They Still Call Me Sister by Deborah Plummer Bussey
August 15, 1977, Feast of the Assumption
As Daddy drove twenty miles an hour down the driveway the tires of our family
Mercury station wagon grabbed and spewed the gravel onto the recently cut grass.
The brick, split-level ranch-style house that I had lived in for the past four
years with my parents, three sisters, and our Great Dane, Gentle, sat an acre
back from the highway. Soon my home might as well be on the moon instead of
thirty miles outside of Cleveland, for I was on my way to enter the convent.
Nestled in the backseat of the car between my two sisters, I leaned down to
shake out a small gravel stone still in my black leather pump that had lodged
there on my Olympic run over to our neighbor’s house to use the phone. If I were
superstitious, I would have been begging my parents to turn the car around right
then. There were too many signs that what I was about to do—become a bride of
Christ—was something I should seriously reconsider. First, the car would not
start. However, this was not necessarily something to send up a red flag because
our car not starting was normal for any day in the Carpenter household. We never
had a brand-new car ever, so a prayer accompanied every turn of the key
in the ignition. While Daddy opened the hood to perform magic and get the car to
start, I pushed past my sister CC, who had bounded out of the car to get through
the back door of the house first. My heart was pounding with panic. I had to
call Sister Mark Therese to tell her that I would be late. I was only the first
black postulant to enter the community in eight years (Tammy Hawthorne, the
first and only before me, left after only five months), and I had to be
late. Nothing like starting by reinforcing stereotypes!
To make matters worse, there was no dial tone when I picked up our home
phone. I glared at Mom, who was entering the kitchen. “Mommy, there’s no dial
tone. Is the phone turned off again?” I didn’t wait for a response. Why
put her in a position to lie to my face? I could tell from the look of her face
that she hadn’t paid the bill again, and the phone company had turned off
our line again. “That phone company is so unreliable out here in the country,”
she would probably say. I assumed that she was robbing Peter to pay Paul
(always) for the phone bill payment that equaled our mortgage. The cost
of the long-distance calls with her Cleveland friends that she missed so much,
even after four years of living in the small rural town of Huntsburg, population
6,400, was astronomical. The phone bill always exceeded her ability to pay.
Daddy never used the phone, so without his immediate scrutiny Mom could have up
to a month to find and rob Peter and get the bill paid before Daddy would even
know. We often met “Peter” as cut-up, fried hot dogs with pork and beans
“doctored” with ketchup for dinner, or her machine-sewn empire-waist dress that
she convinced us looked exactly like the one in Higbee’s that we had picked out
for the school dance.
I knew how attached Mommy was to her friends and how much she needed to have
those conversations out here in this godforsaken place with hardly any black
folks, so I took pity on her and didn’t confront her about the phone being
turned off. I chose instead not to waste time. I needed to get to a phone, so I
tore out the screen door again, this time nearly knocking over Dana and Tina,
who had decided it might be awhile for Daddy’s magic to work and that it was
best to come in the house. Rolling my eyes at them in response to their sneering
glares, I raced down the driveway, headed for the Adams family home across the
street and down the road about an eighth of a mile. We had a golf course to the
left of our house, and the owners of the course, the LaContises, lived at least
a half mile down the road. Unlike the Houstons, who lived fifty feet from our
house, the LaContises were friends and they would let me use their phone.
Judging from the cars parked in the driveway, the Houstons were probably home,
but to go there I would have to jump the barbed wire fence—papered with no
trespassing signs—that separated our properties, knock on their front door
adorned with a Confederate flag, and then ask to use their phone. The
probability of the response being yes was very slim. Their lifetime membership
in the John Birch Society, the barbed wire fence, and Confederate flag pretty
much assured me that the answer would be no. I had no time to mend race
relations in America. I just needed a phone.
I prayed that the Adamses were home. They owned a dairy farm, small by rural
America’s standards, with two small white-framed homes on the property—one where
Mom Sue and Dad Joe lived with the four Adams kids, and the other where
nineteen-year-old Tom Adams lived with his eighteen-year-old wife, Bonnie, and
their two-year-old toddler, Tommie. I started yelling to get their attention as
I ran up their driveway as more gravel lodged itself into my stupid black pumps.
I was now concerned about my hair sweating out the chemical relaxer more so than
the sweat forming under my arms onto my white blouse. Sweaty armpits and sweat
circles on a white blouse I could hide. I would not know what to do with nappy
hair for convent entrance day.
The chances of both sides of the Adams families not being home were
next to none, but today was the day for none. I didn’t think it appropriate to
start swearing, given what I was attempting to do with my life, so I took a deep
breath. It must have been the breath of the Holy Spirit, for I remembered that
the Adamses had a phone in the cow barn behind Tom’s home, and I headed for it.
Sure enough, the heavy, grand black phone was anchored at the far corner of the
barn just past the last stall. I ran down the barn hall, my heels clicking on
the concrete floor, and I aggressively picked up the receiver. As I dialed, I
reminded myself that I would have to have Mommy leave a few dollars with Mrs.
Adams to pay for the call. Even though the motherhouse was only six miles down
the road, it was in another township and, therefore, a long-distance call. I
knew the number to the motherhouse by heart, having called my favorite nun and
soon-to-be sponsor, Sister Caitlin, numerous times. Like clockwork, after the
required two rings, Sister Saint Matthew, the motherhouse receptionist, picked
up. Sister Saint Matthew had what my mom would call a motor mouth, so any phone
call to the motherhouse required a brief conversation with Sister before you
could be connected to your party. Today was no exception.
“Hi, Sister, this is Kathy Carpenter. I am supposed to be there at four
thirty, and it’s four twenty now, and our car won’t start, so I guess I will be
late. Is Sister Mark Therese around?” I turned away from the wall and found
myself face-to-face with a black-and-white Holstein cow.
“Oh, sweetie! I am so sorry to hear that you are having difficulty getting
here. Did you let the engine cool a bit? It is so hot outside today.”
“Ah, Sister…I really need to get going,” I murmured. “Could you just tell
Sister Mark Therese I will be there as soon as I can get a ride?”
“Do you want someone to come and get you? I am sure we could send one of the
men who work on the property under these circumstances”
“No!” I screamed perhaps a little too loudly, but with that scream, I
was able to kill two birds with one stone, and the heifer starting moving away
back into her stall. “I mean I am sure we can get the car started. Please just
tell Sister. I will be there soon. Thanks! Gotta go!”
Great! Now I smelled of cow manure. I looked down at my black gabardine
A-line skirt covered with bits of straw, my twisted black hose, and dust-covered
black pumps. I had no time to worry about appearances especially in that outfit.
It wasn’t like I would have a chance to attract the opposite sex in that getup.
Who worries about your appearance when you are entering a convent? It is not
like another postulant dressed in the same black skirt and white blouse would
turn to say, “I really love your black skirt, and the blouse goes so well with
I hurried back across the street up the driveway to the welcomed hum of the
car motor, my parents and sisters neatly packaged back in the car. We were on
I sat in sandwiched between my older and younger sisters in the backseat of
our family car. The small cloth duffel bag, which now served as my purse, rested
on my lap. For some stupid reason (maybe to get my mind off what might happen
because I was late—did they give demerits in the convent like in my high school
at Regina Academy?), I thought about Mary Tyler Moore who was in the movie we
had watched last night. It would probably be the last movie I would see in my
lifetime. I suppose I could have had loftier and holier thoughts since I was on
my way to enter the convent, but I didn’t. I thought about Mary Tyler Moore.
Since I was “leaving for good,” I got to choose the movie that my sisters and I
went to see with a group of my high school friends the previous evening. My
family and friends were acting as if entering the convent was equivalent to
dying, so I matched their reactions to the family in the movie where one of the
sons had really died.
Mary Tyler Moore was this crazy mother Beth and appeared to be so together
after the death of her son. And the dad, Calvin, was in-between healthy and
crazy. He, at least, was willing to talk about the fact that his oldest son had
died. The younger son, Conrad, was the only one in therapy and was made out to
be the craziest one when he was really the healthiest of them all. Conrad’s
grief oozed out all over the place, and he suffered from misplaced guilt and
even tried to kill himself, which was why everyone thought he was crazy, but
I knew, along with his cool therapist in the movie, that he was not. We
knew that he was doing what he needed to do to survive such a tragedy. Of
course, my sisters hated the movie and more so the fact that they had to pay the
two dollars for my ticket.
My mom was having a bit of a Mary Tyler Moore crazy reaction to my entering
the convent. On the advice of her Ladies’ Guild friends she was acting as if it
was OK because my vocation was obviously “God’s will,” but in reality, she was
going bonkers about it. The only thing saving her from utter despair was that
she was counting on all of the promised blessing that were certain to be
showered on her for having “sacrificed” her daughter. She turned around again
for at least the fifth time, her eyes glazed over, her brow furrowed, examining
me as if she had just found out that I had leukemia. Tina, in the front seat
with my parents, matched my mom turn for turn, only crossing her eyes and
sticking out her tongue at me, which I translated to mean, “You would go to any
lengths to get all the attention; you may be smart, but I am cute and fun.”
Daddy, like the movie dad, was both healthy and crazy about the whole thing.
He didn’t like the fact that his daughter was going to live with a bunch of
white people. But when he learned from my “vocation interest interview” that the
good nuns would be paying for my college education and taking over all living
expenses, even as I was a postulant and novice in formation, he was really glad
about my vocation and began praising God for his blessing.
I would be stretching it more than a bit if I said that my three sisters,
Tina, Cecilia, and Dana, were overridden with guilt and contemplating suicide on
my decision to become a nun. For the last couple of weeks, their energy had been
devoted to fighting over who got the only piece of clothing of real value in my
wardrobe—a fuchsia-colored satin jacket with two white stripes on the collar and
wristband. Since I wore a uniform daily to Regina Academy, one could accurately
say that I really did not even possess a “wardrobe.” There were not many outfits
needed for the twice-a-year “Dress Up Days” when you got to wear your own
clothes as opposed to those designed by School Belles. The satin jacket was the
only item of cool value in my closet. I really only purchased it in a failed
attempt to project a personality other than my own. The fact that it was the
only piece of clothing my sisters wanted was testimony to my accomplishment. I
would only miss the bangle bracelets. They would lay unworn by my sisters. The
bracelets were “so not cool” in my sisters’ minds because they too closely
resembled the “Panama bracelets” my mom wore and often tried to use as
good-behavior bait when we would misbehave as kids.
“I won’t leave my bracelets for you when I die if you keep acting that way.
My bracelets are reserved for my best daughter.” My mom was from Panama, and the
bracelets were, I guess, a big deal and always considered the height of fashion
“even before women caught on to their beauty in the States.” Her bracelets were
actually made out of sterling silver, whereas mine were plastic. Still bangles
were bangles in my sisters’ eyes, and they didn’t want them.
Nobody wanted my leg warmers either. The leg warmers were—well, just leg
warmers. Since I was required to wear a skirt every day to school, even in
near-zero temperatures, the leg warmers were not a fashion statement started as
a trend by cool New York dancers, but a Catholic schoolgirl necessity. My two
older sisters went to public schools where pants were not only acceptable but
considered the only sane attire for near-zero temperatures. Thus, in their
minds, nuns invented leg warmers as a form of birth control for Catholic high
school girls. If you wore those ugly gray and red plaid pleated skirts that had
to touch the knee in the era of miniskirts, and the winter accessories that
completed the ensemble were thick, bulky, knit gray leg warmers worn in a
cast-like manner around your legs, no boy in his right mind would want to have
sex with you.
This time, when Tina joined my mother in the “check on Kathy in the backseat
to see if she will change her mind” look, she had a question.
“Why do they have to have a prayer service when it is Sunday and we already
went to Mass?” It was evident that my sister Tina was unhappier about having to
spend her Sunday afternoon in church as a part of my entering ritual than she
was about my leaving home. It was already a complete embarrassment that she had
a sister dressed like a square in a black A-line skirt and white blouse with
nylons and black low-heel pumps, but that now she would be considered holy by
association was more than she could bear.
Her question startled me out of the world of Hollywood to my world of Country
Negroes. I chose not to try to explain. Dana, my youngest sister, decided she
would offer an explanation.
“She is offering her life to God, and we have to be there to see her give
Well, it wasn’t exactly the explanation that Sister Mark Therese gave about
the entrance ceremony, but she had least gotten the gist of the family being
part of “leaving all things to follow Christ.” Actually, I thought it would be
easier just to say good-bye to them at the door after they unloaded my trunk of
staples for nun living. I had dutifully purchased items from the list in the
“Preparing for Entrance Day” packet: five white long-sleeve blouses, two
short-sleeve white blouses, three floor-length white cotton nightgowns (luckily,
Mommy found a pattern and sewed them for me since white floor-length nightgowns
were impossible to find even in the old lady departments), five white bras, five
white brief panties, three white full slips, five white handkerchiefs, two
blankets (no color specified), white twin sheets and pillowcase, one robe
(pastel color), brush, comb, toilet articles, Jerusalem Bible, stationery, two
pens, and two pencils. I guess you could say that aside from the content of what
was in my trunk and the entrance ceremony prayer service, there really was no
difference between me and any other seventeen-year-old going off to college.
Well, maybe a few more differences.
Despite all of the commotion, we arrived at the mother-house only about ten
minutes after the designated time. The formation team of Sister Mark Therese,
Sister Mary Joseph, and Sister Catherine Mary, along with my sponsor, Sister
Caitlin, was waiting at the door. The Mother Superior, Sister Elizabeth Mary,
would also have greeted me, but she had already gone up to chapel so as not to
give the nuns bad example by entering the chapel late. Tina was laughing
hysterically about something Cecilia had said, and Dana was clinging to Mommy
and Daddy just in case God decided to zap her with a vocation and give the good
nuns a two-for-one.
Sister Mark Therese was smiling broadly. Apparently, they were afraid that I
had chickened out and were thrilled that I had arrived to validate the community
as open and non-discriminatory. Each of the nuns gave me a friendship hug and
whispered to me, “Welcome.” They had sealed the deal.
In your senior year at Regina Academy, the nuns made a full-court press for
getting girls to enter the convent. Vocation week was around the same time
college applications were due; your anxiety was high, and your self-esteem low
enough that the only ounce of confidence you had was that you would never be
able to make it to any college. The multiple prayer services during the week not
only had you praying for vocations, but by the time you finished only two of the
services, even the brattiest girls like Nicole Rini actually believed they were
hearing God or Mother Mary talking directly to them. The weekly assembly
featured a panel of nuns from various orders who passed out enough reading
material on religious life to rival the volumes at the county library. Homeroom
bulletin boards that once displayed pictures of fall scenes and study tips for
the SAT now had calligraphied quotes like “Today is the first day of the rest of
your life,” with pictures of young postulants praying in the motherhouse chapel,
gardening, playing volleyball in full habit, and eating ice cream sundaes. Our
class’s individual senior pictures were placed around the border as if to
shorten the degrees of freedom between the postulants and us.
This year Sister Caitlin landed a three-pointer, having talked me out of
signing up for two years with the Peace Corps but instead encouraging (or was it
directing?) me to not go “halfway with God” but to give myself up totally. Now
Sister Caitlin was directing my family and me to follow her and the other nuns
up the marble stairs to the main chapel where we would join the community in
marking my official entrance into religious life. Climbing the marble stairs,
hearing my heels clicking on the surface while holding hands with my mom and
dad, I thought about that quote on the bulletin board in my senior class
homeroom. Today was the first day of the rest of my life.