Catholic girls in my neighborhood wore knee length plaid skirts in muted shades of gray and blue as part of their school uniforms. They wore white blouses and navy blazers with gold embroidered crests on the breast pocket. Dark colored knee socks and loafers with pennies in them were standard issue for these young girls who were reluctantly packaged for learning.
They left their houses weekday mornings with shirts buttoned at the collar, and hair pulled back in ponytails. No makeup, and no accessories, but for the ubiquitous gold crosses on short chains which hung delicately around their necks. With socks pulled up, and skirt lengths appropriately modest, the girls gave the appearance of innocence. An inch or two of skin exposed at the intersection of skirt and sock was the only thing that kept these young ladies from being almost completely covered. Sometimes a portion of a tall girl’s thigh would be visible. With no regard for tailoring, fit was unimportant.
Even in the coldest weather girls wore skirts. Only boys were permitted to wear pants to school in the early 1960’s. Stockings were forbidden, and wearing tights was reminiscent of childhood for these girls teetering between schoolgirl and bad girl. They would have done anything to not seem adolescent. So instead of keeping warm they suffered red knee caps in winter.
I walked behind the clannish group of girls for ten or so blocks on my way to school. I observed them in lock step cadence which made their skirts all gently swish in the same direction. I was envious of their austere appearance. Uniforms seemed to be the great equalizer. These girls didn’t have to wonder what to wear, or if what they were wearing was fashionable. I hoped that whatever I had on would not put me in the line of fire by the girls in my school who routinely compared what everyone was wearing to what everyone else was wearing.
The route to school was so familiar that the girls talked without ever looking where they were going, and then as if someone pulled the cord on a bus signaling the driver to stop, they all turned and walked into a colorless five story building with an enormous cross on the facade. At the end of the day they left school looking just as neat and tidy as they had hours earlier when the doors had closed behind them. Nuns in black and white habits stood sentry at the doorways as their students began to leave, and the school day ended. The nanosecond these seemingly pure and chaste girls were out of sight of the sisters they became almost completely unrecognizable.
Afternoon dismissal signaled a transformation. Skirts were immediately rolled up at the waist, making the length significantly shorter. White pearlized buttons on the starched shirts were unbuttoned; socks were pushed down, or taken off, and shoved into purses and book bags, while pony tails were loosened. Naked lips were slathered with sticky fruit flavored lip-gloss. And stashed cigarettes were lit three on a match. They all smoked.
But in the morning the girls once again soldiered up, taking orders from the nuns who were cast as foreboding and scary. I overheard stories about rulers making contact with the tops of the girl’s hands, and punishments being doled out, but I never asked for details.
Some of the nuns had masculine sounding first names; others answered to Sister Ignacious and Ursula Constance. Between the hours of eight in the morning and three in the afternoon the girls were obedient. By 3:15, all bets were off.
The red light on the answering machine in my office was blinking. The voice was female, but husky and monotone. Sister Lucinda was speaking. She had a thick Italian accent. I speak Italian in the way that someone who learned a foreign language decades earlier speaks, but that didn’t help me to understand her. I’d never spoken to a nun. Upon hearing the sister’s voice I instantly thought of the stories my childhood acquaintances had told of their parochial school experiences. I returned the call immediately.
She asked to meet me, rather told me when she was available for a meeting. I was unable to accommodate her request for the time she preferred, and wished that I would have been able to rearrange my schedule. She said she didn’t really like the phone and liked emails even less, insisting that the only way to get to know someone is to meet them. I was a little afraid of her.
Two days later, dressed in modest attire I arrived ten minutes early to meet the sister and waited stiff backed in her office for her arrival. I’d never been summoned to the principal’s office as a kid, but waiting for her, I imagined this is what a ten year old child might feel like in that situation.
The papers for my presentation were neatly compiled in a folder which I handed to the sister, and began to explain the project she had initially called me about. It took only a few minutes for her to tell me that it would not be right for her students at this time. She kept the information and we stood, indicating that the meeting was over. On my way into the building I noticed a ceramics studio and asked if she wouldn’t mind showing me around before I left.
That’s when I was introduced to a few of the other sisters and the lay staff. The studio had a small section of hand-crafted items for sale. Amongst the statues of angels and assorted bric-a-brac was a small plaque which said “you are in my prayers.” My youngest daughter will be leaving for college in the fall and I wanted to buy this for her to put in her dorm room as a physical reminder that she wasn’t really going to be alone in her unfamiliar surroundings.
The little piece had a sticker on the front, $4. I had no cash, and told the sister why I wanted to buy it, thinking I would come back to get it for Zazu. Sister Lucinda took it off the shelf and handed it to another nun, asking her to wrap if for me. “I want to give it to you.” The girls I grew up with were wrong about nuns.
We said goodbye, and agreed that I would visit again next year to talk about the same project I had come to discuss that day. I walked out the door and was more than two car lengths away when I heard the sister say “Come back Jill.” She hadn’t called me by name even once. Not on her initial phone message or during the meeting. There is no “J” in Italian; ergo Jill is neither a familiar or popular name. But this ninety-two year old nun had heard every single word I said. Of course I turned and came back, wondering why she beckoned me to return.
The sister is small in stature. I was wearing heals, which elevated me at least four or five inches above her. She opened her arms and drew me to her. She hugged me, tight, and long, and hard. Softly saying “I will pray for you to be happy in your heart and for you to have a wonderful life.” I hadn’t told the sister anything about the indelible sadness I live with, but she knew. I walked away with tears in my eyes. I walked away knowing Sister Lucinda loves me.
I could mail invitations to her for the exhibition we discussed, but knowing how she feels about the phone and emails I can only hazard a guess that she doesn’t much care for mail. I’m going to hand deliver some to her, and make a donation to the gift shop in cash. I mailed the plaque to my daughter in Los Angeles.
Raw Candor Event Schedule
Jill will be reading Raw live at Sailboat Bend on May 19 and June 9 http://www.facebook.com/events/263772817041266/
Jill will be speaking on May 25th at Nova Southeastern University – Inspiration University Conference. http://www.inspiration-university.com/2012/04/25/iu-league-meeting-rsvp/
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Work by Diana Contreras http://www.facebook.com/pages/Diana-Contreras-Art/146501198702523