Is That a Snake?

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My niece, Debi, and I were talking the other day about my wild and wonderful teen years as a glam rock fanatic. I was eight years old when Debi was born to my older sister, so in a lot of ways we grew up together. The particular story she relayed to me was one I had never heard before. Apparently, Debi was hanging around my bedroom while I was getting ready for a concert. She was about six years old at the time and therefore not really worthy of my attention. She said that as she watched me put on my latest glam outfit complete with silver platform boots, feather boas and a shower of glitter, she got some glitter in her eye. I was too self-absorbed at the time to notice her affliction so with one quick swoop of the boas I was out the door. Debi then went crying to my father who held her over the bathroom sink and tried to flush the glitter out of her eye. According to Debi my father was his usual calm, quiet self as he yelled out comments like, “That damn glitter is all over the house.” “Where the hell is she going this time?” “I should lock her in her damn room,” and “Who the hell is Ziggy Stardust?”

In reality, my parents seldom got angry about my bizarre clothes or non-stop concerts. More than once I overheard my father telling some head-shaking nosy neighbor or concerned relative that it was “just a phase” that I would soon outgrow, so he continued to indulge me. He barely blinked anymore at my Alice Cooper black eyes, my orange streaked hair or the earring I shoved up my nose because he wouldn’t let me get it pierced. My dad was the drop-off and pick-up chauffeur before my friends and I could drive. He was the original Uber Car. And then after more than one phone call from school about my skipping morning classes to get concert tickets, he also became my ticket line proxy. I always wished I could have seen him in his shirt and tie waiting in front of the box office at sunrise with a couple hundred freaks lined up behind him. He told me his favorite part was when the local radio station would hand out hot coffee and donuts to everyone. Sometimes the kids in line would ask him what he was doing there because he was clearly not one of their contemporaries and I’m sure they thought he was a narc. But, thanks to him I usually had main floor tickets to some of the most historical concerts to ever hit Detroit. I was glad that my parents took an interest in my music and supported me with endless money to buy tickets and albums. They must have felt I was safer inside a loud, pot-filled arena with a few thousand androgynous glam rockers than hanging out on the mean streets of suburbia. The only down side to this lifestyle of mine, as my father saw it, concerned the amount of posters on my bedroom wall and how they were hung.

For some reason, my dad believed that using scotch tape on painted walls was a crime tantamount to armed robbery or arson. “You can have one poster in your room and that’s it!” he told me. “I don’t want tape marks all over the walls. It ruins the drywall and then I’ll have to repaint the whole damn room.” So, I carefully chose one poster. It was Alice Cooper in a black leather corset weaving a boa constrictor around his neck. I hung it up over my bed. Periodically, my father would come into my room and peek behind the Alice Cooper poster just to make sure the tape wasn’t boring an acidic leak into the paint and disintegrating the drywall. When he saw that all was well his visits became less frequent. That’s when I decided to sneak in a few more posters. Within a short time, Alice was joined by David Bowie, T-Rex, Mott the Hoople, Led Zeppelin, The Velvet Underground and Kiss. I had also taken to taping all of my ticket stubs and any garbage the band threw off the stage onto the walls as well. Once I convinced my father that with the posters covering every available inch of wall space there was no need to ever paint the room, he relented and all was calm: until “my aunt the nun” came to visit.

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It was the summer of 1973 when for the first time my Aunt Theresa, a cloistered nun, was allowed to leave the convent. The rules for nuns had relaxed over the years and I guess the Pope figured traveling to see relatives wouldn’t condemn them to Hell. Aunt Theresa was my mother’s sister and all I knew about her was that she entered the convent under mysterious circumstances when she was young and according to nun law she couldn’t ever leave – alive. Since she was imprisoned in the convent my family had to spend every summer vacation visiting her in Cincinnati. This was not a fun vacation for me as it consisted of sitting in a convent, walking around a cemetery and going to church. I would have rather been in school or on a chain gang. The convent was over 100 years old and had very little in the way of modern conveniences or comfort. I hated going to the bathroom there because it was in a cold, stone, cave-like room with a small light bulb that threw out about as much light as a firefly. I was never sure where I was peeing. My older brother and I had to be quiet, on our best behavior and sit still. Not to mention that everywhere we went we either ran into more nuns or some imposing image of Jesus staring down at us in judgment. But this summer, Aunt Theresa was going to be on my turf!

The first thing my mother said to me was, “Your Aunt will be staying in your room so I want you to take down all those posters.” This news did not sit well with me. My life was in that room and on those walls and taking down my posters would have been like suicide. My next thought was where was I going to sleep? I sure as hell wasn’t going to sleep with any nun! “Where am I supposed to go?” I asked my mother. “We will put a rollaway bed in the living room and you can sleep there. Now take down those posters because they will scare your aunt.” It was about this time my father stepped in. “She’s not taking down the damn posters. That’s her room. If your sister is coming to stay with us she will just have to put up with how we live. The posters stay.” Unbelievable. My father was actually supporting me in the great poster war. Is this the same man I had to beg to put up one poster? I was speechless. My mother was angry and stormed off in a huff and my father just nodded at me and walked away. To this day I don’t know if he was really supporting my musical expression or if he was just terrified that the scotch tape had damaged the walls and he would have to paint the “whole damn room.” Nevertheless, the posters stayed and I moved into the living room to await Aunt Theresa’s visit.

It was a very hot summer that year and our house didn’t have air conditioning; although, it was the 1970s and my summer clothes consisted of as little as possible. A halter-top, pair of cut off shorts and bare feet kept me cool through most days. I didn’t relish the thought of sleeping in the living room though because that was one of the hottest spots in the house and I needed my sleep. I was taking driver’s training at school in the mornings, I had tickets to see Led Zeppelin that week and there was a possible new boyfriend on the horizon. Clearly this was not the time to inconvenience me. And so the pouting and stomping began so my parents would understand how unfair it was for me to have a nun in the house. It was during one of my tirades that the nun showed up.

I was sitting on the porch rubbing ice cubes on my arms to keep cool when my mother came out holding a sweater and told me to cover myself because Aunt Theresa would be here soon. I remember telling my mother “all of my important parts are covered” and that should be enough. Just about the time the yelling started to get ugly my Uncle Neil’s car pulled into the driveway. He and my Aunt Marcella had driven to Cincinnati to pick up Aunt Theresa and bring her to our house. My uncle got out of the car, waved a quick hello and then opened the door to the backseat where a small little woman climbed out wearing a full nun habit. Her head was completely covered with a long veil and wimple, her dress reached her ankles and her hands were tucked under her full-length nun apron. She had on simple black nun shoes and off to the side of her waist swung a large brown rosary. Suddenly, I felt as naked as my mother had been telling me I was and I grabbed the sweater. My mother ran down to the car where there were a lot of hugs and tears and then they all went into the house. Before I got inside my best friend, Nancy, who lived across the street, came running over to see my “aunt the nun.” Whenever I spoke of Aunt Theresa to people outside the family I always referred to her as “my aunt the nun” and so that’s what my friends called her. Nancy wasn’t Catholic and had never seen a nun in person before and I think she had been anticipating this visit even more than my mother had.

Once we got into the house and settled into the kitchen for some lunch, my Aunt Theresa took a good look around. It had been nearly 30 years since she entered the convent and I could tell that even the simplest things overwhelmed her. She asked about our double-door avocado colored refrigerator and commented on how comfortable the upholstered kitchen chairs were. Nancy and I stood in the corner exchanging looks and quietly giggling. When I introduced my friend to Aunt Theresa, she told Nancy that she admired her beautiful long blonde hair and Nancy let her touch it. This action on my Aunt’s part just reinforced my, any my cousins, belief that Aunt Theresa didn’t have any hair. After lunch my dad took my aunt’s bag to my room and she followed. Nancy and I followed too because we couldn’t wait to see her reaction to the posters. My mother stayed in the kitchen shaking her head and quietly killing me with her eyes.

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Nancy and her long blond hair

“We thought you’d be more comfortable in Terry’s room since she has a full-sized bed and a phone,” my dad said as he set down her bag and quickly ducked out. Aunt Theresa walked silently into my room and as she surveyed the posters she said, “Oh my.” I stood in the doorway clutching the sweater around me and watched as she walked methodically around the room and stared at every poster like she was at a Van Gogh exhibit at the Louvre. “Who are all these people?” she asked. “They’re musicians that I like,” I answered. “And what are their names?” “Um,” I stammered. “That’s David Bowie, and those guys are Mott the Hoople and the big poster is Alice Cooper…” It was here that she stood still and said, “Is that a snake?” “Yes. It’s part of his act.” “His name is Alice? Is he in a circus?” she asked. Okay, this was now the strangest conversation I had ever had with anyone let alone a nun standing in my bedroom. The more I tried to explain who these guys were the stranger it sounded even to me. After I finished the introductions I left my Aunt to get settled in and Nancy and I headed outside to discuss how I was ever going to get through this week.

It turned out the nun disruption wasn’t all that disruptive. I went to my daily driver’s training class. Nancy and I swam a lot in her pool. My friend Linda and I went to see Led Zeppelin and since they weren’t a glam group my mother was spared the embarrassment of my aunt witnessing one of my glitter-obsessed outfits. As far as Aunt Theresa’s routine, it seemed like she was able to go about her usual nun business. One day I was walking past my bedroom and I peeked in to see her standing in front of my David Bowie poster. I stopped and watched her until I heard my mother calling me in that teeth gritting ventriloquist voice where I heard my name but never saw her lips move. I found her in the kitchen standing in a hazy cloud of Comet as she vigorously scrubbed the sink. “I just walked by my room and Aunt Theresa is staring at David Bowie,” I said. My mother stopped scrubbing, leaned against the sink and said, “She’s praying for your rock stars.” “What? Praying for them. What do you mean?” I asked. “Your aunt told me that those men looked like they all needed prayers to find their way – especially the guy with the snake. I hope you’re happy. I told you to take those posters down!” I didn’t know whether to laugh or be scared. I had no idea how strong her nun powers were and I certainly didn’t want any of those guys to be born again just because I let a nun loose in my room. By the end of the week we all had gotten pretty comfortable having Aunt Theresa around. My dad swore less and my mom stopped following me around with sweaters. Aunt Theresa spent a lot of time sitting outside on the patio, helping my mom in the kitchen and praying for the glam rockers. My dad gave her a radio so she could listen to the Detroit Tigers. My brother drove her to get ice cream and I had a surprise visit from my “on the horizon boyfriend.”

It was late afternoon on Friday and I was sitting alone on the porch reading a magazine and listening to the radio when Kevin, my latest crush, pulled into the driveway. Kevin brought his friend Jerry along and they joined me on the porch. I had never met Jerry before but he had the longest blonde hair I had ever seen on a guy. While Kevin and I sat and talked, Jerry took off his t-shirt and spread out on the lawn under the birch tree. When Jerry pulled out his cigarettes I told him to go into the backyard and smoke in case my dad came home. So, shirtless with his long blonde hair swinging behind him he headed into the backyard. About three minutes later he sauntered back onto the porch, cigarette hanging out of his mouth and said, “Do you know there’s a nun in your backyard?” It was at this exact moment my mother busted out of the front door wild-eyed and panicked. She stopped suddenly when she saw us and did a double take when she noticed Jerry. And then she surprised me. She started laughing hysterically. The three of us just stared at her and when she stopped laughing she told us that my Aunt Theresa came in the house and said, “Terry’s friend Nancy just walked into the backyard without a shirt on and she was smoking.” Poor Aunt Theresa, Jerry had just traumatized her more than any of my posters ever could.

When that week finally came to end and my Uncle Neil came to pick up Aunt Theresa, I was actually sad to see her go. When she was with us I found out that while she was shocked by a lot of the outside world, she was also very tolerant and interested. She asked me a lot about my music and friends and I think she even got comfortable sleeping underneath that huge poster of Alice Cooper. I often wondered if she gave them all one final blessing and prayer before she left. And I certainly would have liked to be a fly on the convent wall when she told her fellow nuns about her trip. As for Kevin and Jerry, they never came back. And on the day that Aunt Theresa left, my mom made sure that Nancy came over to say goodbye and that she was wearing a shirt.

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Aunt Theresa and me at the convent in 1965

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