Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Nostalgia of a Nun

  I had an adversarial relationship with the sisters of St. Joseph at Holy Name School. They wanted to instill knowledge in my mind. I wished to remain as I was. Thanks to their persistence and support from my parents, I learned reading, writing and enough arithmetic to send me down the line I was to follow. These nuns were formidable presences in their flowing veils, their black serge tunics, and their stiff white aprons and clanking rosary chains. Even the class bullies and toughs backed down. You messed with a nun and you were replaced quickly and permanently by the next kid on the waiting list.
  When I told my parents about the rigors of life with Sister Conese or Sister John the Baptist, my father would say you're lucky you never had Sister Eubestrabius. This woman had been a mule skinner out west before entering the convent and our dad said that after eight years under her thumb, WWII had been a piece of cake. A piece of cake that sometime blew up in your face, but still preferable to camping with Sister U.
  One day in fifth grade, sister was talking about goldenrods. They were in a poem I think, and sister lowered her book and said, "What do goldenrods make you think of, girls and boys?" No one ventured a guess. Even Joseph R. and Mary C. the honor roll kids were struck dumb. "This is easy." sister said. "What do they remind you of?" Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Finally she had to tell us that they should remind us that the school year was about to start. Mary nodded in assent and Joseph simpered yes, yes.
  Now sister had grown up during the depression when goldenrod took over the idle fields and shuttered factory yards, while we students lived in a manicured suburb where the goldenrod was relegated to railroad cuttings and the yards of the mentally ill; places we were forbidden to go. We associated goldenrod not with sweet sorrow but with danger. And beyond that, none of us could imagine sister as a child dreading the approach of another nine month stretch in school. To me, she was the face of this punitive system that was wasting my youth.
  I don't know if sister was chagrined that none of us shared her nostalgia, but after that day she stuck to trains travelling east at 60 mph and the glorious exploits of the Crusaders retaking the Holy Land for a century or so before losing it to the Saracens once again.

                       Shot with an iPhone 5S by Chairman J.


Joe said...

Darn those nuns! Goldenrod can be a happy memory for those without nuns or allergies:


On roadsides,
in fall fields,
in rumpy branches,
saffron and orange and pale gold,

in little towers,
soft as mash,
sneeze-bringers and seed-bearers,
full of bees and yellow beads and perfect flowerets

and orange butterflies.
I don't suppose
much notice comes of it, except for honey,
and how it heartens the heart with its

blank blaze.
I don't suppose anything loves it except, perhaps,
the rocky voids
filled by its dumb dazzle.

For myself,
I was just passing by, when the wind flared
and the blossoms rustled,
and the glittering pandemonium

leaned on me.
I was just minding my own business
when I found myself on their straw hillsides,
citron and butter-colored,

and was happy, and why not?
Are not the difficult labors of our lives
full of dark hours?
And what has consciousness come to anyway, so far,

that is better than these light-filled bodies?
All day
on their airy backbones
they toss in the wind,

they bend as though it was natural and godly to bend,
they rise in a stiff sweetness,
in the pure peace of giving
one's gold away.

~ Mary Oliver

Chairman Joe said...

Nice. I think this is the poem that inspired this blog post.

Catherine Stenzel said...

I'm allergic to goldenrod, or at least I was; I haven't sniffed any since I was a kid hanging out in those airfield environs. I may also have a mild allergy to Notre Dame nuns, the order that ran Sacred Heart Grade School where I attended for eight years filled with catechism memorization and diagramming sentences. The Notre Dame sisters had their own arsenal to deal with bratty, little kids. One of their weapons was a formidable use of the English language (even thought several of the nuns claimed German as their mother tongue). To be dressed down by a person twice your childish height, wearing headgear that looked like it would take them aloft any moment, was an encounter none of us wanted to experience. CatherineS