Sister Joanne

Here’s a nugget of advice to all you writers out there: Never let your wicked wage slave job know that you can write. Because, suddenly, you’ll be writing everything for your boss and then get yelled at for falling behind in your regular duties.

People who can’t write (I won’t sat “don’t,” because everybody has a novel) think it’s easy. They think memos, reports, emails, whatever all just spring forth fully formed. Not true. It takes time and effort to write shit – even if it’s simple. Especially if it’s simple, and mindless, and deeply boring. Holy shit…

The added problem is that my job involves lots of phone work. For five hours out of the day, I’m getting phone calls from the lost, hopeless customers who need me to help them find their assholes. So try writing a 12 page internal memo summing up the shit that we do RIGHT NOW NEED IT BEFORE THE WEEK IS OVER OH MY GOD! while taking an endless stream of idiot phone calls.

Can I get off the phones to do it? Nope. So it’s write a sentence – phone rings, get yelled at by a demon – write another sentence – phone rings, crazy old lady looking for free drugs and/or sex – write a sentence… That, and getting a book published, is what I’ve spent the last week doing.

How I yearn to be an idiot. Maybe it’s just because, really, deep down, I can’t write. My grasp on the English language is colored by grades 1-6 in Catholic school and a deep disdain for, you know, work. I can no longer diagram a sentence. In fact, if you really want to worry about the health of my brain, I’ll also confess that I can no longer do the multiplication tables, or write in cursive (I also have to pause to read cursive), and that I’ve certainly forgotten anything I learned in any science class. Unless it involved rocks…but even that is fading. The only thing I remember is history.

Ah, I mentioned the Catholics. Dark secret time! First time I’ve publicly confessed this: I was a devout Catholic until I was 13 and I still would be if it wasn’t for Sister Joanne at St. Catherine Laboure school in Wheaton, Maryland. I want to single them out, because it was a lousy school. Sister Joanne was the principal who sentenced me to a week’s detention after school let out for the summer. It was a trumped up charge – on the last day of school, we went to Wheaton Regional Park and were told to wander free (because nothing bad happened back then!), but we weren’t allowed to go past the botanical gardens. I went to the botanical gardens, because I’ve always been a plant person, and I wandered around looking at all the cool stuff when, about an hour later, the police descended on me at Terror Alert Level Burgundyish. Except, back then, it was more like Soviet Spy Alert 12. They hauled me back to my teacher, who was freaking out – “I told you not to go past the botanical gardens!” she screamed. I argued that I hadn’t done so, but it was no good. I spent the rest of that day in Sister Joanne’s office, and then was told that the first week of summer would be spent in the school. Get this – I was to wash all the walls in the hallways with a toothbrush. Ladders, buckets of water, floor to ceiling.

So I should explain my Catholicism. My family gave up religion in the 1920’s and 30’s, all the better to smuggle liquor down from Canada, through Parkersburg, WV, and on through the country. My great grandfather was responsible for the roads from Columbus, OH down to Parkersburg, and he kept my family out of church to cut those backroads through forest and field. Of course, Sunday mornings are best for illegal trafficking. All those small town yahoos are in church.

Therefore, my grandfather never really had a chance to become indoctrinated in any church. Nominally, we’re Baptists. But if you were to ask anyone in my family where the nearest Baptist church is, they’d probably just spit at you.

My grandmother was raised on a mountaintop outside Petroleum, WV. Her family worshipped horses and harvest gods. Seriously. And not in the granola hippie way. In the fucking “1930 AD or BC?” way. Like if the Blair Witch settled down and started a family.

My grandmother sometimes tells stories of magical white horses that haunted the woods. When I enquired how a horse could haunt, she’d fix me with a hard stare and tell me that it ate people.

My grandparents had three children and carried on the passive anti-religion theme. My uncle and my aunt are blissfully free of religious doctrine, outside of the regular old Christian America bullshit that permeates all of our lives. My mom, though… She was touched, as my grandmother puts it. She first found solace in drugs and booze, which were habits that she maintained up until her suicide. And that’s fine. But then she married my dad. Something that proved to be the worst thing she could have ever done. He came from a strong Catholic family and, though his long Sunday “masses” were really outings with prostitutes, mom became enamored with the idea of the church. Or, perhaps, she knew about the hookers and wanted to keep him honest. Either way, she kind of got stuck there with all the trappings of Catholicism wooing her away from sanity. Further away.

We were rich, back then. Millionaires and a famous DC name. Our local church was Holy Redeemer in Kensington, MD, and they were after us for money. I went to their school until fifth grade, when things sort of fell apart. I now know that mom was having a lesbian relationship with her drug connection – my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Schmidt. Mom always had a drug connection. The weird suburban underground subculture funneling pot and pills to her. Lipstick lesbians and cocaine. Amen.

The dissolution of her affair with my teacher led to a transfer of our allegiance to St. Catherine’s in Wheaton. I entered sixth grade there in 1986, and only lasted that year. In that year, my father left with the family fortune and we went from millions to food stamps in about two weeks. Back then, you could get cash change from foodstamps. I spent all my weekends for two years being driven from store to store to buy packs of gum with $20 foodstamps in order to get enough cash to keep mom in drugs and booze for the week.

Needless to say, that first year after dad left was a rough one for me. Perhaps that’s why I preferred to go fuck off alone to the botanical gardens on that ill fated school trip? Though I continue to feel that I was obeying the rules. Sister Joanne had no right to drive me away from the church.

And drive me away she did. Because mom was often too fucked up to be around, my grandparents picked me up after school. When my grandmother was told by Sister Joanne that I would be staying an extra week into the summer holiday, that was a mistake. Never confront my grandmother. That’s a rule everyone in my family has learned well. It’s a rule that also extends to God.

On the last day of school, my grandmother ignored Sister Joanne and just gently pushed her away, taking me home. That was kind, I thought. Even then, after years as a Catholic, I had more respect and fear for my grandmother than I did for the entire heavenly host. I sat in the car and watched that gentle push and I thought: Sister, don’t fuck with that woman.

My grandmother was good enough to take me to my first day of detention, after an entire evening of saying “Fuck that bitch nun.” The day started at 8am and ended at 5pm, the entire time spent washing the hallways with a toothbrush. No breaks, no lunch. When my grandmother arrived at five, she asked me what they had me doing. I told her. Then I got the gentle push (out the door, into the car, slam went the door) and my grandmother stormed back into the school. Ten minutes later, she stormed back out with Sister Joanne chasing after her and most of the main office staff trailing. I noticed that several of the secretaries, and two other sisters, were in tears.

My grandmother turned on Sister Joanne and lunged, but the old nun was pretty good. She dodged, and then made a bee-line for the car. She hammered on the window, which was cracked just enough so I could breathe (electric, so I couldn’t roll it down further). Sister Joanne put her mouth to the crack in the window and hissed: “I will kick you out of this school. I will see to it that you never go to a Catholic school in this country again. I will kick you out of the church.” Words that have haunted me ever since.

So I got excommunicated through a car window by a nun. She drummed me out of St. Catherine’s and I went to public school. I was “fired” as an altar boy, and I wasn’t allowed back in the church. My grandmother never told me what she said or did, but she ended my detention right then and there… I had the rest of the summer to myself, and returned to the regular way my family lived their lives: Godless and happy.

The Catholic thing lingered on long enough to last through my confirmation. After that, and since it was hard enough to put that together under the parameters set up by Sister Joanne, who opposed my confirmation, I lost interest.

Here we are over 20 years later. My mom has offed herself, my dad died in pain and poverty, my grandmother currently lies immobilized in a hospital bed, and I’ve been long removed from my Catholicism. I find myself regretting that. I could still be a good Catholic boy if it wasn’t for Sister Joanne. In recent years, I’ve found myself entertaining thoughts of rediscovering my religion. But whenever I draw close to it, I think of Sister Joanne’s foul lips squeezed into the crack of the car window, hissing her vitriolic excommunication at me. The church has become nothing but the few seconds of hatred from that crazy witch, trying to squeeze through that tiny space to get at me. Twenty years on, and I can picture that moment with perfect clarity. And on some of these long, winter nights, it’s an image that keeps me awake. A wound that’s never been able to heal.


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