First of all her name was weird, Viola Romani. When I told my parents, my dad said, “What is she, a damn Gypsy?” And she dressed funny, always in purple, or should I say violet, you know, because of her name, Viola. Purple was not a big color then unless it was a purple and gold letter jacket or cheerleader uniform for Bishop Griffin Boys High School. And here she was, our new English teacher, smiling a wide gummy smile, but nervous, you could tell. The lumpy purple suit, a collection of body parts held loosely together in its violet fabric. The odd hairdo, dyed black, white roots, a low chignon, long fleshy earlobes hanging out at the sides. The Minnie Mouse black pumps, her short thick legs ending in the slightly too big shoes. Her make-up, a bit splotchy and too pink on those droopy round cheeks. Violet lipstick, of course, a shaky outline on her large pendulous mouth. And big moist brown eyes, their lower lids loose, eagerly darting from girl to girl. Everything about her seemed to be going south but there she stood before a jury of 16 year old Catholic girls, mostly white and freckly, mouths set, watching our new American Lit teacher, the first lay teacher, a non-nun teacher in our all girls academy. She told us her favorite color was violet, that one was easy, and that her favorite poet was Vachel Lindsay. Who?
I vaguely knew of a run-down house near downtown with a battered old sign out in front reading Home of Springfield Poet Vachel Lindsey. That’s about all I knew. She informed us, that first day, that she had been his fiance. Then the snickering started. Up until then we had only had nuns for teachers, certainly sexless, often intimidating. Their very sexless-ness made them immune to our judgment and their status as the “religious” made them off limits. Catholicism still weighed heavy in our lives. Miss Romani’s engagement to the mythical poet of Springfield was a bit too much to contemplate.
We learned that she lived with her mother in a neighborhood of old homes and brick streets not too far from our school. Did our instructor hope for gentile afternoons with old Mrs Romani playing the piano while we sipped camomile tea and nibbled on shortbread cookies from the B&Z Bakery? Perhaps at her former school, a tough public high school on the East Side, Miss Romani was able to spot the open hostility of her belligerent black teenagers but here she stood before us, her silent scrutinizing class, a deer in the headlights, fair game.
Perhaps, to us, the strangest thing about Viola Romani was that she wasn’t even Catholic. Maybe she was a gypsy and I didn’t know if they were Catholic or not. I suspected not. On the first fall day of semester, our new instructor stood before us, rocking on her heels and tugging at her bra straps. Miss Romani asked in a timorous but deep voice if someone would please lead the prayers. Our principal, Sister Blanche must have clued her in on the practice of praying before class started. Patricia McCorey’s hand shot up, jumping at the chance to lead the charge. The idea of prayer, I am sure, was to make us smart and keep us holy and above all pure, at least until we were married. Then we could be un-pure but specifically for the purpose of bringing little Catholics into the world. Judging from the number of kids in our parish, there was a lot of this sort of impurity going on.
Patricia started in with a Holy Mary, short and sweet, and Miss Romani stood, eyes closed, hands folded in a definitely un-Catholic trying-to-do-the-right-thing pose. We all knew that no one closed their eyes unless they were really, really holy or in big-time trouble. Our prayer before literature class ritual was thus established. Prayers concluded, Miss Romani opened the high wooden door to the paper closet. She seemed to be in there for a long time. Patricia caught my eye and we all exchanged looks like what is she doing? She came out finally with a sheaf of mimeographed sheets, purple (!) type, all chemical and floral smelling. It was our reading list for the semester. She handed them to the first girl in each row, watching eagerly for our expressions as we got a glimpse of what we were in for. And she tugged away at those bra straps all the while. When we each had a copy, she read the list in a voice rich, redolent but a bit shakey. She was really into this or really nervous, probably both. At the name of Vachel Lindsay, her voice slowed and thickened and she lifted her head to stare out the high windows of our classroom. Some late yellow roses were hanging down from the arbor that clung to that wall of the building. She paused, her eyes glistened, her lashes fluttered. She told us, again, that she had once been engaged to Vachel Lindsay. Her voice quivered at his name. We looked at each other. Many pairs of eyes rolled heavenward, Ohmygod. We never had to deal with this kind of thing with the nuns. She went on to extol his artistic virtues. I knew little about him except that house we passed when driving out 5th street and that my girlfriend at the public high school said her old-maid English teacher has been engaged to him as well. We of course could not imagine Miss Romani young or a fiance to anyone, not as she presented herself now, old and violet and fading. Even the word “fiance”, that was a part of our future not her past. It was our word. We did realize however, after those first few days, that Vachel Lindsay would be a leading figure in our study of American literature.
The reading list and class plan that Miss Romani handed out looked pretty foreboding, so Patricia McCorey, now class leader it appeared, began the next day’s prayers, with a few more lines than a simple Hail Mary. The longer the poems we were to read, the longer the prayers became. Still, we were gradually working our way closer to native son Vachel Lindsay. As the prayers became longer, Miss Romani would look furtively out to us, trying to catch someone’s eye. She seemed to be asking Help. What should I do? but after a while, she’d rock back and forth on her heels, hands clasped low in front of her round short body, very un-Catholic, and stare out the tall, rattling windows.
Then came the day Vachel Lindsay was introduced. Miss Romani was positively beside herself with excitement. I leafed through the pages of hand-outs and sniffed the purple ink. There were only a few short poems in our anthology but Miss R. had supplemented with sheaves of pages from his epic song-poems. The guy was quite a “character” as my mom would put it. Young Viola and apparently many other young local women of the time had been similarly smitten.
Miss Romani finally was able to begin class after all the praying. She went into the paper closet, hitched herself-up and turned to face us, eyes glowing. “Would it be The Congo, today? Ah yes” and she began to read:
“Fat black bucks in a wine barrel room…
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay Boom.
Be careful what you do,
Or Mumbo Jumbo, God of the Congo…
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumble-Jumbo will hoo-doo you..”
Patricia rolled her eyes, they settled on me, I dared turning to Ellen O’Shaunessy.
Miss Romani kept going, her eyes moist, her voice trembling but growing louder,
” A Negro fairyland swung into view,
A minstrel river
Where dreams come true.”
I snuck a look at Pam Hubbard, the only Black girl in our class. Her mouth was open. She was listening, really listening. She didn’t see me and some of the other girls staring at her. Miss Romani was really into it, too, almost prancing in her Minnie Mouse pumps. Then the metal clang of the bell. Thank god. It was like a balloon had burst. Miss Romani and all of us slammed down to earth. I know I was out of there fast. And we still had the rest of that poem and more to go.
The next day Patricia had obviously thought out a battle plan. We had already gone through all the prayers in the back of our Saint Joseph’s Missals except for the litanies. Would Patricia dare? Would Miss Romani cut her off? What about the importance of prayer to a Catholic girl’s upbringing? No, she couldn’t stop us from praying.
Patricia started off:
“Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Jesus, hear us.
Jesus, graciously hear us.
God, the Father of heaven,
Have mercy on us.
God, the Son, Redeemer of the world,
Have mercy on us…”
Miss Viola Romani started looking really nervous when the invocations began coming, but Patricia just kept going, Miss Romani figiting, shifting from one foot to the other, glancing out the window, sneaking a look at her wristwatch.
“Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,
Graciously hear us O Jesus”
Is it over yet, the teacher’s eyes seemed to say and Patricia signaled the end to the prayers by sitting down, a smug look on her face. There was still time left. Miss Romani worked herself into a trance again as we sat dumbfounded. we weren’t out of the jungle, not yet.
“And they pranced with their butterfly partners there,
Coal black maidens with pearls in their hair,
Knee-skirts trimmed with jassamine sweet,
And bells on their ankles and little black feet”
Is Pam absolutely dying!!!
“Walk with care, walk with care,
Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo…
Gods of the Congo,
Mumble-Jumble will hoo-doo you…”
According to our mimeographed sheets, we were not through with Vachel Lindsey yet. He would continue, with Miss Viola Romani’s help, to hoo-doo us. But this stuff was like stuff I had never heard before. I was curious but it made me uneasy, or was it Miss Romani’s transformation from prim schoolteacher to chanting performer that affected me in a way I couldn’t explain. Patricia, our leader, was prepared, after all we had only recited one litany and there were at least four more in our Daily Missal. And how could Miss Romani, a non-Catholic no less, keep us good Cathoilc girls from the practice of our faith?
Pray for us.
Holy Mother of God,
Pray for us.
Holy Virgin of Virgins,
Pray for us.”
She sure couldn’t stop us there, now could she? What would Sister Blanche think of interfering with our prayer? Especially to the Virgin? Miss Romani looked up, hands still clasped, rocked a bit, wiggled her shoulders. Straps slipping, probably. Patricia finally wound down as we droned our replies:
“Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God,
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.”
Miss Romani, seeing her cue, jumped in. This time it was The Kallyope Yell, Lindsay’s masterpiece, she informed us. “Please follow along and feel free to join in should the spirit move you.”
Omygod. She’s really going off the deep end.
“I am the Gutter Dream,
Tune Maker, born of steam.
Tooting joy, tooting hope,
I am the Kallyope”
Listen to the rhythm, she extorted and sing-songed her way through verse after verse, Her eyes glistened, she moved towards the tall windows, no leaves on the trees now, the sky hard and grey. That didn’t seem to matter to Miss Romani as she sang “Listen to the Kallyope, Kallyope, Kallyope.” I could almost hear the vague huffing and puffing of the giant organ that I had heard at the Fair, but long ago, I must have been a very little kid. Maybe at the circus that came through town every summer, the one I had grown tired of, too cool for.
“Born of mobs, born of steam,
Listen to my golden dream…
I will blow the proud folk down…
Popcorn shall rule the town…”
I liked that part. I loved popcorn. I loved the Fair.
Miss Romani was now swaying, trance-like.
“I am the Kallyope, Kallyope, Kallyope,
Tooting hope, tooting hope, tooting hope, tooting hope….
Willy, willy, willy wah hoo!
When she finished, the class was totally silent for what seemed like a long time but was probably only a few minutes, if that. Miss Romani was still at the windows, but her eyes were closed as if some fantastic burst of energy had just left her, left her exhausted. Sizz…fizz.
“Monday, we’ll go back to Emily Dickinson,” Miss Roamni finally announced.
I guess we had jumped sequence. I was relieved. I wasn’t looking forward to any more litanies and I think Vachel Lindsay had exhausted me as well and the whole class as we silently filed out of the classroom. On Monday, Patricia lead us in a short Hail Mary, Miss Romani almost mouthing the words, and we looked at the only known photograph of Emily Dickinson. She looked refreshingly lady-like and I hoped would not invoke the same fervour in Miss Romani as her former fiance had.
Years later, home from college for a long weekend, I was eating at a favorite old restaurant in the downtown. There weren’t many left but this one was dark, charming. and almost exactly as I remembered. It had been a favorite for moms and daughters after shopping for new clothes for the school year. My mom gone by a number of years, I was alone, but enjoying the quiet familiarity of which there was so little now in my hometown. Who should I see, having lunch with a very frail and much older woman, her mother, still alive? The two were engaged in quiet conversation, but yes, it was her, and she’s still dressed in purple. As she was leaving, I approached her.
“I remember you, do you remember me?”
She nodded but no recognition showed in her eyes. She looked so much the same, it was uncanny.
“I didn’t appreciate you,” I said,” I didn’t understand your passion.”
She nodded again. “What was your name dear?”
I said a few more embarrassing things and then they left. I noticed a limp in her walk and she held her mother’s arm while a car pulled up to fetch them. No wave, no look back. I stood there in the winter afternoon’s feeble light, waitresses in nurse-like uniforms bustling around me, wanting something more, but knowing I not given very much in the first place. Perhaps she remembered it all very clearly, the tall high windows that rattled and keened when the wind blew, the yellow roses, that paper closet, and the good young Catholic girls praying so ardently for their virtue. Perhaps she decided that she had given quite enough already.
Barbara Wyeth ‘02