The Sister Helen Effect

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Among the strange stories I’ve told, perhaps living with a nun for much of my childhood makes the loudest statement about just how different my childhood was. The nun’s name was Sister Helen, but her impact on my life wouldn’t just be on childhood. She would change not mine, but my whole family’s lives, forever.

Most of us who were raised Catholic will have stories about the schoolteacher nuns who took shit off no one, especially not kids, and certainly not the kids’ parents. Not even the school principal was a high enough authority to deter them. If they smacked you upside the head with an encyclopedia, or took a yard stick to your ass, they were acting under Divine Directive, and there was no debate that could hold up against that argument. Nuns were unrelenting. They were hard. They were pious. They were sour. Not unlike most spinsters, they were in need of a good lay followed by a night of intense cuddling. But not Sister Helen.

Sister Helen, although no push over, was a total departure from the word “nun.” She was around 50 years old when I first met her at age 4. Mom met Sister Helen when they were both teaching in the Catholic school system in Charleston, West Virginia, where my mom was from and where she and my dad had been married. Newly divorced with two young children, Mom was, I suppose, looking for a Divine Directive of her own, and Sister Helen presented the plan of moving to Steubenville, Ohio. Sister was an artist, and she was moving to Steubenville to teach art lessons at a boys’ home that was run by Benedictine monks. An added bonus in Steubenville was that the town’s college was becoming a hub for an “exciting” Charismatic Catholic movement, which I like to refer to as “Catholics On Crack.”

At the age of 4, I didn’t know all of these details, of course; I was just going along with Mom’s program. We left my dad behind in Charleston and moved to a dilapidated house in downtown Steubenville, just around the corner from the Benedictine boys’ home. Sister Helen taught art to the boys, but she also taught my sister and me. I’ve always been hopeless at drawing or creating anything at all with my hands, but Sister Helen refused to give up on me. She showed me how to paint on an easel, wearing a smock and holding a real palette, ignoring my insistence that real artists MUST HAVE a beret. She introduced me to the potter’s wheel and showed me how a lump of muddy clay could be transformed in mesmerizing seconds while her nimble hands dipped in and out of water and then in and out of the clay as it spun in dizzying circles.

When I got a little older, around age 7 (yes, she was still living with us then), she taught me how to sew. First it was small stitches and buttons by hand, and then she attempted to graduate me to the sewing machine, which frankly scared the shit out of me. In my eyes, the Singer was a motorized Perforator of Doom that would not only inhale pieces of fabric but nosh on chunks of a human girl. Especially a clumsy, 7-year-old human girl who got so transfixed by the jaws of death that she’d often forget to take her foot off the “gas” pedal.

As if all of this weren’t enough enrichment for a little girl to be getting from her nun roommate, Sister Helen added Latin to our daily lessons. Every morning, noon, and night, Mom and Sister Helen would chant from these Latin prayer books called “breviaries.” This, by the way, is exactly what nuns and monks do in monasteries and convents. In the morning, these prayers are called matins; in the afternoon, vespers; and in the evening, lauds. We weren’t forced to say the prayers with them, but we often tried to join in, and hearing that we were massacring the words, Sister Helen taught us about the different vowel sounds. “I” sounded like long “E;” “E” sounded like long “A,” and so on. It didn’t take long before I was singing Latin hymns LIKE A BOSS. I still have the “Glory Be” memorized in Latin, a trick that my mom used to show off at the dinner table whenever we’d get together with the Benedictine monks. They’d all cheer when I’d stand up proudly and recite—“Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto, sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen”—with as much gusto as a normal kid recites the Pledge of Allegiance.

Every day, right after the daily Latin devotions in the chapel, Sister would bring out a mat she used for strange contortions called “yoga” and long periods of stillness called “meditation.” Sometimes I would creep around the room and stare at her as she posed with her eyes closed. With her legs bent backwards and over her head, and her shins lying flush against the floor, she looked like a human bench just begging to be sat on. Instead of sitting on her, though, I just asked her what in the hell she was doing, and eventually, she gave up her quiet time to show me.

Over the course of a few weeks, I learned “downward facing dog,” “child’s pose,” “butterfly pose,” “the rocking horse,” and a bunch of other fun twists and turns. I always pretty much screwed up the meditation portion of the activity, though, and got so bored waiting for Sister to open her eyes that, one time, I dangled a wet tissue over her nose, causing a relentless sneezing fit. That was the day I got booted out of yoga class permanently.

To match her yogi lifestyle, Sister Helen ate like a bird. Like a healthy bird. Not like a seagull, who eats Doritos and pizza and anything that sounds delicious to a 7-year-old. Sister shared cooking duties with my mom and introduced us to foods like wheat germ (ew), lentils (gross), natural peanut butter (child abuse), and Postum, a warm, roasted-grain beverage that tasted like a sheep’s ass.

Apart from being my tutor, workout partner, and cook, Sister Helen was my friend. She was warm, affectionate, quick to laugh, easy to talk to. She sang silly songs I’ll never be able to forget, like this one:

Down in the meadow in a little bitty pool
Swam three little fishies and a mama fishie too
“Swim” said the mama fishie, “Swim if you can”
And they swam and they swam all over the dam.

Boop boop dit-tem dat-tem what-tem Chu!
Boop boop dit-tem dat-tem what-tem Chu!
Boop boop dit-tem dat-tem what-tem Chu!
And they swam and they swam all over the dam.

She told me stories about growing up in Montana, how she raised a sickly calf that turned into her very own pet, and later, how she made the decision to become a nun and “marry God” instead of a man.

But the biggest impact that Sister Helen made on our lives was not what she taught or cooked, the stories she told, or the songs she sang. It was not what she brought into our lives that eventually changed everything: it was who.

*Part Two of The Sister Helen Effect coming soon.

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The Sister Helen Effect

17 Comments on “The Sister Helen Effect”

  1. Uncle Dubs

    Good Lawd, Ashley, this is the Crown Jewel of all your writings! A brilliant tongue of flame hovered above the Big Top as I laughed my way through it. Hundreds of nuns-on-the-run tumbled out of tiny clown cars, the three big rings rotated like psychedelic halos of Father, Son and Holy Spook and P.T. Barnum bellowed the Tent Commandments astride a Benedictine Bengal tiger.

    Nun laid and cuddled! Perforator of Doom! Chock fulla fun, not a word wasted, dunked in the personal holy water font of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Your penance: say five Hail Mary and secure an agent, STAT!!

    1. Ashley

      You don’t know how I look forward to your comments, U-Dubs. You’re the one who doesn’t waste a single word…I am thinking you HAVE to be a writer yourself. If you are, I’d love to know where I can find your work! This cracked me up as usual – you never disappoint! Thanks so much for reading and especially for commenting, friend. 😀

  2. Andy

    Wow! I grew up Catholic and my grandmother made us use the breviaries whenever we state with her, but your story goes beyond all that. Charismatic Catholic seems like a paradox. Aren’t you supposed to sit in church bored and leave after communion?

    1. Ashley

      Charismatic Catholic WAS a paradox, lol! It was like Pentecostal-Catholic – very strange. We went to Catholic school, though, and when we were there, we would have the “normal” Catholic services. Lots of incense, droning voices, lots of snoozing. 😉 Thanks so much for reading, Andrew!

  3. Jo-Anne

    Sister Helen sounds bloody marvelous and what a childhood to have someone teach you so many awesome things yes I think art is awesome, sewing well maybe not so much as I could never get the hang of it and Latin well the only Latin I have heard is on the telly

    1. Ashley

      It was a unique childhood, and Sister Helen was a really unique, kind woman. I could have had it SO much worse. I like to look at the positive side of my weird childhood, most of the time. Thank you so much for reading, Jo-Anne!

  4. Kristen

    Your blog is hysterical. I love it! Did Todd tell you he had to take Latin in 6th grade? Ask him if he still remembers how to sing Row Row Row your Boat.

  5. Nat

    I adore your writing … but these cliff hangers should be banned!!!! can’t wait to read the rest. and i’ve got my fingers crossed for you on the audition! Good Luck.

    1. Ashley

      Aww, thanks for reading, Nat! I’m sorry about the cliffhanger – I didn’t want the post to be as long as the Bible so I was trying to break it up a bit! I’m going to write it tomorrow, so not long to wait. 😉 Thanks so much for the good luck wishes, and always, for reading. xoxoxo

  6. Snarkfest

    This post begs the question: Have you ever eaten a sheep’s ass?

    That’s neither here nor there. This is fantastic, and I can’t wait for part 2!!

  7. Liz

    So fascinating. Charismatic Catholics? Well, I get the 2nd part. I remember playing “church” with my sister as a kid (Ritz crackers for communion wafers) and we were both priests. Never nuns. Guess we got enough of them in school. No Sister Helens at St. Francis of Assisi grammar school.

  8. Drew Clarke

    Another compelling literary illustration of how comparatively aberrant your childhood was. You and I had some similar childhood personality traits: restless, inquisitive, and a propensity for maybe pushing the envelope a little too far. I had a Sister Helen-like figure when I was growing up. People called him “Overdose.” He taught me to paint but we did it outside and used spray cans. He didn’t teach me latin but he did teach me all the “Words of Curse.” We ran often, usually away from angry people, so he provided track & field instruction. He too would meditate but before he could do so he had to take his “medicine.” Regarding cooking, Overdose taught me that if you use enough BBQ sauce, anything is edible. Even a sheep’s ass.

    1. Ashley

      Your mentor gave you quite the education, Drew, lol. I’m glad he’s gone now, though. 😉 Thanks so much for reading, friend, and for your always entertaining comments.

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