The box of photographs fell to the floor when I bumped into the cedar chest. I had promised to have all the pictures scanned long ago. They are the last links to our past lives, other than each other, my brother, my sisters and I. Each photo has a memory tucked inside it, waiting for one of us to tell. I leaned over to swipe the pile back into the box, to get them out of sight before I was distracted by them and their stories, but it was too late.
A pixie face in a nun’s wimple peaked up at me, as if admonishing me not to be in such a hurry to bury the past. Sister Margaret Marie, my Mama’s buddy and my second grade teacher, was staring at me from a Suburban School photo. Suburban came to Sacred Heart Elementary every year to chronicle our lives. My mother taught kindergarten there, and we have a progression of photos from her years of teaching. Sister Margaret Marie had signed the back of her photo, “To Anna, Ain’t we something!” Just like that, I remembered my mother and her, heads together, two school girls in teachers’ guise, planning trouble.
It was right after school and I was looking for my mother’s car, hoping I could go to my “cool” sister Regina’s apartment. Mama wasn’t in her car but on the steps of the convent with her head down, listening to Sister Margaret Marie. Sister Margaret barely hit five feet in height and was the shape of a rubber ball, rosy cheeked with a few wisps of salt and pepper hair just sticking out from her wimple. She and Mama were grinning like loons and I knew something was up. Turned out we were going to run an “errand” that entailed eating Chinese food at three o’clock in the afternoon.
That was a first. I never had Chinese food, let alone gone to a restaurant with a nun. It was one of many firsts. One Saturday, Mama wasn’t home and when she did walk in she was wearing a cover up and a bathing suit. Mama didn’t take off and go sunbathing. In fact, Mama didn’t take off at all. I was a little off balance, and my feeling of vertigo doubled when she told us all about the day she spent with the “sisters.” Someone had lent their house for the day for the teachers at the Cathedral to “let their hair down.” I was only vaguely aware that nuns were people, let alone that they could let their hair down. This was in the very late sixties, early seventies at best. I was a tow-headed kid who couldn’t stop talking, but the story Mama told us that day had me speechless.
“Did you know Sister Catherine Regina used to be a Rockette?” Mama was breathless. “She dove into the pool and it was like poetry, and then here comes Margaret Marie (Whoa, wait a minute, my Mom was on a first name basis with a nun!), and she just runs like a maniac towards the pool and yells ‘CANNONBALL!’ and torpedoed into the pool!” My mind was reeling, nuns that could swim, nuns that were dancers, nuns who wore, gasp! Bathing suits! To tell you the truth, I was a bit jealous that Mama had somehow broken into this inner circle of the sisters. She saw them for what they were; dedicated to a life of giving in a way that most of us can’t comprehend, and human just the same.
When school was over for the year, the Sisters would stay in the convent for another week or two, cleaning out the classrooms, and then packing up to go to their Mother House. That was when Sister Margaret Marie and my Mama would sneak away, saying they were running yet more “errands”. Because I was the youngest in my family, I often got to tag along with them. I could sit in the back seat of that old Fury III and listen to them for hours. They talked about their childhoods, school, life; they talked about faith and about God, family and friendship. They were remarkable together.
One time we drove to my sister Elizabeth’s house in Willow Springs. Back then it was as far away from Raleigh as you could get in the eyes of an eleven year-old. On the way we stopped at a country store called Olive’s. The store itself was a large, white, concrete block building, and it sold farm wear and gear in droves. Sister Margaret Marie was like a child at play. She walked the aisles of “Osh Kosh” overalls and “Levi” jeans with wide eyes, feeling the fabric and cooing. She had been brought up in the country and she wanted some overalls to garden in at the Mother House so her habit wouldn’t get dirty. The old timers just stared, all except for Olive, the owner. I often wondered if it was his shape at birth that had earned him his name. He was olive shaped and ripe with enthusiasm behind his counter and he stood larger than life. To say he was a big man would have belittled him. Everything about him was huge, including his kindness. He doffed a make-believe hat when my Mama and Sister Margaret Marie walked in. I heard his sotto whisper to one of the regulars to “straighten up and show some respect, that there is a Sister-Lady.”
When Sister Margaret Marie walked to the counter with two pairs of overalls you could have heard a pin drop. Olive insisted she take them, “on the house,” and Margaret Marie grinned from ear to ear as she blessed him. You would have thought that he had been in an audience with the Pope. It was precious, it was country, it was a little piece of the South at its very best, and it was a moment I won’t forget. My Mama and “the Sister-Lady” got back into the car and Sister Margaret Marie couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful everyone was. I suppose it was in that moment I realized how very wonderful she was. She was personality, a bundle of life in black and white, dedicated and faithful in ways I am still so far from understanding. Most of all, she was my Mama’s very true friend.
When the Mother House called Sister Margaret Marie away to another assignment, I don’t recall hearing either bemoaning the situation. They wrote steady through the years, letters passing back and forth until word came that Sister Margaret Marie was in the infirmary and her prognosis broke my mother’s heart. Years after she passed my mother would still send contributions to the infirmary in Sister Margaret Marie’s name, yet she seldom spoke of her again.
As a kid, I don’t think I quite understood what was going on because of the “uniform” of a nun. Today, holding that still very colorful photo of Sister Margaret Marie in my hands, I’m struck by the power of friendship. It takes all forms, it can come at us from the most unlikely places, and if we’re lucky enough, we pass time reveling in it.