Saturday, October 8, 2011

Novice Tablewaiting

The front of the college chapel where I polished the floors
and spent considerable time while in the novitiate.

As a novice, I served meals to the community. I probably tablewaited about thirteen weeks during my novitiate year. I was supposed to wait on the head table of the prioress for two of those thirteen weeks.
            I didn’t.
            Instead, I served only one meal.
            Here’s why.
            Picture my first day. I’m serving the prioress and her six administrative helpers. They sit facing the other nuns, who are seated at three vertical rows of tables.
            First I wheel the spacious serving tray with its bowls of food and coffee pot down the long aisle between two of these rows. I’m shaking nervously. Standing behind them, I reach between the seven nuns to place the hot food on the table. They pass the bowls and serve themselves.
            Sound engulfs the silence of that cavernous room. Silverware clatters. Chair legs rasp the wooden floor. Wind soughs through the open windows. But no one speaks for they have not been given salutation.
            This din of speechless sound diverts me. For a moment I gaze at the morning sunlight warming the courtyard cannas.
            The prioress clears her throat. Quickly, I pick up the hot coffee pot from my serving tray. I almost drop it because my hand is trembling so. I reach down for the her cup, stand behind her, pour the steaming hot coffee, and shakily place the cup next to her right hand.
            Without mishap.
            I’ve done it! I can do this. I can! I can!
            I move to the left and reach forward for the second nun’s cup. She seems old to me for I’m only twenty-two—my body supple, my face smooth. She wears wrinkles and thick glasses. She’s slight and bent.
            I stand directly behind her, hold the cup near the back of her head, and begin to pour her coffee.
            Just then, I hear a western meadowlark through the open windows. Its fluty whistle draws my attention toward the courtyard again. For a moment only, I forget what I’m doing.
            That’s when it happens.
            I pour steaming hot coffee down her back.
            She breaks silence and yelps. Who would have thought that such an elderly nun could shriek so loudly?
            Her chair topples over. Serving dishes teeter. Food spills onto the pristine white tablecloth. Silverware clanks. An empty cup tumbles onto the floor and shatters.
            I stand poleaxed.
            I’ve burnt a nun.
            I Have. Done. This.
            I’m. Out. Of. Here. For. Sure.
            The prioress immediately says, “Praise be Jesus and Mary,” thus giving the other nuns permission to talk.
            The nuns answer, “Now and forever. Amen.” Then they begin to chatter among themselves. The room buzzes with astonishment over what I’ve done.
            I want to run down the long aisle between two rows of tables—my veil flapping behind me, my knees churning—and hide in the novitiate closet among the brooms, dust cloths, mops, and buckets.
            Instead, I clumsily try to swipe the liquid off the nun’s habit. She moves sideway to evade my fumbling hands. I kneel awkwardly before the prioress to make culpa for my carelessness. She sends me to the kitchen to get rags and mops for cleaning the table and floor.            
            Never again did I serve the prioress. I was an accident waiting to happen.
            When I made culpa to the novice mistress that afternoon, she sent me to the college chapel to consider my faults.
            The truth is, I spent a lot of time there while in the novitiate. 


  1. I Love that a western meadowlark captured your attention briefly and changed things for you, perhaps in ways that were not immediately apparent, but....

    another beautiful post.

  2. I can relate to this. I was a waitress for three days and then they fired me because I kept dropping things and making mistakes. Some of us are not meant to wait on others in this manner.

  3. I have a hard time understanding why you were sent to the chapel to consider your faults. You had an accident & you were sorry. You did not intentionally burn that nun. Does a convent not allow accidents? Perhaps God sent that meadowlark so that you might reconsider taking your final vows. I believe He had another purpose in mind for your life & I believe you are now realizing that purpose.

  4. Oh, Dee, once again you have me holding my breath as I quickly read toward the culmination of your adventures. Then I go back, and more leisurely read, and chuckle, as I can just see you trembling along with your cart, trepidation in every step. So unsure of yourself, so sure you're going to mess up, so of course, you do.

    What a blessing it is for us to be carried along with you on your journey back, and witness these moments in your life that led you to who you are today.

    Thinking of the girl who built a fire on the landing, I can only imagine you spent more than a few hours contemplating your actions!

    Yet, I bet you got them best of them all and found a way to enjoy those moments of silence!

  5. I went to Catholic school for 12 years, and so many of my accidents or mishaps were looked at as faults. I always tried to please and be good, but I was left with so much humiliation. All these years later, I still live with some of that pain.

    Your kindness, vulnerability, and honesty in these posts are remarkable. I am in awe.

  6. I like you better and better!

  7. Burn one little nun and your labeled for life!

  8. I read now and see i have a great deal of past works of yours to read. I shall be very busy this winter. Thanks for stopping by my post too.

  9. Oh, Dee! What an experience! I just cringed along with you!

  10. You are so wonderful and perfect in such a delightful way :) I loved reading this.

  11. I know this shouldn't seem amusing, but it was almost as if you had designed a story to show how Sister Innocence burned a nun... I smiled at thinking of you pouring that with your sweet face turned to the window, listening to the meadowlark.

  12. I've learned that "Expectations Make Frustrations" and every time I try too hard, I spill the coffee too.

  13. We've all "spilled the coffee" from time to time. Is it okay that I thought this story was kind of funny? Not the burning nun part, of course.

  14. Having been born and grown up two steps from St. Peter's Cathedral,I know all about the Roman Catholic church and its predilection for guilt. How long were you supposed to think about your faults? It was an accident, you were sorry, I don't think Jesus would have sent you to the chapel for that. The church still hasn't understood that grace and faith do what obedience, guilt and self-righteousness could never do. Love your blog :)

  15. I have to say--what a beautiful old building to accidentally burn a nun with hot coffee and I have always loved meadowlarks. One of those moments of lack of focus that you have carried with you all these years, I bet. Those nuns did their best to assure that you would. But, I have to confess that, along with several other readers here, I chuckled at the nun's expense--all these years after the fact--LOL! I felt like I was right there with you. :):)

  16. I have just finished preparing and uploading a post, Dee. I found your comment now, for which many thanks indeed! I have been away, on and off, over the past fortnight or so and also without internet for a few days here at home, but thankfully, it has now been restored! I am off to bath and bed, so will be popping by again tomorrow to read all the posts I've missed during my absence. I missed you all, too!
    Big hug,
    Des xoxo

  17. Oh, no! I could tell what was coming and I was riveted to the post. It's true that when we try so hard and worry that so much is at stake that we often falter.

  18. I so enjoyed this post! It was wonderful.
    I think that the lark was a sign that you were not meant for that place.

  19. Oh, Dee...I have tears streaming down my cheeks from laughing at this wonderfully told tale of woe. I find myself in awe at your incredibly gifted, story-telling ability...your descriptive account negates any need for pictures (still or otherwise!) to bring the vividness of this situation to me. Once again, I wish I could give that lovely young girl a huge hug! You were/are truly priceless and precious.

  20. This story has reminded me of one of my own :) When we emigrated to SA from S. Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) in 1963, we settled briefly in a small N.E. Transvaal (one of the then provinces of SA)town, Lydenberg. There were only two Afrikaans-medium one (I could not speak a word of Afrikaans) and a Convent, so my sister and I were enrolled at the convent. The girls had to attend a needlework class once a week, while the boys attended a craft class. I hated needlework, even though my Mother was/is an accomplished seamstress and I would far rather have joined the boys. We had to hand stitch a doll-sized, flannel, receiving jacket, but the few girls who were lucky enough to own a tiny sewing machine, were permitted to use those, which I felt was unfair. I did not have one and the overseeing Nun deemed my too tight little stitches unsatisfactory. I was told to unpick my efforts and rework them. I was so frustrated by this task that I (quietly) ripped my jacket into two pieces. She was not amused! My punishment was being marched off to the Chapel by my earlobe to repent...even though I was not Catholic! I was then sent to do crafts with the boys, which I loved!

    Another little memory...I am left-handed. When we first arrived at the convent, the Nuns decreed that I could no longer favour my left hand. I was to learn to use my right hand! I refused (again, in silence, by simply not obeying their injunction, but I told my parents who thankfully informed the nuns the next morning before school that I was to remain as God had designed me :) They obviously weren't able to counter such reasoning and left me alone after that.

  21. I love the last line: the truth is I spend a lot of time in there... Perfect.

  22. There is a lot of wisdom in this post.

  23. Hello Dee,
    It's very nice to 'meet you' and thank you fishducky for suggesting Dee visited my blog.
    I have thoroughly enjoyed being here and like your style of writing very much. Your story reminds me of the strict masters at the private school where I worked. I can empathise with your situation especially as I am probably the world's clumsiest person and can't carry a cup of coffee without it spilling.
    I am now following you to read more.
    warm wishes

  24. Wow. I don't really know what to say other than don't get a job at IHOP.

  25. I love the way you have grown to see yourself -- With humour and compassion.