Since my birthday is in the month of January, my mother worried that I would lose out if I waited until I was six and a half to begin first grade; therefore, she enrolled me at St. Rose of Lima, a private Catholic school in our town, when I was five and a half. Fortunately, St. Rose didn't have an age requirement for starting first grade like the public school did, so my mother seized the opportunity to get me started a year early. You see, back in 1949 there was no such thing as nursery school, pre-school or kindergarten, at least not in my town at that time.
Sister Paula, whom I adored, was my first grade teacher at St. Rose. Although the person in this picture is not her, this is the type of clothing she wore -- a long black dress, black scarf which covered her back and all of her hair, and a white starched collar that came down to the middle of her chest.
Sister Eunice taught me in second grade, and I remember loving her too. Nuns were very kind as people, but tough as teachers. I remember we all dreaded the black strap that was kept inside something called the blue box, which was a device we were threatened with. Luckily, I never saw the inside of the blue box, but I did receive a few knuckle wraps with a wooden ruler for talking too much. Punishment for this trait will not surprise any of my good friends.
I wanted to be a Catholic so badly, even knowing the negative feelings my parents had about Catholics generally. I knew that any comments from me about this would upset them and could risk my being pulled out of that school. It seems that there had been some discussion at home about whether enrolling me at St. Rose was the right thing to do. We, as a family, never talked about religion or anything that smacked of God or a life hereafter, and the words heaven and hell were used only to describe the taste of a lemon meringue pie or our reaction to a 12 inch snowfall in the middle of May. In 1949, my parents were only thinking of my academic education and not my religious one.
Every morning at St. Rose, we put our right hand over our heart and pledged allegiance to the flag. We also recited Hail Marys, and read the Lord's Prayer until the words were memorized. My parents were willing to go along with all of that, but nothing more, although I don't think they knew about the Hail Marys. On Friday afternoons when the entire class was escorted across the street to attend confession at St. Rose of Lima church, I sat quietly, alone at my desk and practiced my penmanship on paper, making sure my capital letters filled the space between the two black lines and the small letters only half way. Every Friday I envied my Catholic classmates, who confided small blunders they called sins to a faceless priest, who sat enclosed in a box and promised God would forgive them. I didn't understand what confession was all about because Catechism classes were taught outside of the classroom. But I loved the idea of this regular religious ritual, and I really wanted to belong.
|Rose Marie Norman was my best friend at St. Rose of Lima|
Then there were the shiny rosary beads. Not only did I want to go to confession, I also wanted to have my very own rosary beads, since I coveted the ones that my Catholic friends had. Since I'm going back 60 plus years, my memory is a little fuzzy, but I do remember either finding or stealing some Rosary beads and calling them mine. Unfortunately, I didn't have the beads for long because one day as I knelt down with beads in hand and began reciting Hail Mary, Full of Grace, my mother came in my room and caught me. She snatched the beads out of my hands, grabbed my arm, and yanked me downstairs to face the music. "Where did you get these beads?" she shouted at me. "Where?" Her face turned bright red when she said, Your father is going to be very upset when he sees these." "Janie Roddy gave them to me," I replied, knowing that my lie was a sin that wouldn't get the forgiveness it deserved. Janie and her five siblings came from a devout Catholic family who lived down the street, so she was the first Catholic person I thought of. I whimpered I'm sorry to an unsympathetic mother. She knew my father would not only be angry with me, but even angrier with her, after all enrolling me in Catholic school was her idea not his. Daddy had little patience with the Catholic religion, which he saw as hypocritical, and, therefore, all practicing Catholics were hypocrites too. Later, when I was old enough to understand, he often mentioned a Catholic couple he knew who went to confession on Friday, took holy communion on Sunday, but then the rest of the week they sinned like crazy, knowing that the following Friday they would confess and be forgiven again.
By the time mother finally calmed down, I was begging her not to tell Daddy because even though I hadn't seen the inside of Sister Paula's blue box, I had felt the flat side of my father's big hand, and I didn't want to feel it again. In those days the topic of whether to spank or not to spank was not written about or discussed in advice columns. It wasn't that my parents didn't have a choice as to what type of punishment to impose. It just seemed that spanking was more timely, and therefore the results would be immediate.
Rightly so, my mother didn't believe the Janie Roddy story, but she didn't tell my father either. Instead she decided the best punishment was for me to personally return the beads to Sister Eunice and tell her face-to-face how sorry I was. It was not a pleasant experience, but I did it, and learned a good lesson as a result.
It was not a surprise when I transferred to the local public school and said goodbye to all my good friends at St. Rose. Going to a new school didn't scare me because I was fortunate to have the beloved Mrs. Nutbrown as my third grade teacher, and making new friends was pretty easy for me. Around the same time, my mother decided to send me to Sunday school at the Congregational Church, so that the thoughts of owning a pair of rosary beads and the words to Hail Mary could be extinguished from my little head. My attendance was short lived because eventually I found church boring, and my mother did too.
I don't know exactly why my father had these prejudices. It wasn't just about Catholics. He had concerns about other religions and religious concepts as well. As I have mentioned in previous posts, my father, who came to this country from Greece all by himself at the age of 14, didn't have any formal exposure to religion except for the Greek Orthodox Church, which is about as close to Catholicism as you can get. Although he never referred to himself as an agnostic or an atheist, I think he saw religion as a kind of hocus pocus, and the whole idea of there being a God who created the world or even a Jesus, who rose from the dead, seemed ludicrous to him. However, a few months after he was diagnosed with cancer and only a few weeks before he died, he finally agreed to let the Greek priest in town come for a visit. My mother said Daddy decided that if there truly was an afterlife, it was probably time to get in the queue. Looking back and thinking more deeply about the lives of my immigrant parents when they were adults, I wonder if their ill-conceived judgments were engendered by the prejudices they personally experienced as Greek immigrants living in a rural town that was filled with New England Yankees. I was never told any specific stories that related to my father, although I'm sure there were some. On the other hand, I do know that my mother was blackballed and denied entrance into the Eastern Star organization for reasons we were never told. I'm sure my mother was terribly upset and hurt to be rejected so publicly. When I heard this for the first time, I was grateful because I knew that neither African Americans nor Jews were allowed membership in the Eastern Star, which is a secret society for women associated with the Freemasons society for men.
I know religion is a topic that we are told not to discuss because we might upset our friends. When I started to write this blog, I had no idea what I was going to write about, but after the first two sentences, the words and stories came pouring out. While I hope I don't offend my Catholic friends and family, like cousins and my grandchildren, I have found fewer and fewer Catholics who have remained steadfast to their religion, and some who have even left the church completely. Although the weekly confessional is probably not on his list, I'm happy to see that Pope Francis is finally beginning to make changes in some of the defining elements of the Catholic church.