Cover your head

The year I turned ten, we began to wear mantillas to Mass.

There was never any official announcement just a slow slide from women with hats on their heads – Sunday best hats, big flowery productions, hats that sat on their heads like pill boxes (a term that puzzled me for its connection to medicine) or floral bouquets stitched together and held fast with a pin – to wafer thin spider webs of lace that floated on top. Unlike those hats of old.

Those old hats were not the same as the hats we see today on race days down at the Caulfield race course or Mooney Valley.

The hats of my ten-year-old days were more formal, silent, less a statement of beauty than of obligation.

To cover your head before God. Not that anyone ever said as much. Not that the covering of our heads before God’s was stated as a requirement, but somehow, at the time it struck me as a necessity for women, who also tended to have more hair, lots of hair, long and even short curly hair, to put a hat on top of it, and so maintain order.

It was not until some six years later when men started to let their hair grow, too, that I began to wonder about these things, even after I had noticed that the men in my father’s art books also wore long hair and bright silken clothes that could compete with any women’s fashion of that day.

The mantilla slipped into your pocket just as it slipped into use. Easy and convenient a triangle of lace, black for winter and white for summer like the nuns wore.

The mantilla matched every outfit unlike our hats that could sometimes clash especially when my older sister took to wearing trousers. Trousers were not a match for hats.

One Sunday morning, flanked by two of my sisters and walking along the streets of Camberwell on our way to church, I stopped mid stride, pushed my fingers into my coat pocket and realised to my horror there was no mantilla.

My fingers poked around, first in my front pocket then in either side pocket.

‘Hurry up,’ my older sister said. ‘We’ll be late for Mass.’

‘I can’t find my mantilla.’

‘Here,’ she said and rifled through her bag. My sister took a handbag with her at all times then as a mark of seniority, or a sign that she had possessions, the type most grown-ups had, things that warranted safety, a place into which she might put her treasures, including money.

She handed me a folded white handkerchief, and as I unfurled it the lines of each corner where the iron had pressed most heavily stood stiff as a mountain ridge with none of the gentle caresses of a mantilla’s folds.

‘But people will think I look silly,’ I said.

‘You’d look sillier without it,’ my sister said. ‘You’re too big now to go without a hat.’

We walked into the church of Our Lady of Good Counsel and sat towards the back in the only pews with enough space left to seat the three of us comfortably.

I was glad to be down the back, that way fewer people would be able to see me with my white covering. I looked across to a sea of heads, the back of men’s heads neatly clipped and women, the older ones still in hats and the younger ones their domed heads flattened under the weight of white or black lace.

We were between seasons. No one appeared to look over towards me to snigger.

I needed to find a way of hiding. At least in my head. I looked up to the sorrowful mysteries hanging from the walls of the church and noticed the frayed white cloth that Veronica held out to the thorn crowned head and blood-spattered face of Jesus, a cross on his shoulders on his way to crucifixion.

I thought I could see my handkerchief similarly, not as a blood-stained relic that could add to my indignity, but as a consolation to comfort Jesus though how I could do this I had not yet figured out.  Still it was like those times when my mother railed at the left overs on our plates.

‘Think of the starving Biafrans,’ she said. I figured then, if by eating all the food on my plate, even when I did not like or want it, I could help someone else in Africa who was starving. And then the white cloth on top of my head might help someone else in their suffering.

And so, the makings of my saint hood began.

6 thoughts on “Cover your head”

  1. Most interesting for a “newer” Catholic to read, Lis. (I was baptised Catholic at age 35).
    Vaguely remember Eileen mentioning these at some stage.

  2. I’ve never cared for uniforms or ceremonies whether secular or sacred which is odd for a guy who embraces order. I think the problem is I don’t like others dictating what the order of things ought to be. I like MY order and mostly I try not to impose that on others but because Carrie lives with me she has to make some concessions as do I; that’s the way it works. As a child, obviously, I didn’t have a beard but as soon as the hair started to sprout I grew one and apart from a couple of breaks I’ve been bearded since I was eighteen. The first time I shaved it off was in my early twenties and it was for purely practical reasons; it wasn’t as thick as it could be. A few months of scraping my face seemed to fix that. The next time was to make progress in the congregation. Beards weren’t verboten but if you wanted to be more than a mere congregant you had to be clean-shaven. I argued my case (and it was a strong case—it is natural for men to grow hair on their faces) but I was given no choice. I couldn’t be disciplined but I also couldn’t hold any position of authority. And being ambitious—at least I was back then—I acquiesced which pleased my father no end as he detested facial hair. The only condition placed on the women was that they dress modestly. Even trousers were permissible as long as they were women’s trousers. Hats were never a thing.

    I’ve never been big on conformity. Oh, I went through the usual phase in my teens where I had to wear what my schoolmates were wearing—I still remember getting my first classic Harrington jacket with great affection—but that was about it. Once I left school I wore what was comfortable and didn’t care about fitting in. Now I go out of my way not to be noticed. And I have no desire to be a part of any group that requires me to wear as much as a pin in my lapel.

  3. I can understand what a pain it must be to have to scrape off your facial hair daily, Jim. Women have such extraordinary tasks regularly too, and all for what reason? Do you have any thoughts about why you prefer facial hair? Is it just the inconvenience of having to shave, or something else? I’m curious, Jim.

    1. It simply felt natural, Lis. I wasn’t making a stand or anything and I’m not even sure I was aware at the start how much my dad detested facial hair. I hated shaving right from the get go. I especially loathed soaping my face up. I tried a number of different products but none really helped. I can’t stand watching men shave on TV. I feel the same watching custard pie fights. I have to look away. Eventually I bought an electric razor but I could never get a decent shave with it and I often ended up with a rash around my neck. Now I don’t recognise myself without the beard. I mean I know it’s me in old photos but it’s another me.

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