They were sisters once.In a more innocent time, three girls enter the convent. Angelina, Kathleen and Joanna come from very different backgrounds, but they have one thing in common-the desire to join a religious order.Despite the seclusion of the convent house in Minneapolis, they're not immune to what's happening around them, and each sister faces an unexpected crisis of faith. Ultimately Angie, Kathleen and Joanna all leave the sisterhood, abandoning the convent for the exciting and confusing world outside.The world of choices to be made, of risks to be taken. Of men and romantic love. The world of ordinary women...Debbie Macomber illuminates women's lives with truth and with compassion. In Changing Habits, she proves once again why she's one of the world's most popular writers of fiction for--and about--women.
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July 01, 2010
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Excerpt from Changing Habits by Debbie Macomber
Angelina Marcello 1948 to 1958
"Angie, come here," her father called in heavily accented English. "Taste this." He held out a wooden spoon dripping with rich marinara sauce.
Obediently Angelina put her mouth over the spoon and closed her eyes, distinguishing the different spices and flavors as they met her tongue. "Not enough basil. You should add fresh chopped parsley, too."
Her father roared with approval. "You're right!" He tossed the spoon into the restaurant's large stainless steel sink. Then he reached for eight-year-old Angie and lifted her high in the air before hugging her tightly. It was 1948, and Angie's world revolved around her father and, of course, the family-owned business, the restaurant named after her. It was a well-known fact that Angelina's served the finest Italian food in all of Buffalo, New York.
Unlike other children her age, Angie's first memories weren't of being plopped on Santa's knee in some department store for a candy cane and a photograph. Instead, she recalled the pungent scent of garlic simmering in extra-virgin olive oil and the soft hum as her mother bustled about the kitchen. Those were the warm years, the good years, during the big war, before her mother died in 1945.
Sometimes, late at night, she'd heard giggles coming from her parents' bedroom. She liked the sound and cuddled up in her thick blankets, her world secure despite all the talk of what was taking place an ocean away.
Then her beautiful mother who sang her songs and loved her so much was suddenly gone; she'd died giving birth to Angie's stillborn brother. For a while, any hint of joy and laughter disappeared from the house. A large black wreath hung on the front door, and people stopped, stared and shook their heads as they walked past.
Only five years old, Angie didn't understand where her mother had vanished, nor did it make sense when strangers crowded into her home. She was even more confused by the way they put their heads together and whispered as if she wasn't supposed to hear. A few wept openly, stopping abruptly when she entered the room.
All Angie understood was that her mother was gone and her father, her fun-loving, gregarious father, had grown quiet and serious and sad.
"You're going to be a good Catholic girl," he told her soon after her mother's death. "I promised your mother I'd raise you in the Church."
"Use English," he insisted. "We live in America."
"I'll take you to Mass every Sunday, just like your mother wanted."
Angie listened intently.
"And when you start first grade you'll attend St. Gabriel, so the nuns can teach you."
She nodded; her father made this sound like a promise.
"It's just you and me now, Angelina," he whispered.
"You're going to be a good Catholic girl," he said again. "You'll make your mother proud."
At that Angie smiled, even though she dreamed of being a cowgirl when she grew up so she could ride the range with Hopalong Cassidy. Her hero didn't look Italian but she made him so in her dreams and he ate at her father's restaurant and said it was the best food he'd ever tasted.
In 1948, by the time Angelina entered the third grade, she wore her thick black hair in two long braids that her father dutifully plaited each morning at the breakfast table. He put down the newspaper, giving his full attention to her hair, and when he'd finished, he carefully inspected his daughter. It was the same ritual every morning. Awaiting his approval, Angie would stand tall and straight, arms held stiffly at her sides. She wore her blue and gray plaid school uniform with the pleated skirt and bib front and anxiously awaited her father's nod, telling her she'd passed muster.
"Smile," he instructed on this particular day.
Angie obediently did as he said.
"You're as beautiful as your mother. Now eat your breakfast."
Angie slipped into the chair, bowed her head and made the sign of the cross before and after grace, which she said aloud. Then she reached for her spoon. She hesitated when she noticed her father's frown. Studying him closely, she wondered what she'd done wrong. The worst thing she could imagine would be to disappoint her father. He was her world and she was his--other than the restaurant, of course.
"It's nothing, bambina," he reassured her in gentle tones. "I just hope your mother forgives me for feeding you cold cereal."
"I like cold cereal."
Her father nodded, distracted by the newspaper, which he folded back and propped against the sugar canister while Angie ate her breakfast.
"I want to leave early this morning," she told him, struggling to hold back her excitement. "Sister Trinita said I could sing with the fifth- and sixth-graders at Mass." This was a privilege beyond anything Angie had ever been granted. Only the older children were permitted to enter the choir loft at St. Gabriel's, but Sister Trinita, the fifth-grade teacher, was her special friend. She chaperoned the children who attended Mass at St. Gabriel's every morning before school--children who rustled and fidgeted and talked.
Angie knew it was important to show respect in church. Her father had taught her that and never allowed her to whisper or fuss during Mass. She might not understand the Latin words, but she'd learned what they meant, and she loved the atmosphere of the church itself--the lighted tapers, the stained glass windows and shining wood, the Stations of the Cross telling their sacred story. Sister Trinita had commented one morning, as the children streamed out of the church and hurried toward the school, that she was impressed with Angie's respectful behavior.
That first time Sister had spoken to her, Angie knew she'd found a friend. After school the same day, she'd visited Sister Trinita's classroom and volunteered to wash the blackboards. Sister let her, even though Angie was only in third grade.
After that, Angie used every excuse she could invent to visit Sister Trinita. Soon she was lingering in the school yard after classes until she saw Sister leave. Then Angie would race to the nun's side so she could walk Sister back to the convent house, which was situated across the street. Sister Trinita looked for Angie, too. She knew, because the nun would smile in welcome whenever Angie hurried toward her. It became her habit to walk Sister Trinita home.
"You're going to sing with the choir?" her father asked, raising his eyes from the newspaper.
Angie nodded, so excited she could barely contain her glee. "I like Sister Trinita."
His curt nod told Angie that he approved.
Scooping up the last of her Cheerios, she set aside her spoon and wondered if she should tell him that she'd started waiting for Sister Trinita outside the convent door each morning. She walked Sister to the church and then slipped into the pew where the third-graders sat.
"Sister Trinita says I'm her favorite." She hesitated, waiting for her father's reaction.
"Who is Sister Trinita?" her father asked unexpectedly. "Tell me again."
"The fifth-grade teacher. I hope I'm in her class when I'm in fifth grade."
He nodded slowly, obviously pleased with her acceptance by this nun. Pleased, too, with her daily attendance at Mass--even though he himself didn't like going. He went to Mass on Sundays because he'd promised her mother he would. Angie knew that. He'd made a deathbed promise to the wife he'd so desperately loved. A man of his word, Tony Marcello faithfully escorted Angie to church each and every Sunday and on holy days.
At night when he returned from the restaurant and sent the housekeeper home, he drilled Angie on her catechism questions. And on the anniversary of her mother's death, they knelt before the crucifix in the living room and said the rosary together. At the name of Jesus, they would bow their heads.
This morning, her father smiled as he drank the rest of his coffee. "Ready?" he asked. "If my little girl's going to sing in the choir, then I'll have to get you to church early."
"Ready." With her braids flapping against her navy-blue uniform sweater, Angie grabbed her books, her Hopalong Cassidy lunch bucket, and reached for her father's hand.
For two years, Angelina Marcello walked Sister Trinita to and from the convent each weekday. It broke her heart when Sister was transferred to another school in 1950, the year she entered fifth grade. Angie had turned ten.
After a while Angie stopped thinking about Sister Trinita, but she never forgot the nun from the order of St. Bridget's Sisters of the Assumption--the woman who had lavished her with attention when she'd most needed it.
In the summer of 1953, her father enrolled her in St. Mary's School for Girls. She would always remember that he sang "That's Amore" as he drove her home following her interview with Sister St. George.
"Your mother would be proud of what a fine young lady you are," he told her, stopping at the restaurant on the way home. At age fourteen, Angie was waiting tables during the summer and cooking with her father, along with Mario Deccio, the chef. She knew the recipes as well as she did her own name. The restaurant was her life--until her senior year in high school.
Everything changed then.
"You want to do this?" her father asked, reading the senior class permission slip for the annual retreat. He looked at her carefully. "You want to travel to Boston for this retreat?"
"It's just for the weekend," Angie explained. "Every graduating class goes away for retreat."
"At a convent?"
"Yes. Sister St. George said it was a contemplative time before we graduate and take our place in the world."
Her father read over the permission slip again. "You know your place, and that's right here next to me at Angelina's."
"Everyone's going," Angie protested.
"All the girls in your class?" He sounded skeptical.
"Yes." She wasn't entirely sure that was true, but Angie wanted to be part of this retreat. After attending twelve years of parochial school, she was curious. Convent life was so secretive, and she didn't want to lose this one opportunity to see it from the inside.
"All right, you can go," her father reluctantly agreed.
He was right, of course; her future was set. She would join him at the restaurant and cook or wait tables, whatever was needed. The restaurant was the only life she knew, and its familiarity a continuing comfort.
Early that June, St. Mary's School for Girls' senior class left by charter bus for Boston and the motherhouse of St. Bridget's Sisters of the Assumption. It was three weeks before graduation. The first thing Angie felt when the bus pulled up to the convent was a sense of serenity. The three-story brick structure was surrounded by a tall fence and well-maintained grounds. While traffic sped by on the busy streets surrounding the convent, inside the wrought iron gates there was tran-quility. Angie didn't know if her friends felt it, but she did.
Friday evening the sisters served dinner.
"They aren't going to eat with us?" Sheila Jones leaned close and asked Angie. Sheila and Dorothy French were Angie's two best friends.
"Haven't you ever noticed?" Dorothy whispered. "Nuns never eat with lay people."
Angie hadn't noticed, hadn't thought about it until then.
"I wonder if they've ever tasted pizza," Dorothy said.
"Of course they have," Angie insisted. "They eat the same food as everyone else."
"I wouldn't be so sure of that," Sheila murmured.
Angie wondered. She couldn't imagine life without pizza and fettuccine Alfredo and a dozen other dishes. These were the special recipes her father had entrusted to her care.
Later that evening, Angie was intrigued by the Spartan cell she'd been assigned for the weekend. The floors were bare, as were the walls, except for a crucifix that hung above the bed. One small window took up a portion of the outside wall, but it was too high to see out of and only allowed in a glimmer of sunlight. The single bed had a thin mattress and the bed stand could hold a lamp and a prayer book, but little else.
That first night when Angie climbed into bed, the sheets felt rough and grainy against her skin. She'd expected to fall asleep almost instantly, but her mind spun in ten different directions. This was holy ground, where she slept--holy ground on which she walked. Women who had dedicated their lives to the service of God had once slept in this room. This wasn't something to be taken lightly, she realized. She finally fell into a deep sleep sometime after midnight.
The second day of the retreat included an hour of solitary prayer. Each girl was to spend time alone to assess her calling in life. No talking was permitted, but they could speak to one of the sisters if they desired. Angie took pains to avoid her friends because it would be too easy to break silence.
"Angie!" Dorothy French's loud whisper echoed through the chapel as she loped down the center aisle.
Angie cringed and ignored her.
Undaunted, Dorothy slipped into the pew next to her. She rattled her rosary as she lowered her head and pretended to pray. "I'm going to bust if I have to go another minute without talking."
Angie glared at her friend.
"What about you?" Dorothy pressed. She stared at Angie. "Don't tell me this silence doesn't bother you, too?"
In response, Angie shook her head, slid past her and left the chapel. She'd been deeply involved in saying the rosary and resented the intrusion. Fearing someone else would distract her, she walked out of the building and decided to do the Stations of the Cross. The fourteen stations, which illustrated the stages in Christ's journey to crucifixion, followed a path that meandered through the lush grounds. The air was warm and perfumed with the scent of spring, and Angie felt an unmistakable surge of well-being.
It was at the fourth station, where Jesus met His mother on the road to Calvary, that Angie came upon an older nun sitting on a bench, her head bowed and her hands clasped in prayer. Not wanting to disturb the other woman, Angie decided to leave.
Just as she was about to turn away, the nun glanced up and as she saw Angie, a flash of recognition came into her eyes.
Angie took a second look. No, it couldn't be. "Sister Trinita?" she whispered.
The nun smiled. "Is it really you, Angie?"
"Yes...oh, Sister Trinita, I've thought of you so often over the years."
"I've thought of you, too. Are you a high school senior already?"
Angie nodded. "St. Mary's School for Girls."
"The years go past so quickly." Sister smiled gently. "I can hardly believe you're almost grown-up." She moved farther down on the bench, silently inviting Angie to join her.
"I was so disappointed when you were transferred," Angie told her. "I looked forward to fifth grade for two years." After her mother's death, Sister Trinita's departure had been the second big loss of her life.
"It was difficult for me to accept that I wouldn't be your teacher, but it was for the best. The decisions of the mother-house always are."