Pamela York Klainer
Leaving the convent was more surreptitious and less joyful than Entrance Day, and Loretta could hardly believe it had been twelve years.
She wondered, as she packed the few personal possessions she was allowed to take, if it had been one thing that made her decide to leave, or a whole series of things. Or if it was doubt, simple doubt, that what she had to offer as a nun really meant anything.
Sister Joan’s death was a hard thing, especially coming so early in Loretta’s life as a nun. Katie’s pregnancy was hard. Dealing with the unrepentant Dermott and the sexually charged Claire and poor pregnant Regina was hard. But Loretta lasted in religious life for four more years beyond all of that. She’d survived, and so had her students.
Dermott got a full basketball scholarship to Villanova, where he promptly dumped Claire who was beautiful and vivacious but still just a small town girl.
Claire married her college lit. professor at Montclair State and dropped out during freshman year, because they both couldn’t stay on campus.
Regina had the baby, and her father never came home. He stayed living with the Other Woman, and he and Regina’s mother divorced. Regina transferred to public school, where people were less judgmental.
Katie chose not to stay in touch.
The trigger for Loretta deciding to leave was simple. Mother Superior asked her about going on for a doctorate. That, Loretta felt, would lock her in. If the Order invested more in her, she’d be expected to take on leadership roles, and stay for the long haul.
She didn’t agonize. She simply knew, as she left Mother Superior’s office, that if she went on for further study it wouldn’t be as Sister Loretta, but as Miss Loretta O’Malley. You could do that, she now knew in a way that she hadn’t when she was eighteen an enamored of Sister Joan. You could get scholarships if you were smart, and Loretta was very smart. You didn’t have to sign up with something like the Order, who would take care of everything and send you. You could do it yourself.
How had she not known that, at eighteen?
On Entrance Day all those years ago the seventy six young Sister candidates walked into the Convent together. Loretta would be leaving on her own, and not from the Convent where she lived. That, Mother Superior explained tersely, would be too upsetting to the other Sisters. Instead, Loretta would go to live for a week or two at a Convent where no one knew her well, while her paperwork was being processed. Then, on the appointed day, she would be granted permission to depart.
There had been a list of what she had to bring on Entrance Day, including the damask napkins that none of the young Sisters ever saw again. Now there was a list of what she could take with her: not the long black rosary beads with the sterling silver crucifix that Sisters wore draped around their waists. Not any part of her religious habit, or the books bought for her by the Order. She could take her academic degrees, fairly earned, and her personal journals, and Sister Joan’s leather bag. On Entrance Day she’d brought a five hundred dollar dowry, but she got no money on leaving, not even cab fare. Presumably someone would come and pick her up.
That would not, Loretta thought, be her parents. All of their kids now gone, the senior O’Malleys were retired and living in a tiny bungalow at the Jersey shore. Loretta’s father went out early every morning to fish and her mother walked the boardwalk with the new lady friends she played Bingo with at the Rec Center.
“Of course you can come home, Lor. We told you that. We’ll always have a place for you.”
But they didn’t, not really. The bungalow had two small bedrooms, one of which Loretta’s mother used for sewing.
“I can do my sewing on the kitchen table, honey, really. Dad and I would love you to come home, at least for starters. We can clean that bedroom out and it can be all yours. Then you can take your time figuring out what to do.”
But it wasn’t Loretta’s home, and she didn’t want to live in a small town, and she wasn’t a girl anymore. She was thirty, and restless, and tired of confining spaces.
She called her friend Mary Pat, the one with the publishing job in New York. Mary Pat was surprised, but quickly offered help.
“You can stay with me in New York. My apartment is tiny, but we can make it work. What are you going to do? Do you want to keep teaching? Do you want me to see if I can get you a job at my place? You’d probably make more money teaching, at least at the beginning, and New York is expensive. But I think I could get you a job here pretty quickly. I know the poetry editor, and I think she could create a role for an assistant editor. The pay will be crap, but you’ll get your foot in the door and you can start working seriously on your own stuff. It helps getting published if you get to know people in the business.”
Mary Pat’s voice turned teasing, with a curious note underneath. “I’ll borrow my Mom’s car and come and get you, and when we get back here I’m taking you out drinking and you’re going to tell me why you left, chapter and verse. I want to know the whole long story.”
But it wasn’t a long story, Loretta thought. She loved teaching. She loved her students. She loved academia, and was slightly intrigued with the thought of getting a doctorate. But she didn’t love being a nun. Maybe she didn’t love God, if she was walking away from what God supposedly wanted her to do.
Actually, Loretta didn’t think God really cared if she stayed teaching in Catholic school and living with nuns or if she went to New York and got a publishing job and started working on her own poetry.
She was different from Father Leon, and different from Sister Joan. Loretta knew Father Leon would stay, belittled though he was by the Bishop, because people needed him and he knew what to do to help them. She thought Sister Joan would have stayed, had she lived, because Sister Joan found God in her writing.
Loretta just wanted a bigger world.
Mary Pat was still talking, and Loretta tuned back in. “I’m bringing you something decent to wear. You can’t show up in New York looking dowdy like an ex-nun. I think we’re both still about the same size. And one more thing: your hair. It has to be a wreck after being covered up under that silly habit all this while. My best friend Grace owns her own beauty salon. I’m making an appointment for you the morning after you get here. Grace works magic, and she’ll make you look great, and she’s the sweetest person to boot. When can I come and get you? I’m so excited about this, I can hardly wait.”
Loretta smiled, feeling her own spark of excitement. She was supposed to continue as if nothing had changed, keeping her plans to herself, until Mother Superior said her paperwork had been processed and that she was free to leave, perhaps ten days to two weeks.
Loretta didn’t want to wait. She did want to take charge.
“The Sisters will all be at early Mass on Sunday morning, and if you come then they won’t see me go out the door. Can you be here at eight?”