Coronation, by Stacy Mauree Pendergrast

Our hedges bowed with gardenias. Mama snipped the biggest ones, their creamy whorls heavy with perfume, since we had no molasses to donate to St. Louis School’s yearly celebration of the Virgin Mary. We were Catholic, not because Mama and Daddy believed, but because they thought Catholic schools were better than public schools in Memphis. It was 1964.

“Sister said I had to bring in molasses. I’m going to get in trouble,” I said to Mama. I wrung my hands as I had already learned to do. I was in first grade. This was two years before we knew I was nearsighted, before a teacher moved me to the front row so I could see the board. Until then, the teachers always sat me, one of the tallest, in the back.

“There’s no molasses in the house,” Mama said, rolling her big, brown eyes. “These flowers will have to do.” She handed me a note for Sister and the bouquet of gardenias wrapped in wet paper towels and tin foil.

When I grew up and learned about Billie Holiday, I found out her trademark was a gardenia in her hair. The story goes that one night, while she was getting ready for a show, she burned her hair with a curling iron. Billie’s friend went outside the club and bought gardenias from a flower girl. She gave Billie the big white flower to cover the singed hair. After that, Billie often wore a gardenia when she performed.

That morning at school, I laid the flowers on Sister Agnes Marie’s desk. We said our opening prayers, slurred words like trespass, temptation, and contrition. Then, Sister walked to the door, her white robes swooshing, her black shoes squeaking. She called me into the cinder-block hallway. She shook Mama’s note.

“Why did you tell your mother that you needed molasses?” Sister asked, her steely eyes bearing down on me.

I stood silent.

“I said we needed to offer up masses for the Blessed Mother,” she scolded. Her chest heaved, rattled the giant wooden rosary beads that draped her side. She shooed me back into the classroom.

I realized later that having bad vision also affected my hearing: fewer visual cues when people spoke. At the time what I understood was that Mama seemed to be right about gardenias. They were good for making up for mistakes. Sister had unwrapped the blooms and put them in a vase on her desk. There they sat, under the classroom crucifix, hanging their heads.

The next day, Sister Francis Jerome, a stout, older nun who was the principal, stood at the door, scanned the rows of students who sat with hands clasped. She whispered something to Sister Agnes Marie, who turned her head in my direction.

“Miss Pendergrast, come here,” Sister Agnes Marie said finally, her words as clipped as could be with a Southern drawl.

Back to the hallway. I tried not to pee as I marched. As the nuns came into focus, I could see Sister Agnes Marie smiling, her lips as stiff as a vinyl doll’s. Sister Francis Jerome looked me up and down, from saddle oxfords to beanie cap. I cowered in dread, that sense that something bad was about to happen. After all, it was the South, I was in Catholic school, and dread was what grownups counted on to keep things running. I was only six, but I’d seen enough of it.

 

The second-grade teacher across the hall, Sister Gertrude, had taught boys to keep their shirts tucked in by snatching those with loose shirts and pinning pink tulle netting to their shirttails. “Do the boys in this class want to be girls or young men?” Sister asked our group. A beet-faced, newly trimmed Evan Hagenson stood on exhibit by her side. She had paraded him from class to class, the netting cascading like a bridal train.

Benny Baird was a boy as a dumb as dog bones — he couldn’t help it, and that’s probably why he never did his homework. But that was no excuse for our Sister Francis Agnes who got fed up, gave Benny a fat bible, and put him in a corner with instructions to hold the bible over his head, high up to God’s heaven, until she told him to quit, which seemed like a half hour. “Think of how tired your arms are now and they won’t mind working at a desk later,” she told him as he shifted the bible from one quivering arm to the other.

My classmate Susan Robertson and I once decided we didn’t like the canned peas, the drab color of army camouflage, served on our sectioned lunch tray. “They’re gross, like green spit wads,” Susan said to me, her mouth and nose twisted together. We stuffed the peas into our chocolate milk cartons so we could pass the “no waste” inspection from the nun guarding the tray-return window. She must have seen us. “Pray for forgiveness from starving children,” she railed and pointed us back to our table. Susan burst into a sob. That nun made sure we ate every last mashed, milk-sogged pea.

So there in that hallway, the day of my molasses-masses mistake, I shivered in dread. I would be told to turn and kneel, I thought, to pay for my sin. Sister Francis Jerome would use the big wooden paddle that hung in her office, the one kids said had holes to make it sting. Sister Agnes Marie would count the licks.

 

But instead of a paddle, Sister Francis Jerome waved a sparkly wreath.

“We’d like you to carry the crown to Mary on her holy day,” the principal said, as if she’d just spoken to the Blessed Virgin Mary on the telephone. “You would wear this in the procession,” she continued, and held out the wreath to me. It was made of plastic ivy and tinsel. “Do you think you can do it?” she asked, nodding. Her starched, white neckpiece dimpled.

Sister Agnes Marie stood there, her face blank.

Surely Sister Francis Jerome had me mixed up with another girl. Sister Agnes Marie must not have wanted to point out her superior’s mistake. I wasn’t holy. I didn’t pray. Did they know my family didn’t even go to church on Sundays? The sisters were grown-ups in black-and-white saint costumes, asking me to play make-believe.

“Yes, Sister,” I said, nodding back. I took the wreath.

 

On the big day, Mama wove gardenia buds into my hair.

“Hold still,” she said as she jammed a stem into the wire of the headpiece. “They’re almost too big,” she complained as the flowers flopped. She spiked my stringy brown hair with another bobby pin. “Close your eyes,” she commanded and then loaded me with hair spray. “Don’t run or shake your head” she warned. She stepped back and looked me over. “You look good.”

At school, Sister Francis Jerome gave me a crown of fake blue flowers to carry on a white silk pillow. I took my place as the last child in the outdoor procession to the giant statue of the Virgin Mary, her stone hands beckoning me. The sweet gardenia scent was my escort as my face flushed in that long, hot line. Like Billie Holiday’s hair dressing, those showy flowers kept eyes off of me. Petals dropped as I walked. A huge blurry crowd sang a song in Latin. Even though I was afraid to turn my head, for fear my crown would crumble, I searched for Mama’s face. I couldn’t find her.

Afterwards, I heard Mama say to Daddy, “They must have picked her because she’s taller than the rest.”

 

***

After living her adult life in New Jersey, Stacy Mauree Pendergrast returned to Arkansas to rediscover her childhood haunts.  She has written a coming-of-age memoir, You Wouldn’a Been Here, about growing up in Memphis and Little Rock.  This piece is excerpted from that work. Her work has also appeared in Blue Mesa Review. Stacy has been a reader on Tales from the Southa radio show of true Southern stories.

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Comments

  1. Bradley Dixon says:

    This is going to be one of those books that trap you from cover to cover! Coronation was so completely enthralling- I can’t wait for the rest!!

  2. This points out the shame of corporal punishment in a poignant way.

  3. Judith Springer says:

    Coronation was utterly captivating and evocative. I can’t wait to read more from this promising and talented author.

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