I’ve considered myself a rebel since I was three years old.
I hold my father responsible. The man loved rules.
Actually, he broke rules all the time, but he loved holding others up to them. Especially me.
When I was three, I used to spend a lot of time with my grandfather, who indulged my every whim. Naturally, I adored him.
Across the street from his house, there was a small private kindergarten. I used to stand at the gates of his garden and watch the children there at play. Seeing how I longed to have playmates, Grandpa spoke to the owner of the little school, and they agreed that I could join the other kids two or three days a week.
This worked out fine for a while. If I wanted to go to school, I would. If I wanted to go to the park, or a restaurant, or tag along as Grandpa went to work, I was free to do that as well.
Then my father got wind of the arrangement.
One day, he showed up at Grandpa’s house, only to find me looking forward to a day in the park.
“Why is this child here?” he asked.
“I’m taking her to the park,” said my grandfather, as one of my great aunts folded me into her skirt.
“This is a school day.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” said Grandpa. “I told them she’s spending the day with me.”
“The hell she is!” my father bellowed. “She has a responsibility! There are rules!”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, man,” my grandpa said. “She’s three years old!”
“She has been MATRICULATED!” my father roared… and with that, he grabbed me by the ears, pulled me away from my great aunt, who was sobbing by now, and dragged me across the street, babbling all the way about Old People who Spoiled Children and Turned Them into Brats.
That may have been when I decided I had no problem being a brat.
The problem is that I was also a coward, and did not want to face the consequences of breaking his rules… or anybody else’s.
I became very good at bending them.
Let’s fast forward to high school.
I had the great good fortune of going to the most magnificent high school in the world, a haven for financially comfortable Catholic girls where we were academically challenged, calisthenically coddled, and socially polished. I’m not kidding. We were taught to go to tea parties in white gowns and accept two cookies, because taking one or none would offend the hostess, and eating three or more would make us look like pigs.
Our Principal was a formidable nun with a mission: to produce strong women to stand behind good men.
Or did she try to produce good women to stand behind strong men?
I’m not sure. I have neither her eagle eye nor perfect memory.
It’s not a goal you’d put before girls today, but it made a lot of sense to our parents, who weren’t totally prepared to raise girls in the Sixties.
She had one other maxim she lived by, though, and it’s one that’s been woven into my DNA. “The more rules you make, the more rules they’ll break.” She made it very hard for us to be rebellious, because she left so much of our behavior up to the dictates of our own consciences.
But there were some rules, of course. There had to be.
There was a dress code.
In my freshman year, we had to wear black penny loafers with our uniform.
When I was a sophomore, they relaxed the rule. We were allowed to wear lace-up leather shoes, and they didn’t have to be black.
The next day I showed up in red-white and blue flag-themed leather sneakers.
A patient voice came over the loudspeaker.
“Girls, you have been given leeway in choosing your footwear, but we must ask you to consider the boundaries of taste. Please wear shoes that are black, brown, or some other dark color.”
The next day I wore black suede oxfords with enormous purple stripes across the side.
“Girls…” The voice in the loudspeaker returned. “While we applaud your appreciation of the many dark colors out there, we are going to ask you to wear black or brown shoes with your uniforms.
The next day I showed up in brown army boots.
What a pleasure it was to bend the rules!
But then, one day, I broke one.
A big one.
The school had four main buildings. At each end there was a building with many classrooms. In the middle were the Chapel and the main building, which was an imposing edifice. All four were connected, and we usually traipsed right across them while heading from one class to another.
You see, in the middle of the main building, on the first floor, there were two rooms that had to be respected: the Principal’s Office and the Parlor.
The Parlor was the stuff of nightmares. It had impossibly heavy couches and chairs upholstered in fine damask, some beautiful gold harps, and a huge, breathtaking piano… I think it was actually a Bechstein Grand. There were holy pictures on every wall, but there was one that never failed to scare me: a particularly intense Crucifixion with a Christ whose eyes followed you everywhere, making you feel guilty even when you weren’t up to any mischief.
Unless you were signed up for harp lessons (and believe me, I was not), you only entered the Parlor once: on the day you and your parents were interviewed for admission.
As far as I knew, the Parlor had one more purpose. The religious order to which our teachers belonged had its motherhouse on our campus, and whenever one of the nuns died, that’s where they had her wake.
Naturally, you couldn’t have a horde of galloping teen-agers barreling through every forty five minutes while people were stopping by and paying their respects, so on wake days, were were supposed to go outside and bypass the main building when going from one end of the school to the other.
Normally, I did… until a very old nun had the effrontery to die in mid-winter.
On the day of her wake, I left my math class with my sweet friend Barbara, who didn’t (and doesn’t) have a rebellious bone in her body. I grabbed her by the arm and said, “I’m not going all the way to the last building outside in the snow; that’s ridiculous. Let’s just go down the hall.”
“But we’ll get in trouble!”
“Not if no one sees us.”
“But what if someone does?”
“Then I’ll think of something, Barbara. Let’s go!”
I dragged that poor soul right into the main building, and as we crossed the open door to the Parlor, a voice came out of the Principal’s Office: “What are you girls doing here?”
Barbara froze. I was afraid she would shatter from within.
Any excuse would have to come from me.
“Well, Sister,” I said to the Principal, “Barbara and I were just wondering.”
Barbara shot me a horrified look.
“We know that Sister lived a long life, and that she was a pious woman, so we know she’s now in heaven, and at peace. We wondered if she looked as happy as she must certainly be.”
With a smile that was much more knowing than we could have suspected, the Principal put her arms around us.
“Aren’t you girls sweet! If you feel that way, you must come inside and say a prayer for Sister.”
With this, she pressed us into the Parlor, and pushed us down on the kneeler in front of this poor dead nun.
Four huge candles burned around her, flames dancing as though they were laughing at us.
Jesus stared down from the Crucifixion, and He didn’t seem the least bit amused.
Not knowing what else to do, I peered into the casket.
The nun was wearing a lot of makeup, but the undertaker had missed a spot on the temple, and bright green skin shone through. Little wisps of cotton were coming out of her nose. She didn’t seem very happy to see us, and I was expecting the consequences to be fierce…
And then my body betrayed me.
Most people cry when they’re nervous and scared.
I felt the giggles trying to rise within me. I bit my lip hard, trying to hurt myself into seriousness, but it was no use. My shoulders started shaking. Trying to remain silent, I snorted.
I knew this was the end.
Then, a dear voice rose from behind me.
“Barbara, I think Ampy is too overcome by this experience; why don’t you take her outside and take the next class period off?”
You never saw two chubby teenagers in brown leather shoes run faster than Barbara and I did… straight down the hall, out the door, and unto the snow, where she tried to beat me into a pulp as I laughed in release and relief.
Many years later, my husband came with me to one of my high school reunions. I left him on his own as I fluttered joyfully from friend to friend. Hungry, he wended his way over to the buffet line, where he found himself standing next to the principal. He grabbed a pair of tongs, and said. “Let me see. I’ll take two. If I take one, I’ll offend my hostess, and if I take three or more, I’ll act like a pig.”
She looked at him ecstatically. “My girl remembered!”
“And she’s passed it on to me and the kids, too,” he exclaimed.
They had a wonderful dinner together, and then she gave him a private tour of the school. “This is the lounge where your wife would go during study hall, so she could watch “All My Children.” These are the Holy Water fonts that her classmates once filled up with vodka.”
We’d never gotten a thing past her.
At the end of the tour, they came over to me and he said, “Sister tells me you were quite the little rebel!”
As old as I was, I put my head down sheepishly.
That wonderful woman hugged me and said, “You girls are my treasure.”
There’s nothing a rebel loves more than forgiveness.