Episode One: Loretta’s Smokes


Pamela York Klainer

In the beginning Sister Loretta bought into the whole thing: no booze, no sex, no cigarettes, no worldly possessions, no choice about what she was going to do every day, and a life devoted to God. The no smokes part was the easiest to break because cigarettes were the easiest to get; she confiscated them from her students. The Sixties might have been about breaking traditional rules, but not in Catholic convents. Nuns still wore habits and lived all clumped up, not even having their own rooms. They slept dormitory style, with each small bed and chest set apart by pristine white curtains, hung from a metal frame like you’d find in a hospital ward.

Twice a year, in what was called the heavy cleaning, someone had to wash and iron all those long, stiff curtains. Usually the job was given to young nuns who had broken the rules.

Sister Loretta trailed cigarette smoke, not enough to yellow the curtains but more than enough for people to notice. Her students, middle schoolers, snickered behind her back but her Sisters in Christ never said a word. To do so might have provoked a confrontation. Their training included various means of expressing devotion to the Lord but nothing about working their way out of snafus in daily life, and without the necessary skills or practice they avoided difficult conversations at any cost.

Loretta had been a nun for twelve years, smoking most of that time, when the latest Mother Superior called her in. The pinched look on Mother’s face signalled an imminently unpleasant talk. “Sister Loretta, it has come to my attention that some of your students have been spreading stories about inappropriate behavior on your part. As we are in the work of shaping young souls in the image of God, this is a matter I must take most seriously.”

Loretta kept her cool, knowing the verbal chess game had begun. She responded in precisely the vein in which she had been accused: vaguely. “Mother, I live every day with the knowledge that I am a role model for the young souls in my care. I would do nothing to jeopardize that sacred trust.”

Loretta had her bottom line, which was not giving up cigarettes. Booze she could do without. Beer had been the preferred drink in her family, mostly for her father and brothers, and she remembered it tasting bitter. Giving up sex was probably a mistake, but Loretta hadn’t had sex before joining the convent so she wasn’t fully aware of what she was missing. Having someone tell her what to do all the time wasn’t any different from the way she’d grown up. She didn’t much care about owning a lot of stuff. She knew girls who’d gone off to the city with a single suitcase hoping to find work, and if she hadn’t joined the convent she could have been one of those. But she’d wanted a college education, which no one in her family had or knew how to get. Loretta was smart, extremely smart, and she knew that the Order sent the smart ones to study. The dumb ones became house nuns, cooking and cleaning for the rest. On the whole, religious life seemed to Loretta like a decent compromise, and a setting in which she’d rise to the top of the pack.

But she loved her smokes, lighting up the minute she got to her office in the adjacent middle school building and sucking a quick one down every time she had a break. She’d have a last drag before returning to the convent in the late afternoon, and then grit her teeth until morning. If she didn’t live in a damned dormitory she could have a cigarette or two at night as well. But only Mother Superior had a private room.

“Sister Loretta, the children’s stories have a certain tangible quality to them.” Mother’s face was now not only pinched, but red. Probably Mother was referring to trailing cigarette smoke. Loretta got the point, but had no intention of making the conversation easy.

“Mother, we both know that children of this age have such vivid imaginations. It’s a trait to be channeled, but it’s what I so enjoy about teaching middle schoolers.” Sister Loretta allowed herself a small smile. She suspected, based on past history, that the direct question might never come and there would be no need to lie. Her body, initially tense, began to relax.

Mother Superior was not smiling. In fact, her hands were now clenched in fists, her fingers turning white. She had become a Mother Superior through dint of her ability to enforce the rules. She had many Sisters under her charge, and she knew in every fibre of her being that small rules mattered. If you kept the young nuns focused on small things, they never got around to big ideas like what they were doing there in the first place. Sister Loretta now had a Master’s degree, her education paid for by the Order. Sister Loretta had a winning personality. The students and their families loved her. The stories going around school about Sister Loretta had a certain tinge of admiration to them. A Sister who smoked was really cool.

Sister Loretta, skilled and beloved, could go anywhere.

Mother Superior longed to come right out and ask Sister Loretta if she smoked, but didn’t dare. What if Sister Loretta boldly said, “Yes, and I have a full pack in my office at school right now”. Mother Superior could tell Sister Loretta to stop, making it a matter of obedience, but surely Sister Loretta already knew smoking was forbidden and she was doing it anyway. Mother Superior looked squarely at her thin veil of authority, seeing a small tear. What if the small tear became a jagged hole, even a garment ripped in half? Mother Superior would have failed.

Loretta felt Mother’s will begin to ebb. And Loretta was suddenly bored with the conversation, bored and badly wanting a cigarette. She shifted in her hard-backed chair, and decided to give Mother Superior an out.

“I have no wish to change the subject, and I surely want to give my full attention to your concerns. But I have a small problem of my own. I’ve been having some digestive issues, nothing serious enough for the doctor, but I am in ongoing discomfort. There is a certain brand of digestive mints that would, I think, be of great help. With a small weekly allowance I could buy a supply of the mints. I’ll need the money each week, because my problem will remain at bay only as long as I have the medication ready at hand.”

Digestive mints. Breath mints. Close enough, thought Sister Loretta, to be hardly a lie at all.

Mother Superior brightened. “Yes, of course Sister. Your health is of the greatest concern. Of course you can have money to buy the mints.”

Loretta left the meeting with Mother Superior and went out the door of the convent and back to her office in school. Now she really  needed a cigarette, and happily the most recent pack she’d confiscated was her favorite brand. She’d be more careful about cracking the window open to dissipate the smoke. Tomorrow she’d get breath mints, and hopefully never hear of the matter again.

She’d won, but felt oddly deflated. What a silly thing to be taken to task about. Smoking hardly made her an ax murderer. Jesus forgave prostitutes and thieves. He never even mentioned smokers.

One of Loretta’s high school friends was among the girls who’d gone to New York after graduation. This girl had broken into the publishing industry, first as a clerk but in the intervening years she’d worked her way up to a job as assistant editor.

Loretta took a deep and soothing drag. She could do a job like that, assistant editor. She could keep on being a teacher, which in public schools paid pretty well. Of course neither job in the secular world was explicitly focused on serving the Lord. But you could bloody well have a smoke any time you felt the need, and not have to sit somebody’s office and dance around the point as if you were a misbehaving child.

A life devoted to God had sounded noble all those years ago, but the doing of it meant hearing other people moan and snort in their sleep and having to deal every day with dull-witted people like Mother Superior. Loretta frowned in unaccustomed confusion. She’d only once thought seriously of leaving the Order, when her friend and mentor Sister Joan died. People did leave, though, even colleagues who seemed happy. The question was always in the air. Why, Loretta, are you here? Her family would be shocked if she left religious life, thinking of her as settled and safe. The Order would be disgruntled, feeling that they’d invested in her as a future leader. That awareness made Loretta’s stomach twist, imagining herself as a Mother Superior. God, what a terrible job. What concerned Loretta most is that leaving would mean taking an established life at which she was pretty successful and throwing everything up in the air. What, exactly, would she do on the day after she’d walked out the Motherhouse front door?

The question sat momentarily unanswered, and then possibilities began to come, progressively improbable things but they lightened Loretta’s mood. She could go to a movie, or buy a lipstick, or get her hair done, or call a friend for lunch. She could go to a bar, pick up a man, allow herself to be seduced. She could book a trip to Paris, and live like a bohemian with with nothing more than the clothes on her back. She could apply to acting school. They were silly thoughts, but once you joined the Order all random possibilities went by the wayside because your days were scripted and every moment had to be Filled with Meaning. Thinking of random options suddenly felt very appealing.

Loretta had just finished a cigarette, but she needed another one. Actually, she felt as if she might sit there smoking all afternoon. Just the thought of leaving made everything feel helter skelter, exciting and frightening at the same time. Loretta needed something to which she could anchor her turbulent feelings. She fingered the pack of smokes, crinkling the clear wrapping in a rhythmically soothing sound. When she wanted reassurance she’d been taught to pray. But, suddenly honest with herself, she’d always found prayer to be like speaking to a blank wall. Nobody ever answered. Always there for her, offering a steady reassuring hit whenever the need arose, was her pack of Lucky Strikes, not the ephemeral Jesus.

8 thoughts on “Episode One: Loretta’s Smokes

  1. Pam, there’s lots of stuff packed in here! I love the voice, which fits well with Loretta herself. I also love this line: ” Mother Superior looked squarely at her thin veil of authority, seeing a small tear.”

    Loretta did a good situation analysis as a young woman in making her decision to enter the convent, and it surprisingly devoid of the romanticism of serving God. She gets to the point of feeling that her prayer is one sided, but I wonder how in the world she got through the novitiate without any religious fervor or at least sipping the Kool Aid. Nedra’s right about her analytical side.

    You have intentionally left out the context of time, asking us to imagine this era without bookending it with history, which is an interesting device to use. Because her name isn’t Sister Mary Something (Alice’s was Sister Mary Aloysia), I think this is the 60s, even post V-II. I like this device, and wonder how you’ll be able to continue it as the outside world starts knocking at Loretta’s door (assuming it will).

    How Loretta fits in with her sisters is going to be fun to read.

    Thanks for taking this on — the story of these women needs to be told more than it is.

  2. for Nedra: Glad you like the new character. I’m really using my imagination here, plus what I know of people who’ve been nuns. Not all smokers, to be sure… 🙂

  3. for Mary: Another reader wrote in email that she needs a firmer anchor to time and place, so maybe I’ll go back and put that in. Much to work with here, I agree. So I won’t have Loretta walking out the door too soon. Her story does take place in the 1960’s, when middle schoolers could have afforded a pack of smokes to be confiscated.

  4. I laughed at the thought that she suddenly became bored with the conversation and gave Mother Superior an out. She has complete control of that visit.

  5. I’m with Nedra. I do sense a bit of Pam’s Evil Twin in here, and I like it!

    Tonight I had the time to go back through and read the “Rose” stories that I had missed. I’m glad I did, and I’m so glad about the start of Loretta. Can’t wait for more!

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