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The swimming nuns

The swimming nuns

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Photo by Thom Milkovic

When I was about 8 years old, the scariest person I knew was a nun who taught fourth grade at my school: Sister Margaret Joseph. In my dreams Sister Margaret Joseph, or Maggie Joe as we called her, had a recurring, starring role. She mutated into a large bird with barbed wire talons and death-ray eyeballs that swooped down and pulled my hair for crimes like stumbling over a new word as I read aloud in class or asking how the clouds were able to support the cumbersome, ornate throne God reportedly sat on in the heavens above.

At St. Francis of Assisi, my Pepto Bismol pink elementary school, Maggie Joe was one of about a dozen nuns who strode the halls, shepherded us to daily Mass, outlined the fundamentals of heaven and hell, and scowled at most of our behavior. The nuns were a stern and joyless lot. We were told they were women, but I could find no proof. I’d never seen legs or hair. They wore no rouge like Mrs. Osborne, the third-grade teacher. They didn’t wear lavender cologne or clip-on earrings like Mrs. McGibney. I could not see their upper arms wiggle when they wrote on the chalkboard like Mrs. Mahoney’s did. And the nuns never praised or hugged me as the lay teachers—and pretty much all the rest of the grown-ups in my life—did from time to time.

For the nuns, wooden rulers were the behavior modification tool of choice, and they roundly thwacked our backsides when they said we sassed them. When they scolded us, which was often, they paced menacingly between the aisles of desks. Their folded hands rested on their breast ledges, the only topographical feature in the cascading black robes that began at the neck and trailed to their ankles. Around their necks they wore industrial strength rosaries. Their heads were swathed in elaborate habits. The only patches of visible skin were their faces and their hands.

They weren’t all as dour as Maggie Joe. My third-grade teacher, Sister Margaret Anina, had buck teeth and a lisp. She is the one who told us that people with poor penmanship were going to hell. She also spent a lot of time alluding to venereal disease as God’s way of punishing sexual sinners. None of us were that interested. We were fixated on fart cushions and oversize STP stickers we stuck on our three-ring binders.

Every day a pack of us in my neighborhood filled the hours until dark playing kick the can. One afternoon my best friend Andrea and I split off from the group to play on our own. It was twilight and time for us to think about heading home for dinner. We hid in the bushes that encircled a neighbor’s swimming pool. We heard voices and saw four women swimming. They wore old lady bathing suits. One of the women sat on the side of the pool and unpinned her hair. Long, grey waves cascaded down her back.

As they swam, Andrea and I thrilled at the success of our spying mission. Then one of them stepped out of the pool and put on her glasses. It was Maggie Joe.

My face felt hot. I wet my pants. Andrea went to public school, so she did not understand the severity of our crime. Surely seeing nuns swim was the Catholic equivalent of a felony. And if bad handwriting landed people in hell, then watching nuns swim meant something way worse.

I skulked home and told no one what I had seen.

The days wore on, the sting of the memory subsided. The nuns continued to spook me but not as much as before. The memory of their swim that I had bronzed into my brain was some kind of Kryptonite for me. Just remembering them in their bathing suits made their evil powers leak away.

It was five or six months later. I was in Maggie Joe’s classroom, hunched over an arithmetic problem. As she trolled the room, she passed my desk. I heard a faint ting and looked down. Near my foot was a single brown bobby pin with a long grey hair wrapped around it. Maggie Joe put her hand on my desk top for balance and crouched down toward the bobby pin. I got to it first, looked up and handed it to her, awaiting a reprimand. Surely there had been an offense committed.

Our eyes met and she smiled so fleetingly I almost missed it. She then reached over and brushed my face with the back of her hand. “Thank you, child,” she said in a voice so light and tender I wonder to this day if it happened at all.

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