I hated my aunt the nun, blaming her choice to become a nun for my cursed vocation.
Even in the summer vacations, I had to go to daily mass, our whole parish watching, or so it felt. Our parish put out a weekly Sunday Bulletin. In that bulletin, they would ask the parish to pray for special things. One a month, the whole parish was asked to pray for my vocation. I felt trapped. And mortified. Catholic parishes did that when I was growing up, praying for vocations. The Church was already struggling to have enough priests and nuns and they seemed to think they could bully hapless younfsters like me into lifelong programming.
Another aspect of my vocation’s curse was that I was given the honor of helping Sister Mary David, a nun I adored, clean the altar every day and lay out vestments for the next day’s mass. I actually enjoyed this work. I enjoyed being alone in the cavernous but silent church sweeping the huge marble-floored alter. I got to know many nuns because of this work and my vocation. I knew all the priests better than most kids because I was in the church an hour or more every day after school.
“I don’t know what to tell you Sister, but I can always spot nuns.” Then she sat next to me and asked me to pick off any other nuns in that student lounge over our lunch break. I nailed them all. Sister Francesca announced that she was going clothes shopping and buy more interesting, less plain outfits. She had sincerely believed that she passed for a non-religious vocation person.
One time my aunt the nun visited us in Chicago, while I was still living with the curse of my vocation clouding my childhood. She lived in Colorado at the time and almost never visited us in Chicago. We usually saw her in South Dakota when we all visited our grandmother. When Jody arrived for that rare visit, Mom said “you two have a lot in common, why don’t you go to mass together?” So we did. We went to 7:00 a.m. hot summertime mass. We sat in the row immediately behind the two rows of nuns in black robes. Jody, by then, was wearing street clothes but not the nuns at my grammar school. Not yet.
After that brief mass, and they were thankfully very brief in the summertime, held mostly to fulfill the nuns requirement to attend daily mass, Jody suggested we stay in church and talk.
Jody, my aunt, said, when that brief, perfunctory daily mass was over, “Let’s sit here and talk” I was scandalized at the idea of talking in church. I noted, glancing all around anxiously, that all the parish nuns had left and no one was in the church but me and my aunt the nun. Feeling very anxious, I agreed to talk to my aunt the nun in church. When I hesitated, glancing around for permission, Jody had said it was okay to talk in church, that we would whisper. And besides, she pointed out, no one else was there.
I turned very red and could not speak. I was ashamed, unable to choose which lies to tell her because I knew I had no vocation. I was afraid to lie to a nun and I as afraid to tell her my truth. The nuns said one heard their vocation, a call from god.
I had never heard God calling me to become a nun. I was quite sure of that missing detail.
So I sat there, blushing, awkward, ashamed.
Jody cajoled me, speaking as tenderly as she could, saying “Come on, you must have some questions and I am your aunt. And your godmother. You can share your questions with me.” And she imbued her voice with love, or so I heard it that way. She was a stranger to me and in my misert over my doom, I hated her, seeing her as responsible for my trap, my destiny in a nunnery.
Go ahead, ask, my aunt the nun gently urged me.
“I am worried about how they cut all your hair off like in the book Bernie Becomes a Nun. Before she takes her final vows, nuns cut off all of Bernie’s hair. Do you have to keep your hair all cut off forever? I hate short hair.”
That was over fifty years ago. I feel much love for Jody whenever I remember how she responded. I saw her suppressed her laughter at my words, although I didn’t really ‘see’ her laughter until years later. Then she said “If that is your only question, I don’t think you have a vocation, Just forget this nun business.”
“But my mom says”, I began. I was thrilled but aware of my mom’s rigidity, her unbending will.
“Ill deal with your mother.”
“Mary Ann, honest to goodness, leave that child alone. Leave her be. She doesn’t want to be a nun. Leave her be.”
And mom did drop the nun thing.
A priest brought Joe home, unannounced one Sunday afternoon, after several weeks and solemnly asked to speak to our parents. The priest had not phoned ahead, just arrived at our doorstep with Joe, and Joe’s luggage.
Joe and I eavesdropped. Of course.
“You son does not have a vocation. He cannot return to our seminar”
At that seminary, all the boys, twelve years olds and up, had to get up, kneel on a marble altar floor and pray on their knees from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. Kneel and pray for an hour before breakfast. Joe would not do it. And when the priests yelled at him, my ballsy awesome brother Joe would say “There is no fucking way I am going to get up at 5 a.m., hungry, and pray on my knees for an hour before breakfast. NO fucking way.”
The priests had tried many things to break Joe. They made him knee before the whole school all day, with a piece of wood running across his arms and shoulders, made him hold up that wood, like a piece of the cross. Sometimes he had to kneel while holding up that board. And he always endured his punishment in front of the school as everyone else ate breakfast. They actually would withhold breakfast from Joe. They made him do it every day for weeks and occasionally they would ask Joe is he was ready to knee and pray at 5 a.m. Sometimes he had to kneel and hold that wooden beam in front of each of his classes.
Every once in awhile, a priest would give Joe the opportunity to repent and just do what they wanted, which was to rise at 5 a.m., kneel on a marble floor and pray for an hour. Joe argued that he would pray for an hour but not without having breakfast.
Joe proudly bragged about how he had stood up to those seminary priests, who were expert at breaking boys. He was proud to be unbroken, unbowed. He wore his eviction from seminar as a badge of honor. I was proud too. He loved it when people asked him what happened because he loved describing how he kept saying ‘no fucking way’ to priests. In our very Catholic world, just saying fuck was a sin. Saying it so baldly to priests with authority over him was almost incomprehensible. If I had not heard the priest tell the story, I might not have believed Joe when he told it over and over. With pride.
When he had been a baby, then a toddler, my mom often sang “Dear little Joe, kind little Joe, he’s the nicest little boy you will ever know.” I had always felt that way about my dear little Joe. He turned out to be a very big kid. By the time he was three, he had told our brother Chuck, then age five, that if Chuck ever laid a hand on me or Joe again, for Chuck was a bully and beat us smaller kids regularly, he would beat Chuck black and blue. I was impressed. Joe really was only 3 at the time he said that but already bigger than Chuck. Bullies area cowards. My brother Joe does not have a cowardly molecule in his being. I guess Chuck was impressed by Joe's assertiveness because he never hit me or Joe again. Chuck went on to beat up newer siblings, doing so even in his college years, with our parents still never saying a word of criticism, giving tacit approval in their denial.
I was glad my dear little Joe had escaped that seminary. And proud of how he had gotten out. I was proud he had had the guts to keep saying ‘no fucking way’, provoking the priests perfectly.
Joe once told me, in his perpetually genial way, that he might have toughed it out right up until college because it was a Jesuit seminary and he thought it would help him get into a great college, although no fucking way was he ever planning on becoming a priest. He said “anything to get away from her, you know?” I did know. And Joe got accepted into Yale, even without the Jebbies help. No one could believe it when Joel turned down Yale because he could go to a state university without any student loans. Yale asked him to take out some loans.