Thursday, September 29, 2011

Singing in the Laundry

In the convent, everyone had at least one obedience. Both postulants and novices had the obedience of working in the laundry on Monday and Tuesday each week.
            The college adjacent to the convent was for young women. Each week they put in the laundry their towels, washcloths, sheets, and pillowcases—all initialed. The nuns did this also. In addition they laundered some articles of their own clothing—also initialed.
            My initials, printed on ribbon tags, were DR3. Mom ordered these before I entered and then sewed them on my clothing. I didn’t help for two reasons. First, I simply couldn’t sew—either as a girl scout or later as a convent scholastic. And second, Mom wanted to do this for me. She was, I think torn by my entering. On one hand she thought I was entering to escape my father’s drinking, and on the other, she felt proud to be a Catholic mother with a nun for a daughter.
            Postulants came to the convent with their clothes tagged. But six months later, when they received the habit, they had to sew these tags on their new clothes: forehead bands, coifs, habits, scapulars, veils, undergarments, and hose. The forehead band was a double-thick triangle of white materials with strings attached to the sides for tying the band around one's head. 
             In the laundry, some of us pressed and folded sheets, some ironed habits, some folded towels, and some ironed these forehead bands. In a basement room in the convent, some nuns worked the coif machines that made the creases in the wimples. 

Picture of me as a scholastic wearing a forehead band and a wimple, or coif.

            I’d graduated from the adjacent college a month before entering, so I knew all the students, except the incoming freshmen. Thus, I became a “sorter.” That is, I sorted the college laundry into boxes labeled with dorm names. Except for the winter months, another postulant and myself sorted into large boxes set on benches outside the laundry beneath the shade of an ancient oak tree.
            As I sorted, I sang old Cole Porter songs, Disney ditties, Broadway tunes. This was, I tell you, a No-No. We were to do this laundry obedience without talking, much less singing. In fact, during most of each day, we practiced silence except when a superior gave us “salutation." That would come at lunchtime in the main dining room.
            Why did I sing? Was I just being contrary? Disobedient? Independent? Uncooperative?
            I was infatuated with the novice who ironed the forehead bands by the open window behind my sorting boxes. I thought that a postulant who sang would enchant her. I’d never thought that anything else within me would attract someone and so I was grasping at straws. Singing was, in my mind, a likely straw.
            I’d known this novice in college. She’d graduated the year before I did. I’d always both idolized and idealized her. I felt no sexual attraction, but I was drawn like a moth to her charisma. I wanted others to know that she thought I was special. If she did, then surely—surely—they would too.
            And so I sorted and sang. I'd look up often to see if she was noticing me. Watching me. Sometimes she'd smile and I'd beam back. In those moments, I found life totally satisfying.
            I was so immature and so needy.                       
            Six months after I entered, she made first vows and left the novitiate. She was now a scholastic. The next day, the Mother Superior sent her out on mission to teach. Loneliness settled over me and I grieved. It was then that I began to realize what being a nun might mean—growing up.


  1. Very interesting look at your thoughts during this time. Wanting to be Seen seems to be a human need, particularly when we're young and looking for our place in the world.

    Thank you for sharing this story.

    I don't see any place to "follow" your blog, but will subscribe via email and continue to return.

  2. I love that you found ways to express yourself over and over again, despite the rigors of the convent. And I love your self-awareness. You talk of being immature, but knowing who you were and what you wanted at that time seems fairly grown-up to me.

  3. This is another sweet memory, Dee! And I love knowing that you sang, no matter the ulterior reason :) As Teresa says, wanting to be noticed is a basic human need, obviously made all the more necessary in your situation where you'd felt abandoned and not completely secure in the knowledge of your own worth and value for so much of your young life. It's also common for young girls to idolise an older girl to whom they look up to. I guess that your being confined to the disciplines and rigours of convent life, just accentuated those feelings (and needs). I can imagine how sad and lonely you felt when the 'object' of your infatuation left!

    Now, a purely practical question...weren't those outfits very hot and constricting, especially the headgear?

  4. You paint such a beautiful picture with your words. I felt as if there, singing with you :)

  5. It is such a perspective to take: being inside the mind of a novitiate and a nun. They try to be so uniform, to blend in with each other with the uniform/habit. But, inside...I am enjoying this perspective.

  6. The lines "I wanted others to know that she thought I was special. If she did then surely--surely--they would too" just jumped out at me. Nuns aren't supposed to think they are special, are they? Wasn't this a clue to you that maybe, in your heart of hearts, you didn't belong in a convent?

    Keep on singing, Dee.

  7. I was going to say the same thing fishducky said but she beat me to the punch.
    So, I'll just stick with, great post!!!

  8. What makes me sad is that there seems to be no joy there. If anywhere would be filled with laughter, singing, smiles, delight, joy, happiness...I would think it would be with God. Instead it sounds like a somber, emotionless void. Sorry. I think my idea of God is way too joyous for organized religion--hehe!

    It's a difficult life to choose to forgo your individuality in the first place, but then to give up spontaneous joy, too. I don't think I would have lasted long AT ALL, no matter how well-intentioned I may have been. I'm not Catholic, but I had wanted to become a nun at one time when I was young. You have erased any and all doubt. LOL! ;)

  9. I think it's awfully difficult to understand the heart of a young girl, I know when I look back at my own past I had crushes and ideas that make no sense today. You tell the story of your infatuation so well, Dee. I am glad you are writing about these things, they speak to me on a very deep level.

  10. How very confused you must have been. Called, presumably, yet rebelling against the strictures and demands.

    I look forward to reading your account of your way through convent life.

  11. Arghhh! I tried to post earlier and it wouldn't take for some reason. Rita is right, it was sad that there was no joy there. I hope you're filling your world with laughter now.

  12. Dear Dee,

    I have found myself mesmerized and caught up in your recent posts. My goodness, I've only been away for a week and there is so much I missed! To echo others, I've always wondered about convents, how they can be so bleak, and wondered, "Is this pleasing to God?"

    I got a kick out of the "butt seeking" in a previous post! That must have been miserable for those poor previous smokers to have to resort to searching for butts to ease their addiction!

    Finally, thank you for bringing us the good news of the wonderful surgeon you gave you your life back. I was so hoping that I would read of a "cure" eventually.

    Also, thank you for the poem about climbing the birch tree. I loved the sensory pictures I got, and thank you for seeing me in that poem.

    I'm looking forward to more convent stories!

  13. I so understand a young girl's non-sexual, but intense caring for another. I went to a Catholic girls' high school and there was a lot of idolization and idealization of older girls and nuns. The growing up realization is, at once, so painful and so pivotal. I'm loving your posts giving us a glimpse of a whole different time of your life!

  14. I believe God wants us to sing, and to shine. And wanting to matter to another is a Universal thing. What joy when we finally matter to ourselves.