Josie grew up in the Oakland, California of the '30s. As part of her training, after college she went on to earn her teaching certificate. Since then, she has spent her entire adult life teaching children how to add and divide, write a simple sentence, and use a library card. When she was not teaching, tutoring, or leading choir practice, she was in her room, curled up with a book she'd borrowed from the library. She was a young nun, just 24 when we met. In the photograph, I am 62 and she is 75.
She was christened Elizabeth Young, and grew up as Betty, a shy girl with the strong populist sentiments of her Irish-Catholic parents. When she took First Vows as a nun in the order of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet, she got the Josephine Martin. (Her mother was named Josephine, her father Martin.) In the '60s, in response to Vatican II and the movement to close the gap between the church and those they served, the nuns of her order stopped wearing their black habits, and they introduced themselves no longer as Sister So-and-So but by first names. For what was to be the greater portion of her sisterhood, then, she became known as Josie, or Sister Josie. I called her many things in our time together, including sometimes a peremptory "Girlfriend!" of gay parlance, a burlesque I'd sometimes resort to when trying to ease her through one of her bouts of anxiety. Yet she remained always for me as she was first introduced: Sister Josephine Martin.
We first met in September 1954. In the course of afternoons when autumn clouds hung as low as the telephone lines running up Market Street, I'd gaze wonderingly at the temple of shiny auburn hair that peeked out from her starched headpiece. Her blue eyes sparkled. Her complexion was clear, and she had curves that no black habit or white bib could properly hide. She threw herself into our lessons in the classroom as fully as she dodged the dodgeball, spiked the volleyball, and caught us in games of "Simon Says" in the schoolyard. If she resembled Deborah Kerr as the prim nun the actress played in Black Narcissus , she was more like Sister Mary Benedict, the delicious role Ingrid Bergman bit off for herself in The Bells of St. Mary's .
Boys and girls alike, we were quickly, madly, in love; and within weeks our love was tested.
Not long into the school year, a handsome dark-haired man dressed in a Marine uniform stepped smartly into the classroom. He looked old to us, but at the time the man whom Sister Josephine Martin introduced as her brother was in his early 20s. His age, however, was not the problem. It was the discovery that someone we loved might have someone, anyone, other than us who knew and loved her, and whom she loved (a fact made obvious from the way she blushed with pleasure when she introduced him). It was hard. As he was to remain with us all day, until the 3:00 bell rang, I was consumed by new and angry feelings, a primitive jealousy that lasted a full six hours. I walked home broken and unhappy. Fortunately, the next morning Martin Young was gone. We were told that he'd returned to where he was stationed. I had no idea where Camp Pendleton was, but I asked God to make it far, far away.
How soon after that, as the school day was ending, was it that I left my seat and dream-walked up to her desk? Perhaps my lips were puckered (for I meant to kiss her), but more likely it was the wide-eyed gaze of puppy-dog devotion in my eyes. Anyway, she must have seen what I was up to, because she smiled, said something related to my schoolwork, then hustled the class outside and on our way home five minutes before the bell.
By springtime, my love had become burdened with a terrible secret.
I am not sure if Catholic parochial school children still collect for Pagan Babies, but we did then. We'd drop pennies, nickels, and a few dimes into a cigar box. A Pagan Baby may have cost as much as $25, but once the amount was collected -- money saved from lunch and allowances -- the sum was sent to some Catholic missionary agency. It happened that our Pagan Baby, following his baptism, wrote us a Thank You note. We grinned proudly as Sister Josephine Martin read the neatly typed letter aloud. But my joy was not unmixed. I had, after all, sinned.
In the course of the collection drive, I'd often found myself in the vicinity of that cigar box, watching it daily grow heavier with nickels and dimes. When moneys were found missing, and when it came my turn to 'fess up, I said that I hadn't taken anything. As Teacher's Pet, my lie -- the only lie I ever told Sister Josephine Martin -- went unremarked upon. I admitted all in confession later, and Father O'Connor assigned me a couple of Our Fathers and some Hail Marys -- and as an adult, it was among the first things I told Josie. But my lie changed something. I learned young that betrayal cannot be undone.
It was near the end of the school year, I think, that Sister had us write letters to John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State to President Eisenhower. In our letters, we asked for Dulles's help in freeing a priest, Father Charles Rigney, who was held prisoner in communist China. When my letter got published in The Southern Cross , the official newspaper for the Diocese of San Diego, Sister invited my parents to come to the convent.
"Your son is quite special," she said, showing them the newspaper.
I stood stiff with pride, my career as a writer born. * * * Sister Josephine Martin followed us into the fifth grade, but turning 11 began for me a troubling time. That September, between fourth and fifth grades, I was flipping the pages of Jet magazine at my grandfather's barbershop on Imperial Avenue when I came across photos of a body pulled out of the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi. The bloated thing, its features swollen, looked like a giant catfish. It required an immense effort on my part to recognize in that grotesque thing something of a youngster just a few years older than myself. According to the accompanying article, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old on vacation from his home in Chicago, had been kidnapped, beaten, and shot for whistling at a white woman.After the trial, the two men accused of the crime later confessed to the murder in a paid interview that appeared in Look magazine. According to them, young Till had not only failed to show sufficient contrition for having disrespected the pretty young wife of one of the confessed murderers, but, the killers said, he'd boasted of having a white girlfriend in his hometown. The men said that the teenager showed little fear of their threats to teach him a lesson. Apparently, the Northern-bred boy had forgotten his place, if he ever knew it. The men implied that it was this that was unforgivable. The jury must have agreed, for they spent less than one hour to acquit them. (And the reason that it took that long, reported one of the members of the jury afterwards, was because they'd ordered out for soft drinks.)
The murder of Emmett Till helped launch the Civil Rights Movement, but in San Diego, I retreated into myself.
Sister Josephine Martin left San Diego in 1956. We'd come back in the fall to find Sister Philomena at the board. She was a fine teacher, and soon enough, I no longer exactly remembered Sister Josephine Martin, though I never fully forgot her either. * * * In 1981, 25 years after she left San Diego, Josie returned to spend the summer at Our Lady of Angels. The huge pepper tree in the schoolyard was gone, and now the I-5 sliced past, replacing Market Street as a major artery; the pale white concrete walls of the church had been painted a color close to that of butternut squash. She remembered that I had a younger brother, and found him listed in the phone book in El Cajon. It happened that I'd recently returned to California from New York. Marcus called me at my home in Oakland."Someone named Sister Josephine Martin called and left her number. She's living near you," he said.
Josie, as she introduced herself, would work with the choirs in many of the schools that she was to teach in (Saint Catherine's in Martinez, Saint Anthony's in Oxnard, Saint Perpetua in Lafayette, Saint Patrick's in Oakland, Saint Helena in the town of that same name, and her last school, Carondelet High). Now, a quarter century after first hearing that sweet voice, a girlish lilt with just a hint of breathiness, I heard it again.
I was almost 40 and she was in her 50s, and we got on right away. Like Philippa, the younger spinster sister with the exquisite singing voice in the movie, Babette's Feast , Josie had also traded her youthful beauty for a plain middle age. Osteoporosis would leave her slightly hump-backed. She never spoke of nor appeared to regret the loss of her looks, and her only vanity, it seemed to me, was her willing choice of perms for the gray hair that would have otherwise fallen to her shoulders as straight as paper. With the help of psychotherapy and her own keen devotion, she'd managed to remain a nun despite the turbulence of the '60s that had sent so many others out of the convent. In the years after Vatican II, she found herself at odds with the growing conservatism of her church, but she'd hung in. She underwent a long "dark night of the soul," a period of years in which she found her faith tested. In the end, it was not God but Jesus who she talked about, who was for her a friend and a guide, a companion in life.
And she had her students -- a couple of thousand over the course of more than 50 years teaching.
"I never gave an F," she once told me, proudly. Reviewing her career as an educator, she said that there was always something a child did well, "maybe just writing neatly. But there was always something."
There were many stories about Josie, but the one that I liked best happened at the end of a school year. One of the mothers of a third-grader she'd just taught went to the principal and asked for her son to be left back.
The principal explained that Sister Josephine had said the woman's son had done well. "He has been passed into the fourth grade."
The woman, the Mexican wife of a day-laborer, did not understand. Stumbling with her English, she said that her son had never felt so good about himself before coming to Sister Josie. "She makes him feel good. He is better, and it is because of her, and that is why I want him to stay with her." * * * "I never thought it would be cancer." She looked at me. It was just a few minutes before the photo of us together was taken. "I don't know why, but I never thought cancer." Josie's brother, Martin Young, the Marine I'd once briefly and so violently hated, was now a friend. Retired and living in New Mexico for his health, he and his wife, Sharon, kept me informed of Josie's condition. When she was moved to a hospice center near Carondelet High School in Concord, in Northern California where she last taught, Sharon explained that Josie knew that the cancer had spread to her liver.
"The doctors have told her that she has two months to live," she said.
Even with her death hanging over us, it was not hard for me to be there with her on that last afternoon. Sister Josephine Martin had been a part of my life so long that there was nothing we did not talk about. Dying and death had often been in our conversations, and it was then. I told her not to worry, that her faith would carry her through. We spoke of the photograph she'd promised years before, but never gave me. It was a black-and-white snapshot taken on some anonymous street. In it she stands in a black habit with a white bib, the image slightly blurred, her eyes in shadow, almost shut against the sun. I loved the photograph, for it reminded me of her when I was ten and had stepped to the front of the class, meaning to kiss her. We laughed and shared other memories. Twenty years before, as adults, we'd carried food into a theater and had a picnic in the last row.
"The movie was Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Do you remember?"
"Of course," she said, smiling wanly. "We didn't want to cause any trouble."
Yet it was in the course of our "picnic" that she accidentally kicked the bottle of apple juice so that it rolled noisily, and slowly, from the very back of the theater where we were sitting down to the very front row. It was among our favorite memories, and now we laughed.
Finally, after almost an hour, it was clear that she was tired. I took the photo, and we said goodbye.
"I'm leaving on a pilgrimage to India and Nepal," I said. "And when I come back, I'll stop by first thing. What's that, about a month?"
"Yes," she said, and smiled.
"So no funny business in the meantime!"
"Yes, of course!"
I knew that if the doctors were right, she would not be alive when I got back. I kissed her goodbye. "I'll expect to see you then," I said.
"Yes, of course!" she repeated.
It was the second time I'd knowingly lied to her, and, to my knowledge, the first time Sister ever lied to me. She died on November 10, just a week short of my return to the United States.
Two days before she died, there were 20 people in and out of her small room at the hospice center, each person bearing messages of affection. She seemed lively and appeared to be rallying, but the next day was the first that she did not get out of bed. And early the next morning, she passed away. The mystery is that the hospice worker, looking on, did not call Martin and Sharon, who had taken rooms just minutes away.
Sister Josephine Martin died at five in the morning, not long before sunrise. She was, I was told, conscious until the last.
-- Hawkins Mitchell