And Then There Were Nun

Submitted into Contest #29 in response to: Write a story about someone dealing with family conflict.... view prompt



My sister the nun came home on the Friday before Thanksgiving carrying a pizza box and shoebox balanced on top of it. Upon seeing Roselyn walk into the house in regular clothing, my mother dropped her cane and fainted in the hallway. My brother Jack and I carried Mama into the living room, putting her on the sofa and propping up her head with a pillow.

“Giuseppe,” my mother whispered to me as she woke, “I think I saw your sister’s ghost, and she’s bringing me pizza and shoes.”

“Mama, you aren’t seeing any ghosts,” I said. “Rosie came home for a visit.”

An obviously upset Roselyn had gone upstairs to her old room with our little sister Alice, who at 15 had admired her big sister and even talked about following in her footsteps. When Alice would say, “I’m thinking about entering the convent,” Dad would shake a fist and mumble, “Over my dead body.”

Unfortunately, when Alice bought a nun’s costume at Party City for Halloween and came down the stairs wearing it, Dad dropped dead from shock.

“Alicia,” I said holding her hand during the Dad’s wake, “whatever possessed you to scare your poor father like that?”

Alice stared at our father in the coffin as tears ran down her pale cheeks. “I just wanted to see how it felt to be like Rosie,” she sniffled.

Now a few weeks later Mama wore black and would no doubt do so for the rest of her life. Jack and I watched her as she gradually sat up on the sofa and stared at us. Jack touched her cheek and said, “You okay, Mama?”

Mama frowned and her blue eyes flared with anger. “Where’s my cane?”

Though only turning 60 last June and always being in good health and looking youthful during the recent years of her life, Mama had aged considerably in the weeks since Dad passed away. Her naturally dark hair began going white, and wrinkles seemed to forge new paths across her face on a daily basis. While she had been stricken with a mild case of sciatica when Alice, whom she called “My surprise baby,” was born to her at 45, since Dad’s passing her symptoms had worsened considerably, forcing her to walk with a cane.

“You gonna hit someone with it?” I asked with a chuckle.

“You’re not funny, Sonny!” Mama turned away from me and stared at Jack. “Giovanni, get me my cane now!”

“I don’t think you’re in any shape to walk, Mama,” he said.

Mama took a deep breath. “Well, if she’s not a ghost then why isn’t she wearing her habit? I need to speak to my Rosa now.”

I stood up from crouching next to my mother and said, “Let me go get her, okay? You’re not ready to walk up the stairs.”

Mama put her head back on the pillow and sighed, “I do feel dizzy.”

As I left the room, I heard Jack ask, “You want some tea, Mama?”

“No,” she snarled, “go get me my grappa and a glass of water.” Now I knew Mama would be okay and grinned as I thought of her drinking during the day.

I hopped up the stairs and went down the hallway toward Rose’s room. Alice poked her head out of her bedroom, her blue eyes sparkling in the late afternoon light coming in from the window. “Joey, what happened to Rosie? Why isn’t she in uniform?”

My little sister was my favorite, and as the oldest brother I had now also taken on an almost fatherly role with her in the brief time since Dad’s passing. “I don’t know, sweetie, but I’ll find out, okay?”

Alice started to cry and said, “All of this is my fault. All of it!”

I hugged her and kissed the top of her head, her braided blonde hair glistening in the sunlight. “No, honey, no. None of this is your fault.”

Alice spoke softly. “I know it is – Daddy died after seeing me in that stupid costume, and now Rosa isn’t a nun anymore because of what I did. I just know it.”

“Okay, let me see what’s going on with her, okay?”

Alice went back in her room, and I watched her standing near her bed. She lit two votive candles that she had in a bowl on her night stand, and she put a crucifix in the middle of it and knelt down, bringing her hands together to begin praying. I shut her door and went down the hallway and knocked on Rose’s door.

“Who is it?” I heard her ask in a low voice.

“It’s Joe,” I said. “Can we talk?”

Rose opened the door partially and stood half in darkness and half illuminated by the fading sunlight. “I really don’t know where to begin.”

“Mama thinks she’s seeing ghosts and drinking her Italian firewater; I think we need to talk before you go down there.”

Rose opened the door wide, and I followed her into the room. I remembered this room when teenage Rosie made her pink walls a shrine to the boy bands *NSYNC and 98 Degrees, with Justin Timberlake’s photographs having special prominence over her bed and desk. Now the shroud of the room’s bare plain walls surrounded her, the lone dark crucifix over her bed the only thing breaking the ashen monotony.

“Mother Superior gave me these boxes to bring my things home,” Rose said softly. She lifted the lid of the shoebox, revealing the dull finish of her plain black shoes.

“But why a pizza box?” I asked.

“Well, we had no other bags or boxes, and it’s Friday and we always get pizza for lunch,” Rose whispered. “I couldn’t even eat a slice. I have been so filled with doubt and troubled by an aching stomach since Dad passed away.”

I walked over and put my hand on her arm. “Rosie, stop torturing yourself.”

“Yeah, how can I? I come home and see that I have ruined Alice’s life,” she said forcefully. “She wore that costume trying to be like me, but what’s worse is now she’s thinking seriously about actually doing it. At least I was a normal teenager; I even went on dates. But because of me, Alice is all messed up.”

“She is going to be fine,” I said, though thinking just the opposite. “Alice just looks up to you.”

Rose walked over to her bed and sat with her hands folded. Seeing her wearing sweatpants and a Saint Anthony’s basketball team T-shirt reminded me of her coming home from high school, changing from her Catholic school uniform into comfortable clothes, and sitting on her bed to do her homework.

“I went into the convent for all the wrong reasons, Joe.” She looked up at me with clear, dry eyes.

“I’ve truthfully never understood your path,” I said, “but being away at school at the time…”

“Claire Murphy and I were at a party,” Rose said softly, “and well, the boys were getting drunk and being fresh with some of us girls. I kept pushing them away, but Claire always had a crush on Billy O’Connor and started kissing him, and they ended up going off into another room.”

“I went to school with his brother Tommy, and the whole family was a bunch of jerks,” I said.

“Yeah, I know. Well Claire was drunk and I tried to stop her, and then later on Billy brought a few of his football team friends into the room. After a few minutes, Claire started screaming and I….”

Rose began sobbing so I sat down next to her and put my arm around her. “I wish I hadn’t been away.”

“Yeah, I know you would have gone over and kicked their asses,” Rose sniffled. “But the thing is I didn’t do anything. I just stood there and listened to the music and drank a beer, and then later on Billy came out of the room to get a beer and was looking at me weird, and I got scared and ran home.”   

Rose leaned her head against me and I hugged her more tightly. “Claire never reported this?”

“Never. That Monday in school there were rumors going on that she was a slut and had slept with the football team, but I knew she was a virgin just like me, but she got drunk and everyone at that party knew they raped her, but no one would ever say a word – including me.”

I had only seen Billy the other day in the supermarket when I took Mama shopping, and he wore a wedding ring and had two kids with him. When he saw Mama he said, “Hi, Mrs. Cassidy,” just like the way he used to say it when he was a kid who lived on our block. Now he’s living his life like nothing bad ever happened back then; in his mind that was probably true.

“What happened to Claire?”

Rose took a tissue from her pocket and blew her nose. “She never came back to school, and I heard later on that her parents sent her to live upstate somewhere. I suffered in silence the last two months of school, went to graduation, and then I didn’t know what to do with the rest of my life. I knew there would be more boys at college, ones maybe worse than Billy and his friends.”

“You never spoke to Mama or Dad or Jack about any of this?”

“No,” she whispered, “I couldn’t speak of it to anyone. One day I went to church and knelt there praying for a long time. I asked God for something, anything to help me find an answer. I was praying with my eyes closed and when I opened them, a short old nun was standing right in front of me. I didn’t realize that I was crying, and the nun reached out her little cold hand and touched my face. She asked, ‘Are you okay, dear?’

“And then I realized that God had done this; he had sent this holy woman to me as a sign. I stood up and said, ‘I think I want to join the convent.’ And that was the beginning of my end.”

“I remember getting a letter from you in London and you told me about how you had entered the convent. I never imagined you of all people to do this – the girl who loved makeup and dancing and JT.”

“I have a confession,” Rosie said looking up at me with a slight smile and watery green eyes. “I still love JT.”

I chuckled. “So, what happened to make you decide to leave now?”

“It was many things accumulating over the years – the ‘cell’ that was my room, the expected long periods of silence, the feeling of missing something but not knowing what it was. Then I learned that my good friend, Sister Mary Bernard, had cancer. When I was a novice, she took me under her wing, and we had become very close. I told her about what happened with Claire; I told her about the boys I had dated; I even told her about JT.

“The day she died I was at parish outreach working in the food pantry, and when I heard about her death I could hardly stand, dropping two big cans of tomato sauce on the floor. A day later they had her lying in a coffin in our convent sitting room, and all the kids from the school came in and walked past her coffin without stopping to pray. I stood in the corner shaking – she had taught in that school for 31 years and this was how it ended?

“After her funeral I prayed deeply. I knelt in the chapel and prayed like the day when that little old nun changed my world, and I asked God to send me a sign. No matter how hard I prayed, I couldn’t feel any relief. As I knelt there a knock came to the outside chapel door. I got up to answer it, and it was a deliveryman with a package. I was struck by how handsome he was, how I would like to be able to go somewhere with him and have coffee, and then I realized that this was my sign from God.”

“Oh, my,” I said fighting an urge to cry.

“Well, I told him to bring the package around to the front entrance, but then I closed the door and went back and prayed again. I wanted to be sure that this was a sign and not just my imagination. Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder, and I looked up and saw Mother Superior standing over me.

“She said, ‘I have some difficult news to tell you, Rose.’ As I looked at her emotionless face, I could hear the radiators clanking in the chapel. She said, ‘I just got a call from your brother Jack. Your father has passed away.’ I stared at her – it had to be someone else’s brother Jack calling about someone else’s father.

“For the first time in 16 years I showed defiance. I stood up and said, ‘No, Mother Agatha, there must be some mistake.’

“‘No, my dear,’ she said, touching my cheek with her cold fingers just like that little nun did so many years before, ‘it is no mistake. I am so sorry for your loss.’

“Well, you know the rest – I came down from the Bronx for the wake and funeral. We all suffered through it together, with the Irish side of our family so stoic and Mama’s side all emotional. After the funeral lunch I went back to the convent and stared at the four walls of my tiny cell and at the crucifix over my bed. I asked God to help me and waited.

“And the answer to my prayers was more suffering these last three weeks. Instead of working at the food pantry where I felt I made a difference, especially right before Thanksgiving – it is always busy there but at this time of year even more so – they had me filling in for Sister Mary in the school. Out of the seven nuns living in our convent, she was the only one still teaching in the school. The others were too old, and Mother Agatha too busy, so they sent me in.

“The students were grieving as well as I, and I tried to teach them math and science and yet they kept asking me to talk about Sister Mary. Then this morning one girl asked, ‘Why did God give Sister Mary cancer?’ I told her that God didn’t give anyone cancer, but then I wondered about the question and we talked about it more, and then this boy asked, ‘But Sister Rose, if God created the universe and everything in it, then he created cancer too, right?’ And I thought about it and he had to be wrong, or maybe I was wrong about everything and there was no answer at all but ‘Yes, God did give it to her.’

“I came back to the convent for lunch today, and I watched the other older sisters all eating their pizza and talking and seemingly not caring at all that Sister Mary had died, and I just stared at my slice on the plate. I haven’t been eating well at all since Sister Mary and Dad died, but I just couldn’t find the strength to lift the slice much less eat it.

“I looked at all of them and pictured each one dying; one by one they would pass in their sleep or maybe even while reading a book in the sitting room or walking down the hall. Then I imagined Mother Agatha dying, and I would be the last one, living in that ghastly old house all alone until I died – and then there’d be none of us, and who would even care that we were all gone?

“I became very upset, so I got up and went into the kitchen and started to cry, and Mother Agatha came in and stood next to me. ‘What can I do to help you, Rose?’ she asked.

“I stared at the cabinet with all the perfectly stacked dishes and bowls and cups and saucers, and I knew the answer. I said, ‘Nothing – absolutely nothing!’ And I meant it as clearly as I said it. ‘I want to leave, Mother Agatha. I want to leave now and never come back.’

“She took a deep breath and put her hand on my arm. ‘Take as much time as you need. Pray and reflect, my dear. If you’re meant to come back to us, you will.’

“I went up to my cell carrying an empty pizza box. I changed into these clothes, which I used to wear for the CYO basketball games, put on my raincoat and sneakers, and walked out the front door while the others kept eating their pizza. As I walked down the path, I turned and saw Mother Agatha rushing into the school, no doubt going in to cover my classes.

“I didn’t care anymore about anything – not those kids, not the other nuns, not the people coming to the food pantry – nothing! I breathed the cool air as if it were the first time I could breathe in 16 years, and I got on the subway and well, here I am.”

I hugged Rosie again and said, “Now, if you’re ready, you have to go down and talk with Mama.”

Rosie nodded and wiped her wet cheeks with a tissue. “I know I’m a disappointment to her.”

“She’ll get over it,” I said. “Besides, somewhere up in heaven Dad is smiling an Irish smile as big as the Bay of Galway.”

Rosie giggled. “Yes, I bet he is.”

We both stood up; Rosie composed herself, and we headed downstairs to face Mama together.

February 20, 2020 14:16

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