I hear some people say they knew this or that at age 5, 6, 7 or 8. They knew there was no Santa Claus or they knew their father was having an affair with the neighbor. Not me. Throughout grade school, with all evidence to the contrary, I trusted that the adults in my life knew what they were doing, didn’t lie to me and moved our family around for good reasons like better neighborhoods or better schools. Then my mother yanked us from our midwestern roots, away from my absentee father and took us to the East Coast. My sister Erin and I landed at the doorstep of my mother’s sister, Aunt Joanne, in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, with her husband Bill Dorsey and their seven children. It was mid-May when we entered St. Mary of the Assumption School where the nuns “sought to imitate Jesus Christ.” In 1959, St. Mary’s was still segregated except on the playground where I joined girls and boys, blacks and whites defiantly playing baseball all together.
The eighth grade class at St. Mary’s had spent the entire year before I got there memorizing one poem a month. In order to graduate, I had to memorize all nine poems. Not only did I rebel against this arbitrary standard, I became hysterical over it. My mother had taken two of my sisters to New Jersey to live with other family members and for the first time in my life I absolutely knew that she had gotten it wrong. I needed her with me, to defend me against the injustice of those nuns. I had sacrificed a lot for her and it was time she helped me.
Uncle Bill had a different idea. He told me I could do it, that we’d do it together. Never before had anyone sat me down and given me a pep talk. Every night after dinner for four weeks he helped me learn those lines. Poems like “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Tyger” by William Blake, “O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman and my all-time favorite, “The Chambered Nautilus” by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Uncle Bill’s love flowed through me and poured out onto the paper, lighting up the poetry. He gave those words to me. And now, when I hear or see them, my heart pounds with a thunder of love for his eternal soul.
The Dorseys threw a party on my 13th birthday just before I graduated. They invited all their friends and children. My mother arrived from New Jersey with my baby sister. The backyard ballooned with streamers and bunting, barbecue, birthday cake, and something I’d never seen before – a keg of Budweiser. Uncle Bill gave me the first draw of the tap. I gulped it down without tasting it. My first beer. Then I had another. And another. And suddenly I loved everything around me. I knew I belonged, in that family, at that party, with those saints.
The St. Mary nuns blundered in their seeking to imitate the Christ. But Uncle Bill Dorsey? He was the real deal.