It’s true! My mother was once a nun. As a child I gazed at the brittle black-and-white photo of her and a fellow novice in their stiff white habits – starched smiles and wimples – and wondered about her other life.
Sometimes, her other life came to visit…
I remember I grew very attached to Sister Margaret and Sister Germaine when they came to stay on our farm in Ireland. I couldn’t stop bawling when the time came for them to leave, my face was as red as that T-shirt. Imagining them making the return journey to Britain, it felt as though I’d never see them again. In the case of Sister Margaret, that was true.
After we emigrated to the UK when I was eight, Sister Germaine visited sporadically, stopping in briefly between missionary trips to far-flung lands that I wish now I’d thought to ask her about. Sometimes, we’d ask,“When’s Sister Germaine coming to visit again?” “We’ll see what she says when she gets back from Manila,” my mother would reply, airily.
To me, she was a persistent enigma, I was fascinated by her roving lifestyle. She might have tied her existence to a higher power but she was no stranger to autonomy. Even when she stayed with us she had a tendency to function independently that I simultaneously admired and begrudged. I valued the short time we had with her and resented anything that lessened it, like the afternoon she disappeared to watch “The Colour Purple” at the local cinema. Puzzled, I looked it up and discovered the writing of Maya Angelou, an unexpected gift.
Dressed in “civvies”, Sister Germaine was just like anyone else – her open-toed sandals the only indication she shared some of Jesus’ views on footwear. As for the rest of His message, she let her actions speak for her. She didn’t preach or try to “educate” you, instead, you found yourself drawn to her tranquil equanimity. She never stayed long, not wanting “to be a burden.” I always felt sad when she left – the house was calmer with her in it; her gentle spirituality probably encouraged my parents to be the best they could be. Her consciousness of the pressure of living up to a nun was probably what kept her visits short.
Once settled in England we made habitual family trips to my mother’s old home at Ladywell Convent, our numbers swelled each time by another addition until we plateaued at six: four girls – novices-in-training? I loved the calm, unhurried orderliness of the convent, the smell of polish and fresh linen with its tacit promise of care and comfort, the benign smiles of the sisters, the simplicity of the wood-paneled reception room whose spacious proportions served our playing and dining needs while Sister Germaine saw to her commitments before joining us.
I remember the reproduction of Da Vinci’s Last Supper that hung above the long dining table in that room, whose white linen tablecloth mirrored the table in the picture, all the more authentic for it’s reverent surroundings but shockingly let down by the table-manners of certain younger occupants. I doubted the disciples ever spilt anything or spoke with their mouths full.
When my youngest sister was old enough, our family joined the nuns of the convent at long wooden tables in the high-ceilinged refectory. There we ate in an atmosphere of quiet serenity and Sister Germaine, with the barest whisper of a lisp, coached us kids in hushed tones on the importance of acknowledging gratitude and respect for our meal, while the nuns smiled to themselves around us.
Afterwards, the adults walked and talked in the grounds, while we chased one another around garden ornaments on carefully tended lawns; and there was always tea and cakes to look forward to later in the afternoon! Once, Sister Germaine proudly took us to the chapel, pressing a finger into a damp sponge in a stoup at the entrance and tracing a cross as she entered, an act we thought deliciously exotic, like some kind of secret society password. She pointed to a multi-sided ornate box draped in embroidered cloth on a shelf behind the altar and whispered “That’s where Jesus lives!” I never felt pressured to conform to her views, always applying my child’s litmus paper of believability to any discoveries I made. I didn’t believe Jesus or God lived in that box but I knew better than to unnecessarily upset anyone laboring under such a misconception, even if it was their field of expertise. I relayed the questionable information later to my mother, in a voice wobbly with cautious mirth.
When I was older, I understood my mother left the Order because she couldn’t align her views on contraception with those of the Catholic Church. But as a child, her explanation for not coming with us to church on a Sunday morning just puzzled me.
“I’ve lost my faith.”
I offered to stay behind and help her look – she declined. I never thought to tell her they still let me in without it…
Through regular visits, my sisters and I became familiar with the halls, kitchens, gardens and surrounding lanes of the convent. We even overnighted in St Davids Lodge, a cottage kept for outsiders on residential retreat. Calm saturated me to my marrow when we drove up the avenue to the main building, the steady line of trees on each side giving the impression of entering into an embrace. Looking back, I see that we were also entering a different culture, an insulated bubble within the larger alien culture of middle England. Like Inception – a dream within a dream. It was all very different from the Irish farm, but it felt like being part of a family, something I came to idealise later on when mine turned out to be so dysfunctional.
Perhaps it’s because of these experiences that I see people as human first – religion, culture, nationality, surroundings are all just the wrapping, the hue, whether it’s The Colour Purple or some other shade. We’re all part of a global family. Sister Germaine was no walkover, she had her views and beliefs and no doubt she had her reasons for them. Following her lead of independence, I held mine based on my interpretations of God, not someone else’s, something the nuns at my convent secondary school later mistook for wilful impertinence. If only I could have introduced them to Sister Germaine…
Click the image for some charming British Pathe footage of