I was 8 years old in the Year of the Brown Dress, as my older sister and I eventually came to call it. That was two years after my mother had our baby sister, who we later learned was a "love child." Back then, though, I guess we'd just come to the simple conclusion that she had been immaculately conceived. My mom had been raised Catholic but in the years since divorcing my dad (and also apparently after having a night of steamy baby-making with a mystery man), she had become a born-again Catholic.
And in her heightened state of Jesus Awareness, she'd decided to "sacrifice her vanity" by wearing a nun-like habit and veil for a year. Please make no mistake by envisioning the cute little black and white numbers modeled in such cult nun classics as "The Sound of Music" and "Sister Act." My mom's dress was dark brown, scratchy, and about as tailored as a burlap sack, with a matching veil that covered her hair and hung past her waist. Imagine something along the lines of the garb worn by the self-mutilating, maniacal Opus Dei monk from the movie The Da Vinci Code. It was bad. Real bad. But that's my 39-year old fashion-sense talking.
At 8 years old, my fashion sense was old enough to know it's strange when your mom starts dressing like a nun, when in fact, she is not one. But because a REAL nun lived with us, and our social circle was populated by clergymen, monks, and a whole helluva lot of holy rollers, I guess her choice of religious regalia didn't strike me as unusual. Sister Helen, my mom's best friend and roomie, was a nun Mom met several years after divorcing Dad. She convinced my mother to move with her to Steubenville, Ohio, where a charismatic community of Catholics On Crack were flocking together at the town's Franciscan University of Steubenville. I guess my mom was trying to find her new place in the world after all the divorce and love child shenanigans, and unfortunately, my sisters and I were along for the ride.
"The community," as we called it, was centered on the College's church, and not just college students but whole families were uprooting themselves to move closer to it. It called itself a Catholic church, but it was like no Catholic church I'd ever been to (and I'd sniffed a lot of incense in my day). The first time we attended a service there, I was prepared for the typical, soothing drone of a monotone priestly voice, accompanied by the creaky hymns that had rocked me to Dreamland many a Mass-time. What I got was a slap in my drowsy little face! The priest was SHOUTING his homily, while people in the congregation screamed, "Hallelujah!" or "Jesus is Lord!" Just when I thought I'd go deaf, the entire crowd broke out into song. But it wasn't the same song, I soon realized. They were all singing different ones, and each song was in a foreign language. It was called speaking in tongues, and my mother apparently knew how to speak it too.
"Ah see awwny-awwny, ah see awwny-awwny," she kept chanting, over and over in dizzying speed. My head snapped incredulously from her face to all the hands suddenly shooting up into the air, slightly cupped, as if they were using some invisible power to keep the ceiling from dropping down on us. A band started up out of nowhere, and the long-haired college student next to me suddenly brushed past and out into the aisle, where she began doing grapevines. After watching the spectacle for a while, I realized I had a smirk on my face. I remember thinking, this is a lot more effing entertainment than I bargained for on a Sunday morning! Or some innocent 8-year-old version of that sentiment.
Anywho. We'd only been living in Steubenville and part of "the community" about a year when the brown dress made its appearance. By that time, Mom and Sister Helen had converted one room in our rented home into a "chapel," complete with Jesus, saints, and Mary statues, a small altar, Holy Water, and Latin prayer books called "breviaries." After living in this environment for a year, inexplicably, I began to view our life as normal. My mom was still my mom -- loving, tender, and attentive. She hadn't changed inwardly, even though she was dressing like a nun, so my little child's mind just managed to accept her outward appearance unquestioningly. That is, until the day I forgot my lunch on the kitchen counter.
I didn't even realize I'd come to school without it until just after Social Studies class. There was a gentle knock on the classroom door, which my regimented third grade teacher, Ms. Preston, initially ignored. A minute later, slightly more insistent, the knock came again. Ms. Preston strode over impatiently and flung the door wide open, exposing an expansive view of my mother holding a brown lunch bag and wearing The Brown Dress. Because her appearance at school was a rare and precious occasion, I sprang out of my chair and ran over to her, flinging the lunch aside to free her arms for my hug. After an extra goodbye squeeze, I picked up my lunch and walked, proudly beaming, back to my desk. Ms. Preston closed the door, and I finally noticed the steady buzz of my classmates' murmurs.
Steven Winthrop raised his hand. "Ms. Preston, why does Ashley's mom dress like a nun?" The classroom exploded in ripples of nervous laughter. My face was suddenly on fire. Even more embarrassing than a pointed classroom question about my mother's clothing choices, was my teacher's stammering, stuttering discomfort in answering. I held my breath, praying she would just let the moment pass without saying a word. Nun such luck.
She uttered not one but three words, the only three words I guess she could think of, and they were three words her students had never heard from her omnipotent, intimidating, and super-wrinkly mouth: "I. Don't. Know." And I finally realized, after I'd buried my face in my arms, neither did I.