Sister V

Sister Maria Veronica was my seventh-grade teacher. She was tall and young, with a pretty face and wonderful, plump breasts neatly tucked away under her black habit. Her brown eyes were filled with life and set under brows so thick they almost touched each other. Every few weeks she’d tweeze them, leaving a light-gray pattern around each. In my mind, her brows were endearing, and I thought she was cute as hell for thinking that she needed to pluck them.

Once, at the end of a history lesson, she asked if anyone had any questions. My hand was the first in the air. “Did you tweeze your eyebrows last night?” I asked. My question caught her off guard, and I sensed that she was embarrassed by it. I hadn’t meant to put her on the spot. It was just my dumb way of letting her know that I liked her and thought she was special.

“Well, as a matter of fact, I did,” she replied. “And thank you for pointing that out to the class, Mr. Caruso,” she added.

“I thought so.” I beamed. “My sister, Connie, shaves her eyebrows, and they look just like yours.”

The thing I loved about Sister V was that she wasn’t jaded like some of the older nuns at Precious Mother, most of whom were Irish-American and very vocal about having given their life to Christ. I didn’t know why she had decided to become a nun, but I got the feeling she wasn’t entirely on board with the program.

I could also tell that some of the older nuns were jealous of her because she was liked by all the kids. She always tried to make lessons fun and would sometimes have us sing Broadway show tunes. Her favorite was “Do-Re-Me” from The Sound of Music. She would have the boys and girls sing different verses at the same time while she stood up front, waving her arms, ruler in hand, looking like a real conductor. It was great fun; everyone participated and sang out hard and loud.

It was the sixties, and like most Brooklyn parochial schools at the time, Precious Mother had a firm stance when it came to physical exercise and school yard games. The school was strictly focused on academics, with no recreation period, no dodgeball or relay races or any of the fun stuff that most of my buddies who went to public school regularly talked about. Just listening to them made me feel like I was doing hard time at Dannemora.

One day Sister V took our class down to the school yard where she had us do toe touches and jumping jacks for thirty minutes. It wasn’t the same as school yard games, but just to be able to get some sunshine and fresh oxygen in our lungs during class time was a huge relief. When Sister Gilhouly, the principal, got wind of this, she almost had a shitfit. Gilhouly was serious business, a stern-looking nun whose watery eyes peered at you over wire-rimmed glasses pushed far down on her nose. Everyone joked that Gilhouly was actually one of the children of the damned, a fictional group of English schoolchildren who had the power to set a house on fire just by staring at it with their eyes that shot out intense beams of white light. If Gilhouly singled you out for something, she would very slowly lower her head and shoot you one of her death-ray stares over the top of her spectacles, a look that made you want to hide under a desk.

The classroom door was slightly ajar, and we all sat attentively listening to Gilhouly reprimand Sister V in an intense, ear chomping whisper. The way she carried on you would have thought Sister V had taken the class outside for a cigarette break.

“It’s just not how things are done around here!” the old windbag said.

“Yes, Sister, I understand, but—”

“What if one of the children sprained their ankle? What am I going to tell their parents?”

“I just thought a little exercise might help the children—”

“We are a learning institution!” said Gilhouly. “If parents wanted their children to do jumping jacks all day, they would have sent them to public school!”

When Sister V walked back into the classroom, she closed the door behind her and tossed her arms up. “Well,” she said with sheepish smile, “at least I tried.”

My mother had started battling fits of depression. This began when my older brother surprised my parents by enlisting in the army. At the time I didn’t understand what “depression” actually meant. I thought it was something that you caught like a cold and that you could knock it out in a week or so with couple of aspirins and some hot tea. Our doctor put my mother on an antidepressant called Miltown, and for well over a month, she spent a good portion of each day in bed. This placed an extra burden on my nineteen-year-ol