Life in Silhouette
"You'll never amount to anything anyway." her father told Patsy when she was just six years old. She’d been told he was drunk, but she was too young to understand what that meant. Patsy regretted allowing herself to be noticed by him and yearned to instantly return to her solitary life as a shadow, or a mere silhouette, in the life of her father, Max Willett. Her pint-sized physical frame absorbed the callous delivery of each word and the intended fear and shame.
Patsy’s young spirit sought earthly refuge, as she demurely peeked out from behind her
mother’s well-worn ankle length skirt. And Patsy wished her father was dead.
Inviting brown eyes with perfectly shaped facial features, wavy dark hair, a slim stature against a six-foot-five backdrop, had won Max Willett many a compliment. He both welcomed and craved the attention, as conceit and self-love bolstered a natural ability to sell any product or idea.
In 1931 Max Willett had walked away from a good job with the L&N Railroad, at the depot in Covington, Kentucky, to engage in a series of easy money cons, wallowing in the cheap thrill of each hustle.
Patsy and her four brothers bore witness to the turmoil created by their father’s drinking, philandering, and scheming. This dynamic formed the fabric of daily life in the Willett family.
“Where’s Max? I need to find him right now.” insisted the priest from St. Benedict Church where Mary Willett and her children attended daily mass.
“We haven’t seen him for days.” responded a crestfallen Mary Willett while she pondered a variety of reasons why their priest, Father Schoen, would be looking for her anti-Catholic husband. Mary and the priest stepped outside to talk while the children brokered for position to watch and listen at the window by the front door.
Beads of perspiration trickled down Father Schoen’s furrowed brow and forehead, though it was a cool evening with a dependable breeze. The Willett children listened with eager ears to learn that the priest had been conned by Max out of one hundred dollars from the weekly collection money. There’d been a promise to immediately convert to Catholicism and quickly pay back the money. The priest was now accountable for the missing money as his trembling right hand almost covered the butt of a handgun protruding from the outside pocket of his overcoat. Yet another worry was added to a never-ending roster imposed on the family.
With no formal invitation, Patsy eagerly joined her four brothers in perpetually defending the family reputation. Fragments of Irish drinking songs were regularly cast their way, courtesy of her father’s reputation for stumbling home drunk. Perhaps worse, though, was the distinction of being the only Roman Catholic family in a thoroughly Protestant neighborhood.
“Look, here come the little cross backs.”
“Hey right handers!” meant to demean the Roman Catholic sign of the cross, were frequent barbs by some of the rough and tumble children from the neighboring streets. But each Willett sibling had been keenly hard-wired to push back, heavily influenced by their father. But to fight and lose meant they needn’t bother to return home; not until they got the better of the antagonist.
Their mother, Mary, pleaded for an end to the confrontations, while prescribing the passage in the Sermon on the Mount “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Whether drunk or sober, her protestant-raised husband delivered the punishing reply “Religious scribble invented by your Roman Catholic fanatics and cowards.”
Long days spent bent over a sewing machine, or applying finishing touches to the hats at the millinery had dulled Mary’s desire to win the debate. The natural effects of having five children consecutively, then sitting for hours making hats, caused her legs to chronically throb in pain. Physical relief came early each evening as she stretched her legs while gingerly walking the five blocks from work to the butcher with her daily pay of two dollars. She hoped that the choice of leftovers for sale would be cheap enough to send the children to bed with full stomachs and also add flavor to a thin broth for lunch tomorrow.
“But I can’t, I just can’t eat it!” shrieked Patsy as she sat alone at the makeshift dining table, an old rattletrap carpenter’s table complemented by an odd variety of unmatched dining chairs. “Please just let me go to bed hungry.” But since nothing could or should, ever go to waste, especially not food, Patsy felt desperate to concentrate her mind on anything other than the jumble of boiled cow brains on her plate. She closed her eyes and winced when her mother recited the predictable
“Offer it up to the poor souls.” An impenitent anger descended, then took hold of Patsy and settled in for a long homestead.
“Momma, what’s an Alms House? Some kids say our family will be going there. What kind of place is it?” said Patsy as she sat on the floor cross-legged while completing a series of doodles on a sheet of plain paper as she was suddenly conscious of the awesome silence. Looking up she saw the unified, hollow expressions on the faces of her four brothers. The hair on her arms bristled in response to the quiet terror of that moment just before you get the answer to the question you wish you’d never asked.
“Uncle Woody’s been shot and killed and dad’s in jail. They tried to rob a pharmacy in Newport, but the pharmacist kept a gun under the counter” said Patsy’s oldest brother Roger. Tears welled, then streamed down her face and a sour, tight feeling descended to the very pit of her stomach.
As her mother reached out her arms to offer comfort, Patsy hesitated then walked quickly forward to receive the embrace. Laying her head on her mother’s shoulder, Patsy cried until she felt too exhausted to continue. She cried not for the absence of her father, but for the intense fear she felt for the now-unknown pattern of her life. In time, all of the Willett children would become accustomed to periods of chaos while their father was in the home and then periods of calm and hope when he was away.
Answered prayers and a generous Aunt Emma, created a beacon of light allowing the children to step out of the shadow that had blanketed their lives in poverty and abuse. "Ora et labora" (prayer and work), the Benedictine Motto, was chiseled in modest Latin script directly atop the two imposing marble pillars at the entrance to the St. Benedict School. Aunt Emma vigorously sought entry to the school for the children by imploring the Mother Superior to epitomize the ideals of charity and stability, and she finally won a reduced tuition of fifty cents a month per child for her niece and nephews.
“I hate it!” said six-year-old Patsy as she tugged at the stiff, thick woolen fabric of her school uniform. It was, at the very least, second hand, but clean and neatly tailored for her particular frame. “It’s itchy and ugly and I won’t wear it”, she said as she jumped up and down in complete frustration. Contentment, an infrequent companion, easily drained from the face of Mary Willett, as she pulled a kerchief from her brassiere to wipe a few tears, and then set about re-organizing her sewing box. Patsy tilted her head ever so slightly, tucked her chin, then draped a handful of thick, straight brown hair across her mouth and hoped she would disappear. She experienced the first vestiges of compassion for her mother.
With a generosity rarely found in someone so young, Patsy uttered “I’m very sorry, Momma. Thank you.” And for the rest of the evening they laughed and told each other silly jokes.
“Watch me spin around and see if my dress flies up, ok?” Elated by watching her mother laugh, Patsy subconsciously pieced together a childlike cause and effect, as she began to perceive her role as caretaker and purveyor of her mother’s happiness.
“Miss Patricia Willett, please come down here at once.” came a carefully metered voice from below the crowded staircase to the second floor classrooms. Just a few steps shy of the top by taking the steps two at a time, Patsy stopped and glanced down through the railing to see one of the Benedictine Sisters steel eyes locked directly on her. Flush with youthful embarrassment, she gripped the handrail, tensely descended the staircase, and crept to a position in front of the nun who then said “While you are here at St. Benedict you will conduct yourself as a young lady. Now and in the future, please ascend the staircase one step at a time.”
It seemed to Patsy that the church had always been there and always would be there. It was an imposing, austere structure with a mystical and magical presence, larger than life statues of saints, stained glass windows depicting the Stations of the Cross, lighted candles for prayers, holy water for blessing yourself and more protection against the perils of the world. Nothing bad could ever touch you in church, but outside the world was to be feared.
The beauty and grace of miracles, like the miracles at Fatima, were ever constant in Patsy’s mind, but there was also her confusion about the concept of free will. The stories about the Saints were a marvel and were filled with hope and complete personal sacrifice before God. The backdrop for all of this was the theatre-like setting of the church and school, with the drama of The Pieta, and the realism of Christ’s death on the cross. The smell of incense and burning candles added to the mesmerizing effect. Patsy always felt close to God and in His presence, but she also felt afraid that he might ask her to take up the cross. What would she do? There was already so much to bear and she must be dedicated to her mother and her education.
As she became accustomed to the discipline of the St. Benedict School, Patsy appeared to thrive. She displayed talents like singing and a keen ability to learn languages. Her confidence grew into a gregarious personality. Classmates appreciated the quick wit and humble intelligence of the girl who grew into a well-spoken and beautiful young lady whom they called Patricia. Now twelve years old, Patricia performed solo vocals in elaborate concerts attended by notable members of society.
What was unknown to all but her family was that Patricia slept with a hammer under her pillow because Max was home again. The trouble that he brought back with him seemed more formidable because it threatened the present stability and any hope for the future.
“Hit her again and you’ll see what happens.” shouted the eldest brother Keith. Patricia’s four brothers were older now and began to directly challenge their father in protecting their mother from the physical abuse.
“How could she take him back?” thought Patsy about her mother. Everything had been fine without him and he was nothing but trouble to them. “Why couldn’t she love us more than that?” This was an emotional conflict that weighed Patricia down when she thought about it and she knew it was not the Christian way. She would have to figure out some final way to resolve this conflict, forgive her father and go on. But how could she?
"To the dearest daughter a mother could have. May you be as happy as you have always made me. God bless you and pray for me. All my love, Mother" read the inscription on one of the several blank pages preceding the forward of the Saint Andrew Daily Missal. The plain, black matter-of-fact leather bound missal was a gift to Patricia in the remaining days just before she entered St. Walberg convent as a novitiate.
This feigned declaration of support was supposed to keep up appearances since her mother vehemently disagreed with her decision to accept the religious life as vocation.
"Who will take care of me? Who else can I depend on but you?" and later, "I love you, please don't." The words echoed in Patricia's thoughts daily after she revealed her decision to her mother. There was another memory that came as an unwelcome visitor.
Life at the convent was exact and each day adhered to a strict schedule. Gone was the normality of chaos that had bound Patricia to her life at home. There was the quiet that allowed for too much thinking and the consciousness of a life that seemed vacant and unfulfilled.
It had all come crashing down around her a few days ago, but Patricia couldn't remember the cause or the exact moment. She really couldn't remember the whole of the last week very much at all. Nothing had changed since she entered the convent. Father continued to drink and philander. Her mother still needed Patricia at home and the money she could bring in by working.
"Receive the yoke of the Lord and carry his burden which is sweet and light." These words evoked the beauty of truth in their simple expression of faith. The phrase, as part of the ceremony of temporary vows, would soon be recited for Patricia. She considered the phrase and the effect while it replayed in her head like a music record with the needle skipping rapidly between the grooves. Overwhelmed by the impact of the words, she simply let go as her spirit crumbled like a wadded sheet of paper.
Instantly something in Patricia’s mind shattered and the fragile chards fell away and disappeared.
She suddenly felt desperate to remember her past, but the memories came to her in fragments. With no appetite, her weight loss was apparent, especially in the architecture of her face. Lack of sleep caused deep brown pockets under her eyes. The smallest conversation seemed incoherent and unnecessary, since nothing had meaning. Her condition caused a general alarm with the convent hierarchy. The Reverend Mother called in a doctor for immediate care and attention. In turn, they each had their say with both a long-term and a short-term solution to alleviate the affliction.
“You must leave us and go home.” said the Mother Superior to Patricia. “May God strengthen you and guide you.” Her parting words were “And grant you rest in mind, body, and spirit.”
“This medication is strong, but since you're going home to rest for a while it should do very well for you.” were the last words from the attending physician before Patricia left the diocese infirmary.
Patricia sat solitary and wilted, hands loosely clasped in her lap, on the corner edge of the single bed in her small, sparse room. A Purple Martin rested on the outside window ledge, perhaps considering his options.
“Oh, but to be that Purple Martin,” thought Patricia.
In the midst of getting her few scant possessions packed to leave the convent and return home, Patricia's thoughts wandered the trail of her young life. Had she missed the mark by just one prayer or saying of the rosary? She longed to prove that she did have faith enough to move her mountains. Pleading, tearful eyes cast upon the only ornate item in the room-a finely detailed Roman Catholic cross with an over-sized, dark wood base.
"No more mysteries, please." screamed Patricia into her own thoughts.
"If you don't do this I WILL stop believing, I mean it this time!" The pervading silence caused a realization that there would be no negotiation and the terms she believed she had earlier struck was just that, her terms only, never His.
Patricia then fully grasped that she’d tried to sacrifice herself to the convent, even to God; expecting in return a miracle of change and the conversion of her father to the Catholic faith. There was no controlling her emotion as the tears multiplied.
"What have I done? It's over, all over."
As she forced herself to move past the fog in her thoughts, Patricia knew that her mother would be anxious at home for her. She reached down where her habit, with the heavy black tunic and white veil, was laid out on the bed and lightly stroked the fabric in a consoling, apologetic manner.Waiting for her just outside the convent gate was Patricia’s youngest brother Glenn. With no words between them he reached for her bag. In unison they began to walk the many blocks home.
~Sharon R. Hill