When I was 3 years old she was my favorite person in the whole world. She taught 8th grade to the kids at St. Joe’s. My brother and sisters had been, or were soon to be in her class. her name was Sister Mary. (Which is like John Smith as far as nun names go.)
Being a tag along, 7 years behind my siblings, I got carted a lot of places. Drum corps practices, parades, basketball practices, girl scout meetings. Whenever these events brought us to St. Joe’s, Sister Mary was there to play with me. She didn’t talk down to me, but spoke to me at my level and treated me like someone who was old enough to matter. Some of my first memories are of her playing basketball with me in the cafeteria, which doubled as the gym at the time. Man, I loved her so much.
Mom and Dad were pretty involved at the school, and had befriended Sister Mary. She was younger than the other nuns, I’m guessing somewhere in her mid twenties. In the early 70’s it was already becoming rare to see nuns under 40.
I remember her coming to dinner one evening in the spring, when I was 4. I was in preschool at the time and looking forward to being a big kid who could go to St. Joe’s in the fall. She dropped the bombshell on us that she would be leaving Batavia, and going to teach in Olean at the end of the school year. She had brought me a present, I’m guessing because it was my birthday. A small plastic music box, that played Edelweis when you pulled the string. On it was a picture of a hummel figurine. A little boy sitting in a field of flowers.
Before she left she asked if she could have one of the pictures that I had drawn which were taped along the walls of the kitchen. She choose my favorite. A red apple, with arms and legs. I cried my eyes out when she was gone. It may sound trite, but I learned that day that sometimes love can hurt too.
We visited her once in the fall after she had moved to Olean. I don’t remember much of it, other than seeing her new school and feeling that things were just wrong. Why did she have to leave? When would she come back to St. Joe’s?
Growing up that music box was a constant presence on the bookshelf at the head of my bed, tucked between the Dr. Suess books, and my stuffed animals. Each night after Mom tucked me in, and closed the door until it was open just a tiny bit to let the bathroom light shine into the room, I would pull the string and listen to Edelweis. As the string inched up toward the box, and the music slowed I would think of her and wonder where she was.
Mom said she ended up leaving the order, and marrying. She would be in her 60’s by now. I don’t even know what her name is. But it doesn’t matter. To me she will always be my first love, Sister Mary. And her music box is still tucked into my dresser among my few, most prized possessions.