“Mommy, what’s that?” the three-year-old asked as she pointed to the woman in a black and white habit walking across the cloister garden of Rosary College.
“That’s a nun, Theresa,” the lady answered gently as she bent over her daughter.
“I’m going to be a nun, Mom.”
That childhood desire never seemed to leave me during all my growing up years. Somehow the image of that long-ago religious woman got something stirring in my memory as well as in my plans for the future. At first I was just drawn to what I saw without knowing why, but after a short time I figured out that because a nun was holy, a nun must surely be with God and know him well. And isn’t that what everyone was looking for? Didn’t everyone want to know God? And know God really well? A nun was what I must be, I decided, and I never changed my mind.
Mom grew up Catholic in a Chicago Polish community. Dad grew up a strict Baptist in a southern Illinois farming community. When they fell in love, Dad promised to become Catholic and raise his children in Mom’s religion. And he did, but he always seemed to know more of the Bible than all of our teachers. I learned a lot from him.
The first child born to them was given Mom’s favorite names: Judith Ellen. A few days later, Mom held her baby, splashing tears on the little bundle as she stood before her mother’s coffin. So, her second child was named after grandma: Theresa. She did not have the beauty of the first child; she had problems. Eczema seemed to take over her body. Dad and Mom took streetcars around Chicago trying to find a doctor that could relieve the itchy red skin on the toddler. Finally, an old doctor told her that eczema would be a lifetime problem but keeping Theresa away from sugar and bathing her in oatmeal would help. So, mom took care of her oldest girl, changed the new baby boy, and then made pots and pots of oatmeal, mixing it in the warm bath water, and bathing me in the heavy liquid to dry out the itchy, weeping skin. When the fourth child arrived, my oatmeal bathing was just too much. Instead, grandpa tied up my hands to stop my scratching when he visited, and I cried over my bag of popcorn at the fair while the other children ate cotton candy!
At five I began kindergarten at Saint Valentine’s School in Cicero. Sister Miriam, the Church organist and choir director, also taught the five-year-olds in the small school built on the floor above the Church. As I was enwrapped in the sweet-smelling black habit of one of Sister’s generous hugs, I knew I would love school. The blackboards were painted with dancing children and forest creatures, flowers, and musical notes. The tile floor had the alphabet in one long line right down the center so each child could jump out her name. There were shelves of clay and crayons and paper and paint—everything a new learner needed. And Sister Miriam sang to us and read us stories and helped us draw. She hugged anyone in tears back to laughter and had a birthday party for every child’s special day. She danced to music with us, lifting her long black skirts and making the rosary at her side jingle as she skipped. Once a week she played the Church organ while my mother and neighbors, Freida and Zoe, sang and practiced with the choir for Sunday service. Sister always smiled, and I loved the little gold piece on her tooth that winked at me as she did so.
I thought Sister Miriam would be my teacher forever, but after the summer break I was shocked to find that I now had to leave her and go to first grade! I would be in a different classroom with a teacher named Sister Bruno. My child’s mind thought that even though I had to leave kindergarten and Sister Miriam, Bruno was the name of my favorite uncle, married to my favorite Aunt Mary, so everything would be fine. Uncle Bruno was just wonderful: he’d take us for drives in his model T Ford on vacation, buy us ice cream cones when Mom and Aunt Mary shopped, play games with us when we came to his house, explain baseball to us as he and Dad watched TV, showed us tricks that his smart parakeet had learned, take us to Chicago parks and lead us in races, and laugh a lot in a big, booming, happy voice. So, Sister Bruno must be great.
What a difference she was! Small and neat, never a smile, strict with rules, quick to threaten what would happen if we did not behave and learn properly. She dominated in a long, dark room with rows of desks screwed to the floor, long, bare blackboards, and large rulers and pointers hanging from her desk. Because I was the shortest student in the class, I was made to be first in line—down to the church, to the bathroom, to the water fountain in the hallway—and I occupied the first desk in the classroom. I was frightened of Sister Bruno but still determined to do a good job. In this small school, first and second grades shared the same room and the same teacher, so if things got too frightening, all I had to do was look over to the second-graders in the other half of the room and get a reassuring smile from my big sister, Judy.
A terrible thing happened a few weeks later. Sister Bruno thought that my sister was too smart for second grade, so she was sent up the corridor to the third grade in spite of my parents’ protests. Trying hard to fit in with the bigger kids, she would no longer walk to school with me. As soon as we crossed the alley out of Mom’s view, she took off to join her third-grade classmates, leaving me to hold the hand of my little brother, Gary, going off to kindergarten and Sister Miriam. It was too much. I started to cry all the five long blocks to school, trying not to scare my brother. When I got there, I’d wipe my eyes out of fear of Sister Bruno. The smallest thing set me off crying. The tiniest dab of cereal shot from my baby sister’s spoon on my school dress, a single hair out of place on my Buster Brown haircut, a little scuff on my new school shoes. But most of all, when it rained outside, I rained too.
One day Sister Bruno apparently had enough. She was tired of having a red-faced child enter her classroom, even if the frightened child never cried there. So as six-year-old Theresa entered the room one day and hung up her coat and hat, Sister Bruno demanded in a loud voice, “Are you crying?”
“No Sister,” I squeaked out in response.
“Come here and let me see,” she ordered, pushing me close to the tall windows with her thumb and forefinger painfully marking my cheeks. She tilted my head this way and that way to check for tears. “Your eyes look red to me,” she insisted. And I remembered that my little sister had gotten oatmeal on my favorite pink dress with the blue stars that morning and Mom said she did not have time to iron me another dress, that the sky was gray all the way to school and I just knew it was going to rain, and that I could not get my tammy on my head properly either. The tears started to fill my eyes as Sister Bruno stared into my face.
“That’s enough!” she pontificated loudly and announced to all the other children, sitting quite scared and silent, “Theresa is not good enough to stay in this school any longer. She always cries when she comes here, and so she is being sent to reform school!”
The loud gasp that escaped the tightened throats of my classmates started me crying in earnest. Fear rose up big and strong in front of me and around me as I was ordered to the cloak room to put on my coat, pack up my schoolbag with my books and papers, “because you won’t be here anymore,” pull on my red tammy hat, and then “say goodbye to your sister and brother because you will never see them again!” I obeyed quietly in fear, almost not able to breathe, not able to think, certainly not able to protest in the slightest.
Sister Bruno marched me down the corridor to the third grade where I was told to hug my older sister good bye in front of her class. She also looked very frightened when she heard what was happening. Then I was marched down to kindergarten where I hugged my little brother and watched Sister Miriam turn away to avoid my pleading glance. “What about Mom and Dad?” I quietly asked, “and my baby sister? Can I hug them too?” But as I was pushed into the principal’s office, Sister Hermenia and Sister Bruno told me that I was too bad to ever see my parents again. If it was possible to multiply total fear, it happened then. Never see my parents? Who would take care of me? Who would tuck me in at night? Who would drive me to see Grandma? Who would I kiss and hug?
Down the back school stairs I walked as slowly as I could, in spite of the angered nuns behind me telling me to hurry. Down, down, down. Down with leaden feet and legs. Down to the back door next to the gymnasium where only boys would play games as girls were not allowed in there! I had always wanted to see the gym, but now I knew I never would see it. I cried more. Finally, the large school door was pushed open by the nuns and a huge car stood there, rumbling and shivering, its tail pipe sending big gray puffs into the cold air. The car was round and black, with a running board and small windows, and at the steering wheel sat a large, strange man wearing a black topcoat with the collar turned up and a black hat with the brim pulled down over his eyes. He frightened me immensely.
The principal said sharply to me, “Here is the reform school driver come to take you away. Get in!”
I was too scared to struggle, and too obedient to run, so I dutifully climbed up into the car, dropping my schoolbag in my anxiousness. Sister Bruno lifted me up unto the seat, threw my red tammy and schoolbag in after me and slammed the door shut. The driver said not a word but took off across the schoolyard where we skipped rope, out the wide gate, and down the road.
Fear engulfed me. It wrapped its tendrils around my nose and mouth and eyes. I could not cry. I could not speak. I sat quiet and still in that big car as the stranger drove me through the town. I began to pray and make promises that I kept for years. “I will never cry again. I will eat all my cereal. I will take real good care of my little brother. I will help Mom all the time. But please don’t let him take me to reform school!”
After the longest ride of my life, the driver said in a gruff voice, “Little girl, if you promise not to cry anymore, I’ll bring you back to your school and maybe the sisters will take you back.”
I was not sure I heard the words correctly, but I quickly whispered, “I promise.”
Sister Hermenia and Sister Bruno were standing at the back door of the school as the big man stopped the car and lifted me out. Sister Herminia’s three chins were shaking as she made me make the promise again and told me I would be given only one more chance to be a good girl.
My classmates snuck peaks at me as I came in the classroom and took my seat. Sister Bruno taught as if nothing unusual had happened. My brother and sister walked in silence with me on our way home to lunch, occasionally turning to look at me and then quickly looking away.
I became the perfect student and the perfect child. I never cried again.
That summer, after first grade, Sister Bruno was sent to another school, I passed into second grade to Sister Amarilla, an old, happy nun who walked with the girls at recess and turned so quickly that we had to scurry after her and the swinging arc of her long, black rosary at her side. I continued to grow, and work hard, and slowly lost my fear of nuns.
Mom and Dad did not know what had happened to me until about thirty years later. At a family holiday gathering we all told stories, and I remembered my reform school trip as one to tell. They listened in shock and growing anger as I spoke the facts for the first time. I retold every detail, my voice cracking at some pieces of memory and tears rolling down my cheeks for the first time. Judy and Gary had kept my secret for all those years. I was amazed to learn that the “reform school driver” was one of the Church ushers. When I realized my strong emotion, decades later, I knew that for years I had been carrying a heavy burden indeed. I had promised to be a good girl when I was five, and I think I succeeded throughout my school years, until I graduated at the head of my class, whether through fear or joy, at this point I am not sure.