The priests’ quarters, sanctuaries of polished wood and sparkling glass, nestled together at the east end of the convent. While waiting to serve the Fathers their lunch, Sister Agatha double-checked the dining room table, and tried to ignore the pounding in her head. She nudged a dinner plate into line, picked up a knife and polished it with a soft cloth until a water spot disappeared.
Father Kopecki, stout, red-faced, balding, entered the room first. His young assistants followed. “I just don’t like it,” he said before the three men stood behind their chairs and mumbled grace.
“The Pope’s the boss,” Father Mike said as they sat down. He was Irish, handsome, the one the novices fell in love with. “We’ll have to get somebody in here to turn the altar around.”
“But to say the Mass in English?” Father Kopecki shook his head, causing the drape of flesh beneath his chin to quiver above his Roman collar. “I don’t know if I can do that. It’ll seem like a sacrilege.”
“We’ll get used to it,” Father Raymond said. He was the plain one, the realist. “Besides, what choice do we have?”
Change was roaring through the Church and Agatha hated it. She’d been a nun for most of her life. It was all she knew. She lowered the windows to a crack to keep out the street noises and smells before she served the priests deep-fried perch, mashed potatoes, and coleslaw. In the past, the Lenten meal had made her mouth water, but today it brought bile to her throat.
Father Kopecki buttered the mound of potatoes on his plate. “I want to go to Rome and shake some sense into that stumpy little man.”
“Better not let the archbishop hear you refer to the Pope as a stumpy little man,” Father Mike said, laughing. He spread a layer of tartar sauce over his fish.
“He won’t hear about it unless you tell on me.”
“Relax,” Father Raymond said. “It’ll all work out.”
Agatha went back to the kitchen and spooned dessert, cherry cobbler, into shallow bowls. Dessert – in Lent. She should have been a priest. She didn’t get out the ice cream that she knew was in the freezer.
“Is there any ice cream today?” Father K. asked when she set his bowl in front of him.
“Oh, sorry, I forgot,” Agatha lied. She went back to the kitchen, leaned into the freezer and massaged her temples before she returned to the dining room and served the ice cream. The young men left for a game of basketball, but Father K. sat there. Now what did he want? She wanted to get her work done, sit somewhere quiet with her eyes closed.
“Is there any cobbler left?” he asked.
She nodded. Couldn’t get the polite ‘Yes, Father,’ to come out of her mouth.
“I want to apologize,” he said, when she set the second dessert in front of him. “I didn’t mean to shock you.” He ate the cobbler in three bites, and threw the napkin from his lap onto the table. A corner landed in his coffee cup, turned brown. “Sorry,” he said again. “What do you think of all these changes?”
“I’m not sure,” she said.
“You’re afraid to say?”
Agatha set the silverware back on the table, looked toward the taut curtains covering the panels of the french doors that led to the rest of the convent, saw that they were in place. “It’s so easy for the young ones.” She jerked her head toward the courtyard. “I think they’re excited.” The bounce of the basketball on the asphalt filled the room, the pounding in her head increased.
“Sit down and have a cup of coffee with me.”
“You know I couldn’t do that.”
“Well, tell me what you think.” He leaned back, his arms folded on his chest.
“The new habit,” she said. “Have you seen it?”
He shook his head.
“It’s knee length. Blue. No veil. ”
“Right up there with saying the Mass in English?”
She nodded and was surprised by the emotion overtaking her. It had been years since she’d felt the need to hold back tears. “And they want us to be in the world again. Social workers, I think. All I know how to do is be obedient. Mother Regina stood up there in the last meeting and told us to let our hair grow. She used Sister Melissa as an example of how we should be. ”
Agatha nodded. “My only talent is obedience and that’s not enough. Now they want – I don’t know what – dingbats.”
Father Kopecki laughed. “Looks to me like we old-timers are passengers on a sinking ship and I don’t think there’s any way we can save ourselves.” He heaved himself out of the chair. “I better get going and find someone to turn the altar around.”
She watched him walk down the long corridor, saw the droop in his shoulders as he moved in and out of the panels of light cast on the floor by the open doorways. The furrow between her eyebrows tightened.
After she set the table for supper, she went in search of her best friend, Sister Wilhelmina. She was hard at work in the laundry room. A row of white altar cloths, ironed to perfection, draped over silk-covered hangers, hung from a clothesline strung close to the ceiling.
“How is your back doing?” Agatha asked. She sat on a chair across from Willie and closed her eyes.
“Not too bad. I offer it up.” Willie was old, bent; her veil hung down to her hip on the right side.
“I’m offering up this headache,” Agatha said and inhaled the steam from Willie’s iron. She reached back and scratched the lumps beneath her veil. “Are you letting your hair grow?”
“No, I am not,” Willie said.
“No. Imelda and Rosie and I are going to talk to Mother tonight. Would you like to join us?” Willie fed the material she’d just ironed over a hanger, drew its tails into perfect alignment.
Sister Melissa – Agatha was sure there wasn’t a Saint Melissa; their professed names were supposed to be saints’ names – breezed into the room. “I’ll take these upstairs,” she said.
“Be careful,” Willie said when she saw her assistant lift five hangers off of the clothesline and sling the ironed cloths over her arm.
“She’s supposed to be our example?” Willie said after Melissa left. “All I hear is talk about hair styles.” She thumped the iron back and forth over Father Kopecki’s Sunday surplice.
“He’s upset,” Agatha said and nodded at the surplice.
“Oh, what’s their problem,” Willie said. “All they have to do is say the Mass in English. We’ll still be waiting on them.”
“You are riled up today.”
“You bet I am.” She shook the iron at Agatha. “We gave our lives to this place and now they’re changing the rules. Fold those napkins for me, would you?”
The warmth of the just-ironed napkins seeped into Agatha’s thighs as she folded them into perfect triangles. Her head pounded.
“Your veil looks lumpy with all that hair under it.”
“I know.” She reached up and scratched her head again.
“And you look kind of pale.”
“I’ve had this headache for days.” Suddenly, Agatha stood up and ran to the bathroom down the hall.
“Are you okay?” Willie asked from outside the door.
“I think so. Just lost my lunch.” She sat down on the toilet seat, opened the door a crack.
“I’ll be right back. Sit still.” Willie returned with a glass of ice water and a scissors. She handed the water to Agatha and squeezed past her into the tiny bathroom, closed the door.
“You need a haircut. It’s creating pressure on your brain.” Willie stood above her, snipping at the air.
“But Mother Regina said …”
“She’s not always right.”
“Well, the Pope said …”
“The Pope’s not always right either. Let’s cut that hair. Join the rebellion.” Willie kept snipping away at the air.
Agatha laughed, closed her eyes for a moment, and remembered the droop in Father Kopecki’s shoulders as he walked down the hall after lunch. She reached up and removed all the pins from her veil, took it off, and watched her hair fall in gray ringlets at her feet as Willie snipped away.
Thanks for the great story. So glad you found the time to write. I joined a convent in Manitowoc, Wisconsin at 17, and lived the next five years of my life in religious community. An elderly nun once took exception to my jeans, army boots, and long hair. She said to me, “I’m going to write to the bishop. You can’t tell the nuns from the hippies anymore.” Your story inspired me to write some of my own about the women I came to know, the real people inside those habits. I hope to read more of your stories.
Your story brought me back – felt as if I was there in the kitchen, bathroom. Well done!
I came to this, after blow drying my curls, after a recent hair cut. I think it was your title that attracted me, first, to this story. Because it’s true, as in the verse of that now old Bob Dylan song, “The times, they are a’changin'”. As a woman who just recently turned 68, it’s astounding how many changes have taken place in my lifetime, and I keep getting these reminders on FaceBook, of items, and ways of being, refreshed by pictures and words. We are all of us, it seems, climbing, a ladder of change, and it’s very hard, to let go, of the way we were, the things we were taught, and those orders, that order, became our security. We didn’t have to think about how to do it, because it was all prescribed. Much easier, to “know”, how the story goes, much easier to have a structure for such, reliability. It’s an anchor in a world that is shifting constantly, and yet, those “habits” as in the nuns, well that was how it was, and how it all happened. This story has wonderful humor, a touch of cosmic, because it’s so real, so true to life, as we all experience it. This thing, change. And it gets especially hard to grow older, and to realize, our heroes and heroines, our shared past, is something our children and our grandchildren will not know as in the excitement of that group the Beatles first hitting the stage, the Ed Sullivan show! I am sorry for writing a “novel” on this. I want to say, thank you, for more than, an absorbing story, because it is always going to be “current” in going with that flow, what we call change. We never step into the same River, twice! ( Heraclitus)
I really enjoyed the dense descriptions that so vividly drew the characters and situations in your story without overwriting them. A most enjoyable and entertaining story that brought a smile to my face on a topic I know little about.
So many interesting bits! Like that she deliberately forgot the ice cream, and then lied. Felt the headache and the warmth of the napkins. Enjoyed the rebellion.
Love the twist on what one would expect, especially in the ’60s: cutting hair instead of growing it long as a sign of rebellion!
Embracing what was in the church (as I’m sure many did), instead of wanting to adopt a more modern approach.
You do a great job of bringing your characters alive with your carefully chosen details. Congrats on a revealing little tale.
Love the interaction between Agatha and Father K.
Lovely. The details make it live.
Oh, I hope this is in your next collection. And dare to hope for a follow-up story, would love to see how Sister Agatha and Father K act out.
Thanks Beth, for your comment and all the good feedback you give me.
Carol, love your newest story. Way to go!
Carol, I love your new short story. Way to go!
Thanks, Marjorie. Happy to hear that you enjoyed the story.