A Trip Back in Time
“Mom, you have to help me. I told you the last time we talked that my dad had just been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He’s declining rapidly, and I’m the only one he has to help him. I just don’t have the time. It’s impossible. He needs to be driven to and from the hospital for chemotherapy, and must be monitored every minute. With the pills he’s taking, he often doesn’t even remember where he is. Could you please leave for Michigan and stay with Dad until I can make other arrangements?”
My thoughts ran rampantly through my head. Here was my married daughter Allison calling me in a state of panic. What? She wants me to take care of Drew, my ex-husband, who had left me thirty-five years ago for another woman? The man who wouldn’t speak to me while our daughter grew up, because fighting over child support and college tuition seemed more important? And what would Ray, my present husband, think of this plan? Would he agree to my leaving home for an undetermined period of time to be with Drew? I just wasn’t prepared to do this.
“Allison, I don’t really know what to say, I need time to think about it.”
“How could you say that to me? When have I ever asked you to help me? You’re never there when I need you, and you just don’t care! I’m never speaking to you again, Mom.”
She slammed down the phone and hung up on me.
Ok, I thought, she’s so angry now she probably hates me. I don’t think I have a choice. I have to do this. I have to go, and I hope Ray will understand.
Ray had not yet left for the office, and I found him in the den, watching the morning news. It would be difficult for me to tell him where I was headed. I had to get his attention, so I turned off the TV and confronted him, face to face.
“Ray, listen to me. Allison just called with an emergency, and I’ll be driving to Michigan as soon as I’m packed and ready.”
“Why, what happened?”
“She needs help with Drew and his illness. There’s no one else to assist with his medical needs. Can you deal with this? If I refuse to go, she’ll be upset and angry with me, and I just couldn’t bear those consequences.”
Speechless, Ray stared at me. “Drew?” he questioned. But after observing my expression, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s alright, whatever you need to do. Hope, just be careful.”
I gave him a quick hug of gratitude, then ran to find my suitcase. Within fifteen minutes I stepped into the car, feeling fearful and alone. I did not look forward to spending time with my ex, or seeing him suffering. Undoubtedly, this had to be one of the most difficult tasks I had ever faced. Yet I realized that the concern of this day must take precedence over all others.
As I traveled for hours on the highways, my thoughts drifted back to the beginning of my, and the journey that I have taken through the years. It all began with my childhood, and as I continued the drive, I began to relive all the things that had brought me here today, at this time, and in this place.
I grew up in a part of Brooklyn, NY, called Bensonhurst. The world was a different place at that time. Mothers stayed home with their children while fathers went to work, and family life and values were the most important part of daily living.
We lived on a tree-lined street with semi-attached houses near the corner of 78th Street and 12th Ave. The houses had been built close to each other, and adjacent homes shared use of a common driveway for their cars. Every house had a front stoop, and on warm pleasant days, neighbors sat outside on their steps, waved to each other, and took time to talk. The neighborhood children often played together on the block, and organized baseball games in the street, taking turns to look out for ongoing traffic.
In the spring and summer, a truck carrying fruit would stop in the middle of the block. The driver would ring a bell, summoning all residents to come out of their homes and buy his farm-fresh products. Twice a week, the milk truck would be soon delivering milk to almost every family. The friendly driver would actually carry the milk to our back door with a smile.
Italian, Irish, Jewish and Norwegian families composed most of our neighborhood. All of my grandparents had been born in Italy and immigrated to this country in their youth. While growing up, I often listened to the Italian language spoken at home, but never had an opportunity to study it. If you wanted to take a long walk from my house to 13th Ave., you would find numberous Italian delis and the most delicious freshly baked Italian bread. I remember that day when my mother sent me on an errand and asked me to buy her a loaf. The aroma of the bread was so tempting that I actually ate half of it before returning home.
And shy and rarely talking, somehow I learned early in life to never tell people how I really felt ab out anything. My parents saw me as the “good” child that could be seen and not hears, while my sister and brother always had to be disciplined.
My mother, Maria, a stay at home mom, devoted her time and energy to caring for the home and family. I never left her side until the day I reached six years old and started first grade at the local public school. I clearly remember my first day of school. My father, Frank, tightly held my hand and led me into the school cafeteria. All of the first grade students entered the room, accompanied by one or our parents. Silence reigned as a teacher called out our names, one by one, directing us to our newly assigned classes. I finally heard my name announced.
“Hope Cavelli, please line up in Mrs. Rogers’ class.”
As I walked to the line of children, I kept my eyes focused on my dad. I couldn’t believe that in a matter of minutes he would be leaving me there. I gasped to take my next breath, as my eyes filled with tears and fear overcame me. I wondered what would happen to me next, as I obediently followed in the footsteps of that strange lady.
I made it through first grade and progressed through the years. School was different in those days. When the lunch bell rang, the teachers led their classes to the side door and dismissed the children to their mothers. My mom, pushing Steven in his carriage, would meet my sister and me, and walk us home to the lunch she had waiting for us on the kitchen table. When we finished eating, she would walk us back safely to the school yard to complete the afternoon or our school day.
During these years, the student-teacher ratio in the publis schools was usually thirty-five to one. Yet there was not a sound to be heard from the students’ lips, as we had all been indoctrinated with the concepts of respect and obedience for our elders. And if our principal, Mr. Delaney, happened to walk into our classroom to speak with the teacher, the entire class would stand up together and greet him with, “Good morning, Mr. Delaney.” We would return to our seats only when given permission.
I vividly remember the weekly assembly periods that each grade attended. The girls were white blouses and blue skirts on assembly days, and the boys were their white shirts and blue trousers. (Girls were never allowed to wear pants in those days.) The assembly always sbegan with the salute to the American flag and the singing of the National Anthem. Then Mr. Delaney would stand before us on the stage and read a passage from the Bible. Although the auditorium ws filled with several hundred students, every eye and ear focused on him.
It’s hard to believe that the principal of a public school in New York fearlessly spoke about God. During one of my fifth grade assemblies, I made a terrible mistake. In the midst of the reading of Mr. Delaney’s Bible passage, I unconsciously cracked my knuckles. That sound resounded throughout the room and seemed to be heard by everyone. Mrs. Maguire, the tyrannidcal, religious Irish teacher, glared as me mercilessly and said, “Heathen.”
I didn’t know what a heathen was, but as soon as I got home, I looked up the word in the dictionary. Apparently, she had thought of me as an irreligious pagan.
Both of my parents attended college. They met at the St. John’s University School of Pharmacy, from which they graduated together.
It was unusual for a woman in my mom’s generation to earn a college degree, but she chose to remain a homemaker until I began high school. And in the true Italian tradition, she took care of my dad’s needs, served him, and obeyed all of his commands and wishes. I rem thember my parents sitting in the living room together watching TV. My dad called out to my mom,
“Maria, I’m thirsty.”
Without a word, Mom rose out of her chair, walked to the kitchen, and returned with a glass of cold water which she presented to Dad.
We all recognized Dad as our dictator, the commander-in-chief, the one who made all the decisions and established all the rules. He spoke in a loud and overbearing voice, instilling in me a great sense of fear and anxiety. His yelling permeated our daily lives, and I often questioned in my mind why he chose to treat us this way. Having no answer, I withdrew more and more into myself as my childhood years continued, and often sought solace within the lonely boundaries of my bedroom walls.
I never had any classmates as friends, or interacted with any of the other children in my class or neighborhood during my elementary school years, except for Richard Corolla. He was a handsome boy who lived three houses away. Sometimes my parents allowed me to play outside with Richard, and I can recall the joy that we shared, watching and capturing ants as they crawled up the tall maple tree that stood on the sidewalk in front of our houses. Looking, I realize that nothing can replace the joys of nature in a young person’s experiences.
My parents valued the concept of the extended family. My mother and father both had two brothers who married, so my sister, brother and I had many aunts and uncles, and cousins of all ages involved in our lives. My father’s brothers lived nearby in Brooklyn, and his mother, Grandma Camilla, who only spoke Italian, would come every week to visit and spend a day with us.
My mother’s parents, siblings, and their families lived on Staten Island, so it became our tradition to travel to Staten Island from Brooklyn every Sunday. My mother’s mother, Grandma Rosa, would prepare the Italian Sunday dinner, and invite all her children and grandchildren. Getting to Grandma Rosa’s house was a time consuming journey, since the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge had not yet been built. We had to take the Staten Island ferry in both directions. This usually involved sitting in the car on lines for hours, waiting for our turn on the next available ferry. My dad, who loved mysteries, would turn on the radio while my family intently listened to the old-time radio series called The Shadow. The Shadow was an invincible crime fighter who could defy gravity, speak any language, and become invisible. He spoke in a voice that frightened me, and I would sit in the back seat of the car, hugging my brother and sister in fear of the impending danger.
I had a favorite cousin named Ryan, who always had a happy, lovable disposition. He was one of those rare people who I felt connected with, and could relate to. As the years passed, he became not only my cousin, but also a valued friend. Ryan and his family would often join us at our Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter celebrations. My parents had insisted that I take piano lessons starting from age six, and as I played the usual holiday songs at the keyboard, Ryan and his father would sing the words and fill the air with spirit and treasured memories.
My most favorite aunt in the whole world, whom I admired and loved, was Aunt Ava. She was married to my father’s brother, Scott. Aunt Ava, an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, dedicated her time and energy to caring for the needs of her students and inspiring in them the love of learning. Like my mom, she regularly hosted family parties and served homemade food and delights that had taken hours to prepare. But her home reflected warmth and compassion that I had never before experienced, and her generous heart reached out to all who crossed her path.
When I was ten years old, Aunt Ava and Uncle Scott made a decision to purchase a country home in New Jersey in a town called Lake Hopatcong, and they often invited my family to spend time with them and visit. Usually we spent several weeks of the summer there, and my dad would commute back and forth from his job in New York, or just come to the Lake for the weekend. My sister, brother, and I found Lake Hopatcong to be a place of great excitement and novelty. Being city children, we had never before been exposed to living near water. The first time our dad took us for a walk at the edge of the water, Steven became mesmerized by the large carp visually swimming before us and shouted, “Dad, this is what I want to do. Please, please can we go to the store and buy a fishing rod so I can catch them for dinner?”
My sister stared at the people in the small canoes, using their oars to float over the placid water. Her excitement erupted as she tugged on Dad’s sleeve. “Hey, guys, let’s all go canoeing. I’m not even afraid of going into the deep water.”
I happily watched the goldfish swimming in the nearby pond, and quickly reached down into the water, trying to pick them up with my bare hands. I managed to touch them, but they easily escaped from my fingertips.
Dad watched us intently as we became fascinated with our interests. For the first time in a long while, he smiled and laughed with us, and seemed to become a changed man.
Another memorable day when we returned to the Lake, Steven arrived with a supply or worms to hook onto the end of his newly acquired fishing rod. He stood without movement, staring at the end of the rod as he held it over the water. Without warning, something began to pull on it, and Steven grasped the handle with all of his strength. Startled, we all stood up and silently watched.
“Dad, Dad, I think I have a fish!” shouted Steven.
He continued to pull until the fish rose out of the Lake and we saw it, a carp, more than twelve inches long.
“Keep pulling it son,” shouted Dad. “You could do it! Hurry, don’t let it get away.”
Steven did it. He slid the fish onto the land, and placed it into the large bucket we had brought along. We never did eat that carp. My father experienced so much pride over this event that he had that fish stuffed and mounted. It remained on the living room wall for as long as I can remember, for all to see and admire.
One night at the Lake, Mom and Dad and Aunt Ava had a social engagement, and asked Uncle Scott to stay home and babysit for all the children. He agreed, and that’s the night that my world as I knew it came to an end. My siblings and cousins decided to hang out on the outdooe porch playing board games. But I had wanted to watch my favorite TV show, so I walked alone into the living room, located on the other side of the house. That’s when Uncle Scott came in and sat down next to me on the couch. He placed one arm around me tightly, and with the other hand, began to fondle my private parts.
I tried to pull away, but he overpowered me, determined to have his way. He grabbed my arms and held them tight, preventing me from getting away. After a while, he spoke to me in a quiet, secretive voice.
“Hope, do you like this?”
Traumatized, I couldn’t answer.
“Did you ever do this with anyone else before?”
I just shook my head, no.
“Well I’m going to let you get up now. But you have to promise me that you will never tell anyone what happened tonight between us. This is going to be our secret forever. Do you promise?”
Terrified, I would have said anything just to escape. I nodded my head and agreed. But I did not understand what had happened to me. My parents had never told me the facts of life, and I had not been prepared to defend myself against him. So when a grown up told me to keep a “secret,” I obeyed.
The molestation continued over the next two years, whenever we visited the country house, and my uncle became more aggressive each time. One night with the entire family at hom, he pulled me into the master bedroom and locked the door. He threw me on the bed and began to massage my breasts, kiss me on the lips, and force his tongue into my mouth. Another night when I slept alone on the small front porch which had been converted into an extra bedroom, a disturbing sound awakened me. I opened my eyes and Uncle Scott suddenly appeared on my be in the darkness, sliding his hand underneath my blankets to again gain access to my private parts. This time I cried and whimpered, “No! No!” Miraculously, he left my room and for the first time he didn’t have his way.
These events impacted me in every aspect of my home and school life. I became more isolated as the thoughts of the “secret” never left my consciousness. Sitting at my desk in school, my thoughts would wander off as I relived the experiences with Uncle Scott in my mind. The thoughts would return and haunt me at night. They would awakie with me and shadow me wherever I went and in all that I did.
I wanted to cry out and tell someone about it. I wanted it to stop, but I had nowhere to turn. One Friday afternoon, our family was driving back to the Lake to spend another weekend there. I remember sitting in the back seat of the car for the two hour trip, imagining what might happened to me next with my uncle. I wanted to scream out to my dad every second of the long drive, but instead I suppressed the thoughts and fought back the tears. Then I realized that if I told my father, he would be angry at his brother, and our family would be torn apart. And most important of all, if I told my father, then Aunt Ava, whom I adored, would find out about it and she would be devastated. She would have to leave his husband. Her children would know about it, her life would be destroyed, and it would be all my fault. Aunt Ava deserved better than that. I couldn’t bear to see her hurt, and vowed to myself that Aunt Ava would never know. I would take my secret to the grave, and leave her the gift of peace and serenity in return for all that she had given to me. So I said not a word and quietly exited the car when we reached our destination.
Finally, in eighth grade, I succeeded in sharing a friendship with another girl, Rita Burnstein. Her father owned a small grocery store in the neighborhood, Burnstein’s Mini Market. My parents met her parents and approved of them. I had a play date and visited my friend at her home, an apartment located above the store. Rita, bright and vivacious, also had a great sense of humor She gave me a gift, as she brought laughter, kindness, and intimacy into my longing soul. As the eighth grade school year progressed into the autumn months, Rita and I became more and more comfortable with our friendship. We began to share our thoughts, experiences, and dreams. With Rita, I feared nothing, and I knew she would love and accept me no matter what I said or did. So one afternoon after school, while doing homework together in Rita’s bedroom, the haunting thoughts returned and took power over my being. Tears began to stream down my cheeks, followed by my sobs. Not understanding the reason for the onset of my grief, Rita instinctively pulled me close and hugged me with her warm, caressing arms.
“Hope, what’s the matter? Do you feel all right? Did I do something to offend you? Why are you crying?
“Rita, can I tell you something?”
“Of course you can, that’s what friends are for.”
“It’s my uncle Scott. He did something to me.”
Rita, puzzled at first, just looked at me. Then suddenly her ehes lit up, and she knew.
“Oh, no. He didn’t.”
She hugged me again, and in that moment a great weight was lifted from my heart. For the first time in so long, I felt free.
After talking for a while, Rita gave me her advice.
“The next time it happens, allow nothing. Fight back with all your strength. Kick him in the balls, bite him, slap him, and scream in the loudest voice possible.”
Her enthusiasm for helping me find justice, and her description of this possible scenario led us both to laughter and relief.
Then came the final incident. Again, my family went to the Lake. While my parents and Aunt Ava prepared the barbecue dinner outside in the yard, I became actively involved nearby in a badminton game with my brother, sister, and cousins. After a while I needed to make a quick trip into the house to use the rest room.
As I approached the rest room, Uncle Scott lay in wait for me in a dark corner near the living room wall. He quickly swirled through the hallway, grabbed my arm, and pulled me into the rest room, locking the door behind us. He began to squeeze my breat with one hand, and attempted to slide the other hand down into my underwear. My thoughts became scrambled ad DI remembered all that Rita had advised me to do. No, I’m not a fighter I told myself. Seconds passed as I limply surrendered to him once again. It would take courage to stand up to him and fight for my freedom. I doubted I had any. What if I screamed and my family heard me? They would all come running and everyone would know I couldn’t do it. Our family vacation time together would be an unforgettable disaster.
Suddenly, something within me said don’t be afraid, and you can get through this. Instinctively, I kicked his private area, then fiercely bit his arm with my teeth. Shocked, he backed away. Grabbing his bleeding arm in pain, he stared at me.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
In response I screamed with all the strength within me, “No, no! No more!”
Terrified that I would be heard, he let me go. I opened the door and escaped, running outside to join the other children in play. When I saw them, I wore a smile and pretended nothing had happened. I had buried my fears and triumphed at last.
Uncle Scott never again attempted to take advantage of me and my innocence. Looking back to that day, I realize that Rita’s advice and friendship influence my life greatly, and rescured me from further harm. If only in the 1950’s there had been sex education at school, or if only I had parents who openly discussed those issues, I might have been spared my suffering. It took years for me to realize that I had been a victim of a horrendous crime.
Today, with computers and modern technology, I have tried to find Rita to thank her for her deed of friendship and love. But I have been unsuccessful in my searches. Rita, if you ever read this book, please know that I have reached out to you, and you are in my thoughts and prayers forever.