J.P.

From time to time, I read the obituaries in my hometown paper. As the years pass, more and more of those names recall not only families with whom I grew up, but my classmates.

And so, last week, after at least 55 years of not seeing his name, I read of the passing of J.P. Parks (I have used a pseudonym).

J.P. ca. 1958

Just like that he was back beside me at our wooden desks, a bony, freckled only child in a paper-thin flannel shirt, auburn hair stiff as a scrub brush, a biddable boy who would laugh all in a rush if you caught him at the right moment. We were all biddable then, years away from adolescent rebellion, bolted down as firmly as those desks by the nuns' generally benevolent authority.

He lived a few blocks from our primary school, in a dark, small, unreadable house from which only J.P. was seen to emerge, a house where no one was invited to play, not even in the yard. 
 
In class, J.P. was a kind of placeholder kid, no trouble but not memorable, until one event: the fifth-grade Mother's Day gift.

We had an ambitious project. We were each to take home a piece of typing paper, and request that our mother write out one of our favourite recipes. She was to check it for accuracy and sign her name, putting her rep on the line for that spaghetti sauce or cookie. It would have been unheard of for a father to undertake this effort; the O'Donnell twins, whose mother had died, asked their aunt.

We then returned the sheets (without creases, people!) to Sister, who mimeographed the pages and distributed crisp sets. After the ecstatic mass inhalation of sweet, purply-blue mimeo ink, we got down to business, the assembly of our report-cover "book". The cover art was especially inspired: we traced an outline of our hand with coloured pencils.

I still have that frayed, foxed copy. As you would expect, the book was heavy on sweets; my mother sent her double-chocolate fudge cake recipe.

I can write J.P's entry from memory. Sister thanked him, but behind his back, we mocked his mother, clearly a dismal cook.

French toast
Take bread, put in pan with egg and milk.
then cook.
By Mrs Parks

Many decades later, my father, one of the local doctors, began, in confidence, to recount some of his memorable cases. J.P.'s father beat his mother. One night in the early 1950s, he attacked her, leaving her unconscious on the floor, with J.P. in his play pen. He drove off, never to be found, not so hard to do in the 1950s.

Dad, who removed one of her eyes, said mother and son had spent several days alone before she was found; there had been scarcely a scrap of food in the house. The family survived on welfare and support from our parish, but all we kids heard was that J.P.'s mother was sick and could not work.

By the end of junior high, they had moved to a smaller, neighbouring community; I never saw J.P. again.

Now I realize that J.P. wrote that recipe himself, as best he could. He had survived to 67, worked at the local cement plant, enjoyed fishing.

Though the obituary did not mention a family, I hope J.P. had some love, and plenty of French toast. He was a sweet kid who fended for himself, and I wish, instead of laughing at his contribution, we had seen the strength he summoned just to turn it in.


33 comments

Madame Là-bas said...

What a sad story ! I do hope that the brave boy did have a happier life as an adult. J.P. looks like many of my school mates. We will be going to my husband's 50th reunion in a couple of weeks. He was surprised how many of his high school class had passed away in the last ten years. As a child, I had no idea what went on in the homes of other families. Thank you for writing such a thought-provoking post.

Anonymous said...

I hope JP found love and Happiness and all the French toast he ever wanted. Thank you for sharing this.

une femme said...

What a touching story. It goes to show that you sometimes never know what people struggle with, and what they've overcome. Hope J.P. was able to to find some sweetness and joy in his life.

Rosa said...

This is an amazing and heartbreaking post. I suspect, from my time as a substitute teacher in elementary schools, that there are many children like J.P. and I hope that I provided some small respite, with a kind word or a small snack from a stash I kept for such purposes, from their otherwise difficult lives.

lagatta à montréal said...

A very touching story. Poverty and abuse are far, far more widespread than most people suspect, as many are proud and try to "keep up appearances".

And it is a very useful skill for children to learn simple, utilitarian cooking. They can go on to more elaborate recipes, once they have the basics, and having the basics means less reliance on "ready meals". Duchesse, children learn to cook at the family centre next to your place (the intrepid nuns, some of whom I knew, struck a hard bargain to get the manse restored as part of the contract for the sale of the church for condo redevelopment). Some also receive food and study aid, and encouragement.

Indeed, some old friends and colleagues have died recently. A longer life expectancy doesn't mean everyone living into their eighties.

At least spousal abuse and conjugal and family violence are taken somewhat more seriously nowadays. But a lot of children still slip through the cracks...

LauraH said...

As we get older and people are more ready to talk, these sad histories start to come to light. Family members suffered through a similarly difficult childhood, we only found out a couple of years ago and it was very disturbing. As children we had no idea, as adults we can see the damage that was done. Looking back, my memories shift and new patterns appear.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this story; it's so easy to assume everyone has what we have, but it's not the case for a lot of families. I appreciate your blog and always check in on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

SewingLibrarian said...

Your story reminds me of the story "One Hundred Dresses" by Eleanor Estes. I, too, hope JP found love in a family of his own.
(Slightly OT, we were up in your old hometown a couple of weeks ago, visiting cousins. Had a lovely time boating and hunting fossilized stones.)

SewingLibrarian said...

Sorry, it's THE Hundred Dresses.

materfamilias said...

What s story, K, and you write it so well, so movingly. I have a few names and faces that stir similar memories and emotions.

Jean S said...

Terribly sad. May he rest in peace.

And this is partly why my mother, during her teaching years (first and second grade), made those home visits during the first weeks of the school year. They were officially discontinued around 1962 or so, but she continued until she retired in 1970--as she said, she learned almost everything she really needed to know about her students during those visits.

BTW, forget Proust and his madeleine; all I'd need is the smell of that mimeo ink.

Rainbowsandglories said...

Lighting a candle for your courageous childhood classmate.

Janice Riggs said...

Everyone struggles; we must always remember that kindness is the only appropriate way to approach life. Thanks for sharing your most touching, and beautifully written, reminder of our obligations to each other.
big hug,
Janice

Rainbowsandglories said...

Lighting a candle for your courageous childhood classmate.

LPC said...

I have goosebumps. What a beautifully written post. I too hope J.P. lived a life full of happiness, having survived as he did. As for J.P.s father, well, we will be charitable and simply say, no good wishes for him at all.

Duchesse said...

All: My schedule today prevents individual responses, and thank you for your compassionate replies and candle. At that time, the school had no breakfast program, but J.P. received (probably free) a hot lunch. A lot of was done by the women of the Altar Society, who could tell which families were struggling, and would organized anonymous deliveries of food and sometimes clothes. But generally, in those times and in that faith, not many women received help to leave abusive marriages.

lagatta: We we have assisted in some projects at the Maisonette des parents, a dedicated (and underfunded) community resource.

SewingLibrarian: I have to get back to Petoskey before long!

Diane said...

Terrific story, Duchesse. Thank you.

Judy said...

That is heartbreaking.

Anonymous said...

Children are so brave and courageous, I pray that he had a happy life and told GREAT FISHIN tales!
Katen

Francie Newcomb said...

This was so touching to read. You are a wonderful writer! My father was our town's doctor also as I was growing up; although he was silent about patients, it was impossible not to see that people lived in very different ways.

Anonymous said...

Your story brings to mind a classmate of mine. A boy I never forget no matter how many years go by.
How he had the courage to return to fifth grade with the bandages covering the slashes on his neck which
were a result of a violent attack by his mother, I'll never know. I suppose he had no choice. Nobody in
The elementary school ever talked to us about it. We were left to sort out our feelings and thoughts for ourselves.
It was an unforgettable lesson in the unfairness of circumstances.
I always gave him a smile but never spoke of the incident to my parents or teachers.
Pretty heavy stuff for a ten year old.
Thank you for the touching story.
Anon@4

SusanG said...

Such a moving and heartrending story. Thank you, Duchesse.

Martina said...

Your beautifully written story made me wonder how many of the kids we didn't understand in school had similar stories. I hope J.P. found happiness somewhere in his life.

Leslie said...

This blog transcends.

hostess of the humble bungalow said...

I tried to leave a comment twice today on Bloglovin and I could not...am not sure why?
I loved this post and it took me back to my primary school days...there is so much pain here in young JP's life that I do hope he found some happiness...and a big fish story to hold close to his heart.

Sue said...

A lovely and moving tribute and told with such understanding.


Sue

Anonymous said...

I am a long time reader and never comment because I am terribly shy, but I had to tell you this post has left me in tears.

Francesca

Swissy said...

Heartfelt post, beautifully written, so heartfelt thanks to you. How many such stories are in our lives, half hidden, maybe revealed at some time? Your memoir reminds us to see, always, the person before us.

Mardel said...

Such a touching story, which left me in tears to return later. It is also good to be reminded how much we don't know about others and how blind our assumptions. I hope he found some happiness in his life despite its early ending.

Wendy Gardener said...

Thank you for sharing the story!

Dr. V.O. said...

Beautifully expressed reminder of the true depth of our human social connections, despite the ways that the often hidden structural violence of abuse and poverty acts to keep us disconnected and unable to connect. Thank you for this moving portrait of a boy and man who managed to survive and thrive and hopefully find some joy. You are such a gifted perceiver and interpreter of life, Duchesse, I always learn from you.

Susan said...

Very poignant story about your sweet classmate. It brought back memories from my elementary days and made me think about certain classmates who struggled due to learning disabilities or poverty. The memory of certain events and situations stayed with me for years--and only years later could I understand their true significance. Back in the 1950s-early 60s, learning disabilities were not well understood or acknowledged. So many children suffered and were called lazy because they could not read or write well. I can't imagine the pain they endured.

angiemanzi said...

Beautiful story. God bless him and you for remembering him so kindly. And God bless the nuns who surely knew the story and kept a quiet counsel.