My father died when I was four, but even if he hadn’t, childcare would probably have been a problem for my mother. She had to work, and the one of my sisters old enough to look after me had to go to school. When I was five, a Catholic school agreed to take me into first grade with the understanding that I was really too young for first grade, so I would have to repeat it the following year.
On the first day of my second year in first grade, the nun, whose name I forget, surveyed the room and said:
“You are all going to have to work very hard if you hope to make it to the second grade. If you don’t work hard, you will be sitting here again next year. And if you don’t believe me, ask Alan here. This is his second go around.”
It was not an auspicious beginning.
The nun was harsh and in retrospect, unhinged. She would often scream that she wanted such silence that she could hear a pin drop, and we would sit there, barely breathing. In the afternoon we would line up to take a sip of water from the water fountain, but she told us just to wet our lips and not swallow any of the water, presumably so we wouldn’t have to use the bathroom later. She wasn’t typical; most of the nuns were rather nice, but she was the first impression.
The theology we were taught reflected the worldview of Dante’s time. There was heaven, hell, and purgatory, venial and mortal sins, and lots of saints to serve as models. One rather comforting teaching was that each of us had a guardian angel to watch over us and help us resist temptation. My guardian angel was oddly judgmental.
I spent a lot of time in the bar and grill where my mother worked as a cook. A man everybody called Johnny Jump-up was almost always sitting at the bar. I have no idea how he got that nickname.
The men’s room in the bar was off a large back room that led to the parking lot. Once I was going to the men’s room and encountered a vicious fist fight. At one point one of the men backed into the screen door, swung around, put his fist through it, and swung back to confront his opponent. I went back into the bar without going to the men’s room. When I came back in, Johnny Jump-up smiled and winked at me.
Somehow I got it into my head that my father hadn’t really died but was disguised as Johnny Jump-up and was hanging around the bar to keep an eye on me. He looked a little like my father in photographs we had of him. So Johnny Jump-up replaced the judgmental guardian angel the nun had given me.
I never confided to anyone, certainly not to my mother, my belief that Johnny Jump-up was my father in disguise. At some point Johnny Jump-up disappeared. He might have died or started frequenting a different bar. I assumed he had returned to heaven, and I continued to imagine that he was looking over me. Years later I learned things about my father that made me think he was probably in hell, but Johnny Jump-up was in heaven for sure.