Yes, Sister | Essay | Chicago Reader

Yes, Sister 

The nuns who taught me about the world left no room for doubt. Maybe for their own sake they should have.

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The last time I was in Blue Island I took Pat on a little walk around that town. We'd been married almost three years, but this was the first real chance I'd had to do it. I showed her the old building at Western and Grove. "This is where I used to live," I told her. "We used to let our dog Trixie out on that back roof, and she could look down at people walking by. See that fire escape? We weren't supposed to climb it. See that window? That was our living room."

I showed Pat the Cal-Sag Channel and told her about the deadly undertow that sucked people down, and I described the steep concrete walls that had once made it impossible to climb out. I showed her the block where the Grand theater had been, and I told her about the time I'd almost been crushed in the crowd waiting to see the latest Shirley Temple movie. "One of those storefronts," I said, "used to be the KarmelKorn candy shop."

I pointed out the highway that had straightened the Western Avenue hill. Somewhere under all that concrete was whatever remained of my last childhood home. Torn down. Paved over. When we'd seen all there was to see of Western Avenue, we walked over to Saint Benedict's.

The old church burned down many years ago and has been replaced by something low and modern that I don't like the looks of. I never would have believed that old church could burn, and I would never, ever have believed I would miss it. But it's suddenly a sad thing that I can't take Pat into the vestibule and show her where the holy water once froze in the font.

There was a playground between the church and the school. Cars park there now, but I still think of it as a playground. The school has hardly changed at all. I showed Pat the windows to my eighth-grade classroom, still frosted over so the kids couldn't look out and dream of freedom.

Of course I talked about Klem, who all through grade school was known to me as Mary Virginia Klemmer and who later became my first wife. Mary Virginia and I never once shared a classroom or a nun. From first to eighth grade the classes were split. Two first grades, two second grades, two thirds. She always claimed this was an early form of tracking. She would bluntly say--she liked to put things bluntly--"We were the dumb class, and you guys were the smart ones."

I never accepted this. There were plenty of smart kids in Klem's class, and my class, year after year, had its share of the other kind. But she may have been right in that the nuns, once they were set in their minds about something, seldom saw any reason to reverse course.

Sixty years have passed, but I can still name them all. Sister Yvonne, first grade. Sister Reme, second. Sister LaSalette, third and fourth. Sister Charita, fifth. Sister Felice, sixth. And Sister Ethelbert, seventh and eighth.

It's too bad it took a funeral to get Pat and me out there, and even sadder that it should be the funeral of my sister's husband. He was a fine man. Last night he came to me in a dream and called me "brother Paul." When I think of this I feel a lump rise in my throat.

So many are dead now. My mother, my father, my younger sister. Klem. I often feel that at least some part of me is dead along with them. Where is the boy who wore knickers to school, who played One Catch All during recess, who read storybooks during catechism? Where is the boy Sister Charita accused of sloth and assigned to a seat in her "dumb row"? Sometimes I wonder if that boy even existed, so faint are my memories.

Many years ago my mother told me Sister Charita had often spoken of slothful me as one of her favorites, but this isn't something I remember. I remember a tiny, sharp-tongued woman all dressed in black--brilliant, but misguided enough to lead her class in prayers for Generalissimo Franco. Her specialty was arithmetic, and her method was drill, drill, and more drill. At the end of the year I solemnly vowed I would say a rosary a day for the rest of my life if only I could outscore her favorites in the final exams--which I did, to my dismay, since I was incapable of keeping any vow, solemn or not.

I suffered a good deal over this vow. Broken vows are matters for damnation. Finally, with extreme reluctance, I took my problem into the confessional, where I was told I shouldn't make any future promises I couldn't keep and given the usual handful of Our Fathers and Hail Marys as penance.

I thought I'd got out of this vow problem lightly. I took my catechism seriously. I knew that small sins led to big sins, and to this day I can't lie well enough to be believed by anybody, nor can I do many other convenient things without knowing I've done wrong.

The following year I began to feel what a boy feels when he reaches a certain age. No one--not my parents, certainly not my teachers--warned me of what was about to happen. I suddenly became aware of certain girls, and just as suddenly began to understand what the nuns meant when they warned us against "impure thoughts." I fought these thoughts off as best I could, but I sometimes deliciously gave in to what I hoped were merely venial sins. This was a problem I couldn't bring myself to take into the confessional. It didn't seem to have any solution at all.

This was my childhood until seventh grade. A small boy, a weak boy, a boy who couldn't catch or hit a baseball, couldn't fight, hid his nose in books, all the while nursing a fear that no matter how hard he tried he would someday end up in hell.

Every parochial school has its most feared nun. At Saint Benedict's, Sister Ethelbert had earned this honor. My classmates prayed to get Sister Ventura, who was said to look sterner than she was, but prayers of this sort don't get answered. If our class truly was the smart class, this time it drew the short stick.

When I took my seat that fall I still hoped for the best. I knew my schoolmates were prone to hyperbole. I even harbored a fantasy that I would somehow win the favor of this new teacher. But I always harbored that fantasy.

Caped, veiled, and robed, with all but the pale oval of her face concealed, Sister Ethelbert exists in my memory almost as an abstraction. She was tall enough, I recall, and didn't seem stout. Her face was unwrinkled, her eyes, behind metal-rimmed spectacles, were bright and active, and her voice, when normal, seemed educated.

But she was immediately cold and distant. She demanded order and attention. When she asked a question she expected the entire class to respond in unison. "Yes, sister." "No, sister." In this single voice we chanted our lessons.

Sister Ethelbert soon declared, "The devil's hand is in this room." I must have learned many things in the two years I spent in her classroom, but it's this single phrase, cried out in exasperation, that has traveled with me. It didn't take much to draw it from her--a rustled paper, a dropped book, a forbidden whisper, a note passed from boy to girl. She seemed convinced that any transgression, however slight, was deliberate and directed at her.

All of the nuns were deeply religious. They lived in a convent, fulfilled their vows of poverty and chastity and obedience, worked hard, and expected no reward on this earth. We took this for granted. When Sister Charita prayed for Franco, it was because Franco was Catholic and fighting atheism. When Sister LaSalette told us of children who'd died in their sleep, she was simply reminding us to get right with God before we closed our eyes. When Sister Paula stormed into the boys' bathroom and demanded order, we somehow knew God had given her permission.

But when Sister Ethelbert said that the devil's hand was in our room, we had our doubts. One of the boys, smoldering with resentment, was heard to whisper, "If the devil's hand is in this room, it's hers."

When Sister Ethelbert grew angry, she didn't just punish. She would burst into a tirade. I knew about tirades. My mother was prone to them, and my father was usually the target. I recognized the anger and bitterness in Sister Ethelbert's voice because I'd heard these things before. But this wasn't how nuns were supposed to behave. Anger was a sin. Anger violated the Fifth Commandment. It hurt God to see his children angry.

We knew all about the Ten Commandments. But we knew nothing about adults and how they could be exhausted by their own emotions, even though some of us could see that in our parents.

Slowly we began to see Sister Ethelbert as an enemy. We, the "good class" of Saint Benedict's School, endured her throughout seventh grade. We learned our arithmetic. We studied our English grammar. We read history and geography. We became closer to one another.

The next year, when we were assigned Sister Ethelbert for eighth grade, we rebelled. Books were rustled and dropped deliberately. Whispers began the instant she turned her back. Spitballs and paper airplanes flew. Bits of fuzz, carefully picked from our sweaters, were blown into the air to drift before her outraged face. Children in other classrooms reported hearing her tirades through the walls.

It was open war, and I, the devout bookish boy, heartily pitched in. I soon began producing my own comic strip, which I titled "Pekin the Powerful." I wasn't much of an artist. All my characters had to be stick figures. But you could tell which one was Sister Ethelbert.

I wish I could remember the story line of even one of those comics. My very first literary efforts, lost. But I'm certain Sister Ethelbert was never presented kindly. I'm quite sure that more than once she appeared with the words "The devil's hand is in this room" written in a balloon above her head.

"Pekin the Powerful" was passed from hand to hand, from aisle to aisle, from desk to desk. He may even have traveled to other rooms. For the first time, I became a bit of a celebrity. I felt pretty good about this.

Meanwhile, Sister Ethelbert was storming up and down the aisles, confiscating comic books, notes, candy bars, and whatever else she declared contraband. Everything went into the voluminous sleeve of her black habit, and nothing that entered her sleeve was ever seen again. Did she take it back to the convent, to the privacy of her austere cell? (We could only imagine the rooms where the nuns slept.) Did she read our comic books and notes? Did she eat our candy?

One day she captured "Pekin the Powerful" just as Eddie Lopez was passing him across the aisle. She nabbed a particularly virulent issue, one in which she played a starring role. The implications were so serious I immediately drove them from my mind. I would just wait and see.

Nothing happened. I congratulated myself. She was just throwing the stuff away unread. Now I truly felt superior to poor Sister Ethelbert. But just to be on the safe side I retired "Pekin the Powerful." Even in eighth grade I knew one should quit when one is ahead.

The year was 1941. My other great memory of this year was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7. My older sister, her friend Eddie Pearson, and I were sitting at the kitchen table playing pinochle when the news came over the radio. After that day, nothing ever seemed the same.

I followed the war closely, astonished that America seemed to be losing. The Philippines fell, Wake Island, Guam--places where the American flag had flown. With luck, the war would last long enough for me to participate.

Sister Ethelbert didn't lead us in prayers for victory, as Sister Charita had led us in prayers for Franco. Her war was with us.

"Turn to page 66!" she would scream.

"Yes, sister," we would reply in unison.

"Write out each problem ten times!"

"Yes, sister."

The chant "Yes, sister" was unified and automatic. But one afternoon, as if by plan, we all remained silent.

Except for a boy whose name I've forgotten. "Do it yourself, sister," he grumbled, fully expecting his words to be drowned out in the chorus.

A dead silence fell on the room. One didn't openly defy a nun. We waited to see what she would do.

She did nothing worth remembering. For all I know, she stuffed those defiant words up her sleeve and took them back to the convent along with "Pekin the Powerful" and the sticks of chewing gum and the paper airplanes she'd confiscated and stored away.

She repeated her order, and we responded with a lusty "Yes, sister!"

Was this the straw that broke the camel's back? No, and there's no point in saying it was. I have to say I don't know what caused the final breakdown, or when it happened, or if it took place before our eyes or in the secrecy of the convent. I can only say that one morning sister superior was standing before our class. Sister Ethelbert, she said, would not be with us anymore. She had been sent off to "rest" and we were to pray for her.

Most surely we'd treated her badly when she'd needed our help the most. Sister superior didn't speak cruelly to us--I must make that clear. She didn't, as the saying goes, drop a guilt trip on the eighth-grade children of Saint Benedict's. Instead she used the occasion to teach a lesson. Sister Ethelbert, she said, had not been well, and somehow I got the impression that she wasn't talking about a physical ailment. What had happened wasn't our fault, but we were at fault for not having tried to understand. Soon we would be graduating eighth-graders, and if we took nothing else with us into the world, we must take this truth--that our duties and responsibilities toward others grew with their needs.

Then, unless I've completely imagined this entire story, she left us alone to discuss this among ourselves.

We felt very bad about Sister Ethelbert, and we wondered what had caused her to suffer so. Yes, we'd been bad, and yes, we were sorry. It seemed truly awesome that a nun, invulnerable in her God and her faith, should fall in this way.

So nuns were human after all. They knew sorrow and despair and turmoil just as the rest of us did. When had they ever denied it? Hadn't they always told us that they too must go to confession and that they too must ask the Lord for forgiveness? How I'd scoffed at that. What were a nun's sins next to broken vows and impure thoughts?

If memory serves me right, we finished the school year with sister superior leading our class. We prayed for Sister Ethelbert. We graduated. We went our separate ways, some to Catholic high schools, some to the public high school. Later some of my classmates went off to war. Some didn't return. Some of us married and had children. Some continued their lives as devout Catholics, and some did not. I was one of those who did not.

To lose one's faith, the nuns had always assured us, was a fate far worse than anyone could imagine. There could be no salvation for the fallen away. Heathens in faraway lands, Hottentots, Hindus, even Protestants could expect salvation, for they had never known the true faith. God wouldn't damn those who arrived at judgment ignorant of His word. But the nuns couldn't believe that we who'd been fortunate enough to hear it from childhood would ever erase it from our hearts. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.

I fell away and never fell back.

Our class held reunions over the years--10, 15, 25, and finally 50 years. These reunions combined both my class and Klem's. We weren't the only couple who'd eventually married, though perhaps we were the most unlikely, since we'd barely known each other as children. The 50th reunion was, by common agreement, the last our classes would hold. We were all over 60, and we'd begun to die. Klem had three more years to live. The cancer that was to kill her may already have begun to form.

That last reunion was without doubt the best. We said good-bye to each other. Some of us exchanged telephone numbers and addresses, but we were feeling exceptionally mellow. To be honest, some of us had been drinking. I brought home several names and addresses and promptly lost them. Probably deliberately. This is hard to explain. There comes a time when you really do want to let go.

After our reunion banquet there were the usual silly ceremonies. Then the new young priest of Saint Benedict's parish, younger than our sons, came to lead us in prayer. And a letter was read, a letter from one of our nuns who, to the amazement of all, was still alive and "waiting to join Jesus."

I didn't recognize the name of this nun, I who'd thought I could name them all. But after I'd given up trying to place her, I silently did the arithmetic. My classmates and I were in our 60s, so how old had this woman been when she taught our classes? As children, we'd seen all of the nuns as old, but now I realized some of them may have been just out of their teens. Was this possible? I remembered that my mother once told me girls of her day often left for the convent almost before they'd become women--straight from high school or even before. That many families considered it an honor to have a child in the religious orders. That this was called "giving a child to God."

I tell this story to Pat. I've told it more than once. It often seems to me that the only good reason to tell a story at all is to learn it better, and I thank her for putting up with me. She grew up a Mennonite and knows the Catholic Church as it is today, a church without the Latin mass, without the confessional, without the meatless Fridays, with nuns who are sometimes released from their vows. There's even some question whether all of us really believe in hell. Notice that I just said "us." Fallen-away me. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic, I guess.

On a good driving day it's not much more than a half hour from Logan Square, where Pat and I live, to Blue Island. Thirty minutes to drop back so many years in time. Sometimes on our way to Starved Rock on I-57 we go whizzing right by the 127th Street exit. "That's Burr Oak Street," I tell her. "I can name them all. Western Avenue. Grove Street. Canal Street. Ann Street. Union Street. Rexford. Maple. There was even a street that didn't exist at all--Devonshire."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Rebecca Jane Gleason.

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