Remembering Sister Christmas →

Memories are funny things.  The older I get the more I’m fascinated by the creativity and artfulness of so many of my memories.     A recent clip of  This American Life recounted the memory of an incident by a husband who creatively put himself into a memory of an event that only happened to his wife.  He believes her when she tells him that he wasn’t even there and the vivid details he can provide would have been impossible for the human eye to discern.  Nevertheless, he remembers the incident as if he were there alongside his wife.  He says with a laugh that he liked her memory so much he stole it.

I have memories that I would rather give away.  I’d be happy to have some of them stolen.

Today as we all drove down to Sublimity today to celebrate Christmas at my mom and sister’s house, we pass a truck stop that loudly proclaims to have a Popeye’s chicken.

My husband comments,  “There’s a Popeye’s Chicken!”

To which I reply, “I think that’s been there a long time.”

I suddenly found myself relaying the following story.  The words fell out of my mouth as if they had remained locked away for years and suddenly the door was opened.

” I remember a Christmas or some other holiday.  I had taken the bus down to Salem to visit family and I was on the Greyhound back to Portland.  Just before we reached this truck stop, someone came up front and told the bus driver that there was a passenger who had pulled out a knife or gun and was making threats about using it.”

Here my memory starts to get really vague.

“I know that we pull off the freeway and stop at this truck stop so that the driver can figure out what’s going on but I have no memory of what actually happened.  I know that eventually we got back on the road but I don’t know if we waited for police to arrive or if the driver was able to discover that no real danger existed except in the mind of one deluded passenger.  I simply do not remember.  One would think that threat of physical harm in a crowded holiday bus would lodge itself in my memory and I would at least remember how the drama ended.”

I continue telling my husband the story.

” Apparently no one got hurt.  I don’t know if the police arrived and took the armed person off the bus or if there really was nothing to worry about.  You know how it is.  You get used to the city and public transportation and you learn to put blinders on and not get too excited about things.”

This is what I do remember about that trip or one like it.

On that bus was one of the Sisters from the convent that I had left some years before.  This Sister had never liked me.  I had never liked her but I tried to keep my feelings hidden.  I can not remember her name although I’ve tried but I can see her clearly in my mind.  She was a large woman who was profoundly top-heavy.  If you know what I mean.  I used to think that if wasn’t careful she might just fall forward and flail about while waiting to be righted.   She’d never be able to get up on her own.

Any way, despite her attempts to put on airs and assume an exaggerated sense of importance, she still struck me as rather coarse or rough around the edges.  She fancied herself a rather high-class lady but she lacked the education and sophistication one attributes to a genuine lady.  These were thoughts I kept to myself of course.  I didn’t dare say this out loud to any of the Sisters.

She did not keep her thoughts about me so well hidden.  Near the end of my life with the Sisters, I happened to be in a small room near the front door of the convent in which I was living.    Sister-I-can’t-remember-her-name-but-never-forgot-her-face had visited the  Mother Superior of the house and as she was leaving, she began to talk about me.

I was not prepared to hear the litany of venom that spewed from her mouth.  She hated me.  Listening to her talk about me, I sounded like Satan.  I was stunned but also really hurt.    I had very little contact with this Sister.  The newer religious were carefully kept apart from most of the fully-professed Sisters (I’m not sure there is a real world equivalent to illustrate exactly what a fully-professed Sister is.)  She didn’t really know me at all and yet she had formed a most definite dislike which sounded like hatred.  She attributed motives and methods to me that had never crossed my mind.  I was Lex Luthor to her Superman.

What maniac was in charge of  casting me as a super villain?

So, anyway, here I was on this bus and I see her sitting in a seat near me. Most of us are turning around to  see if we can catch a glimpse of the reported stranger danger.  Me, in my warm puppy-dog way, see a familiar face and my instinct is to be friendly.  I say to her,

“Hi, Sister.  I’m not sure you remember me.  I was Sister Carol a few years ago. “

She looks at me with a sneer befitting Lex Luthor and not Superman and snarls,

“Oh, yes, I remember you.”

If looks could kill, she would have slain me right then and there.  She didn’t say anything more.  I blushed, turned away and once again felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach. And, now, all these years later,  I don’t remember what ever became of the gun or knife wielding suspect but I remember how I felt when she spoke those words to me.  You’d think she could have at least appeared grateful to see me on the other side of the convent. 

I was no longer with them or associated with the Sisters in any way.  She would no longer have to worry about what insidious evil plot I might be hatching that threatened the convent hierarchy.  Maybe, she was afraid I’d become the new Hitler to the unsuspecting larger world.

My desire to create elaborate evil plots is almost non-existent most days then and now.  I’ve got better things to occupy my mind.  In the convent, the behaviors and motives she attributed to me were more likely a description of the darkness in her own heart.  As I listened to her disclose her hatred of me while hidden from sight  over 30 years ago, I knew even then that her thoughts  betrayed a troubled mind and a less than christian soul.  As her words stung me and later her cold reception on an eventful bus ride stung me again, part of me felt sorry for her.

I’ll never forget her face but I can not remember her name or anything solid about that bus ride but I’ll never forget how I felt.”

My husband says nothing.  We ride a while in silence.  I run through Sister names in hope of finding hers but it’s hopeless.  I pick up the book I brought along and read.  My husband points at the car ahead of us and says,

“I’ve been watching this guy.  He’s been altering speed for miles.  You can really tell when you are driving with the cruise control on.”

“Yes,” I say.

“Most people change speed all the time without ever being aware of it.  We get busy.  We don’t pay attention to what we’re doing.”

“I wish people wouldn’t do that,” he says.

“So, do I,” I say.  “So do I.”

I return to the memories in my head, the broken bits and pieces, and then file them together in one big box.  I tie it shut with a Christmas bow.  I’ll take them out later and write about this.  And I do.

Memories. . . like the corners of my mind. . . Misty watercolor memories. . . of the way we were.




  • Bonnie Custer

    Okay, Carol, so it’s been two years since I first read this, and I am finally going to say something. Only you might understand this: I have never found an environment less hospitable than the novitiate at St. Mary’s. I have encountered many people and have worked in many different environments. I have always been liked. I have always been treated as normal. I have been mostly valued by others. For the most part, I have had nothing–Nothing–to do with the sisters. I even made a clean break with my friends (and there were quite a few) in the convent. Now that I have studied psychology and family systems, I know that there was (and maybe still is) dysfunction in that environment. It made ME feel crazy. I WAS sane, but it made me feel crazy. I have learned a lot from this. Whenever that “feeling” comes up in a situation, I am able to identify that the persons and circumstances I am encountering are not healthy. I am able to speak up. I can try to help others. But I do not have to place myself in situations where others abuse me. I wish the sisters well. I want them to be whole and holy. I pray that they have changed, but I can’t waste anymore precious time with them.

    • Carol Hendricks Sturgeon

      Thanks, Bonnie. Funny. I just had a similar thought the other day about work environments and typically getting along with the people I work with. I thought of how destructive those years were and how even now the impact lingers in moments when I’d least expect it. We survived and we moved on. We’ve been blessed with amazing children and insight and experiences. We weren’t meant to stay in that situation any more than any one is meant to stay in abusive situations that fail to honor the “God” within. Sending much love. Carol

I am the person behind the words printed here. I write because my heart will not allow me the option of NOT writing. It has taken me half a life time to discover this basic truth, but now that I have, writing is as natural as breathing. This is where my breath takes the form of words.


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