The Nuns’ Stories

I am never surprised by what medical science learns about nuns.  That they are latently afflicted with dementia, if at all.  That they enjoy better health in later years compared to cohorts.  That they live longer.  That they write well and think clearly into old age.

I was educated K-12 by nuns: Sisters of Mercy in grade school and Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet in high school.  Let me share what I know about nuns: a more forgiving group of women you will never find.  In fact, the overarching atmosphere of my high school was one of forgiveness.  I have no doubt the students at my girls-only high school disappointed the nuns on more than one occasion with, at the very least, some profoundly poor decision-making.  I know I did.  And yet, I knew in my heart  the power of true forgiveness because they modeled it so effortlessly.

They had other gifts of grace.  Sr. Rosemary, a fireball with a keen intellect, issued tough philisophical challenges in the Ethics class we all took junior year.  Is it immoral to speed down Wornall Road at 2:00 AM if there are no other cars around?  Not, mind you, is it illegal, but is it immoral? 

First of all, no one in our lives back then would advocate for teenage girls to drive anywhere at 2:00 AM.  Sr. Rosemary wouldn’t either, of course, but that was not the point.  She let us imagine in that scenario that we could.  Wornall was a main drag a block from our school that most of us drove on regularly.  We knew the street well, and we knew it was primarily residential through that stretch and unlikely to have much traffic at 2:00 AM.  We knew we’d be inclined to speed under such circumstances. 

Her hypothetical was entirely plausible, which was brilliant.  We struggled, we argued, we made cases, we thought about the implications of our decisions. Thirty four years later, I still contemplate the complexity of this question.  I also know now that Sr. Rosemary has spent a lifetime, both in and out of the classroom, making people think hard about life’s hardest questions in regard to life and death, most recently through her work in the area of practical bioethics.

She also instructed us that telling someone to “shut up” was the most obscene thing we could say to another human being.  She had us dissect the catch-phrase to appreciate fully its impact.  Even now I can barely bring myself to utter that term in jest.

Nuns were also the best educated folks I knew, most of them having attained master’s degrees if not PhDs, since they spent many a summer studying toward them in between their teaching gigs during the school year.

I have seen them practice what they preach: unconditional love.  They loved the bad kids and the good kids and the invisible kids and knew that all kids desperately needed love. 

They lived in communities.  The younger nuns respected the older nuns even if they disagreed with them or wanted to institute different practices.  They figured out how to go along to get along and mastered the fine art of compromise—finding ways to make sure the group’s needs got met with a willingness to sacrifice their own if necessary, genuinely appreciating the transitory nature of desire.

They always made time for us even when they were busy.  We were a priority:  our education, our behavior, our values, our futures.  Really, we were their children and they took enormous pride in our accomplishments and the epiphanies we experienced while in their care.

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Christmas Joys

It’s nearly Halloween, so naturally my mind has turned to Christmas.  It’s next to impossible to avoid the shove of retailers who have taken to putting Christmas items out in August.  My son complained in September about assembling artificial trees and hoisting Christmas decorations onto shelves at the hardware store where he works. 

I had a particularly jarring experience when I visited a big box retail store in October where a Christmas aisle was sandwiched between two Halloween aisles.  I walked among the motion-triggered laughing ghouls only to step into a row of bows and bells and pre-lit trees and then back to the styrofoam headstones and black tableware festooned with spiders.  Disorienting, to say the least.

I admit that I succumbed to the retailers eons ago.  Actually, I got irritated when their strategies made public the plan I had followed for years.  I found that the entire Christmas season was infinitely less stressful for me and my family if I got all of my shopping done before Thanksgiving.  That way, we could actually enjoy the month of December by indulging the traditions we most relish: selecting a real tree then decorating it with our ornament collection, baking at least 1 dozen different kinds of Christmas cookies from my husband’s family recipes, littering the house with special decorations, sending Christmas cards to friends and family, adorning the yard and house with Christmas lights, and lining the front door and porch railings with greenery.

Our now vast ornament collection actually began quite modestly the Christmas season a few weeks before my husband and I wed when some dear family friends hosted a Christmas ornament shower for us.  While this might have been the least practical of the wedding showers given in my honor, it has come to be the one most cherished and remembered 27 years later.

It was a cold but clear Saturday night in December at the home of Mr. and Mrs. G. who were well known in my family’s community for an extraordinary annual party each Christmas night after they had hosted their relatives for a sit-down dinner.  For kids, there was no better way to cap off the excitement of Christmas day than to spend the evening playing Sardines and board games with our friends while our parents sang Christmas carols and enjoyed cocktails, Christmas cookies, and hors d’oeuvres.  By the way, this was not a catered affair but the result of much baking and cooking by Mrs. G.

The ornament shower yielded ornaments of all different shapes and kinds from a Waterford crystal piece with a Christmas scene etched on its surface to a wicker bell with berries tied around its top. As we opened each one, we hung it on a small artificial tree our hosts had set atop a table and later gave us as a gift.  By evening’s end, the tree was filled with unique ornaments made of every imaginable material: copper, brass, glass, silver, pewter, porcelain,  wood, crochet, silk, and terra cotta. 

Every year,  as we open up the Christmas storage boxes, my husband and I are transported to that winter night in 1982 when we were young and ready to start our life together surrounded by good friends and family.  But the real treasure now is the repetoire of reminiscences we have to tell our children of all the people who shared that evening with us.

My husband and I are receiving an unusual gift this Christmas.  A dear friend’s daughter is marrying a day after our wedding anniversary.  Truth be known, she is the reason we married in January and not November as originally planned since her mother was a bridesmaid and due to give birth to this child at Thanksgiving that year. 

It has long been our dream to one day host an ornament shower for someone during the Christmas season.  This year that very wish is coming true and how ironic it be for that baby girl born in November without whom there never would have been a Christmas ornament shower in the first place.  Ours is, unquestionably, a wonderful life.

Needlepoint and Sorting Out the Sixties

I took up needlepointing this summer.  I am not sure I can account for how I came to decide to do this.  If you knew me, you’d appreciate why even I am surprised.  My college-age son flinched when he first saw me needlepointing because it just didn’t mesh with his image of me.  I’m not sure what his image of me actually is, or even what my own image of me is these days.  When he made a wry comment upon discovering me with threaded needle and canvas in hand, I was defensive but not apologetic, pointing him to the historical aspects of this art and the ancient guilds of “brorders” which were well documented in my newly purchased encyclopedia of stitches. 

The idea of needlepointing had hung in the recesses of my mind for quite a while when suddenly, and I mean suddenly, it came into clear focus as something I felt compelled to pursue.   I suspect the home remodeling project which had taken over our summer like a lingering obnoxious house guest instigated my fervor. 

As a needle art, needlepoint was much in vogue during my adolescence, especially among a number of women I spent time with, save my mother.  I actually learned the craft from my great aunt who dabbled in various needle crafts when she wasn’t playing bridge, which was, in fact, most of the time. 

One of the loveliest gifts I’ve received in my life was a decorative pillow needlepointed by two of my dearest friends for one of my birthdays when we were in high school.  It featured a unique design of my favorite soft drink and the two of them had passed it back and forth for months as they stitched it in secret. 

I also remember that the grandmother of one of these friends needlepointed gorgeous and intricate canvases I’ve not seen rivaled.  I have to believe my friend and her siblings each have some of her pieces in their homes as treasured remembrances of her talent and labors of love.  I recently learned that my other friend needlepointed and appliqued her way through the stresses of her earliest years of motherhood when her oldest four were under five.  Stitching that pillow for me probably provided some good practice for her.

Lots of women and girls at that time carried wicker purses adorned with colorful needlepointed monograms.  Needlepointed tennis racquet covers were also the rage.  Some of my earliest memories are associated with the beautiful canvases and finished pieces displayed in the window of a small store devoted to needlepoint in a retail area of local merchants a few blocks from my childhood home.  I would park my bike in the rack outside the store when I rode to the area on steamy summer days to purchase a cone or slushy from the ice cream shop next door.  My pre-adolescent eyes found the designs colorful and intriguing. 

Yes, there is rich irony evidenced in my return nearly 40 years later to what I all but shunned by the time I was old enough to drive.  When I first learned needlepoint under the tutelage of my great aunt, I was around twelve. It felt slightly laborious but served as a diversion of sorts before I was able to determine my own entertainment agenda. 

Honestly, there was more to my rejection of this and the other domestic activities I simultaneously rejected.  Though detail-oriented work of any kind was never my strong suit, needlepoint and other kindred arts somehow came to represent to me and perhaps other women of my generation pursuits that weren’t deserving of our time and intellect.  No one ever said this, mind you.  It was what I intuited from the tumultuous times post 1969.  By contrast, I was more than happy to park  myself in front of the TV  for an entire summer and watch gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Watergate hearings, a far more fascinating enterprise to me then than anything smacking of women’s work. 

Eschewing needlepointing and sewing and cooking was the perfect rebellion against the anti-intellectual image my mother and her generation of homemakers represented to me.  The premises of the women’s movement were attractive as a viable alternative: the promise of being anything you wanted to be (except a homemaker) and having a rich, fulfilling life outside of home and family.  If only I could have grasped a bit earlier that these endeavors are not at all mutually exclusive. 

When I made the momentous decision to needlepoint, I knew I needed some coaching.  Fortunately, the needlepoint store of my youth lives on in another location.  The proprietor, a woman just a bit younger than me, helped me pick out a suitable canvas to start with and the yarn to match.  She sat down at a table with me and instructed me on the basketweave stitch and helped me start my piece.  She was patient, she was kind, she did not give up. 

As I stitched and ripped out stitches, she mended a complex piece of knitted apparel.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her long fingers work swift magic with the yarn and a hook.   I wondered what her eyes saw and what her fingers knew.   I at once relished being a true novice, knowing fully the raw frustration of barely hanging on with the little knowledge I had, and yet aspiring to do this well someday, to have experience as well as expertise. 

Other women of different ages drifted in and out of the store in the several hours I was there.  They were knitting and needlepointing and shopping for projects or accoutrements, all the while talking about their projects and their lives and helping each other make decisions in regard to both.  I felt I was part of a larger life fabric by just being there.

Now that I finished my first project and am well on my way with my second, I have found that needlepointing brings me much joy and offers me just as it did my friend a very practical way to escape the stresses that some days threaten to overwhelm me.  It allows me to feel a connection to women I have known and admired in my life.   It permits me a genuine appreciation of  how this art might have existed in antiquity.  Thankfully, I am now well past caring what it signifies beyond my own simple engagement in it.  And that, in my estimation, is most liberating.

A Catholic Childhood at the Jewish Community Center

I can see the moment of Mark’s ecclesiastical transgression in my mind’s eye as clearly as if it happened yesterday: Mark had just turned five and had not yet gone to Kindergarten.  I was 8, having just completed second grade at St. Peter’s Catholic School.  It was 1966: Vatican II had occurred, but the changes it instigated were still very new and unfamiliar—the priest now facing the congregation instead of the altar, only parts of the Mass still in Latin. I wore a chapel veil to daily Mass during the school year and had to substitute a single, white Kleenex bobby-pinned to my head if I forgot mine.

 That spring I had been confirmed, after receiving two other sacraments the year before, First Confession and First Communion.  Seven was considered “the age of reason” in Catholicism, the pivotal age at which you were believed to have a fully developed conscience and could be held accountable for your actions.  In other words, you were now considered capable of committing sins of omission as well as commission.  Once confirmed, you became a “Soldier of Christ.”  The nuns who taught us wore black habits that swept the floor as they walked.  There was no question about what it meant to be a soldier of Christ.

In summer, the world became lighter and brighter: pastel play clothes rather than the drab, heavyweight grey pinafore and grey felt beanie I wore to school.  That summer my parents sent Mark along with me to a day camp at the Jewish Community Center. My parents were compelled to join the center when our older brother broke his kneecap the previous winter and needed access to an indoor pool for hydrotherapy.  The camp we attended, called “Funtime,” was organized by age, each room of 15 or so kids proctored by a teenage counselor and a younger protégé.  At one point, I was one of Debbie’s Dynamos and think Mark might have been one of Harvey’s Hippos.

We rode a yellow school bus to and from the site of the center which spanned significant acreage in what was then the southern edge of the city.  The bus routes were arranged by geography and color-coded to help kids remember which of the 20 identical buses to board.  Mark and I were assigned to the “Purple Monkey” bus.  I can still smell the chlorine-drenched swimsuits and towels bound up in our swim bags, mine a Pepto-Bismal-pink burlap tote lined in rubber with an amorphous sea creature made of straw adorning the front.

 The days seemed endless and timeless: simple crafts, snacks of grape juice and Vienna Fingers cookies, swim lessons, showering before we entered the pool, romping on the hot playground equipment, playing silly group games like “Categories”, singing camp songs—including a morbid one about the fate of the Titanic.  I inched my way over a period of seven years to the deep end of the Olympic-sized indoor pool, which is where our swim lessons were conducted.  Frequently, we took field trips to nearby spots like the bowling alley.

 Each day followed a regular schedule except Fridays, which were distinguished by an all-camp assembly that served to close the week and celebrate the Sabbath. During these Friday afternoon assemblies, we would sit on the cool, speckled tile floor in a large room, gathered in clusters near our counselors, all Jewish teenagers.

The girl counselors seemed especially glamorous in their fluorescent white lipstick and brown leather bear claw bracelets.  I was enamored of their exotic names: Leslie, Debbie, Joyce, Cindy, Jackie, Gail.  Not a single saint’s name among them and quite a contrast to my school world where every female had Mary somewhere in her name—to the point that we had to be identified by two names rather than one: Mary Jo, Mary Jane, Mary Ann, Mary Beth, Mary Jean, Mary Pat.

Typically the assembly was used to present awards and engender spirit among the campers.  A solemnity prevailed as a brief Jewish blessing was delivered over bread by a couple of pre-selected campers.  Each room got a turn giving the blessing over the course of the summer by sending forward two or three kids to conduct it on a designated Friday. 

On that particular Friday, I glanced about the room, waiting for the assembly to start when I caught sight of my brother Mark donning a yarmulke and preparing to give the Jewish blessing.  I recoiled in horror.  This surely bordered on sacrilege.  If he were to proceed, I was certain that all of the Jewish children would go home and onto their respective synagogues that night in the firm belief that they had received a valid blessing earlier in the day. I was sure that no one else in the room realized a Catholic was about to conduct a sacred Jewish ritual. 

Moreover, Mark could be revealed as an imposter!  What if he failed to say the Jewish words correctly or, worse, didn’t say the right Jewish words? What if they interrupted this enterprise when they realized he was not Jewish?  What if this so offended our Jewish hosts that we were ejected from “Funtime” permanently?  The prospect of the violation of what was clearly an important religious act and my own recent anointing as a soldier of Christ struck profound fear in my heart: I was being called to act to protect the religious rites of others.  I felt a moral obligation to speak out.

My counselor that year, Judy Feldman, was an older and more mature counselor, probably 16 or 17, with dark, short, wavy hair and brown-rimmed glasses and braces.  She was clad in a white sleeveless blouse and madras shorts.  Her keen sensibility welling up, she rose from her spot on the floor and approached Skipper Feingold, the diminutive grand matron of the camp and the assembly, whispering in her ear what I had revealed  moments ago, “…That’s my brother and I don’t think he should be doing that.  We’re Catholic.”  Mark was promptly removed from the makeshift altar and returned to his counselor while another child replaced him.

Mark, only five but deeply pricked by the sting of public embarrassment, probably didn’t speak to me on the journey home as the bus weaved through the Jewish enclave of houses near Tower Park and past the enormous synagogue on Holmes to our own neighborhood just a few blocks west off of Edgevale, little realizing how his big sister had saved him not just from committing at the very least a venial sin or perhaps even heresy but from trampling the sacred traditions of another group whose world we inhabited each summer.

And while we played and crafted animals out of hangers we covered with multi-colored telephone wires for the rest of that summer in the air-conditioned comfort of the center, he didn’t know that the nuns abandoned their chosen names for their given names—Sister Gabriel became Sister Janice in an instant—and shed the long black habits with giant rosary belts for simple navy blue shifts and shorter, less confining veils with white headbands.  When he arrived at St. Peter’s that next fall, our world had changed in dramatic ways that were simply invisible to him.

What else didn’t he know back then?  That the huge silver sculpture depicting human figures drowning in flames that we drove past every summer Sunday our family went swimming was actually a tribute to Holocaust survivors. That many of the Jewish children who attended the center and worked as counselors were children of Holocaust survivors.  That many of the women who volunteered at the snack bar at the pool and spoke with heavy Yiddish accents and whose forearms bore tattoos of long numbers were themselves Holocaust survivors.  That many of those who joined the Jewish Community Center to swim were Catholics who were infrequently admitted as members of local country clubs and resided in a segregated city which adamantly resisted the idea of public pools.

I think now as I felt then: What a safe haven it was!  An enormous slab of concrete engulfing the L-shaped outdoor pool with multiple diving boards, thick nylon ropes for swim meets, and two tiny wading pools for toddlers. Baseball diamonds for peewee league play dotting the treeless grounds surrounding the pool.  Tennis courts for team matches.  Playground equipment and swings for children.

The clusters of families and friends, laughing and chatting, parked on adjoining beach towels anchored by bottles of baby oil and Coppertone, demarcating groups of people: senior citizens, teenagers, school friends, parents and their broods, Catholics, Jews, and anyone else who had been turned away by someone else.  A world away from anywhere, from everywhere, even Nazi Germany.  The ping of the metal gate we passed through to enter the center: to swim, to play, to live.