Chola’s Habit

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11/16/2011

Neighborhood: Featured, Williamsburg

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My younger sister, Chola, a second grader at Our Lady of Good Counsel, is chosen for a special part in the school play. My sister is real cute and the Sisters adore her. Chola loves Sister Romona and gave her a candy necklace for Christmas. She helps Sister Romona erase the blackboard every day and bangs the erasers together in the playground to clean them even though she gets white dust all over her blue uniform and on her nose. I think Sister Romona loves Chola. I know this because Sister Romona hugs Chola just like I hug my dog, Blackie.

Sunday afternoon, hours before the play begins, Chola leaves church at the end of the Mass. She has received communion and now walks with her teacher, Sister Ramona, to the Dominican Sisters' convent which is to the left of the old grey-stone church built in 1886. In the role of the parish school principal she will dress in a set of garments, a costume that looks very similar to the holy habit worn by Dominican Sisters for hundreds of years.

Chola will be dressed by Sister Ramona and Sister Anthony in the common room in the convent. I wait for her in the school auditorium for over an hour before the play, eyes fixed, heart beating with great expectation. When Chola enters the auditorium she wears a black cotton tunic, the holy habit, that covers her body and falls to her ankles. A round shaped stiff white collar, a gimp, surrounds her neck and shoulders. It is heavily starched and extends outward and away from her body. A belt made of woven black wool tightens the habit around her waist. Wooden rosary beads, large and small, hang from her belt to help her count her prayers. A large silver cross hangs from a black cord around Chola 's waist. Jesus hangs from the cross. His head is down so I know he is dead.

Chola 's arms are fully covered. I can see both long and three-quarter sleeves, the one flaring out over the other. Chola neatly folds the longer sleeves up from her wrist. I curiously touch the sleeve as she folds it back noticing its smooth texture, but Chola taps my hand, like Sister Jean often does, and says, "You can't touch." That's when I notice a wedding ring on her finger: did she get married in the convent? I panic. Then I remember that Sister Jean also wears a wedding ring, and so does Sister Ramona, Sister Anthony and all the Sisters at Our Lady of Good Counsel. When I once asked Sister Jean who she was married to, she said she was the bride of Jesus. I start to think. When Jesus came back from the dead, did he marry all these Sisters? I asked my dad how many wives a man could have. He said only one and if you have more than one wife you can go to jail. Now I’m worried. I can't let Chola marry Jesus and raise her children as a single parent. I want to solve this mystery just like Trixie Belden in the Black Jacket Mystery.

Chola's dress is mysterious, just like Sister Jean's, my 5th grade teacher. I search for clues and ask Chola about her habit, and she tells me she can't talk about how Sister Ramona and Sister Anthony dressed her or what clothing she wears underneath. What happened to Chola has never happened before -- to be dressed as a Sister and told not to tell anyone how she was dressed or what she is wearing underneath. This is her secret. When Chola walks on to the stage I peek for a glimpse of her underskirts. Her holy habit is a sign she will live her life for Jesus. She will take a vow of poverty and share everything that she has. I wonder if, last week, when Chola gave me half of her package of Twinkies, she had already been practicing her vow. Later that same day Chola gave me a set of three baseball cards from her bubble gum package. One card was a big surprise: "Campy" Roy Campanella, the catcher on my favorite baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers. I hope that maybe next week she will give me the baseball cards packaged in her favorite potato chips.»

Chola’s Habit
Photo by National Library of Ireland

I briefly imagine I would be happy for Chola 's vow of poverty if she joined the community of Dominicans. Maybe then she will have good luck. God will give her, and she will give me, the Mickey Mantle and Pee Wee Reese baseball cards that I've been searching for in every nickel package of Bubble Gum. I imagine the sun-filled day of her consecration. Chola gives me a special part in the ceremony that sets her apart to serve God. She asks me to recite the Lord's Prayer, a prayer I know by heart. I imagine the Dominican Sisters will serve my favorite foods from the school cafeteria for the celebration lunch: macaroni and cheese, slices of pepperoni pizza, and hamburgers with ketchup and sliced pickles.

Standing beside Chola after the play is over, I see her white coif, a headpiece that covers her neck and chin. A thin black veil is pinned over the coif and I remember how Sister Jean, sometimes at Mass, wore the veil down to cover her face. I don't like that I can’t see her soft brown hair beneath her cap. I am afraid that her face hurts, crunched in a moon circle, skin puffing out along the pressed edges of her starched coif. Chola doesn't want me to hug her now; she doesn't laugh when I try to be silly. I'm worried. If she is consecrated a Dominican Sister, she will change her name. She will no longer be Chola, and the tomato sauce stained apron that she now wears when she helps our Mom make delicious lasagna, cooked with sausage, ground beef and three types of cheese, will be replaced by a stiff white apron to protect the front and back of her habit when she works in the convent.

I walk out of the church and down the street. I know I am not allowed to cross Broadway alone. My Mom tells me all the time that she doesn’t want me to get hit by the Pesto Cheese Company truck, just like the one that hit Aunt Mary and broke both of her legs last year. But I’m sad and mad and feel like crossing the avenue on purpose. So I do. When I get home to my house on Madison Street, I go to Grandma’s apartment, turn on the television and watch Hector the Bulldog protect Tweety from Sylvester for the hundredth time.

Flo Gelo was born in Brooklyn, where she lived until her early teens. She's published numerous articles in professional literature about illness, death and dying. This story is one in a series about her life on Madison Street.

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