This is for Sharon Doubiago—one of the bravest people I’ve ever met.
Sister Martha’s robe was too long for her, the bottom always dirty from the dust of the unholy ground she walked. Back and forth between our rows of desks her round-toed, scuffed little shoes shot in and out of her grimy hem. We sat silent, our backs pressed into the metal frames of our chairs.
“Three naughty little children went for a walk in the forest,” her story began, during a Saturday morning catechism.
I pulled my stomach in and pushed it out, did push-ups with my toes, and moved my eyebrows up and down to keep from squirming in my seat. I did all of this when Sister Martha’s pass down the aisle put her back to me.
“And of course they became lost in the forest.” Sister Martha paused. “Very lost.” Another pause. “By now it was very dark.”
Ronnie Toschini sat next to me. I cut my eyes to the side, careful not to move my head. A thick yellow cord of snot ran from Ronnie’s left nostril to his upper lip. An involuntary grunt of disgust flew out of my mouth.
Sister Martha spun around; the black flaps on either side of her round head lifted and fell like the floppy dog ears of Pluto. Slow footsteps carried Sister Martha directly to my desk.
“Do you know what those bad children did then?” she asked me—only me.
Sister Martha slammed her hand on my desk top; my elbows cracked and the shattering of bone shimmied to my fingertips.
“Prayed what?” Sister Martha demanded.
“To God. Wait. To Jesus. No. To Mary.”
Sister Martha was short; she didn’t have to bend much to put her face right in mine. I could smell her Friday night fish breath. Sister Martha straightened up, folded her hands across her flat, cross-laden chest, never taking her eyes off of me.
“Those dreadful children did not say The Hail Mary. They did not say The Lord’s prayer.”
We children held our collective breath, so frightened for the lost and nameless kids.
“Those naughty children just said any prayers that came to their minds. They spoke right up to God, begging Him to save them,” she went on. “Not one prayer the sisters had taught them came to their lips.”
No one spoke into the silence Sister Martha held.
“God left them there in the forest to punish them. They never found their way home; they stayed lost forever.”
When dismissed to bend out little knees in the pews to practice The Lord’s Prayer, I gripped the smooth wood in front of me. I pulled the kneeler down; I let me knees sink into its worn vinyl cushion. I looked for a long time at the stained glass window picture of Jesus surrounded by children. I bowed my head; in the smallest voice I spoke into the crook of my arm, “Are you bored of that same prayer? Because I am.” A moment more—then, “You didn’t really leave them in the forest. I know you didn’t.”
I lifted my head; Sister Martha was in the corner. Her black robe was hitched up and her small hands were grabbing at her thick stockings that had crumpled around her knees. She saw me looking; her frown dared me to turn away, but I didn’t. I smiled at her. I didn’t look away until she did.
This piece came from an in-class assignment with Renee Gladman. The exercise was to write the story of a life in ten sentences, without using summary or chronology.
I kept it to ten sentences; I made liberal sue of the semi-colon.
For my grandmother.
The Italian island of her birth was a forest circled by sand. Her name meant ‘island,’ but the man behind the desk at Ellis Island didn’t know that—didn’t ask; he changed her name from Isola to Hazel.
The children in the one room schoolhouse in the hot and dusty California valley asked her why her skin was so dark; they called her a native and thought it was an insult.
In photographs from Gram’s childhood her face appears closed; her eyes look down and to the side. “My father burned to death,” she told us, always using those exact words; when they moved his coffin to the Italian graveyard she was ten years old: “His hair and fingernails had grown so long,” she told me. Her teenage brother died the moment his neck hit the sandy river bottom one Sunday afternoon.
The boy who wore overalls and pulled her braid that skittered across his desk would become her husband: my Grampo; her first words to him were, “Don’t do that.”
We who were born of and after Grams and Grampo watched them tease, honor, and finally tend to one another when they could no longer walk the vineyard rows, make pasta, or dance polkas.
Grams once ended a friendship with a woman who made Grampo’s favorite pie; Grampo—who must have drank too much wine—had complimented the woman on her baking.
When Grams died she reached her hand out, grasping at something none of us could see, though we all stood close to her bed. Grampo bent over, the metal railing pushed into him; he kissed her on the mouth where no more breath lived.