Friday, June 10, 2022

A Fun Nun

Original title: My Sister of Charity, 12/21/19

Sr. Mary Clifford Soisson, SC

This is a weekly column consisting of letters to my perspicacious progeny. I write letters to my grandkids — the Stickies — eventual selves to advise them and haunt them after they've become grups and/or I'm deleted.  

Trigger Warning: This column is rated SSC — Sexy Seasoned Citizens — Perusal by kids, callowyutes, or grups may result in a debilitating meltdown.  


Featuring Dana: Hallucination, guest star, and charming literary device 

"For a Catholic kid in parochial school, the only way to survive the beatings-by classmates, not the nuns-was to be the funny guy." -George A. Romero 

Dear (eventual) Grandstickies & Great-Grandstickies (& Gentlereaders),

I'm spending the summer in a cabin on a beautiful lake somewhere in the Swiss Alps, working on my memoirs, and trying to decide if this column will resume post-Labor Day. The market has found me wanting; I'm buying all of my own coffee. So be it, I remain an unrepentant supporter of capitalism. 

My big brother Eddie is currently my only financial patron so I'm starting to feel like Van Gogh... without the world-class talent, but with both ears. I'm also considering publishing only when the spirit moves me. Cranking out columns week after week, while enjoyable, is hard work — well, intellectually speaking — at least for me. 

{It sure ain't roofing or the like you whiney b...}

In the meantime, I'll be republishing (relatively) gently edited columns with updated statistics and fun facts in [brackets].

Six of my first eight teachers were members of a Roman Catholic religious community that has roots extending back to 1809, the Sisters of Charity.

Sister Mary McGillicuddy changed my life, Miss Crabtree, not so much.

[Um, don't you mean Ms. Crabtree?]

No, Dana, I do not. I'm so old that Ms. magazine wasn't published till the year after I graduated high school and which, according to Wikipedia, is when that particular honorific caught on.

Now that name tags read, "Hello, my name is _______ and my personal pronouns are _______  " it sounds/seems almost quaint.

Sister Mary and Miss Crabtree are composite creations. S'ter Mary McGillicuddy represents the six nuns mentioned above. Miss Crabtree stands in for the two lay teachers I had in Catholic grade school. To a lesser extent, she represents the handful of female teachers I had in public high school; the word handful is an indicator of my encroaching decrepitude.

The majority of my teachers in public high school were male, the principal and vice-principal of the two high schools I attended were both also members of the toxic sex, particularly the vice-principals (readers of a certain age nod knowingly).

However, this column is about a real Sister Mary, Sister Mary Clifford who was my teacher in seventh grade and whom I recently discovered died in 2010 at the age of 89.

She was my first and only "cool" nun. She was the first and only nun I liked. She was one of only two nuns I wasn't afraid of. She taught me, at the age of 12 — without meaning to — that nuns were just H. sapiens in peculiar clothes, not members of a separate, parallel species.

Sisters of Charity, New York -1965

Eileen Soisson ("She was a faithful Steelers fan and had a great sense of humor.") was born on the 17th of July, 1920 in the Borough of Bellevue which borders and is butt up against, by gum by golly (sorry...) Pittsburgh (with an h).

Like me, she attended Catholic grade school (hers still exists) and public high school. She received a scholarship to Seton Hill (not Hall) College which was founded by the Sisters of Charity and she took her vows in January of 1942.

She was not only my seventh-grade teacher she also was the principal of the school, St. John the Evangelist, which was located on the Sou'Side-a-Pittsburgh, across the street from the 12th street playground.

For some reason, I was one of her pets. To this day I don't know why.

Being a pet of the principal meant that at least once a week I got out of class to accompany her when she borrowed one of the parish priest's cars to take care of some sort of business, usually grocery shopping for the convent that was right next to the school.

It was never just me—there was always at least one of the other boys, sometimes two depending on our mission—but it almost always included me. In retrospect, I can guess why it was always more than one boy but at the time neither I nor any of my classmates (that I'm aware of) noticed or cared.

Different era...

But, why me?

There was this girl, Ellen (Eileen?) Somebody, who from year to year was always a teacher's pet, but that made sense. She had a beautiful voice and the nuns were always finding excuses to get her to sing.

I didn't give it much thought at the time, just enjoyed it, rolled with it, took it for granted. Somehow, even the other boys in my class didn't razz me about it and normally this was a group that called each out for everything

I have no idea what she saw in me, but I do know why I liked her so much. She was genuinely nice. She kept at least one foot in the real world at all times. She wore her vocation like a corsage, not a crown of thorns.

She clearly enjoyed driving and when I was out and about with her she behaved more like a doting aunt than a school teacher. She'd answer our questions about parish politics, other nuns, her life, etc., questions we'd never think of asking in class (it just wasn't done) as honestly as she could.

But always diplomatically, always taking the high road, never stooping to gossip or backstabbing. Keeping the faith, as it were. Perhaps this was why I caught no crap from my peers — everyone liked her. She ran a tight ship in class but possessed not a trace of Crazy Nun Syndrome.

Please note: If you've ever been exposed to CNS, which was a common malady at the time, no explanation is required. If you haven't, no explanation I can provide will come close to describing it properly. 

Prior to Sister Mary Clifford, I had six teachers.

Four Sisters of Charity afflicted with CNS; one lay teacher that was about 150 years old; another lay teacher, for second grade, that taught us how to curse (rather genteelly by today's standards) by conscientiously explaining which words we were not permitted to use under any circumstances.

Eighth grade: different school, different community, unremarkable nun. But I wasn't afraid of her thanks to Sister Mary Clifford's unintentional life lessons. I'm ashamed to admit I don't remember her name as she did an excellent job preparing us for Catholic high school knowing that intellectually speaking, things were about to get a lot more intense.

I do remember that she got tears in her eyes when she discovered I wouldn't be attending a Catholic high school. Callowyute that I was at the time, this baffled me. I think I get it now. Fortunately/Unfortunately (it's very complicated) my parents couldn't afford to send me, so I was off to public high school.

For the record, the nun that ran that school scared the hell outta me, as she would any right-thinking person. Crazy Nun Syndrome. But thanks to Sister Mary Clifford, as my faith slipped away, I knew that nuns were just people, sometimes very special people. Look at her eyes.

Poppa loves you,
Have an OK day

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