Aine Greaney – Requiem for a Girl

June 30, 2014 | By | 25 Replies More

Angels by Sara McTeer Ogburn

Angels by Sara McTeer Ogburn

It starts with your name.  It’s the first day in that convent school, in that sunlit, downstairs classroom where the bottom window panes are bubbled and opaque to stop the gardener gawking at young girls sitting there in your navy-blue-and-white uniforms.  On this day, the first day and the day of the name, you are 11 years old.

Earlier, you stepped off the yellow school bus and trooped up a tar macadam path, walked under those convent trees whose leaves are already turning brown and dry.  Sister C., the head nun, stood inside the double doors and instructed all the new girls to keep walking toward the cloakroom where you must change your outdoor shoes for indoor slippers, because slippers will not scuff the nuns' polished floors.

So here you are in your slippers and uniform and sitting in that sunlit classroom where you listen to the roll call, the check-in of new girls.   You hear your surname, the only one beginning with “G.” Then the nun reads off your Christian name, which, of course, they have transposed from your birth certificate: "Anna Maria."

   No, No. No. You want to shout it from your seat in the back row, second from the door.

   At home, my mother, my live-in grandmother, my neighbors, my aunts, they all call me Áine, which, as you would already know, is the Irish or Gaelic-language version of that birth certificate name.

So there is a freeze-frame moment when you stare at the whey-faced nun.  Go on say it:  Actually, Sister, everyone calls me Aine. 

“Greaney, Anna Maria?” This time it’s a question, with her eyes wide, the voice annoyed.

“Here, Sister.” You blush as your new classmates turn to stare at you and as the nun ticks the name—your wrong name--off on a sheet of paper.

So it begins:  This school and life where you are one person here in these classrooms, these corridors with the polished floors,  and then, once the yellow bus carries you three miles out into the country, once it sags to a stop outside your two-story house in the village, you are someone else.

But when all is said and done, neither place really matters.  After that first year, after the novelty of the uniform and the new school subjects and the clean, shiny classrooms, both places—school and home—are an endurance test.

Then, over a year later, a year after that check-in day, you find yourself in a tiny room with no windows. In the room are you, your best friend and Sister G, who is one of the younger nuns and who speaks with a terrible lisp.  The room is so small that you can smell Sister G’s breath, and you know that she must have eaten something sugary after lunch, one of those raisin scones you can smell from the convent kitchens.

Sister G hesitates, as if she is taking one last-run through of her prepared speech. “Now, I’m really worried about you two,” says Sister G.

   You two. This phrasing, this grouping, this assumption of collusion.

“Why, Sister?”  Your friend asks.

“Because there’s something very unnatural here, something unnatural . . . you two are all tied up in knots with each other.”

Standing there, you think of your father’s farm dog, a black-and-white collie that sometimes prances and spins on his leash until he makes a noose of it and someone must release him.

“What?” You ask your friend later, after you have been released to walk back down the polished corridor to the classroom with the windows.  “What did she mean?”

“You know,” says your friend. “You know.”

But you are only 13, going on 14. So you don’t know.

At home you wait for the aftershock, for Round 2 of the mystery accusation.  But Sister G doesn't tell your mother. Or if she does, you don’t hear about it. So you forget, and the days go on: the alarm clock, the yellow bus, and Sister C., the principal, patrolling the corridors looking to catch those girls who wear their outdoor shoes indoors.

By now, you have learned to answer, sweetly, to your in-school name.

 

Then it’s almost three years since that first day, the day in the tiny room with the nun with the sugary breath.  Now you have read stacks of paperback novels and gone to sleep fantasizing and wet-dreaming about men. These paperback men are nothing at all like the red-faced country men who live all around you, the men who drive tractors and smell of cow dung and stale Guinness, the sort of men who own yipping collie sheep dogs determined to almost strangle themselves. In your paperback dreams, you have magically fast forwarded to womanhood, to a place far away from there. You have become the sort of woman who can make men lose their minds and make you lose a whole lot more.  Actually, more than the grand de-flowering, more than a man who ravishes you by a river, you dream of a man who kisses your eyelids and assures you that you are beloved and precious.

That same year, Sister G., the one with the sugary breath, catches you red-handed with  a racy paperback tucked inside your bible, the bible you are supposed to be reading and reflecting upon. So she hauls you up as Exhibit A of what happens to girls who misuse their intellect for evil things. With her mournful eyes and her lipsy voice, she assures the other girls that you are, sadly, rapidly on your way to atheism. Equally sadly, she does examine your paperback, does not see that, instead of two women tearing at each other’s bodices, two women tied up in knots, your paperback cover sports one of your paperback boyfriends, his dark eyes devouring one of your competitors, a woman (slut!) with big bosoms and atheistic eyes.

Of course, your little green country has joined the European Union now, so there have been hints and whispers of exotic things, things that women can do as well as men.  International marketing.  Lawyer. Engineer. Doctor.

On career guidance day, Sister D, the career-guidance nun, hands you three applications: nursing, teacher, civil service secretary.  Then, she retracts the secretarial one—her mistake—because that’s just for the stupid girls, and, though surly and corrupted, they do not think you are stupid. So you take elementary school teaching, even though you are an impatient person and even though you do not particularly like children, and you hate the chalk-dust smell of schools.

 

Years later, you are living 3,000 miles away in New England, and here you are driving past the school in your seaside town. It's one of those cherry-blossom afternoons. You have, of course, quit the teaching and quit the little green country and quit the religion and quit letting people call you by the wrong bloody name.    Outside the school, there is a woman stopping traffic.   So you sit there in your hatchback car, the warm wind blowing through the open windows. And that’s when you remember: Oh, yes, it's prom night at the local high school.

By now you have acquired a husband—a man who, though not as luscious as the paperback boyfriends, cooks you dinner and kisses your eyelids.

Then you see her, that girl crossing the street in her red prom dress, walking with a young man, her escort.  She is a younger and prettier Julia Roberts. He is a 21st century Clark Gable.

You gawk at this stately 18-year-old girl whose dress is plain but perfect.  Despite the Clark Gable tuxedo date, she strides as if she is alone, as if she is and will always be the leader.

She carries herself in that way of girls who have been treasured, who have been assured, from the cradle to now, that she is precious.

In this American car on this American street in this girl’s self-assured gait, you glimpse the wastage and weakness of your own youth.

The traffic lady waves you on. In the rear-view mirror you get one more look at the red dress girl.

Now you know that it was not the nuns or the school or those old-timey ways. It was not the re-naming, the euphemisms, the incriminations, the lamentations, the rooms full of polished floors and swishing girls’ slippers.

It was you. You wimping and selling out on you.

---

Aine Greaney is an an award winning, transatlantic writer, born and raised in County Mayo, Ireland, and now living on Boston's North Shore. She is the author of four books, leads workshops and programs, and, writes, a lot. She has contributed several times to Women Writers, Women Books. Follow her on Twitter @AineGreaney. Visit www.ainegreaney.com/.

 

 

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Category: Knowing

Comments (25)

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  1. You address such an important issue for girls and women – the development of core self-esteem. Thank you for sharing this story.

  2. Aine Greaney says:

    Thank you, Diane. Yes, its a huge issue, and sadly, when I watch most teenage girls today, one that hasn’t really been rectified or progressed. I can’t wait to read all the pieces in here. Tonight’s treat!

  3. Kavanaugh says:

    Such a surprise ending, Aine.
    You didn’t sell out; whatever you did forged the path for the confident walk of the red-dressed young woman.

  4. Marina Sofia says:

    Wow – a powerful story… not sure that it’s been resolved to this day either. The girl who was treasured from the cradle may well end up discontented when life doesn’t live up to her dreams…

  5. Aine Greaney says:

    Marina,
    Thanks for stopping by and reading. Yes, this is an interesting perspective. It would be fascinating to see where that girl is now. I watched a wonderful TED Talk a while back about how the worst moments of our lives makes us who we are and, ultimately, force us to create meaning from our lives. It’s a comforting and multi-layered concept.

  6. Our memories, especially the worst one, the ones that haunt us, for being a wimp, or stupid or making that unacceptable mistake, yes, they do make us who we are, remind us who we want to be, stress us to become… more.

    I recently told a fellow artist that I believe that dissatisfaction defines us as artists/writers. If we were satisfied, we wouldn’t be driven to create. She disagreed with me, but I’m still not sure why.

    I wonder, Aine, if Dolores (your heroine in your short story “Snow”) has also seen that girl in the red dress.

    • Aine Greaney says:

      Thank you, Sally. Yes, I bet Dolores has seen the girl. I certainly remember her, still. Interesting perspective on dissatisfaction. Hmmm… I will have to chew that one over.

  7. So lovely! I want to raise my daughter to be like that girl in the red dress.

  8. Aine Greaney says:

    Suzanne,
    thanks for reading and commenting. I bet you will. I think that–and the new mathematics award winner from Iran–is what we would all want for our daughters.
    Thanks again,
    Aine

  9. ‘You have, of course, quit the teaching and quit the little green country and quit the religion and quit letting people call you by the wrong bloody name’

    Really enjoyed reading your story and this line quoted here, Aine. Sometimes we just have to make those changes…

  10. Jo says:

    Wow! Different country, different culture, but it resonated with me so much!
    As women, we are taught to be a certain way: dress like that; walk like this; get married by 25; have children by 30; study and work, but make sure to take care of your husband, home, and children.

    Trying to follow these norms makes us forget our real selves. In fact, it stops us from even finding out about who we can be. It is only recently that i am working on “knowing” myself, and this story caught that spirit perfectly. A real treat to read!

    • Aine Greaney says:

      Very glad you visited, Jo. Yes, I think this is a fairly common experience. Without the writing and journaling and reading, we might never have gotten to know ourselves at all. Thanks for visiting.

  11. great details, great voice

  12. “Wimping out”—or just being self-protective? Perhaps the greater lesson is that we can take back our power and be who we are at any age. Wonderful story, Aine!

  13. Aine Greaney says:

    Thanks, Nancy. I am trying to repeat that mantra lesson to myself–about taking back power at any age.

  14. Loved this Aine–as I’m dually poised trying to grow up my own 11 year old inside while parenting a daughter crossing that threshold. I love the layers here, your vantage point watching the red dress girl cross the street and connecting to your past–those moments, so charged with transformative power, when recognition strikes with empathy. I think those moments surge us into the next growth ring–one of the hidden gifts of being a writer–that kind of close looking–and extending it of others as you do here. Thank you, for paying it out to the rest of us.

  15. Aine Greaney says:

    Tania,
    Thanks for your very kind words. You bring up some great points to consider.

  16. Zita Fogarty says:

    Hi Aine
    I was nodding my head in recognition as I read your piece. I come from a large Catholic family originally from England, now living in Australia (I was born here). Nuns formed the backdrop of our schooling too. I feel you were a little hard on yourself! We are all victims of circumstances beyond our control.
    I connected with your waywardness and your authenticity. I think that personal power and self assuredness, if handed down, are the easy way option. Much more growing if you have to learn these traits yourself.
    I love your pared back ‘tell it how it is’ style. You captured so much in so little words.

    • Aine Greaney says:

      Hi Zita,
      Thanks so much for visiting and reading. Your kind words mean a lot to me. Yeah, I wonder why these women seemed so conditioned to groom us for lack of personal power, versus emancipation. Cultures like that seem to be handed down.
      Thank you again, Aine

  17. candice says:

    i so know of those forces, those nuns, those centuries of obedience inculcated into probably all little girls, the shaming, the naming, the conformity that you find yourself prisoner of, in those boxes of sameness, how they tear you away from your own soul to be a cookie-cutter catholic who soon resembles exactly that wafer on your tongue, colorless, tasteless…… it has taken me 65 years to start feeling like me, speaking my own words. i want to cry right now. i am crying right now. thank you so much for this. now, like Mary Oliver asks, tell me, what is it we plan to do with our one wild and precious life?

    • Aine Greaney says:

      Thank you, Candice. “the shaming, the naming, the conformity …” I think you say it all here and say it well. I am honored that you read this and found some measure of our shared woman-hood in here.
      Thank you.

  18. it could be said that I sold out myself too, but, I prefer to think of it as I took the long route to my dreams. Along the way, making mistakes, living with pain and rejection, wishing for the man who would kiss my eyelids and never seeming to find him. It took a complete abandonment by that soulless man for me to see that what I really needed was to re-discover my own sweetness, to appreciate the beauty around me and to shout it out with my art the essence of who I am. Thank you for reminding me of this.

    • Aine Greaney says:

      Karol
      Thank you for stopping by. I love your last line, “to appreciate the beauty… to shout it out with my art .. the essence of who I am.” Maybe there is an appropriate time in our lives for us to come to this and we can’t fast-forward or rush it. Your words warm my heart.

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