Weight of Time
No, this was wrong. She must
have been mistaken. This small ugly hovel couldn't have been the home
she was raised in as a young girl. No memories were stirred by the
weed ridden patch of front yard or the chipped and paint scared
walls. Her family could never have lived in such forlorn
Sister Mary St. Francis stepped
back and double checked the street number on the rusted plaque beside
what was left of the old building's front door. Yes, that was the
right number, she was sure. But how could any building she had lived
in for the first 16 years of her life so change that it evoked not a
single memory? How was that possible?
Seeing her hesitate, young
Jack, her nephew and family appointed driver, got out of the car
where he had been told to stay and shouted to her over the roar of
the city around them. "You okay, Aunt Agnes?"
I don't know, she thought to
herself, this isn't anything like I imagined. But to Jack she said,
"I'm going in. Wait here for me dear, I won't be long."
"You'll call if you want
anything," he told her.
The green front door hung
partly open and moved noiselessly to her touch. She stepped quickly
into the dark interior, letting the door swing closed with a bang,
behind her. She stood in a small hallway, the noise of the city now
muffled and the heat of the day replaced by a suffocating and dank
humidity. The colour was wrong and the light fixture wasn't right,
but it had been sixty years since she last stepped foot in this
house, and probably ten years since anyone other than street people
had lived here. The floor boards creaked dangerously like dried twigs
ready to snap beneath her weight. There were no spider webs by the
ceiling but she noticed mouse droppings in the corner. Her mother
would have had a fit, Agnes thought.
In an unconscious gesture she
reached up and fingered the small cross that hung on a simple chain
around her neck. Then she moved on into the interior of the house. On
her left was the living room, or was it? She looked perplexed around
the ten by ten foot square room, the yellow paint peeling from its
walls, its floor bare, except for a torn cardboard box tossed against
the wall in one corner. How could her family of parents and six
children have fit in this tiny room, not to mention the furniture
needed to seat them all. The house continued to have a foreign feel
to it, any sense of home eluded her.
"Hail Mary full of grace..." No
this wasn't time to be Sister Mary St.Francis! Stay Agnes, Jack's
Aunt Agnes for now.
What am I doing here, she
wondered. Hoping for another Divine Intervention, she answered
herself, once in a life time isn't enough for some people. Trying to
bring my life full circle, she replied to herself. This is where my
life's track was chosen, where I set my feet on the pathway of a
religious life, became a nun and shut the door on a secular life
forever. Here a 13 year old girl had received a calling, an
avocation, that led directly to the 78 year old woman I have become.
But could she have made that choice in this strange place?
"Tommy!!!" A voice from her
childhood rang clearly in her mind! Agnes jumped, startled by the
clarity of her memory. A tear started in the corner of her eye, but
she shook it away. Don't go getting all sentimental, she ordered
herself. It's not time to think of Tommy yet.
Agnes turned into the kitchen,
an area almost twice the size of the living room. As she looked about
the room the feeling of strangeness slowly began to bleed away. In
her mind's eye she saw again her mother at the stove, her family
around the big kitchen table. She could see the boys fighting and
squabbling, her father sitting back lost in his own thoughts.
Herself, the one girl in the family was playing with the dog under
the table as they waited for their Sunday dinner.
Oh Momma, she thought, was my
choice such a disappointment for you? Agnes knew her mother had
looked forward to her daughter's teenage years, to sharing in Agnes
romances in a way she never could with her son's. Agnes leaned back
against the counter, placing a hand on its rough surface. Ghosts from
her memory filled the room. I'm sorry momma. I didn't want this to
happen. I didn't choose this life, I fought against it. Every Sunday
that her mother's brother, the priest, Father Leo, came to visit and
admonished the children to pray for an avocation to the religious
life, Agnes had prayed for just the opposite.
"Please God, don't choose me,"
she would pray. "I would be a terrible nun. Don't choose
Agnes had known something her
mother and Father Leo had not. Even at a young age she was very
sexual. Boys excited her beyond reason. She loved the flirting and
look and the smell of them. She loved watching them move, figuring
out how their muscles worked their bodies. Momma I would have driven
you to your grave in my teens, she told her. I didn't want innocent
romances, then a husband and children. I never liked playing house
with the other girls. If I hadn't gotten pregnant it wouldn't have
been for lack of trying. You could never have had the happy medium,
momma. Your only choices were the saint or the sinner, though either
way, I let you down.
But you are not here to make
peace with your mother, the voice in her head said again. She never
stopped loving you and you earned her respect. In the end she was
proud of you, so come on, stop playing around. This is a dangerous
neighborhood now and you've left poor Jack alone out there on the
street while you engage in sentimental fantasy. You're here to
confront the moment; the moment you changed your mind and decided to
commit your life to God. You're here to remind your self that you
made the right choice, that the 13 year old who decided your fate
made the right decision. Because you are not sure anymore that she
Agnes started again. Yes it was
time to think of Tommy. But for that she needed to go upstairs to the
As Agnes started up the now
frighteningly weak staircase, she began to feel the weight of all of
her 78 years. She could feel the tired exhaustion in her varicose
legs. Her joints ached with the climb. She was thankful nuns no
longer had to wear the habit and she was free to explored this dirty
old house in blue jeans and sweatshirt. In any event she would have
to do a laundry and have a bath after she left.
No, wait, she remembered now!
It was here on this staircase that her mother had first told her
about Tommy. Agnes paused, rooted to the step by memory. Yes, she had
just returned from school and was still wearing her uniform when her
mother had sat her down. Tommy had been sick for a while and everyone
was worried, so when her mother had told her they had to talk, Agnes
feared the worst.
"It's about Tommy," her mother
had told her. "I didn't want you to hear this from your father or the
boys. They don't want to hear it. They don't want to face the truth."
Agnes knew what was coming and she didn't want the words to be said
either. "Tommy is dying Agnes and there is nothing we can do about
it. It's a painful truth, but there is no sense trying to avoid
Agnes surprised herself by not
crying, then. She had never encountered death before, except as some
abstract concept that happened to others. Her voice was steady. "How
soon momma?" she asked.
"Soon, child. Soon. I don't
know exactly when. But soon enough. And when the time comes, I'll
need you to be strong and help me. We are the only two women in the
family and we'll need each other."
Agnes continued up the stairs.
To her right was her parent's bedroom, straight ahead was her room,
to her left the boy's rooms where Tommy slept. Where Tommy had wasted
away from some malignant illness.
Tommy was six at the time.
Agnes remembered him before his illness, playing catch in the
backyard, his excitement at the game making up for any lack of skill.
Agnes loved Tommy. While Momma looked after the even younger ones, he
was hers to care for, her burden, her love and her joy.
Her mother's words had haunted
her and she prayed that night with a fierce determination. Every
ounce of her thirteen year old will power was put into those prayers.
And then at three in the morning she knew what she had to do. She
made a special prayer, a pledge to God. Spare Tommy and I will give
my life to you. I will become a nun, just like Father Leo asked. No
sooner were the words out of her mouth than she knew the truth of
them. There had been a moment of such profound power, she could
relive the feel of the moment any time she wished for the next fifty
years of her life. Although over the past ten or so years it had
ebbed away until she could no longer be sure it had ever happened at
Agnes stood outside the room
where Tommy had lain near death. She could see the thirteen year old
that was her running out of her room and into Tommy's to find him
tired but sitting up for the first time in weeks. Agnes could see in
her eye the power the girl felt, but the experience itself was still
beyond her grasp.
Agnes cried. She cried for
herself. She cried for the confused and sentimental old woman she had
become at the end of her days.
"Aunt Agnes?" Jack voice came
from the bottom of the stairs.
Agnes dried her eyes. "I'm here
Jack," she replied. "I'll be down in a moment."
"It's not a good neighbourhood
Aunt Agnes, we shouldn't stay too much longer."
"I"ll be right there, Jack.
Please, just a moment longer."
"Mom will be
Agnes took a deep breath and
opened the door to Tommy's room, the floor boards creaking ominously
below her. An unexpected cool breeze leaped out of the room, causing
her to pause on the threshold. Startled, Agnes suddenly realized most
of the bedroom's floor had collapsed into the sewing room below.
Although she wouldn't have said she was frightened, she could feel
her heart pounding in her chest. Had she stepped directly into the
room she would have fallen 12 feet straight down into the pile of
rubble below her.
Gone forever was the room she
had come to visit, the experience she had come to reclaim, where
sixty years ago, two bunk beds and four active boys had somehow
survived in this tiny cramped space. In a stifling oven of a room,
Tommy had sweated and wasted away in the throes of an illness Agnes
suddenly realized she could not name. It was as if the very
foundation of her life had given way, not just the floor of an old
Agnes took a step back into the
hallway, moving away from her thoughts more than from the collapsed
floor. The hallway floor boards creaked loudly under her weight. But
the thoughts still came. Had her parents in their poverty, even
called a doctor, she wondered? If they had, how competent were the
doctors in this lower working class neighborhood? The air in the hall
was oppressive. It must always have been this way in the summer, but
Agnes could remember few sleepless nights.
Had Tommy had nothing worse
than the flu?
Suddenly, Agnes started to
laugh. For some unexplained reason her spirits had lifted and she
felt connected to her past once more. The laughing felt so good, like
a rainy day at the end of a drought.
You stupid woman, it doesn't
matter! Tommy may have been the spark that got you going, but that's
not why you stayed a nun for 65 years! You stayed because everyday
the woman you were decided this was the right life for
Right, Sister Mary St. Francis?
Right! Have you got it now?
Agnes fell gratefully back
against the plaster cracked wall. It was right that I came, she
thought. Agnes felt at home at last.
"Okay, Jack. I'm ready," she
called, a big grin on her face. "I'll be right down!"