Ruth Z. Deming
Sister Paulita was born in 1934, the same year as the Dionne Quintuplets. If the quints were five identical girls with the names Émilie, Marie, Cécile, Annette and Yvonne - names deserving to be characters in a romance novel - Paulita was one of seven from a religious family in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.
Her mother, famous for her Easter breads, lentil soup, and all the dishes she could make with inexpensive potatoes, went a bit daft over the quints. She bought her five girls trademarked Quintuplet dolls, which Sister Paulita was unable to part with, even after she settled in for her last years at the convent Our Lady of Perpetua ten miles north of her Germantown home.
Mother was very firm. At five o’clock in the afternoon, she’d stand in her white apron on the front porch, next to the American flag, cup her mouth, and call in her high-pitched voice: Alphonse? Genevieve? Lucas? Hillary? Simon? Vincent? Paulita? Then she’d pause for breath, she was no youngster, after all, and in a final burst, “SupPER!”
She paid no attention to the nosy neighbors who’d mouth words like “The town alarm clock” or “She’d wake the dead with that croak of hers.”
They were a playful bunch, the Connellys, and Mother didn’t mind the dirt under their fingernails or inside their ears, just as long as they scrubbed themselves clean before dinner. It was a two-bathroom house with brown Fels Naphtha soap and an assortment of brushes that would make the Fuller Brush man proud.
In fact, that’s where her brushes came from, that nice Mr. Lewis Sheehan, who wore the same brown suit and raggedy tie every month when he knocked on their door.
“Little Paulita,” said Mother at the table, “your turn to say grace.”
Paulita sat up straight and arranged her doll Cécile, in her lap. She began, “God is great, God is good, and we thank Him for our … our …”
And she gave an enormous sneeze that fluttered the paper napkins and sent bits of spit across the table. The others howled with laughter, then exaggerated it, so the laughter didn’t stop for a good five minutes. Even Mother, with her hand across her mouth, joined in.
Beef stew with potatoes and vegetables was passed around the table as the light filtered through several windows in the dining room. In a long white tray, buttered pieces of home-made bread made the rounds.
Mother guided the conversation to the school day.
“We learned about Johnny Appleseed,” said sixteen-year-old Vincent, the oldest of the bunch with a good head on his shoulders. He explained about John Chapman, his real name, and how he introduced apples to America.
Alphonse jumped up from the table, ran into the living room, and produced red-cheeked apples from a basket on the coffee table.
“My word!” said Mother. Alphonse went round the table and pressed the apples to his siblings’ cheeks, who roared with laughter.
“Is Daddy still working?” asked Hillary.
“You know he is, dear,” said Mother with a straight face. “That’s why we have this lovely meat for dinner.” In fact, the butcher had taken pity on the family, called Mother inside when he saw her walking with her basket in hand, and without saying a word, wrapped up two pounds of beef.
“It’s a rump cut,” he said. “Cook it a long time.”
She didn’t say a word but nodded her head up and down, gratefully.
The Connellys gathered in the living room after dinner. Each had their own chair. Mother sat in a rocker that had belonged to her parents, as did this very house. Paulita brought over the book they were reading, “Bible Stories for Christian Children.”
Mother, starting to yawn, began to read. “Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age. He gave him the name Isaac.”
Mother skipped the part about Isaac getting circumcised on the eighth day. She continued, “Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.”
Alphonse gave a quizzical look and said, “You can’t have a baby when you’re a hundred years old, right, Mother?”
“Well, if the good Lord wants you to, it’s sure to happen.”
Loud singing came from the darkened front porch.
“Upstairs with you now,” said Mother. The children were so tired they didn’t waste a word arguing.
Daddy was home. Drunk as usual.
* * *
Years passed. The house was empty, save for Mother. Father died in jail, beaten to death by a crazed inmate. The guards heard it all, but did nothing. Mother, dressed in her best black mourning clothes, visited the warden.
They sat in his gray-painted office with a wall filled with certificates and awards. Mother stared in disbelief. She had come for an apology and told him so.
“Ma’am, I’m certainly sorry about your husband, but jail is a place of punishment. He shouldn’t have been here in the first place. Prisons are dangerous like bars. They’re not a house of worship.”
Mother opened her black purse and removed a photo. “This, Warden Thompson, is my Billy, or was anyway.”
The young Billy Connelly sat on a porch step with a broad grin over his smiling face. His wavy black hair shone in the sunshine.
The warden nodded. “Darn shame,” he said, as he rose from behind his desk. “Best thing you can do, Mrs. Connelly, is find yourself another man. Otherwise you’ll all end up in the poorhouse.”
She stared at him and said, “From the Holy Bible, ‘Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.’”
One of the guards took her arm and escorted her from the room and down the long hallway, then held open the door for her. Dabbing the tears from her eyes, she found her green Ford Fairlane and drove home. The children had moved out once they were eighteen. Their father had subjected them to corporal punishment with a belt and drunken tirades that affected their sleep and their studies.
The children did not end up in the poorhouse. Letters from them would arrive at least once a week.
“Dear Mother,” wrote Alphonse, “wish I could give you more, but here’s a ten-dollar bill for your groceries. Buy yourself some flowers."
Or, “Dear Mother, if you weren’t the best mum in the world, filled with love, and with the true Christian spirit, I’ll eat my shoe. Please accept this twenty-dollar bill.”
Signed in her black handwriting, “Hillary.”
A drunkard’s wife, back then, stood by her man and defended his honor, while knowing deep inside he lacked the strength of character to give up his booze. In the neighborhood drinking men came in varieties as different as the color of houses. Mother noticed that young girls left home as fast as possible, many pregnant, many marrying drunks just like their fathers.
Sure enough, her second youngest daughter Genevieve found herself a charming alcoholic who used his fists on her. She didn’t actually tell Mother, but what was the sum of two plus two?
Paulita left home for the convent on her sixteenth birthday.
* * *
Sister Paulita gave thanks for the oatmeal with brown sugar and raisins she ate for breakfast. The dozen members of Sisters of Perpetua sat at an old wooden table with scratch marks all over it. Not terribly obedient, the women took shortcuts and chopped fruits and vegetables onto the table, rather than using a cutting board. Ever since she sat at the table, Sister Paulita would find little shapes, scars on the table. Mostly she would imagine the names of her brothers and sisters whom she missed terribly. Visiting day was but once a year.
So many had died. Her parents went first. Her father she never cared about, but that valiant mother of hers was a true saint. Paulita was given leave to attend her mother’s funeral and remembered standing in the snow at Resurrection Cemetery in faraway Bensalem. A wrought-iron fence enclosed the huge property. How, she wondered, had her mother paid for the cemetery plot? Never did she figure it out but the widow was ever-resourceful.
Now it was pumpkin weather. The garden at the convent had grown tomatoes, yellow squash, sweet potatoes, and golden pumpkins with long green stems that looked like twisted noses.
She had asked for a meeting with the Abbess. Every room was tiny, from their bedrooms to the individual offices, which reminded her of honeycombs, to the chapel which echoed with song.
The Abbess reminded her of her own mother. Firm. Sparing no extra words. A woman who rarely smiled.
The Abbess tapped on the round wooden table, indicating Paulita was to sit down.
Paulita began, “Mother St. Michael, I’ve enjoyed the various duties I’ve had over the years.”
“I know what you’re going to say, child,” said the Abbess.
Paulita raised her eyebrows.
"The answer is Yes. Yes you may leave our holy home of God and venture out in the wide world like our Lord Jesus did two millennia ago."
She gave a rare smile. “I have been expecting your leave-taking ever since you moved in at age sixteen. In particular, after your beloved mother had died and you attended her funeral, you had a skip in your step when you returned to the convent.”
Paulita began to laugh the way she did with her brothers and sisters.
“You are very intuitive, Sister St. Michael,” she said.
Paulita had often walked, with the ease of a child, in the large forested lands owned by the convent. Never had she felt so free, so like the characters in her Bible stories, and even pretended she was Sarah about to give birth to Isaac at age one hundred.
“Well, we must think of where to put you. And what you will do,” said the Abbess.
“I’m not fond of retirement homes,” said Paulita, knowing that the clergy - priests, brothers, and nuns – had their own special religious homes, where Catholic customs were observed. She didn’t want to tell the Abbess she was sick of being a Catholic and simply wanted to contemplate life anew, freed of the dogma of religion.
“Where to, then? Have you any ideas?” asked the Abbess.
“In fact, I do.”
Paulita had seen a high rise in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. She knew nothing about it save for the people she saw coming and going. White people, black people, folks carrying brief cases, Muslim women wearing floor-length black garb, small children who never walked when they could run. A cosmopolitan circus of people she had missed for a good fifty years.
* * *
Paulita, carrying one heavy leather suitcase, got off the elevator on the seventh of twelve floors of The Enders Building, walked down the carpeted hallway, and opened the door with her very own key, to Room Number Eight. The two-room apartment was fully furnished with a kitchenette and a queen-sized bed with a white bedspread on it.
The window gave onto the huge back yard. In the middle of summer, the green grass was being mowed by a tiny figure on a John Deere tractor. She opened her window to see if she could smell the grass, but she was too far away. She began to unpack, throwing her clothes in the bureau drawers, which were lined with happy-looking yellow paper. The tractor began to sound like music and the former nun couldn’t help but smile, a big broad grin that spread across her face like her dad´s when he was young.
A full-length mirror hung on the back of the bedroom door. Taking a deep breath, she looked at herself. “Look what the cat dragged in,” she said aloud. “It’s gonna take a while to get to know you. But I think you and I,” she said, smoothing down her short white hair, “will become best of friends.”
With sparkling eyes, she left her room, locking it securely, and took the elevator to the ground floor. Out back she went, a sixty-six-year-old woman, with her entire life ahead of her, and a bank account with a thousand dollars in it.
The outdoors smelled delicious. She gazed across the greenery and longed to put down a blanket and have a picnic right there in the back yard. Instead she went to what she knew was a maple tree, rubbed her hands across the stippled bark, and carefully sat down underneath it.
“Like the Buddha,” she thought.
Her eyes delighted in the “leaves of grass,” a long Whitman poem she had taught at LaSalle High School. She lay her hands on the grass and plucked a white clover and tickled her nose with it. She looked down at her long legs, as white as the clover. I don’t think of myself as an old lady
, she thought. But I must take it easy.
Life had gone by as quickly as the hawk soaring against the blue sky.
“You must not eat me,” she scolded the hawk, staring at his movements which were much like a ballet in the sky.
“My name is Paulita,” she said to no one in particular. “People used to call me ‘Sister Paulita,’ which, once upon a Christian childhood, I liked very much. Now you may call me Paulita and when you have time, I’d like to introduce you to my Dionne Quintuplet Trademarked doll, whose name, for the life of me, I can’t remember. But she’s upstairs, a bit ragged, and if you like, we can both kiss her on her porcelain cheeks.”
She began to arise carefully from under the tree.
From the balconies at Enders Apartments a few reclining souls spotted her.
“Look, Mommy,” said 10-year-old Angie, pointing. “An old woman sitting under a tree. She reminds me of Gramma. Maybe we can meet her.”