Tuesday, March 29, 1960
Minerva Henderson stood on the steps of St. Margaret’s Maternity Home, and watched her mother drive away. The girl’s long, curly, red hair seemed incongruous against the forbidding gray stone building. She shivered as a gust of cold March wind blew her coat open. She supposed she ought to cry, but no tears came. Minerva searched around inside herself, wondering what she should be feeling, but came up empty.
Sister Barbara stood beside her, shivering as well. The tall, young nun was solidly built, her face soft and kind in spite of the severe wimple surrounding it. Her dress and veil were the blackest of blacks, her wimple the whitest of whites. Sister Barbara was the extern sister who served as the buffer between the outside world and St. Margaret’s.
These first-day partings are always so difficult, the nun thought. But at least this one isn’t crying. Sister Barbara put an arm around Minerva’s shoulders, giving a gentle squeeze. Minerva stiffened at the touch. “Come along, dear. Mother doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
The foyer of St. Margaret’s was cold and dark. To the left, a set of massive double doors, closed. To the right, another heavy door, with a plaque that simply said, “Office.” Straight ahead was a hallway and slightly off-center, a staircase. A few paintings of a religious nature spotted the walls, unidentifiable saints and a particularly gruesome painting of a tortured Christ, that brought no warmth with them. The walls were painted an industrial off-white, the floor gray stone.
A portly nun came down the stairs, holding tightly to the railing with one hand, red-faced and huffing. She carried a load of something white under the other arm. She and Sister Barbara simply nodded to each other, and Minerva wondered at their silent greeting.
Minerva knew that the Mother Superior’s name was Mary Elizabeth, but that’s all she knew. Minerva had not yet met her. Sister Barbara had been the one to “process” her, which entailed Minerva’s mother filling out reams of paperwork while Minerva sat silently in an uncomfortable straight-backed chair, hands folded neatly over the bulge in her belly.
Sister Barbara tapped lightly on the door.
“Enter.” The voice was crisp, business-like, cold.
Sister Barbara opened the door, beckoning to Minerva. The nun closed the door quietly behind her. Minerva stood in front of Mother Superior’s desk, head down, waiting. Her red hair flowed around her face like a curly curtain.
Mother Mary Elizabeth was all angles and sharp points. Even the folds of her black veil appeared starched and unyielding. Her face seemed chiseled from a block of granite, and was just as cold. Her eyes traveled up and down Minerva’s young body, appraising.
Minerva was thin, almost bony. The most substantial thing about her was her hair, which flowed about her face like a red waterfall. Her face was pale, and her green eyes had dark circles under them, as if she hadn’t been sleeping well. She was dressed in an emerald green skirt with matching maternity top. Her belly was just beginning to bulge under the fabric.
“How old are you?” Mother asked crisply.
“I turned thirteen in January.”
The nun snorted. “Got an early start, did we? Well, you won’t have opportunity to practice that kind of behavior around here, young lady.” She consulted the paperwork in front of her. “I see you’re almost five months along. That means you’ll be here a while.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Minerva’s voice was quiet, respectful, touched with a twinge of fear.
Mother closed the file on her desk with a snap. “You will address me as ‘Mother’ from now on. We have rules here, Miss Henderson, and we expect those rules to be followed. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Minerva suddenly felt sick to her stomach, and she swayed slightly. She willed herself to remain upright. “I mean, yes, Mother.”
“One of our rules is that the girls are not allowed to use their real names here. Do you have a name you would like to be called?”
Minerva thought a moment. “I like the name Mary,” she said softly.
“Absolutely not,” snapped Mother. “Mary is a holy name, and you,” she paused, deliberately looking at Minerva’s swollen midsection, “you are not holy.”
Minerva reddened as if she had been struck. “My nickname at home was ‘Teensie.’ May I choose that?”
“Teensie?!” the nun barked. The short, sharp retort pierced Minerva like a gunshot, and she flinched. “What a ridiculous name! A frivolous name. Do you think this is a game then, girl? Choose another, or I’ll choose one for you.”
Minerva looked down at her new black-and-white saddle shoes. “My middle name is Grace,” she mumbled.
“What? Speak up, girl!”
Minerva’s heart beat furiously inside her chest, as she snapped her head up defiantly. “I said, my middle name is Grace.”
Mother took out a chart and studied it. “We have no one named Grace at the moment. Very well, you may be called Grace.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Minerva said stiffly, her head still high. “I mean . . . Mother.” She said the title as if it tasted nasty in her mouth.
Mother called Sister Barbara from the hallway. “Sister, from now on, this girl is to be known as Grace. Show her to her room so she can get ready for supper.”
“Yes, Mother,” said the young nun. “Come along, Grace.”
“One more thing,” said Mother, pointing to Grace. “Do something about that hair. You look like a harlot.”
The nun and young girl left the office, and immediately Minerva’s knees buckled. She sat heavily in a chair by the door, and put her head down.
“Are you all right?” Sister Barbara knelt next to Minerva, placing a hand on the girl’s forehead.
“Yes, Sister,” Minerva answered. “I just got light-headed for a minute. Why do I have to change my name? And what’s wrong with my hair?”
“I know it’s difficult, but you’ll get used to the rules,” Sister Barbara answered. “Privacy is important here. Confidentiality. We don’t want you girls getting too friendly with each other. It just makes it more difficult when you leave. You’ll be here a while, so it’s best if you start using your new name to refer to yourself, even in your thoughts. You can wear your hair in a ponytail.”
“Yes, Sister,” Minerva said.
Grace. I’m Grace now, she thought. I’m not myself anymore. If I’m not myself, then who am I?
“Come along then. I’ll take you to your room.”
Grace picked up her suitcase and followed the nun up the stairs she had seen from the foyer. Grace’s footsteps echoed through the building, sounding exceptionally loud on the highly-polished stone floor. On the landing, they passed a wooden, ladder-backed chair with its companion end table. A window brought some light to the staircase, though the day was gray and dreary. Outside, Grace could just see Mt. Shasta in the distance, covered in snow.
At the top of the stairs, they turned right.
“There are four girls to a room,” Sister Barbara explained. “There are six rooms, and two bathrooms. A daily schedule is posted in the refectory. Each girl has assigned duties, and because you’re of school age, you’ll attend classes here.
“The service of Lauds begins at seven o’clock in the morning. Attendance is mandatory, unless you have kitchen duty. Vespers is at five o’clock and Compline at eight. Both of those services are voluntary. The chapel is open at all times for private prayer. The Sisters observe Grand Silence after lights-out at ten o’clock, unless there is an emergency. Ah, here we are.” She stopped in front of a room that had “St. Agnes” over the top of the door.
Sister Barbara opened the door, and Minerva surveyed her new home.
“Who is St. Agnes?” she asked.
“You’ll have to look her up, won’t you?” Sister Barbara smiled, her eyes twinkling. “Investigating the saints is one of your first homework assignments.”
St. Agnes’ room, as Grace was soon to discover, was very much like all the other girl’s bedrooms. Directly opposite the door was a large window which framed an oak tree, its skeletal branches reaching into a gray sky.
There were four beds, two on the left side of the room, and two on the right. Each bed had its own nightstand and lamp, and a locked trunk at the end of the bed. Above each bed was a large, simple, wooden cross.
Are we supposed to be nuns while we’re here?
There were two small closets, located on the wall next to the hallway. The room was painted a the same generic, industrial off-white color as the foyer, totally devoid of personality or charm.
On one bed was a beautiful handmade quilt, with a large stuffed rabbit sitting on the pillow. Another was adorned with a bright red bedspread, and the third covered with a soft yellow chenille spread. Three nightstands each held a framed photo, but Grace only glanced at them, uninterested.
Sister Barbara indicated the fourth bed, austere and empty. Bedding was folded at the end of the bed, white sheets and what looked like a wool blanket. “You may use your imagination to decorate with your own things, but the room must be kept clean and tidy at all times. Mother cannot abide clutter. You’ll find a lock for your trunk in the drawer of your nightstand. Of course, the Sisters retain the right to inspect your belongings at any time.”
“Yes, Sister.” Grace put the suitcase next to her new bed. “Where are the other girls?”
Sister Barbara looked at her watch. “I’ll take you downstairs in half an hour, you can meet them then. In the meantime, put your things away and get settled. The bathrooms are at the end of the hall.” She placed a hand on Grace’s shoulder, saying gently, “It’s not so bad here, I promise.”
“Thank you, Sister,” Grace shrugged the hand away.
Sister Barbara closed the door quietly behind her. The young girl sank to the bed, and for the first time since that awful day her father died, Minerva-now-known-as-Grace covered her face with her hands, and wept.