All names have been changed except for Gertie and God.
“I have to go where? And I have to wear a what?” There were two plaid uniforms laid out on my bed all crispy pleats and vomit green. My mother was standing next to them in a rapture like they’d just sprung from a burning bush or a parted sea. How could a charmed life go bad so fast? I cast a fleeting glimpse over at my closet full of various Healthtex and Oshkosh B’Gosh ensembles; I could hear them weeping. Could it be true? Were they already reduced to but a tragic reminder of the Old World before the Fall? My father appeared in the doorway and gestured toward the offending jumper and slacks/vest combinations. “What do you think of those, Ducky?” he asked with absurd enthusiasm.
Ohhhhhh, Conspiracy! That’s what I thought. When, I asked, had they decided to stage this coup to put me in a Peter Pan collar? When had they chosen to raze the street cred I had worked so hard building up in Public School Kindergarten? What kind of a long con were they playing on me? Don’t all Catholic parents yearn for one son to become a priest? They had no sons, so it was one youngest daughter to the nunnery. In my short six years I had developed a fairly seasoned temper, but this was a unique rage. I crossed the length of my bedroom in calm measured steps, leveled a dark glare at my mother, surely the mastermind of this black plot, shrieked “Forget it!”And slammed the door on the whole affair.
Two weeks later I was headed to Bishop Baraga Central Grade School (now called Father Marquette). I had one year of glorious normalcy, and now I was riding through the streets of town in a big yellow bus full of green plaid. We looked like a traveling Spanish omelet. Jesus was taking the wheel, but I dreamed of being a six-year-old hijacker.
After a rousing discussion one night about the Protestant Reformation or the Protestant Revolution as I fought for the right to call it, conversation inevitably wound its way around to Catholic School horror stories. After class I approached my professor’s desk. “Roy,” I asked, (we were on pretty casual terms since we sang in the same church choir and he knew my dad) “Am I the only person in the world who really liked Catholic School?”
He paused for a second. “Maybe you’re not the only one. Maybe you’re the only one who will admit it.”
“Well. That’s something. You know what I always say about you Roy? I’ve always said, ‘That Roy’s got all the big answers.’” He shook his head and rubbed his eyes underneath his glasses as he so often did while talking to me.
I collected my James Hogg from my desk (We were reading Confessions of a Justified Sinner, a title I thought was full of such pride and hilarity it made Roy rub his eyes under his glasses some more.) slung my bag around my neck and started out when he looked up, “Hey! Little girl. Stop with the petitions to end class early every time it starts snowing, and…don’t walk away…. stop sneaking out at break. You have a big mouth. You think I don’t know when it’s missing? Are you sure you went to Catholic School?” He always asked me that when he was unimpressed with my behavior. Little did he know I wouldn’t have had that mouth without Catholic School, but more about that later.
“Roy, it’s a three hour and fifty minute class…” He held up his hand in dismissal.
“Fine. Fine, fine, fine, I’ll stay,” I grumbled all the way down the hall and out into the snow.
“Fine. Fine, fine, fine, I’ll stay,” I grumbled all the way down the hall to the first grade classroom. Were those "Peter Paul and Mary" tunes I heard drifting from the record player in the corner? And was I crazy or did Miss Wyncoop smell of perfume and peach pie? So far this wasn’t a total disaster. After all, all old Mrs. Julius did last year was play "Skip to My Lou" on the piano for hours while we went round and round the room in a circle that I found nauseating and pointless.
After a brief meet and greet, we got down to the business of coloring pictures of what we thought Jesus might look like (sadly most of the rainbow of crayons stayed in the box). In music class, Mrs. Donen taught us a song called, “Hi God, How Do You Feel Today?” The beat wasn’t bad, but considering I was in God’s school and He was my host, shouldn't He be asking me how I'm feeling? It would be more polite for sure. In Art Class more pictures of Jesus only with paint and a very limited palette. At this rate I thought, by Halloween we’ll be out of crayons and paint to show how blue Jesus’ eyes were and how California blonde his hair was. It was a rather inauspicious beginning to what I would come to believe were the most valuable six years of my life.
When my parents asked me how that first day went I’d like to think I answered something whip smart like, “Redundant, a little ethnocentric, and a touch xenophobic,” but I’m pretty sure I just said, “Fine,” and handed them my pictures of Surfer Jesus.
Obviously our religious education wasn’t terribly complex during those first years. We learned some prayers, some bible stories, that Jesus told us to love one another, and that he was "The King of the Jews," which I found fascinating since we were all called Catholics. What was going on with that? It was that last bit of information that I wish had been explained to me in a little more depth. For it led to the most traumatic event of my life since the presentation of the uniforms: “The Dinner Table Incident.”
Reader, you’re going to get the wrong idea about “The Dinner Table Incident” unless I first provide you with some exposition about my grandmother Gertrude Belle Fenwick who lived with us from a time before I was born, until I was eighteen when she passed away at the enviable age of 94. Gertie was born in the corseted belly of the American Victorian Period. She kept a white knuckled grip on that era her entire life. She appeared every morning in full regalia: stockings (not pantyhose), heels, dress, jewels, perfectly coifed hair, the proper amount of rouge for a lady in the daytime, and fully powdered.
Two things she would never do in mixed company were, appear in her dressing gown or speak politics and religion. Tactless! Profanity never passed her lips. Tasteless! As my father like to joke, Gertie needed an engraved invitation to appear at the dinner table and only after she was served the requisite cocktail and hors d'oeuvres. She was never thrilled her only daughter converted to Catholicism. The only time she stepped foot in the Cathedral was for my sister’s wedding and then she suffered a “spell” from the incense. It may sound like she was intolerant and as stiff as the generation from which she came, but she just had her own ways about her. She was unbelievably artistic and kind, which is why I felt so bad when she found out how stupid I was.
At our dinner table children were invited to speak but mainly encouraged to listen, so it came as a bombshell to everyone one night when I, still chewing on the incredible information I’d learned that day about Jesus, tried to impress my grandmother by declaring, “So Gertie, you’re a Jew, huh?” Except for the sound of utensils falling to plates, there was silence. What had I said? I looked around and everyone was looking at Gertie who had a lock stare on me. Suddenly I remembered that Gertie didn’t talk about these things, especially while dining, and in mixed company. I wasn't sure what mixed company was, but I was pretty sure I was in it. I tried to explain that I knew we were Catholics and Gertie wasn’t one, so she must be Jewish because that’s all there was. Right?
Everyone gawked at my ignorance like they were going to either bust out laughing or they needed a drink. I’m half Russian on my dad’s side, so I was prepared start offering libations to escape my circumstances if necessary. I could open a bottle of Vodka and pour, directly into the mouth if no other receptacle like a shoe or a frozen glove was available. I’d heard a lot of stories about life in the Old Country.
Gertie sat up real strait. “I am a Protestant. In particular, my family is Presbyterian. We are neither Catholic nor are we Jewish. For that indeed is not all there is young lady and attending that school as you do, you should know that.” I mumbled something about learning that next year. I was embarrassed by everything I thought I knew but didn’t. Protestant? My head was bobbling off my neck. I leaned over to my mom and through tears whispered, “But that’s cheese!” My mom assured me I was thinking of Parmesan, and that I would learn that there were lots of fine different religions and not to worry about it right then.
Much later it dawned on me that Gertie was proud of her family, her religion, and everything about her life that had been absorbed and mostly forgotten by living with “The Klosters.” It wasn’t easy to live with us and be anyone but "one of us." I remember going to bed that night and giving some serious thought to religion. I wasn’t even really sure what a Catholic was, and I was one. How was I expected to know what Jews and Parmesans were? Maybe I should keep my mouth shut until I knew a thing or two about a thing or two.
If it weren't for my mouth I could have had such peace, but it got me into trouble at school as well. There were only four nuns and no priests teaching at Bishop Baraga when I was a student there. Not one of them ever hit me with a ruler, though the metric system did just about kill me and I’m still asking, for what? However I did clash with one nun in particular for a little while. Sister Kelly terrified me then, but now I wish I could find her and give her a big wet kiss on the mouth to which she would probably respond, “Skinny Jean! Get a grip on yourself!”
At home I never shut up, but in early elementary school I had no voice. I was shy, quiet, unassuming, and was plenty happy to blend into the cream-colored cement block walls. Sister Kelly would have none of this. She stuck me in the front row and demanded, no commanded, that I realize my right to be heard. She called everyone Toots or Curly Sue, or Skinny Jean or some nicknames of that ilk because I don’t think she had any idea what our actual names were. Did it matter? Her name wasn't really Sister Kelly. During the first several weeks of the school year, Sister would ask me to recite words out of our speller. She knew I hated this.
I’d start reading, swallowing my words and barely taking a breath, “alligator, panda, camera…”
“alligator, panda, camera…
“I said, LOUDER TOOTS”
“alligator………pan….” My eyes were tearing up and I couldn’t see the words.
“CAN ANYONE HEAR HER?” Murmurs of “no” floated behind me.
It would go on that way until finally she’d call on someone else, but I knew the next day would bring the same burden of embarrassment and an anger that I was having more and more difficulty holding in.
“Alligator, Panda, Camera…” I was starting to hate all alligators, pandas, and cameras.
“STILL NOT SO GREAT TOOTS”
I tried harder. “ALLIGATOR…panda, camera…”
“I CAN’T HEAR YOU. THEY CAN’T HEAR YOU. I BET YOU CAN’T EVEN HEAR YOURSELF!”
That was it.
The temper I had at home, the voice I had at home found its way to school like a dog on his master’s scent and it sniffed out that mean old nun and bit.
“ALLIGATOR! PANDA! CAMERA! CLEVER! EXTRA! FELLOW!” I shouted out all the spellings words on the list. “AND I HAVE A NAME SISTER KELLY AND IT’S NOT TOOTS! I screamed at her in class. Surely I’d be taking the walk of shame to the office to see Sister Pauline and Sister Carol Rene.
Those nuns, they're unpredictable. Sister Kelly just looked at me. Then without a word she walked to her desk and pulled out a whole sheet of gold stars from the drawer and stuck it inside the front cover of my speller and said very quietly, “Nice work, Skinny Jean." Then she winked! I'd never even seen her smile. I love that woman for pushing me when everyone else had let me slide by because I was small and shy. I’ve never been afraid to speak in public since. She made me hear my own voice, and I liked the sound of it. Maybe too much. She never did call me “Ali” once.
Next week: a smack in the head, first confession, death threats, first communion, enforced basketball, and two-fingered rhinoplasty. Make no mistake, these were heady times Reader. I couldn’t possibly go on without a short rest.