With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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The first rule my mother and father taught me was that whatever happened within the family stayed within the family.
When I was in second grade in the early fifties, they owed sixty dollars on their income taxes. Money was always tight because my father was a lowly assistant sweeper in a forge shop in Cleveland, Ohio, and he and my mother believed married women shouldn’t work. They decided to write the amount they owed in the box marked “Refund,” hoping the IRS would think it an honest mistake.
When they received a refund check instead of a bill, my parents warned me not to mention the source of our good fortune to anyone — especially since this was a trick they intended to play again.
I soon learned that lawbreaking ran in the family. The first time I met Grandpa Joe, my father’s father, was when he came to Thanksgiving dinner. Grandpa Joe had a pencil-thin mustache and spoke little. He handed me a white box that contained an expensive watch — a wildly unsuitable gift for an eight-year-old girl. After he left, I told my mother that I wished I had met him earlier. She laughed and said the only way I could have met him was behind bars: Grandpa Joe had been sent to prison for bootlegging long before I was born. The authorities had released him now only because he had lung cancer and was expected to die within a few weeks. My parents never told me that what he’d done was wrong. The message I got was that his real crime had been getting caught.
My father worked his way up to become vice-president of a forge shop. He did so well that he cashed out early, and my parents built a cozy retirement home, but they still ran scams even after money was no longer an issue. Once, my mother fell while working in the garden and broke her right shoulder. My father told me he immediately got her to the car, but instead of seeking medical care, he drove to a grocery store where the sidewalk was being repaired. My mother got out, lay on the ground, and started screaming while Dad ran into the store, yelling that the uneven sidewalk had caused his elderly wife to trip and fall.
A few weeks later, her arm still in a sling, my mother called to tell me that the grocery chain had offered her just three thousand dollars. “I can’t believe how cheap corporations are becoming these days,” she said.
I had broken my right arm a few years earlier, and I told my mother I couldn’t imagine how she had stood the pain. I had begged for an ambulance.
“I know,” she responded. “Apparently we raised you wrong.” She laughed, but I wasn’t sure she was joking.
As a child I often got punished for lying.
Don’t lie, my parents said — but keep quiet when we lie about your age to get you into a tourist attraction at a cheaper price.
Don’t lie — unless you’re going to hurt someone’s feelings with the truth.
Don’t lie — but don’t tell our non-Jewish friends we’re Jewish.
Don’t lie — but don’t tell our extended family that we attend the Unitarian Church.
Don’t lie — but don’t air your dirty laundry in public; say everything is fine even when it’s all crashing down around your head.
Don’t lie — but when people ask how your sister died, say it was a car accident rather than the truth: that it was a suicide.
At the age of nine I saw televised clips of police beating and dragging peaceful civil-rights protesters down concrete steps and knocking over men, women, and children with blasts from fire hoses. When I heard a news report about adults who had bombed a church, killing four girls my age, I was confused and frightened. I’d thought church was a safe place, and I couldn’t understand how anyone could cause so much pain. I was in junior high before I learned that this insidious behavior had a name: “bigotry.”
In 1973, during the summer of my freshman year in college, I worked as a front-desk clerk at a motel in Atlanta, Georgia, checking in customers and operating a switchboard. During my training the general manager instructed me to give “colored” guests the least-desirable rooms — in the back, on the third floor. I wanted to question the policy, but I was intimidated by this hulking, middle-aged man and afraid of losing my job before I’d even started.
A few weeks later my first African American customer walked in, tired after a day of traveling and looking forward to a good night’s sleep. The manager leaned on the counter within earshot of our conversation. As the guest completed his check-in form, I searched the display of keys for vacant rooms. Plenty of third-floor rooms in back were available, but there were also front-facing, ground-floor rooms. Heart beating against my chest, I grabbed a key and handed it to the man, saying loud enough for the manager to hear, “Room 108 is one of our best rooms — up front and close to the restaurant. Enjoy your stay!”
The manager walked away and never said a word.
Cynthia D. Zimbelman-Burr
In January 1992 I received a phone call from my aunt in Tokyo. With a trembling voice she told me that my mother had had a severe asthma attack and was in the hospital in critical condition.
I didn’t sleep at all on the overnight flight from Boston to Japan. When I got to the hospital, my mother was hooked up to life support, her face swollen, the slow rise and fall of her chest the only sign that she was still alive. My oldest sister and I stood by her bed and talked to her. When tears ran from our mother’s closed eyes, we knew that she had heard us.
I stayed at the hospital that night and again didn’t sleep. The next morning my mother’s heart stopped. A doctor and several nurses tried drastic measures to resuscitate her, but we asked them to let her go. Later people told us we’d made the right decision.
In August 1998 my father had a stroke. He was partially paralyzed on his right side and lost much of his speech, but he slowly recovered. An educator for almost sixty years, he continued teaching, writing, and attending meetings. He put most of his energy into preparing for the eightieth-anniversary celebration of the school where he taught.
Then my father had a second stroke. This time his speech was totally gone, and he could move only his head and left arm, but he could communicate by squeezing our hands for yes and no. He indicated that he wanted to attend the anniversary ceremony. Despite his doctor’s objections, we dressed him up, put him in a wheelchair, and took him from the hospital to the event. He endured three hours of speeches, bowing as each speaker finished by pulling himself forward in the wheelchair with his one good hand.
The next morning my father rejected all medication, food, and water. He removed his own IV and put his hand over his mouth every time the nurses tried to force him to drink.
“Do you want to live?” I asked him.
He squeezed my hand, No.
“Are you sure?”
“Do you want to go back home?”
It was a challenge to make his doctors acknowledge his wishes. They believed he should be connected to a feeding tube to “save his life,” and would agree to release him only if he was transferred to a hospital that had hospice care. So that’s what we did. After a short stay at the second hospital, we were able to bring him home.
Almost a week after his return, we put our father on a reclining wheelchair and took him to see an exhibition he had worked on diligently, about the life of Leo Tolstoy. For almost an hour we rolled him around. When we asked him how he felt, he nodded and gave a big smile. The next day he died peacefully, surrounded by family.
After my father’s memorial service, I overheard some people say that we should have let the doctors connect him to the feeding tube so that he could have lived longer. I still believe that our father agreed with our decision, but sometimes doubt creeps in, and I wish I could hear him confirm in his own voice that we did the right thing.
I worked for many years as a reporter, but only once was I kicked out of someone’s office for asking questions.
In 1960 I was twelve and writing for a newsletter circulated in the suburb where I grew up outside Memphis, Tennessee. The interview was with the head of the local businessmen’s association, and it was about how they’d provided the local boys with baseball uniforms, equipment, and a lighted field where they could play Little League games.
I asked if it was possible to do something for the girls, too — maybe buy a few softballs. And couldn’t the girls use the field when the boys wouldn’t be on it?
The man I was interviewing became irate. Did I know how much that field and those uniforms had cost? Did I have any idea what the light bill would be? Who did I think I was, asking him a question like that? He ordered me out of his office, then followed me onto the sidewalk and continued to shout at me, his face red. I stood and listened, not saying a word. He knows he’s wrong, I thought. That’s why he’s so angry.
Susan Storer Clark
My past isn’t pretty. I had no family growing up and was passed from home to home. I was in and out of school. I had few friends and was always getting into fights. As an adult I mostly worked construction. I also drank a lot and did every drug there was. Then I started selling. A deal went bad, and I did fifteen months in prison. When I got out, I ended up right back with the wrong group of people.
In 1996 I was out drinking by myself. I left the bar, and two punks jumped me. (I found out later they knew I was a dealer and had been planning to rob me.) I put both of them in the hospital. Two days later one of them died, and I was arrested and convicted of involuntary manslaughter. I stayed in for nearly seven years this time.
After I was released, no one I used to hang with would even look my way. I’d always been a loner, but now I was completely by myself. After nine months I was sitting in a bar, and a pretty brunette I’d seen a few times before walked over and said she’d heard about what I’d done. I remember thinking, This can’t be good. She asked me if I was still that person. I said no. She put her hand on mine and said, “I’m going to ask you one more time: Are you still the person you were back then?”
I said, “No, and I hope I never get to be that guy again.” Then she did the nicest thing anyone had done for me in a long time. She sat down to talk.
We went on to get married, and I owe her my life. My wife believes you can be who you want to be. If you want to be an asshole, you can be an asshole. If you want to be a nice person, you can be a nice person. Her parents are great to me. I think of them as my own mother and father.
I did what I did. No one made me do it. Yes, I was a bad person. Yes, I hurt people. Yes, I killed someone. No, I didn’t mean to.
Over the years my wife and I have had our ups and downs, but we have never disrespected each other. She and her parents have shown me that it’s possible to be a kind, caring person.
Is it right to use force to get a thirteen-year-old girl to submit to a strip search upon her entry into this locked juvenile facility? Or should I give her time to settle in and perhaps realize that it will be easier if she cooperates? She has a history of concealing weapons in her clothing — usually a razor blade that she uses to cut herself. Should that factor into my decision? What about the sexual abuse in her past?
I decide to wait and see. I can always move in and try to take the blade away if it materializes.
How about the newly admitted seventeen-year-old boy with a record of starting fires in other facilities? Should I search him right away or keep him under constant observation? I’m responsible not only for his safety but for the safety of all the young people in here. But if I treat him differently, will that appear sexist? Either way I’ll have to document my decision and my reasons for making it. He sits in sullen silence. Then his shoulders start to relax, and he begins to talk a little. He must be tired. It’s past 3 AM, and he has spent most of the night running from the cops. Maybe I can convince him that it’s worth submitting to a search just to get to bed.
I’m tired, too. I need to grab some sleep before I start my next nineteen-hour shift. The other residents will be awake soon, and then I won’t have enough staff to keep this boy under observation. It’s Saturday, no classes. Maybe I could let them all sleep in an extra hour; I’m pretty sure that would be enough time to get this kid tucked in safely. But a one-hour change in schedule will cause the fifteen-year-old with autism to unravel and start banging her head against the wall and screeching, which will agitate the others. Then I’ll have to decide whether it’s right to forcibly restrain her and hold her down. Is it even right that she has to be here in the first place? She didn’t do anything wrong; the authorities simply determined that she was unsafe in her foster home.
Would it be right to quit my job and let someone else try to make the right choice?
In my teenage years I fancied myself the only honest person in a family of liars and hypocrites. My argumentative personality alienated many of the people closest to me. I told myself I didn’t care, and as soon as I could, I left them all behind and moved across the country.
After a few years my mother phoned to tell me that my grandmother had died. I had matured a bit since I’d left home, so I dutifully packed my bags. Anticipating that my presence at a family gathering would exacerbate old hostilities, I resolved to be charming and nonconfrontational.
Everything was going well until my grandfather approached me after the funeral and said he was having trouble forgiving me for something I’d once told him. “You said that I had blood on my hands,” he explained. Because he owned stock and lived off dividends, I had told him that he was responsible for people’s deaths. “How could you think something like that?” he asked. “I came to America with nothing. I worked my way up. I provided for my family. What could be bad about that?”
I had long forgotten that particular harangue, but it quickly came back to me. Despite my best intentions, I did not see before me a sad old man grieving his lost wife and perhaps wanting reconciliation with his granddaughter. I saw a rapacious capitalist, and I became an angry, vindictive adolescent again, ready to rub his nose in his hypocrisy.
I coldly told my grandfather that I still felt the same way. People were dying because of his support for companies that ruthlessly exploited workers for profit. “They die,” I said, “and you count your dividends.”
Hearing this, my mother rushed over and asked how I could hurt my grandfather like that, especially on the day of his wife’s funeral.
“It’s the truth,” I said, as my grandfather walked slowly away.
My mother got mad, and tears came to my eyes. I said I hadn’t meant for this to happen, but I was too humiliated to apologize. All I could do was run away. I packed my bags, called a cab, and headed straight to the airport. I never got another chance to talk to my grandfather. Telling the truth may not be wrong, but sometimes it just isn’t right.
Forest Knolls, California
When I was in the fourth grade, a friend and I were walking home from school together when we saw candy bars displayed in big glass jars outside a Standard Oil filling station, and we decided to steal a couple.
I’m not sure why I did it. My parents owned a grocery with racks of candy bars, and if I’d asked, I could have enjoyed any one of them. But there under the hot sun, something in me wanted one of those candy bars — and wanted it bad enough to steal.
I stood guard at the corner while my friend ran to the containers, grabbed two Black Cows, and dashed back. The candy’s sweetness filled our mouths as we strolled home past the orange groves. Two days in a row we stole Black Cow bars: Two days of feeling grown-up and clever. Two days of not worrying that we’d get caught.
On the third day my father met me at the door of my family’s grocery and said, “Get in the car.”
He drove to the gas station, where the gray-haired owner came out, stood at Dad’s window, and looked in to see me huddled as far away from him as possible. “Yes, sir,” he said. “That’s her. She’s the one.”
My father slumped low, unable to look the owner in the eye. “Please, sir,” he said to the man, “don’t send her to reform school.”
Reform school? Was that the punishment for a ten-year-old who stole candy bars? Or was my father just trying to scare me? I didn’t find out, because the man said it wouldn’t be necessary.
Riding home, I sobbed because I knew I was about to get the spanking of my life. Dad was quiet in the car, and when he finally spoke, his voice sounded as if he, too, wanted to cry: “Don’t we have enough candy in the grocery? Don’t I say yes when you ask if you can have a candy bar? Doesn’t Mama say yes? Did you have to steal?”
To my father stealing was a grave sin. My Syrian grandfather had instructed him long ago never to steal, no matter how hungry he might be, even if he knew he wouldn’t get caught, because God would see him.
At the store my father returned to the meat counter, where he stood on sawdust all day, smiling at every customer he served, and I climbed the back stairs to our home. Sitting on my bed, I waited for my father to come up and show me how angry he was that his code of honesty had been broken. His hard slaps would cure me of the desire to steal again.
I waited, sobbing, until the truth hit me: My father wasn’t going to climb the stairs. He wasn’t going to whip me. I would not be physically harmed. I didn’t know what to do with this fact.
Later my mother told me I had stolen more than candy: I had stolen my father’s belief that he had taught me right from wrong. I knew then I had wounded my father far more than any spanking could have wounded me.
Adele Azar Rucquoi
It was New Year’s Eve 1977, and my girlfriends and I, all seniors in high school, were party hopping in our suburban Midwestern town. As we were leaving one crowded party, we went down a hallway where we passed a group of guys lined up outside a bedroom door, laughing. I caught a glimpse inside the room and recognized a sophomore girl in the bed under a tangle of blankets, her hair messed up and her eyes barely open. I realized that the boys were taking turns having sex with her. My friends and I rushed to the car and talked excitedly about how wasted the girl was, what a slut she was, and what assholes those guys were.
When school started back up, there was gossip in the hallways about the sophomore girl, who was kicked off the drill team and began wearing heavy black eye makeup. Little was said about the boys.
I realize now that everybody in that situation did the wrong thing, including us. It never occurred to us to help the girl out. She at least had the excuse of being drunk. We were simply too weak.
“The wages of sin is death” was one of the first Bible verses I knew by heart. I wasn’t even old enough to understand the word wages, but I got the gist of it.
Preachers in my church frequently emphasized that death meant either eternal bliss in heaven — if you were saved — or eternal torment in hell. Their sermons were filled with graphic descriptions of the lake of fire, sometimes embellished with audio tapes of actual people screaming. Sinners would burn there forever and ever. This sounded implausible to me, but the idea was disturbing nonetheless.
The list of sins to avoid was long and comprehensive: sex outside of marriage, alcohol, dancing, television, movies. The television ban was unevenly enforced. My father liked to watch wrestling, but my sister and I were not allowed to watch I Dream of Jeannie, because Jeannie could work magic, and witchcraft was from the devil. I didn’t see a movie until the age of fifteen, when I lied and said I was going to Bible study in order to sneak out to the theater. It was also the first time I made out with a boy, a tan surfer named Tyler, who was a few years older than I was and as dumb as he was cute. I was rather naive myself. The entirety of my knowledge about intercourse came from a scandalous joke I’d overheard at church: Why can’t Baptists have sex standing up? Because it leads to dancing.
It was even a sin to listen to any music other than church hymns, classical, or Christian rock, which my parents let me purchase only because it was sold at the Christian bookstore. In retrospect the approved “rock” music was lame, but it sounded positively risqué compared to the dirge-like hymns at church. My Walkman became my refuge. As I rode in the back seat of our battered Chevy Nova to the next prayer meeting or youth group, I privately rocked out to Amy Grant.
When I was in seventh grade, the religious school my sister and I attended held a special assembly on the dangers of rock-and-roll. The entire student body spent three warm Florida afternoons in the school gymnasium, watching a comprehensive presentation about the sinister Satanic messages in rock songs.
The presenters made the mistake of actually playing clips of this evil music to demonstrate their points. When the Eagles’ “Hotel California” came over the speakers, I thought it was the coolest song I’d ever heard. We were told that the lyric “We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969” was a reference to the Satanic Bible, first published in 1969, but I was barely listening. It was already all over for me. Amy Grant was cornball. This was real music.
Los Angeles, California
© Rita Bernstein
Our teacher, Mrs. Harper, spat out the student’s name every morning when she called roll. It was a Native American name. The girl wouldn’t have been seated in a back row if she’d had a “regular” name. Only kids of color sat in those rows.
The Native American girl looked petrified all day long, and with good reason: Mrs. Harper might attack her verbally at any minute. Mrs. Harper didn’t like whispering or farting or anything she deemed an infraction. If you were tardy coming in from recess, out came the paddle, and sometimes students were put in the closet as punishment. But worst of all was being placed in a back row. You became a pariah, a leper.
I played with that girl at recess, because I was a Christian and it was the right thing to do, but during class she and I made no eye contact. Our friendship was our secret.
I had an even bigger secret: I was part Native American.
One day Mrs. Harper was in a bad mood and started in on the girl early, whacking her knuckles with a ruler. When the girl covered her hand and cried, Mrs. Harper belittled her and sent her to the closet. After the girl was released, I saw her remove her panties and hide them under her desk because she had wet herself. Sharp-eyed Mrs. Harper spotted this, too. She picked the panties up with a yardstick and waved them around so the rest of us could be disgusted. Then she threw the panties in the trash and called the girl a “filthy Indian.”
The bell rang for recess. The girl stood at the edge of the playground, looking at me. I started to ask her to play, but another child pulled me away, and I went. I deserted that little girl, and my people, because I could pass for white.
After the school year ended, I didn’t see the girl again. I can’t even remember her name. This happened more than fifty years ago, but I’ve never shed that memory.
I met Maria when she was a sophomore in college. She had been raised in poverty by an alcoholic single mother and had earned scholarships and taken loans to attend the university. From my upper-middle-class point of view, Maria was a success story. Her self-reliance humbled me and made me grateful for the hand I had been dealt. My college costs had been covered entirely by my parents.
Both raised Catholic, Maria and I spoke a common language despite our different upbringings. She worked one night a week at a tutoring program for inner-city youths in Chicago, where I was employed. She had once been a student in the program herself and was now an energetic role model for the kids, many of whom were struggling in school. As the months went on, however, Maria began to miss work and lose weight. She and her boyfriend were having problems, and they ultimately broke up. After that, she returned to being her happy, ebullient self.
Maria graduated with a degree in education and accepted a full-time position at the tutoring program so she could stay in the community and help others. We loved working together and also enjoyed each other’s company outside of work, dancing, shopping, and socializing.
As our friendship deepened, Maria confided to me that she’d had an abortion during her sophomore year in college. I was stunned. All I could think, as Maria painfully shared her decision, was what I had been taught growing up: that abortion is wrong.
Maria, too, had been taught that abortion is a sin, but she’d refused to bring an unwanted child into the world. If she had, she would have been forced to drop out and continue the cycle of dependence and poverty in her family; she believed that would be the greater wrong.
The experience helped me realize that right and wrong are not always cut and dried. Maria went on to earn her master’s degree, get married, and have a family. She has spent her career teaching low-income children.
“Two wrongs don’t make a right” was one of my father’s favorite maxims. Movie theaters were wrong to charge twelve-year-olds adult prices, but that didn’t make it right to lie about my age. The kid who copied off my test in class and threatened to say bad things about me if I refused to cooperate was wrong, but I shouldn’t rat on him to the teacher.
“Two wrongs don’t make a right” has been a hard law to live by, but I sleep better when I follow it. I wonder, though, how my father ever slept. For years he molested me. And now I might be compounding that wrong by protecting his anonymity and mine.
My family was racist. My parents and their siblings grew up in Philadelphia’s Little Italy in the thirties and forties, and back then, if you weren’t Catholic and Italian, you weren’t welcome in the neighborhood. My mother and father moved to the suburbs before my siblings and I were born, and their racism softened, but it never totally disappeared.
A few weeks after my younger sister headed off to college, she came home for the weekend and brought her roommate with her. Joyce was bright, funny, and black. I thought my mother would have a stroke, but she covered her shock admirably and was gracious and warm — until she called my sister the following Monday and demanded that she request a new roommate. My sister stood her ground and said the room arrangements would not change.
Then my cousin Rita married Leroy, a black man, and her parents, my aunt Josephine and uncle Mario, disowned her. The young couple was excluded from family gatherings and received few greetings from our Italian relatives at Christmastime.
Sometime after Rita and Leroy’s eighth wedding anniversary, my husband and I hosted a family reunion on our two-acre property. We had outdoor music and tables covered in Italian dishes and desserts. I was upstairs in the house, checking on a napping child, when I heard a latecomer pull into the driveway. I peeked out to see the shunned couple emerging from their car.
I had told no one but my husband that I’d invited them. I wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do, but I knew it was the only way to get Rita, Leroy, and Rita’s parents all to attend.
Rushing out, I hugged Rita and Leroy and cooed over their toddler and the newborn baby boy in Rita’s arms. My husband joined us as we approached the rest of the relatives. Shy handshakes and introductions eventually gave way to hearty welcomes, but Rita’s parents were still inside the house. I worried what would happen when they came face to face with their daughter and son-in-law.
Finally Uncle Mario stepped outside and hugged Rita so hard I feared he’d squash the baby; then he put out his hand to Leroy and said it was good to meet him. Aunt Josephine, however, stayed in the kitchen, adding more meatballs to the crockpot and asking who the hell had invited them. My older sister took her aside and pleaded with her not to make a scene, and she didn’t. The fences weren’t totally mended that day, but little by little my misguided aunt and uncle reclaimed their daughter and brought their son-in-law into the family fold.
Years later, as Aunt Josephine was dying, Leroy approached her bed to say goodbye. She grasped his large hand with both of hers, pulled him close, and whispered that she was sorry for the way she’d treated him and was glad that they were family.
My hand was shaking as I dialed the overseas number. It had been almost forty years since we’d last had any contact. I was in my sixties now, and he would be in his seventies, if he was still alive.
I had tried the number once or twice several years earlier, but there hadn’t been any answer. This time, though, I had reason to believe he might be staying in the old village in central Greece where we had once lived so happily. His brother, a prominent actor, had died exactly one year before, and I figured that the man I’d once loved might have returned to the village for the traditional anniversary memorial service.
The ringing stopped, and a voice answered. In my rusty Greek I asked for him. There was silence on the other end. I asked once more, this time in English.
“Is it really you?” he finally responded, his voice familiar and thick with tears. He said he’d always known that somehow, someday, we would find each other again. I suppose I’d always known, too, but I had willed myself not to look back.
That was two years ago. We now talk regularly on the phone, trying to piece together the past and come to grips with the misfortune that ruined our chance to have a life together. Our communication is easy despite the passage of time, and our great love for each other remains.
We have also met once, in Greece, where I spent a glorious week with him and his family. As lovely as it was, I cried myself to sleep every night, mourning what might have been.
Our spouses and children do not know the depth of our love. We hide it so as not to hurt them.
This man and I remain together in spirit, and that may well be how it stays for the rest of our days. Is it wrong, this secret love of ours? I ask myself this all the time, and my answer is always the same: How could something that feels so right be wrong?
One of the biggest mistakes I made after coming to prison was to ask, “Why?” My cellmate was telling me how another inmate had been subjected to vicious abuse because he’d violated some inmate code. The cruelty had ended only when someone told the correctional officers about it. My cellmate was angry not with the men who’d abused the other inmate but with the snitch. In my naiveté, I asked him why it was wrong to alleviate someone’s suffering — and, furthermore, why anybody needed to suffer like that in the first place. He told me snitching was wrong and that it’s OK to hurt somebody who “deserves it.”
“Why?” I asked again.
“Because that’s the way it is,” he said.
My cellmate regarded me suspiciously after that and told others what I’d said. I had made the dangerous mistake of questioning the prison’s unwritten rules and the violence used to enforce them. Luckily I managed to convince everyone that my questions had just been casual remarks that meant nothing.
But deep down this wasn’t true. I’d made a resolution that, although I had committed egregious wrongs that had landed me in prison, I would try, from that moment forward, to do the right thing.
I now snitch when I see a morally repugnant act being committed, and I hope no one finds out it was me. I hide among those who sit high in the prison’s social order, pretending to assent to their nightmarish concepts of right and wrong and laughing at jokes in which I find no humor. I do not think I could possibly feel more alone.
Perhaps this is my penance. But I will go on trying to do right to make up for the wrongs I have done to others.
My father knew what was right, and he depended on scientific and mathematical data to prove it. My mother also knew what was right, but she relied on her Catholic faith for assurance.
In the fifties my dad entertained his five children with tales of evolution and readings from On the Origin of the Species. When he said the creation story in Genesis was a fantasy, Mom would look to heaven and pray for his soul. Dad went to church with us each Sunday, but he often told Mom that religion was “hogwash.” She’d blanch and pray harder.
In the sixties Dad fell in love with computers and took night classes to learn how to program them. He regaled us during dinner with stories of clever programming routines. Meanwhile Mom made us take religious instruction throughout high school. She said, “Trust in God, and keep the commandments.”
When he was eighty-seven, Dad had a heart attack. We all knew the right thing to do. Mom and one of my sisters started a prayer group, brought in the priest, and organized a service to petition God for Dad’s speedy recovery. The rest of us began to do research. We found the most experienced doctors in central Florida and learned everything we could about stents, blood-clot preventers, and bypass surgery. I so firmly believed that medical science would see Dad through that I was only mildly anxious as I flew from New York to Florida to visit him. I was driving on the Sun Coast Highway when my sister called and said that Dad had died twenty minutes earlier.
All my mother’s belief in prayer and all my dad’s faith in science had come to naught. How could they have both been so wrong?
Southampton, New York
Unhappy, lonely, and more than a little bored with my life, I decided to start saying yes anytime my first impulse was to say no. I had always obeyed the rules, gotten good grades, done what I was told, and tried hard not to upset anyone. But now, away from home for the first time and with no one expecting me to behave in any particular way, I had an opportunity to explore another side of life, embracing things I’d always stayed away from: the wrong partners, excessive alcohol consumption, recreational drugs, and some version of free love. I knew that I would likely get hurt, and I was both terrified and thrilled by the prospect.
I started with little things, like driving on icy roads and climbing the fence at the community pool at night to go skinny-dipping with a group of inebriated friends. Then I grew more adventurous. I remember the first time I stole something, the mix of power, self-righteousness, and shame I felt. I was never caught. I accepted rides with strangers, picked up hitchhikers, and walked alone after dark in big cities, pausing to chat with drug dealers, pimps, and hookers. I felt invincible, like the hero of my own movie. I usually walked away unscathed, but not always, like when I dated a guy who gave me a black eye.
Pushing myself beyond my old limits, I learned how to negotiate the highs and lows, and how to find balance. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t taken so many chances. To anyone standing at a similar threshold, I say: Take the plunge. Just don’t tell your mother.
When I was five years old, my mother bought my sister and me matching outfits: yellow shorts with orange tank tops. New clothes were a rarity for us. We mostly wore thrift-shop goods and hand-me-downs. So we treasured those outfits.
One day my sister and I had on our new clothes as we were walking to the store with Dad, and I looked down and spotted a brown wallet. I was only five, but I knew where money came from, so I excitedly pointed it out to my father. Sure enough, this wallet had a lot of money in it. Dad swiftly took the bills and put them in his pocket. He explained to us that normally this would have been wrong, but since our family was poor, it was all right. When we got to the store, he put the empty wallet in a mailbox. The postman would make sure it got back to the owner, he said.
While we were heading home, a car stopped beside us, and the driver asked if we had seen a wallet. Dad said we hadn’t. I kept quiet. I didn’t want to get him in trouble. The driver asked my father if he was sure; someone had seen two little girls in matching outfits pick up a wallet earlier that day.
All at once I understood that it had been wrong to take the money. And now we were lying, which was really wrong. I couldn’t remain silent anymore. I cried out that I’d found the wallet.
Once I’d confessed, I felt better. Then I felt horrible: I had betrayed Dad, who had just been trying to take care of us.
Dad gave the man his money back, and we led him to the mailbox where we’d put the wallet. Then we went home.
My father must have given the man our address, because a little while later he showed up at our apartment. Dad spoke to him at the door, then came into the dining room with a big smile on his face. The man had stopped by to give us a reward for returning his wallet, he said. Some of the money was for my sister and me, and I even got an extra dollar for being the one who’d found it.
The owner of the wallet could have gotten mad at us, but he didn’t. And Dad didn’t get mad at me for telling on him. I learned something that day about right and wrong, and about forgiveness.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
I appreciate M.C.’s willingness to admit that she and her friends were wrong not to help the girl in the bedroom at the party [Readers Write on “Right and Wrong,” November 2014], but let’s use the proper term for what those boys were doing. When a girl is that drunk, consent is impossible. Those boys weren’t “having sex” with her. They were raping her.