Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Life with the nuns

Religion played a major part in my life from then on.  The Bretons were a deeply religious and superstitious people, and their traditional rituals and ceremonies meant much to them.  Chief among these were the “Pardons”, which were celebrations of the Saints’ days. Processions would wind down from the Church, into the village and right through the Abbaye grounds.  Flower petals were used to create mystical symbols on the paths leading from the garden and up to the Church.  The priest was carried in a huge palanquin with much pomp and ceremony and genuflection.

I remember these occasions largely because I was given a small, satin lined, basket, filled with rose petals, which I would scatter to right and left as we processed up to the Church.
Then of course, there was church on Sundays.  I had never been to church with my mother.  I must have wondered why I was never taken up to the altar to be blessed by the priest, like the other little children.  The reason, of course, was that I was not a Catholic.  I still remember the sound of the church bells and it is a sound which always fills me with nostalgia.

My life at the Abbaye with the nuns, which I had formerly observed from the outside, I was now living from the inside. Prayers, chanting and processing with the Rosary, occurred throughout the day, punctuated by the ringing of the bell. It was a simple, disciplined and quite austere life.

I seem to have accepted it all in quite a passive way, without rebelling. It was only many years later, when I did an art therapy course, that I discovered a much darker side to my life with the nuns.

There were some distractions. My mother used to send me English comics, which I could not read.  I would take them to an old French lady, Madame Lapérouse, who understood English.  She was extremely deaf and she had a large, tortoiseshell ear trumpet down which I would shout.  I always enjoyed these visits and she would give me barley sugars out of a little round tin.

I no longer had contact with my former little friends, and I think that I became a very quiet child, shy and timid.  I do not know whether I was naturally so, or whether living in the shadow of the nuns, with their long black skirts, their disciplined life of prayer and work , made me so.  I must have puzzled and wondered at a lot of things.  I do know that when I emerged into the outside world I was very ill equipped to deal with it.

When I was five I started going to the village school. This was a small building opposite the Church. It had two classrooms for the younger and older children, and a large playground. We wore black, pleated pinafores with long sleeves, made of some heavy cotton material. I would walk up the hill with my small satchel on my back.  I had a wooden case with a sliding top which contained pencils and a rubber.  All this was new and exciting.
Sometimes on the way home I would visit the curé who lived in a small house at the bottom of the hill, just outside the gates of the Abbaye, probably because he always gave me some dragées, which were almonds covered in glacé icing, white, pink or blue. He was a portly man with a very red face and a bulbous red nose, due, I imagine, to generous consumption of red wine.  I would continue on my way through the gates to the entrance of the Abbaye:  a large square with buildings round three sides, and in the centre a high grassy mound with an oak tree in the middle, round which were benches where people could sit.  I still have a photograph of myself, aged about four, standing on a bench, with my friend John standing in front of me.

I met other little children from the village: there was Jacqueline, Françoise and Amélie.  By now I was turning into a little French girl.

We were taught to write. I was left handed and I was made to write with my right hand.  I remember this as a painful process with much rapping of the knuckles with a ruler.  In those days to be left handed was not considered to be a good thing.  They knew nothing of the damage that could be done to the child by reversing its natural inclination.  Nowadays I write with my right hand, but in everything else I am left handed, and for some things I am ambidextrous!
Although I was shy, I did make friends and I enjoyed learning. I was not a naughty child, but one day, I cannot remember for what transgression, I had a large piece of paper pinned on my back which said:  “Daphne has been a naughty girl.”   I had to wear this all day.  In the playground I hid myself in a corner and then I had to walk home with it still on my back.  I walked down the hill to the Abbaye , dragging my heels more and more slowly at the thought of having to face Sister Yvonne with this mark of shame on my back.
However, this life was not to last. It seems that Mlle Abilly had made a proposal to my mother that they would pay for my education if she would allow me to become a Roman Catholic.  My mother was horrified at the idea.  She was an atheist, but there had never been a Roman Catholic in the family!  So she decided to take me away from the Abbaye.

I wonder what my life would have been like if she had let me stay? I might have become very devout and still more French.  As it was, I was uprooted at a young and impressionable age.  But had not the nuns already implanted in me the seeds of a religious life?  I was now seven and had lived with the nuns for three years.

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