A Jovial Hullabaloo Among the Spheres
What I found most astonishing when I first set foot in the convent wasn’t necessarily the quantity of the Jesuses therein; it was more the scope of incarnations of those Jesuses. I entered the convent through the kitchen, per Sister Domnina’s instructions, so as not to sully the light blue deep pile carpets in the aptly named front room. There were Jesus pot holders hanging above the stove and a set of Jesus trivets hanging on the wall and Jesus salt and pepper shakers atop a Jesus table cloth. There was a trio of Jesuses on the plastic covers covering a trio of counter-top appliances - a resplendent baby Jesus covering the blender; a Jesus hanging off the cross with blood spurting out of his many wounds on an electric can opener cover; and a newly resurrected Jesus levitating above the clouds on the toaster cover. As Sister Domnina and I wended our way through the house, I saw Jesus in many various states of repose and torture bestrewn throughout the nuns’ house. There were statues of all sizes: a large pre-adolescent Jesus in a satin robe; an adult Jesus walking on water and between the rabbit ear antennae on the console television; a Jesus stepping on a red-horned Satan; and a Jesus standing on top of planet earth. There were pictures of Jesus enduring every sort of indignity and enjoying every sort of exaltation. There was a paint-by-number painting of Jesus talking to the children. There were hand-drawn pictures of Jesus talking to animals, addressing his twelve apostles, listening to his mother and making a table with his father taped to the front door. There were plastic Jesuses that glowed in the dark, ceramic Jesuses, crocheted Jesuses, wooden Jesuses, table-lamp Jesuses, light-switch plate Jesuses, and moisturizing soap Jesuses. There were Jesuses covering Kleenex boxes and candle Jesuses emitting aromatic scents.
My presence there was the result of that rare double defect of being too earnest and contemplative to be expelled but too fiendish and heretical to not be punished. Those on the disciplinary board who wanted me expelled for stealing months’ worth of communion wine from the school chapel capitulated when Sister Domnina beseeched them to let me stay. She said I was a nice boy. There were six days before graduation and she said she had exactly 72 hours of work for me to do at the convent – the house where the three Franciscan sisters who worked at Sacred Heart High School lived.
If the Jesuses were meant to foster an environment of serenity or piety, they had the opposite effect for me. I found them intimidating and a little grotesque and the idolatry a wee bit misguided. Had graduation and escape not been on the line, I would have walked out. I would have.
Sister Domnina had been my 2nd grade teacher and I thought she was at least 100 years old then. But if living in small town dependent on a dying air conditioner plant and a large state prison for its livelihood had taught me that time eats away and corrodes things – faces, walls, plants, hopes, machinery, paychecks, the size of the crowd at the rodeo – Sister Domnina taught me that there were clear exceptions to such corrosion. She still looked to be at least 100 years old with her little raisin eyes stuck in shriveled face surrounded rumors of gray wiry hair peeking out of her habit, all moved precariously along by slow tiny block-like feet. But she still maintained a spritely and effervescent demeanor.
She greeted me with warmth and kindness that evinced no indication she resented me for hijacking the first week of her summer vacation or for stealing the blood of Jesus. I got to the convent at 7 a.m. on Monday morning. I was tasked with cleaning the basement which meant carrying about 200 boxes of nun stuff upstairs – boxes of old school books, old clothes, old everything upstairs for Sister Domnina to assess. Around lunch time Sister Domnina called me for lunch. She made bologna sandwiches. I could see glops of technicolor mustard oozing out of the Wonder bread and informed Sister Domnina that I did not like mustard. She said that I could eat or not. I declined and went back to the basement where I worked until 7 p.m. on the nose.
On Tuesday, I had to rent a steam cleaner and was tasked with steam cleaning the carpets. I cursed when some of the fringe in the living room rug got caught in the machine. Sister Domnina – sitting in a room she called the sun porch needlepointing a wine bottle holder with a picture of Jesus turning water into wine – heard the curse and smiled. She said it was time for a break so we watched Let’s Make a Deal and The Price is Right after Sister Domnina expertly adjusted the rabbit ears to get the CBS station. We ate non-pre-mustarded bologna sandwiches for lunch.
On Wednesday, I scrubbed and re-caulked the bath tub. It was odd knowing that nuns took baths in the very tub I was scrubbing, that the mildew in the tile grout was mildew from nun water. The entire panoply of hygiene products were all as chaste and plain as could be – Ivory soap, Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, a keg of Rite-Aid store brand talcum powder, Ultrabrite toothpaste etc. I put new contact paper on all the bathroom shelves and scrubbed the toilet. On Thursday I mowed the lawn, trim shrubs, weeded their garden, and painted the inside of the bath tub housing the Virgin Mary statue that oversaw the flower bed a new shade of powder blue.
On Friday, I was to paint the upstairs hallway. When I was about half way done, Sister Domnina asked me if I had lunch plans. I said no and she said that was good as she would make me lunch. I told her no mustard in a way that came out snippier than I intended. Around noon I went downstairs to discover that she had made a full Syrian meal - lamb and eggplant and something called tabbouleh; something called hummus; and a pistachio dish that might have been one of the best things I have ever had. During the meal, Sister Domnina told me she was from Syria and had moved to the United States when she was four and had grown up with this food. I told her somewhat contritely that never knew she was from Syria. She had lived a whole life – it took her months to get from Syria to Ellis Island; serendipity and a flourishing steel industry brought her parents upstate; she was almost a butcher’s wife and then joined the order which brought her to our shitty town decades ago. I was not so adept at being interested in others back then. I did ask her if living amongst the Jesuses ever got oppressive; she laughed and said that was how people thanked nuns, bought and made them Jesus things because, the thinking goes, what else do nuns like? I hadn’t even thought about thanking her prior to that – I was the one scrubbing the nun bathtub - but I did so, albeit with a mouthful of that pistachio stuff, as even then I knew she had in a way rescued me.
On Saturday, I started to finish painting the hallway but stopped and told Sister Domnina that we were going to the mall. I wanted to buy her something. But my intentions were not altogether altruistic as I could not spend one more day in the convent. Working. I drove her to the mall in my truck – about an hour away - and invited her to pick out any Swatch she wanted. She could not believe the array of plastic timepieces beneath the glass. She wanted the see-through one. The watch, pulled as small as one could make it, fit neatly on her tiny little wrist. I paid in cash with early graduation money. We ate at the food court. I was delighted to buy her inaugural Oran Julius for her.
My convent work passed inspection even though the upper half of the convent hallway was a different color than the half I could reach easily. I graduated from Sacred Heart the next day, worked a summer job at an amusement park, eschewed the few graduation parties to which I was invited and went to college in August. I never saw Sister Domnina again. I never even really thought of her at all until that day we all saw the picture of Alan Kurdi lying dead on that beach. I had never even wondered about Syria; had no idea what was happening there. I spent a while googling Sister Domnina and Franciscan and the diocese in which we lived and learned she had died that year too.
I wish I would have asked her more questions. How do you even get from Syria to America in the early 20th century? How long does it take to assimilate from hummus and tabbouleh to corn and chicken wings? I am not even certain that the pistachio-muffled thank you I offered at the table rose to the level of sufficient. I think it likely she never wore that Swatch; that she gave it to a niece or nephew or wayward soul or perpetually tardy 2nd grader. I hope she knew the plastic Swatch was where I was then, at 17. That it came from the heart; a heart that could neither crochet nor whittle nor sculpt a Jesus.
Gary M. Almeter is a trusts and estates attorney who lives with his wife, three children and beagle in Baltimore, Maryland. His humor, essays and short stories have appeared in McSweeney's, Higgs Weldon, SplitSider, 1966, and Writer's Bone. He has just finished a book of essays about ice cream; which is also sort of about Niagara Falls and bandanas and the New York City subway and maple syrup and alfalfa and the Boston marathon.