In the process of poking around my psyche in search of the roots of my issues with money I have come to see my life with fresh eyes. I am seeing that a common thread has been about being a rebel; wanting to allow the risky maverick side of myself out of the box; wanting a life done my way.
It is 1975. I’m in 4th grade at St. Thomas School in Sanford, Maine. I want to be a saint. From what I can tell, sainthood doesn’t seem that hard.
If you put in the effort, it seems anyone can do it.
I read all the books on the already canonized saints. There is an entire section for them in the non-fiction section of the library at St. Thomas. They get a whole shelf and then some. I can always tell from the first chapter if it’s a saint who’s going to be my cup of tea or not, but I read them all cover-to-cover anyway. Their lives are my road map.
St. Theresa, the Little Flower, is by far the saint I love best. I read her biography over and over so I can model myself after her. When Theresa was my age she wanted to be a nun like her oldest sister, Pauline. And no matter how tired she was she helped her father with all the housework because her mother was dead.
All I need to do is be extra helpful and don’t say anything bad. Don’t lie, of course. Don’t hurt anyone. And pray pretty much all the time. I already help out a lot at home, but maybe I should help more. And maybe I should go to church more than once a week. St. Theresa goes every day.
I start getting myself up early to go to the morning mass. It’s at 6 o’clock during the week and is said in French. It’s me and the old French ladies. They sit in the back-most pews which seems to me very humble and saintlike, so I try it. It doesn’t feel right. It feels like I’m invading their territory, and, anyway, I want to be all the way upfront. I want to be seen by Father St. Amand. And I want to watch the altar boys. I study their every move with envy and judgement.
I should be up there on that altar. I’d do it so much better. I’d have my hands together in prayer whenever I wasn’t doing something. I’d never forget to ring the bell. I’d look alert and be into it, not look like I just rolled out of bed. I’d be perfect.
I think about my brothers, Mark and Matt, who are altar boys and don’t even care. In fact, they hate it when their names appear on the schedule to serve during the week.
I would LOVE it. I’d serve for ANY boy who didn’t want to get up early. Our Father who art in heaven, I want to be an altar boy. I will be an altar boy. I’m perfect for it. So perfect I’d be an altar boy who becomes a saint. Oh God, can you just see how cute I’ll look in the black robe with the white smock on top of it?
My zeal for the idea can’t be contained and I let my mother in on my plans. It’s against my better judgment, but if I don’t speak the idea to someone I might explode. I put it out there as matter-of-factly and casually as I can while clearing the table after supper one night.
“So, Mum. Do you know what I’m going to do?”
“What’s that?” as she takes a handful of dirty utensils from me.
“Be an altar boy.”
Shaking her head and placing the utensils in the dishwasher she lets me know, “No. You can’t.”
My mother is masterful at raining on a kid’s parade. Why did I tell her? I stop clearing. I stand staring at her until I can find my voice. “...Why not?”
“You’re not a boy.”
“You know what I mean, Mum!” I let out all exasperated because she’s focused on a technicality and missing my point. “I’m going to serve. I’m old enough now. Matt can be one and he’s younger than me, and even John can be one soon, so why can’t I be one?”
“You have to be a boy to serve.”
“YOU HAVE TO BE A BOY TO SERVE??”
I fume silently as I turn from her and gather, scrape and stack supper dishes with too much force. Good thing they’re Pyrex.
As I gather, scrape and stack I wonder about needing to be a boy.
Of course it’s all boys NOW, but that’s just because…. No girl ASKED. No girl who goes to Notre Dame wanted to serve… so no other girl thought of it. It should go... that when a girl DOES want to, you let her. It’s so duh!!
“Take it easy, missy,” my mother warns of my excessive scraping and stacking energy.
“Well, that’s just not fair!!!”
“That’s the way it is.”
More than she cares about being nurturing and motherly, my mother cares about being right. It’s that she’s smug while being right and it makes me want to smash dishes and scream my head off at her.
Being like Saint Theresa feels near impossible.
I continue to clear, wipe down and sweep out from under the kitchen table. All with a ‘zipped lip’ as directed because my mother “has had just about enough of that.”
I’m the one who likes church… I’m the one who goes all the time... That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. Girls can’t serve because they’re not boys! I can’t be an altar boy just because….. I’m not a boy?? It’s stupid!!!
My rage turns into a plan. By the time the kitchen is clean and all the chairs are pushed back in around the table, I am inspired. Divinely. I go for my school bag. With dramatic “I’ll show you” flourish, I take clean loose leaf paper and a pencil out of my bag. My mother is now upstairs giving little boys baths, so my defiant flourish is safe.
I put the paper and pencil at my spot at the table. With even more flair, I pull out my chair, sit, and pull myself back in. I know exactly what I want to say.
Dear Pope John Paul II,
My name is Jeanne Demers. I am 10 years old and I live in Springvale, Maine. I go to Notre Dame Church. I have six brothers. Mark, Matthew, John, Luke, Peter and Michael. Mark and Matthew are altar boys and John gets to be one soon, too. I want to be an altar boy, but I can’t be just because I am a girl. I don’t think that is fair. I should be one before Matt and John because I am older. I got skipped over just because I am a girl. I think you should change the rule that says girls can’t serve. When you change the rule please let me know first so I can be one before it’s too late.
Notre Dame Church
Since it’s such an important letter I will need my mother to check it for misspellings. That is practically her specialty. Spelling. Knowing I will need her to check it, I leave out telling the Pope about my plans to be a nun and a saint, too. Those are things that could get me made fun of. That is my family’s brand of humor. Making fun. It’s not funny humor, it’s the kind of humor that makes the one joking feel powerful and the one being joked about feel stupid for wanting or liking or doing what matters to them.
After the little boys are in bed my mother comes back downstairs and I show her my letter. She chuckles as she reads.
I don’t care I don’t care I don’t care. I just need to know which words are spelled wrong and if I need to write it over neater.
The next day I take my letter addressed to The Vatican and a pocket full of change to the post office. I need to get enough stamps on it to go all the way to Rome. When the postmaster sees the address he chuckles too. Somehow I don’t mind his chuckles.
While waiting to hear from the Pope, it’s back to business being a saint.
I unearth just what I need in the cellar in the sawdust covered scrap heap near my father’s jigsaw. I need a cross. One that, while being transported from here to there, will only look like two pieces of ordinary wood with a notch in each of them.
“Dad, can you put notches in these pieces of wood right here and here, you know, so they go together like Lincoln Logs?” I don’t want to say “So they go together like a cross” because that’s potential make-fun-of stuff.
“So it makes a cross?” he asks clarifying my request.
“Huh... Yeah, it would look like a cross, I suppose,” I say pretending to be surprised by the idea.
He does what I’m asking and it’s perfect. I put the two pieces of my portable cross in the back of my pants, hop on my bike and head to the woodlot.
We own a woodlot. It’s a patch of woods in town over on Harris St. which is around the corner from Notre Dame church. The woodlot is big enough to get lost in (fun), but not big enough to stay lost in (phew). I know my way around the woodlot really well since I spend so much of my free time there, but there are areas of it I don’t venture into.
I stay within the area of the woods where I’ve made ‘rooms’ by designating certain trees as walls, clearing the ground within the walls of leaves and pine spills, calling big stones ‘chairs’ and stumps of trees ‘tables.’
In my favorite room is a tree that has a spot at the base of it where I have envisioned having a cross. I clink together the cross my father made me and prop it up in the spot in the tree. It fits so good it looks like it was made for it. In front of the tree is a patch of moss that is so ultra soft and plushy I can kneel on it for long periods of time, no problem. With my cross set up in the tree I kneel on the moss. I clasp my hands together, tilt my head upward and pray. With all my might I pray.
Dear God, Dear Jesus, Dear Mary, Dear St. Theresa, you know I love you. I know you love me too. All I want is to do good. Good things. Only good things. Your will. Help me to do only good things. Only Your will. I love you sooooo much. Please help me, be with me, help me when it’s hard. Then I’ll be good enough to be a saint. I want so much to be a saint. Will I be a saint? Will I be a saint? Will I be a saint, God? You can tell me.
As I improvise my begging prayer, I concentrate on Jesus appearing. That will be the sign that lets me know I will be a saint. Seeing Jesus. It would take nothing for Him to leave heaven and come walking through the woods toward me. I can practically feel Him there already as I pray. I leave my eyes closed tightly and intensify my praying, sure that when I do open them, He will have had enough time to get here.
I come way out into the woods to pray so I can unselfconsciously pray my brains out. When I pray with abandon, my prayers sometimes turn into song. My singing is over-the-top and loud. My sincerity is un apologetically saccharine. I sing-pray to get Jesus to come.
“You’ve done it before! You can do it again! You’ve done it before! You can do it again! You’ve done it before!!! You can do it again!!! Oh Jesus, You’ve done it before!!! You can do it again!!!!”
He knows I mean ‘rise from the dead and come back to life for his friends,’’ so I don’t have to spell it out. Once I know with a thousand percent assurance that He has arrived, I open my eyes. I look around. I look more closely.
No Jesus. I can’t believe it. I fall over sideways and begin to weep. I am spent. I can’t move. My grief turns to fury. I am furious with Jesus and I let Him know.
I hate you, Jesus!! You’re perfectly capable! Why won’t You appear??! All I want is proof! Proof that sainthood is happening! Damn You for not giving it to me!!
My belief in miracles will need some adjusting if I want to keep the faith. And I do want to keep the faith. But try as I might, I just can’t bring myself to want anything other than the miracle that will be proof that I am on the path to sainthood. I figure out a way around it. If I can just adjust what constitutes a miracle; what constitutes proof of my chosen life path being fulfilled, everything will go as I need it to. This is how I make that adjustment:
It’s the perfect time of day in my praying room in the woods. It’s summertime, late afternoon. It’s all shaded and cool. I am pray-begging for all I’m worth to my portable cross in the tree. When the afternoon sun hits my praying room just right -- and it’s about to because I time my praying in the woods to coordinate with the sun -- it’s as though a light switch is suddenly flipped on. The sun can be felt pouring in, right onto me as I pray. I am bathed in warm, yummy sunlight. My eyes are closed in prayer, but I can see the light right through my eyelids. The light is telling me what I need to know.
He is the Way, the Truth and the Light! The LIGHT! Jesus is the Light! Jesus is here! Jesus is telling me, “A miracle is going on right now. Sainthood is yours, Jeanne. You deserve it.” Jesus, I love you!! You appeared!!
But in my heart of hearts, I know. I know I’ve orchestrated the miracle I so desperately want. It’s not really a message from God, Himself. Damn it. The only way forward is to work harder at doing things that will earn me my sainthood. And sometimes I believe I truly am earning it because, like all the saints do, I’m suffering. More and more.
I’m suffering because babies keep coming out of my mother. I’m 11 now and I have seven brothers.
I’m suffering because having that many kids has turned my mother into a sleep deprived crazy woman who yells and hits and demands obedience NOW. I’m suffering because the energy my crazy mother spews in an effort to get what she needs from me is mean and hateful.
“JEANNNNNE!! Get in here!! You’re not done with k.p. until EVERYTHING is clean. Get the vacuum out and get what’s under that table and the radiator, too!! Not in a minute, NOW!!”
I’m suffering because my crazy mother needs lots and lots of help with the little ones and -- as the second oldest and the only girl and the only one trying to be a saint -- lots of the help my mother needs is expected to come from me.
I’m suffering because my commitment to sainthood should, but doesn’t completely, stop me from wishing I could just play sometimes instead of babysitting and making beds and changing diapers and picking up toys and cleaning up the kitchen and folding laundry and and and… what feels like ALL of the time.
And as though that’s not bad enough, I’m suffering because I just found out I don’t want to be a nun anymore. Not since the eye-opening conversation with Sister Loretta after mass about skirts.
I told her that I liked her skirt but when I’m a nun I’ll be wearing a full length robe and the habit that looks like horns just like what Sally Fields wears in The Flying Nun. She laughed and said I can’t wear that. That it’s no longer the fashion. When I think about it I realize none of the nuns at school wear the big cornette head piece that makes flying possible, but….
Isn’t that just because they’re old and French and have no sense of style?!
I’m beyond devastated by this news. My dreams are going to hell and I’m only 11.
But then, thank God, something good happens. A letter comes in the mail.
It’s an official looking letter. It is addressed to Miss Jeanne Demers 16 Oak St. Springvale, ME 04083 done with a typewriter. The return address tells me it is from a church somewhere in Maine. I open it. It is from a Cardinal. Cardinals are like bishops only better. The letter says that the letter I wrote to the Pope was forwarded from Rome to him so he could reply to me.
The letter goes on to say you’re right, Jeanne. It’s not fair that girls can’t serve. And so the rule has just been changed. You can be an altar girl.
I wave the letter in the air and whoop and wallop as I run as fast as I can to Notre Dame church. I stop to show the firemen sitting in front of the firehouse. They want to know what all the excitement is about. My best friend’s uncle is one of the firemen so I hand it to him to read. He reads it, smiles and hands it back. I keep running to the corner of Main St., cross it and run down Bridge St. I am leaping, running and skipping. Without breaking my stride I look both ways before crossing Pleasant St. and run up the hill alongside the church. I crest the hill and pause to catch my breath before sprinting through the church parking lot back to the rectory.
I ring the doorbell and wait. Sister Loretta comes to the door. Sister Loretta loves my drawings of Jesus surrounded by forest animals and reminds me every time I see her that she wants one so, at first, she thinks that is what I am breathlessly handing her. She opens and examines the letter while I, brimming with elation, collect my breath.
She smiles wide and calls Father St. Amand in from the living room where he sits just paces away from us.
Seeing inside the rectory hardly ever happens so I peek beyond Sister Loretta into the living room to see Father sitting by the hearth holding a drink and a cigarette. He puts the drink down, but not the cigarette. He gets up and joins us in the foyer. He takes the letter Sister Loretta is handing him and reads. I am suddenly nervous, no longer elated and eager. I look to the floor and wait for what will happen next.
Father folds the letter and hands it back to Sister Loretta. He returns to his seat in the living room and from there says, “I guess you’re going to serve.”