Saved by nuns, and grudging, sort of

I was raised Catholic, have been an agnostic since my teens, and have only contempt for the hierarchy of the Catholic church.  That is why it pains me to come to this grudging conclusion–I was saved by nuns.

This blog post has been in process for some time, hastened along by something I read recently on  The author was urging her readers to send their children to public schools, even if they were wealthy, especially if they were wealthy, and could afford other options.  The title was provocative, claiming that if you did not send your children to public school, you were “a bad person.”  That would certainly be news to my working class and hard-working parents, who scrimped and saved to send me to a Catholic girls’ private high school. 

The other option–public school–was the one they themselves had attended.  When I was about to enter 9th grade, it had become an educational travesty, filled with violence, student riots, and loads of times when the school was forced to close halfway through the day because all control had been lost.  I had to change buses most mornings right across the street from that public school, and even the bus stop was a sad and scary place.

At the time, the private Catholic school was peaceful and classes were actually held for long and full days.  I was a successful student, was the editor of the school newpaper until I quit for what are now somewhat foggy political reasons.  I made friends there that I still hold close.  But as a teenager, my list of complaints were long.  There were no boys.The nuns were strict, and well, sort of irrelevant.  I had to go to church (which I refused to do.)  There was no overt feminist consciousness, which I considered a wasted opportunity.  We couldn’t grind against the odd boyfriend at high school dances (“Remember, girls, to leave room for the Holy Spirit. . .)  Really.  We had a course in our senior year called Marriage, in which we learned how to pack our trousseau, for one or two weeks, as the case may be.  The nuns tried to direct those of us going to college to local women’s Catholic colleges while I was just starving for the boy-rich and secular campus of Penn State.  I will stop here, though, on this kind of roll, I really could go on.  And on. 

At 60, here is some of the good stuff about my life.  I moved from the then slowly decaying streets of the North Side of Pittsburgh, graduated from Penn State, went to law school, and became a legal aid lawyer and then a law professor, a position from which I am about to semi-retire in reasonable financial comfort.  I am a lifelong reader and love books as much as I did as a child, maybe more.  I have traveled the world and learned about other cultures.  I read the newspaper every day.  I love language.  All of this–along with marriage, family and friends–cause me to say everyday that my life has been, and continues to be, terrific.

There is no control group in this life’s experiment.   I can’t go back and place myself in that public school in 1966 to see what would have been different. On a recent tour in southern France, one of my tour mates asked what or who I thought was responsible for my professional achievements.  There is undoubtedly a long list, starting with parents and a functional family, the library card my father got for me when I was 4.  The nun in the 4th grade who was the first to suggest I think about college ( this is you, Helene).  In reflecting on this since the question was posed to me, I am certain of one thing–my life would have been different, and worse, if I had attended that public school.  Education has meant everything, and it was education I got from nuns, (and Mrs. Henderson, honors English)  They were unhip, theocratic, terrorizing, and taught Spanish with a weird not-Spanish accent, but I showed up every day and in the end, learned something.  It may been an imperfect springboard, but it launched me into a life that, at 60, I realize was not an accident, and could not be better. 

So, Sisters, this is me, that smart but stubborn and mouthy kid who still likes to argue, saying–wow, this is hard–thank you. You changed my life for the better in significant ways.  I have, however, not given up the near occasions of sin while dancing.  Sorry, had to throw that in. 


The aviator’s wife

Just finished reading The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin for my book group.  A fictionalized bio of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and the famous Charles.  All of my comments are directed to the portrayals of the characters in this novel, which I am told are relatively accurate but have no reason to know either way.  So every sentence I write should begin, “If true. . .”

Let’s dismiss Charles Lindbergh early on.  Egotistical, cold, anti-Semitic, obsessive, punishing, and that’s all before he gets around to having not one, but three secret families (including seven other children) stashed somewhere and hidden from his wife Anne. 

It is Anne that annoyed the hell out of me throughout the entire book, and then after, has intrigued me.  She is rich, smart, well-educated (Smith College).  She picks the hero of the century to marry, and despite everything (and there is a lot of everything–see above), she stays with him. 

Marrying  the hero is probably the easier part to understand.  Apparently Charles Lindbergh was the rock star of his time, and no one cared to look beneath the rock star status; in fact, it seems that everyone was heavily invested in NOT looking too closely.  Maybe the relatively innocent Anne with no self esteem (as she describes it)  can be forgiven for making what turned out to be a bad choice.  Let she who is among us. . .

Despite the crushing paparazzi, his selfishness, his unexplained absences, his unending requirements that she take frequent inventory of even the smallest of household objects, his demands that she account for every penny of a household budget, and maybe the worst, his insistence that she use her celebrity to pimp his anti-Semitic views, she stayed with him.  She was a diplomat’s daughter, and a wealthy one.  Clearly she was not bound to Lindbergh for financial reasons.  And so it appears that the tie was emotional and societal.   Which brings me–as it always does–to the realization that I do not think I could have survived for long, or at all, in the marriage-is-everything-for-women era.

Morrow Lindbergh recounts conversations she had with close friends as they were all on the eve of their college graduations, commenting to each other that they had received educations, but for what?  Aside from her sister, who had other reasons to eschew marriage, not a single women had any career ambitions beyond finding a husband, having children, and playing the helpmate role for the rest of her life. Anne vaguely wanted “to write” but would not do anything concrete to further her goals.   Anne made me itchy, and impatient, and annoyed.  Then I realized that her and her coterie’s lack of ambition was not quite that; it was a realization that there was no place–no place at all–for a woman who did not accept the marriage-is-everything-for-women credo. Best then to find the best husband, by whatever criteria husbands were then judged. 

The marriage seems to have become pretty terrible early on.  She doesn’t leave because again, beyond marriage,  there is no there for her.  Her money could buy her an apartment of her own–even she recognizes this–but what would her life have been?  She could have raised her children.  Would a divorced Mrs. Lindbergh have had any friends, anything but disapproval from the diplomat father, any paid or unpaid meaningful work ?  Is a divorced Mrs. Lindbergh suitable once again for the marriage market? I guess not.  I guess you lie in the bed you have made when the alternative is to have no bed at all. 

I picture myself in her circumstances and am convinced that I could have not endured.  I would have been one of those women under a doctor’s care for hysteria.  Imagine having to keep all of that pain to oneself because no one would understand why being married to the rock star was anything but perfect. 

My apologies, Anne, for my impatience. My congratulations on having survived it all standing up.

One person, many lives

A series of events sparked my thinking about whether we are or are not the same person throughout our lives. The first is a howler (better, of course, if you had actually been there) of an anecdote involving my husband and me in our adjustment to retired and semi-retired living. As we navigate these first few weeks of our “altered work status”, we find ourselves hanging out at home, in what might charitably be described as ever more casual dress. For me this summer, that has meant fairly ugly, baggy shorts. One day last week, I decided that I needed to go to our local food coop to pick up something for dinner. I asked my husband if he wanted to come along and have lunch in the coop cafe. As we pulled into the co-op parking lot, I looked down and realized that I had failed to change out of the ugly baggy shorts, a fact I announced with dismay. My husband kept assuring me that I “looked okay” as that is his nature. We pulled the truck to a stop, me still inwardly fuming at my sartorial failure, when my husband slid from his seat, began to walk toward the coop, looked down at his feet, and said “Oh god, I am still wearing my bedroom slippers.” We had that moment when we were simultaneously horrified and amused. And we asked ourselves: Is this who we have become?

Not long after the this incident (which we weakly vowed never to repeat), we went on a long (geographically) although short (temporally) road trip. Each stop represented a different part of my life: two days with extended family, an afternoon on my old college campus, taking photos of me in front of my old dorm room, lunch with two friends I had not seen in decades, time alone with my husband of 13 years.  I saw myself at 19 and at 60, and at many ages in between.  As a wife, a friend, a daughter, an aunt, a great-aunt, an in-law, all in multiple settings.  I thought about how my appearance had changed, long-to-short hair, thin to not-so thin.  Single, many relationships, then married. Friends of all sorts and in every corner.  How much change occurs in one lifetime, and what does it all mean?

Toward the end of the trip, I came upon a profile in the NYT about the writer George Saunders.  The reporter, interviewing Saunders at his home, notices a photo of a much younger Saunders, playing guitar “with white-blond Johnny Winter hair to his shoulders. . .”  As if in response, Saunders picks up the photo and says “In our lives, we’re many people.”

Can’t stop thinking of that.  In the most shallow example, am I moving from being a person in professional attire plus lipstick to a different person, one in baggy shorts?  A person who spent decades striving in her career, now a person who is not?  Were the decades-old funny stories my friends told my husband  stories about me, or about a former me, one of the “many people” Saunders claims we are during a lifetime?  If we are “many people”, what is the core of who we are, and does it shift, disappear and re-invent itself over time?

I don’t know the ultimate answer.  For me, I would suggest a variation of Saunders’ comment.  Rather than being many people in one life, I feel as if I am one person in and with many lives.  I recognize the 19-year old as me, albeit a me with a then different life.  My friends, whom I had not seen in decades, recognized me, and I them, despite the fact that each of us is living a life very different from the one we shared together.  For some reason, this gives me comfort and a connection to the past that I savor.  Life is what changes;  what we get to carry with us, what is the constant, is who we are.  What do you think?