The Runaway Gene

As our family continues to expand, we wonder, “Who will he/she look like, and will the new baby be a blonde, brunette, or, finally, a red-head like Grandma?”  But no one ever knew to ask the question, “Will they have the family runaway gene?”

It started with Aunt Marian when she was a kindergartener at School Street School. Before the first autumn leaf began to flutter to the ground, she came home and told my grandmother and her grandmother that the teacher hollered at the class.  (Holler, at children?) My grandma turned to her mother and said, “She’s too old to teach little children. She taught me at School Street.”

The next day, cute little Aunt Marian blurted out to her teacher, “Miss Coombs, my mother said you are too old to teach us.” Aunt Marian was sent home, and the following day, my grandmother withdrew her from School Street and enrolled her at Mt. Carmel. Aunt Marian loved to say she was expelled from kindergarten!

Those runaway genes were passed on to me. I was a precious little first grader at Mt. Carmel,  which was Grandma’s alma mater as well. It had not been a week since I became a student in Sister Rose De Lima’s class when I bolted from her classroom and ran crying all the way home. I was six. You all know how far I traveled from that school all the way to Cornelia Street. Seeing the terror and tears in my eyes were grounds for Grandma and Grandpa to move me to School Street. I was a much happier little girl until I met my CCD teacher—Sister Rose De Lima. While this deflated my now sunny disposition, I was comforted in knowing my contact with her was limited to only one hour each week.

My cousin Billy also inherited the runaway gene from his mother. Here is his story as told by his long-time friend, Peter:

Sister Pauline was our 3rd grade teacher.  She was a Saint and the most normal nun I think I’ve ever had.  This, of course, was born out by the fact that I heard years later she left the order.  One day she was out sick and I made the rest of the class laugh at the substitute while her back was turned (also another great story for later).  Suffice to say that THIS ended up with me being slapped up a flight of stairs by Sister Helen Ann, the principle (who seemed at the time to be about 200 lbs).  This happened before mine and Billy’s story but is an important back drop.

Billy and I were best friends as we grew up together in the neighborhood where he and my grandmother lived.  When I moved to Birch Street in Boonton (only a couple blocks away from OLMC) and our parents felt we were old enough. Billy used to stay after school up on the hill with me for what we now so horribly call “a play date”.  Uncle Tony would pick him up before dinner to take him home.

At this particular time, the church was being renovated and mass was being celebrated in the auditorium.  Billy and I, as good Catholic boys, decided to make a visit to church before heading home to my house.  We went up and knelt at the temporary alter rail in front of the stage and said our prayers.  On the way out we decided, as 3rd graders are sometimes known to do, to take a more fun and circuitous route to the back door.  We thought it would be fun to walk in and out of EVERY row on our way to the back.  Only a mere 3 rows from the back near a large radiator, Billy’s pants pocket gave way and a few of his marbles hit the floor aiming straight for the radiator.  So we picked up our pace a little (to this day I still say we weren’t running) to re-appropriate Billy’s stash.  In the midst of our frenzy a new Nun entered at the front of the church–Sister Margaret Dolores–who had just arrived from Jersey City, and dealing with “city kids”, she yelled “YOU TWO ARE RUNNING IN CHURCH. I’M GOING TO TELL SISTER HELEN ANN!”  Until then we WEREN’T running, but then we ran like hell out of there.

The next day the trusting Sister Pauline allowed me to go to the bathroom at the same time as Billy asked to go upstairs and get some money from Tommy.  We met at the water fountain, where the nuns had re-combed our hair several times, and took off.  We ran through all the backyards and alleys so as not to be seen by the Big Black Dodge used by the Evil Empire (the Dominican Nuns).

Upon arriving at my house, we pounded on the back door, which was wood up to about 5 feet and had a glass window above it.   My mother came to the door and look straight out as if not to see us.  Then looking slightly down, she saw AND heard Billy and me screaming “LET US IN. THE NUNS ARE GONNA KILL US!!!” 

About an hour later Uncle Tony met us at school and we were confronted by Sisters Helen Ann and Pauline at the very same water fountain where they dunked our heads from time to time to break down the Odell Hair Trainer in our hair.  The following dialogue ensued:

Helen Ann:  Why did you run away?

Billy/Peter: ‘Cause you were gonna hit us for running in church

Helen Ann:  I never hit you

Peter:  Yes you did sister. You slapped me up those stairs right over there

Billy:    and Sister Margaret Dolores said she was gonna tell you we were running and we WEREN’T.

Helen Ann: You boys are in big trouble and you won’t be running away from this school again


SIDE CONVERSATION: My mom to Sister Pauline

 Mom:  are they really that bad, sister?

Pauline:  They’re just boys.

So we went back to class and two years later when Sister Margaret Dolores was our teacher in 5th grade… I got kicked out of OLMC.

And so it goes!




Grandma, as you all know, had only one sister—Aunt Marian, who was four years her senior. While our family interacted with Aunt Marian’s more than Grandma’s other siblings, it was certainly not because those two sisters were similar in their likes, dislikes or opinions. While I believe that in some cases, we can’t change who we are because of our genes, I think our environment and friends may influence us more. So in the nature (genes) versus nurture (environment) debate, my vote is with nurture.

Both sisters loved to dance, and they came from a long line of dancers. Grandma’s Uncle Jim and his daughter, Gertrude, both taught them how to wow the audience at the veteran’s home or at church shows. Their great uncle, Jack Blue, was a famous dance instructor in his day and was even in the Guinness Book of Records as a renowned instructor who never took a lesson himself. Grandma was given the choice of dance or piano lessons and I am assuming Aunt Marian was given the same opportunity. Nature or nurture?

They each had large families by today’s standards, although I am positive that Aunt Marian secretly felt superior to Grandma because she had three more children and six more grandchildren. They both did outstanding jobs as moms.

That’s where the similarity ends. Let’s first discuss their taste in books. This is how Grandma once described their contrasting preferences in books: “She like to read books where the main character walks up the street to have a cup of tea with the ladies, while I enjoy a good mystery where someone gets chopped up and their body is discovered by the side of the road.”

Music was another area of divergent tastes. Aunt Marian loved music of the forties—the kind you would hear in a dentist’s office, a funeral home, or, duh, an elevator. Grandma considered herself far hipper than her sister and preferred someone like Billy Joel or Rod Stuart. Thank goodness they did not go on any long road trips together!

Mom told me she hated to go shopping with Aunt Marian, because her sister delighted in striking up conversations with the cashier or the customer in line behind her, while Grandma preferred to say what she needed to and conclude her business. I admit that I had been like Grandma most of my life, but moving to the South, Aunt Marian’s chattiness has become second nature to me now. I was even scolded by a cashier at Shop Rite in New Jersey for making eye contact and talking to the man in front of me. I have met some very interesting people this way, particularly on airplanes, so I like the new me. I think neither of my sisters is like Grandma in that respect.

Grandma has never been able to accept aging, which is one of the reasons why leaving her house has been, and still is, particularly upsetting and distasteful. I think the denial of aging began when she turned thirty (her father even laughed at how upset she was on that birthday). She has been stuck in that age ever since, and I don’t believe she understands that she is eighty-six now.  It is a difficult number for her to admit owning. She always preferred to be called Jean or Aunt Jean by just about everyone, because being called “Mrs.” was all about growing old, and not ever about the fact that she got a very long name when she married Grandpa (She will deny that.) I don’t think Aunt Marian minded the more formal address of “Mrs.”

Despite their differences, the bond was strong and the relationship worked. Aunt Marian has been gone for four years now. Four years! Grandma has told me, many times, that she has often wanted to pick up the phone and share a thought or some news with her. I know she is not alone with those feelings. We all miss her—miss our two families getting together for holidays and wedddings. It’s just not the same.

Aunt Marian, my Grandma, Grandma
Aunt Marian, my Grandma, Grandma
Aunt Marian and Grandma
Aunt Marian and Grandma