Leaving Room for the
Holy Ghost

©1987 Marie-Lynn Hammond

The summer I turned fifteen my father, who was head of Intelligence for Northern NORAD, was posted to North Bay. We were living near Montreal and I liked it there. I did not want to move.

My distress grew with my first glimpse of North Bay. Back then it was much more rough and ready than it is today. We lived downtown, but our street wasn’t paved. Friday nights, teenage boys got drunk and brawled openly. But the really bad news was this: I would be going to – ugh! – a girl’s school run by nuns. Don’t get me wrong, I was a good Catholic kid. But I’d been in co-ed schools for the past four years. Though I wasn’t exactly popular with boys, as long as they were around, I could always dream.

Besides a serious lack of the opposite sex, St Joseph’s College also had the ugliest uniform I’d ever seen. The blouses were beige, the drab tunics with their big boxy pleats were brown – my two least favourite colours. Plus we had to wear the preposterous combination of nylon stockings and clunky Oxford shoes. If the aim of this get-up was to make us unappetizing to guys, then it succeeded in spades. 

On top of this the St. Joseph nuns were notoriously prudish and conservative. The problem was, they weren’t consistent. One day a girl in my class stopped me in the hall. “Sister Rosemary wants me to tell you,” she said, “that from now on you are to come to school with your hair curled.” I was stunned. Weren’t curls vain and worldly and a means of attracting boys? “Yeah, well, I don’t know,” said the go-between. “But I guess it, uh, looks tidier when it’s curled.” Hmm. So hair au naturel was threatening, was it?

Trouble was, my hair’s very straight, and resists most attempts at modification. So rather than spend a restless night with 25 prickly rollers (this was the mid-60s, remember) digging into my scalp, I opted for another solution and turned up the next day, my hair pulled neatly back with a ribbon. Alas – it was a green ribbon. Now it was Sister Veronica’s turn. She yanked me out of line. “What do you think this is,” she hissed, “St. Patrick’s Day? You want to wear a ribbon, you make it brown.”

So I made it brown. I wasn’t the rebellious type – not yet anyway. I did my best to adapt – something military kids are good at – and I looked for saving graces. One of them was Lake Nipissing. St. Joe’s was set right on the water. It was my fourth school in five years, and I’d given up trying to make friends, so at lunchtime I’d sit alone on a slab of rock by the lake, watching the gulls wheel and dive over the brilliant blue, sun-sparked water.

After that it was hell, if you’ll pardon the expression, to go back into those musty, fusty beige and brown halls. Not that it was all bad. Some of my teachers I even liked. There was Sister Francis, a tiny, energetic woman with bright dark eyes who managed to make botany exciting. And Sister Mary the headmistress, who was smart and had an M.A. and encouraged me to be smart too. And then, there was Sister Emma.

She taught my favourite subject, English. At first I liked her because she was young and pretty, with luminous skin and soft grey eyes. Also, she never got angry or irritable like some of the others nuns. Sister Emma smiled continuously. It took a while for me to realize that her cheeriness bordered on pathological.

One day in English class she insisted that King Lear had died a happy death. My classmates seemed willing to be swayed, but inwardly I winced on the Bard’s behalf. Lear was a tragedy, for heaven’s sake! I mean there I was, full of teenage angst and despair, and there was Sister Emma, beaming away and wanting me and Lear to beam away too. It was too much. I began to question other things I was taught, though I kept the doubts private. Was it really so bad to write the word “damn” in a story if the character saying it was a nasty person? Was God really all-merciful if He let innocent children suffer? Was it possible He didn’t even exist?

But after the doubts came terrible guilt, because doubt was the work of the devil. So I laboured hard to accept what the good sisters sent my way. A lot of it had to do with women and sexuality. It was clearly Eve’s fault – and therefore mine – that the human race had fallen from Paradise. Virginity was a holier state than marriage, gold as compared to silver. Kissing could send you to hell.

Just before our graduation dance, an event that would be fraught with temptation, Sister Emma delivered lectures aimed at preserving our spotless virtue. Swathed head to toe in layers of black serge and stiff white linen, she included strict orders on how to dress modestly. I was beginning to feel it was wrong to have breasts, let alone flaunt them.

It took me ages after leaving St. Joe’s not to feel guilty or ashamed of all things physical. I was bitter about the whole experience for years. I stopped going to church. But – I was still enough of a Catholic deep down to believe I really should forgive and then forget. I couldn’t, though, until one particular night. I’d lain awake, as I often did, sleepless and seething, thinking about those days. Suddenly, a song about St. Joe’s and the nuns and the graduation prom began to write itself in my mind. The chorus ended with “Leave room for the Holy Ghost,” which had been Sister Emma’s firm (but of course cheery) command with regards to slow dancing. The lines to the song came effortlessly, one after another, complete with internal rhymes, as though someone else was writing them and I was just taking down dictation. It was funny – I began to laugh.

Once I was laughing, it didn’t hurt so much. Dear sisters of St Joseph’s, wherever you are, I’ve been saved by the miracles of creativity and humour. If you’re listening, I hope you can now laugh too.

The lyrics to two of my songs relate to this story:

Leave Room for the Holy Ghost

Eve Gave Adam the Apple