Alva Holland

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I was persuaded by friends to join a local Writing Group in early 2013. Since then I have very much enjoyed writing a variety of true short stories based on my life and family experiences. As I built up some confidence, I experimented with fiction. I love entering competitions and submitting stories to magazines. My first published story appeared in ‘Ireland’s Own’ magazine in May 2015. I was thrilled. The magazine has just accepted a second short story for publication. This has given me an even greater impetus to follow my dream to become a writer, and to keep improving my stories.

Current project

I am currently working on more short story fiction and I am enjoying the exploration of this exciting avenue of writing.

Writing sample

Having left my sister 200 miles away in The West of Ireland, our parents recounted to those of us old enough to understand, their approach in the pouring rain to the sprawling Convent estate, lost in the dismal black darkness of the barren Mayo countryside. The looming shadow of the ancient convent building did nothing to quell their fears, but only increased their anxieties. They hurried from the car to the entrance as the unrelenting rain soaked them through. The sodden dangling rope of the overhead doorbell was yet another sign to my father that they should be anywhere but here. An old nun deputed to welcome the new postulant, opened one side of the great double doors, silently led them into the huge hall and showed them to the parlour. My parents told us of wanting to run away from this place, back home to Dublin, to take my sister with them, to tell her it was all a big mistake. But she was smiling, happy to be there. She wanted to be a nun. Her happiness was the only consolation in this otherwise desolate moment for our parents as they watched their eldest daughter leave them for a new and unknown life, which, even as Catholics of strong faith and values they still didn’t quite understand.

Our father told us about meeting the Mother Superior. Wasn’t this a contradiction in terms? Again I thought better of saying so. Weren’t religious sisters servants of God? So what made a Mother Superior? They needed to change that, I thought, but I kept my thoughts to myself.

At the time, we didn’t realise that becoming a nun meant we wouldn’t see her on a regular basis. We learned quickly. I missed her. My younger sister moved into my bedroom and I became her older roommate, her teacher and her guiding light for everything. We witnessed the joy on our parents’ faces when the little white envelope with the tidy handwriting dropped in the letterbox each week. We fell into a new routine. The family dinner table now sat eight instead of nine so place settings were farther apart. We could discard the backless chair with the suspect legs. Two of us got an extra fish-finger for dinner each Friday. I missed being the younger sister but I took my new responsibilities seriously. I soon became the resident teacher of all things, as my younger sisters grew up and each took their turn as my roommate. I even walked them and my brother to morning Mass before school. But I didn’t want to be a nun.

She didn’t visit home very regularly. When she did, she couldn’t help it but she was different. The black and white wimple and nun’s habit changed her appearance. It gave her a holy countenance. There was a palpable air of distance between us now. Was she now a different sort of sister? Was this fair? Were we still a family of nine or had we ‘lost’ one? We tried to think of her as holy, picturing her kneeling down praying when the rest of us were getting on with the rough and tumble of being a family. Was she still the same sister who climbed trees for crab apples with us? The same sister who for years ran with us through the woods behind our house as we gathered conkers and played hide and seek? We didn’t really understand why she wanted to be a nun. We had already conveniently chosen the lanky blonde chap living on the opposite side of the road, up a bit, as her intended, her future husband, father of her children. They looked good together, our pre-teenage minds thought innocently. We’ll have a wedding and it’ll be great fun. She’s the eldest and we’ll all follow her. But now – we knew we wouldn’t all follow her. I certainly wouldn’t. I examined my conscience regularly. Was there any part of a nun in me? I always thought my eldest sister and I so alike in many ways, thought that was why we shared a room. But this nun business didn’t fit with my plan. I had to adjust.

Her new family was now made up of similarly dressed women of all ages. Some young, bright and smiling like herself, others wizened old crones, and, at least to us, rather scary looking. Our eldest sister was now wrapped in the black and white blanket of the religious community. Slowly, we got used to this and the years passed. Our family changed. Our father’s fairness in life was not rewarded in kind by life itself. Shortly before his 61st Birthday he was snatched away from us by the ravages of colon cancer. The Sisters of the Religious of Jesus and Mary sang like angels at his funeral, my sister amongst them. Yet she grieved alongside us, her first family. From that day I witnessed and experienced first-hand our mother’s true inner strength. The rearing of our family was unfinished and now she carried that responsibility on her own. I had reached adulthood but my younger sisters and brothers were still children. When my sister joined the convent years earlier, I felt my guiding light had left me. I realised then that my sister’s beam was just one of the bright bulbs of our family’s main beacon – our mother – our real guiding light. Our father’s passing had left her alone, but with us all around her. She wrapped us all tightly in the cocoon of her love and brought us the rest of the way by herself.

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