The summer of 1960—the summer I discovered why Mother Alfred had sent me to Omaha—Sister Sweteberta told my scholastic class of eighteen that we had to “turn” our habits that summer.
I panicked. I’d faced knives, but thread and needle were an entirely different matter.
About fifteen years before, the sewing of an apron while in Girl Scouts had been a dismal experience. A failure. My flippant attitude about the project had incensed the leader who’d summarily dismissed me from the Scouts.
Bess Truman with the Girl Scouts
After Sister Sweteberta gave us the news about turning our habits, I asked two friends if they’d do it for me while I did their obediences. One tablewaited in the summer refectory; the other worked in the scullery. They also used a polisher on the terrazzo floors of the four-story building. All that sounded like a leisurely summer picnic next to the ordeal of turning a habit.
Sewing Fisherman’s Wife by Anna Ancher, 1890
To turn a habit was to make the back become the front by changing the sleeve openings, the yoke, and the frayed hem. The back of our daily habit had become shiny and threadbare from our having sat on it for two years. The long, narrow scapular of black serge we wore over the habit—back and front—would cover the shine. Turning would keep the habit whole, not holey.
Turning was beyond my capabilities.
My two friends thought they got the best of the deal. They actually liked to sew. Both of them had probably been great girl scouts. When the Scholastic Mistress heard my plan, she nixed it. I’d turn my own habit.
“I don’t like sewing,” I explained.
“It’s your habit, Sister Innocence. It’s your duty to take care of it.”
“I’m not good at sewing.”
“You’ll get good.”
“Believe me, I can’t sew no matter how much I try.”
“If you don’t learn how to sew, you’ll never be a real woman,” she said.
“I don’t want to be a real woman if that means sewing,” I countered.
She held up her right hand for silence.
I closed my mouth. I’d taken the vow of obedience. I’d lived it out on mission for five months with an unruly group of seventh graders. Surely turning a habit couldn’t be worse than that.
Let me be the first to tell you: it was. That summer I had to do it all by hand because the personality of a sewing machine continued to evade me. I had so many needle pricks in my fingers and left so many drops of blood on that black serge that my friends felt sorry for me and surreptitiously helped whenever Sister Sweteberta wasn’t looking. We were downright sneaky.
Years have passed and I’m fairly certain that letting others define us is hazardous for our emotional growth and contentment. The Scholastic Mistress defined a woman as a female who could sew. Upon leaving the convent on Christmas Eve in 1966, I discovered that many people—both men and women—defined a woman as “married.” Or, even better, “married with children.” I didn’t then and I don’t now fit those definitions.
The truth is I’m not particularly concerned about “being a woman.” Being either male or female is of little interest to me. What is important is becoming an authentic human being. I’m gently greeting—day by day—the Oneness that lies deep down in the center of myself. I choose to let this Oneness define me.
What I know for certain is that I never become a scout . . . or a seamstress.
Surely Dante considered sewing one of hell’s worse torments.
Note: Next Thursday I’ll share my second year in Omaha with you. That will complete the Omaha saga!
All photographs from Wikipedia.