Advent: A Memory



Ah, Advent. The beginning of the liturgical year, when the howling winds and dying souls of All Hallows are banished and the Church—and life itself—comes alight with hope and joy. There’s always hope in a new beginning, isn’t there, and in those days, we always made our new year’s resolutions from Advent to Advent, rather than from January first to December 31st.

That was, of course, because we lived within the liturgical world, not the secular one. We were students at a convent school, and our occasional visits “home” to our families did nothing to change that point of view. After all, in terms of instilling fear, my father couldn’t hold a candle to Mother Superior!

The convent is all but gone now, the school’s doors long closed as the order gained fewer and fewer vocations and therefore could provide fewer and fewer teachers. It’s a sign of the times, a nun said to me: once upon a time, convents were good places for women to go who didn’t want to get married and wished to do something useful and creative with their lives. Once those opportunities became more widespread in society, the numbers of women willing to look for them within convent walls diminished.

I’m still grateful I went to the convent school, for far more reasons than I can list here. And there was never a better time there than Advent.

New beginnings. I sat in study hall and pretended to read; but actually I was looking at Isabelle Aubert, who sat three rows in front of me.

I was head over heels in love with Isabelle Aubert.

We hadn’t ever defined our feelings to each other, but we talked nearly every day about what our future would look like, the cottage we would share near the sea, where I would write books and she would teach piano. It was an accepted fact between us, a given, and one that the sisters didn’t exactly discourage; perhaps they thought that the alternative—boys—would be worse. We held hands and shared whispers and kisses and all the benefits of what we thought of as a “special” friendship.

I’d never ever heard the word “lesbian.”

New beginnings. Candles and prayers, incense and singing, the magic of the liturgy and all of it entwined with the warmth of loving someone. Someone besides God, that was.

New beginnings. The excitement of lists and goals and dreams. This would be the year I made progress on my novel about the middle ages. This would be the year Isabelle would play the organ at the cathedral. This would be the year we’d do well in math. We sat in the courtyard on stone benches beneath the statue of Our Lady and pored over our lists, brought them with us to early-morning Mass, offered them to God.

New beginnings. This year—as every year—as I celebrate Advent, I’m thinking of Isabelle Aubert. I wonder what became of her. I have, in fact, ended up in a cottage near the sea in which I write books; but I do it alone, and I wonder, sometimes, where she is, and if she has any regrets about our schoolgirl dream.

And I wonder if she ever wonders about me …

Jeannine Allard is an award-winning novelist and playwright whose work has been published in 15 countries and translated into 12 languages; she grew up in a convent school in Angers, France. Now she lives in an old sea captain’s house at the tip of Cape Cod with one cat, two lovebirds, and thousands of books. More at

Jeannine will be giving away a copy of her out-of-print historical Legende – plus some chocolates.

The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this yet – write them down and I’ll ask you to email them in on Christmas Eve.)

24. Which famous musical begins set in a convent?

8 Responses

  1. New beginnings and a time to reflect on the year behind us – that is what this time has always meant to me. And celebration as well. I am happy you got your cottage by the sea. A sea captain’s home that sounds as if it too would have plenty of memories of its own.

    Thank you for a lovely post. Merry Christmas.

  2. A lovely little story there.

  3. Interesting that that nun said the fading interest in convent life is because women have other choices. i suppose that is true in the practical sense, but I thought the priesthood or the veil were supposed to be a spiritual calling, not a career choice? Keep in mind I was raised lossely methodist and am now a lapsed Pagan.. so what would i know?


    • I thought that was interesting too. Think of how many girls didn’t have a choice and were sent off, or those who preferred the convent life to their other choices which weren’t many. In some cases, perhaps a certain security, (food on the table, a place to sleep) was a priority over spiritual calling. I know of at least one nunnery here that has closed and its aged nuns sent off elsewhere. I thought that was very sad ending for some who had been in that house several blocks over since I was in 3rd grade.

  4. It’s absolutely true that it *should* be a vocation, but there may have been more interest in discerning whether one did or did not have a vocation when one had more limited choices outside of the convent. That would be my guess, in any case …

  5. Such a nice thoughtful anecdote. 🙂 Thank you

    I’ve always thought that taking the veil would be an excellent choice for a woman who, for one reason or another, knew she would find it hard to fit into the very narrow range of possibilities offered. There would be so many more options – art, music, science, accountancy – in fact nuns could do anything, if I remember correctly, apart from officiate in church.

    • At least one Kate Ellis book has that as a plot device. In ‘The Devil’s Priest’ the protagonist is back out in the world after the dissolution of the monasteries, and she can turn her mind to all kinds of problem-solving.

  6. That first love, that schoolgirl love, does the memory ever fade? I had a similar experience, but in an urban public school and when such attachments were severely punished. The memory of that love is surrounded by the barbed wire of pain. Thanks for this piece of emotional honesty!

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