A BIO STORY —
Tess. The Bronx. 1934
A love story.
The dialogue is reconstructed, but this bio excerpt is true.
Earlier, in more prosperous times, my grandmother had a governess named Tess, who in turn became my mother’s governess. But then there was the Great Depression:
Six year old me:
“Mommy says ‘Little pitchers have big ears’ about sneaky little me because I’m always around at the wrong time, but the right time for me to hear all that I can because nobody tells me anything, ever. ‘Mary and Joseph, he’s here’ is everyone’s favorite saying, and ‘get the kid outa here for cripe’s sake.’
“Daddy and Mommy and Sis and me and Grandma and Aunt Aliceand cousin Little Alice and Tess all live together in the same building, which I really like because they all look after things, like me. So it don’t make any difference if Mommy is late or forgetful or anything like that, you know. What I like about Tess is that she takes me for walks and buys me a two-cent half and half cookie, which is really like cake. She answers most of my questions, like about the stuff she’s always thinking about, you know. God and sin and heaven and hell, the stuff I’d never hear from Mommy or Daddy or at Sacred Heart where they’d whack me for asking anything, for pete’s sake.
“Tess almost never smiles and I believe she is full of God’s mysterious secrets and grownup stuff. And she is really big, much bigger than Mommy. And Daddy says she came over from Ireland many years ago to be Grandma’s governess and that she is ancient, which I think is true. And she
doesn’t wear any rouge or lipstick or perfume like Mommy and her friends and reminds me of the nuns at Sacred Heart, except she never whacks me.”
The current me:
((( I recall Tess had yellow hair pulled into a bun and spoke with a brogue, and she was indeed an imposing figure in size and manner, the way she slowly moved along the sidewalk like the queen of the ships at sea. Calm and confident in her own importance, and her life’s private and multi-faceted purpose, undoubtedly God-directed. One facet, to be sure, being that she would make certain I’d struggle safely past the Devil’s endless temptations into heaven where she was convinced she’d be waiting to greet me. She was ever wary of the street’s dangers to little me, her treasure, and was merely polite to all who were not white, not Irish, not Catholic, while grudgingly allowing they were all God’s creatures. Well mostly. People flowed around us and disappeared in Tess’s wake, while ahead of us we heard the tune, ’The Sidewalks of New York,’ being cranked aloud by the local organ grinder who appeared weekly along Ogden Avenue; as did the one-man-band, the scissor-and-knife-grinder, and the I-buy-old-clothes man.)))
“Sometimes Tess and I hold hands, sometimes we don’t, like now. And while we’re walking I ask her, ‘Why was the Devil glad when he got Adam and Eve to be bad?’
‘’Cause when they sinned,’ Tess says, ‘the good Lord was made unhappy as blazes.’
“When I’m alongside her, she being so tall I have to bend my head way back to look up at her, while she mostly looks straight ahead. ‘What’d they do, Tess?’ I ask her, wondering if it could be as bad as robbing or killing, then explaining ‘It don’t say what they did in my catechism.’ And she tells me ‘It’s not ‘don’t,’ Joey, it’s ‘doesn’t.’ ” And I say, ‘But what, Tess?’
“‘The worst,’ she says in a way that makes me think of Sister Mary Rose.”
“’What?’ says I.
“‘They ate the fruit thereof,’ she says like there’s danger, and I say, ‘What kinda fruit? Like that ‘fruit of thy womb’ stuff?’ To which she replies, ‘No, you darlin’ boy, forget that kind. Tis an apple I‘m referring to.’
“’Huh, an apple?’ I say, disappointed. And ‘Yes, a luscious red apple, she says, to which I reply, ‘Well I eat apples,’ like it’s no big thing.
“’Only when your grandma makes you.’ She looks down at me. ‘But this apple was different,’ she tells me like its gonna be something scary. ‘Twas spiked with the fires of Hell and the serpent was there pushin’ them, you see, to eat it, an’ it gave them knowledge.’
“And I ask, ‘About what?’ waiting for the good stuff, and she says, ‘The world.’ And I think, huh, so what?
“’I know about the world.’
“’For instance?’ she asks me, and I tell her, ‘It’s round, and everybody knows that.’
“’It’s not that atall, atall,’ she says. ‘It was a particular kind of knowledge, lad.’ And I ask her ‘What kind of knowledge?’ And she answers with ‘The Divil’s kind, the kind that you’re not ready to hear about,’ like Daddy‘s ‘Ask your mother.’
“Yet I rush on with, ‘Is it the stuff about God giving out babies at the hospital?’
“Lord, the connections you make,’ she says.”
((( I recall the workings of my kid’s head, apparently not so ignorant as the innocence I so freely displayed would suggest, whirling this way and that without knowing it whirled, leaving me lost at a fork and looking in vain for a parallel road, while she asked little me, “What’s the next in your endless list?” And being the keenest of students I believed there were layers upon layers of secrets just waiting to be discovered; and so never in want of a subject, which I’d been led to believe was a fault, I kept it all going with: “Mommy says all us Catholics have saint’s names.”)))
“’Tis the truth, lad.’
“’Mine is Martin.’
“’True as rain.’
“’Is virgin a saint’s name?’ I wonder.
“’Mary and Joseph, where did that one come from? Heavens, no.’
“’Can Mary be a last name?’
“’Ah, I see. No, not that I know of.’
“’Then what’s Virgin Mary mean?’
“’It mean’s God’s mother.’
“’Yeah, I know that part,’ says I. ‘And God is Jesus, right?’ And she answers, ‘One and the same,’ to which I reply, ‘That father and son and holy ghost stuff, right?’ And she says, ‘I don’t think ‘stuff’ is the word to use, Joey, but yes.’ And I follow up right away with ‘So virgin’s not a name?’
“’No. Mercy of God, you’re full of ‘em today, aren’t you. No, lad, virgin’s a state of being.’
“’The way somebody is,’ she tells me, and I ask ‘What way?’ And she says, ‘Clean,’ and adds, ‘Unlike the Divil and pure as God‘s sunlight.’ And so I ask her, ‘Will I ever be virgin?’
“’You are now, you sweet thing,’ she assures me, giving me one of her rare smiles. ‘Clean as a whistle, you are.’
“’I get pretty dirty,’ I tell her, and she says ‘Tis the dirt of the mind I’m talkin’ about, lad, which corrupts the eternal soul.’ So I ask, ‘What’s of the mind?’ And she pleads ‘Save me. Your thoughts, is what it means.’
“’Oh…’ I say, my little head trying to line up its thoughts while I move ahead of her, then turn to walk backwards, to see her better. ‘Ahh…what was my first question, Tess?’
“’Twas back as far as Adam and Eve, as I recall.’
“’Yeah. Was Adam and Eve virgin?’
“’Is Mommy virgin?’
“’Once, she was.’
“’And Daddy?’ I say, to which she snaps, ‘Not by a long shot, that one,’ her
tone getting my attention and I ask her, ‘Why is Daddy ‘that one’?’”
((( And I remember that she said, “Next question, Martin,” leaving me once again foiled in an endless and mysteriously circling maze from which I struggled to exit a wiser Martin Ryan, but failing as I approached the knowledge that Tess appeared to answer almost all my questions while revealing little more than I would learn from Mommy and Daddy and Sister Mary Rose; which would have told me if I were smarter than I was, that Tess was the cleverest of all. Yet I suspected, that “That one” had something to do with my troubling secret about Sis telling me that she saw Daddy flirting with someone other than Mommy. But I pushed bravely on:)))
“’So, Tess, what’d you say virgin was, again?’
“’It’s what you are.’
“’Are only kids virgin?’
“’Are you, Tess?’
“’Let’s buy you a half and half cookie, Lad,’ she says as she takes my hand and leads me to the bakery.”
((( With my half and half in hand we were passing the organ grinder and his monkey, the animal dressed in a bellhop’s jacket and a pillbox hat. He removed his hat and extended it to beg, and being penniless I dropped in a small chunk of my cookie, which was promptly eaten. To me, the olive-skinned organ grinder’s dark eyes were deep with exotic secrets. He sported a heavy drooping mustache and a velvety crushed hat, and his short vest-like jacket, frayed at the edges, had polished silver buttons. Two girls my age jumped rope to his tune while he cranked and smiled at me and bowed, then laughed as Tess yanked me away as if to prevent his kidnapping me.)))
“’He smells of sweat and foreign spices,’ she says, and I ask, ‘Where’s he from, Tess?’ And she says, ‘Some sinful pagan place where they no doubt
Divil worship,’ which makes me smile as I say to her, ‘You’re making fun, right?’
“’Not on your life,’ she says. ‘The Divil is everywhere.’ And I ask her playfully, ‘Even in your closet?’ making her laugh while telling me, ‘At his own peril, lad.’”
((( Which I believed was true, because I could see her striking him down with the wrath of the father, the son, the holy ghost. I then asked her, “About the Devil, Tess. Why is he falling?”)))
“‘Falling? Oh, no, not falling, dear boy. Fall-en. E-n. No g at the end. Means he’s done it already, that one.’ And I say, ‘Done what?’
“’Help us, Lord. Fallen.’
“’From where?’ I want to know. ‘From grace,’ she says. ‘Where’s Grace?’ says I.
”’In your noodle, I hope,’ she replies, which makes no sense to me, so I say, “’Why did God make the Devil?’ And she says, ‘So the Divil can tempt us, an’ God gets to see if we’re for him or against him. An’ since He always loves us He allows us all to choose.’
“’Even the monkey?’
“’Not atall. Animals are stupid, always innocent, an’ don’t get to make choices. They’re blameless forever.’
“’You mean they can do just anything and not go to Hell?’ To which she replies, ‘That’s correct.’ And I ask, ‘Does that mean, if I’m stupid I don’t have to get whacked?’
“Tess laughs again and says, ‘Don’t try it, Bucko. If there’s anything you’re not, it’s stupid.’”
“’So if the stupid monkey is innocent does he go to heaven when he dies?’”
“’The poor little furry ugly has no soul, so no, it all ends here for him.’”
“’What about dogs and bugs’?
((( We were passing a daddy and his kids, a boy and girl, standing outside the local bank singing ‘My Wild Irish Rose.’ Tess approved of this so she gave me three pennies to drop into the boys cap. As we moved on I walked backwards again to look up at her and she, knowing a new question was coming, said, “Now what?”)))
“‘Well if God loves us, Tess, how come some people have to beg?’
“Her blue eyes roll to the sky and she pleads, ‘Christ give me a vacation from
this one.’ (Yet in spite of protests and ever patient, she goes on to tell me,) ‘Tis God’s will. An’ in this case, His ‘will’ means it’s how He’s settled us in His all-encompassing mind, with no inclination to explain it to the likes of you an‘ me.
For God is mystery an’ full of great secrets.’
“‘Like grownups,’ I say.”
((( Tess stopped and turned to me. She looked down and into my eyes that were as blue as hers, and no doubt saw the endlessly nosy kid’s proverbial wonder.)))
“’Yes,’ she says, ‘that’s true indeed, you clever wee thing, you. An’ this whole world is a riddle never to be solved. So when you grow older you’ll find a thousand answers to your thousand whys. But then a thousand more whys needing to be answered, all radiating outward to this nowhere infinity, you see, to be replaced by more whys. An’ you’ll have to endure this an’ try to be as good as you can, an’ stop expecting to know all of God’s secrets, anymore than you can know the secrets in other people’s mortal hearts.’
“’Grownup hearts with grownups secrets?’”
((( Tess blessed me with another smile and said, ‘You’re a smart one, you are,’ and patted my head twice, with little me thinking that grownups might have as many secrets as God does. And even I had one, which I longed to tell this person I loved, this Tess, but couldn’t.)))
A year or so later Tess decided to go live with the nuns in a convent, and I never saw her again; an absence which a left a small whole in my seven-year-old heart. I suppose the only wonder remaining in this old secular heart of mine is about what resides in the nearest galaxy.
Categories: Bio Stories