Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Force Of A Habit

Anyone who went through a Catholic parochial grammar school education during the 50's and early 60's will recognize much of this entry, if they were taught by the nuns of the Dominican Order.  The Sisters of St. Dominic, white and black habits, could instill both paralyzing fear and quiet awe in a child.  For the first eight years of our lives, my siblings and I were taught beneath the shelter of those black veils.  They were sharp, serious and very smart.  No one ever referred to them as women; beyond gender, they had a special aura people reacted to instantly.

These nuns were frightening at first to a 5 or 6 year old, but in time this need to please surfaced and depending on your home life, it either pushed you to excel or left you in that frozen fear where you remained, mediocre.  These nuns had power.  Much of it came from their habits.  When they walked at a clip, those veils would flap in their wake like the wings of some giant crow. 

As the years progressed, every girl in school wanted to become a nun, of course, there was never a question.  As for the boys, they didn't seem to catch the lure for priesthood, wanting to be pilots or truck drivers, and besides they were forced to be "altar boys" who helped the priest during the Mass.  They'd had enough.  Parents worked hard to keep their kids in a Catholic school, so when one or more would express a desire to "take the holy orders" it was cause for great joy.  In all Irish-Italian Catholic homes it was a well-known fact that your place in heaven was assured if a relative "took the veil".  At our age we could hardly remember to take a bath.

My younger sister and me were not immune to the strange seduction of the habit.  We decided we couldn't wait and dove into Mom's neatly folded, clean white cotton sheets to start our "habits."  Measuring, cutting, we knew every inch, every detail of the costume, and set about the task with a special reverance and glee.  Since Mom didn't have black sheets, we ripped off the backing of a new set of curtains Mom was saving "for special".  Too late, we were already under the spell of the black and white and nothing could stop us.  After all, this was the start of the 60's, everything was slow and easy, the suburbs had proved a success, things were booming, we were young, free and we had a plan. 

Stitching and sewing fevorishing, before long we were done.  Oaktag was used for the "box" the nuns wore on their heads upon which was placed the long black veil with white lining ending at the shoulder.  The box always made them look like they had a headache, where it pinched their foreheads.  We made our long white gowns, the equally long, thin scapular which hid the nun's hands when not in use.  She would float on an invisible cloud as she silently, slowly made her way  up and down each aisle to watch us work.  It gave one many opportunities to study this strange garment and its many parts.  A long, extra huge black rosary hung from the inner gown, partially covered by the scapular.  We knew the parts by rote, with no idea what they meant. 

Too young to actually be nuns, we could at least look like them, and even had our purpose:  "Feed the hungry!"  We would get our little brown bags and go about the neighborhood on pious shoes, asking alms for the poor.  Oh so humble!

As we donned our habits, some swift metamorphosis took place, our voices became softer, lower, our slo-motion movements dignified and studied.  We were filled with some faux piety, instilled by the look of the habit.  We felt special, apart, unique and worthy.  Out we went for those pennies, anxious to help "the poor" which of course, was us.

First we thought we'd appeal to the cars passing by our home, which was set back from a main road.  Nothing was really paved except the street, and we stood precariously on the edges between the parched grass and paved gravel, holding out our bags with a look of such eager yet humble need, most people were helpless not to stop and toss out a few pennies.  They were caught like flies in the web of those habits, we soon discovered.  So we smiled graciously and thanked each one, much the way I'm smiling in this picture - with that "I've foresaken all worldly pleasures, don't you admire me?" kind of expression.  We had perfected it by watching the nuns for years.  My sister was a bit shorter, she seemed more pitiful for some reason.  What a couple of hams.

With ample pennies and even nickels rattling our bags, we decided to get bold and go for dimes - wow maybe even quarters - people were so generous!  Dreams of the "five & dime" penny-candy rolled happily through our young thoughts.  Isn't it odd how, as young children, you just don't see the folly in certain endeavors?  It never entered our nutty minds that the neighbors would obviously recognize us and call our Mother, which of course, someone eventually did.  And it was Mrs. Wiles, I'll never forget, I knew it was her by the look she gave us as she pulled into her driveway next to our house.  We didn't like the Wiles.  Her son, Billy, used to pee out of the attic window into the weeping willow tree that separated a part of our property.  

When we eventually had to pay the consequence of our well-planned, well-intentioned (for us) actions, something in my Mom gave way.  She got out her Kodak and took a few pictures, she just couldn't resist I suppose.  And I'm so grateful she did, as it brings back memories of an easy, protected time, a carefree exciting childhood about to break through into pre-teen angst.  And when that teenager appeared, she couldn't be controlled nor would she listen to anyone's advice. 

Though success did come through hard work, study, all the grown-up things one must do to secure a career, I shall never forget those easy summer days when, as a Dominican nun in my perfectly starched, pious, admirable habit, I had the world.          

 

16 comments:

treesrgreen78 said...

Hi my dear friend this indeed certainly brings back memories of the ladies in black and white for me there was fear with many of them they seemed to think it was their place in life to instill fear.  There was though one nun who i truly loved, i also was going to be a nun.  Did not make the costume but in my heart it was there.  When i look back on those days in Catholic school i am glad the habits are gone and hopefully it let some compassion and caring in the hearts of these nuns who felt their goal in life was to hurt and demean and cause fear.  I know many nuns are not like that and the one nun i truly cared about and was inspired by was truly a beautiful person.  Thanks for the memories Luddie, it is funny when were young how we wish to become different things in life.  I can just see you and your sister in your habits i bet it was priceless.  I have learned from the years i have known you that u could be almost anything u wish, you have such foresight and intelligence you truly amaze me.

rayne1123 said...

MY MOM USED TO TELL ME STORIES ABOUT GOING TO CATHOLIC SCHOOL.  I NEVER WENT TO ONE BUT JASONWILL NEXT YEAR

barbpinion said...

I really enjoyed this entry, just wish I had a picture of you and your sister. My younger sister wanted to be a nun. This entry of yours evoked images of her during that time: her dedication, her fascination with all that was associated with being a nun. She never became one, but excelled in life, I think, because of all that the  *special* nuns taught her. She was intimidated by a few, but became extremely fond of several
.Love the way you express yourself. Oh, and love you too.
Hugs
Barb- http://journals.aol.com/barbpinion/HEYLETSTALK

aimer said...

I love this entry!  It is written with such wit and charm.  I also went to Catholic school from kindergarten to 8th grade.  Our nuns were the Oblate Sisters of Providence and their habits wer black save for a wide white collar and the wimple under their black veils.  I longed to wear my own black habit and wanted to become a nun until I was 13 and a boy named Bruce kissed me in the coat closet!--Sheria
http://journals.aol.com/aimer/on-my-mind/

bobandkate said...

Brilliant Cathy! I loved this entry.
Kate.
http://journals.aol.co.uk/bobandkate/AnAnalysisofLife/

csandhollow said...

LOLOLOLOL

rockoned7 said...

Loved your latest entry, Cathy. As you probably know mine was a guy in a brown habit and wearing an oversized rosary beads with a three knotted cord to hold them up. Changed days eh?
Ps I’ve seen your picture like you describe lol

firestormkids04 said...

Cathy, as I started to read this entry I wasn't sure if I wanted to go on.  You wove your memories into a tapesty and I was in the middle. Well written!  My memories came flooding back. It was 1963.  I was a pregnant teen and it was the Sisters of Charity, stern faces, seven knots on the ropes about their waists and ample hugs for mixed up girls.  And of course a Franciscan priest who kept green Frappe' cigarettes in his cowl (sp) at his neck. Who, when the nuns weren't looking would slip those green cigs to us.  We came back for more, but those ciarettes were NASTY!  Thanks for the walk down memory lane. Blessings, Penny  http://journals.aol.com/firestormkids04/FromHeretoThere
http://journals.aol.com/firestormkids04/TimeforaLittlePoetry

tpiez4me said...

A story that my dh can warm up to...being a catholic alter boy too and having sisters.  

princesssaurora said...

What a riot!!!  Thanks for sharing this!!  

be well,
Dawn

daddyleer said...

Great entry! I had the Sisters of Notre Dame, with a habit more like portrayed in the Blues Brothers movie.
Patrick

ab45yui said...

What a kicker, lol!  I am so glad your mom took those pictures, what a treasure of a memory.  Thanks for sharing.

queenb8261 said...

Great story. My hubby can relate. He did the Catholic School thing.
THanks for sharing.
Barb

sassydee50 said...

Cathy~What a treat to read; your words are so well chosen as usual so as to insure the reader gets a clear picture! Now you know if your teachers found out you spent the donations on candy they would not have been pleased! LOL...My funniest memory of "Catechism"-- In about third grade we were studying the 10 Commandments yet again; I asked the nun what "They shalt not touch thyself" meant! I didn't have a clue! lol. The teacher was horrifed and said something about having a talk with my mother! ;-)))))) Great entry! Blessings, Deb (ex-Catholic)

lanurseprn said...

Wow you look like a real Nun in that picture!  What a great memory to share.  I enjoyed this.  Very descriptive!
Pam

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