The Good Sister and the Judge

The next school year, come October, the Sisters were in agreement:  we would be arriving in our nun’s habits once again, except, sadly for Sister Mary Peggy who was now at a new school. The rest of us were all looking forward to a Second Annual Peaceful Halloween.

Then I received a summons from Superior Court.  I had to appear to testify against a small time con artist who had been working our campus and I had to be there at 11:30AM on October 31. 

A court summons was not going to get in the way of my Halloween calm.  I called the prosecuting attorney.

Any way to change this?

No.

Any way to make it later in the day?

No.

I explained that it was Halloween and I was committed to being a nun.

He groaned and then, after some reflection, said, Well, half the courtroom will no doubt be in costume.  Just get here on time.

Will do.

Fortunately, I was scheduled during my prep and lunch so I quickly left after class, drove to the courthouse, parked and very piously entered the courtroom. The Judge, a frail elderly man, smiled and nodded at me.

The prosecutor turned, smiled, and immediately called me to the witness stand.  I must have been a sight, in full habit, taking an oath that I would tell the truth.

The prosecutor then addressed the court.  She is not really a nun.  This is the Halloween custom of her English Department at the high school in question and she has to return to class right after testifying. 

The Judge nodded, half listening but more concerned that I was comfortable and had water if I needed it. He then very gently explained to me that there was no jury, and that he, the Judge, would be rendering the verdict.

The first round of questions, from the prosecuting attorney, was straight forward and I answered them confidently with crisp sentences.  I could say I sounded just like an English teacher but I probably sounded more like a nun.

Then, it was the defendant’s turn and his attorney came at me full force. I continued to answer directly as he increased both the volume and intensity of the questions.

He tried his best to be intimidating, but I taught teenagers. This was a walk in the park.

The Judge evidently disagreed with my assessment. He looked at the defense attorney and scowled.  He finally leaned forward, pointed his finger at the attorney and began to sternly lecture him.

You are not to treat the witness this way. You are to treat her with respect she deserves. Do you understand?  I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in my courtroom.

He hadn’t heard a word of the prosecuting attorney’s explanation regarding my costume.

He looked at me.  In a much softer voice, he asked Now, are you alright?  Do you need water? Don’t let him rattle you. You’re doing just fine.  

He leaned over, smiled and reassuringly patted my hand.

The prosecuting attorney just leaned back in his chair and grinned.

I finished the answers to the few remaining questions, smiled a thank you to the Judge and scurried out of the courtroom with black robe and veil flying. I rushed to make the elevator down the hall and get back in time for my next class.

A middle-aged man with straight black hair slicked back and dressed in a well-cut dark suit held the elevator door open for me. He smiled broadly. As he exited at the next floor, I realized he had red hands and a long red tail with a pointed arrow.  No doubt an attorney.  

Later that day, the prosecuting attorney called to let me know that the defendant was found guilty, which he was, so it all ended as it should have.

He also wanted to know where he could purchase nuns habits for future witnesses.

The Fear

One year, the Assistant Principal assigned me five freshman classes. I don’t understand freshmen; I don’t like freshmen. You need to be a mom with freshmen; I was done raising kids. I immediately charged into her office and asked her what in the world she was thinking.

She looked at me. But, I love freshmen. She looked confused. She thought she had given me a dream schedule.

Then you teach them. I think freshmen should be denied oxygen. (except, of course, for my grandchildren, but I don’t have to see them in a classroom on a daily basis.)

She looked horrified. You can’t mean that.

Oh, but I did.

She immediately switched my schedule and never assigned me another freshman class or even put any freshman classes in the vicinity of my classroom.  She was very protective of those runny nosed kids.

Instead,  I got my beloved at-risk kids, saving at least one other teacher from a fate worse than death, and a couple of college prep English II classes which can also be a lot of fun.  The challenge was to make certain the sophomores had grown up past the freshman stage of life.

I’d open the year with Robert Frost’s The Fear.  A poem. The kids groaned. 

Welcome to English II, my little lovelies.

I acted out the three pages of poetry in my best dramatic style, which admittedly left a lot to be desired. The poem, bless Frost’s heart, was set in Frost’s beloved rural New England and filled with sexual desire, an illicit love affair, betrayal, rejection — the shadow side of man that Frost was so skilled at examining.  The kids didn’t have a clue.

It was also the opening poem in the district approved textbook for English II, so it was pretty obvious that the people who recommended the text and the Board of Trustees that approved said book hadn’t read the poem or, if they had read it, didn’t understand the poem any more than my students.

Regardless, The Fear was among the best opening of school lessons I used.

After plowing through the time and setting, we got into the nitty gritty.

What do these lines mean? 

You mean you couldn’t understand his caring.
Oh, but you see he hadn’t had enough – 

She stretched up tall to overlook the (lantern) light
That hung in both hands hot against her skirt. 

The kids squirmed, looked at each other and looked at the clock, hoping against hope for an early bell.  I waited.

Come on, you know full well what Frost is talking about.

I finally put the textbook down.  Time for Opening Lecture 101.

Listen up. You want to be treated as adults, right?  You’re 15 and 16 years old.  Adult enough.  And we are going to be studying all kinds of literature this year. Adult literature about adult topics. We are going to cover love, sex, infidelity, commitment, jealousy, rage, hate, war, birth, death, grief — all the things that make the world the place we live.  I expect you to treat these subjects as adults. Got it?

As I turned around to the chalkboard, trying not to smile, I was well aware of the kids looking at each other and looking down once again at their textbook.

A young man in the back called out an answer, She’s horny and there’s no one there except her husband, but she doesn’t want him. She wants her lover who she thinks is looking for her and still wants to screw her.

Excellent. Let’s continue with the rest of the poem and see if she gets her wish.

The tenor of the room changed in that instant as the kids sat up straight and looked at one another.  I watched their sophomoric minds processing their classmate’s answer, my response and then concluding that English II might not be all that bad of a class after all.  But, more important, they all wanted to know how the poem ended.

It’s amazing what the promise of a little sex will do.

The Sea Cottage

When I retired, I decided to jump off a cliff.  Not literally, but one morning over coffee, I decided to sell my red-tiled roof cottage in the old neighborhood in a large city, become a renter and try on new landscapes.  I’ve been known to change homes like other women change shoes.

My 1930’s house needed major renovations. The kitchen was vintage, which is a nice way of saying it was nonfunctional. I was pretty sure the garage was still standing because the termites were holding hands and afraid to let go.

I thought the Pacific Coast would be perfect for launching retirement except that fog throws me into a funk.  Then, I remembered seeing a sign on the way over the hill to the ocean — Pasatiempo, Spanish for The Passing of Time. The residents call it Perpetual Spring with temperatures in the mid 70’s, no fog, views over the golf course through evergreen trees and oaks to the ocean.  I knew immediately that’s where I was going to move.

There was one minor detail. There were no homes to rent.

Regardless, I put my house on the market and it sold within the month.

I called my favorite movers and we set a date for The Move.

Where are you moving to this time?

Pasatiempo.

Address?

Not sure, but I’ll have one.

uh huh.  They had worked with me before.

Movers were scheduled, boxes were packed, and except for a new address, I was ready.

The perfect Pasatiempo home found me three days before The Move.  The only glitch was the owners needed a few more weeks before I could move in.

The movers could store everything but the cat and me.  I called an agent over on the coast who took about 10 seconds to say I’ve got the perfect little cottage, furnished, on a bluff overlooking the sea, and they’ll take your cat. 

Whoo Hoo!  The stars were very aligned!

It was a little (littleIMG_2470 (1) being the operative word) windswept, white clapboard cottage perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was perfect. It was very, very, very small.

The kitchen was about five feet square, including a small sink, frig and an old gas stove. A microwave teetered on a stool in one corner.

An old, very deep clawfoot tub painted bright maroon graced the tiny bath and became my retreat when the cat and I needed some breathing room from one another.

The cottage had a cozy bedroom that quickly became the storage area for All Those Things I Couldn’t Live Without, But Then Could Never Find When I Needed Something.

And, finally, there was also a small living room with a love seat and a large window overlooking the Pacific Ocean where we curled up on the love seat and watched sailboats framed against a setting sun, as they slowly meandered their way back to harbor and home. It could have been very romantic except the he in my life was a very large cat who was not enjoying his new life as an indoor cat and would hiss and bare his claws at me whenever he remembered he was stuck inside a very, very small cottage.

My daughter and grandsons visited one day.  They stood in the doorway as there was no room in the house.

oh, said my daughter.

I thought you were moving to a larger home, said a grandson.

Hiss, said the cat before diving under the love seat.

The cat and I watched dark storm clouds gather and, when the power failed, we huddled together under a blanket in the darkness, listening to the chilling rain and wind pound against our small cottage. The cat became increasingly unhappy. It seemed like there was storm after storm that February.

By the end of the very windy, very rainy month, the cat and I were facing off.  I was also becoming permanently waterlogged from my clawfoot tub retreats.

In hindsight, it seemed so very appropriate that, as the cat, our belongings and I make the final trek to our new oh-so-much-larger home in Pasatiempo, the sun came out from behind the clouds and the rain softened into a light sprinkle.  We had arrived at the place of Perpetual Spring and ready to begin a new adventure.

The Good Sisters

One of our colleagues and close friends rushed into the English Office early one October morning.

It’s going to be Halloween!  Mimi announced.

The rest of us groaned. 

Halloween on a high school campus falls somewhere between Carrie and Zombie Apocalypse II.  It is typically a lost teaching day and is spent keeping marginal control of 150 to 200 students dressed in every conceivable costume and are much more interested in each other than the assignment at hand.

I have an idea!  That was not news to us. Mimi always had a new idea.  We’re sisters.  We can all come dressed as nuns.

We looked at her. We looked at each other.  We grinned. A plan was in the works. 

On Halloween, we arrived, one by one, and looking very nun-like.  With floor-length black habits, 1940s black shoes, white wimples, black veils, rulers in hand, and reading glasses perched on the end of our noses, we were ready. Sister Mary Peggy, Sister Mary Sabra, Sister Mary Janet…well, you get the picture.

nuns (1)

Our principal, a very devout Roman Catholic, was among the first to get wind of our costumes.  He rushed down to the English Office, scowling. 

Not funny. 

It’s Halloween.  We’ll be good sisters. 

He rolled his eyes.  He had heard that before, usually in regards to our attentiveness during predictably long staff meetings where we attempted to keep ourselves awake by group-writing limericks, an increasingly trashy romance novel or correcting student essays. 

Today, however, as we had no other clothes and there was no way he was going to get 12 substitute teachers at the last minute, he was stuck with us.

The warning bell rang for first period.

I walked into my English II class of 35 sophomore students, all dressed in various Halloween garb and ready to hijack the prepared lesson. The kids looked at me, looked at each other and then just looked stunned. They didn’t know how to react, with some trying to hide their laughter, some just plain surprised.

Good morning children.  I stood facing them, stone-faced, the ruler tucked halfway up the habit sleeve and the reading glasses sliding down my nose.

Good morning, ah, um. 

Sister, I corrected them in a firm tone.  The costume had now taken over and I was totally in character. 

Just because it’s Halloween, you still need to stand when addressing me.

And then, just like magic, the tone of the room changed and I was teaching 35 darling teen angels, calling each by their given name…Gabriel not Gabe, Kathryn not Kathy and so forth.  Even more amazing, they sat up straight, hands folded on their desks and stood when politely answering my questions with “Sister, the answer is...”

At lunch, black habits and long veils could be seen flying across campus as the good sisters flocked to the office to exchange stories.  The stories were all the same: courteous students, orderly classrooms, lessons completed even with Halloween.

Halloween had become a dream, not a nightmare.

We looked at one another, looked at our habits, grinned and instantly decided to come dressed as nuns for the rest of our teaching careers.

BlackJack Comes Home

When the original BlackjackBlackJack, the cat who came for winter, moved across the valley to a larger home with his young family, I was devastated.  I called my good friend Joanne because she and I had mutually grieved the loss of a number of animals.

Joanne listened to my Pity Party for a time before finally saying, Geez, Carla, you need to get your own cat. If you can’t commit to an animal, how can you possibly commit to a man? 

She and I had also shared our woes in dating, although Joanne had found the Love of her Life so those talks had long since ceased.

I thought about Joanne’s words as I realized how much the cat meant to me and how much he had become a part of my life.  BlackJack had been an amusing companion and he had certainly kept me entertained when he wasn’t napping. However, there was the reality that we didn’t belong to one another. He and I had both wandered in and out of each other’s lives, even if he had snuggled up to my back on cold winter nights.

As I write this, I realize this experience wasn’t really that much different than some of the long term relationships I’ve been in, which certainly gives me pause for thought.  

Regardless, Joanne was no doubt right.  I needed to commit, at least to a cat, especially as there were no men currently vying for my attention.

I knew I wanted a black male cat, having first had such great luck with the first BlackJack and then, after researching black cats online, learning that black male cats do make good companions and are pretty mellow.  They are also good at keeping your feet and/or back warm in the winter.

By winter, I had ventured onto Craigs List and, in the dead of February, there he was…a big, big black cat with gold eyes. He lived in Berkeley, a street cat that had been taken in by a young couple that already had two too many cats.

I drove up to Berkeley, took one look at the a four year old, very large black cat who nuzzled me and purred before going back to his nap. He had a jet black coat that still feels like soft velvet, inquisitive eyes and a cold nose. I knew immediately this was a cat with whom I could commit.

The two of us drove home with the newly named BlackJack howling beside me.  He didn’t know he was on the cusp of a new, pampered lifestyle.  As soon as he got in his new home, BlackJack bolted down into the basement and hid.  The good news was that I was on winter break, so I had all the time in the world to sit on the stairs in a damp basement and bond with my new cat.  The bad news was that I was still recovering from bronchitis and the damp basement did not help speed the recovery.

Nonetheless, we bonded once he got hungry.  Apparently, the key to a male’s heart may be through his stomach regardless of the species, although I quickly learned an 18 lb. cat is always hungry.

And, BlackJack is pure male. He loves food and he loves football, especially the 49ers. He stretches out on the couch and watches every play unfold with great concentration, but only during their winning seasons.  Don’t ask me how he knows, but he’s currently batting 1000 (a mixed sports metaphor, I know) and he senses exactly how the season will go by halftime of the first preseason game. This season looks particularly bad, but you already knew that.

It’s been almost 14 years that we’ve been together — take that, Joanne, I can commit — although recently, BlackJack appears to have been smitten by the siren song of a sweet young thing next door. He does come back home for meals and naps, and I have to admit, he still snuggles close and keeps my back warm on cold winter nights.

The Cat Who Came for Winter

My daughter’s cat lived a good number of her nine lives with me before going on to kitty heaven, or where ever cats go after permanently scarring their mistresses. In the weeks prior to her departing, a young black cat mysteriously arrived. He had no identification other than a tag with his name, BlackJack. He was obviously well cared for.

BlackJack would hang around in the backyard with Misha, trying unsuccessfully to interest her in a leaf, a blade of grass, his antics.  She ignored him, unless he got too close and then she’d hiss.  I warned BlackJack what that hiss meant and shooed him away.

Within a couple days of Misha moving on to her just rewards, Blackjack showed up, this time pushing his way through the kitty door and looking for food. I tried to explain that he had a home and I thought perhaps he understood because he cocked his head at me and looked like he was paying attention.  BJ1 (1)

Of course, my own kids and students did the exact same thing and they weren’t listening to my words of wisdom any more than the cat.  I turned around and he was curled up asleep on my bed.  

BlackJack!  He opened his eyes halfway, looked at me, yawned, stretch, rolled over and promptly went back to his afternoon nap.

The visiting routine turned into a full time residency as autumn turned to winter.  I still had no idea who owned him, but BlackJack had moved in, now eating meals twice a day and keeping me company on the winter evenings.  Then, we would head to bed where he usually slept cuddled up next to my back.

He was much better behaved than Misha and preferred purring to hissing. 

Although BlackJack enjoyed Thanksgiving with the family, entertaining us before dining on a bite or two of turkey, he really loved the Christmas holidays. He thought the decorated tree was his new toy, batting ornaments and sleeping under the lit tree in a cozy, warm nest in the middle of the gifts. I tied a red ribbon and bow around his neck and he thought he was the cat’s meow.

I still had no idea who owned him, although it seemed like I might be assuming that role. 

Springtime came, the weather warmed and, just as mysteriously as he showed up, BlackJack disappeared.  I have to admit, it was rather lonely and I did worry about him, although that ceased when he started stopping by for a few minutes, rubbing up against me, purring and then twitching his long black tail before running off.

It was mid-summer and I was out for a walk when I spotted BlackJack a few blocks away.  He ran up to greet me and then turned tail and ran towards what I later learned was his summer home.

Eventually, the owner of the summer home, and real owner of BlackJack, and I met.  The cat looked at both of us, caught red-pawed so to speak, and took off.  She and her husband had two young daughters so winters inside were louder than the cat wanted. By then, BlackJack had his routine and for the next few years, he wintered with me. I offered to pay half the vet bills, but she declined, saying room and board were more than sufficient.

She called one year in early December to check on BlackJack.  He was sleeping on my pillow.  They were going away for the holidays and she wanted to know if she should board him

Oh no, he loves Christmas, I said.

I wouldn’t know, she answered.

A few years later, in the middle of summer, the family moved to a larger home, taking our cat with them and breaking my heart.

Old Copper Pots

It was a long awaited trip to France and exceeding all my expectations. I had met my good friend Ann, who was living in Brussels, and together we had driven through Belgium into Normandy, spent a night at an old chateau, climbed Mont San Michel’s well-worn steps to the very top and then stopped in Villedieu-les-Poêles, an old medieval village famous for its copper, on our way to Paris.

I wanted to purchase a set of old copper pots, ones that looked like they had been well used and loved for a hundred years or more. Give me France and the romance of almost any subject just takes over.

copper We walked into one centuries old shop after another, overwhelmed by brilliant copper pots and pans that lined the walls. The juxtaposition of the ancient buildings and brand new copper was jarring. The new copper was so shiny it was blinding.

These were not the copper pots I wanted.

I speak very poor high school French, nothing more.  I had switched my major four different times in college so that I could avoid having to face another foreign language class before realizing that I couldn’t beat the system and struggled through two more semesters of French without learning any more than I had in high school.  Like musical instruments and singing, I have no ear for foreign languages.

That did not stop me from trying to communicate with local residents, much to Ann’s chagrin. She had been attending language classes, becoming proficient in French although not in copper-speak. Ann was initially amused with my efforts, but then began to cringe at my attempts. Admittedly, I was pretty pathetic.

We continued my old copper search. No luck. Finally, tucked into a corner of the town square was a small shop where a harried, middle aged sales clerk offered to help. She spoke very poor high school English, a perfect match for my very poor high school French. Between her English, my French and Ann’s translating, the clerk finally understood what I wanted and looked horrified.

Mais, non!!  she exclaimed.  She went on to explain, the best she could given the language challenges, that one does not purchase, and copper shops especially in world-famous Villedieu-les-Poêles would never sell, the tarnished, well-patina-ed copper pots I sought.

I must have looked terribly disappointed because the clerk stepped back, probably taking pity on me, a nice but very ignorant American tourist who had tried her best to converse in French. She shook her head and motioned us through an old doorway into a dank, darkened anteroom. The three of us proceeded very gingerly down an old wooden staircase with creaky steps to the depths of the shop’s cellar.  Now Ann looked horrified.

The clerk pointed to a pile of well-tarnished sets of copper pots in the corner of the cellar. I lit up like a Christmas tree.

IMG_2438Mais, oui!!  I exclaimed. There they were, the set of antique copper pots I wanted.

She cringed and explained, in very broken English and very simple French, that these were seconds and not worthy of being sold. The tarnish and patina I so loved was from never having been polished, not age nor use.

It didn’t matter. Those were the pots I wanted.

Before she let me pay a meager amount for the set, I had to promise I would never, ever divulge the name of the shop that would sell such inferior items to an American tourist. Their reputation would be ruined for all eternity.

So, if you travel to France, and find yourself seeking well tarnished, faux antique copper pots in the tiny village of Villedieu-les-Poêles, you’re on your own, except now you’ll know to ask to see the copper pots in the cellar.

Puis-je s’il vous plaît voir les pots en cuivre dans la cave?