Sister Mary Albert was a blackbird with a white throat. Her habit flowed behind her tall gaunt exterior like a little black tail as she clicked down the school corridors on bird feet – her mean, suspicious beak seeking those whom it could peck. Children were afraid of this nun and when I saw her approaching I would hold my breath.
When she spied a troublemaker – someone who had disobeyed some rule like running in the hall or wearing shoes instead of the slippers required upon entering the building – her scowl would tower over him while she fingered the dark brown rosary beads that hung from her waist like a flagellant’s precious perversion. In particular, I remember her long, mottled fingers, which to this fifth grader were stilettos of pain. While scolding me, her thumb and forefinger would pinch my scrawny arm to the bone – like a spider’s kiss.
She wasn’t always severe, this bride of Christ; sometimes she would smile and for a moment you could almost trust her. The menacing clouds would retreat, the sun would shine and you’d be tempted to remove your storm gear. On one occasion I remember her lighting up when I spontaneously donated ten cents for the Children’s Missions. But in those days the little professor within me could not trust the interplay of cloud and sun in this love-starved woman. Her short-lived invitation to lower my guard was never accepted.
Being scheduled into her classroom in the sixth grade provoked anxiety; after all, she was the Sister Superior, the principal – a martinet who let nothing slide by her. When her glowering form entered the room all were expected to rise as one and proclaim, “Good morning, Sister Mary Albert!” No one sat down until she did. Everyone was expected to have his dictionary lying on the left hand side of his desk – not the right side. When you were spoken to you rose, then sat when she nodded. When she exited the room, all stood whether it was the end of class or not.
There was a host of rules that were to be followed, and it was the red ink decree that I will never forget. The rule was simple; it stated that you could not write in red ink; only Sister Mary Albert could do so because she marked your work in that colour; blue ink was mandatory for everything, but math, for which only pencil was to be used. One day, when she surprised us with a quiz I found that my blue pen would not write. Fearing a zero on the test, I decided to risk using the red one (You were not allowed to borrow from another student once she’d announced a test.).
When the tests had been collected, she quickly discovered my felony, confronted me before the class and told me to follow her. She led me to a back room where she held out my hands and strapped them with some grey belting that was used in those days for punishment. My hands shared ten swats, and when I began to cry she stopped and hugged me at which I righteously pushed her away. She discounted my tears, told me to dry them and to get back to class. I was later mollified by the knowledge that my classmates were about to leave in protest (A revolutionary act in those days.).
Soon after that incident which I never shared with my parents, our family moved to another city. The years passed, I graduated from high school, and one summer as a junior in university I saw her standing alone at the entrance to a mall: still a blackbird whose hollow bones now seemed vacuum packed in skin. Because I was now bigger, she no longer seemed a great heron with an edge…more a taught, vigilant sparrow surveying the terrain around her. She recognized me, we shared some pleasantries, but there wasn’t much to say, so I wished her well and let her slide back into the humus of memories long past.
Forty-three years have elapsed since that mall encounter. And as I write, I feel a strange tenderness for her, kindled by the sunny moments that peeked quickly from behind her storm. I ask myself: Who was Sister Mary Albert? Was she born wrapped in the black’n’white pinions of the Sisterhood? Or was she once a sixth grader like me? – Someone with a name like Rachel or Cathy; a giggly young schoolgirl with a honey-blonde ponytail – her father’s little princess. As a young woman had she ever fallen in love? Or was it love betrayed that had made her so bitter? Perhaps she was just passing something on when she kissed my skinny arms like a spider. Perhaps she too had been kissed, by spiders greater than she.