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Two nuns and my second confession


Sister Anne Marie

It was in second grade that I discovered I could not see.
This thought had never occurred to me in all my years.
When Sister Anne spun suddenly to write on the board,
Her rosary big as a halter desperately trying to catch up
With a clack and clatter like railroad cars, I leaned over
To one or the other of the kids near me to read what we
Were supposed to know. Isn't that why God made rows
Of desks, so you had good sight angles in all directions?
But she noticed, did Sister Anne. She noticed each of us.
She was probably all of twenty. We thought her ancient.
But she knew which boy could not read, not even a little,
And which of us didn't actually forget lunch, and who is
Wearing his older sister's winter coat with the lapels cut.
She sent me to the nurse one time, perhaps I had a fever,
But the note she wrote said check his eyes. Yes, I read it.
The nurse put it on the corner of her desk and I peered at
It later, worried I was being sent to Siberia or something.
But that finished with me getting glasses, which changed
Everything. The universe had edges! I never did recover.
Imagine what it was like to put on spectacles, for the first
Time, after never seeing the clarity and geometry of it all.
Imagine the jolt of absolute stunned delight. Imagine that,
Just for a minute. All these years later I can't stop smiling.

Sister Dorita

Or, conversely, consider the nun we had for first grade.
This was Sister Dorita, who had a stevedore's forearms.
On the second day of school she hauled a bubbling boy
Named David into the air by his necktie. He hung there,
Squeaking, as she explained things tersely. We gawked.
He didn't seem much worse for wear when he achieved
This blessed earth again. We were all hugely impressed
With the ease of hoist and suspension. It never occurred
To us that David might have been humiliated and afraid.
It never occurred to us that maybe Sister was frightened
Also, scared of her temper, worried about losing control,
Worried that she could not deliver anything of substance
To these thirty holy creatures who seethed and wept and
Gaped at her, hungry for something they could not name.
It never occurred to us that she was a girl in her twenties,
Rattled and thrilled by her vows, terrified that she would
Never find dear friends among her new sisters, frustrated
By the many overbearing priests like exasperating uncles,
Wondering what would happen to her two old boyfriends,
Trying to attend to the miracle of doing the convent wash.
It never occurred to us to wonder what she thought as she
Brought David gently back to earth. Perhaps she shivered.
I suppose it's possible that the whole thing was deliberate
Theater, a public demonstration about the price of yelling
In class, but I don't think so. I think it was another instant
When matters hung suspended between laughter and fury.
I remember that she smiled as she turned back to her desk.
If ever I wished a poem was a prayer I wish it now for her.

My second confession

The first time you go to confession it's mostly Ritual,
For all the hurry and worry and crinkling new clothes;
There's nothing to actually confess at the age of eight,
And the whole event is about admittance and presents:
The first rosary rising from its shining box like a cobra,
Your own Bible bound in supple pliable white calfskin,
Your aunt wondering who murdered the poor wee calf
And if that bloody git had to go to confession too, yeh?
It's the next confession that's got hair on it, as my aunt
Was also fond of mumbling. You ask your older sisters
If you can borrow some of their more sophisticated sin,
Something heavier than I dishonoured my mum and dad,
Everyone uses that one, poor Father behind his wooden
Panel hearing that twenty times a day chirped by babies
Totally unaware of the thousand ways they will later do
Exactly that. You can borrow the sin of self-abuse, says
An older sister which sends all my sisters into hysterics
Before they slam their bedroom door to talk about boys.
And so I ambled into the dense velvet dark of the booth
And knelt, and Father, catching the creak of the kneeler,
Slid the rattling maple panel back behind the iron grille,
And I said Bless me Father for I have sinned previously,
And he made an odd sound in his nose and said Perhaps
You mean grievously, which I most sincerely doubt, and
I warmed him up with dishonouring of mother and father,
And he said something I didn't catch and then I told him
I had beaten up my younger brothers and in my memory
He said cheerfully ah isn't that what kid brothers are for,
And then I went with self-abuse. He made that odd noise
In his nose again but this time it didn't stop. I was afraid
Maybe he was having a Brain Seizure like my aunts said
The Mets players had eleventy times a game every game.
I waited for a while and finally Father came back around.
His voice was a little shaky but he sounded fairly healthy.
I believe I must have a wee priestly chat with your sisters
About leading lambs astray with what seems to be funny,
He said. In the meantime, for your penance I want you to
Enjoy this really lovely day as much as you possibly can,
Will you do that? Yes, Father, I said, and ran off, thrilled.
This confession stuff, it seemed to me, was as easy as pie.

Brian DoyleBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of Thirsty for the Joy: Australian & American Voices. 

Topic tags: Brian Doyle, Thirsty for the Joy, Sister Anne Marie, Sister Dorita, My Second Confession



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Existing comments

Thank you, thank you, thank you. A wonderful reflection/remembrance for the start of Advent. Our parish church will surely be full for reconciliation for who can resist responding to the remembered joy of regaining innocence.

Anna C North Avoca | 30 November 2010  

Ah Brian, you've done it again!!

Patricia Taylor | 30 November 2010  

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