The first nun I ever met was Sister Mary St. Patrice, my kindergarten teacher. She was a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, an order which I believe originated in Ireland, though the sisters I had for grammar school were not Irish. I was four years old and I don't remember what my first impression of her was, so I guess I wasn't too traumatized. I recall she was a very nice, gentle lady.
You wonder what sadist decided that the holy women who do God's work, whether teaching or nursing, should wear such outlandish costumes.
I don't have a clue what the significance of this habit was, but it had that hard tightly pleated/stiffly starched piece that went around the face, with a strap that fit under the chin, and a tight starched collar around the neck and the big stiff box over it all and a veil on top of that. Then there was the black dress that went down to the ankles, a kind of a long bib that went over the top, and the rosaries around the waist. There were tales of nuns bonking kids on the head with the large crucifix, but I don't think I knew of any such event personally.
They were all bald, of course. We didn't know that for a fact, but we assumed that taking the veil meant shaving your head. It was a shock years later when I saw The Nun's Story and realized the hair was just clipped very, very short. We weren't sure if they had ears or not, but since some wore glasses and the earpieces hid behind the headgear, we assumed they probably rested on hidden ears.
When I got to high school, we were taught by Daughters of Charity, "God's geese," as they were affectionately known. Anybody who remembers Sister Bertrile, "the flying nun" has encountered the Daughters.
Different costume, same problem. Only it was worse for the Daughters because it was difficult to know how close you were to a wall or a door or another sister (these were "sisters," not "nuns" we were taught, but I have long ago forgotten the difference). I suppose if you wore the habit for any length of time you got your own sense of radar for spatial situations, but I wore the habit for a career day one year and I could see neither to the right nor to the left and if I hadn't had someone to guide me along, I don't know that I ever would have gotten anywhere.
The headpieces were called "cornettes" and they were washed, starched and folded in the laundry at the school I attended. But I don't think that as a grammar school child I ever gave a thought to how the nuns kept their clothes clean. I think I thought the angels probably did it.
In fact, you couldn't imagine holy women doing anything that us mere mortals did. I know for a fact that they never went to the bathroom. There was no nuns' bathroom in the school and we certainly never saw them in any of our own bathrooms. (I didn't know about such things in grammar school, but I'm sure that no nun ever had a menstrual period!)
I remember being scandalized once when I saw a black stocking-covered ankle on a nun whose skirt was just tad shorter than the others, so that there was actual flesh--covered flesh, to be sure--between her hem and her shoe.
The Daughters wore heavy woolen habits and it was probably a clue that I didn't really have a vocation when the only thing that worried me about leaving home and joining the convent was how I would cope with a hot, humid St. Louis summer in wool.
I'm sure the BVMs drove a car, but I never saw it. The Daughters had a car, a large station wagon, and they had clips they used to bring both tips of the cornette together and clip them so they could fit inside the car. Lord only knows how they saw anything behind them, especially if there were a gaggle of geese inside the car!
In San Francisco, there was a benefit to wearing habits. Out of gratitude for the work nuns did during the 1906 earthquake and fire, they were given free bus rides forever. All a nun or sister had to do was board pubic transportation and they never paid a dime.
We never saw nuns eat, but given the size of a couple of my teachers, I'm sure they got their share of food. But we knew it was a sin if we ever saw them putting food into their mouths.
In my senior year in high school, my plan had been to enter the convent but I needed to prepare for college. To do that, I needed to take Algebra II, which the school didn't offer, so dear little Sister Benedicta tutored me every afternoon after regular class (I was a terrible student....still can't understand the math concepts she tried so patiently to teach me), but my make-shift classroom was right by the door that led into the sisters' living quarters and I got to glimpse a bit of their non-school lives, not enough to see anything (still never saw them eat), but enough to wonder if I was sinning by seeing what I was seeing.
It was quite a change when I was an adult sometime in the 1980s and was in St. Louis for a meeting. My typing teacher and lifelong friend was retired by then and living in a retirement house a few hours away. She drove in to St. Louis to get me and bring me back to the house to spend the night, so we could get caught up. What a revelation! By now the cornettes were gone and the hems were shorter (but still below the knee) and the sisters had more physical freedom in their clothing. They had a swimming pool. (Nuns swim? Who knew?) But the thing that got me was visiting the convent BREWERY and learning that Sister Anne was the brewmaster. In fact, after dinner that night (yes, I ate with the sisters and can attest that they do eat) she came back to the guest house with a couple of bottles of her special beer and we sat there drinking and visiting. It was surreal.