She stood at the blackboard, chalk in hand, wearing the garment that she wore every day, the habit of the Sisters of Saint Francis.
From my desk at the front of the row, I had a fine view of the mysterious folds of her floor-length habit: layers and layers of heavy black fabric, two sets of sleeves, and a long black veil. Over the basic tunic she wore a wide cloth scapular that slipped over her head and shoulders and fell to the floor in the front and back. Beneath the scapular at her waist, her long rosary beads dangled from the braided cord that encircled her middle. The stiff white wimple molded to her head under her veil concealed her ears, hair, neck, and part of her forehead and cheeks, leaving only a small square of her face visible. Under her pilgrim-like white collar hung a silver crucifix on a black cord.
Like a magician, she could reach into hidden pockets in her garb and pull out a pure white handkerchief or a set of jangling keys. Sometimes, as she turned in front of me, I got a peek at her curious black lace-up shoes with thick, clunky heels that clicked as she paced the wooden floor of my classroom.
She drew a large triangle on the blackboard to illustrate the concept of the Blessed Trinity, three persons in one God. I was barely six years old and this concept made no sense to me, but I knew I didn’t have to worry. Sister told us that anything we didn’t understand about our religion was a mystery, and we should just believe it on “Faith.”
So that is what I always did. “I believe it on faith” was a very useful response when questioned by anyone who didn’t comprehend the tenets of our religion.
Because I hadn’t attended kindergarten, this was my first year in a classroom. I wasn’t afraid. I felt confident as I hung my coat in the cloakroom, and was proud to have my very own oak desk to slide into each morning. My three older siblings, who were also enrolled at this school, were in good favor with the nuns; they had paved the way for me. This must have had a lot to do with Mother, who was a pillar of the church, attending six o’clock Mass almost every morning before the rest of the family was awake, and who was always disposed to help the nuns. If they needed a ride anywhere, all they had to do was call, and Mom would be at the curb waiting for them in our station wagon, in front of the big brick house where they all lived.
In my classroom it was now time for Art. I was excited because I expected this to be fun. Sister Lorraine opened a box of fat Crayola crayons, walked up and down the rows, and allowed each child to choose just one. When she reached my desk, there was one crayon left, the black one; it was the worst color in the box. And it was for me. It didn’t seem fair that when Sister opened a new box, the prissy girl who sat behind me, the one with the auburn braids that were looped back up to her ears and tied with pretty plaid bows, had her choice of eight bright colors.
Sister said we could draw anything we wanted. I thought about it, then scribbled a sailboat: a black sailboat in an angry sea of black water, and a black sun. I hated my picture but it was the best I could do with the crayon I held. As I remember, it was my color for the entire year.
One day, during lunch recess on the big blacktop playground, my sister Anne and some of the other fifth graders had a game of Red Rover in progress. I stood by looking forlorn, and they let me join their game. When those big girls called, “Red Rover, Red Rover, let Carol come over,” I ran as fast as I could to break through the line of girls on the other side. But I didn’t stop as I crashed through their arms; I kept running and hurtled into the heavy wrought iron fence that enclosed the playground. Blood gushed from my upper lip. I tasted salt, and could feel the big hole there with my tongue; it was the shape and size of a one-carat diamond.
While Sister Lorraine telephoned my parents, I waited in the school office, holding a cold, damp washcloth to my face, and heard people saying that I shouldn’t have been playing with the fifth graders. So I knew it was my fault.
Soon Dad arrived to drive me downtown to our family doctor. Wide, wooden stairs led us up to the second floor where black letters edged with gold spelled out Dr. William Burger, M.D., on the cloudy, yellowed glass window of his office door. We walked right through the waiting room that smelled of cigar smoke and anesthetics, and went straight into his office. A rotund man with a balding head and a thick black mustache, Doctor Burger was waiting for us. He lifted my chin, took a look at me and said, “She needs stitches.” I was scared, crying, and all I could think about was the sewing needle that he was preparing to stick through my lip. A plump nurse with curly grey hair helped me up on the table, and Dad held my hand and said gently that it wouldn’t take very long. I gripped the side of the gurney with my free hand, and held my breath. I remember the sharp pain and the bitter taste of the Novocain as the doctor numbed my mouth. When he finished sewing, I could feel with my tongue the coarse ends of the three sutures in my lip.
On the way home, Dad wanted to do something special for me and suggested that we stop at the ice cream shop. As I climbed up on the high leather-covered stool at Bickley’s counter, I beamed. I felt so happy to be perched up there next to my dad. In the mirror behind the soda fountain, I was surprised to see a girl who looked like me, with black bristles sticking out of her upper lip. Mrs. Bickley smiled and said “you poor girl,” and told me how brave I was. Dad ordered a chocolate soda for me, the first one of my life. The soda itself was rather a disappointment; the fizzy water made the ice cream foamy and tingly. The chocolate syrup tasted bitter and the straw poked the roof of my sore mouth.
Nevertheless, I can’t remember another time in my life that Dad and I had a soda together, just the two of us.