Here’s how it went down — It was show and tell day in Miss Pasternak’s room at Francis Scott Key Elementary School, 2230 S. Eighth St., I don’t think we called it show and tell back then about hundred years or so ago.
Miss Pasternak displayed the items on a wooden table in the corner of the room. I don’t remember what item I brought in that day. It’s not important. It’s what I coveted that is — a small, wooden white rabbit. I lusted after that little rabbit like Adam wanted a bite out of that apple in the Garden of Eden. Why? What do I know? Maybe I had just read “Alice In Wonderland.” Decades later, I loved “White Rabbit” by Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane — maybe I had a premonition.
I quickly looked around the room to make sure no one was looking. With the coast clear, I popped the rabbit into my shirt pocket. The start of a promising criminal career. No moral qualms whatsoever.
I guess it was inevitable that my theft was discovered right after afternoon recess. I’m not sure who squealed on me. Miss Pasternak played it cool. She strolled up and down the aisles of our classroom before she stopped at my desk and asked me if I had taken the rabbit. The rabbit was bulging in my shirt pocket, but I looked Miss Pasternak in the eye and denied it all. She must have had X-ray eyes. She told me to empty my shirt pocket, and there was the rabbit. But hardened criminal that I was, I wasn’t finished yet. I blamed the theft on my best friend (we are still best friends many decades later). He gave me the hot goods at recess and asked me to hold it. Miss Pasternak wasn’t buying it.
She kept me after school, hoping that I would show some remorse. Hardened cons don’t show remorse. I held firm. It was when I peed my knickers (I told you that this was a long time ago) that remorse set in. Arriving home late from school was one thing, but arriving home with a pee stain down the front of one’s knickers is quite something else. Upon intense questioning from my mother, I came up with a quick alibi. Miss Pasternak had falsely accused me of stealing a white rabbit and then refused to let me go to the restroom to relieve myself.
Mom bought the story. All of it. She took my arm, and we stormed back to school. Miss Pasternak was still sitting at her desk in the now empty classroom. A terrible confrontation ensued. I stood idly by, looking angelic as possible above the fray of battle. Numerous charges were hurled back and forth. I distinctly remember Miss Pasternak telling Mom that her son was a “liar and a thief.” Me — who was standing there looking like a member of the Vienna Boys Choir. Impossible to believe. Mom said some stuff, too, that has thankfully been lost in the cobwebs of time.
The tale (or was it tail?) of the white rabbit and Miss Pasternak became the stuff of legend in our family. The story was repeated almost as often as the one where my mother and her sisters got into a fight at a local bakery that ended with Mom smashing a coconut custard pie on the counter and the owner tossing a powdered sugar shaker at my Mom while her sisters were tossing chairs. Hey, the pie was moldy, and the owner had denied it was his pie!
It was years later. My mother was sitting in a wheelchair on a balcony at The Watermark on Logan Square. My wife and I were sitting opposite her. The evening was pleasantly warm. The sky at twilight was a palette of red, pink and a smear of light blue. The noisy blades of a helicopter could be heard flying in the sky overhead.
It was a good evening for retelling family stories, and Mom had just disclosed to me after all these years that she voted Democrat just to spite my Republican father. He had made the mistake of trying to pull the lever for her (in those days, husbands and wives were allowed in the voting booths together). I am not sure why I thought this was a good time to confess my guilt in stealing the white rabbit. I’m not even sure whether I had tried to confess earlier in my life or even whether Brian Williams was around when I did so. Maybe I thought that catharsis would be good for my soul. I had not turned into a hardened criminal, although some of you would probably prefer that I did rather than take up writing a column. In any event, I recalled the story of the white rabbit and admitted my guilt.
Mom looked at me and screamed, “No, you didn’t!!!” Not her son. It was then I realized that even John Dillinger’s mother probably couldn’t have accepted the truth about her son. I stopped trying. Sorry, Miss Pasternak. Sorry, my innocent friend.
When Mom finally calmed down, I changed the subject to the time that my Uncle Boot (hired by the neighborhood as a watchman) had gotten loaded and tried to shoot the lights out of the pinball machine.
Truth does not always win out when it involves mothers and sons.
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