“When the car stopped, I could not open the door. I was terrified; frozen with my head down and my hand on the door latch. I thought maybe I’d be like Lot’s wife and dissolve into a pile of salt as soon as I showed my face in the schoolyard. That would awful, but preferable to seeing, and being seen by, everyone.
“Honey, get out. I’ve got to get to the office, and you’re going to be late.”
He leaned toward me to open the door, but I beat him too it, avoiding his attempt to kiss me goodbye at the same time. I closed the car door without looking back.
Walking into the schoolyard was not easy. My legs felt like rubber pegs attached to lead feet. I managed to drag myself, one step at a time, toward a window by the doors. I scanned the scene peripherally, wondering when the pointing and jeering would start. I sat on the sill praying the bell would ring soon.
The basement windows were encased with green coated chain link fencing material to prevent breakage from things like sticks and balls and children who might fall against them. As I leaned against the wire, I desperately wanted to dissolve into it. I still felt a spooky, dirty kind of sick like you might feel when you did something you knew was bad. I had not done anything bad, though, had I?
In the schoolyard, most of the kids were behaving no differently than they would have any other day. In my mind, I don’t know what I thought would happen, but I suppose it was that everyone would want to shame me further the way kids can do. I was comforted slightly when my fears were not realized in full.
My so-called friends were standing in a corner near the door and surely discussing me, but that was to be expected. Two of them separated and made their way toward me. A lump formed in my stomach, but I steeled myself as best I could for what might be coming, and looked up. My mind was still all jumbled up in the chaos of new emotions and the words “just adopted” which, was obviously a despicable thing to be. Looking past them, I realized in that instant my whole world was new. Not the lucky kind of new, but an earthquake that wipes out your house and town and all the people you know, new. Before they spoke, the bell rang.
Catholic school circa 1960 was the domain of an order of nuns known as Ursulines. Pre Vatican II dictates were closely adhered to by the 20th century followers of Angela Merici, their 15th century foundress. When this particular group of Ursulines settled in Ontario, they erected a motherhouse and school in Chatham. Before long they were teaching in many Catholic schools in the region.
I loved these strange women who smelled of chalk and starch. Their faces, scrubbed clean, were mostly stern and expressionless. It was impossible to tell what shape they might actually have been underneath all that serge. Over two underskirts, they wore a black tunic belted at the waist by a woollen belt, and then covered it all with a scapular that draped loosely from neck to ankle. Another name I would sometimes hear for that last piece of fabric was holy habit. I was not sure why there were two names and wondered if there was some subtle difference in the apron-like attachments. Later, of course, I understood that by covering us, we women were made holier somehow.
What I liked most about their garb, however, was the coif, or headpiece, with its sweeping linen wimple. As comfortable as I assumed the dress was, I was sure all that stiff material on their heads and around their necks must be horribly uncomfortable. Still, for me, it all added to the mystery of them. I couldn’t imagine the dedication to routine required just dressing up every day, and always wondered if those beads hung from hooks at their waste, bruised their legs. At least they could not sneak up on anybody as the massive rosary would rattle, wood against metal, when they moved.
Walking past the two sentinel nuns at the GIRLS doorway that morning, their arms tucked under that holy habit as was custom, I wished I was one of them, grown up and protected by the folds of the habit. In my mind, I was towering over all these evil children, untouchable and powerful. My right hand was holding a yardstick in case anyone need a smack for talking, or falling out of line. Satan’s hand was free to graze the beads of my rosary, a constant reminder of Mary’s sacrifices and the glory of God, in whose name I would dole out mercy and punishment, equally. And I, in spite of being so young, knew a lot about the former and the latter.”
Wishing everyone a restful evening.