Saturday, April 18, 2009

My Fifteenth Summer -- Lorraine O'Donnell Williams

_Seventeenth Summer_; Daly, Maureen

It was 1947. I was only fifteen, but due to skipping two grades in elementary school, was now entering my last year in high school. There was nothing that September to warn me that my favourite book was to create a “jump-shift” in me. One result would be to alter my relationship with my favourite teacher forever. Another would be to raise my self-awareness beyond thinking of myself as merely a daughter, student, sister, but as me – Lorraine, a young woman with an unknown, but exciting, future ahead.

Primarily nuns staffed the all-female convent school I attended. It was a time when there were plenty of religious vocations and most of the Sisters ended up as nurses, teachers or managers of those institutions. They fascinated me from the time I first saw them as postulants working in the school cafeteria at lunchtime. I’d glimpse those young faces, eternally devoid of makeup, behind steaming pots of food, beads of perspiration on furrowed brows as some loaded and unloaded the dishwasher. Others tended the soup pots, the tomato aroma permeating the walls of the “caf”. No sound issued from those pursed lips behind the steam table. Just about the only noises were non-human ones – the scraping of plates, pounding of potato mashers, and clanking of still-hot sterilized cutlery.

This sight was a contrast to the one from the school library windows. If I knelt on one of its red leather window seats, I could look out onto the cloistered yard below, where twice a day young novices and younger postulants took their recreation. How they collected in groups of four, like corners of a square, captivated me. Two would walk forward and two would walk backwards, facing them. With flimsy veils flying about their heads, they would laugh and chat, moving about the courtyard as quickly and carefree as leaves tossing in the wind. Despite their gaiety, they were so perfectly disciplined that never once did they look up to see my curious eyes glued to them.

In the late winter, those postulants graduated into novices, as evidenced by a subtle change in their habit. It was the novices, however, who underwent a more sublime transformation. On the feast day of St. Joseph on March 19th, they entered the chapel in a burst of bridal finery, replete with huge bouquets of flowers. After joyous prayers, tears of pride and sadness from their families, they would withdraw temporarily, then reappear, symbolically shorn and dressed in the full-length black and white habit of the Bride of Christ.

I wish I‘d known Sister Priscilla in those days. But, in my opinion, it’s true that nuns barely age, so she probably looked much the same when I first met her in the school library, as she did then. She’d have those same intelligent china-blue eyes that seemed to look beyond – perhaps to her Beloved. No hair strayed beyond her headpiece. Her natural colouring could only be guessed at by the blond line of her unplucked brows and reddish-blonde eyelashes. A slight ruddiness to her cheeks created a perfect relief to the exquisite harmony of her black and white outfit. Her physical conformity to her Order’s high standards was matched by her conformity in conversation. Only once in our talks did she offer any personal reference to herself. And I, a fairly strictly-conforming convent school pupil, looked probably as unfulfilled in my black-navy tunic and white blouse as she looked fulfilled in similar colours, would have never dreamed of asking her about her life. To me, she had no history. She was Sister Priscilla, Eternal Nun.

When I first met her there, I realized she was not able to talk or laugh in a normal audible way. She could only speak in a whisper. She never explained what had caused this and, of course, I never asked. I only knew it had happened to her some time after she’d taken her final vows. Normally, such a challenge could be a personal tragedy to one trained to teach. Anyone who has come to know nuns very well though, is aware they’re more often managerial geniuses than the general population. Thus, it was perfectly evident to Mother Superior that Sister Priscilla had been selected by Divine Providence to run the school library. No one ever talked out loud in libraries and Sister’s strained whisper only served to reinforce that stricture.

I frequented the Gothic-inspired library every spare moment I had. Although my father loved reading his Thorne Smith or Erle Stanley Gardner pocket books, my mother wasn’t a reader, so I had to go outside the home to find books that interested me. I came to know that school library and its guardian intimately. The room contained hundreds of book and magazines, lined up on racks and shelves between the windows. The books were all concerned with one subject: religion. There were books on Christology and Mariology, Lives of the Saints, the “in-house” organ of the order, all the papal encyclicals and classics on devotion ranging from the “Imitation of Christ” to “Concepts in Mental Prayer”. All had the imprimatur prominently displayed. My favourite section was that which held books focusing on the illumination of the doctrines in vogue in the late 1940’s: those dealing with “The Mystical Body of Christ” and “Catholic Action”. These always struck me as so marvellously juxtaposed – one so ethereal, one so busy. In my final years of high school, I read or perused (solely by choice) almost every volume in that room.

In the middle of the room, were three long study tables and chairs of carved oak. At the far end of the room, was Sister’s teaching desk. She’d sit there when she finished teaching us the Dewey Decimal System, cataloguing new acquisitions as we laboured over assignments she gave us. Unbeknownst to my classmates, she also had another desk in what I termed her “cubbyhole”, located through a tiny corridor at the extreme right-hand side of the room. During classes, my interaction with Sister was kept formal. But, through our common love of books, I had also established a special secret connection.

As the school year advanced, she and I developed a routine. I would show up at the library once a day, usually after lunch break when there was thirty minutes left before the next period. Sometimes, when I arrived from the cafeteria, the scent of tomato soup still clinging to me, the library would look empty. That would be when Sister was in her cubbyhole at the back, where she kept those “special” books that weren’t for general circulation.

The sameness of these meetings never diminished the joy I experienced each time I picked out a book I hadn’t looked at before, or shared a whispered conference with Sister about the latest “Sign” magazine or pamphlet by the popular Jesuit, Father Daniel Lord. It was in that library I knew I was loved, accepted and appreciated.

Towards the end of my last high school year, as usual, after lunch I was hurrying along the quiet halls to my “place”. Not surprisingly, the library seemed deserted. Then I heard a slight rustle. There at the end of the room stood Sister Priscilla, appropriately framed by the leaded glass windows behind her.

“Come here, Lorraine, I’ve got some new books in,” she whispered. “Do you want to see if there’s anything you like?”

I’m sure my eagerness was evident in the few words of my reply. We went past her cubbyhole to a small shelf holding a dozen crisp new books. I lifted each reverently, one by one, again very conscious of the privilege extended to me. I was the only student given immediate access to these books, which she had to ensure contained no passages “harmful” to convent girls.

On this spring day, however, one of the books I took off that special shelf changed forever the nature of my relationship with Sister. It also changed my perception of myself. The book, written by an American-Catholic, Maureen Daly, was called Seventeenth Summer. Sister must have felt so daring purchasing such a novel. It dealt innocently, sweetly, with a chaste romance between Angie, a high school graduate about to enter college, and her boyfriend Jack.

I sensed that Sister felt very conflicted about letting me read it when she specifically stated, “Don’t loan it to anyone else.”

In that very instant, I felt my life had broadened beyond her cherished library walls. What I knew and she didn’t was that for the past two years, my girlfriends and I had been keeping Daly’s book in constant circulation at our local public library. All of us had read it, and gone over and over the part where Angie and Jack finally kiss. And here was Sister, so out of touch with her charges, unable to realize how times had changed. I did still love her for the nurturing affection she had bestowed on me. It was sad though to realize I had moved beyond what she could give me. Yet these realizations filled me with joy because of who I had become. This new maturity was freeing me to look for new role models, and perhaps wondrous landscapes lay ahead!

After graduation that year, Sister and I kept up a formal summer correspondence. Her last letter to me contained a bombshell:

“I made a pilgrimage to St. Anne de Beaupre Shrine in Quebec, and after I finished drinking at one of the holy fountains, I could speak.”

Her voice had come back! I was jubilant. Miracles do still happen.

But I mourned as well. I knew she was too good a teacher to leave practically confined in a library, now that she could speak above a whisper.

I never answered her last letter.

Seventeenth Summer was written by Maureen Daly and published by Dodd, Mead & Company, in 1942. It has been considered the first in the “Young Adult” genre and has been republished in new editions scores of times. Daly died in September, 2006.

Lorraine O’Donnell Williams was born and raised in the Beach area of Toronto. She has an Honours BA (Philosophy and English) from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Social Work (MSW) from the University of Ottawa. She has been employed in forensic, correctional and psychiatric fields of social work, and has been a teaching master in social work at Ryerson University and Seneca College. She recently retired from a private practice in psychotherapy and marital counselling. She is the author of two books, has had some short stories published and is a travel writer. She belongs to The Writers Union of Canada, and the Society of American Travel Writers. She now lives in Markham with her husband John, former Solicitor General of Ontario. They have five children.

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