When I turned thirteen my aunt came to see me. I was in the kitchen, chopping carrots, and Sister Mary told me someone was here to visit me. I rinsed my hands and went back into the courtyard.
“My! What a nice looking girl you are! You have plumped out, haven’t you! You were always just as skinny as could be. So today you are thirteen years old! How does it feel?”
I had forgotten the day of my birth; the nuns cared nothing for dates and numbers.
“It feels fine, aunt. How are you doing?”
“Me? Oh, just the same as ever, a little older, but I am not ready to sit down and knit now – with the salvation of Germany on the rise. Isn’t it a glorious thing? After all we have suffered from the Allies, we are finally going to make them pay.”
I hadn’t the least idea what she was talking about, but merely nodded.
“Anyways, Catherine, I have come to give you something. I think you should have it now. Do what you wish with it.”
She handed me a small box. I did not open it then, I didn’t know if it would be polite or not.
“There are things in there from your parents. I don’t know what all. I haven’t read it all. I don’t have time to read a French woman’s diary and whatnot. But I thought you should at least know a little bit about them. Well, I have to be going. It was good to see you again, Catherine. You are growing into a fine woman.”
She perhaps forgot I was only thirteen. My dress and the seriousness of my life made me seem older than I was.
“Good bye, Aunt Matilda. It was nice to see you. I hope your family is doing well.”
She rushed out the door, and I was left alone. I carried the box to my room and left it on the shelf until I had time to look at it. I was longing to read the contents, but was used to denying my wishes.
That evening after the dishes were washed, and prayers were said, I took an extra candle to my room and opened my box. It was rusty and I nearly did not get it open. At last the lid swung up, and musty, pale faded papers emerged. I picked up the top one. I nearly cried. It was in French. I could not read it. It must have been my mother’s. Oh, I wish, I wish, I could read French. I wish the nuns didn’t think the French were immoral, and that their language was disgraceful. My mother was like a saint, I am sure. But they didn’t understand her. My mother was an exception. Someday, I resolved, I will run away and go to Paris. I will learn French, and read my mother’s letters. Her diary was there too, but I could not read that any better. I resigned myself to learning what I could from her handwriting. It was very ornate, with flourishes all over. Her C’s had a wonderful twist at the top. The capital letters were large, but the rest of the words were tiny and slightly sprawling. I also discovered a few of my father’s letters, but alas! he was such a messy writer, I could scarcely make out the words. And it was dreadfully dull too. I wondered if he was so boring to talk to. No, he could not have been, or else mother would not have married him. Oh well, at least I had a little something to remind me of them. My candle was dying. I carefully packed everything in the box again, closed it, and set it up on the shelf. It was the only thing I had. Other nuns put rosary beads there, or crucifixes, but I preferred it to be left bare, until now. I didn’t mind their religion, only it seemed a bit too much, too extreme and I liked a little space that was not invaded by matrons with children staring down at me, or rosary beads haunting my sleep with murderers strangling me with them.
I watched the candle go out, and felt a rush of self-pity, as the darkness covered me. I couldn’t read my beloved mother’s very own words. I had to stay here, when I longed to be in the world and experience its mysteries. I did start crying, it was such a gloomy night and the mustiness of my room didn’t help. It was dark, there was no moon, and I groped about to find my pillow so I could lie down and weep. I thought about praying, as Sister Clotilde said she did when she was sad. But I didn’t want to. Mother Mary couldn’t help me. She wasn’t an orphan, I was sure of that, and she didn’t grow up in a muted grey nunnery. So I cried myself to sleep, as I did on the first night that I was here.
Thus was the night of my thirteenth birthday