i am staring at a picture of my mom, dressed as a nun, circa 1964. It’s a photo I just scanned from a collection my aunt sent me. it was taken by my grandfather, as they dropped her off at the convent, the year after she graduated high school. the year after the first kennedy went down. i begin to venture into the photograph, as i am wont to do occasionally. i can travel within a frame, especially if i’ve been to the locale within the picture. i recognize the santa ynez mountains in the background and i start there. i can smell the blend of chaparral and the ocean air coming from the santa barbara coast. and even though i can feel my way into the scene, astrally and otherwise, i can’t connect with what my mom is feeling. i can’t get close enough to ask her. it makes me wonder if it’s just me, or if she too is having trouble connecting with how, or what, she is feeling at the time.
the look in her eyes is that of someone doing something that made people proud, her parents specifically, maybe others. but there is no indication that she is proud. she has a look in her eyes as if she is staring at something galaxies away. half-fixed, half-blurred. i try to grasp whether she is looking at somewhere she has left, or somewhere she is going. or perhaps neither. the sharp, angular lines of her habit (robe) frame her with an imposing sense of structure and strength. but her face, so soft and lost, almost looks as if it’s peeking out of a window or a cell. with a rigid smile to match the angles of her attire and make everyone feel alright. maybe i’m just projecting. maybe i have too much context. or not enough. she never lost that smile, the one that she used to assure everyone from clients to close relatives, that indeed everything is gonna be alright, that it already is alright. maybe that’s how i can recognize it as soon as i see it.
i know things now that i’m not sure she knew at the time this picture was taken. her life up to then had been filled with love; from her parents and sister and friends. but it had also been laced with confusion. she had desires that didn’t jive with the modern-day archetypes. feelings for her girlfriends that outpaced the desires she had for her boyfriends. what to do with this kind of data, ‘how do you solve a problem like maria?’ well, perhaps you stuff her into an angular wardrobe that leaves little to chance.
when she ‘came out’ to our family, when i was fourteen, her and i would talk a lot. she shared with me anecdotes about her earlier days. how she had known something all along but didn’t know where to put it. it goes without saying that she was beautiful. she dated the star athlete of the local high school, ‘wayne quigley’ (where did they get those names?). but her foundational memories, of late night pool parties at her friends’ houses and lingering glances from girls, were all kept well hid from others.
catholicism was at an apex in 1964, with a fallen martyr in kennedy and an avalanche of social change brewing in the near middle-distance. but i think it was confusion that sent her into a monastic life. or at least towards a monastic life. i can imagine and remember the tear-stained talks that one has at that age, with parents, friends, whoever. the confusion and doubt about what’s going on inside. and at the time, it wasn’t an option to let those closest to her know what was really going on below. i can only assume that there were surrogate issues she discussed, stand-ins for the unmentionable feelings swirling deep in the mix of teenage lust and denial. maybe these are what led her mom, and whomever else, to suggest the convent as an ideal place to purge the confusion of modern-day, feminine existensia. it was the catholic version of joining the armed services. fighting the good fight.
for her particular issues, though, perhaps being cloistered with a hundred, young vestile virgins, may not have been the elixir she was looking for. or maybe it was. i never went in to detail with her about her time there, from her perspective. i wish i had. the depth of understanding and misunderstanding, the realization and awakening that must have occurred in her year or two at the convent. it would have been quite enlightening. i’m not sure what made her bail on the scene, either. there’s always the flickering thought that it was something of an illicit nature, given the proclivities of the church (the proclivities of human kind, as well). or maybe she just realized at a certain point, that she was not a saint, but a sinner. and that was just fine.
she ended up going to art school and becoming a photographer. she married a jewish guy on the rock of gibraltar, just like john and yoko. she went to india, she had a family, she became a high-powered businesswoman, she learned to meditate, and she brought more light into the world and to her countless friends and family than she ever could have from the nunnery. we used to joke that we could be in some remote airport or unexpected place and without fail we would hear “kay cole!”.
and even though she sent me to catholic school, she never pushed religion. ironically, or not, when she finally ‘came out’ in 1989 (before it was cool) and the other parents of the catholic school protested secretly, it was an unexpected figure that first stood up in her defense. our school’s principal, sister mary frances, wrote a letter to the parents and faculty that ultimately said, if anyone has a problem with kay cole or her being gay, they have a problem with me.
so i look at the picture of my mom, in her formal attire, like she’s going on a prom date with god, and i realize that we are all looking out at something in the distance. and we are never quite sure what it is. even if we overcome that distance we still might not be any closer. religion is what it is, as is the religion of non-religion. i have a lot and nothing to say on that subject. but if there is a tradition that i would like to carry on from my family tree, it is to not bury anything so deep as to lose it forever.