WORLD WITHOUT END:
A BOOK OF PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS
When I was in parochial school, a nun from the missions came to visit my class. The nun wore a light gray habit. The nuns who taught us wore a lot of black and a little white.
Our teacher turned the lights down, and the nun showed us a video about what goes on in the missions overseas. In one scene there were naked brown children collecting palm leaves. In another a nun taught arithmetic. Some of her students had uniforms like ours. Some were naked. Another scene showed bread raining down from the sky, then a naked child tearing out the soft insides of a piece of bread. The raining bread was a special effect.
While the bread was raining down, the word “Bread!” appeared in large golden lettering in the center of the screen.
After the video, the nun told us a story.
In her mission, there was a young priest who had been saying mass. Out of nowhere, an armed man walked up behind the priest and shot him at point blank range. The man fled and the priest fell forward on the altar. But the priest was not killed. In fact, he was not injured at all. He was wearing a little cloth medallion called a scapular under his vestments, and the scapular had stopped the bullet.
“”God watches over his servants,” the nun said.
“”Are there any questions?” asked the nun.
Nicholas O’Meldon raised his hand.
“”Are scapulars made of the same thing as bulletproof vests?”
“”No,” said the nun. “Are there any other questions?”
Alex Bostory raised his hand.
“”Do nuns where you’re from not have to wear black?”
“”No. The reason we do not wear black is because we live in a tropical climate, and black attracts the heat. Any other questions?”
Alex Bostory raised his hand.
“”So that means you’ll have to wear black when you’re up here?”
“”No,” said the nun. “Any other questions?”
Nicholas O’ Meldon and Alex Bostory were never really friends of mine. This doesn’t mean that I was partial to the nuns. I tried not to be partial to anyone.
Susan McDormand was partial to the nuns. Susan McDormand came from a very religious family and frowned angrily whenever the nuns were treated with irreverence.
One autumn, Nicholas O’Meldon found a gigantic pair of women’s underpants, rolled them around in mud, and stuffed them inside Susan McDormand’s desk when Susan was at the water fountain and the teacher wasn’t looking.
Every September the school librarian, Mrs. Nadelman, organized a Book and Magazine Fair. It took place in the basement room where the library was. The Fair’s selection of books was very diverse. The Fair’s selection of magazines came mostly from the missions and from the Catholic presses. There were also posters on sale. A few were of athletes. Most were of Jesus.
The Book and Magazine Fair was one of the few extracurricular events that the school offered.
Mrs. Nadelman always kept the blinds on the library windows pulled down. She probably did not want the bindings of her books to fade in the daylight.
She wouldn’t even lift them for the Book and Magazine Fair.
When I was in the first grade, I was taken to the Book and Magazine Fair by a student from the seventh grade. This was part of a mentoring program called Little Buddy, Big Buddy. Under this program, first graders were paired off with seventh graders. Second graders were paired off with eighth graders. Third graders were paired off with fifth graders. Fourth and sixth graders were paired off with nobody.
Little Buddy, Big Buddy tried to pair older students with younger students of the same sex. This did not always work. I was paired with a seventh-grade girl.
I was also paired with a girl when I was in the fifth grade. The girl was named Roberta Kurimoto.
The nuns called Alex Bostory “Mister Bostory”. They called Susan McDormand “Miss McDormand”. They called Roberta Kurimoto “Roberta”.
I had seen Roberta Kurimoto’s family in church.
There were many children in the Kurimoto family, almost all of them girls. Roberta and her sisters were very tall. Their mother was very tall. Their father, however, was very short.
In church, Mr. Kurimoto would grasp the pew in his hands, lift his head to the ceiling, and sing. He opened his mouth very wide to enunciate each word, and he looked like he wanted to cry tears of joy.
The other Kurimotos would be perfectly silent.
As one of our Little Buddy, Big Buddy activities, the third graders and the fifth graders were gathered together in one of the larger classrooms. A nun from the missions was there to make a presentation. This nun wore brown.
The nun showed a video.
The video was about a group of doctors and nurses on a remote Indonesian island. They improved the natives’ housing and gave the natives mosquito nets. They also performed basic surgeries. The camera showed a naked girl with a corrected harelip. “However,” said one of the doctors, “there are some things our funding simply will not allow us to do.”
The camera showed a baby. There was a fleshy pink growth the size of a small apple in the middle of this baby’s forehead. The baby kicked its legs and wailed, and the growth flapped up and down.
The doctor came back on the screen. “I believe there is hope,” he said, “if we can operate in the next few weeks.”
The nun in brown did not take questions. The nun in brown passed around a round wicker basket. An index card that said “Donations for the Sick” was taped to the rim.
Most of the students put in whatever was left of their lunch money. Susan McDormand put in a five-dollar bill.
People began to tease Susan McDormand when they discovered how much money she had given. They said Susan McDormand was in love with the baby. They said Susan McDormand wanted to marry the doctor and have a baby just like that.
Susan McDormand wore her expression of anger. Yet she refused to say anything back. She was always very quiet.
One person who was always attentive to the quiet children in my school was Sister Augustine. She always had a nice word for me.
Sister Augustine worked as Mrs. Nadelman’s assistant. Sister Augustine had a cart that she pushed. She was fragile and old. She wore very big glasses.
Sister Augustine always smiled. Her teeth were fake. I know this because she sometimes put the teeth in the wrong way. Sometimes only the bottom plate would be inserted. Sometimes she would put the teeth in upside-down. Once I think she mistook another nun’s teeth for her own. She smiled at me and her teeth were much smaller and sharper and whiter than usual, but a few days later they were back to normal.
The teeth also did not look anything like real teeth. They looked like they were carved from the kind of plastic that glows in the dark.
There were some fifth-graders who liked their Little Buddies very much.
Susan McDormand liked her Little Buddy. Once I saw Susan McDormand and her Little Buddy meet each other in the hallway. Instead of passing by in silence, like Roberta Kurimoto and I usually did, the two of them waved and ran right up to each other, and Susan McDormand stooped down and the two of them started to play a clapping game, and as she was leaving, Susan McDormand said something about how pretty her Little Buddy’s hair looked.
Susan McDormand’s Little Buddy came from a very religious family.
Alex Bostory hated his Little Buddy. His Little Buddy was Matilda Wylie.
Matilda Wylie was an extremely large and extremely hungry girl. Her father owned a deli downtown. Matilda Wylie sat alone at lunch and ate sandwiches with pastrami and cottage cheese. The smell was very strong.
She also got things from the lunch counter when the sandwiches were gone.
Matilda Wylie had to start wearing a bra before anyone else. This was a fact that Alex Bostory let everybody know. “I bet they aren’t even boobs,” he said. “I bet her chest just got fat.”
Matilda Wylie did not get excited often. At recess she sat by herself and stroked at her hair.
However, she got very excited at Thanksgiving. Her father provided the turkey for the school’s annual Thanksgiving Feast. He also provided macaroni and potato salad.
Matilda Wylie would talk proudly about how her father would bring over all the turkey in his van. He always let her ride along. He also let her carry a few of the containers of food into the school kitchen, where students were not normally allowed.
Sometimes Matilda Wylie would start talking quite loudly. Her face would grow red and she would have to stop to catch her breath, but she would not stop talking about her father and the turkey. “Calm down, Matilda,” the lay teachers would say, but Matilda Wylie would not calm down.
“”Miss Wylie calm down!” said the nuns. Matilda Wylie calmed down.
How do I know all this? I was there to hear Matilda Wylie because the nuns scheduled several Little Buddy, Big Buddy activities before the Thanksgiving Feast.
The activities took place on Monday afternoons, at the time when my class typically had Mrs. Nadelman’s Library Science Seminar.
In the Library Science Seminar we were taught how to use the card catalogue. Mrs. Nadelman would hand around sample cards. Each student would get a different card. Each student would get a copy of the same worksheet. The worksheet had a few questions. “On the basis of this card’s Dewey Decimal number, under which subject heading does it belong?” “If this book had been issued in 1977, as opposed to being issued under the year under which it was, would the entry for this book have been placed earlier or later in the carding file?” We did not receive a grade for the Library Science Seminar. It only said “”Satisfactory” or “Unsatisfactory” on our report cards.
Mrs. Nadelman carefully graded the worksheets anyway.
One of the Thanksgiving activities was a hand-print turkey. You spread your hand on a sheet of paper. You draw the outline. Your thumb is the head and your other fingers are the tail feathers.
I showed Roberta Kurimoto how to make the turkey. Then I told her to spread out her hand and draw a turkey next to mine. She refused. She wanted a new piece of paper.
When Roberta Kurimoto drew her turkey, she extended he thumb but kept the other four fingers together. “You’re supposed to spread them, like this,” I said, and I showed her again. “No,” she said. “Why not?” I said.
She said turkeys didn’t have tails like that in real life.
Some of the students wanted to put the hand-print turkeys on display. Susan McDormand was especially enthusiastic. However, there was no room in the third-grade classroom. The wall was covered with posters. The fifth-grade wall was also covered with posters. The hand-print turkeys were on very large sheets of paper.
“”I’ll go ask Mrs. Nadelman,” said the third-grade teacher. “She has a big open wall she never uses.”
Mrs. Nadelman said no.
Despite the Book and Magazine Fair, nobody liked Mrs. Nadelman. I would walk through the parking lot after school, and I would hear mothers complaining about her.
“”I can’t believe they hired that woman to run the library,” the mothers would say. “My children say she’s always yelling at everyone and she hasn’t bought any new books in years.”
The mothers always referred to Mrs. Nadelman as “that woman.”
Mrs. Nadelman once brought my class a treat. The treat was a box of little triangular pastries. The jelly in some was orange, the jelly in others was purple. Each student was allowed to take one of the pastries. I got one of the purple ones. It tasted stale.
“”These are something we have on the holidays,” Mrs. Nadelman kept saying.
Nobody knew what holiday she was talking about.
I did not like the food at the Thanksgiving Feast, either.
With the exception of the ice cream cups that were handed out for desert, all of the food came from Mr. Wylie’s deli. Mr. Wylie’s turkey was set on the table in big steaming tins. If you looked into a tin after the students had taken out all its turkey, you would see half an inch or so of water spread evenly over the bottom.
The turkey in the tins came in flat circular slices. It tasted sour. It was the kind of turkey that is usually put into sandwiches.
Sandwich turkey was the only kind of turkey the deli had.
I have seen the nuns force students to eat. Once, Ginger Hunt was sitting at lunch with an uneaten bag of corn chips and an unopened packet of yellow cheese spread. A nun approached her and asked about the food. Ginger Hunt said she was not hungry. The nun said there are children in the missions who would do anything for food like that. The nun said that hundreds of babies die of starvation every day. The nun said it is a sin to waste what God has provided.
The nun stood over Ginger Hunt and watched until all the food was gone.
Sometimes I think that Roberta Kurimoto was much craftier than anyone imagined.
Roberta Kurimoto and I had to sit together at the Thanksgiving Feast. As one of the Thanksgiving crafts, the third graders had made Indian headdresses and my class had made pilgrim hats and bonnets, all out of construction paper. We had to wear these at the Feast. My hat was not comfortable.
During the Feast, Roberta Kurimoto noticed the way that Susan McDormand was helping her Little Buddy. Susan McDormand would portion out turkey and potato salad for her Little Buddy. She would also slice up the turkey.
Roberta Kurimoto refused to take any food unless I portioned it onto her plate. She also refused to eat, unless I sliced up the turkey.
It was not easy to carve through the turkey. The turkey was rubbery, and the knives that we had been given were made of soft and inexpensive plastic.
Roberta Kurimoto also wanted my pilgrim hat. I let her have it. She took it from me and put her Indian headdress on it so that the headdress looked like a big feathery hatband.
I smiled at Roberta Kurimoto when I saw this. Roberta Kurimoto did not smile back.
A few months later, in the spring, a new girl joined our class, and Roberta Kurimoto was given to her. “Why the hell can’t they give her mine?” said Alex Bostory.
We did not have to take our little buddies everywhere. A few weeks after the Thanksgiving Feast, the fifth grade went on a private excursion to the Tomb of Sister Mary-Eustatia. The Tomb is in upstate New York.
Sister Mary-Eustatia had been canonized. Our teacher informed us that Sister Mary-Eustatia had performed great miracles in her lifetime. I asked if these miracles were like the ones Jesus had performed.
Our teacher said that Sister Mary-Josephina had led a tribe of Indians to God.
A nun showed us the Tomb. This nun wore brown.
The Tomb was inside a chamber with a large circular dome. Both the dome and the chamber walls were made of red bricks just like the bricks of our school building. In the center of the chamber was the corpse of Sister Mary-Eustatia. It was laid out on its back like it was sleeping. The corpse had been kept above ground for the visitors to venerate.
It was not easy to get a close look at the corpse. A large glass box encased the body, and a guardrail ran around the altar where the box and the body were set up.
Yet I could see what color the corpse’s clothes were. They were black.
“”Now do you have any questions?” asked the nun.
Nicholas O’Meldon raised his hand. “Does Sister Mary-Eustatia have real skin on her face?”
“”Sister Mary-Eustatia wears a wax face mask. It was cast on the day she died and it preserves the way she looked. Do you have any other questions?”
Nicholas O’Meldon raised his hand. “Isn’t that against the Ten Commandments?”
The nun scrunched up her face. “Young man, could you please explain that question?”
“”If it’s not her real face, doesn’t that mean she’s bearing false witness?”
“Young man, that is her real face,” said the nun. “Are there any more questions?”
Nobody had any more questions.
The staff of the tomb provided a lunch. We had baked pasta. It was served in the same kind of tins that were used at the Thanksgiving Feast.
In each tin, the pieces of pasta that were on the surface had been baked until they were too hard to chew. Further down, a lot of the pasta had not been heated at all. It was slimy and very cold. In some places it was still frozen together.
We were taken to the gift shop. I walked around for a while on my own, then ran into Alex Bostory and Nicholas O’Meldon in the back. They were laughing hysterically. I asked why. “Get a load of these,” one of them said, and held up a giant rosary with sturdy wooden beads on a metal chain. “I bet you need this to hold up Matilda Wylie’s bra.”
Sister Augustine had accompanied us on our excursion. She did not join us on the tour or eat the lunch the staff provided. She spent most of the excursion kneeling before the corpse.
Sister Augustine bought a poster from the gift shop. She showed it to many of us. On the poster a woman raises up her arms to Jesus, who is descending from the heavens. The woman has pink healthy cheeks and shining eyes.
The woman is Sister Mary-Eustatia.
On the ride back, I had to sit near the front of the bus, right behind where the adults were. I heard Sister Augustine mention a few times that she would like to put her poster up on Mrs. Nadelman’s wall. “It will help all of us to remember what a nice day this was,” said Sister Augustine.
The poster never went up.
There was a riddle that Sister Augustine liked to tell. She would find a child who was walking alone in the hallway or sitting alone at recess, and approach. I heard this riddle many times.
Sister Augustine would ask, “Do you know how much Jesus loves you?” Almost everyone knew the answer. Yet we all pretended that we had no idea, and let her continue.
“Well,” she said, “Jesus loves you this much.” And she would smile, and raise her old arms, and hold out her fragile hands like they had been nailed against a cross.