The Two Detentions and The Detainee

4 Sep

The Two Detentions and The Detainee

Up until the age of seven I thought my name was Joseph, as I was named for my mother’s brother, Joseph. I was confused when I was called ‘Jo’ while my uncle was called ‘Joe’ and we’d both answer. I went to Catholic grammar school and high-tailed it out of there as soon as I could, being teased “Joseph Battleaxe” was no fun. With my scholastic performance a marginal C, I inched my way into being a terror in school; it was the only way I could find even an ounce of popularity.

I got into trouble in class one day–one of many, but the detention handed down this time was different. On a Saturday morning I was sent to the nun’s rectory at Saint Martha’s for make-up homework. In a basement that was dark and dusky, I sat scribbling the words “I will not throw erasers in science class” five hundred times underneath a clothesline where the nun’s bloomers hung overhead to dry. Underneath casement windows, I spied eight washing machines and, putting my homework aside because I wrote fast, turned on the washers to their full cycle. As each washer filled, I jumped in and out of each one, in series, until I reached the last washer, causing the overhead fluorescent lights to blow out.

When Sister Mary Ethel came into the basement to examine my detention homework, the washers were still going; my eyes bulged seeing a puddle form its way around to where she was standing. Reviewing my homework, her habit down to her ankles (where I couldn’t see her legs) I tried looking into her eyes, to show her my earnestness in coming to detention on Saturday as instructed, but she only said, “go home.”

Walking ten blocks, as I did most mornings and afternoons, rounding the familiar yards of my neighbors, saying hello to George, the Border Collie, and Mrs.Wassick watering her rose bushes, I fumbled with the lock, and no sooner had I stepped between the storm door and landing, my mother was there, standing in a house dress wearing a mopina (Italian slang for a rag that picks up everything) over her shoulder, scolding me, “Josephine  Porcello!” for creating a flood in the basement of Saint Martha’s rectory.

The following Monday I had to return to school and I was very nervous. My mother gave me an envelope, “Bring this to the principal and wait for her. Do not open the envelope.”  I always took my tuition to the principal’s office, but since the dictate came that I shouldn’t look in the envelope, I did exactly the opposite of what I was told. But inside wasn’t the tuition – there was a check – but it was not what I expected; inside there was a note that read,

Dear Mother Victoria,

We feel terrible about the mess our daughter Jo made, so please consider this check for $75.00 for reimbursement for the damage to the basement. Please let us know if any of the washers are in need of repair. Please speak with my daughter Jo. She needs to personally apologize.

Please call us at home if you need. (532) 433-0743

Sincerely Yours,

Mary & Mike Porcello

I didn’t know how I was going to bring this to the principal. In fact I was thinking of ways of not bringing it to the principal. But I also knew my mother was meticulous with her checking account and she would sooner – rather than later – notice the missing check. I had to eat it. I had to go. I had to face Mother Victoria.

I was in luck when I saw the secretary to the principal, Mrs. Poirot. She had a lot of lipstick on her teeth. I left the envelope with Mrs. Poirot and told her it’s the quarterly tuition and off to class I went.  It was a slick move, licking back that envelope, making it seem like it had never been open.  I’d face the consequences for that one later, that I was sure of.

All my classmates found my folly to be quite a laugh. The rumor going around now was that Jo Porcello destroyed the nun’s rectory by blowing out all the washing machines. I couldn’t tell them that they were bending the truth, and by Grade 8, I’d be voted Class Clown.  It felt good to be popular even if was in a warped sorta way.

That afternoon, when I got home from school, my mother said, “Did you see the principal? Did you give her the envelope?”  It’s very hard to lie to my mother. She watches me like a hawk. I’m scared to death of her sometimes. I’m scared because she’s so damn honest about everything. She prides herself on her honesty and she has instilled this in me, in her presence I find I often fall from grace to walk the straight and narrow.

But I tell her, “I left the envelope with Mrs. Poirot, her secretary. She wasn’t in!” I’m feeling indignant and I don’t know why.

“What do you mean? Why didn’t you wait for her? Did you look in the envelope?” My mother has black eyes, she’s thin, she’s tall, and she has a loud voice.

“She wasn’t there.”

“Did you look in the envelope?” I stall. I don’t know what to say. I want to leave the house, run. Run off. I’m searching for time, a way out. “Jo, answer me.”

I have a heavy weight on my shoulders, it’s hard to breath, I look to my dog, my Schnauzer, she’s not really that friendly,  “Mom, I’m sorry-”

“You’re costing us a fortune!”

“I’m sorry you had to pay the rectory, Mom.”

“I don’t want you to lie! I didn’t bring you up to lie! You should have stayed and apologized to Mother Victoria!”

It would be the punishment of a lifetime; it would be another way to detain me. I wished I was better in school.

“You’re going to work it off starting right now. Take all the clothes out of the wash and press all the shirts and underwear. And you’ll do this again, and again for the next month. I want you to strip all the beds, and change the sheets – and that includes your brother’s rooms, too!”

I couldn’t figure out why, at eleven years old, I was saddled with housework as a punishment, but I was. She was dead serious, too. I would be chained to both the house and school and that was it.

I’m running up the stairs, and her orders fade with my hurried steps, but she continues, “Don’t forget the vacuum!”

Oh, my God, I’m thinking, as I swing a large, heavy white Oxford shirt over the ironing board, watching the steam from the iron, as I lay the triangle of heat to my father’s cuffs, and around the buttons, and inside and then outside, and then button it up and hang it, and then start with the next shirt, and then the next, Oh, my God.

I’m into my third day of housework and homework, when a knock comes to the door. It’s Elaine, my best friend, she wants to go out, she wants to take a walk to get an egg nog at the local candy store, and pick up Sixteen magazine and, “I can’t” I tell her. And she asks, “Why not?” and I tell her that, “I was in trouble in school and I flooded the nun’s rectory and then I didn’t apologize, and I opened up an envelope when it was supposed to be private.”

I return to ironing, under my breath, resenting my mother’s orders; she’s so harsh,  “I wish I were back at the Rectory in Saint Martha’s.” I say aloud, loud enough to hear.

And then I hear my mother yell from the basement kitchen, “That can be arranged!”

My father is home from work. He is tired as he is most days; he has the hook from the cargo he lifts day in and day out, as he works in the hold of the ship. He is a longshoreman. He travels from Long Island to Brooklyn every day and he spends a lot of time in traffic. My mother always makes him supper. She makes his lunch so that he eats a warm lunch, too. She fills the thermos with hot soup.

He says to me as he sees me ironing, he notices the pile I’ve already ironed, “You got yourself into a lot of trouble this time, Jo.”

I pout. I love my dad so much (I love my mother, too, but it’s different). Unlike my mother who is so strict, my father is gentle and kind. “Dad, please get me out of this. Mommy’s working me to death. I don’t want to iron anymore.”

“Your brothers are enjoying this.”

I don’t hesitant to let him know how I’ve been working and no doubt stretch the truth just for impact. “I wish I could actually work and then I could pay for the damage to the rectory myself!”

“Well, you’re too young to go to work. You’re being punished and you have to take your punishment.”

I pout quite strongly over this and say, “There must be some other way.”

My father laughs, and goes into their bedroom. I follow him, as I watch him take out change from his work pants, placing it on his dresser, then his wallet next to the change; he leaves his wallet out so we can take a few bucks from it. He knows he’ll get it back empty. My brothers and I think it’s silly that he leaves out his wallet, because we all dip, but I think he does it for a reason.

I plead, “What can I do, dad? I don’t want to iron, vacuum, dust, and make beds, for a month! I can’t! I will die!”

“Ssssh, relax, Jo. How many days has it been?”

“I’m going into my fourth day.”

He smiles at me, my father with hazel eyes, a warm smile, his hands cup my face when he says, “Let’s go see Mother Victoria together. You and me.”

“No way, dad, no way.” I stamp my feet over this one and sit on their bed with arms crossed.

“It’s up to you. But you’d be better off facing the principal and apologizing. You can’t live your life under a rock, Jo. You have to own up to the mistakes you make.”

I yell back, “I am owning up! It’s September and it’s still warm! My track team is starting and I can’t even go to practice!”

My father responds to this not by yelling, but by watching me rattle off a self-pitying tirade. And when I was through, he sits on the bed next to me and unlaces  his boots. He squares my shoulders to face him. “You have to have an alternate plan. If I were you, I’d apologize to the principal, and I guarantee you your mother will ease up on you.”

I choke back, I want to cry, but I don’t, “Dad-“

“Jo, you need to face the errors of your ways. The sooner you do that, the sooner you can be free.”

I had rehearsed the lines I was going to say to Mother Victoria, gosh, it must have been a hundred times, talking into the mirror, I apologize, Mother Victoria, I feel so ashamed, please forgive me, I am so very, very sorry. And when I finally sat in front of her, a large woman, her white face against the border of her habit was a perfect fit from flesh to fabric, I wasn’t so petrified. She told me that I should go to confession and tell my sins to God, that I would be redeemed.  “Go to the House of the Lord and Honor Thy Lord.”


It’s been several years since those days, those days that seemed so hard, so tough, days I thought I’d never get through. We learn our most important lessons when we are young, and we take away those lessons to  make us into the men and women we are today. When I couldn’t find the answer, I would search deep within myself, relying on the values that were ingrained in me. These values of honesty, integrity of character, diligence and responsibility, all that I have learned, all that I take away, there is one lesson I learned as being the most important of all: respect for another person’s property.

Now I lay me down to sleep – without guilt.

© Terry Rachel, 2011

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