The Vocation

Our Lady of Lourdes and Bernadette
Our Lady of Lourdes and Bernadette

Sometime during my elementary school years, one of the years after the toothless second grade and before breast buds, at a time when I thought that liking or thinking about boys too much could get you in “trouble” whatever that meant exactly, I wanted to be a nun.

It must have been around the time of fourth grade when my parochial school chums and I were embarked upon a full year of studying the lives of the Saints in preparation for our Holy Confirmation the following year.  I understood Confirmation to be the important act of “confirming” our Catholicism, proving that in addition to our Baptisms over which we had no choice, our now mature minds choose this path for ourselves.

Anyway, I liked the Saints.  They were brave and scary–fighting lions, getting stabbed lots of times, hanging out in the desert all by themselves, losing their heads…  They were glamorous too.  Mere children seeing visions, having the whole world take notice and make pilgrimages to their magic spot, being revered for their special piety.  These children were my heroes.

I especially liked Saint Bernadette.  I saw a picture of her and she had brown hair like me.   She was an oldest sister like me, too.  She was strong and brave and held on to her special secrets.  She only told the Pope and he wouldn’t tell anyone.  Then she got to be a nun.

Since I plainly knew it wasn’t a good idea to think about boys, I got really carried away with fantasies about Bernadette and her siblings.  I began to think that if I prayed a great deal and acted real pious, maybe I could earn that special kind of attention.  However, being an older sister, I knew that to get any real attention for anything, you couldn’t wait around for someone to notice.  You had to specifically ask for it.

So, one day, during recess, I rang the rectory door bell and asked to speak to Father Brown.  We arranged ourselves in his office.  He on the working side of the desk.  Little old me in a big leather visitor’s chair on the other side.  There was a lot of paper.  I explained my quest for holiness; my desire to spend my life in devout servitude; my commitment to never liking boys; and my attraction to wearing the really neat outfit of a nun.  In fact I shared with him that I wanted to enter the convent now and I hoped he would help me.  “The world’s youngest nun.”  I liked that idea a lot.

In hindsight, I’m amazed he didn’t laugh out loud.  He probably called all of his priest buddies the second I was out the door.  “Hey, Father Jones!  You’ll never guess who was just in my office!  The world’s youngest nun!”

But Father Brown gave me his sincere attention.  He said he thought it was wonderful that I found my vocation but that if I left my family for the convent now, they would miss me and would be sad.

“I don’t think so,” I pleaded.  After all, there were two other kids to keep my parents busy.  It couldn’t hurt to ask.

Father Brown wouldn’t budge.

I cried a little.

Instead, Father Brown suggested that I could get started on the path to nunhood by giving up my recess time every Wednesday to the service of the Lord.  And so, every Wednesday for the remainder of the school year, I earned “brownie points” toward my convent goal by vacuuming and dusting the sacristy area.

I was real grateful at first.  A few other nun wannabes had already been given the assignment so they showed me the ropes and where the priests kept the magical holy things every church needed to be a real church of God and not just a fancy building.   I did my chores and I stared at the statues of Jesus with his bloody palms, and the paintings of the Madonna, who was a virgin, a woman who had been very careful not to like boys too much.

But after a while, after dusting these icons dozens of times and finding chips in their paint and uneven brush strokes, after seeing our communion stacked up in boxes like saltine crackers, and after plowing the noisy Hoover around the sacred relics a few hundred times, these embodiments of holiness began to lose their charm.  By the time the school year was ending, all the other wannabes lured by the warming weather and recess, and boys I presumed, had abandoned their posts, leaving me to Wednesday cleaning chores on my own.

I needed a test to see if this holy stuff was going anywhere.  I needed to see a beam of light, some mysterious smoke, a statue crying real tears or bleeding!  I needed a vision.  I needed a sign.  Something from God, The Virgin Mary, or little baby Jesus, or even a Saint to let me know that I was indeed worthy of nunhood and that I should keep this cleaning junk up.

Of course I couldn’t just wait around for the holy family to know I needed this sign.  I had already been watching carefully for weeks.  So, on the last Wednesday of the school year, after completing my tasks and putting away the Hoover and the dust rags, I stood in the sacristy, in front of the alter, facing the choir balcony and said the dirtiest most awful word I knew, “shit.”

I waited.  Nothing happened.  My profanity in the holiest of holy places evoked no response.  No bolt of lightning.  No sudden cold breeze.  Not even a whisper of smoke.  It was over.  My dream of becoming not only the world’s youngest nun, but a nun at any time in my life, was dashed. And as young people do, I quickly moved on to a new passion—baseball.   I even thought it might be ok to play with the boys a little bit that summer.

By Elaine Carol Bernadette Maly

confirmed 1967

(This essay was featured on WUWM’s Lake Effect program in 2012.)

Condom Mom

Me and Ben when he was a senior in high school
Me and Ben when he was a senior in high school

Benny came home from school all excited.  “Mom, mom, mom, mom, mom, mom.”  “Guess what we learned about in school today?  Condominiums.”

“You mean like apartments?” I ask.

“No,” he says.  “The kind you use for sex.”

A while back I had to sign a permission slip for him to participate in his fifth grade class’s sex ed program.  Talking to my sons about sex was going to be a difficult job for a single mom, so I was really happy about this.  I wanted them to have all of the information possible to prevent any chance of a teen pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease.

“I think you mean condoms.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he says.

“Well, did they show you one?” I ask.

“No,” he says.

Nothing like a teachable moment I think and ask him if he’d like to see one.  He does and I make a huge mistake.  I bring out the paper bag full of them that I got at the clinic.

“Oh my god,” he screams.  “Why do you have so many?  That asshole Larry brought them here didn’t he!”

“No,” I say in defense of my ex-boyfriend.  “They’re mine.”  Another mistake.

Older brother Sam comes home at about this time and I’m ready to serve the hot dogs I’ve been simmering on the stove.  We sit down to eat.  I take a condom out of the package and explain that they fit over a man’s penis.

“It’s so big,” he cries.  “How could anyone fit into that?”

“I could,” says 13 year old Sam as he hops his naked hot dog across his plate. I fake a sneeze to hide my laughter.

And then it dawns on me that I better find a reasonable way to end this conversation because I have to drive Ben and three of his friends to basketball practice in about 10 minutes.

“Look, Benny, these aren’t illegal.  When you’re 18, you can buy them at the grocery store.”

“Where?” he wants to know and I explain that they are probably right near the tampons which makes him roll his eyes and sob some more.

I promise to show him sometime.  And then because I don’t want to get any phone calls about my bag of condoms from other parents, I say “Now, Ben, this is private business.  I don’t want you talking about it at basketball practice.”

“If it’s so private, why do we have to talk about it all the time,” he shoots back.

We get in the car, pick up Tommy, Julian, and Vinnie, and head off to practice.  As we’re passing the grocery store, I see Ben in my rear view mirror.  He’s raising his eye brows up and down in a Groucho Marx sort of way.

“Hey guys,” he says.  “Do you know what you can get at the grocery store?”

“Ben, what did I tell you!” I warn.  But not before he whispers, “condoms.”

Two years later, I am home from work a little earlier than usual and intercept the mail carrier.  Among the bills and junk, there’s an unusual brown puffy envelope addressed to Ben.  It’s suspicious enough that I can’t resist the urge to open it.  Apparently my darling boy is a member of the condom of the month club.

As soon as Ben gets home from school, we have a talk.  He informs me that he, Tommy, Julian, and Vinnie are all members.  They saw an ad in a “magazine” and signed up.  He said that he thought that I’d like it because condoms are so important.

“Well what are you doing with them?” I ask dreading the answer.

“Nothing really.  We just show them to other guys.”  He assures me that he’s not having sex.

I cancel his membership and have a chat with the other parents.  But I’m glad that he’s comfortable with condoms.  When the time comes, I want to make sure he’ll use them.

A few years later, as a sophomore in high school, Ben has to give a “how to” speech in his English class.  He asks me if he could demonstrate how to use a condom.  “If it’s okay with your teacher,” I say, thinking that this is good information for teenagers to have.  Miraculously, the teacher agrees and gets every parent to agree too.

The night before the speech, we go to the grocery store.  Ben picks Trojan brand condoms and the longest bananas in the produce aisle.  We spend the evening on the weirdest mother/son activity ever—rehearsing his speech and rolling condoms down our practice bananas.

You know, as moms, we want desperately to protect our children.   We teach them how to safely cross the street, to not take candy from strangers, to “just say no” to drugs.  But we don’t always know when to hover and when to let go, or how much information is too much information.  We make mistakes.  But we do our best because our love for our children is earnest and true.

The next day Ben greets me after work by flinging the text of his speech in my face as he dances around the room flexing his biceps.  A+   I make banana bread to celebrate.

(I read this essay for Listen To Your Mother on 4/26/15.  Utube video scheduled for late summer.)

Keep Your Legs Together

My new friend Harriet and I were laughing about the things our mothers told us when we were kids—like not to wear patent leather shoes because boys could see up your skirt; make sure to always wear clean underwear in case we were in a car accident; and most importantly, to sit with our legs together, close together.

“It was so silly,” we agreed.

“As though something would fly up there,” I said.

Harriet snorted.  “Fly up there?” she said.  My mom was afraid something would fly out.  I guess that’s the difference between Catholic and Jewish mothers,” she said.

Pie

Bronson
Bronson

“Hi Grandma E. Come in my room I have something to show you,” says three-year-old Bronson. I’m thrilled that my husband and I are past the point of having to reintroduce ourselves to him every time we visit. Unlike my older two grandsons who live just 10 minutes away, Bronson and his parents live as far away from Milwaukee as you can get and still be in the Continental U.S.—San Diego, California. So, while San Diego is a beautiful place to visit, we don’t get there as often as we’d like.

It’s been interesting to watch him grow in three and four month increments. One visit he’s crawling, the next he’s walking, and the next he’s talking. His vocabulary has come a long way. He knows all of the names of dinosaurs. And he can give detailed instructions about how to skate board. But like many little guys Bronson’s age, he says “yike” instead of “like” as in “I yike dinosaurs;” and his favorite affirmative expression is “ohtay”.

When my husband and I made the trip to San Diego in January, we noticed a little trouble with “p’s”. He doesn’t make the p sound when it’s at the beginning of a word. He substitutes it with an “f.” For example, he asked my husband to “fush” him on the swing. He asked me to play “fuzzles” with him. And when he has to go to the bathroom, it’s time to “foop.” Adorable right?

A few days into our visit, we were finishing dinner at a nice restaurant. I always sit next to Bronson so we can talk. I said, “I see that you ate all of your rice and beans. I’m glad you like them.”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I yike rice and beans.”

To keep the conversation going I asked “What other kinds of food do you like? Do you like cheese burgers?”

“No, I don’t yike cheese burgers.”

“What about brats, do you like them?” I asked, hoping that our Wisconsin roots have taken hold.

“Yes, I yike brats.”

“I bet you like cake, too.”

“Oh yes, I yike strawberry cake. Will you make one for me?”

“Yes, I will make you one when you come to visit me in Milwaukee,” I said.

“Ohtay, let’s go,” said Bronson.

Then I asked if he likes pie.

“No, I don’t yike fie.”

“Really, don’t you like apple pie or blueberry pie?’

“No I don’t yike fie,” he says with increased vehemence.

“Didn’t you have any pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving?”

He responds at ear drum piercing three-year-old volume, “No I don’t yike fuckin fie. Fuckins are for hawoween. Fuckins have yights in them in all of the houses. I don’t yike fuckin fie!”

The whole restaurant went silent. “Check please,” said my husband.