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. All combined, there may have been 50 of us. Maybe a bit less. There was also a Director of the house, a Professor from our Jesuit university, a cook, named Eric, who made the best scones I’ve ever had, and someone else, unexplained, a single extraneous woman who was housed on the student floor.
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 the old book, how infrequently I relied on physical addresses of friends for communication anymore.
Once upon a time, Sister Norrie and I were pen pals, and before that, housemates.
Southwell House in Hampstead just below the Heath was cold and damp and dark and to me this fully explained the British habit of afternoon tea. London itself was cold and damp and dark which further explained the daily indulgence of sweets. Thursdays were my favorite. Eric always made scones for tea on Thursdays. Despite the careful directions Eric sent me via airmail on papery post years later, I have never been able to duplicate them.
Tea and sweets and dark beer kept me warm that winter, as did the occasional hot shower that I snuck in the priests’ quarters on the days when I felt brazen to head down the back to stairs to their the second floor wing.
Sister Norrie lived above the priests at the tail end of the students’ wing, and I visited her often in her tiny room there and she visited me in mine.
Norrie must have been 70 at the time, maybe older, but I was only 20, so she could have been as young as 60. I remember long, white, wispy hair though. Thin bones. Ruddy cheeks. A steady and gentle presence. Effervescent kindness.
Norrie once confided that her only regret of her vocation as a nun was not having children of her own.
Most of my classmates left for home the moment our semester abroad ended, but I stayed on, stashing my belongings in an empty room at Southwell House just off the foyer, so that I could take one more 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 back home as it silently imploded.
While I was in Ireland, my things were mistakenly donated to charity. They included a stuffed dog and two blankies that I’d had since I was a baby along with a diaphragm and spermicidal jelly which I shuttered to think of the priests coming across.
Sister Norrie was the one to see that everything was returned to me.
Six years later, I returned to Southwell House with my new husband. The life of of the house had dramatically altered too. The retired priests had been replaced by residential youth. What had once been a formal, period home was now egregiously festooned in primary colors. Eric was still the cook. He made Casey and me scones. But Sister Norrie had returned to Ireland. And yet, even after she entered a nursing home, we continued to write to each other until my letters and holiday greetings went unanswered.
It was Sister Norrie, some thirty years ago, who must have witnessed me put receiver back in its holder in the foyer of Southwell on one dark and bitter February day. Or she glimpsed my momentary slump into the corner chair before I stood and smiled at her in the doorway of the diningroom.
I was long accustomed to masking pain, and I was good at it.
“Are okay, Kelly?” Sister Norrie.
“Yes Sister.” I said, as I turned for the staircase as quickly as i could.
Just then a group of students went by, inviting me to a impromptu Valentine’s celebration.
“I’ll be down in a bit to help,” I said, smiling, as they continued into the library with decorations in their hands.
As I put my hand on the banister, Sister Norrie gently placed her hand on my forearm: “You’ve just gotten some bad news, haven’t you, Kelly?”
“No Sister,” I said, “Everything is fine, Really.”
Norrie put her hands on my shoulders and turned me toward her, and looked me in the eyes, and then took my hand in hers, leading me down the hall past the rooms for visiting priests and into a tiny Chapel that I hadn’t known was there.
Norrie sat me down and told me to kneel, and I told her that my grandmother had just died. I did not tell her how I recieved the news. Not from my mother, but from my father’s secretary.
The altar in front of the pews shook as a subway passed in the tunnel beneath us, and I almost told Norrie then why I didn’t belong, why I couldn’t receive her love, why I didn’t deserve it, or deserve the light shining through the stunningstain glass above us.
Four years earlier, soon after my first grandmother was killed in a car accident, I had two abortions.
But as Norrie prayed beside me, I remained silent and stiff and unfeeling.
As soon as she finished, I slipped away, refusing any further attention of affection.
That evening, after the Valentine Party in the library, I found a vase of flowers and a card in my room.
The calligraphy read: Love Never Ends.
When Sister Norrie and I parted at the end of the semester, she gave me a small brown earthen mug, handcrafted by her students.
In return, I gave her a grapevine heart sent to me by a dear friend.