My lawyering father would make a barrel of flimflam cash, move our family to a gilt-edged neighborhood and drink it all up within a year. He would sneak away on a business trip and a few weeks later my mother would wake my two sisters and I in the middle of the night, pack us into the car and drive to another state, another town, another gilt-edged neighborhood.
In seventh grade I entered my 11th school since I started first grade in 1952, the Academy of Sacred Heart in Lake Forest, Illinois. I intended to shine in all subjects, especially my nemesis arithmetic, no matter what was happening at home. Experience warned me I didn’t have much time until the next midnight move so I crammed my head with Latin conjugations, algorithms, periodic tables, Romeo and Juliet, diagrammed sentences, the French revolution and the Gospel of Mark. At the end of the year the Mater Admirabilis Award (Mother Most Admired, another name for Mary), an Oscar-like trophy would be bestowed on an eighth-grader for her excellence in academics, sports, religious and civic activities. Her name would be engraved on a bronze plate and permanently fixed next to the previous winners. I prayed everyday for God to keep me in that school through the eighth grade so I could win that prize.
Sacred Heart nuns had been in Chicago since the 1860’s. Bishop Anthony O’Regan brought them from France to open a school at Rush and Illinois Streets, a mile from where I live now. They taught women leadership in society rather than social graces and homemaking. O’Regan moved the school to pastoral Lake Forest when hotels, saloons and brothels flooded the Rush Street neighborhood.
A hundred years later, French still permeated our activities. “Congé” (holiday) was a surprise day when schoolwork was suddenly replaced by a day of fun such as playing Cache Cache, a version of hide-and-seek. Congé ended with “Goûter” (to taste), a roomful of refreshments celebrating the winners of the day’s games. This joie de vivre coupled with the nuns’ love of God appealed to my awakening soul.
My teachers gradually increased my extra credit assignments to include tutoring, public speaking and sports. By the end of the 8th grade everyone knew my name would be forever on display in the trophy cabinet.
In the school bus on the way home from an ordinary day in early May, I thanked God for Sacred Heart and my soon-to-be immortality. The bus driver pulled into our driveway and slammed on the brakes. Furniture, clothes, pots and pans, bicycles – everything we owned clogged the pavement.
I told my sisters to stay on the bus, as if something dangerous was happening, until I saw my mother sitting on the couch with my 3-year-old sister Stacy. I needed to save her from a reality I didn’t understand. A sheriff blocked the front door. We were not allowed to enter. A family friend arrived to drive us to a downtown Rush Street hotel. A week later I was in another school, another town, another state.