A sense of defeatism manifested itself early in life. She was seven. The year of her Holy Communion, which was held on Easter. Six weeks later was the crowning of the May Queen. One of the female communicants would be chosen to place a crown of flowers on Mary’s head. Actually, on the head of her statue, but since symbols signified truth in the Catholic Church, the chosen one would actually be crowning the Queen of Heaven.
Maura prayed every night from the day the teacher announced in class that one of her students would be selected for this high honor. “Please let it be me,” she prayed. “I am your servant. I was named for you.” She had little -- if any -- understanding that the prayer was somewhat self-centered. She just knew the mystical moment had to be hers. She could envision it, climbing up the stepladder which was covered in white damask and strewn with rose petals – Monsignor holding her hand. She would reach the top -- almost eye to eye with Mother Mary -- and slowly, gently lower the petaled crown upon her head. A heavenly choir would be singing in the background, and the mottled light from the stained glass window would fall on both their faces. And for a moment – one divine moment – she would be united with the Mother of God.
So when the announcement came in class that it would not be Maura McCann, but Angela Cimmino who would crown Mother Mary, she was almost disbelieving. Sister Cornelia had made a mistake. Angela was to be the substitute, in case Maura was ill. But slowly it sank in. The moment had passed.
If such devout and persistent prayer did not yield positive results, then what was the purpose of trying? Maura was far too young and naïve to consider other possibilities. Like the fact that Angela’s mother changed the alter linens daily and was a faithful member of the Sodality. And the fact that Angela’s father, who owned a Florist shop, was the very man who provided the flowers for Mary’s crown -- and for every special occasion during the liturgical year – free of cost.
About a year later, Maura’s Aunt Catherine was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In those days, any form of severe mental illness was labelled schizophrenia, but whatever it was, it meant that Aunt Catherine would stay in hospital for months. Maura had not been overly close to her Aunt Catherine, but she knew she was her mother’s sister, and her mother was very upset. And Aunt Catherine had given her a kitten – the first of several – when she was five. She loved the kitten dearly, so by extension she loved Aunt Catherine.
She asked Sister Cornelia what she could do to help her aunt. Sister Cornelia went to her office and found a holy card with a picture of a beautiful, but somewhat tortured looking saint. “This is Saint Dymphna,” she said. “She’s the patron saint of mental illness. There’s a novena on back. Pray the novena for nine days.” Sister Cornelia didn’t say what would happen after nine days of prayer, but there was a sense that it would be something good. Maura put the holy card under her pillow, and every night, faithfully, she would pray to Saint Dymphna. She even drew a picture of Saint Dymphna in her notebook. On the ninth day, she felt an amazing sense of accomplishment. Toward the end of the tenth day, Maura asked her mother about Aunt Catherine. She could tell her mother was holding back tears. “She’s getting better,” she said. “It’s just going to take a little longer than we thought.”
This second disappointment, considerably more serious than the first, was not enough to turn young Maura against God, but it was enough to make her – as her mother would later dub her – a “doubting Thomas.”
Maura went to a public high school. She was the first of all her siblings to venture forth into the world of secular education. Of course, her sisters Eileen and Katherine had earned scholarships to Sacred Heart Academy. Maura, of course, had missed the cutoff GPA for earning a scholarship by a fraction of a point.
She didn’t know many people at Binford High School, so she was grateful when a bright eyed girl named Dawn convinced her to try out for Pompettes. The Pompettes were sort of second rate cheerleaders. They shouted cheers and shook the pompoms, but didn’t perform any feats of skill like splits or pyramids. There were twelve slots open for Pompettes. Dawn was sure they’d both be chosen. Only eighteen girls tried out, so Maura conceded the odds were good.
They filled out note cards with their name, address, age, height, dress size, shoe size and hair color. Maura listed her height as five foot four, because she thought her actual height of five foot three sounded so short.
The tryouts were easy. Each girl was given two pompoms and taught a simple dance routine. “Go, Binford Badgers! Go, team go! Who’s gonna win this game? We want to know!” At first, the girls performed as a group and then each girl stepped forward and auditioned alone. Maura had to admit it went well. Dawn and Maura talked about the tryouts all the way home.
Mrs. Yagley posted a list of the final selections on the door of the gym. There was Dawn – the second name on the list. She let out a little squeal. Maura’s eyes scanned the list quickly, then again. Her name wasn’t there. Dawn could see her disappointment. Suddenly, she squealed again. “There you are!” On the bottom of the page, there was a note: “Alternate: Maura McCann. Alternates will participate in all practice sessions.”
Maura found out that the alternate would step in whenever a Pompette was sick or absent. Last year, Sarah Mills was gone for a week because she had to travel to Pennsylvania for her granny’s funeral. And Jane Dreher sprained her ankle. So Maura would be a vital member of the Pompette team, Mrs. Yagley assured her.
The Pompettes formed two lines to practice their routines. Maura would stand alone, the sole member of the third row. For the first few weeks, Maura gave it her all. She moved and shouted and performed the routines just as though she was front and center. But slowly, her enthusiasm ebbed. She began to feel like a fifth wheel.
Winter came, and cold and flu season was rampant. Half of Maura’s math class was missing. Her moment was coming. She could feel it.
When she arrived home from school that afternoon, her mother told her about the phone call. “Mrs. Yagley said Betsy Kline is sick. She needs you for the game tomorrow.” Maura beamed. Betsy was a front row Pompette. That night, she dreamed about her moment in the spotlight. There she was, right in the middle of it all. The lights of the football stadium seemed to emit an otherworldly glow. The score was tied. The Badgers had the ball. “Go, go, go, go, goooooooo, Badgers!” Chipper Reed made the touchdown. The entire gymnasium erupted in celebration. She woke up drenched in sweat.
“You’ve got a temperature,” said her mother, feeling her forehead. She handed her the thermometer. Maura held it lightly between her lips, making sure it didn’t touch the inside of her cheeks or her tongue. It still read 102 degrees. “You’ll have to call Mrs. Yagley.”
“I can take aspirin to lower my temperature,” Maura protested. Her mother agreed. “If you’re better by lunchtime, you can go.” Maura took two aspirin and a large glass of orange juice because she knew vitamin C helped speed recovery. Fifteen minutes later, she threw up.
Maura’s luck – or lack of it – continued throughout high school. She never made honor roll. Usually missed it by a point. Didn’t make the swim team. Hadn’t saved enough money to go on the class trip to Washington. Didn’t go to the prom. No one had asked her.
And so, when she applied to Ohio State University, the rejection letter was simply an expectation. She went to the local community college and fit in quite well. They didn’t have athletic teams at the community college. The focus was on passing classes and transferring to the university. That, she thought, was something she could achieve.
She was sitting in English Composition when Miss Tate came over to her desk. “What have we here?” she asked, peering over Maura’s shoulder. Maura had been doodling. On the side of the page was a roly-poly figure with glasses and curly hair that looked quite a bit like Miss Tate. Only it was dressed like Tweedle Dee, with a striped shirt, tight trousers and suspenders.
Miss Tate took Maura’s notebook to the front of the room. “Class, let me see if you can guess who this is?” She put the notebook on the document reader and enlarged the sketch so it filled the screen. Maura felt her face redden. The class roared. “Quite a good likeness, don’t you think?” “Here we go,” thought Maura. “Scoring points already.”
Miss Tate returned the notebook. “You should sign up for art class,” she said. “How many of you knew we offered art classes here? That’s what I thought. Now, where were we?”
After class, Miss Tate asked Maura to stay behind. “Come. I’m going to introduce you to someone.” Maura nodded her head. She followed Miss Tate across campus like a lost pup, wondering where they were going and who the ‘someone’ was. The Academic Dean? The College Counselor? They descended down a gloomy stairwell to a classroom in a basement. The room was full of charcoal drawings and water color paintings.
The art instructor was a tall, lugubrious fellow. His face looked a bit like Eeyore. “Who have you got for me today?”
“Show him the sketch,” said Miss Tate. The art instructor snorted when he saw it. “Can you do anything besides caricature?”
“I can draw animals,” said Maura.
“Come back tomorrow with some real sketches. Same time. And draw this for me,” he added, handing her a Xerox copy of a print by Durer. It was a drawing of an incredibly homely old woman. She looked like a witch. Yet despite its ugliness, Maura admired the picture. It wasn’t a caricature. It was art.
It was all Maura could think about for the next twenty four hours. She searched through her desk and found a drawing of a cat and one of a squirrel and the one of Saint Dymphna. She put them in a folder and began working on the old woman. At first she traced her. She knew that was cheating, but she wanted to get a sense of how the lines flowed. Then she started the actual drawing. It was past midnight when she had completed the top half of the face. The two bulging eyes staring up from the gaunt cheekbones. It wasn’t bad at all. She’d finish it when she woke up.
When the alarm went off, two thoughts crisscrossed simultaneously in Maura’s mind. One was that she had to finish the drawing. The other was that she had a history essay due by noon that she hadn’t started. Now writing a three to five page essay on Napoleon’s defeat on the Russian front was doable for Maura, but the drawing would have to wait.
She dashed into history class breathless, and five minutes late. She had the paper, though. Mr. Kiser began droning on about Napoleon’s exile to Elba and she slipped the half completed drawing from under her notebook and stared at it. Somehow, drawing the lower half of the wrinkled face seemed infinitely harder than drawing the upper half. She started, tentatively, with the nose but when she lifted her pencil she realized the nose was completely out of proportion. It protruded out, far too large for the rest of the face. She started to erase when she felt Mr. Kiser’s eyes peering at her, and quickly covered the drawing with her history notes.
She considered skipping biology, but there was a review for a test and that she couldn’t miss. The instructor gave copious notes with generous tips about what would be on the exam. The time for the meeting was nearing. Maura stared fiercely at the lab instructor, willing her to let class out early. Instead, the class let out five minutes late.
Maura raced toward the building where the art classes were held. She ran down the steps and stopped at the last step. The art teacher was just finishing class. He was issuing final instructions to his class. She took out the paper and hastily added the mouth, the cleft chin and the jutting jaw. The neck was impossibly complicated, so she simply drew two lines to indicate where the neck should go.
“Ready?” said the art instructor. “Let’s see what you’ve got.” Maura handed over the folder first, and then the drawing. She turned away, unable to watch his reaction. After a very long pause -- “Well,” he said. “You’ve definitely got the eyes.” She exhaled.
“Sit down. You’re not in a hurry?”
“Here,” he said, turning the Xerox print upside down. “Try it now.” Maura felt an unexpected surge of adrenaline. She had a sense that there was something important at stake here. She wasn’t sure if she was up to the task. But she put pencil to paper and drew. To her complete surprise, she had outlined the woman’s face, neck and shoulders fluidly, in less than five minutes. She began drawing the nine lines that etched across the woman’s forehead. Then the brows, the weirdly protruding eyes. The cheeks, the prominent nose, the mouth with its missing lower lip, the jaw and the chin. Had she done it?
“Look at that,” said the art instructor. “Not bad. Not bad at all.” Maura was amazed. Although it lacked shading and detail, she had captured the essence of the old woman’s face.
“Sometimes it’s a matter of trying something different. A different perspective.” The art instructor explained he was only teaching Advanced Drawing in the spring, but he was happy to give her an override. He scrawled his name on a form and handed it to her. “Give that to the registrar,” he said.
Maura left the room in a daze. She wasn’t quite sure what she was feeling. Partly because she’d never felt this before. She stared at the form he had handed her. She went straight to the registrar’s office. “Is it too early to sign up for spring classes?” she asked.
It turned out it wasn’t too early, and Maura enrolled in Advanced Drawing. She headed toward the bus stop. She had a warm feeling inside.
“Hey,” said a voice, somewhat familiar. Who was it? Chipper? Chipper Reed, the quarterback? Here?
“Weren’t you one of the Pompettes?” he asked. “Sorry, I’m not good with names.”
Maura smiled. “No,” she said. “I’m an art student.” And she boarded the bus and headed home.