It snowed that afternoon. Heavy, wet flakes pelted my coat on my walk down the sloping drive toward Cleveland Avenue. By the time I got to the iron gate it was soaked through and smelled of wet lamb’s wool.
I looked back. I was an English major at St. Catherine’s that snowy day in February 1986. I’d been through a bruising divorce, and over the past eighteen months Jane Austen had distracted me, my children had caught mud turtles in the Dew Drop, and my professors had listened while I cried. St. Kate’s was my refuge.
At the top of the hill, a yellow light shone through the snow from a window on the second floor in Whitby Hall, where I’d been having a cup of tea with my advisor, Jonis.
I’d thought I was all right. But once I started down the snowy hill, the leaden feeling I’d been pushing down all day began to rise up in my throat. By the time I rounded the corner onto Cleveland, the pressure was filling my sinuses. Then I saw her, a tiny woman in a plaid head scarf, overcoat, and galoshes.
Sister Immaculata had taught Shakespeare in the English Department for forty years. I’d done a grammar tutorial with her. She looked up at me, her face shadowed by her woolen scarf, her eyes obscured behind enormous glasses. She was no taller than my shoulder.
“Hello, Mary Dear.”
It was how she always greeted me, taking my hands in hers.
With those five gentle syllables my insides broke like glass, and my feelings spilled out in sobs.
“Do you have to be somewhere, Mary Dear?”
That was part of the problem. I had nowhere to go except for my empty apartment on Grand Avenue. My kids were with their dad. This was his wedding day. There had been many other women during our marriage, and today he was marrying one. I didn’t say all of this. Instead I choked out, “This.” Sob. “Is.” Hiccup. “Ex-husband.” Sob. “Wedding day.”
Sister took me back through the gates and up the hill, past the Dew Drop, under the archway between Derham Hall and the church, across the commons and past O’Shaughnessy to the convent. It all went by in a watery blur.
She led me into a parlor with a sofa. We sat down and she put her arms around me. I easily outweighed her by thirty pounds. And yet I cried in her arms as though I were a baby. Time and the rest of the world were lost to me. When I stopped, head throbbing, the floor covered with wadded-up tissues—where had they come from?—there was her face, as fragile as tissue paper, with guileless eyes that expected nothing but absolute honesty.
“The bathroom is over there, Mary Dear.” Inside, I leaned over the sink and splashed water onto my face. I looked like a prizefighter. When I returned, there were cookies and tea. My hands shook, rattling the cup and saucer.
“Sister, I don’t know what to say,” I said. My voice sounded strange. How long since I’d spoken? “I don’t know how to thank you.”
“Suffering is a sacred place, Mary Dear,” she said. “That is when God draws nearest.”
I finished my tea and stood up to go. She took my hands in hers. “Good-bye, Mary Dear.”
I stepped into the dark. “Good-bye, Sister.” I started my journey back across the campus, and turned around. A soft yellow light was shining in the doorway, and a tiny woman in the middle of it was waving me on.
Mary Virginia Winstead is a Twin Cities–based writer, author of Back to Mississippi: A Personal Journey Through the Events that Changed America in 1964 (Hyperion). She has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota and a BA in English from St. Catherine University.