The last time I had seen her was going to be, I thought, the last time I would see her. She was eighty-six, with a heart condition, prone to fainting spells, but still able to get up and around. Still, since I lived four hundred miles away and was not in love with flying, I truly believed her feeble wave to me as she stood in the front door of the convent on that day three years ago constituted our final farewell. It felt good to know that senility had not settled in with her, as it tended to do in my family. It felt good to know that she still recognized me as she sent me back to Lowell on that heavy, gray western New York day. I would not see her again. I was certain of that.
I had forgotten, however, that I was not calling the shots on this matter. I had forgotten that she was The Boss.
Just as she was when she closed the candy store.
It was the talk of the school, the talk of the neighborhood, the talk of the parish. It didn’t quite make it into the Lowell Sun, but it was certainly newsworthy to anyone who had spent any time as a student at the Sacred Heart School in the 1950’s.
Sister Ann Teresa closed the candy store.
She probably attributed her action publicly to some early-sixties Surgeon General’s report declaiming the ill effects of the pre-adolescent’s over-consumption of Chunkies, Snickers and Reisman’s Pretzel Sticks. Personally, I think it had more to do with discipline, or, more pertinently, the lack thereof. Her reason for shutting down the flimsily constructed lean-to sweet shop abutting the school office probably had something to do with how digesting all those candy bars and potato chips contributed to a lack of discipline among the student ranks. Discipline was her thing. Not the kind of knuckle-rapping, ruler-thwacking discipline harped upon by lame stand-up comics unable to deal with their Catholic upbringing. No. Psychological discipline. Discipline that stuck to you the way Skippy peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth after a fast lunch on a hot day. Discipline that really…took. She craved discipline. That’s why they made her Superior of the convent. That’s why they made her Principal of the grammar school. That’s why they made her The Boss. From 1960 through 1966, she was…The Boss.
She was also my aunt.
I’ve often considered the drive from Lowell, Massachusetts to Buffalo, New York a kind of extended one-street journey. Take a right onto the Mass. Pike, go straight for eight hours and you hit Buffalo.
Buffalo is where the nuns are.
At least, that’s where they all seemed to come from when I was a kid. The Sisters of St. Mary of Namur from the Annunciation Convent on Lafayette Street in Buffalo. They all dressed the same (of course) and they all talked the same, with those painfully hard Buffalo “r’s” to contrast with our blissfully soft eastern Massachusetts “ahs.” Sister Annette. Sister Stephen Marie. Sister Suzanne. Sister Saint Patrick. They all lived in the “cahnvent” and many of them were stationed in “Lahkport” after their initiation at Annunciation. And they all wore that long set of wooden rosary beads dangling and jangling on their hips like a gunslinger’s holster. If there was one thing the nuns could not do, at least at the Sacred Heart School when I was a kid, it was sneak up on you.
I had learned recently that Sister Ann Teresa had become “difficult” at the convent. This didn’t surprise me. She had been moved permanently from the residence to the infirmary, and had reached the stage where she needed constant care. She would often balk at getting up in the morning, she would refuse to eat, she would speak harshly to her nurses, and she would on occasion—God help us—rear back and aim a right hook at an aide whose only transgression was to try to get her to wake up or sit up or eat.
So I felt it was time to return to Buffalo to put a family face in front of her. To see if that would lighten her mood. Things had changed within my family. Relatives had moved. Relationships had…altered. My mother, ten years younger than Sister Ann Teresa, had died. It was time to see the Boss again.
Forty-four years after she closed the candy store.
It was a mixed blessing for me to be a student at the Sacred Heart School during the years when Sister Ann Teresa was the principal. Fortunately, I was not the type of kid to get into trouble. But even contemplating getting into trouble was traumatic knowing the example I was expected to set as kin to The Boss. Needless to say, I wasn’t terribly popular with the more delinquent element among my classmates.
I was an altar boy. Naturally. And in those days, all the masses were served by two altar boys. (These days, if you can’t get an altar girl, you get an elderly altar gentleman.) And, believe it or not, people used to die back then, and funeral masses would be said for these people. And sometimes, believe it or not, these people died during the week. Which meant that altar boys were needed—during school hours.
There was a stretch of time during which, for some reason, Father Scanlon assigned me to a slew of funerals. Maybe four over the course of two weeks. So, on that fourth day, I confidently stood up in Sister Mary Pius’ math class, told her I had to serve a funeral, and walked cheerfully out of the room. I served the mass, and went back to school. As I walked through the corridor, Sister Mary Pius, about four-foot nine and checking in at eighty-five pounds, tops, approached me and handed me a note.
“Give this to Sister Superior,” she said, and walked away. There was no envelope, so I opened the note as I walked to the office. It read, “Dear Sister Ann Teresa, John has missed three math classes in two weeks because of funerals.” I knew this was serious business because everybody in the world called me “Jack” except when business was serious. I went into the office and gave the note to my aunt. She read it, and took her ball point pen from the crease of her habit. On the bottom of the note, she scribbled, “Sister Mary Pius, we must bury the dead.”
So I did get away with a few things.
Then there was the Big Fight I had with the Joe Killeen.
This is really kind of a pathetic story because I was in school with this guy for, like, eight years and even as I went to battle with him, he didn’t know who I was. I had “started it,” the fight, which is wild, but true. Joe Killeen was known far and wide as the biggest troublemaker in the school, possibly in the school’s 100-year history, the most feared bully at Sacred Heart, and just an out and out rotten human child. He had “stayed back” at least twice, so he was older than the rest of us. Arrogant beyond expectation or belief. I despise arrogance, and I just couldn’t stand the guy. So when I saw him doing something arrogant to sweet little Martha Cannavan in the school yard I—I don’t know—I made a gesture of disgust, or said something that somehow indicated to him that I thought he was a jerk. I was hoping he didn’t notice. But he did. And this is what he said:
“I’m gonna get you tomorrow, Bassett!”
Which is what you’d expect him to say, given my brash gesture.
Except that my name isn’t Bassett.
He thought I was somebody else. There was a Bassett in my class, but it wasn’t me. So here I was about to get pummeled by the School Bully and he wouldn’t even know who it was he was about to pummel. Naturally, I didn’t tell him. I preferred an anonymous pummeling.
So I showed up in the school yard the next day (why I didn’t feign some kind of kidsickness that morning is beyond me) and this guy’s henchman was at the school gate, waiting for me. As I walked into the yard, the henchman beckoned Killeen, and the confrontation was on.
One of the things I ended up doing later in life was working as an actor. This latent talent came in handy that morning. Every time Joe lifted his fist to slam me in the face, I averted my eyes and said, “Nun coming,” whether there was one coming or not. This worked about three times. Then the bell rang and I was given a reprieve.
“After school,” he said. “You better be here.”
“Oh, I’ll be here,” I said.
I couldn’t tell my mother or father. Not because they wouldn’t have helped me figure something out. I just didn’t want them to know I had involved myself in something so incredibly stupid. I couldn’t tell Sister Ann Teresa, because then it would absolutely look like I was pulling school yard rank with my familial connection and then Joanne Dunleavy and Mary Ann Keith and Mary Jo Perigny—especially Mary Jo Perigny—would know I was a coward and wouldn’t give me the time of day. Not that they gave me the time of day anyway. Still, it was a concern.
But I had to tell somebody.
So I told my grandmother.
Who happened to be The Boss’s mother.
She lived across the street from the Sacred Heart, so I went to her house immediately after school. I didn’t stay in the room with her when she made the phone call to the convent. I didn’t want to know what was happening. I wanted to go back to the schoolyard as innocent as I could possibly be of sabotaging the Big Fight. I’m not sure I’d be as courageous now as I was on that day. I didn’t know whether I was going to be saved or slaughtered. But I did show up. I had hedged my bet, to be sure, by telling Nana. But I did show up.
So did Joe. God, he was a mean-looking kid. Kind of like “Butch” from the old Little Rascal movies except not as smart. There he was, after school in the schoolyard, his Irish red fists ready to turn my Irish red face into hamburger. And there I was, walking right over to him as if tomorrow was a day I didn’t mind never seeing. No eye-averting actor tricks this time. It was just me and Joe. And I was ready to take what he was going to give me. I drew to a halt in front of him, said nothing, and waited for Armageddon.
“What are you two doing back here?”
It was the family dialect laced with the Buffalo twang, so I knew who it was. It was The Boss.
“You know you’re not supposed to be back here when school is out. Let’s go!”
She led us both to the school office, and the charge leveled was trespassing. She couched the incident in terms that made it very clear to Joe that she had arrived on the scene coincidentally. My big break was that he was too stupid to believe otherwise. We received a stern, hard “r”-laden lecture, and she asked him to leave. When he was far enough away from the building to do me no harm, she let me go home. She said nothing about my grandmother’s phone call.
Lafayette Street is a well-kept major artery in the essentially low-rent part of Buffalo. As I pulled up to the convent in my ’98 Sentra (133,000 miles and still chugging), at about eleven a.m., the kids at the kindergarten next door cavorted merrily (can you cavort any other way?) at recess. I remembered the same kind of cavorting going on when I last visited.
I rang the convent doorbell twice before a nun greeted me. She reminded me that Sister Ann Teresa had been moved permanently to the new infirmary across the courtyard. There was another doorbell outside the infirmary entrance, but I figured I’d save some ancient sister a trip to the door and just walked inside. I recognized the area immediately as a kind of intensive care unit, with a nurses’ station surrounded by about eight hospital-type rooms. The woman who oversaw the nurses’ station could have been a nurse, but I knew she was a nun. Even though they now pretty much wear civvies all the time, I can spot a nun a mile away. Always could. Nun-dar. I told this woman that I was Sister Ann Teresa’s nephew.
And she immediately started apologizing.
“Oh, I’m sorry…you know…we try to get her up every day…and we try to keep her…”
“That’s fine, Sister…”
“Keep her, you know…clean and…”
“…as possible, but she…you know…”
“I know,” I said in my most soothing voice. “I know. I’d just like to see her.”
As I spoke, I noticed that a nurse and a couple of the aides milling around the station dispersed quickly to a room directly across the hall. The nun at the desk, who turned out to be the manager of the infirmary, took me into her office to update Sister Ann Teresa’s family file. I had all her contact information shifted from my mother and my other elderly aunt to me, so that I’d be the guy who’d get the call in the middle of the night when…well…whatever…
Ten minutes later, I was ushered into her room. I had no idea what to expect. The nurse and two aides had somehow managed to sit my aunt up in bed, but her head flopped off to the side, her eyes closed. Having been with my mother through a long nursing home stint over the past few years, I could easily recognize that senility and medication had taken their toll on Sister Ann Teresa. This time, she would not know me. Sadly, I stepped closer to the bed.
“Go ahead,” said one of the younger aides. “Talk to her. She’s awake.”
Well, she clearly wasn’t awake. Or, at least, she wasn’t awake in the most viable sense of that word. But I stuck my head in close to her, in front of her face, and I said, “Hey!”
Her head stayed in the flopped-over position, but her eyes opened. And she smiled. Much as she had when she waved goodbye to me from the convent doorway three years earlier. My impression from the reaction of the others in the room was that this is something that did not happen often anymore. But she definitely smiled.
“Jackie…” she said.
I’m fifty-three and nobody calls me “Jackie” anymore. But with that smile and from that one word I knew she was, at least for this moment, still here.
She told me I looked great and she made me kiss her three times. After a minute or so, she nodded off to sleep. The nurse, the two aides and the infirmary manager stayed in the room as I slipped away. Out of the jumble of their intense mumbling I heard, “Do you think she’ll wake for lunch?” “Was she angry when you woke her up?” “Did she say it’d be all right to get her out of bed this afternoon?” Fear was in the air. Fear of a reprisal from Sister Ann Teresa if things weren’t done exactly as they were supposed to be done.
She was still The Boss.
And I had said goodbye one, final time.