First Breakfast in the Convent
My stomach was long past ready for breakfast. I was getting weak after two hours spent at morning prayers, Mass and meditation in the pristine chapel with its polished oak pews.
A tapped bell rang in the back of the chapel; all the sisters, a blur of black and white, rose in unison and one by one fell in step toward the chapel exit. As the youngest and the newest member, I waited my turn bringing up the end of the line heading down the steps to the sisters dining room. No one spoke. Eager as I was to talk with the young white-veiled sisters who coached me during the Latin recitation of prayers, it was clear I should not be the one to break the silence of the procession.
In the basement dining room the sisters lined up like dominoes around long brown tables set in a U shape. The room ̶ ̶ ̶ with white cinder block walls, windows on two sides placed so high there was only a ground-level view ̶ ̶ ̶ felt like a prison without bars. A novice sister in a white veil steered me to a table off to the side obviously meant for the youngest members, reminiscent of the “kids table” at Thanksgiving dinner at home. Still no one spoke. Gawking and smiling like a kid on a new adventure, I searched the faces framed in white in an effort to find my favorite teachers in the line of dominoes. No one looked up, no one smiled, all hands were concealed under their garments. I followed suit; lowered my gaze and put my hands under the little black cape worn over a baggy blouse and long black skirt, my new convent issue.
Mother Ricarda, the superior, intoned a grace before the meal; in unison everyone pulled their chair and was seated. A white plate, cup and saucer, white bowl and utensils were at each place. The plates and cups were turned upside down. I spied my familiar initialed napkin ring in the center of the table lined up with others, each with a white napkin rolled inside. My silver napkin ring was on the list of items to bring to the convent, as were black shoes and long black stockings. I unrolled the napkin and placed it on my lap as others did. Still no talking, and no food.
Mother Ricarda spoke, “Praised be Jesus and Mary.” The sisters responded, “Now and forever amen.” Suddenly there was a burst of chatter and laughter. The novices at our table welcomed me, introduced themselves and gave me a few hints of how things worked at breakfast. At the head of the table was a little white bowl with capsules of golden liquid. The bowl was passed around the table and each person took one capsule and swallowed it with a sip of water. I followed as the others did and then asked, “What was that?” It was a cod liver oil pill served every day in winter season to ward off colds. My mother would have been amazed I could do it without gagging.
Two novices wheeled a large three-shelved cart into the dining room; serving dishes filled with cereal were stacked on the shelves. They handed the bowls to the head person at each table. As the bowl was passed along, we spooned the dry cereal into our individual bowls. Cream pitchers and sugar bowls already on the table were passed around. One server walked behind each person to pour coffee.
Juggling two antique gray tinware coffee pots, she asked, “Coffee?” I nodded. “ Black or creamed?” she asked. I preferred deciding how much cream would go in my coffee, but that was not an option. “Creamed,” I said.
Anemic coffee was only one of the convent rituals I would learn to accept. Creamed coffee and cod liver-oil pills were the least of them.