2007 STORY #52: TEACHER BY EXAMPLE AND SINCERITY
When I first read the SNAP short story contest proposal I could think of no event or person that helped or inspired me. In fact for a few minutes I was angry; but I wasn’t sure if I was angry at the proposal or at myself. When I calmed down, a book of good people memories began to unfold. Many who knew nothing of my inner turmoil had offered their help and kindness.
I am 59 years old and only a few years ago did I begin to cautiously speak openly to non-family members about my sexual abuse at the hands of a Redemptorist brother, when I was a young boy.
Of all the people she could have married, my wife of 32 years, Yvonne, chose me. Without her and our two daughters there would have been no long term healing and no story to tell.
Mrs. Feliciana Mello knew me from birth. My mother said she was the first one to come and welcome the new baby to the Catskill dairy farm where I was born, 2 months premature and cradled in an apple box. Mrs. Mello had raven black hair, of medium build with gentle but piercing brown eyes. She spoke in an exuberant mixture of Portuguese, Italian and broken English. When the Rondout Creek was dammed for the NYC water supply she washed the dirty clothes of the dam workers by hand and kept a boarding house for them.
When I attended Cornell University on a scholarship, that almost constant sense of worthlessness, you need to combat day by day, reared its ugly head.
Mrs. Mello would deliver eggs to our house on foot every week. She was always colorfully dressed in bright colors, deep blues and pomegranate reds, especially. Her garden was always abundant and flowers, flowers everywhere. On a late summer day I was taking a break from helping her dig up some early potatoes. She sat across from me under an arbor of concord grapes, while we ate some homemade cake.
I looked at her face, beaded with sweat, furrowed, a big smile with a partially hidden gold filled tooth and I wondered how she could be so happy living such a simple life. The words “worthless life” flashed across my mind. And in that moment tears began to well up in my eyes. Her wisdom and simplicity captured the beauty, the true miracle that is our everyday life.
I resolved to return to Cornell that fall not to quit but to continue my bachelor’s degree program. When I drove back to school I thought of Mrs. Mello often, a teacher by example and sincerity.
A number of years later I received my veterinary degree and returned to Ithaca, NY to take the state licensing examination. I called my elderly landlady, when I attended Cornell and asked if I could stay with her a few days. She was happy to hear from me and on the last evening I invited her to dinner. As we sat at the table she spoke of how proud she was to have known a young student who now was a graduate veterinarian. I listened, but for a long 30 seconds I was wondering, who was this student she was talking about. When she raised her wine glass for a toast I realized she was talking about me.
Many wonderful people have helped me on my path, when I was an angry young man. How insidious and destructive is the pain and suffering of child abuse. How life giving and inspiring the many good people we meet along our journey to recovery.