August 14th, 2006

birdhouse

Spiritual Rush

My father was friends with a nun for a very long time.

"Like a mentor," he explained. "She was like a mentor."

Her name was Sister Mary Paul, or at least that was what she had chosen to be called. I don't know what her real name was. I don't know if my father knew either. He had sent her a letter applying to work as a dishwasher at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Utica, saying that he was a hard worker; that he had prior food service experience and that he was only 15, but "fully expected to be 16 within the year."

She had fallen in love with his letter and had hired him and kept him on until college, offering to send him to the culinary institute if he had wanted a job in food service, but was relieved when he chose college instead. She was one of several people (all of whom my father remembers, and most of whom are jesuits or other teachers of his) who could see through his ridiculous teenage bravado and who respected the small part of him they saw that would eventually grow up to be the person with whom I'm so familiar.

There are people who have a good core "but do stupid, stupid things," or at least that's what Sister Mary Paul believed and I think I believe it also, and she believed my father to be one of those people. She thought he was as good as a teenage boy could be, while still remaining popular among his peers. While she spent a good deal of time disciplining him, she also kept in touch with him well into his adult years, though she was 30 or 40 years his senior.
I met her once, when I was very very young, but remember only that she was a nun, and I was surprised because I had expected her to show up in the full penguin cap and gown, all her black and white brilliance, like all the nuns I had seen on TV. And she didn't seem like a nun to me, she seemed like a very old, sweet woman with a handkerchief on her head.



She went to visit my father in Brooklyn once, when he was still working for the Legal Aid Society, and stopped dead in her tracks, gazing at St. Anne's church on Clinton and Montague streets.

"Oh Russ," Sister Mary Paul said, breathless. My father's name is Ross, or Rosario, but she had always called him Russ and he had never minded. "Will you just look at that!"

My father was unsure what caused her elation, but gazed politely at the church.

"Look at all those people," she said. "There are so many of them, just streaming out of the mass! All those people who're so busy with their city life, but who'll take a few minutes before going home to attend a service. I never imagined I would be this impressed with New York City. God bless them."

And my father watched, conflicted, looking at the masses of people she spoke of, and agreed that they were numerous. And he nodded and said that it was wonderful and put his hand gently on her back and led her down the promenade, toward the river and the skyline.

"I didn't have the heart to tell her that St. Anne's is above the M,R Subway stop," he said, "and that what she was looking at were people coming back from manhattan on the train, trying to get home, who probably didn't even realize their subway station was below a church. How would you know that, if you're not from here? No one expects hundreds of people to come streaming out of the ground-- to a nun from upstate New York, it looks like they're coming out of a service."

"So you never told her?" I asked.

"I just couldn't," he said. "And she's been dead about 20 years now, and for all I know she died thinking that people in Brooklyn were beautiful, devout people."
He said "beautiful" as if that were the word she herself would have chosen. My father doesn't say "beautiful" that often.

And while dishonesty is frowned upon in most religions, I think were she to approach God himself with the information that St. Anne's church on Montague street was packed to the brim with spiritual city-dwellers, God would shuffle uncomfortably at his mahogany desk before "accidentally spilling white-out" on some papers regarding "not bearing false witness," and would say "That's wonderful, Sister Mary Paul. The world is a wonderful place sometimes, isn't it?"
And she would say, "It certainly is. I feel like the all the sacrifices I've made have been worthwhile."

And she would smile and go back to her hospital kitchen in upstate new york and God would exhale slowly and look at my father and wink at him. And my father would probably wink back, which would be sort of inappropriate, winking at God, but God would overlook it, and would say something like, "You did all right this time, but no more fuck-up's, D'Apice. I saw some of the shit you pulled in college."

And my dad would say, "Okay," completely in earnest, and would try to behave most of the time, but with that sort of Tom Sawyer hopelessness that nuns and God and my mother have always found endearing.