#68 None of You Stand So Tall
I reposted something on FaceBook today: a photo of a very mean, very old nun in full habit aggressively wielding a yardstick. The caption says: "BREAKING NEWS. Moderator for second debate announced: Sister Mary Margaret." As I said when I posted it: I have complicated feelings about my Catholic upbringing, but this, THIS I can get behind.
I have no idea where this pic came from, but it's going to haunt my dreams.
I wrote a little about my time in Catholic school in an earlier post. The fear, the anxiety, the discomfort we kids lived through is, on reflection, not something we’d want our kids today to experience. But, I enjoy trotting it out for laughs when the moment feels right. And the comments on today's post tell me that my fellow inmates feel the same way.
Flashbacks to my piano teacher. Got a whack with the ruler if didn't practice!
Sr Gerard slapped me in the face and for good measure pulled my hair at the same time. Dirty fighter!
Two words: Brother. Ed.
In other words: comedy = tragedy + time.
By the time I was in school, corporal punishment was no longer condoned in schools.* That didn’t stop Sister Peter Damian, the decrepit crypt-keeper of our school’s dank, dark library, from doling out physical discipline when the spirit moved her. Our 6th-grade class was in the library, probably inhaling decades worth of black mold. I was seated at a table reading quietly with my ankles wrapped around the chair legs** when she cuffed the back of my head, berating me for being “unladylike." The the blow to my head stung; it hurt, but I wasn’t hurt. This bitch knew what she was doing.
Just trying to read Pippi Longstocking in peace!
I was bewildered. I’d only ever been hit by my older sisters during our inevitable kid-brawls and, in those cases, I was able to run to my mother bellowing SHE HIT MEEEEEEE at the top of my lungs. But here, in the deathly quiet school library, I knew that wasn’t an option. I don’t remember any of the other kids acting surprised by the situation and I realized that I was meant to just keep this to myself. I sat back down, ladylike, and pretended to read for the rest of the period. But I never let Sister Peter Damian out of my sight again.
I didn’t tell my mother about this incident until I was in college. I thought that if I told her, I’d just get into more trouble at home. She was furious that this had happened and I could tell that she was wishing for a time machine to go back to give that battle-axe a piece of her mind. Turns out Mom had a history of taking zero shit from people who messed with her kids. One of my sisters in particular had provided a number of opportunities for my mother to throw down with the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Saint Joseph, and the Carmelites.
I had no way of knowing this as a child and, as an adult, I wished so hard I could have seen that side of her: the fire-breathing mama dragon ready to scorch the earth around these brides of Christ. She wasn’t afraid of their disapproving faces or their intimidating costumes. Mom was also known for taking on the Pastor of our church — a dour ghoul with a booming, monotone voice — threatening to pull all of the older Hindsley kids out of the parish school and send them to (GASP) public school. My siblings disagree on the circumstances of that dust-up: my sisters say it was in response to the mean nuns, but my brother claims it was because they’d finally started charging tuition and my parents didn’t want to pay for 5, soon to be 6, kids to attend the school.
Hell on wheels, obviously.
Mom wasn’t actually anti-nun. She took her faith seriously, loved the Blessed Mother, and had a real fondness for the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters — a cloistered, contemplative order of nuns in West Philadelphia. The Sisters are known for wearing unusual rose-colored habits and a century-long practice of continual prayer (“so the Lord is never alone").
The Convent of Divine Love, Philadelphia.
When Mom got sick and we started going through her files, we found years worth of canceled checks, in small amounts, made out to the “Pink Sisters.” I’m sure she was requesting prayers for us — her children and grandchildren. But a part of me hopes she wished for that time machine, too.
The Convent of Divine Love, Philadelphia.
*Although apparently it was still legal. HOLY SHIT. Corporal punishment is still legal in 19 states and wasn’t outlawed in my home state of Pennsylvania until 2005.
**I’m learning so much today! It turns out sitting that way could be an indication of poor core strength that could lead to reading delays in kids. I still don’t forgive that old bat. She didn’t have access to that kind of research.