My search for purity became a way of countering boredom.
I sat in church sandwiched between sisters and brothers on the hard wooden benches of Our Lady of Good Counsel and listened as the priest droned his way through ideas on how to be a better person. His sermon considered how to live a good life, how to honour God’s teachings, but not how to stay awake or take the priest’s words seriously.
So I tuned out and watched the people around me instead.
When I was in grade three over the course of many weeks I began to notice that my teacher Miss Anderson sat several rows in front of me on the other side of the church. I could see her side on, eyes to the front, as if she were concentrating hard on every word the priest said and needed to get a good look at him in order to take it all in.
Her faced raised to the pulpit took on an angelic look, saintly and devout. Her skin was pale against her raven black hair, which she wore in one of those French buns my mother raved about but could not manage in her own hair because hers was too curly.
Miss Anderson gave off a radiance that left me in love with her. And as the priest rambled on I fell under her trance but pulled myself up short with a series of rules I set for myself on the nature of female beauty.
To begin, and based on what I had learned in church and at school, I decided that the Blessed Virgin Mary was without a doubt the most beautiful woman who had ever lived. And given she was an eternal saint, her beauty dominated all others.
Next in line, I included my mother. My mother was more beautiful to me than any other woman I had ever seen beyond the Blessed Virgin, and although my mother’s skin sagged around her neck these days and she complained about the wrinkles on her elbows, wrinkles that gave away a woman’s age, she told us, I had also seen my mother’s younger woman photos when she was a movie star, with her own head of dark, albeit curly hair, and although her skin was not the alabaster white of my school teacher’s – my mother’s complexion turned towards olive – she still radiated the beauty of the angels.
So I gave my mother second place.
After her, in third place came Miss Anderson and because I was allowed thereafter to make my own choices, the next in line came from the television screen, a movie star called Ava Gardner.
Every Sunday I looked around the church for other beauties to add to my list. Not only were they to exude a radiance that belonged to the saints, they needed to be pure, unsullied in their demeanour. These words came to me from the nuns and the prayer books, which told me all I needed to know about truth and beauty.
The priest one day talked about parishioners who had complained about the church. He took these people to task. They were complaining about their own church, he said. Their own church, one to which they belonged as though they were finding fault with someone else’s church.
How could this be?
These people set a bad example for the rest of us. We were in this together and given that our religion was the one and only religion, the pure religion, the one true faith, then it was important for all of us to honour that position and be loyal to our calling as God’s children.
That attitude of purity overruled all superficial aspects of beauty. A pure mind was best of all and a pure mind was almost impossible to achieve, unless I stopped paying attention to what was on the outside and cared only about the whiteness of my soul.