Several comments last week asked what statement of mine Sister Mary Dennis quoted on that March Sunday back in 1967. I have only a vague recollection that I’d said something about higher education; something that she felt was “patronizing.”
I can remember being confused when she’d quoted to me what I’d said. I didn’t see how I’d been smug. But clearly that was how she saw the exchange I’d had with her friends.
By 1967 I had a bachelor’s degree in English with minors in mathematics, history, and philosophy. That degree had been conferred on me when I graduated from Mount Saint Scholastic College in May 1958, right before entering the convent next door.
While in the convent I’d spent four summers taking classes at the Mount so as to become certified in Kansas and Nebraska for teaching.
The following three summers I’d gone away to study for two master’s degrees. I spent one summer at Marquette in Wisconsin taking English courses. For two summers I studied Benedictine spirituality at St. John’s University in Minnesota. However, I left the convent before completing either degree.
So in March 1967, when I spoke with those women who were studying for doctorates, I can’t imagine what I said that would have been condescending. There were far ahead of me educationally and arrogance had always been abhorrent to me. But I can vaguely remember Sister Mary Dennis saying something about how what I’d said disparaged their family background and roots.
That didn’t make sense to me. She quoted me and yet the import of what I’d said eluded me. What I remember are foggy tendrils gliding ominously into the labyrinth of my brain. Suddenly, then, I fell apart—as I explained last week.
At some deep level, my anguish touched Sister Mary Dennis. Immediately and instinctively, she put her arm around my waist and led me over to a nearby bench where we sat together. I continued to sob uncontrollably.
She didn’t try to persuade me to stop crying. She simply waited, holding my hand. Gently.
The Child’s Bath by Mary Cassatt
Finally, I began taking deep, gulping breaths. My tears waned to a simple trickle. It was then my friend spoke.
“What’s this about, Dee?” she asked. “This seems out of proportion to what I said to you.”
I was unable to explain because I truly didn’t understand why I was crying. I just knew fear consumed me. Fear of what? I didn’t know. Several years passed before, with help, I unblocked the memory of when I was five and felt abandoned.
“I don’t know what’s wrong, Mary. I’m just so afraid. I don’t know why.”
“Has this happened before?
“This is the first time I’ve cried since the day I left the convent.”
“I’m worried about you,” she said. “Worried you might be in the midst of a breakdown.”
I looked at the concern on her face and simply nodded. I felt like a baby, crawling into a new idea. Unable to walk independently. “What do I do?” I asked. I trusted she knew and could tell me.
“I think you need to see a psychiatrist.”
“No, back in Dayton.”
“I don’t know how to find one.” I remember gazing at her, sure that she’d know. Sure that she knew so much that I’d never know.
“You go back to Dayton and I’ll ask around and I’ll find someone there.”
Child in a Straw Hat by Mary Cassatt
That’s what happened. The following week I received a letter in which she gave me the name of a Dayton psychiatrist. Next week I’ll share with you what happened when he and I met.
Photographs and paintings from Wikipedia.