Monday, April 05, 2004

The Purple Nun

It's been just over a year and a half since the Purple Nun passed away. We've still not tired of telling stories about her.

In her day, the Purple Nun was number #1 on the Liberry Rogues Gallery, not because she was a problem patron, which usually she wasn't, but because she was certainly the most colorful and most infamous of all our resident eccentrics.

The Purple Nun was a regular sight in our little Tri-Metro community. Often seen walking alongside the road, or taking public transportation, she was instantly recognizable by her purple nun's wimple which she--forgive me--habitually wore. I have no idea if she'd ever been an honest to goodness nun during her life, but I suspect not. I'm pretty sure she was just a nun of her own devising, though that did not necessarily lessen her devotion to God.

I'd seen the nun around town and wondered what her deal was long before I actually met her. Then she began coming into the library and I was able to get a better look at her. My first impression upon meeting the Purple Nun personally was that she seemed like a nice enough lady and was about as polite as you'd expect a nun to be. She mainly came in to use one of our computers, usually leaving long before her time ran out and always paying for paying for any prints she made. Still, her mode of dress and something about her manner got my imagination working overtime as to the strange possibilities of her life. It wasn't until my co-workers began recounting their own stories of her that I realized my fiction was a lot more mundane than the truth. The nun was also hardly a newcomer to the library.

Mrs. B, my fellow "liberry" assistant gave me the lowdown on the Purple Nun...

Some months or years before I started work there, the Purple Nun came into the library and asked if she could use the internet. However, the Nun had no e-mail account, so Mrs. B loaded up Hotmail and showed the Nun how to sign up for an account. After a long time the Nun came up to the desk and was mildly irritated that Hotmail wouldn't allow her to enter her correct birthday. Mrs. B thought this was strange and went back to investigate but didn't immediately see any problem. There on the screen was a perfectly good-looking birthday in the birthday blank. The Purple Nun then explained that Hotmail was insisting on using the A.D. calendar system while she needed to use B.C. for her birthday. That's right, the purple nun claims to have been born over two thousand years ago.

Somehow Mrs. B convinced the Nun to let the whole birthday thing slide and helped her finish setting up her Hotmail account. She then had to show the Nun how to compose and send e-mail. The Nun seemed very happy about this and began to type away, composing her e-mail. Some time later, she got up to leave, informing Mrs. B that she'd left the e-mail message on the screen. Mrs. B tried to explain to the Nun that you weren't supposed to leave the e-mail you were supposed to send it to someone. Did she, the Nun, have someone to send it to? The Purple Nun assured her that it would be okay. The person meant to find it would find it.

These may have been Mrs. B's first early clues that something was amiss in Purplenunland.

Another clue came when Mrs. B later inspected the computer sign in sheet. The nun's name, as written, was "Mrs. J.C. Lord".
It turns out, the Purple Nun, a.k.a. Mrs. J.C. Lord, firmly believed herself to be the wife of both Jesus Christ AND the Holy Ghost. Now I realize that being the bride of Christ is kind of the whole bag for most nuns, but she actually took it a few steps further. According to her, the three of them were living in wedding bliss in an apartment downtown. The Nun also tended to refer to herself in the plural, unless she was just giving her name out. I once heard her do this when phoning the local Tri-Metro Transit Authority for a lift. I guess she figured out it was easier to do when she just said, "This is Mrs. Lord and I need to be picked up..." rather than, "Jesus, the Holy Ghost and I need a lift to the Save-A-Lot."

Mrs. B's involvement with the Nun was much more extensive than my own. Mrs. B has a natural kind nature that shines through in her demeanor. It's an admirable quality to have but it's one some of our more eccentric patrons have picked up on and have gone out of their way to take advantage of.

For instance, one of our eccentric patrons broke her leg and began calling the library asking for reading material as she couldn't easily get out of her house. Not only did she want reading material but she wanted us to deliver it to her. Mrs. B had taken this call and decided that since the lady lived just down the street it wouldn't be much trouble to run a few books over. A couple days later, the lady called for more. And more. And more. Finally, there was a day that Mrs. B couldn't come due to other obligations. The broken-legged patron was furious and accused Mrs. B of not wanting to help out and accused the library of not serving the public by not hand-delivering her books to her at her whim. After that, Mrs. B told the woman outright that she wouldn't be delivering ANY more books and that the lady could come get them herself. So the patron did by having a relative drive her up to the library and then honking the horn of the car until one of us came out to take her order. Mrs. A but a stop to that behavior, toot sweet.

The Purple Nun was also one such advantage-taking sort of patron. Mostly she just used Mrs. B as a confidant, telling her at one point that she, the Nun, had recently been visited by the police. They apparently wanted to talk to her because she had been accused of physically attacking someone. We know no details on this, but the Nun herself even admitted that it wasn't the first time she had been accused of physical assault. She seemed highly surprised that anyone would accuse her of any such thing, but the police seemed to think otherwise.

Some time later, the Purple Nun persuaded Mrs. B to give her a lift to a hospital in a neighboring county where the Nun was to undergo cancer treatments. Up until this point we had no idea the Nun even had cancer. We certainly couldn't rule it out, though.

A few days before they were to leave, the Nun negotiated with Mrs. B to go visit some friends of hers in the hinterlands of the other county, considerably out of their way, following her cancer treatments. Mrs. A immediately suggested that there were no cancer treatments and that the Nun just wanted to go somewhere for a visit but didn't think anyone would give her a lift unless it was for a more serious reason. Mrs. B didn't much like the situation but agreed to it provided the Nun called ahead to her friends to make sure they knew she was coming. The Nun assured her she would.

During the journey, the Nun made small talk by mentioning that she thought she was close to getting her son back. Mrs. B had heard rumors about the Nun having had a son, but she wasn't sure if this kid didn't fall into the same category of questionable physical presence that his Dads J.C. and the H.G. occupied. Nope, he was apparently very real and living with a foster family in another state. The Nun didn't much like his foster family because they didn't much like her and evidently listened in on the phone conversations that they allowed her to have with the boy. The family wasn't too keen on the Nun saying bad things about them to her son and had curtailed many a call that drifted into that line of conversation.

Following the Nun's treatment at the hospital, she and Mrs. B drove out to see the Nun's friends who were, surprise, surprise, not at home.

The Nun got out and knocked. And knocked. And knocked. And eventually went around to the rear of the house, panicking Mrs. B who was just imagining the woman breaking into the home somehow. After nearly a half hour of this, Mrs. B insisted they had to leave at which point the Nun became enraged and started yelling at her. Mrs. B, usually a quiet and unconfrontational woman, then screamed back at the nun that she had given her a lift to be nice but if the Nun didn't calm down she was never getting a ride anywhere ever again. This seemed to work. It was, however, not the last lift Mrs. B would give the Purple Nun, nor the last household that refused to answer the door at the Nun's knock.
After Mrs. B told us about her weekend adventure with the Purple Nun, we learned from Mrs. A that the Nun's claim of having a son was in fact true.

Some time in the mid to late 1980s, not terribly long after Mrs. A had started working at the library, the Purple Nun and her son were regular patrons. I should say, the lady that would one day become the Purple Nun, because at that point she was not yet wearing the purple wimple. Her son was a very young child at the time, maybe one or two years old, and he and the future Nun would come in and spend all day sitting upstairs at the library. Mrs. A said he was a beautiful baby and seemed very happy. What Mrs. A learned later was that the local child services agency was actively trying to find the future Nun and her child. It seems that the two of them were living in a tent up on one of our local mountains, which is not the kind of environment that child services cares to hear of infants being subjected to for great lengths of time. So while C.S. was out combing the mountainside for her during the day, she was hiding out safely in the "liberry". It was a ruse that could only work for so long, though. Eventually she was found and deemed an unfit parent and her child was taken away from her. According to the Nun herself, she had spent the intervening years trying to get him back and felt that she was close to doing so. As you might expect, the situation likely contributed greatly to her Purple-Nunitization, but she may have had some help from good ol' Uncle Genetics too.

The Purple Nun, you see, is not alone in the land of the mentally ajar. She has four sisters and two brothers, many of whom still live in the area. I've met one of her brothers, who is a regular patron at the library and one of the nicest people you'd ever care to meet. I would not, however, classify him as a man without a few loose screws. His screws seem to be faily mild screws to have loose, mind you, but they still remain loose and in danger of being misplaced unless he remains somewhat medicated. From what I'm told, most of her siblings fall into this category to one degree or another. Most are terribly intelligent people, who were top of their class in school, went on to college and then, one by one, slowly started to go a little... odd. All except for the youngest, who moved away from the area entirely and was, last I heard, still on a very even keel. But you have to wonder what it's like to be the youngest member of a family who are one by one slowly going a bit wonky, in descending order of age, knowing you're quite probably next. It's a bit chilling.

Frankly, they're a lot like the Royal Tennenbaums, only with less money. They seem to get along with one another about as well too. On the few occasions I saw the Nun and her brother in the library at the same time, they didn't speak, or at the most said hello. No hugs, no kisses, no "How's it been goin?" Just hello.

As to my own relationship with the Purple Nun, I can't say that I had more than a handful of contact situations and barely an honest to god conversation with her. She was always very nice to me when she was in and never once attacked me. In fact, the only true evidence we have that she ever attacked anyone came from the Nun's own admission. Considering some of the other things she admits, it's at least questionable, though not out of the realm of possibility--particularly after what we learned later on.

One afternoon in August of 2002, her brother came into the library and asked me if I knew who the Purple Nun was and that she was his sister. I told him, I did.

"Well..." he said. "I just wanted to let you know that she passed away last Sunday."

Hearing this hit me pretty hard. I mean, we knew she had cancer but somehow we never thought she would succumb to it. It didn't seem right that this lady, who had been given (or cultivated, depending on your point of view) a fairly odd and difficult walk in life should be taken by cancer. The more I thought about it, though, the more I became convinced that this was probably for the best. Chances were not great that she would ever be able to regain custody of her son. Wimple or not she was still a strange-bird and barely able to support herself, let alone an adolescent. Would it really be better for her to go through more years of pain from being separated from her son? Perhaps God took her for a purpose.

A few days later, the local paper ran her obituary. In it we learned that the Purple Nun was born in 1955, she was valedictorian of her 1974 high school class, she had earned both a bachelors of science degree and a masters degree in psychology from the University of Virginia. She was also a black belt in karate.

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An employee of a small town "liberry" chronicles his quest to remain sane while dealing with patrons who could star in a short-lived David Lynch television series.