One Catholic Girl: The Fifties
I was fourteen and white rabbit rushing
For the last church bus to Sunday Mass,
White flats clicking, white gloves almost squashing
My white half-moon hat, my frothy white dress
With big purple blooms, swaying and swishing.
At the convent door I stopped, my black eyes glared
At the shrinking bus. A colored prodigal,
I prayed, promised never again, if spared,
To ignore my alarm and sleep one more hour,
Or swear (in my pillow) shrill Mother to hell.
A miracle bus appeared as homeward
I turned. God’s chariot come to fetch me
To Mass! In the gutter, no longer wayward,
Facing traffic, I dared anyone snatch me—
Though a car near the convent corner I heard,
Crammed with Saturday drunks. A back door slid
Wide, and before I stepped back on the edge—
The wrong bus—a man’s strange soft touch I felt
Through my skirt. I turned, murder in my throat—
“Get away from me!” On tiptoe, he did.
No marker stands witness where the old Boys
Catholic High School stood. A sprawl of neat
Granite chunks and stubborn heavy windows…
Now a puzzle box wrapped in a thin sheet
Of bricks with pale green immovable glass.
Across the street—truck, bus and auto choked—
Four porch windows seem blind with sharp shut slats,
As progress and benign neglect unworked
Eternal plans. In youth on foot I passed
The cross above this convent door in trust.
“Don’t you girls go there tempting those brothers.”
No lark, the Girls Glee Club nun commandant
Flung the All-Boys show biz call like scrap feathers.
We huffed there in a clump, dodging Bandstand
Troopers from South Philly, freed canaries
Ready for joust. Toes tapped lightning and thunder.
Black rhythm eluded my feet—such worries
Never gagged me as brainy Negro wonder.
Yet all I wanted was a stage somewhere—
My falsetto rang with real Cockney flair.
So real, the Christian Brother hushed me
Into a tete-a-tete. “Do you think
You could try Summertime?” “Absolutely,
Not!” Tiny Mother would never shrink—
Nor let me—into the mammy uniform.
Stretched, then snipped—that was my last chance
For a solo in song. Never took by storm
An eager audience as Mother had. Once.
Here. Carry this dead microphone.
Every time you lose, somebody just won.
*Across the street from a convent at 49th and Chestnut Streets, West Catholic Boys’ High School, established in 1916, closed its doors in 1989 and joined the girls’ school at 45th and Chestnut. The building was demolished in 2009, making way for a new West Philadelphia Public High School.
“There will be no singing in class this year.”
After Pledge of Allegiance and prayer
Sister St. Fifth Grade clapped in every ear
A slap she meant for only me. Don’t move a hair.
Did her teeth flash like the cartoon Cheshire
Cat? Right under the crucifix and dare?
How long did it float in my face and purr?
God, is a nun supposed to jeer?
Even if she glares, I know I can’t stare
Back and win. Everybody knows she’s not fair—
Don’t they? God, why does she want to injure
Me? Do you hate songs? Someday I’ll be a star!
Don’t blink. Don’t drop a sigh or a tear.
Make this first day of school disappear.
Sister St. Fourth Grade was a Kate Smith twin
Singing the same syrupy Shirley Temple tune
All year whenever we needed a pause.
The Good Ship Lollipop! Most of us
Didn’t believe anymore in stuff
Like Santa Claus, but couldn’t get enough
Of “Oh, Mine Papa” and “Secret Love.”
Paul and I fit like hand in glove
Any time we crooned hit parade sop—Oh, no!
Never together! Goodness dies solo.