The Big Step


Pamela York Klainer

Loretta’s parents were aghast at how much cold hard cash they had to come up with for Loretta to join the Order. In Mother General’s acceptance letter was a list of things each young woman was required to bring: a five hundred dollar dowry, enough white cotton underwear for a year, two long sleeved white cotton floor length nightdresses without adornment, twelve extra large Irish linen damask napkins, a set of black rosary beads for everyday prayer, and two complete black habits.  Finally, the list asked for two pairs of old lady mid-heeled black leather tie shoes, the sound of which pounding the hard linoleum floors of Catholic school hallways cast the fear of God into generations of defenseless children.

“Jeez Loretta” said her father”, it’s like the Army telling you to bring your own skivvies and rifle to basic training. They don’t put much into you for starters, do they?”

Her brothers snickered at the damask napkins, and wouldn’t let it alone. “Tooty Loretta … tooty Loretta … tooty Loretta. Too good for us now. Tooty Loretta.”

Loretta’s mother was heartbroken about an entirely different thing: all Loretta talked about was Sister Joan, and what Sister Joan said, and what Sister Joan thought. Sister Joan’s transfer to the College would be complete over the summer, and the Motherhouse where Loretta would live was on the same grounds as the College buildings, and she and Sister Joan would see each other a lot. Sister Joan might even be Loretta’s teacher of freshman English as she started college along with religious life. Loretta would see her family once a month for two hours on a Sunday, crowded into a large parlor with several other families. There would be no car trips to the beach, and no shopping with her mother for fall clothes, and no washing and drying the dishes in the kitchen together after supper while Dad and the boys went to watch TV. In a final blow, instead of inviting her mother, Loretta asked Sister Joan to accompany her to New York to the Irish importer to buy the napkins, and to the clothing outfitter for young women aspiring to be nuns. Trying to put on a brave face, Loretta’s mother was nonetheless bereft.

Completely overlooked was the matter of Loretta’s cigarettes. Sister Joan had no idea Loretta smoked, and neither did her parents. Her brothers did of course, but even if they chased Loretta around the house flapping pillow cases as a stand-in for the oversized napkins while screeching Tooty Loretta they weren’t going to tell, because they lived by a certain sibling code.

Sister Joan talked with Loretta about saying a daily rosary, and about turning her thoughts toward God, but not about smoking because no one knew she did. And Loretta wasn’t volunteering. She was going to quit, without question. Nuns didn’t smoke, everybody knew that. With a whole new life ahead of her she wouldn’t even be tempted. She wasn’t going to sneak a pack with her just in case, that would be starting religious life on the wrong foot. She’d have her last cigarette the morning before she left home, and that would be that. She’d give the rest of the pack to her brothers as a parting gift, and as a thank-you for not having told on her. And then she’d be done with cigarettes for life.

Days before they were to deliver Loretta to the nuns, her mother tried to find a few quiet moments to talk. “Honey, you know it isn’t going to be just you and Sister Joan. There’s a lot more to being a nun than having a special friend. They work you hard.”

Loretta, sensing what she thought was jealousy, allowed her  anger to spark. “I know that. Sister Joan told me what it’s like, and she knows better than you.” Loretta turned her back on her mother and continued packing.

“And if you ever want to come home, you know you always have a place here. You don’t have to stick it out if it turns out not to be what you really want.”

Now Loretta was furious. “I’m not even there and already you think I’m a failure. I’m eighteen and I’m going and I know what I want. Go away and let me finish packing and I’ll be downstairs when I’m done. I’m not a child and I don’t want to talk about this with you any more.”

For the first time in her life, the usually easygoing Loretta slammed the door as her tearful mother retreated.

Entrance day came far too soon for Loretta’s family. Her mother made the boys wear the dress-up clothes they wore to church on Easter, and Loretta’s father put on a suit. The day was sunny and brisk, so chairs were set up outside at the Motherhouse. The families waited while their daughters went in and changed into their modified habits, the clothing that marked them as Sisters just starting out.

Loretta was led to her new cell, a tiny cubicle at the very end of a long dormitory, the spaces set apart with long white curtains. Just beyond her cubicle was a large window, but it was closed. Loretta’s new religious garb was laid out for her on the narrow bed, and she pulled the curtains shut and began to dress.

There were seventy six of them, there for all kinds of reasons. As they headed back downstairs, their feet pounding on the highly polished wooden staircase, Loretta scanned their faces.

One or two, she thought, looked unbowed by the stress of the afternoon and promised to be fun.

The actual leave-taking was handled with quick precision. Sister Claire, who would be in charge of the group, rang a bell. As they’d been instructed, the girls kissed their families and moved inside – no lingering. They gathered for a short prayer of thanksgiving, then sat down for supper, which was held in silence but accompanied by spiritual reading. Then Sister Claire gathered them for an introduction to the Grand Silence, which would take place from the end of night prayers through breakfast the following morning. During the Grand Silence they were to be attentive only to the voice of God, and not speak at all even in the gravest of emergencies. Lights out was at the rather early hour of nine o’clock, but Loretta hardly minded. The day had seemed interminable, and she was ready for some time to unwind.

Sitting up in her bed in the huge but silent dormitory, Loretta wrapped her arms around her knees and began to rock, unexpectedly too wound up to sleep. Her nerves were jangled from the newness of it all, and to her chagrin all she could think about was a smoke. She hadn’t had one for over twelve hours. She thought her new life would take away the urge, but it hadn’t. Just one, and then she’d be able to settle down. But she hadn’t brought her cigarettes, and now she was stuck on the horns of her own virtue.

Just then she sensed someone slipping silently along the long open hallway between the cubicles, and she heard breathing just outside her curtain, close to the window. She peeked out, and saw another girl. The two stared, taking each other’s measure but without speaking, as it was the Grand Silence, the first Rule they were called to obey. Seconds went by, and then the girl opened her palm. In it were two cigarettes, and a pack of matches.

Loretta took a deep breath. More seconds passed, and then she nodded. She moved to the window, and together they raised the heavy pane a few inches, just enough for the smoke to blow out and away. And then, in utter silence, not even knowing each other’s names, they lit up.

2 thoughts on “The Big Step

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