Wednesday, August 7, 2013

They Still Call Me Sister by Deborah Plummer Bussey

Chapter 1

August 15, 1977,
Feast of the Assumption

As Daddy drove twenty miles an hour down the driveway the tires of our family Mercury station wagon grabbed and spewed the gravel onto the recently cut grass. The brick, split-level ranch-style house that I had lived in for the past four years with my parents, three sisters, and our Great Dane, Gentle, sat an acre back from the highway. Soon my home might as well be on the moon instead of thirty miles outside of Cleveland, for I was on my way to enter the convent. Nestled in the backseat of the car between my two sisters, I leaned down to shake out a small gravel stone still in my black leather pump that had lodged there on my Olympic run over to our neighbor’s house to use the phone. If I were superstitious, I would have been begging my parents to turn the car around right then. There were too many signs that what I was about to do—become a bride of Christ—was something I should seriously reconsider. First, the car would not start. However, this was not necessarily something to send up a red flag because our car not starting was normal for any day in the Carpenter household. We never had a brand-new car ever, so a prayer accompanied every turn of the key in the ignition. While Daddy opened the hood to perform magic and get the car to start, I pushed past my sister CC, who had bounded out of the car to get through the back door of the house first. My heart was pounding with panic. I had to call Sister Mark Therese to tell her that I would be late. I was only the first black postulant to enter the community in eight years (Tammy Hawthorne, the first and only before me, left after only five months), and I had to be late. Nothing like starting by reinforcing stereotypes!

To make matters worse, there was no dial tone when I picked up our home phone. I glared at Mom, who was entering the kitchen. “Mommy, there’s no dial tone. Is the phone turned off again?” I didn’t wait for a response. Why put her in a position to lie to my face? I could tell from the look of her face that she hadn’t paid the bill again, and the phone company had turned off our line again. “That phone company is so unreliable out here in the country,” she would probably say. I assumed that she was robbing Peter to pay Paul (always) for the phone bill payment that equaled our mortgage. The cost of the long-distance calls with her Cleveland friends that she missed so much, even after four years of living in the small rural town of Huntsburg, population 6,400, was astronomical. The phone bill always exceeded her ability to pay. Daddy never used the phone, so without his immediate scrutiny Mom could have up to a month to find and rob Peter and get the bill paid before Daddy would even know. We often met “Peter” as cut-up, fried hot dogs with pork and beans “doctored” with ketchup for dinner, or her machine-sewn empire-waist dress that she convinced us looked exactly like the one in Higbee’s that we had picked out for the school dance.

I knew how attached Mommy was to her friends and how much she needed to have those conversations out here in this godforsaken place with hardly any black folks, so I took pity on her and didn’t confront her about the phone being turned off. I chose instead not to waste time. I needed to get to a phone, so I tore out the screen door again, this time nearly knocking over Dana and Tina, who had decided it might be awhile for Daddy’s magic to work and that it was best to come in the house. Rolling my eyes at them in response to their sneering glares, I raced down the driveway, headed for the Adams family home across the street and down the road about an eighth of a mile. We had a golf course to the left of our house, and the owners of the course, the LaContises, lived at least a half mile down the road. Unlike the Houstons, who lived fifty feet from our house, the LaContises were friends and they would let me use their phone. Judging from the cars parked in the driveway, the Houstons were probably home, but to go there I would have to jump the barbed wire fence—papered with no trespassing signs—that separated our properties, knock on their front door adorned with a Confederate flag, and then ask to use their phone. The probability of the response being yes was very slim. Their lifetime membership in the John Birch Society, the barbed wire fence, and Confederate flag pretty much assured me that the answer would be no. I had no time to mend race relations in America. I just needed a phone.

I prayed that the Adamses were home. They owned a dairy farm, small by rural America’s standards, with two small white-framed homes on the property—one where Mom Sue and Dad Joe lived with the four Adams kids, and the other where nineteen-year-old Tom Adams lived with his eighteen-year-old wife, Bonnie, and their two-year-old toddler, Tommie. I started yelling to get their attention as I ran up their driveway as more gravel lodged itself into my stupid black pumps. I was now concerned about my hair sweating out the chemical relaxer more so than the sweat forming under my arms onto my white blouse. Sweaty armpits and sweat circles on a white blouse I could hide. I would not know what to do with nappy hair for convent entrance day.

The chances of both sides of the Adams families not being home were next to none, but today was the day for none. I didn’t think it appropriate to start swearing, given what I was attempting to do with my life, so I took a deep breath. It must have been the breath of the Holy Spirit, for I remembered that the Adamses had a phone in the cow barn behind Tom’s home, and I headed for it. Sure enough, the heavy, grand black phone was anchored at the far corner of the barn just past the last stall. I ran down the barn hall, my heels clicking on the concrete floor, and I aggressively picked up the receiver. As I dialed, I reminded myself that I would have to have Mommy leave a few dollars with Mrs. Adams to pay for the call. Even though the motherhouse was only six miles down the road, it was in another township and, therefore, a long-distance call. I knew the number to the motherhouse by heart, having called my favorite nun and soon-to-be sponsor, Sister Caitlin, numerous times. Like clockwork, after the required two rings, Sister Saint Matthew, the motherhouse receptionist, picked up. Sister Saint Matthew had what my mom would call a motor mouth, so any phone call to the motherhouse required a brief conversation with Sister before you could be connected to your party. Today was no exception.

“Hi, Sister, this is Kathy Carpenter. I am supposed to be there at four thirty, and it’s four twenty now, and our car won’t start, so I guess I will be late. Is Sister Mark Therese around?” I turned away from the wall and found myself face-to-face with a black-and-white Holstein cow.

“Oh, sweetie! I am so sorry to hear that you are having difficulty getting here. Did you let the engine cool a bit? It is so hot outside today.”

“Ah, Sister…I really need to get going,” I murmured. “Could you just tell Sister Mark Therese I will be there as soon as I can get a ride?”

“Do you want someone to come and get you? I am sure we could send one of the men who work on the property under these circumstances”

“No!” I screamed perhaps a little too loudly, but with that scream, I was able to kill two birds with one stone, and the heifer starting moving away back into her stall. “I mean I am sure we can get the car started. Please just tell Sister. I will be there soon. Thanks! Gotta go!”

Great! Now I smelled of cow manure. I looked down at my black gabardine A-line skirt covered with bits of straw, my twisted black hose, and dust-covered black pumps. I had no time to worry about appearances especially in that outfit. It wasn’t like I would have a chance to attract the opposite sex in that getup. Who worries about your appearance when you are entering a convent? It is not like another postulant dressed in the same black skirt and white blouse would turn to say, “I really love your black skirt, and the blouse goes so well with it!”

I hurried back across the street up the driveway to the welcomed hum of the car motor, my parents and sisters neatly packaged back in the car. We were on our way.

I sat in sandwiched between my older and younger sisters in the backseat of our family car. The small cloth duffel bag, which now served as my purse, rested on my lap. For some stupid reason (maybe to get my mind off what might happen because I was late—did they give demerits in the convent like in my high school at Regina Academy?), I thought about Mary Tyler Moore who was in the movie we had watched last night. It would probably be the last movie I would see in my lifetime. I suppose I could have had loftier and holier thoughts since I was on my way to enter the convent, but I didn’t. I thought about Mary Tyler Moore. Since I was “leaving for good,” I got to choose the movie that my sisters and I went to see with a group of my high school friends the previous evening. My family and friends were acting as if entering the convent was equivalent to dying, so I matched their reactions to the family in the movie where one of the sons had really died.

Mary Tyler Moore was this crazy mother Beth and appeared to be so together after the death of her son. And the dad, Calvin, was in-between healthy and crazy. He, at least, was willing to talk about the fact that his oldest son had died. The younger son, Conrad, was the only one in therapy and was made out to be the craziest one when he was really the healthiest of them all. Conrad’s grief oozed out all over the place, and he suffered from misplaced guilt and even tried to kill himself, which was why everyone thought he was crazy, but I knew, along with his cool therapist in the movie, that he was not. We knew that he was doing what he needed to do to survive such a tragedy. Of course, my sisters hated the movie and more so the fact that they had to pay the two dollars for my ticket.

My mom was having a bit of a Mary Tyler Moore crazy reaction to my entering the convent. On the advice of her Ladies’ Guild friends she was acting as if it was OK because my vocation was obviously “God’s will,” but in reality, she was going bonkers about it. The only thing saving her from utter despair was that she was counting on all of the promised blessing that were certain to be showered on her for having “sacrificed” her daughter. She turned around again for at least the fifth time, her eyes glazed over, her brow furrowed, examining me as if she had just found out that I had leukemia. Tina, in the front seat with my parents, matched my mom turn for turn, only crossing her eyes and sticking out her tongue at me, which I translated to mean, “You would go to any lengths to get all the attention; you may be smart, but I am cute and fun.”

Daddy, like the movie dad, was both healthy and crazy about the whole thing. He didn’t like the fact that his daughter was going to live with a bunch of white people. But when he learned from my “vocation interest interview” that the good nuns would be paying for my college education and taking over all living expenses, even as I was a postulant and novice in formation, he was really glad about my vocation and began praising God for his blessing.

I would be stretching it more than a bit if I said that my three sisters, Tina, Cecilia, and Dana, were overridden with guilt and contemplating suicide on my decision to become a nun. For the last couple of weeks, their energy had been devoted to fighting over who got the only piece of clothing of real value in my wardrobe—a fuchsia-colored satin jacket with two white stripes on the collar and wristband. Since I wore a uniform daily to Regina Academy, one could accurately say that I really did not even possess a “wardrobe.” There were not many outfits needed for the twice-a-year “Dress Up Days” when you got to wear your own clothes as opposed to those designed by School Belles. The satin jacket was the only item of cool value in my closet. I really only purchased it in a failed attempt to project a personality other than my own. The fact that it was the only piece of clothing my sisters wanted was testimony to my accomplishment. I would only miss the bangle bracelets. They would lay unworn by my sisters. The bracelets were “so not cool” in my sisters’ minds because they too closely resembled the “Panama bracelets” my mom wore and often tried to use as good-behavior bait when we would misbehave as kids.

“I won’t leave my bracelets for you when I die if you keep acting that way. My bracelets are reserved for my best daughter.” My mom was from Panama, and the bracelets were, I guess, a big deal and always considered the height of fashion “even before women caught on to their beauty in the States.” Her bracelets were actually made out of sterling silver, whereas mine were plastic. Still bangles were bangles in my sisters’ eyes, and they didn’t want them.

Nobody wanted my leg warmers either. The leg warmers were—well, just leg warmers. Since I was required to wear a skirt every day to school, even in near-zero temperatures, the leg warmers were not a fashion statement started as a trend by cool New York dancers, but a Catholic schoolgirl necessity. My two older sisters went to public schools where pants were not only acceptable but considered the only sane attire for near-zero temperatures. Thus, in their minds, nuns invented leg warmers as a form of birth control for Catholic high school girls. If you wore those ugly gray and red plaid pleated skirts that had to touch the knee in the era of miniskirts, and the winter accessories that completed the ensemble were thick, bulky, knit gray leg warmers worn in a cast-like manner around your legs, no boy in his right mind would want to have sex with you.

This time, when Tina joined my mother in the “check on Kathy in the backseat to see if she will change her mind” look, she had a question.

“Why do they have to have a prayer service when it is Sunday and we already went to Mass?” It was evident that my sister Tina was unhappier about having to spend her Sunday afternoon in church as a part of my entering ritual than she was about my leaving home. It was already a complete embarrassment that she had a sister dressed like a square in a black A-line skirt and white blouse with nylons and black low-heel pumps, but that now she would be considered holy by association was more than she could bear.

Her question startled me out of the world of Hollywood to my world of Country Negroes. I chose not to try to explain. Dana, my youngest sister, decided she would offer an explanation.

“She is offering her life to God, and we have to be there to see her give herself up.”

Well, it wasn’t exactly the explanation that Sister Mark Therese gave about the entrance ceremony, but she had least gotten the gist of the family being part of “leaving all things to follow Christ.” Actually, I thought it would be easier just to say good-bye to them at the door after they unloaded my trunk of staples for nun living. I had dutifully purchased items from the list in the “Preparing for Entrance Day” packet: five white long-sleeve blouses, two short-sleeve white blouses, three floor-length white cotton nightgowns (luckily, Mommy found a pattern and sewed them for me since white floor-length nightgowns were impossible to find even in the old lady departments), five white bras, five white brief panties, three white full slips, five white handkerchiefs, two blankets (no color specified), white twin sheets and pillowcase, one robe (pastel color), brush, comb, toilet articles, Jerusalem Bible, stationery, two pens, and two pencils. I guess you could say that aside from the content of what was in my trunk and the entrance ceremony prayer service, there really was no difference between me and any other seventeen-year-old going off to college. Well, maybe a few more differences.

Despite all of the commotion, we arrived at the mother-house only about ten minutes after the designated time. The formation team of Sister Mark Therese, Sister Mary Joseph, and Sister Catherine Mary, along with my sponsor, Sister Caitlin, was waiting at the door. The Mother Superior, Sister Elizabeth Mary, would also have greeted me, but she had already gone up to chapel so as not to give the nuns bad example by entering the chapel late. Tina was laughing hysterically about something Cecilia had said, and Dana was clinging to Mommy and Daddy just in case God decided to zap her with a vocation and give the good nuns a two-for-one.

Sister Mark Therese was smiling broadly. Apparently, they were afraid that I had chickened out and were thrilled that I had arrived to validate the community as open and non-discriminatory. Each of the nuns gave me a friendship hug and whispered to me, “Welcome.” They had sealed the deal.

In your senior year at Regina Academy, the nuns made a full-court press for getting girls to enter the convent. Vocation week was around the same time college applications were due; your anxiety was high, and your self-esteem low enough that the only ounce of confidence you had was that you would never be able to make it to any college. The multiple prayer services during the week not only had you praying for vocations, but by the time you finished only two of the services, even the brattiest girls like Nicole Rini actually believed they were hearing God or Mother Mary talking directly to them. The weekly assembly featured a panel of nuns from various orders who passed out enough reading material on religious life to rival the volumes at the county library. Homeroom bulletin boards that once displayed pictures of fall scenes and study tips for the SAT now had calligraphied quotes like “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” with pictures of young postulants praying in the motherhouse chapel, gardening, playing volleyball in full habit, and eating ice cream sundaes. Our class’s individual senior pictures were placed around the border as if to shorten the degrees of freedom between the postulants and us.

This year Sister Caitlin landed a three-pointer, having talked me out of signing up for two years with the Peace Corps but instead encouraging (or was it directing?) me to not go “halfway with God” but to give myself up totally. Now Sister Caitlin was directing my family and me to follow her and the other nuns up the marble stairs to the main chapel where we would join the community in marking my official entrance into religious life. Climbing the marble stairs, hearing my heels clicking on the surface while holding hands with my mom and dad, I thought about that quote on the bulletin board in my senior class homeroom. Today was the first day of the rest of my life.

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Genre – Cozy Mystery

Rating – PG13

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