St. Anthony of Poughkeepsie by Cora Schenberg

I’ve always known that what I love can disappear.

When I was three, I fell asleep on the subway, head on my father’s lap, my stuffed green bunny clutched in my arms. One instant I slept; the next, Daddy roused me and rushed us off the train. Standing on the platform, I remembered Bunny.

“He’s on the train!” I screamed. But the doors had slammed shut, the train roared and screeched into its tunnel, drowning my cries.

Perhaps this was when I learned that a dark, howling void waited to carry away what I loved.

I was twenty-two when my father died. One minute I was coming up the stairs to the dormitory of the German university where I was studying for my M.A. The next, I took a phone call from my mother, who said, “Listen. Daddy’s been in an accident.”

Dad had gone shopping when a storm came up. The wind blew down a dead tree that landed on his car. At Mom’s words, “There’s no hope,” I dropped into the void that swallowed everything I’d ever lost. I thought I’d fall forever, but in August 1981, I landed in Poughkeepsie, New York.

***

I landed and was not alone. Wade and I met and fell in love when I was a senior, he a sophomore, at Vassar College – two years before my father’s death. Before meeting Wade, I’d planned to do graduate work in Germany. Wade urged me not to change my plans for him, so when he returned to Vassar in the fall, I flew to Mainz. Three weeks later, Dad died. Somehow, I managed to finish the year and complete my graduate program. Now I was home, and Wade and I had found our own apartment, a third-floor walk-up on Poughkeepsie’s Main Street. The place was on the other end of town from Vassar, where Wade would finish his degree in the coming year.

I wanted to believe in a future with my red-headed boy, a future that saw us married, with children one day. A future in which I made a living by translating German literature into English, while Wade worked a day job and played music at night. As I parked our rental car on a street of grimy, three-story apartment buildings, I wondered if our future could begin here, on what Vassar people called the wrong side of Poughkeepsie – the side we could afford to live on. When we got out of the car, we had to angle past a clump of shirtless guys loitering on the sidewalk. One of the guys cat-called as we lugged our stuff through the narrow doorway, past the empty storefront on the first floor, and up the thirty-odd stairs.

Main Mall Row, Poughkeepsie, NY
Main Mall Row, Poughkeepsie, NY

Once inside, I could forgive the place its diciness. The long, sprawling apartment had a glassed-in porch off the kitchen on one end, a study with French doors on the other. I could believe in a happy future as we found homes in this study for our few thousand books and hung a shower curtain in our new bathroom with skylights and a claw-foot tub. The rest of the move went quickly; all that was left to unpack were a stereo and a coffee maker and grinder. We’d bought our bed from a former tenant, who assured us it was practically new. I believed in our future as we shopped for groceries and house wares, as I helped Wade set up the stereo he’d built from old parts.

Wade ran wire from one end of the apartment to the other, pushed a button and presto–Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers filled our new home. Wade and I joined in the singing, he taking the baritone, I the soprano part. When we stopped singing, Wade wrapped me in his arms. Surrounded by love and ancient music, I wanted for nothing.

And yet, a year earlier, selective service had been re-instated and Wade had to register. Fear of the military taking him haunted me. The Iranian hostage crisis had ended, but the world was by no means free of conflict. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan, hot spots flared in Central America and the Middle East, and everyone talked about the nuclear threat. I feared for Wade, even as I sat listening to him play his guitar and sing “My Creole Belle,” his wide, gentle face framed by coppery hair and full beard. I tried to reassure myself that Wade was strong–five-foot-ten, broad-shouldered–but remembered my dad had a similar build. And when Wade looked up from his guitar, his blue eyes rimmed by brows and lashes so gold they were nearly white, I saw a man unlikely to survive long in combat. How to keep him from the void lying in wait for my loved ones?

I used to think when I grew up, I’d automatically know how to find work and provide for my needs. Now I supposedly was grown. Yet I wasn’t ready to throw myself into the world. It was my dad who feathered my childhood nest. He used to buy my favorite foods, for Mom to cook. He’d come home from a shopping trip, and burst into the family room, where I was reading or listening to music, and say, “Do you want spaghetti or pot roast? I got both. And look–they had a special on that cranberry juice you like, so I got a case!” When I was expected home from college, he’d open the heat vent in my room, so it was warm when I got there. I didn’t want to be anyone’s little girl forever. But I needed time; things were moving too fast.

My former advisor from Vassar said, “You want to translate for a publisher? Go down to their offices and put your name on the list.”

Perhaps when she graduated, there was a list.

The publishers said I had too little experience; the poems I’d translated in college didn’t count. Even the local translation agency said thanks, they’d keep my resume on file. Meanwhile, how was I supposed to pay rent and buy groceries?

Wade’s parents, displeased that he’d moved in with me while still in college, said, “Don’t take our support for granted.”

On the phone, my mother told me, “Daddy’s insurance left me pretty well off! I’ve got all the money I need.”

“That’s great, Mom,” I said, not knowing how to ask her to please help Wade and me, till we got on our feet. If my father still lived, there’d be no need to ask.

“I can send you a quick 20 if you need a boost,” my mother said.

How to tell her, without seeming ungrateful, that $20 would not keep us fed and sheltered?

With no warning, the temperature fell to freezing. Wade and I hung heavy drapes over the windows, but they barely kept out the drafts. When we called our landlady, she said, “It’s October! You can’t possibly need heat!”

***

Weeks passed and no one hired me as a translator, so I took a home-care job at Upjohn Healthcare. I’d worked summers in a nursing home before, and loved the old people, who used to hug and fuss over me as if I were their long-lost grandchild. For a chance at more of that love, I didn’t mind working for minimum wage, $3.35 an hour.

Upjohn assigned me to two sisters, Cathy and Alice Rowan, who were in their mid-seventies and lived in a brick split-level on a cul-de-sac. On the first day, Alice met me at the door and led me into a living room with brown-and-orange wet-look wallpaper and a brown Naugahyde sofa. Alice was plump, with a round, friendly face framed by thick, grey hair.

“Now, you know Cathy has rheumatoid arthritis,” she told me. “She can’t wash, feed herself, or walk. So I need someone to do a little housework, give Cathy her bed bath and breakfast and get her dressed, so I can get out for a few hours. Just to do some shopping, or go see Father Peter at the church.”

I agreed to do whatever the sisters needed, then went upstairs, where I found Cathy–tiny and bird-like–hunched in her wheelchair, watching The Price Is Right.

“Hi, Cathy, I’m Cora. I’ll be taking care of you now.”

No response. Cathy stared at a woman on TV, who’d won a prize and was jumping up and down.

“Cathy?” I said.

She looked up. “I miss Maureen. My old nurse.”

I swore to change her mind and make her love me, as my former patients had.

“Get my bath started,” said Cathy. “Oh, I’m sick. I’m so sick.”

“I know, darling. Let’s see if we can make you more comfortable.”

“You have no idea what I’m goin’ through.”

I was sure Cathy and I would become friends. I’d lost my father; she’d lost her ability to walk–she’d see we could take care of each other. One morning, I baked her fresh muffins. Cathy said thank-you, then asked me to take her to the toilet, from where she asked, as always, “Did I move?”

Another day, I brought her a perfect red maple leaf. For a moment, it seemed my leaf had done the trick–Cathy smiled. I warmed inside. Then she said, “I’ve got a nice smile, don’t I?”

“Oh, I’m sick, I’m so sick,” Cathy would repeat, throughout the morning, every morning. “No one knows what I’m goin’ through.”

“But I do know,” Alice would say. Alice, who spent every hour tending to Cathy, except when the Upjohn aide came in.

“But I do know, Cathy, love,” I said, struggling to imagine my own muscles cramped like hers, my body shackled to a wheelchair.

“You don’t know,” she said. “Nobody knows what I’m goin’ through.”

On the phone, my mother said, “You have no idea what it’s been like for me.”

“Of course not, Mom,” I told her, though I’d spent most of the year following Dad’s death imagining myself in her shoes. What if I lost Wade?

“When Daddy went into the army, I waited three years. I was good. I kept my legs together. But now he’s never coming back!”

“I know, Mama.”

“You don’t know! You’ve still got Wade!”

She started to cry.

Later, I asked Wade, “Why can’t Mom and I take care of each other? When did empathy become so scarce that she can’t spare me any?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s nothing you did. Your mother has to work some things out for herself.”

That night, when Wade and I lay side by side, I felt an empty place within, where my mother was absent.

***

On the way to work one morning, I reached into my bag for bus fare and discovered my wallet missing. The driver let me board without paying, but rolled his eyes. I remembered my parents had bought me the wallet – made of soft, brown leather–one weekend when I visited from college. I took the train down and met my family in Manhattan, where we spent the day walking in Greenwich Village, looking into shops that sold books, shoes, African tie-dyes, and fine leather. When I admired the wallet at the Village Tannery, Dad said, “Look! It’s only $20,” and bought it right away, with a matching change purse.

Riding the Poughkeepsie bus, I felt as if that day in New York came from someone else’s life. I heard the howl of the void that swallowed things I needed, people I loved.

When I told Alice about the wallet, she said, “You should pray to St. Anthony. That always works for me.”

I must have looked puzzled. My people are non-religious Jews; what did I know about saints?

Alice explained, “He’s the Patron Saint of Lost Things.”

I loved him right away. Imagine, a saint who brings home what we lose!

“He takes care of travelers, too,” said Alice. “And if you need a miracle, Anthony’s your man. Patron Saint of Miracles.” She taught me the prayer: “Anthony, Anthony, please come down! Something’s lost and must be found!”

Getting Cathy her bath, I considered what Alice had said. I’d thought I was the only one who constantly dwelt on lost things. Even deaths–I had friends who’d lost parents, too, and were able to move on; only I couldn’t. Now, here was St. Anthony. The idea of such a saint confirmed what I’d always known: Loss was not to be trivialized, if even a missing wallet deserved a prayer.

I remembered finding broken toys in the sandbox when I was little–abandoned dolls or matchbox cars with three wheels. I felt compelled to take these things home and care for them, but my parents would say, “Leave that there, it’s dirty.” Even as I cried for the toys, I felt ashamed to care so much for what my parents called junk. But might a St. Anthony agree that they weren’t junk, and deserved a home?

I thought of the saint as I walked back from Cathy and Alice’s. A group of children passed. Boys, three years old, sauntered like teens through inner-city Poughkeepsie, no more cared for than the feral cats in our alley. If ever travelers needed a saint, it was these children.

And what of our town? Walking the Arterial roadway, I knew Poughkeepsie was in need of restoration. This new road, built in the 70s, slashed through downtown, halving generous pieces of property, replacing once quiet streets with expressway. The two Arterial roads converged at the end, where one house sat in a triangle of highway, the eastbound Arterial cutting off its front yard, the westbound its back. What if a saint could restore Poughkeepsie to its former quiet prosperity?

Wade had made cabbage soup for dinner. As we warmed our hands on our bowls, I asked him, “Did you know Catholics have a Patron Saint of Lost Things? St. Anthony?”

“No, but it sounds fascinating.”

“Well, when I told Alice I’d lost my wallet, she said if I pray to St. Anthony, I’ll get it back.” I recited the prayer.

“That’s great,” said Wade. “People need to have hope. This St. Anthony sounds like an embodiment of hope.”

Inside me, I felt a door open, just a crack, to let in a saint who embodied hope. I took another spoonful of steaming soup.

***

Walking home a few days later, I passed a tall man with white hair to his shoulders, dressed in something flowing and black, and carrying a long, white shepherd’s crook. I’d seen this same man years ago, at a concert at Vassar, and whispered to a friend, “Do you think that guy’s blind?” That would account for the staff. I had no idea who this man was, in real life. But when I saw him on Main Street, it seemed St. Anthony had materialized, just knowing I needed him, to get through this time following my father’s death.

As I strode past, the old man spoke: “Such pretty long hair you have.”

“Thank you.”

He smiled. “Not bad for a poor blind man, eh?”

I’d begun to read about Anthony’s miracles. Through prayer alone he is said to have re-attached a severed foot. I wished I could believe in the miracle of my blind saint, now sighted, who in his compassion would restore what all of us have lost.

***

One Monday evening in January, I got a call from Jack Margulis, a Vassar graduate who’d started his own translation agency in Manhattan. Would I be free for a job interview next week?

The following Monday, I caught the 7:30 train to New York. Jack met me at his office on the eleventh floor of an art-deco building on Varick St., in Greenwich Village. Tall and angular with close-cropped hair, Jack appeared as serious as I remembered from our Vassar days–or he would have, if it weren’t for the calico cat batting at his pant leg.

“This is Tiffany,” he said, picking up the calico. “And this is Zeno.” He pointed to a larger grey-and-white tom lounging in an out-box.

Within half an hour, Jack, Tiffany, Zeno and I had hired each other. I would commute to the city three days a week, for nearly twice the pay I got from Upjohn.

To celebrate, I took Wade out to dinner at the Milanese Restaurant that stood half-way between the Poughkeepsie train station and our apartment. Over plates heaped with gnocchi marinara, linguini and meatballs, I told him about my job.

“I’ll be in charge of German and French translation!”

“Sounds great,” Wade said. “What’s your boss like?”

I told him about Jack and the cats.

“Wonderful!” Wade said. “The perfect job for my girl.”

Two weeks later, I said good-bye to Cathy and Alice.

Alice said, “I’m sorry we’ll have to find a new nurse, but I’m glad you’ll get to do the kind of work you want.”

She turned to Cathy. “This is Cora’s last day.”

Cathy looked up from her game show, her face expressionless. “So long.”

Alice asked, “Oh, did you ever find that wallet you lost?”

“No. I had to buy a new one.”

“Did you say the prayer?” Alice asked.

“Yes.”

“That’s funny. For me, it never fails.”

“I know. It still might work,” I said.

***

Three days a week, I commuted to Manhattan, using the two-hour train ride to read or write poetry. At the end of my return trip, Wade met me at the station. When I began the job in February, I’d get home after nightfall, but with each week, the daylight increased, and by mid-March, we enjoyed an hour or two of light in the evening. Because I was earning more, Wade and I could sometimes stop in at the Milanese, and eat our fill for $13.00 for the two of us.

“I had this weird dream,” Wade told me one night, over dinner. “I made something. It was like a kaleidoscope, only it played music, too. In the dream, it seemed so simple to make it.”

“I wish I could get that for you,” I told him.

“I wish I could get you wings,” he said, remembering the dream I’d had on my first night in his bed. I dreamed I could leap from the end of a great, long room, fly through the air, and land safely on the other side. It was easy–why hadn’t I done this before?

I remembered “flying,” when I was a child, careening down a playground slide, into my dad’s arms. Looking into Wade’s eyes, I realized that perhaps I was wrong to stop believing I could fly.

“You gave me wings,” I told him.

***

One morning in April, we woke to soft, spring air. Before leaving for class, Wade helped me take down the drapes from the windows. I had the day off and decided to celebrate with a walk. The day’s sunshine and breeze inspired me to explore new territory, so I ventured down to the little park on the Hudson, strolled along the walking path and watched boats on the river. From the park, rather than retracing my steps, I took Mill Street, which, like our part of Main, sloped up from the Hudson and offered little to see besides run-down apartments and bodegas.

Crossing the street, I caught a whiff of coffee, anise, and cake, which turned out to come from a bakery whose window displayed ornate wedding cakes, toy brides and grooms, and bright-colored pastries. A sign read “Caffé Aurora,” and the closer I got, the lovelier the place smelled. I decided to walk across town to meet Wade as he came from class, and entice him here for espresso and sweets.

I walked east, and at the corner of Market and Main, looked up to see the old man, my St. Anthony, passing.

“What a beautiful day!” he cried, smiling on the wasteland of the Main Street Mall, with its boarded-up stores, men crouched in doorways.

“Beautiful!” I agreed.

Caffé Aurora was the newest jewel I’d discovered in Poughkeepsie. Right here on Market St., Wade and I heard Anna Russell sing at the Bardavon Opera House, a bit rundown but elegant, with an old-fashioned marquee outside, red velvet seats inside. And on an otherwise empty street off Main stood “our” Greek bakery, where we could get baklava or Napoleons, and reserve the New York Times on Sunday. We knew to shop for meat from the German butcher, Karl Ehmer, and of course, to get the best, most inexpensive Italian dinners at Milanese. I waved to the old man as we continued in opposite directions. Perhaps St Anthony did not just recover lost things. Perhaps he also shone a light on and helped us find new.

Of course St. Anthony would live here in Poughkeepsie. What better a place for a saint of the lost than our lovely, ruined town? And what better a saint for Poughkeepsie than this man? How long had he been walking here, his staff striking the pavement? I could believe that this Anthony carried with him memories of our town, from its earliest days as an Indian settlement, through the previous century, when it boasted every kind of industry, as well as the country’s first female college, Vassar. I could believe that within my saint, these older versions of Poughkeepsie still lived, alongside that of the present day.

What if Anthony’s miracle lay not in an ability to bring home lost things, but to hold and cherish what falls to him? For of course there are things no one can bring back. Alice, devout as she was, did not expect Anthony to restore her sister’s ability to walk. But could Anthony be a saint of compassion and memories? And if so, could it suffice for me to believe that, as he comforted Alice, he kept my lost things and loved ones safe? That they were somehow not gone, although I could not see them?

Approaching Raymond Avenue from Main, I came to the old church I’d loved all through my Vassar years. A tiny, white stucco building with a red-tiled roof and bell tower shaped like a cracker box, this church seemed out-of-place among the pizzerias, office buildings and car lots of that part of town. After graduation, I discovered it had been gutted and, according to the sign out front, become a carpet store. But then, who was to say it was no longer a church–the Church of St. Anthony, brimming with shadows of our lost things?

Wade and I stayed a year in Poughkeepsie. We made it through, thanks to our love and to the town’s scattered gems. Our bed in the Main St. apartment was a chariot with down-covered wings. We held the reins and each other, and after Wade’s graduation, moved to warmer country.

***

Today – thirty years later – I’ve lost my glasses. A small loss, but perplexing—I was right there in the house. Where can they have gone? Neither Wade nor our son Gabriel has seen them. My surroundings blurred, I think of sailors at sea. I remember my year as a wandering child among wandering children on the streets of Poughkeepsie. In my mind’s eye, I see the town–Arterial roadway and Caffé Aurora; ruined houses, and river park. I remember my blind saint, who helped me stand firm in my desire to hold what’s lost, broken or abandoned. My saint, whose presence taught me to raise my eyes beyond the void of loss, and to delight in the found. I see him gently collect the objects and people we lose, as he strides, black-robed, through Poughkeepsie.


Cora Schenberg
Cora Schenberg’s essays and poetry have been published in Full Grown People, the Delmarva Review, Brain Child, and the Utne Reader; she has also read essays over WVTF radio (NPR Roanoke) and had three plays produced at Live Arts’ Summer Shorts Festival. She holds a Ph.D. in German lit from U.Va., where she currently teaches. She lives in Charlottesville with her husband and three cats; her son Gabriel is a junior at George Mason University.

 

Interview with Cora Schenberg

by Streetlight editor Susan Shafarzek

One of the many things I like about this piece is the way it combines the personal with an awareness of place, which is one of our favorite themes at Streetlight. Can you talk a little bit about how this feeling for place influenced your writing?

I did not expect to get attached to Poughkeepsie. All four years I lived there as a student, I was as unaware of the town outside the Vassar campus as most of the other students. But that year in which the story takes place, Wade and I lived two miles from campus. We had no car, so we walked or biked all over. I didn’t realize my feelings toward the town were changing, until one afternoon, when I’d walked to campus. By the time I was ready to go home, it had started snowing, so I treated myself to a cab. Three Vassar students were in the cab; they were on their way to a Christmas party at a professor’s house. When we pulled up to the students’ destination, one of them looked out the window and said, “Wow, we’re in the middle of nowhere!” The cab driver and I both rolled our eyes. We were on Fulton St.—6 blocks from Vassar! I felt a rush of protective feelings toward Poughkeepsie. The better I got to know the town, the more I came to love it. Besides appreciating the faded beauty I describe in the story, I felt deeply for this once stately town that had fallen on hard times and wished to tell the story of its loss, along with my own.

I’m curious to know if you ever found out more about the gray-haired man who stands in for your vision of St. Anthony.

Great question! Short answer: yes, but it took a while. Everyone I showed the story to, who lived in Poughkeepsie at the time, knew exactly who I was talking about, but no one knew his name or his story. Finally, I emailed the librarian at Poughkeepsie’s Adriance Memorial Library, and she wrote back that his name was Donald Badgley and sent me copies of old newspaper clippings. It turns out Mr. Badgley was a retired insurance salesman! One day, a voice from heaven told him to run for President, which he did, on the Republican ticket. He carried the Moses staff because the voice told him to become “a shepherd to the nation,” which had turned away from God. He lost to Ronald Reagan.

This piece is of course also a kind of coming of age story. Can you talk a little bit about how you perceive the atmosphere of that time in history affected your own history?

I found it a very frightening time in history, as well as personally. We’d seen the first takeover by a radical Islamic leader in Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, where fifty Americans were taken hostage. There were numerous “hot spots” around the globe, where it seemed we might go to war, and there was constant talk of the nuclear threat. Wade was part of the first group of men who had to register for selective service, once it was reinstated. I was aware that I could lose the most precious person in my life to a political cause I did not support. I found this particularly frightening after the loss of my father.

I was sorry not to see the wallet turn up at the end of this story (behind those drapes, perhaps?), but I liked seeing what you found instead. Your writing this piece shows that that sense of finding has stayed with you. Has it influenced other writing that you’ve done?

Thanks; I’d have loved for that wallet to turn up. It was beautiful and a gift from my dad.

It’s the sense of loss that’s been a constant for me, since the get-go. What I try for in my writing is finding creative ways of living with loss, since it’s inevitable. I especially love magical realism, because it allows us both to live with and own our losses, but also to imagine a wonderful but impossible alternative of seeing what we love restored.

So about the wallet? It’s in the church.

Is this piece part of a “larger work?” If it is, do you consider that place is a significant factor in all your work?

Yes, it is! I’m just starting to work on a memoir about that time in my and Wade’s life. I would not say that place is always significant in my writing, but the book-length memoir will unfold in Poughkeepsie and in New York City in the early 80s.

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