Saturday, June 19, 2010

And Then There Were Nun

I grew up Roman Catholic. I went to Catholic elementary school and Catholic High School. I wore scratchy wool skirts, knee socks and saddle shoes. The skirts were supposed to reach the middle of our knees, for modesty. Since this was the sixties and the age of Mary Quant and mini-skirts, the middle-of-the-knee thing was completely unacceptable. We girls had a simple solution. Roll the skirts up at the waist until desired mini length is reached, leaving us with a bunchy middle, but great leg exposure. The principal (Sister Mary Sebastian) would appear at our classroom door randomly throughout the school week to do 'skirt check'. All the girls would have to exit the classroom and line up in the hallway. We were then told to kneel down against the wall facing out. If our skirts brushed the floor, we were safe. Any knee action going on would give us a one-way ticket to the Principal's Office, where our mothers would be called and they would have to come bail us out. This was the days before 'Harper Valley PTA'. Our mothers did not wear mini skirts, nor were they aware we created such on our own.

Some of the nuns - we were taught by the Sisters of Mercy, a teaching order - were old and crabby. We called them the Sisters of NO Mercy. Some were young and groovy. The young ones would tell stories, laugh at our jokes and sometimes come out to the schoolyard at recess, hike up their long skirts and jump rope with us. With Veils a flying and belted rosaries (as deadly as a nunchuk!) swinging, it seemed they were able to snatch a moment of childhood back for themselves.

I always wondered what they looked like underneath those crazy, restrictive black habits. Did they have hair? What did they wear to bed? Were they allowed to go swimming? And if so, did they have to swim at the 'nuns-only' beach, far from prying eyes?

The priests - there were three of them in our parish - lived in the rectory, with a maid, a cook and their own suite of rooms. They smoked and drank alcohol. They each had their own car. The youngest priest had a Pontiac LeMans convertible. And exept for sharing the weekly mass schedule and appearing at the occasional baptism, wedding or funeral, they never seemed to be very busy. I did see them walk to their cars sometimes with golf bags slung over their shoulders, however.

The nuns lived in the convent on the top floor of the school. It was communal. They each had a tiny cell for a room and shared the shopping, cleaning and cooking. They shared one old bomb of a blue station wagon that some parishioner had donated. They worked full time downstairs as teachers and were transfered every three years. This was so that they could not develop deep relationships with anybody, thereby devoting themselves entirely to God.

It was always a little unnerving seeing them in the supermarket. When you are a kid, you like to keep your worlds separate. Family and relatives here, friends over here, and teachers over there. When the worlds collided, it was so disorienting. Nuns in the toilet paper aisle? Ew! Even the thought of a nun using the bathroom was unimaginable. Feminine products? Please stop! My head is exploding!

Nuns are a dying breed (literally). Not many young women these days are interested in giving up their lives, not to mention sex forever. Many have left the convent (or as we used to say, 'kicked the habit') for more normal and free existences. Maybe some of them wear mini skirts. I hope they are still jumping rope.

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