Yes, Girls Can Play with Electronics: Ode to Smokin’ Joe

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He was mine through adoption, but somehow we developed a bond closer than most related by blood. Maybe it was because I retained some dim memories of my birthmother, having been with her in the mother-baby home for nearly two years. So relations with my adoptive mother were rather restrained. Yet with my dad, I had no early-memory dad, hence no handicap.

He was one of those never-endingly patient people. Phillies blunt propped in the corner of his mouth (some people claimed they didn’t recognize him without the stogie), he’d calmly watch me deconstruct the Emerson stereo I received at age 12 for Christmas (at his request) , then put it back together. It was a passion we shared, playing with electronics and gizmos. And he was a giving and equal-opportunity tutor at a time when girls weren’t supposed to be interested in gadgets or computers. My brother never showed such interest, and my dad had a willing and apt pupil in me. So he figured, what’s the difference? Fair due to my mom as well, as she never thought it was unsuitable nor would she suggest I’d be better suited for nursing, teaching or any of the other ‘acceptable’ occupations for women.

So I went into the fledgling electronic banking industry and continued to nurture a love for computers, computer science and engineering.

My dad was a master plumber and HVAC guy; his family business, so it was an expected career path for him. And he was a genius at his work, not to mention adored by his customers. No panicked call about a burst pipe was too late at night. And he always wiped out bills for customers he knew couldn’t afford it.

But his real love was electronics, electricity and anything that was cutting-edge. As a high school senior, he built his own LP recording system and would record hilarious, sodden family parties on 78s. In 1948 he built his own 10″ TV with cabinet, followed in the late 1950’s by a full stereo and tape recording system with built-in cabinet that lasted until his death. He owned the “latest” 16mm movie camera (and those old home movies are still far superior, even now converted digitally, to 8mm or Super8) and spent countless hours capturing my brother and I — summers at the NJ shore, religious milestones, birthdays, mock rock bands, and the sun setting over the sunken concrete ship off Cape May Point. Always with the ubiquitous stogie in his mouth. I look at photos of him as a young man, in his somehow chic surf jams (circa 1958), Ray Bans perched on his nose and still think he was the coolest guy in the world.

He was a reluctant disciplinarian, leaving the yelling and punishment to my mom. I recall one night, I had committed some infraction that I don’t even remember and my mom finally put her foot down, saying, “Joe, you have to give her the belt!”

So my dad marched me into my room, took off his belt and put his finger to his lips. He made an “S” of the belt and whispered, “When I snap this, cry ‘ouch’.” I obeyed as he snapped it twice, adding a little Sarah Bernhardt for good measure.

He also had a passion for theatrical technical directing. When I was a little girl, he’d take me backstage at a local Catholic girls high school where he volunteered, place me under the watchful eye of the nuns there, and then produce the most amazing special effects, direct the lighting crew and engineer LP recordings of the performances, which I still treasure today.

No small wonder that under this tutelage (along with a dose of nature, not nurture — both my birthparents were singers who gave me the ability to sing and dance without kicking out chaser lights), I threw myself into high school theatre when I came of age. And as serendipity would have it, my freshman year I learned that the teacher who’d been managing the stage crew was retiring and they were desperate for a replacement. Of course, I went straight home and asked my dad. Of course, he said he’d do it. And of course, my mom was furious because now she’d have many a night of missing father AND daughter. But it was our special time together.

Long after I graduated, he continued working at my alma mater, becoming fast friends with the priest who directed our productions, Father Sabatini. Sab and my dad were inseparable. My mom stopped calling herself “the plumbing widow” and now referred to herself as “the theater widow.”

When I entered the working world, my dad used to drive me in his copper pipe-smelling station wagon (he preferred it over his work trucks) to the train, then meet me when I came home, the two of us stopping at the local for a quick shot and a beer. We always caught hell from mom, but the relaxed conversation and ‘special time’ was worth it. Two peas in a pod.

Life moved on and I moved to Florida to advance my career. I was married, by Father Sab, of course; danced with dad (who stepped on my train as we walked up the aisle, but no matter) and delighted in the attention he showered on his small grandchildren when we’d come north to visit. One of my favorite photos shows my dad and my then 2 yr-old daughter (in her little summer watermelon dress), bent at the waist watering flowers together. It makes me cry every time I look at it.

In October 1989, I received “the” call from a hospital in Philadelphia. My dad had suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and it didn’t look good. They were keeping him on life support until my brother and I could organize flights up from Florida. When we arrived, my mom was panicked…she didn’t want to make the decision to remove my dad from life support. But my brother and I knew…we knew the sallow, puffy man lying connected to tubes was just a husk. There was no need for tubes and oxygen. The true spirit of the man hovered somewhere near, and I swear I could smell cigar smoke.

My brother and I went out in the hallway to discuss the best way to bring my mom around and as we chatted, I could see a small figure clad in black bustling up the hallway. I thought I was hallucinating. Having not seen him since my wedding 5 years prior, unbelievably, Father Sabatani was moving towards us. When he realized who we were, there were a few confused moments where I thought he’d been called by my mom, and he couldn’t figure out what the hell my brother and I were doing there. As it turned out, Sab happened to be at the hospital attending a weight management seminar. He’d no idea what had happened to my dad. Serendipity strikes again. So now we had the best person possible available to help ease my mother into letting go of her husband, our father.

His end was fitting. He died with his ‘boots on,’ working on a furnace in the basement of an art gallery. When his sister, who worked in their office, called the gallery after my dad hadn’t checked in for hours, they learned he had suffered his hemorrhage there. He and my mom were to spend their 32nd wedding anniversary visiting us in Florida that month…my mother had just picked up the plane tickets from the travel agency that morning. And it was the first full vacation he’d taken in nearly 10 years. The nearest to “time off” he’d taken since we were little kids, was an occasional weekend at my aunt and uncle’s Pocono retreat, and he was usually working on their sump pump or some other plumbing issue.

We said our goodbyes, observed all the usual Catholic rituals of grief and mourning, led by the grief-stricken-himself Father Sab. I remember being astounded as more than 1,000 mourners poured through the viewing. Many were young people, girls and boys, who told me, “Your dad got me a job working on broadway…”, “Your dad inspired me to become an electrician…”. Some were older fellows, grizzled Irishmen who whispered, “Your dad gave me a job when I first came over…” Endless paeans to his patient mentoring and his generosity of spirit.

He’s with me still. On two occasions, I’ve smelled that distinctive Phillies blunt cigar smoke. The first was innocuous: I was sitting with a co-worker up in the light booth of the auditorium at the university where I worked, chatting about theater. Suddenly, there it was. And my co-worker noticed it before I did. “Who the hell’s smoking a cigar up here?” We looked about for the perp, but I knew deep down that the perp was hovering just over my shoulder, enjoying the conversation and the milieu.

A few years later, I caught the second whiff under much more dire circumstances. I was at the bitter end of a horrible, abusive marriage and my late, estranged and deranged husband had broken into my home, pointing a .357 in my face. I suffered through a 6-hour siege of craziness with him ranting and threatening everything from murder to suicide to both. After the initial extreme shock, the attempts to calm him and reason with him, I suddenly felt an enormous wave of peace come over me and there it was…the unmistakable aroma of cigar smoke. Throughout the ordeal of being held hostage by my husband, we had long gone through whatever supply of cigarettes we each had. So I knew it wasn’t any lingering smoke from us. My husband knew it, too. “Why do I smell cigar smoke” he asked agitatedly. I just smiled serenely, knowing whatever the outcome, I would survive and my kids would be unharmed. Dad was there.

An hour later, my husband shot himself sitting next to me on the couch. I caught the exiting end of the bullet in my jaw. Some messy surgery and weeks of recuperation ensued, but I survived. The scar I bear and missing teeth are testimony to the gentle spirit who watched over me and let me know he was there.

Dad, I owe you everything I am. The genetics I carry may not be yours, but the life force within me is. “Smokin’ Joe” is always hovering just over my shoulder, the aroma of cigars always gently wafting around me.

Happy father’s day, Dad. I’m smokin’ one for you tonight.

The Little NGO That Could

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I just could not be more proud of the little NGO, Justice for Magdalenes, I co-founded back in 2003 with two other colleagues, no funding (a €26 account balance as we speak) and with less than a David-sized slingshot against a Goliath made of the Irish State and the Catholic Church. But on Sunday, June 5, the United Nations made that slingshot and ammunition bigger. Tons of international press followed. A tepid statement of “cooperation” was released by CORI (the Conference of Religious in Ireland, representing the four religious orders who operated Magdalene Laundries)…holy rhetoric, Batman! But’s it a start. And it proves justice is possible for the most marginalised of Irish society. The press release we issued June 6 says it all:
The UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) issued its “Concluding Observations” following the first examination of the Irish State under the UN Convention Against Torture. The Committee reiterated its calls for an independent investigation into the Magdalene Laundries abuse and redress for the women who suffered.

It also recommended that the State “prosecute and punish the perpetrators with penalties commensurate with the gravity of the offences committed.” Justice for Magdalenes (JFM), the survivor advocacy group, is now calling on the Irish State to act immediately on foot of UNCAT’s recommendations and issue a formal apology to all survivors of the Magdalene Laundries and immediately establish a statutory inquiry into these abuses.

JFM’s submission to UNCAT, written by Maeve O’Rourke (Harvard Law School 2010 Global Human Rights Fellow), and which includes testimonies from four women who spent time in the Laundries, highlights the continuing degrading treatment that survivors are suffering today because of the government’s ongoing failure to apologise, investigate and compensate for the abuse. At the examination in Geneva on 24th May 2011, acting UNCAT Chairperson Felice Gaer, questioned the government’s statement that “the vast majority of women who went to these institutions went there voluntarily, or if they were minors, with the consent of their parents or guardians”.

She said, “We had testimony about locked doors and people being captured by the police and returned to the institutions – so there’s State involvement as well.” She added, “There were physical barriers and there seems to have been an intent to confine people” and she stated “I think ‘voluntary’ means that one makes a choice; I think that ‘voluntary’ means that one is informed; I think that ‘voluntary’ means that one is then free to leave. I think it means that there is nothing coercive in this context.” She asked, “Can you identify any examples of efforts by State authorities to inspect or regulate these facilities? Were they exempt from standards? And can you tell us what means were taken to ensure that there were no acts or omissions that amount to torture”?

James Smith, Associate Professor at Boston College and a member of JFM’s Advisory Committee, said, “Today’s UN recommendation undermines the government’s argument that this abuse happened ‘a considerable time ago in private institutions’. It rebuts the State’s assertion that the ‘vast majority’ of women entered the Laundries ‘voluntarily’. And, it underscores that the State’s own definition of torture includes the crime of omission with respect to ensuring due diligence to prevent torture. The State failed the women and young girls in the Laundries, and now the UN is saying not only that Ireland can, but that it must, make right its own history in this regard.”

Maeve O’Rourke, who presented JFM’s submission to the Committee, said: ”The UN torture committee has added its voice to the Irish Human Rights Commission’s to remind the Irish government that the women who spent time in Magdalene Laundries have human rights which demand respect today. Having suffered torture or ill-treatment, in which the state directly participated and which it knowingly failed to prevent, the women have the ongoing right to an investigation, an apology, redress and treatment with dignity. I am hopeful that, before it is too late, the government will honour its obligations to these women who suffered such injustice in the past.”

JFM Co-ordinating Committee Director Mari Steed said “Magdalene laundry survivors currently receive no pension reflecting the years they worked for no wages. Many of the women suffer long term physical effects from years of hard labour in the Laundries. All of the women speak of the psychological trauma of their experiences in the Laundries, in many cases the trauma of arriving in a laundry as young girls has stayed with them throughout their lives. We call on the Minister for Justice to implement a scheme in line with the ‘Restorative Justice and Reparations Scheme’ submitted to Mr. Shatter in March by JFM. UNCAT committee member Nora Sveaass commended JFM for this scheme, saying that the State should look at it more closely.”