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Out Of Uniform by Lois Luongo

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One of the advantages of growing up during the Eisenhower-Kennedy era, when Howdy Doody was popular and the Cuban Missile Crisis gripped the nation was that it didn’t seem to matter as much then if one was disadvantaged. What I mean is that while we had fads such as trendy saddle shoes, your friend was still your friend even if you didn’t own a pair. It has all become part of history and now with hindsight as a beacon, I am better able to distinguish the hardships from the blessings that escorted the little girl I was to the woman I have become.

By today’s standards, I was one of the disadvantaged. While I don’t recall ever wearing hand-me-downs as my two older brothers did, I do remember that my blue-collar working parents always seemed to be struggling to make ends meet. Since then I have wondered how they ever manage to send me to St. Mary’s Academy for five years. This accomplishment is especially puzzling when I recall my mother telling me that we paid more in tuition because we were Italian in a predominantly Irish parish. When she wanted to instill some appreciation in me for her sacrifice, he would do it through making me feel guilty and say with indignation, “Pastor Monsignor Mahoney is only charitable with his own paesani!” On the other hand, because I did attend a parochial school, my clothing bills were kept to a minimum. I had no choice but to wear a uniform. Years later, while gazing into a mirror dressed in the olive green fatigues that identified me as a soldier, I surprised myself by the thought that crossed my mind. The navy blue jumper that was my old school uniform also wrapped me in innocence. A strange longing came over me. That, I’m sure, is just one of the many passing memories that are sure to be sparked by the telling of this story.

The sleeveless dress of St. Mary’s was worn over a white blouse which, depending on the season, was either short-sleeved or long-sleeved. Accessories included knee-high navy blue socks which, also depending on the season, were weaved from either cool cotton or warm wool. A navy blue clip-on bow tie was worn at the neck: it helped to maintain modesty by insuring blouses were buttoned; at the same time, it encouraged religious humility by keeping the scapulars worn under our clothing tucked inside. A scapular was a sacred image on a cloth backing with a cloth chain worn like a necklace. In addition, there were times when girls were expected to wear a white lace mantilla in church for holy days of obligations, Friday benedictions, or whenever a visit to God’s house was required. Seldom were any exceptions or substitutions permitted to alter any of this strictly enforced dress code. Consequently, in the eyes of a few nuns who taught at St. Mary’s, to dishonor the sanctity of the uniform was a transgression that might even warrant a trip to the confessional.

In 1963 one of those nuns, Mother St. Francis, was my seventh grade homeroom teacher. It is difficult for me visualize many of the people who were or still are in my life. Yet the image of that woman with whom, nearly 40-years-ago, I shared a relatively brief moment of my existence, is as vivid as though she were standing before me today.

As a 12-years-old I was convinced, that had Mother St. Francis not chosen to devote her life to God as a nun, she could have been a glamorous movie star. She was such a Rosalind Russell look-alike! I am especially reminded of this similarity whenever the challenges or boredom of reality call for an escape. That’s when I take the video of the 1940 movie classic His Girl Friday from the hallowed desk drawer where I lovingly place it between viewings. There, along with an equally treasured collection of Rocky & Bullwinkle tapes, is where it faithfully maintains its security blanket status.

Because Francis and Russell shared the appearance of twin beauties, both tall, dark-eyed and alluring, it takes little of my imagination to envision either in the role of Hildy Johnson. Although, without the pointed headdress of her habit - which seemed to reach toward heaven with all of the imposing dignity of a cathedral steeple - Mother St. Francis might actually have been quite shorter.

In addition to the physical attributes they had in common, they shared a similar character that defined them as strong-willed and unrelentingly sure of themselves in everyway. While their ideologies probably clashed head on when it came to certain church doctrines, Mother St. Francis, like Hildy Johnson, was not a woman to be put in her place. Perhaps that, more than anything else, is how “my nun Friday” won the unforgettable honor of being my first crush.

It is hard to say if that infatuation helped to reinforce the unwavering fascination I had for her hands. The opposite could have been just as true of the teacher who, relying solely on a calculated guess, was close to 30-years-old. Simultaneously delicate and sinewy, they possessed the smooth, yet powerful characteristics of hands that have vigorously worked the soil - but always while wearing thick protective gloves. Her fingernails were neatly trimmed and cuticles were pushed back to reveal miniature replicas of smiling half moons. Had she been a pianist, her long, slender fingers would have been an enviable asset. My mixed emotions for Mother St. Francis lead me to believe she could have easily performed a mournful Rachmaninov concerto, or rousing ragtime by Scott Joplin. Although thoroughly captivated by these hands, there was something about them that either escaped my awareness then, or is lost from my memory now: I can not recall if the ring finger on her left hand was encircled with the simple gold band the brides of Christ sometimes wear.

There is little doubt I became a reader of hands because of my near compulsive observation of those belonging to Mother St. Francis. I am, however, a far cry from the palmists who meticulously explore the lines of their patrons to map out landscapes of past, present, and future roads. Instead, I will often study the hands of people I encounter with a quick glance for a clue to their moral character.

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