“Bless you too, my son.” I smiled and waved as I cut across two lanes of the Delaware Expressway. For whatever reason, the DOT seemed to have moved Exit 20 and it was closer than where I last remembered it. Several of the drivers of the surrounding cars waved back with expressions that ranged from surprised-but-friendly to simply surprised. For the hundredth time I marveled at the ‘Power of the Habit’.
Having ‘St. Dominique’s Convent’ in gold lettering on the side of the SUV probably didn’t hurt. It’s not like everyone in Philadelphia attended parochial school. That being said, for those that did, eight years living in fear and awe of the Habit can’t help but make a driver think twice about acting out. Which was not a bad thing, seeing how we were all speeding along at seventy miles an hour, on the interstate, on an afternoon at the end of June.
I managed to safely get off at the Columbus Ave Exit, and slowing to city-streets-speed, made my way north, in the shadow of the highway. It had been a bit more than two years since I was last home in Fishtown. There had been changes. The streets and the buildings were the same, just cleaned up and, somehow, more expensive looking.
Of course, the major landmarks had not changed. Looking to my right, I saw the battleship, ‘New Jersey’, as always, across the Delaware River, framed by storage buildings and condominiums. I remembered, as a girl, thinking that it looked like a castle, toppled into the grey-blue water. Now, for some reason, I thought about the end of the old movie, ‘Planet of the Apes’.
Continuing north, I went through the sudden-shade of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and, coming out into the sun, drove past a truly imposing and impressive Dave & Busters, standing at the river’s edge, like a 21st Century Fort Mifflin. The street on either side still had the traditional bars, tattoo parlors and the occasional pawn shop, the natural habitat of the poor and the disadvantaged. Traveling, as I was, through the arteries of a living city, the scene around would have demanded a diagnosis of early onset atherosclerosis. Old warehouses, their existence dictated by function, and the function demanded by their location, were shedding old, white block lettered paint for anodized balconies and reflective glass, as the market for upscale condos ate the old city alive.
I sat at a traffic light in front of the Sugarhouse Casino. A sign on the manicured lawn informed visitors that the gaming complex was, ‘Another dream made real!’ by the Bernebau Company. The grass was so green and so perfect, it looked artificial. The casino, which was an abandoned warehouse complex the last time I was here, had more signs than widows. The outrageous architecture of the buildings, in the bright summer sunlight in the middle of the afternoon, lost it’s capacity to project the glamour of the slot machines, table games and free buffets. As I sat waiting for the light to change, I watched a group of six women walk from the bus stop on North Delaware Ave. up the drive, towards the casino. As they approached the main entrance, they veered off to a side entrance, clearly bound for the employees entrance to begin the afternoon shift. Some in the group wore their pink uniforms, with old-fashioned looking white aprons. The older women seemed cheerful and spoke to each other with waves of the hand and pointing of fingers, the better to articulate telling points regarding errant husbands and favored children. At the rear of the group was a much younger woman, a girl, really. She walked with that relaxed way the young have, arms and legs moving in silent unison; it was very much un-like the determined trundling forward of the majority. She was probably eighteen, had long brown hair and skin not yet tugged and creased by life. She wore a pair of ear buds, and an absent-minded smile. She appeared to be looking at something the women in her group might remember seeing. There was an un-worried look in her face that arose from self-confidence rather than immaturity. This girl would’ve looked as ‘at home’ walking along Garden Street in Cambridge, books under her arm, as she did heading towards a casino, a day of her life for minimum wage.
I left home the Monday after my high school graduation. I returned once, for my father’s funeral, in the middle of the fall semester of my junior year at Radcliffe. The house on Tulip Street did not rank high in my places-I-love-to-be.
An envelope addressed to ‘Margaret Ryan c/o St. Dominique’s Crisfield, MD’, arrived at the convent in the first week of June. Being the end of the school year, my days were busier than when school was in session. It sat on my desk un-opened for two weeks. Finally, after the last of the books were put away in the book closet, (‘Charlotte’s Web’, ‘Sarah, Plain and Tall’ and, the result of no small amount of campaigning on my part, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’), I sat down at the desk in the room I shared with Sister Claire.
It was mostly junk mail, anachronistic credit card offers, (how they managed to find me here is either amusing or depressing), and, at the bottom of the small stack, was the envelope with the return address of 1851 Tulip Street, Philadelphia PA. Inside was the license renewal form from the State of Massachusetts and a note from my mother. Written with a careful neatness that screamed of a need to control what little, (in her life), that could be controlled.
The note read, “Please come to see me. I need your help.”
There was nothing else, no ‘love, Mom’, ‘your Mother’, ‘Alice Ryan’, just ‘Please come to see me. I need your help’. The price of not responding was, of course, written in the invisible ink favored by the passive aggressive.
It was a measure of how far I’ve come, since finding my way to Crisfield, that I didn’t crumple up the paper. I returned the license renewal form with a check, and put the envelope back in the drawer of my desk.
Two days later I stood in the Mother Superior’s office. I was pretty sure she wanted to commend me on my first year teaching the third grade at St. Dominque’s. And she did. Sort of. Sister Bernadine sat in her high-backed leather chair, turned to the view of the south lawn and Tangier Sound beyond. Without speaking, I sat in one of the two chairs in front of her desk and waited. I was not new to this. I didn’t say a word. Finally, after a period of silent indifference to my presence that was longer than polite, but shorter than hostile, Sister Bernadine, arguably the most important woman in my life, swiveled the chair to face me. She smiled. That scared me.
“You’re making good progress in your novitiate, Sister Ryan.”
I waited, the sudden desire to agree with her assessment made me frown. I forced myself to remain silent.
“Sister Catherine tells me your students did very well on their final assessment.”
This time, her statement was reinforced with an extended stare. Like the filigree on illuminated manuscripts, the duration of her eye contact had no special meaning, but was very much a part of the conversation. I began to think about my morning runs down to the beach and back. That the woman across the very expensive desk could almost read minds, was an article of faith among the other nuns. I decided to try to keep my mind occupied, until I could believe that I was able to answer appropriately.
“Sister Cletus has confided in me how proud she is in the progress you’ve made on your running times.”
“I give up! No. Way. It’s scientifically impossible for one person to read another person’s mind.” I looked at Sister Bernadine with what I was hoping was a non-challenging expression.
With the ghost of a smile, visible only to a person who knew what to look for and was very motivated to see, the Mother Superior of St. Dominiques leaned forward, her elbows on the blotter in front of her and said, “What part of our Life of Faith, Devotion and Service here at St. Dominique’s, were you under the impression was scientific?”
Her ability to move without apparent effort was one of the more remarkable things about her. A very large woman to begin with, her imposing size, enhanced by the mostly black habit, she was easily the most graceful woman I’ve ever met. There is the somewhat trite expression, ‘poetry in motion’. Applied to Sister Bernadine, one would have to say, ‘Will in motion’.
I laughed. It was all I could do. Despite the love for the Order and the community I was welcomed into, there remained a part of me that whispered advice about critical assessment. It said, usually on the edge of sleep, that only by balancing my thoughts with a healthy amount of skepticism, was I likely to be a true positive influence on those around me. It was very much an echo of my life before coming here. But there were times that I was able to appreciate how much more there was here than I was able to understand. It was the difference between understanding and faith.
Sister Bernadine watched me laugh. She nodded slightly, as if she was identifying with me. The result was a massive feeling of humility.
“As long as you understand that what we do here, in the Oder, is help women grow into the person that God would have them become. It’s not always a straight path. It’s not always a comfortable process. Free Will is very much a double-edged sword.”
I stopped laughing and sat forward in my chair, “What more must I do? I’ve learned the ways of the convent. I am becoming a good teacher. I love being a nun.”
“You need to go home.”
“Why must I go home?” I jump up from my chair, grateful that I didn’t knock it out-of-place. The hair on the back of my neck pulled at the rough cotton of my habit. I had the feeling of watching myself. I got scared.
“Do you think that our way of life here is meant to be a hideout? Did you think that, once accepted , your past life would be cancelled, like a kindly librarian stamping paid on your overdue books?”
“But I can’t go through that, I can’t go back, I…” I sat in the chair and stared at the carpet to the side of my foot.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, somehow, Sister Bernadine was standing behind me. Her voice was near, “The old saying about, ‘how we can’t go home again’? It works both ways. All that remains the same, of the home when you were a girl, is the wood and the plaster. The home that you need to go back to, in order to heal, is in your heart and the hearts of the people still living. Dreams and memories can only be resolved by calling them up. Remember, as a Sister of our Order, you will never be alone again.”
I got up and walked out of the office and up to my room to pack.
I stood on the porch and knocked on the door. There was a paper that had the words, ‘Notice to Foreclose’, taped to the glass of the storm door. There was something about the use of black electrical tape to hold it up to eye level, that seemed to shout in a voice at once evil and not very intelligent. I pulled it off the door. It was a ‘Final Demand for Payment’. At the bottom it said, for information contact the Bernebau Company 800-666-1212
I tried the door and found it un-locked. I opened the door to a dark wedge and spoke into the space beyond, “Hello! Anyone home?”
I heard a voice from inside, “Is that you Margaret? I’m in the kitchen. For goodness sakes! Don’t stand out there on the porch, this is your home!”
I shut the door behind me and walked towards the kitchen. As I passed the parlor, I heard a voice, “Well, if it isn’t the prodigal daughter.”
I turned and stared at my brother Mathew Stephen. I corrected myself, as I took in the black clothes and clerical collar, “Father Ryan, I presume.”
“Sister Ryan.” Matthew remained standing in front of the dark blue couch, a tablet and a phone on the coffee table.
I raised an eyebrow, “Upper case ‘S’? You’re really going to try and pull rank?”
The silence grew. He cracked first and, laughing stepped forward and pulled me into a hug.
“Look at you two, it’s like you never left!” My mother stood in the door way and Matthew and I laughed.