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.