Everyone was afraid of Sister Mary. She was American and that was scary enough to an English child who'd never met an American before, and "Mayen, shay taweckd funny." She wore the full black nun's habit with white around the face and a long black veil, like the nuns in The Sound of Music. Her crucifix hung down in front of her like a weapon and when she walked...she always walked very fast as if she were genuinely "on a mission from God"...it would swing from side to side ready to swipe asunder any child who got in her way. When I first watched The Blues Brothers and saw Sister Mary Stigmata (aka the Penguin), I knew on whom the character was based.
When I started school at age 4, school lunches were provided for one shilling, about 15 cents. Today they cost 2 pounds, about $3. We used to walk from St. Peter's Roman Catholic Primary School on Gordon Road, across North Walls, along St. Peter's Street to Milner Hall, then the Catholic social center but which had been the original boys' school, when the girls were taught by Benedictine nuns in what is now the very upscale Royal Hotel across the street. In those days lunches were served from giant metal pots (I used to think of them as cauldrons) by dinner ladies who said things like, "Eat your cabbage; it'll make your hair curl" or "Don't leave anything on your plate; think of the starving children in Africa." We always thought, "I hate curly hair," and "If the African children want it they can have it!" Truly we complained bitterly about the quality of the food but looking back, the meals were actually pretty good: meat, potatoes and at least one vegetable, and always fish on Friday because as you know Jesus always had fish on Friday. School puddings (or desserts, as you call them), could be nice except when dessicated coconut was glued on top with jam and as I hated coconut, I couldn't eat them.
A year or two later, a new hall and kitchens were added to the school building so we no longer had to walk to lunch. By this time, Sister Mary had joined the school to teach the "first class" or PreK. I was grateful to have missed her by one year. She lived with the other nuns in the building next door to the presbytery where the priests lived. These two buildings were sandwiched between Milner Hall and St. Peters Roman Catholic Church. I don't know about "Servants of God" or "Brides of Christ"; it seemed to me, after doing all the cooking and cleaning, they were more like "charladies to the priests."
Anyway, the traditional mealtime prayer of thanks was always said before we ate our food:
Bless us, Oh Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty,
through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.
through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.
Although the headmaster, Mr. Bogan, Mr. Peter Paul not-just-one-saints-name-but-two Bogan sometimes said grace it eventually became Sister Mary's regular job. She'd stand on the steps of the new hall, like a giant white-necked vulture. She'd sign the cross then: "Bless us, Oh Lauwered," she say. She could make "Lord" last for three syllables, i.e. "Bless us O Lauwered, " which I found hilarious and at which I would've snickered, if I hadn't been so completely terrified of her.
Every December, work would begin on the Christmas play which was usually some sort of nativity. The only time I remember it not being so was when we did Amahl and the Night Thieves. In my last year at primary school when I was ten years old, it was decided to do a different kind of nativity in which none of the children would have to learn lines because there would be a narrator who told the audience everything they needed to know while the kids acted it out alongside. The narrator was the only one who was required to learn anything.
Now I have no recollection of how or why it happened but I was given the role as narrator. I was delighted. Even at the age of ten I was already considering a career on the stage. I hadn't yet prepared my Oscar acceptance speech -- I did that the following year after seeing Barbra Streisand win the award for best lead actress -- but I was thinking about becoming an actor. What a good start this would be!
The only downside of taking on this role was that Sister Mary was the director of the show which meant that she'd be at every rehearsal and would be telling me what to do. Somehow, since the early days of my schooling, I had managed to avoid her ever-more frightening figure as it stormed down the main corridor of our tiny school. Through hiding in doorways and scurrying about the playground, our paths had never crossed and so the performance in this play was to be my first real encounter with the terrors of Sister Mary.
To my horror, the narrator had a lot of lines. Saying that would imply that I had some knowledge, at the tender age of ten, of how long it would take to learn a large number of lines...that is not so...I had no idea. However, what I did know and could foresee was that there was ample opportunity here for Sister Mary to get on my case and be displeased with me. She seemed to be in an almost constant state of displeasure. I was sure that whatever I did, she would be displeased with me. And more than anything in life, I lived in fear of people -- anyone at all -- being displeased with me. The slightest criticism from anyone except my mother could reduce me to tears in a second and crying in public was another thing that frightened me. A vicious cycle if ever there was one.
In the early stages of rehearsal, I stood at the side of the stage, reading the lines from the script, as Sister Mary moved the younger children around behind me. The stage wasn't really a stage at all. The hall (no longer new and now just called "the hall") had two long steps down the length of it which led to a wide corridor. If you went left along the corridor, you'd get the back exit of the school. If you went right, you'd reach the classrooms. Thus, the top step was actually the corridor and became "the stage. The two steps leading to it were the front and middle of the stage.
Everything was going quite well. Sister Mary wasn't really taking much notice of me and I just read my stuff while she rehearsed everyone else. When I wasn't reading I'd stand and look at the pictures on the wall of the hall. High up on the left, there was a large painting of the two fishes and the five loaves. High up on the right, a picture of the crossed keys of St. Peter after whom the school was named. At the end, taking up most of the width of the room, there was a huge colorful mural that I could stare at for hours and always see something new. I'd be lost in thought when the sister would suddenly shout, "Now start reading again!" I would read:
"Christmas...Christmas...what is Christmas? Just a time for fun, music and merry-making? Just a time for..." Unfortunately, that's all I have left in my head now, in spite of vigorous internet searches. But it went on, as far as I can recall, that there was much more to Christmas than "fun, music, and merry-making" -- that it was a serious time and people all over the world were dying of starvation while we ate our festive dinners, and even more important than that was the birth of the baby Jesus.
At this point in my acting career, I can tell you that there is a method to learning lines. Of course one hopes that lines will be learned during the rehearsal process, that the daily running of the lines while working with your fellow actors will instill them in your mind and the movement provided by one's director will also help fix them -- actors call this "muscle memory" -- if I walk over here then this is the line I say; if I pick up this cup, this is the line I say. When all else fails, and most actors hate this, one has to repeat the lines over and over again at home, in the car, at the bank, in the supermarket line, at the gym, attracting unwelcome attention as passers-by think one has gone certifiably crazy.
I did not know any of this when I was ten and clearly nor did Sister Mary. At some point in the rehearsal process, she told me that I should know my lines by now and that I was to put down the script. And this, my friends, is where the trouble really began. I'd managed to avoid her focus until now but at this point, all her impatience at the younger students, all her frustrations at the fact the play was to be performed on Sunday afternoon and it was nowhere near ready, all her wrath at the sheer thanklessness of her task, came raining down on me. I'd gone from being the quiet little girl innocently reading the story on one side of the stage to the object of all her hatred and bile. At least, this is how it felt to me.
Now instead of being behind me moving around the little ones, she was in front of me, standing in the hall while I stood at the side of the stage, and screaming at me, "Move over there!" and "Sit on the step there!" and "Put that script down!" There I was, abandoned in the middle of the stage with the two fishes and five loaves on one side; the crossed keys on the other; and right in the middle, a very hot, cross nun.
I was afraid to tell my mother about all this because it seemed to me quite wrong to tell tales about a nun, and anyway, in those days parents tended to think teachers were right, whatever the circumstances. It's different these days. Parents don't seem to support teachers the way they did when I was at school. I had no reason to think my mother would believe me if I told her that Sister Mary wasn't being very nice to me. I wouldn't have been at all surprised if my mother said, in response to such an accusation: "Well, dear, I'm sure you deserved it...".
So now I lived in terror all day during class that at the end of the day I would again be the victim of Sister Mary's anger. I seemed unable to learn the lines. Naturally I know now that stark terror can shake the simplest words from one's mouth. But I didn't know that then and the more she shouted at me, the more difficult it became for me to say a word. Even reading was tough. And of course all I wanted to do was burst into tears and ask her why she was being so mean; what had I ever done to her? Couldn't she see I was desperate to please and trying my best?
It all came to a head on Friday afternoon, at our last school-day rehearsal before the Sunday show. There was to be a final dress rehearsal on Saturday but Friday was the last official run-through. I had a costume now, a beautiful, full-length cream-colored satin dress. It was gorgeous...but I couldn't appreciate it because I was in such a state. My long hair was pulled back off my face in a high, tight pony-tale at the back of my head.
Sister Mary had given me some basic blocking: move across the stage on this line, point to the manger on this, etc. I still didn't know my lines and was stumbling all over the place and making stuff up. In the theatre world, we call this improvisation but in the land of Catholic nativity plays, it's apparently known as disobedience.
I was supposed to say a particular line then cross the stage to the other side. But I didn't. I don't know if I said the line incorrectly or my muscle memory didn't click in or I was so utterly petrified that I was rooted to the spot, but I didn't move when I was supposed to. Sister Mary stomped up the steps, grabbed hold of my pony tail and dragged me across the stage to where I was supposed to be.
My pony tail had been quite tightly gathered so it was already rather uncomfortable. Add to that the fact that it had been up like that for several hours and -- I think the ladies will back me up here -- the skin around it tends to start aching after a while. And then the sister had twisted my hair in her hand to pull me. All this combined meant that it really hurt. But the real hurt I felt was at being so wronged. What had I ever done to this woman? Why did she hate me? I'd tried my best and it wasn't good enough. I was a failure.
Oh, the pain of trying not to cry, not to let her see how much she'd hurt me. As soon as I was released and started the walk home, I started to cry. I always thought nuns were supposed to be sweet and kindly. I sobbed all the way.
My mother was having a bath when I got home. It was my usual habit to go into the bathroom and sit on the down-turned toilet seat to tell her about my day but I didn't want to do that because she'd see I'd been crying and she'd make me tell her why. But she called out to me to join her and I couldn't say no. I cleared up face, put on a smile and sat down. But you know what it's like when you've been crying, particularly as a kid, it only takes one kind word to set you off again and my mother noticed my red eyes immediately and asked what was wrong. I didn't want to tell her, felt terrible about telling on Sister Mary but I had to tell someone and who else by my beloved mum. So I told her, without much detail, that Sister Mary was angry I hadn't learned my lines and pulled my hair. I didn't have to say another word.
No one could've been more surprised than I when my mother stood up in the bath, quite naked of course because, well, that's how one takes a bath, and said, "Let me put on some clothes. We're going down the school!" You would have to know my mother to know how out of character this was. She was a sweet, peace-loving, mild-mannered woman who hated arguments or confrontations of any kind. To this day, my siblings and I have issues with expressing anger or standing up for ourselves -- my therapist and I have worked through some of mine -- but you've got to understand, I had never, ever seen this side of my mother before.
In a matter of moments, she was dressed and we were walking back to St. Peter's RC Primary. I use the term "walking" loosely -- she ploughed through passers-by on the street. If my mother had been wearing a crucifix on a chain like Sister Mary, she'd have knocked people into the oncoming traffic with it. She held my hand in a knuckle-cracking grip. I was scared all over again. I felt sick to my stomach; my heart was pounding. What if Sister Mary denied it, said I'd made it up? If she could torture a little girl, she could certainly lie about her.
We went through the front entrance of the school, and I'm necessarily vague about the next bit as I think I've blocked it from my memory. If this were a movie, we would storm down the corridor straight to the headmaster's office. But I think we stopped at the first room in the building which was Sister Mary's room. I'd like to tell you that I heard my mother say, "If you ever touch my daughter again, I'll have your guts for garters" because that was one of her favorite sayings but I can't because I don't remember if she went in and partially closed the door leaving me outside or if she went in holding my hand. I think she said something like, "I hear from Bernadette that you pulled her hair and if you ever do something like that again, (I'll have your guts for garters) there will be repercussions." All of this is vague, I can't be sure and I don't want to lie to you.
So let me tell you instead the results of my mother's actions. I dreaded the next day's final dress rehearsal but when I arrived at school, Sister Mary was all smiles, a totally unfamiliar sight. Not a word was said about meeting my mother. I was dressed in my lovely angelic outfit and was allowed to read my script while standing on the left of the stage. I waited for the sister to tell me to move but no instructions came. Lights were set up; music was added. The whole rehearsal went like clockwork and not one single voice was raised in anything other than Christmas song.
The actual performance was spectacular, like a magical dream. A full house of happy parents watching their adorable children on stage; glorious Christmas music and a rather surprised ten year-old narrator. I was given a fresh script which made my many lines much clearer for me to read. But you know what? I didn't need it! I mean, it was a great comfort having it in my hand like an angel reading from a divine scroll but I discovered that, once the bullying was over, I really did know the lines.
I've met other nuns since then and they've always been exactly as I envisioned as a child: sweet and kind. I found out as an adult that Sister Mary's order of nuns chose a path for each sister to follow and the path chosen was the one they least wanted to take. If a nun didn't like something, she was going to deal with it by confronting it. Sister Mary's most despised thing in the whole wide world was children, she LOATHED them. Thus her path was to spend time with children for as long as it took to defeat that demon. And all I have to say to that is...well, thanks a bunch!