They hadn’t been to church in over a year,–so long that their church of tentative choice had a new minister, for heaven’s sake–but something nudged her that Sunday. Her husband reluctantly put the New York Times aside and accompanied her, although she assured him it wasn’t necessary. But it was good, they both felt, to see friendly faces; and the cadence of the liturgy, the swell of the organ, the smell of the candles, soothed and inspired.
After the opening prayer, the children were called to the front, and a talented mom shared an abbreviated story of Jonah. The small heads leaned forward avidly. Refusing to do what you’re told! Trapped in the belly of the beast! VOMITED out and repentantly, belatedly obedient. Now there was a story.
The pastor, in his sermon, took up the thread of Jonah. “Let’s talk,” he said, “about answering God’s call. What’s God calling you to do?”
She almost laughed out loud. She was 63 years old–63!–and suddenly it seemed like the concept of vocation was stalking her.
A little child–a blond, solemn boy of maybe three and a half, four years–in the pew three rows ahead, was playing with a wooden Johnny Jump Up toy, his back to the altar, staring, unseeing, right at her. She closed her eyes to concentrate better on the pastor’s words, but the wooden click-clacking intruded. It sounded familiar, she thought; it conjured a long-forgotten sound. It was the sound that wooden rosary beads made as the Sisters of Saint Joseph navigated her grade school classrooms.
In third grade it had been Sister Mary Agnes who rustled and clacked up and down the aisles of the Perpetual Life schoolroom, placing thick packets of official-looking paperwork on each child’s desk. Some of the nuns were rough or stern or abrupt; Sister Mary Agnes was quiet, kind, encouraging.
When she reached forward eagerly to read the instructions, Sister put a gentle hand on her head and urged her to wait. They would discover this together, as a class.
And it was something to discover. This packet, Sister told them, was an APTITUDE inventory. The questions it contained would cleverly worm their ways into each child’s special core of being, winnowing out and revealing the talents and leanings each child had. Revealing vocations–God’s special call to each one. For each, Sister Agnes assured the third graders, had a special call. It was their lives’ work to discern what that call was. Sister searched the faces of her charges, her eyes, lashless behind un-rimmed spectacles, were hopeful but realistic; some, she said, might even have the special vocation for the religious life. Although, Sister acknowledged sadly, that call seemed to come less and less, these days.
It was 1960.
The children took up their sharpened number two pencils–each had a spare, just in case; there would be no talking, no asking a neighbor for help if a pencil point broke during this exercise. Take your time, admonished Sister. Give honest, thoughtful answers. The results we’ll receive could truly plant the seeds that shape your lives!
At last she could begin. What interesting questions,–things like, If I had free time, I would choose to…a.) play kickball b.) read a book c.) play with my dog d.) take a walk. Oh, that was hard–would there be friends over? Would her father be able to play in the yard with them? Or would it be during a rainy summer afternoon when chores were taken care of and the house was quiet? No questions were allowed, and she wasn’t sure if she could just choose a scenario.
What would be the most likely thing? she asked herself. She thoughtfully, carefully, bubbled in her answer and moved on to the next question. They were all like that, boundary-less; she had to decide what the background was to respond. The room was silent save for the scratching of pencils as the children blacked in their answers. They considered the questions–these little bundles of words that might magically change their lives–for two full hours. When Sister picked up each packet and carefully stacked them on her desk, the children were ready for lunch, ready to run out onto the courtyard and stretch their stiff and twitchy legs.
It was two long weeks before the results came in. She’d walk home from school, in the interim, imagining what hers might say. Something interesting, she hoped–maybe something ladies didn’t usually do–like exploring or being a white-coated, beaker-wielding, scientist. She was a little worried about the whole religious thing; in first grade, when she had Sister Mary Theresa, who was young and beautiful with finely arched eyebrows and porcelain pale skin–Sister MT was what she thought of when she heard the term, “A bride of Christ,”– she had been sure she had the Call. She wrote to different groups of sisters–orders, her mother called them,–and got responses with glossy brochures and programs of study, picture of missions, letters admonishing her to pray very hard for her vocation.
She also, that year, wrote to the New York Yankees and got autographed flyers from Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. But she wasn’t going to be a baseball player.
And she was pretty sure she wouldn’t be a nun, either. But, she thought uneasily, what if the Results said she should? Could she run away from God? Look what Sister said had happened to Jonah when he tried that little trick.
Maybe she could be a writer, and maybe she could draw pictures for children’s books. Maybe there was a job for her she’d never even dreamed of.
The day the results arrived, she hurried home; Sister said to open them with a parent when there was time to sit and discuss. She hoped her mother would be ready.
Luck ran her way. Her mother, tall and thin, with a long mop of glossy auburn hair, was languidly running the feather duster around the French windows that enclosed the staircase; she stopped to look at the packet.
Oh, it was exciting, the moment before knowing! She held her breath, sitting at the big formal dining room table, as her mother slit open the big envelope, pulled out a stack of papers, and took a long pull on her Lucky Strike. Then she flipped open the official letter.
There was a pause,–ah, a breathless, fraught moment. And then her mother snorted.
“For Christ’s sake,” she said. “Just like your brother! They think all the kids outside the city are hicks!”
Her mother slapped the paper down on the table, where she could see it. “Your scores indicate,” read the printed form, “that FARMING would be a good match for your aptitudes and skills.”
“Farming!” she gasped, looking at her mother in despair.
Her mother laughed and reached a long, slender hand over to ruffle her hair. “You’re no farmer, kiddo,” she said. “You don’t like dirt and you don’t like animals. You’re gonna have to figure it out yourself, just like the rest of us.”
Oh, it was disappointing. But the concept that she had a vocation, a special role to play, never really left her. She tried on different roles all the way through school–for a long while, she was captivated by the idea of working in a shoe store (oh, the leathery, promising smell of new shoes! And the happy faces of children picking out a wonderful new pair!) Her brother pointed out, though, that she would have to touch stinky feet, maybe even diseased feet.
She set that idea aside, picking up new ones–waitress, nurse, rock and roll diva. Reporter. Designer. Artist.
She still had no idea when she got to college so, loving books and enjoying writing and research, she took an English degree. An advisor told her vaguely that employers cherished the ability to communicate. Those words were not entirely true, she found when she started shlepping her degree around, looking for work. She worked for a dentist, training in the office to be an assistant, holding the suction, helping people to spit.
She liked the hours; the money was decent. But, oh, she was bored. She went back to school for her master’s, and she vowed that she would figure out what she should be doing, only determined, in those Seventies days of exhilarating feminism, that she would neither teach nor type for a living.
And she wound up, of course, doing both–there she was, aged 26, in a middle school language arts classroom, coaxing seventh graders to write thoughtful essays, enticing them to read an abbreviated form of the Odyssey, a modernized version of Romeo and Juliet. During breaks, she typed graduate school theses for extra money.
She hated herself for it, but she loved teaching. She moved and married, moved again, and in each place she found a little bit better job, but always in the education field, always involved with students. She took time off to have her daughter. Teaching, she liked to say, stalked her. Jobs came and found her, even when she wasn’t ready to be found. She moved from classroom to administration, and from middle school to high school.
Although she didn’t track it down, didn’t figure it out, she realized somewhat belatedly, that education was, for her, a vocation.She moved, finally, to the College level, and now, here she was: the Dean.
That was the pinnacle, and she thought suddenly, as the pastor’s thoughtful words sank like rainwater into the thirsty soil of her soul, that she was done. Sixty three. THIS career: over. Time to move on.
She laughed a little and her husband looked at her a little oddly, gave her a mild stink-eye, and she wondered where the pastor had gone with his sermon–oh, was she laughing, maybe, at the description of ultimate sacrifice? She coughed lightly, patted her husband’s arm, returned to a contemplation of the pastor’s words.
Until she started thinking about the workshop she’d gone to recently that talked about continuous growth: sometimes, the speaker said, we need to make a drastic change, move to a new field entirely. That week she’d picked up a book about ‘finding your hedgehog’ at the library–the hedgehog being that thing that one is really, ultimately, meant to do. TED talks popped up on the subject of vocation; her daily devotionals urged her to discernment.
Sixty three! she reminded herself, standing there in the church she’d been neglecting, a smear of yellow light from the amber glass in the window staining her cheek. A little old for new careers, new choices, don’t You think?
As if in response, excitement leapt in her stomach. Finding something new. Something completely and surprisingly different. What IS it? she thought. She grinned at her husband, who tried to look at her in mature disapproval, but caught in the rays, he grinned right back.
The service moved toward its conclusion; music swelled. She thought about moving forward, too; she would pick up her Julia Cameron book and start doing her morning pages, walking meditation, artist’s dates. She would pray for discernment. She would go to the women’s workshop her cousin had been urging her to attend. Something’s coming, she realized: a change, a lift, a whole new role.
They shook the new pastor’s hand, affirmed that they would see him next week, stood and talked with friends for a moment, leaning on their car in the parking lot. They climbed in the car–his car, the Sunday car, a long, sleek sedan–and drove home.
She stared out the window at houses with lovely gardens, fluttering ‘Welcome’ flags, planters burgeoning with beautiful blooms. She didn’t know what the next step was, only that there would be one, and it would be exciting.
But–she thought of the tiny terrace on their condo, with the dead flowers in their expensive container pots, and she knew this one thing for sure: Farming still wasn’t her answer.