Home > Called Out of Darkness(9)

Called Out of Darkness(9)
Author: Anne Rice

The great things I remember from school were incidental.

I loved the Girl Scout troop to which I belonged in fifth and sixth grades, and remember the ladies who formed it with great affection, and during our times at camp, I experimented with writing plays for the other girls and acting in these plays. I simply loved this; and I remember vaguely that we did plays at recess in school too. That was very simply great.

I also remember our seventh-grade teacher, Sister Francesca, reading a novel to us in the afternoons. It was called Red Caps and Lilies, and it was about young children during the French Revolution and their adventures as they roamed about Paris during those troublesome times. I don't remember a single thing from this novel, but I do remember the pleasure of listening to this story, and I remember, too, that other girls loved it, and that when Sister was reading this story to us just about everyone was happy. There was peace in the room.

I should add here that up until the age of fourteen I was a seriously religious child.

At twelve, I wanted to become a priest. When I was told that was impossible, I couldn't grasp why. I remember pester-ing a priest named Father Steffens about this, and that he tried to make swift work of the explanation by telling me that not only could I not be a priest, but there had actually been a time when theologians weren't sure women had souls.

I think he was being humorous when he said this, and in a way he was murmuring to himself about this more than he was talking to me. But there was some connection in his mind between this theological matter and my not being able to be a priest.

He was in many respects a patient and loving man, and he worked hard for our parish. I pestered him with my rampant enthusiasms. But I really didn't see why I couldn't be a priest.

In fact, I was pretty certain that sooner or later I could become one. It was just a matter of patience, because at twelve, I didn't have enough power to swing it. But the time would come later on.

But I never forgot Father Steffens having said this, about theologians debating whether or not women had souls. I never forgot it yet it made no impression. I had no sense of being a young woman, or of being excluded from anything because of gender. The words seemed pointless and stupid and irrelevant. Yet I filed them away somewhere in my mind.

And I decided that I wanted to be a nun.

My plans did not work out, and with reason. I was no more suited to go into the convent than I was to go from prison to Solitary Confinement. The most important sort of nun was a contemplative nun, a nun who might become a great mystic, and I was not cut out for the cloistered life. I lost interest soon enough.

But I want to describe one important experience before I leave this aborted plan.

For one entire summer of my life, probably between the fifth and sixth grade, I worked every day from 5:30 in the morning to 6:00 p.m. in the evening at a home for elderly people run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. I happened into this experience because of my sister, Alice, who had been going there to work as well. To work in such a place was com-mendable Catholic volunteer behavior, and I took to this with great enthusiasm, and lived an extraordinary summer as the result of it.

The convent was on Prytania Street, and like many convents, it was made up of a central building, which included the chapel, and two great wings. It was three stories high.

And it was red brick. The property included the entire city block. One wing housed the elderly women; the other housed the elderly men, and the convent proper where the nuns lived. All the rooms of the building were immense; the old people slept in huge dormitories. The hallways were extremely wide. Light flooded in from windows everywhere.

Doorways had glass transoms. The old people roamed many large comfortable sitting rooms on the main floors. The place was orderly and clean.

Morning began with Mass at five-thirty in the chapel, and the chapel, like all the Catholic chapels I knew, was exquisitely beautiful, with the requisite carved pews, ornate altar, and opulent flowers on the linen-draped altar at all times.

The workday involved the care of the elderly at three meals which were served in the refectories on either side of the central building, the making of beds and dust mopping of the dormitories in which the old ladies lived, and some work in the infirmary where the bedridden were kept in long rooms, and some work in the laundry where I spent time with Sister Pauline, a Chilean nun, ironing clothes or working a mangler for the pressing of men's shirts and sheets.

Sister Ambrosine, an elderly French sister, managed the old ladies. At noon, a young sister, Sister Ignatius, came to help with the serving of the food.

This was a distinctly European place. And its architecture and atmosphere were apparently replicated not only all over America, but perhaps all over the world.

I loved working with all these sisters, but the most deliriously happy times were spent with Sister Pauline. She told me fabulous tales of growing up in Chile, and she also had a great love of the garden, and I went with her to cut mar-guerites, or white-petaled daisies, to put into vases for the many statues of the Virgin and the saints which were all over the convent.

These experiences in the garden were rapturous. It seemed there was a whole field there of white daisies through which we roamed. And beyond, the garden stretched the full length of the block, ending at the back walls. There was a long row of fig trees, a veritable orchard. Sister Pauline and I climbed up into these trees, and gathered figs for the old people. And it seemed we could move through these trees along these thick smooth branches, without ever climbing down to the ground.

In the infirmary, I wrote letters for the bedridden old people. I did many other chores. The nuns pretty much let me try anything that I wanted to try. What impressed me was the ease with which things could be accomplished or maintained in this environment. Caring for the old people was a noble and interesting task. And I loved old people.

I wanted to join the order. I begged my father to let me join. But he said no. He told me that he needed me at home and that I was trying to run away from being needed. And I knew that he was right. I sought a refuge in the coherent and intense life of this convent, in its great physical beauty, and in the gentle orderly ways of the nuns.

My father also told me that none of my talents would be of use to the Little Sisters of the Poor. It was not the order for me. In spite of my poor grades, it seemed I was perceived as having a great interest in music, books, and writing. And I think he was right that my temperament was not for the Little Sisters of the Poor. After all I was a person of rampant enthusiasms and dreams, of great frustration and longing, though how I was going to realize any dream was not clear.

My father told me another thing that summer. He said he was worried about me, that I was putting in a full day of work, and indeed a day of work that was as hard as his day.

And I was not an adult, I was a child.

This was of course just what I loved about this summer. I was working, working with other adults, and in a realm of adults, where there were no children, and what I did had integrity. I was a part of a meaningful world.

When the summer came to an end, I went back to school, though I preserved my dream of being a nun someday in some order, and of being a saint, like the saints whose lives I read all the time.

Shortly after that, the home of the Little Sisters of the Poor on Prytania Street, this beautiful brick building with its gorgeous gardens, was torn down. It could not meet the fire codes of the period and it had to go. The old people were scattered to other homes, and I assume the nuns were too.

And the building was soon obliterated and replaced by a modern building, as if the lovely coherent world there had never existed. It was a chilling loss.

I retain one key memory from that period. One evening I left the convent as usual and headed for the streetcar stop to take the car home. It was just one of many such evenings, with the sun still burning in the rapidly changing sky.

On this particular evening as I walked up Prytania Street to Amelia Street, I caught sight of a huge tree, against the golden light, with its branches catching the breeze. The breeze took hold of the tree, limb by limb, and finally the entire tree, with its countless tiny curling leaves, was moving as if in a great dance.

I knew perfect joy then as I looked at that tree. I knew a joy that was beyond description. All was right with the world. The world made sense. God made us and God loved us; and I'd done a good day's work with the best people I knew and for the best reasons I knew; and here was this magnificent spectacle, this entrancing vision of this simple common tree caught in the simple common miracle of the evening breeze.

I was transported in that moment. No sorrow, no worry, no frustration, meant anything. It was a glorious moment, and I think of it all the time.

Move forward in time eighteen years. I'm a continent away from that spot and that moment; I'm an adult, an atheist. I live in Berkeley, California. I'm married, and I have a beautiful child. I am coming home one evening from the grocery store to our apartment.

And suddenly I look up and see another tree catch the breeze, just as that long-ago tree had done. This is an acacia tree of huge dark branches, and myriad leaves. And the sky is red with evening, and the light is going away. But the tree catches the wind and goes into this great transformative dance.

I stop and stare at this. I watch it. And I think of the long-ago tree in New Orleans outside the convent. And I feel the same sudden transporting joy. Life has meaning. Life has meaning just because this tree is so breathtakingly beautiful and because it can dance this way in the evening breeze. I am filled with happiness. I have no questions.

The next day in Berkeley, California, a man comes to the door and tells me that they are cutting down that acacia tree.

I hear the buzz saws in the background. He is sorry, he says, but it is bringing down the telephone wires. There is nothing to be done. By the time I go out the tree is just about gone.

All of it, all of that mighty tree, cut to pieces and gone.

Later that year my daughter is diagnosed with acute gran-ulocytic leukemia, and she begins to die.

One might ask, Was the moment of seeing that acacia tree a reminder? Was it perhaps a gentle whisper: Remember this: There are dark times coming. Remember this tree and its movements, its abandon, its surrender to the wind. Remember the tree you saw that evening when you were a child.

Remember the joy.

Chapter Five

What does it mean to grow up Cat hollic ?

I entered school in 1947. I left Catholic high school in 1958.

Throughout these years I lived among other Catholics, in a large parish, and just about everyone I knew was Catholic, except for the teachers at the art museum in City Park. What they were I didn't know.

As I've mentioned, our parish had two immense and ornate churches, filled with emblems and tokens of our faith, and a small chapel in the Garden District, "for the rich people," to which we also went.

Our parish had a history. My father and mother had been born in it. Their parents had lived all their lives in it. And it encompassed a special geography of its own, being that it included the richest neighborhood in New Orleans, the Gar-den District, as well as the Irish Channel, which was the poorest white neighborhood of which I knew.

The world was not only solidly Catholic with people crowding the churches for morning Mass every day, it was high spirited, and had its vitally important seasonal events.

In fact, the entire city of New Orleans was involved with these seasonal events, because Mardi Gras was a distinctive part of New Orleans and Mardi Gras was rooted in the church calendar, which was a calendar of seasons in church time and in real time.

I stress this because religion in this world included the world.

Mardi Gras was a celebration which lasted about two weeks, involving beautiful night parades along St. Charles Avenue, of papier-mache floats crowded with rich members of the Mardi Gras clubs, which were called Krewes, and these people, all costumed and glittering, threw glass- or wooden-beaded necklaces to the thousands of us who packed the streets to watch the parade. The parades were lighted in those days by flambeaux, or torchlights fueled by oill or kerosene, and these flambeaux were carried by black men who frequently danced to the music of the high school bands that walked in the parade between the floats and kept up a spirited and sometimes frightening drum cadence as the parade moved along.

The end of the Mardi Gras season came with Mardi Gras Day itself, or Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, which was the beginning of Lent.

For the vast majority of the people I knew - in fact, for all of them - Mardi Gras parades and celebrations and the convivial gathering on Fat Tuesday had nothing to do with debauchery or getting drunk. Families came to the parades; children dressed in costume on the big day itself. Our house, being on the parade route, was a family gathering place, and relatives came and went on various nights and on Mardi Gras Day.

My mother put out a big ham surrounded by crackers for the company on Mardi Gras Day. Vendors sold roasted peanuts in small brown bags, two for a nickel. Others sold cotton candy and trinkets which we couldn't afford.

Crowds began gathering every evening for the night parade, as soon as it got dark. The flicker of the flambeaux on the tree branches terrified me. The drums terrified me. Nevertheless the spectacle was seductive and dazzling, and ultimately great fun.

Mardi Gras was part of life as it was supposed to be lived - a deliberate making merry before the penitential season of Lent. Mardi Gras was firmly part of the Catholic world. Sometimes I fear people outside of New Orleans don't grasp this. And people outside of Catholicism don't grasp how most feast days and festal celebrations are part of our faith.

On Ash Wednesday we went to church to receive a thumbprint of ashes on our foreheads. This was the reminder of "Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return." Lent was forty days, and adults fasted in Lent. They ate only part of what they ordinarily ate, though I don't remember the actual rules. We children all gave up something for Lent.

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