anghara (anghara) wrote,

Get thee to a nunnery

I was pointed, by several people, to another wonderful Roger Ebert blog post today.

And so, in the spirit of that, I come here to confession.

I too was a Convent Girl.

When I was ten and we moved to Africa, several things were put into play.

1) I needed to go to SCHOOL. Somewhere.
2) I knew little to no English, conversationally speaking, and needed to ramp it up in order to be able to be educated in same.
3) The school year in this new place ran from January to December, not, like in the old Europe we had just left, from September to June.

My parents first parked me into the American International School in Lusaka, Zambia - and I was let loose on an American education. But we were completely at sea here, both myself and my parents. To us, what looked like a free-for-all in the American school's classrooms did not bear any resemblance to what we knew as education - the more rigorous, more formal, kind applied in European schoolrooms. The concept of show-and-tell baffled us all. I was enrolled in that school in October, which is when we got to Africa, and it served one purpose, at the very least - I was flung into a school environment, a school playground, and I learned English BY OSMOSIS. By the end of that year I was pretty damned fluent in my second language. But by the end of that year it was also becoming obvious that this school was not really giving any of us what we needed out of my education years. So my parents looked around for alternatives.

And found one... in the Dominican Convent school across town.

Run by (mostly German) nuns, in a leafy precinct centered on an ornate Catholic chapel, it was yet another deeply foreign environment to all of us - but the nuns knew European education, and they could be trusted to implement it. However, our first encounters were not exactly promising.

They gave me an admissions test - but the way they flung long division at me was in a format I had never seen before and I had no clue what to DO with the "sum" I was expected to solve - it was a while before that little miscommunication was sorted out and the nuns could be convinced that I was not REALLY a completely ignorant little idiot. But worse than that was the simple issue of a religious discrepancy.

We had come from Yugoslavia. At that time, the Yugoslavia where Secular Was King; we celebrated New Year's Eve and not Christmas, I was certainly not baptised in any shape or form and would be this pagan changeling in the convent if they accepted me, and neither my folks or myself wanted a Catholic conversion - so there would have to be compromises made. In the end the nuns overcame their scruples and let me into the hallowed halls, with misgivings, enrolling me in Grade 5 with a distinct "we shall see" attitude. But by the end of that year I was so much the star pupil in that class most of the nuns who had anything to do with teaching me had decided I was teacher's pet - and I graduated Grade 5 top of my class and so far ahead of my classmates that I was promoted directly into Grade 7, skipping grade 6 completely. But that first year at the convent wasn't without its ups and downs.

Sister Fausta, responsible for Grade 5, was a roly-poly nun with round glasses and a wimple which kept on sliding off the back of her head and which she would yank forward with a constant and largely unconscious little motion, was somebody I had an immediate and lasting affection for. She was one of those people with a simple and pure faith, but she was also a very practical German - and I will never forget the time she had us lot in the chapel with her, close to Christmas time, with a little nativity scene set up in a side alcove with Joseph and Mary bending over a weird little Baby Jesus in a tiny crib parked on a scattering of straw. Sister Fausta, standing before this montage, was explaining it all to us, standing there piously with her hands folded together (except for when she reached out to yank her wimple forward) and her eyes closed behind her spectacles.

"And Mary and Joseph could not find a room at the inn, so Baby Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manger, and the angels came to worship..."

She paused, opened her eyes, stared at the scene. The Dramatis Personae were still just Joseph and Mary and Baby Jesus. The angels she had mentioned were not in evidence. She tried again.

"And the angels came..."

The angels persisted in their absence.

Sister Fausta sniffed and yanked her wimple forward. "Well, you can't SEE them, but they were there," she said at last, and then carried on with the Christmas story for us.

To this day I remember the angels that we could not see but who, of course, were THERE.

She died, many years later, Sister Fausta; I remember getting a letter from one of her colleagues that she had passed and that she had been laid to rest in the order's cemetery there in equatorial Africa. I found myself wondering, all those years later, if the soil of Africa was easy on her bones - she had remained, at least all the years that I knew her, so perfectly and resolutely GERMAN in the face of all the assaults on that identity. And yet she lived her life in a foreign land, died there, and quite possibly never saw her native country again after she had answered God's call to go there. I remember her with fondness, her and her wimple, and I sincerely hope that she got to see her angels.

There were other nuns - Sister Josephine, who would rap my knuckles with a ruler when it became obvious that I hadn't practised my piano in between lessons, and another nun whose name now escapes me who was in charge of needlework and who was endlessly rolling her eyes at my ineptitude there (it was a subject in which, on one report, I got a pained, "She tries hard")

By the time we left Zambia, and I left the convent, I could rattle off a passable Hail Mary if the need arose (although I was conscientiously let off High Mass and exempt from confession in the year and a half that I spent there), I could CERTAINLY do long division, I had already written my first screed of short stories and my first attempt at a novel, and I certainly had an enhanced understanding of angels. They were ambivalent about seeing me arrive - but by the time I left the nuns were almost sorry to see me go. I was not a conversion prospect and I was certainly not a religious little soul with any kind of vocation at all but they liked me. In some ways they and I shared a past, a belonging to that European Old Country we had ALL left behind to be there in that new place with its exotic trees blossoming in what we would all instinctively call late autumn, with wicked poisonous snakes which could kill almost instantly and without recourse to any aid or healing be it God's or man's, with young girls who were my classmates who wore their wiry hair neatly divided into small squares on their scalps with each individual tuft so produced neatly braided up and coiled up on its square leaving them with a head which looked like that of a sleeping Medusa. I did not strictly speaking EVER believe in the God which the nuns had imported into their little stone chapel. But that was, in the end, okay. We lived with that and made our peace with it, the nuns, their God, and I.

I was a convent girl for less than two years. I never set foot in a nunnery again, nor really spoke to a nun, after I left this place. The rest of my life... is a different story. But these years I remember. With an odd clarity. With a strange affection.

Perhaps it was those angels, after all. The ones who hovered invisibly in the empty air around us, stretching those great white wings in protection and blessing over us all.
Tags: memories

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