Nuns – not what they were

I was taught by nuns and always a little afraid of them. They seemed to know what girls of my age were thinking and doing. I always remember a talk about ‘girls who lie on their beds and daydream’. That was definitely me but I hadn’t realised it was sinful til then. Nuns in my day were black robed and coiffed. They responded to bells and you knew who was being called when lessons were interrupted. You never thought of them as real women. They were like a third gender. At least priests smoked and drank. Once a friend of mine fainted. A nun asked me if it was ‘her period’ and I could hardly answer, so embarrassed I was. Years later, when I was married and with children same nun came to stay with us. She drank red wine and went on holiday. She was wearing pink… ‘per una’ she said. I was in black and looked more like a nun than she did. On another occasion a more traditionally dressed nun came for lunch. We gave her roast duck. Thinking back she probably wanted a cheese sandwich. We brought out the best tableware and were nervous. She asked Susie, aged 3, what she liked to eat. ‘I like beans’ said Susie, ‘… ‘But they make me fart’. I wanted to disappear in a cloud of smoke.

So, imagine my surprise when I found myself sitting next to a nun at a talk yesterday. She was wearing a pink cardigan, black boots and earrings. Her hair was fashionably cut. You wouldn’t have guessed she was a nun. She had worked as a machinist in an M&S supplier factory, as well as an Easyjet air steward. Well at least she could have whipped out the rosary beads in an emergency, I suppose. ‘Did people know you were a nun?’ I asked. ‘Not at first’ she said. ‘But once they knew me it didn’t matter’. I am sure that the nuns that taught me would have regarded this as a frivolous career. And one that laid you open to temptation. In my days fringes were outlawed and nail varnish was a sure sign of loose living. There weren’t many fun things allowed. The message about sex was ‘don’t’. Even the type of shoes you wore indicated the state of your morality. Lace ups fine. Patent dodgy cos it could reflect your underwear. Boots saucy, especially if they were white. This was the era of Mary Quant and Twiggy. One nun used to ask me what clothes I wore at the weekends. I got the impression she would have liked to wear something other than black and white. She was the one in pink per una years later.

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