Semi-autobiographical, this short story captures the voice of our young narrator. Miracles do happen. Sometimes.
by Maura McGoorty
Walking in the winter woods, I remembered the first time my heart was etched with sorrow, a corrosive substance on the soul of a child. Maybe it was the light, filtered through fast flying clouds and tall dark evergreens, maybe it was the cold dead green of the lichens smothering the baring branches. Or simply, it is the time of year, so many years ago, that our world came apart.
Mother and Father had a stormy relationship. This we children knew. I had accompanied Mommy one bright summer day when she searched for him in bars and pool halls, cruising along the rural roads, in her big blue Dodge between the small northern Illinois towns like the town where we lived that she thought would cure him and be good for us children to grow up, far from the city. She was trying to find him before the sheriff did - he was wanted on a drunk driving warrant. She was afraid he would be harmed in jail. I don't remember where the baby, Mary was or the younger boys, Michael and John. Maybe she was pregnant with Mary. I helped her hide money from Daddy when he was drinking. If she kept funds in the bank Daddy had access to her account, according to the laws of those days.
One day, when I was eight years old, and enjoying my new class of third grade, Mommy told me she was selling the house and moving back to the city to find a new job. She and Daddy were separating. I understood. She told me we children were going to go to a new school, a boarding school for a while until she got a good new home established. I was brave. Her Uncle John was making the arrangements as he managed the families trust accounts and knew of this school, called Mother of Sorrows. My biggest concern was how Mommy would manage alone with the baby. And if we (she) would keep our dog, my canine sister, Rachel. We had a couple days to say good-bye and pack. We had to even bring soap for baths. My grand-aunt Jo, Uncle John's wife, bought us a big package of Sweetheart soap. I still can't smell that strange scent without remembering that school. I never buy Sweetheart soap.
We arrived on a cold dark Sunday afternoon in October after a long ride through the industrial towns south of Chicago. Dad drove, Mommy laughed a lot, trying to cheer us up. Little Mary sat in Mommy's arms. There weren't child seat belt laws then. No seat belts then. A real Dark Age. "The boys", Michael aged seven and still pretty sweet some of the time, and John, five, easy going little buddy, did not fight and fuss much. That was nice as I had to share the back seat with them. We pulled left off the main thoroughfare, drove through iron gates to a four story brick building surrounded by a tall wall. It began to drizzle. We stood on the small stoop, and Mommy rang the door bell. Soon a sweet faced nun opened the door. She told us to leave our suitcases in the hall and escorted us to the large parlor on the right. We passed a very colorful painting of Mother Mary with swords piercing her heart. Bright red blood dripped on her blue mantle. Mother lifted an eyebrow. We entered a huge room. It had very little furniture in it but what there was was very heavy and hard. Bad cheap Victorian, would sell well in an antique shop. It was my first memory of church-related institutional interiors. The walls had dark stained paneled wainscoting and the plaster to the very high ceilings was painted a strange cold pallid green. The room was very cold. We kept our coats on.
Now there was another nun talking. She was tall and very bony. Her face was sharp. She did not like us. I could tell. The small settee was hard horsehair. My heart was hard, too, a small hard lump with big eyes and ears. It was all I could do. Look and Listen. See, I am a good girl. I am brave. The nuns told us about a new facility just completed with funds, in part, thanks to our dear uncle. It had new classrooms, dormitories, a real gymnasium, pool and library. We would have a very fine time and now it was time to say good-bye and get ready for Sunday supper. I hugged Mommy through her coat and tried not to cry. I hugged Daddy a little less warmly, and kissed baby Mary's smooth pale cheek. My first baby sister! How I'd miss her. We had swinged around our living room, she in my strong big sister arms and I would sing "I Could Have Danced All Night". I must set a good example. I will not scream, "Don't leave me!". Then they were gone. We were alone with strangers.
The three of us followed the nuns up wide stairs to the third floor and down a long hall. Widely spaced wall lamps caught the pools of highly polished linoleum in the dark. It was quiet. Where were the other children? Our footsteps echoed.
The tall mean looking nun said, "This is the boys' side. That is the girls' side." She pointed into the farther gloom of the long hall, her black sleeves reminding me of a bat wings. She shepherded the boys into a room which opened into several others.
"Don't ever let me catch you on the wrong side!" She glared at me.
A sweet faced nun showed me to my room. It was a long narrow dormitory with fourteen beds, all made perfectly. I noticed there were no dolls or stuffed animals. My bed was near the door on the hall side. At the end of the room was a large bathroom with many sinks, toilets, showers and one bathtub. I had never seen anything like it before. She showed me where to put my clothes - in a little dresser beside each bed. She shook her head sadly when I pulled out my bride doll, the first doll I did not decapitate or operate upon. Guenevere stayed shut in the suitcase under the bed. The coat would go in the locker downstairs, she told me. Just before the door to the bathroom there was an outside door with a glass pane. I could see another tall red brick building. Suddenly it opened and a troop of older girls came tumbling in, breaking the Sabbath gloom, talking and ignoring me, the new comer. Then I realized that being younger, I didn't count in their eyes.
"It's time for supper," said the sweet nun. "Come, I'll show you where to go."
She lead me down down another pair of stairs, at the other end of the building, not as grand as the front stairs. The bannisters were plain wood, not carved and highly polished. We went past the ground floor, the dark hall stretching to empty classrooms and offices, down to the basement level. Here were the children! There were two rooms on each side of a hall. The graceless rooms were lined with old metal lockers painted olive green. There was a large rickety table in the middle of the girls day room. Many children were here talking, reading, working puzzles.
"Where are my brothers, Sister?" I asked. One didn't need to worry about learning a bunch of new names. They all were "Sister".
"There in the boys' day room ,"replied the nun. "After supper, you can see your brothers. On Sunday evenings, the boys invite the girls over and we all watch TV!" she explained with zest.
Why, I wondered, should watching TV be so special? A bell clanged. The girls put away their things in the lockers and lined up on the right side of the divided room. Crude trellises painted white allowed views into dining halls, one on each side with many tables inside. Then boys were lining up on the other side. We even ate separately! How would I ever see my brothers at this school? Only on Sunday evenings? Watching TV? There they were. In line - their faces shining with anxiety. Michael was trying not to cry and he was teasing John.
"I bet they are going to feed us poop!", he remarked a little too loudly. The mean looking nun swooped over, cried "Moma Mia!" and slapped Michael as hard as she could. I was stunned. I broke rank and ran to him. His face was a print of the mean nun's hand, red and white. His big blue eyes were full of tears but not one escaped. "Get back in line!" the vicious nun ordered. I obeyed with rebellion in my heart. Yes, I could see we were going to have a great time. And that was before I even tasted the food.
The supper consisted of a small bowl of cold packaged macaroni and a piece of white bread and a glass of water. I shyly got up and went to the serving table, thinking I missed something. There must be vegetables, milk and meat somewhere. No - this was it. I followed girls who carried their bowls to a tray then went to the boy's day room. I found my brothers. I sat down with them, one on each side of me. I took their hands and sat on an old shabby sofa. Sister Vicious glided over.
"What do you think you are doing, Missy! No hand holding allowed between boys and girls!" she hissed.
"Sister, they are my little brothers ..." I tried to explained. The kind nun came to my rescue.
"Sister Mary Agatha, this is their first night. Please let the big sister comfort them, just for now...."
"Very, well, Sister Mary Clarisa", the mean nun reluctantly agreed," just for this evening. But don't let me catch you holding hands again," she hissed and clicked away, her long large rosary at her belt snapping like castanets.
Black and white light flickered in the darkened room. Mommy would have made us turn on the table lamps. Everyone knew TV in the dark is bad for your eyes. A show we never saw before was on. Boston Blackie. A TV detective. Mommy wouldn't let us watch violent stuff, except a good western. More kids were coming in. Some of them were returning from a weekend at home or were coming back from outings with family. Sister Mary Agatha watched a back alley ambush with great interest. Johnny whispered to me, "I asked the boys' cook for seconds. She gave it to me!" I hugged him. To heck with Sister Meanie. I would not be afraid of her, I vowed.
That night was the first of many nights where sleep became an elusive and fickle friend. The dark was full of the mysterious sounds of a strange place and strange people. Snores, creaks and groans, whimpers of dreams, a cry of ... pain, loneliness? I was silent but I let the tears flow. The pillow smelled of liberal use of bleach and starch and burned my tear-raw cheek. I thought of our bedtimes at home, piled up on the twin beds in the boys' room, stories my mother made up just for us -- grand adventures with each of us as the heroes, songs, prayers and jokes and hugs and toe fights. This sterile purgatory was to be my hell.
Too soon I was awakened by a bell tolling the morning Angelus. It was still dark! The door leading to the other building by a steel ramp flew open and the big girls dashed through our still sleeping dormitory. Now there was a flurry of activities by the light of night lamps. All the girls got dressed in a flash, made beds and got in line. I followed them. We filed out into the cold foggy dark in only our skirts and sweaters. After walking a block or a little less, we shuffled into a large handsome new church, boys on one side, girls on the other. It was very cold. The Mass was long and sad. Only the votive and altar candles offered a hope against the sacred gloom. I prayed hard we would not be here long. Then we went in line to breakfast. I felt faint and was glad to eat the small cold bowl of lumpy oatmeal. But there was no milk or fruit. I realized the nuns were even thriftier than my mother. Then there was a free period of half an hour. Girls gossiped about the weekend or studied. A bell rang. I found the third grade classroom.
The sun came out of the fog and warmed the classroom and my spirits. The classroom was small and very old fashioned. Desks had decorative wrought iron embellishments and real ink wells. The maps were old. Before WWII. The books were old. The teacher was a young lay lady. A few kids were "day students" who could leave this place at three o'clock. I envied them. The work was pleasant, not too hard. We studied about the pilgrims. She let us write letters and stories.
Lunch was the big meal. We had a stew with bits of meat and very well cooked vegetables. There was a sugar cookie for dessert. After school they let us go out for a while. The playground was plain concrete, no swings or slides,or basketball hoops. I went to be with my brothers. We didn't say much. Johnny told us he got a second cookie from the cook at lunch. Michael and I laughed. He said, "Hey, Boomps! Try to get us some, too!".
Then an eight-grader with real little breasts came over and told us the girls had to stay on the girls' side and boys on the boys' side of the playground. I followed her to the other side of the concrete yard. Beyond a chain link fence, beyond the chapel was a cluster of new buildings and old trees. A few colorful leaves clung on in the cool winds. We saw the high school students walking to the new gym. I asked the girl near me when we would get to go to the gym. She was tall and a little rough looking but said kindly enough, "Never! They show it to parents to look good but we grade-schoolers never get to use it." Her name was Sharon. She saw me look longingly through the high wire fence to a faraway manicured campus with trees. "Get used to it, kiddo. Petty soon it will be cold and they never let us out when it's rainy or snowy. Except to walk to and from daily mass. Big deal."
The tall brick wall was all round the grounds. There were no trees in the schoolyard. Back to the girls' day room in the basement, surrounded by dull green lockers and a window or two, high near the ceiling. Fluorescent lamps hung harsh and bright. Soon it was dark. I escaped the chatter and alien environment by finding a quiet spot on the back stairs landing under a window where I could see the sky. Used to the freedom of a child in a safe small town, able to walk places and bike around and climb hills and trees and go to playgrounds, hike with my dog, be with friends, be with my family, to lie on my back looking at the sea of summer sky in a field full of Queen Anne's Lace, this detainment heightened my sense of loss.
After a white rice and canned beans supper, I went to the boys room to say hello to my brothers. I hoped the nice nun was on duty. She was not. Sister Mary Agatha turned me away like the Archangel guarding Eden did to Eve and Adam. Days painfully slipped away. I mentally notched the days like a prisoner on Alcatraz, like some questionable movie we saw on TV when Mommy was working at her business. The first week was almost over. This Saturday, a bright sunny one, brought a little relief. We could sleep in until eight instead of rising at six. No mass! There was a donut at breakfast with corn flakes! Normally, after cartoons, I would get dressed and ride my bike with my sweet collie running by my side. Then, I would help Mother clean up. My special job was scrubbing the bathroom and vacuuming. Then we might rake leaves, go shopping, read a story or go gypsying as we called it, driving around the countryside and find funny old junk and antique shops. Then Dad would make his famous Saturday night spaghetti special and we ate watching the Honeymooners.
But here at the Mother of Sorrows School we had a new duty. We McGoorty children were summoned to the huge formal parlor and instructed by the plump old principal, Sister Mary Louisa, to write thank you letters, "Now , please," to our grand-uncle John whose generosity made it possible to be here. I was very confused. Why should we do this? As far as I knew, he just wrote checks for Mom's share of her inheritance. But remembering the several ‘Mama Mia's!' (hard slaps) I had seen lately, especially on Michael's face, I did not offer any argument .
OK. Dear Uncle John, Thank you for the opportunity to be here. This is a wonderful school. Everyone is very kind and I am having lots of fun. I offer a special intention for you every day at mass. Your grand niece, Maura, There ! Yes, Johnny, T.H.A.N.K. space Y.O.U. Good, you are learning how to write! Yes, Sister Mary Louisa, I am done, Yes, boys, be good, Sister will help you. Bye. A great Saturday.
There were older nuns around who did the hard work and spoke little English. I began to realize they all belonged to a religious order originally from Italy. That's where the dark interiors, lurid religious art, extreme thrift and slapping came from. Old World order. Sunday. Mother and Father came. Baby Mary, too. Lucky Mary! I wished I was that little, too, and could stay with Mommy. They took us to a coffee shop. We drank hot cocoa and asked to have hamburgers and salads. And we got them! We tried not to dramatize our first week at the boarding school because we understood Mommy felt she had no choice - Daddy might drive with her but he certainly was not solving problems with her. However I did tell Mommy about Michael's ‘Moma Mia!' and the lack of fresh fruits, vegetables and milk.
An another week slowly unfolded there at Mother of Sorrows. I felt I now understood what the name meant although it was not what the founders had in mind. By Wednesday, I was grudgingly served a different breakfast. I had one medium-boiled egg, whole wheat toast, (albeit cold and dry) real orange juice, half an apple or banana. At lunch I got a little green salad and at supper I had a raw carrot. The other girls were jealous. But what they thought did not interest me much. I escaped to my back landing on the stairs whenever I could - I had to be alone. It rained. They wouldn't let us out. Halloween came with barely a ripple. Some little candy appeared in the day rooms. And then it was Sunday. Mother came alone with the Baby. We went to a coffeshop and had hamburgers and hot chocolate. We did not see Dad for a long time after that. (Now I wonder how she managed to drive so far with a nine month old baby not in a special car seat, just a basket!)
I became friends with Sister Mary Clarisa. Her bedroom was across the hall. She let me come into her cell. It was very simple and pleasant. She kept the door open. I told her a little bit of my sorrows and of worries for my brothers. I told her how I got feeling so strange before daily communion. Almost as if I was in another world. This interested her very much. She explained I was most likely specially blessed, this floating feeling was God's grace holding my soul. She got out her book of The Lives Of The Saints and read the story of the Little Flower, St. Theresa, to me. And my second name is Rose, I wondered out loud. She thought this was a promising sign. Neither of us had heard of low blood sugar.
Days seemed never ending. The sudden and total lack of privacy was a trial. All the intimate daily rituals once performed in the small nest of our family were now an institutional experience. Eating, bathing, prayers, sleeping, reading, playing...The only counterpoint was the classroom. I could forget for a little while my terrible exile. Like an feral animal, I longed for the wind in my face, the comforting arch of sky, the feeling of walking on the earth. Instead, I lived all my spare moments on the back landing, being alone. And for the most part, they left me alone as I wished.
One November morning , Sister Mary Clarisa told me my brothers were ill and to pray for them. When we got back from mass, I slipped up the back stairs and went to see them. There they lay in their beds next to each other. (I realized at least they had one another while I was all alone.) For the boys to be willingly in bed, they had to be pretty sick. I wanted to call Mommy and the doctor but knew they would not let me. I felt their foreheads. Hot. I looked at their throats. Red. I knew what Mommy would do. She'd make fresh hot lemonade with honey, give them a cooling bath and rub their chest with Vicks, wrap them up in flannel and call the doctor to check for strep throats. But I could do nothing but give them water and try to cheer them up.
Then I went to find Sister Mary Clarisa to ask her for help doing the home remedies. I knocked on her door. No answer. I felt torn. I knew if I stayed upstairs in the boys dorm I'd ‘get it'. Maybe even a ‘Mama Mia!' but if I just pretended nothing was wrong, my brothers could get seriously ill and it would be my fault because I did not know how to get help. The school bell rang, echoing through the huge old building. I left promising myself to return to the third floor as soon as I could. During the lunch break I asked if I could bring some soup up for my brothers. Sister "Cook" let me. She sneaked in two cookies, stale from Halloween. We had a little party.
I asked for permission to call my mother. I said it was her birthday because I knew they would not let me call her about their care of my brothers. I was escorted by Sister Meanie into the principal's office. The cost of the call was entered on our account sheet. I dialed. Then a stranger's voice on the line. An operator. The old phone number was disconnected. Mommy was moved. I didn't know where she was. Late that night amid the soft sounds of the sleeping dark, I got out of bed and on my knees. I prayed long. O God, please remember us! Don't let Mikey and Johnny get real sick. Some kids still died. I remembered the terrors of the polio epidemics from when I was little. Help us leave here and go home.
There was a storm that night. Deep in sleep I heard the rain and thunder and felt God answered me. The next morning I slipped away again to visit them. They were actually glad to see me! They were pale and cooler. The fever had broken. Their throats were deep pink not red, a little better. I thanked God. I went back upstairs after school. We were all there, I sitting on an empty bed next to theirs when I heard the whoosh of heavy skirts and clicking of rosary beads. Oh-oh! Sister Mary Agatha stiff with indignation zoomed in on us.
"Yes, I thought I'd find you here, my fine, must-have-an-egg-Missy! You little liar! It was not your mother's birthday. I looked up the records. You are a liar and a sneak! Your little egg, gone uneaten, told on you." She raised her gaunt hand. I stood there shocked, angry and fascinated. I had never been slapped. Our parents considered that kind of punishment abusive. She stared at me and whirled around."Get out!" she threw over her narrow shoulder, "Now!"
The boys and I promised to meet soon. I left. But any taste of a ‘victory' was sour in my mouth. To raise the ire of such a woman was dangerous. Days passed as I moved from the dorm, chapel, classroom, basement dining and day room, Saturday thank you notes filled with lies, and of course, my alone-place landing. We rarely went out except to walk through the icy fog of dawn to mass. I felt so cut off from the world, although I could hear the heavy traffic rumbling beyond the wall. I didn't even know who was President any more. On my quiet landing, I dreamed of the three of us running away one night; going over the wall with our coats and mittens on, carrying our suitcases. It would be snowing We would be very brave. Our angels would help us as we toiled unsuspecting through the blizzard. We would go to the coffee shop and find a kindly truck driver to drive us...where? Somewhere in Chicago. I knew from personal experience it was a very big city. Not good enough. Had to wait for an address .
One snowy day, Mommy sent us letters telling us of her new job and the apartment hunt. She thought she found a good one. She drew funny little pictures which helped because I could not read her handwriting too well. Somehow her M's and W's seemed transposed.
Sunday again. Mother visited. She had good news. She found a nice large apartment and was fixing it up. Baby Mary was with a new baby sitter named Betty. The apartment building even allowed dogs. I'd see my beloved Rachel dog. We would come home to our new house for the Christmas holidays! To tide us over she left little presents even though it was Advent, a season of sacrifice and penance... A horse puzzle for me ( I never liked puzzles but I actually worked this one in that awful day room ..I did and do like horses and Mommy), a model boat for John and a model airplane for Michael. (In later years, our personal dreams were made manifest by the horse, boat and airplane. Michael even got his pilot's license.) When we got back from our outing we were charged up and cheered up. We even ate the cold macaroni without a mental grumble. We worked on our puzzles and models. Then it was time for Boston Blackie. We put away our toys. We gathered in the dark boys' room while the TV flickered its story between ads for cigarettes, cars and cheap diamonds. Michael was so happy and proud of his accomplishment of assembling a model. He had not put his model airplane away in his locker! He began to bounce and play with his plane. The show began again. Sister Mary Agatha frowned at him. Her displeasure went over his head.
I nudged him and whispered, "Sit down, Schnichael Bears!" He blissfully ignored me. Suddenly his plane was snatched from his hands by a wave of black cloth and smashed on the table in front of him. We stared at the pieces of his pride and joy, shocked beyond words.
The room was very quiet except for the show. "There, that will teach you to break the law!" said Boston Blackie to the bad guy.
"There! That will teach you manners, you rude boy! " Sister Mary Agatha echoed the TV.
She eyed the scene of destruction with satisfaction and turned her attention back to Boston Blackie. Michael was in pain. Tears filled his blue eyes but he would not let her see him cry. His grimace of pain also looked like a defiant grin. The woman was glowering at him again.
"Come on," I whispered, "let's get out of here." I lead John and Michael to my landing. No one stopped us. We just sat there while I whispered my escape dreams as solid plans. Soon the bell rang and we went to our different dorms. . . Next Sunday I reported to Mommy the trauma of Michael's smashed model airplane. Her beautiful face looked very sad. Her blue eyes, so like Michael's, got a hard grey color. I called it her steel look. "Don't worry, children! This won't last forever..."
All that week before the Christmas holidays, the nuns treated us better than usual. Something was up. On Saturday my only friend, Sharon, left for her home on the West side where she said her mother drank herself into a stupor every night and ran naked through the streets sometimes, and her father did everything else. But she was glad to go home anyway. I felt sorry for the kids who had nowhere to go or no one who cared. Sunday was the official beginning of the holidays. Mother came very early, right after mass and breakfast. She meet us in the parlor. There was a huge spindly Christmas tree in the middle of the room. Ho,ho ho!
"Come, children, Pack up everything. You are going home."
"Home?" Michael asked. "Where is that?"
"It is where we are all together. Forgive me, babies. I thought I was doing the right thing, trying to spare you the upheavals of Daddy's and my separation, selling the house, moving, everything. But I see it is more important to be together. Come on, get busy!" She laughed her old laugh.
We moved like a prairie fire. We bid farewell to our Mother of Sorrows School with just a modicum of politeness. Sister Mary Clarisa was off that day so I didn't get to say good-bye but I left a note on her door, telling her I would always remember her kindness. I took dear old Guenevere out of the suitcase and proudly carried her through the empty silent hall, so dark on that winter's day. The drive away from that school is one of the best moments in my life. Each mile north brought us closer to our new life.
After a while Mother swung over to Lake Shore Drive and followed that north to Sheridan Road. Finally at the edge of the city where there were still wild dunes at the Lake, she parked the car. She lead us to an old handsome building, up three flights of stairs to our new house. She opened the door to an apartment. Rachel, my dog, pranced with joy at the reunion. Babbling baby Mary was there (she's talking!) with Betty, our new baby sitter. It was warm and lamps seemed like indoor sunshine. I saw the furniture, books and paintings I grew up with and some new ‘old stuff'. There was a fireplace with a mantel. There were radiators, hot and singing! The beautiful old baby grand piano was in a bay window. I wandered as if enchanted down the long hall as room after room unfolded. My little bedroom was off the kitchen. Mommy had fixed it with a green gold quilted bedspread with rose prints on the matching pillow covers and dust ruffle. There was a dressing table with a mirror. .My books and paints were already there... At the back, off the kitchen, there was an enclosed porch with windows looking due east to the Lake.
There it was - Lake Michigan and the dunes. Wild, bleak, beckoning. The December sky danced with the water. And the music of that dance! Hearing the Lake filled me with a deep joy. Yes, we had come home. Someday, I thought, Our Mother of Sorrows Schools would be a sad memory and this glorious place would be part of my life. And so it was. I rarely dream of that school. I always dream of our life at the edge of the Lake and remember that happy Christmas when we were all together. Almost. Daddy was not with us, but that was OK, then. But it was the best Christmas of my life. I never felt more content. We were together once more.
So you see, some prayers do come true.