. We carried the statues back into the kitchen and placed them on the table. Confused, I tried to figure out why we were instructed to place the statues on the table beside the pizza. I sat there in silence. Probably what was most distressing was that placed directly in front of me was the statue of Saint Michael slaying the devil. Now even as a child, there was nothing that scared me more than Lucifer. While other kids were afraid of monsters and burglars, I was afraid of the devil- the one with the tail and horns and pitchfork; the one on the Red Devil Paint cans. As a matter of fact I remember having one of those cans in my house for some reason and turning it around so I wouldn’t have to see the picture on the front. And now there he was. In front of me. Being slain. Saint Michael slaying the devil with his scales and horns and tail right in front of me. During dinner. Sitting there, I wondered what was going on, but it all became clear when the mother instructed us to bow our heads and began to pray. Then she thanked God that we were all gathered together, celebrating All Saints’ Day with the saints. It was just too much.
If only I had the courage to call my parents and ask them to get me the hell out of there. Instead, I stayed. Insomnia kicked in, but I made it to morning. And I think, although I don’t remember, that when my mother picked me up, I probably enjoyed the ride home, past the old colonial houses and barren trees, past corn fields and tobacco fields until I was nice and safe, back home…on prison grounds.
This is a re-edited version of a piece I posted last year.