Clotheslines Don’t Lie

A memoir by James Avitabile

I might have been about five, when I noticed ladies walking in our neighborhood who dressed differently than my mother. I may have seen them before, but this time I really noticed them. They didn’t seem to belong on the street. They looked like statues I saw in church that had come alive. “Mommy, who are those ladies dressed all in black?”

“They are angels that God put on earth to teach us to love God and to love one another.”

“How does God pick them, Mommy?”

“He’s God, Juny, He just knows who to pick.”

I came to believe that these figures dressed in black were very special. I called them earth angels, but I felt they weren’t human like me. They looked as if they had no bodies underneath their long black dresses and no hair under their veils. Clothes and veils weighed them down and the heavy beads around their waists and the big iron crosses around their necks anchored them to earth so they wouldn’t fly away.

If there were no bodies underneath their clothes, what made some of them so plump, others skinny, some short, others tall? Shouldn’t these angels look alike? All be the same size? Wouldn’t God want it that way? I guess I thought God would want everything neat and precise and orderly. That’s how I was. After I played with some of my toys, I would put them back in the same place on the shelves where they lived. That’s how I liked my world: neat and tidy.

“Mommy, why did God make these angels different sizes and shapes?”

“You gotta ask God, Juny. God can do anything he wants because he’s God.”

How would I ask God? I couldn’t write to him. I could only write my name and the letters of the alphabet. That’s about all I could do. So I knew I couldn’t ask God anything. I’d have to ask my mother.

“Mommy, do angels eat food like we eat? Can they drink wine with peaches like Nunu makes?”

“No Juny, they’re not people like us. They’re the brides of Christ.”

“If they’re brides, why do they wear black?”

“God wanted it that way.”

I wasn’t getting anywhere. But the image of these angels garbed in long black dresses with their heads covered in veils painted a picture in my head that fascinated me like my paper dolls fascinated me.

“Mommy, are there paper dolls of nuns?”

“Oh, Juny, Mommy doesn’t know. If I find a book of nun paper dolls, I’ll buy it for you, if it doesn’t cost a lot of money. Right now, I have to finish sewing a new sweat band in this hat. Go play outside in the back yard where I can see you.”

“I don’t think nun paper dolls would be fun to play with, Mommy. Save the money for the ones that wear happy gowns in pretty colors and have beautiful hair.”

As I climbed the steps to play under the grape arbor I heard my mother say, “Pretty soon you’ll be going to released time classes at Sacred Heart. Maybe you’ll understand more when the nuns teach you about God.”

That fall I started kindergarten at PS 45. Being an only child, I liked playing with the other boys and girls. The teachers were regular people. They wore clothes like my mother’s; happy clothes of many colors with flowers and designs that made me know they were earth people and not earth angels. They made learning and playing so much fun. I liked school a lot and looked forward to each morning. Smiles greeted me as I entered my classroom. Kindergarten flew by. So did the first grade. The second grade got more serious. Miss Aberlin never wore any makeup or perfume. She never wore stockings either. She had an awkward smell about her like she didn’t take a bath every day. She wore drab clothes and sometimes she wore the same dress two days in a row. She never smiled. She had a witch’s nose. She never laughed. For me, when a teacher laughed with us, whatever she was teaching me stayed with me.

Something else happened in the second grade. On Wednesday afternoons I went on a bus to Sacred Heart School to learn about God from his brides in black. Like Miss Aberlin, they didn’t laugh. Their foreheads seemed forever creased. Maybe the starched frame that held the veil crunched their faces or maybe they were just plain angry. You could never get those creases out and in time I could see them getting deeper and more permanent like a scar. Shouldn’t they be happy being brides of Christ? They didn’t look happy. Maybe being happy for them was a mortal sin. They would preach to us that we would go to hell and feel the fires and pain of hell whenever we sinned. I was seven. I didn’t know what sin was. They didn’t teach me to love God. They taught me to fear hell. I remember once when one of my classmates looked out the window, Sister Veronica raised the cross around her neck as if to strike the boy and screamed “I’ll paralyze you with this cross of Christ if you don’t pay attention to what I am saying.” I never forgot what she said. For me at seven she made God a demon to fear and not to love.

The brisk winds of March were beginning to soften. I was going to make my First Holy Communion. I would be dressed all in white: short pants, knee high socks, shoes, jacket, shirt and tie and a white arm band in the shape of a cross tied around my arm.  The girls would be in white fluffy and frilly dresses and wear white veils and look to me like the real brides of Christ. A sea of angry nuns with cricket clickers told us when to kneel, when to genuflect and when to sit.

I had to spend a whole week at Sacred Heart School with the stern sisters in preparation for the perplexing ceremony on that coming Saturday. I hated it. We couldn’t laugh or talk or we’d get slapped. During that week I came to learn that those weren’t ‘earth’s angels’ but were really hell’s angels: mean spirited and willingly hurtful.

The week dragged on. At lunch we were allowed to go out into the school yard and play. It felt so good to breathe the fresh air because the classrooms were stiflingly hot and stuffy. The windows seemed bolted shut and we had to be doubled up with the parochial school students. We sat at desks labeled and carved with boredom and fury and beyond further use.

“God is testing you.” That’s what grim Sister Charlotte said with her deeply rutted forehead. And during one of the very first lunch breaks in the schoolyard—breathing in as much free fresh air as I could—revelation and reality bombarded me. It was the first time I had ever been in Sacred Heart’s back yard, where the nuns lived in a yellow-stuccoed convent. A chain link fence no more than four feet high separated the nuns’ home from the rear yard. It was very sunny but cold that day. The winds kicked up and as they did I saw something that struck me. I saw that a clothes line was attached to the wall of the convent. Clothes were rebelling violently on that double line, flopping back and forth. It looked like the ropes would snap. But it wasn’t the flopping that caught my eye but what was flopping. I saw things on that clothes line that I had seen on ours.

When my mother told me that nuns are angels without bodies, I had believed her. Then why were brassieres of all sizes and flesh colored underpants big enough to fit two of my mother in them and girdles furiously trying to break free from their clothes-pinned bondage? I searched deeper. Whose clothes were these? Did women with bodies live in the same house as the bodiless nuns? I couldn’t figure this out. All afternoon, I stared at Sister Patricia pounding into us more about the consequences of sin. I checked out her hands. I had never paid close attention to them before. They were real. I looked down and noticed she was wearing laced up black sensible shoes like my grandmother’s. If she had had no feet, why would she need shoes? Oh my Gad, I gasped, nuns weren’t angels without bodies, they were like us. They had bodies. I thought a little more. If they’re the ones that wear what was drying on the clothesline, then they did what we do. They eat; they pee; they poop. Clothes lines don’t lie!


James Avitabile: Thank you Carmen for helping me find my voice and thank you Alix, Ivy, Leyla, Tom and Victoria for encouraging me to speak with it.