30 years ago I spent a semester in London, or to be more specific, in Hampstead, in a home filled with American students and just as many (retired) Jesuit priests. Maybe 50 in all. Maybe a bit less. There was also a Director (of the house); a Professor (from our Jesuit university); a cook, named Eric, with a fetish for toes; and someone else, unexplained: a single extraneous woman.
I pulled out my address book this morning in search of her last name and her last place of residence and only then did I realize, as I paged through, how infrequently I relied on physical addresses of friends for communications anymore. Yet, once upon a time, Sister Norrie and I were pen pals; and before that, house mates.
Southwell House was cold and damp and dark, and to me this fully explained the British habit of afternoon tea; and London itself was dark and dreary and bitter which illuminated the addition of sweets. Thursday was my favorite. Eric baked scones. Despite the careful directions he sent me via post years later, I was unable to duplicate them.
Tea and sweets and beer kept me warm that winter, as did the occasional hot shower stolen from the priests when I was brave enough to infiltrate their wing. Sister Norrie lived above them, at the tail end of the students’ wing, where she kept me company in her tiny room.
Norrie must have been 70 at the time, maybe older, but I was only 20, so she could have been 60. I remember long, white, wispy hair. Thin bones. Ruddy cheeks. A steady and gentle presence.
She once confided that her only regret at becoming a nun was not having children of her own.
I gave her a grapevine heart sent to me by a dear friend, and she gave me a small brown earthen mug, handcrafted by beloved students. (These, our parting gifts on the morning that I took the train to Heathrow to fly home.)
Most of my classmates left the second the semester ended, but I stayed on, stashed my belongings in an empty room off the foyer, and took a journey to Ireland, to the roots that Norrie and I shared, and to further delay my return to the world of pain that had become my family as it silently imploded.
Those belongings of mine, including a stuffed dog and two blankies, had been mistakenly donated to a charity while I was traveling. I was desperate to get them back, and embarrassed to think that the priests had opened my things, and perhaps seen my diaphragm and spermicidal jelly (which I never did use there); but not a word was spoken; and Sister Norrie saw that everything was returned to me in time for my departure.
Years later I would return to Southwell House with my new husband, a lifetime after I had lived there; though in regular time, only 6 years had passed. The life of Southwell House had been dramatically altered too.
What had once been a quite serious, period home was now egregiously festooned in primary colors. The retired priests were replaced by residential youth. Eric was still the cook. He made us scones. Sister Norrie had already returned to Ireland; but even after she entered a nursing home, we continued to write to each other, until one letter was left unanswered.
It was Norrie, that winter morning at Southwell House, thirty years ago, who saw me put the receiver back in its holder, and must have seen me slump into the corner chair beside the house phone there.
I saw her across the foyer in the doorway of the diningroom so I stood and smiled too.
“Is everything okay, Kelly?” she asked, as I turned to head past her up the stairs to my room.
“Yes Sister.” I lied, convincingly.
She was not convinced.
Just then a group of students went by, inviting me to a impromptu Valentine’s celebration. “Sure,” I said, smiling, as they continued into the library with decorations in hand.
As I put my hand on the banister, but Sister Norrie placed her hand on my forearm: “You’ve just gotten some bad news, haven’t you, Kelly?”
“No,” I said, “Everything is fine, Sister. Really.” (I was an expert at hiding pain.)
Norrie turned me toward her by my shoulders, looked in my eyes, and then took my hand in hers, leading me down the hall past the priests’ guest rooms into a tiny Chapel that I hadn’t known was there.
It was only then, in that sacred space, where I did not belong, that I spoke the truth of my grandmother’s passing.
The altar shook as a subway passed in the tunnel beneath us, and I almost told Norrie that I couldn’t be there; couldn’t receive her love, didn’t deserve it, or the light shining through the stain glass above us (because I had had two abortions at 16) but instead I remained frozen, in pain, in a small pew, beside her, as she prayed.
This tender moment between an elder and a child, between two women, between two countries and two kindred souls was something I could not feel; did not want to feel; and I so I slipped away as soon as Sister Norrie finished, refusing any further affection or attention.
And yet, she loved me still.
That evening I found flowers and a card in my room.
The calligraphy read: Love Never Ends.