A childhood puzzle

‘It makes me cold to look at you,’ my mother said when the grass outside was thick with dew and the wind blew down the back streets from off the desert. I was in shirtsleeves and open toed sandals and although this wind came in over thousands of miles, it must have travelled overnight when the temperatures dropped to zero and the wind was full of ice and hinted at Antarctica.

‘It makes me cold to look at you,’ my mother said, and in her words I sensed the puzzle of my childhood:

Where did I begin and end? How could the cold wind on my skin, the chill through my bones become my mother’s cold?

Besides, I was not cold. I had the metabolism of a ten-year-old, a fit and lean ten-year-old who ran everywhere, even when walking was enough.


In those days of winter cold, my hopefulness kept me warm. Until grade six and the early morning regulation milk at recess when for the first time I recognised the cold at the tips of my fingers.

No gloves in those days, just pink fingers that grew red and itchy the more I clung to the milk bottle.

I needed to give my bottle a shake to dislodge the frozen wad of cream on top. And soon enough my pink then red fingers lost all sensation.

‘Shake your hands,’ mother Perpetua said. ‘Shake them up and down. That way you’ll get your circulation going.’

She did not tell us to put down our milk bottles first and given my tendency to do as I was told, and given my fingers were useless, I used my elbows to shake the milk bottle of ice and free my hands from the grip of their numbness.

Milk went everywhere, not only over my jumper and tunic, but over the jumper and tunic of the girl who sat beside me and worst of all a projectile of milk shot across the quadrangle where we sat. It landed on Mother Perpetua’s habit.

Blobs of cream glistened in the thin morning sun, not only on the asphalt in front of me but all the way down Mother Perpetua’s black robes and even on her black shoes.

She reached for the rosary beads at her waist and from her pocket dragged out an enormous white handkerchief with which she wiped the individual beads as if she was reciting the rosary.

But she was not serene as when in prayer. Her eye brows furrowed into one long line of black under the stiff white band that ran across her forehead and held her hair in place and out of sight.

She sighed.

I did not know what to say. My milk bottle was empty.

No longer did I need to drink but the relief I felt at being spared the cold down my throat and in my hands did not protect me from the scowl on the face of the nun that stays with me until this day and reappears in dreams when I know that I have been a sinner and can never be forgiven.