Once upon a time in a convent
The day came and, with it, a white dress and white gloves and white knee-socks and a veil held in place with a white velvet band. Some of my classmates had tiaras and parasols, and one little girl with curly hair and an unhappy mouth had her mother’s blue eye-shadow powdering her lids. Afterwards we walked warily back to the lunch room, one white-sandalled foot in front of the other, careful not to wake the baby Jesus who was nestling inside us now.
We sat up at the big table and spread the little balls of butter on our bread rolls, and passed each other the jam like ladies at a boat race, and when we swallowed, the tiny baby Jesus smiled and ate his share of the delicately sculpted butter and licked the strawberry preserve from his tiny baby lips. When I pictured him, the baby Jesus, he was playing among the tendrils at the bottom of the ocean, in an octopus’s garden; sometimes he was circumnavigating the coral banks in a yellow submarine. He seemed a happy child.
I didn’t make it all the way through to sixth class in that school: fees were involved, money was tight and, as we all know, there ain’t no such thing as a free golfball-butter lunch.
In the end, the cheques were bouncing higher than the nuns could jump, and I was told to pack up my shoe bag and my stiff knitting, and go.
A moment of kindness
Now, listening to the accounts of the survivors of the Magdalene laundries, I am struck by a memory of kindness that one woman recalled. She spoke of how a particular nun allowed her to have a Beatles poster on the wall. I don’t know why that detail seemed so sad, so poignant; sometimes acts of kindness shine a light on terrible shapes in the dark.
I remember my big sisters lolling over their turntable, my brother painting the garage in psychedelic green and pink; I remember my own battle to understand the rules, read the symbols, follow the pattern.
And I wonder. I wonder who shone the big brass candlesticks in the convent chapel, all the convent chapels; who buffed the acres and acres of parquet floors; who rolled out all the pastry for all the lunch-room pies; who shaped each little ball of butter on the shining plate; whose raw hands crushed the withered flowers that once adorned the Virgin’s feet.