“Before you were born, I went to stay at a convent in the northern woods,” my mother says.
We are seated at a window table in a neocafé, the kind that doesn’t sell giant iced-coffee drinks with fat straws. Instead, we sip tiny cups of searing espresso that require cubes of sugar to get down. My hands began shaking moments after swallowing the first cup. My third cup steams on the narrow table. I was nervous before coming to meet my mother today, and now I am a near mess. I want to smoke, but you can’t smoke in these places, in any places now. I certainly can’t leave my mother sitting alone while I huddle in the doorway with the other addicts, not without repercussions. As I have often been told, I have been brought up better than that.
“The deep woods,” she emphasizes. “The kind people get lost in and can’t be found by a rescue helicopter.” She has decided I need to understand secrets and consequences and haunting decisions although I have told her nothing about what peacock feathers are fanning themselves before me, their colors rich and deep and dangerous. Perhaps transgression gives off a scent like fear.
“I didn’t know you wanted to be a nun,” I say, looking out the window at the gathering clouds. The question is not if but what kind of storm is coming, snow or sleet. It may be that my plans for the evening will be ruined by the weather. People once thought the weather was a godly comment on human behavior. I try to remember what people: Ancient Greeks? Nordic tribes? Where had I heard this? An article in a magazine, I suppose. I try to call up some glossy color photo. All I can muster is the memory of how his cheeks get ruddy in the cold, how tempting it is to warm them with my fingertips.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I didn’t want to be a nun. What a thought,” she says. “I suppose to be accurate I should say I was sent to a convent.”
I look at her and smile. “Really? Grandma and Granddad sent you away? For what?”
“I was making bad decisions. I thought I could do things . . . .” She waves her hand in a circular way.
“Let me just say, I thought I could outsmart people who knew much more than I did. I believed the conventions of society did not apply to me. You understand?” She raises her eyebrows with suggestion.
I nod. I know this is the closest I will get to specifics. She is a woman of whom it has been said: keeps herself to herself. So although my mother often tells stories about herself, she reveals very little. Having been thrown this tidbit, I let myself be shocked. Delighted, really. My mother had once been bad enough that she got sent away. This was at a time when young people became famous for their badness, for their rebellion. By the time I was growing up, rebellion was passé. My generation believed in innovation. Not that I did much innovating myself, but one can’t help being painted with the same brush. I decide to push her.
“Tell me, what did you do?”
“You’re missing the point.”
“The convent,” she sighs. “Pay attention.”
“All right, all right. So . . . you’re at the convent . . . for doing horrible things, devastating and salacious things.”
She gives me a look that says, enough.
“Okay,” I say. “You’re at a convent in the northern woods.”
“Yes. This was a serious order, beyond charity and poverty. These nuns took a vow of silence.” She presses her hand to her lips, then slices the air with it for emphasis. “You only heard their voices at lauds and vespers. You know what those are? You remember?”
“Of course, morning and evening prayers.”
She nods, satisfied that she has done her duty by me. Her look says I have assured her that my downfall, should it come, will not be her fault.
“I suppose in their own way they did not allow society’s conventions to apply to them. You have to understand, the world was loud then. Young people were screaming their heads off. So silence was especially difficult. For the novitiates, it was a profound sacrifice. I was not a novitiate. I was a guest, but I was still expected to follow the rules. We weren’t always successful. We were just girls, twig-legged fillies galloping over hillsides. We tried, but we couldn’t contain ourselves. So we became quite good at whispering, at reading lips too. A book of sign language was passed around. Like that Keller girl and her teacher, we spelled into each other’s hands as we walked. I became quite good at it.”
Suddenly her fingers begin drawing intricate patterns in the air. Like the legs of Irish steppers they dance as if independent of the rest of her body, the only suggestion of her movement above her wrists being the slight swing of her sweater’s bell cuff. I’m mesmerized. Her gestures are fluid, free, not words I usually associate with my mother. Why has she kept this talent to herself all these years? What else is she hiding?
“But one of the young novitiates, Charlene, I believe, became known for her sincere dedication to silence. She never whispered, or exchanged a meaningful look, or so much as a nod with anyone except her superiors when they demanded it of her. She became so well known for her silence, she began to have visitations.”
“You mean like visions, like seeing Mary in a tortilla?” I can’t help myself. Does my mother really think a mystical tale will restrain me? She would have brought better ammunition if she’d ever seen his lips go crooked when he smiles, if she’d ever seen him squint into the sun. “A crucifix in a pancake?”
“Not that kind of visitation, and don’t be fresh. What I mean is that people began to come to the convent to see her. At first it was local people who came to the convent anyway, men who dealt with the plumbing or women from the local winery. Later, when her reputation became more established, people traveled distances to see her.”
“I don’t understand. What did they want with her? Why was she so famous?”
“It was the silence. Speaking to her was like talking to the sphinx or to a wild bird but better because one could see that Charlene understood as those other things wouldn’t.”
“I thought that’s what priests were for.”
“Yes, well, you’d be surprised. Worse than geese with all their quacking people’s business around to anyone who would listen. Quack, quack, quack.” She swats at the air dismissively. “Those priests used what they learned to fatten coffers.”
“Really?” I feel a smile playing on my lips. My mother speaks as if she were an expert in such matters. As far as I can recall, she hasn’t been to Mass in a decade or more. I can’t remember her ever going to confession although it was important to her that I make mine when I was a child. In fact, I can’t think of a single religious person in her whole circle of friends. “I had no idea.”
“As I said, you’d be surprised. So Charlene, who was Sister Charlene by this time, she had been allowed to take her vows early, became a confessor although I doubt she was called that. The priests wouldn’t have allowed it. A cleanser, I think she was called – something like that. The Mother Superior must have seen that this would bring a bit of esteem to her convent. Smart woman, Mother Superior. Ruthless as any CEO you’ve ever met. She set Sister Charlene up in a room and had one of the novitiates lead visitors to her. Outside the door, Mother Superior placed various donation boxes, for the order’s African orphans, for the Children’s Charity Fund, for the Mendicant Society. After a time Sister Charlene became something of a sensation. People came, saw Sister Charlene, and slipped an offering into the donation box on the way out.”
My mother sits back in her chair, giving a weighty nod. Then as if she realizes where she is, she raises her hand to catch a waiter’s eye, ordering us each another espresso. I glance at her hands. They’re steady as concrete. My own are still jittering. I know I should say to say no to another shot, but despite the tremors, I can already feel the impending crash from the last one. I figure another shot can take me far enough into the evening that I will buzz around, keeping busy until I hear from him about whether or not he can get away. I decide this will be better than moping. If it turns out he doesn’t show up, at least my apartment will be clean.
The espressos arrive, and we throw them back like whiskey. I wait for my mother to continue the story, but she merely looks out the window disapprovingly. I can’t be sure if it’s the weather, or the people, or the world in general she’s disapproving of, and in the end I decide it’s all three.
“So that’s it?” I say after a time. I can feel my heart beginning to race from the caffeine.
“What, darling?” my mother says.
“Sister Charlene hears confessions, and Mother Superior collects the cash? That’s the whole story?”
“Well,” she says, turning her gaze from the window and settling it on me. She pauses, and I can tell she’s wondering whether or not to continue. I get the sense she’s assessing me, her daughter, weighing the contents of me and deciding on their value. I feel my heart race faster. I raise my hand to loosen the scarf at my neck, but my mother stops me. “Honey, your neck’s gotten crepe-y. You’re not a child anymore. You’re not even young. Keep yourself covered.”
Stung, I drop my hand. As if to ease the sting, she continues.
“People came and told Sister Charlene all manner of things, I suppose. Before the visitations, she had such a placid expression, not a wrinkle of concern. The best posture.”
I feel myself sit straighter in my chair.
“But now she looked ragged. She was tired, yes, from seeing so many people. After all, she’d come to the convent to be monastic. Here she was, seeing people from morning to night.”
“I can see how that would be a drain,” I say.
“Yes, but it was more than that, I think. It was that she was now fully exposed to the very worst in people, their basest instincts, their deepest wounds. Still, she seemed to be coping until the day the Russian woman showed up. Now, in all fairness, this story was told to me second-hand, by the best friend of the novitiate, Nadia, whose job it was to greet the visitors and wait outside the door to lead them out of the building when they were finished. No one at the convent knew Nadia’s mother had been Russian, so she knew the language. The silence had been getting to Nadia for a while, but even worse for her, she hadn’t heard her mother’s tongue in years. She hadn’t known how much she ached to hear it until the Russian woman showed up.
“The Russian woman was dressed simply. I saw her myself when she arrived. She wore an expensive suit, but no furs as the rich Russians tended to do in those days. Of course, she wore far too much make up. They all do, even today. But she wasn’t, oh, tawdry, I suppose you’d say. She was respectable. Nadia confirmed that this was true of her Russian too. She spoke like an educated woman. Not that Nadia talked to the woman. For one thing, Nadia had to remain silent. For another, she didn’t want anyone thinking she had communist sympathies. Things were still quite bad for the reds then.
“So Nadia led the Russian woman to the door, nodded respectfully as she’d been taught to do, and stepped away, as she’d also been told to do to make people feel they had complete privacy with Sister Charlene. But after the door closed, Nadia tip-toed back to the door to listen – not to the woman’s confessions, per se, but to the woman’s Russian. You see, Nadia couldn’t help herself. She ached for what she missed. That ache pulled her as surely as if she’d been attached to a rope.
“She went to the door and pressed her ear against the wood. She heard the woman’s voice faintly at first, then louder as the woman’s story seemed to gain momentum. She began by telling Sister Charlene how long she had waited to unburden herself, and how she could never tell her local priest for fear of how it would affect her entire family. She told a long, involved story of family grudges and jealousies. Nadia enjoyed hearing about them at first because they reminded her of her mother’s family. She began thinking of her mother, missing her, remembering her, and for a while she lost the thread of the woman’s story. When she again turned her attention to the woman, she heard the woman say, ‘So I killed the child. After only three years on this earth, I smothered him in his sleep.’ The woman collapsed into sobs then and said nothing more other than to thank Sister Charlene profusely for listening. Nadia heard her footsteps and jumped across the room in two steps to the seat she was supposed to remain on while the visitors were inside. After a moment, the woman opened the door, dropped a thick envelope into the donation box, and hurried away.”
“Gosh,” I say, my hand covering my mouth. “Are you sure that’s what she said? I mean, was Nadia sure?”
“Oh, yes, my dear, she was sure. Her whole life she regretted letting that ache to hear her mother tongue get control of her.”
“And Sister Charlene? She couldn’t understand the Russian, right? Did Nadia tell her what the woman had said?”
“She considered it, but we could all see the toll the visitations were already taking on Charlene. She couldn’t possibly have understood the Russian woman, but her visit seemed to push Sister Charlene over the edge. That evening she spent all of vespers weeping quietly, and she hadn’t stopped by the time I left. I heard later that she ended up in mental hospital and was diagnosed with schizophrenia.”
As if telling this story had drained her, my mother now reached for her water glass and drank it down.
“And Nadia?” I said.
“She left the order. Never took her vows. I heard she had joined some revolutionary group in South America and had been killed by some counter group. Had her hands cut off or her tongue cut out, something ironic like that.”
I hear that my mother’s tone has shifted, gone back to the dismissive sarcasm I expect from her. But I sense that telling me this story has cost her something. I want to let her know that I understand what she has told me, but I’m not sure that I do. So I simply thank her for meeting me, thank her for the coffee. We gather our coats and gloves and walk to the door. Outside, I tell her not to worry about me. I’ll be fine. She looks at me for a moment before speaking.
“Yes, of course you will, darling.” She winds my scarf tighter around my neck. “The Russian woman walks away cleansed.”
As I watch my mother walk away, I notice how steady she is, how erect her posture. Her beautiful coat barely sways, but her gloved fingers cut patterns of speech into the air.