Sisterhood

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Perhaps it’s a sign of something bubbling away in me that I’m only dimly aware of. Something that perhaps I ought to pay more attention to. Or maybe I’m just getting the ‘flu. The announcement of the death of a much loved nun from my old school has thrown me off kilter. I’m grappling to understand why. Questioning. Wondering. Can I live a bit more like her? Can I bring some of her wisdom along with me as I go? Would the kids benefit from it if I did?

While I’m pondering all this there’s a knock at the door.
‘You wouldn’t have two euros on you would you?’ a bespectacled, gruff voiced middle-aged woman asks. She speaks quickly, without hesitation, as if she does this all the time. And expects assent.
‘No I would not’ I say managing not to blink, not to falter, remembering the last time I handed out dosh on the doorstep. To a burglar. How I swore I’d never do it again.
‘Jesus’ she says, shaking her head in disgust and turning her back on me. Have I just failed my first test in charity? Should I call her back, offer her a cup of tea instead? I liked her approach. Direct, no sob story. Her fury at my refusal. Maybe I should knock on a few doors myself.
‘You wouldn’t have a job in there would you?’ … Tut, tut, shake. About turn. ‘Jesus’.

I had an early traumatic experience of a nun in my first school. A nun who was well into corporal punishment. Of the pinching, wet-handed slapping, belting type. And it wasn’t that I was afraid for myself. It was witnessing and hearing the damage being inflicted on others that sent me practically mute. Blood curdling screams echoing down the corridors. And worst of all, witnessing her handing jelly snakes from the tuck shop to her victims.
‘Here, don’t tell your Mammy now will you?’ Sadistic stuff.
Then I developed a sort of Stockholm syndrome attachment towards her. Insisted that my family call me by her name. Dorothy. Just call me Dorothy. I will not answer to anything else. A little worrisome for the parents. They took a two pronged approach to my psychological state. Invited her over for tea. Watched her fawning all over us. Watched her showering us – her ‘best little girls’ – with Smarties. Then when she reverted to type on the Monday, they whipped us all out of that school and packed us off to the Dominicans. They had one question alone for the lovely principal there.
‘Do you allow hitting in this school?’.
‘No’ the gentle white haired nun replied, locking her twinkly grey eyes to mine.
‘No we do not’. I was seven years old.

I was welcomed into the bosom of a plump jolly nun’s class. She was ruddy cheeked and quick to laugh, gentle, charitable and kind. She had a thing about warming her hands behind my collar on the top of my back. Touch. Wouldn’t be allowed today but it was wise. Her hands were already warm. She was warming me instead. I spent that year finding my feet as she stood beside me. This included knitting when I wasn’t supposed to be. My own hands under the desk, click-clacking away, some invisible garment, while I was ‘listening’ to the lesson. I threw myself into gymnastics and was chosen for a lead part – Jack Frost – in the school play. Prancing around in tinfoil casting my spells. It was heavenly. Safe. Being allowed to emerge and blossom without fear. Then the end of year report came and her final comment was ‘she’s a great little knitter too!’. I didn’t know until then that she knew. She had never attempted to stop me. She just understood it was therapeutic. Wise. Charitable. Kind. Somehow I never insisted anyone call me by her name though.

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So the death of another key figure nun this week has me reminiscing and wondering. Is it possible to mix core aspects of the values of the Dominicans into our life now, without being religious? I feel that it is. They have a loyalty to life-long learning and are contemplative and mystical in their spirituality. They show rather than tell. The support, when needed, is consistent, quiet, there. The nun who has just passed (Sr. Barnabas but known to all as Barney) was a vigorous, spritely, witty, beautiful person. She was in your corner if ever you needed her to be. I ran into difficulty on a French language exchange programme in third year. I was staying with a family in Paris to learn French. A three week stay. On it the father insisted on practising his English on me at every turn. There was a kleptomaniac cousin sharing the bedroom with us and every time we went shopping she was blatantly filing her sac with non-purchased goods. Jewellery, the lot, while everyone turned a blind-eye. I was waiting to be arrested as an accomplice. And the mother was overwhelmed and weepy and seemed to see something potentially helpful in me. I responded dutifully. A week into it though I’d had enough. Phoned home to say I was jacking it in. The next morning the phone rang in apartment hall. I could hear Barney’s voice chiming feistily. She addressed all of the points with the father. There was to be no more practising of English on this student who loves French and is here in this family to learn more of it, ensuring as it will, a top grade in her state exams. There was to be no more shop-lifting which was frightening and bewildering for this student. And this student, while obliging, would not be making the beds of all the residents and preparing all the lunches from now on. A switch was flicked. The father left me alone, the klepto cousin went home, and the mother wept with a smile of such vulnerability that I continued to help out where I could. But Barney phoned me all the time to check that I was ok.

Her humanity shone constantly through her large lively brown eyes. She was lucid, bright and engaging up until the end. She passed on St Brigid’s Day (nice one Barney) aged 98. She had a special connection with my older sister (Brigid!). Regular visits for chats about family and friends were kept up until the end. She had a keen interest in all that was dear to my sister, and was guiding her subtly all the time. She used to phone her and leave a message if not answered. Intuition was strong in her, her timing unnervingly spot-on. She’d call out my sister’s full name followed by ‘you are not forgotten’. Isn’t it hard to reach out and leave a voice message like that? But it shouldn’t be. It is a powerful, wonderful message.
‘I’ll miss all the love’ my sister confided on hearing the sad news.
‘But it hasn’t gone, it’s all still here, in you and all around you. You must carry it with you’ I said surprising myself with my new-found spiritual tone.

Thank-you Barney. Rest in peace.

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