A Particular Friendship: A Nun at Age Ten

 

Undevicesimus

19- De Profundis

 

It is June when I have my appointment with Father McCann.  Mrs. Garrity, the priests’ cook and housekeeper, opens the door and shows me to a small sitting room.  Controlled curiosity marches across her forehead, but I do nothing to satisfy her thirst for a tidbit.

“Father will see you shortly,” she says over her shoulder and wanders off, her old lady comfort shoes barely making a sound on the polished wooden floor.  Mrs. Garrity is an old prune, but she has a way with the rose bushes that are in full flower just outside the open window.  Their perfume fills the room, and I hear bees buzzing their excitement around the many blossoms.   Mrs. Garrity is their benefactress.  She lavishes all her love on the crowd of bushes on this side of the rectory.  Many mornings I watch her from my window on her knees with her basket of tools and always the same straw hat with the torn brim.  It’s a wonder the priests don’t buy her a new one.

The thought of Mrs. Garrity’s straw hat had just evaporated when Father McCann makes his entrance.  His soft, black hair and dark, dark eyes grab at me.  He has an Irish name and a stunning Italian look.  When he sits beside me, I know this father confessor idea is not going to work.    I don’t hear him launch into conversation and don’t know what I offer as a response.  His hair keeps dropping in front of his eyes, and he pushes it back with studied deliberateness.  I’ve said something about offering my life to God and watch my arms mimic the words.   From what part of me does this craziness arise?  The answer doesn’t come.  Instead, Father’s hand drops over mine and my body is in a foreign place, a place where heads get numb and legs turn rubbery.

This is not the kind of confessor who led St. Teresa out of her dark night of the soul.

At the close of this fuzzy half-hour, Father walks me to the front door.  As I turn to thank him, I see Mrs. Garrity craning her neck from the far side of Father Flaherty’s office.  Despite my crushed hopes, I have to smile at her flagrant nosiness.

This weekend we are back on schedule and travel by bus to the motherhouse. It is Sunday afternoon, and I stand at the second floor railing of the mansion.  Mother Carolina has just stepped out of her office, and she walks over to me.  Without preamble she says, “We are sending you home right after school closes.”  My fists clench.  “You are not ready to commit to religious life.  Go home, Veronica.  Find out what God wants from you.”

My throat thickens, and tears rush to my eyes.  I want to plead for more time, but she has already turned away, the letter my brother Rocky still in her hand. In the letter he suggested that either she send me home or my family would engage a lawyer on my behalf.  Gloria has not kept my secret. She had shown my letter to Mama.

Three days after the end of the school year Nivio, his wife Helen, and Mama arrive in Scotch Plains to take me home.  I run up to my room and put on the white shirt and red plaid skirt that Sr. Carmela handed to me.  I slip on the pair of black ballet-style shoes and pull my hair into a single ponytail at the back of my head.  The outfit looks like a school uniform. How silly.  When I get back to the chapel, Sister Carmela comes out and gives me a tight hug.  “You will be fine, Veronica.  I will miss you.”  I don’t say anything.  I look into her eyes and feel my own well up.  Words don’t come, so I head down the steps and into the car.  During the entire four hour trip home I am silent.  My head swirls with stormy, confused emotions.

For two days family and friends of Mama’s come and go. Repeated explanations are offered to fill awkward silences.  By the third day things settle down.  Mark and John are young and still live at home. My presence does not interfere with their lives.  At sixteen Mark works at a garage and obsesses over souped up cars and girls.  John works as custodian at the church and on weekends flips hamburgers at the Big Burger Shack up the street.  One evening, about three weeks into my summer hiatus, I take a walk up there.

“Here, take it,” he hisses, but I insist on paying for my order.  He mutters in disgust and pushes the vanilla shake and sandwich at me through the window and rings up the cash.  I just don’t get the nuances of life on the outside.  I want to pay, and he wants to be the big guy who gets his sis a free fast food meal. I head for home and feel like tossing the meal to the side of the road.

Most days I mope around on the back porch like a teenager instead of the near twenty- year-old that I am.  The chaise longue has become a part of my body.  One Saturday Mama pokes her head out, “Why you no go to the movies tonight.  I give you money and call Gloria to take you.”

“There’s nothing I want to see.  I’m going to bed. Can I walk to church with you tomorrow?”  I leave her in the kitchen reading the paper.  By 7:30 I am in my room and asleep.

The pages for July and August are gone from the calendar on the wall near the phone.  Each morning I walked downtown to attend Holy Mass. On Mondays I went to the Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Devotions at St. Francis Church, and on Tuesday evenings I made the St. Anthony Novena at St. Peter’s.  There was the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and rosary every Sunday afternoon.  I cleaned my room and tried to help Mama around the house but was more of a nuisance than a help.  I disrupted her system.  I didn’t fit in.

I miss the Villa with its comforting routines.  I hate life in the world.  I want to go back.  When I call Diana to beg her to speak to Mother Carolina on my behalf she is reluctant, but finally gives in to me.   Mama and Papa are exasperated.  They cannot understand my desperation.  I will turn twenty on the fifth of September and there is little anyone can do to talk me into giving life in the real world more time.

Mother Provincial calls two days later.  Even the news that I must go back as a postulant does not dissuade me from my goal to get to Villa Walsh.   Rocky drives Mama, Diana, and me to Morristown, and I begin my six months as a postulant.  I pray, study, give a handful of juniors their first piano lessons, and am assigned Sister Victoria’s studio as an office.  It still has the feel of a sacred place.  I love it.

February brings my second investiture.  Without much fanfare I am once again given the habit of a novice.  The short ceremony takes place in the novices’ private chapel.  I am happy.  Normalcy, community life, and the sense of belonging envelope me like the warmth and security of a mother’s arms.

 

 

Duodevicesimus

18-Dona Nobis Pacem

My squirrels, leaves, and elves sit in manila envelopes ready to hop onto the bulletin boards of Saint Bartholomew School.  This year I am assigned a third grade class in Scotch Plains. It is a small town, not at all like Jersey City with its dark, run-down buildings.  I won’t miss the glaring lights from the elevated railroad tracks and the constant soot that covered my window sill. Sister Vanda says that Scotch Plains is a small piece of heaven dressed in green, I take her word as a promise direct from God.

The volume of nervous chatter in the refectory swells.   Pat pokes me.  “Let me have that pair of scissors.”

“Okay, okay.”

The novices of my group prepare for their first taste of the classroom.  What a strange thought that I, who am younger than most of them, have the position of veteran teacher.  I shake my head as I think of the ups and downs of my first year.  This one will be different.  Sister Violetta assures me that third graders are eager to learn.    I won’t let that go to waste.  I hope my students will share my love for books.  Won’t the adventures of Dick and Jane and Spot and Puff keep us entertained every day?   Aladdin, Snow White, and the Musicians of Bremen will move into our lives along with adventure and fun.  The thought fills me with excitement, a far better place than the uncertainty I carried into that pint-sized lion’s den.  I was a clueless postulant and an inexperienced teacher.

Diana tells me that Sister Carmela, the superior at St. Bartholomew School, is young and kind and full of great ideas.  I hope she is right.

The grapevine hums constantly during the month of August; tidbits good and bad are volleyed from person to person.  As I daydream about Scotch Plains, I sense that, more than anything I hear about Sister Carmela, it is the absence of church organs and choirs in my assignment letter that stirs my gratitude.   I know that someday it will show up, but for now, since novices must return to the motherhouse every weekend, I can’t play the organ for Sunday Mass at St. Bart’s.

Pat touches my shoulder and points to a silver station wagon that makes its way up the drive.  It is already the end of August. I stand near the three pieces of luggage that hold everything I own, from pajamas to a dictionary, and watch for the parishioner who will shuttle us to our new home.  My legs feel as weak as straws.  As the seconds pass, I tremble like the leaves of a silver birch in the smallest wisp of wind.

When I break out of my trance, I notice that it is Sister Carmela herself who has come to fetch us.  In no time our bags are stowed and we are on our way.  Sister Johanna sits up front.    Both nuns immediately make Pat and me feel at home, part of the family.  As the days pass, I learn that everything Sister Carmela does is like the first day.  She’s a we’re-all-in-it-together kind of person.

St. Bart’s convent has a television set in the common room, and each night we gather to watch the news.  Every Thursday evening we tune in for Wagon Train.  Sister Carmela likes Robert Horton, who plays the trail scout.  She has convinced Mother Provincial that this treat is good for relaxation and morale.  Not just any superior could get the Grand Silence time changed to accommodate Robert Horton and Ward Bond.  Pat and I do our Saturday cleaning chores on Wednesday so that we can watch television on Thursday and still leave on Friday for Villa Walsh with all our assignments complete.  Bless Sister Carmela; she makes it all happen.

At Saint Bart’s life is good.  For two years the ebb and flow of teaching, trips to Morristown, and every day convent life takes on a smoothness that far exceeds my expectations.  How fast the weeks and months disappear.  Before I realize it, my time as a novice teacher runs out.  As this school year comes close to its end, new and scary thoughts fill my head.  Decisions about my future in the community take on a new seriousness.  For ten years I have moved from one step to the next with joy and anticipation. The road was always clear.  Now I admit to a shameful ambivalence. In August I am to take my vows and proclaim my total dedication to God’s service for the rest of my life.  Profession means final commitment.

From the age of ten I wanted this life and now I am not sure. What should I do?  Am I ready?  I’ve been happy here at Saint Bart’s, so why do these doubts plague me? At thirteen when Mama wanted to take me home, I turned my back on her.  How dare she try to take me from God’s House!  Where has that certainty gone?  Poor Mama, she was in tears.  I was pretty heartless in my teenaged obstinacy.

It is Thursday night post-Wagon Train, and I am sitting up in bed trying to read my Imitation of Christ.  I listen to the clanging of the metal latches against the flag pole outside. It must be pretty windy.  Then there’s a quiet rap, and my door opens.  It is Sister Carmela.  “May I come in?” she says and without waiting for my answer settles near the foot of the bed.  Tonight she wears her black bonnet which she usually leaves off and that satiny green bathrobe that I love.  I notice the lace-trimmed Barbizon pajamas that she favors peeking out at the V of her neck.   I smile at how often Sister Carmela ignores the bonnet rule.  She crosses the hall with chestnut hair falling in loose waves to her waist.

She and Sister Johanna often chat in the hallway late into the night.   Sister Johanna is her right hand in all matters to do with the school and the convent.   Because the bedrooms on the second floor have a sink but no other bathroom necessities, we must go to the communal facilities for showers and toilets that are located down the hall.  Like everyone, I wear my bonnet to and from the bathroom.  We follow the rules; Sister Carmela does not fuss about them.

While I am thinking about bonnets, Sister Carmela asks how things are going.

I put my book on the nightstand.  “Okay, I guess.  Sister Johanna helps me whenever she can.  It’s great that she is in the classroom right across the hall from mine.  Even after two years, discipline can get a little hard for me.  It’s funny, when Sister Johanna appears at my door, the kids barely breathe.  I wish I had that gift.”

“You are doing well.   The kids don’t always have to be absolutely silent.”

“That’s what Sister Johanna says, too.”

I think about Sister Paulina, who teaches next door to me.  Her kids are always screaming and yelling.  I hear them talk back to her.  She just screams over the top of them, and lets the unruly behavior pass.  Sister Paulina must be at least sixty and has been teaching a long time and still she does not have a handle on things.  She can’t be enjoying her work very much.

Sister breaks into my thoughts. “You listen to what Sister Johanna says. She can teach you a lot.  Well, Veronica, I just wanted chat for a bit. Nothing special.  Get some sleep.  You must be tired and tomorrow is Friday.  The bus to the Villa will be here earlier than usual.  You sure everything else is all right?  Nothing is bothering you?”

“I’m okay, really.”

She shuts off the light and closes the door and I am left with the scent of Chantilly in the air and a vague uneasiness about a letter I had sent to Gloria two weeks ago.  Why did I do that?  I lean over and pull out the scribbles and draft thoughts of that letter.  They sound confused and almost incoherent.  I tell my older sister about the sadness I feel because I have no closeness at all to Mama.  Mama and I are awkward in each other’s presence.  I sensed that the last time my family came for a visit.  I write about unhappiness.  Why did I write that?  In these two years under Sister Carmella’s guidance I have grown in many ways.  I have been happy.  Sometimes I think I don’t know how I really feel.  I am scared.

My mood swings from content to uncertain to nervous.  I have never learned to make the important decisions of life and in just two months my biggest choice has to be made.  In August I will take the step of Profession.  I am not at all sure that I am ready.  Is God testing me? Should I pray and wrestle with the devil, which is tempting me?   It is odd that during Canonical Year doubt never entered my mind.  I reveled in the warm waters of prayer, silence, and religious study.  In our studies we learned that God tests all His followers.  I never thought this test would come to me.

I hear the whisper of Sister Vanda’s voice, “Be a hero in the strife.”  One of her stories told how Saint Teresa of Avila had a spiritual confessor who helped her navigate through fierce battles with the devil.  I chuckle at my nerve to compare myself to St. Teresa of Avila.  And yet…if God tests the saints and others in his service, then why shouldn’t He test me.   Perhaps a spiritual advisor is the way to go.  I can’t ask Sister Vanda, but I can ask Sister Carmela to get me a spiritual confessor.

It is time for me to put these thoughts away and go to sleep.  Tomorrow I will go to the Villa for the weekend.  Perhaps all these corrosive problems will disappear.

Saturday and Sunday are dark and rainy.  People are edgy and out of sorts.  I feel smothered and depressed.  Even my favorite Saturday meal of spaghetti and meatballs is cold and the salad limp.  Sister Vanda seems preoccupied.  We exchange not a word all weekend.  She does take my hand and give it a squeeze as we board the bus on Sunday afternoon.  I wonder if she senses the upheaval that is poisoning my life.

 

 

The bus drops Pat and me at the convent door.  We race up the steps and beat a mid-May shower by seconds.  I almost lose my footing when Pat’s suitcase bangs into my leg.  Instead of a laugh I growl at her. She looks puzzled.

“What’s wrong with you?”

I don’t answer.  Sister Johanna opens the door.  She must have heard the bus pull up.  “Everyone is at chapel.  Sister Carmela said to settle your things and join us in the dining room.”  I hear Hail Marys in the distance.  My pocket watch reads 6:20.  They must be nearly finished.

Pat leaves me behind.  After my silent moodiness on the bus, she does not try to coax me out of my bad temper.

By the time we unpack and get downstairs the sacred readings are over. I slide into my spot at the lower end of the table and fix myself a ham and cheese sandwich.  The large salad bowl makes its way from one person to the next.  I help myself to a large serving with more than my share of black olives.  Today no one notices or teases about the olives on my plate.  Two of Sister Olga’s award-winning lemon pies sit side by side in the middle of the table.  The tempting brown crusts make me shiver in anticipation.  She has yet to make a pie that would not get first prize in any Betty Crocker baking contest.

Sister Carmela rings her small bell for attention. “While I have all of you here, let’s talk about First Holy Communion this Saturday.”  The conversations around the table taper off.  “Pat and Veronica, I spoke to Mother Provincial yesterday.  She agreed to allow you to stay here next weekend.  With the large numbers of public school kids who are receiving this year, we need everyone to help out.”  Pat and I nod in tandem.

The nuns never worry about Catholic school kids; they are ours.  The public school kids are out there, beyond the reach of nuns. They are unknowns, sources of concern who require added troops to keep the sacred rites running smoothly.  Discussion around the table dribbles on among the nuns who are directly involved with the upcoming ceremony.  When the meal ends, four or five nuns drift outside for an evening walk and then to the community room to prepare for tomorrow’s classes.

By nine o’clock my stamina withers, and I head to my room.  Ready for bed, I turn off the lights and draw up the shades. The black velvet sky flaunts its royal jewels.  How did the ancient Greeks decide which stars glowed for the regal Cassiopeia and which for noble Orion?

A knock spoils the moment.  Sister Johanna peeks in.  “Sister Carmela wants to see you in her room.”

“Now?”

“Give her five minutes.  She’s on the phone with the pastor.”

I wait ten minutes and then go to Sister Carmela’s door.  Even with my ear on the door no sound comes from the room.  I knock lightly.  “Come in, Veronica, the door is open.  I let myself in and sit in the chair near the bed.  Tonight she has her hair pulled back into a ponytail.  I wish I had her beauty and charm.   Sister studies my eyes.  I hope my discomfort does not show.

“I know something is wrong.  I see it in your eyes and the way you do things.  I asked Pat about it.  She says that you don’t talk to her either.   I won’t pressure you to unburden your soul to me.  I know how hard that can be, but I want to help.  Here’s my thought.  I want you to speak with Father McCann.  How does that sound?”

I swallow hard. The tilt of her head and the slightly raised eyebrows give away her surprise at my immediate nod of assent.

“Great.  Our minds follow the same route.  I’ll see Father tomorrow. You like him, don’t you?  He’s gentle and understanding. He can help you.  Setting this up is the reason I wanted to chat with you tonight.  It’s your unhappiness that concerns me, not your work with the children.  Your teaching shows the love you have for the kids.  That love will make you the kind of teacher you want to be.”

She takes my hand as I move to rise.  “You have worked hard these two years.  I want to see you content with your choices.”  I turn, but she still holds my hand.  “Let Pat help you.  She is hurt that you have shut her out.”  Her hand is cool in mine. I miss the pleasant feeling when It drifts, like graceful snowflake, onto her raised knee.

“I will let you know when he can see you.  It will be soon.”

“Thank you, Sister.  I don’t know what is wrong with me.  Confusion is the best word, I guess.”

“Don’t dwell on it tonight.  Get right to bed; morning comes fast.”

At the door I turn.  “Thanks.”  She smiles.

The week passes, and I hear nothing more from Sister Carmela.  It is First Communion Day, warm and full of sunshine.  I can’t remember one that ever dawned cloudy and rainy.  God does have a soft spot for little children.  Communion Day angels arrive amid the clicks of camera shutters and last minute primping by anxious moms and dads.   Sister Carmela stands at the door of the school to shoo parents toward the church and guide the children down the hall.

From the back of the gym I can watch Sister Carmela, and keep an eye of Sister Johanna, who helps the bewildered ones find their assigned chairs.   The last lost lamb adds his dangling feet to the others in the row. Another little boy looks up and grins at Sister, who has just straightened his wayward armband.  As the clock on the back wall of the gym closes in on nine fifteen, Sister Carmela enters the gym.  With a flick of the lights quiet settles over this field of bobbing white lilies.   She scans the room with a satisfied look; there are no empty chairs.

“Boys and girls, your moms, dads, and many people fill the church.  They’re all here to watch you receive your First Holy Communion.  We want them to be proud of you.  I need you to remember all the things we practiced.  Listen for the frog clicks when it is time to stand or sit.  When you go to the communion railing, think about how much you love Jesus and how much Jesus loves you.  He can’t wait to come to you.” She ends her pep talk with a couple of big rah-rah claps and her signature “Okay, let’s have a big smile from everyone.”

The kids look at each other with lopsided grins. It’s so comical that I grin, too.  While we are busy grinning, two eighth grade girls dressed as angels take their place at the front of the room.  One row of girls and one of boys follow the angels out of the gym and down the front stairs of the school toward the church.  There are people across the street and in the road.   All pause to watch.  Years have passed since my first communion and nothing changes: the nuns, the white veils, the little boys in white suits, the admonitions, all still the same.  Will any of these little girls grow up to be nuns?  Will they have the confusions that I have now?  I shake my head to get rid of the thought.  I must keep my mind on their day.

The children march down the aisle.  Organ music soothes the misty eyes of grandparents and prompts new tears in moms and dads.  The Mass moves along.  Each child adds his small voice to Jesus, Jesus Come to Me, that special First Communion song that can tug at the heart of the most hardened of cynics.  As the children make their way to the communion rail, fresh hankies emerge from handbags and back pockets.  The priest descends from the high altar and stands before each child in turn.  He mumbles a Latin prayer, places the wafer-thin host on the tiny tongue, and then moves to the next communicant.   When Mass is over, the parents sweep away their little ones for parties, relatives, gifts, and food.  The church and school settle back into the quiet, deserted feel of a summer Sunday afternoon.

 

 

 

 

Septimus Decimus17 – Opus Domini

            Offer it up.  The phrase gives mundane, daily activities a deep spiritual significance.  God personally cares whether or not I perform my duties with His approval in mind.  Right now, maybe it will take God Himself to move me from my chair.

            It is August and unbearably hot.  The lights in the refectory are off.  Mother Mistress thinks the absence of light will cool the room.  Beads of sweat stand out on every face.  The sticky heat seeps through the walls and windows.  Nothing can keep it out.   I finish my pasta just as the sacred reading comes to an end and glance over at Sister Vanda for permission to leave the table.  Jane gets up, too, and follows me out of the refectory.  The rest of the team will join us shortly.

            Just inside the scullery are two metal garbage pails, and beyond them is a massive wooden table that leaves only a narrow walking space on each of its four sides.  Three nuns enter the scullery and deposit their pile of soiled dishes.  Within minutes dishes sprout everywhere.  I grab the first of four square racks from beneath the steel counter and quickly fill the slots with dishes.  Jane has filled the reservoir with powder and pushes the start button.  I give the rack a shove toward the canvas flaps that are supposed to keep water from splashing everywhere.  Rollers inside the machine grab the rack, and the first blast of boiling water sprays upward from the bowels of the machine.  Like an irate monster it spews a cloud of steam into my face. 

            Claire waits at the other end of the line to receive the trays.  She grabs the first dish, pausing to shake and soothe her burned fingers.  There is no time to wait for the dishes to cool; the next tray is already on its way.  Jane removes the piles of clean plates and pushes them toward Adele, who runs a towel over each one.  Three novices relay the stacks to the various pantries for storage.  The assembly line hums along.  Juniors, novices, and postulants rush in and out with more dishes.  There is no chatter, just the rumble of the machine, the clatter of plates and flatware, and the rush of water roaring in our ears. 

            Behind me, Gloria slides a spatula over each dish and sends scraps of food into the pail.  During a lull she briefly leaves her post to get a mop from behind the door and sops up some standing water.  At that moment Adele, our group’s chronic klutz, slips on the wet floor, almost losing a stack of dishes.  Only Penny’s quick reflexes, as she reaches out to grab Adele’s arm, save the day.  A broken dish means punishment.  Last month Adele did break a bowl.  She had to kneel in the middle of the aisle of chapel during rosary, her head to the ground the whole time.  I try to avoid this embarrassing consequence, especially in the summer months when the number of residents triples.  The threat of this punishment does not eliminate broken dishes, but it does cut down on the carelessness.

            By one o’clock the dryers and the stackers leave for a walk or a game of softball on the lawn.  Claire stays behind to scour, rinse, and dry the two stainless steel sinks.  Someone has already washed the empty tabletop.  I pull the filter from the machine and scrape away the scraps.  Gloria and Penny haul the pails out back to empty and hose them down.  The floor gets a final rinse with clean water and pine solution.   The floor is still damp when we leave the scullery.  It is a relief to know that the supper dishes belong to someone else’s crew.  Claire, Penny, Jane, and I head to the dorm.  The simple pleasure of soap and clean, cold water beckons.  After a quick wash-up it is time to stretch out and enjoy the afternoon nap.  This daily ritual is another Italian tradition that made the transatlantic crossing in 1910 with Mother Ninetta and her fellow nuns.  Since this period doubles as the Grand Silence, no one is allowed to skip the nap.  Sleep is a delicious treat after scullery duty.

            Jobs, like people, have personalities.  The scullery reeks with bad smells, slime, and ooze from the garbage pail that has a small leak.  It reminds me of the slums of London in a Dickens novel where sewage gets dumped from buildings into the streets.  People just slog through it in the dark, poisonous night. 

The laundry has a mother’s personality, my mother’s.  Any time I smell steam, it stirs pleasant sensations buried in my memory.  As far back as I can remember I loved the fresh scent of steam as it rose from Mama’s ironing board. 

She ironed at least twice a week.  It was the last step in a long process that began with dissolving powdered Argo starch in hot water.  Mama dipped shirts, tablecloths, napkins, and pillowcases in the solution.  Next, she wrung out each piece, rolled it like a tootsie roll, and placed it in a metal tub.  Then, she covered the tub with an old white towel to keep the clothes moist overnight. 

The next day she set up the ironing board near the stove.  Most days I sat on a small chair and watched her give the first white shirt a snap to unfold it.  She placed the collar part on the ironing board, gave her finger a quick lick, and tested the iron for heat.  “Psssst,” it hissed.  Perfect.  The first pass over the damp collar released a cloud of steam.  On a cold, rainy day just a whiff of the fragrance of steam set the world aright.  At ten I left Mama’s  laundry behind.

            On the fringes of our convent laundry’s personality is Sister Mary.  She has nothing to do with the laundry and yet there she is, a lovable nun with a Santa Claus face and twinkling blue eyes.  Sister Mary knows everyone and is the gatekeeper of this subterranean world.  We all check in as we pass.    She spends her life making ruffles for our bonnets.  I can’t imagine how many thousands of ruffles she has made over the years on her special machine.   I hear Pretty Boy, her parakeet, squawking his own name over and over, but I don’t hear the whirr of the sewing machine.  I poke my head around the corner.  Pretty Boy is out of his cage, pecking at stray pieces of thread on the table.  I see Sister Mary’s broad back and shoulders but not her face.  She is looking for something on the floor.  She carries a lot of weight, and it is difficult for her to move about. 

            “Hi, Sister Mary, what are you doing?”

            “Oh, thank God.  You’re here just in time, Veronica.  See if you can find my bobbin.  It rolled over there somewhere.”  She points with her yardstick to a bolt of black fabric by the wall. 

            “Here it is.”  I hand her the silver bobbin.  “I can’t stay.  I’m already late.”

            “Thank you,” she calls after me as I hurry down the hall.  Through the open door I see Gloria surrounded by three canvas hampers on wheels.  One hamper is filled with white sheets heaped over the rim.  These are damp and ready for the mangle.  A monster washing machine dominates the laundry room.  Its massive drum measures four feet in diameter and is some eight feet long.  Its shape reminds me of the locomotive that roared past our house on Elton Street every day at 3:30 in the afternoon.

 The machine shudders and clangs.  With a rumble it lets go a torrent of gray, sudsy water.  I jump back as the spray hits my face.  Then they come, those loud glissando tones that signal the spin cycle.  Gloria waits, her finger poised to hit the rinse button the moment the spinning stops.  Only Gloria is allowed to touch the washer.  She has an intimate relationship with machines.  She knows how to treat them and nudge them into resuming work when they are fussy or stop working.  No one else has any desire to mess with the buttons, belts, and moving parts.  She flicks a look at Adele, who has appeared from the sorting and folding tables in the adjoining room.  Adele and I push the hamper with the sheets around the corner toward the mangle. 

            Six novices stand around a table.  They fold, sort, and stack clothes.  Mary Jane leads them in the rosary.  They finish the first decade and look to me to start the hymn.  This job has been mine since our junior days, and I’ve always been able to find the range that suits everyone.  I start Remember Holy Mary, and the group sings in two parts.  I listen.  We sound so good.  When the song is over, the rosary continues.  Gloria starts the mangle while Adele picks a sheet from the hamper and folds it in half.  Together we guide it forward on the moving straps of the mangle.  Claire and Pat are on the far side ready to receive and fold.  We pick out pillowcases and some towels and send them through the hot rollers.  The next sheet somehow goes in crooked; it wraps itself around the rollers.  I press the red button that shuts down the works.  In a second Gloria is behind my shoulder.  She releases a lever at the base of the mangle, and a space opens between the rollers.  We pull out the tangled sheet and work resumes.  “Make sure the hem lies flat, or it will tangle again.”

              Work goes on.  Suddenly, over the sounds of the clanging rollers, I hear Penny holler, “Adele, your shawl is caught in the mangle.  Somebody stop the machine.”  I drop the sheet and race toward the red stop button on the other side of the mangle.  Adele’s fumbling hand was inches from being dragged between the rollers when the machine finally stops.  Poor Adele, things like this happen to her more often than I can count.  For just a second I see Adele on her knees during breakfast my first morning at Villa Walsh.  I shake my head.  If something is going to go wrong, Adele is sure to be a part of it. 

End of Chapter 17 

 
 
 Sextus Decimus

End of Chapter 16 
 
                                                                    Quintus Decimus
    15-Veni Sponsa Christi
14-Servite Domino
 The first two weeks at St. Joachim’s pass in a constant flurry of new experiences and old routines.  On Thursday night I work feverishly to get all my office cleaning done because Friday I am off to Villa Walsh for the first time since August.   I didn’t think I could clean, get packed, and be ready on time, but here I am set to visit old friends in the familiar world of the motherhouse.  It is four o’clock, and the bus pulls up to the curb.  Before I leave, I run upstairs to wish Mother Superior a good weekend.  With bag in hand I dash down the front steps and jump on the bus.  Mary Ann has saved me a seat.  We grin and throw our arms around each other.  A mix of novices and postulants from surrounding convents are scattered here and there throughout the bus. They are deep in excited conversation, but pause to smile as I push my bag onto one of the overhead storage bins.  The chatter does not stop as we speed along country roads.

The Villa is the same and different.   I fall into the prayer, work, and meals routine easily, but I know that on Sunday, it will be back on the bus.  I will leave behind all the postulants in my group.  They will study, go to chorus practice, and walk the halls of the Villa the way I used to do.  I remind myself that I am doing the work of God in the schools.

Through a messenger on Saturday morning, Mother Provincial calls me to her office.  An unplanned meeting like this one is not a good sign.  I mentally run through the events of the last couple of days and weeks for clues as to why she would want to see me.  Nothing comes to mind. Outside her door the wait is nerve-wracking. I am still mystified.  Finally, the secretary lets me in.  Without a word she points to a chair near the desk.  I watch Mother Provincial as she finishes her paperwork, recaps her fountain pen, and places it in the desk drawer. Finally, she directs her attention to me.

 “You like Sister Ernestine, don’t you, Veronica?”

I’m not sure how to respond, but it doesn’t matter.  Mother Provincial is not looking for an answer.

“I’ve called you here because I must take you away from St. Joachim’s.  You are needed for the kindergarten class at Holy Rosary School in Jersey City.  Sister Adalgisa is your new superior.”

This is the last thing I would have expected.  Her quiet words leave me shocked and confused.

I want to holler a loud, “Why?” but she is still talking.  “Your belongings will be at Holy Rosary on Monday.”  She pauses for a few seconds and then continues.  “I understand how hard this is for you.  I trust that you will do God’s bidding.”

She watches my face for a moment, and then takes my hand.  “Be at peace, Veronica.  You will be fine.”

“Yes, Mother.  Does Sister Adalgisa know that I am coming?”I close the door behind me.  “Be at peace?  How does peace fit into this?”

The real questions swirl in my head.   I try to drive them away because I know I will never be told why I am being reassigned.

Suddenly something dawns on me.  I remember an incident that is so minor, I almost dismiss it.  It is silly and yet it fits.

One night about a week ago I stop in to Mother Superior’s bedroom.  She wants to chat about how things are going and bring me up to date on the final kindergarten numbers.

I knock and enter.  Sister sits propped up in bed with class lists spread out on a bed tray.  “Sit down,” she says.

I sit at the bottom of the bed.  A small voice pipes up with a reminder.  No sitting on beds. I ignore the pinprick of conscience.  Sister does not appear bothered and the closest chair is on the other side of the room.   Just as I accept this rationalization, Elaine peeks in the door with a question about the next day’s menu.  Her face registers immediate disapproval.  She still acts like my big sister.  Since our junior days Elaine has never had any tolerance for the bending of rules.  I should have known right then that her conscience would not allow this to go unreported.  This is not fair.  Yet it bothers me that I don’t know for sure that Elaine has anything to do with this.

Is it possible one slip-up could cause my reassignment?   Would the fact that I like Sister Ernestine a lot be so bad an idea that reassignment is required?    I know that liking someone a lot can spell real trouble in this community.  All convents, not just ours, have this worry about closeness between one nun and another.  The bed rule is just one part of it.  One time Sister Vanda scolded me about helping Sister Victoria too many times.  She said that a particular friendship might develop and that is not acceptable.  Jesus wants us to extend charity to all but to avoid familiarity.

The whole particular friendship thing is petty.  What is so terrible about friendship?  Jesus cried when his best friend Lazarus died.  He even raised Lazarus from the dead.  Saint Francis of Assisi had a particular friendship with Saint Clare, so why is it so bad for nuns?

 I make myself dizzy with all this thinking.  Maybe my transfer has nothing to do with particular friendships.  I wish I knew.

Sunday’s bus trip delivers me to Holy Rosary Parish.  I arrive at six o’clock in the evening and am welcomed by Sister Adalgisa.  Monday afternoon my school materials and suitcase arrive from Saint Joachim’s.   For two days I help the substitute teacher, and on Wednesday I stand at the front of my first kindergarten class on my own.   I have turned sixteen just three weeks ago.

Early one afternoon I read the story of Peter Rabbit to the kids.  The story brings the unexpected gifts of peace and blessed order to my classroom.  While I read, the sound of my voice draws their little faces to me.  For this glorious moment they are mine.  They love the naughty Peter Rabbit and giggle at his antics.  The children cheer Peter’s boldness as he enters the farmer’s garden.  They, too, would invade Mr. McGregor’s vegetable patch despite Mother Rabbit’s dire warnings.   Mr. McGregor is in pursuit of poor Peter Rabbit when suddenly there is a crash and a scream right in front of me.  The shriek tears the children’s attention from Peter’s attempts at escape.  Their eyes search the room for the source of the disruption.  It takes several seconds for us to realize that the leg of Jimmy Sporio’s chair has cracked, and sends him sprawling to the floor. The first moment of confusion gives way to screechy laughter as the children make fun of Jimmy’s comical misfortune.  Anger and embarrassment send hot tears pouring down his round, red face.  There he sits wailing and gasping for breath. Those children who are too far back to see what happened push and shove to get a better look.  Shouts, falling books, and tables scraping along the floor add to the bedlam.

“Everyone, sit down,” I shout.  But even my teenaged brain sees that things are past the point where any command will bring order.  Adrenaline takes over.  I mount the step stool near my desk and with a barely controlled howl send the children scrambling in all directions.  They bump over chairs and knock into tables and bookcases as they scramble to get back to their tables.

I step down from the makeshift pedestal and bend to help Jimmy to his feet.  After several more loud demands for silence, the class quiets.  Jimmy’s cries subside into small mewling sounds.  He buries his face in my uniform in search of comfort.   With my arms around his hot little body, I lead him to the teacher’s chair and go to switch off the lights.  I stare at the kids with as much dignity as I can muster and then proceed to draw the shades.  Their eyes follow my every move around the room.  It is a gray and dreary day, so the room quickly fades into a cave-like darkness.

“You are all to put your heads down and close your eyes, and if I hear a single whisper, you will not find out what happens to Peter Rabbit.  You know that I am upset with your behavior today.”

I hold my breath.  So far they are still quiet.  I know that all it will take is a single small sound to destroy the quiet that has fallen over the room.  I pick up a spare chair for Jimmy from the corner of the room and circle back to my desk where he sits with his feet swinging back and forth.  I take him by the hand and lead him back to his table.  He looks at me with a brave smile and sits.

A fragile quiet reigns.  I pray that the children will nod off for a few minutes.  Back at my desk I put my head down and close my eyes.  The room is dark and tranquil.  I let myself drift off.

Suddenly a sharp bang at the door startles me from sleep.  A tall eighth grade boy opens the door and pokes his head in.  “Mother Superior wants to know why you are not dismissing your kids.  She says to send them out right now. All the parents are waiting, and they’re getting mad.”

“Oh no!  Tell her they will be out in a minute,” I croak and jump up from my chair, slamming my leg into the desk.  I race to the doorway and flick on the light switch.  The kids rub the sleep from their eyes.  “Hurry up.  Hurry up,” I urge.  “Table One, get your jackets.  We slept too long, and we are late.  As soon as you are ready, get in line.  Tables Two and Three, you get your jackets, too.”  Louise cannot find her hat, and George’s shoe is untied.  I bend quickly to tie it.  In seconds the noise level rises to ear damage level.

“Can I go now?” Tony bellows in my ear.  “My dad is gonna be mad if I’m late.  He has to get back to work.”

“No, Tony, you have to wait for the rest of us.”

“Do we have to put our chairs on the table today?” someone yells over the din.

“No, I will take care of that.  Just everybody get in line.”  Most of the children do not hear, so the chairs continue to slam onto the tables, while other chairs slide or are knocked off.  The hope of restoring order vanishes amidst the chaos, and, conceding defeat, I throw open the door.  A tidal wave of bodies pushes and tumbles past me.  With a whoosh the last kindergartener is out the door, leaving an eerie quiet in his wake.

Drained of energy I collapse at my desk. Somewhere in the New Testament Jesus says to His apostles, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  I remember the poster in Sister Teresa’s classroom that captures the image of that warm, intimate moment.  The poster shows five children gazing like little angels into the eyes of the seated Lord.  One child snuggles in Jesus’ arms, and the others sit at His feet.  I can’t decide whether to smile or cry.

The shades are still drawn.  Books that had been open on the shelves are strewn on the floor like debris in the aftermath of a storm.  I can’t move to pick them up.  I cannot walk around the room to retrieve the fallen chairs.  I just sit and vacantly wonder why Sister Adalgisa, who is also the school principal, does not ask why I didn’t dismiss the children on time.  She must have been embarrassed at the wild, undisciplined exit.  No, she will not speak to me.  She will probably tell Sister Violetta, who is due for a visit next week, and leave it to her.

It has been several months since my arrival at Holy Rosary Parish. Sister Adalgisa has yet to visit my room.  She has offered neither praise nor criticism, only an unvarying case of benign neglect.  There are times I sense her presence, but I never see her at the door.  She moves invisibly through the school and convent halls, which is odd, as she is tall with a generous figure. Her face displays only restful kindness, never anger.  She directs her daily affairs as principal and superior in quiet tones and expects things to proceed in an orderly way.  They do.  The staff of veteran teachers works well without her input; they don’t need help or direction.  I need both but have to muddle through without it. She watches and smiles encouragingly but lets me fumble along on my own.

The only relief comes on Friday afternoons when my friends from other schools gather in the front receiving room to wait for the bus to pick us up.  We laugh and commiserate over the catastrophes of the week.  We snack and complain with abandon.  As we share, monumental insecurities shrink to manageable size.  The postulants of our group at Villa Walsh welcome us every weekend.  I think they are happy they do not have to board the bus with us on Sunday.  I am refreshed with new hope and new strategies when I return to Holy Rosary.

My determination does not always translate into competence.  But God sent me here, and I will not quit.

End of chapter 14

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Tertius Decimus
13-Cum Angelis et Pueris

I lie awake and listen to the soft snores of my two roommates. I still cannot believe that I am no longer in my bed at Villa Walsh.  My letter said St. Joachim Convent, and here I am.  Sleep does not come.  My mind is still full of cars, suitcases, images of new people, and even Mother Ninetta.  A thought hits me.  Is it possible that forty years ago she might have slept in this very same room?  I smile in the dark.  I can hear her voice with that funny Italian accent saying, “With the help of God I took care of a hundred twenty baby, and it was hard work.  We had nothing. Niente,” she’d repeat in Italian.  “Not even enough to eat, and no language, if you can imagine that.  But we had Mother Foundress.  Santa Lucia…she was our model, and we did the Will of God.”

In 1910 Pope Pius X sent Mother Ninetta and four other nuns to America.  Their mission was to work among the poor Italian immigrants in the diocese of Trenton.  Every time Mother Ninetta told the hundred twenty baby story, I’d picture a hundred and twenty cribs, a screaming baby in each one, and five calm nuns as they moved from one child to the next.  Later on, I found out that Mother Ninetta’s charges were kindergarten and first grade children.  Despite this small piece of fiction, her point was clear.  The sisters of St. Lucy Filippini were destined to work in the Lord’s vineyard, and it would not be easy.  The Italian immigrants marched Mother Ninetta’s small band of nuns down the streets of Trenton to the blare of horns and rattle of drums.

Forty-six years later I find myself in the same convent and wonder if I have that same kind of grit. My thoughts drift from the streets of Trenton to Sister Ernestine, my new Mother Superior. When I met her this morning, she made me feel at home.  I like her.  She is tall and elegant with a refined way about her.  Her voice has a soothing tone, and I am fascinated by her hands. They float through the air with the grace of swans on a pond.  I cannot think of her any longer.  I am tired, and sleep takes over.

At St. Joachim Convent meditation, Mass, breakfast, and office duties start things off just as they did at Villa Walsh.  Today is Monday, and Mother Superior asks Sister Teresa to help me out until I can follow the convent and school routines on my own.  Sr. Teresa, who is about six years my senior, is pleased to be my guide.  When we leave Mother Superior, we decide that a tour of the school will be fun.

The aging red brick building stands across the driveway.  We pass through the main entrance and are met by a cool darkness.  I spot the sign for the school office.  The door is closed, and there are no windows to peek through, so we head down the hallway.  The doors of the classrooms are open.  We peer into some and enter others.  I notice that the size of the desks shrink as we get to the lower grades.  Some classrooms are already brightly decorated with hand-cut letters that shout WELCOME BACK TO A NEW SCHOOL YEAR.

We stop in the supply room.  Like a sudden summer shower, wonder sweeps over me.  All those stacks of construction paper: green, yellow, red, orange, each color brighter than the next.  Boxes and boxes of pencils: fat kindergarten pencils, pencils with erasers, pencils without erasers.  Packages of paper: lined, unlined, green, yellow, and white.  Crayons galore, rulers, pens, and notebooks.  This is a magical shop, full of school goodies that wait to be carried off by the armload.  The excitement of new beginnings is nowhere as great as in the school supply room.

“Come on, I’ll show you my room, and then we’ll go down to yours,” says Sister Teresa.  She has to drag me away.

We continue down the hallway to the primary area.  As soon as we get into Sister Teresa’s second grade room, she heads to the bank of windows and draws up the shades.  The sun streams in.  She shows me the window pole that is ten feet long and has a metal hook on the end.  She angles it and deftly unlatches the window.  With a mighty push, the window flies up, and a rush of fresh air fills the stuffy room.

Sister Teresa was at St. Joachim the previous year and reassigned to the same grade, so she is well ahead in her preparations.  The room is cheery, with large smiling clowns on the back bulletin board.   On the side board she has a poster of Jesus surrounded by children.  The little desks are lined up in perfect rows.  The front leg of each desk is positioned precisely in the corner of the square floor tile.

Sister Teresa shuffles through some papers at her desk while I soak in the layout of the room.  I picture how my own squirrels and leaves and elves will look on the bulletin board.  My six inch alphabet letters, which are painted in bold, primary colors, will be perfect.  I can visualize them marching along in single file above the blackboard.

“Let’s go,” Sister Teresa says.  “I’m sure you want to see your kindergarten room.  You can spend some time getting familiar with it.  There are lots of cabinets and closets for you to explore.”  I follow her across the hall.

“It’s so big,” I blurt out when she flips the light switch.

“Wait until it’s filled with children,” she chuckles.  “I’ll be back in an hour.  If you need anything, I’ll be in my classroom.”

I investigate drawers, closets, and the contents of the teacher’s desk.  I work on a list of items I need until Sister Teresa stops by, and we then head back to the convent for lunch.

The school year begins with a Mass for the student body.  The eighth grade class provides the music from the choir loft.  They sing the Latin Mass as beautifully as the Villa Walsh choir.  Their voices are clear and blend so perfectly that I am sure they have rehearsed during the summer.

As soon as Mass is over, Mother Superior leaves her pew and stands at the communion rail with a stack of class lists in her hand.  The eighth grade nun takes a position alongside her.  After a few instructions about where to line up, Mother Superior calls out names in a strong but pleasant voice.  One by one, the students line up, forming a river of parochial school uniforms – girls in blue and white plaid skirts, boys with crisp white shirts and navy blue ties.  Their plain blue pants are carefully pressed for the first day of school.  The names drone on and on.  When the class is complete, the students snake down the aisle behind their teacher and disappear out the side door of the church.

The process repeats itself until only Sister Geraldine’s first grade class remains in the pews.  Mother Superior glances over at me and gives the “come hither” sign.  “Since kindergarten does not start until the third week of the month,” she whispers, “I want you to spend as much time as you can with Sister Geraldine’s class.  Sister Geraldine is wonderful with the little ones, and I am sure you will pick up many useful tips from her.”

“I have a lot to learn, and this will be very helpful,” I say and move next to Sister Geraldine as Mother Superior resumes the calling of names.

The first graders look so cute in their tiny uniforms.  I can’t help grinning at them.  Their eyes are like small, colored marbles staring up at the sisters.  They remind me of tiny toys that come to life in fairy stories.  When they are all in line, we move forward.  Sister Geraldine takes the first little boy by the hand, and I bring up the rear.  It is amusing to watch the children’s curiosity.  Every few seconds one of the little round faces turns to see if I am still at the end of the line.  When our eyes lock, I smile and am rewarded with a smile in return.

In the classroom I help the children find their names on the tags taped to miniature desks.  I am astonished at how quiet they are.  The children already sense how Sister wants them to behave.  One little girl’s orange Raggedy Ann hair catches my attention.  Her face is dominated by beautiful green eyes, and she has more freckles than I can count.  Waiting desperately for Sister Geraldine to notice how good she is being, she sits with her hands folded on the desk,.  I have to keep myself from shouting, “Hey, Sister Geraldine, look how well-behaved Kathleen is.”

By this time Sister has everyone seated. She takes several side steps to the right of her desk.  “Now, boys and girls, this is a very special square.”  Every pair of eyes strains to catch a glimpse.  I, too, look at the shape that is outlined with masking tape.  Sister makes a great show of staring down at this special square.  “Whenever I stand here, you must immediately get to your seat, fold your hands, and be absolutely quiet.  Do you understand?”

“Yes, Sister Geraldine,” answers the chorus of sing-song voices.

“Okay, let’s practice.  Everyone get up, walk around, and talk.”  She watches them as they wonder at her strange request.  They steal glances at each other until two of the boys giggle and get up.  Even the brave ones have to force themselves to walk around the room and talk.  They are unsure of the rules of this game.  When most of them are out of their seats, Sister saunters over to her desk, casually picks up a book and strolls toward the special square.  She walks around the square before stepping onto it.  Instantly, the kids scramble to their seats and assume the required position of hands folded and eyes on Sister Geraldine.  Little giggles escape as Sister praises them for being so good.

In an hour or so, she takes them through the drill again.  The kids love the suspense of not knowing when Sister will pounce on the square.  When they are at the point of bursting, she takes two giant steps onto her special square.  By the second day of school the giggles are gone, and the special square is an ordinary part of the daily routine.  I am amazed at how well it works to maintain discipline.

Sister Geraldine teaches them many other procedures with the ease of a master teacher.  On the third day of classes Mother Superior comes to visit.  Already the students know the protocol for greeting visitors. Students in every Catholic school follow the same routine as these first graders.  As soon as a visitor steps over the threshold, every child in Sister’s class rises, stands alongside the desk, and choruses, “Good morning, Mother Superior.  God bless you, Mother Superior.”  They remain standing quietly until Mother Superior responds, “Good morning, children, God bless you, too.  You may be seated now.”  A precision Swiss watch could not operate as smoothly as Sister Geraldine’s first grade class.

I try to absorb every technique in her repertoire.  I watch her facial expressions: the raised eyebrow that lets Sebastian know that she saw him poke my little Raggedy Ann friend, or the grin that spreads across her face when a child recites the alphabet without a single stumble.  I love her scarecrow body movements and joking, lopsided looks that elicit titters from all corners of the room.  Sister Geraldine is a skilled puppeteer whose invisible strings control the limbs, eyes, and mouths of fifty-six first graders.  And she makes it look easy.

End of Chapter 13

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Duodecimus

12-Sicut Erat in Principio

 

The early summer sun pours into the Bible study room where we wait for Sister Vanda.  I have no idea why we are here.  All tanned and ready for easy summer days, we have just arrived back from two weeks at St. Joseph by the Sea.  Something is different; something will change for the five of us.  I know it.

“Mother Provincial has a job for you,” Sister says as she walks into the room and pulls up a chair.  She smiles at each of us, but I don’t like it.  The smile is not right.  I glance at Mary Jane, and she shrugs.  She is suspicious, too. Sister Vanda’s next words are a blur.  All I can grasp are the words teach, teach in September.

Did she really say that?  Postulants don’t teach and beyond that, not one of us has yet begun our third year of high school. I mean, I’m still fifteen.  Maybe this is a strange test of obedience.

I look back at Sister Vanda.  Her talk continues.  “I know you will do what is expected of you.  Sister Violetta will prepare you for this assignment.  I don’t want you to worry about it.”

Through the next six weeks, shock and disbelief fade as we work with the supervisor of beginning teachers.  She plunges us into crash courses on child psychology, curriculum, and methods.  We cram all day, every day.  Sister Violetta sometimes works with the five of us, and sometimes we join the group of canonical novices who are first timers, too.  Teacher manuals and empty workbooks surround us like medieval towers.

We practice kindergarten songs Oats, Peas, Beans and Barley Grow or In the Morning When I Get up, With the Cross I Sign Myself.  We laugh and play Farmer in the Dell and London Bridges. It is easy to forget the serious purpose of these activities.  Each Saturday afternoon we spread paints, crayons, scissors, and construction paper on the refectory tables.  Penny, an artist postulant, shares her time and talent.  She draws for those of us who are not able to draw.  I trace, color, and cut out dozens of squirrels with whimsical grins and elves with pointed shoes.  I make a set of autumn-colored alphabet letters for the bulletin boards in my classroom. We are armed at a frantic pace for the road ahead.

 

The days of August tick away.  I think back to other Augusts when I watched groups of new teachers leaving Villa Walsh for the first time. The year Diana got her assignment letter is the most vivid.

It is evening, just getting dark, and I stand near the stone fountain at the foot of the rock garden as I eat ice cream and talk.  Novices spill out of the building in groups of twos and threes, each with a white envelope.  They hover near the outdoor lights of the chapel or near the Novitiate spotlight.  It is warm and pleasant.  I watch the nervous opening of envelopes.  Diana huddles with her friends Sister Lorraine and Sister Doris.  She tears open her envelope.  Her face and shoulders bend toward the piece of paper in her hand as she reads.  Comments echo back and forth around her, as the novices show each other their assignments.

“Where is Holy Rosary Parish?”

“Can you believe it? We are assigned to the same parish.”

“I heard that the Superior of that school is really strict.”

Some faces light up with excitement while others frown in disappointment.  Diana seems sad or maybe she is just scared.  When I ask about her letter, she tells me that she is assigned to Garfield and will teach the fourth grade, then turns back to her friends.

The next weekend the exodus gets underway.  Cars pull up to the front entrance in a steady stream.  Nuns and parish volunteers help force suitcases of all sizes into trunks or into the back seats of station wagons.  Hugs, tears, and promises of prayers fly back and forth like birds scattering from trees.  Once the bustling excitement of the weekend passes, Villa Walsh returns to its normal quiet self.  That scene plays itself out each August as novices complete their year of religious study and begin careers as teachers.

 

I fixate on the white envelope that will have my name on it.  I picture it in the box with all the others on Mother Provincial’s desk.  Its contents will change my life.  Some nights, I think so hard about being away from Villa Walsh, that I panic and I can’t sleep.  My daytime confidence disappears in the middle of the night.  When we talk about teaching with Sister Violetta and when we role play as teachers, the idea does not seem so daunting.  Sometimes I picture my little brother Marcus at kindergarten age.  He was a chubby, cute little boy.  The five year olds that wait for me are probably just the same.

But in quiet moments, when there is no group for support, I am scared to death.  All the advice about putting heads down, speaking softly, and being stern and serious with the students until Christmas sounds hollow and unreal.  Some days I cannot remember one thing we learned about managing five-year-old children.

Worrying does not keep the days of August from slipping away.  White Envelope Sunday arrives.  Twenty-five novices and we five postulants gather in the conference room.  Sister Vanda presides from a desk on a platform.  Her hand rests lightly on the box in front of her.  She watches and waits.  Her face is more pallid than usual, but she smiles as her eyes sweep across the room.  After several minutes pass, she puts her finger to her lips as a signal for quiet.  Two of the novices turn in their seats and frown at those who are still chatting.  Someone in the back cracks her knuckles but stops when silence falls over the room.  The novice next to me rolls and unrolls her handkerchief.  My stomach churns.

I barely hear Sister Vanda call my name.  All of a sudden the letter is in my hand.  I lift the flap as I walk out of the room.  I sit on the steps; I want to be alone.

The letter is so white and so short.

 

To Our Daughter-in-Christ, Veronica Cracco:

God calls you to labor in St. Joachim Parish    Trenton, New Jersey.

Your teaching assignment:  kindergarten teacher

Convent Superior: Sister Ernestine Arcangeli, MPF

Report to the convent by Sunday August 19, 1956

May Mother Foundress, Saint Lucy Filippini, watch over you as you labor for the glory of God and for the salvation of souls.

God bless you.

Mother Ninetta Ionata, MPF, Provincial

End of Chapter 12

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Undecimus

11-Miserere Nobis

 

When will they let me know?  The question is a maddening itch lodged on my back just beyond my fingertips.  At fifteen, juniors become postulants, and this month I turn fifteen.  Will Sister Marguerite urge that I not be accepted and make me wait another year?  I hide from the thought that her word is enough to bring an end to my journey.

How I miss Sister Giovanina.   She left us a year ago to teach in one of the schools.  Sister Marguerite arrived in late August, and moved in before Sister even had a chance to pack her bags.  Sister Giovanina had turned us over to a nun with a brilliant mind but no idea how to handle girls in their teen years.  Sister Marguerite is working on a book about Pius XII, and it gobbles up every spare minute she could find.  If she thinks caring for girls dedicated to God would give her peace and time to work on her book, she is wrong.

I am sorry for her at first, but that does not stop me from adding to her torment whenever the chance arises.  Once, I suggest that we all twiddle our thumbs while she tries to lead us in meditation.  Sister Marguerite is hurt, embarrassed, and angry over the incident.  I can still hear the loud crash of the book she slams on the desk before storming out of the room.

These contests of wills begin in December.  One night Sister Marguerite finds Carol and me talking in the bathroom during Big Silence.  “What is so important that you must whisper in corners?” she demands.  When her question goes unanswered, she repeats it.  Again it hangs in the air.  It does not take long for her to recognize the futility of the battle, and in frustration she orders Carol to the dormitory.

“But I didn’t brush my teeth yet,” Carol argues.  Sister Marguerite says nothing but crosses her arms and stares.   Carol shrugs and leaves.  Just then the toilet flushes, and both Sister Marguerite and I watch Sarah walk past us.  Sarah, the butt of Carol’s constant teasing, could always be counted on to be in the wrong place.

“Go back and wash your hands,” Sister says to her.  Sarah does an about-face, gives her hands a quick wash, and dries them on the front of her robe.  After Sarah disappears down the hall, Sister Marguerite turns back to me.  The anger that had disappeared while Sarah was washing her hands flares again in her eyes.  “Get out of the juniorate,” she says.

“What?” I could not have heard her right.  She had dismissed Carol to the dorm. Why not me?

“Get out,” she repeats.  Without waiting for me to react, she turns and heads to the curtained part of the recreation room that doubles as her sleeping quarters and study.

“Where shall I go?” I call to her retreating figure.

“I don’t care.”

I hesitate.  Where should I go, dressed as I am in pajamas and bathrobe?  The words “Get out” ring in my ears.  I stomp down the corridor and out the door.  Angry but not brave enough to venture far, I sit on the steps outside the chapel and brood.  At ten o’clock the barely audible click of the lock jolts me like an electrical shock.  I am locked out.  I could have called to Annie, the doorkeeper of the month, but stubbornness wins and forces me to wallow in self-pity.  I listen to Annie’s fading footsteps.

“My God!  What are you doing out here in the middle of the night?  It’s freezing cold.”  My eyes fly open.  Sister Vanda and three novices stare at me.  They had been working on the Nativity display outside the front entrance to the chapel.

“Go on to bed,” she says to the novices.  “I’ll check with you when I finish here.”  They nod their good nights and leave us alone.  Sister Vanda sits on the step beside me and waits.  With clumsy starts and stops, between tears and whiny excuses, my story tumbles out.

“You know you must apologize,” she says when I finish my tale.  I nod, even though an apology does not appeal to me.  “I know it is hard, but do it for me.”  She rises to her feet and extends a hand.  With a strong tug she pulls me upright.  I follow her down the stairway into the novitiate.  The halls are dark with small night lights here and there.  As we walk, Sister Vanda keeps her arm around my shoulder.  I wish she were in charge of the juniors.  I would never do anything to make her angry.

“When we get upstairs, I want you to wait in the hall.  I’ll talk to Sister Marguerite first.  Lift the front of your bathrobe, or you’ll trip,” she says as she nods toward my feet.  She waits until I grab the front of my robe and together we climb the stairs.  I apologize to Sister Marguerite that night, but the friction between us remains.

By September my worries about Sister Marguerite’s report get serious. “Dear God,” I promise every morning at Mass, “I will control myself.  I know it does not matter if I do not like her.  I will be respectful.  I will do whatever it takes.  Don’t let them send me home.”

My birthday comes and goes, and the agony of the unknown continues.  On Sunday morning of the third week of the month, Mother Mistress arrives at the juniorate with a veil and cape draped over her arm and a smile on her face.  I almost collapse with relief.  I decide not to think about why Sister Marguerite has not vetoed my candidacy.  I will humbly accept this gift.

There is no formal ceremony for this advancement in training.  Mother Mistress hands Claire my veil and cape and asks her to help me get ready.  Claire had never been a junior.  She entered after high school, and I look up to her as an older sister.  She walks with me to the dormitory where I sit so she can pin my long braids over the top of my head.  She sets the veil just in front of my braids and ties it at the nape of my neck.  I swing the cape around my shoulders, and Claire secures it in place.

When she finishes, I stand, happy in this new and important place in my life.  With these few quick motions, I am a postulant.  Claire helps me pack my clothes and books.  After a short stop to say good-bye to the juniors in the study room, I follow Claire to the third floor of the mansion, my new home.  She carries my suitcase, and I carry the duffle bag that holds my toiletries, slippers, and a handful of black stockings.  I am one step  closer to a life dedicated to God.

End of Chapter 11

Decimus

10-Chorus Angelorum

 

 

Dread rises in my throat as I sit with my hands in my lap.  “I am not ready with this one.  Could we do it next week?” I ask quietly.  In the distance I hear the knock of Maryann’s fist on the cubicle doors.   Practice time has run out.  In the next few seconds the last notes drift away.   “I have to go. Everyone is leaving.”   Sister Josephine ignores my comment as though I had not spoken

“Let me see what you can do with the Libestraume.” She reaches over to lift my hands onto the keyboard.  I resist.  I tighten my arms and hold them firm.  Out of the corner of my eye I see her face redden.  “I can’t play if I’m not ready,” I mutter.  My rational self wants to cooperate, but my stubborn side does not relent.

Sister rises and moves to my left.  “Are you going to play or not?” Her voice is low and icy.  When I remain stone-like, she pulls the music books from the piano.  Exasperation crackles around her.  “Get out,” she orders.

I stand and walk out without a backward look.  Just as I pass through the doorway, Sister throws the jumble of music books at my retreating figure and slams the door in a final burst of anger.  I am ashamed.  I should have played.  So what if I wrecked Liszt’s composition.

The pounding of feet on the stairs interrupts my thoughts.  I shake my head and stoop to gather the books that had scattered like bowling pins.  Juniors and a few postulants still clog the hall.  I squeeze past them, store my music on the shelf, and rush to catch up with the others.

For hours after my lesson I wonder why God does not bless me with the talent to be a fine pianist.  Desire and hard work are not enough; I need the gift.

As much as the piano was both fun and frustration, singing was all joy.  Italians love to sing.  They belt out opera arias where others meekly hum tunes from the Hit Parade.   At St. Peter, the Italian church my family attends, the parishioners do not need to be coaxed into singing; they sing with gusto.  The organist never worries about drowning out the congregation because it is always in full voice.

Mother Ninetta and Mother Carolina, both natives of Italy, consider music as important as eating and praying.  We practice choral singing every day, and I love it.  We sing for liturgical services and for the solemn ceremonies of Investiture and Profession.  We sing when we peel potatoes and when we travel to the parishes on the convent bus.

The biggest and most exciting musical event in the calendar year is the Archbishop’s dinner and concert.  This gala occasion gives us a chance to honor Archbishop Walsh and his many friends.  The Archbishop is important to the nuns.  Villa Walsh is named for him because he nurtured the order from its early days in New Jersey, and it is he who found a way to purchase this grand and elegant place where we all live.

Rehearsal for the concert takes over singing class for weeks.  Eventually, the time comes to pull it altogether: the choral numbers, the piano pieces, and the guest appearance of Sister Anna, a virtuoso violinist.  I have not yet heard Sister Anna play, but her reputation leaves little doubt that she will thrill us along with the guests.  I can’t wait to be captured by her magic.

It is ten o’clock on Friday night.  We have been rehearsing since eight o’clock without a break.   The rough spots in Malaquena are smoothed out, and we are ready to work on The Syncopated Clock.  Mother Carolina pauses, places her white baton on the music stand, and reaches under her shawl to pull out a watch that is tethered to a long black cord.  Fatigue and determination battle on her small, round face.  After a quick glance she returns the watch to its pocket and searches through the pile of music.  A few moments tick away as she studies the next number.  She is so focused that I think she has forgotten we are there.

Without a word she turns, steps off the podium, and moves toward Sister Victoria.  Mother Carolina bends stiffly and points to a part of the musical score on the piano.  They discuss a change in the dynamics, and when both are satisfied, Mother Carolina returns to the podium.  As she steps up, her left hand presses on her back to relieve the pain and discomfort caused by the brace she wears.  She suffers from scoliosis.  The condition leaves her unable to sit at the piano for any length of time.

Mother Carolina raps her baton for attention, even though we already stand like racers waiting for the sound of the gun.  I can’t see Sister Victoria’s hands, but I know they are poised over the keyboard.  I love to watch her play.  Her fingers are long and slender.  I marvel at how sure they are of every note.

An imperceptible nod of Mother Carolina’s head sends a start signal, and the notes of the introduction spring from the keyboard.  The Syncopated Clock is underway.  Winks and nods dance across Mother Carolina’s face.  The pain in her back forgotten, she draws us onward.  We stay with her all the way.  “Tick tock tick…then tock tick tock.”

A sudden pounding on the podium sends everyone into a numbing silence.  “Shudda off those dirrrty notes,” she bellows, the r’s growling like the roll of a bass drum.  Her Italian accent doubles the thunder of her words.  The glare she directs toward the alto section confirms that she knows who has produced the offending note.  There is no hiding from her perfect ear.  In disgust, Mother Carolina decides that, since we are so tired, further practice is useless.  Rehearsal is over for the night.

Mother Carolina sends one of the novices to get our monitors.  While we wait for them to come, Sister Anna and Sister Victoria rehearse Beethoven’s Spring Sonata for piano and violin.  What a perfect choice. The first movement is perky and sunny.  The instruments chat back and forth like young friends at play.  The second movement slips into a more reflective mood.  There are no “dirrrty” notes from these two musicians. As they perform, Mother Carolina watches and listens.  She has chosen a spot off to the side near a portrait of Archbishop Walsh.  She still holds the baton pointed down toward the floor.  It moves slightly as the rhythms of the piece course through her body.  The three of them would be there for another hour or two, musical masters at work.  I am disappointed when Sister Giovanina and Sister Margaret arrive.  I am exhausted and need to sleep, but still, I hate being dragged away.

 

The next morning, after Mass and duties, we gather in the study room.  Sister Giovanina enters with a list in her hand.  She had met with Sister Vanda, Sister Margaret and Sister Rosalie late into the night to work out our schedules.  They asked Sister Delia, head of the kitchen staff, to join them. Sister Delia shared her additions to the many banquet preparations that required help from novices, postulants and juniors.  The multi-course meal would be served directly after the concert, and much needed to be done beforehand.

Sister Giovanina reads us her roster of jobs and groupings. After a few questions, we take off in all directions.  My team meets with Sister Rosalie outside the main refectory where Sunday’s feast will be served.  The eight of us follow Sister down a narrow stairway to a storage room lined with rows of shelves like a library.  The shelves are stacked with plates: soup plates, dinner plates, dessert plates, bread plates, plates rimmed with gold, plain white plates, plates with floral designs.  One section of the room is filled with hundreds of stemmed glasses of all sizes.

Sister Giovanina enters with a pile of trays and passes them out.  We listen as Sister Rosalie gives instructions as to types of glasses and sizes of dishes that are needed.  Sister Giovanina organizes a smooth system of relays to get the glasses delivered to the dish washing team that waits upstairs.  For nearly two hours we troop up and down.

In the meantime, Sister Rosalie leaves the storage area.  The silverware polish-and-wash team needs her last minute directions.  Novices are busy laundering linen napkins and tablecloths and passing each one through the hot mangle.  The rumble of the machines and the sloshing of water are audible through the walls of the storage room. Sister Giovanina stands on the fourth step of a ladder in order to reach the higher shelves.  I hold my tray ready.  She hands the glasses, one at a time, to Rosemary, who carefully fills the tray.  Sister Giovanina pauses, glances down at me, and warns again, “Go slowly.  Don’t shake the tray.”  Just as she says that, the tray tilts slightly, and the glasses begin to slide.  “Watch,” she repeats.

“I will,” and I turn, carefully this time, and walk toward the door.  Maryann waits for me with her tray.  When she sees that I am ready, she starts up the narrow steps.

“Do you think the Archbishop will give us a day off from school?  After all this work we deserve a reward,” says Maryann from up ahead.

“That would be a big-hearted thing for him to do. He’s done it before.  We can hope,” I answer.

“Hey, don’t get so close…” Maryann never finishes her words because when she turns to look at me, the edge of her tray nudges the wall.  That’s all it takes.  I stare as twelve goblets slide across the tray like skaters across a frozen pond.  The first goblet hits the lip of the tray and rises into the air.  Glasses hit the wall and drop to the stone steps, a glittering shower of crystal.  Maryann’s arms flail in an effort to recapture the flying stemware, and in the process she sends the tray rattling past me to the bottom of the stairs.

Before either of us could recover from the shock, a chorus of “What happened?” echoes in all directions.  Sister Giovanina arrives at the bottom of the steps and Sister Rosalie appears at the top.  Juniors crane their necks to get a better view.

Maryann’s dark complexion turns strangely pale.  She leans against the wall.

Sister Rosalie, a normally nervous and easily flustered person, surprises us by taking charge.  She sends one of the postulants for a broom to clean up the mess and orders Maryann to find herself a glass of cold water.   In the middle of this ruckus a messenger from Sister Victoria summons part of our team to the concert hall.  It is time to rehearse our piano number for the last time.

Mary Jane and I detour to get two other piano players, who are helping Sister Vanda make name cards and favors for the dinner tables.  She is not happy that her workers have to leave in the middle of their tasks.  She knows the rehearsals are sometimes lengthy, and I am sure she is tempted to voice her complaints.

We hurry off, more focused on our own nervous excitement than her displeasure.  We take a shortcut through the chapel. Four novices are on their knees waxing the floor of the sanctuary.  They ignore us, but our hurried passage attracts Sister Mary’s attention.  She is perched on a ladder putting fresh candles on the main altar.  Her frown at our perfunctory genuflections leaves no doubt as to her disapproval.  We slow our pace and try to appear more reverent.

Once outside the chapel we gallop up the stairs like a pack of spirited ponies.  In the concert hall Mother Carolina still stands near the portrait of the Archbishop as though she has not moved since the night before.  Only her relaxed, rested facial muscles show that she has been revived by sleep.  The keyboards of the four grand pianos are open and ready, their lids propped open.

Mother Carolina is anxious to get rehearsal underway.  “Ghels, sit in your singing places.  We practice coming up to bow.”

The twelve of us take our places amid all the empty chairs.  At Mother Carolina’s signal we walk to where we will bow.  Mother Carolina nudges and pokes us into an acceptable semicircle between the pianos.  “Go back.  We do it again.”

She positions herself near the Archbishop’s throne-like chair and continues to issue directions as we line up.  “You see when Carol is in place.  Then you bow.”  We watch for Carol and at the same time try not to turn sideways.  “No, no, Maryann. Head up when you bow.  Look at the people.  Go back.  Do it again.”  This time we get through the bow to her grunted satisfaction.

Four piano benches scrape forward as we settle into place.  One person at each piano reaches up to turn down the music stand.  I sit at the first piano on the right, my hands poised over the keyboard, wrists up.  Sister Victoria and Sister Josephine stand by the pipe organ and watch us intently.  Sister Josephine distractedly fingers her beads.  On cue my hands turn cold and clammy.  I wonder if my fingers will remember what they are supposed to play.  I hope so, because my brain is numb.  When eleven pairs of eyes fix on Mary Jane’s, she mouths the count, and we launch into Two Guitars.

End of Chapter 10

 

Nonus

9-Deo Gratias

 

The school year ends, and summer explodes with activity.  Second and third year novices, young nuns, and veteran teachers return to the motherhouse en masse: some to continue summer studies, some for spiritual retreats, and some to teach.  Preparation for their arrival requires coordination and a dependable supply of workers.  Every member of the community who can walk and carry is pressed into service

Mattresses, metal springs, and bedsteads are pulled from attic storage.   Lines of sweltering postulants, juniors, and first year novices, like an army on the move, struggle down flights of stairs, through the great hall, past the rock gardens, to the third floor of the Novitiate.  Snarls and bits of conversation escape between huffs, puffs, and grunts.  “Don’t go so fast; the bar is slipping out of my hand,” or “Watch where you’re going; you’ll hit the wall,” followed by the annoyed, “I can see it.”  The procession moves forward, a line of giant ants carrying blankets, army cots, mattress pads, night stands, and chairs.

Sister Vanda, Sister Margaret, and Sister Giovanina direct the action at strategic points.  Each has a clipboard with lists, numbers, and diagrams that they check periodically as work progresses.   A group of novices assigned to the dormitory use mallets to assemble metal beds.  They pull the mattresses into place and make up the beds with fresh sheets.  Another crew busily sweeps and polishes floors and dusts the walls.  In two days the work is done. We temporarily abandon the Villa to the summer nuns.

Early Saturday morning after last minute clean-ups and final good-byes, we pile into the bus. Our luggage and supplies have been loaded on the pick-ups that will follow us to the Jersey shore.  Time drags while we wait for Mother Mistress to board with her last minute good wishes for perfect weather.

“Here she comes,” someone calls from the back of the bus.  I watch as she makes her way toward us.  “Have a good time, but remember that you are daughters of St. Lucy even as you play and renew your spirits.  Be thankful for those who have given us the houses by the sea.  God bless you all.”  She takes a minute to issue some final instructions to Sister Margaret.  With a last wave Mother Mistress steps down, and the door closes.  Our bus driver shifts into gear and backs the bus out of the driveway. We holler farewell to Mother Mistress who stands alone at the back door of the novitiate smiling as the bus pulls away.

Hours of travel time pass with songs and bags of potato chips.  We soak up the world outside the bus’s windows.   The smell of salt air and fish announces the end of the journey.  “Hey, look over there.  I can see the water,” Annie calls out.   All heads crane to look.  Minutes later, we pull into the driveway, and the flurry of unloading baggage is underway.

We form a circle around Sister Margaret. She pulls out a list and goes through the room assignments.  When that is done, the juniors follow Sister Giovanina to the third floor.  Someone has attached a name tag to each bed.  I am thrilled to find my name on a cot near the window.  Some juniors have beds and some have cots.  I would rather have a window than a bed.  Sister gives out towels and washcloths so we can freshen up.  When everyone is ready, we line up and go to the dining room.

The supper menu is salad, fish cakes, bread, and ice cream.  I am starved and dig right in. Between mouthfuls I gaze out the huge windows.  The foamy white caps of high tide so fascinate me, that I no longer join the give and take of conversation around me. Only the constant passage of postulants with bowls and platters of food draw my attention from the ocean view.  I have never seen the ocean; it is so big and stretches so far.

By  seven o’clock I am really tired and can’t wait to sleep.  I think that at any moment Sister Giovanina will send us off to bed.  Instead she takes us up to her room, where piles of white dresses cover every inch of her bed.  She holds one against my shoulders and decides it’s a good fit.  It’s like a sailor dress with a big collar and navy blue buttons down the front.  This dress business is a surprise.  The novices and postulants wear their usual black, we wear white dresses.  I hang mine in the closet and finally tumble onto my cot.

In the morning I lay my bag on the bed.  The first thing I pull out is my swimsuit.  Back in May Mother Mistress told me to write home and ask for a knee length bathing suit.  Three weeks later Mama’s package arrives with a note.

No potuto trovare la veste per nuotare cosi lunga.”  She cannot find a long swimsuit. Mama buys what they have and sews a yellow ruffle to the skirt.  It does not match the yellow of the flowers, but Mama is practical. Yellow is yellow.

I shake my head as I think about the first time I saw the suit.  I was not happy.  Well, now I am ready to wear it.   I put on the t-shirt and then wiggle into the swimsuit.  The two pieces of clothing feel like layers of armor.  I try to remember that modesty is important even at the beach.  I am the last to leave the dorm room and scramble to catch up with the others.  My friends are already staking out spots on the beach.  We spread towels, drop robes, and dash to the water.  The tees and bulky suits do not seem to bother the rest of the juniors.  They call to me to hurry up and get wet.

For two weeks we jump waves, lie on the sand for hours, work on sun burns, and devour clam chowder.  When it rains, we play board games on the wraparound porches or take afternoon naps.  In between we attend Mass, say our prayers, and keep up with housekeeping.  Most evenings we have meditation on the beach and recite the rosary to the rhythm and susurration of the waves.  One evening after prayers, the novices pile up pieces of driftwood they gather from the shore, and make off with some abandoned boards they find in an old storage room. We have the makings of a bonfire.  As soon as darkness falls, one of the novices lights the fire. That night we eat hot dogs, and roast marshmallows way past eleven o’clock.  We sing every old song from “Clementine” to “On Top of Ole Smokey.”  Some of the older nuns get into the spirit and stay with us past their bedtimes.

The bonfire is fun, but I really love the quiet of nights at the ocean, the dark sky’s deep, velvet-smooth blackness poked with starlight holes.  Many nights I close my eyes and feel the seaside darkness.  From my cot near the open window, I listen to the sounds of the waves that crash like waterfalls or whisper as softly as a backyard brook.  I lie awake and listen to the snores and breathing of my roommates that rise and fall, like the basso continuo to the ocean’s tides.

My favorite person here at the beach is Mother Economa.  She and St. Joseph by the Sea are perfect mates.  No one thinks of one without the other.  Her real name is a mystery that she enjoys keeping to herself.  The nickname comes from her job as financial manager of our convent’s miniature resort.  This elderly nun with the small, round, child-like face looks so much like Mother Teresa with that same powerhouse mind, and quiet, unassuming ways.

She loves singing and cannot get enough of  You Are My Sunshine. On the evening of our arrival, we gather under her window and sing.  As always, the familiar melody lures her onto the small porch outside her room on the second floor.  She listens and looks into our faces.  With a light shining behind her, she is a heavenly vision with a smile that wraps around me like a warm bath.  She stays till the last note fades, leaves us with a small wave and a mouthed “God bless you.”  Often Mother Economa appears in the dining room after supper and demands that we sing it again.  Her face glows with pleasure at these impromptu bursts of song.

At the end of two weeks we bring our peeling noses and sand-filled pockets back to Villa Walsh.  The summer months inch along, a pleasant blend of informal days and relaxed rules.  Little changes pop up everywhere.  When the weather is dry, we eat supper outdoors on the hillside with plates balanced gingerly on knees.  Sweet, juicy summer tomatoes dressed with salt, vinegar, and pungent olive oil replace the winter’s limp iceberg lettuce.  In the cool of evening we say our rosaries outdoors.  The Blessed Mother of Fatima looks down on us from her perch above the wall as we stroll about the grounds and watch the sun drop from the sky in a wash of orange, gold, and red.

Outdoor movies are another summertime treat.  Mother Provincial finds suitable films for nuns in training.  My favorite is The Song of Bernadette.  The groundskeeper sets up the screen against the porte cochere of the main building.  When darkness falls, we carry chairs from the refectory to the lawn.  There is always a novice adept at threading film through the maze of pathways that connect the front and back reels of the ancient movie projector. Fireflies compete with the pale, beautiful Jennifer Jones, who plays the saintly Bernadette.

Every now and then the ribbon of film jumps off the sprockets. This causes a staccato picture and rat-a-tat-tat sound that sometimes rips the film.  The projectionist bobs up to loosen the loop of film. A chorus of disappointed “aws” rings in her ears.  If she is fast enough, the film won’t rip.  Once the film snaps back into place, the movie continues.  When it ends, we clap as enthusiastically as viewers in theaters all over the country.

One by one, juniors get to their feet, stretch, and inhale deep breaths of damp night air.  I am deliciously tired and don’t try to stifle the huge yawns that rise unbidden after having sat for so long.  We are as sleepy as children traveling home after a day at the beach.  Only an occasional muffled word or swat at a mosquito disturbs the quiet as we carry our chairs back to the refectory, head to the dorms, and go to bed.

End of Chapter 9

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Octavus

8-Quia Peccavimus Tibi

Obedience is not a new idea.  Mama had seven children to deal with, a house to run, and little tolerance for deviation from her rules.  We said the rosary every evening because she said we must.  We made our beds every morning because she said we must.   When Mother Mistress said that juniors will check and remove laundered stockings from the wooden rack, I checked all the time because she said we must.

This day I am late. My history homework needs last minute attention.  I should stop in the bathroom to check the stockings, but I don’t.  I take the chance because it is a damp, dreary day they will still be wet.  I run off to class.

Dry stockings are not on my mind during eleven o’clock choir practice.  Everyone is seated: novices, postulants and juniors.   “Open your Saint Gregory Hymnal to page 200 A,” Sister Victoria begins.  “We’ll work on songs for the Blessed Mother for the whole week, so bring your hymnals every day.”

When the turning of pages quiets, she continues.  “We worked on Ave Maria yesterday, but the phrasing is still not right.”  I have my eyes on Sister Victoria, but spot Sister Giovanina when she enters the hall and walks to the piano.  Sister Victoria’s arm stops in the middle of an airborne curlicue.  She nods “yes” to whatever Sister Giovanina whispers into her ear.  Sister Victoria points to where I sit.

“I wonder why she wants me,” I murmur to Mary Jane as I squeeze around the edge of the piano and follow Sister out of the concert hall.

Back at the Juniorate Sister Giovanina leaves me outside Mother Mistress’s room.  I knock and put my ear to the door.  At the sound of footsteps I back away and the door opens.  Across Mother Mistress’s bed lay a pair of black stockings.  Until that instant I had not thought about my early morning decision to leave for school without picking up my hosiery.  I offer no excuse and accept her scolding.

“Obedience is a virtue that will be part of your oblation one day.  You must practice it every day.  Saint Lucy obeyed the Pope when he asked her to work among the poor.  You must follow in Mother Foundress’s footsteps and be obedient in even small things.  Do you understand, Veronica?”

“Yes, Mother Mistress,” I respond in my most penitent voice.  To help me remember morning routines, she drapes the stockings around my neck and dismisses me with the order that I not remove them until bedtime.

All day I wear the black pennant of shame.  I ignore the second glances of teachers, juniors, postulants, of everyone I see.  No one comments or teases, but I hated the humiliation.  I can’t wait to get rid of this pair of stockings around my neck..  Never again will they hang on the wooden rack past 8:30, wet or dry.

 

I am always being taught a lesson. This time it has to do with food.  Once a month, usually on the last Thursday, liver is the featured food on the menu.  The thought of liver churns my stomach.  The twice weekly servings of cold powdered egg omelets are ghastly, too, but at least those go down easily.  If I hold my breath and swallow fast, there is no taste, but liver is nearly impossible to get down without gagging.

Today is Thursday and there is a good sized piece of cold, hard liver on my plate.  I’ve eaten the peas and two slices of bread but I have not even cut up the liver.  The longer it glares at me, the tougher it is to control the nausea that bubbles up inside me.  There is no ketchup which might make it easier to swallow, nothing at all to mask the taste and awful texture.  The air in the refectory is damp and heavy.  Even the seat of my wooden chair is sticky and uncomfortable.  I look through the small, high windows at the driving rain and back at the liver.  The juniors around me are silent and grumpy-looking.  Mother Mistress has not yet said “Buon appetito,” the signal for the end of silence.  I glance around, and since no one is looking, I slide open my drawer and push the liver inside.  Later, I will devise a way to throw it into the garbage.

Because of the drenching storm, afternoon classes are held in the main building instead of the Regina Pacis building where classes were normally held.  It is no fun walking to the other side of the estate in the pouring rain.  Halfway through geography period a novice brings a message summoning me to the refectory.  When I arrive, Mother Mistress is sitting across from my spot at the table.  I no longer have to figure a way to dispose of my piece of liver.  There it is, on a clean white plate.  Mother Mistress has set out everything I need: a knife, a fork, a glass and a full pitcher of water.  Without a word, I sit.

“Eat it all.”

With tears leaking from my eyes, I cut the liver into the tiniest pieces possible and flood them down my throat with huge gulps of water.  The hard, dry chunks of liver scrape my throat like ragged rocks.  When every bit is gone, Mother Mistress gets up.  With a last look at my plate she says, “Go to chapel and stay there until it is time to join the others for snack.

End of Chapter 8

Septimus

7-Ascendit in Coelum

The black stocking in my lap has a worn spot the size of a dime in the toe.  “This is an easy one,” I think as I pick the darning egg out of the wooden sewing box and work it down to the toe before threading my needle.

I sit in the circle with ten other juniors in the basement sewing room. As apprentice seamstresses we mend hems, replace buttons, and stitch seams.  As we work, we take turns leading the prayers of the rosary.  At regular intervals we pause to sing hymns to our Blessed Lady.  Devotions, like the rosary, create a halo of contentment around an otherwise boring task.

Just as the harmony of Hail Queen of Heaven fades, Sister Giovanina appears at the door to lead us to the  juniorate.  I knot the thread and snip it.  The sewing box still sits on a chair near the cutting table, so I lean over and push the needle into the first pin cushion I see.  There is just enough room for the darning egg in the compartment with stray buttons.  I quickly flip down the covers over the two compartments.

Some juniors put away chairs or fold clothing; others line up and file out with Sister. As I push my chair against a wall, some bits of thread on the floor catch my eye.  Mother Mistress had told us that picking up threads or paper could be offered up for the release of a soul in Purgatory. I am tempted to ignore the threads, but I cannot chase away the voice inside me that whispers, “Offer it up.” Perhaps the spell of the rosary and sacred hymns is all it takes to convince me that a poor soul depends on me for its passport into Heaven.

The last junior leaves, and I stay behind to pick up the threads.  As I cross the room to drop the threads into the wastebasket, I knock the sewing box off the chair.  Spools of thread, loose buttons, scissors, and pincushions roll across the floor.  It isn’t until I had gathered all the sewing materials into a pile, ready to refill the sewing box, that I notice the damaged sewing box handle. It is split like a broken bone. Its sides jut out at odd angles.  I line up the jagged edges and nudge them into a close fit.  A zigzagged line like a scar is visible, but only if someone examines it closely.   I slide my fingers under the base of the sewing box, lift it, and gently place it on the shelf.  After a last look around I turn off the lights, close the door, and race upstairs.

The juniors busy themselves getting ready for chapel and dinner.   I grab my towel and hurry to the bathroom.  When the bell rings, I am ready to join the others in the corridor.  What will I do about the broken sewing box handle?  My conscience nags me to own up.

During our reading and writing session later that afternoon, a solution presents itself.  I pull a clean sheet of paper from my binder and write:

 

DEAR MOTHER MISTRESS,

THIS MORNING I BROKE THE SEWING KIT AND I AM VERY SORRY.  I WILL REVEAL MY NAME ON JULY 16TH.

 

I fold the paper neatly and approach Sister Giovanina who sits reading at her desk at the front of the room.  “May I go to the bathroom?” I ask.

Without raising her head, she mumbles, “Yes.”  I slip out of the study hall and pad quietly down the hall to Mother Mistress’s room.  I am ashamed of my cowardice, but I cannot tell Mother Mistress about this face to face.  It takes a second to slip the note under her door and make my escape.  Surely Sister Giovanina must hear the pounding in my chest as I reenter the room.

Only Janet, who sits behind me, looks up.  “It’s about time,” she hisses.  She needs to use the restroom but had to wait until I got back.

“Sorry,” I whisper.

Throughout the afternoon I wonder if Mother Mistress has picked up the note.  Perhaps she hasn’t spotted it.  I should not have written the note at all.  Contradictory thoughts swirl in my head.  I had not told any of the juniors about the sewing box mishap, not even Mary Jane or Carol.  I feel like that Spartan messenger in our history book who runs miles with a baby fox scratching and clawing at his chest to prove his toughness and bravery.  My conscience scratches and claws, but what have I proved?

At six o’clock Sister Vanda comes to the Juniorate to read and explain a chapter about obedience and submission from The Imitation of Christ.  My eyes follow the words on the page, but I cannot keep my focus on the reading or on Sister Vanda’s comments.  At 6:20 contemplation is over, and it is time for rosary and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

Mother Mistress sits in the last pew, her head turned toward Mother Provincial, deep in urgent conversation.  I keep my eyes straight ahead as we walk down the aisle.  It is hard to squelch the fear that they are discussing a note found under the door.  I remind my prickly conscience that they have many other issues of far greater importance to discuss.

Saturday passes with nothing beyond the cleaning and washing and macaroni dinner of a normal Saturday.  By Sunday I am in agony.  Will this nervous agitation ever fade?  It is late morning and a good time to give my desk a thorough cleaning.  I throw out some old homework papers that have collected in the back of my history notebook.  After rearranging my books and sharpening pencils, I decide to tackle the essay questions on inventors that Sister Mary assigned on Friday.  Just then, Sister Giovanina pokes her head in the doorway, “Mother Mistress wants you in Sister Vanda’s room right now.”

“For what?” I ask.

“I have no idea.  Hurry up and get down there,” she replies.

“Do I have time to put my books away?”

“I guess so, but don’t take long,” In a second she is gone.

It is out of my hands.

“But maybe,” I think, “this has nothing to do with the broken sewing box.”  There is not enough time to examine this possibility because I am already at the bottom of the stairs.  Mother Mistress is sitting at Sister Vanda’s old roll top desk.  Sister Vanda stands in front of the window.  She does not speak.  She does not move.  Mother Mistress has my note in her hand.  She looks at me and points to a straight -backed wooden chair near the desk.

“Sit down,” she says.  My mouth is dry.  I sit without saying a word.  Her face is dark but not angry, more like sad or disappointed.  “If you want to go home, why don’t you say so?  This is not necessary.”  She waves the note so that it flutters like a captured butterfly.  “Were you planning to leave without telling us?”

“I don’t want to go home,” I croak.  I never expected this interpretation of my note.  Tears burn in my eyes, and I feel the blood drain from my face.

“Well, what’s this about the 16th?  Why did you pick that day?  Is it Visiting Sunday?”

The room spins as I realize that I might be sent home.   “I don’t want to go home,” I blurt again.  “July 16th is the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and it was the first date that came to my mind.”  My sobs burst unchecked.  How did this get so out of hand?  My shoulders heave as I gasp for breath.  Through blurred eyes I see Mother Mistress turn to Sister Vanda, who is examining the calendar that hangs over her dresser.

“July 16th is a Thursday.”

“Here, take your note,” Mother Mistress says and gets up from the chair.  I get up, too.  I can’t look her in the eye.  Instead I stare at her hand with the note.  I try to blink away the tears so I can kiss her ring. I look up and she hands me her white handkerchief and drops the note on the desk.  After I kiss her ring she walks away.

At the door she stops and looks back, “We will get the sewing box fixed.  Next time just tell me.”  And she is gone.

I sit down again and stare wretchedly at my silly note.  Sister Vanda putters in the small bathroom, letting the water run in the sink.  She comes out and hands me a glass of cold water.  After I drain the glass and hand it back, she pulls me close to her.  She holds me for a long time, my wet face buried in the front of her shawl.  I feel her chin drop on the top of my head as she tightens her hold on me then lets me go.

End of Chapter Seven

 

 

 

 

Sextus-

6-Et Ne Nos Inducas In Tentationem

 

I slide out of bed and pull on my bathrobe.  Carol points to the back of the dormitory and mouths, “Get Mary Jane.  I’ll meet you in the bathroom.”

The light from the transom guides me to Mary Jane’s bed.   Three rough shakes roust my drowsy friend.  After a search for slippers, we creep toward Sister Giovanina’s curtained quarters.  I pause to listen, then tiptoe past.

Carol sits on the bathroom floor.  She tosses the jacks and takes a few practice swipes at the scattered patterns.  Most nights we play till someone wins or the cold stone floor chases us back to bed.  These midnight competitions are Carol’s idea. I sign on for the thrill of sneaking around while everyone else is in bed.

Mary Jane has just finished twosies when a sleepy ghost in a long chenille robe and black bonnet appears at the door.  The distraction interferes with Mary Jane’s threesies toss and sends the ball skittering across the floor.  It disappears under one of the stalls.

“What are you doing?” The question hangs in the air like a lost balloon.

Carol is first to recover her senses.  She sweeps the jacks into a pile and dumps them into her pocket.  I manage to jump to my feet, nearly tripping over the hem of my robe.   Before anyone has a chance to answer Sister Giovanina’s question, the hallway door opens, and there stands Mother Mistress, framed in yellow light from the nearby stairway.

In seconds our situation has shifted in a major way. We know that a stern reprimand and a promise not to do it again will not do.  Mother Mistress’s frown rests on Sister Giovanina and then sweeps over each of us.  She is still in her habit, and I can tell that she is tired.  Our game is not what she wants to think about at this time of night.  “Go to bed, girls.  I will speak with Sister Giovanina.” The words fall one by one like drops from a melting icicle.  She is too exhausted to deal with us, but our adventure will not be forgotten.

I kiss her ring with a mumbled “Sia lodate” and return to the dormitory.  The others follow.  From the hall comes the soft murmur of their voices.  For many minutes I strain to hear, but I can’t make out any of the words.   Eventually, the rise and fall of their conversation lulls me to sleep.

The next day our punishment is revealed.  For three evenings Mary Jane, Carol, and I kneel in front of the main table in the teachers’ refectory.   On the third night we listen outside the door to the last lines of the De Profundis, a prayer for the dead.  As the words fade away, we file into the room and take our places.  This day Mother Mistress joins Mother Ninetta and Mother Superior for supper.  The rattle of dishes quickly subsides as the nuns eat and listen to the reader’s retelling of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.  I kneel with eyes lowered and hands folded in prayer.  At the close of the scriptural reading Mother Mistress nods, and we rise from the floor.  I wince and rub my knees before circling around the main table.  Mother Ninetta has put down her fork and holds her hand within reach so I can kiss her ring.  Before I retreat to make room for Carol, Mother Mistress turns me around and pulls me down to eye level.  Her face has relaxed to a gentle look.  “No more jacks in the bathroom, heh.”

The moment of relief is brief because Annie’s words flash into my mind.  “You could get sent home if you keep getting into trouble.”

I know she is right, but Carol is so much fun.  Carol knows all the ways to get around rules.  She knows where Monsignor’s special cookies are hidden and when it is safe to snatch a few.  She churns out an endless supply of mischief.  While most juniors worry about getting sent home for infractions, Carol doesn’t care. She has told me that her aunts and her mother forced her to stay at Villa Walsh.  She wants to go home to California.  Her mom has divorced her dad and lives alone in California without enough money to take care of Carol.  I get the feeling that her mom does not much care about Carol.  And the divorce?  That’s a big thing.  It is just not allowed unless you stay single the rest of your life which Carol’s mom may not want to do.  I understand why Carol takes every chance she can to break the rules.

Against her wishes Carol remains a junior, but it was different for Kathleen and Virginia.  They had been at Villa Walsh for almost a year, and one Sunday they did not return after visiting hours.  There was no explanation.  They were gone.  I feel uneasy about their absence, and I talk to Annie about it.

She says, “I don’t know anything.  But Mother Mistress can send them away if she wants to, or maybe they wanted to go home.” I do not believe they left voluntarily.

Two weeks after our late night game, I am in trouble again.  I go to the dormitory to get my towel and soap to wash up after class.  The room is empty except for Mother Mistress.  She sits on my bedside chair with her arms folded across her chest.  Without a word she tilts her head toward the jumble of clothes that lies strewn on my bed.

During my first week at Villa Walsh Elaine had taught me how to fold and place every handkerchief, undershirt, and towel in the drawer.  The rounded end of folded clothing had to face outward and be piled with military precision.   Each undershirt had its assigned spot in the drawer.  It was unacceptable to move the stack of black stockings from the right corner to the left.   During the last few months I had failed several inspections.  Twice Elaine dumped my clothes, and “Show me.”  She moves the chair into the aisle and sits to watch.  Her stern face is unnerving.

“I will be around again soon, and this is how I will find your drawer.  Isn’t that right, Veronica?”  I nod and watch her replace my chair and walk out of the dormitory without a word or backward glance.

 

End of Chapter 6

 

Quintus

5-Gaudium

School resumes, and life settles back to routine concerns except for the excitement created by a heavy snowfall.  Villa Walsh is a wonderland when the sun sparkles off a fresh batch of snow.    It is late Sunday morning.  We sit in the community room and listen to a lecture on the rules of etiquette.  The lesson of the day is the proper way to pare an orange.    Mother Mistress, with a dish, knife, and orange before her, demonstrates: “Cut a circle of skin off the top like this.”  I face the front of the room but do not see the demonstration.  My eyes focus on the vistas out the windows all around us.

Mary Jane pokes Carol, and I hear her whisper.  “You ask her if we can get the sleds out.”

“Why me?” Carol hisses.

“She’ll say yes to you.”  Carol has three aunts who are full members of the community; Sister Victoria is one of them.  This gives Carol an edge.  Sister Victoria is the number one pianist and number one musician at the Villa.  She directs choir practice when Mother Carolina cannot be there and is the accompanist for all the concerts.  Sister Josephine, the other music teacher, is second in line.

Without more discussion Carol raises her hand and boldly asks if we can go sledding.  Mother Mistress pauses with a sigh of resignation.  “Well, I guess so.  After dinner will be a good time.  Sister Giovanina, do you know where the sleds are?”

Carol speaks up before Sister Giovanina can answer.  “I remember where they are.  They’re in the basement near the boiler room.” Sister Giovanina frowns at Carol’s rudeness.

It is agonizing to sit through the prayers and spiritual readings that drag on during this Sunday dinner.   Mother Mistress lets long minutes pass before she pronounces the words “Buon Appetito,” the signal which gives us permission to talk.   In seconds conversations get loud.  Excitement and anticipation crackles.  No matter how many times Sister Margaret, who is in charge of discipline in the refectory, rings her little bell to remind us to quiet down, we cannot.  The minutes elapse in their own good time, and we are freed to return to the Juniorate to don ski pants, coats, scarves, boots, and gloves.  Sister Giovanina assigns five juniors to go with Carol to get the sleds.  The rest of us line up and wait for quiet.  Down three flights of stairs we  maintain our silence.  We pass the sewing room, and then, like air rushing from a balloon, we burst out the back door and don’t stop until we reach the top of Tower Hill.

The tower stands six stories high.  A red pyramid roof crowns the top level, and four stone columns hold the roof aloft.  A rusting iron railing encircles the wide open look-out.  On Halloween Sister Giovanina had given us permission to climb to the top.  Once we pass bird droppings, cobwebs, and rotting leaves, the view is like a peek at the world from God’s throne.  A wrought iron gate opens into an enclosure formed by the stone wall in the front of the tower.  In summer we stroll in the grassy area while following the Stations of the Cross that line its inner walls.  It was rumored that George Washington had slept in the tower.  But residents of New Jersey claim that Washington had slept in every village and town of their state.  Washington or not, the slope behind the tower is perfect for sledding.  No trees obstruct the ride to the bottom.

Add eighteen inches of newly fallen snow to crisp frosty air, mix in bright sun and blue sky, and we have all the ingredients for fun.  One after the other we whiz down the hillside and trudge back up as we haul the sleds behind us.  Gales of laughter ride on the biting wind.  Two hours fly by with lightning speed.  Sister Giovanina tells us that we may take one last run before it is time to go indoors for hot chocolate.

As I stand at the top of the hill watching the others take their last slide, Angela comes up behind me with a sled in tow.  “Do you want to get on with me?”

“ Sure. I’ll sit in front, and you steer from the back, okay?” I say.   Seconds after we push off, the sled goes out of control and tips onto its side.  We’re trapped in a tangle of arms, legs, ropes, and runners.  The full weight of Angela’s body ends up on one side of my face while the other side scrapes along on the icy ground for several feet.  Shards of pain tear through my cheek as we continue down the hillside.  Angela’s efforts to roll off get us more and more tangled in the rope.

Somehow we slow to a stop.  Maryann and Patricia rush to help.  Patricia has the presence of mind to press a handkerchief to my raw and bleeding face.  When I try to touch it, she slaps my hand away.  I submit to the first aid she provides.  Sister Giovanina materializes at the edge of the group.  The knot of juniors parts to let her through.  Sister asks if I can walk as she leads me away, her arm around my waist.  Back at the novitiate, Sister Vanda decides to send me to the local hospital for x-rays just in case there is some serious injury.  My face looks terrible, but the x-rays show no broken bones.

The problem now is to hide my bruised and battered face from Mother Provincial.  No one doubts that our sleds will end up in limbo if she sees me. Winter fun will come to a sudden stop.  Luckily, in one week she is scheduled to travel to Italy for the chapter meeting of religious leaders in Rome.  She will be away for a month or more.  In that time my face will heal without anyone having to explain the accident.  So, for the next week I am confined to the dormitory.  The teachers think I am ill with the flu.  Patricia brings each meal on a tray and teases me mercilessly.  She insists that I am a spoiled pet because I am excused from duties and have my schoolwork brought to me each day.  The week passes.  Mother Provincial leaves for Rome, none the wiser.

End of Chapter Five

Quartus

4-Christus Natus Hodie

 

“What’s a spiritual bouquet?” I ask. Bouquets mean flowers.  I know Annie does not have flowers in mind.  She pulls a small holy card from her copy of The Imitation of Christ and turns it over.

“This is a spiritual bouquet,” and she runs her finger down the list. In neatly printed letters the list reads:  Rosaries, Masses, Litanies, Mortifications, and Stations of the Cross.  Next to each entry is a number that falls between 30 and 300.  I scan the list, stop at the 300 mortifications, and wonder how long it would take to make that many sacrifices.

“I’m sending this spiritual bouquet to my mom for her birthday,” Annie says, as I hand her the card.  Our chat brings to mind Mother Mistress’s sermonette of the previous evening.  Her daily talks are designed to teach us some aspect of spirituality, and last night’s topic was sacrifice.

“You must look for ways to suffer and mortify yourselves,” Mother Mistress had exhorted.  Her dark eyes stared into mine as though willing me to understand and accept her words.  “Jesus sacrificed His life for us, and many holy martyrs willingly surrendered their lives to the glory of God.”

I don’t think God will ask for my life any time soon, but Mother Mistress’s next words resonate in my mind.  “There are countless small ways to suffer like the martyrs for the glory of God.  The choices are all around you every day.  Do not waste them.”

There are so many ways for me to sacrifice.  I can be humble and polite when Rosemary issues one of those “this is how you do it the right way” corrections. I can graciously accept Elaine’s “big sister” hovering.  If I count each incident, I can collect 300 mortifications in no time.  I decide to start my campaign slowly. As a first step, I can pass up the chance to leave study hall for a drink.

During evening recreation I have my project in mind when I place myself near Sarah the least popular junior.  She must miss a lot of her bath days because her body odor gets unbearable. This should count double because the recreation room has no windows, and the lack of fresh air makes the smell all the more obnoxious.  I hoard these sacrificial moments the way Midas hoarded his stacks of golden coins.  As the days pass, my sacrifices add up. Christmas draws closer; I double my efforts to get to the magic 300.

Annie gets a holy card for me from Sister Giovanina.  It depicts a Nativity scene by Botticelli, perfect for my Christmas gift for Mama and Papa.  I have collected 30 Masses, 30 Visits to the Blessed Sacrament, 30 Rosaries, 30 Litanies, 4 Stations of the Cross, and 300 Mortifications.  With great care I print my entries in India Ink.  Elaine, who has an artistic hand, shows me how to make curlicues as a border for the masterpiece.  I beam with pride as I tuck the spiritual bouquet into my prayer book.

On the second Sunday of Advent Sister Giovanina gives each of us a few religious Christmas cards to send to family and friends.  She moves from junior to junior, makes comments, and answers questions. When she approaches my desk, she pulls over a chair and sits.  “Veronica,” she begins, “your mother sent you a doll.  In her letter she explained that this is the doll you received last year at Christmastime.  Do you remember it?”

I nod without comment.

“Juniors are not allowed to have this kind of personal possession,” Sister continues. She lays her hand on my shoulder.  “Mother Mistress wants you to know that she will send the doll to a poor little girl in Italy.  This is a sacrifice that you can offer to the Baby Jesus during this season of Advent.”

“Could I see it first?” I ask, as I struggle to hide my disappointment.

“No, I’m sorry, you can’t.  The novices have already packed it in one of the crates, and it will be shipped to Italy this week.  O the feast of the Epiphany, the day for presents in Italy, the little girl will be given your doll as a present from La Befana.  It will make her so happy.  Here are your cards.  When you write out the one for your mother, make sure to tell her that you received her package.  Explain to her that you are making this sacrifice for Jesus.  You will do this, won’t you?”

Again I nod.

Sister Giovanina puts the chair back and continues her distribution of the Christmas cards.  Sister is right; I do know that whatever I get from home becomes the property of the convent.  Mother Mistress opens our letters before she gives them to us, and twice she has written “five dollars” at the bottom of my letters.  She reads all the letters we send out, too.  I wonder why they want to read them, but I did not care that they did.  This time is different.  I put my head on my desk and let the tears come.

Our family had never exchanged gifts.  Each year on Christmas Eve my brothers, sisters, and I picked out the longest knee socks we could find and tacked them to the window sill near the Christmas tree.  In the morning we would find the socks, bulging with goodies.  I knew what was in my sock: a red apple, an over-sized orange, lots of nuts that Papa ordered every year from Zio Pete in California, and four or five Torrone, nougat candies that came in individual little boxes decorated with pictures of Italy.  Best of all, in the toe of the sock was a dollar bill.

Last year, like every other year, we tacked our socks to the window sill.  In the morning my sock was filled with goodies, but for the first time there was a real present.  For weeks I had seen dolls in stores all over town.  Even the local radio station had advertised them.   It did not occur to me to ask Mama for one.  But somehow, last Christmas, I got the Betsy Wetsy doll.  And now, a year later, my only real present is on its way to Italy.

I write out my Christmas cards to Mama, Papa, my brothers, and sister.  In the card for Mama and Papa I tuck the holy card with my spiritual bouquet, all done in fancy letters and curlicues.   I do not tell Mama about the doll-sacrifice, as Sister Giovanina suggested.  I will be the only one to know that it is the biggest mortification in my spiritual bouquet.

As the preparations for Christmas get into full swing, my unhappiness about the doll fades.  At choir we practice the Mass of the Shepherds.  Through ancient pastoral melodies the music tells the Christmas story. I see the shepherds warm their hands around the fires and hear the voices of the angels announce the birth of the Infant Jesus.  I never tire of the many rehearsals.  The music grows ever more precious and new.  As Advent progresses, the festive spirit grows everywhere at the Villa.  The massive antique table in the center of the foyer is gone, and in its place stands a towering pine that reaches toward the second floor.

“Where did they get that one?” I blurt to Annie.  I have never seen a Christmas tree that tall.  “Who will decorate it?”

“I think Sister Margaret and the postulants will decorate it.  Can’t you picture it with lights and ornaments and tinsel?”

By the fourth week of Advent the chapel is transformed for the holidays.  Red poinsettias and evergreens in large gold vases adorn the high altar.  Just outside the chapel Sister Vanda works on the six-foot Nativity scene.  Often I stop on the way to piano practice to watch the town of Bethlehem as it grows more recognizable.  Sister Vanda allows me to watch for a few minutes, but too soon she sends me on my way.  I am jealous of the artist novices who work alongside her.  With strokes of soft charcoal on brown paper they add shadows to the mountainsides that Sister Vanda had tucked, folded, and crimped into existence.   She uses mirrors to simulate reflecting pools and tinsel to mimic waterfalls.  Shepherds and sheep meander amid the pathways toward the manger where the Infant Jesus lay under the watchful eyes of Mary and Joseph.

As the days pass, Sister Vanda and the novices work longer and longer hours.  With the appearance of the Three Kings, the crèche is complete and will remain in place from Christmas to the feast of the Epiphany on January sixth.  The symbolic arrival of the Magi on that day signals the official close of the church’s celebrations.

Santa Claus comes to the Villa on the twenty-third of December.  A chimney large enough to conceal the kindly gentleman stands alongside a roaring fire in the concert hall.  At nine o’clock we sit in the semi-darkness with only the glow from the fireplace to light our faces and wait for Mother Provincial to join us.  The moment she enters, Sister Rosalie throws a switch, and hundreds of white lights shimmer and dance on the tree.  Delicate Christmas ornaments and glass globes glisten with sparks of red, gold, blue, and silver.

“Hey, listen.  I hear it,” I whisper to Annie.  The jingle gets louder.  We both look toward the fireplace.

As soon as Santa’s head pops over the edge of the chimney, Sister Josephine bangs out the lively Santa song on the piano.  “Santa Claus is coming in his reindeer sleigh. Coming down the chimney is his good old way….” This is so much fun!  No phrasing, crescendo, or pianissimo, just loud, enthusiastic singing.

Santa Claus waves and laughs and shifts the sack on his shoulders.  “Ho, ho, ho.  Merry Christmas.”  With every wave of his arm the bells jingle.  Mother Ninetta has the broadest smile I have ever seen.  She joins in the merriment.  It pleases her to see the delight on our faces.  Santa moves around the room and gives each of us a box of Christmas candy.  He works the crowd and bellows his merry Christmases.   We sing holiday songs, one after the other.  Santa ends up sitting on the piano bench with Sister Josephine.  He gives her two boxes of candy and a huge hug that gives rise to a blush and a good- natured laugh from Sister.  After his rest, Santa grabs his bag and disappears into the chimney, and we disappear to the dormitories.   We continue to eat candy and enjoy the good feelings.

With nightfall on Christmas Eve a slumber descends on the Villa that is deeper than any other night in the year.  The sisters retire early. No one wanders the darkened halls.   At eleven o’clock, while the nuns and the novices sleep, we roll out of our warm beds, dress, and silently slip away to the refectory where Sister Josephine waits.  We have a special job to do.  Sister’s voice echoes in the still-dormant recesses of my brain.  “Stay close together.  No talking and walk lightly.   I want the sisters to hear your voices and think the angels have come to wake them, not the army of Satan’s minions”

 

We line up and follow Sister Josephine through the silent chapel. It is as empty as it was on my first night when Sister Giovanina and I prayed to Our Lady before going to the Juniorate.  This night we creep down the side aisle and out the door that leads to the wing where the sisters sleep.  As we crowd into the narrow hallway, Annie moves in so close, that I feel her breath on my neck.  Despite Sister’s warnings, the spookiness of the tenebrous hallway leads to giggles and whispers which are quickly hushed.  With attention established, Sister blows a soft tone on her pitch pipe.  Those of us closest to Sister watch her, and when she nods, we begin singing: “Su presto vergine.  Su risvegliatevi.” The words of the song urge the nuns to rise from their beds because the birth of Jesus is imminent.

As we stroll and sing, splotches of light seep from the cracks around the doors.  The nuns do not open their doors, but the sounds of awakening are unmistakable: footsteps, running water, and the legs of chairs scraping across the floor.  Breaking the spell of slumber with the magic of song, we travel throughout the buildings.   Our route takes us through secluded parts of the motherhouse that are off limits at any other time of the year.  We sing outside the apartments of Mother Provincial and Mother Superior. Their rooms are above the mansion foyer on the second floor.  This is our last stop.  We have spread the news to all.  The postulants in the group head up to the third floor to prepare for Mass, and we hustle back to our dormitory to ready ourselves for the sacred rites of this solemn night.

The Midnight Mass in Rome presided over by the Holy Father, Pope Pius XII, could not be more majestic or moving than the Mass we attend in the convent chapel.  Monsignor Abbo mounts the altar garbed in the gold-embroidered vestments reserved for the Church’s most solemn celebrations.  On this night his voice takes on a fuller, deeper tone.  The simple melodies we sing in the Mass of the Shepherds are like lullabies echoing over the centuries and bringing to life the story of Christ’s arrival in Bethlehem.  Threaded through the fabric of the liturgy are bursts of exultation when the music urges us to fall on our knees and hear the angel voices.  This is a night when holiness is real.   Triumph, awe, and humility fill every space in my heart.   By the time Mass is over, I am sure that I have traversed a bridge that stretches back in time.  I have witnessed the wonder of the first Christmas.

 

After Mass the entire community, Mother Ninetta, Mother Carolina, Mother Catherine, the professed sisters, novices, postulants, and juniors have a special breakfast in the professed refectory.  It is the only day in the year when we have real eggs, sausage, and home fries.  There are no rules about silence, yet the talk around the tables is muffled.  The aura of the Midnight Mass hangs in the air, not allowing the normal laughter and chatter.  After breakfast, full and sleepy, we meander to the dormitories and to bed with the knowledge that we can sleep past six o’clock.

End of Chapter

Tertius

3-Et Exultavit Spiritus Meus

 

“Every junior takes piano lessons.”  I repeat the mantra as five more juniors troop into the study hall from their four o’clock practice session.  Behind me Elaine, Rosemary, and Adele pack away their Latin textbooks and prepare to leave.  Theirs is the last piano practice shift before evening meditation and rosary.   I ache to touch a piano and learn to play a whole song with two hands.  So far, neither prayer nor longing moves me closer to my first piano lesson.

The weekend passes and so do Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.  Thursday night at the close of Grand Silence, Sister Giovanina calls me to her desk.  “Tomorrow after snack time,” she begins, “Mother Carolina wants you, Annie, Kathleen, and Virginia to meet her in the music studio.”  I hear nothing more.  I want to throw my arms around her.  My ears buzz and my fingertips sizzle.  I force my mouth into a quiet “Okay, Sister,” even as my grin lights up the study hall.

The next day, after stale ginger cookies and milk, I scamper off to Mother Carolina’s studio in the mansion.  The door is closed when I arrive.  Seconds later Annie comes up behind me, followed by the last two members of our quartet.  Annie knocks four times, and we hear a strong, “Come.  Come,” from inside.  I turn the brass doorknob, and we step into the studio.  The room is as elegant as the rest of the mansion.  It even has its own fireplace.  A grand piano with an old wooden metronome near the music stand dominates the room. The words “Steinway Company” in fancy gold letters are written above the piano’s keyboard.

Mother Carolina stares out the window. She studies the sloping lawn.  I get the feeling that she has forgotten we are there.  The four of us stand silent.  We don’t dare chatter.

“Get the chairs from the corner closet,” she says as she turns from the window.   I take a folding chair made of wooden slats and carry it to the area near the piano.  When we are seated, Mother Carolina hands each of us a marble pad and a copy of the red and white John Thompson’s Modern Course for the Piano. We are to bring these to every class.  During that first lesson I learn about whole notes and half notes.  Mother Carolina draws pictures of them with chalk on a small black slate.  She strikes a white key on the piano, holds it, and counts.  I am thrilled when she takes my hand and pulls me onto the piano bench next to her.  The others crowd behind and watch as Mother Carolina and I find Middle C.  With her hand over mine we hit the key, hold it, and count.  “Again,” she orders as she rises to stand behind me.    She plucks her white baton from the music stand and taps it on my forearm as I tentatively depress the key and count: “one… two…three… four.”  The sound fades before I get to four, but I keep my finger on the key.

“Wrist up like this,” she demonstrates and sticks the baton under my wrist to nudge it upward. As I sit on the bench with Mother Carolina’s body pressed against my back, I send a message of thanks to Jesus for giving me piano lessons.

Every Friday thereafter I race to the studio with my three friends for our group lesson with Mother Carolina.  I memorize the mnemonic for the treble staff, “Every Good Boy Does Fine” and learn that FACE is the way to remember the spaces.  We take turns playing simple tunes but always with just the right hand.  I understand that playing with two hands must wait a while longer.  By the middle of November we graduate to private lessons.

Sister Josephine is my new teacher.  She is as short as Mama, wears glasses, and has a square, pleasant face.  Her brown hair puffs up into a pompadour, not at all like the other nuns and novices, who wear their hair pulled tight to the scalp.  Sister Josephine, a gifted pianist, guides my uncertain fingers up and down the keyboard.  I learn to play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, a composition that has a left hand accompaniment, and other pieces designed for first year musicians.  Even Mozart and Chopin make an appearance in my Thompson book.  Sometimes my performance is punctuated by sudden, unauthorized stops.  Sister Josephine is not impressed.  She continues to drum the rhythm with her pencil until I jump back in at the next measure. At the end of each lesson I leave the small studio with new challenges to master.

I am disappointed at my lack of quick progress, but not enough to spoil the tingle of anticipation for my next practice session.  Monday through Friday after school I rush off to play the piano.  How I wish I could stay and practice longer, perhaps for sixty minutes instead of thirty.   I know this will never happen.  I must be satisfied with my thirty minutes.

Every day I stop in the hallway near the gift shop to let the sounds of music fill my ears.  Sometimes scales and boring drills from Hanon’s Virtuoso Pianist drown out the nicer melodies from Moonlight Sonata or Fleur d’Elise.  I think it’s odd that someone is always working on Fleur d’Elise. Some days those sudden stops, starts, and jarring notes make a really crazy mix of sounds.   I shake my head and fly down to the piano rooms to add my own share of mistakes to the rest.

In the basement are a dozen or more piano rooms, just big enough for an ancient upright piano and bench.  Some rooms have stools with round seats that spin like the ones in a soda fountain.  Many of the battered pianos have so much missing ivory they look like toothless hags, but if the instrument produces sound, someone practices on it.  The cubicles line up on both sides of a narrow hallway dimly lit with naked light bulbs.  Side corridors branch off into a maze of more practice rooms.  Alone in my piano room I open my book, turn to the page with Brahms’ Lullaby and enjoy the gift Mother Ninetta has made possible.

End of Chapter Three

Secundus

2-Ad Altare Dei

 

The clang of a cowbell drags me from sleep.  The sound springs from the curtained area near the door.   It takes several seconds for me to remember that Sister Giovanina sleeps there.  I had seen her pull the curtain after she left my bedside last night.  Elaine interrupts my thoughts with an urgent whisper, “Get up, Veronica.”  All around me juniors are crawling out of bed.  Elaine starts morning prayers, and the sleepy risers add their voices as they go about turning down sheets and blankets.  Like dancers in a ballet, each junior moves her white metal chair to face the nightstand and starts to modestly remove sleepwear.  I watch and mimic the steps.  It is the same routine that Elaine had walked me through last night.

“Mio Dio, vi adoro e vi amo con tutto il cuore…” The Italian prayers go on for several minutes.  When the quiet chants end, the juniors wander from the dormitory in twos and threes as they head for the bathroom.

I open the bottom door of my nightstand to examine its contents. I find a pair of black shoes and a bath towel.  My slippers are still under the bed.  I close the door and check the drawer.   A hairbrush and comb sit on the left, toothpaste and toothbrush on the right, and in the middle lies a perfectly folded face towel with its matching white soap case nestled on top.  Elaine had arranged everything so neatly that for a moment I cannot bring myself to pick up the towel. It seems sinful to disturb such perfection.

Elaine sees me hesitate.  “That’s how you have to keep your things all the time.  You’ll get used to it.  I’ll show you how to fold the face towel in thirds later.  Come on.  We have twenty minutes to get ready for chapel.”

I grab the towel, soap case, and comb and hurry behind her to the bathroom.  Most of the girls are combing their long hair, and some have already finished weaving their braids.  Despite the absence of mirrors, the parts down the middle of their hair are amazingly straight and their braids perfect.  My hair is short, so Elaine fashions a floppy ponytail over each ear.

Back at the dormitory Sister Giovanina waits with my black dress and white Peter Pan collar.  Long black stockings and black shoes complete the uniform.  Sister and Elaine leave me to dress on my own.  As soon as they walk away, I turn to the girl at the next bed.  Something in her laughing eyes hints that she will bend the silence rule when Elaine is not around.  My neighbor is chubby with olive-colored skin.

“Hi,” she whispered.  “I’m Annie Sarti.  I’m glad you got here.”

“Did you know I was coming?”

“We knew someone was coming.  Anyway, now you get to be last in line.  I was getting tired of that spot,” she jokes. I don’t understand what she is talking about.

“We do everything according to entrance here,” she explains.

“What are you talking about?  I really have to stay at the end of the line for everything?”

“Almost everything.  I’ve been last in line all through August and September.  Now it’s your turn,” she grins as she watches me fumble with the button on the white collar.  “Give me that. This is how it goes.”   She slips the collar around my neck, tucks the bottom half into the neckline of the dress, and buttons it in place at the base of my throat.  “Come on.  Let’s go.”

We line up in the corridor.  Annie is right; I am last.  Sister Giovanina steps in behind me.  “I see someone helped you dress and get to the line on time.”

While I wait for the line of juniors to move toward the chapel, I think about how much Sister Giovanina reminds me of my sister Gloria. They are probably the same age.  I bet Gloria is glad she doesn’t have to share her bed with me anymore.  A million times she had moaned that I hogged the blankets or had gotten mad because I squirmed and kicked her during the night. As I stand daydreaming about Gloria, the line moves forward.  Sister Giovanina’s poke brings me back to the present.   I hurry to catch up and climb the stairs with the others.  At the chapel door I bless myself with holy water, making the Sign of the Cross.

The chapel is not the same dark space I passed through eight hours ago  It is bathed in soft light that reflects off the marble floors and shimmers on the gold gates of the Communion rail.  I came to serve God and this is His sacred dwelling.  I feel God’s presence all around me.  I can almost hear His Voice command me to take off my shoes in His holy place just as He commanded Moses at the Burning Bush.  The sister in catechism class read us that story from the Bible when I made my First Communion.

Huge paintings of scenes from the life of Saint Lucy Filippini rise behind the high altar.  St. Lucy’s pale face and the tilt of her head remind me of Sister Catherine.   St. Lucy and the familiar smell of incense and burning candles welcome me to my new life.  The line moves to the front of the chapel.  Suddenly the entire group pauses and genuflects.  No one seems to notice us as we file into the first two pews.  The novices, postulants, and professed sisters assemble for a half hour of pre-mass contemplation every day.  Because we are young, juniors don’t go for meditation.  Instead,we have an extra half-hour of sleep.

In a few minutes the jingle of a bell announces the start of the Mass.  Annie reaches for her missal, and I follow suit.  She helps me find the page with the Mass for the day.  Monsignor enters the altar area from the sacristy wearing white vestments in honor of St. Francis Borgia, confessor, the saint of the day according to my missal.  I had never heard of that saint.  Monsignor’s chasuble is embroidered with a cross surrounded by sheaves of wheat and three fish all done in gold.  “Introibo ad altare Dei…” The Mass is underway.  The nuns’ voices rise in solemn tones as they recite the prayers of the Latin Mass.  Sister Rosalie, the nun with the problem eyes, kneels on the side of the altar.  She leaves her kneeler at regular intervals to perform the tasks of altar assistant.  She pours the wine and water into the chalice.  Later she drapes the ablution towel over her wrist while she pours water over Monsignor’s fingers into a small crystal bowl.

At Communion time I watch my sister Diana as she kneels at the altar railing with the other postulants.  My eyes follow Monsignor as he moves from one person to the next and gives the sacred host to each.  Diana raises her head and opens her mouth to receive the Body of Christ.  When she rises and turns to walk back to her pew, I watch her all the way.   Her hands are folded, and she keeps her eyes lowered as she passes me.

I want her to look for me, but she does not.

The juniors are the last to receive Communion.  I try to keep my mind on the sacredness of receiving, but my thoughts wander.  I know I will have to do better at keeping my mind on God.  I feel guilty that I am unable to get through an “Our Father” without thinking about Mama and Papa, my brothers, about not going back to South School.  I wonder who will tell Miss Walsh that I will not be in her class anymore.  I drag my attention back to the missal in time for the last blessing.  We file out of the chapel as we had come, one row at a time.

Breakfast is served in the refectory, a huge room with long tables. Each table has small wooden drawers along its side.  Elaine appears from nowhere to show me where to sit.  She is determined to follow through on all her big sister responsibilities.  The night before, I did not notice Elaine’s red hair.  It is the color of a circus clown’s wig.   Thick, perfect braids hang down her back.  Her face is covered with hundreds of freckles.  Her green eyes are alert and watchful.

The clatter of dishes gets louder as breakfast is served.  I open my drawer and take out a cup, saucer, flatware, and a white cloth napkin.  Someone places a basket of bread on every table.  One of the older juniors serves cooked oatmeal from a metal pot that sits on a rolling cart.  Another girl moves from person to person and fills each cup with steaming hot coffee.  It strikes me that Mama would not approve of coffee for young girls.  She believes coffee stunts the growth of children.  It is a grown-up’s pleasure.  What a fun thought it is to break one of Mama’s rules, at this great distance, right here in the convent.  I can’t wait to tell her about this in my first letter home.   Sister Giovanina makes her rounds along the tables and sees to it that everyone eats all that is served.  We are neither allowed to decline food nor to ask for second helpings.  Young and old alike eat two slices of bread, oatmeal, and a cup of coffee.

We eat breakfast in silence.  When no one is looking, I turn to Annie and whisper, “Why is she eating her breakfast on the chair?”  I point to a junior who is on her knees.  The dish of cereal and cup of coffee are arranged on the seat of her wooden chair.  She eats as if this were in no way out of the ordinary.  She looks neither uncomfortable nor embarrassed.  Her face is as expressionless as the clock on Miss Walsh’s classroom wall.

“That’s Adele,” Annie whispers.  “Mother Mistress was really mad at her after supper last night.  Adele left crumbs all over her chair and on the floor.  This is the fourth time she has gotten into trouble for the same thing.  Mother Mistress doesn’t always check, but when she does, your place at the table better look clean.”  Annie and I finish eating and give the table, chair, and floor a good look.  I remind myself about the “no crumbs” rule. We put our dishes and silverware on the cart at the rear of the refectory and head to chapel for a short visit then rush to the juniorate.

Back at the dormitory Elaine stands like a sentinel near my nightstand.  I guess that she has something new and important to teach me. “Let’s get started,” Elaine says.

I must learn to make a bed the convent way.  The bottom sheet has to be pulled taut, and the corners folded and tucked in at a perfect forty-five degree angle.  After Elaine demonstrates, she steps back.   I try but can’t get the bottom sheet to lie straight and tight.  It is limp and covered with ripples like waves at low tide.

“Do it again,” Elaine says and pulls up the sheet.  I try again.  My hands get clammy and clumsier by the second.  She pulls the sheet back a third time and does the job herself.  “We’ll work on it again after school and tomorrow morning.  Right now we have to get you to your office.”

“Office?”  I picture the office at St. Peter’s Convent where Mother Ninetta sat and called Mama.

“Office means cleaning.  We all have to do a share of the cleaning,” Elaine explains.

“Oh.”

“Sister Giovanina assigned you to work with Rosemary Weaver in the bathroom.”

Mama had taught me to dry and put away dishes, stack underwear and socks on the beds, and sweep the kitchen floor after breakfast.  Despite my complaints, I knew her standard of cleanliness and order was reasonable.  Mama did not allow unmade beds after 9:00AM.  She was committed to the notion that her daughters needed to learn to keep house.  In her mind it was the least a future husband could expect of his bride.

None of Mama’s housekeeping training prepared me for what the nuns meant by cleanliness.

Rosemary shows me how to pin up my dress so that it will not get spotted.  Everyone pins up something.  Postulants pin up their dresses and pin back their capes.  Sister Giovanina pins up the front of her habit.  The pointed ends of her shawl are double folded and pinned to her chest, and the ribbons of her bonnet are pinned over the top of her head.  With a satisfied nod my mentor leads me to the bathroom supply shelf, and we select liquid pine cleaner, Babbo scouring powder, and biancolina. On hands and knees with a bucket close by we scrub the floor. In thirty minutes tubs, tiles, and fixtures sparkle like the jewels of Aladdin’s treasure cave.

We are not the only ones working.  The whole juniorate is a hive of activity.  Every inch is swept and dusted.  I catch a glimpse of Annie as she rushes by with a rag and a bottle of Noxon.  I peek out the door and watch as she moves from door to door and applies cleaner polish to dull, spotted doorknobs.  She waits for several seconds and then rubs each knob until the brass glows.  I hear windows opening and closing and picture serious-faced juniors hanging out the windows, vigorously shaking dust from barely soiled rags.

On Saturdays extra time is devoted to cleaning.  Office time begins at eight and ends at ten-thirty.  After several days on bathroom duty Sister Giovanina assigns me to the dormitory, where I learn another set of cleaning skills.  I go from window to window opening each as far as it will go.  Fresh crisp air rushes in.  The rooms need this cleansing blast because our schedule allows for baths only on Saturday.  Once a month we are allowed a shampoo.   If you miss your weekly bath or the monthly hair shampoo day, you wait until the next time around.  Italians had the idea that too much washing dried the body’s oil glands and caused skin problems.  I couldn’t prove that theory, but the practice does result in a strange assortment of pungent odors.

After opening the windows, I get to work on the blinds.  With a damp rag I wash and dry each slat.  Next, there is the high dusting, done with a clean rag tied to the head of a mop.  Because I am short and can’t reach the ceiling even with the mop, I have to bounce on and off a chair, moving it from spot to spot around the room.  Anna Gervasio, the older junior in our small crew, points out what needs to be done.  As soon as I near the end of one task, she is there to steer me to my next job.  Three juniors work in tandem to push all the beds to the far end of the room.  They scrub away old wax in preparation for a new coat of paste.  On cool Saturdays, like this one, the work is invigorating.  When the wax dries, Anna runs the buffer and everything is moved back in place.

When I ask about the machine, Annie Sarti informs me that running the buffer is a privilege reserved for older juniors.  For weeks I watch the older juniors run the buffer.  “It can’t be that difficult,” I think.   “Lift the handle bars, and the machine moves to the left; lower the handle bars, and the machine moves to the right.  It’s not complicated.”

One day, Rosemary is buffing the hall, and I dare to ask.   A momentary look of reluctance passes over her face, but she shrugs and says, “Watch how I do it.”  Eager to experiment, I lean forward.  “I’m warning you. It’s heavy, and if you jerk the handle bars, the machine will run right into you.”

“I know.  I know.  I can do it.”  She steps aside and lets me take over.

I flip the switch to the “ON” position and jerk the handle bars upward.  The machine twists wildly.  Shocked at the strong pull, I ram the handle bars downward.  The machine spins and slams into my leg.  It takes off in a circle and crashes against the wall.  I hang onto the handlebars with all the strength I can muster.  The throbbing pain in my leg saps what little force I have left.  The crazy machine has taken on a life of its own.  Mother Mistress, Sister Giovanina, and a group of juniors race into the hall just as Rosemary grabs the runaway buffer.  She hits the off button and all is quiet.   Gasping for breath and rubbing my bruised leg, I stagger toward the wall.

“Are you hurt?  Do you need ice?” Mother Mistress rattles off the questions in quick succession.  “Let me see your leg.”

“It’s okay,” I mumble.  I know that Rosemary will surely be disciplined for her moment of weakness.  I feel bad about that.  Sister Giovanina leads me to the novice kitchenette for ice, and Rosemary follows Mother Mistress to her office.  In seconds order is restored.

End of Chapter Two

 

Unus

1-Vocatus

October, 1950

The doors of South School swing open at noon, and kids spill into the street like hundreds of pennies from a piggy bank.  My brothers and I race home for lunch.  I drop myself onto a chair at the kitchen table and run my fingernail through the tiny grooves of the oilcloth covering.  “Guess what, Mama?  I made a hundred on my spelling test today.  Miss Walsh said that I am the best speller in the class.”  Miss Walsh is my fifth grade teacher.  She is young, pretty and her hair is red.  Miss Walsh is my best teacher, and every word she says makes me want to please her more.

Bene, Veronica.  It is good to study hard in school,” Mama answers.  I watch as she stirs the homemade vegetable soup on the stove.  Mama is tiny, her back and shoulders straight and proud.  She keeps her long black hair braided and pulled into a tight bun at the back of her head.   The smell of the soup makes my stomach rumble.  “Dammi la pezza,” Mama says as she turns off the heat.

“Okay.”  I jump up to get the potholder from the top drawer near the sink.  I hear my two younger brothers squabbling over the bar of Ivory soap in the bathroom.  “Basta!” Mama calls, and their voices disappear.  As I open the drawer and feel around for the potholder, the telephone rings.

“I’ll get it.”  I leave the drawer open and cross the room to where the black telephone hangs on the wall.  Mama looks up and watches.

“Mama,” I whisper as I cover the mouthpiece with my hand. “It’s Sister Catherine.  She says Mother Provincial is at the convent.  She wants to know if I can go talk to her.  Can I?”

Fifteen minutes later I stand nervously outside the convent door.  I shift from one foot to the other and wipe my clammy hands on the side of my dress.  I ring the doorbell and strain to listen for the sound of footsteps.  I wonder who Mother Provincial is and why she wants to talk to me.  After agonizing minutes I hear movement. When the door opens, there stands Sister Catherine looking pretty and holy like Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of Saint Mary’s.  Her face is smooth and pale. Only a bit of her hair shows under the black ruffled bonnet that frames her face. Looping strands of black rosary beads fall at her side and rattle like marbles when she moves.  “Oh, it’s you, Veronica.  Come in.  I’m so glad that your Mama let you skip school for the afternoon.  Mother Ninetta is here and wants to chat with you.  Come.  Sit in this room.”

Sister Catherine puts her arm around my shoulder, leads me to a small, sunny room, and leaves me sitting in an overstuffed chair.  In the opposite corner is a table just big enough for its geranium plant.  Sister Catherine has not watered it for quite a while.  The leaves are droopy, and there are dried blooms on three of the stems.  Mama would never let that happen.  She loves geraniums and always picks off the dead flowers.  She says you have to nip them off so that the plant does not use up energy on dead blossoms.  Mama must be right because her geraniums never look like this one.

As I sit there, I think about the last time I went to St. Anthony Devotions.  It was just the week before.  Mama had taken the boys and me to church.  The nuns approached us just as we began to climb the stone steps that lead to the main door of the vestibule.   Sister Catherine greets Mama and then turns to me, “Would you like to sit in the choir loft with Mother Superior and me?” she asks.

I was so surprised that all I could do was grin and look at Mama, who nods slightly.  I know she won’t say no to Sister Catherine.  Mama has a deep respect for the priests and sisters, partly because her favorite brother Vittorio is a priest in Italy but more because she is a good Catholic.  Religion is a big part of our lives.

I follow the sisters up the narrow wooden steps to the loft.  Mama and the boys go into the nave of the church with the other people.  My eyes are glued to Sister Catherine’s long black habit and the way she lifts it in the front in order not to trip.  When we reach the top step, Mother Superior nudges me into the first pew right next to the organ.   I can barely breathe.  The aura of God and the soft glow of the lights wraps around me like a warm blanket.  The recitation of the rosary is underway.  I keep my voice low so that I can hear the murmur of the nuns as they pray.  The two of them kneel behind me.  I have to sit because the front pew has no kneeler.  Every now and again, Sister Catherine’s black rosary beads brush up against my shoulder.  Out of the corner of my eye I see her long white fingers move from one bead to the next as we pray.

I want to be just like them.  I want to wear a long black habit.  The nuns are different from other people: set apart, mysterious, never loud or noisy.  The convent is not like our house, bursting with brothers and sisters all wanting to be first in the bathroom, all wanting the same corner of the couch.  There always seems to be a hush at the convent.  It is clean and shiny; the smell of wax hangs in the air.

I love the saintly smell here in the nuns’ parlor.  I follow my thoughts as they circle back to the present.  I am restless and leave the chair to stretch my legs and prune the dead geranium flowers. When I hear voices, one of them unfamiliar, outside the door, I scurry back to the chair.

Mother Superior calls to me as she moves into the doorway.  “Come along, Veronica.  Kiss Mother Provincial’s ring.”  I get up and go over to Mother Provincial, who holds out her hand.  It is cool, dry and pudgy.  I bend to kiss the gold figure of the crucified Jesus that forms the upper part of the ring.  Her other hand rests on the top of my head.  She holds it there for a moment or two.  When she lifts her hand, I raise my head to peer at her.  This is Mother Ninetta Ionata, head of all the nuns in the order.  She is short; her head reaches only up to Mother Superior’s shoulder.  Her dark eyes linger on me for several seconds, and I am uncomfortable under her steady gaze.

Mother Superior has slipped away, and I follow Mother Provincial into a small office a few steps from where we stand.  As she walks, I am mesmerized by the sound of the huge beads that dangle on her left side.  The four inch cross hits the side of the desk as she passes it to sit on the chair.  She motions me to the chair that is right beside hers.  My feet do not reach the floor, so I cross my ankles to keep them from swinging.  I look down at my black patent leather shoes.  They are my favorites.  Mama only lets me wear them on Sundays to go to church.  But today, since the sisters have called for me, she let me wear them with white anklets and my favorite pink dress, the one with the diagonal stripes.  It comes down over my knees, a little on the long side, but I don’t care about that.

Mother Ninetta settles herself in the chair and then turns her full attention on me.  I stare right into her eyes.  “Do you want to serve God?” she asks.  I don’t know exactly what she means, but it sounds serious and exciting.

“Yes, Mother Provincial.”

“Do you want to come to Morristown with me today?”

“I don’t have a suitcase,” I say.  I know a suitcase is necessary because my sister Diana needed one when she left for the convent in July.  Mama bought Diana new cotton underwear, pajamas, a soap case with a new bar of soap still in its wrapper, Ipana toothpaste, and a red toothbrush case.

In the bedroom Diana let me watch her pack her things in the new black suitcase.  After that job was done, my brother Nivio got into his black Packard and drove Diana, Mama, Papa, and my sister Gloria to Morristown.

I am surprised and skeptical when Mother Provincial says that I do not need a suitcase or anything else.  She assures me that she will take care of everything as long as she knows that I am sincere in my desire to become a sister of Saint Lucy Filippini and dedicate myself to God.

She turns her swivel chair back toward the desk, picks up a pencil and uses it to dial the telephone.  I’ve seen secretaries in movies do that.  She has my telephone number on the paper in front of her.  She looks up at me as she waits for an answer.  Mother Ninetta speaks in Italian for a few moments and then listens carefully.  In English she says, “I take your daughter to Morristown.”  She holds the telephone to her ear a bit longer, nods, and returns the telephone to its cradle.  She is satisfied.   Soon after the phone conversation, Mother Provincial and I are on our way to Villa Walsh.

I fall asleep in the back seat of the car, and when I wake, it is dark.  We make a right turn and pass under an arch.  The words Villa Walsh form the top of the arch in eighteen-inch, wrought-iron letters.   Sister Teresa maneuvers the car along a curving, tree-lined driveway.  It feels late.  If I were home, I would have been in bed.  I picture Mama. She sits alone at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper, one hand propped under her chin.  She still wears her apron.  The apron is her uniform and it comes off only for bed or for church and little else. I wonder if she thinks about me as she reads in the silent house.

“Shall I drop you off at the main house?” Sister Teresa asks.  I strain but cannot hear Mother Ninetta’s murmured reply.

Mother Ninetta turns, “Ah, you are awake.  Are you all right?”

“Yes, Mother Provincial.”

“Do not worry, Veronica; Jesus is smiling.  He is happy that you have come to serve Him.”  She pats my cheek and turns back to Sister Teresa.  We approach the red brick mansion with its white-colonnaded porch that extends right and left of the porte-cochere.  A few lighted windows and porch lights are the only signs of life.  Sister Teresa pulls up to the entrance, and before she can turn off the engine, the heavy oak door opens.

Two nuns hurry toward the car.  Because I am unsure of what to do, I stay in the back seat with my nose pressed against the window.  One nun comes down the steps and opens the car door for Mother Provincial. Instead of hello or welcome back I hear the nun whisper “Sia lodate Gesu, Giuseppe e Maria.

Mother Ninetta immediately answers with the words “Sempre sia lodati.” I’ve heard this Italian greeting before at the convent, but this is the first time I pay attention and catch the words.

The young nun opens the back door, and I step out.  Mother Ninetta introduces me and explains that I am going to be a junior.  This is the first time I hear the word that represents the life I am entering.  We head up the steps and into the mansion.

I am open-mouthed by the richness of the dimly lit entry room.  There are heavy gold drapes on the windows.  Oriental rugs cover shiny parquet floors.  The chairs in the corner are made of dark brown wood with scrolled arms and carved clawed feet.  The seats are upholstered in plush red velvet.  On one side of the room there is a fireplace with a marble mantelpiece and above it hangs a huge oil painting of a cardinal in rich red robes.   The doorway to the left opens into another room that features a grand piano set near the far window.  The piano is draped with an antique fringed shawl and topped with a candelabrum like the one in La Traviata.  They did that opera at the church hall one time.

Three or four sisters had gathered to welcome Mother Ninetta.  We move into the grand foyer.  A magnificent brass chandelier with crystal globes glows from three floors above us.  Matching staircases flank the foyer and circle upward.  Oak banisters border the stairs and form railings around the chandelier on each floor.  The foyer is entirely open and has carved high-backed chairs along its edges.  In one corner a six foot grandfather clock’s pendulum grabs my attention.  It moves quietly back and forth, back and forth.

I am ignored as several conversations swirl around me. Only a short nun referred to as Sister Rosalie studies me. It is difficult to tell exactly where Sister Rosalie is looking.  Her eyes wobble and come to rest on the wall behind me.  When Mother Provincial addresses her, her eyes still wander aimlessly.

I notice that two of the nuns have turned their attention upward.  I look up, too, and blink with surprise.  My sister Diana is walking down the stairs.  I almost do not recognize her.  She wears a black belted dress, short black cape with a white Peter Pan collar, black shoes, thick black stockings, and a black veil that hangs just below her shoulders.  Diana scans the group of nuns around Mother Provincial.

The minute she spots me, she stops.  “What are you doing here?”

“I’m going to be a junior,” I say with a sassy toss of my head.

I look up at Mother Provincial for confirmation, but she has already moved toward my sister.

“Diana, Sister Giovanina will be here soon to take Veronica to the  juniorate.  It’s late, but I wanted you to see your sister tonight, to know that she is joining us.”

As Mother Ninetta speaks, Diana descends the last few steps.  The circle of nuns parts and leaves me standing between Diana and Mother Ninetta.  Diana bends to kiss her ring and then turns to stare at me.  Mother Ninetta takes Diana’s hand for a moment and says, “You may go back to your dormitory now.  You will have time to chat with Veronica later on.”

Sia lodate Gesu, Giuseppe, e Maria,” Diana recites mechanically.  Mother Ninetta responds, and Diana retreats up the stairs.  She glares down over the railing from the second floor and again from the third.  I watch until she disappears.  By this time Sister Giovanina arrives and I leave the group of nuns behind.

Sister Giovanina leads me through an enormous room with two grand pianos and a pipe organ in the corner.  There are large portraits of serious-looking men on the walls.  As in the entry room, there is a fireplace.  The walls in this room are covered with red fabric decorated with gold designs.  Flat columns of dark mahogany stand like guards at regular intervals around the room.  Sister explains that this room is for concerts and choir practice.  I feel like Cinderella in the prince’s castle except that the ballroom here is for nuns in black habits instead of fair ladies in beautiful gowns.  “You will learn to play the piano, and some day Mother Carolina will let you play one of these pianos.”

Sister has no idea how many times I had begged Mama to let me take piano lessons.  Mama’s answer had always been a half laugh and a “No.”  Our family was large, and money was scarce; but I had dreamed of piano lessons anyway.

We walk down a hall, which connects to a flight of steps.  Sister opens a door, and we are in the chapel.  We both kneel at the communion railing in front of the statue of the Blessed Mother.  I know Sister Giovanina is praying, but I can’t even get through a Hail Mary.  When Sister gets up, I do, too, and make the Sign of the Cross.   I follow her down the side aisle.  It is hard to see.  There are no lights on in the chapel, just a faint red glow from the sanctuary lamp.  We pass the confessionals and a shrine to Saint Lucy before leaving through the back door.

“We are almost there,” whispers Sister Giovanina.  It seems as though we walk a great distance.  The last hallway brings us to the juniorate.  The rooms are empty and silent.  The quiet makes the tapping of my shoes on the wooden floors sound loud.  Sister’s shoes make no sound at all.  In the dormitory it takes my eyes a few minutes to adjust to the dim light that filters in from the hallway through a high transom.  Soon I am able to make out nine or ten beds, a small mound in each one.  Sister Giovanina leads me to the third bed.  Its bedspread is turned down and ready for me.  A nightstand and metal chair separate one bed from the next.  Sister shakes the girl who is sleeping in the bed next to mine.

“Elaine, wake up.”

“Oh, hi, Sister,” mumbles Elaine.

“Elaine, this is Veronica,” Sister Giovanina whispers.  “She has just arrived.  You will be her big sister.  I want you to show her how to get undressed and into her pajamas.  I’ll be back in a minute.”

I notice a pair of pajamas laid out at the foot of the bed.  Elaine gets up as Sister leaves.  “We knew you were coming.  Did you know that I am from Torrington, too?  I’ve been a junior for a year already.  Are you tired?”

“A little,” I admit.  “It took a long time to get here.”

“Well, this won’t take too long.  Turn the chair around to face the night table.  I’m going to help you undress the way we do it here.  We have to undress in a modest way because our bodies are for Jesus.  Now, first put on the pajama bottoms.”  I follow her instructions carefully.  “Do you have on an undershirt?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.  Take the dress off and then put the top around your shoulders. Now pull your arms out of the undershirt and into the pajama top.”

“I think I’ve got it,” I say and clumsily struggle along.  Elaine waits patiently until I am finally into both top and bottom.  She hands me the bathrobe, and we head to the bathroom.  It has ten sinks, five shower stalls, and five toilet booths.  The size awes me.  At home we have one small bathroom for seven kids and Mama and Papa.  Elaine and I chat as I brush my teeth and wash up.  She explains that although we are talking because I‘m new, the rule is absolute silence every night after evening prayers and study time.  The hour from nine to ten is called “The Grand Silence.”  Not a word is permitted, and it is a sin if that silence is broken.  Only an emergency releases us from this rule.

Back at the dormitory Sister Giovanina waits to collect my clothes.  She holds the top sheet, and I crawl into bed.  “We will give these secular clothes to the poor,” she says as she tucks in the sheet and pauses with her hand on my shoulder.  “Sleep well.”  She leaves while I wonder what secular means.  I think about my favorite pink dress and shiny black patent leather shoes on some faraway poor girl.  The moment fades, and I drift into an exhausted sleep.        ****End of Chapter One

Mama’s Gift

Two dozen women pushed and elbowed for position inside the cramped lobby of the Bradlee Department Store.  As fast as a miniscule space opened, it was filled by the closest shopper intent on getting that extra inch closer to the locked doors.  Mama and I stood halfway between the outer doors and the entrance to the store.  A blaze of excitement burned in her eyes.  Second by second the tension ratcheted upward and in its wake Mama’s hand pressed ever more tightly on mine.   Several times I winced when the pressure crossed the threshold of pain.  I scanned the group of women closest to me and spotted only one familiar face.   Mrs. Forno, a short stocky Italian neighbor of ours, commanded a position a few feet ahead of us.  She motioned several times for us to join her.  Mama lowered her right shoulder and, like a linebacker attempting a forward push, gave a mighty shove against the human wall that surrounded us.  It was a splendid effort, but the momentary peek of daylight had closed and Mrs. Forno’s round face disappeared.

“Antoinette, is it almost time?”

“I no can see my wristwatch.  But they no open the door ahead a time.  You remember last year.”

“Yeah, I remember.  The salesgirl was late. More than two minutes.  She was maybe fired. I didn’t see her around anymore,” recalled Antoinette’s friend.

The comments bounced back and forth across the lobby.

“I hope that doesn’t happen this year,” said a female bruiser sporting a tattered tweed overcoat.  In the middle of her complaint the doors pushed open trapping Mrs. Forno and two other women in the reduced space behind the door.  The rest of the human monster crashed through the opening.  Dozens of heavily stockinged legs pedaled forward on their flat sensible shoes.  Down the stairs they raced, breathless in single-minded pursuit.  Already the lead runners were closing in on the display tables that beckoned with piles of sale-priced yarns.  The colors, hefts and blends represented the spectrum of yarn possibilities, enough to satisfy the most maddened of knitters.  A frenzy of searching and tossing ensued.

“Louisa, here’s some soft variegated that you can use for your grandson’s baby sweater,” shouted the bruiser.    She waved two skeins of yarn at her miniature companion who grabbed the yarn without pausing to comment.

In 15 minutes the tables were picked as bare as holiday turkeys.   One by one, the women wandered off, their ample arms piled with loot and sporting smug looks that proclaimed, “I got what I came for.”   With passions sated, they climbed the stairs toward the cash registers chatting amiably about afghans, new poncho patterns, and new designs for Christmas ornaments that could be knitted in plenty of time for the annual church craft sale.

Mama’s knitting was a cauldron where many of our family stories bubbled and stewed.  Over the years Mama became Nonni to a generation of grandchildren.  Knitting provided mittens, scarves, winter hats and socks for each of them. One year grandson Paul lost his knitted hat.

“No and no and no.  You are not going ice skating at Bess Pond unless you find the hat Nonni made for you.  You’ve had it for one month and it’s gone already.  I can’t believe how irresponsible you are,”  barked his mother.

“I looked everywhere,” young Paul protested.  “Someone must have taken  it.”

“Well, that is too bad.  No hat; no skating.  Why don’t you run over to Nonni’s house and ask her to make you another one.  If she does, you can go skating with your friends.”

His mother turned back to the pile of sandwiches she was making for lunch.  She had spoken the final word on the issue.

Paul recognized the clear note of sarcasm that underlined his mom’s last few words, but grabbed his jacket anyway and scampered across the street to Laurel Acres.  At nine in the morning Nonni would be busy in her kitchenette cutting vegetables for minestrone or stirring a pot of bubbling polenta.  With a cup of hot cocoa and a freshly baked biscotto, Paul munched and told Nonni about the lost hat and his mom’s ultimatum.

By 4 o’clock that afternoon Paul had his new hat and joined his friends for ice skating under the lights at Bess Pond.  Even as an adult Paul insists that his nonni had pulled out her sporta, found a ball of spare yarn and got her needles working as soon as he closed her back door.  She had whipped up that hat just for him and in record time.

As a child I cherished the times Mama let me help her change the s-shaped skeins of yarn into big soft balls.  She placed my hands in position for the job, about a foot apart, palms facing each other and then lifted and fitted the unraveled skein around them.  After settling herself comfortably across from me, Mama leaned forward to poke through the circles of yarn in search of the end strand.  A soft satisfied grunt signaled that we were ready to begin.  I watched her wind the yarn eight times around her four fingers, pull it off, give it a twist and repeat until a soft center took shape.  By the time the ball had begun to grow, we had fallen into a pleasant rhythm.  My hands slid back and forth as the yarn fed the sphere Mama was building.  While we worked, she told stories about my Nonna Diquigiovanni.  Nonna lived in a village high in the Italian hills.  She cooked polenta in a big, black caldiera that hung in the fireplace.  Nonna fed eucalyptus leaves to silkworms and tended them until they had spun their cocoons.  Best of all, this wondrous Nonna, whom I had never met, had taught her little girl to knit.

9-8-2010

July  26, 2010

Have you written your sonnet today?

Fine Whine

This moment at an empty page I stare

and hope a single word will soon appear.

Perhaps a phrase or metaphor with flair

will dress a measured thought and nail it clear.

Alas, not just a thought must I conceive,

but also sound in rhymed iambic feet.

Oh, Will, how did you make the world believe

that sonnets are where gifted  poets meet?

Your darn quatrains and couplets blur my eyes.

Are they Petrarchan or in English verse?

Two trochees slipped by like venomous spies

and wrecked my sonnet with their shabby curse.

The poet Dante at this point would think,

“Abandon hope and let the sonnet sink.”

Ronnie

Things Happen at Seventy

About forty years ago Mama and Papa sold the family home and moved to Laurel Acres, a senior housing project.  When they were settled my sisters Gloria, Diana, and I fell into the habit of stopping in at Mama’s place every Wednesday at 3:30.  Our weekly visit for coffee and homemade biscotti made Mama the star of Laurel Acres.  No one else was so “lucky to have daughters that came so regularly to visit.”

We were lucky, too, because so many stories about Mama’s girlhood came tumbling out.  Stories about how Mama and Papa came to America  from Brogliano, a small town in Venezia, Italy.  “Su par le montagne…”  Mama would say (up in the mountains…)  Prior to Laurel Acres Mama was too busy raising  four boys and three girls. She had little time or motivation for storytelling.  Days were filled with washes, cooking, gardening, canning, sewing clothing for the kids, certainly not storytelling.  Well,  in her seventies Mama had plenty of time and found great pleasure in telling all kinds of stories… Some were about her beloved Nonna.  Mama and her sister would walk for three hours to visit.  Once on the way home from Nonna’s, at her sister’s instigation my Mama stole a ribbon at an open market.  Horrors!

Soon to be seventy myself  I sense an urgent desire to remember and keep alive my Mama’s stories…Falling in love seems like a good place to start.

La Storia  (a villanelle–sort of)

Maria and Giobatta have a lovers’ dream,

that is born in a hay loft,

and in its arms they forge their  team.

The cow below belches warmth and steam;

tail-swishes timed to voices  soft.

She hears their youthful plans and their lovers’ dream.

At sea and sick, their plans might seem

as out of reach as the stars aloft.

And yet they stand erect, a bonded team.

The light will flicker to a faded gleam.

Yet the stumble-worded pair holds the torch aloft,

They find a spot to plant their lovers’ dream.

Then Mama’s protests come in steady stream,

“No more outhouse. No more third floor rented loft.”

Papa buys a house for the growing team.

For sixty years they clutch the dream

of church and  kids, of  house and croft.

They get it all- from plan to lovers’ dream;

old immigrants still bonded as a team.

Ronnie

June 12,2010

Zia Watches

“I’m not three anymore.”
The calendar agrees.
Now that she is four,
her passions come alive.
She gathers bits and pieces of the world
and sometimes lets me share.
An early morning rain has moved away,
and sunshine fills the sky.
Hand in hand we stroll along.
I feel her sudden tug.
“Look, Zia, the clouds and trees fell into a puddle.”
I take her gift of words and save them,
a treasured observation that I alone have heard.
Now that she is four,
she can make the world
appear beneath her hand.
At her table by the window
a blank white paper waits.
She scans the markers one by one:
laser yellow, rocket red, electric lime.
I sit nearby and listen to the snap of marker caps
and watch as inch by inch a picture grows.
Light and shadow, rain and rainbows,
a flower, moist and urgent, reaches toward the sun.
Now that she is four,
there are stories to be told
of the race with Mommy to the gym,
and of Daddy’s newest scarecrow
that this year did not win first prize.
The circus was a splendid treat
with elephants and clowns,
a big top tent, and funny dancing dogs.
Indeed, she is a big girl now
who has grabbed the merry days of four.
Soon she’ll send them to the attic,
like toys no longer used,
and then peek round the corner
to glimpse the fun that waits at five.

May 6,2010

Sometimes poetry gets to the heart of the most sensitive stages of our lives. It can look at pain without blinking.

Sharp-creased Jeans
The night nurse calls.
John has fallen from his bed.
She assures me, he is fine.
I need not worry through the night.
In the morning I arrive and check the darkened bruises on his legs.
He forgets he cannot walk.
“Are my jeans still on the line?
I heard the wind last night.”
He scans the building rooftop searching for his wayward jeans.
Again his mind wanders back to habits buried in another life.
I follow his journey there and watch him strip the bed each day;
Hang the sheets out on the line.
On rainy mornings the couch and chairs hide like ghosts under linens left to air.
He was a factory set-up man, who left the house each day
scented with Mennen after-shave, and every hair in place.
He dressed in sharp-creased jeans and freshly polished shoes.
In the car George Jones sang ”He stopped loving her today.”
From Country Western radio.
Now John sits in rumpled sweats and breakfast-spotted shirt.
The faint smell of urine rises from the wheelchair pad.
I roll him past a line of residents, who sit against the hallway wall.
I smile toward their distant eyes.
A perky nurse yells “Hello, John,” and hurries on her way.
In the lobby I pour two cups of coffee.
He eats the donuts that I bring.
“What did you do before you came?’ he asks.
I tell him that I washed the dishes, made the bed, and did a load of wash.
“I think I’ll come home with you today.”
I squeeze his hand and kiss him.
“I’ll be back tomorrow. You need not worry through the night.”

 

May 4, 2010

Family,Convent, and Birds

One of the Donalds, Donald Hall or Donald Murray, said that most authors and poets write about the same three topics over and over again. If I look back, I see that he is right. My three topics are my Italian family, my years in the convent, and just recently, birds. My inaugural blog entry features my Italian Mama.

Mama set aside a job for each morning of the week. On Saturdays she made polenta. Out came the big blue pot with the white speckles. On one side of the stove she had a bowl filled with dry corn meal and on the table waited a square, smooth board where the cooked polenta would rest. She set the water to boiling and stood over it as she let fistfuls of cornmeal slowly drift into the pot like a golden snowfall. Hot steam turned her face a lobster red. Round and round she stirred the bubbling polenta. Every now and then Mom pulled a white handkerchief from her apron pocket and wiped her hot, sweaty face. After an hour of stirring, the polenta would reach the perfect consistency and was ready to pour. With a heavy towel to protect her hands, she tipped the pot and let the polenta flow like molten lava onto the wooden board, where it formed a thick, dandelion-yellow circle. While it cooled under its white cloth, she set the pot in the sink and filled it with water to soak.
Every Saturday I listened for the moment when Mama pulled out the pot. I’d leave my book, game, or daydream and run to sit in the small black chair near the stove before one of the boys could get there. If John, who was two years younger than I, got there first, she’d shoo him outside to play. She would tell him that I had to learn how to make polenta. For that hour on Saturday mornings, I had Mama all to myself. While the polenta cooled, we drank hot cocoa and talked. In summer Mama poured cold lemonade that she made with freshly squeezed lemons and tons of sugar.
I do not recall what we talked about; all I remember is that I did not have to share Mama. That was special in a family with four boys and three girls.

15-Veni Sponsa Christi

It takes a month to give up my anger over Sister Adalgisa’s negative report.  I shiver when I think of her letter. It raised the specter of dismissal just weeks before investiture.  At the beginning of June Mother Provincial, Mother Mistress, Mother Superior, and other appointed nuns had assembled in the main office, their mission to discuss the character of each candidate in our group.  During this meeting they decide whether or not a postulant is ready to receive the habit and continue on the road toward full membership in the order. On the day of the council Sister Vanda calls me to her room to tell me about the letter. She shares only that Sister Adalgisa was not satisfied with my teaching. There must have been more, but Sister Vanda refuses to tell. She insists that I not worry, that on Investiture Day I will march down the aisle with the rest of the Holy Name of Mary group.  I don’t know how she can be so positive about this.  In the end, she is right.

“Hold still.”  Sister Margaret’s voice sweeps me back to the dormitory. “If I don’t get this bobby pin in tight, your veil will slide off in the middle of the ceremony.”  Around me postulants chat and share compliments.  Excitement grows keener as they zip the last zippers and pull stubborn wisps of hair into place.  Sister Margaret finishes poking in the crucial bobby pin, and I slide the veil over my face.  For a moment I am alone behind the veil.  I whisper my thanks to God for having chosen me to walk in St. Lucy’s footsteps.

I gather up the front of my white gown and take my place.  We begin our descent to the foyer. Below, I see several nuns watch as we circle our way down the spiral stairway. They smile their approval as we pass them and head out the front door of the mansion.  Perhaps they remember the happiness of their own Investiture Day.  Red-robed monsignors and many black-clad priests wait at the top of the rock garden steps.  All the clergy wear the traditional white surplice.  The cross bearer and a handful of juniors carrying brass candle holders lead the procession toward the chapel.  I blink at the bright August sun.  Not a cloud drifts across the sky.  Cars park up and down the driveways, and guests gather around the stone fountain to take pictures.  The murmur of voices blends with the constant splash of water.

When we near the chapel I hear the organ, distant and calming. Our procession turns and passes through the doorway into the cool, dark, vestibule. Its peculiar musty smell has not changed in seven years.  Is it that long ago that I came to Villa Walsh?   At the top of the stairs a small junior peeks over the railing from the choir loft.  I feel a twinge as she disappears from view.  For so many years Sister Victoria had called on me for look-out duties. The tiny stab of nostalgia flees as soon as the organ bursts into Roma Immortale.  Its magnificent opening measures trumpet papal arrivals in Rome, and today its grandeur stirs a triumphant chord deep in my soul.

The chapel is ablaze with light; families and friends crowd the polished pews.  Smiles, small waves, and tears appear in equal measure on the faces of all who have come to share in this solemn ceremony. As we file into our places, Patricia whispers, “Where’s your family?”  I try to ignore the somersaults in my stomach.  I, too, notice the empty pew.

I fix my eyes on Archbishop Boland, who stands before the throne on the altar, gold crosier in hand, and ceremonial miter firmly perched on his head.  “God,” I pray, “don’t let my family miss this day.” They had not come for my Confirmation. I knew back then that they had no car, and my brothers could not always make the long trip, but the knowledge did not make it easier to bear the shame of being the only person with no family in attendance.

The Archbishop begins to speak when Patricia pokes me again.  “They’re here.” I turn and see Sister Rosalie usher my family to their seats.  Diana is with them.  She must have waited for them outside the chapel.  Mama and Gloria catch my eye.  They both have an apologetic “we got lost” look followed by a wan smile.  Dad, Nivio, and Rocky kneel with heads bowed. I can’t believe even Marcus and John are here.  The pew is full, much to my relief.  I have no doubt that St. Lucy interceded with God on my behalf.  Now this is a perfect day.

The Archbishop finishes his few words, and Mother Catherine moves to the foot of the altar.  That is my cue. I rise from my place and enter the sanctuary.  I kneel at the prie dieu that is set up just past the communion rail.  The Archbishop rests his hands on my head and prays that I will be a worthy bride of Christ and daughter of St. Lucy.  After his short prayer Sister Vanda removes my veil and unzips the gown.  Every cell in my body burns with fervor as I stand and step out of the gown.  Stripped of all but a long white linen slip, I gather up the bridal gown and veil.  In a single motion, I toss both behind me and with them reject all worldly things.   Mother Catherine kisses me on both cheeks and places the precious bundle that is my habit in my outstretched arms.  Sister Vanda smiles; her eyes fill with pride.  She has watched over me since I was ten, always there, my guardian angel.  I move in a haze past Mary Jane, who takes her turn at the altar as I continue out of the chapel to the Professato where novices help me don the habit.

I barely feel the pinning, tying, and tugging.  In the distance the choir sings Veni,Sponsa Christi.  “How perfect,” I think.  In no time the novices have me dressed.  I love the feel of the material as it brushes against my legs.  The serge smells faintly of steam that rises from an ironing board.  It is hard to believe this miracle day has come.  Seven years have passed since I, as a little girl, had followed Sister Catherine up the stairs to the choir loft of St. Peter Church.  The habit feels as wonderful as I had imagined.

When all twenty-six of us are vested, we reenter the chapel.  Mother Provincial, Mother Superior, and Mother Mistress have formed a reception line.  One at a time we approach them.  We smile, bend to kiss the ring of each, and are welcomed, hugged, and blessed.  We exit the chapel to Faith of Our Fathers.

Outside, surrounded by my fellow novices and people who had not been in the chapel, we wait for family and friends.  I crane my neck to spot my family amid the kaleidoscope of summer dresses and lightweight suits.  Delighted to be free, children run amid the flower beds and chase each other around the fountain.  Just when I feel I can no longer contain my excitement, I spot my brother Nivio.  His six foot frame towers above the crowd.  I run in his direction with all the grace of the flying nun.

“Mama, Mama,” I call as I worm my way through people standing shoulder to shoulder.  She hugs me tight, looks me in the eye, and whispers in awe, “Tu sei una suora; you are a nun.”   This is the closest to her I have ever felt.  I cry.

End of Chapter 15

Sextus Decimus

16  –  Santa Caecilia, Ora Pro Nobis

The excitement of Investiture Day has faded, but I still feel a thrill each morning when I put on my brand new habit.  I can’t believe that I am allowed to wear it each day.

With the reception of the habit comes the canonical year.  This special year is dedicated to all things religious.  My days are filled with spiritual study, laundry work, holy hours, and meals.   It is not all serious; there is also room for fun.   I look forward to our softball games. For as long as the weather stays mellow, we play every day.  We pin up our habits, run the bases from the oak tree, past a boulder half buried in the grass, and around a Japanese ginkgo.  More often than not, someone forgets to avoid the tree’s foul-smelling fruit so she carries the cloud of sulfur perfume around for hours.  We go for walks in the evening, and in bad weather play monopoly or other board games.

During canonical year we learn basic cooking and do hands-on preparation of meals for our group.  It is not my favorite activity, but my willingness to wash pots and pans and prep the vegetables suits my partner. Claire and I work well together.  Given the limited ingredients we get from the main kitchen, she still creates masterful meals, The novices’ refectory has a miniature kitchen, where every member of the group takes a turn at the stove.  Claire and I pull off a Thanksgiving meal with help from Penny and Maryann, our fellow novices.  The turkey exits the oven all plump and juicy, just the way it should.  We surround it with sweet potatoes, string beans, and a pumpkin pie for dessert.

One day Carol pops in and shows us how to make sticky buns the way her mother did.  Ours are plenty sticky, and more black than brown around the edges.  Mother Mistress bravely samples them and offers compliments between bites.

Another part of this special year revolves around the chapel organ.  In November Mary Jane, Barbara, and I start organ lessons.  Barbara is talented in music and can play by ear.  I envy her almost as much as I envy Sister Victoria.  Over the years I watched Sister Victoria make playing the organ seem effortless.  I studied her every move.  She’d slide onto the bench and tug the front of her habit.  This gives her legs freedom to wander over the foot pedals.  She reaches forward, presses the on button, and waits for that whoosh of air that blows through miles of pipes, some as tiny as my little finger, others cavernous.  In seconds she has tapped six or seven stops and is ready to play.  She never sits still on the bench.   She leans far back for the fortissimo parts, and when the piece calls for pianissimo, an invisible hand draws her toward the console.  Her body forms a living bond with her instrument.

I hold this picture in my mind as I sit here on the organ bench.  I am an interloper, a pretender.  “No more wrong notes,” my inner critic whispers as I play the last line of the Tantum Ergo for the fourth time.  Once again I hit the G-sharp instead of a G-natural.  I cringe at the dissonance.  My eyes dart to the mirror that is set to give a full view of the altar.  Sister Mary, who is arranging flowers, turns from her work to look toward the choir loft.  I cannot see her grimace, but I know it is there.

A burning heat stings my face.  I hate looking foolish in front of anyone who happens to wander into the chapel and is subjected to my playing.  How can Sister Letitia, the eighty-year-old nun who daily positions herself in the second pew on the Blessed Mother side of the chapel, keep her mind on her meditation?  I think back to the little piano rooms of earlier years where I had gone through the learning process in private.  The constant cacophony of those rooms disguised my mistakes.

Last Thursday Sister Josephine informed me that in February I will take my turn in the rotation to play for evening Benediction.  In March we’d add Sunday Mass to my schedule.  This thought sabotages what is left of a practice session already gone awry.  The chapel is cool, but the palms of my hands sweat.  I swing around on the bench and spend the last five minutes watching Sister Mary change the altar linens.  I wonder if Sister Letitia is sick.  She is not kneeling in her pew.

The organ demands a new set of skills.  The two manuals, the twenty-four tongue-like stops marked in a musical language that no one bothers to interpret for me, and the giant floor pedals require all my neophyte attention.  At first, my left foot lumbers over the foot pedals, but with time it finds its way around with something short of dexterity.  I do not always trust it to light on the appropriate pedal, so I get into the habit of stealing downward glances even though Sister Josephine strictly forbids this.  Sister Giovanina had made this same demand years before when she taught a group of us the tap dance steps to The Sidewalks of New York.  The dance had been part of an amateur hour show for Mother Carolina’s feast day celebration.  By the big day I had mastered the dance sans the furtive glances, but this time the prospects do not look as promising.

In time I master the technique of playing legato.  In order to get that smooth flowing sound the musician’s fingers must crawl along the keyboard connecting one note to the next.  The organist may raise her hands only at the tail end of the phrase where player and singers break for a breath.   I have learned to move my hands seamlessly from the bottom manual to the top.  I am plagued by wrong notes and often lose my place because of those unauthorized peeks at my foot.

As Christmas comes and goes, I try to put my February debut out of my mind.  Lessons and practice continue. In January Sister Josephine gives me my lesson on the organ in the concert hall instead of in the chapel.  She tells me to practice here for the rest of the month.  One day Mother Provincial comes through with a group of lay visitors.  I stop playing as they draw near.  “Play. Play.  Do not stop,” she says, waving her hand as though directing the choir.  “You must practice.  Work.  Work.”

The visitors stand for a moment looking and smiling before they turn back to their conversation.  I pretend to search through my music.  I find Holy God We Praise Thy Name, which I know well, and start to play. They move out of the room, and I drop my hands to my lap.  For a moment I feel dizzy and lightheaded, as a strange numbness drains away.

February arrives, and already it is Thursday, my night to play for Benediction.  I leave the pew during the litany just as Sister Josephine orders.  Barbara mouths “Good luck” as I climb past her and head to the choir loft.  Sister Josephine stands near the organ and flattens the open page of the St. Gregory Hymnal.  I tell myself I know the songs well.  I’ve played them several times without sour notes.

As I climb onto the bench and tug the front of my habit, I fear the great pipe organ has plans of its own.  A chill crawls up the back of my neck.  The notes in front of me look different; they jump around on the page.  I blink, and they scurry back.  The altar bell sounds.

“Play,” she says.

“I can’t.”

I sit paralyzed. When Sister grabs my hands and puts them on the keyboard, the fingers begin to move.  They play without my consent.  Driven forward by Sister Josephine’s hissing, pointing, and prodding, I play to the last Amen and flee the choir loft.  I am drained. I will not be a musician, no matter how many times I am forced to sit on the organ bench.  Not even the pills Sister Gertrude gives me to relax my nerves chase away my fear of the church organ.  My turn comes every three weeks, and every three weeks until June, Sister Josephine or Sister Victoria sits with me through the ordeal of playing the organ.

End of Chapter 16

It takes a month to give up my anger over Sister Adalgisa’s negative report.  I shiver when I think of her letter. It raised the specter of dismissal just weeks before investiture.  At the beginning of June Mother Provincial, Mother Mistress, Mother Superior, and other appointed nuns had assembled in the main office, their mission to discuss the character of each candidate in our group.  During this meeting they decide whether or not a postulant is ready to receive the habit and continue on the road toward full membership in the order. On the day of the council Sister Vanda calls me to her room to tell me about the letter. She shares only that Sister Adalgisa was not satisfied with my teaching. There must have been more, but Sister Vanda refuses to tell. She insists that I not worry, that on Investiture Day I will march down the aisle with the rest of the Holy Name of Mary group.  I don’t know how she can be so positive about this.  In the end, she is right.

“Hold still.”  Sister Margaret’s voice sweeps me back to the dormitory. “If I don’t get this bobby pin in tight, your veil will slide off in the middle of the ceremony.”  Around me postulants chat and share compliments.  Excitement grows keener as they zip the last zippers and pull stubborn wisps of hair into place.  Sister Margaret finishes poking in the crucial bobby pin, and I slide the veil over my face.  For a moment I am alone behind the veil.  I whisper my thanks to God for having chosen me to walk in St. Lucy’s footsteps.

I gather up the front of my white gown and take my place.  We begin our descent to the foyer. Below, I see several nuns watch as we circle our way down the spiral stairway. They smile their approval as we pass them and head out the front door of the mansion.  Perhaps they remember the happiness of their own Investiture Day.  Red-robed monsignors and many black-clad priests wait at the top of the rock garden steps.  All the clergy wear the traditional white surplice.  The cross bearer and a handful of juniors carrying brass candle holders lead the procession toward the chapel.  I blink at the bright August sun.  Not a cloud drifts across the sky.  Cars park up and down the driveways, and guests gather around the stone fountain to take pictures.  The murmur of voices blends with the constant splash of water.

When we near the chapel I hear the organ, distant and calming. Our procession turns and passes through the doorway into the cool, dark, vestibule. Its peculiar musty smell has not changed in seven years.  Is it that long ago that I came to Villa Walsh?   At the top of the stairs a small junior peeks over the railing from the choir loft.  I feel a twinge as she disappears from view.  For so many years Sister Victoria had called on me for look-out duties. The tiny stab of nostalgia flees as soon as the organ bursts into Roma Immortale.  Its magnificent opening measures trumpet papal arrivals in Rome, and today its grandeur stirs a triumphant chord deep in my soul.

The chapel is ablaze with light; families and friends crowd the polished pews.  Smiles, small waves, and tears appear in equal measure on the faces of all who have come to share in this solemn ceremony. As we file into our places, Patricia whispers, “Where’s your family?”  I try to ignore the somersaults in my stomach.  I, too, notice the empty pew.

I fix my eyes on Archbishop Boland, who stands before the throne on the altar, gold crosier in hand, and ceremonial miter firmly perched on his head.  “God,” I pray, “don’t let my family miss this day.” They had not come for my Confirmation. I knew back then that they had no car, and my brothers could not always make the long trip, but the knowledge did not make it easier to bear the shame of being the only person with no family in attendance.

The Archbishop begins to speak when Patricia pokes me again.  “They’re here.” I turn and see Sister Rosalie usher my family to their seats.  Diana is with them.  She must have waited for them outside the chapel.  Mama and Gloria catch my eye.  They both have an apologetic “we got lost” look followed by a wan smile.  Dad, Nivio, and Rocky kneel with heads bowed. I can’t believe even Marcus and John are here.  The pew is full, much to my relief.  I have no doubt that St. Lucy interceded with God on my behalf.  Now this is a perfect day.

The Archbishop finishes his few words, and Mother Catherine moves to the foot of the altar.  That is my cue. I rise from my place and enter the sanctuary.  I kneel at the prie dieu that is set up just past the communion rail.  The Archbishop rests his hands on my head and prays that I will be a worthy bride of Christ and daughter of St. Lucy.  After his short prayer Sister Vanda removes my veil and unzips the gown.  Every cell in my body burns with fervor as I stand and step out of the gown.  Stripped of all but a long white linen slip, I gather up the bridal gown and veil.  In a single motion, I toss both behind me and with them reject all worldly things.   Mother Catherine kisses me on both cheeks and places the precious bundle that is my habit in my outstretched arms.  Sister Vanda smiles; her eyes fill with pride.  She has watched over me since I was ten, always there, my guardian angel.  I move in a haze past Mary Jane, who takes her turn at the altar as I continue out of the chapel to the Professato where novices help me don the habit.

I barely feel the pinning, tying, and tugging.  In the distance the choir sings Veni,Sponsa Christi.  “How perfect,” I think.  In no time the novices have me dressed.  I love the feel of the material as it brushes against my legs.  The serge smells faintly of steam that rises from an ironing board.  It is hard to believe this miracle day has come.  Seven years have passed since I, as a little girl, had followed Sister Catherine up the stairs to the choir loft of St. Peter Church.  The habit feels as wonderful as I had imagined.

When all twenty-six of us are vested, we reenter the chapel.  Mother Provincial, Mother Superior, and Mother Mistress have formed a reception line.  One at a time we approach them.  We smile, bend to kiss the ring of each, and are welcomed, hugged, and blessed.  We exit the chapel to Faith of Our Fathers.

Outside, surrounded by my fellow novices and people who had not been in the chapel, we wait for family and friends.  I crane my neck to spot my family amid the kaleidoscope of summer dresses and lightweight suits.  Delighted to be free, children run amid the flower beds and chase each other around the fountain.  Just when I feel I can no longer contain my excitement, I spot my brother Nivio.  His six foot frame towers above the crowd.  I run in his direction with all the grace of the flying nun.

“Mama, Mama,” I call as I worm my way through people standing shoulder to shoulder.  She hugs me tight, looks me in the eye, and whispers in awe, “Tu sei una suora; you are a nun.”   This is the closest to her I have ever felt.  I cry.

End of Chapter 15

16-Santa Caecilia, Ora Pro Nobis

The excitement of Investiture Day has faded, but I still feel a thrill each morning when I put on my brand new habit.  I can’t believe that I am allowed to wear it each day.

With the reception of the habit comes the canonical year.  This special year is dedicated to all things religious.  My days are filled with spiritual study, laundry work, holy hours, and meals.   It is not all serious; there is also room for fun.   I look forward to our softball games. For as long as the weather stays mellow, we play every day.  We pin up our habits, run the bases from the oak tree, past a boulder half buried in the grass, and around a Japanese ginkgo.  More often than not, someone forgets to avoid the tree’s foul-smelling fruit so she carries the cloud of sulfur perfume around for hours.  We go for walks in the evening, and in bad weather play monopoly or other board games.

During canonical year we learn basic cooking and do hands-on preparation of meals for our group.  It is not my favorite activity, but my willingness to wash pots and pans and prep the vegetables suits my partner. Claire and I work well together.  Given the limited ingredients we get from the main kitchen, she still creates masterful meals, The novices’ refectory has a miniature kitchen, where every member of the group takes a turn at the stove.  Claire and I pull off a Thanksgiving meal with help from Penny and Maryann, our fellow novices.  The turkey exits the oven all plump and juicy, just the way it should.  We surround it with sweet potatoes, string beans, and a pumpkin pie for dessert.

One day Carol pops in and shows us how to make sticky buns the way her mother did.  Ours are plenty sticky, and more black than brown around the edges.  Mother Mistress bravely samples them and offers compliments between bites.

Another part of this special year revolves around the chapel organ.  In November Mary Jane, Barbara, and I start organ lessons.  Barbara is talented in music and can play by ear.  I envy her almost as much as I envy Sister Victoria.  Over the years I watched Sister Victoria make playing the organ seem effortless.  I studied her every move.  She’d slide onto the bench and tug the front of her habit.  This gives her legs freedom to wander over the foot pedals.  She reaches forward, presses the on button, and waits for that whoosh of air that blows through miles of pipes, some as tiny as my little finger, others cavernous.  In seconds she has tapped six or seven stops and is ready to play.  She never sits still on the bench.   She leans far back for the fortissimo parts, and when the piece calls for pianissimo, an invisible hand draws her toward the console.  Her body forms a living bond with her instrument.

I hold this picture in my mind as I sit here on the organ bench.  I am an interloper, a pretender.  “No more wrong notes,” my inner critic whispers as I play the last line of the Tantum Ergo for the fourth time.  Once again I hit the G-sharp instead of a G-natural.  I cringe at the dissonance.  My eyes dart to the mirror that is set to give a full view of the altar.  Sister Mary, who is arranging flowers, turns from her work to look toward the choir loft.  I cannot see her grimace, but I know it is there.

A burning heat stings my face.  I hate looking foolish in front of anyone who happens to wander into the chapel and is subjected to my playing.  How can Sister Letitia, the eighty-year-old nun who daily positions herself in the second pew on the Blessed Mother side of the chapel, keep her mind on her meditation?  I think back to the little piano rooms of earlier years where I had gone through the learning process in private.  The constant cacophony of those rooms disguised my mistakes.

Last Thursday Sister Josephine informed me that in February I will take my turn in the rotation to play for evening Benediction.  In March we’d add Sunday Mass to my schedule.  This thought sabotages what is left of a practice session already gone awry.  The chapel is cool, but the palms of my hands sweat.  I swing around on the bench and spend the last five minutes watching Sister Mary change the altar linens.  I wonder if Sister Letitia is sick.  She is not kneeling in her pew.

The organ demands a new set of skills.  The two manuals, the twenty-four tongue-like stops marked in a musical language that no one bothers to interpret for me, and the giant floor pedals require all my neophyte attention.  At first, my left foot lumbers over the foot pedals, but with time it finds its way around with something short of dexterity.  I do not always trust it to light on the appropriate pedal, so I get into the habit of stealing downward glances even though Sister Josephine strictly forbids this.  Sister Giovanina had made this same demand years before when she taught a group of us the tap dance steps to The Sidewalks of New York.  The dance had been part of an amateur hour show for Mother Carolina’s feast day celebration.  By the big day I had mastered the dance sans the furtive glances, but this time the prospects do not look as promising.

In time I master the technique of playing legato.  In order to get that smooth flowing sound the musician’s fingers must crawl along the keyboard connecting one note to the next.  The organist may raise her hands only at the tail end of the phrase where player and singers break for a breath.   I have learned to move my hands seamlessly from the bottom manual to the top.  I am plagued by wrong notes and often lose my place because of those unauthorized peeks at my foot.

As Christmas comes and goes, I try to put my February debut out of my mind.  Lessons and practice continue. In January Sister Josephine gives me my lesson on the organ in the concert hall instead of in the chapel.  She tells me to practice here for the rest of the month.  One day Mother Provincial comes through with a group of lay visitors.  I stop playing as they draw near.  “Play. Play.  Do not stop,” she says, waving her hand as though directing the choir.  “You must practice.  Work.  Work.”

The visitors stand for a moment looking and smiling before they turn back to their conversation.  I pretend to search through my music.  I find Holy God We Praise Thy Name, which I know well, and start to play. They move out of the room, and I drop my hands to my lap.  For a moment I feel dizzy and lightheaded, as a strange numbness drains away.

February arrives, and already it is Thursday, my night to play for Benediction.  I leave the pew during the litany just as Sister Josephine orders.  Barbara mouths “Good luck” as I climb past her and head to the choir loft.  Sister Josephine stands near the organ and flattens the open page of the St. Gregory Hymnal.  I tell myself I know the songs well.  I’ve played them several times without sour notes.

As I climb onto the bench and tug the front of my habit, I fear the great pipe organ has plans of its own.  A chill crawls up the back of my neck.  The notes in front of me look different; they jump around on the page.  I blink, and they scurry back.  The altar bell sounds.

“Play,” she says.

“I can’t.”

I sit paralyzed. When Sister grabs my hands and puts them on the keyboard, the fingers begin to move.  They play without my consent.  Driven forward by Sister Josephine’s hissing, pointing, and prodding, I play to the last Amen and flee the choir loft.  I am drained. I will not be a musician, no matter how many times I am forced to sit on the organ bench.  Not even the pills Sister Gertrude gives me to relax my nerves chase away my fear of the church organ.  My turn comes every three weeks, and every three weeks until June, Sister Josephine or Sister Victoria sits with me through the ordeal of playing the organ.

27 thoughts on “A Particular Friendship: A Nun at Age Ten”

  1. Bravo for “It, I , and I-don’t-recall-but-I’ll-always -remember! I remember when we studied that set piece from Beverly Cleary’s memoir, The Girl from Yamhill and decided to use it to support our own memoir pieces.
    Patty

    Like

  2. Words We Women Write said:

    Your writing about John, difficult as it must have been, gave me the courage to start writing about Larry and my sadness. Thanks for that nudge, friend. Mary

    Like

  3. Words We Women Write said:

    Ronnie,
    What a perfect snapshot. You have your Italian Mama and polenta. I have my Italian grandmother and raviolis on the porch. We are lucky we had that special time and kept close a memory of it.
    (which I promise not to erase fom our blog)
    Toni

    Like

  4. Words We Women Write said:

    I just left a comment on the four-year-old Maia. It must have been on our home page?
    Patty

    Like

  5. Words We Women Write said:

    The Maia poem WAS on the home page for just a short bit of time and then I moved it. I am trying to keep my writing on my Ronnie page… the sad thing is… I lost your comment. This is becoming a habit. We’ll have to figure out why that keeps happening. So sorry, Patty.

    Like

  6. Words We Women Write said:

    Ronnie–I love the set-up for your poem. It makes me want to start my memories and stories because my mother was also as lucky as your mother. Peg had two doting daughters who gave her much attention (and garnered all sorts of envious praise from friends who were not so fortunate!). We called it “Peg Patrol” because one or the other, or both, were “on call” 24/7–and we wouldn’t have had it any other way. (Ten years later, we STILL don’t know what to do with our Saturdays!!) I love the idea of passing the family lore on–somewhere out there, someone is listening. It seems to me that you and your family are reconvening more often these days, so the urge to share must be a common thread. I love these stories of yours (the Bradlees one is still a favorite.)–let the ink flow!!! Mary

    Like

  7. Words We Women Write said:

    Ronnie,
    The poem is pretty marvelous, but the intro is tugging at my heart and mind. There’s a great children’s picture book called More More More Said the Baby. Well, I’m no baby, but I say “more, more, more” stories. I want to hear what your Mama had to tell you when you and your sisters came for the Wednesday visits.
    Patty

    Like

    • Words We Women Write said:

      Interesting connection to the picture book. Mine is more along the lines of Judith Viorst’s – I’m Too Young To Be Seventy: And Other Delusions.

      And so, Ronnie –
      …u r
      …2 young
      …2 b
      …70.
      So There.
      Toni

      Like

  8. thanks to ency, i’ve found this blog. what wonderful mamma stories…they bring back some of my own. thanks for the memories:)

    Like

    • Words We Women Write said:

      Ellie,
      So great to read your comment…..In your words I hear a yearning to write your family stories. Don’t waste a moment… get started writing.
      Ronnie

      Like

  9. Words We Women Write said:

    Ronnie–Your writings are a gift, and one I especially appreciate because I know the care you have given each piece and the time you always take to “get it right.” I love the combination of poetry and prose; I love hearing the stories. Don’t stop–let it flow. M.
    PS The journal on Sweden is coming!

    Like

  10. Words We Women Write said:

    Hmm, let me see. Ah, yes, here’s my feeble (and silly attempt) at the form you do so well. So, who said, “A sonnet a day keeps boredom at bay” ? Toni

    Hiss Off! : A Sonnet

    Rows of tomatoes planted on hillsides
    remind me now of the boy who threw snakes.
    He made the cats howl, he riled up the drakes
    and spooked the old nag that took me for rides.
    He made it a sport; he tormented me
    by tossing a snake headfirst at my face
    and shoving one in my collar of lace,
    making me scream when it tried to get free.

    This cruel vicious boy who inflicted pain
    his treatment of creatures was inhumane.
    It was always my wish for that pervert
    that he could feel how much it hurt and
    that just one snake he pulled from its lair
    would be a constrictor and him ensnare.

    Like

  11. Dee (Aversa)Bearry said:

    Hi Ronnie,
    WOW! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your writings. Sr. Giacinta would really be proud!(Remember those days!)
    Spent some time with Mary Ann Serno & Penny and Penny shared your website.
    I especially enjoyed “Sharp-creased Jeans”. It reminded me of so many treasured memories of times with my hubby Roy. I keep saying one of these days I’m gonna write them down. Maybe this is the day I’ll start!
    It’s amazing what you gals are doing at 70!
    Penny’s paintings are amazing. Got to see her exhibits at her house and in Brigantine.
    Please keep writing and keep me posted.
    Dee (Dolores)

    Like

  12. Words We Women Write said:

    Ronnie, Your words hit True.
    They Take Me There,
    Buon Natale, Bella.
    Toni

    Like

  13. Words We Women Write said:

    Ronnie,
    Suffer and mortify. This is such heavy cloak to drape on a little kid’s shoulders. This chapter is so full and poignant. I’m still stung by the pathos of the doll story.
    Patty

    Like

    • Words We Women Write said:

      Ronnie, I had a SaucyWalker doll, you held her hand and she walked with you, eyes opened and closed with each step. I waited so long for her….I cannot imagine being told I had to hand it of to some other little girl. In the grand scheme of things, this was the ultimate offering. I’d say you’ve secured your place in Heaven. Save me a seat…
      Toni

      Like

  14. Ronnie,
    Thanks for this respite from the beautiful but so cold scene out my windows. Right now, a reader in southern Florida could not possibly appreciate chapter 9 as this reader can.
    Thanks.
    Sue

    Like

    • Words We Women Write said:

      Wow!!! Thanks, Sue. I am thrilled that you spent a bit of time with me in the warm sunshine of memory. I can still hear the quiet murmur of the waves on a dark summer night. Such a simple but powerful pleasure.
      ronnie

      Like

  15. I was taught by the Filippini Sisters and remember Veronica from her photo in their 1960 Golden Jubilee book. Her remembrances bring back many of my own from those days of parochial school.

    Like

  16. I’m also a fan of Veronica–we call her Ronnie now–I can’t wait for the two of you to connect up and talk about the good old days. Good old days if you had Sister Veronica as a teacher that is.
    Patty

    Like

  17. Sam Esposito said:

    I didn’t actually have her (Ronnie) as a teacher, but her sister, Diane, was at my school when I was in the 2nd grade. She taught the 7th grade and we always thought she was so pretty! Thanks for responding.

    Like

    • Veronica R. Santo said:

      i didn’t realize that my sister Diana was stationed in Pittsburgh…. I will tell her that you remember that she taught 7th grade back then. I know she will be pleased and who wouldn’t love to be remembered as pretty. No doubt that will elicit a chuckle from her…. What a pleasure it is to hear that you share some of those long forgotten catholic school memories. It was a different world back then.

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  18. Sam Esposito said:

    Yes, she was in Ellwood City with the famous Sr. Mary Zucca! Your writings brought back a flood of memories. I recently drove with Barbara Takacs and Jean Gaeta, who are missioned in Ellwood, back to Morristown where I met up with my 2nd grade teacher who was there with Diana, Sr. Josephine Calo. Probably the most amazing thing is the perspective we have as kids versus the reality we can see as adults. But what’s even more fascinating is that these women made such an impact in my life. They had a power beyond ordinary description. Yes, a different world indeed. Can’t wait to hear more if you continue to write.

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  19. Veronica R. Santo said:

    You seem to have kept in touch with the sisters in your parish….That is a wonderful thing. I do not write very much any more… I did finish the last chapter of this mini memoir but never got around to posting it. I had fun writing it, as those were wonderful years for me. But it was not to be. So many nuns left at the same time I did. It was a period of enormous change…. You must have been much too young to have been bothered about it. Anyway, it was fun chatting with you. Do give Jean Gaeta my best regards… we were at Villa Walsh at the same time. I have not seen her for quite a while.

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    • Sam Esposito said:

      I expect to see Jean at a benefit for the school that is being held in a few weeks. I can greet her for you then. Yes, a little younger than you are, so the exodus of sisters in the late 60’s and through the 70’s didn’t have quite the impact on me it did for many. Might I ask if the Adele you mention in your group was Adele Ihnen? She was my third grade teacher and I know she was one of those who left. We were fascinated that she was a blonde! You know how most of the sisters were dark like we were since it was an Italian parish, so she stood out from the others. Wonder if you have heard of Ellen DiGisi-Klenert? She was with the Venerini Sisters in Massachusetts about the same time you were in the convent. She has just written a book about her own Italian-American family life and the years in the convent. Saw it on Amazon.

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