Back in Honey Spring Valley, everything is fine

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For 50 cents, I bought a round-trip ticket to my childhood last Saturday.

I was on a thrift shop mission with my friend and coworker Karl to find a heavy-duty juicer that took us to five stores. We never found the juicer, but we loaded up on sweaters, shoes, baseball shin guards, medical encyclopedias and travel books.

As an unexpected bonus, I came face to face with my Catholic school days at the Family Support Council Thrift Shop. In the middle of a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf I spied the faded green cloth cover of what turned out to be a copy of my third-grade reader, "This Is Our Valley," Faith and Freedom, New Edition.

Within the first few pages, I was back at St. Agatha's Grade School in Columbus, Ohio, in an ill-fitting green uniform, aspiring to sainthood through the examples of Lucy, Jean and all the gang.

The copy I found Saturday is stamped "Academy of the Little Flower" in San Luis Rey, Calif. The book has been passed through many small hands, but is in fairly good shape. A well-worn prayer card tucked in the pages is inscribed "Happy birthday, Pasquale" and signed "SMB."

It was tempting to take refuge for a few moments in Honey Spring Valley of the 1950s. Nobody was divorced or on welfare or subject to temporary restraining orders.

Red, yellow and green meant Honey Spring Valley's only traffic light, not a gauge for terrorist alerts. All the fathers look like President Bush and smoke pipes. The mothers wear dresses and aprons and stay home and bake cookies.

Honey Spring Valley: safe, dull and unrealistic. My own family would have been evicted in the early 1960s when we no longer fit the profile.

The book, first published in 1949, is credited to Sister M. Marguerite and Miriam Mason, who I suspect are both old angels by now.

Sister Marguerite was a wonderful storyteller. No Dick and Jane for us. We learned from happy families of Honey Spring Valley. Back from the deep recesses of my childhood appeared Grandma Hawkins, kindly Father Dale and Martin and Terry families with their assortment of children, all chubby-cheeked, freckled and white -- just like me. The vocabulary words include "thee," "thy," "Virgin," "tabernacle," "sanctuary," and "devoutly."

Like the majority of Catholic elementary schools in the 1950s and 1960s, our education was the domain of the nuns. Heaven help you if you got in trouble. Justice was swift and terrible and twice as bad at home if Sister's phone call got through before you raced in on your bicycle to defend yourself.

It seemed ironic in light of the highly publicized scandal of allegations of sexual abuse and coverup by the Catholic Church that I would find this little volume that opened the door to so many childhood memories, most of them nurturing.

I detect the heavenly interference of my mother.

My parents -- particularly my mother -- sent the four of us to Catholic schools for one reason: to get us to heaven. From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday and an hour on Sunday, our only job was to work toward that goal. My mother believed that priests and nuns were superhuman. Her faith was so unshakable that if we came home and suggested mistreatment of any kind, she didn't believe us or she was sure we deserved it.

As a Catholic school girl in that era, few avenues were open to us, which may be what protected us. We sang in the choir, made rosaries and prayed for pagan babies. For my sisters and me, our priest was the person who said Mass, heard confessions and handed out report cards. What we had to watch out for was Sister's yardstick, her deadly aim with an eraser and the eyes in the back of her wimple.

I think about my mother often and wonder if she were alive how she would react to the allegations about her beloved Catholic Church.

Finding that book is her way of telling me, "Don't believe everything you read in the newspaper, dear."

My little reader is going on the bookshelf next to her prayer book.

Sheila Gardner is the night desk editor of the Nevada Appeal.


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