The Fairy Tale and My Maltese Cross

A memoir of an alumna of the class of ’65

I rubbed my thumb over the inscription. There it was: my maiden name in the center of a delicate gold Maltese cross; a graduation bestowal for every graduate of an Academy of Notre Dame in the world, we were told. I had packed it away many decades ago.

I was six years old when I first saw the school—it was summer.

My mother seemed preoccupied and nervous on the drive, so I remained quiet. “We’re here,” she finally said. I knelt up on the front seat to see where we were. I could see that we were driving between two square granite-block columns that anchored a tall, wrought iron fence and gate. The driveway was long and shaded on each side by large maple trees. We passed a small pond surrounded by dense woods on our left. It must have been my mother’s first time visiting too, because she drove slowly, looking around nervously as if we had taken a wrong turn. Where was the school? After going around a slight rising bend in the driveway, it came into sight.

We pulled up in front of an expansive building, surrounded by acres of trees and lawn. I was a little vague as to why we were there; but as an impressionable little girl; I imagined, as my mother and I climbed the front stairs and entered the vaulted exterior archway, that we were entering a fairy-tale castle. My mother told me this was a school, but I didn’t want to believe her. We stood before two sizable wooden carved doors and my mother rang the bell. A sister, who I later was told was the portress, (a strange and enchanting word), opened the door. We stepped into the foyer. The cool darkened space replaced the glare and heat of the outside summer sun. I looked around—such polished floors and high ceilings! Straight ahead were two wide staircases leading to an unknown level and there on my right was a large carved wooden chair and adjacent to it an ornately carved oak table. No, this wasn’t a school. This was a castle.

The portress turned, and my mother and I followed her across the entrance. There was a calming quietness to the space, and as we crossed the foyer, I peeked around my mother and glimpsed a large parlor and beyond that a dining room. My proof! This couldn’t possibly be a school. I started to say something to my mother, but she tightened her grip on my hand and gave me that “be quiet” look. The only noise that filled the space was the rhythmic muffled clicking of the large rosary beads hanging from the portress’s waist. I had just finished first grade in a city parochial school, so I was used to seeing sisters in their habits, yet this was a different habit, and the swish of the sister’s skirt transmuted for a moment in my young mind to the clothing of a Cinderella-type servant performing a lowly job.

The portress’ office was to the right of one of the staircases. My mother was shown to a chair and Sister sat down next to her, with me standing between them. The portress handed me a thin Dick and Jane-type booklet and asked me to read it to her—I loved to read!

I remember my mother looking relaxed and smiling for the first time that day. I would enter the second grade of Notre Dame Academy, Tyngsboro, MA that fall, and my mother would never walk through those front doors again.

The magical wonderment of that front door entrance settled in my young imaginative psyche like fairy dust scatted on a waif. It wasn’t spiritual. It was fantasy. I was six. But it never completely left. Throughout the next eleven years, wisps of that dust would continue to swirl in my mind.

I quickly learned that although the building was a school, it was also a convent and that besides the sisters, there were also students who boarded. Some rooms and floors were off limits; all but ensuring their discovery by curious and intrepid girls. In Sister Rose’s second-grade classroom I was introduced to music and art. I came from a hard-working, blue-collar family. There were no books or music in our house, and there certainly wasn’t any art. But I wanted to know all about these new subjects.

Oh, those blue picture-studies booklets we filled in grammar school. The postcard-like pictures of fine art, that we pasted on the left page and the descriptions copied from the blackboard, on the opposite page (in our best printing skills and later, Palmer -Method penmanship). I remember Renoir’s Girl with a Watering Can and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in second grade. Gainsborough’s Blue Boy and Fra Angelico’s The Annunciation in third grade. And Hokusai’s The Wave in fourth grade, to name a few.

Introductions to Bernini, Cellini, DaVinci, Goya, El Greco, Michelangelo, Picasso, Rousseau, Vermeer, and so many more would come in the upper grades. Almost every piece of art we studied in grade school and high school I would eventually see in-person years later in far-ranging museums.

Equally alluring subjects in fourth grade were ancient history and Gregorian chant – the music of long-ago monasteries and abbeys. I remember the large, thin, red, hard-covered history books stored in the cabinet in the back of the classroom that were passed out carefully like precious objects and collected after the class in the same manner. I knew even then that this was all special.

The first four elementary grades at that time were confined to the first floor, left wing of the U-shaped building. Directly above, on the second floor, occupying half of the wing was the art room and music department. I don’t remember how old I was or what grade I was in when I first saw the music department. Sister Ellen St. Ann, who was the music director had a very sizable office. It was a private music room, complete with the requisite, pianos, music stands, shelves of music scores, books, violins, etc., but the wonder to me lay just outside of her office. Lining two sides of the wing were individual rooms just large enough to fit an upright or spinnet piano and student. Glass enclosed the upper sections, so each young practicing pianist or violinist was visible. But there, in the remaining open space of the wing, was the centerpiece of the department: Two grand pianos each spooning the other with its curved body. What a perfect name for them. They were grand, and what music waited to be played on them.

My years in grade school and high school spanned what I think was the golden age of music and art at Notre Dame. The art director when I was in grammar school was Sister Vincent de Paul, who would later design the stained glass windows and stations of the cross in the yet-to-be-built new chapel and move on to chair the art department of Emmanuel College in Boston. Sr. Ellen St. Ann was the music director who would also move on to the music department of Emmanuel College.

Don’t get me wrong; there were times, and even years that I hated everything about NDA and felt like a nobody and an outsider. Academics at NDA were strenuous, and I have to admit, high school at times, was hell for me. My brain refused to open up to the complexities of math beyond algebra. And I spent way too many hours trying to do trigonometry homework that was all but futile.

But, over the years, those speckles of fairy dust had morphed into shapes that had names. “Music,” “Art,” “Literature.” They had become part of my anima, my soul. Nothing could illustrate that better than an unforgettable warm June day in what I think was my sophomore year. I have a suspicion that the sisters had planned this, and I could be wrong; nevertheless, on that warm afternoon, the doors to the upper classrooms were left widely ajar. The shades on the large, tall windows in my classroom were pulled down, stopping at the open half of the windows, allowing the June breeze and errant bird-song to enter the room. My class was doing some quiet work— probably a reading assignment. The mood was set. And then it began—glorious, majestic music!

Two highly-trained upper classmates were playing a four-handed classical piece for two pianos, on the grand pianos. I think it was for a certification,( this part is hazy,) nevertheless, they were ready to display their hard work practiced until then, behind closed doors. The sound reverberated throughout the halls. It commanded everyone to pause and listen. The romantic in me remembers it as the finale of Stravinsky’s Firebird suite with its dramatic crescendo ending, but whatever was, it almost stopped my heart.

I never saw my mother read a book, or close her eyes and put her head back and be swept away by a beautiful melody. She was very proud, and in a sad, strange way I think she felt she didn’t deserve to enjoy those things. They were delights for other people to enjoy. Not for the likes of her. She never attended any of the mother-daughter functions at the school. Those events usually occurred in the front parlors or dining room of the school. She didn’t feel she measured up to the other mothers. She couldn’t take an afternoon off to attend a function, she had to work. Her wardrobe was modest. She wasn’t worthy.

Oh, but she was!

She didn’t have the refinements of some of the mothers, but she had courage and strength of purpose. She had belief in her faith and her daughter. Approaching those large wooden doors at the Academy all those years ago, I was enchanted. My mother must have been terrified.

I’ve taken the cross out of its packed-away box. I don’t wear it often, but when I do, it’s in appreciation of the education I received at the Academy of Notre Dame, Tyngsboro. But most of all, for my courageous mother, the knight of my Maltese cross.

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    • admin

      Thanks, Fran
      Jack is responsible for the story since I was always talking about how much I appreciated the music and art I was exposed to at NDA. I was going on-and-on one day, for the umpteenth time and he looked at me and said, “Just write the story.” So I did!

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