Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Turning Point

One of the worst habits that I picked up during my childhood, was the tendency to take things that didn’t belong to me. A Psychologist's might very well refer to this as poor impulse control.

Let me be blunt, I was a thief. On one occasion, my grandfather told a family whose house we were visiting for the evening that "if you have anything valuable laying around like money or jewelry then you better put it up because my grandson is a thief and given a chance he will take it!"

Was I embarrassed by his statement? Yes I was. Nevertheless, what my Grandfather said was true. I imagine that he also felt that publicly announcing a detailed and cautionary message about my dishonest, selfish and untrustworthy behavior was still his his duty and responsibility to others.

Looking back, I realize that this behavior all started with something as seemingly innocent as sneaking cookies out of my Grandmother's cookie jar kept in the kitchen. This feat took plenty of repeated practice for me to actually accomplish without being detected.

In time, I moved on to taking money from the purses and wallets of immediate family until everyone finally stopped leaving these things lying around within my line of sight.

These actions culminated with my shoplifting of just about anything and everything (i.e., candy, food, clothing, comic books, jewelry, and small electronic items) prior to becoming a teenager.

Between age 10 to 12 years old I had been caught stealing a number of times, sternly warned or asked not to return to certain places of business by store owners but the had not as yet resulted in any direct or serious consequences. You may be wondering, how in the world could this have been the case?

Then one afternoon, when I was in the eighth grade and living with my grandparents, I finally got caught in a supermarket by the store detective as I was trying to remove a record album from beneath my coat so that I could place it on a shelf in the store. I decided to do this because I thought that I may have been seen by this person as I was attempting to steal the item.

Yes, I was "busted" and as a result, I got marched straight to the business office where the store detective subsequently contacted the police department and notified them of my actions. For the very first time, upon hearing the store detective state that he was going to drive me to the police station, I became scared. Of course, I now assumed that I would be arrested and ultimately locked up.

Upon arriving at the police station, the police contacted my Grandfather informing him that while the supermarket had decided not to press charges because I was still a minor my Grandpa would be required to come to the police station, sign some papers, and then pick me up and take me home.

Well guess what? My Grandpa refused to come and get me. That's right. He said you can keep him there over night!  Maybe it will do him so good.

Consequently, I had to be driven back to my grandparents house in broad daylight for all the neighbors to see me getting out of a police car with my Grandpa then looking none to pleased as he stood there waiting at the front storm door.

Let me share a bit about my grandfather. My Grandpa, was a professional barber with his own business located in Montclair, New Jersey. He was a very dignified, proud, and well respected person in the community where he worked as well as where he lived. Most people I believe found him to be a man of very few words.

My Grandpa didn’t really have to say much because you could generally tell what he was thinking or whether he approved or disapproved of your actions just by taking a good look at his face. It seemed to say it all.

Later that same evening, we had dinner together as if nothing had happened. When our meal finished, Grandpa said in a very matter of fact manner, “the police have never been to this house before for any reason until today Jonathan, and today you brought shame upon our home by having them bring you here in a police car for stealing something which you know full well is a sin and that it is something that you should not do.”

He followed up his proceeding comments with, “I want you to have your bags packed first thing tomorrow morning because you are going to have to go back home to live with your Mother.” “You simply cannot stay here in my home any longer.”

That was the end of what he had to say.

That night, I didn’t sleep at all. The seriousness of the situation made it impossible for me to get the slightest bit of rest. The only thing that kept running through my mind was, "what have I done?"

The next morning, while we were in route to Montclair from Caldwell, my Grandpa hadn’t said a single word and his prolonged silence for me was like being slowly tortured.

When he finally did speak, it was to say “Jon you are 12 years old now and very soon you’re going to become a teenager. I think that it is about time for you to start thinking seriously about exactly what kind of man you want to become in life.” Frankly, I don't think that I had even given this much thought. Grandpa said, “The choices that you are making right now are bad ones and if you go on making choices like the one that you made yesterday then they are going to lead you right into a reformatory school or even worse straight to jail. I know that you’re not a stupid kid.” "So, let me ask you, is that what you really want for yourself?"

“Because you don’t have a good relationship with your Mother and your father is not at all present in your life, Nana and I decided to offer to let you stay with us. But now, because of what you’ve done you are going to have to deal with the consequences of your actions and figure out for yourself how to make the very best of a situation that you have actually gone on to make worse.”

Grandpa made sure to mention to me how disappointed he was with decision making. But, and this proved to be very big for me, he still believed that I could take this setback and actually learn from my mistake if I really spent the right amount of time thinking about what I wanted, what I needed to do differently and if I focused strongly on making much better choices going forward. If these things would help me to restore the good graces with my Grandpa then I decided that is what I definitely was going to do.  Because absent his love and support I knew that my life was going to be much harder than I could possibly imagine.

As I grew older and came to recognize how worried Grandpa was for me, I also learned to more fully appreciate how hard it must have been for him to respond to my situation in the way that he did. It was the most loving thing that he could have done for me and it proved to be the real difference maker in my life.

According to Nana, at no time did he ever let go of his great hope for me. I thank you so much Grandpa for that.

For the first time in my young life, not only did a feel like an idiot but it also felt awful to me seeing how badly I had destroyed the trust and lost the very special support of my grandfather. I will always remember that long car ride back to my Mother’s home the next morning and even as a write this story I can still hear Grandpa’s lingering words as if they were just being spoken to me today.

When I walked back into my Mother's house that day and discovered that my Mother had always expected me to fail and that once again I had to accept what seemed to me at the time to be her extremely harsh disciplinary practices and punishments, well I knew right then and there that I just couldn’t live under her roof anymore. I had been out from under her reign for nearly one year and God bless her but she had lost me to the world outside. I do not blame my Mother for my behavior, character flaws or any of the decisions that I made that may have contributed to specific failures in my life. I eventually and gradually learned that what really matters most is to hold yourself accountable for your actions. No one else.

That day though, I decided to run away for the thirteenth and final time never to return home to my Mother again. I was not afraid simply because I did not as yet know what to be afraid of.

For the remainder of that year, I on occasion lived in a tree house, a dog house, on local golf course benches and when possible alternated between friends homes for several days and weeks at a time.  All of this took place right within Caldwell, New Jersey.

During that period, I wore my friends clothes and I was financially supported by their parents. I was very fortunate not to have experienced any harm or to have succumbed to doing further damage to myself or others. All that I can tell you is that more than anything else I wanted to survive and become good even if for the time being I had no idea just how I was going to accomplish that. In many ways, I was still largely surrounded by goodness and you can bet that I was clinging on to it for dear life.

When I finally ran out of good will, I ended up becoming a ward of the State of New Jersey under the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) and was eventually placed in a Children’s Shelter located in Bellville, New Jersey for the remainder of that school year.  Then in the summer of 1968, under the National Fresh Air Fund Program I was sent away to what turned out to be a poorly attended summer camp located in Mountaindale, New York for the better part of that summer.

With plenty of time on my hands and not enough to do I was fortunate to have been given a part-time job working in a Jewish bakery (i.e., Friedman’s) where I learned how to make bagels and Halla Bread as a Baker’s Assistant.

In the afternoons and evenings, I played basketball with the two older young men working at the bakery; Barry who attended Niagara University and his younger brother, who was attending St Bonaventure University in New York. Nearly every day we played against other talented college basketball players whose families were vacationing in the Sullivan County area of upstate New York.

Yes, I was learning on my feet how to make the most of my opportunities while also managing to stay out of trouble as well as possible. I was introduced to alcohol, drugs and sex at that time. None of these came to dominate my life because when I was removed from those surroundings I always seemed to return to my safe haven in Caldwell, New Jersey. That is not to say that these things could not be found there as well. The difference was that the friends and families that I was most familiar with were far more protective over what their kids did, where they went, and who they spent time with.  For the most part my friends and I were to busy to really get into too much trouble.  We weren't angels by any means but we were seriously afraid of really screwing things up.

Years later, during one of the many Sunday afternoon’s that I spent having dinner at my Grandparents house I took the opportunity to tell my Grandpa how much I loved him and how thankful I was for all that he had done for me throughout my childhood. Moreover, I let him know too, that if he had not shown me the tough love that he did when I needed it the most that I might not have been so driven later in adolescence to get into college or to see my studies through to completion with the hope of making him feel very proud of me.

My grandparents proudly attended my high school graduation from Clifford J. Scott High School in East Orange, NJ back in 1973 and I continued to have a close and loving relationship with them throughout my years at college including my travels to England, France, Italy, Germany and Austria during the summer going into my senior year at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts.