Pamela York Klainer
Throwing herself into teaching was a good way for Loretta to forestall thinking about the confrontation, roundabout though it had been, with Mother Superior. Seeing the seventh graders outside during recess on a beautiful fall day, Sister Loretta closed her office door and went to join them. To the whoops and cheers of the boys, Sister Loretta called for the basketball and managed to hit a free throw on her first try. She grinned and pumped her fist in the air, not surprised to find her skill and sense of timing still in play. She’d shot hoops with her brothers in the driveway of their house, making baskets by the hour through the battered old rim hanging somewhat crookedly from the garage. The technique was clearly something that stayed with you all your life, like riding a bike.
Should something you’d decided at eighteen bind you forever? The simple question kept poking its way through Loretta’s fierce commitment to self-distraction.
She’d so much wanted to go to college. Her father, a toll collector on the Parkway, had been apologetic. “I just can’t swing it, Lor, not even if you get scholarships.”
She’d asked, her voice more strained than she wanted, why he’d wanted to be a toll collector in the first place, and her father sighed.
“It’s not a bad job. The work is steady and I have enough seniority to get day shifts. I get raises. I get to be sort of inside, in the booth, not outside in the cold. I have a pension. I get vacation. It’s a job, Lor. It’s just a job. Not everybody gets to be a big shot in life.”
Loretta loved her weak, rather ineffectual father. She also decided, then and there, that she’d have no “just” in her own life.
Church was something she’d done with her mother. Her father didn’t go. Neither did her brothers, once they’d gotten old enough to overwhelm their mother with a whining chorus of “if Dad doesn’t go why do we have to?” They were public school kids, as even the modest tuition asked in the Catholic system had been beyond the family’s reach. Loretta liked church; she found the mumbled Latin soothing and evocative. Sometimes she followed along in her prayer book; sometimes she allowed her mind to roam. Oddly enough the white noise of the ritual, the back and forth between priest and faithful, the bells, the music, created a chamber in which her mind could focus more deeply. Was Loretta, in those deeply meditative moments, thinking about God? Perhaps.
More precisely, she was thinking about making something meaningful of her life. Her mother went home after church and spent the rest of Sunday ironing a week’s worth of pants and hand-starched shirts for her husband and the boys. During the week Loretta’s mother did housework, and volunteered at the local hospital, and served on a committee for the P.T.A that ran a book drive to raise money for the school library. None of that, nor standing in a metal tube collecting quarters in exchange for a salary and two weeks vacation in August, appealed much to Loretta.
All through high school Loretta played in a girls’ basketball league sponsored by the parish, and through that she met Sister Joan. Sister Joan was not only different from Loretta’s mother; Sister Joan was different from any mother that Loretta knew. Sister Joan carried a leather bag that was filled with books and sketch pads and charcoal drawing pencils. Sister Joan’s office had the requisite crucifix hanging from the wall, but more interestingly the office had shelves and shelves of verse by modern poets. Below all the volumes were beanbag chairs and good reading lights, and Sister Joan told Loretta she could come by any time after practice to read or to borrow a book. If Loretta didn’t understand what a poem was supposed to mean Sister Joan didn’t just tell her; Sister Joan asked Loretta to consider the images in the poem, and think for herself what the poet might have been trying to say. Quite soon, Sister Joan gave Loretta a gift of a blank notebook and a good pen, and suggested that Loretta begin trying to write some verse herself. Loretta did try, although she was uncharacteristically shy about showing her work to anyone, even Sister Joan.
Beyond the crucifix and the books and Sister Joan’s welcome, the office contained something else very important. Nicely framed, and protected by glass, were Sister Joan’s bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees.
Loretta, who went to a large and impersonal high school, was smart – but she didn’t necessarily feel smart. She’d wanted to sign up for physics, but was dissuaded by the reputation of the teacher, Mr. Confessore. Mr. C was known to hound his few female students unmercifully, making clear from day one that girls had no head for science and didn’t belong in his class. Most dropped out after the first marking period, and those who stayed never got higher than a barely passing grade. Loretta was good with her hands and would have liked to take shop, but girls were steered toward home economics. Loretta hated anything to do with a kitchen, and had absolutely no aptitude for sewing. She got A’s in the subjects she cared about, and D’s in those she didn’t. By class standing, she was average. Most of her teachers wouldn’t have picked her as a top prospect for anything.
But Sister Joan did pick her. Loretta spent more and more time after practice in her office, and one day Sister Joan wondered out loud if Loretta might have a vocation, if God might be calling her to religious life. Loretta felt her spine tingle. She would very much rather carry a leather bag of books than a basket of wash, and she wanted to be able to talk about poetry like Sister Joan. Loretta wasn’t at all sure about God calling her, but Sister Joan assured her that she could learn to listen for God’s voice and then she would know what God wanted her to do.
Loretta’s choices, as senior year unfolded, seemed to be following Sister Joan into religious life and learning to hear God’s voice – surely something not everyone knew how to do – or graduating with mediocre recommendations and going to work at some job in town.
Unbeknownst to anyone Loretta had actually written quite a few poems, and one day she took the risk of asking Sister Joan if she’d like to read them.
Recess ended with the sharp ring of a bell, and the unruly seventh graders fell into line. Sister Loretta, carrying the basketball and following them back into the building, had no sense of how long she’d stood lost in thought. Sister Joan, who’d been so influential in Loretta’s decision to enter religious life, had fallen ill with ovarian cancer and died suddenly only months after Loretta had joined the Order. The unexpected death had shaken Loretta, but she’d committed to a path and was not one to be easily dissuaded.
Before she died Sister Joan had given Loretta the leather bag, deliberately empty, trusting Loretta to fill it with her own interests. The bag was different from a purse, like her mother carried, and different from a housewife’s basket of wash and different from a young mother’s babe in arms. The bag said Loretta was an educated woman, a professional woman, a woman with a life of her own. The bag said Loretta had been chosen to carry on a life that mattered not just to family and friends but to a larger world, a spiritual world, God’s world.
And the bag even had a small inside zippered compartment, out of sight, that was just the right size for Loretta’s smokes.