Saturday, May 24, 2014

Sister Francesca

Nowadays, I think many Catholic nuns use their real names. When I was a child going to Catholic grammar school, all the nuns, at least in the order at my school, chose new names when they became nuns. Many of them chose the names of male saints, like Sister Mary David or Sister Jerome Marie. They liked to honor the Blessed Virgin, I guess, but also liked the chops of a male saint's name.

Sister Francesca was my older brother's second grade teacher. I had little interaction with her. I believe most of the nuns were aware of me because starting in the second grade, all the way through eighth grade, I stayed after school every day to clean, then prepare the altar for the next day's masses.  When I became tall enough, I also helped lay out the vestments for each priest who would be saying a mass the next day. The vestments had to be laid out in an elaborately precise way, placed with the last thing the priest would put on on the bottom and the first things he put on on top. They had to look beautiful and the beautiful layout gave me a sense of reverence. Sister Mary David explained to me that all the vestments had been blessed so I should treat them as blessed things. I learned the names and meaning of the ritual vestments under the robes people see at mass. Cords, belts, strings, layers. I don't remember any of the official names now. At  the time, I treated each item with the reverence due things that were not only blessed but used by priests. Near as I could tell, all the nuns revered all the priests.  Everybody I knew revered the priests.  Everyone I knew was Catholic and, for the most part, of Irish descent.

Sidebar:  my gay baby brother also grew up going to Catholic school, and was an altar boy, as all my brothers were.  Now Dave gets a good laugh when he remarks that he was a twink from the day he was born, around priests daily when he was an altar boy and no priest ever hit on him. Not one. Then he laughs his radiant, light-up-the-world laugh. And if you hear him say this, you laugh too. And you think, or, rather, I think, "I am so glad no pervie priest got my baby brother." 

For a few summers, when my mom was bullying me to become a nun and she had told the nuns at school I was going to be a nun, mom actually made me go to summer mass every day of summer vacation that I was in Chicago. During the summer, there was only one daily mass, at 7:30. And typically, only the nuns, who all went to mass together at the 7:30 mass, with weekday masses being quickies compared to Sunday. No sermon on weekdays.  The nuns invited me sit with them,  so I had to, being too shy to say no, especially to nuns. The nuns were supporting my vocation.

The whole parish knew about my putative vocation. Sometimes at Sunday mass, my vocation would be one of the things everyone at mass would be asked to pray for.  I hated the attention because I knew I did not want to be a nun but my mom kept pushing. I'd sit there dying on the inside, praying feverishly for God to get me out of this nun thing.  It was such a large parish that only my actual friends and actual teachers knew me, plus nuns, so the request felt anonymous. I cringed anyway.

Our parish was huge. Our church was quite large and it filled every seat for three or four masses every Sunday. Additionally, the parish had built,  so they could build the huge church, a church in the basement of the school. That basement church always had a couple services on Sunday. The crowds that packed my parish's Sunday masses still amaze me. I believe my childhood parish no longer is nearly as big. The school, on itsww website, only had one class per grade. It had three classes per grade when I attended. It was the Post-War Baby Boom and a time of prosperity for the middle class.

Yet Sister Francesca was aware of me. I was like the mascot for the nuns of our parish.

Mom often said "My mother gave one of her children to God, so I am giving you to God." I would think, but did not say, "Why do you have to give me away? You have four boys, give one of them away."  Mom's baby sister, my Aunt Jody, Sister Ignatius, or maybe it was Sister Ignata, when she was a nun, was the child my grandmother had given to God.  I rarely saw Jody. I loved her from afar, for she was my godmother. She took her final vows the day after my baptism. Both my baptism and her marriage to God took place in Chicago, where I grew up.

I also hated Jody, blaming her for my predicament.

When I was in grammar school, the nuns still wore black robes resonant, now,  to me, of burqas. By the time I was in college, nuns wore regular clothes.

One summer in college, I took a couple college classes as a nearby Catholic college to use some of my Illinois grant money. I went to college in WI so I could not use the grant money. Each summer, I would take classes for free, and take classes I never would have taken at my 'real' college.  The summer I went to St. Xavier College, near my dad's home, I took a pottery class, throwing clay into lumpy pots all summer. I never would have used up credits at my 'real' college for pottery class. Altho why not, I don't recall.

I took two classes, clay in the morning and Judaism in the afternoon. Judiasm I took because my choices were few.  And I wanted to use as much of my state grant as possible.

In between classes, I would hang out in the student union. One day, sitting on a sofa, with a middle aged woman on a sofa nearby whom I ignored, the woman spoke to me. She asked me if I was a Fitzpatrick and if I had gone to St. Gall's. I was astonished. How did she know I was a Fitzpatrick?  She said "You still look exactly the same and all of you looked alike. I spotted you the first day of summer school."

I was astonished, truly, because I had  believed I had moved invisibly through my childhood, that no adults ever noticed me. True, I was also known for my vocation. I imagine lots of folks knew who I was, especially all the nuns, but when I was a kid, it didn't really grok for me that other than the cringe-inducing moments at Sunday mass when the packed church was asked to pray for my vocation, I had no awareness that anyone paid attention to me. Plus it was a huge parish and a huge school, with three packed classrooms per grade. In the post war baby room, Catholics had tons of babies. The school is much smaller now. And mostly Latino. I had white blonde hair then, blue eyes and a sweet demeanor. All the kids in my family, except for my dark-haired older brother, had blonde hair,  and blue eyes. Well, Dave got green ones. The black and white lawyer in me has to clarify the color of Dave's eyes, eh?Plus I did not dare be anything but angelic around nuns and nuns were all over that school.  I had never quite realized anyone, ever, had noticed me.

Sister Francesca had.  I had no idea, when my life revolved around that parish that anyone but my family and best girlfriends noticed me. And Patrick Snooks, Bucky Cywinski and Frankie Vacco, boys who live on my block that I knew before I started school.  Bucky's real name was Richard. All the nuns called him Richard and no child dared to call him Bucky at school. Bucky, however, said he liked Bucky and hated Richard. Bucky had the full buck teeth any human has ever had. As we grew older, all the kids on my block, and there were quite a lot of kids on our block full of no-birth-control Catholics, debated why Bucky's parents did not get him braces. Both his parents worked, unusual in our world. He was a late-in-life surprise baby, with a much older brother. It seemed to me that, like me, no adult paid much attention to Bucky. He was a sweet, gentle boy. I asked him more than once if he was sure it was okay to call him Bucky because I liked him and I did not want to hurt his feelings. I didn't ask too many times, because maybe asking again and again would hurt him. I took him at his word. It was hard to buck the ride of his nickname. Come to think of it, Bucky had that nickname before he had buck teeth.

Sister Francesca was leaving the convent, she told me. She was finishing college, which she had not done before she had taken her final vows and started teaching. Her order had always promised to give her a college degree so they were making good on that promise.  When I was a kid, Catholic schools did not have to hire licensed teachers. I think this is still true for most private schools in most states.  Sister Francesca shared a few vaguely pleasant memories of my family. We nodded to one another throughout that summer session but never really talked again.

Once you feel that duty to behave well around nuns, it doesn't go away.  As I listened to Sister Francesca reminisce about me and my family, I did not tell her what I remembered about her. She was seen as a holy terror. All the kids were frightened of her. All first graders would pray, as the time came to be told our assignments for the following year, that we wouldn't get Sister Francesca.  Instead, I told it it was fascinating to see what she looked like without the veil and the nun outfit.  I also told her that although I had not recognized her as a nun I had once known, I had spotted immediately that she was a nun.

She glanced around at herself as best she could and said "How could you tell? What do you see that signals I was a nun?"

"I don't know, Sister,"  I said.  "I just knew the moment I spotted you here that you were a nun. Even though you are an ex-nun, you still give off the nun vibe."

She asked me how she might dress differently to stop giving off the nun vibe. I shrugged and said nothing, acting dumb and being polite to a nun, as I had been trained.  Laughing, trying to make my words sound light, I said "Maybe once a nun, always a nun."

I was about 19 then. When I was in my early forties, I got another graduate degree. I took one class with an ex-priest. We hit it off. I had spotted the fact that he was a priest right away. He had been going to the school, he said, for three years, for he was working on a doctorate, and no one had spotted his religious history. How could I tell?

By then, I had lost some of the shackles of respecting nuns and priests, just a little. I said "I don't know what I saw but I knew the first instant you spoke to me that you either were a priest or had been one."

He was a bit upset for he had been hiding his background. He asked me not to tell other students and I didn't. He was nice about it. He got a nice laugh, actually, being 'seen'.  He was a brother, and still a brother. Not exactly a priest, but basically the same thing.

How did I know that these people had been in Catholic religious orders? Vibration. My empath ability. I feel things vibrationally and I think I felt their religious order vibration.  I guess.

Like I told that brother I met in grad school, I don't know how I knew these people in street clothes were a nun and a priest. I just knew. I felt it.  I knew.

Minuet in C

I took piano lessons for eight years as a child.  I loved playing the piano until my first piano teacher, a nun and music teacher at my Catholic grammar school left the convent and lost her Catholic school teaching gig. I loved my piano teacher. I loved being able to leave class for my weekly half hour lesson, walking down the silent school halls to the music room and having that one on one attention.

I am surprised I can't remember the name of my first piano teacher. I adored her and took in her focused attention like a child dying of thirst. No one paid much attention to me, not adults anyway.  I had two lessons a week, one in music theory where I learned chords, scales, rhythm, how to read music.  She taught me how to transpose whole songs from one key to another.  I don't remember all the stuff I learned about reading music and converting the instructions on the sheet music into how I played but I knew all that stuff then. I didn't understand why she taught me all those things until I got sentenced to lessons with my next teacher.

Mom switched me over to a cranky, stern, cold woman who gave piano lessons in her home, in a dark, poorly lit room.  That piano teacher had me play music I didn't like. I quit piano lessons, after begging my mom for some time to either find me a teacher I liked or let me quit. I quit when my cold teacher announced she did a recital with all her students once a year. I liked playing recitals. My nun music teacher had always had recitals. I loved performing in front of my proud family, getting polite applause. This new gal, however, informed me I would be playing a duet and I was to play the left hand.

I kept expecting her to pull out a ruler and rap my knuckles when I displeased her, which I seemed to have a knack for.  She often remarked that she was used to teaching students from the beginning and she thought I had been poorly taught until then.

I may not have impressed the new teacher with my ability. She impressed me with her ignorance of rhythm. At the beginning of every piece, there are anotations that tell the player what key the song is written in and at what pace it should be played. If it is written in B flat, then you play different keys then if it is written in B minor, or G.  Or C. My first teacher taught me this stuff. I don't know someone could really play the piano if they didn't know this stuff.  If one doesn't feel the rhythm in what they play, they aren't destined to play. The new teacher seemed oblivious to the annotations at the beginning of a piece, at least oblivious to the rhythm the composer annotated at the beginning of a piece. She pushed me to play every piece as fast as I possibly could. Even when I pointed out to her that certain pieces were not supposed to be played as fast as she said, she insisted she was right. She even ratted me out for insubordination to my mom. And I was right. I knew how to read music, not just the notes, but the key and the pace at which it should be played. My mom loved hearing I had been insubordinate. My mom loved to accuse me of sassing her when I stood up for myself in any way.

I wish I could still read music as I once could.  Now I can remember the trickier finger poses required to play some of the sharps and flats. You had to know how to move your hands to get to the next note, at the right time, in the right position. And then the next one. The new teacher never once talked to me about how to move my hands. She never reminded me of the pace. And she wouldn't let me use the pedals, even when the sheet music told the player when to use them. I don't think she knew how to read music as well as I had been taught to read it.  She just pushed me to knock out her boring songs as fast as I possible could with no discernible rhythm. I was no virtuoso but I knew the difference between 3/4 time and 2/4 time. I don't know the difference now.

If you don't know piano duets, you might not know that the left hand in a duet plays chords, not melodies. It was the melodies that I played piano to hear and feel. I didn't mind playing chords for solo pieces but no way was I going to play background music for someone assigned the melody of a duet.

I discovered a bit of my own power. I told mom I would never go back. She argued some. I brought dad into the discussion and he said if she wants to quit, let her quit. "If she's unhappy with this teacher, find another one or let her quit." Mom claimed there was no one else. We lived in Chicago. I do not believe there was no one else.

That cold piano teacher did assign me one song I liked during the months I studied with her.  Another thing she did:  she would only assign a few stanzas per week so it took weeks, sometimes months, to learn a whole piece.  Since I didn't usually like the music she assigned, I was happy to only play small pieces of it week to week. And get this, this woman never had me play a piece all the way through. Looking back, I conclude that woman did not understand music. Not in a meaningful way. She approached playing the piano mechanistically. Music is about vibration and spirit. Not letting me play pieces all the way through was like a bird beginning to soar and then crashing into a window. Maybe not that dramatic but it was a flat, non-energizing way to play piano.

When she gave me Bach's Minuet in C, I loved it.  I can still remember the first time I tried to play it. I was instantly drawn to the music. I practiced more that week than I had since my nun piano teacher left my school. I learned the whole piece. I got fairly fluent in it. And I also felt guilty, feeling like I was doing something wrong because I had not been assigned the whole song. At my next lesson, however, I only intended to play the few assigned stanzas.

This piano teacher was not completely tone deaf. She heard instantly that I had learned the piece well. When I got to the end of the assigned stanzas, when it was time to look at the next page of music to play on, she said "You might as well play the whole thing". She spoke in a tone that made it sound like I had done something criminal. I swear to goddess she sneered when she said 'go ahead, play the whole thing." I had soared with the beauty of Minuet in C. I had played many more hours that whole week from joy.

Minuet in C was one of the best moments playing music I ever knew. I happily concluded that I had finally shown that teacher that I could play more complicated music than she was giving me.  I assumed she would start assigning me whole songs and give me better songs. I believe it was the very next week when she told me I was going to be playing the left hand in a duet for her recital.  I believe it was crashing after my soaring joy from Minuet in C that gave me the courage to stand up to my mom. And the courage to enlist my dad, something I rarely did, mostly because he was not around much and he mostly left me to my mom, being a girl. Gender roles were less flexible than they are today, even in families, at least the  gender roles in my family. I had four brothers and no sister until I was fourteen. Mom and Dad both told me only I had to do lots of housework, dinner preparation on school nights and endless babysitting for their endless sons. They couldn't, they both explained to me, ask boys to do girl work.

A girl in my class at school had always studied piano with my second teacher. I was shocked one time when she played in front of me. She played a piece I knew but which was barely recognizable because my classmate played it as fast as she possibly could, as that teacher pressed her students to do. My classmate was her star pupil. Believe it or not, I was too polite to tell my classmate she played the piece too fast. And I never told the teacher she didn't seem to understand the rhythm notes on the sheet music.  I told my mom who was, like most of the adults in my childhood, except a couple nuns at school, dismissive of me. I was just a girl at home, not a boy.

I was oppressed. In a way, that oppression strongly shaped who I am still.

I had also asked my mom to talk to the piano teacher about the left hand role. Mom refused, telling me I should respect my elders and trust the teacher's judgment of my ability.  I had proved my ability when I played Minute in C. The teacher, however, asked why I was quitting and when mom told her I wouldn't play the left hand of a duet, she offered to give me another piece. No way.  I had found my out.  And dad said it was okay. In those days, dads totally ruled the universe of their family.

I missed the piano for a long time.  Mom occassionally brought up more lessons, telling me as soon as she found someone, I could start up again.  Now I realize Mom only looked in our parish for another piano teacher. When she said 'there was no one else' to teach me, she meant there was no other piano teacher in our parish, in our small patch of Chicago's South Side.

Someone in my apartment building plays piano. It is a student. I believe it is a Chinese girl, whose parents don't speak much English but always nod friendly to me. She's maybe 12 now.

Once at a community meeting or party or something, I remarked on the student piano player. The woman who lives next to me,  also lives just across the courtyard from piano practice, and she exclaimed "It's more than a student. That's a real piano player, a skilled musician."  This next door neighbor doesn't seem to like me so I did not tell her that she must not know much about piano playing if she thought the music we hear from the piano across the courtyard was a sophisticated player's work. 

I don't think the girl on my floor is going to be a concert pianist. Her playing has not appreciably improved in the five years we have all lived here. Well, she's better. And she practices a lot.  I have not yet heard her play a piece with soaring joy, with fluency, working the pedals at all the right points, moving in an even tempo throughout a piece. She's a student.

I hope my piano playing neighbor has a Minute in C moment.

My daughter played cello. Her school insisted all the children play in the string ensemble, take lessons.  When she was in h.s. and doing a lot of dancing, with regular dance recitals throughout the year, as I sat in the audience for a recital, her favorite dance teacher sat next to me. We chatted a bit about Katie. I mentioned, for some reason, that she played the cello. Her teacher said "I didn't know she played the cello. That explains a lot about her dancing. She feels music and it shows when she moves."

I wish all the apartments in my courtyard with children had music practice floating out windows. I  wish I heard many kids, many instruments practicing. There is only one person who practices music lessons in the courtyard. The Chinese girl who takes piano lessons.

Music is a way to more closely connect with the vibrations of this amazing cosmos.

I spent one semester studying in Mexico. I went with a good friend who was much more accomplished on the piano. She had continued playing through her high school years and practiced daily back home at college. When we were in Mexico, we discovered that the only bar women could go in, which was in the hotel on the main plaza, had a piano. The bartenders were happy to have her play all she wanted.  I loved going along and listening.  We would go in the afternoon so men did not bother us. And we would gone stoned. Very stoned.

She played Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring with the joyful fluency I had once played Minuet in C. Both Bach pieces, of course.  I was humbled to hear her skill level and thrilled to hear that song played over and over. She couldn't get enough of it, so she always played the whole piece, knew it from heart.

Isn't that a lovely expression:  to know something, or someone,  by heart.

I had another nun buddy, a nun who had been my kindergarden teacher and then my second grade teacher when she was reassigned. I'll write about her another time.

I also was forced to take flute lessons for a couple years. My grammar school had quite an elaborate band program. Our band performed at McCormick Place, a massive event venue on the Chicago lakefront.  I hated the flute and disliked my flute teacher. I guess I only disliked her because she gave me flute lessons.

Hated the flute. Loved the piano.

I guess my parents, especially my mom, placed a high priority on music lessons. I think all my siblings took some kind of music lessons.

Now I remember. My mom played the piano pretty well. The piano was just outside my bedroom. When I was still young enough to nap, I loved to have mom play "They call me little buttercup". She would sing with operatic flair, very dramatically. 

The song went on:  dear little buttercup, sweet little buttercup, though I will never know why. It's dear little buttercup sweet little buttercup," then something else I don't remember. I did feel loved when mom played and sang for me. I stopped feeling loved by her when I was seven. Something awful happened.  I think I still have some PTSD from what happened.