An Old, Dying Habit

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
The tradegy happens during graduation and a Sister makes a telling decision.

Submitted: December 21, 2013

A A A | A A A

Submitted: December 21, 2013



An Old Dying Habit


Sister Mary’s class walked obediently in front of her, as obediently as a group of semi-, well-behaved kindergarteners could.  They all wore the same clothes-a white shirt, blue-green plaid skirts, bought with money most of their parents could barely afford.  But the Sister was glad the parent’s had been so conscientious.  Last semester, one of the girls, came to school in a tan top and blue trousers: a hand-me down from when the child’s brother went to a charter school that required uniforms, all her mother could manage to do.  All the sisters were upset by that.  First of all, regardless of what had since been a modern trend, girls at St. Ignatius, should not wear pants.  And secondly, what example was her mother setting by not having her daughter follow the dress code?  There were surplus uniforms that the church could have given to her for free, if she had only asked.  But there was a language issue.  The girl’s parents spoke little English and it was almost a month before she was sent to school in proper clothing.  St. Ignatius had certainly learned something from that incident.  Make certain all the parents understand the rules of the school, including those regarding dress.  One’s appearance says a lot about them.

As Sister Mary watched as her class sat down in the front pew of the small school chapel.  Then she sat down at the end of the row, her arthritis making the act of sitting down a little painful.  But she was an attentive teacher and wanted to be the certain to catch any mischief that might break out.  She silently hoped that Reeba’s asthma would not be a problem.  She regularly asked the girl if she had her inhaler.  And just as regularly, it seemed, she would forget it.  But this graduation ceremony the kindergarten classes was short: just a brief address by the Mother Superior to the classes for their hard work and good behavior for the year before they move on the first grade.

The Mother Superior, Mary Elizabeth Margaret, was a thin, humorless, woman, with a long, wrinkled face that rarely smiled. Regardless of how patient she seemed when meeting with parents, students or the other nuns, one always got the impression that you were wasting her time.  She walked gravely in front of the large group of attentive kindergarten girls.  They were actually quiet, a surprise to the nuns.  Despite their past experiences with small children and the assumptions made from them, this class seemed to be well-behaved, well-parented.  Their praise of the children, though, was as rare as it had been for the most unruly classes.  Many of the nuns were older, having been teachers for at least 20 years in the parochial system.  They had seen it all, and their weary jadedness, more than anything else, influenced their teaching philosophy.

Although Sister Mary sat with her students and appeared to be watching them, her mind was elsewhere.  She was thinking about the new building.  She had been teaching at St. Ignatius for twenty-five years, and had suffered tremendously during the process.The children she taught were generally good, but the facilities that she had to use were not. The school had been the first in the parish to be built and was state of the art in 1950 when it was opened.  But barely a bit of renovation had been done since.  Of course, there had been paint jobs and some plumbing work.  Yet besides that nothing else had been done, which meant that the asbestos ceiling, in the older, unused portion of the school building remained.  The mold in the cinderblock walls of the basement were untouched.  The paint was starting to peel in her classroom.  The heat was unreliable. A few times it had gotten so bad that the students had to sit in class with their gloves and coats still on, a situation the nuns encouraged their students not to mention.  The list of what was wrong with the building went on and on.  Of course, the archdiocese was supposed to provide facilities funding for the school year.  But that was yet to happen.  And all the nuns knew that it probably would never happen.  The archdiocese had other things to pay for.  They would never see the money.  Sister Mary had once chaired the fund-raising committee for the school, drawing in some funds to fix the things they could not go without like the utilities and snow removal service during the winter months.  But the neighborhood had changed over the years, and the money simply was not there.  Most of the parents were just getting by.

The Mother Superior had been speaking student slowly, as was becoming her way most recently.  Sister Mary, lost in her thoughts, had not listened to much of the speech.  But she suddenly heard the phrase, “in life we have many things that can be good, many things that can be bad, but your attitude is what makes the difference.”

That was actually a good piece of advice, she thought.  Different from all the dry, banal things that were usually said during these little speeches, this was something that the students could actually use.  As she scanned her class, Sister Mary half-wondered if any of them would remember this day, one in hundreds of days in their lives when they would have to sit still, be quiet, and listen to some teacher, boss, parent exhorting them about some virtue they should develop, some goal they should attain, some advice that they should take.  She remembered advice she had once been given.  Sister Mary, whose real name was Constance Pierce, had always been an active person.  Though she did well in school, she was flighty.  It was hard for her to settle on one thing to do.  Her mother, ever-patient, told her that no matter what she did with her life it should be worth-while.  So after bouncing around, traveling with friends, doing a little of this and that after college, she decided that becoming a nun would be a worthwhile thing.  She had never been religious.  She figured her devout mother, who went to Mass everyday would somehow put in a good word for her to get her into heaven, as long as she never did anything too bad.  So when Constance entered the convent and later took her vows, she felt like she was doing the right thing. For the first two years it felt good.  She was finally settling down, finding a place for herself in the world.  But after that second year she started to get bored.  And she had been bored every since.  But there was nothing else that she could think of to do.  Plus her mother had been so happy to hear that she had entered the convent, she just could not disappoint her.  Sister Mary’s mother had past away five years ago.  By that time, it was no use starting over.  Being a nun was what she knew.  Why change now?

The nun’s attention slowly returned to the old wooden podium at which the Mother Superior stood.  Then she suddenly noticed something on the floor near the dais.  It seemed to be gold and shiny.  A moment later as the sun continued to move through the sky and change the stained glass patterns on the floor, it became more obvious that the shiny thing seemed to be in some way imbedded in the floor.  She sat oddly transfixed by it.  What if it was a gold piece?  Those things could be worth money depending on how old it was.  It could be some old coin left by a worker that somehow became a part of the work he was completing.  The sanctuary was over 100 years old, much older than the school.  Some wealthy Catholics used to live in that part of the parish before more immigrants had started to move into the area.  So there is no telling what exactly it could be.

So focused was Sister Mary’s attention, that she barely noticed that the speech had ended and the sanctuary started to gradually empty of students and nuns, except her class.  The Mother Superior, who had left the stage and returned to her seat on the front pew had noticed that Sister Mary’s gaze on the podium floor.  She was about to ask if something was wrong until both nun’s suddenly noticed something, something Sister Mary had been dredding that day.  Reeba started coughing uncontrollably.

“Oh, no,” Sister Mary thought.  She turned to Reeba who sat five students away from her.  “Didn’t you bring her inhaler?”

The little girl shook her head no, as she started to turn red.  Another girl sitting next to her patted her firmly on the back, trying to get her to breathe.

“Just great,” the nun said under her breath.

With Sister Mary’s attention where it should be, the Mother Superior left the sanctuary.

The coughing continued and Sister Mary’s focus soon became was divided.  She should help that poor girl, but the thought of spending another moment in that cold dank classroom made her feel sick.  She seemed to dive toward the podium.  The gold piece got larger the closer that she got to it.  And she saw that her suspicions were correct.  It was a gold piece that was somehow, for some reason imbedded in the floor near the dais.  The piece was most of the way in the floor, but a small piece, that she could just pinch with her fingers, was sticking up from the floor, immovable.

Unbeknownst to her, there was a great deal of commotion.  The once quiet and attentive girls were now loudly mumbling, as they saw one of their classmates getting worse and worse.

“Sister Mary.  Sister Mary!” several of the girls called out, trying to get their teacher’s attention.  Reeba coughs began to slow.  She was starting to pass out.  Her eyes and face were about the same shade of scarlet and she started to lean over weakly.  But Sister Mary’s eyes were-transfixed by that gold.  Her ability to get at the gold piece was marred by the floor.  She looked around and saw a small, metal crucifix laying down on the communion table.  She quickly got up, took it and started chipping away at the stone floor, slowly revealing the metal.  Nothing seemed to be able to pry here away from her quest.

A parent, Mrs. Conners, who had come to pick up her child early after the ceremony, saw the nun and Reeba and called 9-1-1.  It appeared that no one else would help the child.  Thankfully, the paramedics arrived in less than three minutes, the hospital being only a four blocks away.  They took Reeba away on a gurney, her face now blue and her classmates scared.  No words in any language could have fully described the way that Mrs. Conners looked when they put that girl in the ambulance.  A great and sad rage, an infuriated impatience were both too vague of terms.

Meanwhile, Sister Mary was steadily trying to get at that gold piece.  She managed to remove most of the coin, with a piece of it remaining in the floor.  She blew off some of the stone-dust, and held it in her hands, examining it carefully.  There was a picture of the New York state seal and the numbers 1858 inscribed on it.  This could be worth something, she thought, realizing that her hard work had not been in vein.  There were certainly words that the paramedics, the Mother Superior and the archdiocese had for her.  But when the Mother Superior returned to the sanctuary to try to look for the nun, she was gone.  She had returned back to her classroom.  She and her class were watching a children’s movie about the saints.

After the school day, Sister Mary was asked to go to the Mother Superior’s office for a talking to.  She feared that the whole community might be down there to ask her questions.  She imagined the paramedics, the Mother Superior and every parent in the parish screaming at her.  Perhaps she shouldn’t go, but she knew she had to.  Maybe a very good explanation would clear her.  She laughed at that thought.  Regardless of what happened she had to face the music.

Sister Mary paused when she got to the Mother Superior’s closed office door.  Then she took a deep breath and turned the knob.  As she entered, she was grateful to only see the Mother Superior writing at her desk, in the same indifferent attitude that she always had.  Nothing new, perhaps this was a good sign.

“Sit down,” the Mother Superior said, looking up from her work as Sister Mary came into the room.

Sister Mary obeyed and waited for her punishment.

“What is this thing that so captivated you during the ceremony today?”

She silently took the coin from her pocket and placed it on the desk.  The Mother Superior took it and examined it.  She then opened the top drawer of her desk, placed it in it, and closed it.  “I will try to have it appraised this week.  It could be the only money we get for this church for the whole year, or two years, who knows,” she said.

Sister Mary sat there, waiting for the other foot to fall.  But there was nothing.  Relieved she got up and was at the door when an important question finally came to her.  “How’s Reeba?”

“Fine,” the Mother Superior said as she returned to her work.  “It was close, but she was revived. No damage. She’ll make it to first grade.”

“Good,” Sister Mary said half-heartedly.  She then closed the door and left.


© Copyright 2020 Kay Stephens. All rights reserved.

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