A life – This is the ninth instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs
I never had any trouble remembering the date of my baby brother’s birth, because when we arrived back in England from Belsen, we were sent to school at a convent in Yorkshire. It was with the sisters of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a Belgian teaching order. My brother’s birthday was the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, one of many feast days when we were sent home, presumably so the nuns could pay due reverence to the day, unhampered by their fee- paying pupils, and causing my parents to grumble that they spent all this money in order for us to stay home.
Sometimes, as at Corpus Christi, we were required to attend in order to parade and go to Mass, and draw holy pictures. This was a time of severe mortification for me, because not being Catholic, our parents refused to buy us white dresses and veils to wear on feast days.
On the other hand, thanks to the books I had read with my grandmother, I was bigotedly anti-Catholic, and had no qualms about being different. The nuns themselves were mostly gentle and sophisticated women, many of them French or Belgian, others English. My form teacher, who was also the maths teacher, was the most avidly religious person at the convent and not a nun at all. Rather, she was an Irish Catholic, and, as I discovered later in New Zealand, she embraced a very different brand of Catholicism. ‘
Not to put too fine a point on it, she rammed religion and her devotion down our throats, exhorting us amongst other things, to bring old clothes to her to dispense to the needy. As she gathered them in from everyone except me, she would regularly intone, ” Ah, gurrells, it’s boi moi gude deeds to the puir that I hope to go to heaven.” She would interrupt long division to make us all stand up and say The Angelus, and we would then pray for the parents of all the unfortunate girls who had one Protestant parent. Since both my parents were Protestant, this was a prayer I obstinately refused to join in, as I had no regrets about their situation.
One day, her propaganda about “puir St Thomas Moore”, wicked Protestants and suffering Catholics enraged me so much, that having just finished one of my father’s books, a history of the Borgia family, I had enough ammunition, I felt, with the Inquisition and the scandal of the Avignon Popes, to take her on. I never got beyond the Borgia Pope and a quick mention of the Inquisition, before she clapped her hands over her ears, and drowned me out by shouting: “What a pack of Protestant lies.” No-one liked me very much after that, and I would always be left to last when they were picking teams for netball and rounders.
One person who did like me, perhaps a little too much, was Mother Michael, a rather coarse -looking Englishwoman compared with the refined foreign nuns. She was not a teacher so much as our house- mother, and she was obsessed with long hair. My long, almost black, thick plaits were meat and drink to her. Every lunch hour I was dragged off to the big, sunny cloakroom-cum ante-room, and had my plaits ceremoniously undone, and brushed out.
The brushing went on all through play-time, and I never got to play with anyone. As the time for the bell drew near, she’d plait the blessed things up again, refusing to let me do them. She dragged the hair round my face quite differently to the way I scraped my hair back myself, and I’d get home every day, looking quite unlike the school girl who had set out in the morning.
Every day my stepmother would ask what was going on, and when I told her about the brushing and the plaiting, she’d say “It’s got to stop”. But I didn’t know how to stop it, so it went on until Mother Michael fell in love with another girl with long plaits.
The nuns wore elegant, plum- red gaberdine habits, with a long swinging pleated skirt, and a thick, beautiful cord with long tassels round their waist. Their rosaries also hung from this fat cord, and they had long, soft white wool veils which swung in the wind when they borrowed our roller skates and took a turn round the rink in the evenings when everyone was inside, doing their homework. The garden beside the skating rink plunged down towards Our Lady’s grotto, and then to the River Tees.
I would gaze out of the classroom window in our annexe called The Hermitage, in winter, and see the black, lacy boughs of the empty trees, the black running water of the river, white snow, and sometimes a flame- coloured squirrel silhouetted in the trees against the pale winter sky. The main convent building was grim, grey, Victorian Gothic, with long, shiny, lino-floored corridors where feet and voices echoed. It smelt of incense and wax candles, lino polish, and nearer the kitchens, carbolic soda and grease. In alcoves at regular intervals along the echoing corridors, painted statues of saints draped with rosaries presided. I glared at them like a latter-day Oliver Cromwell as our crocodile straggled to chapel for prayers every day after lunch.
I always enjoyed Retreat, three or four days of silence when we spent most of our time drawing and painting holy pictures, instead of wrestling with fractions, and going to chapel for mass, as well as the regular after- lunch prayers, and then Benediction. I hated the priest who came to the convent for the occasion, and whom all the nuns fluttered around and flattered and fawned upon. To the cynical ten-year-old looking coldly on, he looked like a very boring, not very bright man, who relished in an unspiritual fashion, the entirely undeserved attention he received.
I was happy to go to chapel as often as we did during Retreat, as I had figured out that God was everywhere so it didn’t matter where you were beating his ear. I had no idea why we were doing all this, but then, a lot of things puzzled me… so I loved the reverent silence of the whole day, including the silent meals with severe, beautiful Mother John standing at her lectern, reading from the lives of saints. During these meals we ate Assumption Tart, known to us all as Sumpies.
The story of the three fashionable Belgian Victorian women who decided to found the Order was read aloud as we ate the tart. None of them knew how to cook, clean, or sew, and so in the first week, the lady nun assigned to cooking duties threw together some ingredients in a panic and produced the hard, yellow crust of almost inedible pastry on which jam was smeared and which we still ate. We all welcomed Sumpies on the menu, as at least the jam was sweet, the only ingredient which had any taste. The convent food was still obviously flung together by nuns who could not cook.
During Retreat, our class was visited by both Reverend Mother, and Mother Superior, causing an outbreak of curtsying and crossing ourselves. Since no-one ever explained anything to children in those days, I couldn’t work out why a young Reverend Mother seemed more important than a Mother Superior. Reverend Mother was Polish, about twenty-eight, very young to have reached such rank, and had an indefinable air of holiness about her. She also had an amazing complexion, pale skin and brilliant red cheeks. She received total devotion from everyone, and she fascinated me. Sometimes she wasn’t well enough to come to our weekly audience with her, so Mother Adelaide, Mother Superior, came instead.
My father adored Mother Adelaide. She was just the sort of woman he loved, witty and wise, French, sophisticated, clever and rather beautiful. Long after, when I heard that Reverend Mother had died the following year of TB, I realised that Mother Adelaide had left her duties as superior of the order, to come over from Belgium to keep things going with as little disturbance to everyone, including the beloved young nun.
After a while, it was decided that my sister would do better at school on her own. So I agreed to ” sit the scholarship” in order to go to the local grammar school. My stepmother was then summoned for an interview with the county education authorities. She told me that they informed her that my maths was so abysmal there was no way I could qualify for higher education. But my English and general knowledge were so far ahead of my age, that there was no way they could not give me a scholarship. Nothing much has changed since then, my maths are still abysmal.
To be continued
Food for threadbare gourmets
I had some wonderful coloured -peppers, red, yellow and orange, and instead of cooking them in my usual way, I tried a Jamie Oliver recipe – with adaptations! I chopped the three peppers and added them to a chopped onion, plenty of garlic and olive oil to sweat them until cooked. When soft I added a good glug of balsamic vinegar and boiled it all together, and then salt and pepper to taste.
This is where Jamie Oliver comes in. He recommended tossing in a generous handful of parmesan cheese and some table spoons of mascapone or cream cheese. Stir it all together until everything is melted and amalgamated. He served it with pasta and I served it with steak and mushrooms, and it was delicious.. It may have been better with pasta but I won’t be using the cream cheese again.
Food for thought
If you truly get in touch with a piece of carrot, you get in touch with the soil, the rain, the sunshine. You get in touch with Mother Earth and eating in such a way, you feel in touch with true life, your roots, and that is meditation. If we chew every morsel of our food in that way we become grateful and when you are grateful, you are happy.
Thich Nhat Hanh. Vietnamese Buddhist teacher
19 responses to “Nuns, nice habits and strange foibles”
It is so true that often things were never explained to children and we grew up with many mysteries. I suppose there wasn’t time or perhaps the adults were not aware that children absorbed things without understanding and this created problems later on. My cousin, who is my sister of the heart, finished her high school years in a convent in California. She had had a horrible, abusive childhood in every way imaginable. Finally she gathered the courage to run away and ended up in a convent. She said the nuns were very kind to her, even provided her with counselling and eventually, because she graduated at 17, she came to live with our family and became the closest thing to a sister I would have. We are close to this day and we are both grateful to those nuns for their care. Neither of us is Catholic!!
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Lovely story with a happy ending, Ardys, how lovely that your cousin should have found a way to receive the care and kindness she needed, and also that you have such a dear friend….
You did have magnificent plaits, Valerie. Or as mine – not nearly so long or lush – were called in Kentucky way back then: pigtails (sometimes braids). We had some pretty severe Baptist old lady teachers & one or two kind & inspiring younger women in our public school. I remember the spaghetti & apple pie were pretty good in the cafeteria & also the baloney or banana & peanut butter sandwiches (sprinkled with peanuts) we often brought from home, wrapped in wax paper, which still smells like elementary school lunch to me. I am very glad you survived the nuns & were let out, excelled in English & rec’d your scholarship!
Thank you for your memories..our school days were so vivid and the food and smells, especially so weren’t they? Plaits – yes, we called them pigtails too – and they were far too convenient for horrid boys to pull !!!
There Were always horrid boys!!
Another fascinating read about your turbulent childhood years. As a retired math teacher of grades fron 4 to12, I cringe every time I read that someone was dismal in his or her math skills. Invariably, I think of some boring instruction that took the joy of learning away from another youngster. I am sure you would have liked to be in my math class, Valerie.
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Thank you for your comment, Peter… maths teacher eh? Maybe you could have made a difference to me – I always felt I must have missed some vital lesson when I was small, that would have unlocked the key to the door that everyone else seemed to have !!!
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Oh dear I have severe plait envy!! Mine were skinny unsatisfactory (to my mind) & dark hair, when I desperately wanted blonde hair….my hair & I have never really reconciled! I too went to catholic school & spent my primary years in total confusion….& a very well developed sense of guilt! Sadly my maths are rubbish too!
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Hello Angela… hair… always a source of envy it seems – I never wanted to be blonde after seeing huge Persil ads everywhere, and the grey sheets belonging to the sluttish or ignorant brunette, while the sparking white Persil washed sheets belonged to the smug, immaculate blonde – I hated blondes for that… why should we poor brunettes be saddled with this grubby image, I felt !!!
I’m glad the photo came through this week. What a lovely child you were. And that hair. Oh my! As for Catholicism, I could say much, but won’t out of respect for those genuine in their faith.
When it comes to Maths (with or without the s, depending on which side of the pond you live), the calculator was invented for one such as I.
At any rate I’m thoroughly enjoying these installments and getting acquainted with you from the ground up.
Cyclones? Oh dear. I can see why our mutual friend has been off the grid. At the same time, in the six years we’ve been friends, I’ve never known him to be so content and happy. Sending my love to both of you.
Shalom and hugs,
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Good morning Rochelle,
Good to hear from you… Catholicism? Oh well, there are many strange things about most religions, it seems to me, so while I try to be spiritual, I am not religious..
I almost envy you being able to use a calculator, I haven’t mastered that either… probably because I avoid doing any form of maths !!!!
I love it that you are enjoying my memories – carefully edited – so much to say, and so easy to bore readers !!!!
Thank you for the lovely things you say in your last sentences, he’s outside at the moment, preparing the ground for an extension to our little dwelling place at the moment…he’s so clever !!!!
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What glorious plaits! How I longed to have long hair that was plaitable! I was not much good at Maths either, until I had to teach it and my Headteacher at the time, taught me so many enjoyable ways for the kids to learn that I began to love numbers!
Another delicious recipe! 🙂
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WE all seem to envy everyone else’s hair, don’t we… as a teenager I used to think because I couldn’t manage to put my hair in rollers, that my hair was less than adequate, until I discovered I was the envy of my friends, because I just turned my head upside down and blew the hair dryer on it till it was dry!
Amazing that you were able to turn your maths experience around like that and then teach it….
Hope you enjoy the collaboration of Jamie and I !!!!
I’m always fascinated by stories of those who were educated by nuns, as it’s something completely outside of my experience. Your character pictures are brilliantly life-like along with those vivid details.
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Thank you Andrea … how interesting that convent education is so intriguing to others.. it also seemed to set off men when I was young – they were always convinced that we were so repressed that we must be longing for sex with them !!!!
I was really bucked by your remarks, thank you…
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Look at the lovely hair! THICK hair!. I bet you could sit on your hair when it was un-braided!
Abysmal is me with math also. Chuckle!
Aaahh.. the hair is a story in itself.. still to come !!!
Yes, it was long, plenty long enough for horrid little boys to pull those plaits !
Yes.. maths …. XXXX
Great part of the story, Valerie, can’t wait for the next bit about the hair. I couldn’t plait my hair without tying it into bunches first – I’ve always been useless at arranging my hair, and it is reasonably thick, so seems like a waste! Lovely writing, as ever.
Dear Lynne, just doing a bit of blog housekeeping, and discovered I had never acknowledged your comment… apologies, I always love what you have to say, and it was nice surprise to find it today , thank you !!!