Sister Philomena 1937


Sister Philomena

by Harry Reynolds

I stand at the window and watch the snow fall.

I am eight in the third grade in a Catholic school in a slum with crazy Sister Philomena and God all around in a dark land of prayer, guilt, daily Masses, a bleeding Christ crucified above the blackboard, the fear of having my face slapped or my hands beaten with a ruler held by Sister Philomena, souls screaming in Purgatory in a print over her head, Hell behind every closet door ready to break out with the Devil reaching for me as his daily catch. It is 1937.

I walk through life heedlessly innocent to a dangerous degree of the malice in the world. I am thankful for the privilege of sitting next to the hot belly of a coal stove in winter, protected from the murderous winter wind trying to get through the newspapers stuck under the hallway doors and in the tops and sides of the old windows through which I can see, across the park, the tiny lights in the surrounding snow shrouded tenements.

And then there’s Confession. I have to confess my sins come Saturday to an old priest sitting in a dark box, he on the other side of a grill, me on my sinful knees – God knowing it all, why do I have to tell this priest anything – he seems asleep, and has bad breath.

But if I don’t tell him everything, the confession is bad, I commit sacrilege by taking communion, and if I don’t take communion at least once a year, then it’s into Hell I go, for it’s a law that thing about communion once a year, break that and it’s the Devil inhaling my breath one night as I lay asleep in my bed in our cold water flat on the top floor of the tenement on Avenue B next to St Brigid’s Church across from Tompkins Square Park.

Yes, it seems that everything in life is connected and if I knew the spot where I could pull out the plug everything would disappear.

If, I thought, my mother dies and I don’t go to that school every day and smell Sister Philomena’s body bent over my shoulder, looking for ink spots on my paper that would make her grab it and rip it up, if my mother dies and I don’t have to go to Mass every morning except Saturday and watch the priest do the same thing over and over again, if I kept on sleeping in my bed and no one noticed that an ambulance came and took me to Bellevue Hospital where those parents of Mickey Rooney in the movies would take me secretly from Bellevue to Judy Garland in their snowbound house in Westchester far from Avenue B, then I could pull out that plug and whenever I wanted I could buy a thirty-five cent corned beef on club, with mustard, at Katz’s on Houston Street, and everything wouldn’t be connected anymore, especially Sister Philomena, who would be dead.

But wait. Should I have killed off Sister Philomena just because, balding and pot-bellied in age, I am watching the monotonous fall of snow on Bradley Road? Americans say they love realism (of course they are lying, they love realism as an entertainment) and if they love realism shouldn’t they receive dollops of it even if only in a local weekly newspaper? The truth is that on other occasions, particularly when speaking before bar association groups, I have wheeled out Sister Philomena as the third grade teacher who turned my life around by instilling in me the desire to excel as a student. Of course my motive to study was in part prideful but deep down in my heart it was to save me from an attack by this nun who represented the Pope. As a lawyer I have never drafted an agreement without her shadow enveiling the paper that had invisible ink spots made by my invisible dip pen. Whenever and wherever I stand in public I stand with the rigidity of a German officer in memory of Sister Philomena’s order of German nuns who punished slouchers with a slap from behind at the back of a head. Waste not, want not was tattooed across Sister Philomena’s forehead, and in self-defense across mine in larger letters. Every sheet of paper that we used had to be used on both sides so that in the fifth grade I took a test on the back of a sheet the front of which had the third-grade scrawl of Thomas, my younger, black sheep brother. We were fed lunch every school day by the Sisters for a dollar a week. Huge helpings of chopped meat, boiled potatoes, German cabbage, beans and so on, were laid across our plates with the two-fold warnings that as we ate we should remember that our parents were digging ditches or cleaning floors or unloading the tween decks of ships for that dollar a week and that there were millions – yes, millions – of children who looked just like us who were starving in India and China thinking of that very food on our plates. Sister Philomena said, as we ate, that these thoughts should make us humble, a thought that I kept in mind as I walked in winter to the cold water flat that Charles Dickens had thoughtfully provided for my arrival. Last, and the greatest gift from Sister Philomena, was the gift of memory, the gift instilled by the sheer fear of failing to recite each and every word, including punctuation, exactly as they were found in our old, dreary text books, smudged by the hands of other prisoners who had passed before Sister Philomena’s half-closed eyes as she looked down on us when one by one we recited from memory in fright the paragraphs assigned by her for memorization the prior night.

So, good and gentle folk, I’ll turn Sister Philomena in her wheel chair and walk towards stage left where I’ll keep her behind the curtain in a sepia toned memory cell, waiting for another snow fall.