It seems quite natural to run fast, furious, and far away from that which frightens you. In grade school, that retreat was initiated with a four-letter synonym for fear: NUNS. I’ve spent the subsequent decades of my life recovering by being the farthest thing from a nun I could figure out to be. Except maybe a prostitute or a Protestant. Anyone who knows me well will tell you:
“DC Stanfa is the farthest thing from a nun that I know.”
That makes me feel safer.
My friend Karen, also raised Catholic, told me that when she was young she used to pray to God,
“Please don’t make me a nun.”
If you are Catholic, you already understand the desperation of her plea. For the rest of you, who I’ll most likely meet in hell some day, let me explain.
We were taught in grade-school religion class, among other myths and legends, (like, only Catholics get into the real heaven, the others may just look in over the fence) that if we were meant to become a nun or a priest, we would personally be called upon by God to do so.
Inasmuch as the idea may repulse us, we would have a vision or an epiphany, and we would have to answer God’s “call.” Of course, all this proves to me is that God is a man, since he hasn’t called. Being a typical woman, I’m still waiting for the call. At age 40, and after a child, a failed marriage (to a non- Catholic, of course) and many other flawed and failed relationships, it could still happen. Any day now the God-phone could ring and poof, I’d get “THE CALL” and The Catholic Church would never be the same. First I’d clear up some confusing rules. Eat meat on Fridays? You bet! Slim Jims and beef jerky for everyone.
If I were in the sisterhood, the 7th grade sex talk would finally be taught by someone who actually experienced it—someone from a different hood. I might even bring pictures. How about that ever-sotouchy contraceptive controversy? Chapel veils? No. Other head coverings? Yes.
I could be wrong, but it’s pretty safe to say I’ll be running from nuns and other Catholic icons until they become extinct. Which could happen. That whole celibacy thing isn’t quite the draw to the order that it used to be.
Sixth-grade religion class in 1971 at St. Peter’s was as predictable as a Disney cartoon, and for me, just as believable. The stories seemed outlandish even to imaginary me. Entire world floods? I just could not buy the idea that only one guy, Noah, saves all living species on a homemade boat. Logically, I knew that even the Titanic couldn’t have warehoused all that fauna and flora. Who did they think they were kidding? How ‘bout the Jonah guy, who survived being eaten and lived in the belly of a whale? A wooden puppet, maybe, but a man? I don’t think so.
On one particularly gloomy October Toledo morning, I was daydreaming, as usual, during class. Gazing out the window into the overcast sky, I could see that the perma-cloud was settling, once again, into northwest Ohio as it had done all 11 years of my life. The sun might out-smart it for a few odd days during the winter months, but the drabness of the perma-cloud was pervasive over Ohio moods until it lifted in late spring.
Luckily, in my daydream, I was on a sunny beach in Malibu with John Cowsill of the Cowsill family singers. (The Cowsills were the inspiration for The Partridge family TV show, except they were a real family and could really all sing and play instruments). I was picturing me as part of their album cover come-to-life.
“The topic we’ve been discussing, Denise, is Adam and Eve. Maybe you could tell us why Eve wanted to eat the apple.” Sister Susan instantly transported me back to the classroom.
I was conditioned to come to attention with the use of my formal name rather than my nickname, DC. I could always tell what degree of trouble I was in at home or school by how I was addressed. When the middle and last names were used, you might as well bend over for the paddle. Without missing a beat I replied,
“She wanted to have the forbidden knowledge that Satan, disguised as a snake, had promised her.”
The nun was stunned by the accuracy of my answer. I was always good at remembering fairy tales. I went back to my daydreaming. In this daydream I was in the basement of the college’s University Hall, in the dim, musty, slate-smelling corridor, which was the geology lab and offices. I was watching a guy with a ponytail polish brightly colored rocks and precious stones.
This daydream was a replay, a montage of many real life hours spent in that same lab with my two sisters the past summer. Our mom worked at the University geology department as a part-time secretary. My sister Lori was a year older than me and was the source of my nickname. She was just learning to talk when I was born and pronounced Denise as “DC”. My other sister Sherry, two years my junior, was named after Shari Lewis, the ventriloquist and puppeteer of Lamb Chop (a puppet who, as far as I knew had never been in the belly of a whale).
Although we were old enough to stay home by ourselves, once a week we’d go to work with my mom while she did the payroll. Then we’d go swimming at the Lucas County Recreation Center.
The geology lab was pretty cool. The graduate students who worked there were the coolest!; although my Dad said he thought they smoked left-handed cigarettes. They taught us all about rocks and fossils. We even started our own collection. When the grad students weren’t around, we’d read books about the evolving planet.
One book had illustrations of evolving man. The one where he starts out all crouched over, ape-like, knuckles scraping the ground then, over a series of drawings Cro-Magnon becomes Homo Sapiens. This college knowledge however, didn’t jive with the Church’s Adam and Eve gig. Was this knowledge the forbidden fruit? I wanted to know. So now, back in class, I took a bite. I mean, I raised my hand and asked Sister Susan a loaded question.
“Sister, scientists have found fossilized remains proving that man evolved. How do Adam and Eve fit into all that?” I asked with a self-satisfied smile. This bite was going to be good.
Sister Susan was the youngest nun at St. Peter’s. In her mid-twenties, she was the founder and lead performer at “Guitar Mass.” She picked a few kids from our class to sing with her and I was one of them. She was pretty cool, for a nun. She never hit us or made us kneel in the corner like the rest of them did.
Sister Susan paused at my question, put her rosary in her top desk drawer, and stood up slowly before answering.
“Denise brings up an interesting point, one that the Church has a definite opinion on. We stand by the word of God, which tells us that Adam and Eve did exist. However, some modern theologians have tried to resolve the seemingly opposed explanations by merging God’s creation of Adam and Eve with the theory of evolution.”
“Adam and Eve were monkeys!” Jeff Sanecki, the class clown, shouted, scratching his underarms like a gorilla.
“No! Jeffrey,” Sister Susan interjected firmly. “What I am saying is that if man did evolve over the centuries, once he evolved to the point of discerning right from wrong, God placed a soul in him. Obviously God was responsible for all of creation, but Adam and Eve were claimed as God’s own and made in God’s own likeness. God’s gift of love and the lesson about evil could have been learned in many ways. Some theologians, outside of the church, view the serpent in the Bible as symbolic. The time period over which this took place, and whether Adam was made from earthen clay or Eve of Adam’s rib, can also be viewed symbolically.”
That did it. Sister Susan wasn’t only the sweetest nun, she was the smartest. Her brief monologue resolved this and many other biblical tales for me. Symbolic, yeah, like the parables Jesus told. There was truth and symmetry in the idea and it made perfect sense to me.
By seventh grade, like most twelve-year-olds, I knew everything. I had moved up a grade but traded down considerably on teachers. In her mid-fifties, about five-foot-tall and as wide, Mrs. Nader was no Sister Susan. She was also not a nun. She was what the church referred to as a lay teacher. That meant she was not a nun or a priest, who were the “not-laid teachers.” The running joke was that she had as many Chins as the Chinese phone book. Sitting through her dry, boring classes was itself an act of penance.
One afternoon she led us through the barren religion-lesson desert for what only felt like forty days. At one point she introduced Cain and Abel as Adam and Eve’s sons. I thought she could use my assistance.
“Mrs. Nader, if we were to view Cain and Abel symbolically, could they represent two nations or two races of people that battled one another?” I asked.
“What on earth are you talking about, young lady? Like I said, Cain and Abel were brothers, the sons of Adam and Eve. These are biblical facts. What are you suggesting?”
Drawing a deep breath, I bit once again into that forbidden fruit.
“What I’m suggesting is that a lot of the Bible stories cannot possibly be true. I mean if there were just one Adam and only one Eve their kids would have to marry each other and that would be incest, right? So, there has to be another explanation.”
I looked over at my best friend, Sheila Hart, who was doing her best to stifle a laugh. My trouble-making always amused her.
“You’d better have an explanation for that blasphemous, disruptive comment,” Mrs. Nader screeched, as she waddled, like a duck with a hemorrhoid, to my desk. When I was within reach of her stubby, chubby arms she shot out her open-palmed right hand to box my left ear.
“Maybe that will help you get rid of your pig-headed ideas,” she snorted.
The embarrassment stung more than the actual blow. Getting smacked in the head in front of my classmates wasn’t the cool outcome I’d hoped for when I began my debate of the doctrine. So, I decided to use my trump card, which was a higher authority than Mrs. Nader: one of Jesus’ own brides, Sister Susan. Nuns are considered the “Bride of Christ” when they take their vows. This is symbolically, I’m sure, since that is one marriage that will likely never be consummated.
I confidently launched into my explanation,
“Last year, Sister Susan said that the Bible can be viewed symbolically since there’s evidence of evolution. She told our class that maybe, after men and women evolved, God put souls into them and called them Adam and Eve. I was just taking the idea further…that God put souls in many races of people at one time and they battled one another, like Cain and Abel.”
I was unprepared for the vehemence with which Mrs. Nader would face such heresy.
“Blasphemy and lies! You are a liar and I’ll prove it. Sister Susan would never teach such nonsense. What do you say we go next door?”
Mrs. Nader picked me up off my chair, by my hair, literally, not symbolically. I was pissed off momentarily, but looked forward to Sister bailing me out.
Boy, Mrs. Nader sure was going to look like an idiot.
Sister Susan’s class was in the middle of a spelling test when we flew into the room. “Articula…” She stopped just short of the t and got wide-eyed in the not-so-pleasant surprise kind of way.
Mrs. Nader was buzzing with indignation like a big old fly that had just been interrupted from feasting on a cow carcass. To amuse myself, I pictured a gigantic fly swatter slapping her up against the chalkboard, jiggling all her chins. Heads popped up from desks and eyes stared. Mrs. Nader had one helluva grip on my Peggy Fleming hairdo. I knew I was skating on thin ice.
“Sister, I’m sorry to interrupt,” Mrs. Nader blasted self righteously. “But, this is extremely important. This child, this blasphemous creature, has dared to defy the word of God, and more importantly, question the Catholic Church’s teachings. She has also told a terrible lie about you. So, I brought her in here to apologize to you.”
“But I’m not lying,” I said.
I didn’t realize then that the opening statement for my defense would also serve as my closing argument.
“What did she say? What lie did she tell about me?” asked a stunned Sister Susan.
“She said that you spoke against the traditional Adam and Eve story. She said that you believe there’s even evidence of evolution. She said that you told your class that The Bible could be viewed SYMBOLICALLY!” Mrs. Nader spat with remnants of spittle clinging to two of her chins.
Sister Susan made brief eye contact with me and became very still. Someone in the back row dropped a pencil. Someone else coughed. The butterball turkey at the end of my hair finally had butterfingers and I slipped out of her hair-hold on me.
Sister is probably taking a moment to gather her thoughts so that she can explain it as eloquently to Mrs. Nader as she had to me.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Sister Betrayal.
A surge of blood rushed from my heart to my head and I couldn’t catch my breath.
“Of course, I believe as the Church does and teach the traditional Bible stories,” Sister Nail-in-my-Coffin said, as she slid her hands up opposite sleeves of her habit, signaling that she was finished with this little drama.
Mrs. Nader spouted with superiority, “O.K., Little Miss Liar. What do you have to say for yourself? How about an apology to Sister for this awful thing you’ve done?”
I looked at Mrs. Nader, then at the class, and finally at Sister Susan before I spoke.
“I am very, very sorry that one of us is lying.”
There was a popular bumper sticker in the late sixties that said simply, “QUESTION AUTHORITY.”
Yeah, but don’t believe their answers.
You’d think I’d have learned my lesson from the evolution incident and quit rocking Noah’s Ark. However, being a boat rocker from birth, I determined that certain other people needed to learn a thing or two, and by God, if there were any vessel in need of a good rocking in the early 1970s, it was the Catholic Church.
Just ask my mom, Gloria.
Gloria Stoll was raised in the Lutheran faith by her parents, German immigrants. To prevent having a mixed marriage, she converted to Catholicism after she married my dad, Denny Stanfa. Mom tried to do the Catholic thing, but there were some “issues” that pissed her off. I inherited this sensibility. Mom was a bit of a boat rocker herself, and she was responsible for the first of many major Stanfa family disturbances at St. Peter’s Church and elementary school.
In those years St. Peter’s did not have uniforms. However, the rules of dress were every bit as strict as the rules of conduct. No skirts or dresses above the knee for the girls and, even when it was 10-below-zero, and even though we had mandatory outside recess, no slacks were allowed! From an income standpoint, my family was on the lower side of the scale than the other families at St. Peter’s, and although Mom occasionally shopped at thrift stores, we’d never been busted for, or embarrassed by, our attire. (With the exception of a pair of black boys’ ice skates that Sherry innocently admitted to our higher-income friends, “Mom got at Goodwill”). On the contrary, Mom usually dressed us like little dolls, and because we were so close in age, she even dressed us alike for some special occasions.
On the special occasion of the first day of school 1967, Lori, Sherry, and I were dressed in adorable red, white, and blue matching outfits. I’m certain we were the inspiration for the Brady girls. Lori was a fourth grader, I was in third, and Sherry was in her rookie year of the brain spanking of Catholic school.
Sherry was a product of the “rhythm” method of birth control; the only method not considered a sin by the Church. It’s second only to the let’s-get-drunk-and-do-it-on-prom-night-and-cross-our-fingers method.
At about 10:00 a.m. on yet another dreary Toledo morning a secretary from the Parish office came to Sister Francis’s room and asked for me. I was escorted to the principal’s office, for the first–and definitely not the last—time, and found that my sisters were already in her office. Everyone looked so somber, and Sherry looked as if she’d been crying.
Oh my God, I thought, something terrible must have happened, imagining a horrible accident where we became orphaned.
Our principal was Sister Anita. Sister Anita, AKA “Big Red,” as she was known behind her back, was sitting behind her desk, blinking her flaming red eyelashes and fiercely fingering her clicker, a handheld device nuns used in church to get someone’s attention or direct movement. Stand, sit, kneel. There was a lot of that.
Big Red was the biggest, baddest nun to ever inhabit a habit. She stood six feet tall with shocks of fire engine red hair visible around her head before it disappeared into her veil. She brought her victims to their knees in fear.
God forbid if you were caught with your hands in your pockets, or talking in line, or any number of the heinous crimes punishable by Big Red’s law. She was the Principal pain in my ass throughout most of my malformative youth. The years I spent under the steely grip of her iron rule I was beaten down and had gotten up so many times that my knees were shot and my classmates began to revere me as a martyr for the misgoverned.
Big Red ran a dictatorial regime, and I led the party for the resistance. Each time I defied her, she seemed to grow stronger in her determination to break me down.
“All right, girls, which one of you is going to explain to me why you’ve chosen to disregard the dresscode today?”
Looking down at my hemline, I thought, it is a little too much above the knee.
“I’ve already called your mother at work to come get you and dress you more appropriately before bringing you back to school. What do you call those ugly things, anyway?” Lori spoke, with a bit of cockiness in her voice (for a nine-year-old).
“They’re called culottes.”
Big Red stood and moved around her desk toward us. This mountain of a woman was holding back, repressing 35 years of sexual needs built up inside her, like hot lava inside a volcano. That churning, burning, lust transformed into anger. A violent eruption was imminent, and we were the village of Pompei.
Mentally I was picturing Big Red as being the only Nun that God didn’t really call. She was actually the devil’s sister and she called God, to tell Him how it was going to be.
“Well, it’s obvious to me they are shorts hidden by flaps. But, not so well hidden, are they? Who taught you to be so sneaky?” Sherry started crying and wailed,
“I didn’t know culottes were a sin. My mom dressed me.”
“Oh, I see,” said Sister Chief-Prosecutor-Judge-and-Jury through tightly clenched teeth.
Then we saw Mom, Gloria-you-can-call-me Glo.
Glo, with her cute blonde flip and black-and-white culottes. She looked at her girls and then Sister Anita. She knelt down and put her arms around Sherry.
“Why are you crying?”
In the safety of mom’s arms, Sherry boo-hood, “Sister Anita was yelling at us and telling us we look ugly in these outfits.”
“I was not yelling!” Big Red yelled.
“You’ve said or done something to upset a sweet six-year-old who is wearing a darling, and perfectly decent outfit I picked out!”
Mom was a foot shorter than Big Red, but could stand up to her better than anyone I’d ever seen.
“Mrs. Stanfa, if you need a copy of the dress code, I will get it for you. These culottes are by no means acceptable. In fact, I find them indecent.”
Mom simply glared at her and shuffled us out of there, biting her tongue. Just as we were outside Big Red’s office, she shouted back through the doorway.
“What on earth do you or the Catholic Church know about fashion, anyway?”
I get my insolence and my need to have the last word from my mother’s side.
On the way home we had quite a discussion about standing up for what was right and wrong. Mom said the Church didn’t know it all and to never be afraid of Sister Anita, or anybody else, for that matter. She was our Mom. She’d stand by us.
Glo drove us to the A&W Drive-in for an early lunch.
“Do we have to go back today?” Lori asked.
“I’m certainly not in the mood to iron more clothes today,” was Mom’s rational response.
I’m not saying the great culottes caper of ‘67 gave the Stanfa girls license to rock the boat, but, with Mom behind us, we boldly seized many opportunities to throw in an oar and attempt to paddle the ship in a different direction. On occasion, we even got a few friends to row with us.
By the time Lori was in eighth grade, she’d earned her own nickname from Big Red. My big sister, “The Ring Leader,” decided she was too cool to belong to Girl Scouts any longer and convinced most of the troop to quit with her. Several of them even burned their membership cards, on school property. As for me, halfway through seventh grade Mrs. Nader was still calling me “pig-headed.” It had been months since the Sister Betrayal/evolution episode, but she just wouldn’t let it go.
It was early March and I was in religion class one afternoon, actually paying attention for a change. Mrs. Nader was out sick, and Father Boyer was teaching. We had a different “lay” sub for the other classes that day.
Father Boyer was new at St. Peter’s and very energetic. Our other priests were as old and about as lively as the statues in the church, but he was almost handsome and might have been, without the priest uniform. I wondered what he’d look like in a baseball uniform.
Father Boyer was wrapping up the lesson, which was about making God-guided choices in our lives.
“By the way, are there any of you boys who would like to serve Mass for me? If so, please raise your hand, I have a sign-up sheet.”
Hands went in the air, including mine. Father called on me, assuming I had a question.
“Yes, Father, why can only boys serve Mass? Why can’t girls be servers?”
“Well, uh, what is your name?”
“Denise, but everybody calls me DC.”
“Well, DC, I’m not sure there is a strict rule on the matter. It’s just that, traditionally, only boys have served. Are you saying that you would like to?”
“Yes, Father, very much.”
He put his finger to his chin, a sign I read as DEEP THOUGHT IN PROGRESS, as he spoke.
“If you are sincerely interested, and it sounds like you are, I’d be happy to get you some instruction and you can serve Mass for me.”
Jaws dropped, including mine.
A few days later, I was sure the entire planet was talking about DC Stanfa, the religious pioneer and soon-to-be-saint, the first girl server in the Catholic Church. It was just after noon recess, Sheila Hart and I were making weekend plans, which included a skating party Friday and a sleepover at my house on Saturday, when Mrs. Nader returned to the classroom from her lunch. As Mrs. Not-by-the-Hair-ofmy- Chinny-Chin-Chins huffed and puffed her way down the aisle directly toward me, I knew that once again, I was in trouble. So when she shot a stubby arm in the direction of my head, I was ready for it. She was either going for an ear-box or a hair-lock.
Either way, I ducked, and as I put my hands in front of me in a pseudo, kung fu defense.
“It’s all your fault! You impudent, pig-headed yippie!”
I wasn’t sure of the definition of some of the words Mrs. Nader was using, but she was definitely making her point. The point was: I’d done something terrible again.
“You’re coming with me. I’ve had it with you! You want to serve Mass? Let’s see what Sister Anita has to say about this. Who do you think you are?” She screamed as she grabbed my left wrist and pulled me behind her as she waddled toward the door.
“Never in my life have I had a disagreement or argument with a clergy member. But, now because of you…”
Her sentence trailed off into the deep recesses of her chins as we snaked our way down the hall toward the principal’s office. Apparently Mrs. Nader had an argument with Father Boyer at lunchtime. Boy, I would have paid to see that show, but I knew Mrs. Nader and Big Red were gonna make me pay at the big showdown, momentarily. She was waiting for us and she already knew.
Mrs. Nader was panting and sweating so hard she could barely get the words out.
“She’s all yours. I’ve had it with her. I don’t want this troublemaker in my classroom any more.” With that, Mrs. Nader exited Big Red’s office, and I was left at her lack of mercy.
Big Red’s blazing red eyelashes were batting so fast that they were certain to burst into flames any second. When they didn’t, I just prayed for spontaneous combustion of any kind.
“Little miss showoff,”
She folded her arms across her chest and drummed her fingers above her cloaked elbows, fluttering with indignation, fanning my funeral pyre, the only fire in the room
“You’re a real big shot, aren’t you? You think you’re cool, don’t you? Just like your sister The Ring Leader. Well, you’re wrong. Nobody thinks you’re cool at all. Do you know that the other kids talk about you behind your back? I’ve heard the boys talking about not liking a girl who wants to serve Mass, like a boy. Is that what you want, to be a boy?”
One slap, two slaps.
Not by her hand but, by her words.
What was she saying? The other kids say bad things about me? The boys think I want to be a boy? Oh, my God.
I started shaking. It couldn’t be true. I was popular. Everybody liked me, didn’t they?
Oh, I get it, she’s messing with my mind like they do when you’re in a P.O.W. camp. It’s mental torture, part of the brainwashing.
I tried to be brave and withstand the brainwashing, but part of me capsized with self-doubt.
Do the kids really talk about me?
Cast into the sea of adolescent emotion, I began gasping for breath. I felt the familiar throat tightening, that I’m-about- to-cry pharynx sensation. I fought back hard.
I will not let her see me cry. She cannot make me cry, that’s what she wants.
And then, the tears came.
“Kneel down,” instructed Big Red, pointing to a spot on the hardwood floor.
I obeyed, cautiously looking about for any weapon she may have.
“You have an awful lot of praying to do. Pray for forgiveness for your impudence. Pray for help for your ignorance. Pray for Mrs. Nader and what trouble you’ve caused her and most of all, pray for the cleansing of your blackened soul. You’ll not get into heaven with these sins you continue to commit.”
If she only knew the sin I was committing in my head as I mentally stuck pins in a red-headed Barbie doll dressed in a nun’s habit. Mental voodoo, transferring my ever-so-real pain by inflicting imaginary pain on Big Red. The psychic release provided me momentary peace and cosmic clarity. I knew that my ideas were too far ahead for the Catholic Church. They’d be stuck for centuries to come. If I lived through the penance session in Big Red’s office, I was going to get a new religion.
Maybe I’ll go see if Father Boyer wants to start one with me.