Updated: Dec 7, 2021
Off to the Convent
Now the work began. The nuns all decided to get me ready for Nazareth. “You need to learn to play the organ, Theresa,” Sister Florentine said to me. “Since you are good in math, you will study with the organist in Church every day during math period.”
So, I sat through months of the strange, single, middle-aged, organist breathing down my neck as his hands reached around me to correct my fingers on the keys. I learned to slide easily and quickly off the bench when he decided to sit down and “show me.” Through it all, my math study at home still got perfect marks on my tests.
“Make sure that you say a full rosary every day, Theresa, because we Sisters do that,” said Sister Innocenta.
So now after Mass, I stayed in Church saying the rosary as the candles were blown out and the lights extinguished. On Saturday, that made me late picking up the donuts and streusel cake for family breakfast, but nobody complained.
“Come to help clean the convent in Holy Week, dear,” said Mother Superior. “You will learn some of our ways of doing things.”
Inside the convent, which had been absolutely secret to all us students, there was gentle, quiet, and unassuming peace. I loved it. As I cleaned with strange soap and unusual rags, however, I was stunned to find toilets and bathtubs. In all my years with nuns I had never seen them become dirty or go to the bathroom, presuming that they never did. What else was hiding in the dark wooden hallways and big closets of the nuns, I wondered.
I watched the semi-retired nun, who was now the cook in the convent kitchen, spending leisure time crocheting large doilies one day. So, I thought I’d better practice my crocheting skills just in case they were also needed.
When I was a child I watched my mother crochet the edges of handkerchiefs and make beautiful wool afghans as we sat on the summer beach at Uncle Steve’s Wisconsin resort in Eagle River. I wanted badly to learn to crochet, but Mom was afraid she had no patience to teach me. Back home again, Lena, our Italian neighbor and sometime babysitter, told me that her mother would teach me. So, I went next door to the house smelling strongly of wine, basil, and tomato sauce, and sat down with her.
Mrs. Campanello, a tiny old woman who spoke no English, pulled out a spool of white thread, whipped it around one finger, over the next, under another, over the last and held out her hand to show me. The thread was then handed to me. I tried to follow her lead, but she slapped my hand, took the thread away from me, and in a flash whipped it around hers, handing it back again. It took days to get the thread arranged properly between my fingers, but it finally earned a great big, toothless smile from the old lady. Next came handling the needle and making stitches. After several weeks I was able to crochet a long line of lace and edge handkerchiefs, so she patted me on the head, smiled again, and gave me a piece of candy as she pushed me out the kitchen door. Lena then taught me to plant vegetables and flowers, and eventually showed me how to harvest both.
“Make sure you practice the piano well,” Sister Henrietta told me, “because the sisters might need you to play.”
My piano playing had begun under strange circumstances. In our very early school days, second grade, I believe, Judy was signed up to take piano lessons from Mrs. Tavormina at her house quite near school for $1.00 a lesson. The day of the first lesson, Judy changed her mind and refused to go. “I can’t tell her no,” Mom said desperately. “Mrs. Tavormina made all the arrangements and is counting on you to take lessons.” But Judy was adamant. I watched it happen and felt bad for both women, so I suggested that I go in Judy’s place.
That started my music career. I was a bit frightened too, sitting in the piano teacher’s house so neat and clean and full of nick-nacks, trying my best to understand exactly what she wanted me to do to the keys. She was the mother of my classmate Jeanne and an older daughter, and it was clear that there was never any chaos there, as in my house. I seemed to do all right and practiced each day on the old upright piano that Mom had found abandoned in the alley down the next block. Dad and Pinky dragged it home and Mom polished it all up, scrubbing the ivory keys with milk.
After a year of lessons I was transferred to Mrs. Starr, who actually drove to our house each Saturday afternoon to teach. Of course the price rose now, to $1.25 per week, but I loved the music and Mom and Dad seemed to appreciate it too. Sometimes Dad would sing while I played his favorites, or sit and listen with his feet tapping, his throat humming, and a big smile on his face. I was quite stunned to learn from his father, the strict Baptist, that music was wicked, corrupt, and immoral, as well as a great waste of time, unless it was good Church music. “And none of that Latin stuff!” My wise father then made sure that Mrs. Starr taught me the grave, solemn strains of “The Holy City, Jerusalem” and I played it carefully whenever Grandpa came to visit. As I tapped out Jerusalem with my small fingers straining to reach the chords, Grandpa sat back in the beautiful rose-colored, plastic-covered chair, shining gold watch chain hanging from his pot belly, black silk stockings held up tightly by silver and black garters. He would nod his head, clearing his throat loudly when I hit a wrong note. It was like playing for the pontiff, this Baptist Grandpa, and I was always extremely relieved when he said “Good” at the conclusion of the piece. After a few years Mom miraculously installed a used baby grand piano in the living room, and playing it made me feel like Liberace. I kept it shining and open, thinking I was the most blessed girl in the whole world.
I remember when I was very small, Mom took Judy and me, dressed in our Sunday best, to a large concert hall where the Western Electric Chorus would perform. Dad was a singer before he met Mom, even making a record, so I was excited to hear him sing formally now in a large chorus. We were up in the first row of the balcony, even while Dad kept telling Mom, despite her refusals, that he had better seats for us below. I was thrilled by the singing, stunned by the beauty and absolute perfection of each piece. At one point the director announced a solo: “Mr. King will now sing a special song for us.” Dad walked handsomely up to the microphone, dedicated the song to his loving wife, and began to sing, arms and face poised toward the balcony, “When Irish eyes are smiling, sure they’re like a morn in Spring. In the lilt of Irish laughter you can hear the angels sing. . .” It was superb. I looked up to see if Mom thought so too and found her looking down at Dad with tears streaming down her cheeks. That was why she sat so far away!
Years later, Dad began a church glee club and served as its director. I was unofficially given the job of accompanist for the group. Once a month ten to twelve men came to our basement, ran through some voice exercises, and began to sing. I learned to practice separately with each voice—tenor, second tenor, baritone, base—and then play full accompaniment with the whole group, watching Dad for direction in speed and intensity. Once a year the Glee Club performed for the Men’s Society in the Church hall, to the pride of the men and the satisfaction of the nuns, and the excitement of the wives.
Towards the end of eighth grade, Sister Florentine asked if I would assist a parishioner by accompanying him on the piano once a week. “He’ll probably want to sing the hymns you know well,” she added.
I walked to the apartment address I had been given and rang the doorbell. A lovely old man with fine, fluffy white hair and lots of wrinkles leaned on a cane and invited me in. He was very sweet! His wife had long been dead, and his children lived in other states, he told me, but he still needed to sing. “I’m so happy that you’re so kind to put up with an old man’s nonsense,” he said. Apparently he used to be a professional singer, performing at Orchestra Hall and concert halls across the country. He, like my Dad, was a tenor, but he was nearing eighty and just wanted to sing his favorites while he still had somewhat of a voice.
So, we spent no more time chatting; he handed me the sheet music, rather faded and worn, and I played with all my heart. It was not Church hymns that he wanted to sing, but rather Victor Hugo. He told me a few facts about each piece and then threw his head back and sang one song after another for about an hour until his energy was gone. Then he fell into a chair, thanked me, and asked me to return in a few days.
The last time I saw him, we performed his all-time favorite. He sang it as if he were young again, throwing down his cane, lifting his arms out, and pouring out the tones and words with intensity as tears crept down to fill the deep wrinkles in his cheeks: “Ah! Sweet mystery of life at last I’ve found thee. Ah! At last I know the meaning of it all. All the searching, longing, seeking, grieving, yearning,. . . . Ah! Tis love and love alone the world is seeking. . .”
When I walked home that late afternoon, I realized that everyone had one thing do in life. We could not be happy doing anything other than what we were meant to do. All the other things in life might be good distractions, but one, intense, basic job must be worth all the effort, the trying, the struggles, and the work that I watched adults do. For me it was clear as a bell. My lifetime job was to love deeply, to love the divine with all my heart. Just as the song said, we were all seeking love, just love, and I knew where it was hiding.
Now just one final problem lay in wait before I could leave home. One of my classmates, a boy who joined our class a few years earlier, had a crush on me. He was at the house often, picking up my brother for biking or baseball, even though he was a year older than Gary, and then staying for supper. Mom thought he was wonderful; I stayed far away.
Johnny Lasch was not tall, but had beautiful eyes and a light, happy spirit. He was polite, thoughtful, and seemed to enjoy talking to adults. One day he asked me if I would be his girlfriend. I insisted that it was out of the question as I was entering the convent very soon, but he insisted that he loved me anyway and that I had no choice in the matter.
May brought the big occasion of the crowning of Mary in the parish garden. The one who crowned the statue was always voted in by the class. The nuns wanted it to be me this year, and let that be known, but of course the students decided otherwise; they voted for my good friend, Jeanne Tavormina, instead. Mother Superior and the nuns had a conference over this problem. The next day they called me into the office and informed me that immediately after Jeanne put the crown of roses on the statue of Mary, I was to climb up on the ladder and place a small nosegay of lily of the valley in the statue’s hands! And it was done exactly like that. As I stepped off the ladder, however, Johnny stepped forward, offering his hand to carefully help me down.
Graduation came in June with me as valedictorian, and a fine party afterwards, with Johnny Lasch “dropping in” and staying until nightfall. On the summer evenings that followed, Johnny would join the Pingatores and the Kings sitting under the gorgeous night sky, telling jokes, counting the stars, and planning the future. He became like a close brother to me, always ready to help, yet looking at me with a sadness and a longing that I did not know how to direct in either of us.
In August Mom took me shopping for the strange items on the list the convent sent. There were long black nylon stockings and large white handkerchiefs, a dozen long-sleeved cotton underwear shirts and old-fashioned cotton panties, lace-up black shoes with 2-inch heels and extra shoe laces, a black knitted shawl and a black sweater. The uniform would be provided. Dad went out to the pharmacy and returned with a small brass razor as a gift for me. I found it very thoughtful and lovely, knowing that it would never be used, according to the rules, but not telling him so. Mom managed to find a small, black suitcase to carry my new wardrobe, and soon everything on the list had a checkmark before it.
On my last day home, I ran an errand for Mother that kept me out of the house for a few hours. I returned to find the house filled with my relatives and friends yelling “Surprise!” as I opened the door. They all came to say good-bye to me. There was a beautiful cake decorated with little nuns made from clothespins, lots of photos being taken, music played, cards and greetings passed my way. I felt such a warmth from all these people I loved. I knew I would miss them all very much.
That night, after all the partying had ended, the regulars met again in the back yard, sitting in the dark. Everyone seemed quieter than usual, wondering what life would be like with me far away in a cloister. I assured them that I would pray for them every day, but that did not seem to cheer anyone up. Finally, Jimmy, our seminarian, said we’d better turn in since I would be leaving early the next morning, so one by one they said good bye as best they could, some giving hugs, some slapping me on the shoulder, some just moving from foot to foot with their head hanging low. One after another they walked away, saying a soft “Bye” as they left through the alley gate. The last one there, even after my brother went into the house, was Johnny. He asked me to stay “just another five minutes.” He told me then that of all the people that could ever try taking me away from him, my new boyfriend, Jesus, was the only one that he’d allow to do so. He came very close, handed me a gift and asked me to open it. It was a lovely mother of pearl rosary. I thanked him sincerely for his thoughtfulness and looked up to find his eyes filled with tears. He leaned over, put his hands on my cheeks, and gave me a rough, rather immature, but totally heartfelt kiss—the first kiss I had ever received—then turned and ran off into the darkness.