This story is about my experience living in the Mother House of an order of nuns while I taught a ten-day seminar to nearby hard science professors from three universities about the writing process. The course was a rousing success. My life in the convent, not so much.
“It’s like being at summer camp. It’s on a lake. I went there last week. The food was great.”
That’s how the coordinator from UC Berkeley sold me on ten days in a convent.
The taxi halted in front of an old, stone ivy-covered building that was four or five stories tall. This certainly didn’t look like any summer camp I had been to. The place looked deserted. I had to haul two pullman suitcases, packed with books and clothing, up twenty or so stone steps.
As I fought open the massive wooden door, one of my suitcases fell. “Damn,” I muttered, stooping to retrieve the errant strap. Rising, I saw a huge crucifix attached to the wall. Oops. Crisp footsteps sounded on the highly polished wooden floor. I looked to my right. Nothing.
“Welcome, my child.”
I swung to the left. “Uh, yes. Excuse me.” I had caught the skirt of her habit with my suitcase. Yes, some nuns still wear habits, particularly in their Mother House.
“You look tired, dear. Follow me.”
Shocked and dismayed, more likely.
Dutifully I followed the darkly clad woman through rooms furnished like a movie set for the Great Gatsby. Old women in various religious costumes sat in chairs. Some read. Some mouthed silent verses. Some just sat. Having grown up Lutheran, I looked for the director, the lights, the cameras.
Up another flight of stairs, lugging the cursed suitcases, I ran into the woman’s backside. “Excuse me.” My mind worked feverishly. I had signed a contract to work a seminar for college professors at a summer camp. I had landed in a convent!
“Just let me get this gate,” the woman chided. “Ah, there it is. I gave you a room that we save for visiting mothers,” she announced proudly, opening the door to the tidy, no frills room.
The two beds could be moved together to make a single twin bed. Maybe.
“The bath is right next door,” she smiled, motioning me out of my room to the open bathroom door down the hall.
I looked in at the claw-footed tub and free-standing pedestal sink. No shower curtain. How would I wash my hair in that tiny sink?
“You’ll have to share the bath with the others teachers.”
I was too tired to react.
Soon after I met my co-presenters, lunch arrived in plastic containers.
“We ordered lunch out,” our University coordinator announced.
After a couple of hours, my head thumped on the table. Red-eye flight. Everyone else was local and had driven.
“Why don’t you go take a nap?’
They didn’t need to ask a second time. I crossed the grounds and went up those stairs, the ones with the gate at the top. No air conditioning. In August. I opened one window. Through the rip in the screen raced a squadron of mosquitoes. Slam! The other screen appeared defect-free.
I swatted at mosquitoes as I moved the small antique, metal, four-bladed fan nearer to the bed. Eying the frayed brown cloth that sufficed for the cord around the wires, I held the plug as far as possible from my body while I inserted it into the wall. The blades moved, very slowly, as if it would be a sin to disturb the air. I pulled off my shoes and fell back on the bed, unwilling to remove more clothing. My colleagues would be coming for me. There was no lock on the door.
I slept through dinner.
This was not like the camp breakfasts I remembered. No bacon. No sausage. No ham. There was plenty of black coffee (no, thanks, I never grew up) and some pastry with black fruit. When I demurred, I was offered some juice. Finally, something I liked! Yes, please. A very small glass was brought to the table and placed before me. It looked like orange juice, but it was room temperature. It was horrid, some kind of canned tropical nectar. Benevolent smiles beamed at me.
I learned this was the retirement home for the Sisters of Saint Mary. Last week, one of the residents had celebrated her twenty-fifth jubilee and most of the residents left with family after the festivities, so there were only seven nuns, and me, around that table. (How do nuns celebrate?)
I didn’t mention that I had awakened, bright-eyed and ready to go in the early hours of the morning. I had explored, but I could not find a television or a radio or a telephone. Finally, since this was before I owned a cell phone, I inquired about a telephone that I could use to call my husband.
“The only telephone is in my office, my dear. You’re welcome to use it at night, if you wish,” the Mother Superior graciously informed me.
The first morning session went well. We learned not to jump at the tower bells that pealed across the grounds every fifteen minutes. The professors drove in for the day, attended our sessions, had lunch, received more instruction, then left to go home to their families for dinner and the evening. There was some grumbling about that first lunch. It consisted of a scoop of cold steamed rice mixed with a generous portion of mayonnaise and a bit of canned, crushed pineapple on a lettuce leaf.
After a triumphant opening day, the three presenters went down to the dining hall for dinner. I couldn’t tell you what was served for dinner, other than it had the distinctive aroma of broccoli. I hated broccoli in those days. The nun in charge of the cooking brought in the individual plates. Neatly lumped on the plate set in front of me was a mound of string beans, a mound of three-bean salad, and a mound of broccoli.
During the blessing of the meal, and the hands that prepared it, I prayed for meat.
I hadn’t had any meat since the two slices of pressed turkey breast in my catered sandwich on Sunday. I poked around at the vegetables on my plate, but was unwilling to sacrifice and take a bite. I asked the Mother Superior about the order. She expounded proudly about the founding of the vegetarian order almost one hundred years ago. I learned about the history of the convent.
The west property line of the grounds backed up to the neighborhood that had the race riots the week before. The indoor pool had just been refurbished with imported Italian marble. The neighborhood children received swimming instruction during the day. However, after dinner each night, I could go to the Mother Superior’s office and get the keys to the pool building and swim, as long as I promised to go with one of the others.
I trudged back up the stairs to the gated country, unable to control my dismay. Steve, you said this was like summer camp. That the food was great!
He was pencil thin. Single. A harried chain-smoker. I realized his opinion about food would be quite different from mine. And he wasn’t there.
After taking out my frustration in the pool, I bathed and managed to wash my hair in the tiny sink then descended to the telephone. No one was about. I called my husband, needing his sympathy and support. His words of comfort calmed me. My stomach ceased its roaring so I could sleep.
Tuesday and Wednesday saw no improvement in the vegetarian meals. The Mother Superior had, however, shown us a refrigerator in the basement laundry room. It contained a tiny, lone jar of peanut butter. In a cupboard was a box of stale crackers. I took to raiding that jar after my nightly phone calls. All day long I looked forward to that midnight raid. I limited myself to three crackers spread lightly with the peanut butter. I didn’t want anyone to know what I was doing. Who, besides a nun, could survive on those same three mounds of vegetables every night? Who would want to?
By Thursday night I was a broken woman. All I could think of was meat. I’m a protein person, and I was ready to kill for some. Putting on my walking shoes, I struck out in “the only safe direction” from the convent. I left at five o’clock and had exactly two hours before the gates would be locked. I walked and walked. Surely there would be some hamburger joint, a mini mart or a grocery store within an hour’s walk of the convent. No, only the expensive homes along the shores of Lake Michigan.
I walked for seventy-five minutes, but could still see nothing but homes in the distance. I contemplated knocking at a back door and begging for a scrap of meat, but settled for jogging back to the convent to the dining hall in my sweats to receive my vegetables.
When he heard my voice that night, my husband knew I was in trouble. “Why don’t you have a pizza delivered?”
“I can’t . . . no, wait!” I started pulling out drawers. Yes! A telephone book. Pizza, pizza. . . yes! “OK. Hang up so I can call them. Yes, yes, I love you, too! Hang up now.”
From the map, the pizza parlor appeared to be only two blocks, in the unsafe direction, away. I could go down to the gate, wait for the delivery kid, and pull the pizza sideways through the locked wrought iron gate.
“Pete’s Pizza. Whaddaya want?”
“I’d like your largest pizza, please.”
“What kinda crust?”
“Uh, whatever cooks fastest, please.”
“Whaddaya wan on it?”
“What kinda meat?”
“Anything you have.”
“We got hamburger, sausage, pepperoni, . . . eh, Sal, we got any . . .”
“Yes, all of them, please. And extra cheese.”
“You got it, Babe. Where you want it delivered?”
I didn’t know the street address! I gave him the name of the convent.
Long pause. “Look, kid. This ain’t no joke. Don’t call back here, see?” A rude, loud click.
Like a sleepwalker, I glided up the stairs, unlatched the gate, and entered my room. I sat on the bed, ready to cry. Over what? A pizza? Anger flared, then flamed.
My fleecy robe was replaced by dark pants and top; no shoes. I knew which boards squeaked, so my feet hop scotched along the darkened hall toward the stairwell to the basement kitchen. In no time, my assortment of hairpins worked the trick and the old padlock came off in my hands. I slipped inside.
Aha! Three freezers. There had been strawberry (yuck!) ice cream at lunch. But, where there is strawberry ice cream, there must be chocolate. I pulled open the first of the upright freezer doors. It was filled with frozen broccoli! I moved to the second freezer. It was filled with strawberry ice cream. I yanked at the handle of the third freezer. It came off in my hand. I listened and, hearing no sound, chanced turning on the light. Using one hairpin like a screwdriver, I attached the handle to the freezer door and pulled carefully. Another freezer full of broccoli!
I turned off the light; after all, the basement did have tiny windows up by the ceiling. I saw an old walk-in refrigerator. I’d have to be careful not to lock myself inside. The handle was loose. I tightened it with my hairpin, then gently pulled. I set a frying pan on the floor in the opening, so the door couldn’t close. Onions, a few tomatoes, leftover rice, mayo, and pineapple salad on a plate. Some old lettuce. This stuff would fit on one shelf of my refrigerator. Where was the rest?
I made my way up the narrow stairway between kitchens.. Another refrigerator. The Mother Superior had said there was cold cereal for breakfast, but I had never seen any. I searched the cupboards. Cans of peach nectar, guava nectar, papaya nectar, string beans. No cereal.
I’d settle for a glass of milk. I pulled at the refrigerator door. Opened cans of peach nectar, guava nectar, papaya nectar, string beans. Defeated, I slunk back to my room.
As I slumped on my bed, my anger piqued. Resolutely, I marched downstairs to break into the only other locked room in the convent.
The lock on the chapel door was built into the door and frame. It required all the skill and finesse I had learned in my college days to trip that very old lock. What did they have in there anyway?
Carefully, I went inside the darkened space, closed the door and waited. For what?
Maybe a bolt of lightning.
The pipes glittered on the back wall of the small chapel. The organ itself stood in the far corner. I was drawn to it as if it were a cart of steaming prime rib. When I was in junior high I had played the organ at our early church service. But it hadn’t been a pipe organ. This was an old, turn of the century, German pipe organ. I sat down on the bench to open the wooden cupboard over the registers. The cupboard was locked. I found the key in an empty vase on the altar.
Folding back the cupboard, my fingers caressed the aged cream-colored ivory of the two registers. I played my bare feet over the foot pedals. I turned the first switch to power up the organ. A loud hum. A single loud pop echoed in the room when I threw the second switch. I waited in terror for the door of the chapel to open. Although the nuns slept two floors above the chapel, I knew someone must have heard. Finally, I struck a cord. It reverberated through the room, rattling the window panes. In vain, I frantically worked the loudness pedal. Apparently that stop was locked wide open for the loudness never varied, although I worked my right foot like a madwoman. Again, I waited in absolute silence. I don’t remember breathing.
I pulled out a hymnal and played the first bar of one of my favorites, then waited, sure I’d hear footsteps. Nothing. So I played more. The pipes were wonderful. I began playing both registers and the foot pedals. I played remembered recital pieces and competition pieces and litanies. Suddenly I stopped, certain I heard a noise in the hall.
My hands hurt. I checked my watch. I had been playing for over two hours! I powered down the organ. The pipes seemed to sag when the compressors stopped. I repositioned the wooden cover and replaced the key in the flower vase. Stepping into the hall, I looked both directions then began working on the door lock. It snicked into place easily. Quite proud of myself, I padded noiselessly down the hall and up the gated stairs to my room. My stomach was unusually quiet.
The next morning I went down to breakfast with a smug smile on my face. I took the only unoccupied seat, at the foot of the table, down from the Mother Superior. The cooking nun brought my tepid nectar.
The oldest nun, the classic deaf stereotype complete with hearing aid, coughed for attention, then turned to the Mother Superior. “Mother, I had the most wonderful dream last night.”
The woman opposite me looked startled. Obviously nuns didn’t dream much and talked about it even less.
“Yes, Mother,” the old nun persisted, cracking voice undaunted by the lack of encouragement.
“By all means, Sister Mary Joseph, tell us about your dream.”
“I dreamed that an angel was playing our organ.”
I choked on the sticky, sweet nectar. It was no longer nondescript. I had seen the cans; I now knew this was papaya. Teary-eyed from my coughing, I looked up.
Beaming like a saint down the length of the table , the Mother Superior looked not at all concerned about my coughing fit. Her eyes were locked with mine as she answered, “Is that so, Sister Mary Joseph? Is that so?”