Saint Jeanne

How we hold our stories from the past matters.

And we do get to have some say in how we hold them.

Because there is no ‘objective past’, no ‘one truth.’ 

In fact, our memories morph – by way of additions and subtractions – each time we recount events to ourselves and others. 

Those morph-able memories live somewhere within us. Our unconscious mind.

And what is in our unconscious mind has a huge impact on how we see the world and ourselves within it NOW. 

This is because… of ALL that could come into your consciousness in any given moment, your brain filters out the vast majority of it and allows in only the ‘relevant bits’. Only the ‘releveant bits’ get through to your conscious mind.

What’s considered ‘relevant’?

NEWS FLASH:

It’s not based on what is really out there, it’s based on what your unconscious mind already holds.

This is WHY how we hold our stories from the past matters so much.

GREAT NEWS:

You can use your conscious mind (through your storytelling) to play with what is in your unconscious mind SO THAT what’s in there serves you rather than hurts you.

Within the Your Malleable Memoir section of the CYLC blog I will share some of my own stories to inspire some investigation around…

  • Where are our stories at odds with who and how and what we want to be today?
  • Where are they a match?
  • How does the act of telling it (remembering, writing down, and then editing) assist in morphing these stories from the past into something that works for us rather than against us NOW?

Here is the first story up for this kind of investigation. Comments welcomed!

 

Saint Jeanne

When Sister Mary Marc, who’d been our second grade teacher, came upstairs on Thursday afternoons to visit our fourth grade class she was all business. If you looked closely though, the slight smile her thin lips were pulled into let you know we still held a special place in her heart. But the other fourth grade class – the class she hadn’t taught in second grade – would also get a visit from her. She was up here on the big kids’ floor to shine light on the nature of God as put forth by the Catholic Church – the only church that had it right. 

We began by bowing our heads and asking the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds to the mystery of God. Now that I was upstairs in St. Thomas School and ready for big kid sized catechismic understandings, I opened my heart and mind as wide as I possibly could.

The Holy Trinity was at the center of Catholic doctrine and Sister Mary Marc, being one of the oldest nuns, was there to clarify who was who and who was not who within the Trinity. The Father was not the Son and not the Holy Spirit. Nor was the Holy Spirit the Son… but they were all one and they were all God. When hands went up and she was pressed for logic, things never became exactly clear so she wrapped up the lesson with an upbeat, “That’s why it’s called a Mystery.” 

We were left wondering if the nuns were purposely keeping the nature of God mysterious or was it that they didn’t know as much about Him as we all thought they did?

Sister Rose, however, the stalwart librarian whose skirt was always halfway unzipped on the side to accommodate her girth, had a more age-appropriate approach to teaching us about Catholicism. It was in the form of a lovingly curated section of shelves with a banner above them that read “Favorite Saint Books.” Every week she featured one male and one female saint by putting the book about them out on a display stand. The display saints were off limits for that week.

Their lives, she told us, were living examples of the beliefs of the Catholic church.

Some of the saints had much better stories than the others, and it was always clear if a saint was going to be my cup of tea or not by the end of the first chapter. Still, I was committed to making my way through all of them cover-to-cover. 

It was Saint Therese’s story that captivated me so completely that it not only became the one I wanted to read over and over again, it was responsible for changing the course of my life. Up until reading her biography I had my heart set on being an actress when I grew up. After a very good turn as the Miller’s Daughter in Rumpelstiltskin in 3rd grade it was obvious to everyone that if I pursued it I could be on Broadway. 

But now I was being called to follow in Saint Therese, the Little Flower’s footsteps. I would be a nun when I grew up, and then a saint. From the reading I’d done so far, being a saint didn’t strike me as any harder than anything else you might choose to be. Seems to me anyone can do it if they just try hard enough. 

My plan was to study the already canonized saints and gather up the do’s and don’t of sainthood that way. You could only check out one saint book at a time so there’d be enough to go around, and because Sister Rose was such a pusher of these books, the fewer I had left to read, the more challenging it became to get my hands on the ones I’d not read yet. I needed Sister Rose as an ally so that, even more than she did it for others, she would keep an eye out for the books I needed as they came back in. 

To gain her favor I’d look for things on her desk to compliment as she checked out my books. “‘He loves, he hopes, he waits.’ I love that one, Sister Rose,” I said of the colorful handmade sign framed with construction paper and taped to a vase that held a plastic rose. “But what I really love is your handwriting.” 

When there was nothing new on her desk to compliment I’d find something about her personally to praise. “Of all the nun names, you got the prettiest one. Rose. Did you know that’s Saint Therese, the Little Flower’s flower? ” 

In fact she did know, and this understanding of her devotional name put me firmly in her good graces. She knew Saint Therese was the saint I loved best (most girls did) and more than once, with sly secrecy, she pulled that most coveted book out of a desk drawer and placed it on top of the other books I was taking out. 

What Sister Rose didn’t know was how much this was helping me with my plan. On the hunt as I was for more ways to achieve sainthood, I came to understand that I needed ways that were going to be a good match for my personality, and Saint Therese and I happened to have a lot in common.

At my age Therese wanted to be a nun (me too!) so she could be just like her oldest sister, Pauline (not like me, I had only brothers). But Therese always helped her father with all the housework no matter how tired she was because her mother was dead. My mother wasn’t dead, but she required a lot of help with the housework and it often tired me out. 

I made note as I read: Be extra helpful… don’t say anything bad… don’t lie, of course… don’t hurt anyone, of course… pray pretty much all the time… go to church every day

Adding that last one to my plan was going to take some effort. And commitment. Fortunately there was a 6AM mass to attend at Notre Dame so I started getting myself up early for it. It was just Father St. Amand, Sister Lorette, the altar boys, a few adults, and the really old French ladies who showed up for it. 

The really old French ladies all sat together in the back-most pews which seemed very humble and saintlike to me, so I joined them there. They were kind of like nuns because they wore all black, and in place of a habit they wore hair nets. Up close, I could see that, also like the nuns, they had some very long chin hairs that could so easily have been plucked that it must have been a choice to keep them. 

It didn’t take long though to get it that the old French ladies didn’t appreciate me horning in on their territory. They not only wouldn’t return my smile when I slid into the pew in front of them, by the end of the first week they were actively not making eye contact with me. They were letting me know this was their party and I was crashing it. 

So I moved up to the very front – which turned out to be much more to my liking. I didn’t have to wonder if Father St. Amand could see that I was there again today. And I could watch the altar boys’ every move. I wasn’t watching them because I liked them. In fact, I strongly disliked some of them for being the kind of boys who chased girls around the schoolyard to step on the back of their shoes and give them ‘flat tires’. It was with envy and judgment that I studied their every move. I wanted to be them.

With my palms pressed together during prayers I couldn’t recite because I didn’t know French, I formed my own prayers. Dear God, I’d do it so much better. I should be up there on that altar. I’d have my hands together in prayer whenever I wasn’t doing something. I’d never forget to ring the bells. And I sure wouldn’t look like I just rolled out of bed. I’d be perfect.

Sometimes it was my own brothers, Mark and Matt, who were up on the altar looking out at me unable to understand what made me want to be there. They hated it when their names appeared on the schedule to serve during the week.

Our Father who art in heaven, I want to be an altar boy. I’m perfect for it. So perfect it would make me into a saint. Oh, God! Can you just see how cute I’d look in that black robe with the white smock on top of it? I’d even make sure my shoes matched.

I became obsessed with this vision for myself, and though it was against my better judgment, one evening while clearing the table after supper I let my mother in on my desire. It felt as though if I didn’t speak it aloud to someone I would explode. 

I did my best though to contain my zeal and put it out there as matter-of-factly and casually as I could. “So, Mum. Do you know what I’m going to do?”

“What’s that?” she asked distractedly as she took a handful of dirty utensils from me.

“I’m going to be an altar boy.”

Opening up the dishwasher and dropping the utensils into the cutlery basket, the corners of her mouth went up and she shook her head. “No. You can’t.”

Gathering together all of the dirty glasses that were now empty of milk and bringing them over to the counter, I felt the hot burn of self-recrimination. How stupid of me! And when I caught a side view of her face as she moved the glasses into the dishwasher, I felt doubly stupid. She was doing that thing she does – mocking me in a “I’m trying really hard to not laugh at you” way. What I didn’t know then (nor did she, probably) was that passive-aggressiveness was her specialty.

“Why not?” 

“Because… you… are not… a boy.”

“You know what I mean, Mum!” and I turned away in a huff of helplessness, wanting to put a quick end to the conversation I never should have started in the first place.

But no, I couldn’t leave it alone. “Because you are not a boy” was stuck in my head goading me to find and express the reasoning that had made the idea feel so elevated and ‘of course’ when I was sitting in church. When I located what made things possible, it came blurting out of me. “I’m old enough now. Matt can be one and he’s younger than me, and even John can be one soon, so… I’m going to be one, too.” I said it as though it were decided and final.  

The thing about my mother was that more than she valued being maternal, she valued being right. And having the last word. So, just as I couldn’t help saying one more thing, she couldn’t help reiterating, “You have to be a boy to serve.” 

It was her smugness that made me want to smash dishes and scream my head off at her. I communicated what couldn’t be put into words with some extra forceful gathering, scraping, and stacking of the supper dishes. All the while reasoning through the boy thing. …But, NO. It’s only all boys NOW because no girl ever ASKED. No other girl ever THOUGHT of it. It should go that when a girl DOES want to, you LET her!

“Take it easy, missy,” my mother warned of my scraping and stacking energy.

“They can’t break, they’re Pyyyy-rex,” I muttered under my breath just loud enough for the defiance to be heard. In moments like this I understood why saints got to be saints and that I had a ways to go yet.

As I wiped down the kitchen table with a ‘zipped lip’ because my mother “had had just about enough of that, young lady,” I conversed with her internally with wild abandon.

I’M the one who likes church… I’M the one who goes all the time… Girls can’t serve because they’re not boys! That’s just the dumbest thing I ever heard. It’s NUMB!!

With the table all cleared and wiped down, the floor swept, and all the chairs pushed back in, I needed my school bag. My rage had given way to inspiration. Divine inspiration. I got my school bag off its hook in the back hall and with dramatic “I’ll show you” flourish I plopped it onto the kitchen table, pulled my binder out, popped open its rings, and took out a clean sheet of loose leaf paper. I placed it in front of my seat at the table then dug around the bottom of my bag for a pencil.

With even more flair I pulled out my chair, sat, and dragged myself back in. My mother was upstairs giving Luke, Pete and Mike baths, so all my flourishes felt safe. And energizing. What I wanted to say and to whom I wanted to say it came tumbling out onto the page.

 

Dear Pope John Paul II,

My name is Jeanne Demers. I am 10 years old and I live in Springvale, Maine. I go to Notre Dame Church. I have six brothers. Mark, Matthew, John, Luke, Peter and Michael. Mark and Matthew are altar boys and John gets to be one soon too. I want to be an altar boy, but I can’t be just because I am a girl. I don’t think that is fair. I should be one before Matt and John becaus I am older. I got skipped over just becaus I am a girl. My mother says the rule is girls can’t serve. I think you should change the rule that says girls can’t serve. When you change the rule please let me know first so I can be one before it’s too late.

Sincerely,
Jeanne Demers

 

An important letter such as this needed to be checked for spelling. Knowing my mother would be the one to check it (who else?), I purposely left out things that would leave me overly open to a barb of some kind. Specifically my plan to become a nun and then a saint. I thought to mention that because it would have shown how serious I was and might have helped my cause, but I couldn’t bear any more of the covert ‘making fun’ my mother reveled in.

Once the little boys were all bathed, prayered, and tucked in, my mother appeared in the kitchen again with an armload of dirty laundry. I could tell she was tired. I waited for her to be done sorting dark and light laundry into the baskets that lived in the downstairs bathroom so I could present her with my letter. She took it in hand probably thinking it was a piece of completed homework. 

“Will you check for spelling?” 

As she began to read I was aware of nervous energy in my body. My bum tingled when I feared things like maybe I’ll get in trouble for going over her head. But also, I was aware of another part of me that felt powerful. I felt that in my face, my jaw – like maybe I’m someone to be reckoned with.

Which way would it go? Would there be punishment for defying her word? Or would there be a pat on the back for my ingenuity?  

Halfway through reading it a smile formed on her face. And then there was a laugh. Not a ‘making fun of’ laugh, but a real laugh that came from a good place. She walked over to the cellar door which was open and the light on, indicating that my father was down there. Her eyes still on my letter, she called down to him, “Pat, come see this! Your daughter is petitioning the pope!”

I swelled with pride. If I never got to be an altar boy, my mother’s approval filling every cell of my body in that moment was enough for me. Only an ‘e’ needed to be added to the end of the word ‘because’.