When we moved back to New Jersey in early 1960, my mother and father enrolled me in St. John's Parochial School in Orange, New Jersey, where I stayed from grades three to five before my father insisted I go to public school. Located across the street from St. John's Church, the school sported a huge statue of Jesus on the top of the roof, arms outstretched, beckoning you in invitation, while Christopher Columbus stood in front of the building like a centaur.
Each morning started with meeting the class at the church for eight o'clock mass. (We celebrated going to mass so much that I wanted to become a nun!) We wore black-and-white plaid uniforms, white shirts with plaid bowties, short white socks, and black-and-white saddle shoes. I always felt uncomfortable looking like everyone else. I certainly didn't feel like everyone else, so why did I have to dress to look like them, too? Rules were rules, and Catholic schools had strict ones that were obeyed or you received a slap with a ruler, among other abusive punishment for what they saw as a violation.
The inside of the school's architecture was archaic. It spoke of another time when scrolling woodwork and heavy gold-guilt frames surrounded paintings indicative of the Renaissance and the old masters. Once you entered the vast entry room, you came upon a long, winding staircase that seemed to go on forever. It was wide enough so that students could go up on one side and down on the other, but there was no dividing line, just kids having to file down in a scramble while holding the railing.
I was terrified of that staircase because three-quarters of the way up hung a beautiful painting of Archangel Michael fighting demons. I had done my best to avoid the side of the wall where the painting hung so I could be as far away as possible. But it taunted me, hanging there precariously in a heavy gold frame, and I could hear it creak as we students all rushed up the stairs en masse for class. It was huge and menacing, and one day it stopped me dead in my tracks.
I stood in the middle of the staircase as the splashes of dark blacks and grays mixed with blood-red skin, and gleaming swords swirled around like a movie. The red overpowered the other colors, and I could have sworn the red was growing larger and thicker, oozing like a film of blood, draping and dripping across it. People were rushing all around me and passed me to get to their destinations before the last bell rang for class and the nuns locked the doors. Once that happened, you were not allowed back in, and they called your parents.
I couldn't move. My feet were cemented to the step, and I was facing the painting, staring, unable to look away. It started to slowly sway, and the creaking sound grew louder. I took a step back as the first bracket on the left of the frame gave way. The second one soon followed, and I remained transfixed as the brackets popped away and the frame began to derail from the wall. The last bracket popped, and the huge frame fell, finally snapping me out of my fright. I dodged it and slammed myself against the other side of the wide staircase to the other railing, crashing into it and several people. Breathing heavily, I dusted myself off, pulled at my skirt, and mumbled an apology to the people I collided with. As I struggled to get up, all I could think of was if anyone had gotten hurt. Finally standing, I steadied myself and looked around me. Some students stood staring, eyes wide, and I figured they were in shock. But something wasn't right, and I could hear their whispers and see them shaking heads. Soon a group had gathered, all staring blankly at me. I heard, "Keep away from her," and "Did you know she was left-handed!" (Back in the day, to be left-handed was considered to be evil.)
I drew myself up and turned to go back down the stairs and met eyes with Mother Superior, who was looking up at me angrily. I didn't know how she could blame me when I did nothing. I turned to look at the damage. The painting was intact and hanging as though nothing had happened, and apparently nothing had. Up to this point, my family had assured me that I could help people. How could I do that if people were afraid of me? Were these visions really just in my mind? I saw all the warnings and felt for sure that the painting was going to fall. Why did I see it and no one else?
Mother Superior took me to her office, scolded me for "daydreaming" and causing a traffic jam on the stairs, and then telephoned my parents to come fetch me. Before they could arrive, a very loving sister joined us. She was a favorite of mine and understood me because she secretly told me that she, too, could see things before they happened and could feel how other people were feeling just by being around them. We were spiritual confidantes who felt empathic to the world but were unable to express it openly in public to share with others. She encouraged me to keep a diary of my dreams and visions and was a ray of light in a very dark environment. And she always made me laugh. The best way to describe her would be as a blonde Kathy Najimy from Sister Act.
"May I have a few moments with Linda before her parents arrive, Mother?" she implored sweetly. "I feel certain that I can be of some help to the child."
Mother Superior nodded, and Sister took my hand and hustled me down the hallway to the guidance counselor's office. The room was cozy. It had a sofa and two chairs with a coffee table and was full of beautiful plants and flowers. Sister motioned for me to sit down and sat across from me. She adjusted the billowing folds of the skirt of her habit before reaching forward and taking my hands into hers.
"What did you see, Linda? Tell me what happened, please." She poured me a glass of water from the pitcher on the table.
I was still shaking as I brought the glass to my lips and took a tiny sip. "The painting on the stairs fell."
"But it didn't fall. How did you see it? In your mind?"
I nodded. "But it didn't happen, and I don't understand."
"What time was it when you saw this?"
"We were going to last class. One? Two?" I shifted in my seat and looked down at my shoes. "What does it mean? Mother Superior was very angry."
"It means that what you may have seen was the future, and it didn't happen yet."
I brightened. "If we know that, then we can stop it from really happening, and Mother Superior won't be angry with me!"
She smiled and patted me on the head. "It doesn't work that way. One day you will be able to understand that even when you know something, you can't always prevent it from occurring." She seemed very sad at this, her smile fading as if remembering something, and then she smiled again. "You must keep your faith and trust that God is guiding you. Maybe one day you can help others, but right now it isn't smart to share these things, with the exception of your parents and me."
This sounded like a terrible way to live my life, by denying the things I knew. As much as I knew Sister wanted to help, as I think back on it now, I believe she was caught in her own personal identity crisis. She was a bright, thirty-something-year-old woman with the gift of second sight, and because she had devoted her life to the Catholic Church, a religion that scorned her gift of insight, she had to deny any acknowledgment of her abilities. In the 1960s her service to God would be in conflict with her intuitive abilities, but in the reality of what we have learned since, God is the very source of those abilities. I would one day be able to express what Sister was prevented from expressing.
My parents did come to school, but rather than listen to the complaints of Mother Superior, they simply took me out of there and enrolled me in public school.
The next day, at 2:15 p.m., the painting of Archangel Michael fell from the brackets it was hanging on and crashed into the stairs. From what my parents told me, they had heard that no one was hurt. Seems Mother Superior, with prodding from Sister, conveniently arranged for a fire drill at that time, and no one was in the building.
It was around this time that I began to have lucid dreams of a very vivid nature that bordered on premonitions.
It was 1962. A peaceful row of clouds slowly moved across a pale blue sky, and as each cloud rolled along, it grew larger in size. I watched this magnificent formation of nature enlarge until it filled my entire vision and exploded. The holographic image of an airplane loomed menacingly as the metal monster broke through the clouds, the words Boeing 707 stamped across its side.
"Linda!" It is at this moment that I heard my maternal grandmother's voice calling me. "Linda!"
My eyes burst open and beads of sweat dotted my forehead as I shot up to a sitting position.
My hand glided down to the bed beneath me, and I patted the mattress gratefully, my ten-year-old self relieved to be safe in my bedroom. It was only a dream."Are you okay?"
My mother was standing beside the bed, gently pushing the damp strands of hair away from my forehead. "Did you have another bad dream?"
"It was only a dream, Mom."
"It's never only a dream, Linda. Tell me about it."
I retold the dream to my mother, and the first thing she did was to call my grandmother (her mother). "Linda had a dream about a Boeing 707, and that could be your flight."
"Does it crash?" my grandmother asked.
"You'd think she'd learn to have these dreams a little more in advance for convenience sake. Now I have to send someone down to the airport to change things." She blew out a long sigh, as if the weight of the world were on her shoulders.
"Well, Mom, at least you'll be alive to see another trip."
"Not till your daughter has insomnia."
My mother laughed. All was safe. It was just a normal day in a very paranormal life.
As it turned out, American Airlines Flight 1 was a domestic, scheduled passenger flight from New York to Los Angeles, that crashed shortly after take-off on March 1, 1962. All 87 passengers and eight crew died in the crash.